How Stalin Hid Ukraine's Famine From the World
In 1932 and 1933, millions died across the Soviet Union—and the foreign press corps helped cover up the catastrophe.
In the years 1932 and 1933, a catastrophic famine swept across the Soviet Union. It began in the chaos of collectivization, when millions of peasants were forced off their land and made to join state farms.
It was then exacerbated, in the autumn of 1932, when the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside. Despite the shortages, the state demanded not just grain, but all available food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and local Party activists, motivated by hunger, fear, and a decade of hateful propaganda, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, and farm animals.
At the same time, a cordon was drawn around the Ukrainian republic to prevent escape. The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger all across the Soviet Union. Among them were nearly 4 million Ukrainians who died not because of neglect or crop failure, but because they had been deliberately deprived of food.
Neither the Ukrainian famine nor the broader Soviet famine were ever officially recognized by the USSR. Inside the country the famine was never mentioned. All discussion was actively repressed; statistics were altered to hide it. The terror was so overwhelming that the silence was complete. Outside the country, however, the cover-up required different, subtler tactics. These are beautifully illustrated by the parallel stories of Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones.
In the 1930s, all of the members of the Moscow press corps led a precarious existence. At the time, they needed the state’s permission to live in the USSR, and even to work. Without a signature and the official stamp of the press department, the central telegraph office would not send their dispatches abroad. To win that permission, journalists regularly bargained with foreign ministry censors over which words they could use, and they kept on good terms with Konstantin Umansky, the Soviet official responsible for the foreign press corps. William Henry Chamberlin, then the Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote that the foreign reporter “works under a Sword of Damocles—the threat of expulsion from the country or of the refusal of permission to re-enter it, which of course amounts to the same thing.”
Extra rewards were available to those, like Walter Duranty, who played the game particularly well. Duranty was The New York Times correspondent in Moscow from 1922 until 1936, a role that, for a time, made him relatively rich and famous. British by birth, Duranty had no ties to the ideological left, adopting rather the position of a hard-headed and skeptical “realist,” trying to listen to both sides of the story. “It may be objected that the vivisection of living animals is a sad and dreadful thing, and it is true that the lot of kulaks and others who have opposed the Soviet experiment is not a happy one,” he wrote in 1935—the kulaks being the so-called wealthy peasants whom Stalin accused of causing the famine. But “in both cases, the suffering inflicted is done with a noble purpose.”
This position made Duranty enormously useful to the regime, which went out of its way to ensure that Duranty lived well in Moscow. He had a large flat, kept a car and a mistress, had the best access of any correspondent, and twice received coveted interviews with Stalin. But the attention he won from his reporting back in the U.S. seems to have been his primary motivation. His missives from Moscow made him one of the most influential journalists of his time. In 1932, his series of articles on the successes of collectivization and the Five Year Plan won him the Pulitzer Prize. Soon afterward, Franklin Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, invited Duranty to the governor’s mansion in Albany, where the Democratic presidential candidate peppered him with queries. “I asked all the questions this time. It was fascinating,” Roosevelt told another reporter.
As the famine worsened, Duranty, like his colleagues, would have been in no doubt about the regime’s desire to repress it. In 1933, the Foreign Ministry began requiring correspondents to submit a proposed itinerary before any journey into the provinces; all requests to visit Ukraine were refused. The censors also began to monitor dispatches. Some phrases were allowed: “acute food shortage,” “food stringency,” “food deficit,” “diseases due to malnutrition,” but nothing else. In late 1932, Soviet officials even visited Duranty at home, making him nervous.
In that atmosphere, few of them were inclined to write about the famine, although all of them knew about it. “Officially, there was no famine,” wrote Chamberlin. But “to anyone who lived in Russia in 1933 and who kept his eyes and ears open, the historicity of the famine is simply not in question.” Duranty himself discussed the famine with William Strang, a diplomat at the British embassy, in late 1932. Strang reported back drily that the New York Times correspondent had been “waking to the truth for some time,” although he had not “let the great American public into the secret.” Duranty also told Strang that he reckoned “it quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food,” though that number never appeared in any of his reporting. Duranty’s reluctance to write about famine may have been particularly acute: The story cast doubt on his previous, positive (and prize-winning) reporting. But he was not alone. Eugene Lyons, Moscow correspondent for United Press and at one time an enthusiastic Marxist, wrote years later that all of the foreigners in the city were well aware of what was happening in Ukraine as well as Kazakhstan and the Volga region:
|The truth is that we did not seek corroboration for the simple reason that we entertained no doubts on the subject. There are facts too large to require eyewitness confirmation. … Inside Russia the matter was not disputed. The famine was accepted as a matter of course in our casual conversation at the hotels and in our homes.