Eugene Lyons was born in Uzlyany on 1st July, 1898. His parents were Jewish and as a child the family emigrated to the United States and they settled in New York City. He later wrote: "On the East Side of New York, where I grew up, we knew hardship and fear in their less romantic guises. Our streets teemed with crowded, chaotic life like the underside of a moss-grown, stone. Our tenements were odoriferous garbage heaps where the same over-abundant life proliferated. We knew coarseness, vermin, want, so intimately that they became routine commonplaces. The affluence, the ease, the glimpse of ordered beauty were distant and unreal, like stories in books. Only the ugliness and sweat and unrelenting tussle were close and terribly familiar... We were caught and tangled in a mass of people for the most part resigned to their fate, sodden with hopelessness, and in a stupor of physical exhaustion. For the average boy it was easier to burrow deeper into the heap, taking the aroma and the drabness of the East Side into his soul, than to attempt the Gargantuan job of escaping. The Americanism that he acquired and dragged into the writhing heap was the loud, vulgar, surface - the slang, the sporting page, the crude success ideals of the movies and yellow journals - and nothing of the grandeur at the core of America."
Eugene's father was active in the Socialist Party of America and as a child he attended a Socialist Sunday School on East Broadway and as a teenager was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League "where we debated weighty questions and took courses in Marx and Spencer and distributed leaflets for socialist candidates without the slightest hope of their election."
In 1916, Lyons enrolled in the College of the City of New York before transferring to Columbia University the next year. His parents made sacrifices in order that their son could escape from his harsh environment: "The sacrifice involved in sending me to high school, and then to college, rather than into the factory, practically made my eventually emergence as a physician or lawyer a duty - a very onerous duty. The fact that neither calling stirred me to enthusiasm made me feel a good deal of an ingrate towards my parents and towards my elder brother, who, since the age of thirteen, had been among the sweated legions bending over sewing machines."
During the First World War Lyons was a member of the Students Army Training Corps. However, his political beliefs meant that he welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917: "Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Smolny Institute Institute, the battleship Aurora, the surrender of the Winter Palace. The Bolshevik seizure of power in the name of the Soviets seemed confirmation of a new era... We envied the men and women who lived and fought within the circles of light shed by the heroes of the triumphant class war."
Lyons was impressed by a speech he heard by Norman Thomas: "The fight against capitalists in America, the battle to restore freedom to political prisoners and conscientious objectors, were just part of the world-wide defense of the Russian Revolution". In 1918 Lyons was a supporter of those imprisoned by the Espionage Act such as Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman and Emma Goldman.
Lyons began contributing articles for left-wing newspapers. His first piece was sent to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and she published it in journal promoting the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Lyons later described Flynn as "the most brilliant woman I had ever met. A veteran of the front trenches in the labor struggle since fifteen, she was, at thirty, attractive, winsomely Irish in her wit and her savor of life, with a remarkably cool intelligence behind her fiery oratory and personality. In the Mesaba Range strike, the Paterson and Lawrence strikes, her eloquence and courage and sweetness had won her tens of thousands of worshipful friends among the workers."
Lyons' work was also published in The New York Call. In 1919 the Workers Defense Union sent him to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to cover the trial of Charles Krieger, an IWW organizer who had been accused of dynamiting the home of a Standard Oil official. While covering the case he met Fred H. Moore and Ella Reeves Bloor. In his autobiography, Assignment in Utopia (1937) Lyons pointed out: "Moore, rather sinister-looking under his broad-brimed Western hat took in my hundred-odd pounds of scrawny youthfulness, my poetic haircut, the bohemian untidiness of my clothes, in one scowling inspection. He did not trouble to hide his disgust." Moore commented: "And I thought Gurley was sending us a man!" Another helper was the writer, Lola Darroch, who later married Moore.
During the trial that lasted ten weeks, Moore and Lyons had a tip-off that a vigilante group under the control of Standard Oil, Committee of One Hundred, intended to lynch Moore and Lyons. This never happened because according to Lyons, after the trial they discovered "that we had been under the sharp-eyed protection of a little army of private gunmen, under orders to shoot down the first man who touched us." Fred Moore managed to show that Krieger was a victim of a Standard Oil frame-up and the jury found him not guilty.
On 5th May, 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested and interviewed about the murders of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, in South Braintree. The men had been killed while carrying two boxes containing the payroll of a shoe factory. After Parmenter and Berardelli were shot dead, the two robbers took the $15,000 and got into a car containing several other men, and driven away. Several eyewitnesses claimed that the robbers looked Italian. A large number of Italian immigrants were questioned but eventually the authorities decided to charge Sacco and Vanzetti with the murders. Although the two men did not have criminal records, it was argued that they had committed the robbery to acquire funds for their anarchist political campaign.
Fred H. Moore was appointed to defend the two men and Lyons agreed to carry out research for Moore. Inspired by the reporting of John Reed he approached Michael Gold, the editor of the left-wing journal, The Liberator, and he agreed to sponsor his trip to Italy to visit the homes of Sacco and Vanzetti. Lyons described Gold as "a slightly hysterical little man in baggy clothes, with inflamed eyes in a sallow, dissipated-looking face." Lyons later recalled: "Fred Moore, by the time I left for Italy, was in full command of an obscure case in Boston involving a fishmonger named Bartolomeo Vanzetti and a shoemaker named Nicola Sacco. He had given me explicit instructions to arouse all of Italy to the significance of the Massachusetts murder case, and to hunt up certain witnesses and evidence. The Italian labor movement, however, had other things to worry about. An ex-socialist named Benito Mussolini and a locust plague of blackshirts, for instance. Somehow I did get pieces about Sacco and Vanzetti into Avanti!, which Mussolini had once edited, and into one or two other papers. I even managed to stir up a few socialist onorevoles, like Deputy Mucci from Sacco's native village in Puglia, and Deputy Misiano, a Sicilian firebrand at the extreme Left. Mucci brought the Sacco-Vanzetti affair to the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, the first jet of foreign protest in what was eventually to become a pounding international flood." While in Rome he was arrested by the police and deported because it was claimed he had meetings with Soviet officials.
In 1921 Lyons returned to United States he married Eugene (Billy) and settled in Boston. The following year he became editor of Soviet Russia Pictorial, the monthly magazine of the Friends of Soviet Russia. Although he never joined the American Communist Party Lyons later admitted in his autobiography, Assignment in Utopia (1937): "Unhesitatingly, I cast my lot with the communists. I devoted the next five years largely to Soviet activities." In 1924 he was employed by TASS, the official news agency of Soviet Union.
In 1925 Celestino Madeiros, a Portuguese immigrant, confessed to being a member of the gang that killed Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli. He also named the four other men, Joe, Fred, Pasquale and Mike Morelli, who had taken part in the robbery. The Morelli brothers were well-known criminals who had carried out similar robberies in area of Massachusetts. However, the authorities refused to investigate the confession made by Madeiros.
Important figures in the United States and Europe became involved in the campaign to overturn the conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. This included John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Paul Kellog, Jane Addams, Heywood Broun, William Patterson, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Felix Frankfurter, John Howard Lawson, Freda Kirchway, Floyd Dell, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells became involved in a campaign to obtain a retrial. Although Webster Thayer, the original judge, was officially criticised for his conduct at the trial, the authorities refused to overrule the decision to execute the men.
By the summer of 1927 it became clear that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti would be executed. Vanzetti commented to a journalist: "If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, justice, for man's understanding of man, as now we do by accident. Our words - our lives - our pains - nothing! The taking of our lives - lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler - all! That last moment belong to us - that agony is our triumph. On 23rd August 1927, the day of execution, over 250,000 people took part in a silent demonstration in Boston.
Soon after the executions Lyons published his book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti (1927): "It was not a frame-up in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a far more terrible conspiracy: the almost automatic clicking of the machinery of government spelling out death for two men with the utmost serenity. No more laws were stretched or violated than in most other criminal cases. No more stool-pigeons were used. No more prosecution tricks were played. Only in this case every trick worked with a deadly precision. The rigid mechanism of legal procedure was at its most unbending. The human beings who operated the mechanism were guided by dim, vague, deep-seated motives of fear and self-interest. It was a frame-up implicit in the social structure. It was a perfect example of the functioning of class justice, in which every judge, juror, police officer, editor, governor and college president played his appointed role easily and without undue violence to his conscience. A few even played it with an exalted sense of their own patriotism and nobility."
