Liars, damned liars and committed journalists

Trevor Grundy on the role played by John Reed and Walter Duranty during and after the 1917 Russian Revolution

BETWEEN NOW and the end of November, there will have been so many such programmes on  BBC radio and television about the Russian Revolution, that I’m starting to believe that it’s still going on and that Lenin will pop up somewhere in North London, wave in the tanks and take-over the Labour Party from Jeremy Corbyn.

Mass executions to follow.

So far, I’ve watched an hour-long (BBC Two) one-off special called Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution. Respected writers about Russia and Communism crossed ideological swords about not the one – but the two – revolutions that took place in 1917.The first was in February, without a significant Bolshevik leader in sight. Lenin was in Zurich, doubting meaningful change would come in his life-time. Trotsky was in New York. Stalin was the only one on home turf but unable to participate because he was doing time in one of the Tsar’s guest-houses in Siberia.

The second revolt – the October Revolution – is the one that has so warmed the cockles of the collective liberal heart. “Ah, if only it had been Trotsky instead of Stalin.” How many times have you heard that at supper tables where you live?

In the BBC drama-doc actors played the parts of the trio that changed the world. Some had cockney voices, others were Geordies from Northumberland. All the reactionaries had posh voices; all the revolutionaries seemed to be from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.  Action shots and stirring music and songs were provided by courtesy of Sergei Eistenstein, lifted from his 1927 propaganda masterpiece, October 1917.

Those taking part in discussion about 1917 included a cross section of Britain’s ruling intellectual class: Simon Sebag Montifiore, Helen Rappaport, Orlando Figes, Bridget Kendall, China Mieville, Victor Sebestyen, Martin Amin and Tariq Ali.

How long this lot would have lasted under Stalin is debatable.

For those driving to work or just waking up there was an early morning ten-part adaptation of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World on BBC’s Radio Four. Those of my generation will remember the 1981 film Reds starring Warren Beatty as the American author/journalist and Diana Keaton as his wife, Louise Bryant.

And in the afternoon, in case Russian Revolution withdrawal symptoms have set in - a series by the Russian-speaking journalist and author, Vanora Bennett called Babushka Dolls about high-achieving Russian women.

One of them was the German princess who became known as Catherine the Great. Between 1762/63 she settled thousands of her country men and women in different parts of Russia in order improve Russian agriculture. They were the ancestors of the men and women who became Russo-Germans who maintained links with the Motherland. In the 1930s they knew what was going on in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union even if the rest of the world didn’t. They reported back to friends and relatives in Germany and helped fuel middle class Germany’s terror of Communism. Hitler took advantage of that fear.

John Reed is the sort of person who pops up regularly when revolutions break out.

There were quite a few of them around when the first waves of Uhuru crashed on the beaches of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1957.  In South Africa between 1990 and 1994 you couldn’t move far without meeting a John Reed think-alike, some well-educated “committed” Brit or Americans longing to be liked or loved by men who squeezed triggers and blew up people and who might one day hug them and call them “Comrade.”Jo


John Reed was born in Portland, Oregon on October 22, 1887. He died in Russia in 1922, the year that saw the Victory of Fascism in Italy.  He came from a well-off, middle class family, was privately educated. At Harvard University his contemporaries labelled him a poet-playboy. In 1915 he met his future wife, Louise Bryant, a loud and lovely member of one of the more radical group of socialists in Greenwich Village. After their marriage, they received financial backing from rich Americans eager to find out what was going on in Russia. American Jews were particularly interested because of their loathing of tsarism which had launched so many pogroms and scattered so many of them around the world, the majority ending up in USA. The couple left America and went to St Petersburg. Their timing couldn’t have been better.

Reed might have been a man of heady optimism about Socialism/Communism giving birth to a brave new world; but he was also a man of physical courage and moral daring.

In 1915 her toured and wrote about some of the battlefields of the Western Front. He soon reached a conclusion that the only people who liked and benefitted from war are arms manufacturers/ dealers and the politicians who live inside their pockets. He wrote: “I could fill page after page of horrors that civilized Europe has inflicted upon itself. I could describe to you the quiet, dark, saddened streets of Paris, where every ten feet you are confronted with some miserable wreck of a human being or a madman who had lost is reason in the trenches being led around by his wife.”

