Fudging the news

J. Arch Getty

  • Stalin’s Apologist. Walter Duranty: The ‘New York Times’ Man in Moscow by S.J. Taylor
    Oxford, 404 pp, £15.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 19 505700 7

In the days before electronic media were able instantly to place each of us in any part of the world, foreign correspondents were our link with current events. We found out about wars, revolutions, floods and famines by reading the work of these colourful characters who, with their trenchcoats, typewriters and suitcases, moved from capital to capital sniffing out the news. Writers like H. R. Knickerbocker, Malcolm Muggeridge, Eugene Lyons, John Gunther and Walter Duranty were our eyes and cars in the world. The milieux in which these men functioned in the Twenties and Thirties were turbulent and romantic. Moving constantly between Paris, Berlin and Moscow, they knew each other; they frequented the same salons, bars, restaurants and press offices and moved through settings ranging from the bohemian to the formal and diplomatic. Often living out of suitcases in assorted hotels, they passed with apparent ease in and out of circles of opium-smokers, political conspirators, avant-garde artists and government officials.

Their romantic lives coloured their writing, and they wrote very well; but that didn’t make them experts on the countries they covered. Then as now, media correspondents were given overseas assignments regardless of whether they knew anything about the country to which they were posted. Often lacking knowledge of the country’s language, let alone its culture, reporters were little more than talented gossip-collectors who hung around embassy and government press offices or simply listened to the radio.

Walter Duranty stood out among his famous and talented colleagues. His brilliant convention and flamboyant lifestyle made him a legendary figure; and the fact that he had a wooden leg and a cane only added to his panache. Born in Liverpool in 1884 and educated at Bedford School and Cambridge, Duranty spent several years in Paris, where he dabbled in Satanism, opium and orgies. The First World War caught him there: he landed a job as a reporter for the New York Times covering the war in France (his association with the NY Times was to last 25 years). His dramatic style brought him a post as the NY Times man in Moscow after the war, and on and off for nearly twenty years he was to be the dean of Western reporters in the Soviet Union.

Reporting from Moscow has never been easy, but in Duranty’s time it was often a weary struggle. The country had just emerged from the most violent revolution in modern times. The economy had collapsed, and everyday things like finding lodgings and getting a telephone took on the character of major campaigns, assuming, of course, that one could get the new Soviet government to issue an entry visa. Once the reporter was installed, he found that traditional Russian suspicion of foreigners, reinforced by enmity between the Soviet Government and Western powers, made it difficult to cover the news. Officials were generally reluctant to talk to the Western press except in the most official settings. Travel around the country was difficult and sometimes impossible to arrange. News stories, once written, had to pass the gauntlet of official Soviet censors before they could be wired home. Although these officials were often obtuse and their censorship criteria sometimes opaque, reporters had no choice but to accept their editing because defiance would lead to a revocation of credentials and expulsion from the Soviet Union.

Moscow reporters also had to contend with professional competition and backbiting. Duranty was constantly undermined in the New York Times home office by jealous rivals and an unsympathetic editor who cut his stories and tried to call the shots from America. In Moscow, although there was a certain camaraderie among the Western reporters, there was also vicious competition. Exacerbated by ideological differences, this competition led to tedious quarrels. It was a situation in which a group of amateur Russia-watchers were paid to compete for a very scarce commodity: reliable information.

Even so, reporters in Moscow spent as much time talking to each other as to Russians. They congregated in the few open bars, restaurants and nightclubs exchanging gossip and debating the meaning of mysterious Politburo manoeuvres. In this setting, Duranty shone. After a short time, he was the Western reporter with the longest experience in Moscow (actually he’d only been there since l921) and was regarded as the resident Russia expert. He often led the toasting in the Western bars, where his effusive style and willingness to hold forth on any subject made him the centre of attention, inspiring both admiration and revulsion in those around him.

Duranty’s fame and success in Russia derived from two factors: his engaging style and his ability to make more good guesses than the others. Official obstacles, and their own lack of knowledge meant that Duranty and the other Western journalists were often reduced to playing hunches. Reputations, Duranty’s included, were made and broken largely by their ability to guess correctly. Duranty usually pushed heretical, minority views against those of his colleagues and was right more often than he was wrong, at least in the early years. In 1921, he was one of the few Western observers to assert that the new Soviet regime would last. He was practically alone in predicting Trotsky’s fall and was the first to claim that the obscure Stalin was the man to watch. In the process, he coined the word ‘Stalinism’. Duranty was also one of the very few experts who predicted in the dark days of December 1941, with the Nazis at the gates of Moscow, that the Soviet Union would win the war. He was usually right about the twists and turns of the regime’s economic policies and was able to explain them to his readers and fellow reporters.

