In its Sunday edition, the NYT honored its two Pulitzer-prize winners and printed a hall of fame of past winners. Notably missing was Walter Duranty’s 1932 Pulitzer. Duranty served as NYT’s Moscow correspondent from 1922 to 1936.
Duranty’s dispatches served Stalin well, particularly his denial of the 1932-33 famine, which the Ukrainians today call the Holodomor (murder by hunger). In his own court, Stalin outlawed the word “famine.” Apparently, Duranty did too.
Outraged Ukrainians began demanding the return of Duranty’s Pulitzer in the 1980s. The Pulitzer Board refused them twice. The NYT decided against action in 2003. Their reasons: Duranty did not engage in “deliberate deception,” the NYT did not have the award in its physical possession and had “publicly acknowledged his failures.”
The formerly secret Soviet files now reveal Duranty’s strategic importance to Stalin. We are just scratching the surface of these records, and rumors are floating that Duranty was compromised by Stalin’s secret police.
From these records, we learn that Duranty’s Moscow career was nearly over before it began. On October 27, 1925, the Politburo decreed that he was to be deported “for evil gossip.” Duranty’s “conversation” two days later with “competent organs” saved the day, and his service continued. Stalin’s acceptance of his October 17, 1926 request to conduct an “honest and objective” interview was the beginning of Duranty’s success. After the interview, Stalin’s spies reported that he had impressed Duranty with his “concentrated and almost dark power.”
From that point on, Duranty became the most obliging journalist in Moscow. Duranty had indeed become Stalin’s “useful idiot” as he was called.
In a secret 1936 cable from New York, Stalin’s emissary reported that the “particularly friendly” Duranty, in a speech to bankers, berated America “without reservations,” for its provincialism and lack of appreciation of Russian achievements. Stalin’s man recommended a better apartment for Duranty to tie him to Moscow: “I very much advise that you take this matter seriously. The importance of Duranty for us here is immense. In Moscow, he is grossly undervalued.”
Duranty may not have engaged in “deliberate deception,” but he wore blinders in his cheerleading for Stalin when he wrote:
"Must all of them and their families [richer peasants] be physically abolished? Of course not - they must be 'liquidated' or melted in the hot fire of exile and labor."
"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
"Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."
"Enemies and foreign critics can say what they please…, but the youth and strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin's program, believes it worthwhile and supports it, however hard be the sledding."
The NYT, in its justification for not taking action against Duranty, argued that Stalin’s propaganda machine was overpowering. Yes, Duranty relied too much on his official handlers, but times were different then.
We still live under a double standard. Imagine if Duranty had been Hitler’s useful idiot, reporting from Theresienstadt that Jews were enjoying daily performances of classical music.