It would be a wonderful Nieman seminar: Sit down and talk with men and women who worked in Russia as foreign correspondents during the last two centuries. Failing that, we’ve got Murray Seeger to thank for bringing their accounts to life, for he has written a fascinating book about the hurdles they jumped, bureaucrats they confronted, diseases they fought, famines they survived, and tea leaves they read to portray the Russia they found.
In Seeger’s book, “Discovering Russia—200 Years of American Journalism,” the work and lives of these correspondents take us from the days before, during and after the 1917 Revolution, to the era of Lenin, Stalin and those who followed. We encounter them struggling with censors, harassed by secret police, detained in jail, buying donkeys, and sometimes even whining about how little they were paid. As witnesses to and interpreters of this history and politics, they could be controversial—their coverage or lack of it called into question. Those controversies matter little today, but what these reporters produced was amazing history, rich in detail, color, insight, reflecting boundless energy and, sometimes, misplaced passion. Few nations have attracted the attention of so much talent for so many years.
What is it about Russia? A partial answer comes from the legendary New York Times columnist Anne O’Hare McCormick: “Whoever goes to Russia discovers a different Russia.” Another from Larry LeSueur of CBS: “Assignment to Moscow was the PhD for a foreign correspondent.” Put me down as an undergraduate: I missed Moscow—or maybe avoided it—in my 10 years as a New York Times foreign correspondent.
Other journalists came and went, built reputations, won Pulitzers, and made their way into Seeger’s book. One of the first, Harold Williams, covered the 100,000 demonstrators at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on “Red Sunday” in 1905 and later wrote about the “sitting editors” hired only to serve jail terms for real editors in trouble. There’s an idea. On to the revolution, and John Reed and his companion, Louise Bryant, the three Associated Press reporters fighting censors, and all the others seeking to report the historic events.
And there was Bessie Beatty of The San Francisco Bulletin who, some 90 years ago, provided the world with a wonderful description of emergence of the infamous “anonymous source,” so much in the news today. It was at a meeting reporters had with Elihu Root, who was sent to Russia by President Wilson on a goodwill mission. Bessie described what happened. The “great man,” she wrote, said he would like to discuss quite openly everything that happened. But, she said, he wanted to be assured that all he said would be held in strictest confidence. “You—perhaps because you are flattered by the great man’s confidence, perhaps because of your curiosity—joyfully consent,” Bessie wrote. “Sometimes you consent only because you know the folly of cutting off your ears merely because your lips are sealed.” The lip-sealing, of course, lives on as “deep background.”
Seeger, a 1962 Nieman Fellow who studied Russia with the Harvard greats—Merle Fainsod, Abram Bergson, Adam Ulam, and Marshall Shulman—was the Moscow bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times from 1972-74. I know Murray, but we did not work together at the Times, since he left the paper in 1981, two years before I became the paper’s foreign editor.
For his well-researched history, Seeger relied mostly on books instead of original newspaper or magazine articles, thus removing, as he put it, “the factor of censorship and notorious inaccuracies that warped on-the-scene reporters well past the Khrushchev era.” Seeger does work in some of his own experiences, adding a helpful dimension.
As we travel through the pages of the book, we go along with these reporters, sharing their troubles, their efforts at times to survive on thin meat soup and black bread, their attempts to avoid unwanted insects by putting the legs of their beds in cans of kerosene, their struggles with the military and police, and more. This underscored their goal, to get the story no matter what. There are enough war stories here to keep many a bar open around the clock.
We also find out when things worked well. Marguerite E. Harrison of The (Baltimore) Sun maneuvered her way into a Kremlin meeting and got her first look at Lenin: “Lenin is a short, thick set, unimposing looking little man, with colorless hair and complexion, a small pointed beard, piercing gray-blue eyes, and a quiet unemotional, almost monotonous manner of delivery. He wore a suit of rough English tweeds and looked like nothing so much as a fairly prosperous, middle-class businessman.”
As for Stalin, it was Eugene Lyons of United Press who got one of the rare interviews in November 1930. A former writer for Tass, the Soviet news agency, Lyons had connections. “Stalin met me at the door and shook hands, smiling,” Lyons wrote. “There was a certain shyness in his smile, and the handshake was not perfunctory. He was remarkably unlike the scowling, self-important dictator of popular imagination.” Now that’s news.
After the hourlong interview, Lyons offered to show Stalin the story before sending it to New York, and he was given a typewriter, tea and sandwiches in a nearby small office. The story was then translated into Russian, Stalin made some minor corrections, and then signed it: “More or less correct, J. Stalin.” For some reason, the censors quickly cleared that story, but it had to wait. United Press held it for better play until the next Monday morning.
These are only a few of the correspondents who drifted in and out of Russia over the years. Others appear in Seeger’s book, some as main characters, others with cameo appearances—Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, Harold Frederic, George Kennan, Thomas Stevens, James Gordon Bennett, Melvin Stone, John Steinbeck, Anna Louise Strong, Dorothy Thompson, George Seldes, Floyd Gibbons, Henry Shapiro, Eddy Gilmore, Wallace Carroll, Max Frankel, Harrison Salisbury, Dusko Doder, Nicholas Daniloff, Bob Toth, Hedrick Smith, Bob Kaiser, Michael Parks, David Remnick, and many more.
Then there was Walter Duranty of The New York Times, perhaps one of the most controversial of them all, a man described by the outspoken British writer Malcolm Muggeridge as a “sharp-witted energetic man” but the “greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism.” Seeger writes that Duranty failed to report the “monstrous crimes” of the Stalinist era, the terrible human cost, stories that would have diminished the reporter’s “claimed omnipotence.” Still, Duranty won the 1932 Pulitzer for his reporting, although it remains in dispute.
Ukrainian groups over the years pressed the Pulitzer board to revoke the prize because Duranty, who covered the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1941, failed to report the state-sponsored starvation of millions of Ukrainians in 1932-1933. Two years ago, the Pulitzer board declined to revoke the prize, noting that the award was given for 13 articles written before the famine. The board did declare that his 1931 reporting “measured by today’s standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short.” The Times agrees and, beside Duranty’s picture in The New York Times gallery of Pulitzer winners, is a note: “Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.”
We get a large dose of Duranty from Seeger—his meetings with Stalin, his note in defense of his coverage to Adolph Ochs, the Times publisher, his high living in Moscow, “a Buick instead of a Ford,” and then the fading of his career and his request to the Times for a pension of $155 a month. He got one check for $2,500.
Just one saga in this book of so many. And, by the end of it all, the reporters who worked in Moscow will be reminded of why they did. Those who never worked there might well wonder why they did not.
Alvin Shuster, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, was foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1983 to 1995. He is now its senior consulting editor. He was also a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for a decade, serving as the bureau chief in London, Saigon and Rome.