THE task of the foreign journalist who tries to report conditions in the large sections of Europe now ruled by dictatorships is delicate and difficult. When it is a matter of inflicting suffering upon individuals or classes which block the realization of their goals, dictators are hardboiled to the last degree. But they are as sensitive as the most temperamental artist when the effects of their ruthless policies are criticized, or even when they are stated objectively without comment. The foreign correspondent who disregards this sensitiveness, hews to the line of factual reporting, and does not hide behind softening euphemisms and compromise phrases, works under a Sword of Damocles -- the threat of expulsion from the country or of the refusal of permission to reënter it, which of course amounts to the same thing.

A typical illustration of the workings of the dictatorial mind was the angry and outraged reaction of the Soviet officials to a message sent out by a foreign correspondent in the winter of 1932-1933 about the deportation en masse of the greater part of the population of several Cossack villages in the Kuban Territory where the peasants, with a keen sense of impending famine, had endeavored to conceal grain from the state requisitionings. These deportations were not mentioned in the Moscow newspapers, but received a good deal of detailed publicity in Molot, the Soviet newspaper published in the regional center, Rostov-on-the-Don. The correspondent, therefore, had unimpeachable official authority for reporting the fact of the deportations; yet the censor refused to pass his message when it was submitted as a press telegram, and was very indignant when the correspondent sent it out by mail. It was considered distinctly bad form to write in specific and positive terms about the process of driving from their homes and exiling to the bleak wastes of Siberia tens of thousands of people, including old men, women and children. A more figurative and generalized description of the fate of these Kuban peasants, couched in some such terms as "state-encouraged colonization of Russia's unsettled open spaces" or of "eggs being broken in order to make the socialist omelette" would, of course, have been the way to treat the matter.

Inasmuch as my own journalistic experience has been confined to the Soviet Union, I propose to restrict myself to a description of the official taboos which I learned to identify and recognize there, leaving to colleagues who have had experience under other forms of dictatorship to fill out the picture by listing the official inhibitions of other countries. Since the Soviet system of government represents a dictatorship of the most perfected type, and is second to no régime in the world in its technique of detecting and crushing the faintest symptoms of political criticism and opposition, the official pressure of various kinds which is brought to bear on foreign journalists in Russia naturally is vastly greater than would be conceivable in a democratic country and rather stronger than is customary under dictatorships, so far as I can judge by comparing notes with journalists who have worked under dictatorships of the fascist and military type. Thus the Soviet Government is unique, I think, in enforcing a preliminary censorship of all press telegrams; and its action in 1933 in refusing to permit foreign journalists to leave Moscow without special permission is unprecedented, at least in European countries.

Among the aspects of Soviet life on which, as a result of official taboos, very imperfect and incomplete information has reached the outside world during recent years, I would especially mention: the great famine of 1932-1933; the permanent administrative system of arbitrary arrests, followed by exile to forced labor under inhuman conditions; the persecution of religion; and the depreciation of the Soviet ruble.


To anyone who lived in Russia in 1933 and who kept his eyes and ears open the historicity of the famine is simply not open to question. There may be differences of opinion about the causes of the famine, about the probable number of victims, about the conclusions to be drawn from it. But it is beyond dispute that an enormous mortality--from outright starvation, from typhus, from influenza and other diseases to which there was less than normal resistance because of the starved condition of the peasants -- took place in the rural districts of Ukraina, the North Caucasus, the Lower and Middle Volga and Central Asia. Foreign residents of Ukraina with whom I talked in the autumn of 1933 estimated the mortality at seven or eight million. A Communist acquaintance in Ukraina with whom I discussed the question after I had returned from a trip of investigation in the regions which had been hardest hit, admitted in strictly private conversation that a million people, over and above the normal death rate, had probably perished there. However, he cast the blame for the catastrophe on the obstinacy of the peasants themselves and endeavored to divert attention from the corpses of the present to the hypothetical happy collective farmers of the future.

Officially there was no famine. For the controlled Soviet press and for the censor who kept a watchful eye on foreign press messages it simply did not exist. Correspondents could refer to "acute food shortage," "food stringency," "food deficit" (to cite a delightful euphemism which I noticed recently), "diseases due to malnutrition," etc. -- phrases which, to the American reader, unversed in the art of reading between the lines of messages written under a dictatorship, would suggest that Ukraina and the North Caucasus were experiencing hard times something like those one would find in a city or county with a serious and prolonged local relief problem.

