Peter Blow   Globe and Mail   Dec 13/86   Nowhere does he mention Stalin
Letter to the Editor:
Stalin's horrors

There is a curious omission in today's letter to the editor from Soviet embassy official Yuri Bogayevsky.  He tries to refute author Robert Conquest's account of the 1931-32 famine in the Ukraine, but nowhere in his letter does he mention Josef Stalin.

For the man-made nature of the famine is understandable only in relation to the man who made it: former Communist Party boss Stalin had a well-known contempt for peasants he saw them as "scum" in Nikita Khrushchev's recollection and no love for Ukrainians.

Mr. Bogayevsky explains the famine in terms of "severe drought," and tries to prove that the Ukraine was relatively unscathed.  But this version is disputed not only by Mr. Conquest but by exiled Soviet author Zhores Medvedev, who has written that, of the 23 million peasant households in Russia in 1929, only 17 million were registered after collectivization was completed in 1934.

"Of the missing 6 million households, some (... anyone who resisted collectivization) were arrested and deported.  Others died in the famine which affected the Ukraine and other grain-producing areas...  The famine was not a natural disaster.  It was man-made, entirely the result of collectivization and the forced procurement of excessive amounts of grain ... from the newly created collective farms."

Stalin made the famine, but, a half-century later, Moscow would rather efface his identity than fully confront his crimes.

I find it disturbing that the Toronto Board of Education is concerned over the authenticity of certain stills and film clips used in the documentary, Harvest of Despair (Famine Film's Authenticity Questioned Nov. 18).  What worries me is that the public may well infer from this furor that the film's claim (that the 1932-1933 Ukrainian famine was man-made) is itself of questionable authenticity.

I was the film's writer and the only non-Ukrainian on the production.  I was brought in primarily to prevent the film from being a biased interpretation no easy task when faced with an avalanche of gut-wrenching filmed interviews with survivors who describe graphically the agony of hunger, a landscape of death and cannibalism.

Often it was I who insisted on illustrating an eye-witness account with historic footage.  Why?  Because as filmmakers we sought maximum cinematic impact.

I recall one survivor in Harvest Of Despair describing how he had found his father on a collective farm with bloated legs, dying of starvation, with only half a pumpkin in the house to last the entire winter.  Our survivor then described how the Soviet Government troops had searched from house to house and removed every last kernel of grain.  We underlined his words with footage of an endless procession of horse carts leaving the villages, loaded with grain.

Now those shots may well have been filmed the year before, or the year after.  I don't honestly think we know.  It was most probably footage from a propaganda newsreel proclaiming Stalin's agricultural collectivization program as wonderfully efficient.  But in the context of our film those images spoke a thousand accusing words.  Now, if using that footage was wrong, does that imply that out eye-witness is a liar?

I hope the point remains clear: that the Toronto Board of Education is putting on trial here the standard methods of documentary film-making, and not the ugly reality of famine that claimed so many millions of lives.

Peter Blow