My editor was dubious. I had been explaining that fifty years ago, in the spring and summer of 1933, Ukraine, the country of my forebears, had suffered a horrendous catastrophe. In a fertile, populous country famed as the granary of Europe, a great famine had mowed down a sixth, a fifth, and in some regions even a fourth of the inhabitants. Natural forces—drought, flood, blight—have been at least contributory causes of most famines. This one had been entirely man-made, entirely the result of a dictator’s determination to collectivize agriculture and prepare for war by crushing even potential opposition. The consequences of this famine, I said, are still being felt.
Erudite, polyglot, herself a refugee from tyranny, the editor remained skeptical. “But isn’t all this. . . .” She leaned back in her chair and smiled brightly. “Isn’t all this a bit recondite?”
My face must have flushed. Recondite? Suddenly I knew the impotent anger Jews and Armenians have felt. Millions of my countrymen had been murdered, and their deaths were being dismissed as obscure and little-known.
Later I realized that the editor had said more than she had intended. The famine of 1933 was rationalized and concealed when it was taking its toll, and it is still hidden away and trivialized today. George Orwell need not have limited his observation to British intellectuals when he remarked that “huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English Russophiles.”
Still later, after I had set about uncovering the whole story by delving into newspaper files and archives and talking to people who had witnessed the events of 1933, I came to understand how Walter Duranty and the New York Times helped Stalin to make the famine “recondite.”
Walter Duranty, an Englishman by birth, worked for the New York Times from 1913 to 1934, and then continued with the paper on a retainer basis until 1945. One of the best-known journalists in the world, he was certainly the most famous correspondent to be stationed in Moscow. The books that he wrote about the Soviet Union sold enormous numbers of copies—the revealingly titled I Write As I Please became a bestseller—and influenced both public attitudes and government policies. In April 1932, Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his “dispassionate, interpretative reporting of the news from Russia.” The announcement said that his dispatches were “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity” and were “excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” An Englishman who spent a decade in Moscow spoke for many admirers when he dedicated a book to Duranty, “the doyen of Moscow correspondents at whose feet we all sit in matters Sovietic.”
Not everyone agreed with the Pulitzer jury. Indeed, controversy began to surround Duranty within a year after he arrived in Moscow, and continues to this day. Eugene Lyons, then the United Press correspondent in Moscow, accused Duranty of “amazing sophistry.” Malcolm Muggeridge, who was reporting for the Manchester Guardian at the time, thought that Duranty was “the greatest liar of any journalist that I have met in fifty years of journalism.” The American journalist Joseph Alsop also charged Duranty with “lying like a trooper.”
Yet none of Duranty’s critics has furnished proof that he deliberately misrepresented the facts about the Soviet Union. Now such evidence is at hand. It has to do with Duranty’s reports about the nature and extent of the famine in Ukraine. And it raises disturbing questions about the reliability of even the most distinguished newspapers.
Until the famine struck Ukraine and the adjacent North Caucasus (much of which had been settled by Ukrainians), foreign correspondents were able to travel there as they chose. Malcolm Muggeridge explained to me that when he decided to investigate the famine everyone in Moscow was talking about, he simply bought a train ticket and without informing the authorities set off for Kiev and Rostov.
Muggeridge’s blunt account—which he got past the censor by sending it out in a diplomatic bag, only to have it “mutilated,” as he told me, by his editors—appeared in the Manchester Guardian in March 1933:
The population is starving. “Hunger” was the word I heard most. Peasants begged a lift on the train from one station to another, sometimes their bodies swollen up—a disagreeable sight—from lack of food. . . . The little towns and villages seemed just numb and the people in too desperate a condition even actively to resent what had happened. . . . Cattle and horses dead; fields neglected; meager harvest despite moderately good climatic conditions; all the grain that was produced taken by the government; now no bread at all, no bread anywhere, nothing much else either; despair and bewilderment.
