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Capturing the News
Three Decades of Reporting Crisis and Conflict
By Anthony Collings
University of Missouri Press
Copyright © 2010 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
Chapter One No Building Collapsed
Peaceful empty white snowfields shone brilliant and beautiful in the morning sun, seen from the train speeding toward Moscow from Brest, yet superimposed on the quiet empty fields were the explosions of tank fire and the shouts of Red Army soldiers fighting Nazi German invaders. There were no tanks on the snowfields spread out before us. There were no Red Army soldiers, no German invaders. And this was 1967, not 1941. The sounds of tanks and soldiers came from loudspeakers built into the ceiling of our Soviet railroad car, loudspeakers blaring a Soviet radio program reliving the battles of what had been known here as the Great Patriotic War, World War II on the Russian front, and we heard the sounds of war as we gazed out at the fields of peace blurring past us.
This was the scene as my wife, Geraldine, and I and our one-year-old baby, Andy, arrived in Russia by train from London in January of 1967 to begin my first foreign posting, a three-year tour in the Moscow bureau of the Associated Press, the American news agency. I was twenty-eight years old and thrilled to be a full-fledged foreign correspondent, a position I had dreamed about while a high school sophomore at the International School in Geneva and later at Beverly Hills High School. I had imagined myself being sent to exotic places to cover the great events of history. As a teenager growing up in Southern California, and as a college student spending hours writing for the Daily Princetonian, I had admired such journalists as James Reston of the New York Times and Edward R. Murrow of CBS News. As a cub reporter at the Wall Street Journal in New York, before going into the army for two years, I had learned some of the skills of the trade but always I had dreamed of writing under foreign datelines. Now here I was at last, a real live foreign correspondent, traveling with my family on a train to Moscow.
The train trip from London took two days, and it was worth it. We could have flown, of course, but we would not have gained such a great sense of the distance of Moscow from the capitals of the West. It took one full day just to get to Warsaw, Poland, and then another full day to reach Moscow. Russia extended across the map in such a massive expanse of land that the only way to appreciate it fully was by surface travel.
Moscow was a great distance away from London not only geographically but also culturally and economically, and the voyage by rail exemplified that cultural and economic divide. When we began our voyage in London our British Rail car was new, clean, modern, fairly quiet, and pleasant. We traveled to Harwich, where we took a ferry across the North Sea to Hook of Holland, in the Netherlands, and boarded a Dutch railroad car that was fairly new, clean, modern, quiet, and pleasant. We dined in a comfortable dining car, ordering from a full menu printed on glossy paper. We traveled eastward across Holland, West Germany, and East Germany to the border with Poland, where our Dutch railroad car was replaced by a Polish one. This Polish railroad car was old, shabby, dirty, and noisy, with the heating system not working well, and we forced ourselves to eat unpleasant food in a cheaply made dining car from a limited menu printed on cheap paper that felt like thin cardboard.
When we arrived at Brest, on the Soviet border, in the middle of the night, we had to transfer to another train with the broader-gauge wheels of the Russian railroad system. Our car on the Russian train was older and shabbier than the Polish car, smelled bad, and offered little to eat other than bread and sausages, and basically chai (tea) to drink, dispensed from a samovar tea-maker built into one corner of the corridor. So, as we moved from left to right across the great map of Europe, from west to east, our standard of living gradually declined, giving us a sense of the relatively poorer conditions you encountered the farther east you traveled.
Not only a great distance and cultural and economic divide separated Russia from the world we knew, but also an obsession with secrecy, one of my first encounters with obstacles to truth during my voyage of discovery. We were plunged into a largely closed society, so unlike the American openness we were accustomed to. As foreigners, we were forced to live in Soviet government housing, in a high-rise beige prefab apartment building surrounded by a fence and manned by a gray-coated policeman in a guard box at the gate, to keep Russians away and to keep them uninformed about the truth of the outside world. Secrecy at all costs. There were odd clicks on our phone that suggested tapping. (We knew that the phones of foreigners were tapped because one time a dissident intellectual phoned the AP office and announced the time and place of a protest demonstration, and within minutes a Soviet official called us to warn us not to go to the demo. The only way the official could have known was by someone listening in to our calls.) That was another way to keep Russians from contacting us and to keep them in the dark.
Russians were forbidden to have any personal contact with foreigners unless they had been given specific permission from the government or the Communist Party, so the only local people we met legally were our translators (provided to the AP by the government agency UPDK), our driver, other AP staff, a Russian language teacher who came to our apartment, and Soviet officials, usually from the Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where "spokesmen" usually refused all comment on all subjects, in keeping with the official policy of secrecy above and beyond all reason. The few times they did offer any kind of comment, sometimes they were wrong.
