Walter Duranty, the New York Times journalist who won a Pulitzer for covering up Stalin's genocide

He wrote to hide the truth and whitewash two of humanity's cruelest worst episodes: the Holodomor and the Great Purge.

"The excellent harvest that is about to be harvested proves that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or an evil propaganda" - Walter Duranty, from the Soviet Union, in August 1933

The structure of a totalitarian regime to guarantee its survival undoubtedly needs a shameless propaganda apparatus composed of journalists open to bribes. These journalists are responsible for spreading the version of the State, "of power," as unwavering truth not only to citizens but to the world.

Typically, these media outlets are radio stations, television stations or newspapers appropriated and managed by officials or those close to the regime. However, these systems are easy to detect, making their propaganda somewhat ineffective. Therefore, the best propaganda is the one that sneaks through and works in the award-winning and respected traditional press. This is how one man, Walter Duranty (1884-1957), correspondent of the New York Times in Moscow for fourteen years, was able to whitewash and bring to the world disinformation about the Holodomor, Stalin's genocide in Ukraine, where around 7 million people died.

Duranty was not a rookie journalist. He had achieved fame for his work as a Times correspondent in World War I. In fact, by 1921, Duranty had just moved to Moscow to cover the birth of the Soviet Union, harshly criticizing Bolshevik policies and doing serious work during the Lenin years.

However, time passed, and Duranty did not progress professionally. His articles were read, of course, but his notoriety was low, or at least not enough for him. But, suddenly, complete with a very comfortable apartment and a luxury car in which he rode through the streets of Moscow, Duranty saw his journalistic career skyrocket thanks to a couple of exclusive and unpublished interviews conducted with Stalin himself.

After these "exclusives," Duranty began to receive privileged "information" from the regime and became famous in the rest of the world thanks to his unprecedented reports published in the New York Times from the unknown USSR.

Photo by journalist Walter Duranty / Wikimedia Commons
Photo by journalist Walter Duranty / Wikimedia Commons

His chronicles from Moscow began to be distributed in the leading international newspapers, including in Spanish. Duranty was no longer just an established journalist but became a kind of celebrity at the time, an authority who informed about the distant Soviet Union in the Western press.

Unfortunately, he spoke to hide the truth and whitewash two of humanity's worst episodes: the Holodomor and the Great Purge.

A cruel lie portrayed in the Western press

"He is the personification of evil in journalism." This is how Ukrainian-American activist Oksana Piaseckyj describes Walter Duranty, who arrived in the United States in 1950, 17 years after Ukraine suffered the consequences of the terrible famine generated by the radical policies of the Soviet regime.

The famine in the Ukrainian territory came thanks to the process of collectivization of lands promoted by Stalin in his famous first five-year plan (1928-1932). By 1930, according to the memoirs of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, obtained exclusively by the Spanish ABC newspaper in 1970, 90% of agricultural land was collectivized, and rural households converted into communal farms. The food disappeared in a matter of months; there was no wheat or anything edible. The renowned Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, the first reporter to bring the truth about the Holodomor to the West under his own name, described what he saw in Ukraine as follows: "I walked through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry: 'There is no bread. We're dying.'"

However, the Times correspondent himself, who despised and discredited Jones' work for a long time and used his influence and prestige to expel him from the USSR, fiercely defended the Stalinist regime throughout this famine process, even justifying and trivializing the regime's repressive brutality with frivolous comments: "To put it brutally ... You can't make an omelet without breaking the eggs."

The journalistic war between Duranty and Jones is synthesized in the film "Mr. Jones" (2019), directed by the Polish Agnieszka Holland and starring the British James Norton.

In the ABC newspaper, a fierce criticism of Walter Duranty can be found, "It is impossible that he did not have any kind of information about that extermination, even living in his crystal bubble. In the first place, because even ABC could tell it from Spain, even knowing that the Russian regime enjoyed the sympathies of the government of the Second Republic."

In 1933, this important Spanish newspaper exclusively published a letter from Tolstoy's daughter where she denounced the savagery of the Soviet regime: "For fifteen years the Russian people have suffered from slavery, hunger and cold. The Bolshevik government continues to oppress him and takes away his wheat and other products that he sends abroad because he needs money. It does so not only to buy machinery but to make communist propaganda all over the world. And if peasants protest and hide wheat for their starving families, they are shot."

The 'highly recognized' work of Walter Duranty

How was Walter Duranty's work received in the West? In the best possible way. Duranty wrote 13 articles in 1931 analyzing the Soviet Union under Stalin and was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize, a distinction bestowed especially for his reviews of the radical transformation of economic and social structures during Stalin's collectivizations.

The first of that series of articles appeared on the front page and its first lines read: "Today's Russia cannot be judged by Western criteria or interpreted in Western terms." Duranty used this approach to sneak his Stalinist propaganda into the pages of the New York Times for decades.

However, even though the figure of Walter Duranty had already been exposed as a farce before the eyes of the world, to this day, the organization that awards the Pulitzer Prize still does not dare to withdraw the prize for his tendentious work in Moscow.

In a statement published on its website, the New York Times criticizes Duranty's legacy as its chief correspondent during that time and accepts responsibility for publishing and keeping him on their payroll for as long as they did.

Some of Duranty's editors criticized his reporting as biased, but the Times kept him on as a correspondent until 1941. Since the 1980s, the newspaper has publicly acknowledged its failures. Ukrainian-American and other organizations have repeatedly called on the Pulitzer Prize Board to cancel Duranty's prize and the Times to return it, primarily because of its subsequent failure to report on the famine.

The New York Times on Duranty's journalistic legacy

However, the Times has its own story because, ultimately, it is the paper's responsibility that Duranty, for years, was able to sneak Stalinist propaganda into its pages with enough evidence to the contrary in the Western press. If Walter Duranty could deceive the world, it was in considerable measure, thanks to the Times board, due to its editors' lack of firmness and to the institution's general malpractice.

Despite all this, on two occasions, the Pulitzer Board refused to withdraw the award from the New York Times and Walter Duranty. The first time was in 1990 with the excuse that "it was granted in a different era and under different circumstances," and the most recent in 2003, because they found "no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception."

Due to this inaction against the whitewashing of Stalin's horrors, the "journalist" who concealed one of the worst genocides in history still holds a prize that, in theory, rewards journalistic excellence.