Winston Churchill called the Soviet Union a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It is a country that is difficult for Americans and Europeans to know: Historically xenophobic, the Soviet Union since the 1917 Revolution has been a closed society, determined to protect socialism from the aggression of the capitalist West. The struggle by American reporters to penetrate this closed society, which has shaped twentieth century history so dramatically, is Bassow’s subject.
Bassow tells the story chronologically, beginning with John Reed, whose sympathetic coverage of the Revolution made him a Soviet hero, and concluding with Nicholas Daniloff, whose arrest and expulsion in 1986 on trumped-up espionage charges affected the Reykjavik summit. Between these dramatic poles, Bassow leisurely recounts the growth of the American press corps in Moscow and portrays the personalities of the intrepid men and women who walked the world’s loneliest news beat.
Here are many fascinating vignettes: cranky Walter Duranty, who went from notorious Red-baiter to Stalin apologist; serene Walter Cronkite, who felt overwhelmed during a brief sojourn; reckless Sam Jaffe, whose numerous Soviet contacts gave him scoops and a reputation as a KGB agent.
As fascinating as the reporters themselves is the government and the city they cover. Soviet censors constantly frustrated reporters’ efforts to get news to the home offices and prompted them to invent ingenious dodges. Moscow itself, racked by shortages in the 1920’s, by war in the 1940’s, and by Cold War intrigue in the 1950’s and 1960’s, has never been hospitable. To cope with these conditions requires, Bassow asserts, self-reliant, aggressive, Russian-fluent reporters.
Bassow knows personally most of the correspondents about whom he writes: He incorporates their frank opinions and vivid anecdotes (about the Soviet Union as well as one another) into a narrative of historical events which shaped the reporters’ experience. Writing for the general reader, Bassow skillfully interweaves the turbulent undercurrents of Soviet politics. Readers will realize that for every headline or film clip from Moscow, there is another story behind the story.