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Beyond the Cliches

American Reporters in Russia

By Paul DUKE Jr.

What is so enervating is that the dander comes in large measure from inside your own mind, Enveloped in official lies, swathed in ... ironic smile, smothered in warm and generous friendliness that can burn cold at an order from above, you exist in the knowledge that at any moment of the state's choosing it can manipulate your surrounding environment gradually or dramatically to cause slight discomfort or excruciating pain. So you begin to take a defensive posture. You feel guilt over ordinary acts of courtesy goodwill toward Russians who want book they cannot get, for instance, and who ask for your help. If you hesitate in the simple giving a Russian friend a book, because know that you are technically breaking an oppressive Soviet law, you feel inquiry unworthy of your own belief in free inquiry. And if you go ahead, you feel a knot of tension. David K. Shipler   Russia: Brok 1 Idols,Solemn Dreams

* * *

FOR A FOREIGN correspondent, it may be the most exciting and the most frustrating assignment in the world.

A reporter looks for pithy quotes, startling statistics, social trends which can alter the course of history. But in the Soviet Union, the largest and third most populous country in the world, the news is that there is no news.

"The frustrating thing is, you often learn more from what people don't say than from what they do," says David K. Shipler, a New York Times correspondent who covered Russia from 1975 to 1979.

"And the problem is that we journalists are always looking for something new, and there's very little that's new in the Soviet Union. It is a system that moves glacially incrementally.

Last Monday, about 100 people gathered at Harvard to talk about the fact that in Moscow, a weather beaten trench cost and a knack for nosiness won't suffice. The Russian Research Center, along with the Nieman Foundation, the U.S. Department of State, and the William and Mary Greve Foundation, sponsored its third annual gathering for journalists and academics, billed as an "Orientation for Journalists Interested in the Soviet Union."

Seasoned reporters who have hopped the continents, wide-eyed neophytes about to be sent to Russia, professors eager to trade scraps of information all gathered at the Faculty Club to share insights about what is in many ways a forbidden land.

Of course, academics and journalists often find themselves at odds. Journalists are seen as dilettantes spreading misinformation, jargon and simplified explanations of complex events, while academics seem to fritter away their time in library cubby-holes, eschewing "relevance" for "truth."

But, says Marshall I. Goldman, director of the Russian Research Center and a professor of economics at Wellesley College, "in Soviet studies there's a special relationship between journalists and academics because the information is so limited."

"And when journalists get to the Soviet Union, often they're completely lost. There's a sprawling, intricate government bureaucracy that doesn't work the way they tell you it does. And unlike the United States, it's not only the politicians that are trying to manipulate the media, it's the state itself.

Conviviality was definitely the mood at the Faculty Club. Whatever their differences, reporters and academics remain storytellers at heart. And the raconteurs were in top form.

Marvin Kalb, chief diplomatic correspondent for NBC News formerly diplomatic correspondent for CBS (also, a graduate of the Russian Area Program here at Harvard).

In the fifties we had direct censorship. At the end of the day all the correspondents gathered at the Central Telegraph office to submit their copy to the censor and then send it over the wire. There were two London papers, the Express and the Daily Mail, which were in fierce competition.

I remember one day the line at the censor was terribly long and the Express man was frantically pacing back and forth wondering how he would get through quickly.

Suddenly -- you could see it in his face -- inspiration struck. He dashed out a story on a typewriter, slipped it through the censor in a minute and then yelled for a telephone. "Get me London!" and got London in a minute.

Luckily the connection was so bad he had to yell the story into the phone. I remember the lead: "I just drank champagne with six Soviet Cosmonauts preparing to go into outer space."

Pure fiction.

Well, the Daily Mail reporter didn't know what to do, and he paced frantically.

Suddenly, inspiration struck him. He whipped his story past the censor and called London: "Plans to Send Six Soviet Cosmonauts into Outer Space Mysteriously Scrubbed."

Of course the next day our London reporter read the stories and wondered why I didn't have them, so I got a phone call from the home office.

Why would the Russians allow this idiocy to go through Because they had no problem with speculation that they were close to putting men into space, even if it weren't true, if it furthered their aims.

Russia is a behemoth lumbering towards disaster under the weight of a backwards peasantry, with an economy that produces a dearth of goods consumers despise and can't use anyway, and an antiquated government crying for reform but held hostage by a generation of octogenarians. Alcoholism, declining life expectancy: this is a society in crisis.

Or: Russia is a modern state which has struggled out of the grip of medievalist in scarcely a century, has promised its cautious and hardy citizens national security, law and order, cradle to grave welfarism, and has delivered on those promises. This is a society notable for stability amidst hardship.

