The New York Times and the Great Famine

by Marco Carynnyk


Duranty, to be sure, did not act alone in throwing down Jones. Eugene Lyons was present when the American correspondents in Moscow conspired with Konstantin Umansky, the head of the Press Department of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, to denounce the Welshman. After becoming a Communist sympathizer and working in New York for TASS, the Soviet news agency, Lyons had gone to Moscow in the expectation of finding Utopia. Disillusioned, though not immediately, by what he saw, Lyons returned to New York and charted his disenchantment in his book "Assignment in Utopia." In a chapter titled "The Press Corps Conceals a Famine," Lyons reproached his fellow correspondents for failing to report the famine, even though they all knew about it, and explained how they had allowed themselves to be manipulated by the censor.

The home offices of the American correspondents had all cabled urgent queries after Jones announced his findings. But preparations were under way for the Metropolitan-Vickers trial, and gaining access to the courtroom was more important for the Americans than reporting the famine. As Lyons put it, "the need to remain on friendly terms with the censors at least for the duration of the trial was for all of us a compelling professional necessity."

Meeting the correspondents in one of their hotel rooms, Umansky worked out with them a formula for denying Jones's account. Before the evening was over, vodka and snacks had been ordered. The "celebration" - the word is Lyons's - lasted until early morning. By the time the trial had ended (all the Britons were released) the American correspondents had forgotten that they no longer needed to remain on "friendly terms" with the censors and did not bother to retract their attack against Jones. "Throwing down Jones," Lyons lamented, "was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes. But throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials."_17_

In early April Duranty again bruited prosperity and abundance. "In the excitement over the spring sowing campaign and the reports of an increased food shortage," he announced, "a fact that has been almost overlooked is that the production of coal, pig iron, steel, oil, automobiles, tractors, locomotives and machine tools has increased by 20 to 35 percent during recent months. That is the most effective proof that the food shortage as a whole is less grave than was believed."_18_

The issue that carried this sophism_19_ also brought a plea for help from a Katherine Schutock in Jackson Heights, N.Y., who pointed out that Duranty's denial of starvation was contradicted by letters from Ukraine, the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga region. Schutock wrote:

"The people who write such pathetic letters, are not looking for help because it cannot reach them. Money cannot reach them, and if it does they receive only half of what they sign for. Receipt of help from America only gets them into trouble with the Cheka. Most of the letters I have seen end thus: 'If you do not hear from us again, you can be sure we are not alive. We are either getting it for this letter, or we are through. The agony of living and dying of hunger is so painful and so long. What torture it is to live in hunger and know you are dying slowly of hunger.'"_20_

Throughout the spring and summer of 1933, demographers have estimated, Ukrainian peasants were dying at the rate of 25,000 a day, or 1,000 an hour, or 17 a minute. (In World War I, by comparison, about 6,000 people were killed every day.)_21_ Country lanes and city treets were littered with corpses - "stacked in the snow like logs," one eyewitness told me - and special brigades hastily dug mass graves in remote areas where they doused the bodies with petrol and set them on fire. Ukraine that year was one vast hell. The New York Times, however, made absolutely no reference to the situation for more than a month, when it published Jones's reply to Duranty's denial of the famine.

Standing by his claim that a severe famine was in progress, Jones pointed out that he had spoken with foreign journalists and technical experts. hundreds of peasants and between 20 and 30 diplomats, all of whom had agreed that starvation was widespread. "But [the diplomats] are not allowed to express their views in the press, and therefore remain silent. Journalists, on the other hand, are allowed to write, but the censorship has turned them into masters of euphemism and understatement. Hence, they give 'famine' the polite name of 'food shortage,' and 'starving to death' is softened down to read us 'widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.'"_22_

Duranty, undaunted, continued to pooh-pooh reports of starvation. Visiting Odessa, he asserted that the food situation was "undoubtedly better" than had been reported: in a town near Kiev peasant women were offering roast chicken; in Odessa the bread ration had been increased, and peasants were marketing eggs and vegetables.

"It is an old story, which the writer first heard on the Volga during the famine in the summer of 1921. Everywhere they said, 'Things here are desperate, and unless we get relief we will die before Christmas' - which was true enough. Then we asked them, 'But are people dying here now?' And they replied, 'No, not here yet, but if you go the village of so-and-so you will find hardly any one alive.' We went to said village and heard exactly the same story. 'Here we are desperate, though not yet dying, but at so-and-so conditions are frightful...' Though conditions are terribly hard, there is no sign of real famine conditions or that people are dying in the streets, as is reported in Moscow."_23_

In June, when he was forced to defend himself against a charge of receiving concessions from the Soviet government, Duranty took the opportunity to deny an account in the London newspapers that the victims of the famine were fleeing to Moscow in search of food and dying in the streets. Seeing in the reports of famine "a campaign of calumny that has scarcely been equalled since Nero raised Rome against the Christians - or Hitler Germany against the Jews," Duranty called the talk about corpses in the streets of Moscow "utterly untrue."_24_ And when a newspaper in Riga reported in August that the starvation and suffering were comparable to the famine of 1921, Duranty denounced the assertion as a "fundamental absurdity."_25_

Yet, even as he ridiculed the increasingly frequent eyewitness accounts of a devastating famine, Duranty half-heartedly admitted that the "food shortage" had taken a toll and, salting his articles with such cautious euphemisms as deaths due to "lowered resistance" and "malnutrition," ventured to estimate the losses:

"The excellent harvest about to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population in the last year, and particularly the grain-producing provinces - that is, the Ukraine, North Caucasus, the Lower Volga Region - has, however, caused heavy loss of life... The death rate rose during the winter and early spring to nearly four times the normal rate, which runs about 20 to 25 per 1,000 annually for the Soviet Union. Among peasants and others not receiving bread rations conditions were certainly not better. So with a total population in the Ukraine, North Caucasus and Lower Volga of upward of 40,000,000 the normal death rate would have been about 1,000,000. Lacking official figures, it is conservative to suppose that this was at least trebled last year in those provinces and considerably increased for the Soviet Union as a whole."_26_

The careful reader (and how many of Duranty's readers cared to untangle these sentences?) will note that he avoided giving an absolute figure or famine losses. But since he announced that the normal death rate would have been about 1 million and that this was trebled, we must assume that he was hinting at 2 million famine victims.

