by Victor Rud, New York, USA
How can Russia, a single country, so easily pin Western democracy against the ropes? We could do worse than to ponder the lessons from our diplomatic recognition of the USSR, on November 16, 1933. It was affected by an exchange of letters between President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Foreign Affairs Commissar Maxim Litvinov. Among other matters, Moscow committed “to refrain from . . . any act overt or covert liable in any way whatsoever to injure the tranquility, prosperity, order, or security of the whole or any part of the United States, in particular any agitation or propaganda. ” But the reset of the century was materially tied to a covert bargain between the Kremlin and The New York Times, a massive genocide, and the ensuing manipulation of the American electorate. Today, the repercussions loom globally and domestically.
Establishment of normal relations with a grossly abnormal regime would seem to have been a monumental strategic blunder. The invitee, after all, had anointed itself the vanguard of a global war to destroy the host of the diplomatic soiree. It was a seeming blunder because we regarded ourselves honored to extend the honor, President Roosevelt addressing the genocidaire as “Your Excellency.” And it was a seeming blunder because by de facto legitimizing the Stalinist regime we became a player, no matter how attenuated, of the Kremlin’s concurrent starvation politics in Ukraine, breaking that nation’s resistance to Soviet Russian rule. Food became the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. The purpose, Oxford’s Professor Norman Davies wrote, “was to kill Ukrainian nationhood . . . The world has seen many terrible famines, many aggravated by civil war. But a famine organized as a genocidal act of state policy must be considered unique.” Not only were the borders of Ukraine blockaded, but, tellingly, so were the heavily Ukrainian populated regions of Russia itself. No people out. No food in. Millions were starved to death. Estimates begin at 4 million and rise to some 10 million, the latter being the figure furtively whispered at the time by members of the Soviet nomenklatura. “Furtively,” because uttering the word “famine” was made a capital crime.
In his May 31, 1933, report #474/106 to the Royal Embassy of Italy in Moscow, Sergio Gradenigo, Italy’s Royal Consul in Kharkiv, Ukraine, wrote that the starvation was engineered “to dispose of the Ukrainian problem.” Gradenigo quoted a top officer of the GPU secret police who laconically explained that the purpose was to “change the “ethnographic materials” of Ukraine” by massively resettling Russians into a “cleansed” Ukraine. (Note–“ethnographic materials.” Hitler soon afterward implemented that same dehumanization, however preferring untermenschen [sub-humans].) Raphael Lemkin, father of the UN Genocide Convention, vehemently condemned as classic genocide the resulting necropolis and destruction of Ukraine’s national ethos.
For Western democracies, the strategic consequences of US recognition were monumental. It was a free pass for the USSR’s membership in the League of Nations, the League hurriedly dismissing the Ukrainian horror as “a very sensitive matter.” More critically, recognition masked and facilitated Moscow’s subjugation of Ukraine, a country the size of England, Germany, Hungary and Israel combined, thereby ensuring the viability of the Soviet Union for more than half a century, with globally near calamitous results. Correspondingly, Ukraine leaving the Party in 1991 guaranteed the unravelling of that “Union.” In short, November 16, 1933, effectively rewarded the Kremlin for interring the key factor that could have stymied its capacity to shatter global peace and security. On our end, we interred 100,000 of our finest in Arlington, introduced “MAD” to our vocabulary, forced our children to “duck and cover,” and bled our treasury.
But we recognized the USSR with eyes wide shut. It’s in the last paragraph of a June 4, 1931 memo from A. W. Kliefoth in the US Embassy in Berlin to the State Department reporting on a visit by NYT’s Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty: Duranty “pointed out that ‘in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities,’ his official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet government and not his own.” This was not sophomoric naivete or even obsequiousness. It was conscious complicity. A 1988 Congressional report concluded that although Washington “had ample and timely information” about the Ukrainian genocide, the Roosevelt White House kept mum. It was a “monstrous hoax” perpetrated on the American electorate, so characterized later by Eugene Lyons of United Press International. An avid Marxist, Lyons was himself a self-confessed, bitterly contrite participant in that very hoax.