In December 1927 Lyons became the Moscow correspondent of the United Press International. The historian, Peter G. Filene, the author of Americans and the Soviet Experiment (1967), argued that his arrival in the Soviet Union was "the culmination of his political and emotional loyalties." He soon became friends with Walter Duranty of the New York Times. He later recalled: "Among the newspapermen, Walter Duranty, a little Englishman who had been in the New York Times service since the war, reigned supreme. Urbane, clever to a fault, a scintillating talker, he remained, after all his years in Russia, detached from its life and fate, curiously contemptuous of Russians. He spoke of Soviet triumphs and travail much as he might of a murder mystery he had read, but with not half the passion or sense of personal involvement. His spoken views of the Russian scene, when the mood was upon him, would have shocked New York radicals who mistook him for a Soviet enthusiast, even as they shocked me."
Lyons also got to know William Henry Chamberlin but found his his reports in the Christian Science Monitor "exact and scholarly and passionless". He added that all the foreign correspondents based in Moscow "seemed to me so exasperatingly calm and composed in the midst of high historical drama." He added: "My dispatches in these months were consistently and ardently partisan. It was a fight to the death between capitalist and socialist elements, in which those in the capitalist trenches deserved and received no quarter from my typewriter."
Soon after arriving he reported on the the fifty-three engineers based in Shakhty who had been accused of conspiring with former owners of coal mines to sabotage the Soviet economy. On 10th March, 1928, Pravda announced that the arrests proved that the bourgeoisie were using sabotage as a method of class struggle. Five of the men were sentenced to death and another forty-four sent to prison. Lyons reported that he was convinced of their guilt.
Lyons loyalty to the Soviet government resulted in him being chosen as the first western journalist to be granted an interview with Joseph Stalin. It took place on 22nd November, 1930. Lyons claimed that: "One cannot live in the shadow of Stalin's legend without coming under its spell. My pulse, I am sure, was high. No sooner, however, had I stepped across the threshold than diffidence and nervousness fell away. Stalin met me at the door and shook hands, smiling. There was a certain shyness in his smile and the handshake was not perfunctory. He was remarkably unlike the scowling, self-important dictator of popular imagination. His every gesture was a rebuke to the thousand little bureaucrats who had inflicted their puny greatness upon me in these Russian years.... At such close range, there was not a trace of the Napoleonic quality one sees in his self-conscious camera or oil portraits. The shaggy mustache, framing a sensual mouth and a smile nearly as full of teeth as Teddy Roosevelt's, gave his swarthy face a friendly, almost benignant look."
Sally J. Taylor, the author of Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990) has argued: "In referring to the rumours of his assassination emanating from Riga, Stalin told Lyons he felt sorry for the foreign correspondents who were forced to produce false reports in order to suit the political whims of their capitalist employers.... Before Lyons left, Stalin ordered tea and sandwiches for him and provided him with a room in which to type his dispatch... The story turned out to be a sorry piece of work, the heavy-handed propaganda of an obvious sycophant."
On 31st March, 1933, The Evening Standard carried a report by Gareth Jones: "The main result of the Five Year Plan has been the tragic ruin of Russian agriculture. This ruin I saw in its grim reality. I tramped through a number of villages in the snow of March. I saw children with swollen bellies. I slept in peasants’ huts, sometimes nine of us in one room. I talked to every peasant I met, and the general conclusion I draw is that the present state of Russian agriculture is already catastrophic but that in a year’s time its condition will have worsened tenfold... The Five-Year Plan has built many fine factories. But it is bread that makes factory wheels go round, and the Five-Year Plan has destroyed the bread-supplier of Russia."
Eugene Lyons pointed out in in his autobiography, Assignment in Utopia (1937): "On emerging from Russia, Jones made a statement which, startling though it sounded, was little more than a summary of what the correspondents and foreign diplomats had told him. To protect us, and perhaps with some idea of heightening the authenticity of his reports, he emphasized his Ukrainian foray rather than our conversation as the chief source of his information. In any case, we all received urgent queries from our home offices on the subject. But the inquiries coincided with preparations under way for the trial of the British engineers. The need to remain on friendly terms with the censors at least for the duration of the trial was for all of us a compelling professional necessity."
Lyons and his friend, Walter Duranty, decided to try and undermine these reports by Jones. Lyons told Bassow Whitman, the author of The Moscow Correspondents: Reporting on Russia from the Revolution to Glasnost (1988): "We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damned Jones a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka."
Duranty published an article, Russians Hungry But Not Starving , in the New York Times on 31st March 1933, where he argued that there was a conspiracy in the agricultural sector by "wreckers" and "spoilers" had "made a mess of Soviet food production". However, he did admit that the Soviet government had made some harsh decisions: "To put it brutally - you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevik leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialism as any General during the World War who ordered a costly attack in order to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction."
Duranty then went on to criticize Gareth Jones. He admitted that there had been "serious food shortages" but Jones was wrong to suggest that the Soviet Union was enduring a famine: "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition, especially in the Ukraine, North Caucasus, and Lower Volga." He then went on to claim that Jones description of famine in the Soviet Union was an example of "wishful thinking".
Lyons has argued: "Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes - but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials."
James William Crowl, the author of Angels in Stalin's Paradise (1982) attempted to explain why this cover-up took place: "Most of the reporters took shelter behind the censorship and kept quiet about the famine. They wrote about it only when they left Russia, and even then they found that their accounts were met with disbelief. Eugene Lyons, for instance, returned to New York late in 1933 and began to write cautiously about the famine. Soviet sympathizers and liberals treated him as a renegade, he recalls, though his first descriptions of the famine fell far short of the horrible conditions that he knew had existed. A few correspondents, among them Duranty and Fischer, went beyond mere compliance with the censorship. While most of their colleagues passively accepted the famine cover-up, they echoed Soviet denials of the famine and blasted anyone who carried word of conditions to the West. Their distortion of the news, then, went beyond the demands of the censorship and was a vital factor in convincing the West that there was little or no truth to the famine stories. Moreover, by their active role in the cover-up they made it more unlikely that the foreign press in Moscow might force some kind of showdown with the censors or confront the West with the truth about Soviet conditions."
Sally J. Taylor, the author of Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990) has argued that Lyon's record on the famine was appalling: "He had been among the earliest to hear of it, suggested at first by the investigations of his own secretary and confirmed later by the findings of Barnes and Stoneman. But Lyons declined to go into the famine-stricken area.... The zealous Lyons fulminated about moral and ethical issues, but he had shown little inclination himself to interrupt what was an unusually successful social life in Moscow." Louis Fischer has pointed out that he "limited his Russian experience to Moscow social circles, rather than studying villages or factories".
Lyons returned to the United States in 1934. The following year he published Moscow Carrousel. By this time he had rejected the government of Joseph Stalin but was still a socialist and a supporter of Leon Trotsky. However, his next book, Assignment in Utopia (1937) was much more critical of Marxism. He admitted that he had allowed the Soviet government to control his reporting: "The circumstance that the government barred us from the afflicted regions may serve as our formal excuse. But a deaf-and-dumb reporter hermetically sealed in a hotel room could not have escaped knowledge of the essential facts. Reporting, as we did daily, industrial victories in the Baikal region or Tajikistan without personal investigation, we had small warrant for withholding and minimizing and diluting the famine story because we were prohibited to make personal investigation. Whatever doubts as to the magnitude of the disaster may have lingered in our minds, the prohibition itself should have set at rest. The episode, indeed, reflects little glory on world journalism as a whole. Not a single American newspaper or press agency protested publicly against the astonishing and almost unprecedented confinement of its correspondent in the Soviet capital or troubled to probe for the causes of this extraordinary measure."
