The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

Seventy years after a government-engineered famine killed millions in Ukraine, a New York Times correspondent who failed to sound the alarm is under attack

By Douglas McCollam,. Columbia Journalism Review (CJR)
America's Premier Media Monitor
Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism
New York, New York, Issue 6/Nov-December 2003

If you get off the elevator on the eleventh floor of the New York Times building, and head down a long hall leading toward the executive dining rooms, you pass under the fixed gaze of some of the finest journalists in American history. Along the walls hang portraits commemorating all eighty-nine Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the Times to date, including those given to such notable lights as Thomas Friedman, Anthony Lewis, J. Anthony Lukas, and David Halberstam.

Walter Duranty

As you enter the hall, just past the portrait of Russell Owen, whose dispatches from Admiral Byrd's 1928 Antarctic expedition riveted the nation, you come to the picture of Walter Duranty, a balding Englishman who served as the Times Moscow correspondent from 1922 to 1934. In 1932, at the age of forty-seven, Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer for a series of stories that the board thought showed a "profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia," consistent with "the best type of foreign correspondence." Next to Duranty's portrait appears the following note: "Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage."

Revoking a vintage Pulitzer seems a tricky matter

Indeed they have, and this year, more than seventy years after Duranty won the prize, both Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, and members of the Pulitzer board have found themselves inundated with letters, postcards, faxes, e-mails, and phone calls demanding that Duranty's prize be returned or revoked. The campaign has left some of its targets mystified. "The whole thing is just odd," says Andrew Barnes, chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times, who has served on the Pulitzer board for seven years. David Klatell, who was on the board for a year as interim dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, also was a bit stumped when he began receiving the letters last fall. "It's been a fairly massive writing campaign," says Klatell, who estimates that he and Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes, have received tens of thousands of cards and letters. "Whoever funded it has spent a good deal of money," Klatell says.

The ongoing effort is actually a joint project of several Ukrainian groups worldwide, spearheaded by Lubomyr Luciuk of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. A principal architect of the campaign in America is thirty-five-year-old Michael Sawkiw Jr., president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Sawkiw, an American whose parents emigrated from Ukraine after World War II, says he recommended the campaign to his board of directors as a way to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, an event some historians consider the greatest man-made disaster in history.

When we met for drinks in Washington (vodka, of course), Sawkiw was adamant that Duranty and the Times were coconspirators in what he calls the Ukrainian "famine-genocide." Well-groomed and affable, Sawkiw nonetheless exuded intensity when he spoke of his determination to see Duranty stripped of his honor. "It's a cop-out just to say 'others dispute' Duranty's reporting," Sawkiw said with just a hint of a Ukrainian accent. "That doesn't get the Times off the hook!" Other Ukrainian activists I spoke with were even more blunt: "Duranty and the Times have blood on their hands and the only way they can wash it off is to return that prize and apologize for what they did," says Peter Borisow, whose parents survived the famine.

Both Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and his father, Arthur Sulzberger Sr., the previous publisher, declined to be interviewed for this article, but a Times spokesman, Toby Usnik, did e-mail a statement, saying, in part, that the Times has "reported often and thoroughly on the defects in Duranty's journalism, as viewed through the lens of later events." Among the Times's reports on Duranty's failings was a 1990 editorial that chided him for his "indifference to the catastrophic famine . . . when millions perished in the Ukraine."

Max Frankel, who was the executive editor when that editorial ran, recalls consulting with the senior Sulzberger, then the publisher, on returning Duranty's prize, but says the feeling was "it was history and what was done can't be undone, but if the evidence was he didn't deserve the prize or was wrong with his coverage we'd give it back." In the end, Frankel says, the decision was made to put the disclaimer on Duranty's portrait in the Pulitzer gallery and leave it at that. In its statement the Times seems to put the onus for revoking the prize on the Pulitzer board, noting that it has reviewed the Duranty award in the past and taken no action.

In April the board voted to consider the question again, forming a special committee to investigate, a step it hasn't taken in the past. Gissler, who became administrator of the prizes in 2002, says the committee was not formed in response to the letter-writing campaign, which he says didn't start in earnest until around May of this year, but because the board views the allegations against Duranty as serious enough to merit an in-depth inquiry. The special committee is scheduled to make a report to the full board at its November meeting. The committee's preliminary findings were being circulated as I worked on this article, but Gissler declined to make it available, nor would he comment on the substance of the controversy.

