Timesman Walter Duranty’s defense of genocide really should not be allowed to stand.
A few days ago, the New York Times reached a new low in its coverage of the Trump administration. In its pages, the hate comes first and the facts can be damned.
It actually ran an article comparing Trump to Stalin. When Trump described the media as the “enemy of the people,” the paper reminded readers that also Stalin used this phrase. The story seemed happy to imply that Trump too is out to establish a murderous dictatorship.
As it is, the New York Times has no business comparing anyone with Stalin until it puts pressure on the Pulitzer Board to revoke Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize.
From 1932 to 1933, a famine, known as Holodomor, killed as many as 10 million people in the former Soviet Union. The majority of those deaths were in Ukraine.
While my grandfather survived the famine, millions of Ukrainians did not. During the Holodomor, Walter Duranty, then the New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief, wrote, “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
In December of 1933, Stalin praised this so-called journalist:
“You have done a good job in your reporting the U.S.S.R., though you are not a Marxist, because you try to tell the truth about our country.… I might say that you bet on our horse to win when others thought it had no chance and I am sure you have not lost by it.”
While reporters often provide more favorable coverage to politicians in exchange for access, Duranty took it too far and denied the existence of a famine that killed millions of people. Since this famine was man-made, it can only be described as genocide.
Robert Conquest’s book Harvest of Sorrow makes this point clear. He explains that Marxists saw farmers as a natural opponent of collectivism.
Long before President Obama demeaned certain people from small towns as clinging to “guns and religion,” Lenin liked to use Marx’s quote about the “idiocy of rural life.” Lenin believed that a farmer “far from being instinctive or traditional collectivist, is in fact fiercely and meanly individualistic.”
While Ukrainian cities were filled with Russian-speakers, Ukrainian nationalism was much stronger in rural areas where Moscow had far less influence.
Since the kulaks and peasants of Ukraine were the most nationalist, they were perceived as a threat to the communist party. Russification and collectivization became methods to break their independent streak and strengthen party control.
In 1917, Lenin approved an essay by his Commissar of Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, entitled “Marxism and the National Colonial Question.” Stalin wrote:
There are cases when the right of self-determination conflicts with another, a higher right — the right of the working class has come to power to consolidate the power. In such cases — this must be said bluntly — the right of self-determination cannot and must not serve as an obstacle to the working class in exercising its right to dictatorship.
Beyond ideological concerns of crushing the independent spirit of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the famine for economic reasons as well.
Before oil and natural gas, the Kremlin relied on wheat for export earnings. From 1895 to 1914, grain represented between 50 to 70 percent of Russia’s export earnings. It wasn’t until after World War II that oil made up more than 18 percent of the Soviet Union’s export earnings.
Production of wheat dropped from 9 million tons in 1913 to only 5 million tons in 1931 due to the weaknesses of central planning. In 1932, Stalin believed that the country needed to industrialize rapidly.
He used the money from his export earnings to pay for industrialization. When wheat production declined in 1932, Stalin forced millions of people to starve to death rather than allow his export earnings to decline.
Stalin didn’t want to save the Ukrainians from Holodomor. He wanted to gain revenue from wheat exports while killing his enemies in Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union.
For many years, people wondered whether Duranty was aware of the famine. In fact, Western journalists, Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge went to Ukraine and revealed to the world about the famine at the time.
Duranty himself visited Ukraine twice in 1933. Documents from the British Foreign Office show that Duranty had confided to a diplomat at the British Embassy in Moscow that he personally believed millions were killed.
It was not until 1986 that the New York Times began criticizing Duranty’s work. It was in a book review of Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow. In 1990, Stalin’s Apologist, a definitive biography of Duranty by S.J. Taylor, was published, forcing the Pulitzer Board to review his work. It refused to revoke it.
In 2002, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) tried again. It called for the Pulitzer Board to revoke Duranty’s prize.
After thousands of letters and e-mails were sent to the Pulitzer Board, the board did reopen the case. But in November 2003, the Pulitzer Board formally denied these requests, on the grounds that “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.” To this day, the Pulitzer Board remains opposed to any further reopening of the Duranty matter, according to the administrator I spoke with in 2014 as well as his successor earlier this week.
If the board wanted “convincing evidence,” it needed only to consider the source itself. Even the New York Times, for all intents, confirmed that Duranty deliberately deceived his readers:
Duranty’s cabled dispatches had to pass Soviet censorship, and Stalin’s propaganda machine was powerful and omnipresent.… Taking Soviet propaganda at face value this way was completely misleading, as talking with ordinary Russians might have revealed even at the time.”
Bill Keller, who was executive editor of the New York Times in 2003-2011, admitted that Duranty’s articles were “credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda.” Despite his criticism, Keller opposed revoking Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize. He said, “As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps.” A strange argument on behalf of a journalist who airbrushed genocide. Perhaps Keller worried that revoking Duranty’s prize would diminish the Pulitzer he himself won in 1988.
Revoking a Pulitzer Prize from a disgraced journalist is not unprecedented. In 1981, after the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke had her Pulitzer Prize withdrawn for reporting a fake story and inflating her academic credentials, Ben Bradlee, the paper’s executive editor, said:
“The credibility of a newspaper is its most precious asset, and it depends almost entirely on the integrity of its reporters. When that integrity is questioned and found wanting, the wounds are grievous, and there is nothing to do but come clean with our readers, apologize to the Advisory Board of the Pulitzer Prizes, and begin immediately on the uphill task of regaining our credibility.”
I wish the New York Times could learn from Ben Bradlee’s example. In 2003, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of the New York Times, actually came out against revoking Duranty’s Pulitzer.
The New York Times cannot claim the moral high ground when discussing human rights and fake news unless it helps correct this injustice. Only the Sulzberger family has the power to pressure the Pulitzer Board to right this wrong.