‘A Gift To Posterity’: Four Men Who Risked The Wrath Of Stalin To Photograph The Holodomor
(RadioFreeEurope article by Dmytro Dzhulay and Coilin O’Connor, published
If the Bolsheviks had got their way, the story of the Holodomor might never have been told.
Intent on ruthlessly presenting an idealized portrait of the Soviet Union at home and abroad, the U.S.S.R.’s bureaucracy did its utmost to stifle news of the devastating man-made famine orchestrated by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that killed some 4 million Ukrainians in 1932-33. Communist authorities forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other food products.
Even when the world finally got wind of what was happening, Moscow relentlessly strived to play down the situation, issuing wholesale denials while making every effort to ensure that photographic evidence of the tragedy was either suppressed or destroyed.
Nonetheless, a handful of photographers managed to defy the Soviet authorities by capturing the horrors of the Holodomor on film.
Some of these images were surreptitiously taken by foreigners, most notably Alexander Wienerberger, James Abbe, and Whiting Williams. Their work was subsequently published in the West and was seen as an important visual corroboration of this human tragedy, which had been brought to wider attention by whistle-blowers such as Gareth Jones and Ewald Ammende.
Other images depicting the impact of the famine were taken by local photographers like Mykola Bokan and remained unseen for many years.
Now, these once-forbidden photos can be viewed online by anyone, thanks to a unique database compiled by researchers.
U.S.-based Lana Babij and her colleagues Anastasia Leshchyshyn and Daria Glazkova at the Toronto office of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, a project of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) at the University of Alberta, have put together an extensive directory of some 100 pictures
Displayed together in one place for the first time, these images offer a searing visual account of how famine destroyed the lives of countless Ukrainians.
Given that work on the Holodomor has often been undermined by photos being used as illustrations which have nothing to do with the subject, the researchers have also gone to great lengths to authenticate each image and to provide the story behind every picture published.
In the course of their work, they even uncovered photos that had been lost or forgotten for decades, and some are being published for the first time.
Detailed information on the photographers and their work has also been provided, and their own personal observations of events offer unique insights into the horrors they witnessed.
Alexander Wienerberger (1891–1955)
Alexander Wienerberger’s collection of Holodomor photographs provides perhaps the most vivid and detailed visual evidence of the famine the Soviets tried so hard to hide.
An Austrian chemical engineer who spent almost two decades working in the U.S.S.R., Wienerberger was assigned to manage a plant in Kharkiv in 1932.
Not long after his arrival, the devastating impact of the Holodomor became clearly visible on the city’s streets.
Armed with a small and simple German Leica II camera, he spent months secretly photographing victims of starvation.
With the countryside devastated by collectivization, many of them were peasants who had fled en masse to Kharkiv. which was then the capital of Soviet Ukraine.
They had gone there in hopes of getting work and food, but instead they found only death.
Although Wienerberger lived far from the epicenter of the famine in Ukraine’s rural heartland, his photos provide an idea of the apocalyptic scale of the catastrophe.
Often complemented by darkly ironic and hauntingly evocative descriptions, these images capture the chaos of mass peasant migrations in search of food, desolate groups of homeless children starving on city streets, and emaciated corpses on roadsides.
Wienerberger was deeply moved by the horrors he witnessed, and it’s clear from his writings that he struggled to come to terms with what he saw.
“When picking up the corpses, scenes took place which must freeze the blood of every halfway civilized person,” he wrote. “Dead babies were snatched from the howling mothers, living babies taken from the dried-up breasts of the mute and dead mothers; children screamed and moaned.”
Weinberger’s photos also graphically illustrate the senseless deprivation of life in communist Ukraine in the 1930s, and he often expressed his loathing for the Soviet system, which he described as an “infernal power” that drove “a flourishing country, luxuriating in food of all kinds, into ruin.”
“What Wienerberger captured so vividly — and which perhaps is overlooked even today — is not only the agony of the dying victims, but the nightmarish quality of life at that time,” says Babij. “[It’s] an environment crowded by death, dying, and homelessness — and the residents themselves struggling to survive and make sense of it all.”
