Stalin's Apologist, Walter Duranty

Book Review
Published: 1991-12-01

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Stalin's Apologist, Walter Duranty: The New York Times's Man in Moscow, by S.J. Taylor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Hb., 404 pp., illustrated, $24.95; ISBN 0-19-505700-7.

Flamboyant and opinionated, Walter Duranty represented the quintessence of the star newspaper reporter. His beat was the Soviet Union. From the Revolution to the Second World War, Duranty's dispatches were front page news.

Yet readers of The New York Times had little idea of the real Walter Duranty, who was a complex, amoral figure. S.J. Taylor's superb biography explores the dark side of Duranty's personality as well as the impact his reporting had on the world's perception of Joseph Stalin's Marxist dictatorship.

Taylor demonstrates how Duranty's character flaws influenced his reporting. Stalin's Apologist is the story of how Walter Duranty sold out for perks and privileges granted by the Stalinist elite. Abandoning any last shred of personal ethics, Duranty allowed himself to be prostituted and used to cover up the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Duranty's journalistic corruption hit bottom in the early 1930's. During the forced collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine, brutal implementation of Stalin's Five-Year Plan was achieved through a contrived famine and massive deportations resulting in up to eight to ten million deaths. Knowing full well this atrocity was taking place, Walter Duranty chose to cover up rather than report it to the world (a decision which evidently had the full approval of his bosses at the Times).

Duranty's self-indulgent, egoistic approach to living surfaced early in life. The son of a prosperous, staunchly Presbyterian English family, he attended the elite "public" schools of Harrow and Bedford, then was graduated from Cambridge. But despite his ruling-class education, Duranty despised the British aristocracy, while simultaneously evincing no sympathy for working people (or at least those who lacked power and influence).

During his adult years, Duranty rarely returned to England. His biographer succinctly describes his family relations, or lack thereof, in the following passage:

When his mother died in 1916, there was no word from Duranty. Fourteen years later, his sister died at forty-five, a spinster. Her life has been devoted to her father, who outlived her by three years. And when in 1933, plagued by senility and , the diseases of old age, William Steel Duranty died, he left a personal estate valued at merely £430, besides the house his daughter had left him – a pathetic come-down from his early days of opulence and plenty. Walter Duranty's only acknowledgement of his family in all of those years was a curt document notorized in Moscow, authorizing his father's solicitors to sell the house, take their fee, and send him the proceeds.

Publicly, he solved the problem once and for all in his autobiography, Search for a Key, by killing off his parents in a railway accident and orphaning himself at the age of ten, an only child.

It put an end to any unwelcome questions.

On leaving college, he spent several years touring, coming to ground in pre-World War-I Paris, after he had squandered an inheritance left him by his grandfather.

Bohemian and roue, Duranty secured a reputation as a cosmopolitan globe-trotter through his witty conversation and fluency in several languages. Despite his short stature and lack of good looks, he was never at a loss for female companionship, even after a train accident left him with a wooden leg. Head-up for money, Duranty persuaded Wythe Williams, head of the Paris bureau of The New York Times, to pay him to write a story about a Frenchman who was going to fly an airplane upside down. Three months later, on December 1, 1913, Duranty was hired by The New York Times. Duranty spent his days in Paris perfecting his journalistic technique, while his nights were devoted to dissolute meddling in hobbies that are today styled "New Age." A constant companion of Duranty in the pre-war "City of Light" was the occultist and black magician, Aleister Crowley, whom the Britsh press had dubbed "the Wickedest Man in the World." Crowley claimed other titles for himself, but preferred to be called "Beast 666."

One of Crowley's many female companions, Jane Cheron, performed the role of Scarlet Woman (as in the Book of Revelations) in Crowley's debauched rituals. Duranty was later to marry Cheron, although they rarely lived together. Marriage did not, of course, prevent him from perpetually chasing skirts, sometimes before his wife's eyes.

On December 31, 1913 Crowley began a series of 23 ritualistic ''workings'' of sex magic with Duranty and another partner named Victor Neuburg. Crowley was later to claim pompously that these "Paris workings" had been the "magical" cause of the First World War, a prelude to the new Aeon, the Age of Horus.[1] As for Duranty's opinion of the Paris rituals, Ms. Taylor reports that he ''would later say little, only that he no longer believed in anything."

