The Cover-Up: Denials, Dismissals and Silences
Nicole Loroff, Jordan Vincent and Valentina Kuryliw
Nov 29, 2020
There are numerous reasons that help explain the lack of awareness by the public of the Holodomor and why this genocidal famine remained relatively unknown and unacknowledged until the late 1980s.
Soviet Cover-up during and after Stalinist times
- Outright denial: the Soviet government refused offers of international aid from the Red Cross and other groups on the grounds that there was no Famine. Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, publicly denied the existence of Famine in the USSR in 1933. Discussion of Famine, or its causes were forbidden in the Soviet press, and once the Famine was over no references were made to it in Soviet historical accounts. Moreover, citizens of the USSR were forced into silence on this issue for over half a century.
- Disinformation: by camouflaging the extent of the Ukrainian Famine as just “food difficulties, Soviet authorities mixed small amounts of truth into their denial, thus making it more difficult to figure out what was actually happening. The Soviet media would vigorously attack any reporter or foreign dignitary who spoke out on this issue, drowning their voices in a sea of criticism. The Soviet cover-up extended into the 1980s. I n April 1983, for instance, the Soviet embassy in Canada issued a statement denouncing recent public statements at the time of the 50th commemoration as “slanders against the USSR.”
- Potemkin villages: “Model” villages were used by the Soviets for duping foreign visitors touring the USSR into believing that all was well. A showcase Potemkin village could be set up with items and food brought in for the occasion, making the village look prosperous. Destitute villagers were removed and replaced by well-fed and loyal party members and/or performing artists. In short, these Potemkin villages were a façade. Touring westerners were taken in and reported this false reality to the world. Once the western audience left, all these goods and brought-in food were removed.
- Revoking privileges: the Soviet government might cancel a journalist’s visa if it felt that the reporter’s work was not regime-friendly. If their reporting painted the USSR in a positive light, a journalist could be given extra privileges, such as a luxurious place of residence or preferred access. Journalists feared losing their visas because it would threaten their careers. Likewise, Western workers or businessman operating in the USSR who were critical could lose their commercial contracts with the Soviet state. This was a significant loss as at that time the USSR was importing Western goods in order to industrialize.
Western Press Coverage
- Foreign correspondents were strongly advised by the press department of the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to remain in Moscow and were formally barred from entering Ukraine and the North Caucuses in 1933. Even prior to this ban, Western journalists could only travel outside of Moscow if accompanied by Soviet officials.
- Not a single Western newspaper or press agency protested publicly against the confinement of its correspondents in Moscow or investigated the reason for this extraordinary measure. The majority of reporters complied, fearing possible expulsion and losing their journalistic privileges. This limited the possibility of press coverage of this tragic event.
- However, Walter Duranty of the New York Times was permitted into Ukraine. He reported that there was no Famine, except for some “partial crop failures.” Duranty set the tone for a good deal of Western press coverage with “authoritative” denials of starvation. He referred to the Famine as the “alleged ‘man-made’ famine of 1933.” However, according to a British Diplomatic Report, Duranty, off the record, conceded that “as many as 10 million” may have perished in the Soviet Union and that “Ukraine had been bled white.”
- A number of other reporters, such as William Henry Chamberlin, Harry Lang, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Gareth Jones ignored the travel ban and reported on the Famine. Nonetheless, articles by such men as Duranty overshadowed the work of these honest men, clouding public perceptions.
- In 1932 Walter Duranty received the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. Despite his obviously and deliberately misleading accounts of the Famine, which denied the fact that it had caused widespread death, Duranty was not stripped of his Pulitzer despite a public campaign for it to be revoked. In 2003, a Pulitzer review board decided to allow Duranty to keep his award due to the fact that “… there was not clear and convincing evidence [in his earlier writing for which he received the prize] of deliberate deception.” The New York Times did issue a public acknowledgement of Duranty’s failures as a journalist [www.nytco.com/company/awards/statement.html].
- Commenting on the failure of Western journalists to cover the Ukrainian Famine accurately, thoroughly, and with the vigour it deserved, Eugene Lyons, a correspondent for United Press International, concluded in 1937 that, “The Kremlin, in short, ‘had gotten away with it.’”
Indifference by Western Governments
- Archival evidence (reports sent in diplomatic pouches, as well as press coverage) indicates that Western governments (notably Great Britain, Canada the United States, Germany, Italy and Poland) were informed about the Famine in Ukraine. However, they chose to adopt a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a foreign sovereign state.
- The US State Department was well aware of what was occurring in Ukraine, but chose to do nothing because the republic was not vital to American interests. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American president at the time, was aiming to establish formal diplomatic relations with the USSR and did not wish to compromise negotiations. Diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in November 1933.
- France’s former Premier, Edouard Herriot, visited the USSR and Soviet Ukraine in August and September of 1933, shortly after the height of the Famine. While in Kyiv, Ukraine’s historic capital, Herriot was impressed by its cleanliness and abundance of goods, either unaware of or ignoring the fact that Soviet authorities had staged this display; moreover the citizens of Kyiv were forbidden from shopping or appearing in public during his stay. The September 13th 1933 issue of the official Soviet newspaper Pravda, stated that Herriot “categorically denied the lies of the bourgeois press about a Famine in the Soviet Union.” Herriot’s words had a considerable effect on European public opinion.
