The Work and Life of Artist Petro Sydorenko

By Kalyna Klymkiw

The first time I ever heard of the Famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine was when, as a young girl, I performed with the Ukrainian Academy of Dance in Toronto at a concert commemorating the Famine. Since then, I have had a keen interest in the history of this tragedy that took the lives of millions of Ukrainians.

The Famine’s very existence was concealed by the Soviet Union for decades.  To this day, many do not know of the horror the Ukrainian people faced during those two years.  For this reason, I have engaged myself in educating small groups of people about the Famine through various artistic projects while attending York University’s Fine Arts program. In a university course, Aspects of Ukrainian Culture, I was introduced to artworks produced on the topic of the Famine by professor Daria Darewych, and she inspired me to pursue this topic further. This is how my attention was turned to one particularly important Ukrainian Canadian artist, Petro Sydorenko.

Petro Sydorenko was born in Ternovatka, Ukraine, where he and his family lived until 1929.  Being labeled kulaks (prosperous peasants) by the communists, they had their home and land taken away from them and ended up moving to the city of Kryvyi Rih, some 20 kilometres away from their village.

At the age of 16, during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, Sydorenko was sent to Germany, where he worked as a slave labour between the years of 1942-1945.  However, at the end of the Second World War, the Soviets came to claim their citizens back, and despite Sydorenko’s yearning to be home again, he was sceptical about returning to Ukraine.  Attempting to escape four times from the Soviet army, he was successful on his fifth attempt.

Sydorenko fled to Northern France, where he studied art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  He resided there until he decided to take the long journey to Canada.  Settling in Toronto, he received a scholarship and attended the Ontario College of (Fine) Arts.  While studying at the OCA in the early 1950s, Sydorenko took lessons from prominent Canadian artists such as Frederick Varley and Will Ogilvie. One of the Group of Seven artists, A.Y. Jackson, was a mentor to the young Sydorenko.

In his third year of his university studies, he wed Kateryna Wasyliw, but lost his scholarship with the college. He therefore ended up working at a restaurant to make up for the absence of funds.

In 1955, Sydorenko graduated from the OCA.

Speaking only Ukrainian and French, Sydorenko found life as an artist very difficult in Canada.  In an interview I conducted with Sydorenko in Toronto in 2005, he shared many painful memories. However, one particular episode from his childhood affected him so profoundly that he felt the need to visually document it. Petro Sydorenko bravely depicted this episode, which was permanently embedded in his memory, in a work he called, Karl Marx Street, Kryvyi Rih: Great Famine in Ukraine – 1932-1933. 

The subject matter of this work is a scene that the artist witnessed at the age of seven.  In a short written statement, entitled Kryvyi Rih 1932-1933: Recollections of the Artist, Sydorenko describes the events leading up to the scene depicted in the painting thus:  “Winter 1932-1933 was marked by heavy snows and bitter cold.  As the famine raged, cannibalism appeared.  One spring day father said, ‘Let’s go to the Torhsin, my son.’”  (The Torhsin was a government-owned store where people traded gold for rations of food.)

Sydorenko and his father approached the main street, Karl Marx (once named Poshtova Street), and Sydorenko describes the scene on the street as full of “…beggars with outstretched hands, begging, pleading, praying.”   He further describes how the people looked: “Their bodies swollen, eyes glaring insanely.”

As he and his father continued to walk to the Torhsin, a large concrete pillar came into view.  On the pillar, which was located across from the Kryvbas theatre, there was a poster advertising an upcoming concert.  A male and a female figure stood looking at the poster with great interest.  However, the most disturbing part of this scene is what led Sydorenko to create his painting. At the foot of the pillar lay a woman.  With his bony, wasted hands, her two-year old son tugged at her headscarf and clothes, clinging to his mother’s body, tears streaming down his ghostly face.  The happy couple nearby was oblivious to the child’s crying, to the dead mother, Sydorenko recalls.

In Sydorenko’s painting, the young boy, who clung so desperately to his deceased mother, has been portrayed in a way so that he no longer resembles a human form.  Many authors have also provided similar written descriptions of survivors and witnesses of the Famine.  One author, Robert Conquest, wrote in The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine: “Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles.”

 In the background of the scene painted by Sydorenko, the former store where bread had been sold is depicted.  The store’s window and door have been bordered up, and above the door Sydorenko has written the word khlib, or bread.  This imagery portrays the inaccessibility of food at that time as well as the cause of death of the mother, and of many deaths at that time – starvation. 

Three decades later, as an artist living in Toronto, in producing his painting based on that scene, Sydorenko bravely risked rekindling painful memories and facing derision from those who denied that the Famine had taken place.

 Even many of Sydorenko’s fellow Ukrainian artists in Canada were, at that time, seemingly unwilling to face that epoch of Ukrainian history.  Sydorenko says he painted Karl Marx Street, Kryvyi Rih: Great Famine in Ukraine–1932-1933 for the Ukrainian Association of Visual Artists of Canada’s (USOM) exhibition in 1963. According to Sydorenko, his work was rejected by the exhibition’s jury because of its subject matter.  The work was eventually displayed at the USOM exhibition in 2003.

It is, however, the only work created by Sydorenko on the topic of the Famine, for the memories were far too painful. 

Now, in 2006, Petro Sydorenko resides in a nursing home in Toronto, due to his long-standing battle with multiple sclerosis. Life is not easy for him, but he is comforted by the presence of his wife, Kateryna.  During our interview, Sydorenko stressed his gratitude towards Kateryna for standing by him and helping him carry his artworks to various exhibitions throughout his life.

Sydorenko’s significance in the history of Ukrainian culture needs to be recognized and preserved for in Karl Marx Street, Kryvyi Rih: Great Famine in Ukraine–1932-1933 he did something that many did not have the courage to do. As far as I know, Sydorenko produced the first known work of art in Canada on the topic of the Famine, depicting a scene that the artist himself experienced. Therefore, it is my hope that his art and life will be recognized for its significance in remembering the Famine.

Kalyna Klymkiw a Fine Arts Cultural Studies student at York University in Toronto.