In “The Red Hotel,” Alan Philps, a former Moscow correspondent, documents the lives of Western journalists under Stalin and traces through lines to media relations in Russia today.
BY LESLEY M. M. BLUME
In the early years of World War II, Godfrey Blunden, an ambitious Australian correspondent for The Sydney Daily Telegraph, was hardly a household name. But in the winter of 1943, Blunden, then a Moscow-based reporter, suddenly came out with one blockbuster wartime story after another. Taken by Soviet press handlers to front lines first in Russia and then Ukraine, he revealed Nazi atrocities in Kharkiv. The Germans, he reported, had slaughtered 15,000 Jewish civilians — some of whom had been made to dig their own graves first.
The dispatches made Blunden’s reputation as a war correspondent, says Alan Philps, author of “The Red Hotel: Moscow 1941, the Metropol Hotel, and the Untold Story of Stalin’s Propaganda War,” out on July 4 from Pegasus Books, and himself an on-again, off-again Moscow correspondent since the late 1970s. What the Daily Telegraph’s readers did not know, Philps wrote, is that Blunden’s reporting on atrocities was selective.
During the Kharkiv press tour, Soviet press handlers — eager to showcase additional German crimes against humanity — also took Blunden and other Western reporters to a former Gestapo prison where Nazis had tortured and murdered thousands of Ukrainians. The visit was a mistake: The jail’s cellars had been repurposed by the Soviet secret police to torture and execute suspected Ukrainian nationalists. The journalists were quickly ushered out.
The mistake didn’t matter. Blunden and his colleagues were unable to report the story — or anything unflattering to their Soviet hosts. The Allied press corps based in wartime Moscow had to play by Russian rules: No unsupervised travel outside the city — or even outside their outpost, the Metropol Hotel. No interviewing or fraternizing with Soviet citizens. No opposing the stringent censorship. For the several dozen western correspondents stashed at the Metropol, Russia was at once the potential source of some of the war’s biggest stories, and also a journalistic desert.
While “The Red Hotel” primarily documents the lives of Moscow-based Western correspondents between 1941 and 1945, chafing under Stalin’s control, it also lays out dilemmas, incentives and dangers that have faced generations of their successors. “By 1940, Stalin had total control over the media,” said Philps in an interview, “and total control of news from the front lines.”
This was the situation while Western reporters were guests of the Soviet government, then determined to cultivate a positive wartime image in the United States and United Kingdom. Seven and a half decades later, under Vladimir Putin’s wartime Russia, reporters are an unwanted presence, as evidenced by the arrest and detention in March of The Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich by Russian authorities. “I have no doubt Putin is attempting to do what Stalin did,” says Philps.
Despite the hardships, Moscow has historically been a highly coveted assignment, and an essential outpost for Western media organizations. If the Cold War defined much of global history in the latter half of the 20th century, for an American reporter, having access to Russia was like “going into the heart of the beast,” said John Donvan, a Moscow correspondent for ABC News from 1991 to 1993.
“It was the other most important country on earth,” said Donvan.
The censorship and propaganda tolerated in the Stalin era by some of the Western journalists helped the Soviets perpetuate immense cover-ups. In the 1930s, Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent, denied reporting by another Western journalist that Stalin’s collectivization of Ukrainian farmland led to a famine thought to have killed between three and four million people. “Conditions are bad, but there is no famine,” Duranty wrote in one 1933 dispatch.
Western journalists were also used to help cover up the massacre of thousands of Polish military officers by Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest in western Russia. Philps depicts a junket in January 1944 in which Soviet handlers escorted Western press corps members to a staged outdoor forensic lab near a mass grave where surgeons and press officers showed the reporters fabricated evidence that the Nazis — not the Soviets — had killed the officers. Several of the reporters later claimed that they had been suspicious of the propaganda operation, yet none rebutted the Soviets’ version of events. “The truth,” Philps wrote, “was kept secret until after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990.”
Some of “The Red Hotel”’s journalist protagonists did eventually write revealing books about the Soviet system. Blunden’s novel, “A Room on the Route,” written after he left Russia and published in 1947, depicted the degradation of life under Communism. It was “sort of a bombshell” for Western readers, said Philps. Blunden “was seen as something of a precursor of the new anti-Stalin mood.”
Far from the Soviet Union by the time the book was released, Blunden evaded retribution, but his Russian translator, Nadezhda Ulanovskaya, who had served as a fixer and informant for him as he collected material, was arrested and spent eight years in Soviet labor camps. “The Red Hotel” shows that this was a common fate for Russian nationals who assisted foreign correspondents — even when those civilians had been assigned to spy on the reporters in the first place.
Moscow-based foreign correspondents did get a break, Philps among them, when the Soviet Union broke apart. As a Russia-based reporter trainee with Reuters in 1979, Philps found that the whole “Soviet system was there in principle, but looked rickety,” he said.
Philps returned to Moscow as a full Reuters correspondent in 1985, and then again in 1994 to report for The Daily Telegraph. By that time, the Russian parliament had adopted a progressive media law establishing new rights for foreign journalists, prohibiting censorship. Philps’s offices were bugged, he said, but he was able to travel to the front lines during the first Chechen War and report with near-total freedom: “You still had to get a pass from Russian authorities, but you could go there and take your own risks.”
Other Western reporters also remember this period as an era when they had access that would have been unimaginable to Blunden and the other Metropol journalists.
“We did our work with unprecedented freedom,” said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post from 1988 to 1991. “In an empire that was breaking apart, and a system of censorship that was breaking apart, and after 70 years of Bolshevism and 1,000 years of autocracy, people were dying to tell their stories. If you wanted to be in the paper five times a day, you could. It was only a question of how much energy you had.”
“It was the opposite of how it had been before,” recalled Donvan. “I drove up to a military base unannounced and had lunch with the commander. It was wild. You can’t even do that in the U.S.”
Soon it became apparent this period was an anomaly. After Putin was named Russia’s prime minister in 1999, minor but regressive amendments began to be made to the progressive 1991 media law, chipping away at newly established press freedoms. In October 2012 the Russian parliament — dominated by Putin’s United Russia party — passed a federal law that expanded the legal definition of high treason and espionage. Under the new definition, journalistic information gathering for a foreign entity — such as an overseas newspaper or network — could be construed as spying, alarming media organizations around the world.
Still, most foreign journalists continued to operate with relative freedom, and had “something of a diplomatic immunity,” said Lucian Kim, NPR’s Moscow correspondent from 2016 to 2021. Yet when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, he said, there was a “drastic and sudden deterioration.” Last year, Russia passed a law criminalizing speech that could be deemed defamatory to the Russian military.
“This is unlike anything passed in the entirety of the Cold War,” said Dina Fainberg, professor of modern Russian history at City University of London, and author of “Cold War Correspondents: Soviet and American Reporters on the Ideological Frontlines.”
The arrest of Gershkovich — who has been charged with espionage — drove home how precipitously conditions have declined for the few Western correspondents who stayed in Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that at least 19 journalists of various nationalities were behind bars in Russia as of the end of 2022. Kim said that his remaining colleagues are operating under “extremely high pressure.”
“While Russia is not North Korea, it’s going in that direction,” he said. Sources are once again being terrorized into silence: “A lot of Russians are wary about communicating even via secure messaging apps or social media.”
This is a Russia that the wartime Metropol reporters would likely have recognized far more than the heady days of the early 1990s. As long as Putin retains his hold on Russia, prospects for press freedom there in the near future look grim. Yet Philps said that he doesn’t rule out an eventual pendulum swing.
“In the long term, Russia moves between autocracy and liberalization,” he said. “The dial does go back and forth.”
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