On September 14, 1941, a select few among the Western journalists who had rushed to Moscow after Hitler’s forces attacked the Soviet Union the previous June got what they had spent weeks clamoring for. Nikolai Palgunov, the head of the Soviet Foreign Ministry press department, telephoned each one with good news: a small group of them was going to be taken to the front, close to the city of Smolensk, which had just fallen to the Germans.

To enter the USSR, each journalist had needed a visa, which Stalin had reluctantly authorized after British prime minister Winston Churchill—now an ally thanks to Hitler’s recklessness—applied pressure. The Americans were not yet full participants in the war, and Churchill wanted encouraging reports about Soviet resistance to appear in the British and American media. Stalin came to see the value of this. He gave permission for the Western reporters’ frontline trip because of an upcoming meeting in Moscow at which President Roosevelt’s envoy, Averell Harriman, and Lord Beaverbrook, the British minister of supply, were to tell Stalin how much military hardware, tanks, trucks, aircraft, and ammunition they could give Russia. They would obviously be less helpful if German forces were about to capture Moscow in a few weeks’ time.

Stalin believed in keeping maximum control of foreign reporters. Their stories had to be cleared by Soviet censors. They were forbidden to interview Soviet citizens. They could only employ officially vetted translators and fixers. Above all, they had to live in the Metropol Hotel, a faded tsarist relic close to Red Square. At a time when ordinary Muscovites struggled in freezing apartments with a ration of 125 grams of rye bread per day, the foreign reporters were amply supplied with caviar, cream cakes, and vodka, plus the luxury of hot water and en suite bathrooms.

This gilded cage and the tensions and rivalries bubbling within it are vividly described in The Red Hotel by Alan Philps, a British journalist who worked for Reuters in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and for The Daily Telegraph during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Trawling through British Foreign Office archives as well as diaries and memoirs by Russians and Westerners, Philps has written an engaging account full of anecdotes about the hotel’s anarchic wartime atmosphere and the eccentric characters who passed through it.

Even the best-traveled reporters found the situation staggering. Edgar Snow, the American journalist who traveled with Mao Zedong during China’s civil war and wrote the best seller Red Star Over China (1937) about his experiences, confided his shock to his diary shortly after arriving in Moscow:

Many correspondents do not leave the hotel for weeks in winter but rely on secretaries and newspapers. Secretary orders breakfast in the morning, arranges pillow under your head while you eat it, shops for cigarettes and vodka, translates, interprets, teaches you Russian and sometimes goes to bed with you. In exchange the correspondent brings back titbits from the dining room—bread, cake, cheese and meat.

The journalists chosen for the trip to the front piled into six small cars. It rained incessantly and the cars constantly got stuck in mud as they traveled westward out of Moscow. But their soldier-drivers remained in good humor, which they took as a sign of high morale. At lunchtime they were treated to a banquet served by waiters in white coats. Several types of fish, salted, pickled, and dried, lay alongside piles of caviar. The main course was roast woodcock in sour cream. At one point they were taken to a dugout to shelter from the rain. Bizarrely, it contained a grand piano and a shelf with books by Lenin and Heinrich Heine. The evening entertainment was overwhelming. Journalists called it trial-by-vodka. Every new dish required a toast. Each drinker was required to down two half-liter bottles of vodka, followed by Crimean brandy.

On their second morning a German bombing raid killed a man and three children close to their hotel in Vyazma. Their minders took them to see the remains of a Junkers-88 aircraft that had been shot down. One of the pilots survived and the reporters were allowed to interview him.

The two women in the press party, Charlotte Haldane, a reporter for a British tabloid, the Daily Sketch, and the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, were excused from the nightly toasts and were evidently more energetic than their male colleagues. Up one morning at 6 AM, they persuaded a minder to take them to the village of Dorogobuzh, which had been flattened by German bombs. Haldane called it “Russia’s Guernica.”

