The Western media have a nasty habit of whitewashing Russia’s Soviet past. During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, many American journalists glorified the U.S.S.R’s Communist legacy while downplaying or ignoring the horrors that defined it.
Something similar is happening in the media’s coverage of the conflict in Ukraine. The crisis has dominated headlines for more than four months. But few reporters have provided historical context to the fraught relationship between Ukraine and Russia. In particular, the famine engineered by Stalin’s Russia against the Ukrainian people in the early 1930s has rarely been mentioned, much less explained.
The media’s near silence about the famine—referred to as the Holodomor (which means “death by hunger”)—is not new. In fact, in the late 1980s I represented President Ronald Reagan on a commission that exposed how some American journalists shamefully whitewashed the Holodomor as it was taking place.
The history of Russian-Ukrainian relations is the history of Russian aggression toward its neighbor to the west. As Ukrainian novelist Natalka Sniadanko put it recently, “One might say that Russia has never not been at war with Ukraine.” Many of Russia’s military incursions have involved attempts to cleanse Ukraine of its culture and identity.
The worst instance occurred in 1932, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forced Ukrainian peasants off their land and onto collective farms. Soviet soldiers then confiscated grain and other crops and sealed off routes Ukrainians were using to try to escape, leaving millions to starve to death.
Stalin’s stated goal was to “break the back of the peasantry.” It worked. As many as seven million Ukrainians died during the two-year famine. Conditions got so bad that thousands of Ukrainians were convicted of cannibalism.
In 1985, the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine was established to investigate why the U.S. government did not do more to help the victims. The commission consisted of the U.S. surgeon general, several congressmen, ambassadors and public advocates and me, as President Reagan’s assistant for policy development.
The commission heard from experts, advocates and eye witnesses to the famine. We gathered oral histories and analyzed government documents from that time. In 1988, we delivered a final report, containing 19 findings, to Congress.
We concluded that there was “no doubt” that millions of Ukrainians starved to death in a famine caused by Stalin and his henchmen and that the atrocities rose to the level of “genocide.”
We found that the American government “failed to take any steps which might have ameliorated the situation” and instead extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union just weeks after the famine ended.
The government’s inaction was not a result of ignorance. The famine was reported in the foreign media and by foreign governments. Americans who traveled to the Ukraine returned with tales of mass starvation and cannibalism.
Ethnic and religious groups marched in the streets in several U.S. cities (dodging attacks by American Communist counter-protestors) to heighten awareness and demand action, but to no avail. As Holodomor historian James E. Mace has written, “Poignant, often agonizing pleas for some type of intervention or assistance for famine victims from the Mennonite, Russian, Jewish, and Ukrainian communities in America were treated with courteous indifference.”
The American media were just as feckless. In fact, we documented how some American journalists even “cooperated with the Soviet government to deny the existence of the Ukrainian Famine.”
The worst offender was Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. Duranty became a mouthpiece for the Stalinist regime, at first rationalizing the famine as mere “growing pains,” and later insisting there was “neither famine nor hunger” in Ukraine. “The food shortage must be regarded as a result of peasant resistance to rural socialization,” he claimed.
Decades later, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge described Duranty’s role this way:
“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.”
At one point Duranty even admitted to an American diplomat in Germany that “in agreement with the New York Times and the Soviet authorities,” his writing reflected not his own opinions but those of the Soviet Union.
Duranty wasn’t alone. As the commission report put it, “…Duranty was only the most evident symptom of something far more pervasive, a climate of opinion which made telling the truth about Stalinism almost an offense against good taste in ‘enlightened’ circles.”
Another Soviet stooge was The Nation’s Louis Fischer. An avowed Communist, Fischer dutifully parroted the regime’s talking points. Speaking to a college audience in Oakland, California, in the middle of the famine, Fischer said emphatically, “There is no starvation in Russia.”
Then there was Joshua Kunitz. Writing in the New Republic, he blamed the famine not on Stalin but instead on “the lack of revolutionary vigilance” and the “selfishness, dishonesty, laziness, and irresponsibility” of his victims.
American journalists weren’t the only ones whitewashing the famine. In England, George Orwell wrote, “It was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine.”
The report’s conclusion explained how politics trumped principle for many political elites with Communist sympathies:
“Politicians and opinion makers either turned a blind eye toward Stalin’s famine out of expediency or saw sympathy for the Soviet Union as a litmus test of one’s commitment to a more just society in this country. The tragedy is that the reality of mass starvation and collective victimization became politicized such that the question of fact concerning whether there was a famine was subordinated to the question of one’s political values.”
Holodomor denial continued for decades. In the U.S.S.R, even mentioning the famine became a crime punishable by five years in the Gulag. Blaming Soviet authorities could bring a death sentence.
In 1988, the same year that our report was presented to Congress, the Village Voice ran a long essay titled, “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-year-old Famine Feeds the Right.” The piece lamented the “prevailing vogue of anti-Stalinism” and argued that the idea that the famine had been created by the Communist government was a ruse to justify American imperialism.
In 2007, Congress passed a resolution declaring the Holodomor a genocide. A year earlier, when the Ukrainian parliament issued a similar declaration, the Russian government responded by accusing Ukraine of engaging in “a one-sided distortion of history to suit modern opportunist political-ideological directives.”
Russia has yet to come to terms with its past. Sadly, neither have the American media.
The Holodomor rarely gets mentioned in news reports of the current conflict. Stories will often say that that Russia and Ukraine have a “shared” history without explaining what that shared history looks like.
Today’s whitewashing of the Holodomor does not come close to the shameful response of some American journalists at the time that it occurred. Still, it does the public a disservice, and history an injustice, to omit this terrible chapter in the story of Ukraine and Russia.
Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, and former domestic policy advisor to President Ronald Reagan, for whom he served all 8 years of the administration.