As is always the case with famine, the good people died first. If you refused to steal food from your neighbor, you died. If you gave food to your children before you fed yourself, you died, and then they died. But soon, even the people who were willing to do whatever it took to survive were struggling. There simply wasn’t any food to be bought, traded for, or stolen. But there were bodies, thousands of them. If you wanted to survive, you had no other option than to eat the flesh of the dead.
Soon, reports began to emerge of rampant cannibalism. The first cases were usually kept quiet. People would notice a body by the side of the road and return late at night to take a few pieces of flesh before hiding the corpse. Or back-alley butcher shops would suddenly have a supply of fresh meat available at high prices. And of course, the starving customers preferred not to ask questions about where it had come from. But eventually, even this horrible source of food was exhausted. And people stopped waiting for their neighbors to die before they ate them.
By 1933, the rumors of cannibalism were too widely spread to be ignored. So, the Soviets dispatched their secret police to investigate. What they found was shocking. Not only were people cannibalizing the dead, but there were thousands of cases of people committing murder and eating their victims. Often, these victims weren’t strangers, but family members. Soviet records recorded cases where parents killed their children and shared the flesh among the rest of the family. In one shocking case, a family didn’t even wait until they were out of food to kill their daughter-in-law. Instead, they fed some of her corpse to their pigs in order to fatten them up and ate the rest themselves.
Of course, the children who were the most frequent victims were also desperate, as was recorded by a woman who ran an orphanage in Kharkov. “One day the children suddenly fell silent, we turned around to see what was happening, and they were eating the smallest child, little Petrus,” she wrote, “And Petrus was doing the same, he was tearing strips from himself and eating them, he ate as much as he could. The other children put their lips to his wounds and drank his blood.” Not only were people cannibalizing each other, they were cannibalizing themselves.
The authorities made a half-hearted attempt to crack down on the murders and cannibalism. Posters were plastered all over Ukranian cities stating “It is a barbaric act to eat your children!” And thousands of people were convicted in Soviet courts of cannibalism, but that number was probably only a fraction of the true number who were forced to eat human flesh. But even if the Soviet authorities were horrified to learn about the acts of cannibalism being committed, they didn’t take any serious actions to provide food to the Ukrainians until late 1933. By then, millions of people were already dead.