November 9, 2009
The New York Times Helped Build the Wall
As freedom-lovers throughout the world celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the freedom-lovers at the New York Times, if there are any, have to be reflecting on that paper's own role in the Wall's construction.
As it happens, no English-speaker was more responsible for the savage sprawl of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain that reinforced it than the Times' own ace reporter, Walter Duranty.
In November 1933, the one-legged reporter had come to Washington, D.C. from Moscow to witness President Roosevelt officially recognize the Soviet Union. Duranty knew, and everyone else knew, that were it not for his reporting, the President would never have pushed for recognition.
After the event, FDR sought out this now-famed correspondent and asked him, "Don't you think it's a good job?" Duranty did indeed.
A little more than a year later, Simon & Schuster published Duranty's take on the Soviet experiment. The title of the book was scarily appropriate: I Write As I Please. In this classic of willful blindness, the presumably objective journalist sheds his usual cynicism only to show his affection for Comrade Stalin.
As Duranty related, he "felt as pleased as punch" when Stalin announced the Five-Year Plan in the fall of 1928. Stalin, after all, was the world's "greatest living statesman," the one man capable of pulling off this extraordinary task.
As part of the plan, Stalin was prepared "to socialize, virtually overnight, a hundred million of the stubbornest and most ignorant peasants in the world." Stalin specifically named the enemy in December 1929 when he demanded "the eradication of all kulak tendencies and the elimination of all kulaks as a class."
By definition, a kulak was a wealthy land-owning peasant -- "wealthy" meaning anyone who produced more than his family consumed. In time, the Soviets defined the term down to just about anyone who resisted collectivization, these being the hundred million stubborn and ignorant peasants of Duranty's glib retelling.
Early in that same year, the kulaks and other peasants resisted as the Soviets attempted to appropriate their property and force them into collectives. In March 1930 alone, there were more than 6,500 Soviet-style tea parties centering on the Ukraine and expanding outward.
Stalin was not pleased. During a six-week period including March 1930, the Ukrainian GPU, the justice arm of the Soviet state, sentenced more than 20,000 people to death through its courts for resisting collectivization.
Many others were executed without judicial niceties. Somehow, this all seems to have escaped the attention of Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. Much worse would escape him in the years ahead.
In 1930, the GPU got serious about deporting the kulaks and other "socially dangerous elements" like priests, nuns, shopkeepers, and rural artisans. By the end of 1930, 700,000 people had been shipped to the nether regions of the Soviet Union. By the end of 1931, that number had swollen to 1.8 million.
By stripping the countryside of its more productive citizens and reducing the rest to penury, Stalin set the stage for the horror-show that was to follow. He and his cohorts began by shaking down those left on the land for a bigger slice of the action.
In 1932, for instance, the government take was to be 32 percent higher than the year before. By that year, the peasantry was faced with a grim choice: resist the collection or starve to death. They resisted.
Stalin sent in his shock troops. They came to enforce the infamous 1932 "ear law," so dubbed because an individual could and would be arrested for withholding any "socialist property," right down to an ear of corn. By the end of 1933, authorities had arrested more than 125,000 people under the law and sentenced more than 5,000 to death. In areas of widespread resistance, the authorities would deport whole towns.
To defeat an enemy this stubborn, there could be only one recourse for Stalin. Notes the authoritative Black Book of Communism, "He [the enemy] would have to be starved out."
By late summer 1932, when even hard-liners began to plead for some relief for these peasants, Moscow turned them down cold. This hardheartedness gave birth to the adage, "Moscow does not believe in tears."
Harassed and starving, with no hope for the future, millions fled these rich agricultural lands for the cities. At this point, Stalin got serious. In December 1932, in order to "liquidate social parasitism," he mandated the equivalent of passports for all internal migration.
In January 1933, Molotov and Stalin instructed local authorities and the GPU to stop the peasants from leaving their farms "by all means necessary." These "means" included mass execution. In February 1933 alone, the secret police reported that it had stopped more than 219,000 desperate peasants in their tracks.
In April 1933, after touring this ravaged countryside, the writer Mikhail Shokolov wrote a plaintive letter to Stalin. He detailed the tortures used by local Communist officials to meet their quotas.
In the "cold" method, whole brigades of collective workers were forced to stand naked in the frigid night until they revealed hidden grain stashes. In the "hot" method, officials would set fire to the bottom of women's skirts and refuse to douse them until they too gave up their family's food.
In a combination of hot and cold, officials would splay peasants on a hot stove and then make them nurse their burns naked in the cold. "These are not abuses of the system," wrote Shokolov. "This is the system for collecting grain."
The recounting of these "minor inconveniences" did not move Stalin. "These people deliberately tried to undermine the Soviet state," he wrote back. "It is a fight to the death, Comrade Shokolov."
Duranty would describe this period as "a heroic chapter in the life of Humanity." The capital "H" is Duranty's touch. If large-"H" humanity advanced, small-"h" humanity fell by the wayside, and Duranty knew it.
"According to Mr. Duranty the population of the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga had decreased in the last year by three million, and the population of the Ukraine by four to five million," wrote the British chargé d'affaires in Moscow just a month before Duranty was to head back to America to witness the Soviet Union's official recognition. The British official knew this was no accident. "The Ukraine had been bled white," he added.
Two questions need to be asked here. One is how a New York Times reporter could countenance such evil. The second is how he could get away with concealing it. The answers are becoming depressingly familiar.
The year 1913 found the ambitious, if unfocused, Duranty in Paris. He was making useful connections in the city's Anglophone community by serving as something of a deacon in an ongoing series of black masses known as "the Paris workings." The mantra of this unholy affair, "sanguis et semen" (blood and semen), nicely captures its over-the-edge, homoerotic flavor.
In his later life, Duranty would not say much about these "workings," or about his religious inclinations, "only that he no longer believed in anything." That same year, 1913, Duranty finessed these connections to secure a job with the New York Times in Paris.
By the time of the terror-famine, Duranty's callousness rivaled Stalin's own. "Russians may be hungry and short of clothes and comfort," he wrote in the New York Times in 1932. "But you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
To the Times reader, conditions in the Soviet Union must have seemed no worse than those of Hoover's USA, the difference being that Stalin was offering hope and change. "The 'famine' is mostly bunk," Duranty wrote to a friend in June 1933. He used his and the Times' authority to feed the story to an establishment that had developed a taste for progressive hogwash.
The Pulitzer Committee awarded him its top prize for news correspondence in 1932. The Committee cited the "scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity" of his reporting on the Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union.
The Nation, the quintessential progressive journal, cited the Times and Duranty on its annual "honor roll," describing his as "the most enlightening, dispassionate, and readable dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world."
To the editors of the Nation and especially the New York Times: on this, the twentieth anniversary of the Wall's fall, how about an apology?