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


Despite mounting and increasingly irrefutable evidence that famine was raging in Ukraine, two American correspondents in Moscow, Walter Duranty of The New York Times and Louis Fischer of The Nation took the lead in publicly denying its existence.

Duranty's attitude vacillated as the famine developed. He initially viewed the developing crisis in foodstuffs with considerable alarm, and by the end of the summer of 1932 seems to have hoped that Stalin would offer further concessions, perhaps even a return to something like the New Economic Policy of the preceding decade.

In late fall, however, it became clear that there would be no new concessions, and Duranty began to minimize and explain away difficulties as "growing pains" and the results of peasant lethargy in some districts and the "marked fall in the living standards of a large number of peasants." By mid-November he stressed that there was "neither famine nor hunger." While there were "embarrassing" problems, they were not "disastrous." Two days later he wrote that while there may be "an element of truth" to reports of a food shortage, the problem was "not alarming, much less desperate." He suggested that Soviets might not eat as well as in the past but "there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be." "The food shortage," Duranty took pains to explain on November 26, "must be regarded as a result of peasant resistance to rural socialization." The situation would not have been serious if world food prices had not fallen "which forced the Soviet Union to increase the expropriation of foodstuffs at a time when the shoe was beginning to pinch and the distribution of the food at home would have corrected many difficulties."

Still, Duranty concluded, "It is a mistake to exaggerate the gravity of the situation. The Russians have tightened their belts before to a far greater extent than it is likely to be needed this winter." Even The New York Times editorialized on November 30 that collectivization was nothing but "a ghastly failure." As if in reply, Duranty reported that the Soviets could always release stockpiled grain if the problem became more acute.

Next to Duranty, the American reporter most consistently willing to gloss Soviet reality was Louis Fischer who had a deep ideological commitment to Soviet communism dating back to 1920. But, when he traveled to Ukraine in October and November of 1932, he was alarmed at what he saw. "In the Poltava, Vinnitsa, Podolsk and Kiev regions, conditions will be hard," he wrote, "I think there is no starvation anywhere in Ukraine now - after all they have just gathered in the harvest but it was a bad harvest."

Initially critical of the Soviet grain procurement program because it created the food problem, Fischer by February adopted the official Stalinist view which blamed the problem on Ukrainian counter-revolutionary nationalist "wreckers." It seemed "whole villages" had been contaminated by such men, who had to be deported to "lumbering camps and mining areas in distant agricultural areas which are now just entering upon their pioneering stage." These steps were forced upon the Kremlin, Fischer wrote, but the Soviets were, nevertheless, learning how to rule wisely.

Fischer was on a lecture tour in the United States when Gareth Jones' famine story broke. Asked about the million who had died since 1930 in Kazakhstan, he scoffed:

"Who counted them? How could anyone march through a country and count a million people? Of course people are hungry there - desperately hungry. Russia is turning over from agriculture to industrialism. It's like a man going into business on small capital."

Speaking to a college audience in Oakland, Calif., a week later, Fischer stated emphatically: "There is no starvation in Russia."

The Jones story also caught Duranty by surprise. He decided to continue his public denial of the famine. Duranty claimed that Jones had concocted a "big scare story" based on the "hasty" and "inadequate" glimpse of the countryside consisting of a 40-mile walk through villages around Kharkiv. He then went on to write that he himself had made a thorough investigation and discovered no famine, although he did admit that the food shortage had become acute in Ukraine, the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga Basin. This he attributed to mismanagement and the recently executed "conspirators" in the Commissariat of Agriculture. Still, he wrote, "There is no actual starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition." And it was worth it: "To put it brutally, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."

Jones replied that he stood by his story and took to task the journalists whom "the censorship has turned...into masters of euphemism and understatement," giving "famine the polite name of 'food shortage', and 'starving to death' is softened down to read as 'widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.'"

