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‘Noble Purpose,’ Terror Famine
& the ‘Greatest Liar’

Toby Westerman

Book review of Red Famine, Stalin's War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
New York: Doubleday, 2017, 496pp.
Book cover of Red  Famine
Red Famine, the latest book by Soviet/Russian expert Anne Applebaum, skillfully combines the hard facts and numbers of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's terror famine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor in Ukrainian) with personal accounts of those caught up in the tragedy. The result is a moving, well-documented account of one of the worst crimes against humanity in Contemporary History. Applebaum addresses the vexed question of using the term "genocide" to describe the terror famine and demonstrates the connection between Ukraine's struggle for independence from Soviet Russia to Stalin's implementation of famine as a political tool. The author's research is impressive, but, unfortunately, she fails to fully explain the actions of one of the most despicable figures in the story of the terror famine – The New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. This is significant because Duranty's influence is still felt today.

Stalin demanded secrecy for his calculated savagery in Ukraine and other areas of the Soviet Union. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics needed the trade and technology benefits which would flow from recognition of the Communist State by the United States and, if the true magnitude of the terror famine became apparent, Stalin's regime would become an international pariah. There were already various Russian emigré groups working against Soviet interests and verified accounts of the starvation of millions in the USSR (especially in Ukraine) would make any political or economic relations with the U.S. impossible.

Enter Walter Duranty

Duranty, The New York Times correspondent from 1922 to 1936, is described by Applebaum as one who "had no ties to the ideological left, adopting rather the position of a hard-headed and skeptical 'realist' trying to listen to both sides of a story." She then cites a 1935 statement from Duranty comparing the vivisection of animals [done for medical reasons, one presumes] and the fate of the kulaks (successful Ukrainian property owners who were the particular target of Stalin and the terror famine). "It may be objected that the vivisection of living animals is a sad and dreadful thing, and it is true that the lot of kulaks and others who have opposed the Soviet experiment is not a happy one," but Duranty continued, "in both cases, the suffering inflicted is done with a noble purpose" [p.310].

Walter Duranty

The New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty was a communist agent loyal to Stalin

The "lot of kulaks" and other opponents of Stalin's tyranny – what Duranty calls the "Soviet experiment" – was, in truth, a blood soaked nightmare of beatings, prison, starvation and execution. The "noble purpose" in Ukraine was to fulfill the Soviet dictator's demands for complete agricultural collectivazation, the extermination of the kulaks, and the end to Ukrainian culture, language and literature.

Taken across the whole of the USSR, the "noble purpose" was called Stalinism, the peculiar brand of Communism introduced by the Soviet dictator, who advanced both collectivized and industrialized in the Soviet Union through fear, intimidation, brutal imprisonment and murder. Stalin sought to build "Socialism in one country" as opposed to Lenin and Trotsky's call for world revolution. Stalin did, however, develop a vast network of spies and pro-Soviet cooperators throughout the world (including the U.S.) for the advancement of Stalin's brand of Communism.

Duranty, an essential part of this effort

Applebaum recognizes Duranty's bias toward the Soviets and his usefulness "to the regime, which went out of its way to ensure that he lived well in Moscow," but sees "the primary motivation for Duranty's flattering coverage of the USSR" as "the attention he won from his reporting." Applebaum then mentions the unparalleled influence he had in the U.S. with "the men who would become part of Franklin Roosevelt's 'Brains Trust'" who "were looking for new economic ideas and had a deep interest in the Soviet experiment..." Duranty, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Soviet Union, traveled to New York in 1932 and met with then-New York governor and presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt. Applebaum states that Roosevelt "peppered" Duranty with questions and the future U.S. President found the encounter with The New York Times foreign correspondent "fascinating."

Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum

Duranty was the acknowledged "dean" of Moscow foreign correspondents whose word enjoyed nearly complete acceptance among his colleagues. In America, Duranty's reputation as an expert in Soviet affairs was unchallenged with the result that Soviet propaganda flowed through Duranty and to the American public with little hindrance. Duranty's influence extended from the casual newspaper reader to the most powerful individuals in the United States. It was in large part because of Duranty that the most favorable view possible of Stalin and Stalinism dominated the Roosevelt administration. [It might be pointed out that several top advisors and officials in the Roosevelt government were spies for the Soviet Union.]

While large areas of Ukraine and other areas of the USSR were sealed off by Soviet authorities, millions starved from confiscation of all edible produce. Duranty not only discounted any news of the terror famine but also successfully blunted reaction to reports from the few correspondents who dared to report the truth about the terror famine. One of these, Malcolm Muggeridge, would later describe Duranty as the "greatest liar of any journalist I have ever met."

Another British journalist, Gareth Jones, issued a press-release concerning his journey through the devastated Soviet regions, drawing a sharp rebuke from Duranty and a counter-statement from Jones. After the publication of his reports, Jones was banned from the Soviet Union and was later killed while reporting on China. His death was officials described as at the hands of Chinese bandits, as Applebaum relates. There is, however, more to the death of the brave journalist. There is strong evidence that operatives from the Soviet NKVD (later known as the KGB) were angered at Jones' reports on the terror famine and were responsible for Jones' death. Jones had also learned of secret Soviet military assistance to Mao Zedong's communist rebels, and the Soviets may also have wanted to prevent Jones from reporting on overt Soviet intervention in China's civil war.

Duranty's loyalty to Stalin and Stalinism was so complete that some later believed that he was actually an agent for Soviet intelligence. American ex-communist Jay Lovestone seems to have held this opinion, as did veteran U.S. journalist Joseph Alsop. Whether in the direct pay of the Soviets or as simply a pro-Soviet lackey, Duranty was instrumental during his career in frustrating an accurate understanding of the Soviet Union and its intentions. His loyalty to Stalin was complete, even to the point of writing an obituary for the Soviet dictator in 1953.

Communists stealing grains from Ukranian peasants that hid bags in a cemetery

Communists stealing grains hidden in a graveyard from Ukranian peasants

Paid agent or not, Duranty was a believer in the bloody "noble experiment" of Stalin, and must be judged as one of the most effective communist advocates who ever lived. Not recognizing Duranty's ideological devotion to the brand of Communism called Stalinism leads to a complete misunderstanding Duranty and his part in advancing the "noble experiment." This is particularly important today as the white washing of Stalin continues, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin expresses his admiration of the Soviet mass murder Stalin. Opinion polls in Russia list Stalin as one of the nation's most respected leaders.

During his rule, Stalin's version of Communism was dominant in the world, from the rural collectives in the USSR to the literary set in New York and for many actors and writers in Hollywood. Duranty hid what he could of Stalin's horrors, and what he could not hide he lied about. Duranty made possible the existence of a credible pro-Communist/pro-Stalinist movement in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s, the effect of which remains strong in intellectual quarters today, and even in the general society. The term "anti-Communism" now rates on the same level as a Woody Allen punchline.

Duranty would be gratified.

Posted January 12, 2018

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