Aleister Crowley and Jane Cheron were lifelong heroin addicts. Duranty, too, was quite partial to alcohol and drugs, being at one time addicted to opium, although in fairness his opium habit can be traced in part to recuperation for the accident which cost him his leg.

When the First World War began in August 1914, Duranty initially covered the war for The New York Times from the French capital. When he had gained sufficient professional experience, he was promoted to war correspondent, filing many dispatches on the horrors of trench warfare based on his visits to the front.

When Duranty began work as a reporter, his writing reflected the prevalent bias of English society. At the time of the First World War, his personal prejudices were as virulently anti-German as those of most other Englishmen: in his autobiographical I Write As I Please he later admitted to having written at least one falsified WWI propaganda story.

After the war, Duranty traveled through Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states, reporting on the poverty and revolutionary turmoil besetting war-torn Eastern Europe.

In 1920, famine began to ravage the Soviet Union, a direct result of the turmoil of the Revolution. Five to six million people starved to death or died from disease, a mass tragedy of the early years of Bolshevism which was to foreshadow the far greater evil to befall the Ukraine, North Caucasus and the Lower Volga a decade later.

The Soviet leadership sought financial aid from the West, ostensibly to aid victims of the famine, but in reality to secure the Red tyranny. One of the stipulations of Herbert Hoover's American Relief Association was that the Bolsheviks allow Western reporters into Russia. Maxim Litvonov, a Jew and prominent Bolshevik, later to become Soviet Foreign Minister, determined which journalists were granted visas. After some wrangling (he had written a few anti-Soviet articles earlier), Duranty was allowed into the Soviet Union as a reporter.

In the economic free-for-all of Lenin's short-lived New Economic Policy, Duranty was able to parlay his access to foreign currency into a house in Moscow, complete with English-style fireplace. He lived in luxury, particularly when compared to the average citizen in the "Worker's Paradise," and was able to purchase imported food, candies, cigarettes and razor blades. He owned an automobile and had a retinue of servants including a chauffeur, cleaning lady, secretary, cook, and mistress (Duranty's wife chose conveniently to live in France.)

Walter Duranty had also considerable travel privileges within the Soviet Union, and could of course leave the country for pleasure or business in Paris, New York and other world capitals. He learned to speak and read Russian, an invaluable skill for discovering what really went on in the Soviet Union. Soon enough, The New York Times's man in Moscow had many friends among the Soviet elite.

When Lenin died in January, 1924, a struggle for power ensued among the Bolshevist elite. Duranty shrewdly predicted that Stalin would come out on top.[2] During this period many pundits were forecasting that communism would not last, yet Duranty confidently predicted the survival of the Soviet system.

Duranty was among the earliest Western journalists to praise the Soviet crash programs that forced Marxism on the Russian people. He coined the infamous slogan "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs,"[3] which he was to use frequently in his writing. Inevitably, he was seen by many as an apologist for Soviet communism, and Duranty's detractors took to calling The New York Times "the Uptown Daily Worker."

In January an all-out drive to collectivize Soviet agriculture was announced in Pravda. On a trip to Central Asia that year, Duranty managed to see a trainload of exiled kulaks.[4] Transported in foul, wretchedly hot railroad cars with barred windows, Duranty described them as:

... more like caged animals than human beings, not wild beasts but dumb cattle, patient with suffering eyes. Debris and jetsam, victims of the March to Progress.[5]

Bolshevism was returning the peasant to a condition of servitude far more hideous than any Tsarist-era serfdom. Seeing such magnitude of mass suffering should have alerted Duranty to what was really happening in the Soviet Union, yet as Taylor details, Duranty quickly dismissed what he had seen, writing that he had "seen worse debris than that, trains full of wounded from the Front in France going back to be patched up for a fresh bout of slaughter."

In late 1930, Duranty was honored by being granted an interview with Stalin himself.[6] The author of Stalin's Apologist details how, with the publication of this exclusive interview with Stalin, Duranty became an international celebrity and one of the best-known journalists in the world.

Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for best news correspondent in 1932. Special citation was made of his dispatches dealing with the Soviet Five-Year Plan. In his acceptance speech he said that he had come "to respect the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, whom I consider to have grown into a really great statesman."[7]

During that year a debate was raging in the United States over recognition of the Soviet Union. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while campaigning for the presidency, invited Duranty to lunch to discuss the situation in the USSR.

While Walter Duranty was rubbing elbows with the powerful, a conspiracy of deliberate starvation was being implemented in the Soviet Union. One of the first to report the famine in Ukraine to the West was Andrew Cairns. In the spring of 1932 this young Canadian agricultural expert traveled through the grain-growing districts of southern Russia, reporting to his superiors on widespread food shortages and starvation. He was accompanied by D. Otto Schiller, an agricultural specialist attached to the German embassy in Moscow, who was fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian. Cairn's detailed letters describing the widespread suffering he had seen were made available to the highest levels of the British Government.

But Cairns's reports were never published by British authorities. J.S. Taylor reports:

Many years later, asked why he had not published the report on his own authority, Cairns would admit that he had been overly discouraged, even threatened, from doing so by powerful political figures of the Left in Great Britain whom he believed at the time could do him great harm. He named Beatrice Webb, specifically, who, with her husband Sidney, would praise the accomplishments of Stalin's Five-Year Plan in their massive, two-volume work Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?

Cairns's employer, the Empire Trading Board, went into liquidation, and Cairns did not return to the Soviet Union. Dr. Schiller published a "devastating" report in Germany, which resulted in his being immediately expelled from the Soviet Union.

During this period the Soviets were attempting to appropriate as much agricultural produce from the peasants as possible, to sell abroad. The foreign exchange thus obtained was used to finance heavy industry. In private conversations late in 1932 with William Strang, counsellor at the British Embassy in Moscow, Duranty confirmed that there was indeed a "present breakdown in [Soviet] agriculture." Duranty told Strang: "There are millions of people in Russia, peasants, whom it is fairly safe to leave in want. But the industrial proletariat, about 10 percent of the population, must at all costs be fed if the revolution is to be safeguarded."

Duranty filed a dispatch in December 1932 which described the situation in Soviet agriculture in negative terms. As a result Duranty was visited by powerful Soviet authorities, who upbraided him for his faithlessness. Fearful he would not be allowed back into Russia, Duranty postponed a trip to France (at this time Duranty's Soviet mistress, Katya, was pregnant with his child).

Taylor details how, at the end of 1932, the noose was steadily drawn around the collective neck of the Soviet peasant.[8] An international passport system was introduced which kept the starving kulaks from migrating to the cities. In the spring of 1933 a law was passed which forbade a peasant to leave the collective farm where he was employed ''without a contract from his future employers, ratified by the collective farm authorities." Duranty praised these measures, claiming they were designed "to purge the city of undesirable elements."

After two American newspapermen, William Stoneman of the Chicago Daily News and Ralph Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune, filed reports on the famine, the Soviet authorities instituted a ban on travel for foreign journalists.

Malcolm Muggeridge, a young English journalist for the Manchester Guardian with pro-Soviet sympathies, arrived in Moscow in September 1932. Soon he became disenchanted with the Soviet system. By late winter, 1933, reporters in Moscow were hearing rumors that the grain crop would be totally inadequate to feed the population. Muggeridge set off on his own, without permission, to investigate the situation.

At the end of March 1933 he published a series of articles in the Guardian confirming widespread famine. His reports had been delivered to England in the British diplomatic bag. Muggeridge wrote that "The famine is an organized one" and that it was "a military occupation; worse, active war." He wrote of "frequent cases of suicides and sometimes even of cannibalism ... the conditions would have been incredible to [Muggeridge] if he had not seen them with his own eyes."

The Guardian played down the stories and Muggeridge accused the editors of mutilating his accounts. Muggeridge was attacked by the left-leaning British establishment and blacklisted.

Several other journalists visited the stricken regions and honestly reported what they had seen. William Henry Chamberlin sent dispatches to The Christian Science Monitor and the Manchester Guardian. Gareth Jones traveled through the stricken area for three weeks. In a press conference in Berlin, a lecture in London, and finally in an article in the Guardian, Jones reported the mass starvation.