Muggeridge’s articles produced no response beyond virulent attacks by Soviet sympathizers (an argument about whether a famine had occurred heated the correspondence columns of the Guardian for several months). Moscow nonetheless began to discourage journalists from visiting Ukraine. Sir Esmond Ovey, the British ambassador to the USSR, reported the restriction to London on March 5, 1933:
Internal situation is not promising. Conditions in Kuban [in the North Caucasus] have been described to me by recent English visitor as appalling and as resembling an armed camp in a desert—no work, no grain, no cattle, no draft horses, only idle peasants or soldiers. Another correspondent who had visited Kuban was strongly dissuaded from visiting the Ukraine where conditions are apparently as bad although apathy is greater. In fact all correspondents have now been “advised” by the Press Department of Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to remain in Moscow.
Although the travel ban remained in effect all spring and summer, Western correspondents in Moscow did not report the restriction on their journalistic freedom for over six months. Only on August 21, 1933 did William Henry Chamberlin announce in the Guardian that he and his colleagues had been ordered not to leave the capital without submitting a detailed itinerary and obtaining authorization from the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs:
Your correspondent received personal evidence that this rule is no empty formality when he was refused permission today to visit country districts in Ukrainia and North Caucasus regions, which he visited several times in previous years without objection from the central or local authorities. This is not an isolated case of restriction, as your correspondent knows of an instance that occurred some time ago when two American correspondents were forbidden to visit Ukrainia . . . and several correspondents of various nationalities were warned not to leave Moscow without special permission.
The London Times correspondent in Riga verified Chamberlin’s account. “One of the chief purposes of this [ban],” he wrote on August 21,
is to screen the real conditions in the countryside from foreign eyes. . . . [Journalists] can still undertake journeys, but only after obtaining a special permit for an approved route, and they are always escorted by Communist officials. Permits for some of the chief grain areas are now very difficult or impossible to obtain.
The Associated Press also confirmed Chamberlin’s report. Although the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs was claiming a bumper crop, it had refused permission to Chamberlin to observe the harvest in Ukraine and the North Caucasus:
Mr. Chamberlin, one of the best-known American correspondents, who has lived here eleven years, has often traveled in those regions. There was a food shortage there the past winter. Several months ago two other American correspondents were forbidden to make a trip to the Ukraine.
And Frederick Birchall, the New York Times reporter in Berlin, related on August 24 that a correspondent for his paper in another capital who had applied for a tourist visa to the Soviet Union was turned down on the grounds that journalists were forbidden to travel as tourists, while an American correspondent stationed in Moscow who had asked for a visa to return there via Odessa was told it would be granted to him only if he pledged not to leave the train en route.
In September 1933, as the new harvest was brought in, compulsory grain deliveries to the state were reduced; the famine began to taper off because the farmers were finally allowed to keep some of their produce, and the travel restrictions were lifted. Edward Coote, a member of the staff of the British chancery in Moscow, commented on the lifting of the ban in a dispatch to the British Foreign Office on September 12:
The foreign press has, I hear, reported that the ban on journeys in the interior by foreign journalists has been lifted, but this is not the whole truth. Mr. Duranty, the New York Times correspondent, whom the Soviet Union [is] probably more anxious to conciliate than any other, returned from abroad in August, having heard that journeys in the interior by foreign correspondents had been prohibited, and thereupon addressed a letter to M. Litvinov protesting against this prohibition and stating that he intended to tour in the grain districts of the Ukraine on a certain date in September, accompanied by a colleague. In due course he received orally from the Press Department an assurance that he might travel on a certain fixed date later in the month. Mr. Duranty professed to be much irritated by this action, which he felt had cut the ground from under his feet by obliging him to recognize a ban upon his movements which infringed the liberty of the press. Nevertheless, he and his colleague have set out happily enough, and I have no doubt that, as a totally unqualified agricultural observer, he will have no difficulty in obtaining sufficient quantitative experience in tour hours to enable him to say whatever he may wish to say on his return.
