60 Years in Journalism: Moscow on My Mind

Twenty years after I left Moscow and turned the ABC News Bureau over to a successor in 1972, I revisited. By then, The bureau looked more like a television operation, with video editing equipment and a direct line to satellite feeds. I dropped in to the apartment of the Washington Post's husband and wife team. The Soviet-era appliances were gone, the paper having paid for a renovation including a new European kitchen. My ABC colleague was able to rent a modern apartment in an outlying area.

In 1983, the Overseas Press Club held a reunion of former Moscow Correspondents, whose service dated back to World War II. They included Walter Cronkite, who was with United Press back then, and living and working conditions were tough. He said whenever he was asked how long he had been in Moscow, he'd reply, "two." Two what? "Too long."

My three years there ended right after the state visit of President Richard Nixon in 1972, and I was delighted to escape to a new posting in Tokyo. A few months before I departed, Bob Kaiser arrived as the Washington Post correspondent. The Overseas Club recently held another reunion of Moscow correspondents, in which Kaiser participated. It can be viewed on the OPCofAmerica.org web site. Kaiser noted a change in the atmosphere after the summit meeting. Officials began to grant interviews to the Washington Post, which made his tenure not only worthwhile but memorable. .

But it was still the Soviet Union, and the improvement was ephemeral. Tom Kent, an Associated Press correspondent from 1976-81 said: "Western correspondents were barely tolerated. Almost never could we get the interviews we needed. Nor was there much contact with ordinary people, who seemed programmed to watch out for foreigners."

Ann Cooper arrived at the end of 1986 for a five-year stint as National Public Radio's first correspondent "in the gray and grim Soviet Union." But then things began to change -- a lot. The new leader, Mikhail Gorbachov, "could see the economic disaster his country was headed for, but in order to bring about reform, he had to tell his people some truths, unlike 'Comrades, we overfilled the plan once more.'" The camps for political prisoners were being emptied. "All of a sudden," Cooper found, there was "a new population of people who we could talk to and they wanted to talk to us.

"They held press conferences to air their grievances without fear of consequences," and dissidents started to call Cooper at home, knowing the phone was bugged. "But they said it doesn't matter any more. The story for me became the disappearance of fear. I went to Siberia and saw miners on strike, Orthodox believers could worship much more freely than ever before, environmentalists became active, and political reformers. People were losing their fear and speaking out as never before. For correspondents, it was a great time. Glasnost took on a life of its own. It was exhausting, exhilarating."

Even more so for David Hoffman, who came to Moscow for the Washington Post in 1995 and found during the early Boris Yeltsin era "a place just alive and afire with color. The entire society had been turned upside down. People were knocking down our doors to talk to us. There were four hours of independent television news every night that had to be monitored. Economic officials were available to chat. This group of men called the oligarchs were beginning to set up business and clans. They loved to talk, and mostly they loved to talk about each other. They were using privatization to become billionaires. I went to interview the president of a very small bank. He gave me a sheaf of PR materials, and on the bottom underneath he had given me, by design or inadvertently, the entire structure of one of the big business empires."
Hoffman learned enough about the oligarchs to write a book about them.

There was more: "The fellow who was in charge of designing the Soviet space shuttle came to me, very upset, because he finally realized it was never intended to fly. It was a copy of the American space shuttle, just built to show to spy satellites that the USSR had one too." And he had to tell the Washington Post about it. "People in Yeltsin's time were trying to create democracy, to create civil society, to create a market economy." Speaking two decades later, Hoffman had to concede "how thin, how reversible, how unsustainable it was." Still, he hopes, the "green shoots" that sprouted at that memorable time will someday come forth again.

Not in the Putin era. Alan Cullison became the Wall Street Journal's Moscow correspondent in 1999. He said at another recent discussion at the Kennan Institute in Washington, that foreign journalists were cordially ignored by Putin and his crowd. They could go where they wanted and write what they wanted, while Putin poured resources into his propaganda machine, internal and external "with its duplicitous Russia Today coverage."

I compared notes with another retired journalist who was a young reporter for United Press International during my time in Moscow. While I struggled to get film footage, he recalled that, however difficult it was to get reliable information, everything he wrote for the wire was published and read all over the world. In the context of the cold war, Moscow was a top dateline, people were curious, and the experience was a highlight of his professional life. Today, he noted, who cares to read about life in Russia? Not many Americans, except for those of us who once worked there.