Those are the terms of the debate in Soviet studies today. Stephen Cohen, a professor of Soviet studies today. Stephen Cohen, a professor of Soviet politics and history at Princeton University and a columnist for The Nation, leans toward the latter view. But he claims that news coverage of the Soviet Union favors the former.

"[New York Times columnist] Flora Lewis may write that the Soviet Union has broken its promises to its people," he said, "but she doesn't realize that the promises that government makes are not the same ones this government makes.

"The coverage is distorted because we emphasize the bad things, because there is no pro-Soviet lobby in this country to clamor about the coverage the way there is for the Chinese, and because the American Journalists are undertrained. Soviet journalists are professional Americanists. They study the country and they cover it for life."

But Cohen was in the minority this week. The Soviets constantly harass the 30-odd American correspondents in Russia, bugging their guarded compounds and occasionally trying to set them up in compromising circumstances with a photographer nearby. The Soviets limit the number of correspondents who speak Russian, and they enforce quirky rules (no photos of bridges, ports, railway junctions, men in uniform, police stations or military installations are allowed).

Still, most commentators praised the coverage, with reservations, said Misha Tsypkin, a Ph.D candidate in the Government Department who emigrated from Russia in 1977, "The coverage is good, considering that the journalists have to deal with a very organized point of view coming from the government. There are no friendly and reliable leakers in the Soviet Union." Times correspondent Shipler quipped. "If a dissident says his apartment was trashed you can't call the KGB to get comment. I had to relearn things when I moved on to Israel, which is obviously a different situation. People say it's hard to work in the Soviet Union but there are certain things which are easier!"

But Tsypkin denounced stereotypes portrayed by the American media. "That cliche about the Russians always being invaded is silly. The invasions brought Russia the greatest land empire in the world! And all the talk about the 20 million dead in World War II, how that affected the people. Stalin killed about 30 million and you don't hear much talk about that."

And he warned Americans to be skeptical of "man-in-the-street" interviews.

"If I had the misfortune to still live in Moscow and someone walked up to me with a camera and a microphone and asked 'What do you think of Andropov's death?' I would think first of my own life!"

Kalb again

Nikita (Khrushehev) could win you over with his charm and shrewdness. He loved the western press; he used the western press the way we are used in Washington everyday. One of the problems of being an American correspondent in Moscow is that you don't get used enough. You feel uncomfortable. We love to get used, by the top people Khrushchev truly knew how valuable the western press could be...

There was a rumor in June, 1960 that there was going to be a meeting of the Central Committee. Dan Schorr was a CBS correspondent and he said to Khrushchev, Mr. Khrushchev, I want to go on holiday, but my office won't let me go because there's a rumor of a meeting of the Central Committee Could you tell me sir--this is not for a story--I just want to know if I can go on holiday.'

Khrushchev looked at him and said 'Mr Schorr, go on holiday.'

And Don said 'Thank you very much sir, I really appreciate that, thank you ever so much,' and started walking away, thinking he had a big story.

Then he heard this little voice behind him say 'And Mr. Schorr, if we hold a meeting of the Central Committee, we'll hold it without you."

It is almost a cliche now: We are two superpowers poised to destroy each other. But can better-trained journalists, familiar with the language and prepared in academic programs, promote understanding among the common people? Will that understanding filter upwards to the arms-negotiators, the presidents and the premiers?

Shipler, one of the new breed of correspondents (he speaks fluent Russian and attended the Russian Institute at Columbia University) has doubts.

In an interview a day after the Center's seminar, he said, "People were talking about exchange programs yesterday. I didn't want to be a wet blanket, but Americans tend to turn to the right when they visit Russia. There are so many aspects of the system that are frustrating and outrageous....

"When dealing with the Soviet bureaucrats you begin to find yourself reacting in the same way your government reacts. They push you, you push back. You realize if you step back, they'll step forward. There is a kind of bullying mentality that only responds to stubbornness. So you find yourself doing what you don't want your government to do. I'm not sure contact really softens the relationship."

But Shipler, now settled in Washington after 11 years abroad which included stints in South Vietnam and Israel, sees more than just darkness in the Soviet Union.

The eloquent, friendly 41-year-old tells the story of Soviet authorities who confiscated the camera equipment of western journalists as they filmed a hotel fire, explaining that they didn't want "foreigners to laugh at" their misfortune.

"That really says a lot about the way the Russians think the world looks at them, but they are also a warm and kind people who love to take you into their kitchen and talk, talk about ideas.

"Despite the dullness and grayness of the society, there is a certain constant drama as people try to carve our little zones of freedom for themselves."

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