Duranty had in fact determined what he would say about the “famine scare,” as he repeatedly called it, long before this trip to Ukraine. In March 1932, when Eugene Lyons reported an early sign of famine to New York, Duranty apprised the Times that there was no famine anywhere, although “partial crop failures” occurred in some regions.
By November, the year’s harvest had been brought in and Communist activists were roaming the countryside, stripping the farmers of their grain. Duranty admitted that there was a shortage of food, but insisted that “there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be.” And the food shortages that did exist, he argued, were the fault of the peasants, who had fled from the villages to the towns and construction sites, leaving the harvest unreaped and the grain rotting in the fields. But it would be a mistake, concluded Duranty, to exaggerate the gravity of the situation:
The Russians have tightened their belts before to a far greater extent than is likely to be needed this winter. If there is no international disturbance to complicate matters, remedies doubtless will be found, and the Soviet program, though menaced and perhaps retarded, will not be seriously affected.
Then in April 1933, when the famine was raging in full force because repeated grain collections by the government had stripped the countryside bare (although they claimed to be fulfilling the state grain quotas, the collectors often confiscated baked bread, emptied pots of porridge, and removed kitchen utensils, clothes, and furniture), Duranty rebutted a report brought out by Gareth Jones. A young Welshman who had studied under the eminent historian of Russia, Sir Bernard Pares, and served as an aide to Lloyd George, Jones investigated the famine by the simple expedient of packing a knapsack with as much canned food as he could carry and setting out on foot to explore the villages in the Kharkov region. On his return from the Soviet Union, Jones announced his ghastly findings at a press conference in Berlin and a lecture at Chatham House in London.
Like Muggeridge before him, Jones found severe famine. Everywhere he went he heard the cry, “There is no bread, we are dying.” Millions of lives were being menaced:
The villages which I visited alone on foot were by no means in the hardest-hit parts, but in almost every village the bread supply had run out two months earlier, the potatoes were almost exhausted, and there was not enough coarse beet, which was formerly used as cattle fodder but has now become a staple food of the population, to last until the next harvest. . . . In each village I received the same information—namely, that many were dying of famine and that about four-fifths of the cattle and the horses had perished. . . . Nor shall I forget the swollen stomachs of the children in the cottages in which I slept.
Duranty quickly dismissed Jones’s “big scare story.” Yet he scoffed so cleverly that he both denied and confirmed Jones’s eyewitness account. On the one hand, Duranty implied that Jones’s story had been inspired by British sources in retaliation for the Soviet arrest of six Englishmen who had been employed by the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company on construction projects in the USSR. On the other hand, Duranty agreed when Jones said that “there was virtually no bread in the villages he had visited and that the adults were haggard, gaunt, and discouraged.”
Several paragraphs later Duranty set about justifying the famine:
But—to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevist leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialization as any general during the world war who ordered a costly attack to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical convictions.
Having admitted that the regime was waging a war against the Ukrainian peasants, Duranty proceeded to explain away the casualties. Jones, he said, had based his report on a tour of the villages. Duranty, however, had more reliable information: he had inquired in Soviet commissariats and foreign embassies and tabulated the impressions of both Russian and foreign friends. And here were the facts:
There is a serious food shortage throughout the country, with occasional cases of well-managed state or collective farms. The big cities and the army are adequately supplied with food. There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition. . . . In short, conditions are definitely bad in certain sections—Ukraine, North Caucasus, and Lower Volga. The rest of the country is on short rations but nothing worse. These conditions are bad, but there is no famine.
Duranty, to be sure, did not act alone in trying to discredit Jones. The home offices of the American correspondents had all cabled urgent queries after Jones announced his findings. But preparations were under way for the Metropolitan-Vickers trial, and gaining access to the courtroom was more important for the Americans than reporting the famine. As Eugene Lyons put it, “The need to remain on friendly terms with the censors, at least for the duration of the trial, was for all of us a compelling professional necessity.”
