‘A Brief but Glorious Season’

We worked for the New York Times in Moscow during the Gorbachev era. We look forward to a day when information flows freely in Russia again.

May 2022

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Photo collage of Phil Taubman in Russia during the 80s with other 80s elements around him.

ABOVE THE FOLD: The Times front page of May 31, 1988, illustrates the partnership between Taubman (center) and Barringer (right, with the couple’s son Gregory) in Moscow. Illustration: DaVidRo

As Vladimir Putin throttled the last remnants of a free press in Russia this month, we have been thinking about the all-too-brief era of openness that began in the mid-1980s as Mikhail Gorbachev assumed control of the Kremlin. The Soviet Union was nearing its 70th anniversary. State-controlled radio and television filled the airwaves with risible propaganda: Communist Party leaders serving the people, patriotic farmers harvesting grain, beribboned children studying Lenin, brave soldiers bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Then suddenly and subversively, in 1987, Vitaly Korotich, the editor of the magazine Ogonyok, started publishing Artyom Borovik’s accounts of young Soviet soldiers stumbling through the quagmire of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where about 13,000 Soviet troops had already died. Borovik’s reports began a brief but glorious season of unfettered news coverage and historical reckoning. During his 22 years in power, Putin has slowly extinguished that era; many outlets have been closed and two dozen journalists have been slain.

The penultimate moment for free speech came this past December with the shutdown of the civil rights group Memorial, founded in 1989 to chronicle the repression of Stalin’s victims. The end came March 1, days after Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, as the last independent outlets—the radio station Ekho Moskvy and the television channel Dozhd—were silenced. Some independent journalists prepared to quit Russia, their flight recalling those of the White Russians who fled in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The end of the brief open era brings back memories of its beginnings. We witnessed changes in expression that old Moscow hands, among them our editors, found hard to believe. Now, 35 years later, it is disheartening to see it ending.

A new law criminalizing “fake news”—a phrase the Kremlin borrowed from Donald Trump—means the mere reference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, much less unvarnished reporting about the conflict, is punishable by 15 years in prison. Even foreign journalists based in Russia fear prosecution, and many have left the country. The New York Times Moscow bureau, where we worked from 1985 through 1988, and where generations of reporters chronicled the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, is now closed, temporarily, we hope.

The end of the brief open era brings back memories of its beginnings. We witnessed changes in expression that old Moscow hands, among them our editors, found hard to believe. Now, 35 years later, it is disheartening to see it ending.

The information revolution was just beginning when we arrived in Moscow. There was, practically speaking, no internet, no social media, no cell phones. The Kremlin was in control of the Soviet information ecosystem. Books and movies with even a hint of dissent were banned. Art that did not conform to censors’ whims was barred from view. When Russians tried to tune their radios to BBC or Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, they heard only static; jamming towers surrounded Moscow, Leningrad and other cities. Soviet newspapers like Pravda (literally truth) stuck to uplifting stories about Soviet accomplishments and occasional attacks on Western correspondents—before Twitter, trolling happened in print. Telephone connections beyond Soviet borders required government consent. Even foreign correspondents had to book a date and time to place an international call.

Soviet citizens starved for information turned to a trickle of newspapers and books smuggled into the Soviet Union. People brave enough to question the Kremlin produced essays and books or manuscripts, some of which were slipped across the border in diplomatic mailbags that were not subject to inspection. Some of these prohibited materials, called samizdat by those who wrote and read them, were eventually published in the West. Those who openly criticized the Kremlin, such as the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, were held under house arrest, jailed, involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions, or killed.

Despite the Kremlin stranglehold on information, glimpses of a different world outside the Soviet Union seeped through. Russian scholars, writers, scientists, artists and others with bits of access to the outside world clustered around kitchen tables in cramped apartments and talked in hushed voices about the failures of Communism and hardships of Soviet life. We sat at some of those tables, privileged to be invited into people’s private lives.

When Felicity interviewed Muscovites on the street about Chernobyl, many repeated the anodyne propaganda about the accident verbatim.

Our own work was hampered by myriad restrictions and intimidation efforts. Our offices and apartments were bugged, our calls monitored, our movements tracked by KGB agents, our Soviet sources threatened. Almost all travel outside Moscow needed government approval. If we drove from Moscow to Leningrad, our progress was checked every 20 kilometers or so by police stationed along the highway. Soviet militiamen in long coats, carrying swagger sticks, would come out of their small guard posts, note our passage on a clipboard and alert the next post of our progress. When one reporter pulled over to picnic between posts, a swarm of policemen soon arrived. Imagine needing government permission to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles and the California Highway Patrol closely tracking your progress every 20 miles. (Of course, that could now be done remotely by checking your cell phone location as you made your way to Southern California.)

