The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

Walter Duranty wrote a series of 13 articles that won a Pulitizer Prize

By William Goodwin, Daily Trojan Online, Vol. 150, No. 64
Daily Newspaper of the University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California, Tuesday, November 25, 2003, on page 4

In the 1930s, Walter Duranty was at the top of Soviet Russia. Head of the New York Times' Moscow bureau, the journalist had access to the highest circles of Soviet elite.

At one point, he was even granted an interview with Joseph Stalin himself, an incredible breach of the cloak of security that surrounded the Communist leader.

In 1931, Duranty wrote a series of 13 articles that eventually won him a Pulitzer Prize. By 1932, a famine rooted in Soviet collectivization, begun in 1929, was striking down millions in the Ukraine. Duranty continued to write glowing articles that propounded the efficiency and power of the Soviet Union, actively denying any evidence of a famine.

Walter Duranty, 1945, University of Arizona

The incongruity of a journalist being given an award for doing propaganda damage control of a Soviet disaster brings us to the present. In response to pressure from Ukrainian activist groups earlier this year, the Pulitzer Prize committee decided to review the award and possibly revoke it.

On Friday, the committee announced Duranty's work simply did not measure up to "today's standards for foreign reporting."

Mark von Hagen, a well-regarded Columbia history professor, researched the issue at the Times request.

He believed that the award should be negated. In his report, he stated that the articles reflected bias and the "uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime had misrepresented history and done a disservice to the paper's readers," according to the Nov. 22 Times.

The committee did not revoke the award.

Despite finding Duranty's work flawed and sub-par, the committee felt denying the award now would set a dangerous precedent for reviewing awards long after the fact, especially when the writers and editors involved may not be able to respond to charges.

Moreover, they declared that the character and later works of a writer should not be a determinant in giving an award that is based on specific articles that should be reviewed for the merit of the written word alone.

In the abstract, that defense is sound, and in most cases, those fears might be justified. However, given a closer historical examination and a look at Duranty's actual words, the committee's decision is decidedly wrong.

Though it might already be assumed, Duranty was not the most vocal critic of Stalin's regime. One didn't tar and feather Communist misdeeds and then rub elbows with Uncle Joe.

In that regard, Duranty might have been no different than any number of journalists who tempered their writing to ensure that they wouldn't be given a one-way ticket to a salt mine somewhere west of the Ural mountains.

That's a regrettably time-honored practice, and reporters have been guilty of such self-censorship right up to Eason Jordan and CNN in a pre-Gulf War II Iraq. Duranty was not just another uncritical writer. He was an active apologist for an execrable totalitarian.

He curried, and won, favor from a ruler who was responsible for, by the most conservative estimates, 20 million deaths. It is more commonly claimed that Stalin killed up to 60 million.

More specific to this argument is Duranty's reaction to the terrible famine of 1932-1933. Millions of Ukrainians died. Duranty said it didn't happen. Don't believe me; believe his words, as unearthed by Arnold Beichman, a columnist for the Washington Times, while trolling through the Times' archives.

As evidence of the famine grew increasingly hard to refute, Duranty changed his tone.

"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he wrote on May 14, 1933.

He even managed to distinguish death fom malnutrition and death from starvation, on March 31, 1933.

"There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition."

Later in the year, though, he returned to outright denial.

"Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda," wrote Duranty on Aug. 23, 1933.

But assume that the articles in contention shouldn't be reviewed in the context of Stalin or even in the light of Duranty's abysmal record as a blatant liar and Tokyo Rose for the Soviet Union. Rather, say they should be evaluated for whether they adequately told the story and whether there were any grossly negligent omissions on the part of the reporter.

The committee already admitted that the actual content of Duranty's work was undoubtedly flawed and doesn't merit the award by today's standards. However, they make the odd distinction of demarcating the beginning of the famine precisely in 1932, which would mean that Duranty's failure to mention the imminent humanitarian crisis does not affect the works reviewed.

This line of thinking is refuted by Duranty himself, as he clearly was aware of the looming famine in 1931, going so far as to deny its coming.

"There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be," according to his Nov. 15, 1931 article.

Carefully note the date, 1931. The Times and Pulitzer committee may very well fear attacks that emerge long after the fact that don't give the principals a chance to respond. In Duranty's case, though, they need not worry.

His contemporaries saw the holes in his reporting. Malcolm Muggeridge, the renowned correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, called him "the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism."

Memoirs from the time, like those of Zara Witkin quoted by Beichman in "Pulitzer-Prize winning lies" in the Weekly Standard on June 12, and a number of historical accounts describe Duranty revealing that he was plainly aware of the disaster in the Ukraine but intentionally omitted it from articles.

Perhaps the most jarring note in this whole episode comes from Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the Times. In a letter sent to the Pulitzer committee, he worried that pulling the prize conjured up the "Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories." Sulzberger gallingly argues that it would be Stalinist to condemn and dissociate from a Stalinist.

So, it's better to continue the pretence that he is a deservedly lauded writer. Critics have rightly pointed out that were Duranty a Holocaust-denier, there would have been no question of whether to pull the award.

As it is, an ardent defender of communism, an ideology that has killed many millions more than even Hitler and fascism, remains enshrined as an exemplar of journalistic excellence.

William Goodwin's column "From the Rear Guard" runs on Tuesday. To comment on this article, call (213) 740-5665 or e-mail