One absurd example came during a Soviet space shot. TASS, the Soviet "news" agency controlled by the government, our main source of breaking news announcements, reported that a Soviet unmanned probe had been launched. Its destination was not revealed, but at Jodrell Bank radio telescope in England a British scientist said it was on a trajectory toward the moon and appeared to be intended to go into orbit around the moon. When I saw the AP report from Jodrell Bank, I called up a man named Simonov at the Press Department of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and asked if he could comment on the British report that the Soviet space shot was heading for lunar orbit.
Simonov replied, "Eta utka." Translation: "That is a canard." (Utka, pronounced "OOT-kuh," means either "duck" or "canard" in the sense of hoax.)
I dutifully updated our Moscow-dateline story including the official denial that the Soviet space shot was headed moonward, and of course within a few hours came a TASS report that it had gone into orbit around the moon. Simonov obviously was uninformed, and presumably said "utka" as a knee-jerk reaction to any report from the West no matter how accurate.
Denying what was obviously true was part of the way of life in the Soviet world. One evening I was working at the AP office on Ulitsa Narodnaya, a quiet street on the eastern side of Moscow, rewriting TASS reports, when I heard a loud explosion from a district to the south, on the other side of the Moscow River. I jumped into my car and headed in the direction of the explosion. There was a stream of ambulances and police cars and Soviet army trucks heading in the same direction, and I followed them. At last, ahead of me at the end of the street, I could see arc lights of rescue workers and cranes and smoke rising into the evening sky. A Soviet Army private manned a roadblock and did not permit me to enter the area, so I parked nearby and walked back to the roadblock. The soldier was standing facing me, with his back to what was obviously a collapsed apartment building a few blocks behind him, the scene of frenetic activity by rescue workers brilliantly illuminated by emergency arc lights.
"Can I get through?" I asked in Russian.
I showed him my udostoverenye, my accreditation from the Soviet government as an American journalist authorized to report from Moscow.
"Nyet," he replied to my repeated request to get past him to the scene.
"I need to get through," I said.
"There is nothing to see," he said.
"I want to see the building that collapsed."
He looked at me and said, flatly: "No building collapsed. Go home."
This instinctive Russian response to deny what was obviously true in hopes that nothing negative would be reported was a product of the kind of secrecy I had never experienced and could not even imagine existed on such a scale. With all this secrecy we lived in relative isolation, at our foreigners-only compound on the drab, wide boulevard called Kutuzovsky Prospekt (named after General Kutuzov, who had commanded Russian troops against Napoleon's invading army outside Moscow), on the western side of the capital. In the center of the map of Moscow, like a bull's-eye, was the Kremlin, and on the eastern side of Moscow was the AP office on Ulitsa Narodnaya (People's Street), in another foreigners-only building with a policeman outside to keep Russians away, except for government-approved translators and staff, and to monitor our comings and goings.
All this effort to isolate us from Russians was frustrating for me, especially since I spoke the language. My father, Leon, was Russian. He had been raised in the southern city of Maikop, near the border with Soviet Georgia, and had fled during the civil war after the Bolshevik Revolution and made his way to Paris, where he was working as a journalist for Russian-language publications when he met my mother, Martha, an American writer. They married in France and moved to Los Angeles, where I was born in 1938. I remember as a child hearing him curse in Russian during traffic jams on Hollywood Boulevard. Later, his letters to me would end with the words krepko obnimayu i tseluyu tebya ("I give you a big hug and kiss"). Fascinated by the Russian language, I studied it in school and took a Berlitz language course while working at the AP in New York, and then studied Russian more intensively once we were living in Moscow. But, sadly, speaking the language was not enough to overcome the other barriers.
The few times ordinary Russians dared say anything to us (sometimes after consuming inhibition-easing vodkas at their tables next to ours at restaurants), they were friendly and exchanged phone numbers but never called us later, presumably realizing when sober that this was too dangerous. They could be fired, deported from the relatively better living conditions of Moscow to someplace undesirable, or even arrested and imprisoned.
The one time a Russian couple did befriend us was because my American brother-in-law knew them. They had met at a scientific conference and had stayed in touch. The couple, the Lubovskys, were friendly when I first called them up. We met at a restaurant and immediately hit it off, a Russian couple eager to learn about the West, and an American couple eager to learn about the East. I felt sure that we would be able to develop our friendship and that it would not cause political problems for them because they had already been allowed to attend scientific conferences abroad, which meant that they were considered loyal and not likely to defect.
