How Stalin’s Control of Foreign Reporters Helped Shape Russia Coverage Today

In the early days of World War II, Godfrey Branden, an ambitious Australian correspondent for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, was not a well-known figure. But in the winter of 1943, Branden, then a Moscow-based journalist, suddenly published a string of blockbuster wartime stories. Accompanied by a Soviet press officer who took him first to the Russian and then to the Ukrainian front, he exposed the Nazi atrocities in Kharkov. He reported that the Germans massacred 15,000 Jewish civilians, some of whom were forced to dig their own graves first.

Branden, himself a war correspondent, author of The Red Hotel: Moscow in 1941, the Metropol Hotel, and the Untold Story of Stalin’s Propaganda War, out July 4 by Pegasus Books. Alan Phillips says it was through this dispatch that the fame of the – Again, Moscow correspondent from the late 1970s. What the Daily Telegraph readers didn’t know, Phillips wrote, was that Branden’s coverage of the atrocities was selective.

During a press tour in Kharkov, Soviet journalists wished to showcase further German crimes against humanity, but Branden and other Western journalists were forced to leave the former USSR where the Nazis tortured and killed thousands of Ukrainians. They took me to the Gestapo prison. This visit was a mistake. The prison cellars had been repurposed by the Soviet secret police to torture and execute suspected Ukrainian nationalists. Reporters were ushered out immediately.

Mistakes didn’t matter. Branden and his colleagues were unable to report the story, or anything offensive to the Soviet host. Allied press corps based in wartime Moscow had to follow Russian rules. Unsupervised movement was prohibited outside the city and even outside the Metropole Hotel outpost. No interviews or interactions with Soviet citizens. I am not against strict censorship. For the dozens of Western correspondents hiding in the Metropol, Russia was both a potential source for some of the war’s biggest stories and a journalistic desert.

Although The Red Hotel primarily chronicles the lives of Moscow-based Western correspondents from 1941 to 1945, their tormented years under Stalin’s rule, their heirs have passed down generations. It also reveals the dilemmas, incentives and dangers we have faced throughout. “By 1940, Stalin had complete control over the media and even the news from the front lines,” Phillips said in an interview.

This was the situation while Western journalists were guests of the Soviet government, determined at the time to create a positive image of the wartime in the United States and Britain. Seventy-five years later, in President Vladimir Putin’s wartime Russia, journalists are undesirable, as evidenced by the March arrest and detention of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovic by Russian authorities. It exists. “I have no doubt that Putin is trying to do what Stalin did,” Phillips said.

Despite the difficulties, Moscow has historically been a highly coveted mission and a vital outpost for Western media organizations. If the Cold War defined much of world history in the late 20th century, access to Russia for American reporters was like “getting into the heart of the beast,” says ABC News’ Moscow correspondent John Donban. said Mr. 1991-1993.

“It was the other most important country on earth,” Dongvan said.

The censorship and propaganda tolerated by some Western journalists during the Stalin era contributed to perpetuating the massive Soviet cover-up. In the 1930s, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranti wrote of another Western journalist that Stalin’s collectivization of Ukrainian farmlands caused a starvation believed to have killed between three and four million people. denied the reports. “The situation is bad, but there is no hunger.” Duranty wrote in a 1933 correspondence:

Western journalists were also used to cover up the massacre of thousands of Polish military officers by Soviet secret police in the Katyn forests of western Russia. Phillips describes the January 1944 junket incident. There, Soviet handlers took Western reporters to an outdoor forensic laboratory with a stage near the mass grave, where a surgeon and press secretary told reporters that the Nazis, not the Soviets, had killed the police officers. showed proof. Some of the journalists later claimed to have been suspicious of the propaganda campaign, but no one disputed the Soviet reports. “The truth was kept secret until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990,” Phillips wrote.

Some of the journalist protagonists of the “Red Hotel” eventually wrote telltale books about the Soviet system. Branden’s novel “Chamber on the Way” was written after leaving Russia and published in 1947, describing the deterioration of life under communism. Phillips said it was “a bomb of sorts” for Western readers. Branden “was seen as something of a harbinger of a new anti-Stalinist mood.”

By the time the book was published, Branden was far from the Soviet Union and escaped retaliation, but Nadezhda Ulanovskaya, a Russian translator who had served as Branden’s fixer and informant during the collection, was arrested. spent eight years in a Soviet labor camp. . The ‘Red Hotel’ shows that for Russians who supported foreign correspondents, this was a common destiny, even if civilians were tasked with spying on reporters from the start. .

Moscow-based foreign correspondents, including Phillips, went on vacation when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1979, Phillips, a journalist trainee at the Russian-based Reuters news agency, found that “the whole Soviet system existed in principle, but seemed unstable.”

Phillips returned to Moscow in 1985 as a regular correspondent for Reuters and again in 1994 as a reporter for the Daily Telegraph. By then, the Russian parliament had adopted a progressive media law establishing new rights for foreign journalists banning censorship. Phillips’ office was wiretapped, but he was able to go to the front and report almost completely freely during the First Chechen War, he said. your own risk. “

Other Western reporters remember this period as one of unimaginable access for Branden and other journalists at Metropol.

“We worked with unprecedented freedom,” said David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991. After 70 years of Bolshevism and 1000 years of dictatorship, people wanted to tell their stories. If you want to be in the newspaper five times a day, you can. The only question was how much energy you had. “

“It was the other way around,” Dongbang recalls. “I drove to a military base without notice and had lunch with a commander. It was wild. You can’t do that in America.”

It soon became apparent that this period was an anomaly. After Putin was appointed prime minister of Russia in 1999, the progressive media laws of 1991 began to undergo minor, but regressive, changes to the newly established press. removed the freedom of In October 2012, Russia’s parliament, dominated by President Putin’s United Russia Party, passed a federal law expanding the legal definition of high treason and espionage. Under the new definition, collecting journalistic information for foreign organizations, such as foreign newspapers and networks, could be considered espionage. Worrying news outlet In the world.

Still, most foreign journalists continue to operate relatively freely, with Lucien Kim, who served as NPR’s Moscow correspondent from 2016 to 2021, saying he had “a sort of diplomatic immunity”. rice field. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, he described a “rapid and sudden deterioration.” .

Dina Feinberg, professor of modern Russian history at City University of London and author of Cold War Correspondent: Soviet and American Reporters at the Front Lines of Ideology, said, “This is not something that was passed during the entire Cold War. It’s different,” he said.

The arrest of Gershikowicz, who was charged with espionage, was a keen reminder of how rapidly the situation had deteriorated for the handful of Western correspondents who had been in Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine.Committee to Protect Journalists estimated to have at least 19 journalists As of the end of 2022, people of different nationalities are being held in prisons in Russia. Kim said his remaining colleagues are operating under “very high pressure”.

“Russia is not North Korea, but it is moving in that direction,” he said. Officials are once again horrified into silence. “Many Russians are wary of even communicating via secure messaging apps and social media.”

This is a Russia that the wartime Metropol reporters would have been much more aware of than they were in the vibrant days of the early 1990s. As long as Putin maintains control over Russia, the prospects for press freedom in Russia are grim in the near future. But Phillips said it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a pendulum swing eventually.

“In the long run, Russia is going back and forth between authoritarianism and liberalization,” he said. “The dial moves back and forth.”

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