Thursday, October 23, 2003

Revisionism

2003 marks the 70th anniversary of Stalin's man-made famine in Ukraine. In order to force the collectivization of Ukraine's rural lands, Stalin enforced the seizure of millions of tons of grain and blocked any importation of food to the region. Millions upon millions died between 1932-1933. The Soviet Union was able to keep the atrocity under wraps, and in fact continued officially denying the full extent of the famine until the dissolution of the USSR.

During the famine, Walter Duranty was the NYTimes correspondent in the USSR, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage of the region. Subsequently, it became clear that Duranty was a shameless apologist for Stalin, and gruesomely, had covered up his knowledge of the famine. In September 1933, Duranty "privately informed the British government that as many as 10 million people had died as a result of famine conditions during the past year." In public, however, he simply continued producing bland articles that mouthed the Soviet party line.

Every so often, interest groups call for Pulitzer to renounce the 1932 prize conferred upon Duranty due to his gross negligence and criminal disdain for journalistic ethics. With the 70th anniversary upon us, those voices are speaking up again.

NYT Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. said that he would respect the Pultizer Board's decision if they revoked the reward, but then he "asked the board to consider two things:"
First, he wrote, such an action might evoke the "Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories." He also wrote of his fear that "the board would be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades."

In an interview last night, Bill Keller, the newspaper's executive editor, said he concurred with Mr. Sulzberger.

"It's absolutely true that the work Duranty did, at least as much of it as I've read, was credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda," said Mr. Keller, who covered the Soviet Union for The Times from 1986 to 1991.

And yet, Mr. Keller added, "As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps."

Now this is silly at best, and grossly inappropriate at worst. Soviet "airbrushing" of history was based entirely on fabricated lies trumpeted as truth, and depending on what was being "airbrushed," often followed on the heels of executions and deportations. Generals who fell out of favor were convicted on convenient charges and their deeds disappeared from history books. Stalin's top advisors were literally airbrushed out of photos after they too were sent to Gulags or executed. Everyone knows the tale of the census-takers at the height of Stalin's Great Terror. When they showed up unable to account for a few million souls that were around during the last census, Stalin had them killed. The next census-takers somehow managed to find those few million.

My point is: that is how the Soviet Union altered history, facts, and reality. That is air-brushing history. Making adjustments based on subsequently discovered facts is called responsibility. The Pulitzer people and the NYT have a responsibility to their own integrity, and they should revoke the prize. Duranty does not directly have blood on his hands, but he has the stench, and he should no longer be celebrated.

UPDATE:
Kriston in comments made me remember that I ended this post one paragraph too early. The other reason I brought up the way the Soviets change history is to point out that if Pulitzer re-visits the award, they would simply be amending history. Duranty's name would not disappear from Pulitzer records, his articles would not be whisked from the NYT archives as though never there. Kriston recommends a big asterisk by the award, noting the mistake. I suppose that would be okay. I would prefer his name to appear, maybe with a strike-through, and a notation that he was awarded the Pulitzer in '32, and the award was revoked in '03. Regardless, Duranty would in no way be "purged" from official records as Sulzberger suggests, anymore than Bret Hull was purged from the records of the Stanley Cup annals when he got that skate-in-the-crease footnote. It's a gross exaggeration, and one not worthy of the Times.

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