Told  /  Media Criticism

'The New York Times' Can't Shake the Cloud Over a 90-Year-Old Pulitzer Prize

In 1932, Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer for stories defending Soviet policies that led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians.

In the 1930s, as now, an autocrat's decrees led to mass deaths of Ukrainian civilians and relied on misinformation to try to cover it up. Reporters, including Duranty, were censored and threatened. (A U.S. diplomat once wrote that Duranty told him his reports had to reflect "the official opinion of the Soviet regime.") Yet in a time before social media and the internet, foreign journalists were among the only ones who could get news out to the rest of the world.

Duranty was The New York Times' man in Moscow, as the line went, with a cushy apartment in which to entertain expatriates and a reputation as a leading authority on the Soviet Union. Duranty had staked his name on the idea that Josef Stalin was the strong leader the communist country needed. He is often credited with coining the term "Stalinism."

He wrote glowing reports of an autocrat's harsh plans for Ukraine

In return, Duranty won rare interviews with Stalin and wrote glowingly about Stalin and his plans. The Pulitzer board cited his "dispassionate interpretive reporting" in awarding him a prize in 1932 for a series of reports the previous year. The first was a front-page article that started with the line: "Russia today cannot be judged by Western standards or interpreted in Western terms."

It is worth being clear on what Stalin's plans, called "collectivization," led to: the deaths of millions of Ukrainians and more than a million Russians, according to credible estimates.

"Activists from the Communist Party locally and nationally went house to house in Ukrainian towns and villages, confiscating food," says the journalist and scholar Anne Applebaum, who has written extensively on the period. "They took wheat, they took grain, they took vegetables, they took livestock. They took everything that people had."

Applebaum's book Red Famine chronicles the ensuing catastrophe based on an extensive review of archives by Ukrainian historians.

"People ate mice, they ate rats, they ate leaves, they ate grass," Applebaum says. "There were even some incidents of cannibalism."

She says Stalin used collectivization to crush any nationalist stirrings in Ukraine and to pay for his efforts to industrialize the Soviet Union. Communist Party officials had possible dissidents arrested, exiled and killed, especially professionals.

"It's thought that between 3 and 4 million people died" in Ukraine, she says.

By toeing the line, Duranty aided his career

Despite lingering suspicions over Duranty's motivations, Applebaum says she found no evidence the reporter was bribed or blackmailed by Russian agents. She also says he did not appear to be swayed by communism, though he was reportedly threatened against reflecting unwelcome truths.