Sunday, January 02, 2005

Famine, Lies, Justice and Ukraine

Stalin, "What we did during the last 30 days was a tribute to our ancestors. I know they are looking at us from heaven and they are applauding." -- Viktor Yushchenko

Several years ago, I was contacted by a Ukrainian in New Britain, Connecticut who wanted to send me a film on the 1932-33 famine in that country. He asked me to view the film and let him know if I could think of any reason why it should not be shown in the United States. The film, "Harvest of Despair," had been widely shown in Canada. That was my first exposure to the greatest man made disaster ever recorded, and the first time in history that famine on such a scale was used as an instrument of war and oppression.

I was stunned by "Harvest of Despair." The film contained footage of both the famine in 1932-33 and an earlier famine that had been stopped in its tracks by Lenin, who had imported food into the stricken areas. The 32-33 famine -- the Ukrainians call it the Holodomor, roughly translated as "famine-genocide," the "H" intentionally capitalized to emphasize a parallel with the Holocaust -- was caused by Joseph Stalin, who used the famine to break the resistance of Ukrainians to Soviet rule. The "terror-famine," as historian Robert Conquest called it, was caused by Stalin's first Five Year Plan. This was a program designed, its Communist proponents claimed, to modernize an antiquated agricultural community, particularly in Ukraine. Between 6 and 10 million people died during the ensuing famine.

I took the film to the Editorial Page Editor of the Journal Inquirer, located in Manchester, Connecticut, for which I was then writing a column, and put to him the same question that had been asked of me: Is there any reason the film should not be shown? He encouraged me to do a few columns on the famine, which I did. In the last column, I mentioned that PBS had been balking at showing the film and suggested that Ukrainians in Connecticut should withhold pledges to PBS until the film had been aired. I received a call from the head of PBS in Connecticut, who told me that PBS was in negotiations to show the film. I told him to call me back when an affirmative decision had been made and I would write a final column praising PBS for having had the courage to do the right thing.

He did, and I did.

Somewhat later, as result of the columns, I was asked to attend a panel discussion of the famine and its aftermath at the University of Hartford. The conference was well attended, and the panelists included two representatives from national news magazines, myself and the religion editor of a Hartford paper. In such company, I felt a little like a fish out of water. A hand went up in the audience. The questioner wanted to ask Mr. Pesci something: "We have suffered so much during the years; everyone has neglected this story. So, what do you recommend? What should we do? Do we have to march on the newspapers with stones in our fists?"

It was not the question so much that got to me; it was the man's whole demeanor. His question tumbled hotly out of him. Perhaps he had rehearsed it a few dozen times. I knew this man: He was all the old-country Italian men I had met and respected as a boy growing up in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, honest and forthright. Perhaps he was a carpenter or a foreman in a mill, passionate but with none of the polish of the college graduate about him.

And he wanted to know!

I told him that he and others like him should continue to confront newspapers but keep the rocks in his pocket -- just in case.

Leading Ukrainians last year demanded that the Pulitzer Prize Board rescind the award it had given Walter Duranty in 1932 for his reports on Stalin's first Five Year Plan. The board had refused once but agreed to reconsider their refusal.

Duranty was the The New YorkTimes' man in Moscow before and after the famine. By all accounts, he was something of a character. He was called by journeymen newspaper reporters, "The Great Duranty."

Duranty played a prominent role in the recognition of the Soviet Union during Franklin Roosevelt's administration. The newsman thought of himself as an interpreter whose business it was to explain the ways of Stalin and the Soviet Union to men. His character comes through with great clarity in J. P. Taylor's biography, Stalin's Apologist.

Duranty thought moral questions clouded reportorial vision. Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the few heroes among Western reporters in Moscow at the time, thought otherwise: He said Duranty was the most accomplished liar he had met in all his years of journalism.

Taylor's book is a masterful study of reportorial groups operating in authoritarian countries and should serve as a cautionary tale for modern reporters. CNN recently apologized for withholding stories in its reporting on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Hussein's favorite dictator was Stalin.

In his reports, Duranty temporized -- when he should have been saying the truth and shaming the Devil. By 1933, the famine was in full flower in Ukraine and the North Caucasus. The famine was directly related to Stalin's Five Year Plan, which involved the forced collectivization of agriculture in countries swept into the soviet orbit. Under the plan, kulaks or small land owners were dispossessed of their property and either shot or sent to Stalin's Gulag, there to die of exposure or starvation.

When small villages resisted collectivization, Stalin sent in his stormtroopers to bend their necks to the yoke. Grain was forcibly collected from them and a kind of war was waged by Communist Party cadres against the resistors. Whole villages were wiped out by the famine.

Robert Conquest, author of "Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine," pointedly describes villages where the trees were stripped of leaves, boiled by starving peasants and eaten in soup.

The actual number of deaths caused by the famine probably will never be known for certain. Stalin canceled routine census taking during the period. Most scholars place it between 6 and 10 million, the larger number being the more accurate.

Now, here was the truth of the matter: Stalin's plan killed 10 million people; and the truth was available to any of the Western reporters in Moscow who, like Muggeridge, could have purchased train tickets and gone to the countryside to view the ravages of Stalin's terror-famine any time they liked. Muggeridge smuggled his reports to the British Embassy in diplomatic pouches, and they were printed in the Manchester Guardian, a liberal if not a socialist newspaper.

Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist, was first out of the pack into the ravaged countryside. Duranty was the little pig who stayed home, his dispatches reflecting the party line fed to Western reporters by the Soviet press office: There was no famine; reports to the contrary were lies.