Eugene Lyons also attacked the American journalists who he had worked with in Moscow. This included Louis Fischer, who worked for various publications, including The Nation. He accused Fischer of "having eulogized the G.P.U. forced labor battalions". He quotes Fischer as saying "The G.P.U. is not merely an intelligence service and a militia. It is a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution." Lyons condemns Fischer for misrepresenting the work of the GPU: "The system of large-scale forced labor, with a hundred thousand concentrated in a single penal camp and scores of such camps festering everywhere in the land, summarized in one precious euphemism!"
In his review of the book, George Orwell, who had turned against the Soviet government because of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, praised Lyons willingness to admit his mistakes: "It is obvious from his manner of writing he is not a vulgar propagandist, and he was in Russia a long time (1928-34) as a correspondent for the United Press Agency having been sent there on Communist recommendation. Like many others who have gone there full of hope, he was gradually disillusioned, and unlike some others he finally chose to tell the truth about it."
However, Orwell disapproved of Lyons's apparent rejection of socialism: "I do not believe he has misrepresented the facts. He does, however, show signs of being embittered by his experiences, and I think he probably exaggerates the amount of discontent prevailing among the Russians themselves.... It is an unfortunate fact that any hostile criticism of the present Russian régime is liable to be taken as propaganda against Socialism; all socialists are aware of this, and it does not make for an honest discussion.... The truth about Stalin's régime, if only we could get hold of it, is of the first importance. Is it Socialism, or is it a peculiar form of state capitalism? All the political controversies that have made life hideous for two years past really circle around this question, though for several reasons it is seldom brought into the foreground."
In 1939 Lyons became editor of the conservative American Mercury. His politically moved to the far right and in 1941 he published his highly influential, The Red Decade: The Stalinist Penetration of America. In the book he attacked his old friend, Walter Duranty, who he claimed was part of "Stalin's Fifth Column in America... that had... blind allegiance to the will of Moscow". According to Lyons his allegiance was "to a foreign dictator." Another former supporter of Leon Trotsky, the journalist James Burnham, wrote, “What Lyons is in truth writing about, this ludicrous and horrible suicide of a whole intellectual generation, is not the vagary of individuals, but a phase in the death of a culture.”
In 1943 Victor Kravchenko was posted to the Soviet Purchasing Commission in Washington that was involved in implementing the Lend Lease agreement in the summer of 1943. As John V. Fleming has pointed out: "The volumes of Lend-Lease shipments were so large that the Russians required for their administration what was essentially a corporate headquarters on Sixteenth Street in Washington. A large staff of military and industrial experts, technicians, accountants, purchasing agents, transportation consultants, engineers, translators, chauffeurs, police agents, and secretaries worked there." His job was of supervising and expediting the shipment of industrial products.
While in the United States he came into contact with David Dallin, a former leader of the Mensheviks who had emigrated to the country in 1940. Kravchenko later wrote: "We Russians are gregarious folk, warm and talkative and quick to kindle in friendship. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. I am no exception in this respect." Dallin also introduced Kravchenko to Eugene Lyons. Kravchenko also had meetings with the FBI where he had conversations about the possibility of defecting from the Soviet Union.
Kravchenko told the FBI that the Washington office of Soviet Purchasing Commission was under the control of a covert NKVD team. The author of The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) has pointed out: "All the executives of the commission were Communist Party members, though most, including Kravchenko, were under instructions to conceal that fact. The most important business was conducted in closed meetings attended only by Party members. In the typical pattern of domestic Soviet industries, there were secret police spies everywhere." Kravchenko also informed the FBI about illegalities and profiteering on the part of the American contractors supplying the Soviets. J. Edgar Hoover did not seem very interested in this and instead ordered that Kravchenko was investigated.
On 1st April, 1944, he sought political asylum in the United States. A few days later the New York Times reported that Kravchenko was "accusing the Soviet Government of a double-faced foreign policy with respect to its professed desire for collaboration with the United States and Great Britain and denouncing the Stalin regime for failure to grant political and civil liberties to the Russian people" The newspaper went on to add: "Mr. Kravchenko declined for patriotic reasons to discuss matters bearing on the military conduct of the war by Soviet Russia or to reveal any details bearing upon economic questions, particularly as they affect the functioning of lend-lease as handled by the Soviet Purchasing Commission and in Russia."
Max Eastman arranged for Victor Kravchenko to receive a $15,000 advance from Cosmopolitan magazine for a series of articles. With the help of Eugene Lyons, who was now his literary agent, Kravchenko also began work on a book about his experiences. A publishing deal was agreed with Charles Scribner's Sons and Lyons agreed to accept 40% of the royalties. Kravchenko later wrote: "I worked on it month after month under harrowing conditions of persecution and threats against my life. I was obliged to wander from city to city, continually changing hotels and private residences, living under assumed names and assumed nationalities, finding safe hide-outs in the homes of Americans or my own country-men."
Kravchenko's autobiography, I Choose Freedom, was published in 1946. Kravchenko insisted that he had the final say about what went into the book. Charles Scribner III later recalled: "Mr. Kravchenko's editing of the galley proofs and the ensuing alterations were far in excess of what we usually permit and we received from him a sum of money in payment for this." Joseph Stalin was furious about the book's publication and the Soviet government retaliated by claiming that Kravchenko had been recalled to military service and that he had asked for political asylum in the "cowardly fear of which had inspired his libels and his treasons".
Lyons wrote numerous articles for magazines such as Reader’s Digest and The National Review in attacking liberals such as Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1947 he described Henry Wallace as a Soviet appeaser and fully supported the work of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in investigating the activities of the American Communist Party. One of Lyons critics, Bennett Cerf, compared him politically with Gerald L. K. Smith and Theodore Bilbo.
Other books by Lyons included Our Unknown Ex-President: A Portrait of Herbert Hoover (1948), Our Secret Allies: The Peoples of Russia (1953), Herbert Hoover: A Biography (1964), David Sarnoff: A Biography (1966) and Workers’ Paradise Lost: Fifty Years of Soviet Communism: A Balance Sheet (1967).
Eugene Lyons died on 7th January, 1985.
On the East Side of New York, where I grew up, we knew hardship and fear in their less romantic guises. Our streets teemed with crowded, chaotic life like the underside of a moss-grown stone. Our tenements were odoriferous garbage heaps where the same over-abundant life proliferated. We knew coarseness, vermin, want, so intimately that they became routine commonplaces. The affluence, the ease, the glimpse of ordered beauty were distant and unreal, like stories in books. Only the ugliness and sweat and unrelenting tussle were close and terribly familiar...
We were caught and tangled in a mass of people for the most part resigned to their fate, sodden with hopelessness, and in a stupor of physical exhaustion. For the average boy it was easier to burrow deeper into the heap, taking the aroma and the drabness of the East Side into his soul, than to attempt the Gargantuan job of escaping. The Americanism that he acquired and dragged into the writhing heap was the loud, vulgar, surface - the slang, the sporting page, the crude success ideals of the movies and yellow journals - and nothing of the grandeur at the core of America.
But when the urge to escape does enter into the blood of a slum denizen, it is a feverish thing that drives him with whips of fire. "Success" is never a pale beckoning star. It is a flaming ball that blots out nearly everything else in the boy's firmament. Elsewhere it may be mere self-fulfillment. On our East Side it was that and more - a species of defiance and revenge against the clinging squalors and the smugness of the lucky ones and, above all, against the social system that breeds such plague spots.
Whatever the expression of that pitiless ambition, it is always shot through with hatred for the status quo. Sometimes it is openly defiant of restraints and carries the jungle law of dog-eat-dog competition to its logical conclusion in crime, gangsterism. At other times, the predatory technique is kept within the safer bounds of legality. Whether the exceptional boy revolting against putrescent surroundings turns into an unprincipled criminal or an unprincipled businessman is often simply a question of the proportions of courage and cleverness in his make-up.
And occasionally, as in my own case, the clamoring protest transfer ads the personal. The driving ambition widens out to embrace all the disinherited and exploited. It becomes a conscious protest against ugliness and injustice as such, and embraces passionately whatever formula of social revolt is closest to hand. There is a vast and unbridgeable difference between the radicalism that is accepted at second-hand, from the outside, through the mind, and the revolt that is nurtured in one's very bones.
