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Ukrainian Famine-Genocide Myth

– Dr. John Puntis –

In 1922 the Soviet Union experienced severe famine conditions in some areas following on from the wars of intervention when imperialist powers had sought to crush the new Soviet state. Famine conditions recurred again in 1933, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Ukraine. There are two versions to this second famine that are radically different. An objective analysis indicates the famine to have resulted from a combination of poor climatic conditions and sabotage on the part of the rich peasants or kulaks in the face of the collectivization of agriculture. Ukrainian Nationalists however argue that the famine was deliberately contrived by Stalin in order to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people, and resulted in millions of needless deaths, in fact death and destruction on such a scale that it dwarfs the Nazi holocaust.

Documentary evidence produced to support this claim is often endorsed by academics such as Robert Conquest, or James Mace of Harvard University. Such evidence is shaky in the extreme and often relies on discredited accounts from the 1930s pro-fascist press in America, or even Nazi documents. Despite this it continues to resurface, most notably in the 1980s as part of an attempt by Ukrainian Nationalists to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famine, and at the same time to fuel the cold war rhetoric of the Reagan era.

The same old grainy photographic images appear time and time again, purporting to show victims of the Ukraine famine, but these are almost always undocumented, or if traced back actually come from famine relief documents from the 1922 famine or even earlier. Cobbled together in the film Harvest of Despair such pictures were shown on UK television despite having been rejected by some public service networks in the U.S. because of a blatant lack of objectivity.

Falsified photos to promote the Holodomor, from a public exhibit in Sevastopol, Ukraine in March 2009, organized by the Security Service of Ukraine. The photos were captioned to say they were from the alleged famine in 1932-33 but the three on the left were proven to be depression-era photos from the U.S. and the one at the right from Russia in 1921. (

Ukrainian nationalist organizations in Canada and elsewhere continue to propagate the notion of deliberate famine genocide, while carefully glossing over their own anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi and collaborationist origins. A search on the web for "Ukrainian Famine Genocide" resulted in 845 references to this "man made" famine, as usual graphically illustrated with pictures for an earlier era. In this talk I will explore some of the background to these various claims and counter claims, with reference to the excellent book on the subject by Douglas Tottle.[1]

Journalistic Fraud in the 1930s

In the autumn of 1934, an American using the name of Thomas Walker entered the Soviet Union. After less than a week in Moscow, the remainder of his 13-day stay was spent in transit to the Manchurian border, at which point he left the USSR never to return. Four months later a series of articles began in the Hearst press in America, by Thomas Walker, "noted journalist, traveller and student of Russian affairs who has spent several years touring the Union of Soviet Russia." The articles described a famine in the Ukraine that had claimed six million lives, and was illustrated with photographs of corpses and starving children. Walker was said to have smuggled in a camera under "the most difficult and dangerous circumstances."

Louis Fischer, an American writer living in Moscow at the time was suspicious. Why had the Hearst press sat on these sensational stories for ten months before publication? He established that Walker's short visit to the Soviet Union could not possibly have allowed him to even visit the areas he described and photographed. He also pointed out that Walker's photographic evidence was distinctly odd: not only were the pictures suggestive of an earlier decade (Fischer thought probably of the 1921 Volga famine) but contained a mixture of scenes taken in both summer and winter. Fischer also noted that the 1933 harvest in the Ukraine had been good.

Some of the pictures were subsequently identified as showing scenes from the Austro-Hungarian empire and World War 1, and it was known that Hearst newspapers were digging up old pictures and retouching them for use as propaganda. Pictures sometimes appeared labelled as having been taken in Russia, and at other times the same picture is relocated to the Ukraine for obviously political reasons. Not only were the photographs a fraud, and the trip to the Ukraine a fraud, but Thomas Walker himself was a fraud, turning out to be an escaped convict by the name of Robert Green who had served time for forgery. At his subsequent trial following recapture he admitted that his series of pictures used in the Hearst newspaper articles were fakes and were not taken in the Ukraine as stated. Despite these facts, the same photos are still those used in commemoration posters, on web sites and in the film Harvest of Despair.

