Duranty was Stalin's spin doctor
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 November 2003)

Walter Duranty, famous 70 years ago as a distinguished reporter for The New York Times, has slowly turned into a symbol of the wilfully deceptive reporting on the Soviet Union that misled the West about the nature of Stalinism for many years. This week Duranty appeared in the news again when the Pulitzer Prize board announced its decision not to strip him posthumously of the award he won in 1932 for persistently dishonest reporting from Moscow.

Duranty served as Moscow correspondent from 1921 to 1934, wrote several books on Soviet politics and won an admiring public in America.

Meanwhile, he and the Soviets developed a mutually beneficial arrangement.

They let him live like a commissar in a big apartment stocked with caviar and vodka. He had assistants, a chauffeur, and a cook-mistress who became the mother of his son. In return he followed the Soviet line. Sometimes he criticized the Bolsheviks, but on crucial issues he echoed their opinions and praised their plans.

Duranty depicted Stalinist dictatorship as a version of what Russians considered proper government: "Absolute authority, unmellowed by the democracy or liberalism of the West." He accepted outright the new Soviet spin of the early 1930s: No longer interested in exporting revolution, they desired nothing but co-operation and trade with the West.

By selling this approach to Times readers, Duranty helped win public approval for the American decision to recognize Stalin's government. When recognition was granted in 1934, a banquet was held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York to celebrate. Duranty, introduced as "one of the great foreign correspondents of modern times," was given a standing ovation.

Elsewhere, his mendacity was noticed. Malcolm Muggeridge, reporting from Moscow for the Manchester Guardian, considered him the worst liar he ever encountered in journalism. But Duranty's most passionate critics have been Ukrainians, for excellent reasons. When Ukrainian farmers resisted collectivization, Soviet soldiers seized their crops at gunpoint, leaving the people to starve while the government sold the grain abroad for hard-currency credits. As a result, at least five million and possibly even 10 million Ukrainians died.

This man-made famine, at that time the greatest act of genocide in history, was reported by newspapers in several Western countries, including the United States. But even at its peak in 1933, Duranty denied that it existed: "There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be."

"RUSSIANS HUNGRY, BUT NOT STARVING" said the heading on his March 31, 1933, report. Later, when Stalin sent old colleagues to prison or death on false charges of treason, Duranty reported that justice was being served. "Stalin is not an arrogant man," he wrote. In fact, he was "remarkably long-suffering in his treatment of various oppositions."

The evidence against Duranty piled up over the years, often in memoirs like Muggeridge's and in Robert Conquest's books on Soviet terror.

In 1990, Sally J. Taylor wrote in Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times's Man in Moscow (Oxford University Press) that he knew the truth all along and admitted to British diplomats that possibly 10 million had died. The New York Times editors, never eager to admit such a stain on their paper's honour, finally assigned Karl Meyer to review Duranty's work.

He called it "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper."

Ukrainians now mark the history of the famine as Jews mark the Holocaust; this year their day of remembrance fell on Saturday, the same day as the Pulitzer announcement. Led by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association in Toronto, they have been petitioning the Pulitzer board to cancel Duranty's award. Mark von Hagen, a Columbia University historian hired by the Times to judge the prize-winning articles, reported that they were a "largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources." He argued for withdrawing the prize but the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, disagreed. Sulzberger said it would resemble the Stalinist practice of airbrushing purged figures from official photographs. All to the contrary:

It would acknowledge a dreadful mistake. But the Pulitzer board saw it Sulzberger's way. Ukrainian groups, unsatisfied, have vowed to continue their campaign.

Underlying the Pulitzer committee's decision we can detect lingering traces of respect for communist dictatorship as a noble endeavour that turned barbarous because its leadership fell into the wrong hands.

There's still a belief abroad that communism contained an ethical core, the search for social justice, and therefore its supporters need never apologize. It's doubtful that we would extend this generosity to anyone who once embraced fascism. Had Duranty knowingly published something similar about the Nazis, such as a false denial that death camps existed, his Pulitzer would have been retracted decades ago, perhaps even before his death in 1957.

In our standard agreed-upon history of the 20th century, communism still stands morally above fascism, even though communism lasted much longer and killed many more. Meanwhile, in the place on the 11th floor of the Times that displays the framed citations of its 89 Pulitzer Prizes, there's a notice appended to Duranty's citation: "Other writers in The Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage."

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