Beyond the Cliches

American Reporters in Russia

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

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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.