Collaboration in the suppression of the Ukrainian famine

The paper below was delivered by Dr. James Mace at a conference on "Recognition and Denial of Genocide and Mass Killing in the 20th Century" held in New York on November 13.

by Dr. James E. Mace


Given that recognition of the Soviet government was a lively issue in the administration in 1933, it is difficult to believe that the president was not briefed orally on the famine and the Soviet government's responsibility for it. Yet, even if he was not, there was another source of information reaching the White House. Letters about the situation had also been received at the White House since the first days of the Roosevelt administration. The first was dated March 13:

"Dear Master of our Country President Roosevelt:

"I have a Step Sister in Russia alon with 4 small Children and Starving if we cannot help her a little have heard that you gave Orders not to send money out of Country is it Possible that I Could get your Permission to send an Order for her to the American Store out there not far from her home town to get things to eat its not so Easie to know you have Sisters thats Starving and you Cant Rais a hand to help so Im asking you to help if possible so I Can do what little I Can and God will Reward you for your Kindness Im Sure.

"I will pray for your Protection of your enemies God alone Can Save you and no man on earth Can Stand Before Him.

"Closing with Gods Blessing to you and the Mrs. I thank you

"Truly yours

Anna Witkopp
1513 Taylor St.
South Bay City Michigan

"Wont you Please answer this Im waiting Pastionly though."

This letter was the first of many referred by FDR's secretary to the State Department, where it was then sent to Kelley's division. Kelley politely informed her that she could legally send small sums abroad for specified purposes and enclosed a list of banks prepared to undertake transmission of funds to the Soviet Union.

Among the first American groups to raise the issue of the famine were Germans who had emigrated from the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. German colonists, Mennonites and others, were first brought to the Russian Empire by Catherine the Great and have lived in Ukraine and the Volga Basin since the late 18th century. Many fled during the revolution, and they quickly responded to pleas from those they had left behind. The chairman of a privately organized relief committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, P.C. Hiebert, wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on March 27, making clear the urgency of the situation and announcing his intention to send a Mennonite delegation to Washington. The letter was also referred to Kelley, who replied:

" are informed that although the department appreciates the anxiety of American citizens whose relatives in Russia are suffering from lack of food, it is of the opinion that there are no measures which the government may appropriately take at the present time in order to facilitate relief work being carried on in Russia. In view of this circumstance, it is believed that the sending of a delegation to Washington to discuss this matter, as suggested by you, would serve no useful purpose."

Dr. Hiebert, understandably, was not satisfied. On April 7, he decided to write a similar letter directly to the president in the hope that the energy Roosevelt had shown in domestic affairs might also be turned to help those in dire need abroad. One passage was particularly urgent: "Even though America has not officially recognized the Soviet government, IS THERE NOT SOME WAY BY WHICH IT WOULD BE POSSIBLE TO SEND FOOD TO THOUSANDS OF STARVING INNOCENT CHILDREN?"

Hiebert also prevailed upon his senator, Arthur Capper, to write FDR on his behalf. Roosevelt promised to take the matter up with the secretary of state. Secretary of State Hull then answered Sen. Capper:

"I can well understand the concern of the Mennonites in this country for their relatives and friends in Russia who are suffering from lack of food. Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any measures which this government may appropriately take at this time in order to alleviate the sufferings of these unhappy people."

The response to Hiebert, again from Kelley, stated that "there is unfortunately little to be added" to the letter of April 5, and that:

"Although sympathy is felt for those American citizens who are so deeply concerned for their relatives and friends in Russia, there appears to be no effective measure which this government can appropriately take at the present time for the purpose of alleviating the sufferings of persons in Russia who are in lack of food."

Kelley also gave the name and address of Am-Deruta Transport Corporation which could purchase foodstuffs for Soviet citizens through torgsin stores, adding:

"Although the department cannot assume any responsibility for the integrity of the organizations mentioned, it is suggested that you may desire to communicate with the Am-Deruta Corporation with a view to ascertaining whether it is possible for your co-religionists to enter into satisfactory arrangements with that corporation whereby foodstuffs and other necessities may be furnished to their friends and relatives in Russia."

