At the Bristol Radical History meeting on May 29th, two contributors from the floor asserted that the Ukraine famine of 1931-2 was a creation of the American press of the time. As one of the speakers at the meeting, I thought it best to check my sources before responding. I have now done so and find that this assertion is the opposite of the truth.

One reporter, Gareth Jones, visited the famine stricken areas in 1931 and 1933 and wrote honestly about the mass starvation that he had seen. The Moscow based press corps, dependent on the Soviet authorities for their visas and on Konstanin Umansky – the chief censor – in particular, decided to rubbish Jones’s reports. One of those present Eugene Lyons later acknowledged “We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damed Jones as a liar. That filthy business disposed of, someone ordered vodka and ‘zabuski’, Umansky joined the celebration, and the party did not break up until the early hours.” Walter Duranty of the New York Times wrote that “there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be”; Jones responded that censorship had turned Russian-based journalists into “masters of euphemism and understatements.” (page 50 in my book “Dreaming a City” and page 137 in Anna Reid’s “Borderland”).

Professor Gwyn Williams, the presenter of the “Hughesovka and the New Russia” television series, had been a Communist Party member and was initially reluctant to accept that there had been mass starvation in Ukraine. But his integrity as a historian meant that he accepted the overwhelming evidence and he and I made a point of including in our documentary an interview with a former Communist Party loyalist in Donetsk, Yulian Schmilo, who had been a horrified witness to scale of deaths caused by the famine.

With little first hand evidence, it is difficult to make decisions about what is happening in Ukraine at the moment but I know of no respected historian who does not now accept that there were avoidable deaths on a colossal scale as a result of the famine in Ukraine, perhaps – as Professor Williams says – as many as five million. Hopefully Bristol Radical History members will continue to make up their minds about what happened in the past on the basis of evidence rather than taking up a political position in the present and then imposing that view on historical events.

Colin Thomas

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