The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

Von Hagen argues that Duranty failed to report on the Ukrainian Famine

By Rachel Zeldin, Columbia Daily Spectator
Daily Newspaper of Columbia University
New York City, NY, Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism will begin a review next month of an award it handed out to a reporter from The New York Times in 1932. A recent report from Columbia professor Mark Von Hagen commissioned by the Times will be the critical testimony that decides the prize's fate.

(Click on image to enlarge it)

The debate is whether the Pulitzer Prize Board should revoke the award given to Times reporter William Duranty for his articles favorably describing the Soviet Union's first Five-Year Plan, a series of economic policies ostensibly designed to industrialize Russia that later historians would learn resulted in millions of deaths.

Von Hagen's report concludes that Duranty was irresponsible in not reporting the full details of what he witnessed, and he is recommending that the award be revoked.

"I think that both for the integrity of the Pulitzer Prize and for the people that might get it in the future and for The New York Times, I think they should take it away from him," said Von Hagen.

If the Board decides to strip Duranty of the award this November--the second time it has considered such a motion--it would be the first revocation of journalism's most prestigious honor.

Much of the outrage about his award is specifically directed at his failure to report the 1933 Ukrainian famine, during which an estimated five to 10 million Ukrainians perished. As one of the few Western witnesses to the internal workings of the Soviet Union, he should have been more critical of Soviet politics, his critics say.

The famine was not thoroughly documented by Western media until the 1990s.

Tamara Olexy, a representative for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said that her organization "felt the need to start a nationwide campaign to revoke Duranty's Pulitzer because of his outright lies in regards to the Ukrainian famine-genocide." The campaign was scheduled to coincide with the famine's 70th anniversary.

Crucial to the Pulitzer Prize Board's decision will be a report authored by Professor of History Mark Von Hagen for the New York Times. In the report, Von Hagen analyzes the focus and depth of Duranty's writing, looking at the variety and number of sources he used.

Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prize Board, told in an interview that the review "is intended to seriously consider all relevant information regarding Mr. Duranty's award."

Of particular concern to Von Hagen was Duranty's sympathy for the Soviet Union and his whitewashing of the Five Year Plan's effects. Despite what he witnessed, Duranty was instrumental in getting the United States to recognize the Soviet Union in 1933 and was present at the official recognition ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin hailed Duranty as the biggest contributor to the recognition effort.

Both Von Hagen and Olexy were troubled by evidence that Duranty blatantly ignored the tragedy of Ukraine, citing letters from Duranty to government officials in Great Britain and the United States.

At the end of the report, Von Hagen concludes "that lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime was a disservice to the American readers of the New York Times and the liberal values they subscribe to and to the historical experience of the peoples of the Russian and Soviet empires and their struggle for a better life."

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, contacted Von Hagen last July. After the Pulitzer Prize Board informed the Times about the reexamination of Duranty's award, the Times decided "it would be appropriate to take some actions themselves," Von Hagen said. It took Von Hagen one month to finish his report.

The New York Times did not ask Von Hagen to make any official recommendation to them on the subject, but he said that he believes Duranty's Pulitzer should be revoked.

"It will mean something less to future winners," Von Hagen said, "if they know that it was given to someone that the New York Times themselves called one of their worst reporters ever."

While he supports revoking Duranty's Pulitzer, Von Hagen stressed that he is not in favor of erasing history or "expunging [Duranty's] name from the history books." Rather, he said that by recalling the prize, the Pulitzer Prize Board would demonstrate its commitment to superior journalism.

"We'd like The New York Times to do the right thing," Olexy, the Ukranian Congress Committee representative said, "and honor the millions of innocent victims by apologizing to their readership, the Ukrainian-American community, and most importantly the famine survivors by denouncing Duranty's Pulitzer Prize."

Columbia Daily Spectator, New York City, NY, October 30, 2003