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

By Leo GruliowSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1987

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.

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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.

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.