The Telegraph reports:
A long-dead apologist for Stalin and one of the most notorious foreign correspondents in American history is to keep his Pulitzer Prize despite calls for the award to be revoked.
The board that administers the most prestigious awards in American journalism said Walter Duranty would keep the 1932 prize but admitted that his work fell far short of "today's standards for foreign reporting".
I'm not sure that Duranty's apologetics are that far short of today's standards of foreign reporting - in which the bombers of Jerusalem buses are habitually referred to as 'militants' while their apologists are called 'peace activists' - but it's true that Duranty's journalism is now notorious, and for that we should be thankful. Nonetheless, and though it grates to say it, the Pulitzer Prize board has probably made the right decision (and not only because the noun from which 'prestigious' derives is not 'prestige' but 'prestidigitation', or sleight-of-hand). Duranty was a scoundrel but he was also a product of his time. His reports had a receptive audience, and we rewrite the history of the 1930s if we suppose that we may exculpate that generation by blaming the messenger of shameless lies. He was guilty of falsification, and his audience was guilty of wilful obtuseness in believing him.
I am reminded of this dismal episode by a recent book, Free Radical: New Century Essays (Continuum, 2003) - a self-congratulatory title for a collection of columns by former Labour minister Tony Benn in the Communist daily Morning Star. Benn's column for 12 April 2001 (on page 5 of the book) is entitled - really - 'A tribute to British Communists'. It includes the following observation:
It is true that the British party made a mistake in 1939 when it opposed the British declaration of war against Germany and only changed its policy when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. But the charge that it uncritically supported all the excesses during the Stalinist period conveniently ignores the fact that those excesses were not widely known, even in the Soviet Union, until Khrus[h]chev's famous speech which disclosed them.
It's difficult to credit, but some people regard Benn as a man of principle if occasional eccentricity. That passage ought to disabuse them of the notion. Walter Duranty was a man of pellucid integrity in comparison.
The Communist Party of Great Britain didn't merely 'oppose the British declaration of war', as if it were a Norman Thomas-style group of pacifists: it supported the Nazi-Soviet pact. It assuredly did 'uncritically support' the - excuse me while I handle gingerly this disgusting Orwellian euphemism - 'excesses' of Soviet rule in the 1930s: the Moscow Trials, the destruction of the kulaks, the Great Terror, the Gulag. That's what democratic centralism entails: the unquestioning public support of the centrally-determined line. That's what the party's ideologist, R. Palme Dutt did without qualm or scruple. To suggest that the truth was unknown in the west till Khrushchev's secret speech 'conveniently ignores the fact' that every reader of the Reader's Digest was familiar in the 1930s with the reality of Soviet tyranny. I have in front of me a recent imprint of the memoir of the Soviet defector and former spy Walter Krivitsky. In it, Krivitsky clinically details Stalin's brutality and mendacity with such observations (page 164) as:
Some of those who confessed [in the Moscow Trials] to the plotting of Kirov's death had been in solitary confinement for several years before his assassination.
Krivitsky's work was not hidden away in some secret archive awaiting discovery by Soviet specialists a generation later. It was published in regular instalments in 1939 in the Saturday Evening Post.
Is it not astonishing that Benn can write such evasive and arrant nonsense about the history of Soviet tyranny and its apologists in the west? Or does he perhaps have a congenital inability to utter harsh judgements about dictators?