WASHINGTON, June 2 (UPI) -- As the U.S. media still digests the shock and lessons of the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times, a far older and far worse journalistic wrong may soon be posthumously righted. The Pulitzer Prize board is reviewing the award it gave to New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty more than 70 years ago for his shamefully -- and knowingly -- false coverage of the great Ukrainian famine.
"In response to an international campaign, the Pulitzer Prize board has begun an 'appropriate and serious review' of the 1932 award given to Walter Duranty of The New York Times," Andrew Nynka reported in the May 25 edition of the New Jersey-published Ukrainian Weekly. The campaign included a powerful article in the May 7 edition of the conservative National Review magazine.
Sig Gissler, administrator for the Pulitzer Prize board, told the Ukrainian Weekly that the "confidential review by the 18-member Pulitzer Prize board is intended to seriously consider all relevant information regarding Mr. Duranty's award," Nynka wrote.
The utter falsehood of Duranty's claims that there was no famine at all in the Ukraine -- a whopping lie that was credulously swallowed unconditionally by the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and many others -- has been documented and common knowledge for decades. But neither the Times nor the Pulitzer board ever before steeled themselves to launch such a ponderous, unprecedented -- and potentially immensely embarrassing -- procedure. Indeed, Gissler told The Ukrainian Weekly that there are no written procedures regarding prize revocation. There are no standards or precedents for revoking the prize.
The Ukrainian famine of 1929-33, named the "Harvest of Sorrow" by historian Robert Conquest in his classic book on the subject, was the largest single act of genocide in European history. The death toll even exceeded the Nazi Holocaust against the Jewish people a few years later.
In all, 10 million Ukrainians, most of them peasants, died as catastrophic, stupid and cruel collectivization policies were imposed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on the richest, most fertile, wheat-exporting breadbasket in the world. In the decades before World War I, its annual grain exports regularly vastly outstripped those of the American Midwest.
The enforced collectivization of land and the unbelievable death toll were deliberately whipped up by conscious policy and malice. Stalin was determined to crush the slightest remaining glimmer of Ukrainian national identity and also to liquidate the "kulaks" or wealthy peasants, which in practical terms meant any family with the expertise to raise a decent crop on the land. Mass shootings of entire families, or so-called liquidations, were commonplace. The production of food collapsed.
Yet the mainstream Western media was virtually blind to what was going on. And in the United States, serious newspapers across the nation took their lead from the then-revered and utterly trusted Duranty. As Richard Pipes, a leading U.S. authority on Soviet history, noted, "It has been said that no man has done more to paint in the United States a favorable image of the Soviet Union at a time when it was suffering under the most savage tyranny known to man."
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, London correspondent for the left-wing Manchester Guardian, scooped the world by fearlessly going into the Ukraine and defying the Soviet secret police -- then known as the OGPU -- to expose the true horrors of the famine. He also knew Duranty well and observed him closely.
Writing 40 years later in his classic memoirs "Chronicles of Wasted Time," Muggeridge concluded that Duranty was a sociopath without a grain of professional integrity or human decency to his name. He described Duranty as "a little, sharp-witted, energetic man" who liked "to hint at aristocratic connections and classical learning, of which, I must say, he produced little evidence. One of his legs had been amputated after a train accident, but he was very agile at getting about with an artificial one."
Duranty may well have been blackmailed or bribed or both by the Soviets, but Muggeridge concluded that his real motive in lying outright about what he knew to be true and helping the Soviets in their unprecedented, astonishingly successful cover-up was a far simpler one: He loved and revered Stalin precisely because he was so colossally murderous and cruel.
"He admired Stalin and the regime precisely because they were so strong and ruthless. 'I put my money on Stalin' was one of his favorite sayings.'" Indeed, Muggeridge related that in one conversation they had, Duranty even admitted to him that he knew there was a catastrophic food shortage, even famine in Ukraine and that he knew the Soviet authorities were prepared to kill large numbers of people there to keep control.
As Muggeridge described the conversation, "But, he said, banging the sides of the sofa, remember that you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs -- another favorite saying. They'll win, he went on; they're bound to win. If necessary, they'll harness the peasants to the ploughs but I tell you they'll get the harvest in and feed the people that matter. The people that mattered were the men in the Kremlin and their underlings. ... The others were just serfs, reserves of the proletariat, as Stalin called them. Some would die, surely, perhaps, quite a lot, but there were enough, and to spare."
An appalled and a fascinated Muggeridge listened to all this and later recalled, "I had the feeling, listening to this outburst, that in thus justifying Soviet brutality and ruthlessness, Duranty was in someway getting his own back for being small, and losing a leg, and not having the aristocratic lineage ... he claimed to have. ... Duranty was a little browbeaten boy looking up admiringly at a big bully."
In his own lifetime -- he lived to the age of 73, though he died broke and forgotten -- Duranty was never called to account. Indeed, as Muggeridge also noted, "He came to be accepted as the great Russian expert in America, and played a major part in shaping President Roosevelt's policies" towards the Soviet Union.
The Pulitzer Prize board's re-evaluation of Duranty's award therefore comes late in the day, to put it mildly, but it is still a welcome, indeed necessary gesture towards American journalistic integrity and to the hecatombs of dead whose cries were hushed.