By Bill Vann, World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)
International Committee for the Fourth International (ICFI)
ICFI is the leadership of the world socialist movement,
Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938
Oak Park, MI, 1 November 2003
The New York Times confirmed last week that a Columbia University professor
whom the newspaper hired to assess the reporting of Walter Duranty, the
Times Moscow correspondent in the 1930s, has concluded that the Pulitzer
Prize Duranty received during that period should be rescinded.
The campaign for revoking the award given to Duranty 71 years ago has
centered on the reporter's failure to truthfully report the famine that
ravaged the Ukraine and much of the rest of the Soviet Union in 1932-33. It
has been spearheaded by Ukrainian nationalist organizations that claim the
famine was a deliberate act of genocide, and has been championed by a number
of right-wing organizations and publications.
It is striking that in all the coverage given by the Times to the Duranty
matter, there is no reference to another episode in his career that was no
less notorious-his reporting of the Moscow purge trials and the Stalinist
terror of 1936-39. Duranty's reports from Moscow lent the full international
prestige of the New York Times to legitimizing these frame-up trials, which
led to the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of revolutionary socialists
in the cellars of Lubianka and other killing grounds.
In an article published October 23, Times media correspondent Jacques
Steinberg cited several articles published previously in the newspaper as
proof "that the Times regretted the lapses in Mr. Duranty's coverage." These
included a reference to Duranty in a favorable 1986 review of "The Harvest
of Sorrow"-a tendentious work written by the right-wing historian Robert
Conquest-and an editorial four years later calling Duranty's work "some of
the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper."
These mea culpas evade some obvious questions. If Duranty's reporting was so
terrible, why did the editors of the Times continue for a decade to feature
it prominently on the paper's front page, and why did the Pulitzer panel
decide to give him the award? Was the failure to report the famine merely a
"lapse" in Duranty's coverage, or rather part of a broader and systematic
distortion of events in the USSR?
This exclusive focus on Duranty's coverage of 1932-33 suggests that the
publishers and editors of the Times are not beginning with a principled
concern for Duranty's general disregard for the truth, but rather exhibiting
their long-standing sensitivity to any criticism leveled from the right.
There is no question that Duranty's glossing over the catastrophic 1932-33
famine was appalling. It is, however, a major historical distortion to
claim, as his right-wing critics do, that he was engaged in a deliberate
cover-up of genocide.
In his reporting of Soviet developments, Duranty, like the majority of
Western correspondents, took an entirely superficial approach. At the same
time-and this too was not uncommon-his coverage was colored by widespread
popular sympathy for the Soviet government, which was generally understood
to be the product of a social revolution.
Among the Western liberal intelligentsia, this sympathy had only been
strengthened by the Kremlin bureaucracy's previous turn to the right and its
expulsion of the Left Opposition, formed in 1923 under Leon Trotsky's
leadership to oppose the bureaucratization of the Communist Party and uphold
the revolutionary internationalist perspective upon which the October
Revolution had been based.
The 1932-33 famine itself was the outcome of a complex interplay of social
and political forces, not a genocidal Kremlin conspiracy to exterminate an
entire people. The crisis that gripped the Soviet Union at the end of the
1920s was the product of the policies pursued by the ruling bureaucracy
under Stalin's leadership over the previous years, under the slogan of
"socialism in one country." While turning its back on the problems of the
international working class, the Stalin leadership rejected within the USSR
any plan to increase the tempo of industrial development and pursued
policies in the countryside that only strengthened the better-off peasants
at the expense of the poorer ones.
The lack of industrial goods, combined with a growth in the production of
agricultural raw materials, led to the break between city and country
against which the Left Opposition had warned. The well-off and middle
peasants were, by the latter part of the 1920s, receiving lower and lower
prices for their crops. They began to withhold their grain, and by the
beginning of 1928 the Soviet working class confronted the threat of famine.
The Stalin-led regime reacted with a sudden and reckless swing to a program
of forced collection of grain and "complete collectivization." Almost
overnight, the small peasant holdings that the Stalinist bureaucracy had
previously encouraged were expropriated and merged into large state-run
Carried out without any technical or political preparation, and with no
critical analysis of the policy that preceded it, forced collectivization
led initially to a catastrophic fall in agricultural production. Resistance
to collectivization took the form of armed peasant attacks as well as the
destruction of grain and livestock, which, in turn, were met with
Duranty's reaction to these events, as the Times has noted, was the infamous
phrase, "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." At the same time
he mocked the right-wing critics of the Soviet Union, asserting that their
concern for the loss of life in the collectivization drive stood in sharp
contrast to their indifference to the slaughter of the World War of
The disaster unleashed by forced collectivization, combined with the
historic defeat of the working class that resulted from Stalinism's policies
in Germany, set the stage for a lurch to the right and the advent of
"popular frontism." Faced with a Hitlerite regime committed to the Soviet
Union's destruction, the Kremlin pursued diplomatic alliances with
"democratic" imperialism in exchange for an explicit renunciation of
revolutionary goals and a commitment to defend the international status quo.
