Journalistic fraud in the 1930s

In the autumn of 1934, an American using the name of Thomas Walker entered the Soviet Union. After less than a week in Moscow, the remainder of his 13 day stay was spent in transit to the Manchurian border, at which point he left the USSR never to return. Four months later a series of articles began in the Hearst press in America, by Thomas Walker, “noted journalist, traveller and student of Russian affairs who has spent several years touring the Union of Soviet Russia”. The articles described a famine in the Ukraine that had claimed six million lives, and was illustrated with photographs of corpses and starving children. Walker was said to have smuggled in a camera under “the most difficult and dangerous circumstances”.

Louis Fischer, an American writer living in Moscow at the time was suspicious. Why had the Hearst press sat on these sensational stories for ten months before publication? He established that Walker’s short visit to the Soviet Union could not possibly have allowed him to even visit the areas he described and photographed. He also pointed out that Walker’s photographic evidence was distinctly odd: not only were the pictures suggestive of an earlier decade (Fischer thought probably of the 1921 Volga famine) but contained a mixture of scenes taken in both summer and winter. Fischer also noted that the 1933 harvest in the Ukraine had been good.

Some of the pictures were subsequently identified as showing scenes from the Austro-Hungarian empire and World War 1, and it was known that Hearst newspapers were digging up old pictures and retouching them for use as propaganda. Pictures some times appeared labelled as having been taken in Russia, and at other times the same picture is relocated to the Ukraine for obviously political reasons. Not only were the photographs a fraud, and the trip to the Ukraine a fraud, but Thomas Walker himself was a fraud, turning out to be an escaped convict by the name of Robert Green who had served time for forgery. At his subsequent trial following recapture he admitted that his series of pictures used in the Hearst newspaper articles were fakes and were not taken in the Ukraine as stated. Despite these facts, the same photos are still those used in commemoration posters, on web sites and in the film ‘Harvest of Despair’.