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.

 


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

Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "If anything has become clear in our recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling in Iraq, is that most Iraqis are tired of their country being used as a playground for regional conflict, especially the conflict between the US and Iran. In fact, our polling has shown Iraqis increasingly upset with the role played by both the US and Iran in their country. Majorities see both of these countries as having been the major beneficiaries of the wars that have ravaged their nation since the US invaded in 2003. "
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Under his [Suleimani's] leadership, Iran helped Hezbollah beef up its missile capabilities, led a decisive intervention to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported the Houthi rebels who have been waging a war against Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and backed a wave of resurgent Shia militias in Iraq. According to Gadi Eizenkot, who completed his term as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of general staff last year, Suleimani had plans to amass a proxy force of 100,000 fighters along Syria’s border with Israel."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: ".....stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut GHG emissions at a cost far lower than we dared hope a decade ago. The costs of solar and wind power have fallen more than 80% and 70%, respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs are down from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs guarantee that energy systems which are as much as 85% dependent on variable renewables could produce zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel-based systems."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "Predicting the next crisis – financial or economic – is a fool’s game. Yes, every crisis has its hero who correctly warned of what was about to come. And, by definition, the hero was ignored (hence the crisis). But the record of modern forecasting contains a note of caution: those who correctly predict a crisis rarely get it right again. The best that economists can do is to assess vulnerability. Looking at imbalances in the real economy or financial markets gives a sense of the potential consequences of a major shock. It doesn't take much to spark corrections in vulnerable economies and markets. But a garden-variety correction is far different from a crisis. The severity of the shock and the degree of vulnerability matter: big shocks to highly vulnerable systems are a recipe for crisis. In this vein, the source of vulnerability that I worry about the most is the overextended state of central-bank balance sheets. My concern stems from three reasons."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
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."