How war reporter Walter Duranty covered up a Kremlin-created famine

The British playboy who was Stalin’s Stooge: How war reporter Walter Duranty covered up a Kremlin-created famine that killed millions and allowed the Left to continue worshipping a mass murderer

  • Walter Duranty, veteran correspondent on WWI, was a top authority on the USSR
  • British-born journalists shrewd assessments of Bolsheviks made headlines
  • He covered up a famine caused when the Soviets confiscated grain in 1932 – 33 

When he wasn’t in St Tropez basking in the sun, or at the horse racing in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, the New York Times man in Moscow could usually be found at the bar of the Russian capital’s Metropol hotel.

A veteran correspondent of the First World War, Walter Duranty became, in the early 1930s, widely recognised as the top authority on the Soviet Union.

The British-born journalist’s shrewd assessments of Bolshevik power struggles were front-page news for at least a dozen years. He was the best-known newspaperman in the world, credited with gaining diplomatic recognition in the US for the fledgling Soviet state and – while the Western world was mired in economic depression – for lauding Stalin’s Five-Year Plans as models of efficiency.

The West believed Duranty’s assessment of the ‘triumphs’ of Communism. But his cover-up of a man-made famine – in 1932 and 1933, when the Russian dictator confiscated food from Ukrainian farmers, causing the deaths of millions – led him to be described as Stalin’s apologist.

Walter Duranty covered up a famine in the USSR between 1932 and 1933 which was caused  when Russia confiscated grain from Ukrainian farmers

Despite the loss of his left leg in a train accident, Duranty possessed an extraordinary attraction for women. Short, bald and unprepossessing, he seemed an unlikely sex symbol. But young American students hovered around him like rock stars’ groupies, hoping to engage his attention.

And they often succeeded, despite his having a Russian mistress discreetly at home in Moscow and a French wife, even more discreetly at a villa on the French Riviera.

In the recently released film Mr Jones, Duranty is the villain – pursuing exotic pleasures even as he covers up the genocidal famine. Gareth Jones, the Mr Jones of the film’s title, was a young Welshman who, on a three-week walking trip to Ukraine, discovered a population starving to death and reported it to the Western press. As improbable as his story must appear, it is based on actual events. But for almost 100 years, the famine has been largely forgotten, or ignored by those who knew it happened but dismissed it as an inconvenient truth. So who was Duranty?

As a boy, he had to leave Harrow School when his family suffered a reversal in fortune. He transferred to a less prestigious public school, Bedford, with a scholarship – extremely talented but deeply embittered by his exclusion from the ruling classes where he believed he belonged. He went on to study at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and graduated in Classics with honours. Spending time next in the seedy underworld of Paris, he befriended Aleister Crowley, the self-styled ‘Beast 666’, who dabbled in psycho-sexual seances and black magic.

Duranty wrote poems that were chanted at the ceremonies: ‘People upon the worlds, are like maggots upon an apple. All forms of life bred upon the worlds are in the nature of parasites.’ In Paris, he became a regular smoker of opium. He married Crowley’s discarded mistress, Jane Cheron, an opium addict herself conveniently in possession of a small fortune. He managed to wean himself off the drug but Cheron succumbed to her addiction.

At the start of the First World War, Duranty turned up at the Paris offices of the New York Times and so impressed bureau chief Wythe Williams that he was engaged as a stringer and later a war correspondent. He possessed writing skills that amazed Williams and the editors back home. His talent not only provided a good living but also served to keep Duranty out of the fighting, though he later said that in the face of so much death and self-sacrifice, he was ‘not over proud’ to be among the living.

Children starving in the famine pictured in Golodomor, Kiev. Duranty was considered an authority on the Soviet Union in the early 1930s

The fighting he observed in his first year of covering the war accounted for his ambivalence towards moral and ethical issues. In his own words, he felt ‘a measure of indifference to blood and squalor and fear and pity. Sudden death would become a commonplace, and vermin a joke’.

It was an attitude that came in handy when he later covered the rise of the Bolshevik regime.

Having gone to Moscow, Duranty was accompanied by Cheron but she soon returned home to the more suitable French Riviera.

Duranty and Gareth Jones met in the Russian capital in the spring of 1933. By then Duranty was not just a thrill-seeker who enjoyed moments of depravity (in the film, he’s depicted naked at a party where young Russian girls are on offer and heroin in hypodermic needles is served on a silver salver) but a sophisticated, world-weary intellectual who sought his pleasures in the imaginative moral turpitude of the age.

The genesis of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 was sown in Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan. The Russian dictator dreamed of an industrialised nation, competitive with the great powers of the world. But whereas the Industrial Revolution in England and elsewhere had been relatively slow, Stalin required speed. He wanted dams, grand edifices and triumphant monuments, and most of all, he wanted armaments. But how was he to finance this plan and feed the heroic workers of industry? The answer was collective agriculture. Farmers in the great breadbasket of Ukraine were to have their farms confiscated and be forced to join huge collectives where they would work, in effect, as slaves for their room and board. Any excess produce and grain would be sold abroad to finance Stalin’s grand plan.

Stalin is pictured above having tea with his children. Duranty said he had grown into a fine statesman while ruler of the Soviet Union

In defiance, many farmers destroyed their animals and burned the grain they’d grown rather than cave in to the diktats of the Soviet state. And for a brief period, some gorged themselves on their grain and farm animals, slaughtering them wholesale, rather than see their hard-won profits go to Stalin’s state machine. In any case, they reasoned, what could Stalin possibly do to retaliate? Starve them all to death?

Stalin had always been suspicious of the so-called ‘kulaks’, a class of prosperous peasants scapegoated as the cause of trouble in Russia.

