September 11, 1983

The New York Times and the Great Famine


(The Ukrainian Weekly, September 11, 1983, No. 37, Vol. LI)


My editor was dubious. I had been explaining that 50 years ago, in the spring and summer of 1933, Ukraine, the country of my forebears, had suffered a horrendous catastrophe. In a fertile, populous country famed as the granary of Europe, a great famine had mowed down a sixth, a fifth and in some regions even a fourth of the inhabitants. Natural forces – drought, flood, blight – have been at least contributory causes of most famines. This one had been entirely man-made, entirely the result of a dictator’s genocidal policies. Its consequences, I said, are still being felt.

Erudite, polyglot, herself a refugee from tyranny, the editor remained skeptical. “But isn’t all this…,” she leaned back in her chair and smiled brightly, “isn’t all this a bit recondite?”

My face must have flushed. Recondite? Suddenly I knew the impotent anger Jews and Armenians have felt. Millions of my countrymen had been murdered, and their deaths were being dismissed as obscure and little known.

Later I realized that the editor had said more than she had intended. The famine of 1933 was rationalized and concealed when it was taking its toll, and it is still hidden away and trivialized today. George Orwell need not have limited his observation to British intellectuals when he remarked that “huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English Russophiles.” 1

Still later, after I had set about uncovering the whole story by delving into newspaper files and archives and talking to people who had witnessed the events of 1933, I came to understand how Walter Duranty and The New York Times helped Stalin make the famine recondite.

Walter Duranty worked for The New York Times for 21 years. One of the best-known journalists in the world, he was certainly the most famous correspondent to be stationed in Moscow. The books that he wrote about the Soviet Union sold enormous numbers of copies – the revealingly titled “I Write As I Please” became a best-seller – and influenced both public attitudes and government policies. In April 1932, shortly after he knocked down a report about impending famine by Eugene Lyons, the United Press correspondent in Moscow, Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his “dispassionate, interpretative reporting of the news from Russia.” 2 An Englishman who spent a decade in the foreign colony in Moscow spoke for many admirers when he dedicated a book to Duranty, “the doyen of Moscow correspondents at whose feet we all sit in matters Sovietic.” 3

The praise was accompanied by criticism. Controversy surrounded Duranty within a year after he arrived in Moscow and continues to this day. Eugene Lyons accused Duranty of “amazing sophistry.” Malcolm Muggeridge told me that Duranty was “the greatest liar of any journalist that I have met in 50 years of journalism.” The American ex-Communist Jay Lovestone maintains that Duranty worked for the OGPU. Joseph Alsop insists that “Duranty was a great KGB agent and lying like a trooper.” And Lev Navrozov, a Russian emigre who is writing a book titled “What The New York Times Knows About the World” (not much, he believes), says that Duranty’s articles and books should be retitled as “A Drunken Sailor’s Yarns About a Foreign Country” or “A Crazy Housewife’s Chatter About Something She Knows Nothing About.” 4

Yet none of Duranty’s critics have furnished proof hat he deliberately misrepresented the facts about the Soviet Union. Now such evidence is at hand. It comes from the archives of the Foreign Office and has to do with Duranty’s reports about the nature and extent of the famine in Ukraine. And it raises disturbing questions about the honesty of a famous journalist and the objectivity of a newspaper that claims it publishes “all the news that’s fit to print.”

Until the famine struck Ukraine and the adjacent North Caucasus (much of which had been settled by Ukrainians), foreign correspondents were able to travel there as they chose. Malcolm Muggeridge, who was reporting for the Manchester Guardian at that time, explained to me that when he decided to investigate the famine everyone in Moscow was talking about, he simply bought a train ticket and without informing the authorities set off for Kiev and Rostov.

Muggeridge’s blunt account – which he got past the censor by sending it out in a diplomatic bag, only to have it “mutilated,” as he told me, by his editors – appeared in the Guardian in March 1933:

“The population is starving. ‘Hunger’ was the word I heard most. Peasants begged a lift on the train from one station to another, sometimes their bodies swollen up – a disagreeable sight – from lack of food… The little towns and villages seemed just numb and the people in too desperate a condition even actively to resent what had happened… Cattle and horses dead; fields neglected; meager 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.” 5

Although Muggeridge’s articles produced no response beyond the predictable attacks by Soviet sympathizers (an argument about whether a famine had occurred heated the correspondence columns of the Guardian for several months), Moscow began to discourage journalists from visiting Ukraine. Sir Esmond Ovey, the British ambassador in the USSR, reported the restriction to London on March 5, 1933:

“Internal situation is not promising. Conditions in Kuban [in the North Caucasus] have been described to me by recent English visitor as appalling and as resembling an armed camp in a desert – no work, no grain, no cattle, no draught horses, only idle peasants or soldiers. Another correspondent who had visited Kuban was strongly dissuaded from visiting the Ukraine where conditions are apparently as bad although apathy is greater. In fact all correspondents have now been ‘advised’ by the press department of Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to remain in Moscow.” 6