Those of us who were -or thought ourselves - "socialists" instinctively, through spontaneous hatred for the reality as we savored it, could never quite get over a certain distrust of "converts" to the cause from other social strata.
These aliens by a strange chance combined in their obscure persons all the things that most offended and frightened a smug New Englander. In a section where family pride and an ingrown sense of racial superiority flourished, Sacco and Vanzetti were from the lowest social layer of wops and hunkies and polaks. At a time when Bolshevism gave householders nightmares, Sacco and Vanzetti were by their own confession reddest of the Reds. With the textile industry drifting to the South and the shoe industry to the West, in a period of strikes and discontent, Sacco and Vanzetti were self-confessed labor agitators. Amidst a raging blood-fed patriotism, they were slackers. In Puritan New England they were atheists.
It required no special effort or apparatus to generate fear of and hatred for the two men. They attracted the fears and hatreds already in full play. The belief of some that agents of the Department of Justice and of the State of Massachusetts got together and decided to electrocute them, innocent or guilty, is naive.
It was not a frame-up in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a far more terrible conspiracy: the almost automatic clicking of the machinery of government spelling out death for two men with the utmost serenity. No more laws were stretched or violated than in most other criminal cases. No more stool-pigeons were used. No more prosecution tricks were played. Only in this case every trick worked with a deadly precision. The rigid mechanism of legal procedure was at its most unbending. The human beings who operated the mechanism were guided by dim, vague, deep-seated motives of fear and self-interest.
It was a frame-up implicit in the social structure. It was a perfect example of the functioning of class justice, in which every judge, juror, police officer, editor, governor and college president played his appointed role easily and without undue violence to his conscience. A few even played it with an exalted sense of their own patriotism and nobility.
The headquarters of the Central Committee were just inside the ancient Chinese Wall, a six-story building, plain and business-like. The G.P.U. guards at the door were expecting me and passed us through immediately; another guard led us to the ante-chamber of the most powerful, most feared, least known human being on the face of the globe. An amiable woman secretary asked us to wait; Comrade Stalin would be free in a few minutes.
The building and this office were as unlike the usual, littered, chaotic Soviet institution as possible: quiet, orderly, unhurried but efficient. It was, above all, stamped with an unmistakable simplicity: the hall-mark, I was to learn in the next hour or two, of Stalin himself. I had a sense of concentrated authority, the more impressive because it was devoid of the trappings of power, curiously austere and self-assured, without elegance of gold braid or shrieking symbols: power naked, clean, and serene in its strength.
Half a dozen or so people were waiting in this room, some for Stalin, some for other leaders with offices on the same floor. A tall, unshaven fellow, with matted black hair and dirty boots. An elderly woman in a leather jacket, red kerchief on her head.
"Provincial Party secretaries, come to report or complain," Charlie guessed.
"Probably," I said. "Imagine what the ante-chambers of the former rulers were like, the pomp and grandeur, the courtiers and generals, and look how simple all of this is! Stalin may be inaccessible to reporters and diplomats, but I should judge from these folks that he is accessible enough to his own Party people."
We could not pursue this line of thought. The woman secretary said Comrade Stalin was waiting, and an office boy led the way.
One cannot live in the shadow of Stalin's legend without coming under its spell. My pulse, I am sure, was high. No sooner, however, had I stepped across the-threshold than diffidence and nervousness fell away. Stalin met me at the door and shook hands, smiling. There was a certain shyness in his smile, and the handshake was not perfunctory. He was remarkably unlike the scowling, self-important dictator of popular imagination. His every gesture was a rebuke to the thousand little bureaucrats who had inflicted their puny greatness upon me in these Russian years.
We followed him to the extreme end of a long conference table, where he motioned us affably to chairs and sat down himself. His personal interpreter, a young man with bushy black hair, was there. Stalin pushed over a box of cigarettes, took one himself, and we all lighted up. The standardized photographs of Stalin show him smoking a pipe and I had a feeling of faint disappointment that he was not measuring up to the cliches, even in this regard.
In my letter the previous day, I had specifically asked for "only two minutes" and I had assumed that the interview was to be no more than a brief formality to enable at least one reporter to testify that Stalin was still fully alive. But I saw him stretch out his feet and lean back in leisurely fashion as though we had hours ahead of us. With that natural gesture of relaxing in his chair, Stalin turned a strait jacketed interview into an unhurried social call. I realized that there would be no time limitations.
And here was I, unprepared for this generosity, with only one question ready-the superfluous question whether he was alive or not! I cursed myself inwardly for a bungler not to have mapped out an organized campaign of interrogation that would probe to the very center of the Soviet situation.
"Tell Mr. Lyons," Stalin addressed his interpreter, "that I am sorry I could not receive him before. I saw his letters, but I cannot easily find the opportunity for interviews."
There was no need for translation. My Russian would probably be adequate to the occasion, I smiled, and if I got stuck, these gentlemen would come to my rescue. Several times in the next hour Stalin harked back to my letters. To this day I do not know precisely why, among the score of permanent correspondents in his capital-many of them less outspoken in their criticism of the regime and more amenable to the discipline of the Press Department - he had selected me for this first interview since his rise to supreme power. Any one of a dozen other correspondents would have served Moscow's purpose just as well. But unquestionably my letters over more than a year played a part in the selection.
"Comrade Stalin," I began the interview, "may I quote you to the effect that you have not been assassinated?"
He laughed. At such close range, there was not a trace of the Napoleonic quality one sees in his self-conscious camera or oil portraits. The shaggy mustache, framing a sensual mouth and a smile nearly as full of teeth as Teddy Roosevelt's, gave his swarthy face a friendly, almost benignant look.
"Yes, you may," he said, "except that 1 hate to take the bread out of the mouths of the Riga correspondents."
The room in which we sat was large, high-ceilinged, and furnished simply almost to bareness. Its only decorations were framed pictures of Karl Marx, Lenin, and Engels - there was no portrait of Stalin: probably the only office in all his empire without one. Stalin wore the familiar olive-drab jacket with stand-up collar, belted at the waist, and his trousers were tucked into high black boots. The negligent austerity of his attire was of a piece with that room. Though of vigorous physique, he seemed to me older than his fifty-one years; his face was large-features and fleshy, darker in tinge than I had expected and faintly pock-marked, his shock of black hair thick, unruly, and touched with gray.
For over an hour I asked questions and answered them. Again and again the talk debouched into argument; I was aware afterwards, though not at the time, that I did not hesitate to interrupt him: another proof of the essential simplicity of a powerful ruler who could put a reporter so completely at his ease.
The "ethics of bourgeois journalism" came in for considerable discussion; though at the moment he had sufficient cause to be indignant with that journalism, there was no bitterness in Stalin's comments.
I asked him about Soviet-American relations, about the chances for world revolution, the progress of the Piatiletka, and such other obvious matters as came to my mind. He listened without the slightest sign of impatience to my labored Russian and repeated sentences slowly when he thought I might not have grasped the meaning. Often I reached a linguistic impasse from which Charlie and the other interpreter retrieved me. Stalin never once spoke impetuously, never once resorted to mere cleverness or evasion. Sometimes he thought for many seconds before he replied, his forehead furrowed in lines of concentration, and the answers came in strangely schematized array: "firstly, secondly ... and finally. ..." I recalled that note he had sent me the previous year with its "Motives: (a)... and (b)... " There had been no affectation in it: that was how his mind worked. It had been conditioned, perhaps, by long years devoted to driving elementary predigested ideas into simple minds, in simple a-and-b formulations.
"It seems to me," I said at one point in the rambling conversation, "that the American press has been making a more determined effort to obtain fair, objective news about the Soviet Union than any other country. We have the largest group of correspondents here and all of them, I think, trying to tell the truth as they see it."
"That's right," Stalin agreed thoughtfully. "Economic classes in the United States are not yet quite as rigidly differentiated as in Europe - you have no deeply rooted landed aristocracy."
The economic interpretation of journalism! To Stalin, as to all Bolsheviks, there are no "good" men and "bad" men, but only men reacting to their social environment and economic compulsions.
