By Peter Worthington, Toronto Sun
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 2, 2003
Why would The New York Times, the world's most influential newspaper,
feel required to consult a Columbia University professor who is an
expert on the old Soviet Union (Mark von Hagen) on whether a Pulitzer
Prize awarded to its Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, should be
revoked? Surely Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his editors
know better than anyone that Duranty was, arguably, the greatest
disgrace to honest journalism in American history.
That may seem an extreme statement, but given the scope of the mischief
Duranty made - consciously and effectively - in his reports from Stalin's
regime, "disgrace" may be an understatement.
Apparently, the Pulitzer Prize board of directors reacted to a request
initially inspired by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association,
and endorsed by American Ukrainian groups, urging Duranty's Pulitzer
The Pulitzer board asked the Times to comment on withdrawing the
prize, but instead of responding directly, the Times asked for Prof. von
Von Hagen read Duranty's reports and found them dull, lacking in
balance, uncritical of Stalin, a disservice to readers. When interviewed
by the Times, von Hagen was more candid and said, in effect, the
Pulitzer should be rescinded. Not complying would taint the "honour
and glory" of the Times.
That still doesn't explain why publisher Sulzberger felt he should ask.
Not only did Duranty fail to accurately report the Ukrainian famine
that killed up to 10 million - created by Stalin to bring Ukraine to heel
- but Duranty put a pro-Soviet spin on all his reporting, cunningly
disguised as objectivity.
His contemporaries knew it. Only "liberal" readers of the Times
believed Duranty's reports of Stalin's virtues in the 1930s.
In his book, Out of Step, the late, great Sidney Hook recalls that
Duranty "was of more value to Stalin than the entire Communist party
of the United States." At the height of the Ukrainian famine he wrote
glowingly in The New Republic of the economic recovery and
prosperity and contentment of the people under collectivization.
According to a contemporary journalist in Moscow, Eugene Lyons,
Duranty called famine "undernourishment" and starvation a "disease
Commemorative Emblem Used by the Holod Committee to Focus on the Famine-Genocide of 1932-33 in Ukraine, Winnipeg. H.
Dmytryshyn, was chairman of the Holod Committee
David Caute, in his book, The Fellow Travelers, rips Duranty
and liberals of that day as "celebrating the birth of the
industrial revolution in urban Russia 150 years late, or the
arrival of the wheel in rural Russia a millennia late."
Duranty covered the great show trials of Stalin's comrades
in revolution - Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, Trotsky in absentia
and scores of others. He believed their confessions of
spying for the British.
The late Malcolm Muggeridge, Moscow correspondent for The
Guardian, saw Duranty for what he was but Muggeridge was
dismissed as pathologically anti-Soviet.
Lyons says Duranty was "a lifesaver for the embarrassed Stalinists"
by depicting the victims of Stalin's 1937 purges as "just a lot of
Dostoevsky characters enjoying self-torture and indulging their
Slav souls!" At the time, The New Republic opined editorially that
"the weight of evidence supports Mr. Duranty's view" that the
treason trials were real, and the victims guilty as charged.
We now know, of course, that Stalin coerced ludicrous confessions
from victims through continuous torture, or by torturing or killing
their families unless they confessed.
In his best-seller, The Red Decade, Eugene Lyons tried to define
what made Duranty tick, then considered the wisest and most
objective and trustworthy reporter in the world.
Lyons says Duranty never showed emotion or reacted to sufferings
in Stalin's Russia, and justified it to colleagues that he was hardened
from the horrors he'd witnessed in World War I.
Stalin 'deserved' victory
Lyons differs, and quotes from Duranty's book, I Write as I Please,
in which he says "Russia is Asiatic ... Stalin deserved his victory ...
his policies were most fitted to the Russian character and folkways
in that they established Asiatic absolutism."
In other words, Russians responded only to the whip.
One of Duranty's favoured cliches was "You can't make an omelet
without breaking eggs." He even viewed the mass sufferings in the
USSR as necessary for progress, and compared human misery
with the vivisection of animals in the name of science.
"I'm a reporter, not a humanitarian," Duranty would boast. He felt
"moral judgments" weren't for him. In fact, his "moral judgment"
was to glorify Stalin while pretending to be detached and remote.
This attitude won approval from The New York Times, which
believed Duranty knew more about Russia than any of his
contemporaries. Lack of passion in his writing enhanced his
credibility - that he was just a reporter, reporting.
Last week, Sulzberger was quoted in his own paper as saying that
cancelling Duranty's Pulitzer might smack of the Stalinist penchant
for air-brushing photos of purged figures, and set a precedent for
revising judgment in light of later facts.
One would certainly hope so! Duranty's Pulitzer taints an otherwise
honourable journalistic award. Again, what took the Times so long?