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‘A Gift To Posterity’: Four Men Who Risked The Wrath Of Stalin To Photograph The Holodomor

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.

Lana Babij and her colleagues Daria Glazkova and Anastasia Leshchyshyn at the Toronto Holodomor Research and Education Center have put together an extensive directory of some 100 pictures by these photographers of one of the most tumultuous events in Ukraine’s history.

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 photo and to provide the story behind every picture published.

In the course of their work, they even uncovered images 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

Alexander Wienerberger

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.

Taken in central Kharkiv by Wienerberger in 1933, his caption for this photo describes the subject as "the body of a famine victim on the street."

Taken in central Kharkiv by Wienerberger in 1933, his caption for this photo describes the subject as “the body of a famine victim on the street.”

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.

The body of a young man lying dead on the streets of Kharkiv in 1933. One of Wienerberger's most famous Holodomor images, this photo was part of the so-called Innitzer Album, given to Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna in appreciation for his ultimately fruitless efforts to organize international relief for Ukraine.

The body of a young man lying dead on the streets of Kharkiv in 1933. One of Wienerberger’s most famous Holodomor images, this photo was part of the so-called Innitzer Album, given to Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna in appreciation for his ultimately fruitless efforts to organize international relief for Ukraine.

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.

In an image described by Wienerberger as depicting "all stages of starvation," three men lie dead or dying on the streets of Kharkiv as passersby pay them scant attention.

In an image described by Wienerberger as depicting “all stages of starvation,” three men lie dead or dying on the streets of Kharkiv as passersby pay them scant attention.

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.”

A photo taken by Wienerberger in Kharkiv in the spring or summer of 1933. His handwritten caption on the picture simply states: "Mother with her starving children."

A photo taken by Wienerberger in Kharkiv in the spring or summer of 1933. His handwritten caption on the picture simply states: “Mother with her starving children.”

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.”

Simply titled "A Worker's Dwelling," Weinberger wrote that this was typical accommodation for many of the employees at the factory he managed. It is one of several unknown Wienerberger Holodomor photos that came to light during the compilation of the directory.

Simply titled “A Worker’s Dwelling,” Weinberger wrote that this was typical accommodation for many of the employees at the factory he managed. It is one of several unknown Wienerberger Holodomor photos that came to light during the compilation of the directory.

“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.”

Another of the Wienerberger photos in the directory that has not been seen until now. Caustically captioned "An Alternative Pension Plan," it shows an elderly man in distress begging on a bridge in Kharkiv in 1932.

Another of the Wienerberger photos in the directory that has not been seen until now. Caustically captioned “An Alternative Pension Plan,” it shows an elderly man in distress begging on a bridge in Kharkiv in 1932.

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

James Abbe

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.

One of the pictures of Josef Stalin taken by James Abbe, who spent nearly half an hour in the Soviet dictator's company during a photo shoot that was supposed to last five minutes.

One of the pictures of Josef Stalin taken by James Abbe, who spent nearly half an hour in the Soviet dictator’s company during a photo shoot that was supposed to last five minutes.

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.

A photograph by James Abbe from 1932, showing youngsters in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region standing near their homes, which housed workers involved in building the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. Completing this massive project, which saw tens of thousands of laborers working in dire conditions, was one of the goals of the first Soviet Five-Year plan.

A photograph by James Abbe from 1932, showing youngsters in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya region standing near their homes, which housed workers involved in building the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. Completing this massive project, which saw tens of thousands of laborers working in dire conditions, was one of the goals of the first Soviet Five-Year plan.

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.

Although Abbe was aware that "photographing any queue is taboo, especially a food queue," he managed to capture these workers in 1932 as they waited outside a food distribution center before it opened for the day. The Dnieper hydroelectric dam can be seen in the background.

Although Abbe was aware that “photographing any queue is taboo, especially a food queue,” he managed to capture these workers in 1932 as they waited outside a food distribution center before it opened for the day. The Dnieper hydroelectric dam can be seen in the background.