The "containment" of the Jones story is perhaps the most telling event in what Eugene Lyons called "the whole shabby episode of our failure to report honestly the gruesome Russian famine of 1932-33." The Soviets were able to gain tacit collaboration from the American press because of an upcoming show trial of British engineers employed by the Metropolitan Vickers corporation. When Jones broke the story of the famine, Lyons recalled how the matter was settled in cooperation with Konstantin Umansky, the Soviet censor. When the Jones story broke:

"We all received urgent queries from our home offices on the subject. But the inquiries coincided with preparations under way for the trial of the British engineers. 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.

"Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling the facts to please dictatorial regimes - but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation...

"The scene in which the American press corps combined to repudiate Jones is fresh in my mind. It was in the evening and Comrade [Soviet censor Konstantin - JM] Umansky, the soul of graciousness, consented to meet us in the hotel room of a correspondent. He knew he had a strategic advantage over us because of the Metro-Vikers story. He could afford to be gracious. Forced by competitive journalism to jockey for the inside track with officials, it would have been professional suicide to make an issue of the famine at this particular time. There was much bargaining in a spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take, under the effulgence of Umansky's gilded smile, before a formula of denial was worked out.

"We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in round-about phrases that damned Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski, Umansky joined in the celebration, and the party did not break up until the early morning hours."

Only in August 1933, in the course of a story denouncing "exaggerated" emigre claims, did Duranty admit, "In some districts and among the large floating population of unskilled labor" were there "deaths and actual starvation." Later that month, he reported that while the "excellent harvest" of 1933 had made any report of famine "an exaggeration or malignant propaganda," there had been a "food shortage" which had caused "heavy loss of life" in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and Lower Volga Basin.

In September, Duranty was the first Western reporter allowed to go to Ukraine and the North Caucasus after the imposition of the ban on travel there by journalists. William Stoneman of the Chicago Daily News had managed to find a way to get to Ukraine without permission and had sent out an accurate account, leading the Soviets to send their most favored journalist to sweeten the pill. Now able to truthfully report a good harvest, he also belatedly reported what he had known all along:

"...hard conditions had decimated the peasantry. Some had fled. There were Ukrainian peasants begging in the streets of Moscow last winter, and other Ukrainians were seeking work or food, but principally food, from Rostov on Don to White Russia, and from the Lower Volga to Samara."

Duranty, in short, admitted the truth only after others had done so more explicitly and always in a context designed to show his readers that things were not nearly as bad as other sources might indicate.

He was more explicit in private: As early as December 1932, he told an American diplomat in Paris he was deeply pessimistic because of "the growing seriousness of the food shortage." In September 1933, after returning from Ukraine and the North Caucasus, he shared his impressions with a British diplomat who reported to London: "Mr. Duranty, thinks it quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year."

Eugene Lyons, recalled that dinner with Duranty:

"He gave us his fresh impressions in brutally frank terms and they added up to a picture of ghastly horror. His estimate of the dead from famine was the most startling I had as yet heard from anyone.

"'But, Walter, you don't mean that literally?' Mrs. McCormick exclaimed.

"'Hell I don't...I'm being conservative,' he replied, and as if by way of consolation he added his famous truism: 'But they're only Russians...'

"Once more that same evening we heard Duranty make the same estimate, in answer to a question by Laurence Stallings... When the issues of The Times carrying Duranty's own articles reached me I found that they failed to mention the large figures he had given freely and repeatedly to all of us."

Duranty also admitted then denied the famine to John Chamberlain, book critic for The New York Times. Chamberlain wrote in his autobiography:

"To a group in The Times elevator Duranty had almost casually mentioned that 3 million people had died in Russia in what amounted to a man-made famine. Duranty, who had floated the theory that revolutions were beyond moral judgement ('You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs'), did not condemn Stalin for the bloody elimination of the kulaks that had deprived the Russian countryside of necessary sustaining expertise. He just simply let the 3 million figure go at that.

"What struck me at the time was the double iniquity of Duranty's performance. He was not only heartless about the famine, he had betrayed his calling as a journalist by failing to report it."