Most of the twenty-two other present and past board members I contacted were similarly mum, including William Safire, the Times columnist who currently co-chairs the Pulitzer board, and Richard Oppel, the editor of the Austin American-Statesman, who heads the special investigative committee. Rena Pederson, editor at large of The Dallas Morning News, who co-chairs the Pulitzer board with Safire, would say only that the Duranty controversy is "a serious issue that we are looking at in the most thoughtful way possible." Nicholas Lemann, who joined the board in September as a nonvoting member by virtue of his new position as dean of Columbia's journalism school, said he has definite views about the Duranty matter, but couldn't comment because the board, in its private deliberations, might ask for his opinion.

Not everyone was reticent. Barnes of the St. Petersburg Times said he feels strongly that reopening the Duranty case is a bad idea. "There have been many prizes during my tenure where you could look back and ask 'Is that the best we could do?'" says Barnes. "I can't imagine what good this will do." In the eighty-seven-year history of the Pulitzer Prizes, no award has ever been revoked. In 1981 The Washington Post declined to accept a Pulitzer that had been awarded to reporter Janet Cooke after it became clear that her story about an eight-year-old heroin addict had been made up. The Pulitzer board then withdrew the prize. But revoking a vintage Pulitzer seems a trickier matter. "It's an extraordinarily difficult thing to recreate the historical and intellectual context in which many of the Pulitzer jurors were working," says David Klatell.

To get a clearer idea of the issues facing the board, I spent some time at the Library of Congress researching Duranty and his work. In addition to the thirteen stories he wrote in 1931 that were the basis for his 1932 Pulitzer, I also read dozens of other dispatches he filed before, during, and after the Ukrainian famine, as well as accounts of Duranty by colleagues and historians, and a good deal of his autobiographical writing. The picture that emerged was sufficiently complex to make me not envy the Pulitzer board's task.

While it's clear that much of Duranty's reporting was suspect, it's also clear that he and other correspondents in Moscow operated under censorship rules akin to those governing reporters at the front lines of a war - which was exactly how the Soviets viewed their revolutionary struggle. Later Times Moscow correspondents, such as Harrison Salisbury (who resides in Pulitzer Hall with Duranty), would defy Communist minders and be barred from the country for their trouble. Duranty worked within the system, trading softer coverage for continuing access. Deciding whether that exchange ended up with the Times substantially whitewashing Soviet atrocities requires a closer examination of Duranty's work.

When Walter Duranty left the Times and Russia in 1934, the paper said his twelve-year stint in Moscow had "perhaps been the most important assignment ever entrusted by a newspaper to a single correspondent over a considerable period of time." By that time, Duranty was a journalistic celebrity - an absentia member of the Algonquin Roundtable, a confidant of Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw, and Sinclair Lewis. He was held in such esteem that the presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt brought him in for consultations on whether the Soviet Union should be officially recognized. When recognition was granted in 1934, Duranty traveled with the Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, to the signing ceremony and spoke privately with FDR. At a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York held to celebrate the event, Duranty was introduced as "one of the great foreign correspondents of modern times," and 1,500 dignitaries gave him a standing ovation.

In Moscow, Duranty was known as "the dean of foreign correspondents," and was renowned for his lavish hospitality. In an austere city, he enjoyed generous living quarters and food rations, as well as the use of assistants, a chauffeur, and a cook/secretary/mistress named Katya, who bore him a son named Michael. Duranty, who had a wooden left leg caused by a train accident, was driven through the streets in a giant Buick outfitted with the Klaxon horn used by the Soviet secret police. His competitors gossiped that these perks were allowed because of his cozy relationship with the Soviet government. Eugene Lyons, a United Press correspondent, even suspected that Duranty might be on the Soviet payroll, but no evidence of that seems to exist.

Still, many then and later wondered if the status Duranty enjoyed in Moscow led him to curtail his coverage of the Soviets. Malcolm Muggeridge, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, would later call Duranty "the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism." Joseph Alsop would tab him a "fashionable prostitute," in the service of Communists. And S. J. Taylor's 1990 biography of him would be titled "Stalin's Apologist."

