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

Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "Shocks are here to stay, and our task is not to predict the next one – although someone always does – but to sharpen our focus on resilience. Staying the course of politically mandated policies while minimizing the inevitable dislocations is easier said than done. But that is no excuse to fall for the myth of being victimized by the unprecedented."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACTS: "A new world is indeed emerging. It will be characterized not only by more interdependencies, but also by more insecurity, danger, and war. Stability in international relations will become a foreign concept from a bygone age – one that we did not fully appreciate until it was gone."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion."
Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."