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Anastasia Leshchyshyn


        The life and work of Rhea Clyman, who was one of the few journalists to witness and report on the Holodomor, was the topic of the 20th Toronto Annual Ukrainian Famine Lecture delivered by Jars Balan, Director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, on November 28th, 2017 at the University of Toronto.

        Following introductory remarks delivered by Dr. Frank Sysyn of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, a co-organizer of the event, Balan offered a captivating account of this ambitious and unrelenting journalist. He began by setting the context of Clyman’s childhood years, describing Toronto in the early 1900s when the Clymans, a poor immigrant Jewish family, emigrated from Poland and settled in the city. Born in Poland in 1904 and one of five children, Rhea Clyman encountered adversity early in life -- she lost part of one leg in a streetcar accident when she was six years old.

        According to Balan, it was while being treated for her injury during repeated stays at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto that she was first inspired to become a journalist. John Ross Robertson, the founder of both the hospital and a local newspaper, the Evening Telegram, took an interest in Clyman and encouraged her ambition. The combination of Ross Robertson’s influence and the experience of a difficult recovery appear to have “instilled her with a stoic resolve” that drove her subsequent journalistic aspirations and achievements.

        Nevertheless, Clyman faced serious challenges obtaining an education. Following her father’s death, she took a factory job when she was eleven years old. She supplemented her limited education with self-study, night school courses, business classes, and even university classes.

        In 1925 Clyman moved to New York City, where she undertook secretarial work. “It is probably in New York,” Balan suggested, “that Clyman first met young people like herself who had socially progressive and politically radical views that led them to become members of the pro-Bolshevik American Communist Party.” As Balan explained, the Soviet Union at that time was viewed by many as a beacon of progress and scientific enlightenment.

        “Clyman was no different than many idealistic young people of her generation who sought social and economic justice and felt that capitalism was inherently incapable of overcoming the endemic poverty and unfair distribution of wealth that was so evident in Europe and North America,” Balan said.

        In 1927 she moved to London, getting a job as a publicist with the agent general for the province of Alberta. In restless pursuit of a journalistic career, she relocated first to France and then Germany, where in the fall of 1928 she observed the growing strength of the Nazis in their drive to achieve power, an experience that offered valuable preparation for an aspiring reporter.

        “However, her ultimate goal seems to have been to go to the Soviet Union to witness firsthand the creation of a socialist society in which workers were masters of their own destiny, central planning was eliminating waste and want, and where women enjoyed equal rights with men,” Balan said.

        In late December 1928, twenty-four-year-old Clyman arrived in Moscow with no place to stay, no job, and some 15 pounds sterling in her pocket. A sympathetic stranger at the train station brought her to Mrs. Negley Farson, whose husband was a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News. Clyman’s first night in Moscow was spent sleeping in the Farson’s bathtub. She was soon hired as an assistant by the already famous—and later infamous—New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty. Within nine months she had acquired both a good command of the Russian language and the confidence to set out on a career as a freelance journalist.

        In time, Clyman’s initial enthusiasm for the Soviet Union soured. A turning point appears to have been the arrest and three-year sentence to a labor camp of her Russian boyfriend for dealings on the black market. “Certainly, by the spring of 1932 Clyman had lost many of her illusions about what was popularly promoted as a worker’s paradise in the making,” said Balan.

        Prompted by the arrest of her former sweetheart, Clyman made a trip to the far north of Russia where she investigated dreadful conditions endured by political prisoners and exiles in the labour camps. She travelled by train through Karelia to the closed city of Kem, then past the Arctic Circle to the port city of Murmansk before returning to Leningrad and Moscow via Arkhangelsk.

        In September 1932, Clyman embarked on an even more remarkable journey. In the company of two young American women who she met in Moscow and were in possession of a vehicle, Clyman set off on a road trip through the Soviet Union that took them from Moscow through Tula, Kursk, Kharkiv, the Donets basin and the north Caucasus, all the way to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi -- often on crude roads and without the benefits of maps.

        In southeastern Ukraine and the Kuban, the women witnessed oppression and grim hunger -- the Holodomor was just beginning to exact its terrible toll. Stalin’s “class war” against the peasantry was gaining in force, intended to break resistance to his policy of forced collectivization, while simultaneously suppressing any perceived threat to Bolshevik rule as well as separatist sentiment in Ukraine.

        According to Balan, Clyman’s reporting offers “many revealing details about the situation that she found in cities, towns, collective farms and villages on what she called her journey through “the Famine-Lands of Russia.”” Moreover, Balan noted that her accounts provide insight into the particular hardships endured by women, and her moving descriptions offer a strong feminist perspective.

        The road-trip came to an abrupt halt in Tbilisi where, as Balan described, Clyman was arrested at gunpoint.  Accused of spreading “false news” about the Soviet Union, she was given twenty-four hours to leave the country. Some of Clyman’s stories about the Russian far north, along with her other critical articles that appeared in Western periodicals, had finally caught up with her.

        Clyman’s expulsion, the first by Soviet authorities of a Western journalist in eleven years, was covered in scores of newspapers around the world. Once outside of the Soviet Union, Clyman wrote detailed accounts of her travels through the “Famine Lands,” some of which were published in the London Daily Express before appearing in twenty-one feature articles in the Toronto Telegram in 1933. “Clyman knew full well that she would never again be allowed to visit the Soviet Union” said Balan, “so she unleashed her outrage at the atrocities being committed by the Soviet state.”

        Upon her return to Toronto in the spring of 1933, when her series of articles about the famine for the Telegram went to press, Clyman was already eager to return to Europe. In November, she set off to Nazi Germany to chronicle Hitler’s dictatorship for the London Daily Telegraph. After almost six years reporting from Munich at great personal risk, Clyman returned to North America, becoming the Canadian correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph. In October 1942, she relocated permanently to the United States, working as a freelancer and at other various jobs.

        According to Balan, Clyman’s life in the US requires further investigation, although it is apparent that her later years were difficult and money was increasingly hard to come by. What is certain is that when she died in New York City in July 1981 at the age of 76, her passing went unnoticed by the press.

        Jars Balan continues to research Rhea Clyman with the aim of writing a book about her life.  “The passion, courage, and keen eye for detail that she exhibited in her reports from the Soviet Union,” asserted Balan “deserve to be better known not only by students of Soviet history, but by fellow journalists, feminists, Ukrainians, the diaspora, and all the descendants of those who suffered through Stalin’s reign of terror.” 

        The evening ended with a preview of the film “Hunger for Truth: The Rhea Clyman Story” produced by the Holodomor National Awareness Tour and directed by Andrew Tkach.

        The distinguished lecture series began in 1998 at the initiative of the Famine-Genocide Commemorative Committee of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Toronto Branch. The event was organized by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (University of Alberta); the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (University of Toronto); the Canadian Foundation for Ukrainian Studies; and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (Toronto Branch).









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