- New York Times Moscow correspondent
- Propagandist for Stalin
Born to a wealthy family in Liverpool, England on May 25, 1884, Walter Duranty attended both Emmanuel College and Cambridge University. In his mid-to-late twenties, he befriended Aleister Crowley, an Englishman nine years his senior, who was an occultist, a practitioner of satanic magic, and the self-identified anti-Christ. Duranty was quickly drawn in to Crowley’s bizarre practices, some of which included homosexual interactions. “It was under [Crowley’s] guidance,” says historian Ronald Radosh, “that the homely Duranty, for some reason always a charmer to women, began a series of menages a trois that became a regular part of his life.”
During World War I, Duranty found work as a reporter for The New York Times. In his reports from the battlefields of France, writes Ronald Radosh, “he distinguished himself in vividly personal dispatches on the character of the fighting and the sacrifices of the Allied soldiers.” On one occasion in the the summer of 1917, Duranty complied with a request that he write a false report which was intended to aid the Allied propaganda effort—specifically, a report about a fictional battle in which the Allies had supposedly thwarted a German submarine attack. Reflecting later upon this incident, Duranty wrote that “a noble end” could occasionally justify “somewhat doubtful means.”
Duranty continued to work for the Times after the war, both in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. He frequently reported on the Bolshevik (i.e., Communist) takeover of Russia, and his reports were generally critical of Bolshevism, which he described as “a compound of force, terror and espionage, utterly ruthless in conception and execution.”
But Duranty’s stance changed dramatically in 1921, even though Russia’s Communist policies had already resulted in a food shortage and famine that claimed, by Duranty’s own estimation, “5,000,000 or 6,000,000” lives. NewAmerican.com describes the cause of Duranty’s metamorphosis:
“The Soviets sought help from foreign relief agencies. One of those that agreed to help was the American Relief Association, but its assistance was predicated upon the Soviets allowing Western journalists to report from within Russia. Immediately, the Times sent Duranty to Riga, Latvia, where he was to attempt to get a visa for entry into the Communist state. Once there, a Soviet press officer told him that he had been rejected for entry into Russia because of his past anti-Soviet bias. Determined to reverse this decision, Duranty wrote a puff piece on Soviet dictator Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin had contrived the NEP as a step back from the repressive ‘War Communism’ that had brought about economic stagnation and famine. The main objective of the NEP was to reintroduce into the Soviet system, in a manner controlled by the state, some elements of a market economy in an attempt to recover the economic ground lost under ‘War Communism.’ The NEP was tantamount to an admission by the Bolsheviks that Communism, as an economic system, was a dismal failure. Such criticism as this, justified though it was, did not make it into Duranty’s report. When it was finished, Duranty’s work on the NEP in the Times apparently met with favor in Soviet circles, and Duranty was in.”
In Stalin’s Apologist, the definitive 1990 biography of Duranty, author S.J. Taylor demonstrates that Duranty toed the Communist line from the moment The New York Times assigned him—to his great delight—to the Soviet Union in 1921. In one of his first stories that year, about the aforementioned New Economic Policy, Duranty stated that “[Vladimir] Lenin has thrown communism overboard … abandoning state ownership, with the exception of a definite number of great industries of national importance—such as were controlled by the state in France, England and Germany during the war [World War I].” As Harvard historian Richard Pipes notes in his book Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, Duranty’s stories stressing “Lenin’s alleged adoption of Western economic models … [were] very important for Moscow to convey at a time when it actively sought foreign credits.”
On January 18, 1923, Duranty wrote reverentially about the Soviet system and its leaders: “[D]uring the last year [Joseph] Stalin has shown judgement and analytical power not unworthy of Lenin. It is to him that the greatest part of the credit is due for bringing about the new Russian Union, which history may regard as one of the most remarkable Constitutions in human history. Trotsky helped him in drawing it up, but Stalin’s brain guided the pen.”
In his coverage of the early Soviet purge trials of engineers accused of sabotage in 1928, Duranty wrote in the New Republic that “most of the accused … deserve their fate.”
Duranty’s most infamous journalistic deception, however, took place in the 1930s, when he essentially became Stalin’s publicist at the very time that the latter was intentionally starving millions to death in the Ukraine. In Duranty’s narrative, famine was impossible under the scientific, planned economy of the USSR and the wise leadership of Stalin. Thus he depicted the Ukraine as a veritable cornucopia, flowing with milk and honey.
Evidence clearly shows that Duranty knew quite well that millions were dying of starvation at the very time he used his newspaper to deny the Ukrainian famine. Historian Leonard Leshuk, citing State Department memos, writes: “In June 1931, Duranty admitted to A.W. Kleiforth of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin that, ‘in agreement with the New York Times and the Soviet authorities,’ his official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet regime and not his own.” Among Duranty’s more egregious lies were the following:
- On November 15, 1931, he wrote: “There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be.”
- On December 9, 1932, he wrote: “Enemies and foreign critics can say what they please. Weaklings and despondents at home may groan under the burden, but the youth and strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin’s program, believes it worthwhile and supports it, however hard be the sledding.”
- On March 31, 1933, he wrote: “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
- On August 23, 1933, he wrote: “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
- Also in 1933, at the height of the famine, Duranty described “village markets flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter,” and claimed that “a child can see this is not famine but abundance.”