Cyrus Sulzberger, a scion of the family that owned The New York Times, wanted to go back to Moscow and file his story. Bourke-White and some of the other men argued that they should see the town of Yelnya, which the Germans had abandoned after a three-week Russian counterattack. When they reached it, they were able to confirm that the town was in Russian hands.


The stories the reporters wrote back in the Metropol were highly optimistic. The BBC said that a huge Red Army counteroffensive was underway, driving the Nazis westward. Alexander Werth, from Reuters, published a piece under the subhead “Eyewitness Story from Reds’ Victory Front.” “The Germans are now 11 miles west of Yelnya and still retreating,” he wrote. “Smolensk is still in German hands, but the Russians are closing in.”

Sulzberger was slightly more careful, but he, too, implied that things were going well. He wrote that “the Nazis have lost their original momentum” on the Smolensk front and gave the impression that the invaders were withdrawing: “The Germans have rushed in reinforcements, but their lines are still bending backwards.”

The six-day trip was a great success from the Soviets’ point of view. At the conference in Moscow, Harriman and Beaverbrook promised Stalin considerably more aircraft, ammunition, and food than had earlier been offered.

Three weeks later the hollowness behind the reporters’ upbeat stories was brutally exposed. The Germans resumed their advance, obliterating four Soviet armies, recapturing Vyazma, and pushing on to the outskirts of Moscow. The Soviet government, along with the press corps in the Metropol, abandoned the capital in panic and retreated to Kuibyshev, a city on the Volga six hundred miles to the east.

The episode highlighted the temptations of overoptimistic war reporting, which later generations of Western journalists faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, and face again today in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Philps reveals that long before the press trip to Vyazma, Stafford Cripps, Britain’s ambassador in Moscow, was telling the Foreign Office in London that editors should be discouraged from sending reporters to Russia since they would not be able to provide the objective coverage that Churchill had asked for. The Soviet authorities had made it clear that foreign journalists would not be allowed to do independent news-gathering. They would only be permitted to report official Soviet communiqués on the war.

If the Vyazma excursion demonstrated how easily journalists could fall into propaganda traps, worse was to come in January 1944. By then the Germans were definitely in retreat. A trainload of Western reporters plus a few diplomats was taken to a forest at Katyn, near Smolensk, where they were shown what purported to be a forensic laboratory set up in tents in which surgeons were sawing skulls. Just under a year earlier, the area had been occupied by the Germans, who had announced that they had unearthed mass graves of some 22,000 Polish officers and members of the intelligentsia. The Germans said they had been murdered by the Russians and produced letters and documents dated 1940—when Soviet forces controlled the area—found in the victims’ pockets.

Stalin angrily rejected the accusation and claimed that the murderers were not the Russians but the Nazis. Although no convincing proof was offered, the Western journalists did not challenge the Soviet claims. They accepted the argument that a single shot to the back of the neck was a Nazi method of execution. (It was not yet widely known that during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s many detainees were killed this way.) Alexander Werth focused on the fact that the victims of the Katyn massacre were still wearing their leather boots. Russians, he claimed, would never have buried their victims without stealing their valuable footwear. Kathy Harriman, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of Ambassador Harriman, who had been sent on the trip to represent her father, reported to the State Department that the Germans were responsible. It was not until 1990 that irrefutable evidence emerged. President Boris Yeltsin released a document signed by Stalin that ordered the execution of the Polish elite on the grounds that they were “hardened, irremediable enemies of Soviet power.”

The unsung heroes of the press corps in the Metropol were the Soviet women who worked as fixers and translators. Philps says that he started writing his book out of a desire to tell the forgotten story of the Allied reporters in wartime Moscow, then realized during his research that the women who became their eyes and ears were braver. They took great personal risks in helping Westerners and could be sent to the gulag on a whim. Although they were inevitably bound to report to Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, on what their Western employers were doing and planning, they also educated them about the realities of Soviet life. Finding translators with good enough English to work with foreign journalists was not easy, so the NKVD could not be sure the women it recruited were unquestioning loyalists. They were supporters of Stalin’s regime on the surface, but some of them dared to tell the reporters what Russians really felt and thought.


