The New York Times and Joseph Stalin

Before there was Judith Miller, deceiving the American public in The New York Times about life-and-death matters of great import to America, there was Walter Duranty.  Duranty, the New York Times correspondent to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, was actually awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his series of reports that essentially covered up Stalin's artificial, genocidal famine visited upon the people of the Ukraine. 

Duranty's reports from Russia were very influential.  If they were not largely responsible for the extremely pro-Soviet policy of the Roosevelt administration, from initial recognition in 1934, to the dragging out of the Pacific war until the Soviet Union could get involved against Japan, to the secret Yalta Agreement concessions, they at least provided public-relations cover for what the heavily Communist-infiltrated Roosevelt government had already decided to do.

[Walter Duranty] was held in such esteem that the presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt brought him in for consultations on whether the Soviet Union should be officially recognized. When recognition was granted in 1934, Duranty traveled with the Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, to the signing ceremony and spoke privately with FDR. At a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York held to celebrate the event, Duranty was introduced as "one of the great foreign correspondents of modern times," and 1,500 dignitaries gave him a standing ovation. -- Douglas McCollam, "Should This Pulitzer Be Pulled?" Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2003.

To say that Duranty's professional reputation has not held up with the passage of time would be a colossal understatement.  Now there is general agreement that he was a venal liar of epic proportions.  In pursuit of fame and fortune he wrote what he knew to be untrue about the massive, brutal crimes of Joseph Stalin and the Communist system against the people of the Soviet Union.  Strangely, though, almost all the public opprobrium seems to have fallen upon his lone shoulders and not upon those in the United States whom he pleased with his writing, that is to say, his professional and his political masters.

That Duranty was hardly a rogue reporter duping his employer is supported by the following recent revelation by Dr. James Mace:

In the 1980s during the course of my own research on the Ukrainian Holodomor [famine] I came across a most interesting document in the U.S. National Archives, a memorandum from one A.W. Kliefoth of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin dated June 4, 1931. Duranty dropped in to renew his passport. Mr. Kliefoth thought it might be of possible interest to the State Department that this journalist, in whose reporting so much credence was placed, had told him that, " 'in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities,' his official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet government and not his own."  

Note that the American consular official thought it particularly important for his superiors that the phrase, in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities, was a direct quotation. This was precisely the sort of journalistic integrity that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. --  "A Tale of Two Journalists: Walter Duranty,  Gareth Jones, and the Pulitzer Prize,"  Ukraine List 203, July 15, 2003.

Journalists who want to keep their jobs and to prosper write what their employers want them to write, and, apparently, Duranty was no exception. All along, he was doing exceptionally well just what his professional masters at The New York Times wanted him to do.  Really, how could anyone have ever doubted it?  And, for its part, the Gray Lady was hardly out of step with the Roosevelt administration when it came to cozying up to Stalin's Soviet Union, as the McCollam reference above makes abundantly clear.

How little has changed!  When Judith Miller wrote her scary reports about Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons program, she helped provide the pretext for the war with Iraq that George Bush's neocon-driven administration was so clearly determined to have.  If there was ever any doubt that her bosses at The Times were a party to the pretext-making, it was erased when it brought on the unrepentant head neocon war cheerleader, William Kristol, in 2007 as a regular twice-a-week columnist.

We have amply documented the Roosevelt administration's complicity with Stalin with "How We Gave the Russians the Bomb," "FDR Winked at Soviet Espionage," and "FDR Tipped Pro-Soviet Hand Early."  But what about the case for the guilt of The New York Times?  Certainly the quote above from the U.S. Embassy official is very damning of The Times, but it is only one piece of evidence.  The timing is also important.  FDR did not take office until March of 1933, and the quote comes from the middle of 1931.  Duranty's first reports on the Ukrainian famine were also in 1931.  It appears that at least Duranty, if not The Times itself, was ahead of the Roosevelt administration when it comes to pandering to Joseph Stalin.

