Eight reasons we see photos from other famines misrepresenting the Holodomor.
By Lana Babij, September 22, 2018.
- The existence of famine during the 1930’s was officially denied by the Soviet Government. (more)
- Photography in the Soviet Union was strictly monitored with numerous subjects forbidden. Cameras and film were inspected at borders and were frequently confiscated. Photographers seen as breaking the rules were arrested and subject to imprisonment.
- Very few photographs taken secretly by foreigners in order to show evidence of famine were successfully smuggled out of the Soviet Union. (more)
- The famine of 1921-1923 in Russia and Ukraine was not denied, and foreign assistance was welcomed. Hundred s of photographs were taken by aid workers to document their work and to solicit donations. Copies of these photos continue to be available in plentiful supply. (more)
- As early as the mid- 1930’s, some writers have deliberately used 1921-1923 photos in order to give a sense of the similar horrors of the Holodomor, without stating the true sources of the photographs. (more)
- Since that time, other writers have continued to use these misattributed photographs without questioning their validity. With the advent of social media for sharing images, the problem has increased. (more)
- Writers to this day would like to show a picture of what starvation looks like. (more)
- To date, there is no comprehensive, easily accessible guide to validated photographs showing evidence of famine during the Holodomor. (more)
- The existence of famine during the 1930’s was officially denied by the Soviet Government
As Anne Applebaum writes, in the “official, Soviet world,” the famine did not exist. “It did not exist in the newspapers, it did not exist in public speeches. Neither national leaders nor local leaders mentioned it—and they never would.” (Applebaum p.297)
Although numerous reports and letters were pouring in to foreign diplomatic offices of shocking famine conditions, official denial thwarted outside efforts of relief: “It would, of course, be impossible to issue an appeal, for several obvious reasons, after the denial by the Soviet Government of the existence of a famine.” In a letter from the head of the Save the Child Fund in 1933 to the British Foreign Office. (Carynnyk, p. 287)
“Great indignation has been expressed in the Soviet press at the establishment of a fund in Germany for the assistance of starving Germans in the Soviet Union…protesting against these stories of starvation as ‘Fascist lies…’” as reported in 1933 by William Strang of the British embassy in Moscow. (Carynnyk, p. 255.)
Medical personnel were told to provide other causes on death certificates rather than starvation.
At the village level, many death registration records were destroyed.
Even the official census records were tampered with. When the 1937 census showed several fewer million fewer people than expected, the head of the census bureau and several other officials were executed, and another census was commissioned to meet Stalin’s expectations.
Furthermore, every effort was made to control speaking or writing about the famine by the general public.
“Students and workers sent to the countryside to help bring in the 1933 harvest were often told bluntly not to speak of what they had seen….We were told to ‘sew up our mouths,’ one remembered. (Applebaum, p.298 n 7.)
A young man who survived the famine, went to serve in the Red Army in 1934 and asked an instructor of a political class about the famine. “He was sharply rebuked: ‘There was no famine and there cannot be, you will be locked up for ten years if you keep talking like this.’” (Applebaum, p. 297n 6.)
- Photography in the Soviet Union was strictly monitored with numerous subjects forbidden.
Numerous comments by visitors and others refer to the ban on specific subjects, and to the very real possibility of confiscation of cameras and film while in the Soviet Union.
“Did I know that it was forbidden to take photographs in the USSR without the permission from the GPU [Soviet secret police]? Did I know that professional photographers could not operate without a contract from the Soyuzphoto [official Soviet photo agency] or Soviet Photo Trust?” What the customs guards told American photojournalist James Abbe upon entering the Soviet Union in 1932. (Abbe, p.26)
“Andor Hencke is then a consul from Germany in Kiev (14). He and his family witness the horrors of the famine. During this time the Soviet newspapers affirm that there is a famine in Germany. Deeply shocked, Mrs. Hencke one day leaves the embassy, in spite of prohibitions, and leaves the city to take photographs of the corpses of the dead people from hunger. One finds some everywhere, on the step of the doors, on the corner of the streets. Carts collect them each morning. And everywhere the people beg. Conscious of the danger, the Soviet authorities take care thereafter to categorically prohibit more photographs and to destroy the negatives already taken…” (Thevenin (unpaged)).
- Very few photographs taken secretly by foreigners to show evidence of famine were successfully smuggled out of the Soviet Union
Hundreds of photographs were taken between 1932-1934 by visitors on official Intourist tours, foreign engineers and consultants, and photojournalists on approved photo assignments. They portray visitors standing in front of the impressive, newly constructed Dnipro hydroelectric dam; the new Ford built tractor factory, model hospitals, model children’s nurseries, model collective farms – even a model work camp in the Gulag; some photographs like those of Margaret Bourke White, celebrate the beauty of new construction and technology and the carefully staged energy of young workers building a new world while the US appeared to be stagnating in the Great Depression back home.