The NYT’s selection of Duranty as its foot soldier was perfect. Duranty, an Englishman, was a world celebrity, the confidant of anyone who mattered–Armand Hammer, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and Sinclair Lewis. In one of those head-shaking ironies of history, Duranty had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his “dispassionate, interpretative reporting,” whose writings were “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity,” “excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” Duranty ruled as the most famous reporter in the world. His articles in the NYT were pivotal in forming American public opinion and played a major part in shaping President Roosevelt’s policies towards the Soviet Union in the run-up to his election. On December 6, 1932, William Strang, counselor at the British Embassy in Moscow, wrote in a confidential report to the Foreign Office in London of Duranty’s eagerness that the US recognize the USSR, and that he (Duranty) had not yet “let the great American public into the secret [of Moscow’s starvation of Ukraine].” Denying the genocide as “sheer absurdity,” Duranty vehemently attacked those intent on disclosing the truth (“malignant propaganda,” as he put it). At the same time, in private discussions with Strang and United Press International, Duranty admitted to a “ghastly horror” in Ukraine, and that Ukraine “has been bled white.”
Little wonder that Duranty was the only Western correspondent allowed to accompany Litvinov on Cunard’s flagship R.M.S. Berengaria. It was timed to steam into New York harbor on November 7, 1933, the anniversary of Lenin’s putsch overthrowing the democratic Russian Provisional Government. A day later, the NYT ran Duranty’s sniff that rumors about a famine in Ukraine were “an eleventh hour-attempt to avert American recognition by picturing the Soviet Union as a land of ruin and despair.” Duranty appropriately enough wrote, “Litvinov is taking home a pretty fat turkey.”
Eight days later, the Friday night before Thanksgiving, the reset was celebrated at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. The cavernous Grand Ballroom bulged with 1500 trespassers of each other’s personal space. The waiters, shirts freshly starched, were so endearingly earnest that you couldn’t but forgive them their equally starched affectation of “Mesdames” and “Monsieurs.” No one cared, as they feted the ne plus ultra guest of honor. Pleasingly rotund, Commissar Litvinov flashed a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye as his pudgy fingers played with his cigarette holder. But he was soulless, utterly vicious to the core, and with a psychotic brilliance, his talents overkill for dealing with an adoring White House. The menu: Beluga Caviar Canapes, Coulibiac of Lake Trout, Filet de Boeuf Stroganoff, with New Green Peas and Potatoes Noisette, Autumn Salad, Rissole of Cheese, and Café Filtre. Desert was a decidedly non-proletarian Bombe Glace Chocolate Praline Wladimire Gourmandises. Litvinov (of “food is a veppon” fame) inhaled it with capitalist aplomb. We can only speculate about his amazement upon seeing one other item on the menu, Ukrainian borshch . . . right after the Russian appetizer. In short, the following week’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was out glitzed by the Waldorf’s more literal champagne float of everybody who was anybody. Business– cold hard cash– was in the hearts and on the minds of the titans of America industry. Capitalism stood up and lustily sang the Communist International. Our strategic compass, moral sovereignty and logical synapse were tossed.
A few days after the Waldorf, Duranty accompanied our first ambassador to the USSR, William Bullitt, who, upon meeting Stalin, kissed his pockmarked cheek. (Forty-six years later, on June 18, 1979, during the signing of the SALT II Treaty in Vienna, President Carter kissed Leonid Brezhnev; to no avail, as Moscow invaded Afghanistan six months later.) On Christmas Day 1933, Stalin awarded Duranty a personal interview: “You have done a good job reporting on the Soviet Union . . . because you try to tell the truth about our country.”
Harnessing Western media as the PR agency to trumpet the Kremlin line is a long refined Russian art form–all the better when the media is self-vaccinating. The jury is still out on the metes and bounds of Facebook, Google, and other social media’s role in catalyzing our national feeding frenzy and, indeed, Europe’s as well. But the outlines are there. Soon to be five years ago, Stalin’s legatee picked up the baton in the Kremlin’s drive, as Italian Consul Gradenigo warned, to “make Ukraine a part of Russia.” The largest country in the world invaded the largest country in Europe, having earlier surrendered its nuclear arsenal, placing its trust in the West. Yet for years the world press has remained hardwired to a sedulous silence. And Western pusillanimity continues to provoke Russia’s deconstruction of Western democracy. Societal and political cohesion is dissolving, both in the US and in Europe. On all scores, a “free press” too often becomes the psy-ops feed into the Gulag of the mind.
Feature Photo – Maxim Litvinov Russian ambassador to the United States, addresses luncheon in observance of second anniversary of lend-lease at the Hotel Statler, Wikimedia Commons, 2018