Because I write books about Soviet history, and because I often speak about them to U.S. or European audiences, I am frequently forced to confront the problem of Western indifference. Why, I am asked over and over, did British diplomats who knew about the man-made Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933 do nothing to stop it? The Catholic Church at that time was also aware that millions of Soviet citizens were dying because Joseph Stalin’s state had confiscated their food. Why did it not galvanize Europeans to send grain?
Many are intrigued and horrified, as am I, by the story of Walter Duranty, then the New York Times Moscow correspondent, who covered up the story of the Ukrainian famine, though he knew it was happening. Many are impressed when they read about Gareth Jones, the Welsh freelance reporter who told the truth about the famine but was not believed. So fascinating is the contrast between them that a new film (“Mr. Jones”) has been made about them, more than 80 years after Jones’s death.
Usually, when asked why Jones was ignored, or why the Vatican and the British foreign office kept silent, I explain that 1933 was also the year of Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany, so newspaper editors were distracted. Diplomats were already worried they would soon need Stalin as an ally. “Realists” such as the French politician Édouard Herriot — he made a trip to Ukraine in August 1933 and declared that he had found not hunger but “a garden in full bloom” — wanted their countries to trade with Russia. Besides, Ukraine, a distant Soviet republic, was a place that seemed alien and uninteresting to people in London, Paris and New York, most of whom probably felt they couldn’t do much about people suffering there anyway.
The audiences I speak to are sometimes unsatisfied with these answers. They want to talk about the perfidy of the Left or the New York Times, or they want to blame the U.S. president at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt. But blame is easy. Far more difficult, both for them and for me, is to admit something more profound: That precisely the same indifference, and the same cynicism, exist today.
Yes, the West looked the other way during the 1930s, when people were starving. But the West is also looking the other way in 2019, refusing to see the concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang province. [Continue reading…]