His style and apparent prescience (one admiring colleague said that Duranty had the ability to look through brick walls) made him a famous man. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting of the first Five-Year Plan, was granted an early and exclusive interview with Stalin, and in the early Thirties was celebrated in Europe and America as a genius.

Sometimes, however, he either took things too much at face value or was just plain wrong. Thus he tended to play down the regime’s violence against the peasantry during the collectivisation drive of 1929-33, writing that the Bolsheviks were utopians trying to turn Russia into a modern country and observing, as Stalin did, that to make an omelette one had to break eggs. He believed the regime when it accused engineers and foreigners of ‘wrecking’ at show trials in 1928, 1933 and 1937-38, and loudly claimed that the defendants got what they deserved. He accepted the Stalinists’ claim that the purges of the late Thirties were justifiable as a means to rid the Soviet Union of a potential ‘Fifth Column’ on the eve of war, and he blamed the ‘excesses’ on Stalin’s police henchman Nikolai Yezhov. The present book, though, largely revolves around Duranty’s biggest gaffe: his early denial and subsequent ambiguity on the disastrous Soviet famine of 1932.

Duranty’s sympathy for the Soviet Union didn’t derive from any belief in socialism. He was an élitist at heart: Soviet collectivism and Communism never appealed to him as moral or political philosophies. Similarly, he had no special place in his heart for the Russian people. He had no sympathy for what he saw as the inertia and fatalism of the Slavic ‘soul’ and was often snide in his remarks about Russians in general. Far from being a simple apologist, he reported the bad with the good when it came to government policy and didn’t try to mask the failures. What simple sycophant would write a poem like ‘Red Square’ with the lines:

And nothing could be more appropriate to present conditions in the Soviet Union,
Than the monstrous, empty Departmental store which fills the opposite side.
New and vast, utilitarian, ugly like the Soviet state.

What Duranty respected was the regime’s modernising zeal. ‘In a bare quarter-century,’ he wrote, ‘the USSR has accomplished ages of growth. The most ignorant and backward of all the white nations has moved into the forefront of social, economic and political consciousness. Its obsolete agricultural system has been modernised and mechanised ... its illiterate masses have been educated.’ Not surprisingly, given this view, he saw the beginnings of Stalin’s agricultural collectivisation as a progressive undertaking. Like many others both inside and outside the Soviet Union, he believed that modernising Russian agriculture was a necessary precondition to modernising the whole country. When the policy produced violence and brutality, Duranty dutifully reported it but always using words like ‘excesses’ and ‘unavoidable’.

By 1932, Stalinist policies combined with bad weather to produce a catastrophic famine in the Soviet Union. Regime spokesmen flatly denied rumours of starvation and mass deaths and prevented Western reporters from visiting the countryside. Nevertheless, a few intrepid reporters and foreign travellers saw enough to paint a picture of disaster: scenes of bloated babies and people dying in the villages engendered a sense of calamity in most of them. Duranty’s dispatches, however, discredited the stories of mass starvation. Although he occasionally allowed that there was ‘localised’ hunger and more deaths than might be expected, he continued to dismiss stories of millions of deaths as ‘bunk’.

If this were all, we might simply say he’d guessed wrong. But according to S.J. Taylor, there was more to it. It seems that while Duranty was downplaying the famine, he was openly telling a British Embassy official and others that as many as ten million people might have died. Moreover, he conspired with the Soviet press liaison, the ubiquitous Konstantin Oumanskii, and other reporters to frame dispatches attacking those Westerners who tried to push the story. So, while he was writing one thing, he knew the truth to be very different. This breach of journalistic ethics is at the moral centre of a moral book.

