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The Pulitzer Prize the NYT Should Not Have Won

A report commissioned by the [NY] Times said the work of 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter Duranty had a “serious lack of balance,” was “distorted,” and was “a disservice to American readers of the New York Times…and the peoples of the Russian and Soviet empires.”--New York Sun Oct. 22, 2003

This summer, at the request of the New York Times, Mark von Hagen, Professor of History at Columbia University, investigated the Pulitzer Prize awarded to reporter Walter Duranty in 1932. Von Hagen's report, delivered in July, became known this week. It is being published here for the first time with the permission of Professor von Hagen. In an interview with the New York Sun Professor von Hagen said that he believes the Pulitzer awarded to the Times should be rescinded. (He did not go that far in his report.) Click here to read the account of this story provided in the NYT. Click here for the NY Sun story.

Von Hagen's investigation was begun in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. But questions have swirled around Duranty's reporting for decades. Duranty gave glowing reports of life inside the Soviet Union during the 1930s, ignoring evidence of oppression, mass murder and a vast famine in the Ukraine. The NYT has distanced itself from Duranty's reporting since the 1980s.

July 24, 2003

Re: Walter Duranty and his reporting from Moscow

I've chosen to organize my comments below by sharing the kinds of questions about Duranty's reporting that I, as a historian who has studied this period, might reasonably ask. What is the focus of his reporting? What appear to be his sources? Does he get out of Moscow (to other parts of the USSR) very often? What sources might he have tapped on his frequent trips to Berlin, Paris, and other European capitals? How strict were Soviet press censors at this point? What sort of "story" was he telling about the Soviet Union and to what end, if any? I also thought of comparing what Duranty wrote with other correspondents' work, but decided to try to appraise his work on its own merits and in the context of the historical period in which he was writing. I also tried to keep an open mind about the writing, especially after having read the two "biographies-denunciations" of Duranty by S. J. Taylor (Stalin's Apologist, Walter Duranty, the New York Times's Man in Moscow) and James Crowl (Angels in Stalin's Paradise). Both of these books appear to have been conceived as virtual character assassinations and rely heavily on innuendo, insinuation and hostile speculation by Duranty's enemies in the press corps above all, particularly Eugene Lyons (in Assignment in Utopia) and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his fictionalized memoir Winter in Moscow). The two authors' own grasp of Soviet, American and European history leaves much to be desired. Moreover, Taylor conflates material from memoirs, interviews, and fictional accounts and suggests these are all equivalent sources. Still, they provide some useful historical background and context of the Moscow reporting scene during these years.

Duranty's Reporting on the First Five-Year Plan: Themes, Sources, Biases, Constraints

The reporting that the Pulitzer Prize Committee cites in support of its nomination of Duranty was for the first five-year plan, curiously, some of his driest stories for the year 1931. Most of the reports are long discussions of Soviet production statistics, either projected ones or achieved ones. All of this material comes from official Soviet sources, either newspapers or speeches by the leadership. Duranty learned Russian well enough to read the Soviet newspapers on his own, and appeared to be invited to all important officially designated newsworthy events. Not surprisingly, most of the stories on the "economic front" have the level of interest and excitement of Pravda, Izvestiia, or Promyshlennaia and Ekonomicheskaia gazeta, his favorite sources. He frequently writes in the enthusiastically propagandistic language of his sources, again without any ironic distance or critical commentary: "rural revolution flamed like a fiery beacon across Russia (2/16/31)." In what is perhaps an extreme case of this socialist realist vision of reality, Duranty describes Soviet children as "the freest, most upstanding and intelligent children the NYT correspondent has ever met anywhere. They are clean which Russians used not be, they play games for fun and think their country is the greatest ever . . . .They do not care a rap about what Americans call comfort, but they know the job of united effort and have an opportunity to take part in national life in drives or campaigns or investigations or what-not to a degree enjoyed by no other children in the world (5/31/31)."

