Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Walter Duranty denied widespread reports of millions of starving Russians during the height of the Communist-enforced famine of 1932-1933. Duranty’s news stories deliberately hid the worst of the Stalinist regime and undermined his own journalistic career once the truth of the famine became known.

Summary of Event

On March 31, 1933, The New York Times published a news story by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Walter Duranty that dismissed an earlier article detailing famine in the Soviet Union. That earlier article, written by a young British journalist, Gareth Jones, described widespread famine throughout the southern and central portions of the Soviet Union. In challenging Jones’s story, Duranty was putting his prestige behind the patently false contention that Soviet leader Stalin, Joseph Joseph Stalin was not engaged in deliberate and widespread famine, which would kill millions of Russians. Duranty, Walter Jones, Gareth New York Times Communism;Soviet Soviet Union [kw]New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine (Mar. 31, 1933) [kw]Soviet Famine, New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a (Mar. 31, 1933) Duranty, Walter Jones, Gareth New York Times Communism;Soviet Soviet Union [g]Europe;Mar. 31, 1933: New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine[00550] [g]Russia;Mar. 31, 1933: New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine[00550] [g]Soviet Union;Mar. 31, 1933: New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine[00550] [c]Publishing and journalism;Mar. 31, 1933: New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine[00550] [c]Corruption;Mar. 31, 1933: New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine[00550] [c]Politics;Mar. 31, 1933: New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine[00550] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Mar. 31, 1933: New York Times Reporter Denies Reports of a Soviet Famine[00550] Lyons, Eugene Muggeridge, Malcolm

Walter Duranty reading the Soviet newspaper Pravda in 1925.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Duranty was an experienced journalist who had reported on Russian Russian Revolution and Soviet affairs since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He was one among a contingent of foreign reporters, including several American and British socialists who looked favorably on the Stalinist regime. Among these reporters were the British socialist Malcolm Muggeridge, who was writing articles for the Manchester Guardian, and his colleague, Jones, a twenty-seven-year-old reporter whose aggressive style produced some of the best articles on the Soviet famine. Duranty, writing for The New York Times, was joined by another American, Eugene Lyons, who shared Duranty’s pro-Soviet views and defended him against the British journalists.

The Soviet Union was a totalitarian nightmare, as Stalin, Joseph Stalin’s regime engaged in wholesale murder through the twin strategies of starvation and exile. The Stalinist policies were at their fiercest during the early 1930’s, as the government forced collectivization on millions of people. The Communist Party sought to eliminate private property ownership by confiscating grain and cattle and by forcing peasants to join communes. As a result, Russian farmers limited grain production to what they needed to feed their families and slaughtered their herds to prevent their cattle from falling into government hands. Widespread hunger followed, and by 1930, many of the country’s rural villages were suffering through a deep famine.

Even while the famine was spreading in 1929-1930, Duranty assumed the role of Stalinist propagandist rather than neutral journalist. Just as the Soviet killing machine began exiling, starving, or executing middle-class Russian peasants, Duranty praised collectivization and wrote about the ecstatic desire of Russian peasants to join the new collective farms. Duranty explained away failures by relying on the Communist Party line of denouncing as terrorists the farmers who resisted collectivization. He claimed any starvation that occurred was the result of either the backward Russian peasants adhering to outdated ideas or the lazy peasants who refused to work and fulfill their duties within the new communist paradise.

The 1931 and 1932 famine brought out the worst in Duranty’s reporting. As the Soviet Union descended into widespread starvation, Duranty defended the Soviet system and policies, noting the government recognized and accepted that some deaths were necessary to bring about the revolution promised by Lenin, Vladimir Illich Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Stalin, Joseph Stalin. Duranty also blamed reports about starvation on Nazi propaganda. A report from Riga, Latvia, described tens of thousands of deaths each day from starvation and bands of Russian peasants roaming the countryside in search of food. Again, Duranty denied the truth of the report, dismissing it as either propaganda or mistaken reporting.

In the middle of the suffering, Duranty traveled through Ukraine, where the worst of the famine was killing tens of thousands of people daily. Duranty’s reports from the southern city of Rostov resembled Soviet propaganda pieces, as he wrote of happy workers toiling for the advancement of world socialism. Sticking carefully to the Potemkin-like communal farms created just for Western visitors, Duranty denounced the reports of suffering as absurd and those who made the reports as tools of anti-Soviet propaganda.

