May 16th 2008

Reporting the News from a Police State - Chapter 14: The Russians Invade

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Certainly the most important event of my posting in Moscow was the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. It established the "Brezhnev Doctrine", defining the Kremlin's right to repress its client states. And it was a signal to the Soviet people that any moves toward such freedom of expression within the Soviet Union itself would also be crushed. The suppressed anger and bitterness among the Soviet intelligentsia smoldered ominously.

One popular Soviet novelist, Anatoly Kuznetsov, made up his mind on the day of the invasion that he would find a way to get out, he was so disgusted with the repression in Prague. He wangled a trip to Londonshortly thereafter and managed to defect to British security . We learned the news from the AP teleprinter, as Kuznetsov had no contact with the Western press while in Moscow.

Once safely in London in the hands of MI6, he revealed that he was carrying a novel on dozens of strips of 35-millimetre film neatly sewn inside his coat. He described how he placed four pages in neat squares and photographed them group by group. On a roll of 36 exposures 144 pages can be stored. He went on to publish it in English -- "Babi Yar", an uncensored account of the Soviets against. the Germans in the Ukraine during World War II.

He defected, he later wrote, because the invasion proved a turning point in his faith in the socialist dream. "The invasion of Czechoslovakia was very important for us. It was our coming of age. But there was nothing we could do about it. We were completely impotent; we had no stake in the country or in the culture; we had nothing. After that came the long loss of the seventies. It was a time of total cynicism -- and of alcohol."

His "Babi Yar" had previously been published in Moscow but only after being censored. The text now in English has special interest for the students of repression. The censored passages are restored and highlighted in bold, leaving a clear record of Soviet censors' criteria and methods. For example, describing how Soviet flags had to be removed from homes as the Germans swept across the border in 1941,a man eagerly tears the red flag off its pole, and says to his wife. "Martha, stuff it in the fire right away. But the pole's all right. It'll do for a broom-handle." The censor cut out the second and third sentences, concerned that it showed disrespect for the symbol of the Soviet Union - precisely Kuznetsov's point.

The year 1968 was a tense period. Communist Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was determined to keep order in the East European countries. It was in Prague that the trouble surfaced, but it all started quietly. A picture and biography of Alexander Dubcek appeared in Pravda when he was appointed head of the Communist Party there in January 1968. Dubcek was replacing the unpopular Antonin Novotny.

In his bland official photo, Dubcek looked young and callow. His innocuous biography gave nothing away. He was a Party loyalist who had rise to the top. We expected no change. I wrote the story in two paragraphs.

But over a tumultuous six months in power, Dubeck delighted the West by breaking most of the socialist rules. He allowed life in Czechoslovakia to loosen up, even establishing a free press, which meant publication of facts and opinions without censorship, including criticism of himself. The people were literally dancing in the street. This unauthorized relaxation of the rules was unheard of in the Soviet bloc, and was viewed from Moscow as a time bomb.

In June, I was assigned to spend a week in Sweden traveling with Alexei Kosygin, Premier of the Soviet government. It was a ceremonial trip, mostly designed to worry Washington by giving the impression that a love affair between Sweden and the U.S.S.R. was taking shape. Sweden was a socialist country of a different kind, but if Moscow could draw it closer to the East Bloc camp, it would strengthen the Soviet hand considerably in Europe. I saw it in a different light. For me, this was an ideal chance to ask Kosygin what remedies he might be planning for the situation in Czechoslovakia. This was the first and last press conference Kosygin held. The Soviet Politburo lived in splendid isolation, rarely talking to Western journalists.

At the end of the five-day visit, I represented the AP at a rare press conference with a Soviet leader just as pressure was building for Soviet military action in Czechoslovakia. As a hundred reporters gathered in a posh hotel ballroom in Stockholm, I stood up and to Kosygin for assurances that there would not be an attempt to control the Czechoslovaks by military means. He dodged the question with a long-winded answer about fraternal countries and how they all loved socialism, but each time he intended to say "Sweden" he accidentally said "Czechoslovakia". "I'm very happy to be here in Czechoslovakia," said at one point. He apparently was so preoccupied didn't know where he was. The journalists were stifling snorts and giggles. Finally an aide whispered to him that he was actually in Sweden and he apologized

This was proof, of sorts, that the Soviet leadership was focused on one thing: the events in Prague. We all jumped on the story with both feet. With a Swedish AP man named Finn Persson, I had cased the press conference venue for a pay phone (we had no cellphones then) and bolted for the phone booth as soon as the press conference adjourned. I dialed the Stockholm AP office and breathlessly dictated the story. We didn't take time to write breaking news. We were expected to grab the phone and dictate perfect sentences and paragraphs as fast as the deskman on the other end could type them.