Even the shortcomings that Duranty highlights in the Soviet campaigns in the countryside and industrial worlds come most often from the same Soviet sources-that, for example, production was behind target at one or another plant, or that the harvest would be lower in wheat than anticipated (1/3/31, 1/6/31, 3/26/31, 5/12/31). Generally, however, the plan is being fulfilled and overfulfilled with a great degree of rational planning, according to Duranty (6/1/31). He does pose the question for his readers about the reliability of Soviet statistics, to conclude that they are generally within a margin of error of 3 to 5 percent (2/7/31). (Given the thorough purges of the Soviet statistical administration already in the mid-1920s, this seems very generous indeed.) Perhaps more remarkable is that Duranty is convinced that the new Russia finds its newspapers interesting, and "even blasé foreign correspondents find themselves unexpectedly interested (5/6/31)." As someone who has read quite a bit in the Soviet newspapers and leadership speeches of the 1920s and early 1930s, I find this taste very bizarre. And we also know from the contemporary press that they attracted regular readership only with great difficulty because of their insistence on making their "new" conform to the desired outcome of the current political or economic campaign. The only occasional additional source he cites are conversations with foreign diplomats, engineers and workers who either come through Moscow on their way into or out of the country or who work on projects in Moscow (5/27/31). There is little evidence that Duranty traveled much around the country or talked to many ordinary Russians or other Soviet citizens; all his stories have Moscow datelines (though that might not be the accurate conclusion to draw from that practice).

To Duranty's credit, however, he recognized that this period of collectivization and industrialization marked a qualitatively new stage in Soviet history, something he would call Stalinism and which, while emerging somehow logically from Lenin's achievements, made 1930 "perhaps the most critical" year "in all its checkered history." (1/1/31, 6/14/31) Moreover, he recognized some of the peculiar features of the "plan" and its role in the Soviet economy, that it was not just a set of economic targets but a mythical mobilizational tool for the population (1/2/31) Duranty does not seem to be much interested in internal political developments at the Kremlin, but focuses on the very narrowly economic side of the "war" against backwardness. He reports on the Menshevik Trial and another engineers' trial in Moscow, but virtually reproduces the charges of wrecking and sabotage brought by the prosecution without any serious scrutiny of the evidence (3/4/31).
By this time, of course, overly positive mention of Trotsky or other opposition figures would likely provoke censor reactions. Beginning in the late 1920s, foreign reporters began feeling new pressures on what they could and couldn't send out of Moscow. In 1929 a German reporter for the Berliner Tagesblatt was denied a re-entry visa after he made a home trip. Still, other reporters were getting around the country much more and appeared to have a wider range of sources they could interview and cite than Duranty. And Duranty himself acknowledges that the censorship was relatively mild, if somewhat self-defeating for the Soviet cause (6/23/31); he described the wartime censorship in France as stricter than the regime the Press Officer enforced in Moscow. "On the whole, your correspondent is inclined to regard the censorship as a help no less than a hindrance, because it takes the responsibility off a reporter's shoulders should there be subsequent complaints from any quarter." (3/1/31)

Advocate of U.S. Recognition of the U.S.S.R.

Within the general range of this reporting, Duranty pursued a couple of "missions," if that's not too strong a characterization of his tone and line of argument. One was US recognition of the USSR. Accordingly, he made a determined effort to "explain" to his readers the injustice of the charges made by many, including in America, of Soviet dumping and forced labor (1/12/31). "To use the words `conscription' or `drafting' of labor gives an unfair picture of what is happening," he writes (2/1/31, 2/13/31) and proceeds to compare the Soviet first five-year plan mobilizations to the United States after it entered the Great War. Duranty offered this sort of explanation repeatedly in the context of the debate in the United States over recognition of the USSR, an issue that was also part of presidential campaign politics. (A separate story in the NYT, not written by Duranty, reports that Representative Fish of New York sought means to prevent convict-made good from Russian from entering the United States and asked the Treasury Department to have agents go into Russia to see if their lumber and pulpwood exports were produced by forced labor. 2/3/31) Most often, Duranty concludes his explanation with insisting that the charges are not serious obstacles to good relations with the USSR and that Soviet practice, given the historical circumstances and great historical tasks that the Stalinist leadership has undertaken, are little different than the behavior of any number of Great Powers during the recent World War I. In a story about tens of thousands of forced laborers, Duranty wrote,"The great majority of exiles are not convicts, or even prisoners," but can be compared to Cromwell's colonization of Virginian and the West Indies (2/3/31). But the main moral of all these stories is to lay to rest any talk about a "Red trade menace" (4/8/31).

