25 May 1884
|Died||3 October 1957 (aged 73)|
Orlando, Florida, U.S.
|Alma mater||Emmanuel College, Cambridge|
Walter Duranty (May 25, 1884 - October 3, 1957) was a Liverpool-born Anglo-American journalist who served as the Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times for fourteen years (1922-1936) following the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War (1918-1921).
In 1932 Duranty received a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports about the Soviet Union, eleven of which were published in June 1931. He was criticized for his subsequent denial of widespread famine (1932-1933) in the USSR, most particularly the famine in Ukraine. Years later, there were calls to revoke his Pulitzer. In 1990, The New York Times, which submitted his works for the prize in 1932, wrote that his later articles denying the famine constituted "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper."
Duranty was born in a middle-class Merseyside family, the son of Emmeline (née Hutchins) and William Steel Duranty. His grandparents had moved to Birkenhead on the Wirral from the West Indies in 1842 and established a successful merchant business there in which his father worked. He studied at Harrow, one of Britain's most prestigious public schools, but a sudden collapse in the family business led to a transfer to Bedford College. Nevertheless, he then gained a scholarship to study at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a first-class degree.
After completing his education, Duranty moved to Paris. Duranty's biographer, Sally J. Taylor, said that Duranty met Aleister Crowley and participated in magic rituals with him during this period. According to Taylor, Duranty became involved in a relationship with Crowley's mistress Jane Cheron, and eventually married her. Crowley called Walter Duranty "my old friend" and quoted from Duranty's book "I Write as I Please" in his book Magick Without Tears.
During the Great War, Duranty first worked as a reporter for The New York Times. A story Duranty filed about the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 gained him wider notice as a journalist. He then moved to Riga, the capital of Latvia, to cover events in the newly independent Baltic states.
Duranty moved to the Soviet Union in 1921.
On holiday in France in 1924, Duranty's left leg was injured in a train wreck. After an operation, the surgeon discovered gangrene; and the leg was amputated. Once he had recovered, Duranty resumed his career as a journalist in the Soviet Union. During the New Economic Policy with its mixed economy, Duranty's articles from Moscow did not draw wide attention. It was after the advent of the first five-year plan (1928-1933), which aimed to transform Soviet industry and agriculture, that Duranty made his mark.
In 1929, he was granted an exclusive interview with Joseph Stalin that greatly enhanced his reputation as a journalist. Duranty was to remain in Moscow for twelve years, settling in the United States in 1934. Thereafter, he remained on retainer for The New York Times, which required him to spend several months a year in Moscow. It was in this capacity that Duranty reported on the show trials of Stalin's political opponents in 1936-1938.
In the 1931 series of reports for which he received the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence, Duranty argued that the Russian people were "Asiatic" in thought: they valued communal effort and required autocratic government. Individuality and private enterprise were alien concepts to the Russian people, which only led to social disruption and were unacceptable to them just as tyranny and Communism were unacceptable to the Western world.
Failed attempts, since the time of Peter the Great, to apply Western ideals in Russia were a form of European colonialism, he wrote, that had been finally swept away by the 1917 Revolution. Vladimir Lenin and his New Economic Policy were both failures tainted by Western thought. Duranty felt that Stalin scrapped the New Economic Policy because he had no political competition. The famine in Ukraine demonstrated the lack of organized opposition to Stalin, because his position was never truly threatened by the catastrophe; Stalin's purges surely contributed to this political vacuum. Stalin succeeded in doing what Lenin could only attempt to do, i.e., he "re-established a dictator of the imperial idea and put himself in charge" by means of intimidation. "Stalin didn't look upon himself as a dictator, but as a 'guardian of a sacred flame' that he called Stalinism for lack of a better name."Stalin's five-year plan was an attempt to effect a new way of life for the Russian people.
Duranty argued that the Soviet Union's mentality in 1931 greatly differed from the perception created by Karl Marx's ideas. Duranty claimed: "It would be more proper to refer to the principle present during the period of Stalin's reign as 'Stalinism'", which Duranty viewed as a progression and integration of Marxism combined with Leninism. In one of the articles submitted for the Pulitzer Prize ("Stalinism smashes foes in Marx's name", 24 June 1931) Duranty gives his views of the Soviet actions in the countryside that eventually led to the famine.
what is happening now to the Kulaks is leading to the same result--the kulaks who, under Leninism were an almost privileged class, encouraged to work and prosper (did not Bukharin then Leninism's chief spokesman, ... once say to the peasants, "Enrich yourselves," that is, become kulaks better than--or a different class from--your fellows by individual, self--helping effort?) "The liquidation of the kulak as a class" runs the present slogan whose meaning in terms of reality is that 5,000,000 human beings, 1,000,000 families of the best and most energetic farmers are to be dispossessed, dispersed, demolished, to be literally melted or "liquidated" into the rising flood of classless proletarians. Here, when you get right down to it, is the supreme justification from the Bolshevik angle of the cruel and often bloody pressure upon "the former People" or class enemies from Czar to kulak. Where Marxism theorized Stalin acts. Marxism says, "Eliminate class distinctions" and Stalinism does so by the simple and effective process of destructions, as Tamerlane destroyed his enemies or the Hebrew prophet [Samuel] slew for the glory of Jehovah.
