On November 25, 2023, Ukrainians commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor—or death by starvation—when millions living in Europe’s breadbasket perished after Joseph Stalin ordered the seizure of farmers’ crops and food. A commemoration event was held at Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral on November 26, 2023, organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), Victoria Branch.
The cathedral on Burdett Avenue was almost full that evening and the sanctuary had been decorated for the occasion with two icons, large candles, traditional Ukrainian linen embroidery, and wheat sheaves.
The sounds of children echoed through the vast building as they ran around in their traditional clothing, the vichivanka, a brightly embroidered blouse. Little girls wore flower crowns or blue and yellow ribbons braided into their hair.
The echo grew louder as people joined the crowd, but quieted when the Reverend Canon Jeannine Friesen gave a welcome speech, followed by masters of ceremony, Robert Herchak and Iryna Kaplun of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) Victoria Branch.
Shortly afterwards, the Canadian and Ukrainian national anthems were sung in the cathedral. Victoria’s Ukrainian diaspora had come to commemorate the victims of the Holodomor, an “man-made” famine orchestrated by Soviet leader Stalin. 90 years ago, between 7 and 10 million Ukrainians starved to death during the famine of 1932-1933.
The colours of the Ukrainian flag, symbolizing a blue sky over fields of golden wheat, were vividly recalled as children made their way to the altar in procession, carrying sheaves of wheat and lighting candles in memory of the victims of the genocide. Young adults came to the altar holding black flags.
Father Yuriy Vyshnevskyy, parish priest at St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Victoria, delivered a homily reminding the congregation how Stalin “collected all the grain, put it away just for himself and his people, but away from the people who had collected it.”
He declared: “This is something that belongs to history, but at this very moment, we are witnessing the same thing. A madman is trying to do the same thing, to kill people, to use food, grain as a weapon.”
The Kalyna Choir, beautifully dressed in black and wearing red belts and jewelry, performed a moving version of the Ukrainian folk song “The Sun Didn’t Rise This Morning.” Throughout the commemoration, the choir’s singing conveyed a great deal of emotion.
The congregation welcomed the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Victoria-Beacon Hill, Grace Lore, who described the Holodomor as “a man-made and even state-induced famine that resulted in the deaths of at least 3.9 million Ukrainians and 5 million people throughout the USSR,” the impact of which has been recognized by the Canadian government since 2019. She added that, as the local MLA, she took “very seriously the responsibility to stand [with those in attendance] against injustice and violence, especially when perpetrated by the state.” She told the attendees that her children were “third generation Ukrainians, and have been joined in their classes and schools by new Ukrainian children who have integrated our community.” Canada is home to the second-largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world.
Among the highlights of the commemoration: Zlata Sonych—a young Ukrainian girl who fled the Russian invasion and arrived in Victoria last year—presented a choreographed performance to the song “Zhuravli” with the teddy bear she brought from Ukraine. Luba Kucharyshyn read with great emotion the testimony given by her mother, Holodomor survivor Raisa Macewko.
Ukrainian-Canadian historian Dr. Serhy Yekelchyk shared his view that Putin and the invading Russian army have attempted to repeat the genocidal crime of the Holodomer by looting billions of dollars worth of Ukrainian grain and triggering a global food crisis.
Zhanna Kolezhannochka, a Ukrainian who arrived in Victoria in May 2022 and attended the commemoration, commented: “It’s all unfair—taking bread from starving people is unfair. It’s the same as what is happening today in Ukraine.”
Embracing and shaking hands, the congregation slowly left the cathedral into the cold night, resilient and grateful for the fellowship of a warm and united community forged in two nations.
“Unissued Diplomas” exhibition
The “Unissued Diplomas” exhibition is on display at Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral. It tells the stories of 36 Ukrainian students killed during the war. It has been shown at more than 45 universities around the world since February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of the day the whole of Ukraine woke up to airstrikes and explosions. The exhibition honours the memory of Ukrainian students who will never graduate because of the Russian invasion that took their lives.
Tap an image to view a larger version. Credit: Julie Valet
Find out more
Video of the original testimony by survivor Raisa Macewko:
Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC): https://holodomor.ca/resource/holodomor-basic-facts
The Holodomor Museum: https://holodomormuseum.org.ua/en/
Find out more about the Canadian recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide:
The Senate calls upon the Government of Canada “to recognize the Ukrainian Famine/Genocide of 1932–1933 and to condemn any attempt to deny or distort this historical truth as being anything less than genocide”.
…the Ukrainian Famine and Genocide of 1932-33 known as the Holodomor was deliberately planned and executed by the Soviet regime under Joseph Stalin to systematically destroy the Ukrainian people’s aspirations for a free and independent Ukraine, and subsequently caused the death of millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933.
…Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows: 1. This Act may be cited as the Ukrainian Famine and Genocide (“Holodomor”) Memorial Day Act. 2. Throughout Canada, in each and every year, the fourth Saturday in November shall be known as “Ukrainian Famine and Genocide (“Holodomor”) Memorial Day”.
…the Holodomor refers to an act of genocide and a campaign of deliberate starvation against the Ukrainian people committed by the Soviet state in 1932 and 1933.