GEORGE ORWELL famously declared that there are some things so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them. He was speaking of the dozens of Western apologists for the Stalinist regime during a period when famine and pogroms were tearing Soviet society apart. George Bernard Shaw was one, mocking the notion of widespread starvation on the basis that he had recently dined in Moscow as well as he had ever dined in his life. Doris Lessing has admitted that she, too, was duped by the power and sophistication of Stalin’s propaganda machine.
Another was the journalist Walter Duranty, whose reports from Russia earned him a Pulitzer Prize. His extraordinary story was told in
But They Are Only Russians (Radio 4, Friday), alongside that of his fellow journalist Gareth Jones — one of the few who dared to report the truth, and who received a bullet in the head from a Soviet secret agent.
Duranty seems to have been a seasoned fibber, claiming that he lost his leg in the Great War, when in fact it was a train accident. But the lies he told for Uncle Joe went above and beyond: of the famine that took an estimated ten million lives, he wrote: “There is no starvation, let alone deaths from starvation.”
What prompted such misrepresentation is a subject of debate, but it is possible that Duranty’s penchant for beautiful women was something to do with it. (In a telling aside, one of the interviewees suggested that English and American reporters were particularly vulnerable to the honey-trap, whereas the French would ask for copies of the incriminating photos in order to show off to their wives.)
John Sweeney’s documentary went on to reflect on the parallels with modern-day Russia. While young Russians know little of the privations of the Stalinist era — rather being encouraged to revere the dictator as a strongman of Russia — Vladimir Putin appears to be adopting a similar tactic to that of the predecessor he admires.
Journalists are invited to respect Putin’s learning, his cultural sensitivities, and his courage. Although these signals may sometimes strike us as absurd, there are games being played here that have clearly been effective — at least, until recently. Duranty’s example may be extreme, but many of us share with him that willingness to be seduced by power.
Someone confident enough to try the opposite — to seduce power — was Paul Johnson, whose Desert Island Discs (Radio 4, Sunday) was a typically bracing experience. Admittedly, Margaret Thatcher was not the figure of authority that she grew to be when Johnson asked her out on a date; but history may have been somewhat different if she had not turned him down.
The encounter with Kirsty Young was full of anecdotes. I imagine the one about his giving Mrs Thatcher — now Prime Minister — a three-point manifesto for successful government, and then having it regaled back to him two years later as if it were her own invention, is a story that has done the rounds, but is no less entertaining for that.
More revealing, perhaps, is his fond recollection of the saying of mass at school. The elevation of the host was marked by the presentation of arms by the school army corps. “They don’t do religion like that any more,” was his nostalgic comment.