On the basis of Duranty's remark, Chamberlain, then a Communist fellow traveler, decided to review a book titled "Escape from the Soviets." Written by Tatiana Tchernavina, who had escaped via Finland, the book had earlier been rejected because it presented the Soviet Union in too negative a light. When Chamberlain mentioned peasants starving, he was immediately attacked by the American Communists and their sympathizers. "Duranty, with his visa hanging fire, denied ever having said anything." With losing his job a distinct possibility, Chamberlain was saved by Simeon Strunsky, a fellow book reviewer and former socialist, who testified that he, too, had heard Duranty make the same statement.

The issue of Duranty's career raises extremely important issues of journalistic ethics. In 1932, when Duranty was awarded the Pultizer Prize, the committee said that "Mr. Duranty's dispatches...are marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgement and exceptional clarity and are excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence." In the words of Prof. James Crowl, who wrote the standard work on Duranty:

"What is so remarkable about Duranty's selection for the Pulitzer is that, for a decade, his reports had been slanted and distorted in a way that made a mockery of the award citation. Probably without parallel in the history of these prestigious prizes, the 1932 award went to a man whose reports concealed or disguised the conditions they claimed to reveal, and who may even have been paid by the Soviets for his deceptions."

Careful reading of Duranty's dispatches from Moscow show that he attempted to represent the official point of view as he understood it, while at the same time trying to write them in such a way as to cover himself. Muggeridge provided a telling vignette of Duranty in 1933:

"He'd been asked to write something about the food shortage, and was trying to put together a thousand words, which, if the famine got worse and known outside Russia, would suggest that he'd foreseen and foretold it, but which, if it got better and wasn't known outside Russia, would suggest that he'd pooh-poohed the possibility of there being a famine. He was a little gymnast... He trod his tightrope daintily and charmingly."

Half a century later Muggeridge put it less elegantly:

"Duranty was the villain of the whole thing... It is difficult for me to see how it could have been otherwise that in some sense he was not in the regime's power. He wrote things about the famine and the situation in Ukraine which were laughably wrong. There is no doubt whatever that the authorities could manipulate him..."

Why did Duranty engage in such gymnastics? Why did he suddenly alter his reporting with each shift in Soviet policy? Duranty's own words make it clear that he was in fact a virtual public relations man for the Soviets, whether or not one credits his stated reason for it. In 1931 on one of his trips outside the Soviet Union, Duranty had a conversation with A. W. Kliefoth of the American Embassy in Berlin. The memorandum of this conversation, now declassified, stales: "Duranty pointed out that, 'in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities,' his official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet regime and not his own." No such disclaimer ever appeared in The Times.

Rumors of food shortages persisted, however. Writing in the New Republic, Joshua Kunitz, quoting Stalin almost verbatim, put the blame not on collectivization but on "the lack of revolutionary vigilance" and the "selfishness, dishonesty, laziness and irresponsibility" of the peasants.

There was an additional flurry of publicity about the famine following the August 19 plea by Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna to the International Red Cross, appealing for international aid to the starving, announcing his intention of creating an interfaith relief committee, and urging all those currently negotiating for expanded ties with the Soviet government to make those negotiations dependent upon recognition of the necessity of help for the famine stricken areas of the Soviet Union.

William Henry Chamberlin, the initially pro-Soviet Moscow correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, had, as early as July 1933, reported that while there was no actual starvation in Moscow, "Grim stories of out-and-out hunger come from southern and south-eastern Russia, from the Ukraine, the North Caucasus and from Kazakhstan, where the nomadic natives seem to have suffered very much as a result of the wholesale perishing of their livestock." Refused permission to visit Ukraine and the North Caucasus until the famine ended, he was allowed to go a few weeks after Duranty.

In April 1934, after leaving the Soviet Union, he published an article in Foreign Affairs, confirming yet again that the famine had taken place and giving ample "refutation of the idea that as a result of collectivization, Russian agriculture will leap forward..." In May Chamberlin reported that during the preceding year "more than 4 million peasants are found to have perished..." In his book "Russia's Iron Age," published in October, he estimated the death toll as a direct result of the famine of 1932-33 to be not less than 10 percent of the population of the areas affected, according to the local officials with whom he had spoken.