Alarmed at the publicity, Moscow applied strong pressure on Western journalists to contradict Jones' account. Duranty obligingly obeyed his masters and for the occassion again trotted out his "omelette" quote. His article was titled "Russians Hungry But Not Starving."[9]

But – to put it brutally – you can't make an omelette 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 order to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction.

Throughout 1933 Duranty continued to play down the extent of the famine. He claimed "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition ..."

In September of that year he reported that ''the use of the word famine in connection with the North Caucasus is a sheer absurdity." He wrote of "plump babies" and "fat calves." Maxim Litvinov found Duranty's words useful in deflecting a letter of inquiry from an American Congressman, Herman Kopelmann of Connecticut.

Shocking proof of the discrepancy between what Duranty reported and what he knew to be the truth is revealed in a September 30, 1933 British Embassy dispatch which reads in part:

According to Mr. Duranty the population of the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga had decreased in the past year by three million, and the population of the Ukraine by four to five million. The Ukraine has been bled white ... Mr. Duranty thinks it quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.

Newspaper readers did not get the unvarnished truth. What they got was evasion, cover-up and falsification.

Walter Duranty had reached the peak of international success and fame by selling out to a totalitarian regime and covering up one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century.

Malcolm Muggeridge was later to say that Duranty was "the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism." Stuart Alsop's verdict was that Duranty was "a fashionable prostitute" and "lying was his stock in trade."

Duranty was awarded for his mendacity by the American and Soviet establishment. He received permission to accompany Litvinov across the Atlantic on the S.S. Berengaria for negotiations leading to American recognition of the Soviet Union. Duranty was present at the November 18, 1933 press conference in which President Roosevelt proudly announced that the U.S. would recognize the U.S.S.R. Duranty was also among the guests of honor at a lavish dinner for 1,500 dignitaries at New York's Waldorf-Astoria.

Stalin granted Duranty a second exclusive interview on Christmas Day, 1933.[10]

There were to be other occasions when Walter Duranty would conspicuously serve as apologist for the Soviet regime. In 1936 a series of show trials and purges began against alleged opponents of the Stalinist regime.

In January 1937, sixteen prominent Soviet officials were accused of conspiring with Germany and Japan to overthrow the Soviet government. Trotsky, in exile in Mexico, was absurdly accused in absentia of plotting with the Nazis.

Public confession of guilt by many of the defendants astounded the West. Ms. Taylor writes:

Predictably, Western response to this second trial was one of confusion, and there was a half-willing reluctance to believe in the guilt of the accused. If the confessions were true, the reasoning went, it demonstrated that conditions within the country were so bad that avowed and dedicated Party members would conspire with Fascists to overthrow their own government. If untrue, the trials were an indictment of the entire system in the Soviet Union.

Duranty wrote in The New Republic that he believed the confessions to be true. Outraged, Trotsky directly attacked Duranty in a speech for his "psychological divinations." In 1938, at the last and largest of the trials, Nikolai Bukharin, a former member of the Politburo, condemned Duranty from the dock.

With the coming of World War II, The New York Times began to cut back on and centralize operations. Late in 1940, the Moscow bureau was closed down. At the end of that year, Walter Duranty's twenty-five years with The New York Times came to an end.

Duranty left his mistress Katya and their seven-year-old son Michael behind in Moscow. He did not make it easy for them to contact him. In 1948 Katya managed to get a letter through to him. In awkward English she wrote:

I don't believe it is possible to forget, that here, in Moscow growing up your only the son, that we lived together nearly for twenty years, that I gave you the best years of my life ... Could not you write to me something, or if you don't want to do that, for God knows what reason, you must send a letter to Mike. He is already 15 years old, he is not a child any longer and understands things very well. He wants to know and must know where his father is, why his father keeps silence for such a long time.

Although he occasionally sent a little money, Duranty never made an effort to see them again.

In the last years of his life Duranty lived in Hollywood and Florida. Until his death in 1957 he continued to write and lecture, although increasingly his political views were out of date.

Now, three and a half decades after Walter Duranty's death, the Soviet system is defunct, assigned to the garbage heap of history. What is astounding is that it managed to survive for seventy years.

J.S. Taylor's excellent book demonstrates how, in addition to Duranty, many Western journalists, "intellectuals," businessmen and diplomats ignored the crimes of Stalin and company. The New York Times, the so-called "Newspaper of Record," and scores of other publications suppressed the truth and spewed the Soviet line.