In the midst of the interview, someone opened the door and, noting that Stalin was occupied, was about to withdraw. It was Klementi Voroshilov, the Commissar of War!
"Oh, I'm sorry," he smiled apologetically.
"No, no, do come in and join us, Comrade Voroshilov," I said boldly. As though cornering Stalin were not triumph enough for one day, my luck was corralling the War Lord for me as well.
Stalin smiled his assent and Voroshilov, having shaken hands with Charlie and myself, joined the group at the table. Later I wondered whether his arrival was quite as accidental as it seemed. The sensational reports abroad had been full of supposed trouble between Stalin and his military chief. But Voroshilov himself, having heard of my doubts, declared that his intrusion had indeed been entirely fortuitous; a piece of luck which heightened greatly the dramatic value of the interview.
Voroshilov plunged warmly into the conversation. He was brimming with questions and opinions, slapped his thigh vigorously to express satisfaction. His is a warm, high-mettled nature with something impetuously boyish about it, a startling contrast to the deliberate, methodical, very earnest Stalin.
Voroshilov's vitality seemed effervescent against the immense, highly disciplined power in reserve which characterized Stalin. Once or twice, I thought I detected a shadow of annoyance on Stalin's face at Voroshilov's ebullience, but I may have been mistaken.
I felt that I was taking more of Stalin's time than I had any right to do, and that the talk would go on and on interminably if I did not call it off myself. Outside this office the tides of revolution rose and fell, hammered at people's lives and shivered the certainties of the world. But here, with Stalin, there was no suggestion of this violence and hectic urgency: he was enveloped in his own atmosphere of calm assurance.
"Comrade Stalin, the press of the world is by this time in the habit of calling you dictator," I said. "Are you a dictator?"
I could see that Voroshilov waited with interest for the answer. Stalin smiled: "No, I am no dictator. Those who use the word do not understand the Soviet system of government and the methods of the Communist Party. No one man or group of men can dictate. Decisions are made by the Party and acted upon by its chosen organs, the Central Committee and the Politburo."
"And now," I said, my embarrassment all too evident, "may I ask you some personal questions? Not that I myself care to pry into your private life, but the American press happens to be interested."
"All right," Stalin consented. His tone implied amused astonishment, as though the curiosity of bourgeois barbarians were beyond communist comprehension.
Voroshilov chuckled, like a little boy at a circus. "Sure, that's what the world wants to know!" he said.
Under my questioning, Stalin thereupon admitted that he had one wife, three children - one of them working, the other two youngsters still in school. Voroshilov was not concealing his enjoyment of the situation. When Stalin reached his five-year-old daughter, his War Lord added in mock earnest: "And she has as yet no well-defined political program." And then: Didn't I also have a young daughter? he wanted to know. I told them that she was in school in Berlin.
And thus it was, of all things, on an intimate domestic note that the party broke up.
"I don't want in any way to interfere with what you may write," Stalin said, "but I would be interested to see what you make of this interview."
"On the contrary," I said, "I am anxious that you read my dispatch before I send it. Above all things I should hate to misrepresent anything you have said. The only trouble is that this is Saturday night and the Sunday papers go to press early. Getting the story to you and back again may make me miss the early editions."
"Well, then, never mind." He waved the matter aside. I thought quickly.
"But if I could get a Latin-script typewriter," I said, "I could write my story right here and now and show it to you immediately."
Stalin thought that was a good idea. With Charlie and myself at his heels, he walked into the adjoining room, where several secretaries were standing around chatting and asked whether they couldn't dig up a Latin typewriter. The relation between Stalin and his immediate employees was entirely human, without so much as a touch of restraint. To them, obviously, he was not the formidable dictator of one-sixth of the earth's surface but a friendly, comradely boss. They were deferential without being obsequious.
The typewriter was found and I was installed in a small room to do my stuff. I could hear Stalin suggesting that they send in tea and sandwiches as he returned to the conference room. I was nearly an hour in writing the dispatch. Several times Stalin peeked in, and inquired whether we were comfortable and had everything we needed...
The unthinkable interview was over. The two minutes had stretched to nearly two hours. As we left the building and hailed a droshky, I said to Charlie: "I like that man!"
Charlie agreed, but in a lower emotional key. A little more analytical than I, and less involved in the sheer thrill of the newspaper scoop, he discounted much of Stalin's personal charm. Warm hospitality is a racial characteristic of the Georgians. Perhaps he could recognize more of the hardness under the charm than I did, in my mood of gratitude for this gift of the first interview.
But in the years that followed, with ample time to re assay my impressions, I did not change my mind about my essential reaction to Stalin's personality. Even at moments when the behavior of his regime seemed to me most hateful, I retained that liking for Stalin as a human being. I could understand thereafter the devotion to the man held by certain writers of my acquaintance who had come to know him personally. There was little in common between the infallible deified Stalin fostered as a political myth and the Stalin I had met. In the simplicity which impressed me more than any other element in his make-up, there was nothing of make-believe, nowhere a note of falseness or affectation. His friendliness was not the back-slapping good-fellow type of the politician, but something innate, something that rang true. In his unpretentiousness there was nothing pretentious.
Subsequently another American correspondent was received by Stalin (Walter Duranty). We compared notes, and it was as if we had met totally different men, our impressions were so completely at variance. He carried away the imprint of a ruthless, steel-armored personality, with few of those human attributes which I had seen to relieve its harshness: a picture more consistent with Stalin's public character. For years I wondered which of us was closer to the truth, or whether there were two truths.
“There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
This amazing sophistry, culled from a New York Times Moscow dispatch on March 30, 1933, has become among foreign reporters the classic example of journalistic understatement. It characterizes sufficiently the whole shabby episode of our failure to report honestly the gruesome Russian famine of 1932-33.
The circumstance that the government barred us from the afflicted regions may serve as our formal excuse. But a deaf-and-dumb reporter hermetically sealed in a hotel room could not have escaped knowledge of the essential facts. Reporting, as we did daily, industrial victories in the Baikal region or Tajikistan without personal investigation, we had small warrant for withholding and minimizing and diluting the famine story because we were prohibited to make personal investigation. Whatever doubts as to the magnitude of the disaster may have lingered in our minds, the prohibition itself should have set at rest.
The episode, indeed, reflects little glory on world journalism as a whole. Not a single American newspaper or press agency protested publicly against the astonishing and almost unprecedented confinement of its correspondent in the Soviet capital or troubled to probe for the causes of this extraordinary measure.
The New York Times, as the foremost American newspaper, is automatically selected for investigation in any test of American reporting. But it was certainly not alone in concealing the famine. The precious sentence quoted above was prefaced with its correspondent’s celebrated cliché: “To put it brutally - you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” A later dispatch enlarged upon the masterpiece of understatement and indicated how the eggs were being broken. Asserting that “in some districts and among the large floating population of unskilled labor” there “have been deaths and actual starvation,” he catalogued the maladies of malnutrition as “typhus, dysentery, dropsy, and various infantile diseases.” The maladies, in short, that always rage in time of famine.
Not until August 23 did the Times out of Moscow admit the famine. “It is conservative to suppose,” it said, that in certain provinces with a total population of over 40,000,000 mortality has “at least trebled.” On this basis, there were two million deaths more than usual. In addition, deaths were also “considerably increased for the Soviet Union as a whole.” This dispatch came one day behind an uncensored cable to the New York Herald Tribune by Ralph Barnes, in which he placed the deaths in his ultra-conservative fashion at no less than one million. The Barnes story was front-paged and the Times could no longer ignore the subject. Its own admission followed, raising Barnes’ ante. By a singular twist of logic, the Times story introduced the admission of famine with this remarkable statement:
Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population in the last year and particularly in the grain-producing provinces - the Ukraine, North Caucasus, the lower Volga region - has, however, caused heavy loss of life.
The dividing line between “heavy loss of life” through food shortage and “famine” is rather tenuous. Such verbal finessing made little difference to the millions of dead and dying, to the refugees who knocked at our doors begging bread, to the lines of ragged peasants stretching from Torgsin doors in the famine area waiting to exchange their wedding rings and silver trinkets for bread.