Duranty sometimes claimed that individuals being sent to the labor camps in the Russian North, Siberia or Kazakhstan were given a choice between rejoining Soviet society or becoming underprivileged outsiders. However, he also said that, for those who could not accept the system, "the final fate of such enemies is death". Though describing the system as cruel, he said he has "no brief for or against it, nor any purpose save to try to tell the truth". He ends the article with the claim that the brutal collectivization campaign was motivated by the "hope or promise of a subsequent raising up" of Asian-minded masses in the Soviet Union which only history could judge.
Rather than just repeating the Stalinist viewpoint, Duranty often admitted the brutality of the Stalinist system then proceeded to both explain and defend why dictatorship or brutality were necessary. In addition, he repeated Soviet views as his own opinion, as if his 'observations' from Moscow had given him deeper insights into the country as a whole.
Duranty's motivations have been hotly debated and his reporting is faulted for being too uncritical of the USSR, presenting Soviet propaganda as legitimate reporting.
In his praise of Joseph Stalin as an imperial, national, "authentically Russian" dictator to be compared to Ivan the Terrible, Duranty was expressing views similar to those of some White (Russian) émigrés during the same period, namely the Smenovekhovtsy movement, echoing still earlier hopes by the Eurasianism movement and the Mladorossi group currents in the 1920s. (Of course, Stalin was not Russian, but Georgian, with distant Ossetian ancestry -- his paternal great-grandfather was an Ossetian--a fact that he himself downplayed during his lifetime.)
In 1933, Stalin rewarded this praise and appreciation by saying that Duranty tried "to tell the truth about our country".
In The New York Times on 31 March 1933, Walter Duranty denounced reports of a famine and, in particular, he attacked Gareth Jones, a British journalist who had witnessed the starving in Ukraine and issued a widely published press release about their plight two days earlier in Berlin. (Jones' release was itself immediately preceded by three unsigned articles describing the famine in the Manchester Guardian.)
Under the title "Russians Hungry, But Not Starving" Duranty's article described the situation as follows:
In the middle of the diplomatic duel between Great Britain and the Soviet Union over the accused British engineers, there appears from a British source a big scare story in the American press about famine in the Soviet Union, with "thousands already dead and millions menaced by death from starvation.
The "diplomatic duel" was a reference to the arrest of engineers from the Metropolitan-Vickers company who were working in the USSR. Accused with Soviet citizens of "wrecking" (sabotaging) the plant they were building, they were the subjects of one in a series of show trials presided over by Andrey Vyshinsky during the First Five Year Plan.
Five months later (23 August 1933), in another New York Times article, Duranty wrote:
Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage, however, which has affected the whole population in the last year and particularly in the grain-producing provinces -- the Ukraine, North Caucasus [i.e. Kuban Region], and the Lower Volga -- has, however, caused heavy loss of life.
Duranty concluded "it is conservative to suppose" that, in certain provinces with a total population of over 40 million, mortality had "at least trebled."  The duel in the press over the famine stories did not damage esteem for Duranty. The Nation then described his reporting as "the most enlightened, dispassionate dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world."
Following sensitive negotiations in November 1933 that resulted in the establishment of relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., a dinner was given for Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov in New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Each of the attendees' names was read in turn, politely applauded by the guests, until Duranty's. Whereupon, Alexander Woollcott wrote, "the one really prolonged pandemonium was evoked ... Indeed, one quite got the impression that America, in a spasm of discernment, was recognizing both Russia and Walter Duranty."
Sally J. Taylor, author of the critical Duranty biography Stalin's Apologist, argues that his reporting from the USSR was a key factor in U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 decision to grant official recognition to the Soviet Union.
In 1934, Duranty left Moscow and visited the White House in the company of Soviet officials, including Litvinov. He continued as a Special Correspondent for The New York Times until 1940.
He wrote several books on the Soviet Union after 1940. His name was on a list maintained by writer George Orwell of those Orwell considered to be unsuitable as possible writers for the British Foreign Office's Information Research Department owing to the possibility of them being too sympathetic to communism or possibly paid communist agents.
Duranty died in Orlando, Florida in 1957 and is interred at Greenwood Cemetery.
Duranty was reporting at a time when opinions were strongly divided on the Soviet Union and its leadership.
The admission of the USSR to the League of Nations in 1934 was viewed optimistically by some. Others saw an inevitable confrontation between fascism and communism as requiring individuals to take one side or the other. After German invasion of the USSR, Joseph E. Davies, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1936-1938), wrote positively about "Russia and its people in their gallant struggle to preserve the peace until ruthless aggression made war inevitable". In the same book he referred to Stalin as a "decent and clean-living" man and "a great leader."
