Coverage of Famine in the Dnipro Newspaper (1931-40)


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Coverage of Famine in the Dnipro Newspaper (1931-40)

Dnipro (Chicago, Philadelphia, Trenton, NJ; 1921-1926, 1928-1950) was a Ukrainian-language newspaper of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States. In the period 1931-40 it was published in Philadelphia as a biweekly. Its intended primary audience was the Ukrainian immigrant community in the US, and the range of topics covered included news from Ukraine, faith, church and community events and affairs, literature, and letters from readers.

The following selection of excerpts from Dnipro gives some sense of what Ukrainians abroad knew about the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine at the time and about the larger socio-political context in which it occurred. In 1933, virtually every issue included more than one mention of the famine as well as related stories about Soviet economic and demographic policies, political purges, the war on religion and church, reversal of the Ukrainianization policy, and escapes from the Soviet Union.

In the 1930s, digests of news from Ukraine were featured on the front page of every issue, along with international news. Most of these ‘secondhand’ stories were based on reporting from Soviet newspapers, including the Kharkiv-based Kommunist or Moscow-based Komsomolskaia Pravda, with anecdotal evidence about, for example, the murder of members of village councils, protests to grain requisitioning, attacks on antireligious agitators, and the state prosecution of activists accused of being ‘negligent in grain procurement’, i.e., not hard enough on peasants. Quite a few news items about the famine were drawn from the eyewitness accounts of Western correspondents who visited the USSR that had been published in The Manchester Guardian, The New York Times, or The Times or by personalities such as Robert I. Ripley. One story mentions that the writings of Walter Duranty of The New York Times were likely shaped by Soviet censorship and that his reports about the situation in the USSR were not to be trusted. The paper published a summary of a letter from the journalist Rhea Clyman to NKVD head Yagoda in which she accuses him of the political persecution of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and mentions 35,000 Ukrainian peasant families branded as ‘kulaks’ and deported to distant labor camps.

A significant share of pieces are reports of rumors, anonymous eyewitness accounts, and personal letters from Ukraine sent to relatives in the US with desperate pleas for help, mainly for a few US dollars that would allow them to buy some bread and survive. A recurrent theme of the reporting based on ‘rumors’ (chutky) from Ukraine is rebellion among peasants, workers, and even the military and their dissatisfaction with government policies and food shortages, both in cities and the countryside. Such stories are often accompanied by a commentary that Ukraine is ready to secede from the Soviet Union and that the protest moods are more intense than ever before. One such story of a local DPU (secret police) squad burning down the village of Trubacheve or Turbacheve somewhere near Kyiv in reprisal for the peasant resistance to grain requisitioning is featured three times. However, no village by this name can be verified.

In the absence of information about the famine, the paper strives to find clues in unrelated news items, for example, in a speech by Postyshev in which he states that a quarter of the population or four million Ukrainians was illiterate, a figure that the editors see as possible indication of a drastic fall in Ukraine's population. Thus, the news stories often feature interpretations and re-interpretations in view of the publisher’s own agenda. Many events are presented through the prism of whether they are beneficial to Ukraine’s eventual independence or impede it. Several references to a rumor that the Soviet government was preparing to repopulate Ukrainian territory devastated by famine by representatives of other Soviet nationalities, mostly by Russians, show concern that such a policy would result in the ‘denationalization’ of Ukraine.

Alarming appeals on the pages of Dnipro appear throughout 1933 both from the exiled Ukrainian intelligentsia to ‘the international moral public,’ and from the Ukrainian church leaders to Ukrainians abroad about their moral responsibility to Ukrainians in the Soviet Ukraine to be their voice and to mobilize attention and the resources of the West to try and save the millions of Ukrainian peasants dying of starvation.

Despite some questionable stories, overall, the editors of Dnipro strove to supply their readers with the best information available at the time about the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine and the efforts to address it. The primary value of the selection included here is that it reflects the American Ukrainian diaspora’s reception of the famine and surrounding events in Soviet Ukraine and the USSR at large. It is evident that the editorial staff and the leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the US maintained strong emotional connection to events in Ukraine and felt a moral obligation to try to help their ‘brothers’ in ‘Great Ukraine’ (Central and Eastern Ukraine) through prayer, donations, and information campaigns. They perceived the famine as one aspect of a Bolshevik assault on Ukrainian culture, spirituality, and the Ukrainian political nation and lived in anticipation of the day when Soviet, ‘Muscovite’ rule that had been violently imposed on Ukraine from the outside and, according to their reporting, was opposed by every major Ukrainian social group, would fall. They called for unity within the diaspora and solidarity with Ukrainians under Soviet (and Polish) rule as a necessary precondition to achieving that end.

In some cases, we have chosen to provide a screenshot of an entire page from the newspaper in order to present a larger context and illustrate how reports of famine were surrounded by news about purges, executions and persecution of former Ukrainian Communist party leaders, intelligentsia members, religious representatives, and ‘petliurites’ (followers of Symon Petliura and advocated of Ukrainian independence). In 1934-40, when the famine had subsided, reports about persistent problems with the collectivized agriculture the Soviets had forcibly imposed are laced with hopes for a new wave of resistance among the Ukrainian peasants and workers and fear that another deadly famine could be pending in Ukraine.

This sampling of the coverage of the 1932-33 famine by one of the Ukrainian diaspora’s leading interwar periodicals is also informative about the moral struggles of Ukrainians abroad at the time. Despite their knowledge of the events widely viewed today as one of the twentieth century’s genocides, they lacked the agency and international recognition sufficient to wage an effective international humanitarian intervention campaign that might have had some impact on the suffering of the victims of famine in Soviet Ukraine.

We thank Ksenya Kiebuzinski of the Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre at Robarts Library, University of Toronto, and Wasyl Sydorenko for their assistance in sourcing the materials included here.