KATIA was eight-years-old when soldiers wrapped the emaciated body of her father in an old sack, and dragged him away to be dumped in a mass grave.
Her father was a good man, a house-builder of houses, a shoe-maker and a farmer, and Katia knew he didn't deserve to die so prematurely, and with so little dignity. But 85 years ago, when Ukraine was part of Stalin’s Soviet Union, human life was worth little - especially, as writer AC Michael says, the lives of those who refused to give up their property to work on a collective farm. Those who refused had their animals, tools, grain, even the food on their table confiscated.
Life under Stalin's regime was brutal; millions of people, including entire families, were banished to forced labour camps in Siberia, and millions more Ukrainians were left to starve in the Holodomor - the famine of 1933.
"The rule was simple: If you weren't willing to work for the State, you didn't deserve to eat," says AC. "Young Katia and her mother were left to fend for themselves, eating leaves and grass to survive, praying for life to return to how it once was."
The story of Katia - AC Michael's Ukrainian grandmother - is the inspiration for his novel The Dancing Barber. Set within Bradford's Ukrainian community during Easter 1963, it's the story of a man who survived the Holodomor and builds a new life in England, but finds he can't escape his past. Thirty years later after settling here, Taras and his family are content and about to reap the rewards of a lifetime of hard work. But when a face from his past appears, events start to take a sinister turn.
The Dancing Barber, is now in its third edition and is published by Contented Cat. "It has been enjoyed by so many American readers that it was a No1 historical fiction title on Amazon.com earlier this year," says AC. "It provides a nostalgic look back at the Bradford of half a century ago, featuring places T&A readers will remember, such as Busby’s and Lister Mill.
"What happened to Katia and millions of peasants like her is fact. The Stalinist policy of Collectivisation, where enormous farms were established on the Ukrainian Steppes to grow wheat to feed workers in Soviet factories, tore apart families and communities, and in little over a year, three million Ukrainians starved to death."
He adds: "What has yet to be determined is whether Stalin deliberately set out to destroy the Ukrainian people, and was therefore guilty of genocide. A colossal swathe of Ukraine was devastated during the Holodomor of 1932-1933, it was a miracle that so many Ukrainians survived. Katia was one of them. She was also my grandmother; a gentle woman with a rock-solid faith and a steely determination to survive. Despite her traumatic early years, she never lost her zest for life, nor her mischievous sense of humour."
After the war Katia got married and, with many other Ukrainians, settled in Bradford. "For the first time in over a decade, my grandmother started to enjoy life, working in a mill, saving money and cooking hearty meals to feed her young family," says AC. "She helped my grandfather establish a dance school which, by 1963, was one of the most popular and successful dance schools in the city, specialising in ballet. This is the year in which my novel is set - a happy time when the thwarted ambitions of youth were finally fulfilled.
"But while everyone was getting on with their lives, covert powers were at work..."
This year marks the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor and the 70th anniversary of the first Ukrainians settling in the UK. The Dancing Barber is a gripping historical thriller and, despite its bleak context, is ultimately an uplifting story, laced with humour. It's a fascinating account of a chapter of history that more of us should be aware of.
* The Dancing Barber is available on Amazon.com. For more about AC Michael visit acmichaelbooks.co.uk