American TV broadcasters had to reserve time to transmit their reports via a Soviet satellite. When the news coverage was deemed objectionable, the government denied satellite access. A cottage industry developed—Western journalists or their spouses hand-carried videotape cassettes to network bureaus in London.

But at least we had access to news that the Soviet citizens around us did not; the New York Times foreign desk sent a daily summary of front-page stories by telex overnight. The International Herald Tribune came by mail from Europe a couple of days late. Print copies of the Times arrived by mail weeks later. When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in April 1986, a three-sentence announcement appeared on Soviet TV news and in the newspapers. It assured the public that the authorities were “liquidating the consequences of the accident.” We learned the magnitude of the disaster from the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, who reported high levels of radiation over his nation. When Felicity interviewed Muscovites on the street about the news, many repeated the anodyne propaganda about the accident verbatim. She hears echoes of those interviews now in accounts about Ukrainians whose relatives in Russia say that there is no war, or that Ukrainian “Nazis,” not Russian forces, are shelling Ukrainian cities.

Our telex telecommunications link was only slightly more advanced than sending a telegram. As the words were routed to London and on to New York, they were simultaneously diverted to the KGB. Phil vividly recalls the unnerving moment when a Soviet “journalist” pulled him aside at a foreign ministry press conference to comment on a story about Viktor Chebrikov, then-head of the KGB, that Phil had transmitted to New York a few days before, but that had not yet been published.

We take small comfort knowing that in the 1980s, the heavy hand of Soviet rule did not keep many Russians from understanding that they lived in a dysfunctional society.

When we took the overnight train to Leningrad or some other distant destination, the travelers who shared our compartment were either KGB operatives or Soviet citizens terrified to find themselves in the company of American reporters. A bottle of vodka could lighten the atmosphere, but suspicion never left. Entrapment was part of the KGB playbook. A British reporter rejected the advances of a scantily clad woman seated next to him at a hotel bar in a provincial city. The next night, an attractive young man tried to chat him up. Once, Phil returned to his hotel room in Kazakhstan earlier than expected to find two KGB agents photographing his address book.

On a government-sponsored trip to western Ukraine, Felicity briefly evaded her official escorts to visit dissidents in the city of Ternopil. That night she was overcome by acute abdominal distress; the accompanying headache was so intense she could barely get on the plane back to Moscow the next morning. She dismissed it as food poisoning. No, a former British ambassador to Moscow told her years later. She had likely been poisoned by the Ukrainian KGB, delivering a message that she should not interview dissidents.

Foreign reporters whose coverage annoyed the Kremlin were harassed, threatened, detained, accused of crimes they did not commit, and sometimes expelled. The most famous case during our years in Moscow was the arrest of Nicholas Daniloff, a fluent Russian speaker and the U.S. News and World Report bureau chief. Nick was falsely accused and held in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow for more than a week before Washington and Moscow agreed on a prisoner exchange involving a KGB officer held by the FBI in New York.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russians could get unfiltered news from a wide range of social media and news sources online, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Western newspaper websites and apps, and most importantly, the tiny but courageous set of Russian media outlets. Putin slammed the door on all of these sources as the invasion began.

As we watch the bloodshed unfolding in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s censorship, we take small comfort knowing that in the 1980s, the heavy hand of Soviet rule did not keep many Russians from understanding that they lived in a dysfunctional society. They yearned for greater liberty and a better life. Gorbachev was one of them. Today, we hope that their children and grandchildren can also overcome the fog of censorship and disinformation. Will old-style repression prevail in the free-for-all world of personal communication in 2022? The answer will play a vital role in shaping the future of Russia.

Philip Taubman, ’70, was a reporter and editor at the New York Times for nearly 30 years, including serving as Moscow bureau chief from 1986 to 1988. He is currently a lecturer at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. His biography of George Shultz will be published by Stanford University Press in early 2023. 

Felicity Barringer, ’72, was a correspondent in Moscow for the New York Times and covered the United Nations before working as the paper’s national environmental correspondent for 10 years. She is the writer in residence at the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

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