Classed as farmers who owned as many as three cows, some chickens and a few acres of land for an average family of seven, they were targeted for extinction and called ‘bloodsuckers’ or ‘vermin’. Three years before the actual famine, there was a widespread deportation of as many as five million kulaks to Siberia. One of the few records kept of ‘the liquidation of the kulaks as a class’ was a report from the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Deportees were stripped of their shoes and clothes, crowded into carriages and dropped in Siberia. Once there, they were abandoned without shelter in extreme cold and ordered to build dwellings. Many did so by working almost around the clock, without sleep so they wouldn’t freeze to death. Inevitably, most died – their numbers replenished by the arrival of new deportees.

Ironically, those who were deported turned out to be the ‘lucky ones’. Those left behind were fated to become the victims of slow death by starvation in the famine. The symptoms of starvation are harrowing. There is a brooding for nourishment, a psychological obsession, which leads to involuntary movement of the jaws, as if chewing. The gums turn white, the skin grey, suggesting a disease more like leprosy than hunger. There is an unnatural ageing that causes even children to look old. As the body shrinks, the eyes become large and unfocused, bulging and immobile.

Children’s bodies swell and their stomachs distend hugely. Festering sores appear, and the diarrhoea associated with starvation begins.

As the body consumes itself, there are sometimes hallucinations and other symptoms of madness.

Once this stage begins, cannibalism is frequent. In Ukraine, there were many reports of parents eating their own children.

Stalin meets Churchill at the Livedia Palace, Yalta, for a summit in February 1945

In the film Mr Jones, this is shown when Welshman Jones is given a meal in which a family of children have stripped away the flesh of their dead brother.

Although there is no evidence this particular event actually occurred, it is used as a filmic device to show the horrors of starvation to a generation who have never known hunger.

Yet, outrageously, Duranty wrote to a friend in June 1933: ‘The famine is mostly bunk.’

This letter was written after Jones’s eyewitness accounts of starvation and cannibalism in Ukraine. Jones’s dispatches had been published by the Manchester Guardian in March, and the newspaper had earlier printed similar accounts by Malcolm Muggeridge, the only other person to write about famine in Ukraine.

Muggeridge, later best known as a born-again Christian and television presenter, had travelled with his wife Kitty to the Soviet Union. He had passed through Ukraine and witnessed the rotten core of ‘Paradise’.

Those travelling by train were prevented from seeing the full extent of the starvation of the populace by the simple expedient of being ordered to pull down the carriage blinds.

But Muggeridge, like Jones, witnessed the bleak, empty countryside and bodies left to rot along the road. On his return home, he published several harrowing accounts.

He wrote: ‘At a railway station early one morning, I saw a line of people with their hands tied behind them, being herded into cattle trucks at gunpoint – all so silent and mysterious and horrible in the half light, like some macabre ballet.’

For his troubles, Muggeridge was sacked by the Manchester Guardian and found himself for a long while unable to get work in Britain.

The disturbing fact was that people in the West believed Duranty’s published denials of a famine and, in particular, the Left was not inclined to reverse the accepted party line. Indeed, the prominent Socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb excoriated Muggeridge for his abandonment of ‘the great experiment’. A defiant Duranty attacked both Muggeridge and Jones, saying that the latter, like so many others before him, was predicting ‘the smash of the Soviet Regime’ and his reports were those of a foolish young man.

But Jones, who had a First in Russian Studies from Cambridge and had been personal secretary to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, stoutly defended himself.

He said he pitied journalists – such as Duranty – who had been turned into ‘masters of euphemism and understatement’. Hence, ‘they give “famine” the polite name of “food shortage”, while “starving to death” was described as “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition” ’.

Given his pro-Stalin views, perhaps it was not surprising that, in September 1933, Duranty was the first of the Moscow press corps to be permitted by the Soviet authorities to go into the affected areas. Duranty duly reported: ‘Early last year, under the pressure of the war danger in the Far East, the authorities took too much grain from the Ukraine. Meanwhile, a large number of peasants thought they could change the Communist Party’s collectivisation policy by refusing to co-operate.

‘Those circumstances… produced a very poor harvest last year. The situation in the winter was undoubtedly bad.’

It was an admission of sorts. But he was still in denial.

However, was this what he really believed?

Returning to Moscow, Duranty gave a secret report to officials at the British Embassy.

He told them: ‘The Ukraine had been bled white. The peasants were dying off like flies.’ Houses stood open, corpses were stacked up. He estimated it was ‘entirely possible that as many as ten million people may have died’.

Duranty’s estimate of the numbers was the highest recorded of the Ukraine famine.

His duplicity is a mystery. Many have speculated as to his motives in covering up genocide. But no one who knew him considered him ‘a fellow traveller’, a true believer in Stalinism.

Could it have been something as simple as the desire to identify himself with the ruling classes? Or to see himself as the judge of history? Or was it simple arrogance?

The closest we can come to understanding his motivation is in his acceptance statement in 1932 for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize –awarded for ‘the most disinterested and meritorious public service rendered by any American newspaper during the preceding year’.

He said: ‘I went to the Baltic states viciously anti-Bolshevik. It was then widely believed that the Bolsheviks were enemies of the human race… [But] I discovered they were enthusiasts, trying to regenerate a people that had been shockingly misgoverned and I decided to give them their fair break.

‘I still believe they are the best for the Russian masses… but more and more I am convinced it is unsuitable for the United States and Western Europe.’ He added that he had learned ‘to respect the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, whom I consider to have grown into a really great statesman’.

If, on the other hand, he had bravely taken a stand against Stalin, he might now be recognised as one of the century’s great uncompromising reporters. But he did not.

PS: The New York Times has never rescinded his Pulitzer Prize. Although it conceded that his work, ‘measured by today’s standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short’, there was ‘not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception’.

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