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.

Hungry and exhausted peasants wait by the railroad tracks in Kharkiv in 1932.

Hungry and exhausted peasants wait by the railroad tracks in Kharkiv in 1932.

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.”

A posed picture, which Abbe was obviously permitted to take, of an extravagant reception he attended. "While the peasant starves, our distinguished foreign visitor fares very nicely..." he later wrote of this photo. "Especially if he signs an affidavit stating that he has seen no famine in the Don Basin."

A posed picture, which Abbe was obviously permitted to take, of an extravagant reception he attended. “While the peasant starves, our distinguished foreign visitor fares very nicely…” he later wrote of this photo. “Especially if he signs an affidavit stating that he has seen no famine in the Don Basin.”

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)

Whiting Williams

Whiting Williams

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.

A photo of an emaciated woman outside a factory in Ukraine taken by Whiting Williams in August 1933. The fact that she is dressed in a heavy overcoat and boots at the height of summer suggests that she may have been homeless and forced to wear and carry all her belongings with her. A caption by Whiting on the back of the original photo describes the woman as "one of the weaker ones whose very life depends on, not the present crop but the present harvest."

A photo of an emaciated woman outside a factory in Ukraine taken by Whiting Williams in August 1933. The fact that she is dressed in a heavy overcoat and boots at the height of summer suggests that she may have been homeless and forced to wear and carry all her belongings with her. A caption by Whiting on the back of the original photo describes the woman as “one of the weaker ones whose very life depends on, not the present crop but the present harvest.”

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.”

This photo taken by Whiting Williams in August 1933 appeared in an article he wrote for a British magazine a year later but had been largely forgotten until now. It was originally published with the caption "Factory women passing a tiny victim of famine: a dead child lying on a pavement in Kharkov."

This photo taken by Whiting Williams in August 1933 appeared in an article he wrote for a British magazine a year later but had been largely forgotten until now. It was originally published with the caption “Factory women passing a tiny victim of famine: a dead child lying on a pavement in Kharkov.”

Thousands of these children were regularly rounded up by authorities, and Whiting managed to capture visual evidence of one of these raids in Kharkiv.

Another photo taken by Whiting in Kharkiv in August 1933 that appeared in the British press. The original photo has this handwritten description on its reverse side: "The wagon of the boy-catcher -- gathering up some of the 18,000 boys reported left last winter in Kharkiv by their parents."

Another photo taken by Whiting in Kharkiv in August 1933 that appeared in the British press. The original photo has this handwritten description on its reverse side: “The wagon of the boy-catcher — gathering up some of the 18,000 boys reported left last winter in Kharkiv by their parents.”

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.

A permitted photograph taken by Williams on an official tour of a collective farm in August 1933. According to Whiting, many of these workers were drafted in from Soviet cities to help with gathering crops in Ukraine as so many local peasants had either died from starvation or were too malnourished to work. Whiting was confidentially told that the poor rations they received meant that many of these "volunteer" harvesters became seriously ill and some never recovered.

A permitted photograph taken by Williams on an official tour of a collective farm in August 1933. According to Whiting, many of these workers were drafted in from Soviet cities to help with gathering crops in Ukraine as so many local peasants had either died from starvation or were too malnourished to work. Whiting was confidentially told that the poor rations they received meant that many of these “volunteer” harvesters became seriously ill and some never recovered.

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.

The first of two articles published by Whiting Williams in the British magazine Answers in 1934.

The first of two articles published by Whiting Williams in the British magazine Answers in 1934.

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)

Mykola Bokan (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Mykola Bokan (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

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.”

Mykola Bokan (far right) and his family pose for a watery meal marking "300 days" without bread. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Mykola Bokan (far right) and his family pose for a watery meal marking “300 days” without bread. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Bokan subsequently compiled a journal of his experiences with photos as illustrations, and his account of events shows the devastating impact that the famine had on this ordinary Ukrainian family.

