Rhea Clyman had been hardly prepared to see what she saw in the Ukrainian countryside in 1932. This was despite the fact that the journalist had worked in the Soviet Union for four years and knew the realities of the country, she had even gone to the Soviet Arctic due to her desire to see camps of the Gulag (she reached the far north of Russia by train and even managed to see prisoner gangs at work, but was prevented from going inside by officers of the OGPU, the Soviet secret police). So, in the fall of 1932, she and two American women went on a car trip from Moscow through Kharkiv, the Donbas, the Kuban, and farther still, all the way to the Caucasus. They saw children reduced to eating grass; empty houses whose owners had starved to death or been sent to rot in Siberia as kulaks; peasants begging for bread – it was hard to believe that all that was happening in the country dubbed “the breadbasket of Europe.” The trip was interrupted by the secret police in Tbilisi where Clyman was expelled from the Soviet Union as a “bourgeois troublemaker.”
Until recently, almost nobody knew about Clyman, both in her homeland of Canada and in other countries, apart from a narrow circle of researchers, such as the historian Jars Balan. Clyman and her work are covered in the documentary Hunger for Truth, made by the French-American director and producer Andrew (Andrii) Tkach (the latter form of his name is how he prefers to be known). He was invited to work on this project by the Canadian-Ukrainian Foundation. The project has also involved the #BABYLON’13 association, which Tkach worked with when preparing the movie Generation Maidan: A Year of Revolution & War.
The film is not only about the past, since Tkach intertwines Clyman’s story with that of Serhii Hlondar, a soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces who has spent more than two years in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)’s captivity. In this way, he shows “continuity” in the Russian elite’s efforts to destroy the free Ukraine.
Hunger for Truth was shown on the UA: First TV channel on May 8, the Memory and Reconciliation Day. However, the film is still being worked on, and the final version is planned to be launched in Kyiv on May 21 (the screening will be held at the Ukrainian House at 7 p.m.). We met Tkach in the morning, and he was short on time because subtitling and sound editing still needed to be done. However, we managed to discuss Clyman’s incredible story as well as propaganda and the search for truth.
“CLYMAN KNEW FIRSTHAND HOW THE SOVIET SYSTEM WORKED”
How did you learn about Clyman?
“Three years ago, I was doing a documentary called Generation Maidan. This drew the attention of the Canadian-Ukrainian Foundation. Its representatives told me they had a film project in the works and invited me to do it. They, in particular the historian Jars Balan who researched the story of Clyman, were the ones to tell me about the journalist. I said it was not for me at first. There is not much information about Clyman, just newspaper reports. Actually, they gave me Clyman’s texts about the Soviet Arctic and the Holodomor and some of her reports from Nazi Germany [where the journalist worked after her expulsion from the USSR. – Author]. I found it interesting that her voice was unique. She was one of the first foreign reporters to visit the Gulag, and few journalists covered it at all. So I essentially locked myself at home for the weekend and wrote the script. It is based on Clyman’s words as almost all of the text is taken from her articles. Finally, I took up the story.
RHEA CLYMAN. PHOTO FROM THE NEWSPAPER THE TORONTO TELEGRAM FOR SEPTEMBER 20, 1932 / Photo courtesy of Andrew TKACH
“A month later, I took an unpaid leave from my job at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya and started to work. I was helped by BABYLON’13’s operator Oleksandr Stetsenko, and Volodymyr Tykhyi performed directorial work when I was not in Ukraine. Denys Vorontsov co-produced it, while Roman Liubyi edited the movie – they both belong to the BABYLON’13 association as well. The film includes soundtracks by Jamala and bands ONUKA, DakhaBrakha, and Dakh Daughters, who agreed to participate on very below-market terms. I had artists Serhii Zakharov and Alexei Terekhov working with me as well.”
Clyman’s reports were published in Canada and Britain, as she worked for The Toronto Telegram and the London Daily Express. Why have they been forgotten?
“I think they just got lost in the flow of information. Her voice was much weaker than, for example, the voice of Walter Duranty [the reporter who denied the famine in the USSR in a 1933 article for The New York Times. – Author], the man she, incidentally, worked for as an assistant for nine months immediately after her arrival in Moscow. The world knew little about the Soviet Union at the time. Duranty’s position was that the USSR had its problems, but the system worked overall. People listened to his opinion. Now, Clyman wrote two dozen articles about the famine when she was already expelled from the USSR. They got published, I am sure that people read them, but they still got lost in the general flow of history. Moreover, the Second World War started soon afterwards, and the Holocaust happened.”
What motivated Clyman to come to the Soviet Union?
“She came there with a sincere belief in the idea of communism. Clyman was surprised by what she saw and quickly changed her stance. When she arrived in Moscow, she had neither money nor a secure job, so she worked freelance, lived in a communal apartment, learned Russian, and got to know the realities well. Incidentally, the film does not mention this, but the reason why she decided to go to the Gulag was her having a Russian boyfriend, who was arrested for currency speculation and sent to Siberia. So Clyman knew firsthand how the system worked. Meanwhile, other Western reporters typically lived in bubbles of their own, residing in diplomatic quarters and hiring translators who worked for the secret police.”