Taylor has written a complete account of Duranty’s life, making use of all his published and unpublished writings, his personal letters, interviews with his contemporaries, and a variety of other sources. Her book is careful in its research and closely documented throughout, even down to the weather in Liverpool on the day Duranty was born. Taylor offers us a Duranty who is all too human. His alcoholism, womanising, occasional laziness, and selfishness are exposed – and used to explain what the author believes to be Duranty’s inherent dishonesty. Taylor does not like Duranty very much. Not that she necessarily should, but sometimes the book has a disparaging and preachy tone. The first chapter, ‘Liars go to Hell’, describes his negative reaction to a grandmother who uttered the saying: perhaps he became a liar in reaction to her? The book goes into great detail on the alleged drug and sex debauchery of Duranty’s early Paris days and never misses a chance to comment on his uninhibited sex life. Maybe it is because I live in California, but Duranty’s escapades, which inspire such censure from the author, seem rather tame today, and may have seemed so in the roaring Twenties.

Taylor is hard on Duranty, and it can sometimes seem as if he had practically no redeeming features. He was, we are told, a leech on his friends, a disloyal colleague and an unfaithful husband. He is described as selfish, conceited and cold: ‘This would always be beyond him, the ability to imagine what others were suffering.’ For Taylor, an expression of generosity from Duranty was a ‘curious gesture’. This despite his efforts to organise refugee relief, his touching support of John Gunther as he lost his son to cancer, and the testimonies from juniors that he was ‘kind’ and ‘considerate’. We sometimes get grudging respect for his writing, but even then it is often ‘theatrical’, ‘stagey’, or better, ‘not half-bad’.

In his latter years, Duranty was a troubled man. His stories were not selling, his drinking became worse, and most of his friends abandoned him. For a while, he was successful on the speakers’ circuit in America, but even that came to nothing as his ‘pink’ views were more and more marginalised by the Cold War. He bounced around the country from friend to friend (and woman to woman) trying to scratch out a living in a post-war world that had passed him by. Despite everything, I found it hard not to feel sorry for a man who had fallen so low and would die in poverty. Taylor, however, does not find it hard at all. In these later chapters, one senses a kind of satisfaction that Duranty got his due for a life of sin and dishonesty; he remains a simple buffoon, a bossy drunk – and ugly with it.

  By now, he was bald, so much that it looked as if a swimming cap had been stretched across the top of his head. His sad sack face appeared distinctly unreal ... His nose was large and prominent. His eyes ... added to the appearance of self-parody. With a slightly pathetic expression on his face ... he seemed a caricature of the man he once was.

What puzzles Taylor is that so many women were willing to ‘leap into his bed’.

Walter Duranty was a complex man, as the author clearly shows. What is less clear in an otherwise good book is the complexity of the times. It is easy from our vantage-point to hold Duranty to a strict standard of moral conduct. But our choices were not his. In the Thirties, the world was reeling under a depression which threatened to destroy civilisation. Fascism had reared its ugly head in Asia and in Europe and the Western democracies were unable or unwilling to respond. To Duranty and others, the Soviet Union seemed to offer a stark contrast. With full employment and an array of social services, a country of poor people was trying to pull itself up by its bootstraps and to move into the 20th century. Duranty was attracted to this process for pragmatic reasons: ‘What I want to know is whether a policy or a political line or regime will work or not.’ He refused ‘to be sidetracked by moral issues or to sit in judgment on the acts of individuals or states’. While we may never know exactly what he believed, many others believed that in those circumstances giving the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt was a moral good in itself, and joining the ranks of professional anti-Soviets was not.

When Duranty slanted the news of the 1932 famine, he was working to influence American public opinion in order to facilitate diplomatic recognition of the USSR. (The US State Department found lurid reports on the famine ‘unhelpful’.) When he accepted the need for the purges, he was explicitly and implicitly championing the Soviet Union against Fascism. As Duranty and his contemporaries saw it, much was at stake and only a few were, like him, in a position to do anything about it. Would Duranty’s expulsion from the Soviet Union (the certain result of starkly anti-Soviet dispatches on the famine) have represented a moral step forward to those who thought as he did? Would the expulsion of the person whose judgment Averell Harriman found so penetrating have been an unqualified victory? For Taylor, and perhaps for most of us, adopting what we see as a principled stand and taking the lumps seems virtuous. But Duranty lived in different times and felt different pressures. Then as now, principles had to be balanced. To call him and his kind liars and simple apologists may not be wrong, but it is too easy.