During the period of the famine the censorship was greatly aided by the introduction of a new ruling under which correspondents might not leave Moscow without submitting a detailed itinerary and obtaining special travel permission from the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. Permissions were systematically withheld when it was a question of travelling in the rural regions of Ukraina and the North Caucasus. It was only with considerable difficulty that the sole French correspondent in Moscow obtained permission to meet M. Herriot, arriving on a goodwill tour in Odessa. The correspondent was strictly forbidden to stray off the route which had been marked out for Herriot and his party, from which, naturally, all unpleasant traces of famine had been carefully removed.

In view of this situation, resident correspondents in Moscow could not be expected to risk expulsion by writing famine stories on the basis of rumors which reached Moscow, but which might conceivably be greatly exaggerated, and which could not be verified by personal investigation. The story of the famine, which rivalled the famine of 1921-1922 in taking more victims than any other disaster since the World War, was effectively "killed." By the time permission to travel in the rural districts was again extended, in the autumn of 1933, a favorable new harvest had been reaped; the more ghastly visible traces of starvation had been removed; the story of the famine, from a news standpoint, no longer rated the front page. It had become ancient history.

Even history, however, has its uses and its lessons; and a brief description of what I found during a trip of investigation in three widely separated districts, one in the North Caucasus and two in Ukraina, may indicate how far the Soviet official taboo on the question of famine distorted outside opinion about the course of Russia's agricultural reorganization and the price which it was exacting.

In the Kavkazkaya district of the North Caucasus I found an appalling deterioration in the physical condition of a region that before the World War and after the recovery from revolution and civil war had been one of the most fertile in Russia. The herds of cattle and flocks of sheep had shrunk almost to nothing; the fields were fairly choked with weeds; the fierce, snapping dogs, always a feature of the typical Cossack village, had vanished, having died or been eaten up. In the first house which I entered, quite at random, there were three survivors, an older Cossack woman, her daughter, and the small baby of the latter. In that household there had been seven victims: the brother of the younger woman, his wife and five children. In one of the larger Cossack villages, Kazanskaya, the head of the local Soviet, a man named Nemov, assured me that peasant estimates of a mortality of a third or a half of the population were greatly exaggerated. "I can assure you," he said to me, "on the basis of our official figures, that only 850 died out of a former population of 8,000."

In Poltava, center of a formerly rich farming region in Northern Ukraina, the maid in the hotel where I stopped burst out with a vivid and quite unsolicited account of the terrible scenes which the town had lived through during the winter and spring: dying children clinging to dead parents; carts making their rounds and picking up the corpses lying in the streets. Her testimony was confirmed by scores of people with whom I talked in the town and in the surrounding villages.

The third district which I visited was in the sugar-beet country west of the Dnieper, in the neighborhood of Belaya Tserkov, southwest of Kiev. Here, in one village, Cherkass, which is a few miles south of Belaya Tserkov, I was told by the secretary of the local Soviet, an Ukrainian Young Communist named Fishenko, that about 600 of the village's 2,000 inhabitants had perished. Cherkass was much the worst place that I found.

An estimate of a mortality of ten percent -- lower in the towns, slightly higher in the villages -- for Ukraina, the North Caucasus and the other regions which suffered from famine would, I believe, be conservative and moderate. If we make allowance for a normal mortality of perhaps two and a half percent, this means that approximately four million people died as a result of famine. The phrases about "food stringency" and "diseases due to malnutrition" which could be reconciled with the Soviet taboo scarcely conveyed to the world an adequate idea of this situation.

Regarding the causes of the famine I obtained an enlightening expression of opinion from Mr. Mezhuev, President of the Poltava District Soviet Executive Committee. Mr. Mezhuev personally made the impression of being a humane and likable man who had done what he could, with quite inadequate means, to relieve some of the worst consequences of the famine by organizing a campaign to pick up the numerous orphaned children in Poltava and neighboring villages and place them with peasant families or in children's homes. It was all the more striking, therefore, to hear him admit that there had been a purposeful element in the famine. I had suggested, as diplomatically as possible, that the loss of life might have been averted if the requisitions of the peasants' grain had been suspended or if food had been imported from abroad. Mezhuev replied deliberately, weighing his words carefully: "To have imported grain from abroad would have been injurious to our prestige. To have relaxed the requisitions would have meant that the peasants never would have worked hard again, because they would have always expected the Government to come to their aid. The Government went on the path which it chose consciously (soznatelno)."

