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Assignment in Utopia

[By Eugene Lyons. Published in 1937 (New York) by Harcourt Brace]


The Press Corps Conceals a Famine

“THERE is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”

This amazing sophistry, culled from a New York Times Moscow dispatch on March 30, 1933, has become among foreign re­porters the classic example of journalistic understatement. It char­acterizes sufficiently the whole shabby episode of our failure to report honestly the gruesome Russian famine of 1932-33.

The circumstance that the government barred us from the afflicted regions may serve as our formal excuse. But a deaf-and-dumb reporter hermetically sealed in a hotel room could not have escaped knowledge of the essential facts. Reporting, as we did daily, industrial victories in the Baikal region or Tajikistan without per­sonal investigation, we had small warrant for withholding and minimizing and diluting the famine story because we were pro­hibited to make personal investigation. Whatever doubts as to the magnitude of the disaster may have lingered in our minds, the prohibition itself should have set at rest.

The episode, indeed, reflects little glory on world journalism as a whole. Not a single American newspaper or press agency pro­tested publicly against the astonishing and almost unprecedented confinement of its correspondent in the Soviet capital or troubled to probe for the causes of this extraordinary measure.

The New York Times, as the foremost American newspaper, is automatically selected for investigation in any test of American reporting. But it was certainly not alone in concealing the famine. The precious sentence quoted above was prefaced with its corre­spondent’s celebrated cliché: “To put it brutally—you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” A later dispatch enlarged upon the masterpiece of understatement and indicated how the eggs were being broken. Asserting that “in some districts and among the large floating population of unskilled labor” there “have been deaths and actual starvation,” he catalogued the maladies         


of malnutrition as “typhus, dysentery, dropsy, and various infantile diseases.” The maladies, in short, that always rage in time of famine.

Not until August 23 did the Times out of Moscow admit the famine. “It is conservative to suppose,” it said, that in certain provinces with a total population of over 40,000,000 mortality has “at least trebled.” On this basis, there were two million deaths more than usual. In addition, deaths were also “considerably increased for the Soviet Union as a whole.” This dispatch came one day behind an uncensored cable to the New York Herald Tribune by Ralph Barnes, in which he placed the deaths in his ultra-conservative fashion at no less than one million. The Barnes story was front-paged and the Times could no longer ignore the subject. Its own admission followed, raising Barnes’ ante. By a singular twist of logic, the Times story introduced the admission of famine with this remarkable statement:

Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malig­nant propaganda. The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population in the last year and particularly in the grain-pro­ducing provinces—the Ukraine, North Caucasus, the lower Volga region—has, however, caused heavy loss of life.

The dividing line between “heavy loss of life” through food shortage and “famine” is rather tenuous. Such verbal finessing made little difference to the millions of dead and dying, to the refugees who knocked at our doors begging bread, to the lines of ragged peasants stretching from Torgsin doors in the famine area waiting to exchange their wedding rings and silver trinkets for bread.

These philological sophistries, to which we were all driven, served Moscow’s purpose of smearing the facts out of recognition and beclouding a situation which, had we reported it simply and clearly, might have worked up enough public opinion abroad to force remedial measures. And every correspondent, each in his own measure, was guilty of collaborating in this monstrous hoax on the world. Maurice Hindus, though among the most indus­trious apologists for Stalin, was kept waiting nearly a month for a visa during the famine and finally was admitted on condition that he should not go outside of Moscow. During his 1933 visit, 


therefore, he did not go to his native village as in the past. In his books, articles and lectures, curiously, he does not allude to that enforced omission and its causes.

The very next day after the Times’ half-hearted admission from Moscow, its representative in Berlin, Frederick T. Birchall, talked to a group of foreigners just returned from the famine territory, among them a reputable American. “The revelations of what they have seen in the last few weeks,” Birchall cabled, “indicate that the recent estimate of four million deaths due indirectly to mal­nutrition in agricultural Russia in recent months may be rather an understatement than an exaggeration.” The word “malnutrition” had, by dint of repetition, taken hold even outside Russia— a clean triumph for planned censorship.

All of us had talked with people just returned from the famine regions. Jack Calder, as honest a man as ever drew a Soviet pay­check, returned from a long tour of Kazakstan with stories to curdle one’s blood. Perched on a high stool at the Metropole valuta bar, we listened to his graphic description of Kazakstan roads lined with stiff corpses like so many logs. Most of us saw the pictures taken by German consular officials in the Ukraine showing scenes of horror reminiscent of the Volga famine of 1921. Few of us were so completely isolated that we did not meet Rus­sians whose work took them to the devastated areas, or Muscovites with relatives in those areas. Around every railroad station in the capital hundreds of bedraggled refugees were encamped, had we needed further corroboration; they gathered faster than the police could clear them away.

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—facts so per­vasive and generally accepted that confirmation would be futile pedantry. There was no more need for investigation to establish the mere existence of the Russian famine than investigation to establish the existence of the American depression. 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. In the foreign colony estimates of famine deaths ranged from one million up; among Russians from three millions up. Russians, especially communists, were inclined to cite higher figures through


a sort of perverse pride in bigness; if it called for Bolshevik firmness to let a million die, it obviously called for three times as much firmness to kill off three million.

