Working for a Soviet newspaper in the Stalinist era. US journalist remembers time as a staff member of Moscow News

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A Monitor reporter's recent account of three months as an exchange journalist with Moscow News brought memories of a time, more than 50 years ago, when that Soviet paper regularly employed young American journalists. I was one of them for a while. The country was in the throes of its first five-year plan. Americans, reeling from the depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929, began to look hopefully to the Soviet demand for industrial machinery and expertise. Hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers migrated to the Soviet Union.

Somewhere in the Kremlin, the idea arose that the Soviet Union needed its own English-language newspaper to serve the growing foreign colony and students of English. The clincher was the prospect of American diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union.

Enter Mikhail Borodin and Anna Louise Strong.

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Mikhail Gruzenberg, better known under his assumed name of Borodin, was one of Vladimir Lenin's followers in the underground Bolshevik movement early in the century. In 1923, he was sent to cultivate Sun Yat-sen, the great nationalist who was trying to unify China. Borodin became a guru not only to Sun but to some of the American correspondents in China.

One of the journalists who sat at Borodin's feet was Strong. She had gone to Russia as a worker in Herbert Hoover's American Relief Administration in the early '20s, returned as a magazine reporter, and became an ardent admirer of the Soviet Union.

Back in Moscow, Borodin had been given the job of dealing with the influx of engineers and specialists from America. One day he asked Strong if she would like to start an ``American-style'' newspaper in Moscow. She agreed to recruit a staff and launch the paper, but hesitated to take the responsibility of running it. She knew the pitfalls of dealing with the Soviet bureaucracy.

Her fears were soon realized.

The motley staff she assembled in the autumn of 1930 included a few professional journalists and some gifted amateurs. They were no match for Soviet conditions and Soviet censors. Russian compositors who set the type knew no English. After the staff had painstakingly corrected the proofs and made up the first issue, the censors hacked away. Strong stormed at them, but she was powerless. The gaps they left were filled with translations from the Soviet papers.

After three weeks of fruitless battle with the censors and with the Soviet officials overseeing the paper, she left for her annual American lecture tour. Copies of the paper that reached her in America left her in tears.

She returned to Moscow early in 1931 and tendered her resignation. It wasn't even acknowledged. She managed to have the Soviet editor, T.L. Axelrod, dismissed (for a time), but his replacement, Viktor Vacsov, was worse. She went on a leave of absence and took her problem to Joel Shubin, a sympathetic Foreign Ministry functionary (whom she later married). She also went to Borodin. She contemplated returning to the US and writing an expos'e of Soviet journalism. At that point, Borodin counseled her to appeal by letter to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Five days later Stalin received her in the Kremlin. With him were Lazar Kaganovich and Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov, his most important lieutenants. Vacsov came, too.

Stalin took Vacsov to task for depriving Strong of authority while retaining her name on the masthead. The matter of Worker's News, a rival paper, came up. Weren't engineers (for whom Moscow News was intended) and workers different? In America, they differed little, Strong replied; there was no need for two weeklies. What was needed was one daily. Stalin nodded. That was the end of Worker's News.

There would have to be a Soviet ``responsible editor'' in charge. The editor? Mikhail Borodin.

The staff marched in the May Day parade, holding aloft copies of the first issue of the ``new'' Moscow Daily News, May 1, 1932.

Like all Soviet papers of that time, it consisted of four standard-size pages without advertising. The American and British staff members contributed upbeat feature articles about Soviet life and progress. (These were reprinted in a glossy-paper weekly edition sold abroad.) American engineers and workers on construction projects around the country sent letters about their work, their difficulties, their complaints. The paper's so-called mass department, like an ombudsman, was supposed to intervene with officialdom to iron out the problems; mostly it just edited out the complaints. A front-page editorial echoed the Communist Party daily Pravda. The paper's news content never rose above the level of its source: the official news agency Tass.

Elderly women delivered the mimeographed Tass dispatches, which Soviet translators, dictating to typists, turned into English. Sometimes other messengers delivered orders for a particular item, specifying the required size, position on the page, and wording of its headline, which would then appear identically in all Soviet papers. At times orders came to hold up the issue past deadline for an announcement. As a result, the paper often appeared 24 hours late.

One of the editors - Borodin, Axelrod, or Shubin - came on duty late in the day and read each page proof, line by line, then initialed the proofs, while a censor in the print shop was doing the same. A censor later checked the first copy off the press to be sure it corresponded identically with the approved page proofs.

Borodin secured an ornate, two-story mansion on Petrovsky Pereulok, in the heart of downtown Moscow, to house the paper. In a first-floor apartment, photographers developed their negatives, and retouchers sometimes made composite pictures, rearranging group scenes by pasting in fresh faces in place of those in the photos.

Stray American journalists - from 1933 to 1938, I was one of these - tourists, and fellow-travelers came and went, paying for their stay by working for the paper.

Then the purges began.

One by one, three staff members, all of them Soviet citizens who had lived abroad for a time - the foreign news editor, the business manager, the star translator - were arrested, as well as a makeup foremen at the foreign-language print shop where the paper was put to press. Each time, Borodin brought us together and delivered a lecture attempting to justify the purge. We Americans and British remained shocked, silent, and wondering. Strong refused to attend these staff meetings, but she defended Stalin and the purges in her writings and lectures.

The daily was closed down at the end of February 1938, as war clouds gathered over Europe and Stalin prepared for the pact with Adolf Hitler.

Strong remained as a contributing editor, but the other Americans on the staff packed up and left, I among them.

As German forces advanced on Moscow in the late autumn of 1941, Muscovites moved the machinery and personnel of entire factories through the Urals and Siberia by rail to Kuybyshev. They returned to a cold, boarded-up, blacked-out Moscow after the siege lifted in 1942.

I returned on an American war relief mission and visited Borodin. He seemed subdued. Everything he had worked for seemed imperiled.

Strong came to Moscow as a war correspondent. After the war, she visited communist strongholds in China. Oblivious of the fact that Stalin distrusted Mao Tse-tung, she wrote admiringly of Mao. She could not understand why Pravda and East European publishers rejected her manuscripts. Borodin told her the Kremlin was unhappy with her writings, but she refused to make the changes he suggested.

Finally, she came to Moscow in 1949, determined to enter the communist-held region of China through the Soviet Union. She ignored the fact that the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek and not with Mao's forces.

On the night of Feb. 3, 1949, the secret police arrested Strong, Borodin, and the staff of the Moscow News. The staff was soon released, but the paper ceased publication.

Borodin disappeared into a Siberian labor camp. Strong, after five days in Lubyanka prison, was expelled from the Soviet Union on a preposterous charge of being an American spy.

In the wave of ``rehabilitations'' of Stalin's victims under Nikita Khrushchev, Strong was exonerated of the espionage charge. Eventually she went to China, and remained a Mao adherent to the end.

Borodin had died in a labor camp in Siberia in 1951. The news had not leaked out until six months after Stalin's death in 1953. Borodin was given brief ``rehabilitation'' in 1964, more than a decade after his demise.

Moscow News emerged again in 1956, and since 1986, when Yegor Yakovlev was named its editor, it has flowered into an editorial flagship of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).

Leo Gruliow was a Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor and is editor emeritus of the weekly Current Digest of the Soviet Press, published at Ohio State University.

Linda Feldmann, the Monitor reporter mentioned in this story, went to Moscow on a journalistic exchange arranged by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Her articles appeared Sept. 11, 14, and 15.

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