Months after Jones' and Muggeridge's reports were printed, Duranty finally took a tour of the countryside, and reported that he saw no signs of a famine -- no signs that 10 million people had died of starvation. Afterwards, Duranty himself, in a private conversation with British Embassy employees, placed the number of dead at 10 million. But even then he temporized in his news dispatches.

Duranty claimed that moral vision should play no part in reporting. If not morals, what then had obstructed Duranty's stunted reportorial vision?

Stalin was a masterful juggler of men, even more accomplished in this regard than Duranty. The Western news crew in Moscow knew that if they revealed too much of the truth, their papers would suffer and they would be out of a job. Even so, there was a reportorial line drawn in the sand that men of good conscience would not cross. Muggeridge -- a committed socialist married to the niece of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, both celebrated Fabian socialists and admirers of the Soviet utopia, along with such notables as Bernard Shaw -- was determined upon his arrival in Moscow to live and work there. He quickly became disillusioned.

There was a line of division among Western reporters in Moscow represented by A.T. Cholerton and Duranty. Once asked by Western visitors whether the Soviets respected the principle of habeas corpus during their show trials, Cholerton famously responded that it had been replaced by the concept of habeas cadaver. It was the kind of witticism that, finding its way into the Western press, was likely to earn a reporter a ticket home from the cadaver makers.

Oddly enough, it may have been the sight of a small woodland chapel converted to proletarian uses in one of Russia's vast forests that turned Muggeridge around.

Duranty, who had little use for chapels or peasants, passed off the deaths caused by Stalin as collateral damage: "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he said, convinced -- and convincing others -- that the deaths were the result of minor adjustable errors in Stalin's plan of forced collectivization.

Harrison Salisbury thought that Duranty "was simply incapable of reporting something that broke the pattern he had established." With one eye cocked on his reputation, he trimmed the truth to conform to notions he had advanced and promoted in his stories. If 10 million starving peasants refuted one of the nostrums he had been peddling, so much the worse for the peasants.

Prior commitment and business friendships, as Pulitzer himself very well knew, is the great enemy of honest journalism.

Jones' reports left no room for doubt. "I walked alone through villages," he wrote, " . . . everywhere was the cry, `There is no bread. We are dying.'" Muggeridge described peasants ravaged by hunger, kneeling in the snow and begging for a crust of bread. "Whatever I may do or think in the future," Muggeridge wrote in his diary, "I must never pretend that I haven't seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow and asking for bread. Something that I have seen and understood."

Eugene Lyons, a repentant journalist, confessed that the Moscow clan got together after Jones' reports had appeared and conspired to dispute his information and tarnish his reputation. Jones later died in Mongolia, a 29 year old casualty of honest reporting and Chinese communist bandits.

Muggeridge's reports were discredited. He was fired, his reputation as a reporter slandered. In an August 1933 New York Times story, Duranty called Muggeridge's and Jones' work "an exaggeration of malignant propaganda."

The Pulitzer committee earlier had rejected an entreaty by Ukrainians to return the Duranty prize. The committee had offered two reasons for rejecting the plea. It refused the petition on the grounds that a great deal of water had passed under the bridge since Duranty peddled his lies in the Times. The Pulitzer had been awarded, the committee said "in a different era and under different circumstances."

The committee had also pointed out that it makes its decision as to who wins the prize a whole year in advance of the presentation of the award. They had decided to award the prize to Duranty in 1931; the famine didn't occur until 1932-33.

This, it seems to me, is a kind of public washing of the hands.

The first point would prevent the remediation of a crime against humanity, provided enough time had passed since its commission. It should be understood that remediation demanded in this case was hardly severe or unreasonable. Ukrainians were not asking for reparations: They were asking only that a prize awarded to a fraud should be withdrawn.

The second point would matter only to people who see no connection between Stalin's first Five Year Plan and the famine it produced. But there is a causal connection, and the Pulitzer committee had cited Duranty's reports on the Five Year Plan as deserving of special recognition.

Allowances must be made for the correction of mistakes, even if they are not obvious at first. Even the Supreme Court reverses itself on occasion. But not the Times or the pulitzer committee.

The Western Mail in Cardiff, Wales, reported in June that Mr. Jones's niece, Dr. Siriol Colley, and her son Nigel Colley had written a letter to the committee that was reviewing its previous decision and which had committed itself to a serious review of the Duranty award.

"The Pulitzer Prize should be revoked from Walter Duranty," Jones' relatives wrote, "not just for his falsification of Stalin's ruthless execution of the Five Year Plan of Collectivization, but also for his complete disregard for journalistic integrity. Through abusing his position of authority as the New York Times' reporter in the Soviet Union, he villainously and publicly denigrated the truthful articles of my uncle, and ashamedly did so, whilst being fully aware of the ongoing famine."

In it's most recent refusal to rescind Durranty's pulitzer, both the Times and the Pulitzer committee have shown their true mettle. What Harrison Salisbury said of Duranty applies with equal force to the Times: Having committed itself to advance a lie, the paper cannot claim to represent the truth. Durranty's pulitzer will continue to be a stain on the escutcheon of the paper that claims to "print all the news that's fit to print" so long as the paper continues to honor Duranty by displaying his pulitzer on a wall of pulitzers given to deserving journalists.And Ukrainians, only recently freed from the soviet yoke, will not surrender their vagrant hope that wrongs involving the deaths of millions of people, the ancestors mentioned by Yushchenko, may be corrected by men of good conscience.

The new democrats in Ukraine will continue their struggle to achieve freedom, with or without stones in their pockets, in the hope that members of the pulitzer board or the Times will one day recover their sense of shame.

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