The first reliable report of the Russian famine was given to the world by an English journalist, a certain Gareth Jones, at one time secretary to Lloyd George. Jones had a conscientious streak in his make-up which took him on a secret journey into the Ukraine and a brief walking tour through its countryside. That same streak was to take him a few years later into the interior of China during political disturbances, and was to cost him his life at the hands of Chinese military bandits. An earnest and meticulous little man, Gareth Jones was the sort who carries a note-book and unashamedly records your words as you talk. Patiently he went from one correspondent to the next, asking questions and writing down the answers.

[CLICK HERE is see an image of Gareth's actual interview diary notes with Lyons & taken in Moscow on 7th March 1933 and is referenced in the above text by Lyons. These notes cover new punitive grain taxes and an extension of force by the Soviets.]

On emerging from Russia, Jones made a statement which, start­ling though it sounded, was little more than a summary of what the correspondents and foreign diplomats had told him. To pro­tect us, and perhaps with some idea of heightening the authenticity of his reports, he emphasized his Ukrainian foray rather than our conversation as the chief source of his information.

In any case, we all received urgent queries from our home offices on the subject. But the inquiries coincided with preparations under way for the trial of the British engineers. The need to re­main on friendly terms with the censors at least for the duration of the trial was for all of us a compelling professional necessity.

Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes—but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical for­mulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials.

The scene in which the American press corps combined to repudiate Jones is fresh in my mind. It was in the evening and Com­rade Umansky, the soul of graciousness, consented to meet us in the hotel room of a correspondent. He knew that he had a stra­tegic advantage over us because of the Metro-Vickers story. He could afford to be gracious. Forced by competitive journalism to


jockey for the inside track with officials, it would have been pro­fessional suicide to make an issue of the famine at this particular time. There was much bargaining in a spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take, under the effulgence of Umansky’s gilded smile, before a formula of denial was worked out.

We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in round­about phrases that damned Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski, Umansky joined the celebration, and the party did not break up until the early morning hours. The head censor was in a mellower mood than I had ever seen him before or since. He had done a big bit for Bolshevik firmness that night.

We were summoned to the Press Department one by one and instructed not to venture out of Moscow without submitting a detailed itinerary and having it officially sanctioned. In effect, therefore, we were summarily deprived of the right of unhampered travel in the country to which we were accredited.

“This is nothing new,” Umansky grimaced uncomfortably. “Such a rule has been in existence since the beginning of the revo­lution. Now we have decided to enforce it.”

New or old, such a rule had not been invoked since the civil war days. It was forgotten again when the famine was ended. Its undisguised purpose was to keep us out of the stricken regions. The same department which daily issued denials of the famine now acted to prevent us from seeing that famine with our own eyes. Our brief cables about this desperate measure of concealment were published, if at all, in some obscure corner of the paper. The world press accepted with complete equanimity the virtual expul­sion of all its representatives from all of Russia except Moscow. It agreed without protest to a partnership in the macabre hoax.

Other steps were taken to prevent prying. Until then, foreigners arriving at the frontier received their passports as soon as the train got under way. Now the passports were retained by the authorities until just before the train pulled into Moscow—thus guaranteeing that no foreigner would drop off en route for unchaperoned research.

When M. Herriot, the liberal French statesman, arrived in Russia at Odessa, the one French correspondent in the country,


    M. Lusiani, demanded the right to meet him. The Press Department finally gave its permission—on Lusiani’s solemn undertaking to remain with the official party and not to stray into the country­side. M. Herriot, conducted along the prescribed road between Odessa and Moscow, completely surrounded by high functionaries, was able to say honestly when he returned to Paris that he had not personally seen any famine. Neither had Lusiani.


    I was not the first Moscow observer to remark that God seems to be on the side of the atheists. What the Kremlin would have prayed for, had it believed in prayer, was perfect weather, and that is what it received that spring and summer: perfect weather and bumper crops. The fields had been planted under the aegis of the newly established Politotdyels (Political Departments) with unlimited authority over the peasants. Food rations barely suffi­cient to sustain life had been distributed only to those actually at work in the fields. Red Army detachments in many places had been employed to guard seed and to prevent hungry peasants from devouring the green shoots of the new harvest. In the midst of the famine, the planting proceeded, and the crops came up strong and plenteous. The dead were buried—for the living there would be bread enough and to spare in the following winter.

