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The Canadian who documented Soviet horrors

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From left: Lisa Shymko, Chair, Canadian film premiere of Hunger for Truth: The Rhea Clyman Story; Roman Waschuk, Canada's Ambassador to Ukraine; and the Canadian relatives of Rhea Clyman: Terri Schipper, Dorothy Shiff, Ted Schipper, Danny Shiff and his wife Elaine. (Lu Taskey Photo)

In 1928, 24-year-old Torontonian Rhea Clyman, the one-legged daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants, arrived in Moscow with no job, no residence and no command of the local language. Four years later, she was forcibly expelled from the Soviet Union for reporting on the atrocities she found there.

Although newspapers around the world covered her expulsion, Clyman’s story had been almost entirely forgotten in the intervening decades – even her family was unaware of her exploits.

I “didn’t know about her reporting and her trips to Russia,” said Ted Schipper, Clyman’s great-nephew. “I found out about it in more detail about a year-and-a-half ago, when Jars Balan … found me on the Internet and wanted some family history.”

Balan, a historian at the University of Alberta, was searching for Canadian coverage of the Ukrainian genocide-by-famine known as the Holodomor, when he rediscovered the articles Clyman had written for the now-defunct Toronto Telegram in 1932 and ’33.

The Canada-Ukraine Foundation and the Holodomor National Awareness Tour produced a documentary on Clyman called Hunger for Truth. It premiered in front of a Canadian audience at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on June 5, followed by a panel discussion about how to combat fake news and political propaganda.

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Clyman was the first Western journalist to report openly on the Holodomor, as well as other realities of life under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. Others, including her one-time boss, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, distorted or misreported the facts – they didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship with the regime.

“Her story was so timely, she is so relevant, she is so very much a heroine – at least from my perspective – for young people entering the world of journalism, people in search of truth,” said Lisa Shymko, who helped organize the screening.

Clyman originally travelled to the Soviet Union as a supporter for what she believed to be a worker’s paradise, but couldn’t ignore the tragic consequences of its authoritarian communist policies. She wrote 22 articles about the starving population of Ukraine, where forced collectivization of grain and other crops led to the deaths of about four-million people in the early ’30s.

“The great Ukrainian capital was in the grip of hunger. Beggars swarmed round the streets, the stores were empty, the workers bread rations had just been cut,” Clyman wrote about Kharkiv, the capital of Ukraine at the time.

Soviet authorities said Clyman’s articles were false and expelled her at gunpoint, but not before she had seen the devastation caused by the famine: in towns across Ukraine, emaciated corpses lay in the streets and she learned that in the spring, the children had been reduced to eating grass on their hands and knees.

In his film, director Andrew Tkach brought Clyman’s words to life with photos and videos of the Soviet Union at the time. The photos were animated with “Harry Potter magic,” as Bob Onyschuk, chair of the Holodomor National Awareness Tour, put it. The individual components of the grainy photographs were separated and arranged to look like 3D scenes, creating a striking visual effect to match Clyman’s dramatic story.

Tkach was unsure about taking on the project at first, but he was won over by Clyman.

“It was definitely the power of her words,” he said. “It was easy for me to imagine right away that I could build a script on it.”