Although Duranty returned to the United States in 1934, he continued to write for The Times, and with his ample contribution, its voice was among those persuading the people of the United States that Stalin's massive purges, eliminating all of the old Bolshevik revolutionaries and beheading the leadership of the nation's military were all lawful acts against dangerous subversion.  The stench might have been strong enough to drive knowledgeable American Communists like Whittaker Chambers right out of the party, but it was not enough to prevent The New York Times from continuing to protect the American public from the truth about Stalin's Russia.

For many Americans, including many members of the American Communist Party, the last straw for the Soviet Union was when Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler in August of 1939.  And if that were not enough to end the love affair of a large swath of the American public with the Soviet "workers' paradise," in the middle of that same year, the widely-read Saturday Evening Post magazine published a series of articles from a genuine Soviet insider and fugitive from Stalin's purges, Walter Krivitsky.  Krivitsky had provided all the information, but the actual writer of the articles was the Russian-born New York journalist, Isaac Don Levine, the same man who persuaded Chambers to report to the White House on the activities of his Soviet espionage ring.  In November of 1939, the Saturday Evening Post published the collection of articles as a separate book.

Krivitsky may not have known of the full horror of Stalin's Russia, but as chief of espionage for Europe, he knew enough.  The reader of In Stalin's Secret Service, as the book is titled, comes away with little doubt that the grand socialist experiment is a colossal failure, that the Soviet Union is in the grip of a paranoid butcher, and that the dominant emotion throughout the land is fear.  Stalin's decapitation of the government leadership had made its way to the espionage services, and Krivitsky was among the rare few fortunate enough to escape with his life (at least for a while.  He would die of a suspicious "suicide" in a Washington, DC, hotel room in February of 1941.).  

In an almost matter-of-fact tone, Krivitsky pulled the curtain away from the two big controversies of the 1930s, the famine and the purges.  In the process, he revealed a vital link between the famine and the military purges:

The full detail of these differences between Stalin and the Red Army belongs to another story.  (The Trotskyist opposition in the army had, of course, been liquidated years before the great purge.)  It is vital, however, to trace here the main features of the major difference.  The forcible collectivization of the peasant holdings, with its deportations and other punitive measures resulting in famine and the extermination of millions of peasants, was immediately reflected in the Red Army.  For despite the great increase in the number of industrial workers during the Soviet rule, the overwhelming majority of the population was still peasant, and the roots of the army were still deeply planted in the villages.

The letters received by the soldiers and recruits describing the fate suffered by their relatives back home filled them with resentment, bitterness, and even a spirit of revolt.  The villages were being pillaged and destroyed by OGPU troops with orders to do a quick and thorough job of "liquidating the kulaks."  Peasant rebellion broke out in the Ukraine, the richest agricultural section of the Soviet Union, and in the Northern Caucasus.  They were ruthlessly suppressed by special OGPU detachments, since the Red Army could not be trusted to shoot down Russian peasants.

In these circumstances the morale of the Red Army was, from a military standpoint, rapidly deteriorating.  The Political Department of the Army, headed by General Gamarnik, was one of the most valuable auxiliaries of our national defense, a delicate nervous organism which picked up every tremor that passed through the quivering ranks.  Through this Political Department, the general staff and the entire officers' corps possessed firsthand knowledge of the explosive condition of both the soldiers in the barracks and the peasants in the villages....

Stalin knew that Tukhachevsky, Gamarnik, Yakir, Uborevich, and the other ranking generals could never be broken into the state of unquestioning obedience which he now required of all those about him.  They were men of great personal courage, and he remembered during the days when his own prestige was at its lowest point, these generals, especially Tukhachevsky, had enjoyed enormous popularity not only with the officers' corps and the rank and file of the army, but with the people.  He remembered too that at every critical stage of his rule--forcible collectivization, hunger, rebellion--the generals had supported him reluctantly, had put difficulties into his path, had forced deals upon him.  He felt no certainty that now--confronted with his abrupt change of international policy--they would continue to recognize his totalitarian authority. pp. 192-195

So they had to be liquidated.  Unlike the public trials of the old Bolshevik leaders, the trials of the generals took place in secret before they were all shot.