These philological sophistries, to which we were all driven, served Moscow’s purpose of smearing the facts out of recognition and beclouding a situation which, had we reported it simply and clearly, might have worked up enough public opinion abroad to force remedial measures. And every correspondent, each in his own measure, was guilty of collaborating in this monstrous hoax on the world. Maurice Hindus, though among the most industrious apologists for Stalin, was kept waiting nearly a month for a visa during the famine and finally was admitted on condition that he should not go outside of Moscow. During his 1933 visit, therefore, he did not go to his native village as in the past. In his books, articles and lectures, curiously, he does not allude to that enforced omission and its causes.
The very next day after the Times’ half-hearted admission from Moscow, its representative in Berlin, Frederick T. Birchall, talked to a group of foreigners just returned from the famine territory, among them a reputable American. “The revelations of what they have seen in the last few weeks,” Birchall cabled, “indicate that the recent estimate of four million deaths due indirectly to malnutrition in agricultural Russia in recent months may be rather an understatement than an exaggeration.” The word “malnutrition” had, by dint of repetition, taken hold even outside Russia - a clean triumph for planned censorship.
All of us had talked with people just returned from the famine regions. Jack Calder, as honest a man as ever drew a Soviet paycheck, returned from a long tour of Kazakstan with stories to curdle one’s blood. Perched on a high stool at the Metropole valuta bar, we listened to his graphic description of Kazakstan roads lined with stiff corpses like so many logs. Most of us saw the pictures taken by German consular officials in the Ukraine showing scenes of horror reminiscent of the Volga famine of 1921. Few of us were so completely isolated that we did not meet Russians whose work took them to the devastated areas, or Muscovites with relatives in those areas. Around every railroad station in the capital hundreds of bedraggled refugees were encamped, had we needed further corroboration; they gathered faster than the police could clear them away.
The truth is that we did not seek corroboration for the simple reason that we entertained no doubts on the subject. There are facts too large to require eyewitness confirmation - facts so pervasive and generally accepted that confirmation would be futile pedantry. There was no more need for investigation to establish the mere existence of the Russian famine than investigation to establish the existence of the American depression. Inside Russia the matter was not disputed. The famine was accepted as a matter of course in our casual conversation at the hotels and in our homes. In the foreign colony estimates of famine deaths ranged from one million up; among Russians from three millions up. Russians, especially communists, were inclined to cite higher figures through a sort of perverse pride in bigness; if it called for Bolshevik firmness to let a million die, it obviously called for three times as much firmness to kill off three million.
The first reliable report of the Russian famine was given to the world by an English journalist, a certain Gareth Jones, at one time secretary to Lloyd George. Jones had a conscientious streak in his make-up which took him on a secret journey into the Ukraine and a brief walking tour through its countryside. That same streak was to take him a few years later into the interior of China during political disturbances, and was to cost him his life at the hands of Chinese military bandits. An earnest and meticulous little man, Gareth Jones was the sort who carries a notebook and unashamedly records your words as you talk. Patiently he went from one correspondent to the next, asking questions and writing down the answers.
On emerging from Russia, Jones made a statement which, startling though it sounded, was little more than a summary of what the correspondents and foreign diplomats had told him. To protect us, and perhaps with some idea of heightening the authenticity of his reports, he emphasized his Ukrainian foray rather than our conversation as the chief source of his information.
In any case, we all received urgent queries from our home offices on the subject. But the inquiries coincided with preparations under way for the trial of the British engineers. The need to remain on friendly terms with the censors at least for the duration of the trial was for all of us a compelling professional necessity.
Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes - but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials.
The scene in which the American press corps combined to repudiate Jones is fresh in my mind. It was in the evening and Comrade Umansky, the soul of graciousness, consented to meet us in the hotel room of a correspondent. He knew that he had a strategic advantage over us because of the Metro-Vickers story. He could afford to be gracious. Forced by competitive journalism to jockey for the inside track with officials, it would have been professional suicide to make an issue of the famine at this particular time. There was much bargaining in a spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take, under the effulgence of Umansky’s gilded smile, before a formula of denial was worked out.
We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damned Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski, Umansky joined the celebration, and the party did not break up until the early morning hours. The head censor was in a mellower mood than I had ever seen him before or since. He had done a big bit for Bolshevik firmness that night.
We were summoned to the Press Department one by one and instructed not to venture out of Moscow without submitting a detailed itinerary and having it officially sanctioned. In effect, therefore, we were summarily deprived of the right of unhampered travel in the country to which we were accredited...
Southern Russia, after many months of total news blockade, was opened to foreign correspondents in easy stages. The first to be given permission to travel in the forbidden zones were the technically “friendly” reporters, whose dispatches might be counted upon to take the sting out of anything subsequent travelers might report. Duranty, for instance, was given a two weeks’ advantage over most of us. On the day he returned, it happened, Billy and I were dining with Anne O’Hare McCormick, roving correspondent for the New York Times, and her husband. Duranty joined us. He gave us his fresh impressions in brutally frank terms and they added up to a picture of ghastly horror. His estimate of the dead from famine was the most startling I had as yet heard from anyone.
“But, Walter, you don’t mean that literally?” Mrs. McCormick exclaimed.
“Hell I don’t... I’m being conservative,” he replied, and as if by way of consolation he added his famous truism: “But they’re only Russians.”
Once more the same evening we heard Duranty make the same estimate, in answer to a question by Laurence Stallings, at the railroad station, just as the train was pulling out for the Polish frontier. When the issues of the Times carrying Duranty’s own articles reached me I found that they failed to mention the large figures he had given freely and repeatedly to all of us.
Billy (his wife Eugene) did a few roles in Soviet films. Having had a brief experience in Hollywood, both the similarities and the contrasts fascinated her. The "star" system was frowned upon at this time; the real "prima donnas" in the movie "factory" were the directors: Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Preobrezhenskaya, and the rest. A picture which Hollywood might have pushed through in two or three months, Moscow worked over for a year or more. The fantastic salaries and sunken bathtubs and million-dollar spectacles of Hollywood were unknown, but the glamor of the silver screen was almost as strong upon Russians as upon Americans. Ambitious boys and girls thronged the studios, struggling newspapermen dreamed of escape by writing scenarios, third assistant directors and cameramen were sought after by the girls eager to break into the movies.
The truth about Stalin's régime, if only we could get hold of it, is of the first importance. Is it Socialism, or is it a peculiar form of state capitalism? All the political controversies that have made life hideous for two years past really circle around this question, though for several reasons it is seldom brought into the foreground. It is difficult to go to Russia, once there it is impossible to make adequate investigations, and all one's ideas on the subject have to be drawn from books which are so fulsomely "for" or venomously "against" that the prejudice stinks a mile away. Mr Lyons's book is definitely in the "against" class but gives the impression of being much more reliable than most. It is obvious from his manner of writing he is not a vulgar propagandist, and he was in Russia a long time (1928-34) as a correspondent for the United Press Agency having been sent there on Communist recommendation. Like many others who have gone there full of hope, he was gradually disillusioned, and unlike some others he finally chose to tell the truth about it. It is an unfortunate fact that any hostile criticism of the present Russian régime is liable to be taken as propaganda against Socialism; all socialists are aware of this, and it does not make for an honest discussion.
The years that Mr Lyons spent in Russia were years of appalling hardship, culminating in the Ukraine famine of 1933, which a number estimated at not less than three million people starved to death. Now, no doubt, after the success of the Second Five Year Plan, the physical conditions have improved, but there seems no reason for thinking that the social atmosphere is greatly different. The system that Mr Lyons describes does not seem to be very different from Fascism. All real power is concentrated in the hands of two or three million people, the town proletariat, theoretically the heirs of the revolution, having been robbed by the elementary right to strike; more recently by the introduction of the internal passport, they have been reduced to a status resembling serfdom. The G.P.U. are everywhere, everyone lives in constant terror of denunciation, freedom of speech and of the press are obliterated to an extent we can hardly imagine. There are periodical waves of terror, sometimes the "liquidation" of kulaks or Nepmen, sometimes some monstrous state trial at which people who have been in prison for months or years are suddenly dragged forth to make incredible confessions, while their children publish articles in the newspapers saying "I repudiate my father as a Trotskyist serpent." Meanwhile the invisible Stalin is worshipped in terms that would have made Nero blush. This - at great length and in much detail - is the picture Mr Lyons presents, and I do not believe he has misrepresented the facts. He does, however, show signs of being embittered by his experiences, and I think he probably exaggerates the amount of discontent prevailing among the Russians themselves.
