This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Two quotations from prominent Russians in Assignment Moscow call for juxtaposition. The first comes from Maxim Gorky, world-famous writer and friend to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who in 1921 appealed “to all honest European and American people” for aid to relieve a catastrophic famine brought about by grain requisitioning and the Russian civil war. “Tragedy,” Gorky began his open letter, “has come to the country of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mendeleev, Pavlov, Mussorgsky, Glinka and other world-prized men.”
The other comes from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, responding to Financial Times bureau chief Neil Buckley’s self-presentation as a fair-minded, enthusiastic Russophile. “Yes,” he replied, “but I think the problem is the West does not want to see Russia become strong again.”
Nested within these quotations are some of the great frictions accompanying Russia’s relations with the West. In the first instance, the obvious allure of Russian “soft power” in the arts and sciences is set against a question of the West’s “honesty” rooted in allied intervention — and enthusiasm in much of the Western press for the same — during the civil war.
In the second, there is the enduring post-Soviet consciousness of Russia as successor to the mighty Soviet Union, a historical fact which, for many — possibly most — Russians trumps such workaday measures of national standing as GDP. An accumulation of adjoining resentments is in evidence, plus the strong implication that Russian soft power ought not, ultimately, to be divisible from the harder stuff.
James Rodgers, a veteran journalist and TV producer, sets out to illuminate the experiences of Western correspondents in Russia since the 1917 revolution. The result is a work of mixed genre. The first six chapters are, roughly, a history of British and American journalism in the USSR culled from correspondents’ clippings and memoirs.
The rest of the book draws upon Rodgers’s experiences in Russia from his first trip to the USSR in 1987 to his work for Reuters TV in the early 1990s and the BBC from the mid-90s through the 2000s, which he combines with colleagues’ reminiscences. The effect is akin to having a long pub chat with a knowledgeable journo keen to pass on stacks of anecdote and big up his professional tradition.
The tradition (he acknowledges) is not, in its bones, pristine. Most of the writers who covered the Bolsheviks in power were so insufficiently guarded against the polarisation of the moment — either going weak-kneed for the Bolsheviks or glibly dismissing their staying power — that they lost their bearings.
Conditions were inauspicious from the outset. Lenin was as hostile to the conventional or “bourgeois” press as he was to “bourgeois” values writ large. In November 1917 he wrote: “For the bourgeoisie, freedom of the press meant freedom for the rich to publish and for the capitalists to control the newspapers, a practice which in all countries, including even the freest, produced a corrupt press.” (A direct quote would have served the book well).
The foundations and parameters of early Bolshevik censorship are treated only anecdotally. Rodgers does show, however, that the “corrupt press” was, in some cases at least, capable of introspection. In 1920, for example, the New Republic published a 42-page supplement (right) by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz which was a critique of the New York Times’s recent Russia coverage. The authors judged it “nothing short of a disaster”.
This book is light on much of the big-picture background that more academic historians might have provided, such as delving into the internal politics of an institution like the New York Times. It is not entirely clear from this account just how, after one set of failures, the paper walked into another by putting its trust in Walter Duranty, the Liverpudlian correspondent and sometime associate of Aleister Crowley who rolled into Russia during the 1921-22 famine and metamorphosed into a Stalin worshipper. It is to Duranty that we owe the term “Stalinism” as well as the totalitarian truism that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
This book is light on much of the big-picture background that more academic historians might have provided
The straitened conditions under which journalists worked in the Stalin era produced an atmosphere of supplication; Eugene Lyons’s 1930 encounter with Stalin was considered an event in itself even though, “in pure news terms, there was not much to the interview”. The heroes of Rodgers’s Stalin era are Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge, who exposed the famines Duranty sought to obfuscate. (Jones later caught a bullet in Mongolia; Duranty got a Pulitzer Prize.)
And then — not much. Correspondents who covered Stalin’s show trials were, in a sense, part of the show. Those who covered the Second World War wrote little whose equivalent couldn’t be found in the Soviet press. By the postwar period, many outlets doubted the value of sending them to Russia at all.
Here again, wider context would be helpful. It is plain that correspondents working in the USSR were at a disadvantage compared both to perceptive observers abroad — think of George Orwell writing freely with only his conversations with Eastern European exiles and his scrape with Stalinists in Spain to guide him — and to Russian writers willing to circumvent censorship.
Rodgers’s treatment of the Khrushchev “thaw” and the Brezhnev “stagnation” is cursory, and it is not hard to see why: journalists were upstaged by the literature of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn among others, and, in the late 60s, by samizdat publications like the Chronicle of Current Events, whose revelations were smuggled abroad. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, published in 1974, pulled off the real “scoop” of the era (as may be observed by the absence of the word “gulag” from this book).
Although censorship for “bourgeois” correspondents relaxed in 1961, the USSR remained a closed society in which it was dangerous for citizens to speak to foreigners. The fast-reforming Russia in which Rodgers began his career was, by comparison, a free-for-all. This was particularly the case with the first Chechen war, during which he and his colleagues enjoyed surprising levels of access to both sides.
That has all changed: Russia stage-manages its hard power carefully now. The men in the Kremlin dismiss liberal democracy, impugn its “honesty”, and cast some journalists as “foreign agents”. Yet, faint contours of glasnost endure even now, insofar as Western correspondents (visa hitches and the odd expulsion notwithstanding) claim to write what they like, and ordinary Russians can talk to them.
The ambiguities are beguiling; such is the allure for the honest observer.
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