The State Department continued its silence. When Frank Roberts, managing editor of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-Gazette asked State about claims from responsible authors that 10 million Russians starved to death during one recent winter because the Stalin government had withdrawn from them all opportunity to earn a livelihood," Hull's assistant responded simply that "it is the practice of the department to refrain from commenting on the accuracy of statements of this character."

Meanwhile, Louis Fischer continued to deny the famine's existence and extol the virtues of Soviet life. "The first half of 1933 was very difficult indeed," he admitted in August of 1933. "Many people simply did not have sufficient nourishment. The 1932 harvest was bad and, to make matters worse, thousands of tons of grain rotted in the fields because the peasants refused to reap what they knew the government would confiscate under the guise of 'collection.'" But Fischer, straining to justify the Soviet government, wrote in January 1934, that "during all those hard years...the state endeavored to beautify life...

"The opera, the ballet and many theaters displayed a dazzling richness of scene and costume incomparably greater than elsewhere in the world. Parks of culture and rest were established throughout the country to provide sensible recreation and civilized leisure."

Fischer also adopted a line often used to justify evil:

"All governments are based on force, the question is only of the degree of force, who administers it, and for what purpose... Force which eliminates oppressors and exploiters, creates work and prosperity, and guarantees progress and economic security will not be resented by the great masses of people."

The Ukrainian American community, its kin dying by the millions, could not remain silent. In November and December 1933 there were marches in a number of cities to protest against American recognition of a government which was starving millions of Ukrainians. American Communists sometimes resorted to violence in an attempt to silence the Ukrainians. On November 18, 1933, in New York, 8,000 Ukrainians marched from Washington Square to 67th Street, while 500 Communists ran beside the parade and snatched the Ukrainians' handbills, spat on the marchers and tried to hit them. Five persons were injured. Only the presence of 300 policemen and a score on horseback leading the parade and riding along its flanks prevented serious trouble.

In Chicago, on December 17, several hundred Communists mounted a massed attack on the vanguard of a 5,000 Ukrainian American marchers, leaving over 100 injured in what The New York Times called "the worst riot in years":

"Brick, clubs, rotten eggs and other missiles rained on the marchers from the Hermitage Avenue elevated station bridging Madison Street. The street fight which followed saw brass knuckles, blackjacks, fists and rifle butts used until a dozen squads of police restored order."

One of the most active organizations in the Ukrainian American community was the Ukrainian National Women's League of America. At their national congress, held in Chicago on November 12, 1933, members unanimously adopted a memorandum to the American Red Cross and appointed an emergency relief committee. Nellie Pelecovich of New York chaired this committee and wrote to the president, his wife, Cordell Hull, Bishop Manning of New York, and a host of newspapers. She prevailed upon the Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko to donate a bronze statue, "Past," to serve as first prize in a raffle organized to raise funds to purchase foodstuffs through torgshin.

The UNWLA also published a pamphlet and sent it for comment to the Soviet Embassy on January 3, 1934. A month later it received a reply from Boris Skvirsky, embassy counselor, who called the idea that the Soviet government was "deliberately killing of the population of the Ukraine" was "wholly grotesque." Claiming that the Ukrainian population increased at an annual rate of 2 percent during the past five years, Skvirsky dismissed UNWLA evidence as spurious. The death rate in Ukraine "was the lowest of that of any of the constituent republics composing the Soviet Union," he concluded "and was about 35 percent lower than the pre-war death rate of tsarist days."

The Ukrainian American community continued to push for action, this time from the Congress. On May 28, 1934, Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York, one of FDR's most indefatigable critics, introduced H. R. 399, blaming the Soviet government for bringing the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 about, expressing the sympathy of the American people, and appealing for the admission of food aid by the Soviet government. The resolution never even came up for a vote.