He once succeeded in interviewing Stalin, and found him human, simple and likeable. It is worth noticing that H. G. Wells said the same thing, and it is a fact that Stalin, at any rate on the cinematograph, has a likeable face. Is it not also recorded that Al Capone was the best of husbands and fathers, and that Joseph Smith (of brides in the bath fame) was sincerely loved by the first of his seven wives and always returned between murders?
Louis Fischer, who wrote for The Nation and the Baltimore Sun, began as a fellow traveller, sticking to his version of the truth until well after the purges. He consistently reported the more favorable side of the Soviet experiment, generally staying out of the venomous exchanges among his colleagues. After Fischer's change of heart, Duranty always referred to him as "the rat who left the sinking ship that didn't sink. But there seemed to be nothing particularly complicated about Fischer's character; no underlying currents of envy or of hate.
The same could not be said of Eugene Lyons, whose relentless attacks on Walter Duranty contributed to a continuing oversimplification of his character, especially in the years after Duranty's death. Lyons had always been baffled by Duranty's psychological distance from what was happening in the Soviet Union. He himself had come in full of enthusiasm; an eager admirer of Stalin, the Five-Year Plan, and all things Soviet. Ever since Duranty upstaged him after his cloying interview with Stalin in 1930, Lyons had been gunning for Duranty, searching for signs of weakness. When visitors came to Lyons for help, he admitted that he sent them on to Walter Duranty, but always with the proviso that "you'd better not tell him I sent you." Publicly, Lyons accused Duranty of juggling his phrases, of leaving "a fuzzy margin of uncertainty" in his work, even in pieces that stressed the accomplishments of the regime. It was a charge which showed no particular power of perception.
More damning were Lyons's charges of Duranty's complicity with the KGB. Lyons said Duranty had been provided with an automobile, a particularly comfortable apartment, and a mistress by the KGB.
The one certain thing about the Moscow trials is that they constitute the most dreadful single chapter in the story of the degradation of a self-proclaimed socialist movement. The crimes of the Russian totalitarian state under Stalin’s monolithic party have hurt the labor movement of the world and dimmed our hopes as no single act of our avowed enemies could possibly do. These confessions, true, false, or partly true and partly false, are for us who have believed in socialism as the hope of the world the occasion of bitter tears and deep humiliation.
Of course it is not socialism which has failed but the Stalinite perversion of it. And this is true whatever
one thinks of the incredible confessions. I use the word incredible deliberately. Nothing about them makes sense. E. Phillips Oppenheim has to be more careful of the probabilities in the construction of his
fantastic plots. At no point yet have any of the confessions, which mention dates and names, checked up
with external testimony. Indeed, it is possible that some of Stalin’s latest victims count on this fact to let the world know that they are liars confessing under some sort of strange compulsion.
I do not pretend to know why these men, some of them seasoned revolutionists, should make such strange confessions. All that we can say is that under the Spanish Inquisition and the witchcraft trials similar false confessions were made. The practice has become almost habitual in Russia, at least since the Menshevik trial (1931). I understood how it could happen a little bit better after a short visit to the USSR. At best in that vast land the individual is completely isolated from the world, completely at the mercy of Stalin’s bureaucracy and army, and Stalin knows better than to permit another Socrates to make his dying words immortal.
There are physical tortures and there are psychological tortures which break men down. Perhaps those who confessed are trying to win the privilege of dying without first suffering slow torture in secret dungeons. Perhaps they are trying to win some immunity for their family and friends from the brutal, wholly amoral ruthlessness of Stalin. Perhaps they are trying in their way to save their party and their regime by assuming personal responsibility for crimes which they did not commit. Eugene Lyons reminds us of a popular Russian novel, Chocolate, in which the hero did precisely this thing. But all in all it constitutes a shameful and humiliating spectacle for which words are inadequate, when world-famous revolutionists and honored physicians confess to that which destroys all public confidence in comradeship, good faith, and integrity.
While foreign visitors apparently traveled with few restrictions, the Kremlin seems to have regarded the foreign press in Moscow as a more serious threat to spread word of the famine to the West. Consequently, efforts were made to keep reporters from observing or even learning about the famine. Travel restrictions were placed on the reporters to keep them out of the countryside, while an internal passport system was imposed on Soviet citizens in December 1932 in order to keep starving peasants away from the cities.
Nevertheless information about the famine seems to have been commonplace within the Moscow press corps. Western travelers returned to Moscow with reports of what they had found, and correspondents discovered that they could verify such accounts by checking the suburbs and railroad stations of the major cities. Peasants seemed to flock to such locations despite the efforts of the authorities. Still more important, several reporters learned that they could slip onto trains and spend days or weeks in stricken areas despite the travel ban. During the early months of 1933, Ralph Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune made such a trip, as did Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge of the Manchester Guardian. Thus information about the famine seems to have been plentiful among the correspondents in Moscow, and it seems unlikely that any reporter could have been unaware of its existence. According to Eugene Lyons, "the famine was accepted as a matter of course in our casual conversation at the hotels and in our homes." William Henry Chamberlin has gone even further by stating "to anyone who lived in Russia in 1933 and who kept his eyes and ears open the historicity of the famine is simply not open to question."
Reporters who circumvented the travel ban and then avoided the censors by mailing their dispatches were, of course, risking the loss of their posts. The Soviet denial of re-entry to Paul Scheffer in 1929 was an example of what could happen to such a correspondent, and there were few in the Moscow press who were willing to take the chance. Moreover, other reporters might have stood up to the Soviets had they been convinced that their dispatches would have been received with interest. What concerned them was that the early famine accounts were greeted with indifference or disbelief by the public and with outright hostility by liberals. A few years before, word of famine in Russia might have been big news in the West. With the rise of fascism and with Litvinov and Stalin making anti-fascist overtures to the West, however, reporters sensed that the news value of the famine had diminished. The West seemed in no mood to accept the fact that millions were dying in Russia and that the starvation was the result of deliberate Soviet policies.
Most of the reporters took shelter behind the censorship and kept quiet about the famine. They wrote about it only when they left Russia, and even then they found that their accounts were met with disbelief. Eugene Lyons, for instance, returned to New York late in 1933 and began to write cautiously about the famine. Soviet sympathizers and liberals treated him as a renegade, he recalls, though his first descriptions of the famine fell far short of the horrible conditions that he knew had existed.
A few correspondents, among them Duranty and Fischer, went beyond mere compliance with the censorship. While most of their colleagues passively accepted the famine cover-up, they echoed Soviet denials of the famine and blasted anyone who carried word of conditions to the West. Their distortion of the news, then, went beyond the demands of the censorship and was a vital factor in convincing the West that there was little or no truth to the famine stories. Moreover, by their active role in the cover-up they made it more unlikely that the foreign press in Moscow might force some kind of showdown with the censors or confront the West with the truth about Soviet conditions.
The reason for Fischer's participation in the cover-up apparently, was his belief that the truth could only damage Soviet efforts to gain diplomatic recognition, stall Litvinov's anti-fascist initiatives, and, most important, set back the Five-Year Plan. Though he seemed to waver at times, for the most part Fischer seemed convinced that the Soviets were on the eve of creating a better way of life. He seemed anxious to buy time for the Kremlin so that it could bring the nation through the difficult period and into the socialist epoch.
