October 12, 2021

1943. War Correspondents and the Soviet Censors

The Cell of Moscow
Bill Downs' Soviet ID: "The People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs certifies that [Bill Downs] registered as a correspondent."
IN MOSCOW, 1941-1945

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 changed the course of the war in Europe. For Western reporters, an assignment to Moscow became a chance to witness firsthand the largest military front in human history. Those who were able to get the post, however, found it a frustrating and often tedious affair.

For four years, Western foreign correspondents based in Moscow lived in the Hotel Metropol along with their secretaries and translators. Their provisions were tight, but better than those allotted to the average Muscovite. The journalists had enough to get by, and sometimes even enjoy themselves, as Bill Downs described in April 1943: "Our entertainment here consists of vodka—which is liquid dynamite—and the ballet or opera—and the occasional poker game with a general or admiral—and an occasional date full of gestures and shouting with a Russian girl."

But they were there to do a job, and government officials did not make it easy. The Soviet People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs had absolute control over the press in Moscow, and party officials were a suffocating presence. Disputes arose over how and what content should be disseminated to Western audiences. Soviet officials knew that information coming out of Moscow could affect worldwide opinion of the country, and perhaps also the perceived viability of its own communist model. Such concern bred paranoia, and any report that they felt went against the government's carefully crafted image of a mighty and modern Russia—no matter how seemingly negligible the content—was killed long before broadcast.

According to Downs, "There was a fear that the correspondent could, by intonation, change the meaning of his report...When reading your dispatch on the air, there was always an English-speaking Communist broadcaster sitting alongside with his hand on the cut-out switch. If you unintentionally changed the grammar of the sentence, as sometimes happens, down would go the switch and you'd be off the air."

Reporters were thus forced to rely on Pravda, Red Star, Izvestia, and other government mouthpieces as their major primary sources for military updates on the Eastern Front. They paid careful attention to every word as they tried to piece together news. They had little choice, as anyone who went too far in challenging the censors risked being thrown out of the country.

War correspondent George Moorad summed it up in 1946:
"...I asked my friends, 'Just what does a Moscow correspondent write about?'

"A Moscow correspondent doesn't write, he rewrites, they explained patiently. All the material available has already been published in Russian newspapers, but some slight allowance is made for interpretation if the comment is considered favorable. The only loophole is that the Russian censors' knowledge of English is scanty and their judgment unpredictable. For instance, one worth-while story came from Pravda, eulogizing Russian inventive genius. Pravda told how the Russian inventor, Popov, had invented the radio six years before Marconi, and how other Russians were responsible for the first electric motor, incandescent lighting, the steam engine, the steamship, and a number of other outstanding gifts to mankind. This story had presumably been intended for domestic consumption, but the correspondents were able to cable it out, with a deadpan tribute to Soviet historical genius."
Even up-to-date maps of the Soviet Union were difficult to come by, and reporters struggled to determine Red Army military developments en route to targets like Oryol. It became a contest of sorts to see who could make the most accurate projection. No one was correct.

Over the years, Soviet officials took correspondents to places of interest both in and out of Moscow. However, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, these reporters were never taken to the front lines, and they were carefully monitored at all times.

Associated Press correspondent Eddy Gilmore recalled an incident from March 1942 in which his train ran out of fuel not far outside of Moscow. It ran on a wood-burning engine, and although it was capable of using other fuel, coal was scarce and reserved for the most essential trains. The train stopped to refuel at the nearest station, and an engineer and a fireman began loading the engine. It was more than a two-man job, however, and members of the foreign press party got out to assist. A frantic press department official ordered them to stop. When it was pointed out to him that the men seemed to appreciate the help, he relented, but warned that he would not approve any stories which mentioned the incident.

Things improved somewhat as the Soviets made military gains. Starting in early 1943, correspondents received guided tours closer to the front lines. They visited liberated cities such as Stalingrad, Kharkiv, and Leningrad.