One of the main reasons why the guilty verdicts of the civilian leaders had been accepted by so many opinion leaders in the West, led by The New York Times and FDR's ambassador in the Soviet Union at the time, Joseph E. Davies, was that the accused had all publicly confessed.

We now know that the trials and the confessions were all bogus.  Krivitsky, of course, knew it at the time, and he addressed directly the issue of the confessions.  In fact, the title of his sixth chapter is "Why Did They Confess?" (The previous excerpt is from chapter seven titled "Why Stalin Shot His Generals.")  

The behavior of the Central Committee proved to the prisoners how absolute was the power of Stalin.  It strengthened their conviction that against Stalin there was no "way out."  Bukharin and Rykov had failed to deal with the dictator on his own terms, and there were no others.  Like Louis XIV, who said, "The state--it is I," Stalin had assumed the position, "The party--it is I."  They had consecrated their lives to the service of the party, and they saw that there was no way left to serve it--and so keep up the illusion that they were serving the revolution--except to do the bidding of Stalin.

That is the basic explanation of the confessions.  But all the other factors I have mentioned played their parts in bringing fifty-four of these Old Bolsheviks to the point of so humiliating a service.  There is one other factor which I have not mentioned, because I think it played only a small role.  With most of them it played no role at all.  That is the faint hope that not only their families and their political followers, but even they themselves might be spared if they "confessed."  On the eve of the first trial, the Kamenev-Zinoviev case, Stalin had a government decree enacted which restored the power of pardon and commutation to the President of the Soviet Union.  This decree was no doubt designed to suggest to the sixteen men who were about to confess in public that clemency awaited them.  Yet during the trial one prisoner after another made the statement: "It is not for me to beg for mercy," "I do not ask for a mitigation of my punishment," "I do not consider it possible to beg for clemency."

In the early hours of the morning of August 24 the sixteen men were sentenced to be shot.  They immediately appealed for clemency.  The evening of that same day the Soviet government announced that it had "rejected the appeal for mercy of those condemned" and that "the verdict has been executed."  Had they made a bargain with Stalin which he did not keep?  More probably they cherished a faint and wavering hope and that was all.

In the second show trial, that of Radek-Piatakov-Sokolnikov group, Stalin acted as though he were trying to make sure of more confessions for future trials.  He had four of the seventeen men in this group spared by commutation of sentence.  Two of these were leading figures, Radek and Sokolnikov; the other two were obscure agents of the OGPU, planted as "witnesses" for the purpose of framing the others. pp. 179-180

Taking no chances, Stalin later had Radek and Sokolnikov killed in separate prison "incidents."  The cover story was put out in each case that they were the victims of other prisoners.

The Times Responds 

How could The New York Times, with its prevailing pro-Stalin policy, react to such a book?  To be sure, it would have liked to have taken the tack that it has taken with regard to hundreds of would-be-important books both before and since, that is, to ignore it, to kill it with silence.  But, with that avenue closed off by the Saturday Evening Post's serialization and attendant publicity, it did, by its lights, the next best thing.  Here, dear readers, is the book-trashing in its entirety:

“In Stalin’s Secret Service,” by Walter G. Krivitsky, is a collection of articles which have appeared during the last seven months in the Saturday Evening Post.  New material has been added here and there, especially in the section dealing with the Communist International, and the author has written a new chapter on the Ogpu [sic] and a brief introduction in which he attempts to explain the reasons that have compelled him to deprive Stalin of his services. 

The whole text has been revised without, unfortunately, toning down the flamboyance of the style in which it was elaborately dressed by Krivitsky’s “ghost writer,” whose existence would seem to be a legitimate assumption since the author’s knowledge of English is admittedly inadequate. 

The appearance of these articles, accompanied by an extraordinary amount of publicity, created a sensation that is hardly justified by the dim and uncertain light his contribution sheds on the mystery enshrouding the Soviet Union.