This was all a long way from where Duranty started. Before going to Russia - as he later wrote - he was "viciously anti-Bolshevik." In fact, when he arrived in Moscow in 1921 (to cover a famine, ironically enough), the Soviets almost denied Duranty a visa because of his record of antagonizing them in print. But soon after his arrival, Duranty's attitude changed. He came to see the Soviets as "sincere enthusiasts trying to regenerate a people who had been shockingly misgoverned." He was hardly alone in this view.

In the early 1930s, capitalism was at a low ebb, with depression-era unemployment in most industrialized countries approaching 25 percent. For many, especially among the educated elite, communism became a fashionable alternative to capitalism, as well as a bulwark against the rising tide of fascism. The nascent Soviet Union was seen as a grand, romantic experiment, one that carried the best hopes for the mass of humanity. Unlike many writers and journalists who went to Moscow at the time, Duranty was not a communist or even blind to the Soviet excesses; he simply excused the forced labor camps, property seizures, and political purges as measures necessary to drive a backward country into the twentieth century.

"You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs," was a phrase many remembered Duranty using to excuse Soviet tactics, but in his 1935 book "I Write As I Please," he gave a fuller account of his thinking: "Even to a reporter who prides himself on having no bowels of compassion to weep over ruined homes and broken hearts, it is not always easy or pleasant to describe such wreckage, however excellent may be the purpose . . . . But what matters to me is the facts, that is to say whether the Soviet drive to Socialism is or is not successful irrespective of the cost. When, as often happens, it makes me sick to see the cost, I say to myself, 'Well, I saw the War and that cost was worse and greater and the result in terms of human hope or happiness was completely nil.'"

This perspective is evident in the 1931 series of articles that won him the Pulitzer. The stories sought to explain the impact of the first five years of "Stalinism" (a term Duranty is credited with inventing). In the series, Duranty explained that Stalin was focused on domestic progress, as opposed to Lenin's earlier emphasis on achieving a world worker revolution. Stalinism, Duranty wrote, was marked by unprecedented invasion into every aspect of life in the country. "The Stalinist machine is better organized for the formation and control of public opinion than anything history has hitherto known," Duranty wrote in one piece.

In another, about the forced collectivization movement in agriculture, he noted that while it was based in theory on producing more food to feed a hungry nation, the reality "is that 5,000,000 human beings, and 1,000,000 families of the best and most energetic farmers are to be dispossessed, dispersed and demolished, to be literally melted or 'liquidated' into the rising flood of classless proletarians." In general, Duranty wrote, Stalinism was not unlike the iron rule of the tsars, and was "an ugly, harsh, and cruel creed . . . flattening and beating down with, so far, no more than a hope or promise of a subsequent raising up. Perhaps this hope is vain and the promise a lie. That is a secret of the future."

Taken together the thirteen articles (eleven were part of a series, datelined from Paris, that ran in June of 1931; the two others were separate stories), are a sometimes prescient exploration of a kind of totalitarian government the world had never seen before. Duranty's writing style is often stilted, and the stories are flawed in many respects, but overall seem sound, and even include notes of moral condemnation rarely found elsewhere in his work.

The same cannot be said about Duranty's coverage - or lack of coverage - of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine. After five years of brutal agricultural collectivization, Stalin increased the grain quotas due from Ukraine despite a poor harvest year. When it became evident that the quotas would not be met, Soviet troops and party activists swept through Ukraine tearing apart peasant farms looking for secret grain hordes. They stripped the people clean and the result was catastrophic. Though no reliable census data are available, most historians now estimate at least 5 million people starved to death. Ukrainian groups put the figure at 7 million to 10 million and passionately believe it reflects a deliberate campaign by Stalin to break resistance to the Soviets in Ukraine and obliterate the Ukrainian identity, though not all historians agree with that interpretation.