There are only a few dozen known photographs that have been confirmed as authentic that show famine and destitution, the so called “forbidden photographs” as called by photographer James Abbe. These photos were taken by:
Alexander Wienerberger, an Austrian engineer who spent several years in Russia as well as several months in Kharkiv in 1933 managing a chemicals factory. His photographs constitute the largest group depicting actual victims of famine, as well as general conditions of hunger, want, and destitution in Kharkiv and environs. His photographs, as published in the 1935 first edition of Muss Russland Hungern by humanitarian Ewald Ammende, are the first known authentic photographs of the famine in Ukraine to appear in book format. That year, he also donated an album of 25 photographs on the famine to the Catholic cardinal of Vienna at that time, Theodor Innitzer, who had been actively involved in trying to get aid to the starving.
James Abbe, a professional American photographer and photojournalist who spent several months in in the Soviet Union in 1932. Although based in Moscow, he also traveled briefly to Ukraine, where he took several “forbidden photographs” that captured the deprivations of residents and workers in Kharkiv and Zaporizhia, near the Dnipro Hydroelectric Dam. He himself was detained and interrogated 4 times during his 2 visits to the Soviet Union. According to an article by Helen Rappaport, “at some risk, he smuggled out his illicit negatives, sewn into the trousers of his youngest son.” (Rappaport, p.18)
He wrote a memoir, I Photograph Russia, the year following his last visit, filled with numerous keen and often ironic observations on his experiences with officials, fellow Americans, and ordinary citizens; and especially, about the vast hypocrisy of privilege amidst poverty and famine. It is very interesting as a primary resource eyewitness account, along with a variety of photographs both approved and forbidden.
Whiting Williams, a professional labor management consultant from Cleveland Ohio who visited the coal mining areas of the Donetsk region in Ukraine in the late 1920’s and again in 1933. He took a handful of photographs and wrote of his shocking observations. However, as a published and respected author, he was stunned to find that no major popular magazine in 1933 was willing to publish an article on the famine conditions he witnessed in Ukraine. It was not until early 1934 that Answers, a British weekly, published a 2 part series by Williams, including some photographs he took.
Other photographs exist that are claimed to be from the time of the 1930’s famine and were published in Germany and the US in the mid-1930’s. However, some of the photos included ones confirmed to be from the 1920’s or had other questionable aspects to their attribution and publication. These photographs are still under examination.
- The famine of 1921-1923 in Russia and Ukraine was not denied, and foreign assistance was welcomed. Hundred s of photographs were taken by aid workers to document their work and to solicit donations. Copies of these photos continue to be available in plentiful supply.
- As early as the mid- 1930’s, some writers have deliberately used 1921-1923 photos in order to convey the similar horrors of the Holodomor, without stating the true sources of the photographs.
- Since that time, other writers have continued to use these misattributed photographs without questioning their validity. With the advent of social media for sharing images, the problem has increased.
“…The first famine broke out in the summer of 1921 as a result of drought in the Volga Valley, Northern Caucasus and Southern Ukraine. The drought lasted two years in a row, and the famine was not over until 1923. After some hesitation, Lenin decided to acknowledge the dire conditions and appealed to the West for help.6 Moscow’s original request was for Russia only, but under pressure from the American Relief Administration (ARA) – the chief supplier of aid to Russia – and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which wanted to help the starving Jewish population of Ukraine, the Kremlin agreed to allow famine relief into Ukraine as well.7 Foreign aid began arriving in Russia at the end of the summer of 1921 and in Ukraine in the beginning of the following year. Foreign aid continued in both countries until the summer of Numerous foreign charities brought and distributed aid, observed the tragedy, and recorded it. Because showing films and photographs of the famine in the West would bolster public sympathy and increase private contributions for famine relief, it was in the Soviets’ interest to allow the famine to be recorded. Photographers had freedom of movement and easy access to the starving population. Hundreds of pictures were taken in Russia and Ukraine, most of them in the winter and spring of 1921-1922, and mainly in urban centers, where the relief activity was concentrated.
“The ARA, the JDC, the Nansen Committee of the League of Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and many other charitable organizations took pictures, published them in their bulletins, supplied them to newspapers, and printed them as postcards. These photographs can now be found in various archives.8 Famine looks the same the world over, and pictures of starving people resemble each other wherever they are taken. However, there can be little confusion between photographs from Russia and Ukraine because most of them were labeled. The relief agencies concentrated their photography on two things: the horrors of starvation and their work to alleviate it. These are the most common themes in the photographs: corpses p.66 Holodomor Studies of men, women, and children, piled up in morgues and cemeteries; cadavers cut up by starving people or ravaged by famished animals; emaciated children and adults; soup kitchens with children waiting in line or sitting at tables; food distribution points; food stores belonging to relief organizations.
