British journalist Walter Duranty (1884–1957) became the most influential voice in the American press to comment on the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. Writing for the New York Times, he wrote in positive terms about that country's Communist leadership while minimizing or ignoring its brutality and the murder of millions of Soviet citizens by Communist Party leader Josef Stalin. Although he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, his Soviet coverage was subsequently discredited.
Walter Duranty was born on May 25, 1884, in Liverpool, England, the son of William Steel Duranty and the former Emmeline Hutchins. The Durantys were a family of upper-middle-class merchants, but in 1899, when Duranty was 15, his parents separated and his mother could barely keep the family afloat financially. As a teen, he was embarrassed about his lower-class origins, and after graduating from the University of Cambridge, he distanced himself from his family. In his autobiography, Search for a Key, Duranty falsely claimed he was an only child and an orphan.
After college, Duranty spent several years living in Paris and New York City, working as a part-time Latin tutor and supported by a trust fund created by his grandfather. In May of 1918, four years into World War I, as U.S. troops began to reach the front lines in France and join the battles, he began working for the New York Times as a freelancer covering the war. His first story for the paper addressed the question whether Germany would launch a new attack in France and ran on its front page on May 24, 1918, the day before his 34th birthday. During the heavy fighting of June 1918, Duranty sent a dispatch that Current History magazine later cited as one of the best examples of American journalism during the war. His writing was vivid and dramatic, invoking heroism and patriotism, with a descriptive, narrative style that made readers feel as if they were witnessing the event. It was a rare approach in newspapers at the time, and it made him one of the star war correspondents in U.S. newspapers.
In 1921, four years after the Russian Revolution overthrew the hereditary monarchy and brought the Bolshevik Party to power, Russia's Communist government lifted a ban on admitting reporters from Western nations. The New York Times posted Duranty to Russia's capital city of Moscow, calculating that his descriptive writing style would serve them well. In 1922, Russia and its Communist-controlled neighbor nations joined together to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R). Duranty's early dispatches gave readers novelistic descriptions of key events during and after this transition. For instance, after the 1924 death of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, he filed a gripping account of Lenin's funeral procession. Describing one of the pallbearers, Bolshevik leader Mikhail Kalinin, Duranty wrote: “On he went like an old peasant ploughing the stubborn earth, with sweat pouring down his cheeks in an icy snow-flecked gale” (as quoted by Francine du Plessix Gray in the New York Times).
Duranty lost his left leg in a train crash in France in 1924. Afterward, he walked with a wooden leg. “Short, balding, and unprepossessing in appearance, his one outstanding characteristic was a limp,” wrote biographer S.J. Taylor in Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty, The New York Times's Man in Moscow. “That and his keen gray eyes were what saved him from the commonplace. No one, though, who had ever seen him animated, his eyes glittering, could forget the engaging and provocative style of his conversation.”
Duranty lived a very comfortable life in Moscow, in stark contrast to most Soviet citizens. He had a four-room apartment stocked with caviar and rare, aged liquor, and his personal staff included a cook, maid, secretary, and researcher. In his apartment, he often hosted visiting American writers and other friends.
Working under the auspices of the New York Times, Duranty was soon regarded as an authority on the Soviet Union in the foreign press. “His shrewd assessments of Bolshevik power struggles were front-page news for at least a dozen years,” explained S.J. Taylor in his book Stalin's Apologist. Duranty's stature grew when he correctly predicted that Josef Stalin would rise to power in the Soviet Union after Lenin's death.
Once Stalin took control of the U.S.S.R., Duranty's dispatches regularly depicted the Communist as a strong and successful leader. He included no references to Stalin's growing reign of terror, in which he orchestrated the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens he viewed as threats and starved thousands of rural families living in the Russian Ukraine. When Stalin staged show trials in 1928, 1934, and 1936, executing suspected rivals based on false evidence and forced confessions, Duranty accepted the verdicts as just. He dismissed concerns about the Soviet Union's creation of internal passports to limit citizens' travel, telling his readers that these limits allowed the government to purge undesirables from urban areas. In private and public, Duranty often voiced his admiration of Lenin and Stalin as strong leaders.
Recognizing the journalist as a useful tool, Stalin granted Duranty an exclusive interview in 1930, building the public perception of the veracity of the New York Times reporter. He won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting, a prize based on 13 articles about the Soviet Union published the prior year. The Pulitzer judges praised Duranty's work as “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity,” as quoted by Stuart H. Loory in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Duranty dismissed and downplayed one of the largest mass murders in history, the starvation of millions of Soviet citizens during Stalin's collectivization of agriculture. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet dictator ordered the government to seize farmland and livestock in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, his goal to forcibly relocate farm families to other parts of the country. As a result, millions starved to death in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933. For a year, Duranty dismissed the famine as a false rumor. According to Taylor, three of his editors at the New York Times voiced concerns about the slant of his reporting, but no effort was made to question it.