Duranty's stories begin to describe the food problem in August 1932. By October, he reported that Ukraine's harvest was coming in at only 55 percent of 1931 levels, and in November he wrote a series on the food shortage "crisis." But the articles largely parroted the government line about lazy peasants and "kulak" class enemies in the provinces being the cause of the problem. All the stories are datelined in Moscow, and Duranty goes to some lengths to play down the crisis. "There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be," Duranty wrote in words that are now used against him. But just a couple of lines later in the same story he notes, "but it is a gloomy picture, and as far as the writer can see, there is small sign or hope of improvement in the near future."

Even these toned-down reports, however, were apparently enough to draw the ire of the Soviet government. In a meeting with the British ambassador to Moscow, William Strang, Duranty said government officials had threatened that his food shortage stories could result in "serious consequences" for him because they endangered recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States. Duranty told Strang he was afraid his visa would not be renewed. About a week after the series ran in November, Duranty filed a story from Paris about the censorship issue, saying his position had grown "delicate and difficult." But, he hastened to add, the censors were generally reasonable. It's clear he was trying to serve two masters.

By early 1933 word of the famine in Ukraine was leaking into the Western press. In March Malcolm Muggeridge bought a train ticket from Moscow to Kiev (without informing the Soviet press office) to check out famine rumors. There he found the population starving to death. "I mean starving in its absolute sense; not undernourished," he wrote in reports that were smuggled past the censors. Worse, Muggeridge found grain supplies that did exist were being given to army units brought in to keep starving peasants from revolting. Upon his return to Moscow, Muggeridge informed the British embassy that the situation was so bad he wouldn't have believed it if he had not seen it in person. Embittered, the idealistic Muggeridge left the Soviet Union, convinced he had witnessed "one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe it ever happened."

Confined to Moscow and perhaps alarmed at being scooped, Duranty began to openly criticize the famine reports. Muggeridge's stories were followed by a similar one from Gareth Jones, a secretary to the former British prime minister David Lloyd George, who had made a three-week walking tour of Ukraine. Duranty attacked Jones in the Times as naive and dismissed his article as another in a long line of failed predictions of doom for the Soviets. Duranty wrote that he had made his own "exhaustive" inquiries around Moscow. Based on those he could report there was a serious food shortage but "no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition."

Gareth Jones

While conditions were bad, Duranty went on to write, there was no famine. As S.J. Taylor notes in Stalin's Apologist, the Timesman was "cutting semantic distinction pretty slim" and his downplaying of the famine was "the most outrageous equivocation of the period" - one that Gareth Jones did not let Duranty get away with. In a long letter to the Times published in May 1933 Jones wrote that during his weeks in the countryside he visited twenty villages and talked with hundreds of peasants. In Moscow, he discussed the tragedy with consuls from twenty or thirty countries, all of whom supported his view that a massive famine was under way. Further, Jones said, censorship in the Soviet Union had turned correspondents into "masters of euphemism and understatement" so that "famine" became "food shortage" and death from starvation became "widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition."

When travel restrictions were eased, Duranty finally made his own tour of Ukraine. In late August of 1933, at the start of a bumper harvest, he was able to report that "any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." In the same story, however, he noted that the food shortage had previously caused "heavy loss of life" in the region, at least trebling the normal death rate. In an editorial the next day, the Times noted that Duranty's figures suggested that the "famine must have taken at least 5,000,000 lives and perhaps twice as many," an estimate very much in line with what historians would later conclude. The editorial goes on to note that the United States in 1933, despite the Depression, had a surplus of 350 million bushels of wheat that could be used to offset the famine. But it was already too late.

Do these failings mean that Duranty should be stripped of the Pulitzer? That was certainly the conclusion of Mark von Hagen, a Columbia University history professor the Times hired to analyze Duranty's work. In an eight-page report that leaked to The New York Sun in late October he blasts Duranty's reporting as uncritical and unbalanced. In a July 29 letter to the Pulitzer board, forwarding the report, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote that the Times had often acknowledged Duranty's slovenly work, but argued that the board might set a bad precedent by revoking the award. Sulzberger wrote that the Times would respect whatever decision the board made, but cautioned that revoking the award was somewhat akin to the Stalinist urge "to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories."

