Lyuba was just a child when her family fled the “Holodomor,” the devastating famine that swept through Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s.
She and her parents were able to escape their homeland before its territory was sealed off in January 1933 at the height of the famine, which claimed millions of lives, on the orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
While many other Holodomor refugees tried to reach neighboring Romania or Poland, the family instead chose to head southeast to Soviet-ruled Chechnya, whose residents were then rumored to offer food and shelter to starving Ukrainians.
Lyuba’s parents, however, died of starvation during the journey. The little girl was taken to a Chechen orphanage, where she quickly assimilated the local language and customs.
She ended up spending the rest of her life among her adoptive people, along with an indeterminate number of Ukrainian children either orphaned by the famine or entrusted to Chechens by their starving relatives — an episode of the Holodomor that remains virtually undocumented.
Lyuba has since passed away. But 80 years after the famine, her memory lives on in Chechnya.
Amina, a retired schoolteacher who knew her personally, says Lyuba eventually settled in the village of Belgatoy. She describes Lyuba as deeply attached to her husband, a Chechen, with whom she had two children who both died in infancy.
Tragedy hit again in 1994 when Russia launched its first war on Chechen separatists, indiscriminately shelling cities and villages. “She lived in poverty after her husband died during the Russian-Chechen War. People brought her food and helped her, including the imam,” Amina recalls.
“When I came to the village to visit my parents, I asked her to come and live with me in the city. I told her I would feed her, give her clothes, and take her into my home,” she continues. “But she refused, saying that this was the village where she had lived with her husband and where he and their children were buried, that she wanted to watch over their graves. And she stayed there until her own death.”
‘Repaying Kindness With Kindness’
Despite the lack of archival evidence, accounts of Ukrainians finding refuge from the Holodomor are abundant in Chechnya.
Pensioner Khozha Yakhyayev says his village, Chechen Aul, welcomed as many as 100 Ukrainian families during the famine. Yakhyayev says his uncle, who was then the village head, often recalled their arrival.
“When they came, exhausted with hunger, he offered them hospitality,” Yakhyayev says. “There were 500 families in Chechen Aul back then, and every fifth family took Ukrainians into their homes. They supported them until 1938. Some of the children were orphans whose parents had died of starvation.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Alexander Wienerberger was recruited into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I. In 1915, he was taken prisoner in Russia and ended up staying in the U.S.S.R. until 1934. In 1933, he was technical director of a synthetic factory in Kharkiv, when he took these pictures.
Today, only a handful of ethnic Ukrainians still live in Chechen Aul. Many returned to their native country when the famine ended or, later, when the war broke out in Chechnya.
According to Yakhyayev, some of them also chose to follow their adoptive families into exile when Stalin ordered the deportation of Chechens in 1944. While some returned, many died on the grueling journey to Central Asia and Siberia or in the years that followed. Those who stayed took care of the homes left behind by the deported Chechens:
“The Ukrainians repaid kindness with kindness. They took care of the empty houses and the belonging left behind by the Chechens, they looked after their cattle,” Yakhyayev says. “They did their best to preserve these houses and protect them from looting.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars and historians have gathered thousands of testimonies from Holodomor survivors.
But to this day, few outside Chechnya are aware of the role Chechens played in saving Ukrainians from starvation. Vasyl Marochka, one of Ukraine’s leading Holodomor historians, says there is no known record of Ukrainians fleeing to Chechnya during the famine.
Chechen historian Vakhit Akayev says family photographs and other potential evidence of these events likely disappeared during the deportation of Chechens and the two subsequent wars. “New events unfolded, new, even more horrific tragedies eclipsed old ones,” he says. “This is why this topic has never been researched.”
Chechens, however, have not forgotten the children of the Holodomor. Late Chechen folk singer Imam Alimsultanov devoted a song to them titled “Ukraine, Thank You.”
“It was in the 1930s, destiny brought us together already back then,” he sings. “Hunger, destruction all around, Chechnya took in Ukrainians.