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The campaign to revoke Walter Duranty's Pulitzer.


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Andrew Stuttaford

We will never know how many Ukrainians died in Stalin’s famines of the early 1930s. As Nikita Khrushchev later recalled, “No one was keeping count.” Writing back in the mid- 1980s, historian Robert Conquest came up with a death toll of around six million, a calculation not so inconsistent with later research (the writers of The Black Book of Communism (1999) estimated a total of four million for 1933 alone).

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Four million, six million, seven million, when the numbers are this grotesque does the exact figure matter? Just remember this instead:

The first family to die was the Rafalyks — father, mother and a child. Later on the Fediy family of five also perished of starvation. Then followed the families of Prokhar Lytvyn (four persons), Fedir Hontowy (three persons), Samson Fediy (three persons). The second child of the latter family was beaten to death on somebody’s onion patch. Mykola and Larion Fediy died, followed by Andrew Fediy and his wife; Stefan Fediy; Anton Fediy, his wife and four children (his two other little girls survived); Boris Fediy, his wife and three children: Olanviy Fediy and his wife; Taras Fediy and his wife; Theodore Fesenko; Constantine Fesenko; Melania Fediy; Lawrenty Fediy; Peter Fediy; Eulysis Fediy and his brother Fred; Isidore Fediy, his wife and two children; Ivan Hontowy, his wife and two children; Vasyl Perch, his wife and child; Makar Fediy; Prokip Fesenko: Abraham Fediy; Ivan Skaska, his wife and eight children.

Some of these people were buried in a cemetery plot; others were left lying wherever they died. For instance, Elizabeth Lukashenko died on the meadow; her remains were eaten by ravens. Others were simply dumped into any handy excavation. The remains of Lawrenty Fediy lay on the hearth of his dwelling until devoured by rats.*

And that’s just one village — Fediivka, in the Poltava Province.

We will never know whether Walter Duranty, the principal New York Times correspondent in the U.S.S.R., ever visited Fediivka. Almost certainly not. What we do know is that, in March 1933, while telling his readers that there had indeed been “serious food shortages” in the Ukraine, he was quick to reassure them that “there [was] no actual starvation.” There had been no “deaths from starvation,” he soothed, merely “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” So that was all right then.

But, unlike Khrushchev, Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less, was keeping count — in the autumn of 1933 he is recorded as having told the British Embassy that ten million had died. ** “The Ukraine,” he said, “had been bled white,” remarkable words from the journalist who had, only days earlier, described talk of a famine as “a sheer absurdity,” remarkable words from the journalist who, in a 1935 memoir had dismayingly little to say about one of history’s greatest crimes. Writing about his two visits to the Ukraine in 1933, Duranty was content to describe how “the people looked healthier and more cheerful than [he] had expected, although they told grim tales of their sufferings in the past two years.” As Duranty had explained (writing about his trip to the Ukraine in April that year), he “had no doubt that the solution to the agrarian problem had been found”.

Well, at least he didn’t refer to it as a “final” solution.

As the years passed, and the extent of the famine and the other, innumerable, brutalities of Stalin’s long tyranny became increasingly difficult to deny, Duranty’s reputation collapsed (I wrote about this on NRO a couple of years ago), but his Pulitzer Prize has endured.

Ah, that Pulitzer Prize. In his will old Joseph Pulitzer described what the prize was designed to achieve: ” The encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education.”

In 1932 the Pulitzer Board awarded Walter Duranty its prize. It’s an achievement that the New York Times still celebrates. The gray lady is pleased to publish its storied Pulitzer roster in a full-page advertisement each year, and, clearly, it finds the name of Duranty as one that is still fit to print. His name is near the top of the list, an accident of chronology, but there it is, Duranty, Times man, denier of the Ukrainian genocide — proudly paraded for all to see. Interestingly, the list of prizewinners posted on the New York Times Company’s website is more forthcoming: Against Duranty’s name, it is noted that “other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.”

Understandably enough, Duranty’s Pulitzer is an insult that has lost none of its power to appall. In a new initiative, Ukrainian groups have launched a fresh campaign designed to persuade the Pulitzer Prize Board to revoke the award to Duranty. The Pulitzer’s nabobs do not appear to be impressed. A message dated April 29, 2003 from the board’s administrator to one of the organizers of the Ukrainian campaign includes the following words:

The current Board is aware that complaints about the Duranty award have surfaced again. [The campaign's] submission…will be placed on file with others we have received. However, to date, the Board has not seen fit to reverse a previous Board’s decision, made seventy years ago in a different era and under different circumstances.

A “different era,” “different circumstances” — would that have been said, I wonder, about someone who had covered up Nazi savagery? But then, more relevantly, the Pulitzer’s representative notes that Duranty’s prize was awarded “for a specific set of stories in 1931,” in other words, before the famine struck with its full, horrific, force. And there he has a point. The prize is designed to reward a specific piece of journalism — not a body of work. To strip Duranty of the prize on the grounds of his subsequent conduct, however disgusting it may have been, would be a retrospective change of the rules, behavior more typical of the old U.S.S.R. than today’s U.S.A.

But what was that “specific set of stories?” Duranty won his prize ” for [his] dispatches on Russia especially the working out of the Five Year Plan.” They were, said the Pulitzer Board “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity….”

Really? As summarized by S. J. Taylor in her excellent — and appropriately titled — biography of Duranty, Stalin’s Apologist, the statement with which Duranty accepted his prize gives some hint of the “sound judgment” contained in his dispatches.

“”Despite present imperfections,” he continued, he had come to realize there was something very good about the Soviets’ “planned system of economy.” And there was something more: Duranty had learned, he said, “to respect the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, who [had grown] into a really great statesman.”"

In truth, of course, this was simply nonsense, a distortion that, in some ways bore even less resemblance to reality than “Jimmy’s World,” the tale of an eight-year-old junkie that, briefly, won a Pulitzer for Janet Cooke of the Washington Post. Tragic “Jimmy” turned out not to exist. He was a concoction, a fiction, nothing more. The Post did the right thing — Cooke’s prize was rapidly returned.

After 70 years the New York Times has yet to do the right thing. There is, naturally, always room for disagreement over how events are interpreted, particularly in an era of revolutionary change, but Duranty’s writings clearly tipped over into propaganda, and, often, outright deception, a cynical sugarcoating of the squalor of a system in which he almost certainly didn’t believe. His motivation seems to have been purely opportunistic, access to the Moscow “story” for the Times and the well-paid lifestyle and the fame (“the Great Duranty” was, some said, the best-known journalist in the world) that this brought. Too much criticism of Stalin’s rule and this privileged existence would end. Duranty’s “Stalin” was a lie, not much more genuine than Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy” and, as he well knew at the time, so too were the descriptions of the Soviet experiment that brought him that Pulitzer.

And if that is not enough to make the Pulitzer Board to reconsider withdrawing an award that disgraces both the name of Joseph Pulitzer and his prize, it is up to the New York Times to insist that it does so.

*From an account quoted in Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow.
** On another occasion (a dinner party, ironically) that autumn Duranty talked about seven million deaths.

Mr. Stuttaford is a writer living in New York.


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