Within the USSR, it turned to the physical liquidation of all those who had
been associated with the October 1917 revolution.
It was in this period that Duranty's writings took on a qualitatively
different character. In the face of monstrous acts of wholesale judicial
murder, the Times did more than remain silent. It published Duranty's
apologetics and support for the frame-ups.
The Moscow Trials indicted the principal leaders of the October 1917
revolution-the exiled Trotsky being the foremost defendant-as fascist
collaborators supposedly guilty of crimes ranging from industrial sabotage
to plots to poison the population's water supply and assassinate Stalin.
The only evidence presented to substantiate these fantastic charges were the
confessions of the accused, extracted through the method personally
recommended by Stalin of "beat, beat and beat again." The Soviet prosecutors
' tales of secret meetings and conspiratorial intrigue, supposedly confirmed
by confessions extracted from the defendants, were subsequently exposed as
For example: at the first trial, held in August of 1936, a supposed 1932
meeting in Copenhagen of an alleged conspirator with Trotsky's son, Leon
Sedov, was said to have taken place at the Hotel Bristol. The Hotel Bristol,
it was pointed out soon after the frame-up, had been torn down in 1917.
At the second trial, held in January of 1937, one of the accused, former
head of Soviet industry Yuri Piatakov, was said to have flown to Oslo in
December 1935. It was soon revealed, however, that no planes had been able
to land in Norway for the entire month of December 1935 because of foul
None of this gave pause to the Times and its Moscow correspondent in their
favorable coverage of the frame-ups. Reporting on the first of the Moscow
Trials in 1936, Duranty wrote: "It is inconceivable that a public trial of
such men would be held unless the authorities had full proofs of their
In January 1937, after the second trial, Duranty wrote: "It is a pity from
the Soviet viewpoint that no documentary evidence was produced in open
court." Nevertheless, he concluded, "taken all in all, the trial did stand
Behind this coverage lay definite political motives, and not merely the
personal predilections of Duranty. Joining the Times in defending the trials
was the US Ambassador to Moscow, Joseph Davies. What were then the leading
journals of American liberalism, the Nation and the New Republic, lauded
these frame-ups as models of fairness. Within ruling circles in both Europe
and America, the three-year blood purge was recognized-and welcomed-as
an irrevocable break with the revolutionary perspective of 1917.
Trotsky pointed to the political source of this liberal defense of the
Moscow Trials. In his Their Morals and Ours, written in 1939, he commented
that "the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure,
though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the
revolutionists in the USSR. In this sense, the Nation and the New Republic,
not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the
pen, fully responded to the interests of 'democratic' imperialism."
Trotsky described Duranty as the "correspondent of the New York Times,
whom the Kremlin has always entrusted with the dirtiest journalistic tasks."
("Toward a Balance Sheet of the Purges," published in Socialist Appeal June
30, 1939 and included in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1938-39, Pathfinder
Press). Duranty's record on the Moscow Trials remained an issue of active
controversy for decades to come.
The publishers and editors of the Times have never expressed any remorse
about this aspect of Duranty's reporting. On the contrary, they have proven
impervious to any protest from the left over their falsification of history
in relation to the Soviet Union.
While the newspaper distanced itself from the Stalinist bureaucracy-first in
response to the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact and then by joining the
anti-communist witch-hunt of the post-World War II years-it has never
bothered to reexamine its role as an apologist for the Stalinist terror. On
the contrary, the former "friends of the Soviet Union" at the Times passed
over easily to vulgar anti-communism. Where they once put a plus, they
merely substituted a minus.
Among those interviewed in last week's Times story on Duranty was the
newspaper's editor, Bill Keller. "It's absolutely true that the work Duranty
did...was credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda," Keller declared.
He added, however, "As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while
it existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps."
Keller was the Times correspondent in Moscow from 1986 to 1991. While
the Times' distortion of the situation in the Soviet Union during this
period may not have reached the grotesque levels set by Duranty, its version
events was hardly free of the influence of the US government. Keller's
lionizing of Mikhail Gorbachev dovetailed neatly with the official policy of
Washington, which then backed the Soviet leader as the most consistent
proponent of capitalist restoration within the bureaucracy.
Since then, the Times editor has actively contributed to the new and
officially sanctioned falsification of history-the slandering of the October
1917 revolution and the facile equation of Stalinism and fascism.
Keller's remark last week about his supposed distaste for "airbrushing
history" is cynical, given that this was precisely the method used by the
Stalinist bureaucracy against its Marxist opponents, led by Trotsky-a method
supported by Duranty and continued in its own fashion by the Times to this
World Socialist Web Site, ICFI, Oak Park, MI, November 1, 2003
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