Tintin vs. Walter Duranty, Stalin Stooge
Steven Spielberg's just-released 3D animated feature combining stories in three Tintin books had me clapping with delight as the credits rolled. I won't spill what happens; you can read on without fear of spoilers.
The Tintin books began in 1929 as a comic strip under the skillful pen of Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907-1983), aka Hergé -- reverse his initials and say them in French. The strip first appeared on 10 January 1929 in a children's supplement of the conservative Belgian newspaper Le XXe Siècle (The 20th Century). It was an instant hit.
PAUSE -- A newspaper's political slant is common knowledge in Europe, where the press doesn't go through the motions of an Olympian "all the news that's fit to print" optic. Tim Groseclose's Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind should make it tougher to get away with such pretense in this country. Next year will be an important test case.
BACK TO SCENE -- Hergé decided to expand the comic strip into book-length stories. Publication continued uninterrupted for more than 50 years despite the Depression and even the German occupation of France, where Hergé settled during WWII. Tintin books have been translated into some 50 languages and have sold more than 200 million copies. The last of the 24 books appeared posthumously in 1986, unfinished.
What has this to do with British journalist Walter Duranty, Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times from 1922 through 1936 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932?
Published in 1929, Tintin's first book-length adventures are described in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. This story isn't in the Spielberg film or the two planned sequels -- Hollywood doesn't target Russian Soviets, or Cuban ones -- so I can tell what happens.
PAUSE -- By 1929, Stalin had consolidated his hold on power, having defeated arch-rivals Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. A Soviet assassin iced Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, and Zinoviev and Kamenev were shot in 1936 after "confessing" to plotting to kill Stalin in a much-publicized show trial that ushered the horrific bloodletting known as the Great Terror. Leftists in the United States such as Corliss Lamont and Lillian Hellman dutifully bowed down to Stalin and defended the phony trials, as did FDR's ambassador to Moscow, Joseph E. Davies, who "went native" big-time to the disgust of his staff.
BACK TO SCENE -- Tintin in the Land of the Soviets describes the adventures of ace reporter Tintin and his clever canine sidekick Snowy, assigned to find out if proletarians lost their chains under the leadership of "the Kremlin mountaineer" -- as Russia's greatest 20th century poet, Osip Mandelstam, unwisely called Stalin, who sent him to a Siberian grave in 1938. Tintin overcomes many obstacles thrown his way by Boris Badinoff types out to prevent him from discovering the truth. After many adventures with surprising and often incredible twists and turns, our intrepid duo return home to a hero's welcome.
Duranty showed up in the land of the Soviets in 1921, quickly made friends with all the right people, and got to interview Stalin twice, in 1930 and 1933. In Stalin's Apologist, Duranty biographer S.J. Taylor tracks the career of the man Malcolm Muggeridge called "the greatest liar of any journalist I met in fifty years of journalism." Readers would indeed have been better off with Tintin than with Duranty's reporting in the New York Times.
Tintin correctly characterizes Soviet Russia as a police state where "the organs of state security," named in the book OGPU -- Cheka's successor and NKVD's predecessor -- had unchecked powers to wreak havoc on the citizenry. Those who toed the party line got to eat -- those who didn't starved (pp. 78-9 of the English translation). But in the 18 January 1923 edition of the New York Times, Duranty blandly described Cheka's boss, the dreaded "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, as just another dedicated bureaucrat who "goes straight to his appointed goal without fear or favor and gets there somehow, no matter what are the obstacles."
On p. 29, Tintin watches as a Soviet guide points to billowing smokestacks and tells admiring British communists that "our factories work to full capacity." Going in for a closer looks, the boy finds workmen hidden behind cardboard structures burning straw and clanging metal. "That's how the Soviets fool the poor idiots who still believe in a 'red paradise,'" he comments. Duranty, every bit the "useful idiot," wrote in the 3 May 1932 issue of New York Times that "the Bolsheviks [are] sincere enthusiasts, trying to regenerate a people that had been shockingly misgoverned" and "are doing the best for the Russian masses," caveating, however, that "Bolshevism is unsuitable for the United States." Obama mentor Saul Alinsky and the OWS rabble didn't get the memo.
Arriving in the capital, Tintin finds that the Soviets have turned Moscow into a "stinking slum." The panel on p. 78 shows a street littered with garbage, dilapidated houses, a bent lamppost, and a shabbily dressed local trying to ignore the decrepit surroundings. That's not quite the Moscow where Duranty lived in 1930. As Taylor notes (p. 176), Duranty had an apartment close to the Kremlin and a household consisting of a chauffeur, a maid, a cook, and his mistress Katya (not yet pregnant). He had a phone installed and owned a car.
Tintin gets a firsthand lesson in how Soviet elections really work (p. 36) -- a process that has not changed much, as recent (ACORN-like) Russian elections proved. A commissar flanked by two henchmen first tells voters there are three lists to choose from, the first being that of the Communist Party. As goons point guns at the crowd, the commissar orders, "All those who oppose this list, raise their hands!" When no one does, he announces, "I declare the Communist Party list elected unanimously!" The accuracy of Duranty's reporting on all things Soviet got the seal of approval from Stalin himself, no less, who told him during their 1933 interview that "you have done a good job ... you try to tell the truth about our country and to understand it and explain it to your readers," which quotation Duranty proudly reproduced in his book I Write (pp. 166-67) and elsewhere.
Sneaking into a secret Bolshevik meeting disguised as a Red Army soldier (!), Tintin discovers a dastardly plan (p. 81): "Comrades ... we are short of wheat! The little we have is needed for our foreign propaganda! We simply must find some, otherwise we face famine! ... The only solution is to organize an expedition against the kulaks, the rich peasants, and force them at gunpoint to give us their corn." This was a chilling anticipation of Stalin's policies in the Ukraine that caused the 1932-33 famine, the Holomodor, which Duranty would do his best to downplay. He told his friend H.R. Knickerbocker in a June 1933 letter that "the 'famine' is mostly bunk" and wrote in the 23 August 1933 New York Times that "any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." Duranty concocted the phrase "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" to justify everything the Soviets did in the name of "progress."
It's high time Duranty's Pulitzer was rescinded.
Arnold Cusmariu is a sculptor and former philosophy professor. Readers can see at his submission to the 2003 World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition, one of the 5,200 entries that did not win.