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.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."