Meeting the correspondents in one of their hotel rooms, Konstantin Umansky, the head of the Press Department of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, worked out with them a formula for denying Jones’s account. Before the evening was over, vodka and snacks had been ordered. The “celebration”—the word is Lyons’s—lasted until early morning. By the time the trial had ended (all the Britons were released), the American correspondents had forgotten that they no longer needed to remain on “friendly terms” with the censors and did not bother to retract their attack against Jones. “Throwing down Jones,” Lyons lamented,
was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes. But throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials.
In early April 1933, Duranty again bruited prosperity and abundance. “In the excitement over the spring sowing campaign and the reports of an increased food shortage,” he announced,
a fact that has been almost overlooked is that the production of coal, pig iron, steel, oil, automobiles, tractors, locomotives, and machine tools has increased by 20 to 35 percent during recent months. That is the most effective proof that the food shortage as a whole is less grave than was believed.
The issue of the New York Times that carried this sophism1 also brought a plea for help from a Katherine Schutock in Jackson Heights, New York, who pointed out that Duranty’s denial of starvation was contradicted by letters from Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Lower Volga region. “The people who write such pathetic letters,” noted Schutock,
are not looking for help because it cannot reach them. Money cannot reach them, and if it does they receive only half of what they sign for. Receipt of help from America only gets them into trouble with the Cheka [secret police]. Most of the letters I have seen end thus: “If you do not hear from us again, you can be sure we are not alive. We are either getting it for [writing] this letter, or we are through. The agony of living and dying of hunger is so painful and so long. What torture it is to live in hunger and know you are dying slowly of hunger.”
Throughout the spring and summer of 1933, demographers have estimated, Ukrainian peasants were dying at the rate of 25,000 a day, or 1,000 an hour, or 17 a minute. (In World War I, by comparison, about 6,000 people were killed every day.) Country lanes and city streets were littered with corpses—“stacked in the snow like logs,” one eyewitness told me—and special brigades hastily dug mass graves in remote areas where they doused the bodies with gasoline and set them on fire. Ukraine that year was one vast hell. The New York Times, however, made absolutely no reference to the situation for more than a month, when it published a letter from Jones replying to Duranty’s denial of the famine.
Standing by his claim that a severe famine was in progress, Jones pointed out that he had spoken with foreign journalists and technical experts, hundreds of peasants, and between twenty and thirty diplomats, all of whom had agreed that starvation was widespread:
But [the diplomats] are not allowed to express their views in the press, and therefore remain silent. Journalists, on the other hand, are allowed to write, but the censorship has turned them into masters of euphemism and understatement. Hence they give “famine” the polite name of “food shortage” and “starving to death” is softened down to read as “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
Duranty, undaunted, continued to pooh-pooh reports of starvation. Visiting Odessa, he asserted that the food situation was “undoubtedly better” than had been reported. In a town near Kiev peasant women were offering roast chicken; in Odessa the bread ration had been increased, and peasants were marketing eggs and vegetables:
It is an old story, which the writer first heard on the Volga during the famine in the summer of 1921. Everywhere they said, “Things here are desperate, and unless we get relief we will die before Christmas”—which was true enough. Then we asked them, “But are people dying here now?” And they replied, “No, not here yet, but if you go to the village of So-and-So you will find hardly anyone alive.” We went to said village and heard exactly the same story. “Here we are desperate, though not yet dying, but at So-and-So conditions are frightful. . . .” Though conditions are terribly hard, there is no sign of real famine conditions or that people are dying in the streets, as is reported in Moscow.
In June, when he was forced to defend himself against a charge of receiving concessions from the Soviet government, Duranty took the opportunity to deny an account in the London newspapers that the victims of the famine were fleeing to Moscow in search of food and dying in the streets. Seeing in the reports of famine “a campaign of calumny that has scarcely been equaled since Nero raised Rome against the Christians—or Hitler Germany against the Jews,” Duranty called the talk about corpses in the streets of Moscow “utterly untrue.” Yet the diplomats whom he cited as a source for his claim that there were no deaths from starvation confirmed the exact opposite. “Even in Moscow itself, which is favored above all places in the Union in the matter of food, there are deaths from starvation,” the British chargé d’affaires reported on July 17. “An English lady, who is studying Soviet hospitality and welfare work, has herself come upon two corpses in the street of persons who had just died as a direct result of lack of food.”