Although the travel ban remained in effect all spring and summer, Western correspondents in Moscow did not report the restriction on their journalistic freedom for over six months. Only on August 21 did William Henry Chamberlin announce in the Guardian that he and his colleagues had been ordered not to leave the capital without submitting a detailed itinerary and obtaining authorization from the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

“Your correspondent received personal evidence that this rule is no empty formality when he was refused permission today to visit country districts in Ukrainia and North Caucasus regions, which he visited several times in previous years without objection from the central or local authorities. This is not an isolated case of restriction, as your correspondent knows of an instance that occurred some time ago when two American correspondents were forbidden to visit Ukrainia… and several correspondents of various nationalities were warned not leave Moscow without special permission.” 7

The London Times correspondent in Riga verified Chamberlin’s account. “One of the chief purposes of this [ban],” he wrote on August 21, “is to screen the real conditions in the countryside from foreign eyes… [Journalists] can still undertake journeys, but only after obtaining a special permit for an approved route, and they are always escorted by Communist officials. Permits for some of the chief grain areas are now very difficult or impossible to obtain.” 8

The Associated Press also confirmed Chamberlin’s report. Although the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs was claiming a bumper crop, it had refused permission to Chamberlin to observe the harvest in Ukraine and the North Caucasus.

“Mr. Chamberlin, one of the best-known American correspondents, who has lived here 11 years, has often traveled in those regions. There was a food shortage there the past winter. Several months ago two other American correspondents were forbidden to make a trip to the Ukraine.” 9

And Frederick Birchall, the New York Times reporter in Berlin, related on August 24 that a correspondent for his paper in another capital who had applied for a tourist visa to the Soviet Union was turned down on the grounds that journalists were forbidden to travel as tourists, and an American correspondent stationed in Moscow who had asked for a visa to return there via Odessa was told it would be granted to him only if he pledged himself not to leave the train en route.” 10

In September, as the new harvest was brought in, compulsory grain deliveries to the state were reduced; the famine began to taper off because the farmers were finally allowed to keep some of their produce, and the travel restrictions were lifted. Edward Coote, a member of the staff of the British Chancery in Moscow, commented on the lifting of the ban in a dispatch to Whitehall on September 12:

“The foreign press has, I hear, reported that the ban on journeys in the interior by foreign journalists has been lifted, but this is not the whole truth. Mr. Duranty, The New York Times correspondent, whom the Soviet Union are probably more anxious to conciliate than any other, returned from abroad in August having heard that journeys in the interior by foreign correspondents had been prohibited, and thereupon addressed a letter to M. Litvinov protesting against this prohibition and stating that he intended to tour in the grain districts of the Ukraine on a certain date in September, accompanied by a colleague. In due course he received orally from the Press Department an assurance that he might travel on a certain fixed date later in the month. Mr. Duranty professed to be much irritated by this action, which he felt had cut the ground from under his feet by obliging him to recognize a ban upon his movements which infringed the liberty of the press. Nevertheless, he and his colleague have set out happily enough, and I have no doubt that, as a totally unqualified agricultural observer, he will have no difficulty in obtaining sufficient quantitative experience in tour hours to enable him to say whatever he may wish to say on his return.” 11

Duranty had in fact determined what he would say about the “famine scare,” as he repeatedly called it, long before this trip to Ukraine. In March 1932, when Eugene Lyons reported an early sign of famine to New York, Duranty apprised The Times that there was no famine anywhere, although “partial crop failures” occurred in some regions. 12

By November, the year’s harvest had been brought in and Communist activists were roaming the countryside, stripping the farmers of their grain. Duranty admitted that there was a shortage of food, but insisted that “there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be.” 13 And the food shortages that did exist, he argued, were the fault of the peasants, who had fled from the villages to the towns and construction sites, leaving the harvest unreaped and the grain rotting in the fields. But it would be a mistake, concluded Duranty, to exaggerate the gravity of the situation:

“The Russians have tightened their belts before to a far greater extent than is likely to be needed this winter. If there is no international disturbance to complicate matters, remedies doubtless will be found, and the Soviet program, though menaced and perhaps retarded, will not be seriously affected.” 14

Then, in April 1933, when the famine was raging in full force because repeated grain collections had stripped the countryside bare (although they claimed to be fulfilling the state grain quotas, the collectors often confiscated baked bread, emptied pots of porridge and removed kitchen utensils, clothes and furniture), Duranty rebutted a report brought out by Gareth Jones. A young Welshman who had studied history under Sir Bernard Pares and served as an aide to Lloyd George, Jones investigated the famine by the simple expedient of packing a knapsack with as much tinned food as he could carry and setting out on foot to explore the villages in the Kharkiv region. On his return from the Soviet Union, Jones announced his ghastly findings at a press conference in Berlin and a lecture at Chatham House in London.