Philps highlights the career of Nadya Ulanovskaya. Born into a Jewish family in the shtetl of Bershad (now in Ukraine), Nadya had a strong sense of justice instilled by her grandfather, a progressive rabbi. When her father moved to Odesa and worked in a flour mill, Nadya joined the Young Revolutionary International to support the Soviet authorities in the civil war. At the age of fifteen she met her future husband, Alex, in a police station after they were both briefly arrested. Their main opponents in Odesa were Ukrainian nationalists.

The Bolsheviks saw Alex and Nadya as brilliant potential agents eager to foment world revolution. In 1931, after missions in Berlin and Shanghai, Alex was appointed rezident, or station chief, in New York by Soviet military intelligence. His first recruit was Whittaker Chambers, an eccentric Marxist writer who after the war became a star witness at hearings in the House on the extent of Communist penetration of the US government.

Nadya gradually became disillusioned with communism when she saw that American workers’ standard of living was much higher than Soviet propaganda had led her to expect. On her return to Moscow she suffered a second shock when she learned of Stalin’s purges of senior Communist Party members. In 1942 she took a job with Godfrey Blunden, a newly arrived Australian reporter for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Sympathizing with the Metropol journalists’ frustration at the limited issues they were allowed to cover, she helped Blunden mine rare nuggets of information from the Soviet press.

Blunden decided that the only way to defeat the Soviet censors was to wait until he had left Russia and then write a novel. He told Nadya that he had one last request: he did not want to be taken to a specially tarted-up apartment, but would she show him how Muscovites really lived? She warned him that welcoming a foreigner into their home was an offense for which Russians could be imprisoned. It took her some time to decide whom to approach. Eventually she consulted Rakhil Afanasyevna, a friend who was a widow and who shared a tiny room with another woman in a communal apartment. Nadya and Blunden made a late evening visit to avoid being detected by the other tenants, who used the same kitchen, bathroom, and hallway. He was stunned by the cramped and overcrowded conditions and the generosity of the women, who produced a meal for their visitors.

Blunden left Russia and published his novel, A Room on the Route, two years after the war. He failed to sufficiently disguise its characters, so Nadya and Rakhil were easily identified. They were arrested and sent to forced labor camps in the Arctic. Under Nikita Khrushchev, Nadya was released, and she and Alex emigrated to Israel. Philps tracked down Nadya’s grandson Alexander and asked him his opinion of Blunden’s failure to protect Nadya. He was polite but unforgiving. “Maybe Blunden did not fully understand the Soviet system. Many Western people thought they understood it but in reality they didn’t,” he said.

Philps ends his book with an afterword that raises one of the most sensitive issues in journalism: self-censorship. Stalin’s manipulation of the Western media during the war was successful in part because reporters sometimes knowingly concealed the truth. When Churchill came to Moscow in October 1944, he invited correspondents to meet him in the British embassy. He congratulated them on their “care and tact” in not complicating the difficult relationship with Stalin, an elegant way of thanking them for concealing the negative aspects of Soviet rule.

By then Germany was close to defeat, and the British could see that major disagreements between the Soviet Union and the Western allies were going to emerge in the postwar world. The embassy hoped that journalists would reveal the external restrictions and the self-censorship that affected their writing during the war. It was a naive hope. The press kept quiet. Once the war was over, most Western media bosses withdrew their correspondents from Russia. It was expensive to keep them there, and Western readers had less interest in the details of Soviet news. Stalin died in 1953, and journalists started to take up posts in Moscow again as Khrushchev’s “thaw” developed.

