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A Tale of Truth and Two Journalists

by Ian Hunter 

Report Magazine,  March 27, 2000 


It is hard to credit that a decade has slipped away since the death of Malcolm Muggeridge on November 14, 1990. The most compellingly readable of journalists, hardly a day goes by that I do not recall one of Muggeridge's insights or marvel afresh at his prophetic vision. 

Muggeridge's journalistic integrity was shaped by one searing experience; in 1932 he went to Moscow as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Joseph Stalin's twin manias - collectivization of agriculture and dekulakization of peasants - were then at their bloodthirsty zenith, but few Westerners could have guessed it from the sycophantic foreign reporting. 

The Dean of the Moscow press corps was Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Joseph Alsop would later say of him: "Lying was Duranty's stock in trade." 

For two decades Duranty was the most influential foreign correspondent in Russia. His dispatches were regarded as authoritative; indeed Duranty helped to shape U.S. foreign policy. His biographer, Susan Taylor (Stalin's Apologist, Oxford University Press, 1990) has demonstrated that Duranty's reporting was   critical factor in President Roosevelt's decision in 1933 to grant official recognition to the Soviet Union. 

Duranty, an unattractive, oversexed little man, with a wooden leg, falsified facts, spread lies and half truths, invented occurrences that never happened, and turned a blind eye to the man-made famine that starved to death more than 14 million people (according to an International Commission of Jurists which examined this  tragedy in 1988-90). When snippets of the truth began to leak out, Duranty coined the phrase: "You can't   make an omelette without breaking eggs". This phrase, or a variant thereof, has since proved useful to a rich variety of ideologues who contend that a worthy end justifies base means. Yet when the Pulitzer committee conferred its prize on Duranty (in 1932, at the height of the famine) they cited his "scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity." 

One story that circulated among Moscow correspondents trying to explain Duranty was that he was    necrophiliac; in exchange for favourable reporting, the Soviet authorities may have allowed him unsupervised night access to the city morgues. Whether true or not (and Duranty's biographer, Susan Taylor, leaves this question open), certain it is that the regime had some sort of hold on Duranty; they showered benefits on him, - a fancy apartment, an automobile, and fresh caviar daily. 

Enter Malcolm Muggeridge. In the spring of 1933 Muggeridge did an audacious thing; without permission he set off on a train journey through what had formerly been the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine and North Caucusus. What Muggeridge witnessed, he never forgot. In a series of articles smuggled  out in the diplomatic pouch, he described a man-made famine that had become a holocaust: peasants, millions of them, dying like famished cattle, sometimes within sight of full granaries, guarded by the army an  police. "At a railway station early one morning, I saw a line of people with their hands tied behind them, being herded into cattle trucks at gunpoint - all so silent and mysterious and horrible in the half light, like some macabre ballet." At a German co-operative farm, an oasis of prosperity in the collectivized wilderness   he saw peasants kneeling down in the snow, begging for a crust of bread. In his Diary, Muggeridge wrote: "Whatever else I may do or think in the future, I must never pretend that I haven't seen this. Ideas will come and go; but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow and asking for bread. Something that I have seen and understood." 

But few believed him. His dispatches were cut. He was sacked by the Guardian and forced to leave Russia. Muggeridge was vilified, slandered and abused, not least in the pages of the Manchester Guardian, where sympathy to what was called "the great Soviet experiment" was de rigour. Walter Duranty's voice led the chorus of denunciation and denial, although privately Duranty told a British foreign office acquaintance that at least 10 million people had been starved to death - adding, characteristically, "but they're only Russians." 

Beatrice Webb (Muggeridge's aunt by marriage) admitted that "In the Soviet Union, people disappear," but she still denounced Muggeridge's famine reports as "base lies". The Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury, applauded Stalin's "steady purpose and kindly generosity." George Bernard Shaw made a whirlwind tour and pronounced himself fully satisfied that there was ample food for all in the worker's paradise. 

If vindication was a long time coming, it cannot have been sweeter than when Duranty's biographer, Susan Taylor, wrote in 1990: "But for Muggeridge's eyewitness accounts of the famine in the spring of 1933 and his stubborn chronicle of the event, the effects of the crime upon those who suffered might well have remained as hidden from scrutiny as its perpetrators intended. Little thanks he has received for it over the years, although there is a growing number who realize what a singular act of honest and courage his reportage constituted." 

Alas, when these words came to be written, Muggeridge had died. Still, they are worth remembering. 


Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario and was the first biographer of Malcolm Muggeridge.
Permission to reprint this article has been granted by editorial board of the Report Magazine.

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