    Belatedly the world had awakened to the famine situation. We were able to write honestly that “to speak of famine now is ridicu­lous.” We did not always bother to add that we had failed to speak of it or at best mumbled incomprehensibly then) when it was not ridiculous. Cardinal Innitzer, Archbishop of Vienna, made the first of his sensational statements about Soviet agrarian conditions on August 20, when those conditions were already being mitigated. Certain anti—Soviet newspapers in England and America began to write about the famine at about the time it was ended, and continued to write about it long after it had become history: their facts were on the whole correct, but their tenses were badly mixed. The most rigorous censorship in all of Soviet Russia’s history had been successful—it had concealed the catastrophe until it was ended, thereby bringing confusion, doubt, contradiction into the whole subject. Years after the event—when no Russian com-


munist in his senses any longer concealed the magnitude of the famine—the question whether there had been a famine at all was still being disputed in the outside world!

In the autumn, the Soviet press was exultant. Lazar Kaganovich was given most of the credit for the successful harvest. It was his mind that invented the Political Departments to lead collectivized agriculture, his iron hand that applied Bolshevik mercilessness. Now that a healing flood of grain was inundating the famished land, the secrecy gradually gave way. Increasingly with every passing month Russian officials ceased to deny the obvious. Soviet journalists who had been in the afflicted areas now told me per­sonally such details of the tragedy as not even the eager imaginations of Riga and Warsaw journalists had been able to project. They were able to speak in the past tense, so that their accents were proud boasts rather than admissions.

The Kremlin, in short, had “gotten away with it.” At a cost in millions of lives, through the instrumentalities of hunger and terror, socialized agriculture had been made to yield an excellent harvest. Certain observers now insisted in print that the efficacy of collectivization had been demonstrated; nothing, of course, had been demonstrated except the efficacy of concentrated force used against a population demoralized by protracted hunger.

There were few peasant homes in the worst of the famine dis­tricts which had not paid a toll in life for this harvest. In hundreds of villages half the population was gone: some had been killed by the “diseases of malnutrition” and others had fled to seek food. In September and October, Chamberlin, Duranty, and others who visited southern Russia still found half-deserted villages. It would be years before the memory of this fearful time would lose its poignancy in the Ukraine and North Caucasus, in Kazakstan and Lower Volga. And there were those who believed, as I did, that the memory was indelible and would rise to plague those who had decided in cold blood to let the villages starve. But in the cities, at least, a new optimism was born.

The attitude of the professional friends of the U.S.S.R. on the famine went through a curious cycle. First, while the disaster was under way, they made furious denials. Since then, they have tended to admit the facts but to explain them away as unavoidable, and as a just and proper punishment meted out to a “rebellious” peas-


antry. “Why harp on something that is by now history?” sums up their reproachful objection to a reminder of the period. But all great social crimes, given time, become history. By that fan­tastic logic, time has wiped out the guilt of those who perpetrated the Inquisition and the St. Bartholomew’s Night massacres, the World War and the fascist destruction of Vienna’s socialist housing, the Reichstag fire and the fascist attack on democratic government in Spain. The Kremlin had foreseen the famine and permitted it to run its course of death and horror for political reasons. The philosophy which made such a decision possible, the mad arrogance of rulers condemning millions to death, are not justified by the fact that the dead are buried and the survivors being fed.

How many millions actually died will never be known accu­rately. It is not generally understood abroad that the Soviet government stopped the publication of vital statistics for the period in question, although such statistics were published as a matter of routine in previous years; otherwise it would be a simple matter to compare the death-rate for the winter and spring of 1932-33 with the normal death-rate.

Estimates made by foreigners and Russians range from three to seven millions. Chamberlin, after his journey through the devastated districts, described in detail in his Russia's Iron Age, placed the cost in life at four million. Duranty, after a similar journey, withdrew his previous estimate that the death-rate had increased threefold as far as the North Caucasus was concerned but stated that “he is inclined to believe that the estimate he made for the Ukraine was too low.” A more than trebled death-rate in the Ukraine would bring the famine deaths in that one area alone to a million and a half. Maurice Hindus, after years of vagueness on the subject, finally settled on “at least three million” as his estimate.

Southern Russia, after many months of total news blockade, was opened to foreign correspondents in easy stages. The first to be given permission to travel in the forbidden zones were the technically “friendly” reporters, whose dispatches might be counted upon to take the sting out of anything subsequent travelers might report. Duranty, for instance, was given a two weeks’ advantage over most of us. On the day he returned, it happened, Billy and I were dining with Anne O’Hare McCormick, roving correspon­


dent for the New York Times, and her husband. Duranty joined us. He gave us his fresh impressions in brutally frank terms and they added up to a picture of ghastly horror. His estimate of the dead from famine was the most startling I had as yet heard from anyone.

“But, Walter, you don’t mean that literally?” Mrs. McCormick exclaimed.

“Hell I don’t. …. ….. . I’m being conservative,” he replied, and as if by way of consolation he added his famous truism: “But they’re only Russians.”

Once more the same evening we heard Duranty make the same estimate, in answer to a question by Laurence Stallings, at the railroad station, just as the train was pulling out for the Polish frontier.  When the issues of the Times carrying Duranty’s own articles reached me I found that they failed to mention the large figures he had given freely and repeatedly to all of us.

To read Orwell's seminal 1938 review in New English Weekly of Lyons' Assignment in Utopia then please CLICK HERE


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