(Updated July 30, 2020)
“So I began, and the words seemed to come of themselves; like lying as a child, or as a faithless lover; words pouring out of one in a circumstantially false explanation of some suspicious circumstance. The more glib, the greater the guilt…it is painful to me now to reflect the ease with which I got into the way of using this non-language; these drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed. I am more penitent for my false words – for the most part, mercifully lost forever in the Media’s great slag-heaps – than for false deeds.”
Thus writes Malcolm Muggeridge, in his first volume of memoirs, Chronicles of a Wasted Time. It’s a strange utterance, coming from what surely was the Golden Era of correspondents, when they were well paid and respected, and Twitter didn’t exist. All the same, one must keep in mind that Muggeridge, who passed away in 1990 at the age of 87, spent a great deal of the interwar years in the Soviet Union.
The way he and others saw it, the worst thing about the Soviet Union wasn’t the regime, the terror and dictatorship. The worst thing were the fellow travelers, those with no skin in the game, who saw the Soviet people as fit to be experimented with for the benefit of mankind. It’s a good thing that Muggeridge never read a book I recently bought, written by a Spanish Republican who traveled through Moscow and other parts of the Soviet empire in the 1920s. Commenting on the reports about persecution of Christianity and other religions, he finds them a complete nonsense: why, he has a church right in front of his hotel balcony in plain view of all the distinguished visitors, open all day with people coming in and out. So lucky, that fellow traveler.
Muggeridge did come across some of the most remarkable foreign apologists of the Soviet Union, including the best of them all: Walter Duranty.
At the time, Duranty was the New York Times correspondent in Soviet Russia. Much liked by Stalin, he invented the shorthand “Kremlin” to refer to the state apparatus. For years, he dedicated himself to extol the virtues of Soviet Socialism, and to compare that with the decadence and troubles of the capitalist world, in particular after the 1929 crisis.
An avowed admirer of both Lenin and Stalin, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for a set of stories written in 1931 about how great everything in Stalin’s Russia was, and went on to dismiss other people’s reports of the Stalinist Terror, and to explain that the Ukrainian Holocaust was “a big scare story”–undermining in 1933 the claims made by the only person to report in English, in his own name, about the Ukrainian famine, Gareth Jones.
Duranty wrote there “was no actual starvation” but “widespread mortality” due to malnutrition, echoing the party line. Jones, he wrote, was engaged in “an eleventh-hour attempt to avert American recognition by picturing the Soviet Union as a land of ruin and despair.” He knew the truth perfectly, however, just like anybody else in Moscow (everyone else also strived to suppress the news reported by Jones, to be allowed to keep working in Moscow). The story is told in Tim Snyder’s classic, best-selling book Bloodlands, so it’s hardly a secret.
The only other person to write about the Ukrainian famine in English (Ukrainian exiles wrote in Russian) in 1933 was Muggeridge, who wrote anonymously. His own paper, the Guardian, rejected the pieces he sent undercover from Ukraine, as he narrates in the first part of his memoirs.
Duranty saw nothing wrong when Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was turned also in 1933 into a Potemkin village for the former French Prime Minister Herriot. The correspondent, who knew Francis Delano Roosevelt personally, helped convince the new US President to establish diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union that very year, even as Ukrainians were still eating each other as per Stalin’s plan. When the Soviet foreign affairs minister Litvinov flew to Washington to seal the deal, Duranty was the only correspondent in the plane; and weeks later, in December 1933, Stalin gave Duranty an exclusive interview.
In 2003, the Pulitzer board decided against stripping such defender of truth of his Pulitzer, saying there was “no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception” in his reporting.
Walter Duranty’s adventures are multiple and, for those so inclined, many others are described in “Stalin’s Apologist,” his biography by S.J. Taylor.
Duranty had a wooden leg after a train accident in France, drank heavily and was a known womanizer with a permanent mistress in Moscow and a wife in Paris. But my favorite Duranty connection is one that I read about recently: that he was a personal friend of Armand Hammer, the robber financier after whom Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum is named, and wrote a foreword for Hammer’s only book. Hammer’s own muckracking biography was published in 1996 by Edward Jay Epstein, and called Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer; it shows how Hammer had a particular set of characteristics never seen before or since in a single person: corrupt Communist capitalist, white-collar criminal and Soviet spy.
Fortune Magazine ran a story about Dossier in 1996 under the headline “Tinker, Traitor, Satyr,” which really gives you a flavor of the person. Alan Farnham, who wrote the Fortune story, reminisces with some surprise the peans old fucker Hammer received upon his death:
Gee, and he seemed like such a nice old man. When Dr. Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, died nearly six years ago at the age of 92, obituary writers praised him as a tireless servant of East-West peace, a corporate statesman, an art collector, a humanitarian. When he wasn’t kissing babies, it seemed, he was dedicating bridges. Sure, a few sorehead investors complained about his gallivanting around the world at their expense aboard Oxy’s caviar-laden jet. But what chairman doesn’t have his critics?
He then goes on to summarize some of the best tidbits in Epstein’s book. This is good:
His father, physician Julius Hammer, held the first membership card in the U.S. Communist Labor Party and was praised by Lenin’s lieutenants as a “convinced” communist and “sincere” comrade. His eldest son’s name was a homage to communism. (arm and hammer: get it?)
This is better:
Lenin proposed a deal: Hammer would become a Russian government conces-sionaire, through whom capitalists would have to go to sell certain commodities. If Hammer induced U.S. companies to trade, not only would he be serving Russia, but the commissions would make him rich as well. Abandoning the practice of medicine, Hammer set to work. He brokered a wide variety of deals–in one case earning Russian hard currency by finding U.S. buyers for what he called the “Romanov treasure.” (In fact, it was mostly junk taken from the lost-and-found lockers of Moscow hotels.) With each deal, he helped prop up communism and progressed a little further on his own peculiar way to wealth.
This is even better:
The Hammer technique worked just as well with other governments, including Washington, which, during World War II, granted him an exclusive franchise to manufacture booze for domestic consumption. But his greatest windfall came from Libya. By 1956, Hammer had acquired a small California oil company with sales of only $30,000 a year–Occidental Petroleum. What he needed to catapult it to the big time was exclusive access to a huge pool of oil. Libya had one, but Oxy appeared to have little chance of outbidding the Seven Sisters–the cartel that controlled middle eastern and Latin American oil production. The Sisters hadn’t reckoned with the Doc. In no time, Hammer bestowed finely targeted bribes to Libyan officials and, more important, found a sweetener guaranteed to win favor from Libya’s King: Oxy offered to drill wells to bring water to the monarch’s parched ancestral village. It was a ploy Hammer would use often –first paying bribes, then giving the bribed officials a fig leaf: It was the Doctor’s humanitarianism that had swayed their decision, Oxy could insist. (1)
Such were Duranty’s friends. One remembers a 1941 internal KGB summary report that broke down the occupations of Americans working for the spy agency in the prior decade. Twenty-two were journalists, a profession outnumbered only by engineers (forty-nine), and ahead of economists (four) and professors (eight).
- Hammer didn’t work alone. He had friends too. One such terrible friend was Harvey Klehr, whose infamous career is helpfully summarized here.