The New York Times and the Great Famine

by Marco Carynnyk


Duranty's denials proved useful to Soviet spokesmen. When a group of Ukrainian women in the United States appealed to Congressman Herman Kopplemann of Connecticut to intervene with Moscow, Kopplemann forwarded their brief to Maxim Litvinov, the people's commissar for foreign affairs. "There is any amount of such pamphlets full of lies circulated by counter-revolutionary organizations abroad, who specialize in the work of this kind," Litvinov replied ineloquently but clearly. "There is nothing left for them to do but to spread false information or to forge documents."

The Ukrainian memorandum had cited Duranty's August estimate of a trebled death rate. Boris Skvirsky, counselor of the USSR Embassy in Washington, who was instructed by Litvinov to answer the Ukrainian charge in detail, found Duranty's later retraction of his estimate a handy rebuttal:

"The pamphlet does not add that in The Times, September 13, writing from Rostov-on-Don in the course of a personal inspection trip through those sections, Duranty stated that his estimate of July 24, before he had made his personal inspection, was exaggerated. He said that the poor harvest of 1932 had made for difficult conditions in certain sections, but there had been no famine. Writing from Kharkov, capital of the Ukraine, September 18, 1933, on conditions of that year, he said: 'The writer has just completed a 200-mile trip through the heart of the Ukraine and can say positively that the harvest is splendid and all talk of famine now is ridiculous.'"

Koppleman had second thoughts about the cause he had supported. Forwarding copies of Litvinov's and Skvirsky's replies to the Ukrainian women, he wrote:

"Because the facts contained in the pamphlet you submitted to me conflict to a large extent with the report from the Soviet officials, I am asking you to make further investigation of the charges you have presented to me."_35_

Stalin appreciated Duranty's effort to make the news fit to print. "You have done a good job in your reporting of the USSR, although you are not a Marxist, because you tried to tell the truth about our country and to understand it and explain it to your readers," he flannelled Duranty nine days after the latter filed his story of hostile elements making an 11th-hour attempt to avert U.S. recognition._36_

More tangible expressions of Stalin's pleasure followed. Duranty triumphantly accompanied Litvinov to the United States in November 1933 when the latter came to negotiate diplomatic relations and on his return took with him in his dispatch case, as Alexander Woollcott put it, the first American ambassador to Moscow._37_ And late in the year, Duranty was granted an hourlong interview with the "Great Helmsman." It was featured on the front page by The New York Times and summarized in other papers._38_ "It is unusual for M. Stalin to give interviews to journalists," a Soviet specialist in the Foreign Office commented drily, "but W. Duranty might be expected to get favorable treatment in this respect."_39_

American liberals were equally appreciative. George Seldes claimed that America would have nothing but objective and reliable news if all the editors chose correspondents of Duranty's calibre. Alvin Adey observed that "there is no American correspondent or for that matter any other non-Russian writer on Soviet affairs, who surpasses Walter Duranty in knowledge and understanding of Russia."_40_ And Woollcott described the scene when the United States' recognition of the USSR was celebrated with a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in late 1933 and the honor roll of those who had contributed most to the rapproachement was called:

"For each name in the roll, whether Russian or American, there was polite applause from the 1,700 [guests], but the one really prolonged pandemonium was evoked by the mention of a little Englishman who was an amused and politely attentive witness of these festivities. Indeed, one quite got the impression that America, in a spasm of discernment, was recognizing both Russia and Walter Duranty."_41_

Another award for Duranty came from the Nation, which annually published an honor roll of citizens and institutions. In 1933 the honors went to The New York Times for printing and Walter Duranty for writing, during the previous decade and a half of Soviet rule, "the most enlightening, dispassionate and readable dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world."_42_

But Western correspondents who knew Duranty in Moscow did not share the regard in which he was held in New York. They called him Walter Obscuranty, and they said that the impressions he conveyed privately did not even remotely resemble the impressions he purveyed to the readers of The Times.