His eye-witness accounts were second to none in terms of eye-catching phrases designed to attract Americans who knew little about the outside world. The American (Marxist) historian Theodore Draper said: ”He (Reed) went to Russia purely as a journalist but he was not a pure journalist. He could not resist identifying himself with underdogs, especially if they followed strong, ruthless leaders.”

For the almost unknown Bolsheviks (inside and outside of Russia) Reed and Bryant were useful oddities and they were treated as such by Marxism’s Holy Trinity.

Reed spent the day with Lenin. He described the Communist leader as a strange man – colourless, humourless, and uncompromising and detached without picturesque idiosyncrasies but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analyzing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity.” He interviewed Trotsky who he said was Lenin’s intellectual equal and who the long-term planner and schemer, Stalin, despised. The names of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin became household names in America thanks to John Reed.

But when he returned to New York City on April 28, 1918 he was in for a shock. He was immediately arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act by publishing anti-war articles and cartoons in The Masses which was banned and for a while replaced by Max Eastman’s magazine The Liberator which continued to publish Reed’s writings.

Reed wrote his famous book in a frenzy of activity. It took him exactly ten days to do the job. Eastman saw him at work –“unshaven, greasy-skinned, a stark sleepless half- crazy look on his slightly potato-like face.”

When the book came out in 1919, some of his critics, including the write Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906) attacked Reed as a Bolshevik propagandist because of his refusal to write about the growing number of Bolshevik acts of terrorism. Sinclair also described Reed as “the playboy of the social revolution.” But Reed never pretended to be a neutral. In the book’s preface he said that in the struggle “my sympathies were not neutral. The American diplomat George F. Krennan was no friend of Bolshevism; but he praised Reed’s book for its “literary power, its penetration, its command of detail.”  He said that it would be remembered when all the others are forgotten and that it was a reflection of the writer’s “flowing honesty” that injected in it “a purity of idealism that did unintended credit to the American society that produced him (Reed), the merits of which he himself understood so poorly.”

Reviews were mixed but not in Bolshevik circles.  Lenin said “unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world.”  A more balanced view came from Walter Lippman, one of the most influential American journalists of the last century, who commented:”Reed was a great talent, the great descriptive journalist of our era but as a descriptive, romantic writer, not a political thinker.”

Reed did not stay long in America and returned to Russia where he was sick and troubled about his past beliefs.  

Louis Bryant went to see him in September 1920 and wrote that she found him “older and sadder and grown strangely gentle and ascetic.”   She said: “He was terribly afraid of having made a serious mistake in his interpretation of an historical event which he would be held accountable before the judgment of history.”

Reed died on October 19, 1920 and was given a state funeral and buried in the Kremlin Wall, a place normally reserved for communism’s big wigs.

The year after Reed’s death, Russia’s new rulers opened its doors (just a bit) and allowed in  a collection of men and women who might be likened to virgins in a brothel whose job was to tell the world about the wonders of this  brave new world.

Enter George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and the two founders of the Fabian Movement, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Tourists of the Revolution turned up in Moscow and were given the full treatment by Stalin who they saw as some sort of secular saint and an inspiration to socialists everywhere in the world.

Enter, too, a devil – an Englishman called Walter Duranty.


Walter Duranty was the flamboyant, controversial newsman from England who became head of The New York Times’s Moscow bureau from 1922 to 1936. He soon found out which side his caviar was on and played a curious game of privately seeing through the Bolsheviks while ignoring the horrendous world they had created which was all around him – well, almost all around him. At a time when millions were starving, the four room Moscow flat of the ebullient bon vivant Duranty was ever stocked with rare vintage liquors, caviar, exotic shellfish and the opium to which he was intermittently addicted.

He was hailed as a “comrade” by well-heeled Soviets in the supposedly egalitarian Bolshevik state. He dismissed most of his media colleagues as bungling useful idiots of Western press barons while he covered up by ignoring up one of the great man-made disasters of modern history - Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture and his extermination of the kulak class through wholescale slaughter and state-imposed starvation.

Duranty dismissed first hand reports by the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who, in 1930, had been a foreign affairs adviser to the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

In 1933 Jones – a fluent Russian speaker - toured various parts of Ukraine where he kept diaries of the man-made starvation throughout large parts of Russia.

On his return to Berlin in March 1933 he published an article in the Manchester Guardian and The New York Evening Post which revealed the scale of horror he’d witnessed.

