Letters discovered by Cumbria academic shed new light on Ukraine 'terror famine'

Video report by Ralph Blunsom

A unique collection of 69 letters shedding new light on the horrors of Ukraine’s ‘terror famine’ have gone on show in Kyiv thanks to a remarkable discovery by a University of Cumbria academic.

Correspondence to Alison Marshall’s grandparents has been hailed as a significant historic breakthrough in helping discover the truth behind the Stalin orchestrated Holodomor genocide, which caused around seven million deaths in the early 1930s.

Grain crops, and later even seeds, were confiscated to meet national targets, leading to a catastrophic artificial famine in rural communities.

Graphic reports from engineer Jerry Berman to his close friends Meyer and Sonia Fortes are featuring in a new National Holodomor Museum exhibition which opened this week and the contents are causing a stir.

Meyer Fortes Credit: University of Cumbria

Ms Marshall explained: “They give detailed accounts of when wheat was requestioned for export to generate hard currency, causing terrible conditions and widespread starvation.

She found the missives while going through a large trunk of letters, which had belonged to her grandparents, who had become friends and climbing buddies with Jerry at university in their native South Africa and kept in close contact after moving to London.

Jerry Berman Credit: University of Cumbria

When Jerry left for Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, to work as a civil engineer on a major bridge building project, he witnessed first-hand the desperate conditions. Workers were paid in bread tokens and forced to scavenge to feed famished families.

Curator and Head of Exhibitions at the Museum, Yana Hrynko, said the value of his letters was in discovering the truth.

She added: “Presented from the position of an involuntary witness, they testify the details of the Holodomor genocide.

“They will become an important source of information and a valuable collection.”

Ms Marshall, who has donated the letters to the museum, said they had attracted significant interest in the Ukraine and that she was pleased by the amount of Ukrainian media attention.

Ms Alison Marshall being interviewed at the exhibition opening at the National Holodomor Museum, Kyiv Credit: University of Cumbria

Her grandfather had sent copies of the Manchester Guardian, the Economist and books to Berman and in return received long, detailed and often harrowing accounts about the conditions he was witnessing.

In one, from January 1933, he wrote: “What a pity that you see this world here through rosy glasses of your press, that you never know the truth.”

The letters have been hailed as a breakthrough in discovering the truth behind the Holodomor genocide. Credit: University of Cumbria

Along with University of Cumbria colleagues, Ms Marshall, who is Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, intends to create educational resources explaining how physical and personal artefacts can support learning about major traumatic events.

There will be close collaboration with Holodomor museum, which details the horrifying deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, leading to mass death and destruction.