Mark von Hagen, 65, Dies; Reviewed Times’s 1931 Soviet Coverage


The New York Times had long distanced itself from Walter Duranty’s reporting from the Soviet Union in 1931 when it received a letter in 2003 from the Pulitzer Prize board asking whether the prize awarded to Mr. Duranty for that coverage should be rescinded.

Mr. Duranty, who reported from Moscow from 1922 to 1941, had been accused of overlooking some of Stalin’s most egregious atrocities and rationalizing others in his coverage, which in those years was subject to censorship by the Soviet authorities.

In response to the letter, The Times commissioned Mark von Hagen, an expert in early-20th-century Russian history at Columbia University, to assess Mr. Duranty’s 1931 work. The Pulitzer had been awarded on the basis of 13 articles Mr. Duranty wrote that year.

Professor von Hagen’s resulting eight-page report was highly critical of the coverage but made no recommendation about the prize. Only in interviews after the report was released did he suggest that the award be revoked because of what he described as Mr. Duranty’s “uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime.” In his view, he said, Mr. Duranty had fallen “under Stalin’s spell.”

“He really was kind of a disgrace in the history of The New York Times,” Professor von Hagen was quoted as saying.

In the end, however, the Pulitzer board decided that it did not have enough grounds to annul the award, which was bestowed in 1932.

Professor von Hagen died on Sunday in a hospice facility in Phoenix after an extended illness, his spouse, Johnny Roldan-Chacon, said. He was 65.

The Pulitzer board had written to The Times in response to public demands that Mr. Duranty’s prize be revoked. The most vocal complaints had come from Ukranian-Americans aggrieved over his failure to sufficiently acknowledge and cover the famine that killed millions of Ukranians in the early 1930s.

Reviewing the historian Robert Conquest’s book “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine” (1986) in The New York Times Book Review, Craig R. Whitney, who reported for The Times from Moscow from 1977 to 1980, wrote that Mr. Duranty had “denied the existence of the famine in his dispatches until it was almost over, despite much evidence to the contrary that was published in his own paper at the time.”

Four years later, responding to “Stalin’s Apologist” (1990), S.J. Taylor’s critical biography of Mr. Duranty, The Times assigned a member of its editorial board, Karl E. Meyer, to assess Mr. Duranty’s coverage. Mr. Meyer concluded that it amounted to “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.”

In a letter to the Pulitzer board accompanying Professor von Hagen’s report, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., then the publisher of The Times, wrote that “over the past two decades, The Times has often acknowledged that Duranty’s slovenly work should have been recognized for what it was by his editors and by his Pulitzer judges seven decades ago.”

Mr. Sulzberger cautioned, though, that rescinding the prize might evoke the “Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories.” He expressed concern that by doing so “the board would be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades.”

A month after Professor von Hagen issued his report, the Pulitzer board concluded that Mr. Duranty’s prizewinning articles had indeed fallen far short of “today’s standards for foreign reporting,” but that there was “no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception.”

The board also said that “revoking a prize 71 years after it was awarded under different circumstances, when all principals are dead and unable to respond, would be a momentous step and therefore would have to rise to that threshold.” Mr. Duranty died in 1957.

Mark Louis von Hagen was born on July 21, 1954, in Cincinnati to Daniel and Martha (Kastner) von Hagen. His father served in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps in Vienna, spent 24 years on active duty with the Air Force and became a high school teacher.

Professor von Hagen earned a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University in 1976, a master’s in Slavic languages and literature from Indiana University-Bloomington, and a master’s in history from Stanford University, where he also received a doctorate in history and humanities.

He was associate director of the Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union at Columbia from 1989 to 1992 and its director from 1995 to 2001. He was a history professor at Columbia from 1989 to 2007 and later taught at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he was director of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

He edited several books and wrote “Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship: The Red Army and the Soviet Socialist State, 1917-1930” (1990).

In addition to Mr. Roldan-Chacon, who was the undergraduate coordinator at Arizona State, Professor von Hagen is survived by his brother, Luke.

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