Meanwhile, Moscow had announced that a meeting of the Warsaw Pact military alliance for East Europe was being organized in Poland in a couple of days. This was the signal that military planning was under way, and it made headlines everywhere. At Arlander Airport in Stockholm, I showed up for Kosygin's departure and managed to shout a question at him in Russian: "What's your next stop?" He gave me a withering glance, recognizing my youthful looks (I was all of 28) from the press conference the previous day, and shot back, "Moscow. And if you don't believe me, ask the stewardess."

"No, no, I believe you," I said, provoking a sly smile from him.

This may have been the shortest interview in the history of journalism but I took some satisfaction at embarrassing a man who was famous for keeping his cool.

A couple of months later, in August 1968, I was awakened at 5 a.m. by the AP bureau chief, Jack Bausman, asking me to hurry over to the office. All communication with the outside world had been cut off. No international telephone calls, no AP wire, no Telex. It didn't take a brain surgeon to realize that the invasion was under way, the first military action in Europe since the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. At about 7 a.m., Pravda arrived and the TASS newswire (the main channel for official Soviet pronouncements) started slowly tapping out the news: a group of loyal socialists had stamped out the counter-revolutionary movement in Prague and installed a new government. The fraternal countries of the Warsaw Pact except Romania had decided to lend their support. This was code for announcing that Dubcek had been ousted and the Red Army had moved in to stop what the Soviets saw as the cancer of a free society spreading through Czechoslovakia and beyond.

It had happened a few hours earlier, and my friend Peter Rehak, Prague correspondent for The AP had written the AP bulletin that alerted Washington. NATO intelligence apparently had been caught napping. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was testifying at a Senate hearing when an aide interrupted him to pass along a copy of Peter's bulletin, and he immediately headed for the White House. The U.S. decided not to intervene - fortunately for all of us, because that might well have triggered a far more serious conflict in Europe.

The role of the AP office in Moscow was small compared to that of Peter's one-man Prague operation. He wrote the front page stories for the world's newspapers for the next three or four weeks. Peter was the perfect person for this assignment. He was a very cool Canadian of Czech origin, and spoke the Czech language.

Peter later said he became aware of the invasion when he heard jet fighters screaming overhead en route to the Prague airport. "I knew this wasn't the night flight to Dubrovnik," he said later. He switched on Radio Prague and heard the dreaded news that the Russians had landed and seized the airport.

Meanwhile, as the sun rose in Moscow, I was immersed in translating three solid pages in Pravda explaining to the Soviet people that regrettably a counter-revolution had had to be put down in Prague. The names of the members of the new government were published, not surprisingly the most vocal critics of Dubcek. Although Pravda did not announce it, Dubcek and two of his associates had been arrested by the Czech security forces on orders from Moscow, handcuffed and spirited off to the Prague airport in an armored personnel carrier. From there they were flown to Moscow lying on the deck of a military transport, then uncuffed and taken to confront Brezhnev. Later, accounts of this meeting were published, including Brezhnev's anguished greeting: "Sasha, how COULD you?"

I wrote the story laying out the Soviet rationale for the invasion, and by midday international lines were restored. I sent it by Telex to London where it was relayed around the world.

When I got home at the end of the day, Jacqueline told me the maid had been in tears - not because of the invasion but because Moscow Radio had used its special chimes to alert the public of an important announcement coming. These chimes and the announcer's distinctive voice brought back memories of World War II and bulletins from the front. The maid was choked up by the memories and started talking about how much she missed Stalin. Things were never simple in Moscow.

It took another 21 years for the crude suppression of the East Europeans to end when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

 


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