Von Hagen's report examined the totality of Duranty's reporting in 1931, and found that he frequently hewed to the party line and excused or explained away Soviet excess. In this, von Hagen notes, Duranty was not unique. But his report does not focus on the thirteen stories cited by the Pulitzer committee as the basis for the prize (he cites only six of the thirteen and one of them favorably).

If the case for revoking the prize is based solely on the series that Duranty won for, then it is less compelling. If it is based instead on the totality of his reporting, then the prize should probably be revoked.

Duranty did not simply write watered-down stories about the famine. Others, including later critics like William Henry Chamberlain of The Christian Science Monitor and Eugene Lyons of UP, filed similarly bland reports, correcting the record only after they were out of the country. No one, it appears, both reported the depths of the famine and managed to stay inside the Soviet Union.

But Duranty did more than equivocate; he repeatedly cast doubt on whether the famine was taking place, relying on scarcely more than official Soviet press reports. In so doing he allowed himself to become a vehicle of Soviet propaganda. When he was finally allowed to tour the region in September of 1933, Duranty played up the big harvest that was by then under way, and wrote that "the populace, from the babies to the old folks, looks healthy and well nourished." But writing of the same trip years later, in 1949, Duranty recalled that he had driven "nearly two hundred miles across the country between Rostov and Krasnodar through land that was lost to the weeds and through villages that were empty."

That was also the image Duranty gave to the British ambassador, Strang, and others shortly after his return to Moscow. "The Ukraine has been bled white," Duranty is reported as saying to Strang in a diplomatic dispatch to London dated September 30, 1933. Duranty ventured to Strang that it was "quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year." These sentiments, needless to say, never appeared under Duranty's byline.

Researchers who have investigated Duranty's career have found that certain editors at The New York Times did have doubts about his coverage of the Soviet Union, but never acted to recall him. Times editors were aware of famine reports in other newspapers, and even ran editorials and stories contrary to Duranty's coverage in the Times. Those who wish to see Duranty's Pulitzer revoked point to a 1931 State Department memo from the American ambassador to Germany on a meeting he had with Duranty in which Duranty supposedly said that by agreement between the Times and the Soviet government, all his dispatches reflected the Soviets' official position.

Though the report appears genuine, it's hard to know how much weight to give it given the lack of other supporting evidence and the tone of the Times coverage. Certainly Duranty's dispatches were contorted to get past the censors, but the Times headlines on his stories were often harsher in tone than the articles under them. The paper had a long record of anti-Soviet coverage and took a much harder editorial line against the Soviets than Duranty did, leading to a somewhat inconsistent picture during Duranty's tenure.

That tenure ended in early 1934, when Duranty stepped down as the Times Moscow correspondent, just months after his triumphal trip with Litvinov to the White House. He continued as special correspondent for the Times through 1940 and wrote several books on the Soviet Union, never altering his view of Stalin as a cruel but necessary figure in Russian history. He died in Florida in 1957 with both his bank account and his reputation severely diminished. Given his cynical world view, Duranty might be mystified by the outrage still surrounding his career.

Then again, perhaps he anticipated the questions to come about his reporting from the Soviet Union. In his bestselling 1935 memoir, "I Write As I Please," he discusses whether the "noble" objectives of the Soviets justified the harsh means they employed. In deciding, he recounts an incident that occurred while he was a cub reporter for the Times's Paris desk in 1917 during World War I. George Creel, the head of the U.S. military's public information office, had relayed a tale about how American sailors on their maiden voyage to Europe sank a pack of German submarines. Duranty believed the story to be war propaganda meant to bolster flagging morale, but he filed the story anyway. Did the end justify the means, a troubled Duranty wondered? His answer took the form of a poem written in the style of E.E. Cummings. In long stanzas he tells of the sailors' heroic tale and his decision to write about it despite doubting its truth. The final stanza concludes:

Well I ask you does a reporter not mean someone who reports
reports exactly what he sees verbatim what he hears
and did I not report it to my full two thousand words
and did it LEAD THE PAPER or not
and if Saint Peter asks unpleasant questions about it
I shall appeal to Saint Athanasius
and if Saint Athanasius lets me down
I'll shout for citizen Creel
and if they can't find him in heaven
then I fear we'll meet in HELL

Colombia Journalism Review, NY, NY,