The book is a bitter indictment of Stalin’s rule by a disillusioned revolutionary who believed that the policy of the Moscow dictator was largely determined by a fear of Hitler’s Germany and by a desire to come to terms with this “superior power.”  It is in the light of this theory that Krivitsky interprets in his early chapters the eclipse of the Communist International and the debacle suffered by Soviet intervention in the Spanish civil war.  There are other chapters dealing with counterfeit dollars allegedly printed by the Moscow Government, the activities of the Ogpu, and the much discussed Soviet trials, and especially the drastic “purge” of the Red Army and the Communist Party.  The volume closes with a brief description of events leading to the breach between Krivitsky and the Bolsheviks that finally landed him on these hospitable shores. 

It is unfortunate that much of the story is couched in very general terms and that most of the author’s assertions are not supported by any evidence.  Greater precision is shown only in those parts of the narrative which deal with developments that had previously been fully discussed in the European and American press such as the affair of the counterfeit dollars, or the Rubens case.  Those who expect from Krivitsky a candid and documented account of the activities of the Soviet intelligence service abroad will be disappointed. 

In view of the character of the volume, opinion as to its value inevitably depends on the confidence that the author inspires.  The reviewer confesses that he has a deep inborn distrust of both disgruntled revolutionaries and professional sleuths, and although the Soviet intelligence service is technically independent of the Ogpu, the close and intimate cooperation between the two institutions is evidenced on almost every page of Krivitsky’s overdramatized story. 

The author’s connection with the intelligence service, which has been questioned, would seem to be established beyond doubt by the detailed account of his activities in France in 1937, an account that can be easily checked from French sources.  The reviewer is moreover reliably informed that the fact of Krivitsky’s residence in Holland under an assumed name (his real name is Samuel Ginsburg, but he seems to have used a great many aliases) has been checked and established by an official agency.  This, however, does not settle the question of his reliability as an interpreter of Soviet policies. 

It has been interesting to compare the text offered by the Saturday Evening Post with that of the final product.  The following, for instance, are the original and the revised versions of the objects of the Soviet Spanish policy as outlined by Stalin to the Politbureau in September, 1936: 

Stalin was of the opinion that he could create in Spain a regime controlled by Moscow.  With Spain in his pocket, he could command a genuine and durable alliance with France and the British Empire (S.E.P. April 15, p.6).


Stalin believed it possible to create in Spain a regime controlled by himself.  That done, he could command the respect of France and England, win from them the offer of a real alliance, and either accept it or, with that as a bargain point, arrive at his underlying steady aim and purpose, a compact with Germany.  That was Stalin’s thought on Spanish intervention (“In Stalin’s Secret Service,” pp. 80-81), 

Another example: 

Slautski, a high Ogpu official, informed Krivitsky that “we have set our course toward an early understanding with Hitler “and reported that negotiations were progressing favorably.  “What, in spite of everything?” I exclaimed.  I thought that an accord between our government and Germany had been impossible.  All my preparations were for the eventual war with Germany (S.E.P., April 22, p. 17).


“In spite of everything in Spain?” I exclaimed.  For although the persistence of Stalin’s idea of an accord with Germany did not surprise me, I thought that Spanish events had pushed it far into the background (I.S.S.S., p. 214). 

Are these mere verbal changes, or are they rather fundamental revisions of earlier statements to bring them in line with the novel situation created by the Moscow-Berlin pact?  And what are we to think of a witness who, when this seems expedient, does not hesitate drastically to amend Stalin’s central thought on Spanish intervention? 

Krivitsky’s introductory statement of the reasons that led to his desertion from the Soviet ranks displays a noble elevation of soul, keen sympathy for the hungry village and homeless children, unbounded affection for the deported peasants, fervent devotion to the cause of humanity.  Unhappily, these exalted sentiments, surprising enough in a man long used to the methods of the Ogpu, are difficult to reconcile with the harshness of Soviet realities he himself depicts in somewhat too vivid colors.  The question why Krivitsky failed to perceive, until the spring of 1937, that the road to the salvation of mankind was not necessarily identical with Stalin’s rule is one of the many mysteries that this book leaves unsolved.