Hiebert's group continued to lobby on behalf of the starving. On May 20, he wrote his freshman congressman, Randolph Carpenter, asking that he assist a Mennonite delegation coming to Washington in June. Carpenter approached the White House and was referred to the Department of State. Kelley answered that while the delegation could "serve no useful purpose if the object of its journey is to endeavor to influence this government to intervene or to take other steps on behalf of Mennonites residing in Russia," it would be received at the State Department "with every courtesy and will be given a full opportunity to discuss with appropriate officials of the department" any matters within the department's jurisdiction. Meeting the president, however, would be "difficult, if not impossible."

German Evangelicals also lived in Ukraine, and one who had come from there, the Rev. Charles H. Hagus, wrote to Secretary Hull in June, expressing the anxiety felt by Colorado's community of "Russian" Germans for the "untold sufferings" endured by their friends and relatives left behind. Again Kelley replied:

"While sympathy is felt for the sufferings of the persons referred to, and for the anxiety of their American relatives and friends, there appear to be no effective measures which this government can appropriately take at the present time for alleviating the conditions alluded to in your letter."

On September 7, President Roosevelt received a letter from the United Russian National Organizations in America, which proposed offering aid through the Red Cross or another charitable institution. But, the letter pointed out, "It seems evident that a matter of so delicate a nature cannot and will not be acted upon by either the American Red Cross or by any other body without the approval of the president of the United States and his administration." At the same time, the group wrote similar letters to Hull and the American Red Cross. Not even a pro forma response seems to have been sent.

The first Ukrainian group to send an appeal to a member of the administration was the U.S. World War Veterans of Ukrainian Descent of New York who on September 18 wrote a letter and sent a number of photographs and press accounts to Postmaster General James J. Farley, who was also chairman of the Democratic Committee of Roosevelt's home state. The letter went through various hands in the New York Democratic Committee, who noted that it contained possible "political dynamite." Not knowing what else to do, they sent the letter to the State Department, where it too went to Kelley, who wrote:

"There has been referred to this department for attention your letter of September 18, 1933, addressed to the postmaster general, and its enclosures, certain photographs and newspaper clippings relating to the sufferings of persons living in the Ukraine and to the Communist movement in the United States. Your letter and its enclosures have been read with interest."

With its large and active Ukrainian community, many letters came from Canada. On October 2, President Roosevelt was written by representatives of the Ukrainian community in Ward, Manitoba, asking him to "give a helping hand" and support the starving millions of Ukraine and the North Caucasus. On the same day, the Ukrainian National Council in Canada also appealed to him. Attached to the letter-appeal was a detailed statement by Marie Zuk of Kalmazivka in Odessa oblast, who had been permitted to leave Ukraine on August 7 to join her husband, a farmer in Alberta. The consul general in Winnipeg was directed to inform the organization's leaders that, since these conditions "do not appear to directly affect American citizens or interests, the department is not in a position to take any action."

On October 13, the Ukrainian Community in Oshawa, Ont., had a mass meeting to protest the famine and Soviet policies responsible for it, and its resolutions were also sent to the U.S. State Department. The Consulate in Hamilton was directed merely to acknowledge receipt of the communication and nothing further.

On October 20, the White House announced in a press release an exchange of letters between FDR and USSR President Mikhail Kalinin regarding normalization of relations. Formal recognition of the Soviet government was extended on November 16.

The letters from those who wrote about the famine out of humanitarian concerns continued to arrive. Ukrainians throughout the world wrote to President Roosevelt and the State Department. On October 28, Paul Skoropadsky, who had been Ukrainian hetman (monarch) in 1918, appealed to FDR not to recognize the Soviets and, failing that, to insist that the Soviets acknowledge "the right of the U.S. to organize a relief committee for the starving on Ukrainian territory." No response was sent.

On October 29, Henry Bayne of Edmonton, sent a handwritten letter to the president asking for his help. On November 3, the Ukrainian deputies and senators in Poland sent a telegram which begged him to "consider the tragic situation in Ukraine where (the) population starves" in his negotiations with the Soviets. Only after recognition was extended did the Warsaw Embassy receive orders to even acknowledge receipt of the communication.