Moreover, when a newspaper in Riga reported in August that the starvation and suffering were comparable to the famine of 1921, Duranty denounced the assertion as a “fundamental absurdity.” Duranty also managed to slip into this story the standard Soviet insinuation that the famine reports were inspired by Nazi Germany: “The accession of Adolf Hitler to power brought new hope—and in some cases new money—to Russian émigrés circles in Germany, the Baltic States, and elsewhere. These émigrés—like some other more disinterested observers of Soviet affairs—cannot see the woods for the trees and are only too ready to confuse causes and effects.”
Yet even as he ridiculed the increasingly frequent eyewitness accounts of a devastating famine, Duranty half-heartedly admitted that the “food shortage” had taken a toll and, salting his articles with such cautious euphemisms as deaths due to “lowered resistance” and “malnutrition,” ventured to estimate the losses:
The excellent harvest about to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population in the last year, and particularly the grain-producing provinces—that is, the Ukraine, North Caucasus, the Lower Volga region—has, however, caused heavy loss of life. . . . The death rate rose during the winter and early spring to nearly four times the normal rate, which runs about 20 to 25 per 1,000 annually for the Soviet Union. Among peasants and others not receiving bread rations, conditions were certainly not better. So with a total population in the Ukraine, North Caucasus, and Lower Volga of upward of 40 million the normal death rate would have been about 1 million. Lacking official figures, it is conservative to suppose that this was at least trebled last year in those provinces and considerably increased for the Soviet Union as a whole.
The careful reader (and how many of Duranty’s readers cared to untangle these sentences?) will note that he avoided giving an absolute figure of famine losses. But since he announced that the normal death rate would have been about 1 million and that this was trebled, we must assume that he was hinting at 2 million famine victims.
In September 1933, when he received the privilege of being the first correspondent to be allowed into the famine regions after the travel ban was lifted, Duranty set out by car for Rostov in the North Caucasus and Kharkov and Kiev in Ukraine. His public view of the “famine scare,” which he presented in seven articles in the Times between September 11 and 20, 1933, was not changed by what he saw.
“Whatever the situation was here last winter or spring,” Duranty cabled on September II,
there is no doubt Rostov-on-Don is a busy, flourishing city today. Local officials and newspaper men scout [deride] the stories of hunger epidemics and a much increased death rate earlier this year. They emphasize that half the city’s population now receives at least one meal daily in factory and other “mass restaurants.”
Two days later Duranty suggested that the North Caucasus was a land of milk and honey:
The use of the word “famine” in connection with the North Caucasus is a sheer absurdity. There a bumper crop is being harvested as fast as tractors, horses, oxen, men, women, and children can work. . . . There are plump babies in the nurseries or gardens of the collectives. Older children are watching fat calves or driving cattle. . . . Village markets are flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk, and butter at prices far lower than in Moscow. A child can see that this is not famine but abundance.
This makes it all the more inexplicable that the Moscow authorities have restricted freedom of travel for any correspondent, even on the plaintive grounds that “some correspondents earlier wrote most distressing articles. . . .” For the writer’s part, he believes the distressing facts were exaggerated. He thinks he himself exaggerated in saying the death rate in the North Caucasus, the Ukraine, and Lower Volga regions in the past year was three times above normal—at least as far as the North Caucasus was concerned.
