Toronto to New York, to London, to Moscow

About three years after she lost a leg in a streetcar accident, Rhea Clyman's father died. Now just eleven years old, she became a breadwinner for her mother and four young siblings, taking a job in a local factory. Whatever education she would get, she would have to claw for at night school.

Let's digest this for a moment. This little girl was crippled, uneducated, poor, and now an immigrant child factory worker. The robust economics of the roaring 1920's never made it to their poor Toronto neighbourhood, but even if they had, she had a hill to hobble that would be unheard of today in Canada.

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Plucky nonetheless, she made it through business school, obtained secretarial work in New York, and then went on to London to work as a reporter (learning Fench in her spare time). By 1928 she was 24 years old and longed to join the promising world of socialism in the Soviet Union. Women's equality, worker's rights, property-sharing, and reports of fresh blossoming prosperity for all had an undeniable appeal to a gal from Toronto 's immigrant ghetto.

And so, with no money, one leg, no job, and sketchy prospects, she made her way to Moscow, and spent the first night sleeping in an American reporter's bathtub. She eventually lodged with a Russian host family and got work in the newspaper business, writing for the Toronto Evening Telegram, and the London Daily Express. Somewhere in her spare time she learned Russian, which enabled her to travel without a pesky Soviet escort.

As we noted in an earlier submission, her dream was crushed, and four years later she was kicked out of the USSR for reporting what she saw there.

Clyman had personally witnessed the Gulag, and the deadly impact of Stalin's starvation policy. Yes, policy. Fearing the fierce independence of the farmers in the Ukraine region, Stalin ordered their farms collectivized, drove many of their men to the Gulag, seized all their produce, and many of their farm animals, and then closed the borders to keep them from seeking or trading for food. He even made it illegal to own a map to restrict travel. Later he would order the falsification of census records to smooth over the engineered famine, but researchers estimate somewhere between 4-6 million died in a two-year span.

September 21, 1932

News of Rhea's impending expulsion form the Soviet Union hits the western press, but this woman had moxie. I'm a guy with a bit of a missing gene - the one with natural fear of things that might kill me -- but if I got in one of her pickles I would wet myself. Taking on Mother Russia like a boss, she snuck in to a port town on the edge of the Gulag, bickered with officials there over access to her story, and then write about the brutal conditions in the western press, the Soviets proceeded to burp her out, but not until she broke another major story.

Not long after her Gulag experience, the secret police caught up with her in another region, where she was covering the famine. They gave her two hours to leave the country, stuck a gun in her ribs, and told her they had the power to do with her as they pleased. Unbelievably, she refused. She stalled, offering one of them a cigarette, and then got her travelling companions to alert the British Embassy in Moscow, which provided her with a few days relief to gather her things before being extradited.

Prince George, BC, 1932

It's the depression. A local banker sits in a restaurant reading the weekly Prince George Citizen, eating a lunch of beef stew and a cheese sandwich. The paper announces a "Hard Times" dance at a local community hall that night. The defunct Giscome lumber mill is being taken over by some local investors, after having failed under previous owners. Relief workers have just been hired to extend the Chief Lake Road. All of this is connected to the circumstances Rhea Clyman was publishing that week around the world. Even his bread might be cheaper, the lumber business more prosperous, the relief workers up in Chief Lake less needy.

Specifically,

The USSR was exporting the expropriated Ukrainian grain to finance their transition to an industrial economy, starving millions of once-prosperous farmers there, and flooding world markets with cheap wheat to finance their vision.

Many thousands of those same farmers had been forcibly removed from the Ukraine to work in forced labour lumber camps. Russia's northern forests were being harvested by Gulag's slave workers, impacting world lumber markets in the process.

As Clyman was getting ready to leave the USSR, she stood in her bathroom, pondering, and later wrote:

"I could not believe that the tired, wan face... reflected in the mirror was mine. What had happened to the fiery young enthusiast who had come to Russia to worship at the shrine of the brotherhood of communism? One hundred and sixty million people sacrificed to the ideals of power-hungry maniacs cease to be an abstract social experiment when studied close at hand. The workers say they have less to eat now then before the revolution, and the peasants are starving. Socialist construction, bought at the price of horror, famine and bloodshed are no lasting benefit to humanity."

Mark Ryan is an Investment Advisor with RBC Dominion Securities Inc. (Member-Canadian Investor Protection Fund), and these are Mark's views, and not those of RBC Dominion Securities. This article is for information purposes only. Please consult with a professional advisor before taking any action based on information in this article. See Mark's website at: http://dir.rbcinvestments.com/mark.ryan

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