Philipovna: Daughter of Sorrow


Philipovna: Daughter of Sorrow is a creative non-fiction account of my mother’s surviving the Holodomor (the Ukrainian starvation) in the early 1930s. It is the story of an orphan who goes to live with her aunt in a rural village in the Ukrainian countryside. The aunt swears on her dead sister’s Bible that Vera Philipovna, the daughter of a cobbler and seamstress from a small village in Chercassy, Ukraine will survive no matter what might befall the family. No one foresees the horrors that they will have to face between the fall of 1930 and the spring of 1933. In the end, out of a healthy extended family, only Philipovna, a cousin and the aunt survive. The acts of real savagery that are perpetrated on the village are unflinchingly narrated by a pre-pubescent girl, who also gives us a good grasp of the beauty and richness of the Ukrainian culture with its superstitions, customs and celebrations.

The story is one of resilience and survival. It is my attempt to restore the voice of a generation that has been silenced and buried. It is a conflation of my mother’s stories, years of detailed research and my own insight of a child having to face adult challenges long before she is ready. It is told from the domestic point of view but does touch on the politics of the day as they affect women and children.  

This book is also the realization of my own promise to my mother, Vera Philipovna Kyslenko Rybalka. As a young child, she was told that she had survived for some reason. But she lived, worked and died without ever finding out what the reason was. Perhaps the half-remembered fragments that were her memories, which have been researched and puzzled together in this book, are a part of some greater design that allowed me to write it and speak for the many people of her generation who needlessly suffered and died without a voice of their own.

In loving memory of Vera Philipovna Kyslenko.

You can purchase Philipovna: Daughter of Sorrow from Guernica Editions and can be pre-ordered through Chapter’s/Indigo Books.

Philipovna Review: Lawrence DeWolfe

Valentina Gal has written a remarkably, delightfully visual story. It may seem strange to work with “Daughter of Sorrow” in the title as delightful in any way. Valentina tells of Philipovna and her family with love. She invites us to see through Philipovna’s eyes. That experience is a delight to readers. We find ourselves more than engaged. We become attached to the “Daughter of Sorrow” and everyone she loves so much.

With Philipovna we experience the plight of a girl twice-orphaned. She nonetheless has the good fortune to live with, remain with, and return to a loving family home. It’s also to her advantage that the aunt who can really afford to take her in and provide for her doesn’t like her! Ah, families!

It is, of course, not to Philipovna’s benefit that she and her family live in a district Stalin’s forces have isolated and assigned to starvation. Love is her salvation. Tenacity is her strength. Faithfulness to the old religion sustains her. Not even Stalin can defeat the peasants he alternately glorifies and terrorizes.

As we read we may wonder if Philipovna, who bears and lives through deep sadness, could also be called Daughter of Courage.

With and through Philipovna we experience events that are now well-known. Historians have written so much about Stalin’s regime, the enforced collectivization of farms, and the deliberate starvation of millions. We know so much about the plight of Ukrainians in the socialist paradise of the USSR. Historians usually focus on the actions of the powerful. Valentina has given us an introduction to the experience of the powerless. Her focus on the little things, the everyday concerns doesn’t trivialize the suffering of the many, or the injustices all experienced. Valentina tells us the story from the bottom up. Personal testimony may not be of much value to political historians. It is the foundation for social history.

There’s an old saying that has been attributed to more than one traditional culture: “The man may be the head of the house. The woman is the neck.” The head may have authority, but the head can’t exist without the support of the neck. Nor can the head move if the neck doesn’t. In Philipovna’s beloved Auntie Xena we see the one whose faith, hope and love endure all things. We also see how her words of wisdom are usually the last spoken in the house. Uncle Misha has his pride. His way of loving is to uphold the honour of the family. Auntie Xena’s love overflows in compassion and creativity. She can do the impossible with nothing.

We also meet two strong women who are not entirely sympathetic characters. Ivanovna and Nikolaiovna are pragmatists, who must also do the impossible with nothing. They speak truth to power with more courage than any man could muster, but men choose not to hear them because they are women.

Then we meet Olya, whose story is briefly told but represents the lives of untold millions of women who must try to live under cruel oppression.

Thank you, Valentina, for inviting us to live for a while with Philipovna, Daughter of Sorrow.