Whatever his new estimate was (he again avoided citing absolute figures), Duranty maintained it for only two days. “Early last year, under the pressure of the war danger in the Far East,” he wote from Kharkov,
the authorities took too much grain from the Ukraine. Meanwhile, a large number of peasants thought they could change the Communist party’s collectivization policy by refusing to cooperate. Those two circumstances together—the flight of some peasants and the passive resistance of others—produced a very poor harvest last year, and even part of that was never reaped. The situation in the winter was undoubtedly bad. Just as the writer considered that his death-rate figures for the North Caucasus were exaggerated, so he is inclined to believe that the estimate he made for the Ukraine was too low. [That estimate was three times the normal death rate.]2
Let us give this passage our attention. In the first sentence Duranty implied—quite correctly—that the authorities had caused the famine by stripping Ukraine of its grain. But they did so, he said, because they needed to stockpile food in case war with Japan broke out. Duranty presented this cause as if it were well known and needed no explanation. In fact, he was sending up a trial balloon. He had only hinted at fear of war with Japan as a cause of the famine in previous articles, and he mentioned it again only eleven years later, when he argued that the “man-made famine” (he used that phrase, although he enclosed it in quotation marks), if anything like a famine had taken place at all, was entirely due to the Red Army’s need for food reserves.
In the second sentence of the passage, however, Duranty adroitly shifted the blame for the famine onto the peasants, who had produced a very poor harvest by fleeing or putting up passive resistance. “Peasant hatred of new ways, peasant conservatism, and peasant inertia,” as well as outright sabotage—those were the real causes of any food shortages, Duranty insisted again and again.
As in his August dispatch, Duranty carefully avoided giving an absolute figure of famine losses. Earlier he had estimated that the normal death rate of 1 million in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Lower Volga, taken together, had trebled, thus implying that the famine had killed 2 million people. Now he announced that this figure was too high for the North Caucasus and too low for Ukraine. But since he did not give a population figure for Ukraine or estimate its losses, we cannot tell what figure he had in mind. The conclusion presented to the readers of the Times, however, was clear: if there was a famine (Duranty’s evidence on this point was highly ambiguous), it killed no more than 2 million people, and any such losses were entirely justified by the success of collectivization. A bit of suffering on the part of a few ignorant, anti-social kulaks had assured abundance for all.
In the remaining three articles in the series, Duranty resumed scoffing at the famine scare. “The writer has just completed a 200-mile auto trip through the heart of the Ukraine and can say positively that the harvest is splendid and all talk of famine now is ridiculous,” he assured his readers on September 17, 1933.
“Summing up the impressions of a ten days’ trip through North Caucasus and Ukraine, where this correspondent traveled with greater freedom and absence of supervision than had been expected, I repeat the opinion that the decisive engagement in the struggle for rural socialization has been won by the Kremlin,” Duranty concluded on September 19. “The cost in some places has been heavy, but a generally excellent crop is already mitigating conditions to a marked extent.”
Returning to Moscow, Duranty continued to gibe at the reports of famine. In mid-December the Soviet government announced that the state grain collections had been completed two-and-a-half months earlier than ever before. “This result,” said Duranty,
fully justifies the optimism expressed to the writer by local authorities during his September trip through the Ukraine and North Caucasus—optimism that contrasted so strikingly with the famine stories then current in Berlin, Riga, Vienna, and other places, where elements hostile to the Soviet Union were making an eleventh-hour attempt to avert American recognition by picturing the Soviet Union as a land of ruin and despair.
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 counterrevolutionary organizations abroad, who specialize in the work of this kind,” Litvinov replied, not eloquently 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, the counselor of the Soviet 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. . . .
Kopplemann 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.
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 told Duranty nine days after the latter filed his story of hostile elements making an eleventh-hour attempt to avert U.S. recognition.
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 of the New Yorker put it, the first American ambassador to Moscow. And late in the year, Duranty was granted an hour-long interview with the Great Helmsman himself. It was featured on the front page of the New York Times and summarized in other papers. “It is unusual for M. Stalin to give interviews with journalists,” a Soviet specialist in the British Foreign Office commented dryly, “but W. Duranty might be expected to get favorable treatment in this respect.”
