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News from Moscow

The wife of an American correspondent in Moscow invited a young Russian friend into her home. At the gates of the house they were stopped by a policeman. Addressing the American woman he said: “You go ahead. But as for you,” said the policeman, pulling the Russian by the arm, “go back.”

The American woman tried to protest but the young man immediately began to walk away with a frightened expression on his face.

Why didn’t you lodge a complaint against this policeman?” I asked the correspondent’s wife after she had recounted the incident. “Whom should I complain to?” she replied. “The press department of MID [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] is already persistently warning us not to associate with Russians other than official persons.”

This minor episode is perhaps very characteristic of the situation of foreign correspondents in Moscow, and of their own attitude. Although the “iron curtain” conception now seems very old-fashioned, the authorities are still striving to completely isolate foreign correspondents in Moscow from Soviet citizens. This situation existed earlier, but more resolute measures have been taken to isolate the correspondents ever since the beginning of an independent opposition movement within the country. It is clear that the whole world could have learned about this movement only from the information of Western correspondents in Moscow (and in the USSR, from foreign radio broadcasts), for neither TASS nor any other Soviet organ would ever have publicized it. However, this is naturally not simply a question of the movement: in general, a man isolated from the local population has far less understanding of what is going on in their country.

The government isolates correspondents first of all by settling them into special apartments for foreigners, to which Soviet citizens do not have easy access; by creating establishments to cater especially to foreigners; by setting up microphones in the correspondents’ apartments; by having them followed (which tends to make those who are not accustomed to this very nervous); by a system of official and non-official warnings; by expulsion from the country; and also by a general atmosphere of fear and uncertainty which is particularly painful to those who come from democratic countries.

Many of the people who enter into discourse exaggerating the “liberalization and democratization of Soviet society” tend equally to exaggerate the threat to which they are personally exposed.

The correspondents ostensibly write about their own situation in Moscow. However, the opinion of a detached onlooker is perhaps also of interest, and especially his assessment of the correspondents’ behavior in such a situation.

There are clearly two choices: the correspondents can either seek contact of some kind with the Russians, and hunt for some sort of information other than the official; or else they can fully accept the status to which the Moscow authorities have tied them down with a firm or gentle hand. After seven years of continual contact with foreign correspondents, I have formed the impression that the majority of them display a readiness to submit to these imposed conditions.

What They Do

As long as the correspondent is not engaged in any reporting work and the gathering of facts; as long as he has no understanding or awareness of the general situation; as long as he continues to move in the narrow circle of his own people, with no knowledge of Russian history or traditions and, in most cases, even of the Russian language, his work is reduced to the following: A Soviet interpreter, whom the correspondent himself considers to be a KGB agent, either translates or relates to him the contents of Pravda or Krasnaya zvezda, i.e., the “official view” of a certain event. The correspondent then chats with a neighbor on the same floor, who is just like himself and has an “observer’s” point of view. In certain particularly important cases he questions his chauffeur or domestic help, for the opinion of the “man in the street.”

Now it only remains for him to discuss the contents of Pravda in Western journalistic terms, adding trite remarks about the “liberalization” or else, on the contrary, the “rebirth of Stalinism.” Thus emerge the articles about the “economic reforms” or the “hawks and doves in the Kremlin,” full of false significance and lacking any content, which could have been written just as successfully in London or New York as in Moscow. However, the label “from our Moscow correspondent” perhaps lends a fascination to news from the actual place of event, and heightens the newspaper’s prestige.

The correspondent, who, after three or four years in Russia, has not learned a word of the language, and has never spoken to a single Russian, returns to his country where he is regarded as a “Russian expert.” He writes articles which can be either extremely hostile or very well-disposed toward the Soviet regime, but which are invariably capable of misleading the reader, since their author possesses very little knowledge and even less understanding.

The Risk Involved

At present more and more Soviet citizens feel the burden of their isolation from the rest of the world, and are themselves seeking contact with foreigners, including the foreign correspondents. However, these attempts to “break down the barrier” meet not only with opposition from the KGB, but with the prejudices of the correspondents themselves, who feel that every Russian who wishes to associate with them is overtly or covertly a KGB agent. This “spy-mania” is perhaps caused by three circumstances: first of all, agents may indeed be sent to the correspondents; secondly, it might seem strange to the correspondents that certain Russians are not afraid to meet them, when they themselves are afraid, though exposed to a far smaller degree of personal risk. Finally, a correspondent’s own situation seems far better justified when, instead of going to see some dubious Russian friends, without bothering to take off his slippers he moves from his apartment on the second floor to the office on the third, to take a look at the reliable TASS teletypes.