- Even though Ukraine’s borders were sealed in early 1933, Ukrainians managed to escape into Poland and reported to authorities there the extent of the Famine. However, Poland had signed, in July 1932, a non-aggression pact with the USSR and therefore did not publicize the knowledge or use it as propaganda against its antagonistic neighbor to the east.
- During the 1930s Canada had only just begun conducting its own foreign affairs and in many ways still followed the actions of Great Britain. Canada’s primary interest at the time was to have a healthy trading relationship with the USSR and to prevent the Soviet from becoming the British Commonwealth’s primary supplier of grain. Therefore, the Canadian press focused more on covering harvest conditions and grain amounts than on the Famine itself. The province of Saskatchewan lobbied the federal government to protest what was happening in Ukraine, though there was ultimately no response from Canada’s federal government regarding the Famine in Ukraine.
Western Historians and Intellectuals
- Sidney and Beatrice Webb, British founders of the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science, visited the USSR in 1932-33. Their 1935 book Soviet Communism, a New Civilization?, praised the USSR’s developments in economics and education. The Webbs viewed kulaks as lazy usurpers who did not want to contribute to society. As for the Famine issue, they believed that only partial crop failures occurred and that these shortages were not enough to cause mass starvation.
- George Bernard Shaw was along with the Webbs, a co-founder of the London School of Economics. Shaw favourably compared the USSR to the West and noted that during his visits (to Potemkin villages) he did not see a single undernourished person. Many people refused to believe that the world’s first workers’ state had a deep and dreadful downside; in this way Shaw was typical of many Western socialists, whose basically uncritical assessment of the USSR helped maintain a rosy, idealized image of the USSR for many in the West.
- In contrast, George Orwell, the famous British author of the dystopian 1984 and the satirical Animal Farm, was critical of those who sympathized with the Soviet Union. Specifically he wrote, “huge events like the Ukrainian Famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English Russophiles.” (Notes on Nationalism, 1945) He took reports on the famine seriously and while later fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he became further convinced that the USSR was a tyrannical dictatorship.
- One of the most interesting examples of books denying the Holodomor was written, supposedly, by labour journalist Douglas Tottle. In his book Fraud, Famine, and Fascism: the Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard, which was published (1987) by a printing house affiliated with the Communist Party of Canada. Tottle wrote that the whole notion of the Famine was fabricated by Ukrainian nationalists. It is widely believed that the book’s contents were prepared by Soviet scholars and most historians today consider it to be Soviet propaganda.
- Robert Conquest became renowned as a scholar for his work on terror in the Soviet Union. He also wrote the ground-breaking Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine in 1986, the first academic book in the West on the subject. It helped to publicize the Ukrainian Famine, both to academics and the general public.
- Some key recent works dealing with the Famine include Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2011), Norman Naimark’s Stalin’s Genocides (2012) and The Holodomor Reader, editors Bohdan Klid and Alexander Motyl, (2012).
The Question of Genocide
- Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the first two Presidents (Leonid Kravchuk, and Leonid Kuchma) recognized the existence of the Famine. In 2003, a resolution by the Ukrainian Parliament stated that, “the Holodomor of 1932-33 was deliberately organized by the Stalin regime and should be condemned by Ukrainian society and the international community as one of the largest genocides in world history by virtue of the number of its victims.” Viktor Yushchenko, the third president, strongly backed efforts to have the Famine recognized as an act of genocide. Under his presidency, Ukraine’s Parliament passed a law on November 28, 2006 declaring that “the Holodomor of 1932-33 is genocide of the Ukrainian people.” This provoked a reaction in Russia. On April 2, 2008, its Parliament passed a resolution in which it stressed that victims of the Famine constituted “millions of citizens of the USSR representing different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas of the country.” Today, the Russian Federation still denies that the genocidal famine occurred in Ukraine in 1932-33.
- Ukraine’s fourth president, Viktor Yanukovych, has closely followed the Russian viewpoint on the Famine, has emphasized that the famine was a tragedy of the Soviet people as a whole. In August 2013 he issued a decree calling for the widespread commemoration within Ukraine of the 80th anniversary of this event. This marks a change in his attitude to the significance of the Ukrainian Famine for Ukraine.
- On November 23, 2013, the 80th year, the Holodomor was widely commemorated in Ukraine and by numerous other countries that have recognized the Holodomor as genocide. It was then that the revolution of dignity evolved. Young demonstrates in Kyiv took to the streets protesting against the corrupt government of Yanukovych and his decision to not sign the Association Agreement with the European Union membership because of pressure from Moscow. It was events like the Holodomor that brought out thousands more to demonstrate and defend their right to determine their own future, and not have foreign powers dictate their fate.
- The UN General Assembly passed a Joint Statement on the Famine on November 10, 2003 recognizing it as a “national tragedy” for Ukraine.
- As of December 2015, a number of countries, including Canada, the USA, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Spain, Italy and Poland, recognized the Famine as an act of genocide.