May 16th 2008

Reporting the News from a Police State - Introduction

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.

We know from experience that people suffer, prisons overflow and innocent bystanders are injured or killed in political systems that ban all opposition. I witnessed this process during four years as a Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press in the 1960s and early 1970s. As a young journalist, I found it a disturbing experience, and I expected to turn my back on the country when I left, as most of my colleagues did.

But the memories refused to go away. I am now at work on a book describing how the system worked in real life, how information was twisted, and how a passive population gradually awoke to the possibility of a better life. This has led me to revive old contacts and dig up emotional memories of those forgotten days.

Why is this important today? Because it will happen again in Russia and elsewhere in the world. Russia has a long history of clampdowns followed by official relaxation followed by more clampdowns. Other countries, including China, Cuba, Myanmar, most of the Arab world, Zimbabwe and many countries in Africa, have yet to break free of the oppressive regimes that control their lives. They can learn from this story.

In this book I am devoting special attention to the political dissidents, for they found within themselves the courage to oppose a murderous regime. They provide the best human story of the era. The headliners were Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, but today the forgotten names must also be recalled -- such figures as Elena Bonner, Yuli Daniel, Andrei Sinyansky, Nathan Sharansky, Andrei Amalrik, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, Larisa Bogoraz, Pavel Litvinov and Eduard Kuznetsov.

Given the cloak-and-dagger nature of Moscow reportage, journalists had problems deciding how the political dissidents fit into the Soviet jigsaw. Their methods were suspicious by nature. They met us in train stations or other noisy public places to foil the eavesdroppers. They whispered their second-hand information in conspiratorial tones, eyes darting.

A SHADY GROUP

Who were these strange people? They seemed scruffy and idle and their motives were unclear. Most were minor writers or self-described intellectuals. A few scientists were mixed in, and there seemed to be an inordinate number of philologists.

Their human rights revolution was born around kitchen tables in dreary Moscow flats, in silent vigils and in poetry readings in sub-zero temperatures around Moscow monuments. This was not supposed to happen, and it had the secret police on full alert, as we now know from recently declassified archives.

They feared their own KGB watchers and therefore most of them would not allow us around their place of residence. Well-trained American journalists were uneasy with them because their information could not be double-checked. Even the U.S. embassy wanted nothing to do with them. The KGB liked to plant decoys, and we could never be sure these informants were not playing a game of entrapment. And indeed expulsions often were based on such traps.

Many of us in the press corps had read the classic "Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia" by the French diplomat the Marquis de Custine, whose 1839 book resonates so strongly in the more modern setting. The book intrigued us because we found we were encountering the same problems in 1960s Russia that the Marquis had 150 years earlier: dishonesty, fear of foreigners, official secrecy, superstition, poverty, oppression, class divisions.

We were convinced, partly because of the Marquis' writings, that democracy would probably never come to Russia. There was no democratic tradition for the Russians to draw upon. Their fathers and grandfathers had lived relatively under oppression, tsarist or communist. The present generation was also doomed to subjugation, we decided. How could the forces for free expression win any ground when the other side had all the guns? It was easy for us to take a superior attitude to these politically underdeveloped people.

We were only partly right. Gorbachev ended the one-party political system in 1990, and that took the lid off. By the time the old-line leaders tried to stop the reforms with their half-hearted coup in 1991, the people had tasted democracy and were not interested in going back. Again in 1993 Yeltsin blasted his own "White House" with tanks in another violent and controversial convulsion on the way to some form of democracy. Yeltsin reasserted his authority, which he called the democratic movement, and various factions have struggled with reforms ever since.

THE FINAL UNRAVELING

We could argue the conflicting results of the confusion in the 1990s, the U.S.-influenced social engineering - attempting to make "them" more like "us" -- but at least it is fair to say that human rights are trampled on far less today and in the 1970s. Nevertheless, some 70 percent of the Russian people have said in a recent poll that they do not know the meaning of "democracy".

Other things were going on as the old monolith began to give way, including economic mismanagement and Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program and spiritual bankruptcy, but the movement for political relaxation was a decisive factor in the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 and the continuation of liberalization, however tentative.

As it turned out, the lack of democracy in their past has held them back. There have been setbacks under Presidents Yeltsin and Putin and there will be more under Medvedev, but times have changed. Today, for example, there are multiple organizations in Moscow openly devoted to the defense of human rights. Thousands of Russians are publicly taking a stand when an abuse is identified. Putin met intellectuals and even artists in the Kremlin during his terms as president. He took tea with Mr. and Mrs. Solzhenitsyn in their home. A mention of the KGB no longer provokes the panic it once did.

I have made several return visits since Gorbachev and found it fascinating to walk the streets and talk openly with people. Criticizing the political leadership or the police in a chat with a foreigner, as many strangers did with me, would have been a serious crime when I worked there.

Only with many years of perspective have I come to realize that by reporting the discontent within Soviet society in the 1960s and 1970s I was witnessing history. I now know that the rag-tag band of protesters we followed around were playing a more important game with us. They needed the Western press to get their message out to human rights activists abroad. In the name of legitimate news, we obliged, without realizing how vital we were to the process.

Several of these courageous men and women have since written their memoirs, and the pattern emerges clearly from their writings. They knew where they were going, and they were willing to give up their freedom, such as it was, or even their lives, for it. From the publication of Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in 1962 to the appearance of Sakharov in Parliamentary proceedings in 1989, it is possible to draw a straight line tracing the protestors' buildup of momentum. Their struggle is the heart of my story.

 


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