Ethics & Public Policy Center

Liars Go to Hell

Published in First Things on July 23, 2020


Writing in the Los Angeles Times three decades ago, the author S. J. Taylor claimed that “the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 remains the greatest man-made disaster ever recorded, exceeding in scale even the Jewish Holocaust of the next decade.” Though Ukraine was a fertile region, food simply disappeared during the famine. People waited for days in line for bread. Bodies rotted in the streets. Orphaned children cannibalized the dead.

The Ukrainian Famine, or Holodomor, was a Soviet-enforced mass starvation of Ukraine’s peasants, a deliberate campaign to secure their grain for foreign currency and break resistance to agrarian collectivization. The Third Reich murdered roughly six million Jews in the Shoah as an act of pure race hatred. In contrast, the Holodomor killed a “mere” three million. But as Taylor notes, the Holodomor was simply one part of a much larger Soviet starvation policy applied simultaneously to the peasantry across the northern Caucasus and Kazakhstan. It left nearly ten million dead, dwarfing any previous or subsequent genocide. In Ukraine alone, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, deaths by starvation exceeded 25,000 per day.

Taylor’s 1990 article was timed to the release of Stalin’s Apologist, her withering biography of journalist Walter Duranty. A Pulitzer Prize winner, celebrated political analyst, and Moscow correspondent for the New York Times during the 1930s, Duranty interviewed Stalin twice. He also played a significant role in securing American diplomatic recognition for the Soviet regime. Less publicly, he was a prodigious womanizer, longtime opium buddy of Satanist Aleister Crowley, compulsive exploiter of friends, a spendthrift, occasional drunk, and an inventive, always-reliable flack for the Soviet regime.

One of Duranty’s lifelong memories involved his religious grandmother who, after catching the adolescent Duranty in a lie, had warned him that “liars go to hell.” He never forgot or forgave the correction. As an adult, he simply erased all family ties and falsely claimed in his autobiography that he’d been orphaned at age ten. Massaging the truth became one of his core skills. Brilliant, engaging, and widely respected at the time, he was, in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, who also reported from Moscow and saw Duranty in action, “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism.”

Committed to protecting his own influence and to a future “greater good” promised by the Soviet regime, Duranty at first dismissed rumors of the Ukrainian Famine. Then he downplayed them. Then he claimed that Ukraine’s “food shortages” were the result of local mismanagement and the work of “wreckers” and “spoilers” intent on undermining Soviet progress. He repeatedly denied the mass starvation in his reporting. But he did suggest that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” . . . especially when the omelet is the task of modernization, and the cooks are tough-minded Bolsheviks intent on a better tomorrow.

As Taylor notes in her book, Western powers struggling with the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler in Germany had little interest in rumors from Ukraine that might antagonize Stalin as a potential ally. Muggeridge had arrived in Russia in 1932 to string for the Manchester Guardian. A convinced socialist at the time, he intended to stay in Russia and renounce his British passport for Soviet citizenship. Reality interfered. By March 1933, he was reporting on Ukraine’s famine as “one of the most monstrous crimes in history,” and his disillusionment with the Soviet paradise was complete. But back in England, thanks in part to Duranty’s counter-reporting and Soviet propaganda, Muggeridge’s work was dismissed as “a hysterical tirade.” Muggeridge himself was slandered, vilified, and unable to find employment. And that might have buried the Holodomor story successfully, except for one man.

Welshman Gareth Jones was a young Russian Studies graduate of Cambridge and a former secretary to British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Stringing for the same Manchester Guardian as Muggeridge, he eluded Soviet press controls and spent three weeks on his own, walking through the hellish conditions of a starvation-ravaged Ukraine. Then he wrote about it in the spring of 1933, confirming and compounding the impact of Muggeridge’s recent work. Walter Duranty led the ferocious, Soviet-prodded attack on Jones’s credibility. He also bullied most other Moscow-based Western journalists—to their enduring disgrace—into doing the same, lest they lose their visas. Jones, however, had a spine. He did not back off. He continued writing and speaking about the famine in Ukraine with lasting effect, until his death under suspicious circumstances two years later.

All of which is interesting history. But why return to it now?

Last month, on June 19, Samuel Goldwyn Films released to an American audience the British/Polish/Ukrainian production Mr. Jonesloosely based on the story of Gareth Jones and his coverage of the Holodomor. The words “must see” are grotesquely overused in movie reviews, but in this case, they are apt. From a compelling James Norton in the title role, to the superb period atmosphere created by Andrea Chalupa (writer) and Agnieszka Holland (director), to a brilliant, understated performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty, Mr. Jones is a riveting experience. And a relevant one. At a time when lying, bullying, and violence seem to be making a comeback in the vestments of progress, equality, and justice, Mr. Jones is a useful lesson in consequences. It’s an opportunity to watch and learn.

The ghost of Walter Duranty (d. 1957), by the way, still has his Pulitzer. It’s an obscenity that warriors of the cancel culture may want to address.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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