On the spot the realities of the famine were not open to question. But in Moscow the game of pretending that it never occurred, for the benefit of the credulous foreign tourist, continued. An official in the Commissariat for Health, to whom I addressed an inquiry about the number of deaths from famine, probably taking me for a newly arrived visitor, blandly replied: "Such a question could only excite a smile. There have been no deaths from hunger at all."


A second very emphatic taboo concerns the widespread system of forced labor and the general technique of administrative repression. The bold and harsh expression "forced labor" is not allowed to pass the Soviet censorship, always being altered to the more harmless-sounding "labor of prisoners." More significant than these verbal niceties is the circumstance that no independent foreign observer has been permitted to visit the huge concentration camps organized by the formidable OGPU and carried on under the direction of that body after its absorption into the new Commissariat for Internal Affairs.[i]

Early in 1931, Premier Molotov, at a session of a Congress of Soviets, expressed great indignation at the stories of forced labor in Soviet timber camps which had appeared in foreign countries. There were, he admitted, 60,000 prisoners, employed on road and canal building, misguided spirits whom the Soviet régime was reclaiming for useful citizenship, even making provision for their spiritual welfare by carrying on "political cultural educational work" among them. But allegations of forced labor in timber camps were base inventions; and foreign journalists, who "enjoyed freedom of movement," were invited by the Premier to investigate conditions for themselves.

The writer of this article, somewhat naively, took Premier Molotov at his word and set out for the forest region of Karelia, where there were known to be a large number of prison camps under the direction of the OGPU. But while the local authorities were willing to facilitate visits to peasant villages where timber-cutting was a regular occupation of the inhabitants (concerning which, incidentally, no stories of special cruelty and hardship had ever been published), a request to visit the huge penal colony on the Solovetzky Islands or some of the other OGPU concentration camps met with curt refusal from the camp commandants. The Karelian civilian Soviet authorities were helpless in the matter. A Canadian woman journalist who subsequently attempted to visit the camps was not only refused admittance, but was summarily expelled from the Soviet Union when she wrote some articles about the forced labor system which offended the OGPU's sensitive nerves.

The system, whether one calls it "forced labor" or "labor of prisoners," works out in practice as follows. Masses of people are rounded up, herded like cattle in freight-cars and transported either to timber camps in the remote northern regions of European Russia and Siberia or to big new construction enterprises such as the Magnitogorsk and Kuznetzk steel plants, the Cheliabinsk tractor factory, or the canals which have been built between the White and Baltic Seas and which are now in process of construction between the Volga and Moscow Rivers. Here they are given the alternative of starvation or of working long hours at hard unskilled work for a bare subsistence ration. So-called kulaks, former well-to-do peasants and peasants who opposed collectivization, constitute the main source of recruits for this huge army of industrial peonage, the numbers of which at any one time have certainly not been less than one million and today are probably in the neighborhood of two million. But one also finds priests, engineers convicted of "sabotage," workers who have violated disciplinary rules, Soviet citizens of all classes who have fallen foul of the farflung system of administrative repression.

A student of comparative terrorism might be interested in the implications of one of the very few definite statements which the Soviet authorities have ever made on the number of its forcedlabor prisoners. In the summer of 1933, at the time of the completion of the canal between the Baltic and White Seas, built entirely under the supervision of the OGPU with the labor of its industrial peons, a communiqué stated that 71,000 persons had received complete or partial amnesty. At the height of the Hitler terror in Germany there were never so many prisoners in all the German concentration camps. And this figure of 71,000 covered only part of the prisoners in one of a great many Soviet concentration camps.

The policy of excluding foreign journalists from the camps, and the extreme skittishness which the censor displays when a correspondent attempts to refer to forced labor or to executions and acts of wholesale banishment which have not been officially reported in the Soviet press, tend to draw a pretty effective veil over one of the less attractive sides of life under the Soviets. Occasionally the issue of forced labor in the Soviet Union is confused by the suggestion that prisoners in all countries are obliged to work. What is objectionable in the Soviet system of forced labor camps is not the labor system per se, but the incarceration of enormous numbers of people without any pretense of fair trial, the abominable conditions of food and housing which are described by former inmates (most recently by Professor Tchernavin, a distinguished ichthyologist, who succeeded in escaping with his wife and child), and the systematic overwork.


