With Putin interview, Carlson proves to be the Walter Duranty of our time

by John Hewko

Watching Tucker Carlson’s recent interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin reminds me of the notorious reporting by former New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, who defended Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s policies and knowingly excused, covered up and lied about the mass murder and starvation in Ukraine deliberately fomented by Stalin’s policies in the 1930s.

Carlson’s willful and perhaps malign ignorance raises the specter of a Duranty in our times, who persists despite the many warnings that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

For Duranty, who headed the Times Moscow bureau from 1922 to 1936, the deaths from starvation of at least 3 million to 4 million Ukrainians during an engineered famine known as the Holodomor was a price worth paying. As Duranty wrote in 1933: “To put it brutally, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

In fact, Duranty abided by the rules of the Soviet propaganda machine so well that Stalin rewarded him with a coveted interview, something that Stalin rarely bestowed on members of the Moscow foreign press corps. His biographer calls Duranty “Stalin’s Apologist.”

Like Stalin, Putin hand-picked Carlson for a similar reason. After Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, Carlson called on Americans to cut off multibillion-dollar aid packages to Kyiv. He passionately defended Putin while insulting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by comparing him to a “rat” and a “pimp.”

Having lived and worked in Russia and Ukraine as a lawyer during the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, I’m appalled by Carlson’s lack of basic knowledge about most of the subjects covered by Putin in the interview — Ukrainian and Russian pre-20th century history, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence, its 2004 Orange Revolution, and Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

Serious historians will have a field day with Putin’s countless inaccuracies and lies. But Carlson, with an air of blissful ignorance, could only sit back and listen, as if induced to a state of bewilderment by Putin’s genius. Even his half-hearted attempt to bring up the imprisonment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich couldn’t shake the image that he had taken on the role of the fawning Russian press corps, whose job it is to listen and nod and facilitate Putin’s distortion of history and reality.

Carlson framed the interview to his fans as an intrepid act of journalistic truth-telling; Stalin used to credit Duranty for trying to “tell the truth” about the Soviet Union.

But his post-interview video is a different matter altogether. In the first bit, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, he shares his surprise that the interview didn’t go as he had envisioned but appreciated that Putin’s 20-minute history lesson provided a “window into how he thinks about the region.”

While living in Kyiv and Moscow, I came to know many Western journalists there. A serious journalist who had done his or her research would have challenged and exposed the deeply flawed and revisionist view of history that Putin has conjured up to justify his war on Ukraine and, by proxy, the West. All that Carlson needed to do was read Putin’s July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which Putin assembles a menu of historical fabrications to serve as a predicate to illegally invade a sovereign country.

In the post-interview, Carlson then returns to his hotel room and, after reflecting on the interview during the car ride from the Kremlin, offers some zingers that would put Duranty to shame. After correctly concluding that Putin did not present a coherent case for invading Ukraine, Carlson comes to Putin’s defense by implicitly condemning the West for rejecting Russia’s invitation into Europe without any analysis of why that may have been the case. To the extent that NATO expansion to Ukraine and security concerns were the purported reasons for the invasion, why did Putin open his interview with a lengthy analysis of 1,000 years of Ukrainian and Russian history? Carlson mocks the idea that Russia would invade a NATO country, even though high-ranking Russian officials have on numerous occasions threatened to invade Poland and the Baltic countries.

Carlson then launches into a screed about how Russia is not an expansionist power and has such a large land mass and resources that it really doesn’t need more. If so, then why an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state to grab even more land simply to fulfill a messianic vision of imperial restoration?

Carlson claims that Crimea is legitimately part of Russia, populated by Russians who held a referendum to join Russia. Really? He conveniently neglects the fact that historically, the principal inhabitants of the peninsula were Crimean Tatars who were then systematically exterminated or deported by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The 2014 referendum that Carlson lauds has been largely condemned as a sham. However, there was a free and fair referendum held in December 1991 in which a majority of Crimean residents voted for Ukrainian independence.

But here is Carlson’s biggest whopper of all — the flippant claim that he is not “a flack” for Putin. Any student of history would beg to differ.

In the 1930s, Duranty’s cover-up deprived the West of the knowledge of Stalin’s atrocities and left behind an indelible stain on American journalism. Carlson’s interview will go down in history as propaganda in the service of a geostrategic rival and tyrant.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its third year, can we as a nation afford to allow a distortionist like Carlson to undermine Western resolve at this crucial moment when Ukraine is once again starving, this time for critical military aid that is stuck in Congress?

John Hewko, a Chicago-based Ukrainian American lawyer, worked in Russia and Ukraine in the early 1990s and assisted the Ukrainian parliamentary working group that prepared the initial draft of the post-Soviet Ukrainian constitution.