Ukrainian famine shows that a journalist’s job is not always pretty

The job of an honest journalist is to climb to the top of a hill and shout, ‘Look what I see!’ no matter how messy or ugly.


By Jacque White Kochak

This article first appeared in The Auburn Villager

My maiden name is White, and every three years the White clan holds an enormous family reunion. The descendants of all my grandfather’s siblings show up at the appointed place—we’ve been to Kansas, Arkansas and New Mexico so far—to update each other about our families.

Inevitably, my children ask why I have so many relatives, and my husband has so few. The short answer is that he is Ukrainian, and his great aunts, great uncles and a vast assortment of second and third cousins are still in Europe, not in the United States.

The long answer is that many of them didn’t survive the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933.

The state-orchestrated famine, designed by Josef Stalin to break the backs of Ukrainian peasants who refused to join collectives, claimed the lives of at least 4.8 million Ukrainians. That is the conservative estimate; others say the figure was closer to 10 million. No one knows for sure because Stalin suspended routine census taking during the period.

Stalin sealed the borders of the region and then sent soldiers through every home to steal any food that might help the peasants survive. Some resorted to cannibalism. While his own people starved, Stalin exported grain to the West, refusing offers to help from international relief organizations.

Never heard of the famine? I’m not surprised. Although Stalin’s genocide rivaled or surpassed Hitler’s, the history books I read when I was growing up were mum on the subject. The searing Canadian film Harvest of Despair finally started educating Americans about the holocaust in the early 1980s.

‘Whatever I may do or think in the future, I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow asking for bread.’

Stalin’s oppression of the story was a triumph of “public relations.” He spoonfed the news that he wanted told to eager journalists who didn’t want to lose their cushy jobs in Stalin’s Moscow. After all, foreign correspondents had been “advised” to remain in Moscow by the press department of the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and not go poking around the countryside.

And some of them believed in the idea of a Communist utopia. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see the truth. One of them, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for his vivid, glowing dispatches about Stalin’s Five Year Plan, in which he attributed the deaths to errors in Stalin’s plan. Duranty was fooled—or he lied.

Other journalists tried to tell the story, but their veracity was attacked. In 1932, you see, negotiations were underway to accept the Soviet Union into the League of Nations. Criticizing Stalin’s regime wasn’t “politically correct.” Available archival evidence testifies that several Western governments were well-informed about the Ukrainian genocide but adopted a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a foreign sovereign state.

The British scribe Malcolm Muggeridge, who was sympathetic to  Communism when first posted to Moscow, was one of those journalists who told the truth. He described peasants ravaged by hunger, kneeling in the snow and begging for crusts of bread.

“Whatever I may do or think in the future,” Muggeridge wrote in his diary. “I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow asking for bread. Something that I have seen and understood.”

Another was William I. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, who recorded the sight of ragged peasants crossing a river to escape the Ukrainian famine. And dispatches from another British journalist, Gareth Jones, left no doubts. “I walked alone through villages,” he wrote. “…everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.'”

The job of a journalist is to climb to the top of a hill and shout, “Look what I see!” no matter how messy or ugly. That’s a lesson to remember, even here in Auburn.

With the rise of the blogosphere and every Tom, Dick and Harry spouting “facts” to support opinions, have honest journalists become irrelevant? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Ukrainian famine shows that a journalist’s job is not always pretty

  1. True in Auburn TODAY. Megan Hurley of the O-A is doing a good job reporting the trial. The other side of this notion, though, is that media has to INVEST in this type of thorough, investigative coverage. Not many sources are doing that anymore.

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    Liked by 1 person

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