The Lubovskys invited us over to their small apartment for dinner, in a cheap prefab building like ours. I remember that as we entered the living room the television was on, and the Soviet announcer of a "news" program was denouncing "American imperialist aggressors in Vietnam." Being Americans at a time of such escalated anti-American rhetoric, my wife and I felt uncomfortable at the dinner table that evening, and it was a reminder that politics would trump normal human relations in this paranoid, Big Brother police state. We made small talk, insisted that they visit us next time, and left.
Later we invited them to our place for dinner, and they did accept the invitation. They drove past the policeman at the gate to our compound, where their arrival, I'm sure, was duly noted in their files, and probably they were questioned later at their scientific institutes as to why they associated with suspected agents of imperialist aggressors. The dinner that evening at our apartment was strained, and we assumed that microphones picked up our conversation, but we tried to make the best of it.
At the end of the evening, we said we would meet again but we never did. Both couples wanted to meet again, but the Lubovskys dared not. The entire three years we were in Moscow, we never heard from them again—with one exception. On New Year's Eve, when he must have felt that the police state had relaxed slightly for the celebration, Vladimir got up the nerve to call me at home and say, "S Novim Godom" ("Happy New Year"). I could hear in his voice the isolation and frustration of a good man beaten down by the system yet adamant that he be allowed at least some freedom.
The system's paranoia and secrecy took other odd forms.
One evening as I worked at the AP office on Ulitsa Narodnaya I heard an explosion, very close to the building. I soon found out that the VW Beetle of the AP bureau chief, parked downstairs in our parking lot, had been damaged by a small blast, but it was unclear whether it was by an explosive device or some other cause. The bureau chief, Henry Bradsher, lived across the hall from the AP office, but had been away at the time, using another car. I made some phone calls to the American Embassy and to some journalists.
Then our phone rang.
It was Viktor Louis, a mysterious Russian who spoke good English and had a number of jobs including work as correspondent for a London evening paper, and who was reputed to be unusually well informed about the inner workings of the KGB, the Soviet counterpart to the CIA. Before I could say anything I heard his voice telling me: "It was the heater." Then he hung up.
A later investigation determined that a faulty heater in the Beetle had caused the explosion. But how did Viktor Louis know about the incident, and how did he know it was the heater? And more important, why did he call the AP to pass on this information? Was the KGB sending a message: It wasn't us? One can only speculate, but the incident was chilling.
Even more chilling was my detention by the KGB.
This was in May 1969. Like several other Westerners in Moscow, I and my wife had befriended a young dissident intellectual Russian named Andrei Amalrik, a historian, and his lovely wife, Gyuzel, a painter. Andrei was a small, wiry, boyish man with angular features, a wide jaw, brown hair in a brush cut, and glasses. He had an ironic smile as he defied the Soviet rules forbidding unauthorized contacts with foreigners. As an author of samizdat (self-published) works that circulated secretly among dissidents, he had been in trouble with the authorities a number of times. Instead of being cowed by the repression, he laughed at it. One of his books was entitled An Involuntary Journey to Siberia and was about being sent to Siberia for "parasitism" (lacking a steady job). A 1969 book, quite prescient, was entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? Actually the Communist state lasted a bit longer, until 1991, but Andrei was absolutely right that it could not survive, and he correctly predicted the breakup along ethnic lines. For writing that book he was later sentenced to three years' hard labor in Siberia.
His wife, Gyuzel, was a Tatar beauty with high cheekbones, eyes set wide apart, and a lovely figure. She could have been a film star or a model living in luxury in the West, but instead lived in modest conditions in Moscow in one room of a communal apartment with other families, all of them sharing the bathroom and kitchen. At the end of a long, narrow hallway Andrei and Gyuzel had a separate room to themselves that was bedroom and living room, and on its walls were her paintings. There was always the smell of cabbage in the air when I visited. The apartment was in a drab, dark gray building on the west side of Moscow, near the Soviet Foreign Ministry, on the other side of the river from our own apartment.
In May 1969 Andrei called me one day to say that he and Gyuzel were about to go on a vacation and he wanted to see me that day before they left. I rang the doorbell of the communal apartment. Usually Andrei would open the door and take me down the internal hall past the communal kitchen to his room, but this time a stranger, a middle-aged man with suit and tie, short red hair, and a managerial air, opened the door.
"What do you want?" he asked in Russian.
"I'm visiting my friends. They invited me."
"Who are you?"
"Tony Collings. I'm an American correspondent."
"Let me see your accreditation," he demanded.
I showed him my udostoverenye, mounted in a small blue-vinyl folder that fit into the palm of my hand. Then I asked him for his own identification. He reached into a suit pocket and pulled out a palm-sized red-vinyl folder and opened it to reveal a card that had his name under the Russian words Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Byezopastnosti—KGB.
Excerpted from Capturing the News by Anthony Collings Copyright © 2010 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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