However, in the knowledge of this idyllic way of life, such a correspondent for some reason considers himself almost a James Bond who is permanently exposed to a terrible risk, this “risk” being for the most part imaginary. There is, in fact, no written lay prohibiting contact between Soviet citizens and foreigners, and however dim a view of this the authorities may choose to take, they are nevertheless obliged to tolerate such cases when they occur. In fact, the only way to prevent this is by means of blackmail; however, submission to blackmail is not a compulsory, but a voluntary matter.

Tactlessness

Nevertheless, some correspondents occasionally enter into contact with Soviet citizens, and even seek contacts for themselves. However, they unfortunately do not always display sufficient tact in their attitude toward these Russians.

Following the trial of Ginzburg and Galanskov, Ginzburg’s mother and Galanskov’s wife arranged to meet a few foreign correspondents at the home of L. I. Ginzburg, in order to relate the course of the trial. However, at the appointed time nobody turned up. The house was instead surrounded by KGB agents, and the two women seemed to be trapped.

It later appeared that the MID press department, after learning about the meeting from the correspondents, had flatly refused to allow anyone to visit L. I. Ginzburg. The MID press department referred not to any law or instruction, but simply to the fact that things “will be very unpleasant for anybody who should go to see him.” This apparently not only sufficed to prevent the correspondents from going there, but also prevented those who had promised to come from giving Ginzburg and Galanskov any advance warning.

The KGB arranged a provocation against the two women, who had known nothing of all this: first of all they tried to lure them out of their house for an alleged meeting in the street with some correspondents, in order to accuse them later of illegal street mobbing; when this attempt failed, Vasily Gritsan, a KGB agent, appeared before them in the guise of a foreign correspondent. Had one of the foreign correspondents out of a simple sense of decency warned these women by phone that nobody would be coming, both of them would have been delivered from a genuine, and not just an imaginary, danger.

Nevertheless, a few correspondents whom the MID press department did not manage to notify arrived at Ginzburg’s home. KGB agents did not allow them near the house, telling them to return to their offices to look for the belated note prohibiting them from attending the press conference, which they would find in their post boxes. There were three Swedish correspondents among them, and the KGB agent sternly inquired whether they had arrived for the Ginzburg press conference, to which the frightened Swedes replied: “No, no, we are simply taking a walk here.”

They perhaps considered their reply exceptionally smart but, in my opinion, it was more the retort of a mischievious schoolboy than the reply of an adult journalist whose right and duty it was to attend that press conference which would be of interest to his readers.

Who Is Pulling the Strings?

On the eve of the Moscow Soviet elections, while strolling along the Arbat, I could see on the walls of several houses the portrait of a none-too-intelligent-looking man with a coarse and fierce expression on his face. This was Leonid Zamyatin, the only official candidate for our district. In this way I at least learned the appearance of the man whose name was being continually pronounced with fear and awe by journalists, like Jews uttering the Lord’s name.

Mr. Zamyatin heads the MID press department, which I have already mentioned, and which supervises the work of the Moscow foreign correspondents. This surveillance and the supervisor’s relationship with the correspondents involve not only their written work but also their personal contacts and whereabouts.

There are various degrees of pressure brought to bear on an unwelcome journalist. For example, he may be caused various everyday inconveniences. The correspondent who is living in a hotel may be informed that he must alter the tone of his articles if he wishes to receive an apartment sooner. The authorities may make the journalist’s access to information more difficult. They may refuse him a meeting with an official writer or actor, or forbid him to go to any other town. They may speak critically of him in Pravda or Izvestia, or he may be summoned to the MID press department for warning. They may simply tell him not to write about this or that, for it is not a normal phenomenon of Soviet life, and he has to be objective. Or that he must not have anything to do with so-and-so, since he is a man with a shady past.

However, they may also issue an “official warning” which, if the correspondent chooses to ignore it, could result in his expulsion or even in a threat to close down the newspaper’s Moscow office or agency. Warnings of this sort tend to be very rude and direct. Thus, Anatol Shub, correspondent for the Washington Post, mentioned in his article that a “Russian friend” of his was preparing to write a book entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? and included a summary of his friend’s opinions. “No Soviet man could have said that! Your ‘Russian friend’ was the bottle of vodka over which you chatted, after having first of all emptied it!” the press department announced to Shub. “If you write anything more like this you will be expelled from Moscow!” I was, in fact, this Russian friend and my book Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? came out a few months later‌.

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