Meanwhile, information also continued to arrive at the State Department. In January 1934, the Warsaw embassy sent its translation of the November 30 issue of Rosja Sowiecka (Soviet Russia), which contained an exceptional amount of information and astute analysis of what had taken place in Soviet Ukraine. It began with an analysis of the Central Committee decree of January 24, 1933: "the beginning of the destruction by Moscow of the independence of the Ukraine and of the opposition of the Ukrainian communists" on grounds that really meant "that the Ukrainian Communist organizations have not undertaken all the measures necessary to deprive the rural districts of grain." But the real reason lay deeper:

"On the surface the decision of January 24, 1933, does not change the structure of the Soviet federation nor does it decrease the rights of the Kharkov government. However,... it has become clear that it was the beginning of the destruction of the independence of the Ukraine and the indicating sign for the removal of the most independent functionaries of the Communist Party of the Ukraine in order to subordinate this party entirely to the orders of the Politburo delegated from Moscow... Since the beginning of February 1933, Postyshev has been an autocratic ruler in Ukrainian organizations as well as Stalin's representative as governor of the Ukraine. The dismissal of the chief Ukrainian officials has since taken pace at an increased tempo."

The journal then when on to analyze the July suicide of Mykola Skrypnyk as "the best illustration of the passive resistance of the Communist intelligentsia against the 'general line' of the party." It correctly noted that Skrypnyk had never formed any Ukrainian national fraction within the party as other Ukrainians had done in the previous decade; rather, Skrypnyk had always defended the "general line" against any and all such oppositionists. What was really occurring was rather a witch-hunt for "counter-revolution wherever there are Ukrainian influences."

In surveying the balance sheet of Postyshev's mission, it pointed out that "Postyshev has indicated that the assistance given to agriculture consisted in 'the cleansing of the Communist Party of class enemies,'" At least one-fourth of the total membership of the CP(b)U had been purged. Three-fifths of the leading functionaries in the districts had been removed. Virtually the entire personnel of the central offices of the Ukrainian commissariats had been removed and replaced by Postyshev's men. Meanwhile, Territorial First Secretary Shcheboldaev had carried out a similar operation in the traditionally Cossack territories of the North Caucasus, where 35 percent of the Komsomol membership was purged. In short, Rosja Sowiecka observed:

"As a result of the increasing chaos in Soviet agriculture, the Soviet authorities can less and less rely upon local Communist organizations in the agricultural districts. These Communist organizations cease to be the tools of the agricultural policy of the Kremlin; as a result, their outstanding men are dismissed and replaced by intruders having noting in common with the rural population."

Simultaneously, there was "a systematic Russification of the Communist parties of the various nationalities inhabiting the USSR." This involved not only the agricultural conflict, but also the hierarchial reorganization of the party such that territorial and elected bodies were bypassed by political sections and party organizers sent from above, and the centralization of the national organization of the USSR through the diminution of the power of the republics and the growth of that of Moscow. As a result:

"The 'national' - according to Soviet terminology - Communist parties, i.e., the Ukrainian, White Russian, Georgian, etc., have changed into organizations, the heads and most intelligent members of which are coming from abroad in order to rule over the very unreliable ranks recruited from the local population which stir up great mistrust in the Politburo of Moscow."

This "Russification or, at least, denationalization" of the leadership of the non-Russian organizations was supported by a great migration of party personnel extending even into the lowest ranks, especially in Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus: the ranks of the local population thinned by famine or expulsion were filled by personnel from ethnic Russia who did not know the local language. This, in turn, undermined a major foundation of the Ukrainization policy, putting the latter's future in doubt.

In June 1934, the U.S. Legation in Riga prepared a detailed 105-page analysis for the State Department on "The Russian Peasant Policy, 1933 to 1934." It, too, left no doubt that there had been a famine: "According to foreign observers (The Soviet press has been persistently silent on this subject), the shortages of food in these parts [Ukraine and the North Caucasus - JM] reached toward the spring of 1933 the stage of famine."





Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 10, 1988, No. 2, Vol. LVI

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