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Stalin's Pulitzer winner

October 25, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

In the winter of 897, the recently elected Pope Stephen VI ordered the exhumation of his predecessor Formosus, so that the dead pontiff could be tried on a variety of charges, including perjury. The proceeding against the still fully enrobed corpse is recalled in history as "the cadaver synod" and -- unsurprisingly -- ended in the silent defendant's conviction on all counts.

The corrupt Stephen's motives for the whole gruesome business -- bizarre even by the standards of that particular low point in papal history -- were too venal and convoluted to be rehearsed here.

Nothing of the sort can or should be said about those now pressing the Pulitzer Prize Board to strip the New York Times' Walter Duranty of the prize he won for correspondence in 1932. But the tidying of history is always a fraught affair, and while there are good reasons for the board to once again revisit Duranty's case, there also are reasons to leave things as they are.

American journalism has thrown up more than its share of truly vile characters over the years. Duranty surely was among the worst. As the Times' Moscow correspondent in the 1920s and '30s, he was an active and enthusiastic agent of Soviet propaganda and disinformation -- probably paid, certainly blackmailed, altogether willing. His character was sordid, his personal life debauched. For years, Duranty used his influential post to lie, distort and suppress information in ways that pleased Joseph Stalin. In 1929, the Soviet dictator rewarded his useful toady with an exclusive interview that became one of the cornerstones of Duranty's reportorial reputation.

In 1932, the Pulitzer board awarded Duranty its correspondence prize "for his series of dispatches on Russia, especially the working out of the Five Year Plan." The citation accompanying the prize said Duranty's work was distinguished by its "scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity.... "

Duranty's acceptance statement included a profession of "respect [for] the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin," whom he called "a really great statesmen." At the time, Duranty expressed those sentiments, the dictator already had begun his savage campaign to collectivize farming in Ukraine. Within a year, the campaign had created a man-made famine in which somewhere between 6 million and 11 million Ukrainians died. In some of his dispatches from that period, Duranty simply ignored the famine. In others, he denied its existence.

Neither the Times nor the Pulitzer board have avoided coming to grips with the scandal of Duranty's career. In 1986, when historian Robert Conquest published his magisterial work on the Ukrainian tragedy -- "The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine" -- the Times assigned another veteran Moscow correspondent, Craig R. Whitney, to review it. He noted that Duranty "denied the existence of the famine in his dispatches until it was almost over.... "

Thirteen years ago, when historian S.J. Taylor published her damning account of Duranty's career, "Stalin's Apologist," the book was favorably reviewed in the Times. Karl E. Meyer, a member of the paper's editorial board, wrote a signed piece in which he said that Duranty's dispatches contained "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper." Ever since, the Times' official list of its Pulitzer Prizes has carried this notation next to Duranty's name: "Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage."

At about the time Taylor's biography was published, according to Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, "the board gave extensive consideration to requests for revocation of the prize to Mr. Duranty, which would have been unprecedented, and decided unanimously against withdrawing a prize awarded in a different era and under different circumstances."

There matters remained until this year, when the board of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America met to discuss commemoration of the famine's 70th anniversary and decided "a campaign to revoke Walter Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer Prize" should be "an integral component" of the memorial. The initiative was joined by Ukrainian emigre groups in Canada and Great Britain.

In response, the Pulitzer board established a special subcommittee to reconsider Duranty's prize and last July that group asked the Times for comment. The paper hired Columbia University professor Mark von Hagen, a specialist in early 20th century Russian history, to reexamine and report on the journalism for which Duranty received his prize. In his report, he described the dispatches for which Duranty was honored as a "dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources."

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