Holodomor graphic novel resonates today


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Five Stalks of Grain is a haunting, visual and timely reminder of the atrocities and the Holodomor that millions of Ukrainians suffered under during the tyranny of Joseph Stalin’s communist regime — atrocities that are going on again today, almost 100 years later, under Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

This graphic novel is the story of the Holodomor, which killed millions in Soviet Ukraine from 1932-1933. In a brief “History of the Holodomor” at the end of the book we are told that “In Ukrainian the word ‘Holodomor’ means ‘death inflicted by starvation.’” National Holodomor Awareness Week was held this year in Canada from Nov. 21-27, with Holodomor Memorial Day being held on November 26.

This historical fiction/graphic novel is composed of mostly realistic, stark, black-and-white drawings by Ottawa-based Ukrainian-Canadian Ivanka Theodosia Galadza, who holds a BFA in printmaking.

This extremely easy-to-read tale is told with minimal text by Ontario-based Adrian Lysenko, who is a writer, journalist and the editor of the arts-focused Walleye magazine.

Together, illustrator and writer beautifully complement each other as they tell the story of two little children, Nadia and Taras, who are forced to leave their home after their father is arrested and their mother murdered by Stalin’s soldiers. They embark on a dangerous, terrifying search for food and survival.

In the afterword we are told that Russia continues to deny that the Holodomor famine was “a state orchestrated genocide against the Ukrainian population. However, since 2006 more than 17 countries — including Canada — have recognized the Holodomor as genocide.”

Heartbreaking and often shocking, the story begins with the sister and her younger brother desperately searching for safety. They must navigate their way in the cold of winter through deep forests and past mountains of skeletons of Ukrainians who had starved to death. They must flee from Stalin’s soldiers, predators with murderous intentions and many others who would deceive them.

Nadia protects her brother as much as she can, and they are also protected at times by various people before being forcibly separated by the merciless soldiers.

One kind old lady tries to help young Nadia. She feeds her and attempts to help Nadia find her brother, telling her that an owl (the older lady’s “guardian and protector”) led her to her small home in the woods. Nadia sets off on her own again, instructed to go to the town where her little brother might be, but faces more peril.

The tale is illustrated with beautiful but solemn drawings of old Ukrainian churches and forests amidst snow-filled landscapes. These scenes are interspersed with religious paintings and Ukrainian icons displayed on the interior walls of the older lady’s home.

We are told at the end that a decree known as “The Five Stalks of Grain” was brought about in 1932 that prohibited anyone, even children, from taking even a mere handful of grain, as it was claimed to be state property. The punishment “was ten years imprisonment, or the death penalty.”

Five Stalks of Grain tells a complex story in simple terms, mainly with evocative illustrations. It’s recommended for anyone wanting to learn about Ukraine’s history at a basic level, and the back story to its current fight for survival during a horrific invasion and destruction of its country, its culture and its people.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer who is part Ukrainian.

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