Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times correspondent, is long dead. However, Duranty has not been forgotten, because there is an ongoing battle over his 20th century work — in a 21st century ideological war.
Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting in the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist right wing has not forgotten this. They continue to make efforts to have his prize posthumously revoked.
The John Birch Society, white supremacist David Duke, and prominent figures in the Republican Party have all rallied around the call for Duranty’s prize to be revoked. They call Duranty a “communist propagandist” and “Stalin apologist.”
Yet, when one looks over Duranty’s writings, they just don’t sound like communist propaganda. Duranty calls Stalin an “imperial dictator” and a “czar,” comparing him to Ivan the Terrible. He describes Soviet society as “supreme autocracy of the imperial idea.”
Duranty’s writings reek of anti-communism and contempt for Marxism-Leninism. One of Duranty’s articles for which he won a Pulitzer proclaims: “Russia has transformed Marxism—which was only a theory anyway—to suit its racial needs and characteristics, which are strange and peculiar, and fundamentally more Asiatic than European.”
The Pulitzer Committee has refused to revoke Duranty’s 1932 award, because no evidence has yet been provided that Duranty lied about anything. In his reporting, amid his racist and anti-Soviet editorializing, he accurately described what he observed in Moscow and other parts of the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of the First World War, and a lengthy period of civil war, the USSR emerged to become a world power in a very short period of time.
From 1928 to 1936, the Soviet Union underwent the most rapid industrial development in history. The USSR went from being an impoverished agrarian society to being an economic powerhouse. The world’s largest hydroelectric power plant, the Dnieper Dam, was constructed in Ukraine, and it lit up the formerly barren countryside. The Soviet Union produced more tractors than any other country on earth. Soviet mills produced record amounts of steel.
The Communist Party tightly mobilized the country to engage in a program of rapid construction called “Five Year Plans.” Every Soviet citizen was employed in these efforts. Soviet peasants who had lived in huts soon found themselves living in modern apartment buildings with electricity and running water. An educational system was created, and illiteracy was wiped out. Soviet cities soon had huge skyscrapers, and Soviet universities were known worldwide for their achievements in the arts and sciences.
The grievance of the Ukrainian ultra-rightists, David Duke, and the John Birch Society is that Duranty’s reporting was not biased and anti-communist enough. His writings, despite their contempt for the Soviet Union and its leadership, do not deny the huge economic gains for the population and do not make extreme accusations about genocide. This is deemed to be unacceptable.
The book “Bloodlands” by Dr. Timothy Snyder has been very widely promoted throughout the US. It is a non-fiction bestseller, and speeches by Snyder have been featured on C-Span and viewed by millions throughout the US. Snyder’s book goes to great lengths to make the case that the Soviet Union was more reprehensible and repressive than Nazi Germany.
The problem with the book is that much of the information within it is not true. The new book “Bloodlies,” written by Dr. Grover Furr of Montclair State University, documents how much of Snyder’s scholarship is dripping with dishonesty.
Furr documents how Snyder’s citations are often “bluffs.” Snyder cites sources and documents that do not say anything near what he cites them for, assuming no one will take the time to check. For example, Snyder claims that women were “routinely raped” by Soviet officials in the Ukrainian countryside. His citation does not show this at all, but rather documents one single instance of rape — in which the rapists were prosecuted and imprisoned for their crime.
Furr shows that Snyder blatantly distorts quotations to make Soviet officials look as if they were anti-semitic or racist. One part of Snyder’s work relies heavily on the writings of a Nazi sympathizer (this bias is not revealed to his readers).
Snyder openly condemns people for celebrating Soviet anti-Nazi partisan fighters, saying that defending the USSR was somehow morally equivalent to fighting for Nazi Germany. Snyder is not an obscure academic, and in recent months, since the rising conflict in Ukraine, he has been prominently featured in the media as a Ukraine expert.
The effort to demonize Walter Duranty and revoke his Pulitzer Prize on the one hand, while publicizing the work of Timothy Snyder on the other, serves to construct a historical narrative.
Fascism in the 21st Century
The rank-and-file members of the Euromaidan movement that toppled the elected government of Ukraine were neo-Nazis. Organizations like the Right Sector, whose members openly wear swastikas and praise Adolf Hitler, played a key role in the Kiev coup that ultimately brought Petro Poroshenko into power.