The Hearst Press

The Hearst Press needless to say continued with its famine genocide campaign despite the Walker fiasco. This is not surprising when we consider that Hearst himself was known to millions of Americans as "America's number one fascist." (One of Mussolini's chief sources of personal income during the early 1930s was from being a paid correspondent for the Hearst Press.)

In 1934 Hearst visited Nazi Germany and met Hitler. Following this visit, the Hearst Press began to promote famine genocide articles on the Ukraine. French Premier Edward Herriot, who had recently returned from travelling in the Ukraine, publicized the fact that he had seen no evidence of any famine. Following the Walker articles, Hearst went on to try and convince Americans that the Soviet Union was a land of utter starvation, genocide and cannibalism. At the time this was often recognized as politically motivated sensationalism, but over the passage of years these fabrications have become transformed into "primary evidence."

By noting those features of the 1930s campaign and the selective memories of those who helped the Hearst Press in propagating the famine-genocide thesis, light can be cast on the character of today's famine-genocide campaign.

Simultaneously with the launch of Hearst's 1935 outpourings, the Nazi press in Germany and sympathetic papers elsewhere in Europe began publishing similar stories. At this time a book by Dr Ewald Ammende was published entitled Human Life in Russia. This has had a lasting influence on those who propagate the famine-genocide myth, and was republished in 1984. The book makes little pretence of objectivity crediting Hearst correspondents, accounts from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and reproducing allegations by unnamed "travellers" and "experts."

Most photographic evidence of the famine-genocide theorists can be traced back either to Ammende's book or to Thomas Walker. The origins of the photographs are not documented, although it should be noted that Ammende was involved with famine relief work in 1921-2. The pictures are said to have been taken in the streets and squares of Kharkov in the summer of 1933, although only 10 of 26 appear to show urban scenes. There are no signs or landmarks to help set them in context. "Human Life in Russia" contains additional pictures that did not appear in the German edition. These are claimed to have been taken by Dr Ditloff, director of the German Government Agricultural concession in the north Caucuses. One might wonder how a Nazi functionary came to be wandering freely around the Ukraine taking photographs, but in any case in later publications the same photographs are either unattributed or attributed to a completely different source. In fact, some pictures have been identified as coming from the 1922 famine, and some show winter scenes despite apparently having been taken in summer. Other publications use the same pictures either with no accreditation or accredited to Thomas Walker, despite the fact that they were used to portray events in 1932/3 and Walker claimed to have taken them in the spring of 1934.

It is clear that the photographic evidence is fraudulent, and was used primarily as part of a campaign to undermine and discredit the Soviet Union. Despite this, they continue to be used to this day.

Cold War

The famine genocide campaign of the 1930s leaned heavily on dubious right wing sources and was not accepted by mainstream historians at the time, leading some Ukrainian Nationalists to speak of a pro-Soviet, left wing or even Jewish conspiracy to suppress the truth. In the 1950s the Nationalists published books such as The Black Deeds of the Kremlin to propagate their interpretation of history. A section is devoted to Nationalist allegations of Soviet mass executions during the 1930s in Vynnitsa. Unearthed during Nazi occupation in 1943, the graves were examined by a Nazi commission and used in propaganda films. Post-war testimony by German soldiers revealed however, that this was a Nazi propaganda deception, the bodies being those of Jews executed by the SS and Ukrainian militia.

The gruesome allegations of cannibalism in volume 2 of Black Deeds has lead to it being referred to as the "Ukrainian Nationalist cookbook"!

The Numbers Game

Nazis carry out mass killings in Vynnitsa,
Ukraine, 1942.

The famine genocide theorists are keen to establish that millions of people died in the Ukraine. Their methodology, as usual, is highly suspect. A "landmark study" by Dana Dalrymple published in Soviet Studies, 1964 comes up with a figure of 5.5 million based on averaging the guesses of 20 Western journalists. One of them is our fictional friend Thomas Walker. Dalrymple states that Walker made his survey by breaking away from a guided tour, and had previously spent several years touring Russia. A similar figure by the Archbishop of Canterbury is also quoted; this enthusiastic supporter of Hitler had attempted to raise the famine issue in the House of Lords in 1934 when in fact the Foreign Office stated that there was no evidence to support the allegations against the Soviet government. Needless to say, the testimony of Sir John Maynard, a renowned famine expert who visited the Ukraine in the summer of 1933 and rejected tales of famine-genocide is dismissed by the Nationalists.