“I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.’ The cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, White Russia, the North Caucasus and Central Asia. I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.”

At this time, Malcolm Muggeridge (originally a left-wing journalist but later a forceful anti-Communist) wrote in The Fortnight Review (May 1, 1933) under the headline War on the Peasants that on one side of the Russian coin there were “millions of starving peasants, their bodies often swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldiers, members of the CPU (secret police) carrying out the instructions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They had gone over the country like a storm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert.”

On March 31 Walter Duranty wrote an article in The New York Times defending his new masters in the Kremlin. Under a headline that read Russians Hungry but Not Starving he lashed out at Gareth Jones who, he asserted, knew next to nothing about Russia and had undertaken only a forty miles work through the one famine- hit neighbourhood and found the conditions there “sad.”

Duranty wrote: “To put it bluntly, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and the Bolshevik leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive towards socialisation as any general during the World War who ordered a costly attack in order to allow his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviks are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction. The Soviet Union is too big to permit a hasty study and it is the foreign correspondent’s job to present a whole picture, not part of it.”

He reeled out “the facts” which told Americans readers that Yes there were sometime shortages but not a famine. “The big cities,” he reassured his readers, “and the army are adequately supplied with food. There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”

The lies were well rewarded.

After an exclusive interview with Stalin – one that softened Washington’s hard line against the Bolsheviks – Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for the thirteen articles he wrote for The New York Times which analysed the Soviet Union under Stalin.  “They were,” said the Pulitzer Board “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity.”

Duranty’s Pulitzer is seen as an insult to millions of Ukrainians who have launched a series of initiatives to persuade the Pulitzer Board to revoke the award to Duranty.

Muggeridge went on to describe Duranty as “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in half a century of journalism.”

In his great and courageous book Assignment in Utopia (George Murray &Co 1938) Eugene Lyons said that what Duranty wrote for The New York Times became “the classic example of journalistic understatement. It characterizes the whole shabby episode of our failure to report honestly the gruesome Russian famine of 1932/33.”  He wrote: “The circumstances that the government barred us from the afflicted regions may serve as our formal excuse. But a deaf-and-dumb reporter hermetically sealed in a hotel room could not have escaped knowledge of the essential facts.”

In her book “Stalin’s Apologist” (Oxford University Press, 1990) S.J. Taylor described Duranty as a man “untainted by so much as the specter of a belief in any political or humanistic ideal, solely motivated by the goal of his own celebrity.”  She nailed his deception by revealing a meeting Duranty had with an official from the British Embassy in Moscow in the autumn of 1933 after he had made a short tour of some of Russia’s starving areas.

He told the British that “the Ukraine had been bled white” and estimated the number of deaths at ten million.


While the British public is being treated kindly by so many confusing interpretations of the ten days that shook the world in irony – even laughter – isn’t far away.

Putin’s Russia faces problems. The judo-addicted Russian leader is reluctant to repeat romantic myths about revolution and the glory one hundred years ago attached to  overthrowing tyrants who have corrupt, national resources grabbing, friends in high places.

And the colourfully–clad Russian Orthodox priests and monks he hugs so tight to his publicly displayed manly chest have their doubts about praising      Lenin who authorized the murder of Nicholas II and his family. The late tsar has been declared a saint by the national church.

Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin. Not as seen by liberals in West London but by the great great grandchildren of the men this trio dominated and slaughtered all those years ago.

As Oscar Wilde said: A halo doesn’t have to fall far to become a noose.

Hopefully all of this will interest those in South Africa anxious to rid themselves of people once with halos round their heads but now with nooses around their necks.

While the so-called “Fallists” hope to see the removal of all statues and pictures celebrating the lives of colonialism’s “ baddies” the Russian Government has approved the erection in Kirow, five hundred miles east of Moscow, a giant statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish-Lithuanian aristocrat founder (on Lenin’s orders) of the brutal post-revolution secret police.

He was Stalin’s willing executioner who oversaw the “Red Terror” in which secret policemen and state-paid torturers carried out the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the name of Bolshevism.

No doubt the students, lecturers and others in South Africa who want to see the removal of any trace of Cecil Rhodes, his imperialistic predecessors and successors and all other imperialist baddies from public space and viewing will have a thing or two to say about that.

Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996. He lives in Kent England where he works as a writer, broadcaster and researcher.