By Andrew Fedynsky
The Ukrainian Weekly
Ukrainian National Association
Parsippany, New Jersey
August 2, 1998
The man-made Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine may be receding into the ever
more distant past, but 65 years after, its legacy remains. It's one of those
cataclysms that launched massive undercurrents with profound historical
impact. Tragically, it's also an event of cosmic magnitude that barely
registered on world consciousness when it occurred and is scarcely
Here's what happened: In April 1929, Joseph Stalin ordered the first
Five-Year Plan, in which he decreed that Soviet agriculture be collectivized
by the end of 1933. For individual farmers that meant turning their land and
livestock over to the state and becoming workers on giant collective farms.
Not surprisingly, there was widespread resistance, particularly in Ukraine.
The official press - in the Soviet Union there was no other kind - began
denouncing reluctant landowners as "class enemies," "rich kulaks exploiting
the masses." That set the stage for Stalin's decree at the end of December
1929 to "liquidate the kulaks as a class." In Ukraine, primarily a peasant
society, that was just about everybody. The Russian heartland, with its
age-old tradition of the "mir" or commune, had few independent farmers and
therefore few "kulaks," as Stalin defined them.
As voluntary collectivization stalled, Stalin turned up the heat with
arrests, evictions and confiscations until finally in 1932 he unleashed an
army of Communist Party activists who laid siege to thousands of Ukrainian
villages, raiding homes, taking every grain of wheat, every scrap of food
they could find.
Like many Ukrainian Americans, I've always seemed to have known
about the Famine. I'm Catholic, but from time to time I would go to Holy
Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Cleveland, where I heard some
memorable sermons delivered by the Rev. Kovalenko about what he had
lived through as a boy in Poltava during the Famine. My hair would stand
on end. I remember the passion and pain in the Rev. Kovalenko's face,
his sermon ending with a warning about the consequences of Godless
I no longer recall the words themselves, so instead let me quote Lev
Kopelev's anguished confession: "In the terrible spring of 1933, I saw
people dying from hunger, I saw women and children with distended bellies,
turning blue, still breathing but with vacant lifeless eyes. And corpses -
corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots; corpses in peasant
huts, in the melting snow of the old Vologda, under the bridges of Kharkiv.
..." Kopelev was one of those, to quote his own words, who went "scouring
the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron
rod for loose spots that might lead to buried grain. With the others, I
emptied out the old folks' storage chests, stopping my ears to the
children's crying and the women's wails."
Fred Beal, an American Communist whose idealism brought him to work at the
Kharkiv Tractor Plant in 1933, was a witness, not a participant. "I watched
on the sidelines," he wrote, "ashamed of being a party to the system that
was murdering these innocent people ... I had never dreamed that Communists
could stoop so low as to round up hungry people, load them upon trucks or
trains, and ship them to some wasteland in order that they might die there.
Yet it was a regular practice. I was witnessing myself how human beings were
being tossed into the high trucks like sacks of wheat. Right there and then
I was determined to make a complete break with the Stalin gang and return to
the capitalist world."
No one knows for sure how many people were murdered during that horrible
year. As Nikita Khrushchev put it, "No one was keeping count." Robert
Conquest, the great historian of the Famine, estimates 7 million victims.
Astonishingly, the press, particularly in Britain and the United States,
failed to report the story. No one was more remiss than Walter Duranty, The
New York Times correspondent to the Soviet Union. In November 1932, when
many people including those from the Ukrainian American community were
spreading the alarm about the devastation in Ukraine, he assured his readers
that "there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be."
In August 1933, after millions had already died, he wrote that "any report
of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."
The closest Duranty came to acknowledging Stalin's genocidal policy was in a
dispatch from March 30, 1933, when he wrote, "There is no actual starvation
or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases
due to malnutrition." As far as Duranty was concerned that was okay because,
"To put it brutally - you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
Walter Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for his series of dispatches from
Russia, "especially the working out of the Five-Year Plan."
Did Duranty know better? He sure did. In "The Harvest of Sorrow," Dr.
Conquest cites a September 30, 1933, dispatch from the British chargé
d'affaires to Moscow: "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." Others reported a similar disconnect
between what Duranty knew and what he reported.
So why did he do it? His book from 1937, "I Write As I Please," offers a
clue: "Am I wrong in believing that Stalin is the greatest living
statesman?" Mass murderers can't be statesmen, so Duranty decided there
could be no Famine.
As far as I know, the Pulitzer Prize Committee has never moved to revoke
Duranty's prize and The New York Times has never publicly repudiated it or
offered to return it.
The Western press is not the only institution that denied the existence of
the Famine. So did the Soviet Union - obviously. For more than half a
century, any mention of the Famine was punished with a long prison sentence.
Today in Ukraine, people know about the Famine, but it is largely a
repressed memory. This affects the national psyche, permitting Communists to
run for office without shame or remorse. Unfortunately, their influence on
Ukraine's economy is enormous, since the Communist Party constitutes the
core of a parliamentary coalition that blocks legislation to dismantle the
state-run farms, the Famine's malignant legacy.
These bloated, bureaucratic structures provide the apparatchiks who run
them with political patronage and allow them to divert agricultural
to their own purposes. As a result, Ukraine gets little benefit from her
potential asset: agriculture.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are ready to help
Ukraine, with the United States poised to provide political backing, but
reforms must be approved first, including the privatization of land.
Vice-President Al Gore delivered that message in Kyiv on July 22, and he was
right to do so. There's no point in subsidizing the collective farm system
or other wasteful, inefficient Ukrainian institutions.
As for the majority of Ukrainians, they undoubtedly favor land reform, but
this is a country where Communists have a 75-year head start on political
organization. What the CPU lacks is the vision for a positive program; they
only have the means to block change. This cannot be sustained forever.
Today, seven years after declaring independence, Ukraine's problem is
spiritual as much as it is political and economic. The country has to
confront its past and come to terms with it, the Famine above all. That
process has hardly begun.
For such a huge historical event, such an enormous crime as the Famine,
surprisingly little scholarly and literary work has been done. Dr. Conquest,
obviously, stands out. So does Jim Mace, who directed the U.S. Commission on
the Ukraine Famine, as well as Slavko Nowytski who produced the film
"Harvest of Despair" and, of course, The Ukrainian Weekly. There's a
scattering of other books and materials, but little of recent vintage or
The New York Times could help enormously by acknowledging and fixing
Walter Duranty's mendacious work from 65 years ago. Nothing would help
more, though, than having Verkhovna Rada approve the privatization of land.
I can't think of a better monument to the victims of the Famine or a more
fitting way of telling their descendants - the nation - we're sorry.
Andrew Fedynsky is director of the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in
Cleveland, Ohio. Check out their website: http://www.umacleveland.org/
The Ukrainian Weekly, August 2, 1998, No. 31, Vol. LXVI,
Roma Hadzewycz, Editor-in-chief, P. O. Box 280, Parsippany,
New Jersey. Published by the Ukrainian National Association.
Check out the above website for their extensive collection of material
on the Great Famine and subscribe to The Ukrainian Weekly.
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