Like Muggeridge before him. Jones found severe famine. Everywhere he went he heard the cry. “There is no bread, we are dying.” Millions of lives were being menaced. He wrote:

“The villages which I visited alone on foot were by no means in the hardest-hit parts, but in almost every village the bread supply had run out two months earlier, the potatoes were almost exhausted, and there was not enough coarse beet, which was formerly used as cattle fodder but has now become a staple food of the population, to last until the next harvest… In each village I received the same information – namely, that many were dying of famine and that about four-fifths of the cattle and the horses had perished… Nor shall I forget the swollen stomachs of the children in the cottages in which I slept.” 15

Duranty quickly dismissed Jones’s “big scare story.” Yet he scoffed so cleverly that he both denied and confirmed Jones’s eyewitness account. On the one hand, Duranty implied that Jones’s story had been inspired by British sources in retaliation for the Soviet arrest of six Englishmen who had been employed by the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company on construction projects in the USSR. On the other, Duranty agreed when Jones said that “there was virtually no bread in the villages he had visited and that the adults were haggard, gaunt and discouraged.”

Several paragraphs later Duranty set about justifying the famine:

“But – to put it brutally – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevist leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialization as any general during the world war who ordered a costly attack to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In tact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical convictions.”

Having admitted that the regime was waging a war against the Ukrainian peasants, Duranty proceeded to explain away the casualties. Jones, he said, had based his report on a tour of the villages. Duranty, however, had more reliable information: he had inquired in Soviet commissariats and foreign embassies and tabulated the impressions of both Russian and foreign friends. And here were the facts:

“There is a serious food shortage throughout the country, with occasional cases of well-managed state or collective farms. The big cities and the army are adequately supplied with food. There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition… In short, conditions are definitely bad in certain sections – Ukraine, North Caucasus and Lower Volga. The rest of the country is on short rations but nothing worse. These conditions are bad, but there is no famine.” 16


  1. “Notes on Nationalism” in “The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell” (London, 1968), Vol. 3, p. 370.
  2. “Mr. Duranty’s dispatches show profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia and of the causes of these conditions,” the announcement said. “They are marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity, and are excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” “Musical Play Gets the Pulitzer Award; Mrs. Buck, Pershing, Duranty Honored,” The New York Times, May 3, 1932.
  3. Alexander Wicksteed, “Ten Years in Soviet Moscow” (London, 1933).
  4. Eugene Lyons, “Assignment in Utopia” (New York, 1937), p. 572; interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, May 26, 1982; Lovestone is cited in Joseph Finder, “Red Carpet” (New York, 1983), p. 67; Alsop is quoted in Harrison Salisbury, “Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times” (New York, 1980), p. 460; Lev Navrozov, “Creativity Awash in a Sea of Trivia,” Our Canada, February 15, 1983.
  5. “The Soviet and the Peasantry,” The Manchester Guardian, March 27, 1933.
  6. FO.371/17251 N 1433.
  7. “Journalists in Russia,” The Manchester Guardian, August 21, 1933. See also Chamberlin’s “Russia’s Iron Age” (Boston, 1934), pp. 148-151.
    The official explanation of the travel ban was that the presence of foreign correspondents would hinder the harvest. “What was even more amusing than this suggestion that a few itinerant correspondents might seriously affect the fate of harvesting operations over almost one-sixth of the surface of the globe,” Chamberlin observed, “was that some foreigners were naive enough to take it seriously.” “Russia’s Iron Age,” p. 149.
  8. “Soviet Harvest Difficulties,” The Times, August 22, 1933.
  9. “Moscow Doubles the Price of Bread. No Explanation Is Given for Action, Taken Despite the Reports of Big Harvest. Reporters Are Curbed. Foreigners May Not Visit the Provinces without Permit – Famine Is Denied,” The New York Times, August 21, 1933.
  10. “Famine in Russia Held Equal of 1921, The New York Times, August 25, 1933.
  11. FO.371/17253 N 6878.
  12. Quoted in Salisbury, “With out Fear or Favor,” p . 464.
  13. “All Russia Suffers Shortage of Food: Supplies Dwindling,” The New York Times, November 25, 1932.
  14. “Food Shortage Laid to Soviet Peasants,” The New York Times, November 26, 1932.
  15. Gareth Jones, “The Peasants in Russia” [letter to the editor], The Manchester Guardian, May 8, 1933.
    See also Jones’s articles in The New York American: “‘Bread, We Are Starving!’ Is Cry Heard Throughout Russia, Finds Gareth Jones,” June 4, 1933, and “Soviet Collective Farm Move Caused Famine in Russia, Says Gareth Jones,” June 11, 1933.
  16. “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving,” The New York Times, March 31, 1933.
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