A third taboo applies to any description of the persecution of religion in Russia. A foreign correspondent in Moscow is effectively quarantined against contact with the leaders of any Russian religious organization. Any communication to the foreign press of specific facts regarding the arrest of priests or ministers, the arbitrary closing of churches, or discrimination against persons professing religious belief, would lead to swift and merciless reprisals in the form of wholesale arrests and deportations. I was in Germany during an acute phase of the struggle between Reichsbischof Mueller and the opposition forces in the German Lutheran Church. I was amazed at the possibility which the opposition found to state its case in privately circulated pamphlets and in declarations from the pulpit, and also at the full reports on the situation which reached the foreign correspondents and were telegraphed abroad. Nothing of the kind could have occurred in Russia.

The fact of religious persecution, like the fact of the 1933 famine or the fact of the widespread resort to forced labor, is not open to serious question. In considering Soviet policy towards religion one can draw a line of distinction between some features of it which do not imply persecution and other aspects which clearly do. The confiscation of the landed property of the Church, the separation of Church and State, the elimination of religious teaching in the schools, the facilities given anti-religious propaganda -- such measures cannot reasonably be described as "persecution." On the other hand, the word can quite properly be applied to such familiar legislative and administrative practices as the refusal to permit the printing or importation of religious books, the suppression of practically all institutions for the training of priests and ministers of all creeds, the refusal to permit churches to carry on any kind of charitable or recreation activity among their members, the barring of children of priests from higher education, the frequent arbitrary closing of churches, and the arrest and deportation of priests, ministers and other persons who are active in religious work. I do not think that anyone familiar with the facts of Russian religious life today would fail to recognize that representatives of all religious faiths are being persecuted at least as vigorously as Dissenters and Catholics were persecuted under Charles II. But as a result of the Soviet taboo, and the effective isolation of foreigners from contact with representatives of Russian religious bodies, the full story of the repressive aspects of the Soviet crusade against all forms of religion is not and cannot be written.


Another taboo relates to that highly changeable and peculiar unit of currency, the Soviet ruble. Officially the ruble has remained as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar throughout the storms and stresses of the world financial crisis. Officially, the dollar now buys only 1.12 rubles as against 1.94 before the American devaluation. The unofficial facts in regard to the status of the ruble are substantially different from the official fiction. The free market rate in Moscow is not 1.12 rubles to the dollar but 40 rubles to the dollar; and still higher prices are quoted in out-of-the-way provincial towns where foreign currency of any kind is even more highly prized.

The depreciation in internal buying power has not been as great as the unofficial rate of exchange would suggest. But it would be extremely conservative to estimate that, taking account of those items in a typical Russian family budget which have advanced moderately as well as those, like food, which have risen in price fantastically, it takes five rubles today to buy what one ruble bought in 1928. During the same period of time paper ruble wages in the Soviet industries approximately doubled. Real wages in the Soviet Union, therefore, declined severely, much more heavily than in West European and American countries where the reduction in money wages was partially compensated by a fall in the cost of living.

But one finds no hint of this certainly relevant fact in any of the Soviet economic publications on the country's progress under planned economy. There the ruble is always treated as an unchanged unit of value, and the edifying moral is drawn that wages constantly rise in the Soviet Union while they constantly fall in the world of decaying capitalism. As for the dispatches of foreign correspondents stationed in Moscow, the censorship strongly deprecates, to put it mildly, any discussion of the Soviet currency and most of all any hint of the extent to which it has depreciated.

Obviously the official taboos on various subjects which prevail under dictatorial forms of government are a serious obstacle to objective political and economic study. Equally obviously, nothing particular can be done about them on the spot. Every government has the unquestionable right -- unquestionable by foreigners, at any rate -- to establish censorship regulations and to bar "undesirable aliens" from its territory. If the Soviet Government chooses to avail itself of the former right and to exercise the second in such a way as to create a systematic blacklist of all foreigners who express themselves critically or even merely too specifically -- that is to say, without benefit of softening euphemisms -- this is its own concern. But it is perhaps not without advantage for the uninitiated reader of books, magazine articles and news dispatches about Soviet Russia to be given a general idea of the taboos which exist in that country and which make the path of the student and the news-gatherer thornier there than elsewhere.

[i]Cf. the author's "The Evolution of Soviet Terrorism," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1934.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLIN, for some years Moscow correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor; author of "Soviet Russia" and "Russia's Iron Age"
  • More By William Henry Chamberlin