He reminds his readers that the Soviet market is a large and unsatisfied one and that the potential is there for a great economic success story in the not too distant future. He also insisted that despite a certain Soviet Schadenfreude about the Great Depression and their general expectation of new world war breaking out over the "contradictions" of global capitalism (4/22/31, 5/18/31, 10/24/31), they were relatively self-absorbed and had abandoned their plans for global conquest, if, as he puts it, they ever had such plans. The Stalinist leadership and the society at large was overwhelmed by the tasks of building socialism, consolidating the collective and state farm sectors in agriculture and building the foundations for modern industry. Their interests were in peace with their neighbors and trading partners for their primary commodities (4/12/31, 6/18/31, 11/29/31). The Red Army existed entirely for the purpose of defense and was no menace to peace (6/25/31), he wrote, repeating War Commissar Voroshilov. After all, the capitalist powers did also continue to entertain fantasies of overthrowing the one, proletarian dictatorship to have seized power, so such defensive precautions were only necessary (11/25/31, 11/29/31). Again, many, if not most, of these stories read as translated press conferences with the Soviet Foreign Minister or Foreign Trade Minister with minimal or no commentary or analysis. In several pieces, Duranty makes a special effort to refute or explain away reports coming from "White Russian émigré circles" in Riga and elsewhere as clearly out of touch and so hostile as to have no credibility whatsoever (2/1/31, 2/3/31). Finally, in his apparent effort to win US recognition for the USSR, Duranty wrote occasional stories about how other countries, notably Germany, Austria, even England, might beat the US to the vast Soviet markets (2/23/31, 2/24/31, 3/11/31, 3/24/31, 4/4/31, 6/19/31, 9/28/31).

It is not clear to me what precise role Duranty played in the politics of recognition (US recognized USSR in 1933 after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president; Duranty was received by the president after the recognition ceremony and returned to Moscow with the newly appointed US ambassador; in Moscow he was feted by Stalin for his role in the recognition campaign) but I can't help feeling it wasn't insignificant. What this raises, then, is his complicity in the diplomacy of the US-Soviet relationship. And, though these are separate issues, the Ukrainian famine denial is inextricably part of this moral responsibility and part of a broader problem outlined below. Might not the US been able to insist on different recognition terms, including, possibly, the admission of famine relief workers to the afflicted regions? Or, in the rush to recognition, was the business and political elite eager to overlook any evidence of troubling behavior on the part of the Soviet Union at this time?

Duranty's "Theories" about Russia and the Soviet Union

When he wasn't reporting straight economic news or discussing international trade issues, Duranty indulged in his theories about Russia, which are a bit more disturbing from the viewpoint of objectivity, a balanced picture, and the tremendous influence of the NYT. Throughout 1931 Duranty proclaimed that Stalin was a progressive historical figure on the order of Oliver Cromwell (2/3/31, 2/15/31) or Napoleon (1/18/31), who was fighting a war against his own Slavic people's Asiatic backwardness. (In the 1/18/31 long feature on Stalin, Duranty opens with comparisons to Chinese emperors and then proceeds to Mohammed.) That Asiatic backwardness he characterized alternately as passivity, fatalism, collectivism, proclivity to mass behavior (as opposed to the individualism of the liberal west), fanatic religiosity and superstition, antheap morality (5/4/31, 5/10/31, 7/5/31, 11/22/31, 12/20/31) Somehow Stalin was able to escape this Slavic fatalism because he was a Caucasian "who can hold fast to the thread of his own free will in the labyrinth where Slavs are lost."[! 1/81/31] (How Caucasians are less Asian than Slavs Duranty doesn't muse about.) Incidentally, Duranty was by no means unique in holding these views; one can cite the very influential biography of Stalin by Isaac Deutscher, an ostensible follower of Trotsky, as perhaps the most well-known purveyor of a version of this Orientalist interpretation. And "softer" versions of this "explanation" are widespread among the historians and other social scientists who wrote under the influence of modernization theory as well. The conclusion we are meant to draw from this "analysis," however, is that Russians need and deserve this kind of harsh, autocratic regime because that's the way they are; they might even unconsciously long for autocracy (6/14/31).

Of course, this preferred narrative of Russians as backward Asiatics was one that the Stalinist dictatorship favored itself as justification for its brutal regime (as so many Asian dictatorships have offered in recent times under the guise of "Asian values"), although it would never have put it in so many words. I suppose it's this near identity of Duranty's "analysis" with the official Soviet version of events that is most disturbing for me as a historian. His near total reliance on official Soviet sources went hand in hand with this "understanding" of Soviet politics and Russian history. When this myth of Slavic backwardness is repeated often enough as "news," especially when no challenge to it is ever offered from another point of view, it takes on the character of a natural truth, when it is clearly an ideological construction that is playing a nefarious role inside the country, but, in Duranty's translation, also in international affairs. I shall devote most of the rest of this review of Duranty's work to this one-sided presentation of the Stalinist project; I have also tried to suggest some of the contexts that allowed Duranty to be able to see the Soviet world in such blatantly positive light. Above all, these contexts are the Great Depression in the West and Duranty's own experience of World War I in France and on other fronts.

