From Moscow
by Michael Johnson

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Reporting from Moscow in the days of the Cold War was basically a game of cat and mouse. There were 22 U.S. journalists based in Moscow at the time, and an equal number of Soviet journalist-spies in New York and Washington. On both sides, we  maneuvered non-stop to beat the controls placed upon us.

What was the story? We thought it would be about the potential for nuclear war, the relative strength of armies, and Soviet expansionism in Europe. In those days no one could be sure how successful the communist dream might turn out to be. The assignment was one of the best in the world because we were sure to be on Page One most of the time.

As it turned out, we were busier covering the young protest movement with men such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov at the forefront. This was genuine news.

A pattern of critical reporting and analysis would be enough, however, to get you a reprimand, and ultimately expulsion from the country. The KGB had the job of intimidating us but most of us were brash enough to go about our business regardless.

I witnessed KGB men, armed with hammers, smash the headlights and tail lights of a UPI colleague's car in broad daylight while shouting insults at him.

My own Volkswagen, parked on the street while my wife and I were at a dinner party, was damaged when KGB thugs smashed the windshield and left me a note wrapped in the labor union newspaper, Trud. It said, "The worst is yet to come, you low-down snake." Unsure how seriously to take the threat, I accepted an offer to move to Paris.

A colleague on a reporting trip with his wife in the Central Asia Soviet "republics" was drugged at a dinner with his Soviet handlers. As he passed out and vomited in a public square, his wife (who had declined the drink) shouted for help. By chance, a conference of gynecologists was in progress next door, and two American doctors came to their rescue.

The Newsweek bureau chief treated his young female translator to a winter coat purchased with his dollars, and disposed of his aging Mercedes at a local junkyard. The car was retrieved and illegally resold and the translator's coat became proof of the crime of currency speculation. In fact his reporting had been among the sharpest of the press corps. He was expelled.

Nicolas Daniloff, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, met a friend and news source on the streets of Moscow. The source handed him an envelope of maps marked "Secret".  The police arrested him on the spot and held him for 13 days. He was then exchanged for a Soviet spy being held by the Americans.

When I was running the McGraw-Hill World News Service, our man in Moscow, a very mild-mannered Englishman, was surprised to find himself featured in a concocted newspaper story about how he had trashed his hotel room. He was presented with a bill for the damages. The bill went unpaid and  I moved him to Singapore, much to his relief.

But we had our little victories. The AP bureau was active, as was the U.S. embassy, in carrying Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts to the West for publication. Solzhenitsyn names three AP helpers in his book "Invisible Allies". They folded up pages and stuffed them in their shoes, then walked gingerly through Customs and onto their Air France flight. And the U.S. military attaché told me of his anxiety after accepting a fat manuscript from a Solzhenitsyn intermediary. He concealed the manuscript under furniture in his family's moving container when he was transferred back to Washington. It was delayed several weeks while the attaché fretted about going down in history as having lost a priceless manuscript. It eventually turned up unharmed.

Michael Johnson
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Michael Johnson served in the four-man Moscow Bureau of Associated Press from 1967 to 1971. He then joined McGraw-Hill World News in Paris, writing for Business Week and other McGraw-Hill magazines. In 1976 he was named head of the company's 70-person global news network in New York. Five years later he transferred to London to become chief editor of International Management magazine. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald Tribune, American Spectator and thecolumnists.com.

 

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