Working conditions for journalists in the USSR gradually improved, though it took until 1961 for censorship to be lifted and for journalists no longer to have to take their copy to the Central Telegraph Office for clearance before it could be dispatched to their home offices. But echoes of the requirement that journalists stay in an easily controlled location like the Metropol remained. A handful of apartment compounds in Moscow were allocated exclusively to foreigners, including diplomats and businessmen as well as journalists. Police and KGB guards would question any Russian who tried to enter. But Western reporters were no longer forbidden to have contact with Soviet citizens. The risk fell on the Russians—not on the reporters. A few dozen Russians took the chance and became known as dissidents, either because they felt someone had to have the moral courage to expose the viciousness of the system or because they wanted to be expelled from the USSR.

In the Brezhnev era rules were set for journalists traveling inside the Soviet Union. Foreigners’ cars had to have special license plates, colored yellow, with a “K” for “Korrespondent” so that they could be easily identified. Journalists could not travel more than twenty-five miles outside of Moscow without permission from the Foreign Ministry press department.

I reported from the Soviet Union under Brezhnev and was Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian from 1988 to 1994 under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. For out-of-town trips, we had to book tickets through a special office. We had to specify the flight or train we planned to take and the name of the hotel at least forty-eight hours before setting off. Details had to be telexed to the Foreign Ministry for approval. Journalists often found themselves in a catch-22: we wanted to go to a place because we had picked up news of something unusual happening, but precisely because something was happening the Foreign Ministry refused permission. This clash of interests happened frequently when ethnic and nationalist tensions developed in the Caucasus and the Baltic republics during perestroika.

Even as Gorbachev removed the barriers to free speech for Soviet citizens, the old restrictions on foreign reporters’ travel remained in force. It was not until market economics and civic freedoms became part of the system under Yeltsin that the special license plates were abandoned and journalists no longer had to live in ghettos monitored by the KGB.

Yeltsin’s decade in power turned out to be the golden era for Western reporting on Russia. Nowhere was out of bounds. No issue was untouchable. There was a lively, uncensored media culture, with Russian journalists breaking stories that Western reporters could follow up. Government officials and members of the Russian parliament were approachable for interviews.

Western journalists could even cover Russia’s wars without major problems. In the First Chechen War, from 1994 to 1996, access was open and foreign correspondents could report on the Russian army’s war crimes and interview survivors without fear of reprisals. In the Second Chechen War, launched in September 1999 by Vladimir Putin, then the Russian prime minister, travel to the area was still open. No Western journalists felt targeted and none was arrested or killed. Russian journalists and humanitarian workers were not as immune and some of the more prominent, like Anna Politkovskaya, were murdered.1

The situation is dramatically different now. Putin’s illegal attack on Ukraine has had a major impact on journalism in Russia. Two weeks after the invasion on February 24, 2022, the Russian parliament rushed to adopt a law that made it illegal to spread “false information” about the Russian army or criticize its deployment. The vote was unanimous, and Putin signed the bill on the day it was passed. The authorities banned the use of the word “war” to describe the invasion, which had to be referred to as a “special military operation.” Punishment for breaking the law is a sentence of up to fifteen years.

The foreign staff at several Western media offices in Moscow promptly left Russia, while the last remaining independent Russian news organizations, such as Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, and the radio station Ekho Moskvy, closed. Major international broadcasters including the BBC, CNN, CBS, and Bloomberg suspended their activity.2

In an off-the-record meeting with Maria Zakharova, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s press department, Western journalists who remained in Moscow sought clarifications about how the law would be implemented. They feared they might fall foul of it in stories sent back to their head offices. According to one Western reporter who asked me not to identify him, Zakharova was aggressive and told one journalist, “Maybe you shouldn’t be here.” Her remarks were treated by several journalists as a veiled threat. More of them left Russia.

Over four thousand Russians have been prosecuted for breaking the new law, but so far no foreign journalists. This prompted some Western reporters to return in the second half of 2022. They found working conditions tougher and harassment more frequent. “There was more surveillance than before, and deliberately obvious so you would know they were there,” said one reporter.