On November 6, the Czechoslovaian Committee for the Salvation of the Ukrainians wrote to President Roosevelt, describing the situation in Ukraine and the North Caucasus and asking that a special American mission be sent to Ukraine in order to study Soviet policy toward non-Russians in the Soviet Union. No response is recorded. On November 11, the Committee for Aid to the Starving Ukrainians sent a telegram from Brussels, asking that an American Committee of Inquiry be sent to Ukraine. The U.S. consul in Brussels was instructed to give the now standard response that "although sympathy is felt for the sufferings of the persons referred to, there does not appear to be any measure which this government can appropriately take at the present time to alleviate their sufferings."

Even Eleanor Roosevelt was approached in November with a request to exert some influence to pressure the Soviet government to allow duty-free admission of relief packages through torgsin. She replied that she realized "that the need was very great" and "deeply regretted" that she could do nothing to help.

The Soviets did everything in their power to deny the existence of the famine. When the London Daily Express reported that the Soviets had purchased even a modest 15,000 tons of wheat abroad in order to alleviate the shortage of bread at home, Pravda on May 27, 1933, published an indignant denial. Had the Kremlin acknowledged the famine, it would have been expected not to sell grain, for want of which its own people were dying. Stalin denied the existence of famine and continued to export grain, albeit at a lower rate. In 1931, the USSR exported 5.06 million metric tons of grain. In 1932 this fell to 1.73 million and in 1933 to 1.68 million.

The famine, however, could not be completely concealed. Early in 1933, Gareth Jones, a reporter and former aide to Lloyd George, traveled to Ukraine, and in March talked about what he saw there: "I walked alone through villages and 12 collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, 'There is no bread; we are dying.'" He also estimated that a million people had perished in Kazakhstan since 1930 and now in Ukraine millions more were threatened. Eugene Lyons, at the time the United Press Moscow correspondent, called this the first reliable press report in the English-speaking world. Moscow responded by forbidding journalists to travel there.

Jones had actually based his account primarily on what he had been told by Western correspondents and diplomats in Moscow. Diplomats were forbidden to publish their observations in the press and the journalists were far more circumspect. For example, in January 1933, Ralph Barnes reported to the old New York Herald Tribune from the then Ukrainian SSR capital of Kharkiv, and therefore under the watchful eye of the Soviet censor, about the officially acknowledged "abuses" of the previous year:

"Grain needed by the Ukrainian peasants as provisions was stripped from the land a year ago by grain collectors desirous of making a good showing. The temporary or permanent migration of great masses which followed alone prevented real famine conditions. All those persons with whom I have talked, in both town and village, agree that the food situation in this vast area is worse than it was last year. It is inconceivable, though, that the authorities will let the bread shortage on the collective farms reach a stage comparable to that of the late winter and spring of last year."

Malcolm Muggeridge, Moscow correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, also went to Ukraine during the famine and wrote about it. He later recalled:

"It was the big story in all our talks in Moscow. Everybody knew about it. There was no question about that. Anyone you were talking to knew that there was a terrible famine going on. Even in the Soviets' own pieces there were somewhat disguised acknowledgements of great difficulties there: the attacks on the kulaks, the admission that people were eating the seed grain and cattle... I realized that was the big story. I could see that all the correspondents in Moscow were distorting it."

"Without making any kind of plans or asking for permission, I just went and got a ticket for Kiev and then went on to Rostov... Ukraine was starving, and you only had to venture out to smaller places to see derelict fields and abandoned villages."

Muggeridge's account appeared in the Manchester Guardian at the end of March. He reported on the famine in both Ukraine and the North Caucasus. In both:

" was the same story - cattle and horses dead; fields neglected; meagre harvest despite moderately good climatic conditions; all the grain that was produced taken by the government; now no bread at all, no bread anywhere, nothing much else either; despair and bewilderment."

In May 1933, Muggeridge gave the following description of what he saw:

"On a recent visit to the North Caucasus and Ukraine, I saw something of the battle that is going on between the government and their peasants. The battlefield was as desolate as in any war, and stretches wider... On one side, millions of peasants, starving, often their bodies swollen with lack of food; on the other, soldiers, members of the GPU, carrying out the instruction of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had shot and exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert."





Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 3, 1988, No. 1, Vol. LVI

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