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

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."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
Extracts: "it is impossible to model many of the most important risks. Global warming will produce major changes in hydrological cycles, with both more extreme rainfall and longer more severe droughts. This will have severe adverse effects on agriculture and livelihoods in specific locations, but climate models cannot tell us in advance precisely where regional effects will be most severe. Adverse initial effects in turn could produce self-reinforcing political instability and large-scale attempted migration........Achieving a zero-carbon economy will require a massive increase in global electricity use, from today’s 23,000 TW hours to as much as 90,000 TW hours by mid-century. Delivering this in a zero-carbon fashion will require enormous investments, but as the Energy Transitions Commission has shown, it is technically, physically, and economically feasible......Added up across all economic sectors, however, it’s clear that the total cost of decarbonizing the global economy cannot possibly exceed 1-2% of world GDP. In fact, the actual costs will almost certainly be far lower, because most such estimates cautiously ignore the possibility of fundamental technological breakthroughs, and maintain conservative estimates of how long and how fast cost reductions in key technologies will occur. In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected a 70% fall in solar photovoltaic equipment costs by 2030. It happened by 2017."
Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "......the day before Mueller testified, the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And the day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that Russia would be involved in the next presidential election, and that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China have the capacity to interfere in US elections as well. Despite these warnings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Senate consideration of two bills aimed at strengthening US election security,....."
Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.