Holodomor Digital Collections
Nikolai Bokan: a Biographical Essay
Famine (1932-33)
The Bokan family’s experience of famine was documented in the photos and writings prepared by Nikolai Bokan and found in his criminal case file. Though the famine figures prominently in Nikolai’s photographic and written narratives, there appears to be no mention of it in the official Soviet documents related to his trial and investigation. Details on Nikolai’s famine-related photos are available in the “Nikolai Bokan Collection” in this directory.


The Bokan family’s experience of famine was naturally determined by their semi-urban surroundings. The family lived on a small patch of land on the outskirts of Baturyn, Chernihiv oblast. Though there was a small garden outside of their home, the majority of their food would have been purchased. A dwindling income from Nikolai’s photography business posed additional problems for obtaining already limited food supplies arriving from the countryside. As famine conditions began to take hold, Nikolai acquired a number of debtors who were either unable or refused to pay him for his services.


With two parents and six children living under the same roof, the size of the family also contributed to their struggles (only the eldest son, Nikolai Jr. had left prior to the onset of famine). In his memoir, Nikolai states that his family began to struggle with famine conditions in 1932. In June 1932, Nikolai urged his second-eldest son, Vladimir, to leave the family home for a separate residence and to become self-sufficient. For years, Vladimir had continued to excuse himself from work on account of his partial visual impairment – a result of a childhood injury – which Nikolai claimed was not debilitating enough to justify his idleness and reliance on parental support. The onset of famine appears to have exacerbated Nikolai’s impatience with his son, and underscored his long standing struggle to provide for his family.


According to Nikolai, Vladimir was aggrieved that he had been asked to leave, and reproached his father for his inability to provide food for his family. He expressed his frustration by breaking window panes in the Bokan family house, and threatened to set it on fire. Nikolai and his son Boris prepared extra stores of water, anticipating that Vladimir would follow through with this threat.


Nikolai claimed that Vladimir had resorted to beggary, extortion, and hooliganism upon his departure from the family home. Local authorities, namely the chairman of the village council, sympathized with Vladimir’s situation and supplied him with food. Over the years Nikolai had come into conflict with various local officials for his vocal pro-religious and anarchic sentiments. This offer of aid to his son can perhaps be seen as an attempt to undermine Nikolai, and encourage his children’s loyalty to the state. Nikolai himself believed that the chairman was attempting to stoke his son’s resentment toward his father.


By the spring of 1933, when the severity of famine was peaking in Baturyn and elsewhere in Soviet Ukraine, the Bokans had not eaten bread for ten months. Some of the family members even began to swell from hunger. At this time, Nikolai’s third-eldest son, Konstantin, left his family home to begin work on a collective farm. It is unclear whether he was asked to leave or whether he left of his own accord. Nikolai is, however, known to have opposed collectivization, which he considered an imposition of the state that “forced people into collective farms like sheep.”


Nikolai contended that Konstantin was influenced by state propaganda while working on the collective farm, which caused him to turn hostile toward his father. He regretted that his son had trusted the “exploiters,” referring to the authorities of the collective farm, and that he succumbed to the influence of a “non-thinking” crowd that promoted anti-religious and pro-Soviet sentiments. In the immediate days before he died, Konstantin is said to have confronted his father, blaming him for the lack of food and his inability to feed his children. Konstantin claimed that he would be better provided for elsewhere, and declared that he would not share any of his profits with his father.


Konstantin was also inadequately fed on the collective farm, which compounded his exhaustion from performing laborious tasks. His supervisor recommended the smoking of cigarettes to quell the hunger, and Nikolai claimed that this “poisoning” contributed to Konstantin’s death. In late June 1933, Konstantin collapsed in the field of the collective farm and died amidst the hustle of a nearby road. His death certificate was completed by the local physician, Dr. Klym Teslia, who listed the cause of death as exhaustion due to malnutrition (istoshchenie). The doctor's office is listed as the place of death, in contrast to Nikolai’s description of events.


The family held a funeral for Konstantin, during which his body was transported by horse-drawn cart to a local cemetery. His grave was indicated with a grave marker, which displayed a portrait of Konstantin, his name, the date of his death, and an inscription. Other graves surrounded Konstantin’s, although his grave appears to be the only one with a marker in the photos documented by Nikolai. Konstantin’s death figures prominently in the photos included in the directory’s “Nikolai Bokan Collection.”


In the spring of 1933, Nikolai had also arranged for his daughter, Anna, to work at a neighbour’s farm, where she was to be fed for compensation. The neighbour’s family is understood to have been slightly better off than the Bokans. When it became clear that Anna was merely served skimmed milk mixed with water, Nikolai broke the arrangement. In his memoir, he regretted his neighbour’s indifference and lack of generosity toward the plight of the Bokan family, and lamented that circumstances had compounded people’s self-interest.


Nikolai’s writings and photos also offer insights into local resistance to collectivization and dekulakization. One of Nikolai’s display boards, for example, features the corpse of a peasant, Lazebny, who is said to have been killed during the process of dekulakization. Another photo found in the case file features a group of individuals seated on a bench, surrounded by Soviet authorities in uniform. Nikolai’s associated description explains that the individuals were sentenced to death for seeking vengeance against the authorities for the seizure of their property. The photos appear on the same display board that featured the corpse of Konstantin and other locals who died of various causes.

A son of Nikolai Bokan is pictured sitting in a field, in the spot where his brother Konstantin had died only a few hours earlier.
A son of Nikolai Bokan is pictured sitting in a field, in the spot where his brother Konstantin had died only a few hours earlier. Details
Death Certificate of Konstantin Bokan
Death Certificate of Konstantin Bokan Details
The funeral of Konstantin Bokan, who died of starvation.
The funeral of Konstantin Bokan, who died of starvation. Details
Nikolai Bokan stands beside the grave of his son Konstantin, who died of starvation.
Nikolai Bokan stands beside the grave of his son Konstantin, who died of starvation. Details
Seated in the front row are peasants sentenced to death for seeking vengeance against authorities for the seizure of their property.
Seated in the front row are peasants sentenced to death for seeking vengeance against authorities for the seizure of their property. Details
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