A page of Bokan's photo journal documenting his famine experience. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

A page of Bokan’s photo journal documenting his famine experience. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

As the hunger began to bite, Bokan forced his eldest son, Volodymyr, to leave home to try and fend for himself.

The forced departure was deeply resented by the young man. Windows were broken and threats issued before he could be persuaded to go.

Bokan would later describe his son’s fate as a life that descended into “begging, extortion, and hooliganism.”

Volodymyr Bokan (third from left) takes leave of his family in June 1932. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Volodymyr Bokan (third from left) takes leave of his family in June 1932. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Later, in the summer of 1933, when the family had not seen bread on the table for 10 months, another son, Konstantin, died of exhaustion from work on a collective farm. He was just 22 years of age.

Like many other experiences, Bokan diligently went about recording his loss, even photographing the place where his son had died.

One of Mykola Bokan's sons sits at the spot where his brother, Konstantin, had passed away hours earlier. According to Bokan's memoirs, his son had collapsed and died in the presence of passersby on a nearby road. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

One of Mykola Bokan’s sons sits at the spot where his brother, Konstantin, had passed away hours earlier. According to Bokan’s memoirs, his son had collapsed and died in the presence of passersby on a nearby road. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

“In two months of work on the collective farm, my son received a grave, a pit, and a cart to the cemetery — that’s all he earned,” he wrote.

Simply titled "In The Coffin," this photo shows Konstantin Bokan not long after his death from malnutrition, aged 22. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Simply titled “In The Coffin,” this photo shows Konstantin Bokan not long after his death from malnutrition, aged 22. (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Bokan’s uniquely personal insight into the tragedy of the Holodomor didn’t surface until 2007, when researchers came across his images in the SBU security service’s local archive in Chernihiv.

Mykola Bokan stands at his son Konstantin's final resting place. A small handwritten note at the bottom of the photograph says "Kostia's grave." (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

Mykola Bokan stands at his son Konstantin’s final resting place. A small handwritten note at the bottom of the photograph says “Kostia’s grave.” (Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, fonds 6, case № 75489-fp, volume 2)

They were part of a criminal file on the photographer. As members of a religious sect, he and his son, Borys, had been arrested in 1938. They were later sentenced to a labor camp for “counterrevolutionary activity.” Bokan died before completing his eight-year term in 1942, three years after Borys.

Murk Of Misinformation

Like Bokan’s photographs, many of the other images compiled by the Toronto researchers have also languished unseen for decades, and it’s hoped that the directory will become a vital resource for anyone researching the Holodomor.

As it’s a sensitive topic, which was clouded for decades by communist propaganda and disinformation, the researchers have also compiled several photographs that have absolutely nothing to do with the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33.

Over the years, several photographs from other famines have wrongly been used to illustrate articles on the Holodomor. One example is this image of skeletal children in southern Ukraine in 1921-22.

Over the years, several photographs from other famines have wrongly been used to illustrate articles on the Holodomor. One example is this image of skeletal children in southern Ukraine in 1921-22.

These images of the 1921-1923 famine in Russia and Ukraine have often been wrongly used to illustrate work on the Holodomor, much to the detriment of research on the topic.

“Holodomor awareness activists and the general public tended to keep recycling the same indiscriminate mix of legitimate and highly emotive non-Holodomor photos, even to the present day,” says Babij. “It is fairly well known that a couple of English-language Holodomor-denial publications appeared in the 1980s and became quite popular — basing their denial in part on the fact that 1920s photos and others of suspect origin were used as photographic evidence of the Holodomor.”

In a bid to help cut through the murk of misinformation that still surrounds the subject, the researchers have also included these images that have been misused or incorrectly linked to the Ukrainian famine, with details of their true origin.

Babij and her colleagues also hope to regularly update the Holodomor directory, adding more authentic photos of the famine, and the personal observations of the photographers as they come to light. All of the images collected, along with extensive background information and copyright details, can be viewed here.

Written by Coilin O’Connor based on a report by Dmytro Dzhulay for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

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