The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

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GETTING PAST DURANTY
  

Editorial and Opinion, The New York Sun
New York, New York, October 27, 2003, Page 8

 

Quite a drama, we gather, is going on at the Pulitzer Prize board over what to do about Walter Duranty.

He was the New York Times Moscow correspondent who won the Pulitzer in 1932 for dispatches that put such a gloss on Stalin's Soviet Union that they have become, in the cold light of history, an embarrassment to both the Times and the Pulitzer Prize. The idea of rescinding the prize is not exactly being resisted by the Times. It retained a distinguished historian at Columbia, Mark von Hagen, to review the record. He handed the Times a scathing report, which the Times, to its credit, promptly sent along to the Pulitzer board with a note saying that, as the Times itself reported, the Times would "respect" the Pulitzer board's decision on whether to rescind the award.

However, according to the Times report, the newspaper asked the board to consider whether such an action might evoke the "Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories" and also might set "a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades." The business about setting a precedent is a good question, lest revoking Duranty 's prize open the door to feuding about every prize. But the cavil about airbrushing will strike many as off the mark, given that it was Duranty and the Times who were, back in the 1930s, doing the airbrushing. What is being sought now - largely by members of the Ukranian community - is a filling in of the facts. Our own view is that the case of Walter Duranty is sui generis, and the worse precedent would be set by failing to revoke his prize.

This is a moment when it is well to remember that there were correspondents - and editors - who kept their wits about them with regard to the Soviet Union in the time of Stalin.This point was underscored in an email we received last week from an amateur historian,Deborah Waroff.She reminds us of Harry Lang of the pro-labor, anti-communist Yiddish-language newspaper in New York, the Jewish Daily Forward. During this period Lang and his wife traveled widely in the Soviet Union - to Leningrad, Moscow, Kharkiv, Rostov, to Minsk in Belarus, and to Kiev, Berdychiz and Zhytomyr in Ukraine - and didn't miss a thing. Ms.Waroff cites a biography by Jean-Louis Panne of Boris Souvarine, an early defector from Boshevism, as quoting Lang on what a real famine looks like - "swollen cadavers still not buried and entire villages abandoned."

Lang had the eye and sagacity of a master newspaperman. He grasped that Potemkin villages were constructed for the benefit of guests like himself, as Panne describes it, with the entire population of a town being mobilized to clean streets and scrub building facades. During their visit to one such spot, the population wasn't allowed to form queues and was required to conceal beggars and abandoned children. Militia patrolled the streets on horses decorated with ribbons. Lang saw great surpluses of wheat becoming dry, black, and spoiled because it wasn't harvested and espied full wagons of grain standing on railway sidings. He understood what this meant in a country with a dictatorship and command economy. And he detected the horrifying existence of widespread "anthropophagy," or cannibalism. He understood the implications of a poster he spotted, showing a woman with a child at her feet and bearing the slogan, "To eat a baby is a barbaric act."

Were the Pulitzer Board to go back and read the pages of the Forward during this period, we could imagine it not only rescinding Duranty's prize but bestowing it posthumously on Lang. Even if nothing is done, the tumult over Duranty, coming as it does so long after the events, is a humbling reminder for all newspapermen. We are at a time when one of the great tyrannies of the 20th century,the Baathist regime in Iraq,has only just been toppled. In its wake we have seen an executive of a pioneering network, CNN, confess his network failed to report what it knew of the Iraqi regime in hopes of saving the lives of some of the Iraqis who helped the network. We live in a time when other tyrannies, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba,and China,are bidding for our credulity.It is a period during which the Pulitzer board could do a great service by reminding us all of what a devastating impact can be wielded by the long reach of history.


The New York Sun, Editorial and Opinion, October 27, 2003, Page 8
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