Whatever the causes for Duranty's so thoroughly identifying with the Stalinist position, the consequences are perhaps most apparent in his treatment of--or rather downpedaling of--resistance to collectivization and industrialization. During 1931 the official Stalinist view of society was one of harmony and conciliation in line with the remarkable successes on the economic front (8/31/31). Similar to the regime's own self-understanding, Duranty downplayed the significance of the widespread and violent resistance to collectivization that had taken place across the Soviet Union during 1929-30 and again 1930-31, in fact a virtual civil war in the countryside which would have been hard for Duranty to remain ignorant of. He does mention kulak friction or opposition as much diminished over the previous year and apparently a thing of the past (4/22/31, 11/19/31) and, importantly, a sign of peasant backwardness. For Duranty to attribute the difficulties of collectivization to peasant backwardness is particularly distorting; in fact, collectivization wrought the greatest damage in those regions where the peasants had the most modern skills, had the longest history of voluntary rural cooperation, and were most productive, namely Ukraine, the Kuban, the areas cultivated by the Volga Germans. To pronounce the destruction of that independent peasantry and its replacement by what the peasants themselves referred to as the "second serfdom" as progressive and a triumph over Slavic fatalism and backwardness lends weight to the Stalinist dictatorship's own justification for its violent and murderous assault on its own countryside.

Similarly, Duranty dismissed the political opposition to aspects of collectivization and industrialization policy within the ruling Bolshevik party, an opposition that unleashed a series of purges and expulsions (5/20/31). Because these acts of resistance and opposition had been crushed by a ruthless Stalinist state, it was now "the Russian condition" to be eternally fatalistic, passive, inclined to backward anarchistic outbursts in infantile, monolithic fashion. There were constant show trials since 1928 at least which featured Soviet or foreign engineers or professors charged with some sort of sabotage, wrecking, or other "crimes" against the revolution. If Duranty wasn't aware of this powerful opposition from sources inside the Soviet Union, something that is frankly hard to imagine, he would have had plenty of opportunity to learn more about this when he made his regular trips out of Moscow to Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, and Prague. In all four capitals there were very politically engaged and well-informed Russian émigré organizations and institutions that met regularly and clandestinely even at this late date with visiting Soviet bureaucrats, diplomats, and other "agents" and developed rather sophisticated understanding of the political life of the USSR. Among the best informed were the Mensheviks abroad, who published Sostialisticheskii vestnik. In Prague during the interwar years, there were whole universities of émigré Russian and Ukrainian liberals and some conservatives who would also have offered alternate "narratives" of modern and more ancient Russian history. In Warsaw, too, there were several very good scholars and specialized institutes that made it their business to understand the history and contemporary affairs of the Soviet Union (and Duranty did make occasional trips to Poland).

When he wrote another characteristic piece about why the communists only allowed voting for communist party candidates, Duranty condescendingly explained that Russians were so uneducated in self-government that they needed to be taught this fundamental truth by the all-wise party (1/26/31), again ignoring the history of early twentieth-century Russia and well into the civil war years when political parties and public organizations mobilized millions of voters in a series of doomed democratic and revolutionary governments. To say that Russians had no and especially no recent memory of a more genuine electoral politics is extremely distorting. For someone who was an adult--as was Duranty--during the Russian revolution and a correspondent in France during the First World War, there is another story about the Russian people that he ought to have known, that the subjects of the Russian Empire were among the most oppositionist and revolutionary and even anarchistic people on the earth's surface for several years running until they had the will to fight killed in them by so many invading armies, famines, and a few other natural and man-made disasters. This is not to argue, by contrast, that Russia had become a model European parliamentary democracy during the early twentieth century or even that its "genuine" workers' revolution had been betrayed by the Bolshevik dictatorship. But to insist on the power of eternal Slavic fatalism, as Duranty so frequently invokes, is to ignore the tremendous transformations that had occurred in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is very present-bound and short-sighted and, more importantly, it conveys precisely the anti-democratic justification for the creation of a dictatorship that was mastered by the Stalinist propaganda apparatus.