The Cold War campaign resurfaced in the 1980s with considerable publicity and scholarly backing from the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, long a centre of anti-communist research. In 1983, the book The Ninth Circle, first published by Ukrainian Nationalists in 1953 was republished, edited and introduced by Harvard's Dr James Mace. A critical review of this book described it as being "a polemic, devoid of any documentation, and lacking in any scholarship." The author, it was pointed out, fails to give any details about his activity during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and makes not a single derogatory comment about the Nazis. Once again the Thomas Walker fakes are used as illustrations, despite the author claiming to have been an eyewitness to the famine. The "academic" Mace writing of Walker's material states, "American newspapermen like Thomas Walker wrote plainspoken and graphic accounts of the Famine based on what they had witnessed in the Ukraine in 1933." Note the convenient backdating of Walker's trip to 1933 and not 1934.

Another contribution to the famine genocide literature is Walter Dushnyk's 50 Years Ago: The Famine Holocaust in Ukraine. The foreword to this book is by none other than Dalrymple. Dushnyk's roots can be traced to Europe's pre-war fascist movement when he was active in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Again a critical reviewer comments that this book, "rather than being a scholarly analysis, the material consists of a highly emotionally charged vitriolic polemic. Indeed it has little to do with scholarship and unquestionably is lacking in objectivity." Once again the same faked or undocumented photographs are used as illustrations. Dushnyk calculates the number of famine deaths by projecting an anticipated population growth, based on the 1926 census, onto the listed population census for the Ukraine in 1939. The difference is 7.5 million and this therefore becomes the number of famine victims. The nonsense of this methodology can be demonstrated by transposing to Canada in the 1930s and showing that 25 per cent of Saskatchewan's population disappeared during the great depression. In fact, the population of the Ukraine increased in real terms from 1926-1939 by almost 3.4 million. Whilst it is not possible to give an accurate figure for the numbers of famine victims, the claims of people like Dalrymple, Mace and Dushnyk have been shown up as extreme exaggerations fabricated to strengthen their political allegations of genocide.

Harvest of Deception

The famine-genocide campaign reached a climax in 1986 with the publication of Robert Conquest's book Harvest of Sorrow, and the film produced by the famine research committee of the St Vladimir Institute, Harvest of Despair. The film is full of the old undocumented pictures, and relies heavily on interviews with former Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators, as well as defectors from the Soviet Union; even [English journalist and satirist] Malcolm Muggeridge pops up for a short appearance. The film's producers apparently viewed more than a million feet of stock footage of film, before selecting a mere 720 feet for use. Instead of any documented evidence of the famine being presented, a montage of undocumented stills are shown including the Walker/Ditlofff pictures, 1921/2 famine pictures, and others from Nazi propaganda publications. With breathtaking disregard for the truth, some scenes borrow from film of the civil war, and Soviet films of the 1920s. In essence, it seems that the film makers scrounged through the archives looking for bits and pieces of old "war-and-starvation" shots that were then spliced into the film to great subliminal effect, bound together by a narrative and interspersed with partisan interviews. So much has even been admitted by some of those involved, yet the film has been widely shown and praised, including on British television. The makers even received grants and logistical support from the National Film Board of Canada and another publicly funded body, Multiculturalism Canada. Harvest of Despair was clearly no objective documentary as is claimed, but rather a crude cold war propaganda exercise.

Conquest's book Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror Famine has emerged as the best attempt of the famine-genocidists at legitimacy. Conquest's right-wing affiliations and his holocaust denials are now well known. At one time he was employed by the British Secret Service's disinformation project, the Information Research Department, key targets being "the third world" and the "Russians." Conquest's earlier work The Great Terror had alleged that only 5-6 million perished in the 1932/3 period and only half of them in the Ukraine. By 1983 Conquest, however, had upped his estimates to 14 million and extended famine conditions to 1937! Such revisions coincided handily with the 50th anniversary commemorations of the famine.

