Slavonic item of the month : November 2013

The front cover of Naibil’shyi zlochyn Kremlia by M. Verbyts'kyi, CCC.62.35 (Newton record here)

The front cover of Naibil’shyi zlochyn Kremlia by M. Verbyts’kyi, CCC.62.35 (Newton record here)

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

This year is the 80th anniversary of the end of the Holodomor, the terrible man-made famine which caused the deaths of millions of people in Ukraine in 1932 to 1933.  We remember its victims this month with a relatively early book about the famine: Naibil’shyi zlochyn Kremlia (‘The Kremlin’s greatest crime’) by M. Verbyts’kyi.  Its cover shows a scythe-wielding skeleton looming over a dead woman and a grieving figure next to her.

Published in 1952 by the UK section of the Democratic Organization of Ukrainians Formerly Persecuted by the Soviet Regime, it is partially made up of survivors’ narratives divided by area.  The introduction to this section says that their tales complement one another and provide incontrovertible evidence that these zvirstva (‘atrocities’ (the word, which relates to zvir (‘beast’), suggests something inhuman)) were conducted za iedynym plianom dlia vsiiei Ukrainy (‘according to one plan for the whole of Ukraine’) [page 27].

The narratives make, of course, harrowing reading.  One about a village on the Dnipro river is introduced by the witness’ statement that he zaprysiahnuv pered Bohom, shcho budu pysaty lyshe pravdu, khoch vsiiei pravdy opysaty ne mozhu (‘swore to God that he would tell only the truth, although the whole truth I cannot describe’) [page 33].

The term ‘Holodomor’ became a standard term to describe the Ukraine famine only many years after this book was published.  The term used in the book is the standard holod (hunger, famine).  The mor added to its end to create the current term is a root relating to death; mor itself means plague/epidemic, but the verb moryty means to kill or to exterminate.  A search in the Library of Congress subject heading list for Holodomor shows a cross-reference from Holodomor, Ukraine, 1932-1933 to the authorised heading Ukraine — History — Famine, 1932-1933.  Other headings relating to the famine include: Holodomor denial (which is used for works which, according to the heading’s scope note, ‘discuss the diminution of the scale and significance of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 or the assertion that it did not occur’) and Holodomor denial literature (used for works which ‘make such assertions’).

The Holodomor is a very political and, naturally, emotive subject to this day.  In 2009, Cambridge Ukrainian Studies and Trinity College’s Wren Library put on an exhibition of the 1933 diaries of Gareth Jones.  A Cambridge graduate, Jones was the only foreign journalist in Ukraine who made concerted and extensive efforts to get news of the famine to the world.  His appeals fell on deaf ears, but his courage and determination are now widely recognised.  The website of the exhibition can be found here.

The author, M. Verbyts’kyi, is unknown beyond this book – the name might be a pseudonym.  If any readers might be able to cast more light on his identity, we would be very interested to know more – please e-mail  The book comes from a very important recent donation to the University Library: the Yakimiuk collection.  Hundreds of predominantly 20th-century books in English and Ukrainian about Ukraine, its culture and history, were donated by the family of the late Peter Yakimiuk, a British Ukrainian whose library the collection was.  The books are a hugely valuable addition to the Library.  The majority of the Ukrainian-language books come from the Ukrainian diaspora, with books from Western Europe and both North and South Americas.  To find out more about the Yakimiuk collection, please click here.

– Mel Bach

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