Appalled by the brutal indignities of everyday life in Kharkiv, Wienerberger returned to Austria in disgust in 1934, but not before arranging for his photographs to be safely shipped back to Vienna via diplomatic mail.
Upon getting home, he ensured that others got to see what was happening in Ukraine by embarking almost immediately on a series of lectures about his experiences in the Soviet Union. He presented his famine photos at these events and subsequently allowed his images to be used for anti-Bolshevik propaganda.
Wienerberger’s uncredited photos were also used as illustrations by Ewald Ammande in a book he published in an effort to highlight what was happening in Ukraine. He also presented a signed album of his photos to the Roman Catholic archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, as a gesture of appreciation for his efforts to set up a coordinated response to the Holodomor.
All efforts to raise the alarm fell on deaf ears, however. In the face of blanket Soviet denials, the international community was unwilling to exacerbate an already volatile geopolitical climate, so no outside aid was ever sent to Ukraine.
Wienerberger’s photographs later slipped into obscurity for decades, but they have received renewed attention in recent years. Describing his pictures as “a remarkable gift to posterity,” Babij says her research team has now compiled an extensive selection of his images, many of which “were previously unpublished and unknown.”
James Abbe (1883-1973)
James Abbe was a professional photographer who cut his teeth snapping the stars of theater and the silver screen in the 1920s.
He later became interested in photojournalism and gained recognition for photographing the likes of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco.
In 1932, he scored a coup by wangling permission to photograph a smiling Stalin in Moscow after taking his family to Russia for an extended reporting trip.
During a shoot that ran far beyond the allotted time, he appears to have made a good impression on the Soviet dictator.
One photo from this session was famously used to refute rumors of Stalin’s death, which had been circulating widely at the time.
This may have been the reason why he seems to have been deemed relatively trustworthy by the authorities, which meant he was more easily able to capture authentic scenes of Soviet life while ostensibly cooperating with the local agency Soyuzfoto.
As a foreign photographer working with the permission of the PR-conscious Soviets, Abbe naturally got to see several of the U.S.S.R.’s showcase projects, and even admitted to being impressed by some of the technical achievements he encountered.
“I felt like rushing to the telegraph office and shooting Stalin a wire congratulating him on having successfully industrialized the Soviet Union,” he said after visiting the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station and dam. But he also noted that the hotels he stayed in often had no food, bread, tea, or sugar.
His keen photographer’s eye didn’t miss the squalid conditions of the workers who were constructing these grandiose monuments to Soviet progress, however, and he frequently got into hot water with the authorities for taking pictures of things he wasn’t supposed to.
While being allowed to move around relatively unhindered, Abbe managed to secretly photograph many forbidden topics, such as food queues, the looting of churches, and even the funeral of Stalin’s second wife, who committed suicide.
During his seven-month stay, he first encountered the horrors of the Holodomor when he arrived at a railway station in Kharkiv in the summer of 1932 and was shocked to see the place inundated with hungry people who had fled the countryside in search of work and food. “And this was the Ukraine,” he later wrote of the experience. “The most fertile territory in the entire vast Soviet Union!”
Abbe ended up being arrested shortly afterward for photographing these starving peasants by the railroad tracks. It was not the first or last time he got into trouble with the local authorities, who took a dim view of his journalistic interest in sensitive topics.
The photographer’s ability to move among ordinary Soviet people while socializing easily with the communist elite meant he was also well-placed to record the stark contrasts that existed in what was being sold to the world as a progressive, classless society.
By day, in desolate mining towns, he would encounter throngs of hungry peasants looking for food who “preferred death to working on collective farms under the leadership of the Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Parties.”
By night he often dined lavishly at official functions where “it was impossible to sit down to a meal without facing a table groaning with caviar, roast turkey, chicken, cold fish of every description, pastries, even the rarest of all luxuries: tenderloin steak.”