Malcolm Muggeridge, who drew a devastating sketch of Duranty in his novel "Winter in Moscow" (the identifying tag is Duranty's egg-and-omelette line), called his collected reporting from the Soviet Union an "essay in untruth":

"I shall never forget Mr. Duranty. There was something fantastic, fairy-like about the spectacle of him dancing his Roger de Coverley hand in hand with the Bolshevik bosses on a prostrate Russia. How jauntily the dance proceeded! What spirit in the steps and capers! And no confusion. No flagging. If, occasionally, a dancer withdrew, the figure did not suffer. Still a partner to bow to, still hands outstretched for a giddy twirl, still the dance going merrily on. ...The remarkable thing is that Mr. Duranty has - to use one of his favorite expressions - 'gotten away with it.' Readers of The New York Times adore him; the Brian Trust and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat have lain down together, and Mr. Duranty has led them; his name is honored amongst the righteous in all parts of the world. In these circumstances, does not the dust-cover of Russia Reported show unusual moderation in describing the book as a 'supreme triumph of modern reporting'?"_43_

Eugene Lyons's criticism was more specific. The blockade on news from Ukraine and the North Caucasus that lasted through the spring and summer of 1933, he recollected, was lifted in "easy stages":

"The first to be given permission to travel in the forbidden zones were the technically 'friendly' reporters, whose dispatches might be counted upon to take the sting out of anything subsequent travelers might report. Duranty, for instance, was given a two weeks' advantage over most of us.

"On the day he returned, it happened, Billy [Lyons's wife] and I were dining with Ann O'Hare McCormick, roving correspondent for The New York Times, and her husband. Duranty joined us. He gave us his fresh impressions in brutually frank terms and they added up to a picture of ghastly horror. His estimate of the dead from famine was the most startling I had as yet heard from anyone.

"'But, Walter, you don't mean that literally?' Mrs. McCormick exclaimed.

"'Hell I don't. ...I'm being conservative,' he replied, and as if by way of consolation he added his famous truism: 'But they're only Russians. ...'

"Once more the same evening we heard Duranty make the same estimate, in answer to a question by Laurence Stallings, at the railroad station, just as the train was pulling out for the Polish frontier. When the issues of The Times carrying Duranty's own articles reached me I found that they failed to mention the large figures he had given freely and repeatedly to all of us."_44_

Yet the most damning evidence against Duranty has never been presented. In a memorandum that he wrote for Muggeridge in December 1937 Lyons revealed the figure he had heard from Duranty:

"In 'Assignment in Utopia,' I tell how Duranty, returning from a tour of inspection after the 1932-33 famine, told Anne O'Hare McCormick, myself and others that the famine had killed many millions. His estimate, I say, was the largest I had yet heard. In the book I didn't mention the figure he used, but it was 7 million! Having passed on that figure to us in private conversation, he went home and wrote his famous dispatches pooh-pooing the famine."_45_

Several days after his meeting with Lyons, Duranty gave the British Chancery in Moscow an even more revealing account of his impressions in the North Caucasus and Ukraine. William Strang, the charge d'affaires, summarized Duranty's findings for Sir John Simon, the foreign secretary, on September 26:

"According to Mr. Duranty, the population of the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga has decreased in the past year by 3 million, and the population of the Ukraine by 4-5 million. ... From Rostov Mr. Duranty went to Kharkov, and on the way he noticed that large quantities of grain were in evidence at the railway stations, of which a large proportion was lying in the open air. Conditions in Kharkov were worse than in Rostov. There was less to eat, and the people had evidently been on very short commons. ... Supervision over visitors was also stricter in Kharkov. During the year the death rate in Kharkov was, he thought, not more than 10 percent above the normal. Numerous peasants, however, who had come into the towns had died off like flies. ... The Ukraine had been bled white. The population was exhausted. ...

"At Kharkov Mr. Duranty saw the Polish consul, who told him the following story: A Communist friend employed in the Control Commission was surprised at not getting reports from a certain locality. He went out to see for himself, and on arrival he found the village completely deserted. Most of the houses were standing empty, while others contained only corpses. ...

"Mr. Duranty thinks it quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year."_46_

Neither this figure nor the one he had cited to Lyons ever appeared in any of Duranty's articles or books.





Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, September 25, 1983, No. 39, Vol. LI

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