The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

In September 1933, NY Times reporter Walter Duranty set off from Moscow for Ukraine to discredit "campaign about the alleged famine"

Book Review By Bertrand M. Patenaude
The Wall Street Journal, New York, NY
February 24, 2004; Page D8

[RE: "Modernization From The Other Shore: American Intellectuals And The Romance of Russian Development" by David Engerman, Harvard, November, 2003.]


In September 1933, New York Times reporter Walter Duranty set off from Moscow for Ukraine with the intention of discrediting what he called the "campaign about the alleged famine." Up to that point, Duranty's reporting had insisted that the Soviet Union was experiencing "food shortages," not famine, and now the Soviet government had authorized him to travel to Ukraine, together with Stanley Richardson of the Associated Press, so that he could prove his case.

(Click on image to enlarge it)

Not far along in their travels, however, the two reporters began to encounter undeniable evidence that Ukraine had been the scene of a major famine. Sounding like a war correspondent, Duranty told his readers that, although "the cost has been heavy," the Kremlin had "won the battle with the peasants." Hunger, he wrote, "had broken their passive resistance -- there in one phrase is the grim story of the Ukrainian Verdun."

One of the many virtues of David Engerman's "Modernization From the Other Shore" (Harvard, 399 pages, $49.95) is that it puts into an American context the continuing controversy over Duranty's reporting from Russia and the 1932 Pulitzer Prize it won for him. Duranty was one in a long line of Americans -- scholars, diplomats, journalists and relief workers -- who argued for the oppressive influence of Russian national character and, after 1917, expressed great enthusiasm for the Soviet urge to modernize Russia.

Starting in the late 19th century, American observers explained Russia's backwardness as a product of the peasants' passivity, fatalism, lethargy, melancholy and submissiveness -- qualities, it was said, derived from the land (endless plains) and the climate (endless winters). These national-character traits -- whether ingrained or innate -- were usually presented as a kind of genetic code that condemned Russia to eternal backwardness. (The retarding effects of Russian Orthodoxy and vodka, well-rehearsed in the accounts of American travelers, barely figure in Mr. Engerman's book.) Russia remained "Asiatic," in the catchall term, despite the herculean efforts of Peter the Great to Europeanize his country in the early 18th century.

Why the Soviet 'experiment' enthralled U.S. scholars and journalists.

Such arguments persisted into the 1920s, when a new social-science universalism took hold in the academy and spurred the Russia experts to go beyond politics and take up subjects like economic planning, industrialization and education. Technocrats and sociologists saw the Soviet Union as a laboratory of modernization, especially once the First Five-Year Plan was introduced in 1928.

David Engerman

Thus the fascination of American intellectuals with Russia, Mr. Engerman persuasively claims, did not begin with the Great Depression -- as conventional wisdom has it -- but rather preceded it. The attraction was to Soviet technique: What could Soviet practices teach America about the best way forward?

America's Soviet enthusiasts, like the educator and philosopher John Dewey, were hardly ignorant of the human costs of the Soviet "experiment," including hunger and bloodshed. Their engagement with Russia thus required a certain clinical detachment. In a telling remark, Dewey called the experiment "by all means the most interesting going on upon our globe -- though I am quite frank to say that for selfish reasons I prefer seeing it tried out in Russia rather than in my own country." You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, in other words. But America's eggheads preferred to disregard the Russian costs while awaiting the universal benefits.

At the same time, those classic Russian character traits came to be seen as merely formidable obstacles rather than insuperable ones. In fact, in some analyses Russian submissiveness and endurance offered advantages to the modernizing regime, which could count on the hardy Russian peasants to suffer extreme privation. Thus did the University of Chicago's Samuel Harper dub the Five-Year Plan "Build Till It Hurts," while Harvard's Bruce Hopper determined that Russia was ready to "starve itself great."

This was the framework that Duranty and his fellow Moscow reporters used to interpret Stalin's crash industrialization and collectivization in the early 1930s, and it helps explain their reactions to the famine, which claimed eight million lives. Despite differences in their politics and their personalities, the American journalists, in the spirit of the times, shared an enthusiasm for Soviet economic development, a low estimation of Russian national character and a general sense that human life in Russia was cheap. They regarded the Soviet industrialization drive as a war between a modernizing regime and its recalcitrant peasantry.

Readers of Mr. Engerman's book will be struck by parallels to current globalization debates between ascendant universalists and skeptical particularists. Yet it would be hard today to find an American of either persuasion ready to match Duranty's candid cold-bloodedness.

Even after he had returned to Moscow from Ukraine and understood that millions had perished -- up to 10 million, he stated privately -- he found a way to rationalize the famine. The peasants who had fallen in the battle to control the countryside, Duranty concluded, were "victims on the march toward progress."

The writer of the book review, Mr. Patenaude, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and is the author of "The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921" (2002).

The writer of the book, David C. Engerman, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.

The Wall Street Journal, NY, NY, February 24, 2004