Duranty responded to such reports by dismissing them in print. “To put it brutally—you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he famously wrote in the pages of the New York Times on March 31, 1933. “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition …. These conditions are bad, but there is no famine.” According to Eugene Lyons, a Russian-born American assigned to Moscow by United Press International, Duranty and other Western journalists deliberately contradicted the famine reports under pressure from the Soviet government, which threatened to deny them access to an upcoming trial. Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the two Guardian reporters assigned to report on the famine in Ukraine, went further in his condemnation: he was quoted by Taylor in Stalin's Apologist as calling Duranty “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism.”
Duranty's motive for presenting Soviet Communism in a positive light likely had little to do with his politics; he believed in capitalism and benefited from it. Rather, historians often paint him as an opportunist who enjoyed the celebrity that came from his access to Stalin and his role as the American press's most influential writer on the Soviet Union. His “accomplished, tragic life is marked by an icy careerism, a facile trust in appearances and a sordid refusal of emotional engagement,” concluded du Plessix Gray in the New York Times in 1990.
Duranty's journalistic work also pleased those in Western nations who sympathized with the politic shift that had occurred in the Soviet Union since the Russian Revolution. As the Great Depression raged in the United States and other countries during the 1930s, it fueled fascist movements in Germany and Italy, and many Westerners viewed Soviet-style Communism as a viable alternative to capitalism. Stuart H. Loory would argue in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1990 that, “To indict Duranty's coverage as an aberration in the 1930s is essentially to exonerate the rest of the American press for not doing its job.”
In the fall of 1933, years after the famine began, Duranty finally toured Ukraine and wrote stories for the New York Times that cautiously acknowledged the extreme scarcity there. In private, he gave an accurate assessment of the famine that he did not share with his readers. Days after returning from Ukraine to Moscow, Duranty told an official at the British Embassy that as many as ten million people likely starved to death in Ukraine. That death toll was higher than even most Soviet critics estimated at the time, but it matched estimates later made by researchers in the West and in Russia.
In November of 1933, Duranty accompanied Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov to Washington, DC, to cover a diplomatic breakthrough. He attended the press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, where U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Litvinov jointly announced that the United States had granted diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. Duranty considered it the biggest news story of his life, calling it “the ten days that steadied the world,” according to Taylor. Stalin granted Duranty another exclusive interview on Christmas Day, 1933, which some viewed as a reward for Duranty's positive coverage of the Soviet Union and his active advocacy of U.S. diplomatic recognition. “You bet on our horse to win when others thought it had no chance,” Stalin told him at the time, according to Karl E. Meyer in the New York Times.
In April 1934, Duranty signed a new contract with the New York Times that required him to be in Moscow only three months out of the year and left him free to pursue other projects. He returned to the United States in May and made several public speaking appearances. In 1935 he published his first autobiography, I Write as I Please, addressing his readers in a friendly, conversational voice. He also wrote a novel as well as poems and short stories. While posted in Moscow, he produced analysis pieces but did little original reporting. In 1940, the New York Times closed its Moscow bureau over concerns about increasing Soviet censorship. The newspaper dismissed Duranty at the end of 1940 as part of an effort to reduce expenses.
Duranty reported from Japan for a wire service while completing The Kremlin and the People, a poorly received 1941 work in which he continued to defend the verdicts of the Moscow show trials as legitimate. His 1943 novel Search for a Key also received poor reviews, and two other books on Russia that he produced during the 1940s had lackluster sales. By 1948, Duranty was impoverished and drinking heavily. He occasionally appeared on the lecture circuit and split his time between Los Angeles and Florida. Duranty died on October 3, 1957, in Orlando, Florida, at age 73.
Duranty's reputation continued to fall after his death as historians exposed the size of the Soviet famine and his unwillingness to report on it. In 1990, after the publication of Taylor's highly critical Stalin's Apologist, Karl E. Meyer, a New York Times writer, called his Russia coverage “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” At the time, the Pulitzer Prize board considered revoking Duranty's 1932 prize but opted not to.
The issue flared up again in 2003, when Ukrainian activists joined others calling upon the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind Duranty's prize and for the New York Times to return it. After six months of study, the Pulitzer board again declined to do so. “Duranty's 1931 work, measured by today's standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short,” the board declared in a statement published on pulitzer.org , but “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception” involving the 1931 articles that the award directly honored. In a statement posted on its website, the New York Times explained that it did not have Duranty's Pulitzer award in its possession. The journalist had underestimated Stalin's brutality and relied too much on Soviet government sources instead of ordinary citizens, the newspaper owned, referring to Duranty's coverage of Stalinist Russia as “largely discredited.”
Taylor, S.J., Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times's Man in Moscow, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Columbia Journalism Review, July–August 1990, “Stalin's Apologist,” p. 53.
New York Times, March 31, 1933, Walter Duranty, “Russians Hungry, but Not Starving,” p. 13; June 24, 1990, Francine du Plessix Gray, “The Journalist and the Dictator,” and Karl E. Meyer, “The Editorial Notebook: Trenchcoats, Then and Now.”
Weekly Standard, June 12, 2003, Arnold Beichman, “Pulitzer-Winning Lies.”
New York Times, https://www.nytco.com/new-york-timesstatement-about-1932-pulitzer-prize-awarded-to-walterduranty/ (December 13, 2017), “New York Times Statement about 1932 Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Walter Duranty.”