American liberals were equally appreciative. George Seldes, author of Freedom of the Press, among other works, claimed that America would have nothing but objective and reliable news if all the editors chose correspondents of Duranty’s caliber. The journalist 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.” And Woollcott described the scene when 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 rapprochement 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.
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.”
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 said that the impressions he conveyed privately did not even remotely resemble the impressions he purveyed to the readers of the Times.
Malcolm Muggeridge drew a devastating sketch of Duranty in his novel Winter in Moscow (the identifying tag is Duranty’s egg-and-omelette line). In an article written in 1934 he also called Duranty’s 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 Coverly 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 Brain 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”?
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 Anne O’Hare McCormick, roving correspondent for the New York Times, and her husband. Duranty joined us. He gave us his fresh impressions in brutally 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.
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-poohing the famine.
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, 1933:
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.
Neither this figure nor the one he had cited to Lyons ever appeared in any of Duranty’s articles or books.
This was not the end of the concealment.
According to the British Foreign Office, Duranty’s companion on his trip to Ukraine and the North Caucasus was Stanley Richardson of the Associated Press. On September 22, Richardson cabled an astonishing dispatch.
Early in 1933, Moscow had thoroughly reorganized the Ukrainian party, purging and arresting many members, and established “political departments” at each state farm and machine-tractor station. Staffed by trusted urban workers and party members—at least a third of them Russians brought in from outside Ukraine—these political departments were given unlimited authority over the peasants and extensive powers over local Communists, many of whom had proven themselves too faint-hearted to carry out the party’s murderous policies. As the head of the political departments throughout Ukraine and as one of the highest party officials in the republic, Alexander Asatkin was well placed to have an accurate picture of the destruction wreaked by the famine.
In his dispatch, Richardson reported that Asatkin, whom he had formally interviewed in Kharkov, had confirmed the famine and had even “estimated the percentage of deaths in his area last winter and spring from causes related to undernourishment.” The censor in Moscow, however, had banned the transmission of Asatkin’s figures on the grounds that they were not official. Although the Times carried other Associated Press dispatches from Moscow a few days before and a few days after the September 22 cable, it never published the report of Richardson’s interview with Asatkin. A highly placed Communist official had confirmed the famine, and the Times had ignored the news. (And not only the Times. I have been able to find Richardson’s dispatch in only three North American newspapers—the New York American, the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Evening Telegram.)
But even this was not the end of the concealment.
Harold Denny, who replaced Duranty as the Times correspondent in Moscow in April 1934, proved to be no more honest a reporter of the famine than his predecessor. On July 23, 1934, for example, Denny announced that “a winter of hunger and perhaps of actual famine has been averted in the great grain region of the Ukraine.” The fair crop that was being expected, he fancied, would be “a victory for collectivized agriculture which will induce many remaining individual peasants to enter the fold.”
Throughout 1933 and 1934 Ewald Ammende had been trying almost singlehandedly to draw public attention to the famine. A Baltic German, Ammende had briefly worked for the government of independent Estonia in 1919 and then moved to Western Europe, where he threw himself into relief work. In September 1933, when Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna established a famine relief committee (the members included the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, the head of the Lutheran church, and the leaders of other denominations in Vienna), Ammende became its General Secretary. In late June 1934, Ammende arrived in New York with a mission to obtain the support of churches and humanitarian organizations in the United States and Canada. In interviews and letters to editors Ammende announced that wide starvation was impending again and asked whether Western grain surpluses could not be used to bring relief to the starving districts in the Soviet Union.
In response to queries from his editors about Ammende’s assertion, Denny visited Ukraine in July and again in October. Echoing the articles in which Duranty had attacked Jones, Denny claimed to have seen no signs of famine. “This correspondent is traveling through the principal grain regions to check reports published abroad that a new famine exists or impends,” Denny cabled from Ukraine on October 7, 1934. “Thus far no famine has been found nor an indication of famine in the year to come, though many peasants must draw in their belts and eat food they do not like until the 1935 harvest.”