In September 1933, when he received the privilege of being the first correspondent to be allowed into the famine regions after the travel ban was lifted, Duranty set out by car for Rostov in the North Caucasus and Kharkiv and Kiev in Ukraine. His public view of the "famine scare," which he presented in seven articles in The Times between September 11 and 20, 1933, was not changed by what he saw.

"Whatever the situation was here last winter or spring," Duranty cabled on 11 September, "there is no doubt Rostov-on-Don is a busy, flourishing city today. Local officials and newspaper men scout the stories of hunger epidemics and a much increased death rate earlier this year. They emphasize that half the city's population now receives at least one meal daily in factory and other 'mass restaurants.'"_27_

Two days later Duranty suggested that the North Caucasus was a land of milk and honey:

"The use of the word 'famine' in connection with the North Caucasus is a sheer absurdity. There a bumper crop is being harvested as fast as tractors, horses, oxen, men, women and children can work... There are plump babies in the nurseries or gardens of the collectives. Older children are watching fat calves or driving cattle ... Village markets are flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter at prices far lower than in Moscow. A child can see that this is not famine but abundance.

"This makes it all the more inexplicable that the Moscow authorities have restricted freedom of travel for any foreign correspondent, even on the plaintive grounds that 'some correspondents earlier wrote most distressing articles...' For the writer's part he believes the distressing facts were exaggerated. He thinks he himself exaggerated in saying the death rate in the North Caucasus, the Ukraine and Lower Volga regions in the past year was three times above normal - at least as far as the North Caucasus was concerned."_28_ Whatever his new estimate was (he again avoided citing absolute figures), Duranty maintained it for only two days. He wrote from Kharkiv:

"Early last year, under the pressure of the war danger in the Far East, the authorities took too much grain from the Ukraine. Meanwhile, a large number of peasants thought they could change the Communist Party's collectivization policy by refusing to cooperate. Those two circumstances together - the flight of some peasants and the passive resistance of others - produced a very poor harvest last year, and even part of that was never reaped. The situation in the winter was undoubtedly bad. Just as the writer considered that his death-rate figures for the North Caucasus were exaggerated, so he is inclined to believe that the estimate he made for the Ukraine was too low." [That estimate was three times the normal death rate]._29_

Let us give this passage our attention. In the first sentence Duranty implied - quite correctly - that the authorities had caused the famine by stripping Ukraine of its grain. But they did so, he said, because they needed to stockpile food in case war with Japan broke out. Duranty presented this cause as if it were well-known and needed no explanation. In fact, he was sending up a trial balloon. He had only hinted at fear of war with Japan as a cause of the famine in previous articles, and he mentioned it again only 11 years later, when he argued that the "man-made famine" (yes, he used that phrase, although he enclosed it in inverted commas), if anything like a famine had taken place at all, was entirely due to the Red Army's need for food reserves._30_

In the second sentence of the passage, however, Duranty adroitly shifted the blame for the famine onto the peasants, who had produced a very poor harvest by fleeing or putting up passive resistance. "Peasant hatred of new ways, peasant conservatism and peasant inertia," as well as outright sabotage - those were the real causes of any food shortages, Duranty insisted again and again._31_

As in his August dispatch, Duranty carefully avoided giving an absolute figure of famine losses. Earlier he had estimated that the normal death rate of 1 million in Ukraine, the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga, taken together, had trebled, thus implying that the famine had killed 2 million people. Now he announced that this figure was too high for the North Caucasus and too low for Ukraine. But since he did not give a population figure for Ukraine or estimate its losses, we cannot tell what figure he had in mind. The conclusion presented to the readers of The Times, however, was clear: if there was a famine (Duranty's evidence on this point was highly ambiguous), it killed no more than 2 million people, any such losses were entirely justified by the success of collectivization. A bit of suffering on the part of a few ignorant, anti-social kulaks had assured abundance for all.

In the remaining three articles in the series, Duranty resumed scoffing at the famine scare. "The writer had just completed a 200-mile auto trip through the heart of the Ukraine and can say positively that the harvest is splendid and all talk of famine now is ridiculous," he assured his readers on September 17._32_

"Summing up the impressions of a 10 days' trip through North Caucasus and Ukraine, where this correspondent traveled with greater freedom and absence of supervision than had been expected, I repeat the opinion that the decisive engagement in the struggle for rural socialization has been won by the Kremlin," Duranty concluded on September 19. "The cost in some places has been heavy, but a generally excellent crop is already mitigating conditions to a marked extent."_33_

Returning to Moscow, Duranty continued to gibe at the reports of famine. In mid-December the Soviet government announced that the state grain collections had been completed two and half months earlier than ever before. Duranty opined:

"This result, fully justifies the optimism expressed to the writer by local authorities during his September trip through the Ukraine and North Caucasus - optimism that contrasted so strikingly with the famine stories then current in Berlin, Riga, Vienna and other places, where elements hostile to the Soviet Union were making an 11th-hour attempt to avert American recognition by picturing the Soviet Union as a land of ruin and despair."_34_





Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, September 18, 1983, No. 38, Vol. LI

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