- In a report headlined “Food Shortage Laid To Soviet Peasants,” Duranty wrote that “the food shortage must be regarded as a result of peasant resistance to rural socialization, or, perhaps more accurately, as a result of the measures taken to overcome that resistance. The measures have proved effective and the resistance has been overcome…. [F]ood production dwindled as the peasants killed their livestock and abandoned the production of surplus food stocks.” He was silent regarding the Soviet government’s systematic campaign of oppression, theft, deportation, and murder.
Reports such as these were crucial, historians say, in the decision of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to grant the Soviet Union diplomatic recognition in 1933. Historian Robert Conquest wrote in his masterwork, Harvest of Sorrow: “As one of the best known correspondents in the world for one of the best known newspapers in the world, Mr. Duranty’s denial that there was a famine was accepted as gospel. Thus Mr. Duranty gulled not only the readers of The New York Times but because of the newspaper’s prestige, he influenced the thinking of countless thousands of other readers about the character of Josef Stalin and the Soviet regime. And he certainly influenced the newly-elected President Roosevelt to recognize the Soviet Union.” Similarly, a report by Accuracy In Media stated that Roosevelt “would not have dared” to make such a move “had the public known of the horrendous death toll of Stalin’s policies.”
According to Ronald Radosh, the “sole motivations” for Duranty’s journalistic lies “were prestige, money, and influence.” He received these highly prized rewards in a number of different forms:
- When Franklin Roosevelt formally announced U.S. recognition of the USSR in 1933, Duranty and Soviet ambassador Maxim Litvinov traveled together to the United States. At a dinner honoring Litvinov at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, the assembled dignitaries gave Duranty a standing ovation when he was introduced.
- When Duranty subsequently returned to Moscow, Stalin set aside a full hour to meet with the newsman in his (Stalin’s) Kremlin office. “You have done a good job,” the Soviet dictator told him, “… because you try to tell the truth about our country…. You bet on our horse to win when others thought it had no chance and I am sure you have not lost by it.”
- Duranty was also given a very comfortable lifestyle by the Soviets: His four-room Moscow apartment was stocked with vodka and caviar, and his everyday needs were fulfilled by a chauffeur, a maid, and a cook who became his mistress.
- In 1932 Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting (in 13 articles) on conditions in Russia during the previous year.
The official announcement of Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize award stated: “Mr. Duranty’s dispatches show profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia and of the causes of those conditions. They are marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgement, and exceptional clarity, and are excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” When accepting the Prize, Duranty said: “I learned to respect the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, whom I consider to have grown into a really great statesman, and their [the Bolsheviks’] planned system of economy, despite present imperfections.”
One evening in the early 1930s, Eugene Lyons of United Press, having just learned for certain the truth about the Ukrainian famine’s enormous death toll, telephoned the dire news to his New York office but was ordered to stop because it was antagonizing the Kremlin. Ralph Barnes, the New York Herald Tribune reporter, turned to Duranty and asked him what he was going to write regarding the famine. Duranty replied: “Nothing. What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant. This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here. I think the entire matter is exaggerated.”
But in reality, Duranty knew quite well the full extent of the horror that had befallen Ukraine. A British Embassy dispatch from 1933 quotes Duranty as admitting to British officials in Moscow that “the Ukraine had been bled white [and] the peasants were ‘double-crossed’ by the government.” In his words, it was “quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.” Similarly, journalist Eugene Lyons once recalled that Duranty, after returning from a trip to the Ukraine, “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.”
Duranty dealt with whatever cognitive dissonance he may have experienced as a result of covering up Stalin’s atrocities, by reasoning that “[y]ou can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
Duranty continued to write for The New York Times until 1941 and never wavered in his defense of the Soviet dictator—“I put my money on Stalin,” he affirmed. Indeed, Duranty even defended the completely transparent show trials of 1936-38 that served to eliminate “enemies of the state” who posed a threat—real or imagined—to Stalin. The “confessions were true,” said Duranty, asserting that from 1934 onward, Stalin had good reason to believe that Japan and Germany were plotting with Trotsky to overthrow his (Stalin’s) regime.
When the Times dismissed Duranty as part of an effort ”to tighten up a bit on expenses,” the depression and near-alcoholism that already had been plaguing the journalist for several years, became more pronounced.
In 1946 Duranty penned an article in The Nation about Stalin’s postwar purges, titled “The Soviets Clean House.” In that piece, Duranty explained that “purge” meant “to cleanse” in Russian, and that a mere house-cleaning was all that Stalin intended. In Duranty’s words, Stalin had launched “a general cleaning out of the cobwebs and mess which accumulate in any house when its occupants are so deeply preoccupied with something else that they have no time to keep it in order.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Duranty came briefly out of retirement to write a page-one obituary for the Orlando Morning Sentinel, in which he hailed the late dictator for “lift[ing] himself and [his followers] to such heights of strength and influence as few mortals have ever known.”
Duranty’s health declined steadily thereafter, and he married on his deathbed in late September 1957. A week later, on October 3, 1957, he died from an internal hemorrhage complicated by pulmonary emphysema.
For additional information on Walter Duranty, click here.
Further Reading: “Duranty’s Lethal Lies” (by Dennis Behreandt, The New American, 9-8-2003); “A Blood-Stained Pulitzer” (FrontPageMag.com interview with Volodymyr Kurylo, 11-17-2005); Book Review of Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty (by Ronald Radosh, 1990); “Pulitzer-Winning Lies” (Weekly Standard, 6-12-2003); “A Tale of Two Journalists: Walter Duranty, Gareth Jones, and the Pulitzer Prize” (by James Mace, The Day, 7-15-2003).