In December 1943 officials took the press party to the Babi Yar ravine. Reporters were allowed to interview survivors from the nearby Syrets concentration camp and evaluate what had taken place. It was a firsthand display of Nazi war crimes. However, based on Moscow's track record, some of the reporters felt that certain stories required a degree of skepticism. Just a month later, Soviet officials staged a duplicitous visit to Katyn, a Russian village near which over 21,000 Polish prisoners were executed by the NKVD in 1940. The officials made a show of it. They hoped to convince the Western Allies that this was another Nazi atrocity, in part because Joseph Goebbels had previously used the discovery of the mass graves as a propaganda boon against the Soviets.
A foreign press party in Rzhev in 1943. Bill Downs is in the center in the far back.
In 1951, Downs answered a questionnaire from the newly-formed International Press Institute about his experiences in Moscow:
December 26, 1951

Mr. John Desmond
c/o Lester Markel
New York Times
Times Square
New York, N.Y.

Dear Mr. Desmond:

I am happy to reply to your questionnaire and offer whatever information I have for the IPI survey. I should like to explain that my year's assignment in the Soviet Union was in 1943 during the so-called period of good feeling, when the Red Army had just won its most important victory at Stalingrad, when American lend-lease aid was beginning to arrive in quantity, and when the Kremlin was looking forward to the Second Front. At this time the Soviet foreign office made an important change of policy toward the foreign correspondents. It was decided (presumably by the Politburo since all decisions on foreign relations are based there) that the Communist cause would be aided by allowing the correspondents to see and report on the tremendous victories then being won. The result was that, beginning in January 1943, the press section of the foreign office laid on a series of junkets, beginning with trips to the Stalingrad area and ending, I believe, in 1945 [sic] with the junket to the scene of the Katyn massacre. (I had left Russia by this time and my dates are open to question. Your non-atomic Bill Lawrence can fill you in on this.)

At any rate, this era of good feeling was something rare in Russian history, and it has never since been repeated. I might add that the policy at the time did pay off from the Kremlin viewpoint. For the first time we were able to write authoritatively of the tremendous achievements of the Red Army, and the Russians did build up a "bank account" of good will in the outside world. They also managed to create an atmosphere of trust, which was for a long time disappearing. I think the Teheran and Yalta conferences are proof of this.

However, it is my observation that the Soviet foreign office did not and does not understand the so-called "banking" of good will and has no interest in such a policy. The relaxation of restrictions on correspondents in 1943 was, I believe, ordered for two reasons: first, a natural pride in the achievements of their army and a desire to tell the world about it; second, to create pressure for a second front. There was and is no compromise with the basic thesis of Communist policy, which is to communize all nations of the worldeither through direct conquest or through revolution.

Now I'll tackle your questionnaire.

1. Based on your experience, how accurate are reports the outside world gets of what goes on in Russia from resident correspondents?

Within the scope of Soviet censorship, the resident correspondent can report accurately on government policy as announced by the Kremlin. However, the resident correspondent is not allowed to report such details as the living standards of the people he sees or the state of the national economy, which he can judge by visiting shops and stores and such news. He is not allowed to report on conversations, say, overheard on the subway or on the buses and streetcars. His isolation from the Russian people is manifoldfirst by the language barrier, second by the fact that he is restricted for the most part to Moscow, thirdly by government orders against association with foreigners, and fourthly by the atmosphere of fear and suspicion, which is part of the daily life of the people.
Outside of a few officials, it is doubtful that even the Russians themselves know what transpires in their country. The citizen of Tashkent is just as ignorant of what goes on in the Urals as is the correspondent in Moscow. Just as the foreign correspondent can be said to exist in the cell of Moscow, it can be said that the ordinary Russian also exists in a cell bounded by the community in which he lives and works. Only occasionally does rumor or a leak in the press break through these barriers which the government has inflicted on the people.

2. What was your personal experience with censorship and its operations, commenting at the same time on your freedom of movement?

During my stay in the Soviet Union, the government had the excuse of military security to fall back on. However, it is my belief that fear and suspicion are as much a part of the Russian censorship policy as security. There is another quality that is embraced in censorship policy too. This is pride. For example, we had many long arguments with the censors concerning the reporting of military casualties. The government wanted absolutely no mention of them. Our argument was that the worldand particularly Russia's alliesshould know the sacrifices the nation was making in fighting the war. But the attitude of the censor was that a Russian killed in battle somehow reflected on the national honor. There was a constant watch on copy to stop anythingbe it a humorous story or whatthat might possibly reflect on the Russian "honor."
As for the suspicion and fear, the best example I have of that concerns the Battle of Poltava near the end of 1943. I went with my secretary to the Lenin Library to look up the First Battle of Poltava in 1709 when Peter the Great defeated Charles of Sweden. I managed to dig up the number of men involved, the number of horses employed, and the number of guns in that first battle that ended the era of Swedish conquest. I thought it would make an interesting angle to supplement the 1943 battle story. However, the censor stopped all the statistics on that 240 year old battle because, he explained, it is "military information." It was obvious that he suspected some sort of a code.
3. How valuable is the contribution made by experts who analyze the Russian press, radio, and other sources to interpret what is going on in Russia? Should experts be used more widely than they are at present?

