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

May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.
Apr 17th 2019
On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw. “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.” “This place leaves no one untouched. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in front of the burning monument. “We will rebuild,” said the Rector of Notre Dame, “we will rebuild.”
Apr 15th 2019
High-level political purges are gathering pace in Russia. The latest evidence came in late March, with the arrests of Mikhail Abyzov, a former minister for open government affairs, and – two days later – Viktor Ishayev, a former Far East minister and ex-governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Unsurprisingly, the arrests of such senior figures is having a chilling effect among the country’s elites. The authorities have now arrested or imprisoned three former federal government ministers and a supporting cast of regional officials
Apr 8th 2019
The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.
Apr 8th 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be on a roll. He has sent a rocket to the dark side of the moon, built artificial islands on contested reefs in the South China Sea, and recently enticed Italy to break ranks with its European partners and sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s unilateralist posture has reduced America’s soft power and influence. China’s economic performance over the past four decades has been truly impressive. It is now the main trading partner for more than a hundred countries compared to about half that number for the United States. Its economic growth has slowed, but its official 6% annual rate is more than twice the American rate. Conventional wisdom projects that China’s economy will surpass that of the US in size in the coming decade. Perhaps. But it is also possible that Xi has feet of clay.
Apr 2nd 2019
"......as prime minister, May called a snap election in the name of helping her deliver Brexit. She openly dismissed anyone opposing Brexit – which at the very least meant the 16.5m who had voted remain – as “playing games with politics”. In hock to the hardline Brexiteers within her own party, May pushed a for a version of Brexit that would make this small group of around 100 or so individuals happy, regardless of what millions out in the country thought."
Apr 1st 2019
The financial crisis occurred in 2008 because deficient regulation allowed huge risks to develop within the financial system itself. But the depth of the subsequent recession, and the long period of slow growth that followed, was the result not of continued financial system fragility, but of the excessive leverage in the real economy that had developed over the previous half-century. Between 1950 and 2007, advanced economies’ private-sector debt (households and companies) grew from 50% to 170% of GDP and adequate growth seemed attainable only if debt grew far more rapidly than nominal GDP. After the crisis, loan growth turned negative and remained depressed for many years, not because an impaired financial system lacked the capital to extend credit, but because overleveraged households and companies were determined to pay down debt even if interest rates were zero. The same pattern was observed in Japan in the 1990s.
Mar 28th 2019
The American people should have known that something was awry when President Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, announced on Friday, March 22, that he had received special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and would provide a summary of its findings to certain congressional leaders over the weekend. We should have asked: Why Barr’s summary and not Mueller’s? Presumably, Mueller had attached one to his report. It turned out there was a propagandistic reason for this unusual arrangement: Barr issued the best possible interpretation of Mueller’s report – from the president’s standpoint – including perhaps even a twist on what Mueller had said and intended. This allowed the president and his backers to propagate and celebrate what Mueller didn’t say: that the report’s conclusions were a “total exoneration” of Trump. In fact, even Barr’s brief summary, quoting Mueller’s report, said, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Mar 26th 2019
"The 2020 campaign could easily devolve into street violence at Trump’s instigation."
Mar 26th 2019


 

BEIJING – The global economy is weakening, in no small measure because of a deep, widespread sense of uncertainty. And a major source of that uncertainty is the ongoing Sino-American “trade war.”