Duranty also seems to have served the Kremlin for the same reasons he had in the past. Perhaps, as Lyons, Chamberlin, and Muggeridge have charged, Duranty had received money and special treatment from the Soviets over the years. Yet it is difficult to think of Duranty as just a Soviet hireling. For years he apparently had admired the Soviets and had been convinced that they were doing what was best for Russia, even though the cost in lives and suffering was high. It is possible, of course, that this apparent admiration was only a mask or a ruse to cover the fact that he was a paid Soviet apologist. Yet, lacking proof of that, it seems probable that Duranty responded readily to the famine cover-up, with or without Soviet prompting of money, because he had come to believe that few in the West were tough enough or realistic enough to understand that the harsh modernization program was necessary.
The defendants were the least villainous looking of mortals, several of them wearing neat professional beards and spectacles. They shuffled papers and made copious notes, as though awaiting their turn to speak at a scientific conference. They seemed a meek, harmless and unimpressive group to have roused such a storm.
After the published indictment had been read, each of the eight in turn stood up and pleaded guilty. Only two of them, Sergei Kuprianov and Xenephon Sitnin, accepted defense lawyers, the others waiving this dubious privilege. Sitnin, fat-faced and oily, was the one whose young son had demanded his death before the trial. This was by now a standardized piece of business in important show trials. "My father is to me a class enemy, nothing more," young Sitnin told the press and his words were published as an example to Soviet youth.
For three hours Ramzin on the opening day told the story of his political sins. A small, clean-shaven man in his early forties, with a square white face and drawn features, his forehead high and pale under a mop of light-brown hair, he spoke in the calm, precise tones of a trained lecturer. It was almost impersonal. The Industrial Party, he said, had been born in 1925 and by 1929 it had more than two thousand members. Its leaders, going abroad frequently on technical missions, were able to make contacts with the French General Staff, Balkan military men and rich emigres. Contacts were also made through Monsieur "A" and Monsieur "K," foreign consuls in Moscow - they figured as initials throughout, though they sat in the diplomatic box and we all knew who they were.
Ramzin's recital, as monotonous as a technical classroom lecture, sounded abstract and academic. It was clear on the larger objectives but fuzzily obscure on details. Like so much of the economic planning of which he spoke, the counterrevolutionary planning seemed grandiose in blueprint but unrealized in practical application. Krylenko would have a job of it, we all felt, to fill in the outline with convincing detail. The kind of regime projected by the Industrial Party, according to Ramzin, was one dominated by engineering minds: an interesting anticipation of the technocracy ideas which soon thereafter swept America.
Day after day, the eight men took turns, singly and in batches of two and three, in front of the microphone that carried their voices to millions, while cameramen ground away, reporters rushed back and forth importantly, and giant arc-lights flared and sizzled. At first, the older men shaded their eyes against the criss-crossed streams of hot light but in time they gave up and bore the drenching without a struggle. Day after day, they asserted their guilt and accented their humiliation, while the khaki-clad Krylenko and his black beetle grimaced and glowered.
There was a monumental irony in the vast precautions taken to safeguard the court against mythical dangers of assault, as the conspirators competed in belly-crawling confessionals. Subtly the idea was conveyed that bands of desperate saboteurs might try to pull off a daring rescue, or that any minute the corpulent Poincare might come dashing at the head of an army of invaders. The ballyhoo created a sense of imminent danger of foreign attack. The aging Maxim Gorky addressed an eloquent appeal to the workers and peasants and intellectuals of the world to act quickly to stop intervention. The incongruity between these assumptions of imminent counter-revolution and invasion and the meekness of those contrite and ineffectual professors attested that human credulity is indeed inexhaustible...
The plot seemed to me, and to most of the foreign observers, "sewn with white thread," as the Russian phrase has it. A few of the stitches were pretty raw and obvious. Any tyro of a defense attorney in a free court would have pulled out those white threads and watched the case fall apart. For instance, the slate of the new government to displace the Bolsheviks after a successful counterrevolution, embodied in the confessions, contained the names of two men who had long been dead at the time the slate was supposedly drawn up. One of these dead men, Riabushinsky, was scheduled for the premiership, no less. Another instance: at the time Ramzin is supposed to have talked with Colonel Lawrence of Arabian fame in London, the Colonel was not even in England.
Such tell-tale blunders in the structure of confessions the trial took blithely in its stride. Defendants and defense lawyers alike pretended not to notice the blunders, the Soviet press kept mum, the foreign press was fed phony explanations, and the demonstration trial went on without a hitch. The defense was indistinguishable from the prosecution.
And all the time the thunder of vengeance rolled through the land in still more editorial attacks, stereotyped resolutions, mass meetings. That had no direct reference to the mumbo-jumbo of examination and testimony in the courtroom.
The hopes of self-government unleashed by the fall of tsarism were centered on the Constituent Assembly, a democratic parliament to draw up a democratic constitution. Lenin and his followers, of course, jumped on that bandwagon, too, posing not merely as advocates of the parliament but as its only true friends. What if the voting went against them? They piously pledged themselves to abide by the popular mandate....
In his first weeks Lenin did not yet feel himself strong enough to renege on the most conspicuous of his pledges. The balloting began on November 25, and continued until December 9. Despite the prevailing disorders and confusion, thirty-six million cast their secret ballots in parts of the country normal enough to hold elections. In most of the large centers of population, the voting was conducted under Bolshevik auspices.
Yet twenty-seven of the thirty-six million votes went to other parties. The peasant-oriented Social Revolutionaries received 58 per cent; Lenin's lists drew nine million, only about 25 per cent, less than half as many as the only other well-organized party....
Lenin had no doubt that if the elected parliament survived, his imposed regime would not. He had riot expected to win a majority and never had any intention of allowing such a democratic institution to sink roots. Already unsure of the allegiance of locally based troops, he had imported a division of Lettish sharpshooters as military insurance.
The assembly was scheduled to meet in the old Duma Building, the Tauride Palace, in Petrograd on the afternoon of January 18, 1918. That morning massive columns of unarmed workers and peasants marched toward the center of the city with banners hailing the parliament and proclaiming their faith in democracy. Thousands more joined up, in a jubilant spirit, as the parade proceeded. But when the procession approached Tauride Palace, its path was blocked by the sharpshooters, who opened fire without warning. About a hundred of the peaceful demonstrators were killed, hundreds were wounded, the rest fled in panic.
Despite this sanguinary prelude, the deputies from all over Russia gathered for their first-and last-meeting. Victor Chernov, of the majority Social Revolutionary party, was elected chairman. Except for the communist members, and perhaps even for many of them, it was a solemn historical moment. The Constituent Assembly was the embodiment of a vision that had been Russia's for a century. But they found the galleries and the aisles filled by noisy, drunken, jeering crowds-admission tickets had been issued solely by Lenin's soldiers.
The "guests" shouted down the delegates, intruded on the platform, and subsided only when Bolsheviks rose to speak. Others had to struggle against a raucous, whistling, foul-mouthed mob. Lenin lolled on the stairs leading to the platform, sneering and jeering and egging on his unruly bully boys. Fighting the turbulence at every step, the democratic majority managed to debate and adopt a number of cardinal resolutions. The most important provided far-reaching agrarian reforms, under which the land would be distributed to those who worked it.
When the session adjourned toward dawn, everyone knew it would never reopen. The first and last genuine expression of the people's will after the revolution was suppressed in cynicism and violence.
The more optimistic deputies, returning to the Tauride Palace the next day, found its doors locked and sealed. The fate of the Revolution, too, was sealed. No one who respects fact could ever again claim that the regime had been approved by the masses. In an eloquent indictment of the "handful of madmen" who had murdered the elected assembly, Gorki wrote a fitting epithet: "Yesterday the streets of Petrograd and Moscow resounded with shouts of "Long live the Constituent Assembly!" For giving vent to these sentiments the peaceful paraders were shot down by the "People's Government." On January 19, the Constituent Assembly expired - until the advent of happier days - its death foreboding new sufferings for the martyred country and for the masses of the people."
The maddest of the madmen was merely amused by such rhetoric. He valued a Lettish rifleman above all the intellectual humanitarians put together. To associates who complained in the name of Russia, Lenin said: "I spit on Russia. ... This is merely one phase through which we must pass on the way to a world revolution." Russia, in other words, was expendable, a battered beachhead in a war for world dominion.