“WE TRIED TO BRING THE PAST TO LIFE THROUGH VISUAL MEANS”
The film shows impressive photos from Alexander Wienerberger’s “red” and “gray” albums. How did you stumble upon them?
“While working on it, I contacted Canadian historians, since many films on the subject conflate stories about the 1921-23 famine, the Holodomor of 1932-33, the famine in Kazakhstan and other Soviet republics. It makes it easy to discredit the subject, as do Russian historians who claim that there was no genocide of the Ukrainian people. Consequently, Canadian historians described to me the sources of the real pictures of the Holodomor of 1932-33 and referred me to scholars from Ukraine, including Liudmyla Hrynevych, who serves as director of the Ukrainian Research and Education Center for the Study of the Holodomor.
“Some of Wienerberger’s photos are accessible online via the National Holodomor Memorial Museum [pictures taken by the Austrian engineer are the only photographic evidence of this tragedy in Kharkiv. – Author]. However, they are of poor quality there, unfit for a film where photos should look like they are moving, so we had to find the originals. I believe it was the most interesting part of my research.
“Albums are located in two places. The commonly known one is the Archive of the Vienna Diocese, which houses the ‘gray’ album. I contacted its employee and received good-quality scans of the images. Also, the archive employee revealed that some family members of Wienerberger were living in London, including his great-granddaughter Samara Pearce. I sent her an email, she replied, and in general turned out to be quite friendly. Pearce told me she owned another album, the ‘red’ one, while her grandmother owned the negatives. In addition, the Leica camera used to shoot the pictures was still extant. They had never shown the pictures from the ‘red’ album to anyone. When I told this to Canadian historians, they said it was unbelievable. It was rumored that there were other materials originating with Wienerberger, but no one except his grandchildren ever saw them. His comments to pictures are important as well.
“By the way, Belarus-born media artist Alexei Terekhov, who lives in Canada, did an amazing job as he created motion graphics and 3D-images of the pictures. We tried to bring the past to life through visual means in this story, so it was important.”
“THE CONFLICT STOPS BEING ABSTRACT”
Why have you chosen the story of Hlondar to show the current Russian aggression against Ukraine?
“I told the Canadian-Ukrainian Foundation at once that the story of the Holodomor got me interested, but I wanted to do a movie linked to the current realities, because they are related. If you are doing a documentary just about past events, it reduces people’s interest. They think that happened a hundred years ago and does not play an important role today.
“I was looking for a story that would show the current conflict and the price paid by people trying to stop it. After all, this conflict with Russia has effectively continued for many years. Hlondar’s story is an impressive one. He was captured near Debaltseve on February 15, 2015, the day after the declaration of a truce, the so-called Minsk 2. He has never seen his youngest daughter. All this shows how people are affected by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. This conflict stops being abstract then.
“The Canadians said if I wanted to show the present in the film as well, I should have used another journalist’s story, to draw a parallel. However, would this story be so emotional then? Would it show human suffering caused by the aggression in the Donbas? This is the main reason why I chose Hlondar’s story for my film.
“By the way, graphics for the story of Hlondar were created by the artist Serhii Zakharov, who himself had been a prisoner of the DPR. He went through almost identical experiences. Also, Zakharov was featured in the film Generation Maidan, and I have been in touch with him ever since.”
“DEMAGOGUES ARGUE THAT OBJECTIVE TRUTH DOES NOT EXIST. HOWEVER, IT IS THESE PEOPLE WHO CREATE FICTIONS”
The film also draws parallels between how the Russian propaganda worked in the 1930s and how it operates now...
“When I talked to the historian Anne Applebaum in preparation for the film, she noted that there was a revolution in the media in the 1930s based on the radio emerging, and the spread of Stalinism and Nazism was associated with the use of what was then a new media. Today, the Internet plays the part of the 1930s radio, offering a platform where an alternative reality is sometimes created.
“Russia is using information as a weapon against Ukraine. Therefore, the 1930s events are linked to the ongoing military aggression. The question of whether there is an absolute truth is at the core of the film.”
When was countering this propaganda harder, in the past century or today?
“People could have been killed just for trying to take a photo in the Soviet time. Mykola Bokan, whose story is told in the film, died in exile because of it. Still, it has become in some ways harder to confront misinformation today, for the Internet creates communities that seem to exist in individual bubbles. Were one to go to Russia and present all the evidence of the aggression committed by that country, people would reply ‘it is just Ukrainian propaganda.’ This is a complex problem that will have to be addressed by the coming generations.”
You yourself worked as journalist. What do you mean by objective truth?
“Everyone has their own view on what is happening in the world. Nonetheless, we must believe objective facts, otherwise each of us will live in a bubble of their own. The only way to resist dictatorship is to seek objective facts and believe them.
“Today’s demagogues argue that objective truth does not exist, that everyone’s truth should be valued equally. However, it is these people who create fictions. They serve political projects and create their own realities. This can be seen in the US just as in European countries and in Russia. This is a difficult challenge for journalists and for society in general.”
It is important that the journalist feels a “hunger for truth,” but what to do if the public has no appetite for objective facts?
“People want, in the first place, a good story. The task of the journalist is to tell the true story and make it interesting. I am careful not to tire the audience and try to ensure that my facts are accurate. It is a challenge, to get the audience interested and keep telling the truth. It should also spark a great debate among those who create documentaries.”