There are also photographs, probably of Soviet origin, showing demented cannibals with their human wares. Finally, we have a few so-called “stolen pictures,” which depicted things that the Soviet authorities would not have wished to be shown abroad. One photograph from the port of Odesa reveals a ship being loaded with Ukrainian wheat for export; a set of pictures show an outdoor banquet enjoyed by Bolshevik functionaries and their American guest in the middle of a famine zone.
“The great famine of 1933 was different in many respects from that of No adverse natural force of any significance can be blamed for the calamity: the harvests throughout the whole period were adequate to feed the population. The famine was the result of exorbitant state “grain procurements, ”where “procurement” signified requisitioning of goods and not equitable “buying.” In Ukraine it was further intensified by the confiscation of all edibles from those who did not fulfill their imposed delivery quotas. Having caused the famine in the grain producing regions of Ukraine and the RSFSR, Stalin had no intention of alleviating it by asking for outside aid, or even letting the world know about it. Officially, there was no starvation in Ukraine and any claim of famine was treated as anti-Soviet propaganda. There were no foreign relief workers who could freely photograph what they witnessed, as there were in the 1920s. In fact, famine-ridden Ukraine and the Kuban region of the Northern Caucasus were closed to ordinary foreign tourists and journalists. Permission to travel was granted only to foreign communists and Soviet sympathizers, who would not want to take incriminating photographs. Soviet citizens would not dare take photographs of a “non-existing” famine. Under these circumstances, photographs of the famine would have to be taken surreptitiously, a fact that would be reflected in the appearance of this kind of documentary evidence.”
- Bernard M. Patenaude, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief to Soviet Russia in
the Famine o f 1921 (Stanford, CA, Stanford Univ. Press, 2002).
- Roman Serbyn, “The Famine of 1921-1923: A Model for 1932-1933?,” in Famine in
Ukraine: 1932-1933, ed. Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko (Edmonton: Canadian Institute
of Ukrainian Studies, Univ. of Alberta; Downsview, Ont., Canada: Distributed by the Univ.
of Toronto Press, 1986).
- The Ukrainian Red Cross put together a series of photographs and sent them abroad to
various foreign charitable organizations and to Ukrainian diaspora newspapers. The seventeen
pictures can be seen here: http://www.ukrlife.org/main/evshan/famine.htm
- In Kazakhstan, then part of the RSFSR, the famine was connected with the sedentarization
of the nomad population. (Serbyn, pp.65-66.)
- Writers to this day would like to show a picture of what starvation looks like
Particularly today in the “developed” world, we personally encounter very little actual involuntary starvation around us. Therefore, we feel that the visual impact of a photo of a starving person is needed to jar our senses as to the shocking physical nature of starvation.
The authentic photos we have from the Holodomor, because they were taken secretly so as not to be noticed, do not portray starved individuals, lined up and stripped down for the sake of showing the physical effects of starvation on the body. The photographers could not take photos in hospitals and morgues, where they would be forbidden to photograph what was denied. There were no food distribution and feeding stations, because foreign relief was not permitted in the Soviet Union. Foreigners were officially forbidden from visiting the rural areas of Ukraine throughout most of 1933, where they might see the devastation of starved out homes and villages.
If there is a need to illustrate the physical effects of starvation, certainly one can use any number of photographs of victims of other famines posed for the camera. However, such photos should only be used in circumstances where they can be prominently labelled via a caption as to their real date and location. It would also be strongly advised to state in the article or credits why a photo from another historical event was used: indicating that due to official denial by Soviet authorities, such explicit photos were prohibited and not available from the time of the Holodomor.
- To date, there is no comprehensive, easily accessible guide to validated photographs showing evidence of famine during the Holodomor.
Visit: Sources for authentic photos from the Holodomor for links to currently available photo resources. Please stay tuned for news of a new online directory of authentic “forbidden” photographs due out later this year.
Abbe, James E. I Photograph Russia. New York: McBride, 1934.
Ammende, Ewald, and Alexander Wienerberger. Muss Russland Hungern?: Menschen- und Völkerschicksale in der Sowjetunion. Wien: W. Braumüller Universitäts-Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1935.
Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine : Stalin’s War on Ukraine. First United States ed. New York: Doubleday, 2017.
Carynnyk, Marco, et al. The Foreign Office and the Famine : British Documents on Ukraine and the Great Famine of 1932-1933. Kingston, Ont: Limestone Press, 1988.
Rappaport, Helen. “Stalin and the Photographer.” History Today, June 2001: 12-19.
Serbyn, Roman. “Photographic Evidence of the Ukrainian Famines of 1921-1923 and 1932-1933.” Holodomor Studies 2, no. 1 (2010): 63-94
Thevenin, Etienne. “France, Germany and Austria Facing the Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine.” James Mace Memorial Panel, IAUS Congress. Donetsk, Ukraine, 2005.
Williams, Whiting. “My Journey Through Famine-Stricken Russia.” Answers, February 1934: 16-18.
Williams, Whiting. “Why Russia is Hungry!” Answers, March 1934: 3-4.