In another characteristic vein, Duranty devotes several pieces to the decline in religious services at Easter and Christmas (12/26/31), and above all the razing of the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, again as signs of progress and triumph over traditional Russian religious obscurantism (8/3/31, 12/26/31) There is little hint here of the concerted antireligious campaigns, including outright repression and not just the League of the Militant Godless anti-Christmas and anti-Easter demonstrations. Instead, he describes how Soviet citizens are joyously celebrating their new Soviet holidays through increasing output and other achievements (18/8/31). One waits in vain for some signal of ever so slight tongue in cheek.

Duranty warned his American readers again and again not to try to judge Soviet life by their own comfortable standards. Besides Cromwell, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible and other more distant historical parallels, another device he frequently deployed to "explain" for his American readers how the Soviet regime could be so apparently indifferent to the comfort and freedoms of its citizens was to appeal to his own World War I experience. Knowing what we know about the traumatic impact that the Great War had on so many intellectuals and ordinary combatants and appreciating the proximity of the shared experience he could appeal to, he tries again and again to contextualize the Soviet hardships against the backdrop of that suicidal European civil war. Certainly in its own self-image, the Soviet leadership was engaged in a war to defeat its own backwardness. But Duranty never seems to question the logic of a country putatively at peace waging war against its own population and erecting the entire panoply of internal enemies and enemy aliens that seem to come straight out of a more strictly military experience; he never questions the "normalcy" of a militarizing society and the tremendous assaults on what fragile liberties Soviet citizens still enjoyed during the NEP years. He, I think, therefore misleadingly, compares Stalin occasionally to Marshall Foch of the French (1/8/31). One additional comparison he frequently makes for American audiences is Tammany Hall and Charles Murphy, suggesting Stalin is to be understood in the context of American machine politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Again, by 1931 Stalin had certainly transcended the scale of American machine politics by any stretch of the imagination. By 1931 the Stalinist dictatorship had murdered hundreds of thousands of its own peasant citizens as they refused to submit to Moscow's dictates to collectivize. The Tammany Hall parallel is, once again, distorting because of its relativizing and familiarizing effects, suggesting that Stalin is really not much worse or more threatening than a New York City boss.

Any Conclusions?

Duranty was neither unique among reporters nor even many scholars of the time in sharing these unbalanced and, ultimately, condescending, views of Russian history and the Soviet people. Moreover, several foreign correspondents fell under Stalin's spell to a certain extent, as Duranty clearly did, especially if they had been granted the privilege of an interview with the great man. And, after all, he certainly did turn out to be one of the most important political leaders of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, however, such views do not make his reporting distinguished or particularly unusual, let alone profound; I would not judge that his reporting has stood an even minimal test of time given the criteria I tried to outline in my critique of his "theories."

After reading through a good portion of Duranty's reporting for 1931, I was disappointed and disturbed by the overall picture he painted of the Soviet Union for that period. Much of the "factual" material is dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources, whereas his efforts at "analysis" are very effective renditions of the Stalinist leadership's self-understanding of their murderous and progressive project to defeat the backwardness of Slavic, Asiatic peasant Russia. That hundreds, if not thousands, of well-intentioned and intelligent European and American leftist intellectuals shared much of this Stalinist understanding of might making for right and a sort of Hegelian acceptance of historical outcomes, especially against the backdrop of the Great Depression in the West, does not make his writing any more profound or original. But after reading so much Duranty in 1931 it is far less surprising to me that he would deny in print the famine of 1932-33 and later defend the prosecutors' charges during the show trials of 1937.

I believe there is room in international reporting for an effort to convey the "Soviet" point of view, meaning the official one, without leaving it, however at that; instead, he would seem to have some obligation to take the analysis to a different level by suggesting alternate plausible explanations and motivations for events and actions. In other words, there is a serious lack of balance in his writing. Instead, Duranty is very insistent by this time in his own authority and understanding of the reality of Stalinist Russia. He prided himself on his "independent" judgments that went at odds with the conventional wisdom in Moscow. He even acknowledged earlier "misunderstandings" of Soviet political culture to reinforce his hard won expertise and current level of understanding (10/11/31). It is a clever rhetorical device but adds nothing to the overall analysis.

That lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime was a disservice to the American readers of the NYT and the liberal values they subscribe to and to the historical experience of the peoples of the Russian and Soviet empires and their struggle for a better life.