These neo-Nazis burned men, women, and children alive in Odessa’s Trade Unions House. The monstrous and murderous rage of the Ukrainian “ultra-nationalist” right-wing has shocked the world, just like the actions of their idols in the Third Reich once did.
How can it be justified to support such elements? How can the United States and its NATO allies claim moral high ground in Ukraine, as they align with and fund murdering neo-Nazi thugs?
In order to justify the current policies of NATO and the United States in Ukraine, history must be re-written. The Soviet Union must be portrayed as worse than Nazi Germany so that the actions and words of western-aligned forces seem more reasonable.
The problem is, whatever flaws existed in Soviet society, equating it with Nazism is extremely difficult. There simply were no death camps or homicidal gas chambers in the Soviet Union. There were convict labor camps, but the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the “gulags” survived, and returned to society once their sentence had been completed.
While Nazi Germany pushed an ideology based on racism and pseudoscience, the Soviet Union outlawed the preaching of hatred on the basis of race or nationality. The Soviet Union promoted the languages and cultures of formerly oppressed nationalities throughout the USSR.
The Soviet Union was so devoted to anti-racism that it promoted the cause of civil rights on the other side of the planet, in the United States. The Soviet Union worked to free the Scottsboro Nine, a group of young African-American men falsely accused of rape in the “Jim Crow” south. The Soviet Union highlighted the horrors of lynching and segregation — making them well known around the world — and promoted US anti-racist activists like Langston Hughes, Harry Haywood, Angelo Herndon, and Paul Robeson.
The Soviet Union was not the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany, by any stretch of the imagination. Despite such claims being irrational, they serve a particular need for the forces who dominate the world economy.
It is not only in Ukraine that the US promoted fascists and Nazis. Spanish fascist Francisco Franco was embraced by the United States after the Second World War. The early years of the US Central Intelligence Agency involved close collaboration with former members of Hitler’s SS. The FBI has worked closely with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, in one instance assassinating five Communists in Greensboro, North Carolina. It has been revealed that neo-Nazi radio host Hal Turner received millions of dollars from the FBI.
Implications Beyond Ukraine
The effort to rewrite the history of the 1930s and 40s serves a purpose even beyond the current situation in Ukraine.
In the current period, neoliberal western capitalism is on the defensive. Russia and China are emerging as big players in the global markets. Latin America is in revolt, with the Bolivarian countries reshaping themselves economically and proclaiming the goal of socialism. All around the world, countries like Iran, Syria, Cuba, People’s Korea, and Zimbabwe are openly defying the rule of the western billionaires, breaking out of the “new world order” proclaimed at the end of the Cold War.
With poverty and austerity rising all throughout the western world, the defenders of western neoliberal capitalism can’t present their system as paradise. They are reduced to saying, “Sure, our system has problems, but it’s the best thing out there. It’s better than the alternative.”
The reality of what occurred during the USSR’s Five Year Plans contradicts the neoliberal narrative entirely. The economic transformation of Soviet society was an unprecedented miracle. The “five year plan” methods were later used to industrialize China, laying the basis for it to become the world economic power it is today.
Arab Nationalists, Latin American Socialists, and other anti-imperialists all studied and sought to learn from the Soviet Union’s methods of economic planning. The much admired Cuban healthcare system is part of the economic model inspired and aided by the Soviet Union.
What happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s was proof that western neoliberal capitalism isn’t “the way things have to be.” The rapid transformation of the USSR, despite the flaws and errors, proved that “human nature” does not require free markets, poverty, and exploitation.
The rewriting of Soviet history is part of an ideological offensive against the forces challenging western hegemony. This effort also includes calling Bolivarian Venezuela a “brutal dictatorship” despite evidence to the contrary, the extreme lengths taken to mock and demonize Kim Jong-un, or the whipping up of hateful hysteria about Iran’s peaceful nuclear energy program.
All of this is noise, designed to conceal the uncomfortable reality: economic development is indeed possible outside of western domination.
The crushing poverty created by IMF loans and the World Trade Organization is not the only possible road to raising the living standards. Breaking out of that system is not a hopeless endeavor.
This is becoming more well known around the world every day, and its knowledge spells the end of Wall Street’s power.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.