Given the geopolitical gravity of the Cold War, news organizations often sent their foremost foreign correspondents to cover the Kremlin. Like May Day parades and the Berlin Wall, these reporters became a Cold War symbol in their own right. Clad in trench coats while reporting from Red Square, they deciphered opaque leaders and Soviet citizens.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union didn’t end reporting from Russia. But the post-Cold War era made Moscow a less critical capital. This was especially true in the post-9/11 era, when flak jackets and the Green Zone replaced trench coats and Red Square.
Russia’s rapid annexation of Crimea has renewed the focus on Moscow. But just as journalism has changed, so too has the Kremlin, according to two former correspondents.
Gregory Feifer reported on Russia for NPR for eight years, ending in 2009. Now the Europe editor for the GlobalPost, he’s also the author of the recently released book “Russians: The People Behind the Power.”
Marvin Kalb reported on the Soviet Union for CBS at the height of the Cold War from 1956-1963, and later as chief diplomatic correspondent for NBC News. Kalb’s currently an Edward R. Murrow professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Feifer and Kalb were more than news correspondents. They were Kremlinologists. And while neither took credit for predicting the event, neither seemed stunned by Russia’s rush to nab Crimea.
As with the incursion into Georgia in 2008, Feifer said Russian President Vladimir Putin was emboldened by Western inaction.
“I was surprised when it happened, but it makes perfect sense,” Feifer said of Crimea. “It fits right into so many of Putin’s policies. Not only his general East-West confrontation, but how he sees exerting influence in former Soviet Republics. He’s acting from the exact same playbook.”
Kalb also took the long view. Referencing Harvard historian Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay-turned book “The End of History?,” Kalb said he’s considering writing “The Return of History.”
Studying the past is important to Kalb. And he thinks it should be for foreign correspondents, too. “I was hired by [Edward R.] Murrow for one reason: I had been teaching Russian history at Harvard and I knew the language. I was not a professional journalist …,” he said.
“There is no apparent need now for somebody to speak Russian and know about Russian life, literature, history and culture,” Kalb lamented. “You send reporters out today who are good reporters and who are presumed to be able to cover Moscow as well as Newark, N.J. My feeling is always that the Murrow approach is much more sensible. However, I’m perfectly aware that times have changed and we’re moving along.”
Those moving along to Moscow now will encounter a reporting environment that got a lot harder after Putin came to power in 2000, Feifer said. Not only did Kremlin insiders freeze out outsiders, but many citizens were angry over criticism of Russian officials.
Yet it’s much worse for Russian reporters, Feifer said. “Putin’s foreign policy model was a Soviet one: To be feared and loathed abroad means to be respected in the world. … At the end of the day, they don’t care [about Western reporters]. What they really care about are local Russian journalists because they are the ones speaking directly to the Russian people.”
Like Kalb, Feifer believes context is critical when chronicling Russia. Citing the closure of several U.S. news bureaus during his Moscow years, Feifer said that the problem is less in gathering facts and more in analyzing how values and motives differ from ours. “If we are going to start considering how to deal with Russia we have to understand that, and we don’t yet. Journalism has the key role.”
And it’s not just journalism, said Kalb, but the National Security Council and universities that need to revive Russian studies to teach language, politics and even literature. (“It is not painful to read Tolstoy,” Kalb added.)
In-depth knowledge is needed for sophisticated coverage not only in Russia, but increasingly in Europe, East Asia and the Mideast. Kalb, hired half a century ago, seemed less nostalgic about the Murrow era than excited about the digital era — as long as it lives up to its possibilities and responsibilities.
“With new technology, everything around the world becomes available in some form. The skill required of a very good journalist today is to find out what aspects of all this avalanche of information coming down on us is of value to be passed onto people. I think it is a glorious moment for a historian, and for an instant historian — a journalist.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.