Walter Duranty: Reporter in Moscow Could...

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<i> S.J. Taylor is the author of "Stalin's Apologist Walter Duranty: The New York Times's Man in Moscow." She lives in London</i>

In 1933, the watershed year, when Stalin finally achieved U.S. recognition, rumors had begun to surface about a famine in the grain-growing districts of the Ukraine, the Northern Caucasus and across the nomadic cattle country of Kazakhstan: a calamity of incalculable dimensions.

For later generations, as the magnitude of that event emerged, questions would arise as to why the American public hadn’t been told. How did Stalin manage to conceal the greatest man-made disaster in modern history, when perhaps as many as 10 million men, women, and children were allowed to die by slow starvation as a result of their refusal to conform to Stalin’s plan to collectivize agriculture?

Had this been a deliberate act of genocide or, as Walter Duranty (of the New York Times) characterized it, an example of anti-communist propaganda promulgated in “an eleventh-hour attempt to avert American recognition by picturing the Soviet Union as a land of ruin and despair”? . . .


In mid-November 1932, Duranty paid a visit to William Strang, counselor at the British Embassy in Moscow. By this time, the British Foreign Office was formulating a general assessment of Duranty’s character that was less than flattering. Duranty was described as “a somewhat shady individual, who has been accused (though not on convincing evidence, as far as I can tell) of being in the pay of the Soviet Government . . . “ It was felt to be out of the question, however, that any of Duranty’s opinions favoring the regime sprang “from genuine conviction,” as was the case with other correspondents who held pro-Soviet views.

On this occasion, Duranty attributed what he called “the present breakdown in agriculture” to the shortage of labor and of draft power. The peasants’ slaughter of livestock in 1930 and its continuation “by fits and starts” since then, plus a serious shortage of fodder, meant that the livestock population of the country had shrunk to “only about 40% of the population in 1929.” Current grain collections, Duranty continued, were “going badly.”

Less than a month later, Duranty again visited the Embassy, this time as a result of a dispatch he had written which paralleled his earlier conversation with Strang. The Soviets had viewed the report as being unfavorable, and shortly after its publication Duranty was visited by government emissaries who reproached him with his unfaithfulness.

Duranty had planned a trip to Paris, but now postponed it, Strang wrote, worried that he wouldn’t be allowed back into the country. Other Western correspondents documented the methods of coercion exercised by Soviet authorities over foreign newsmen, chiefly the ominous threat of losing their visas.

At about the same time, a curt announcement of the execution of 35 agricultural officials for “wrecking” appeared in the Moscow papers. Forty others had been given long prison sentences. Duranty was to attribute much of the mismanagement of collectivization to this “quite efficient conspiracy,” persisting with a version of events that ignored all the outward signs of a major catastrophe.

Meanwhile, a young man named Gareth Jones, who in early 1933 had taken a three-week walking trip through the famine-stricken area, reported that he had seen mass starvation. He announced this first in a press conference in Berlin, then at a lecture in London and at last in a story written for the Manchester Guardian, published only two days after Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a stringer for the Guardian in Moscow, had published a number of similar dispatches.


According to another correspondent in Moscow, Jones’ report, coming hard on the heels of Muggeridge’s eyewitness accounts, put the Soviet Press Office into a terrible state. Knowing that the Western correspondents were desperate to cover the Metro-Vickers trial (an industrial espionage trial of six Englishmen and a number of Russians), a Soviet official indicated that the reporters would be denied credentials if Jones’ report were not repudiated. The reporters came to the conclusion that “compelling professional necessity” required them to go along with the request.

Duranty himself took the lead in disputing Jones’ account. In an important dispatch on March 31, 1933, one that worked out his rationale for collectivization, Duranty agreed that it was “all too true that the novelty and mismanagement of collective farming,” plus a conspiracy in the agricultural sector by “wreckers” and “spoilers,” had “made a mess of Soviet food production.

“But--to put it brutally--you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevik leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialism as any general during the World War who ordered a costly attack. . . . In fact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction.”

He was ready to agree that there had been “serious food shortages.” But on the question of starvation, “there is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition . . . “ It was cutting semantic distinction pretty slim, and it remains the most outrageous equivocation of the period.

Jones didn’t hesitate in striking back. He wrote to the New York Times, (saying) he had visited some 20 villages where he saw incredible suffering, and talked personally with peasants and officials who told him that indeed the peasantry was starving to death. It was an uncompromising statement, but Jones was up against an Establishment larger than Duranty. The newspapers in the West were for the moment more interested in the Metro-Vickers trial than in any reports of famine.

At long last, in September, 1933, Duranty headed south to report the famine.

His first three stories from Rostov-on-Don, the heart of the famine district, consisted mostly of praise for the procedures used on the communal farms. He spoke of happy workers and plentiful harvests. Any talk of famine, he said, was “a sheer absurdity.”


Once he reached Kharkov, new evidence forced him to change his tack dramatically. “Early last year, under the pressure of the war danger in the Far East,” he reluctantly admitted, the authorities took too much grain from the Ukraine. Meanwhile, a large number of peasants thought they could change the Communist Party’s collectivization policy by refusing to cooperate.

The only clue he offered to the devastation was a comparison of the famine to the Battle of Verdun. But even this symbol of ultimate carnage fell short of the mark. As scholar Marco Carynyk has pointed out, during World War I, people were dying at the rate of 6,000 a day; in the Ukraine, peasants had died at the rate of 25,000 a day .

The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 remains the greatest man-made disaster ever recorded, exceeding in scale even the Jewish Holocaust of the next decade. It was Duranty’s destiny to become, in effect, the symbol for the West’s failure to recognize and understand it at the time.

When all is said and done, he alone, of all the witnesses to the terrible events, had sufficient prestige to exert an influence. Had he, a Pulitzer Prize-winner at the peak of his celebrity, spoken out in the pages of the New York Times, the world could not have ignored him, as it did Muggeridge and Jones, and events might have taken a different turn. If Duranty had taken a stand, he might now be accounted one of the century’s great, uncompromising reporters. But he didn’t.

When it came to discretion and expediency, the Western Establishment that feted him, no less so than the Kremlin, had found their man.

1990 by S.J. Taylor. Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press.