Although peasants in southern Ukraine, by his own admission, told him that they were in “grave danger,” Denny reported that he had feasted on “milk from contented collectivized cows and honey fresh from the hives of Bolshevik bees”:
These delicacies were served at the end of a meal of a tasty salad of tomatoes, pickles, and onions, roast duck, and fluffy potato souffle, much better prepared than in Moscow hotels, washed down with the Ukrainian national drink, slivyanka, a liquor made from plums, tasting non-alcoholic though with a mule’s kick in every swallow.
Eight days later Denny again announced that he had found no signs of famine. He had deliberately sought, he said, “the sections where the worst conditions had been reported in the outside world and the localities that peasants on trains had told him were the most seriously affected.” Despite all this searching, however, he had found no famine. “Nowhere even fear of it.”3
“The hunt for famine in Russia,” Denny concluded, borrowing a line from Duranty, “was like chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. It was always somewhere further on.”
Thus the damage was done. The famine was a will-o’-the-wisp. Nazi and anti-Nazi, Right and Left, Stalinist and anti-Stalinist, would argue for years to come whether anything like a famine had happened at all, while the less polemically minded shuddered with distaste and turned to more substantial issues. My erudite editor justified silence on the grounds that the famine is little known. Another came to the same conclusion from the opposite starting point: the broad facts of the case, she opined, are so well known and so widely acknowledged that nothing more need be added. The Soviet press attaché in Ottawa displayed a touching like-mindedness. In whose interest is it to bring up an “alleged famine,” he indignantly asked an interviewer, when East and West are facing so many unresolved problems?
These are only three examples. Their perceptions still shaped by Duranty’s and Denny’s lies, many otherwise well-informed people know only that Stalin did something nasty to the “kulaks” in the course of collectivization, and many assume that the peasants themselves were to blame. Two recent studies of mass murder are cases in point. Leo Kuper, in Genocide, argues that the liquidation of the kulaks was not genocide but only a “related atrocity,” and devotes to the famine precisely half a sentence:
Estimates of the numbers who perished range from 5 million to 15 million, and this is without taking into account the many millions of peasants starved to death in the artificially induced man-made famine of 1932-33.
Richard L. Rubenstein, in The Age of Triage, giving the matter just a bit more attention, manages to confuse the causes, chronology, and geography of the famine:
Millions of peasants resisted [Stalin’s collectivization] violently and killed their own livestock rather than permit them to become state property. A man-made famine, the first of a series, ensued which compelled Stalin to retreat temporarily. Nevertheless, by 1932 he had broken the back of his country’s peasantry.
The famine of 1933 was one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Yet it has been met in most quarters with an indifference bordering on cynicism and in some with a conspiracy of silence (this proverbial phrase was first applied to the famine of 1933) that is nothing short of criminal. In an age when “genocide” and “holocaust” have become a part of every journalist’s lexicon, the horrors of 1933 in Ukraine are still dismissed as recondite, are still being made fit to print. Orwell had it right:
The fog of lies and misinformation that surrounds such subjects as the Ukraine famine, the Spanish civil war, Russian policy in Poland, and so forth, is not due entirely to conscious dishonesty, but any writer or journalist who is fully sympathetic to the USSR—sympathetic, that is, in the way the Russians themselves would want him to be—does have to acquiesce in deliberate falsification on important issues.
1 A sophism because by referring to “the food shortage as a whole” and by not specifying a geographic location, Duranty concealed the fact that the Ukrainian countryside was starving. Workers and civil servants in the cities were undernourished, but in order to maintain production the regime did give them ration cards entitling them to a bowl of soup and about two pounds of bread a day.
2 The bracketed passage is in the original Times story.
3 Such denials were as convenient for Soviet apologists as Duranty’s had been. When William Randolph Hearst mounted a campaign against Roosevelt’s Soviet policy in 1935 and ordered his editors to reprint eyewitness accounts of the famine that had appeared in 1933, the American Communist party attacked Hearst by citing Denny’s finding that there was no famine anywhere.