Eventually, Abbe’s incessant interest in delicate subjects exhausted the Soviets’ patience, and he was ordered to pack his bags and leave after being caught taking unauthorized photos one time too many.
He managed to smuggle his forbidden pictures out of the country, however, by hiding the negatives in his youngest son’s pants.
These photographs later offered people a glimpse of what was really happening in the Soviet Union when Abbe published them in a book titled I Photograph Russia in 1934.
Despite the shocking nature of some of these images, however, they were only brief snapshots of events that did not convey the sheer scale of the tragedy. Abbe himself admitted that he never got the chance to photograph other dreadful sights, such as the mass deportations of peasants to labor camps or the dead bodies he encountered on city streets.
Whiting Williams (1878–1975)
As a journalist and labor relations specialist, it was perhaps inevitable that Whiting Williams’ work would take him to the Soviet Union.
After making a name for himself by pretending to be an ordinary worker and reporting undercover from mines and steel mills in the United States, it wasn’t long before he also traveled to the Donbas in Soviet Ukraine to observe labor conditions there at the start of the U.S.S.R’s first Five-Year Plan in 1928.
Although he was depressed by the bleak lives many Soviet workers were living, his disillusionment turned to outright horror in 1933 when he returned out of curiosity to find out how those he had met five years previously were faring.
“Everywhere, men and women were thinking of one thing, and that thing was bread,” he wrote of the starving people he encountered on the streets of cities or saw lying in ditches.
Despite the attentions of an officious chaperone, who he said “drives me crazy,” Whiting managed to covertly take snapshots of these distressing sights.
He was particularly struck by the hordes of homeless and hungry children he saw everywhere in Ukrainian cities, who he said, “live and die like wild animals.”
Thousands of these children were regularly rounded up by authorities, and Whiting managed to capture visual evidence of one of these raids in Kharkiv.
Writing in his diary later, he recalled how locals told him that they were sometimes not even taken to overcrowded, disease-ridden orphanages, but simply removed from the city and released back into the fields.
“And once, at least,” he wrote, “three wagons filled with youngsters were shunted into a siding and forgotten for three days. When, at the end of that time, someone found them, not one of the children remained alive.”
When he completed his two-week trip to Ukraine, Whiting was haunted by what he saw and felt it was essential to report on what was happening there.
After writing an article with photos intended for publication, he was stunned to find it was rejected by American magazines that had been happy to run his previous stories. At a time when Washington was considering establishing diplomatic relations with Moscow, one editor told him they didn’t want “overdo it” on “unfavorable” stories about the Soviet Union.
Thanks to help from his acquaintance James Abbe, who also encountered stiff resistance trying to get his photos published, Whiting eventually persuaded a British weekly to run his story. This article is now considered by researchers to have been the first photographic evidence of the Ukrainian famine to have been published in the international press.
It didn’t get the response he expected.
According to Babij, Whiting’s explosive report on conditions in Ukraine was “dismissed as sensationalist because so few corroborating accounts had made it into public circulation in the U.S.” At that time, she says, Walter Duranty, The New York Times’ influential correspondent in Moscow, was “echoing” Soviet propaganda — reporting on “the best crop in 50 years!” — while people lay dying on the streets.
Whiting’s contribution to shedding light on what happened in Ukraine has often been overlooked in subsequent decades, and the project researchers hope to rectify this with a detailed collection of his photographs and writings on his life and work.
Mykola Bokan (1881–1942)
While Wienerberger, Abbe, and Whiting are described by Daria Glazkova as “‘outsiders” in that they were “foreigners who observed [the] Holodomor without going through the hardships that the local population experienced,” Mykola Bokan was someone whose own family was severely affected by the famine.
Like many Ukrainians, Bokan and his seven children began going hungry when the situation became especially fraught in 1932.
With nobody able to pay him as a professional photographer, he had nothing to live on.
But he put the tools of his trade to good use by documenting things his family experienced.
One of his most poignant photographs shows them sitting down for a meager meal with the caption “300 days (three hundred!) Without a piece of bread until a miserable dinner.”