Conquest presents the various nationalist cliques who held parts of the Ukraine during the Russian civil war and foreign intervention as bona fide governments. The mass slaughter of Ukrainian Jews carried out under nationalist "independence" in 1918-19 is dismissed in three words. The Nazi occupation of the Ukraine is presented implicitly as a breakdown between periods of Soviet "terror" and the liberation from the Nazis as Soviet "reoccupation." There are many examples in the book of Conquest's lack of scholarship. One example is him quoting from accounts by a foreign correspondent who turns out to be none other than Thomas Walker, the man who never was. In his reference note for the quote he even moves the date of the Hearst article from 1935 to February 1933. It is worth repeating the observations of American historian J. Arch Getty on the quality of this kind of historical research:

"Grand analytical generalizations have come from second hand bits of overheard corridor gossip. Prison camp stories ('my friend met Bukharin's wife in a camp and she said...') have become primary sources on Soviet central political decision making .... the need to generalize from isolated and unverified particulars has transformed rumours into sources and has equated repetition of stories with confirmation."

Whereas serious historians do not accept hearsay and rumour as historical fact, contrast this with Conquest's stated position that "Truth can only percolate in the form of hearsay" and "on political matters basically the best, though not infallible source is rumour."

The Famine

Coming now to the famine itself and its causes, the factors of drought and sabotage during the process of collectivization are generally given little attention by right-wing historians. Interestingly, in A History of the Ukraine by Mikhail Hrushevsky -- described by the Nationalists themselves as "Ukraine's leading historian" -- we read that "Again a year of drought coincided with chaotic agricultural conditions; and during the winter of 1932-3 a great famine, like that of 1921-2 swept across Soviet Ukraine." Nowhere does this history suggest that the famine was deliberate and aimed against Ukrainians, and in fact more space is devoted to the famine of 1921-22. There are many references to drought conditions in the Ukraine in 1931 and 1932. Even Ewald Ammende in his Human Life in Russia refers to climatic and natural causes of the famine.

While drought was a contributing factor, the main cause of the famine was the struggle around collectivization of the countryside in this period. In 1928 there were millions of small scale peasant farms, three quarters of the land was sown by hand, one-third of the crop areas was harvested by sickle and scythe, 40 per cent of the crop was threshed by flail. Over one quarter of peasant households possessed no draught animals or farming implements, and 47 per cent had only ploughs. The drive to collectivization was a key feature of the first five year plan launched in 1929. The small minority of rich peasants, the kulaks, opposed socialization of agriculture and fought against collectivization with an organized campaign of large-scale destruction. The struggle in some areas including the Ukraine approached civil war scale. Visiting foreign observers at the time noted that kulak opposition took the form of slaughtering their cattle and horses rather than having them collectivized. From 1928-33 the number of horses in the Soviet Union fell from 30 to 15 million, cattle from 70 to 38 million, sheep and goats from 147 to 50 million. Some kulaks burned down the property of collectives and even burned their own crops and seed grain. Many famine-genocide theorists discount kulak sabotage, but others offer enthusiastic descriptions celebrating the opposition to Soviet planning. In addition the famine was compounded by typhus epidemics which undoubtedly claimed many lives. By 1933 there was a successful harvest, enormous efforts were put into improving collective farms and providing mechanized equipment.

Subsequent huge increases in agricultural and industrial output in the Ukraine leading up to the Second World War give the lie to allegations of 7 to 15 million starvation deaths only seven years earlier. In addition, the record of Ukrainian resistance to the Nazis and their Ukrainian nationalist auxiliaries was exemplary. In the largest eastern portion of the Ukraine loyalty was overwhelming and active. There were over half a million organized Soviet guerrillas, and four and a half million ethnic Ukrainians fought in the Soviet army. The Ukrainian nationalist histories acknowledge this, and one can only wonder at the ability of a nation to mobilize such numbers of military aged males in the light of Nationalist claims about famine victims. The reality was that for the bulk of the Ukrainian peasants, workers and the professionals newly emerged from those classes, the Soviet system had demonstrated overwhelming economic and cultural advantages.