Many reporters of Duranty's time slanted their coverage in favour of the Soviet Union. Some drew a contrast with the capitalist world, sinking under the weight of the Great Depression; others wrote out of a true belief in Communism; some acted out of fear of being expelled from Moscow, which would result in a loss of livelihood. At home many of their editors found it hard to believe a state would deliberately starve millions of its own people. Duranty's reports for The New York Times were a source of much frustration for the paper's readers in 1932, because they directly contradicted the line taken on the paper's own editorial page.
Duranty has been criticized for deferring to Stalin and the Soviet Union's official propaganda rather than reporting news, both when he was living in Moscow and later. For example, he later defended Stalin's Moscow Trials of 1938, which were staged to eliminate potential challengers to Stalin's authority.
The major controversy regarding his work remains his reporting on the great famine of 1932-33 that struck certain parts of the USSR after agriculture was forcibly and rapidly "collectivised". He published reports stating "there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be" and "any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda". In Ukraine, the region most affected, this man-made disaster is today known as the Holodomor.
Since the late 1960s, Duranty's work has come increasingly under fire for failing to report the famine. Robert Conquest was critical of Duranty's reporting in The Great Terror (1968), The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and, most recently, in Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1990). Joseph Alsop and Andrew Stuttaford spoke out against Duranty during the Pulitzer Prize controversy. "Lying was Duranty's stock in trade," commented Alsop. In his memoirs British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, then The Manchester Guardians correspondent in Moscow, talked of Duranty's "persistent lying"  and elsewhere called him "the greatest liar I ever knew.".
It was clear, meanwhile, from Duranty's comments to others that he was fully aware of the scale of the calamity. In 1934 he privately reported to the British embassy in Moscow that as many as 10 million people may have died, directly or indirectly, from famine in the Soviet Union in the previous year.
Both British intelligence and American engineer Zara Witkin (1900-1940), who worked in the USSR from 1932 to 1934, confirmed that Duranty knowingly misrepresented information about the nature and scale of the famine.
There are some indications that Duranty's deliberate misdirection concerning the famine may have been the result of duress. Conquest believed Duranty was being blackmailed over his sexual proclivities.
In his 1944 book, Duranty speaks in a chastened tone about his 1932-34 reporting, but he offers only a Stalinist defense of it. He admits that people starved, including not just "class enemies" but also loyal communists, but he says that Stalin was forced to order the requisitions to equip the Red Army enough to deter an imminent Japanese invasion (a reprise of the Siberian Intervention of a decade earlier)--in other words, to save the Soviet Union from impending military doom, not because Stalin wanted to collectivize the population at gunpoint, on pain of death. Although it is likely that Stalin did expect a Japanese invasion (expecting foreign attacks all the time), historians today do not accept the view that it was his sole motivation and that Stalin did not intend any cruel and ruthless political dominance of the Soviet population. Of the notion that Stalin did intend the latter, Duranty said, "What a misconception!" But today that assertion of "misconception" is itself well established to be at best a self-delusion and at worst a knowing repetition of false Stalinist propaganda, the falsehood being demonstrable today in light of reams of evidence now publicly available (in the post-Secret Speech and post-Soviet eras) but not publicly available in 1944.
The concern over Duranty's reporting on the famine in Soviet Ukraine led to a move to posthumously and symbolically strip him of the Pulitzer Prize he received in 1932.
In response to Stalin's Apologist (1990), the critical biography by Sally J. Taylor,The New York Times assigned a member of its editorial board, Karl Meyer, to write a signed editorial about Duranty's work for the Times. In a scathing piece, Meyer said (24 June 1990) that Duranty's articles were "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper." Duranty, Meyer said, had bet his career on Stalin's rise and "strove to preserve it by ignoring or excusing Stalin's crimes." The Pulitzer Board in 1990 reconsidered the prize but decided to preserve it as awarded. Four years earlier, in a review of Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), former Moscow bureau reporter Craig Whitney wrote that Duranty effectively ignored the famine until it was almost over.
In 2003, following an international campaign by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Pulitzer Board began a renewed inquiry, and The New York Times hired Mark von Hagen, professor of Russian history at Columbia University, to review Duranty's work as a whole. Von Hagen found Duranty's reports to be unbalanced and uncritical, and that they far too often gave voice to Stalinist propaganda. In comments to the press he stated, "For the sake of The New York Times honor, they should take the prize away." The Times sent von Hagen's report to the Pulitzer Board and left it to the Board to take whatever action they considered appropriate. In a letter accompanying the report, The New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. called Duranty's work "slovenly" and said it "should have been recognized for what it was by his editors and by his Pulitzer judges seven decades ago."
Ultimately, Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prize board, declined to revoke the award. In a press release of November 21, 2003, he stated that with regard to the 13 articles by Duranty from 1931 submitted for the award "there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case."
(other than Pulitzer)
Eleven-part series in The New York Times
Two articles in The New York Times magazine
in chronological order