MOSCOW – There’s nothing more ungainly than newspapers, when their sanctimoniousness is aroused, and they try walking with their feet in their mouths. Call this the Duranty phenomenon.
Walter Duranty was the New York Times journalist who won a Pulitzer prize, journalism’s highest award in the US, for his reporting on Russia in 1931. Duranty died in 1957, and his editors at the Times, plus his Pulitzer board judges, have all joined him in the grave, so they are easy targets for critics. They believe that Duranty’s Pulitzer should be rescinded on the ground that he failed at the time to exercise the same judgment the critics have rendered in retrospect. More than one attempt has been made to oblige the Pulitzer board to yank the prize; another one is under way at the moment. Ukrainian-Americans are reported to be the most vocal Duranty, because they allege in demanding punishment for he failed to report on the lethal 1932-33 famine they blame on Moscow and Stalin.
“A lack of balance and uncritical acceptance”, claims a history professor engaged by the Times to review Duranty’s work, “was a disservice to the American readers of The New York Times and the liberal values they subscribe to,” The professor says publicly Duranty’s prize is a disgrace, and for the honor of the newspaper, it should be surrendered.
A letter to the Pulitzer board by the Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., let the cat out of the bag. He conceded that “Duranty’s slovenly work should have been recognized for what it was by his editors and by his Pulitzer judges seven decades ago.” But at the same time, Sulzberger told the board, there are two good reasons for not rescinding the prize now, seventy years later. Rewriting history like this is a Stalinist practice, he argued. And more important, once you start, where do you stop? “The board would be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades,” Sulzberger wrote.
Whoa! That really would test the limits of journalism’s elasticity, stretched as it always is between what the history professor calls the liberal values Americans subscribe to, and what reporters identify as the objective truth.
In Russia, the Moscow Times was an English-language newspaper that was created in 1992 from financial sources that remain a mysterious, and then twice rescued from financial collapse by Russian oligarchs. The first was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Menatep Bank and Yukos shareholder, who was jailed in Moscow on serious criminal charges over the weekend. The second, and more recent rescuer was Vladimir Potanin, the controlling shareholder of Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest mining company. Potanin’s control of the newspaper is far larger than Khodorkovsky’s was, and includes not only a sizeable shareholding, but also a lien on the newspaper company’s accumulated debts.
In the Russian revolution that started in 1991, and continued over the past weekend, the Moscow Times has always been on the side of those into whose hands the country’s wealth has been taken. Power to the people! has meant electricity for Oleg Deripaska and Anatoly Chubais. Bread to the hungry! is the slogan of Vladimir Potanin’s agro-industrial holding. Land to the peasants! has meant oilfields for Khodorkovsky and Mikhail Fridman. The Times has also backed a series of US government policies meant to dismantle the Russian military-industrial base to prevent it from ever again posing the superpower threat the Soviet Union had represented. Washington wanted a Saudi Arabia without rockets. The Times thought that was just dandy.
But now that the jailing of the Yukos shareholders coincides with a parliamentary and a presidential election, Russians can vote for the first time on the fundamental direction they think the slogans of the revolution should take. And despite the fact that men like Khodorkovsky and Potanin can bend the media, the political parties, the cabinet of ministers, and the parliament to their will, the combination of president and popular sentiment makes for a fresh shift of property that is on course to win both elections as democratically as Russia under Yeltsin ever managed. With a crucial difference: Putin isn’t making the election choice the phony one of himself versus the red tide, as Yeltsin tried three times, and still required a 10% fraud to win. Putin is silent, and the choice is thunderingly obvious.
According to the Times editorial, however, Putin’s silence is “unbecoming”. Not for the first time, the Times quotes Chubais -the real US ambassador to Moscow – in demanding that Putin justify Khodorkovsky’s arrest or release him. According to the Times, Chubais also threatened force, if Putin doesn’t reply. “There will be a conflict of such an extent that it will bring in the entire society, and it could turn out to be uncontrollable,” Chubais threatened. Those are fighting words for a man who no longer controls an army the way he did during Yeltsin’s time in office -and whose test run for president (in the poll of 2008) is currently drawing him voter approval of around 3.5%.
For the first time since 1991, the Russian president has called into question the policy of the oligarchs in turning over the economy’s resource assets to foreign enterprises, and taking the multi-billion dollar concession fees for themselves. No civilized country in the oil world – not even Saudi Arabia – allows foreign corporations to control the rate of their oil production and the risk of reserve depletion. If Russia must depend on oil for the short term, then Khodorkovsky was warned – in July – that neither he, nor Yukos, will decide this question of national strategy. And yet, he has continued to negotiate a sale to ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil. As I have reported many times since July, it was the asset sale, not Khodorkovsky’s political manipulations, that crossed the Kremlin, and led to his current fate. The slow shift in the public positions of the economic policy ministers like German Gref and Victor Khristenko – toward decelerating oil output growth, increasing investment in reserve replacement, di versifying away from oil -demonstrated how difficult it was for the president to pull his own government behind his resource policy, instead of the oligarchs. Nonetheless, Putin has put up the greatest show of resistance to bad policy in the modern history of Russia. His reward has been a Moody’s rerating of sovereign debt, and the massive support of the silent Russian majority, which will get its big chance on December 7, Election Day.
But discrediting the English language as a platform of wealthy reaction, the Moscow Times reports the president is silent. That’s because the newspaper’s proprietor, like everyone else in Russia right now, can hear the message all too audibly. Power to the people! Bread for the hungry! Land for the peasants! If the Times is doing today what Duranty is accused of doing so long ago, then it will only be a matter of weeks, not decades, before we can judge for ourselves where the truth in the Russian revolution is really heading.