The only place where the Nationalists found any kind of base during the Nazi occupation was in what had been up to 1939 Polish Galicia; this is where the Nazis did their bulk of recruiting for the fascist police and SS units. An examination of what happened during the Nazi occupation is revealing not only in terms of the popular support for the Soviets demonstrated by the people of the Ukraine, but also for the role played by the Ukrainian Nationalists.

Collaboration and Collusion

Founding of the SS Galicia Division
in the spring of 1943

In June 1941 the Nazi army entered Lviv, capital of the Western Ukraine. In its vanguard came the German-uniformed Nachtigall Battalion of Ukrainian Nationalists. During the first three days of July the Nachtigall Battalion slaughtered 7,000 Jews in the vicinity of Lviv. Non-Jewish writers, intellectuals and professionals known to be hostile to Nazism were also killed. In the first eight months of Nazi occupation 15 per cent of Galician Jews -- 100,000 people -- were slaughtered by the joint actions of the Germans and Ukrainian Nationalists. Many thousands of Nationalists who fled to Germany and elsewhere in the wake of the retreating Nazi armies had to cover up their personal and collective guilt in the holocaust and betrayal of their country. Anti-Semitic and fascist themes run deep through the history of the Ukrainian Nationalist movement. Leaders of the Ukrainian Nationalists were on the payroll of the Nazi Party before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Ukrainian Nationalist battalions were trained in Germany before the war and some were used in the invasion of Poland.

The Nachtigall and Roland Ukrainian volunteer detachments fought with the German army and in late 1941 were reorganized into a Police Battalion and employed in Byelorussia. Despite this being well known, the famine genociders portray the Nationalists as having fought against both Hitler and Stalin and somehow on a par with the French resistance. Similarly distorted is the role of the 14th Waffen-SS Galizien Division (also known as the Halychyna Division). Formed in 1943 its main function was brutal anti-partisan work. Even after German withdrawal from the Ukraine, Nationalists stayed behind and continued to harass Soviet supply lines. Nationalist troops served Hitler in Ukraine, Poland, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Ukrainian collaborators assisted in the murder of hundreds of thousands in death camps like Treblinka, Sobibor, Yanowska and Trawniki. Such were the "anti-Nazi" credentials of those who Nationalists today would present as "national liberation fighters," "heroes of the Ukrainian people" and "patriots who struggled for a free Ukraine."

After the War

After the allied victory over Nazi Germany many collaborators sought to escape justice and retribution, looking for new lives in North America and elsewhere. Western intelligence agencies helped sanitize Nazi collaborators for emigration to new homelands in return for a new collaboration against Russia. The International Refugee Organization as well as the U.S. Displaced Persons Commission initially regarded the Ukrainian Nazis as ineligible for visas. This did not stop American intelligence agencies from presenting the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists as having been engaged in anti-Nazi combat. This was a complete fabrication, but persuaded the immigration authorities to change their stance. Laundered East European collaborators were put to work at Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the Voice of America and schools training U.S. intelligence officers in East European languages. Some were trained for sabotage operations within the Soviet Union and others employed as living witnesses of "communist terror" in the psychological conditioning of the American people for war against the USSR. The Ukrainian "famine-genocide" was but one of many themes. Ultimately it became more important to the immigration authorities in the U.S. and Canada whether one might be considered a communist rather than to have been a Nazi collaborator.


Over 65 years ago the fakery and political motivation of the pro-fascist publisher William Hearst were exposed by the American journalist Louis Fischer. In examining the record of those propagating the famine genocide campaign today, one is drawn to Fischer's conclusion:

"The attempt is too transparent, and the hands are too unclean to succeed."

Dr. John Puntis is a physician at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Department of Children´s Gastroenterology.


1. Fraud, Famine and Fascism. The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard. Progress Books, Toronto, 1987. ISBN 0-919396-51-8

This article was published in
Volume 53 Number 25 - November 2023

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