Nor did Western complicity in an apology for Soviet atrocities end with Stalin's death. At the 1945-46 show trials in Nuremberg, Germany, Allied apologists for Stalin worked hand-in-hand with the murderous functionaries who had created the Ukrainian famine, the show trials and the gulag. The same physical and mental torture techniques developed by Soviet commissars were used on Germans.

Even today, the "Nazi-hunting" office of Special Investigations hunts down and deports from America aged immigrants who served, often in their teenage years, as guards and other low-ranking functionaries of the Axis nations half a century ago, using information, evidence, and testimony originally supplied by the same henchmen who helped carry out Stalin's terror famine and his numerous other sanguinary crimes. Meanwhile, leading lieutenants, not infrequently Jewish, of Stalin and his successors live on untroubled, in the "postcommunist" Soviet Union or in Israel and the West, to be sent off with discreet obituaries in Duranty's old paper, The New York Times, when they finally expire. Clearly, for the media which dominates today's popular (and "informed") mentality, the duty of "memory" and the "demands of "justice" (as regards the "Holocaust") are not to be honored for far greater, and essentially unpunished, crimes of communism.

Marxism's deadly toll of human suffering would have been impossible without the complicity of thousands of apologists for Stalin. Walter Duranty was but a single sordid example. Many more biographies remain to be written. Much more revising of the lies and evasions of the Western Establishment's "Sovietologists," revision based on the public record of the past seventy-five years as well as the documents coming to light in Russian and other archives, lies before us.


[1]Only portions of two pages in Stalin's Apologist are devoted to a description of the ritual magic employed by Crowley and Duranty. For more information see the following source material listed by J.S. Taylor: Martin Starr's Sex &' Religion (Nashville, 1981), which contains a diary of the Paris workings, and John Symond's The Great Beast: The Life and Magick of Aleister Crowley (London: MacDonald, 1971).
Additional material on the relationship between Duranty, Crowley and Neuburg can be found in Francis King's The Magical World of Aleister Crowley (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1978).
The occultism practiced by Aleister Crowley appears repeatedly in the twentieth century as a sinister undercurrent of sociopolitical revolution. For a detailed, candid description of the history and method of this subversive philosophy by a knowledgeable adherent, see Peter Tompkin's The Magic of Obelisks (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), pages 309 through 462.
[2]Walter Duranty, "Five Men Directing Destiny of Russia," New York Times, January 18, 1923, p. 3.
[3]The "omelette" quotation first appeared in Duranty's mediocre poem "Red Square" in a two-page spread with six photographs in the September 18, 1932, NYT (VI: p. 10). The lines containing the "omelette" quotation read: "Russians may be hungry and short of clothes and comfort, But you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."
[4]The kulaks were "middle-ranked peasants" in Soviet agricultural regions. This "class" of farmer generally worked hard and owned enough land and livestock to be moderately prosperous (by Soviet standards).
[5]Walter Duranty, I Write As I Please (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1935), p. 288.
[6]Walter Duranty, "Stalin Sees Capitalists Drifting Surely to War," NYT, December 1, 1930. Duranty also wrote a follow-up article in The New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1931.
[7]"Musical Play Gets the Pulitzer Award; Mrs. Buck, Pershing, Duranty Honored," NYT, May 3, 1932, p. 1. Duranty expanded on this in an interview with John F. Roche. "Uninterpreted News of Russia Puzzles Prejudiced World, Says Duranty," Editor & Publisher, June 4, 1932.
[8]In the acknowledgements to Stalin's Apologist, S.J. Taylor credits Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) as a very important inspiration for her biography of Walter Duranty. The Harvest of Sorrow is the only thorough, complete account of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, and belongs in every Revisionist library.
[9]Walter Duranty, "Russians Hungry But Not Starving," NYT, March 31, 1933, p. 13.
[10]Walter Duranty, "Stalin Says Japan Is Great Danger, Hopes for Peace," NYT, December 28, 1933, p. 8.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Jack Wikoff
Title: Stalin's Apologist, Walter Duranty, Book Review
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 4 (winter 1991), pp. 479-489
Published: 1991-12-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 16, 2012, 6 p.m.
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