Faced with actual signs of suffering in cities such as Kharkov, Duranty claimed the famine was the result of poor planning by Communist officials rather than a deliberate policy of using food to force farmers off their land. Again describing collectivization efforts in terms of military conflict, Duranty left out the reality that the soldiers in the battle were land-owning peasants who were starving by the millions.

Duranty was producing articles with surrealistic titles such as “Masses in Soviet Look to Future” (December, 1932), “Russians Hungry, but Not Starving” (March 31, 1933), and “Soviet Hopes High as Industry Gains” (July, 1933). His denial of the Russian famine in 1933 included his famous comparison of Soviet policies to making an omelet, both requiring the breaking of eggs.

Impact

Duranty’s misplaced optimism about the Soviet system was not shared by all of his colleagues. Muggeridge traveled into the rural areas and composed three stories detailing the gruesome effects of the famine, though his stories were ignored. Later, Muggeridge described Duranty as the most dishonest journalist he had ever known. Duranty also had his defenders, including Lyons, who shared his fellow American’s positive views of the Communist state. However, even Duranty had second thoughts, telling officials in the British embassy that some ten million people had starved, a startling admission considering the upbeat stories he was producing for The New York Times.

Duranty’s willingness to abandon journalistic ethics and become a Western propagandist for the Soviets has been attributed to internal and external pressures on the reporter. Seeking information on the Soviet Union that he could send to his editors, he realized any articles overly critical of the regime would lead him to being expelled from the country and being blocked from return. The Soviet government’s tight control of information forced reporters to cooperate with Communist officials to receive any information, true or false. His most notorious article, the one that denied the existence of famine (March 31, 1933), was prompted by a Soviet threat to exclude any anti-Soviet reporter from access to the trial of four British citizens accused of economic sabotage. Eager to report the story, Duranty surrendered his independence in exchange for personal glory and fame.

There also were personal reasons for Duranty’s behavior. He was married to a Russian woman and had a son with her. Because his wife and son were Soviet citizens, they could be forced to remain in the country if Duranty were expelled. The reporter also had less ethical reasons for his actions. Western reporters were granted housing and food well beyond what the average Soviet citizen received. Duranty enjoyed these perks even more than his colleagues, and while married, he had a succession of mistresses, all of them government informants eager to spread Soviet propaganda. This made him more susceptible to Soviet pressure to write progovernment stories.

Duranty’s biased reporting earned him praise from many in the West who favored Communism and supported Stalin. The true nature of Stalin, Joseph Stalin’s genocide would become known only after Duranty’s death, though. When he left the Soviet Union in 1933, his journalistic career faltered.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a campaign was launched against Duranty’s main accomplishment, his Pulitzer Prize for serving as a Stalinist propagandist. Keeping Duranty’s memory alive, The New York Times and the Pulitzer Prize committee rejected any effort to revoke his award. The debate continued into the twenty-first century, as Duranty’s false reporting raised questions about how reporters write about totalitarian systems. Soviet Union Duranty, Walter Jones, Gareth New York Times Communism;Soviet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crowl, James William. Angels in Stalin’s Paradise: Western Reporters in Soviet Russia, 1917 to 1937. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. Describing the reporting of Duranty and another reporter, Louis Fischer, this book relates how the two deliberately misinformed Western readers about conditions in the Soviet Union and the 1931-1932 famine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuromiya, Hiroaki. “The Soviet Famine of 1932-1933 Reconsidered.” Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 4 (June, 2008): 663-675. Reexamines the Soviet famine in the light of newfound evidence and modern debate on the issue. Asks the questions, “Did Stalin cause the famine in order to kill millions?” and “Was the famine a Ukrainian ethnic genocide?”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luciuk, Lubomyr Y. Not Worthy: Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize and “The New York Times.” Kingston, Ont.: Kashtan Press, 2004. A series of articles on the press coverage of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930’s. Includes discussions of Duranty’s New York Times stories and efforts to revoke his Pulitzer Prize.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Sally. Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Duranty was not the only Western reporter in Moscow during the great Soviet famine. This book describes how Duranty competed with and battled those who were Stalinist propagandists and the few reporters who sought to tell the truth about Soviet brutality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Gregory. Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995. Biography of a former socialist who challenged Duranty’s articles on the Soviet Union. Details his battle with the pro-Stalinist “fellow travelers,” such as Duranty, who tried to hide Stalin’s crimes during the 1930’s.

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