The arrest of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in March 2023 put a huge chill on Western coverage of the country. He was detained by the Federal Security Service while on a reporting trip in Yekaterinburg and has been formally charged with espionage. His lawyers applied for bail, but it was denied. Gershkovich faces possible trial sometime in 2024.

In wartime Moscow between 1941 and 1945, Russia and the Western powers were allies. However much Stalin mistrusted Western journalists and restricted their activities, he had to bear that in mind. Even in the two decades before 1941 when Soviet relations with the West were tense and in the postwar years as the Cold War began, Stalin never had a Western reporter arrested.

Gershkovich’s arrest set off a new exodus. The situation is bleak. If he is tried and given a long sentence, it will mean that life for foreign journalists under Putin is more dangerous than it was under Stalin’s murderous rule. The hope is that he will eventually be released in a swap for a Russian held in a US prison.

Today no major British newspaper—not the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, or The Times—has correspondents in Moscow. The New York Times and The Washington Post send reporters to Russia on occasional assignments. They no longer have full-time staffers there. The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg is almost unique among the English-speaking media in having stayed continuously in Moscow until now.

How does the current crisis relate to Western journalists’ experience in Moscow during World War II? There are two big stories that decision-makers around the world are following and that foreign journalists in Moscow would cover if they were there. One is the state of Russian public opinion. How strong or weak is ordinary Russians’ support for Putin’s war in Ukraine? Do Russians feel it is their president’s war, or is it, as Putin says, the West’s war on Russia? In other words, is it a war of choice, into which Putin blundered by misjudging the scale of Ukrainian resistance? Or is it a war of necessity, which Russia must not lose?

The second question is: How does decision-making work in the Kremlin? Is Putin an unpredictable autocrat like Stalin? Or does he have to balance the demands of powerful constituencies, like the resource-extracting oligarchs who control the economy, the security services, and the uniformed military who don’t want the ignominy of defeat? The mutiny led by the leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, last summer briefly opened a window into the complexity of the pressures on Putin. Now it has shut again, and Western analysts remain divided over how to understand the situation.

Any remaining reporters in Russia would dearly love to pursue this story of Kremlin intrigue, but they would find it almost impossibly hard to investigate it. No insider with a reliable sense of the weight of the different constituencies in the Kremlin is going to speak candidly to a Western reporter or, for that matter, a foreign diplomat. So we are left with theories.

As for media manipulation of the kind Philps highlights in his excellent book, there may be less of it in today’s Moscow, ironically, than in Kyiv. It is natural that the private sympathies of Western journalists should be with Ukraine as the victim of Russian aggression, but they need to remain professionally impartial. Many reporters who cover the war from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities or from the front lines seem to accept the taboos imposed by the Ukrainian authorities. In the name of maintaining morale, the extent of Ukrainian military casualties is concealed by officials, and no Western journalists have made a sustained effort to track the numbers down.

It was regularly reported that the Ukrainian army’s summer counteroffensive in 2023 was making progress, although the evidence to justify that claim was woefully thin. Journalists shrank from suggesting that the counteroffensive might have failed. As for the policy options that flow from the possibility that there may be a stalemate on the battlefield, few reporters or analysts in Kyiv or Western capitals dare to advocate a cease-fire and negotiations. They know they would be accused of playing into Putin’s hands unless they insist that regardless of the huge loss of Ukrainian soldiers’ lives and the material destruction involved in continuing the war, its goal must be complete Ukrainian victory and the restoration of Ukrainian control over all the land lost since 2014.

When Stian Jenssen, the NATO secretary-general’s chief of staff, said last August that Ukraine might have to concede some territory to Russia in exchange for NATO membership, he was sternly slapped down by his boss, Jens Stoltenberg, who repeated the official line that only Ukraine could decide on negotiations. Jenssen apologized for what he called his “mistake.” Just as it was between 1941 and 1945, self-censorship is the name of the game.