There you have it.  "Don't read this book.  Move along.  Nothing to see here.  There's nothing but old news or unsupported generalizations from a man who is not to be trusted," the reviewer says in so many words.  Notice how he carefully avoided imparting any of the important information contained in the book.  


It is a truly skillful job on a difficult assignment, writing a review of such a powerfully revealing book that would, in effect, "reflect the official opinion of the Soviet government."  And it was not the work of Walter Duranty.  The review appeared on page 3 of The New York Times Book Review on November 26, 1939, and its author was Michael T. Florinsky.


The Red Lady


Florinsky's review was hardly out of step with The Times or the times, as reflected by an article that appeared on the front page of the venerable "newspaper of record," just below the fold on November 14, 1939:


Browder Assails Pope at Rally Here


He Tells 22,000 at the Garden Encyclical Attacked Idea

of Church State Separation


A capacity crowd of 22,000 Communists and sympathizers filled Madison Square Garden last night to celebrate the twenty-second anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union and to hear Earl Browder, general secretary of the party in the United States, defend Russia as a world peacemaker, whose role in "crushing the Axis combination" in Europe helped the United States by relieving a dangerous and intolerable international situation.


Browder denounced Pope Pius XII's recent encyclical as a direct attack on the fundamental American principle of separation of church and state, although he assured Catholic workers in general that the Communist party "extends its hand" to them and has no desire to interfere in the free practice of their religion....


Mr. [Israel] Amter [New York State Chairman of the Communist Party] described Stalin as "the greatest leader and statesman of our Times," and as "the wisest man on the face of the earth."


Thus did America's top newspaper let America's top Communist spin the Hitler-Stalin pact to make it appear praiseworthy, not unlike how their own reviewer would make Krivitsky and his book look blameworthy.  Now one might say that The Times was just reporting the news, but how often does a newspaper give a speaker a front-page platform to get his message out like this, no matter how large the crowd?  Imagine it being done, say, for someone addressing a much larger anti-Iraq-War demonstration in Washington.


Singing a Different Tune


By April of 1946, the political winds had shifted radically.  Stalin's friend in the White House, Franklin Roosevelt, had been dead for exactly a year.  FDR's number two man, Harry Hopkins, a likely Soviet spy, after a long bout with stomach cancer, had died in January of 1946.  The Axis enemies had been vanquished, and the romance with America's recent major ally was over.  At that moment there appeared a new book by another former Soviet functionary.  It mainly reinforced what Krivitsky had reported some seven years before.  The man was engineer and former Army captain, Victor Kravchenko (who died of a suspicious "suicide" in New York in 1966).  His book was entitled I Chose Freedom.  The first paragraph of the April 16 New York Times review by Orville Prescott tells you all you need to know about the changed climate:


Political exile is one of the most characteristic of twentieth century civilization.  When fugitives from totalitarian dictatorship denounce the tyranny at large in their native lands they do so as heirs to a great tradition, that of Paine, Hugo, Mazzini, and Sun Yat-sen.  If they are German exiles, they are generally respected.  But if the exiles are Russian, they are sure to be attacked in many quarters, their motives questioned, their character maligned.  To a certain extent, this is understandable.  Gratitude for Russia's magnificent achievements in the common cause of war and painful awareness of the necessity of friendly cooperation with Russia in the cause of peace make strong inducements to belittle Russia's most trenchant critics.  In addition, many confused idealists are so blinded by their desire to regard Russia as a socialist utopia that they let their critical faculties atrophy for years.  Such factors make sure that books like Alexander Barmine's "One Who Survived" are not impartially appraised.  Because of them, Victor Kravchenko's "I Chose Freedom" is certain to be, not only the subject of controversy, but the object of scurrilous abuse.


Indeed so, and we saw the phenomenon in the pages of The Times, itself, even when Russia was Nazi Germany's ally.


David Martin

March 9, 2008



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