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Ukraine: Victory May Be Near In Campaign Against Pulitzer-Winning Famine Journalist

  • Askold Krushelnycky

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the massive man-made famine that killed millions of people in the Soviet Union, primarily Ukraine. This year, Ukrainians from all over the world have joined forces in a campaign to revoke a prestigious award from an American reporter who deliberately glossed over the famine in order to curry favor with its orchestrator -- former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Prague, 31 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Pulitzer Prize for journalism is among the most coveted and prestigious awards for journalists. In 1932, the prize went to Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent for "The New York Times," for a series of articles on the economic advances of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin.

That same year, millions of peasants in Ukraine and some regions of Russia were starving as the result of one of Stalin's so-called "advances" -- the forced collectivization of agriculture. The man-made famine was directed at wiping out the region's peasant farmers and small land-owners -- derisively known as "kulaks" -- who for the Soviet leadership represented not only class enemies but bastions of Ukrainian separatism.

In 1933, as the famine peaked, claiming millions of lives, Duranty continued to write articles glorifying Stalin and the Soviet system. In return, he was granted unparalleled access to the Soviet leadership, including Stalin himself. Duranty's articles never acknowledged the true breadth of the famine, although the journalist himself was aware of its scope. He privately told a diplomat he estimated as many as 10 million people may have died, and is reputed to have coined the now-famous phrase, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

Duranty died in 1957. Although his award-winning articles were eventually discredited, posthumous efforts to revoke his Pulitzer Prize have proved difficult. But this year -- which marks the 70th anniversary of the famine -- a campaign spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association says it is close to achieving success.

The group organized a petition campaign, with tens of thousands of people writing to the Pulitzer board and "The New York Times" demanding Duranty be stripped of his award. In response, the newspaper hired Mark von Hagen, a historian with Columbia University -- whose trustees award the Pulitzers on recommendation from the advisory board -- to investigate the Duranty case.

Von Hagen's report, issued last week, said Duranty's work showed a "serious lack of balance," was "distorted," and was a "disservice to American readers of 'The New York Times' and the peoples of the Russian and Soviet empires." Von Hagen concluded that Duranty's award "should be rescinded for the integrity of the Pulitzer Prize itself and for anybody who gets it in the future and for 'The New York Times,' too."

Catherine Mathis heads the "Times'" corporate affairs division. She says senior staff at the newspaper, including Executive Editor Bill Keller, studied the Columbia professor's report and forwarded it to the Pulitzer board asking it to decide what should be done. "What we said was that we would respect the Pulitzer committee's decision on whether to rescind the award," Mathis said.

Mathis adds that the paper has long acknowledged the controversy behind Duranty's articles, saying his framed Pulitzer citation at the "Times" offices hangs next to a notice informing visitors that other reporters at the "Times" elsewhere have discredited his coverage.

But she says the newspaper does have misgivings about whether the prize should be revoked after such a long period of time. "We asked that the [Pulitzer committee] consider two things: first, that such an action might evoke the Stalinist practice of airbrushing, purging figures out of official records and histories; and secondly, that it could be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades."

Lubomyr Luciuk, the head of research at the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, welcomed the new report on Duranty and said the campaigners sensed victory was close at hand. "We won't have achieved our objective until the Pulitzer Prize Walter Duranty won is either revoked or returned. Revoked by the Pulitzer Prize committee, [or the citation] returned by 'The New York Times' -- either course of action is welcome. Until that's done, of course, we won't have fully achieved our objectives. But the fact that 'The New York Times' would have been informed by an independent historian that Walter Duranty was a liar before, during and after the genocidal great famine of 1932 to 1933 -- and that that fact has been communicated to the international media -- is of course a welcome and positive and [a] supportive development for our campaign."

Luciuk dismissed the suggestion that posthumously stripping Duranty of his prize was akin to the Soviet practice of removing all traces of officials who had fallen from grace. "No one wants to airbrush Walter Duranty from history -- we are not Soviets. We want Walter Duranty to be remembered precisely for what he was -- Stalin's apologist, a shill for the Soviets, a man who knowingly covered up the mass murder of many millions of Ukrainians during one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century, namely the great famine of 1932 to 1933 in Soviet Ukraine."

Pulitzer Board spokesman Sig Gissler would not confirm whether the Duranty issue will be on the committee's agenda when it holds its next biannual meeting in November. But he says the question of revoking Duranty's prize had in previous years been discussed and dismissed because the prize represents not an assessment of the writer's entire body of work or character, but a specific set of articles. "The articles which won the Pulitzer Prize were written in 1931 for the prize in 1932 -- 13 specific articles -- and this was before the famine occurred in Ukraine."

Gissler says he does not know when the Pulitzer committee will issue a final verdict on the Duranty case, saying the committee will first look at "all aspects and ramifications" of the issue.

Luciuk, who spearheaded the move to revoke Duranty's award, says regardless of the Pulitzer committee's final decision, the campaign has already scored a victory in bringing information about the famine, or "holodomor" in Ukrainian, to a far wider audience than ever before. "We have attempted with this campaign to [commemorate] the memory of the many millions of victims of this great catastrophe, this man-made 'holodomor.' And we have been able to achieve that with this Duranty campaign, which is a very positive development. Often people have ignored or have forgotten about this genocide. I think we've brought it back to international attention."

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives (lower house of the U.S. Congress) adopted a resolution "commemorating and honoring the memory of victims of an abominable act perpetrated against the people of Ukraine in 1932-33." The resolution goes on to say that "millions of men, women and children were murdered by starvation so that one man, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, could consolidate control over Ukraine." It also calls the Western denial of the famine a shameful chapter in history, and condemns Walter Duranty for deliberately covering up the tragedy.

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