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Timothy Snyder compares Russian grain blockade to Stalin's starvation tactics

Timothy Snyder compares Russian grain blockade to Stalin's starvation tactics

"This is a disaster," said US historian Timothy Snyder of the situation in Ukraine. Speaking at DW's Global Media Forum, the contemporary historian and expert on Eastern Europe referred to Russia's grain blockade in the Black Sea as a policy resembling the Soviet period of Stalinism in the early 1930s.

He drew parallels to Stalin's terror of starvation in Ukraine, which claimed millions of lives. But at that time, Snyder said, there were no journalists drawing international attention to the famine. Russia's war of aggression will now lead to a new famine that will last for two years, Snyder warned.

Looking back in history

At the time, Stalin's terror regime also had an impact on Germany's Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who invaded Soviet Ukraine during World War II.

"The famine in 1933 and 1932 was also an inspiration to Adolf Hitler, whose main goal was to control the fertile agricultural territory of Ukraine," Snyder said at the conference.

Timothy Snyder's book "Bloodlands: Europe between Stalin and Hitler" is the first comprehensive contemporary historical analysis of the people in eastern Europe who suffered most at the hands of Germany and Russia during World War II. In Belarus and Ukraine alone, 14 million people fell victim first to the German campaign of extermination in the east, and then to Stalinism until the dictator died in 1953.

Knowledge of the basic facts in Ukrainian history, said historian Snyder, will make the current situation much easier to understand.

African journalists reporting from Kyiv

Snyder gave his keynote address at the closing event of the media conference, calling on western nations to engage more with the war-torn country and naming independent media reporting as a vital factor.

"Rather than letting Moscow tell the story, it is very important to make sure that everyone has a voice," Snyder said. He urged reporters from Africa to go to Kyiv to report on the situation, as their countries would be affected by the worldwide famine caused by this war.

Snyder made a strong plea for active intervention in Ukraine. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, he said, the big mistake was believing that liberal democracies would prevail.

In response to a question from a participant in Africa about how he could even get to Ukraine to report on the situation there, Snyder responded: "I am pleading for someone to organize it."

He added that it must be made clear who is responsible for a worldwide famine: the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its blockade.

Remembering killed journalists

At a panel discussion earlier on Wednesday, Paul Ronzheimer, deputy editor-in-chief of the German tabloid Bild, spoke of his reporting assignment in eastern Ukraine where the Ukrainian army is under fierce Russian artillery attacks. Ronzheimer remembered the journalists who lost their lives while covering this war. He recalled having a conversation with US cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski just before he went on an assignment with TV producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova, during which both were killed in a Russian attack north of Kyiv earlier this year.

He stressed that international journalists are still in a privileged position, as they are able to leave the war zone at their own free will — unlike the many Ukrainian employees of major news organizations. Ronzheimer called for local staff to be given special protection.

At the same panel discussion, Dmitri Dubov, the editor-in-chief of Russian-language Channel 9 in Israel, said that the safety of employees and critical examination of news sources must always take precedence over speed and exclusivity. Dubrov said he expects his reporters in conflict areas to focus on individuals and tell emotional stories, while editors in the newsroom back home focus on the necessary fact-checking.

"This also helps combat disinformation because we are reporting on the fate of individual people who are experiencing the conflict at that very moment," he explained.

Dmytro Khilchenko, representing the public broadcaster UA:PBC in Ukraine, noted how important it is to check sources on both sides of any conflict, especially in Russia's war against Ukraine.

"This war is happening online: On the messenger services Whatsapp and Telegram," he said. "There, videos are uploaded directly from the frontlines — dead soldiers, destroyed war equipment. You can follow everything almost live."

He questioned making sense despite many sources: "How do we understand who we can trust or not? " This, he said, requires intensive work in the newsrooms. But sometimes mistakes are made there, too.

Fighting stereotypes and prejudice

While the war in Ukraine was the overarching topic of this year's Global Media Forum, diversity issues took center stage, too. In the panel discussion "The Power of Stereotypes," participants spoke out against the extent to which Western media coverage of poverty and hunger determines the way the African continent is perceived in the world.

Constructive approaches to reporting on life in Africa have to take a back seat when coverage focuses on the displacement of people as a possible consequence of the food crisis in the wake of Russia's attack on Ukraine.

According to Nigerian TV presenter Moky Makura, journalists reporting on Africa should always seek to tell stories that are "completely different." Makura, who has lived in London and Johannesburg and runs the online news portal Africa No Filter, said it is important to show real life in African countries. She believes in constructive reporting as a principle for news organizations working around the world. It is also her way to combat racism and prejudice in the West.

This article was originally written in German.