The New York Times and the Great Famine

by Marco Carynnyk


This was not the end of the concealment.

According to the Foreign Office, Duranty's companion on his trip to Ukraine and the North Caucasus was Stanley Richardson of the Associated Press._47_ On September 22, Richardson cabled an astonishing dispatch.

Early in 1933, Moscow had thoroughly reorganized the Ukrainian party, purging and arresting many members, and established "political departments" at each state farm and machine-tractor station. Staffed with trusted urban workers and party members - at least a third of them brought in from Russia - these political departments were given unlimited authority over the peasants and extensive powers over local Communists, many of whom had proven themselves too faint-hearted to carry out the party's murderous policies. As the head of the political departments throughout Ukraine and as one of the highest party officials in the republic, Alexander Asatkin was well placed to have an accurate picture of the destruction wreaked by the famine.

In his dispatch, Richardson reported that Asatkin, whom he had formally interviewed in Kharkiv, had confirmed the famine and had even "estimated the percentage of deaths in his area last winter and spring from causes related to undernourishment." The censor in Moscow, however, had banned the transmission of Asatkin's figures on the grounds that they were not official._48_ Although The Times carried other Associated Press dispatches from Moscow a few days before and a few days after the September 22 cable, it never published the report of Richardson's interview with Asatkin. A highly placed Communist official had confirmed the famine, and The Times had ignored the news.

But even this was not the end of the concealment.

Harold Denny, who replaced Duranty as The Times correspondent in Moscow in April 1934, proved to be no more honest a reporter of the famine than his predecessor. On July 23, 1934, for example, Denny announced that "a winter of hunger and perhaps of actual famine has been averted in the great grain region of the Ukraine." The fair crop that was being expected, he fancied, would be "a victory for collectivized agriculture which will induce many remaining individual peasants to enter the fold."_49_

Throughout 1933 and 1934 Ewald Ammende had been trying almost singlehandedly to draw public attention to the famine. A Baltic German, Ammende had briefly worked for the government of independent Estonia in 1919 and then moved to Western Europe, where he threw himself into relief work. In September 1933, when Cardinal Theodore Innitzer of Vienna established a famine relief committee (the members included the chief rabbi of Vienna, the head of the Lutheran Church and the leaders of other denominations in Vienna), Ammende became its general secretary. In late June 1934, Ammende arrived in New York with a mission to obtain the support of churches and humanitarian organizations in the United States and Canada. In interviews and letters to editors Ammende announced that wide starvation was impending again and asked whether Western grain surpluses could not be used to bring relief to the starving districts in the Soviet Union._50_

In response to queries from his editors about Ammende's assertion, Denny visited Ukraine in July and again in October. Echoing the articles in which Duranty had attacked Jones, Denny claimed to have seen no signs of famine. "This correspondent is traveling through the principal grain regions to check reports published abroad that a new famine exists or impends," Denny cabled from Ukraine on October 7. "Thus far no famine has been found nor an indication of famine in the year to come, though many peasants must draw in their belts and eat food they do not like until the 1935 harvest."

Although peasants in southern Ukraine, by his own admission, told him that they were in "grave danger," Denny reported that he had feasted on "milk from contented collectivized cows and honey fresh from the hives of Bolshevik bees."

"These delicacies were served at the end of a meal of a tasty salad of tomatoes, pickles and onions, roast duck and fluffy potato souffle, much better prepared than in Moscow hotels, washed down with the Ukrainian national drink, slivyanka, a liquor made from plums, tasting non-alcoholic though with a mule's kick in every swallow."_51_

Eight days later Denny again announced that he had found no signs of famine. He had deliberately sought, he said, "the sections where the worst conditions had been reported in the outside world and the localities that peasants on trains had told him were the most seriously affected." Despite all this searching, however, he had found no famine. "Nowhere even fear of it."_52_

Such denials were as convenient for Soviet apologists as Duranty's had been. When William Randolph Hearst mounted a campaign against Roosevelt's Soviet policy in 1935 and ordered his editors to reprint eyewitness accounts of the famine that had appeared in 1933, the American Communist Party attacked Hearst by citing Denny's finding that there was no famine anywhere._53_

"The hunt for famine in Russia," Denny concluded borrowing a line from Duranty, "was like chasing a will-o'-the-wisp. It was always somewhere further on."_54_

Thus the damage was done. The famine was a will-o'-the-wisp._55_ Nazi and anti-Nazi, right and left, Stalinist and anti-Stalinist, would argue for years to come whether anything like a famine had happened at all, while the less polemically minded shuddered with distaste and turned to more substantial issues. My erudite editor justified silence on the grounds that the famine is little known. Another came to the same conclusion from the opposite starting point: the broad facts of the case, she opined, are so well known and so widely acknowledged that nothing more need be added. The Soviet press attache in Ottawa displayed a touching like-mindedness. In whose interest is it to bring up an "alleged famine," he indignantly asked an interviewer, when East and West are facing so many unresolved problems?_56_

These are only three examples. Their perceptions still shaped by Duranty's and Denny's lies, many otherwise well-informed people know only that Stalin did something nasty to the "kulaks" in the course of collectivization, and many assume that the peasants themselves were to blame. Two recent studies of mass murder are cases in point. Leo Kuper argues that the liquidation of the kulaks was not genocide but only a "related atrocity," and devotes to the famine precisely half a sentence:

"Estimates of the numbers who perished range from 5 million to 15 million, and this is without taking into account the many millions of peasants starved to death in-the artificially induced man-made famine of 1932-33."_57_

Richard L. Rubenstein, giving the matter just a bit more attention, manages to confuse the causes, chronology and geography of the famine:

"Millions of peasants resisted [Stalin's collectivization] violently and killed their own livestock rather than permit them to become state property. A man-made famine, the first of a series, ensued which compelled Stalin to retreat temporarily. Nevertheless, by 1932 he had broken the back of his country's peasantry."_58_

The famine of 1933 was one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Yet it has been met in most quarters with an indifference bordering on cynicism and in some with a conspiracy of silence (this proverbial phrase was first coined to describe the famine of 1933) that is nothing short of criminal. In an age when "genocide" and "holocaust" have become a part of every journalist's lexicon, the horrors of 1933 in Ukraine are still dismissed as recondite, are still being made fit to print. Orwell had it right:

"The fog of lies and misinformation that surrounds such subjects as the Ukraine famine, the Spanish civil war, Russian policy in Poland, and so forth, is not due entirely to conscious dishonesty, but any writer or journalist who is fully sympathetic to the USSR - sympathetic, that is, in the way the Russians themselves would want him to be - does have to acquiesce in deliberate falsification on important issues."_59_





Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, October 2, 1983, No. 40, Vol. LI

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