Walter Duranty -- The New York Times's Man in Moscow

By S.J. Taylor

Oxford University Press. 404 pp. $24.95

"THERE IS no such thing as an expert on Russia," once quipped Charles "Chip" Bohlen, "only various degrees of ignorance." Nothing seemingly illustrates this more than the abject failure of Kremlin watchers to foresee the emergence of Gorbachev as the Communist Party's leader. But far more damning was the arrogance of constancy -- the assumption that the social and political order was basically immutable. Many Kremlinologists missed the welling sentiment for radical reforms among the Gorbachev generation. Prominent observers of the Soviet scene even denied that the impulse for radical change existed.

Not even the most acclaimed Soviet experts, not even the master CIA agents working under cover as diplomats at the American Embassy in Moscow, possess X-ray vision to see through the Kremlin's walls. To guess wrong about which person might emerge victorious in the behind-the-scenes mud fights of Party politics is understandable. Prediction is an art, a chance-ridden art, not a science. No one hands apprentices a sovietological crystal ball.

The task of making sense out the crosscurrents of political, social, cultural and economic torrents of news is as daunting now as in the only nearly comparable period in Soviet history, the 1920s. During those years of pluralism in all but political affairs, Walter Duranty, the New York Times's man in Moscow, became the world's most famous reporter based on his astonishing prediction that Stalin would succeed Lenin as Soviet leader.

Picking Stalin was a brilliant feat. Duranty based his prediction on a solid but at the time controversial insight: that the Bolsheviks would remain the governing force in the Soviet Union.

Duranty proceeded in succeeding years to examine and explain with exceptional clarity how the Soviet Union worked. And he stayed with the Big Story. Hundreds, thousands of dispatches flowed from his pen and won him the 1932 Pulitzer Prize.

This short, ugly, Cambridge-educated man cemented his reputation as the world's greatest journalist and Soviet authority by injecting himself as a participant-witness in the great diplomatic breakthrough -- the 1933 American recognition of the Soviet Union. Duranty accompanied the Soviet foreign minister to Washington, letting it be assumed the two engaged in extended consultations as they steamed across the Atlantic. Returning to his Moscow home, Duranty was rewarded for his aggressive coverage of American recognition with the exclusive interview of a lifetime. Stalin summoned him to the Kremlin.

Had Duranty next gone to the West to assume a post as pundit or journalistic executive his reputation would have been secured. Instead, as he stayed on in the quicksand society of the Soviet 1930s, Duranty lost his perspective and his integrity. He became, in the just slightly overblown title of S.J. Taylor's energetically researched, well-reasoned biography, Stalin's apologist.

Cozily ensconced with his Russian peasant mistress, his bastard son and a hyperinflated sense of his own infallibility, Duranty dismissed reports of the massive famine that swept the Ukraine and Kuban regions. In lands where famines had been commonplace once a decade, Stalin engineered a hunger that killed millions. Peasants died to support the Stalinist drive for rapid collectivization. Duranty, the man who coined the very term "Stalinism," covered up this genocidal side of Soviet authoritarianism. He refused to report the scale of death in the Soviet killing fields -- explaining it all away with an all-purpose saying he made into the apologists' cliche, "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." Together with a foolish American ambassador, Joseph E. Davies, Duranty believed the victims in the Great Purge's show trials had conspired against Stalin and were in fact guilty.

Duranty was not on Stalin's payroll; political belief did not motivate him. Blind ambition combined with amoralism to propel this influential writer to bond with the general secretary. It was more than a reporter simply identifying with the leader whom he was covering.

Elitism was the guiding philosophy of Duranty's life. The masses were little more than sheep. As an operative principle it was always better to tack away alone from the fleet of journalists. Duranty believed, Taylor says, "whatever flew into the face of conventional wisdom stood a better chance of being right than any belief that was widely held."

So Walter Duranty was a man who invented himself. Taylor gets behind the legends that this wooden-legged, opium-smoking libertine liked to float. Her biography, in places, reads like a thriller -- that is the kind of life the world's then highest paid correspondent lived.

No expert on the Soviet Union herself, the author betrays degrees of ignorance common to generalists. But hers are errors of nuance that do not undercut the value of Stalin's Apologist. It is a remarkable story of extravagant living and wreckless careerism that ended tragically for Duranty personally and for his readers most of all. Glasnost is beginning to let the Soviet people know the horrible truth of their own past. Now, S.J. Taylor brings openness to this ugly story of anti-glasnost in the American press.

Jonathan Sanders is a reporter for CBS News based in Moscow. His most recent book is "1917: The Unpublished Revolution."