Stalinist `famine' controversy. Film from '30s finally gets first US airing

A `Firing Line' Special: The Media and `Harvest of Despair' PBS, tonight, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings for varying days and times). Host: William F. Buckley Jr. Panel participants: Robert Conquest, Christopher Hitchens, Harrison Salisbury. A 54-year-old catastrophe in the Ukraine is the subject of one of the most controversial programs of 1986.

According to ``Harvest of Despair,'' a shocking documentary produced by the Ukrainian Famine Research Committee in 1932-33, the Soviet Union under Stalin systematically starved to death one-quarter of the population of the Ukraine, often called ``the breadbasket of Europe,'' in a totally manmade famine created by levying impossible quotas on farm cooperatives and then making house-to-house collections of all available food.

This film, presented in full as a ``Firing Line'' special,'' has never found a place on American television until now. It makes no attempt to present other than an accusatory view of the tragedy. It declares that 7 million people died in the Ukraine. At one point 25,000 people a day were dying,``17 deaths per minute.'' According to the film, the genocide was ordered to break the back of the Ukrainian resistance to the collectivization ordered by the central Soviet government. In that period and to this day, the Soviet government insists there was no famine, that such reports are simply anti-Soviet propaganda.

In his foreword and afterword William F. Buckley makes an attempt to place the accusations in their proper context. He discusses the issues with with Robert Conquest, senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Christopher Hitchens, Washington columnist for the Nation magazine and the Spectator; and Harrison Salisbury, former New York Times Moscow correspondent.

Mr. Conquest is also the author of ``The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine,'' to be published this month by Oxford University Press. So his testimony, while expert, may be considered less than impartial.

All agree, however, that there is no doubt that the deliberate genocide actually occurred. What mades it even more despicable was the fact that it took place while enormous amounts of grain were stored in state mills, waiting to be exported in order to prove that there was no famine.

The story is told through witnesses, newsreels, and archival photos. Perhaps one of the harshest accusations comes from Malcolm Muggeridge, who charges that the Soviet cover-up was aided by such reporters as Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter Duranty of the New York Times, whose journalistic integrity Mr. Muggeridge strongly attacks. Mr. Salisbury, who has written a history of the New York Times, corroborates the charge that Duranty was guilty of distortion.

In the end, Mr. Buckley sees an analogy between Stalin's cover-up of the famine and Gorbachev's handling of the Chernobyl crisis.

Only Mr. Hitchens is bold enough in the framework of this program, to point out that Ukrainians were not blameless themselves in certain activities during and after World War II. Without condoning the famine, he accuses thousands of Ukrainian volunteers of participating in the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar.

Watching ``The Media and `Harvest of Despair' '' is not a pleasurable experience, as Buckley himself concludes. But it is a program that needs to be done, a program that needs to be seen and discussed. PBS, Buckley, and ``Firing Line'' are performing an enlightening, stimulating public service about a tragedy that commercial TV preferred to ignore in order to escape the inevitable controversy it will engender.

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