Analysis of the Russian press and radio is extremely valuable because there is such a scarcity of information coming out of that country that any contribution which leads to greater understanding of it is helpful. Also, the dynamic of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism calls for a constant watch and reinterpretation of Soviet policy and Communist methods. The controversial nature of the Russian problem makes objectivity difficult to achieve. The more people who attempt to understand and interpret the better. As for using the so-called "experts" more widely, I'd have to know my expert, his background, and his expertise.

4. On the basis of your experience, and in the light of present circumstances, how valuable do you think it is to have a correspondent in Moscow? 
Most valuable. It keeps open a channel and maintains a precedent by maintaining bureaus in the second most important capital in the world. And while the correspondent on the scene may be allowed little freedom to report, there still are some things that even a dictatorship so complete as the Russian cannot hide from the reporter. He may not be able to report these things from Moscow, but he can report them when he leaves the country.

5. How would you proceed to give better coverage of Russia and the satellites, recognizing all the difficulties that lie in the way; e.g., do you feel that correspondents working in Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin, and Belgrade could improve our coverage because of their strategic location?

Considering the difficulties, it is hard to make any practical suggestions as to how to improve coverage of Russia beyond the present efforts being made. It is understandable that networks and newspapers have lost interest in maintaining bureaus in Moscow, but I believe it is most important that they do. The fact that there are so few correspondents in Moscow today would appear, in part at least, due to lack of interest by news distributing organizations to spend the money there. The pressure to get correspondents in has slackened.
Trying to report on Russia from the capitals of nations bordering the Iron Curtain is of doubtful value. In Berlin, for example, we were able to see Russian-directed policy for the German Communists. But there was very little to be collected about Russia itself. The only field which I can think of where there could be more comprehensive coverage is the field of foreign trade and economics. I have seen no roundup of what the Soviet Union is buying on the world marketsay, machine tools from Belgium, ball bearings from Sweden, textiles from India. Such information would be a valuable addition to the sum total of our day-to-day knowledge of the country.

It was a censorship problem that eventually resulted in the Soviet government completely banning radio reporting from Moscow. Press correspondents would submit their copy to the foreign office censorship, where it would disappear. The correspondent could not find out what had been cut from his copy until he was advised by his home office. However, radio scripts were submitted and had to be returned to us for reading on the air. Thus we could see what the censors had cut, and we were able to assess the government's attitude on subjects of a sensitive nature. The government obviously felt that its censorship was not complete. There was a fear that the correspondent could, by intonation, change the meaning of his report. In broadcasting from Moscow, the radio directorate censored the broadcasts, although we protested constantly against double censorship. However, the radio people very seldom tried to improve on the foreign office censorship. When reading your dispatch on the air, there was always an English-speaking Communist broadcaster sitting alongside with his hand on the cut-out switch. If you unintentionally changed the grammar of the sentence, as sometimes happens, down would go the switch and you'd be off the air.

I end this letter with a great feeling of inadequacy and frustration. The basic problem, of course, is the two conflicting theories about the function of the press and radio. The Soviet government sees the press only as an arm of the government whose chief duty is to forward the Communist cause. They do not understandor at least pretend not to understandthe role of the free press outside their country. The Soviet concept of news is that all information about Russia, no matter how trivial, comes under the heading of intelligence in the espionage meaning of the word. Consequently the foreign correspondent is tolerated as a kind of second-rate spy. The Tass agency forms the basis of all Soviet intelligence abroad, although most of the information that Tass gathers is regarded by us as legitimate news. It is not so regarded by the Soviet government. And since Tass correspondents are regarded by the Russian government as their agents, the government logically expects foreign correspondents in the capital to perform the same function.

In view of the restrictions and this official attitude, it's difficult to see how there can be any comprehensive coverage of the Soviet Union at all until the Communist policy, Communist aims, or Communist government of Russia changes or is changed.

I hope you find something useful in all of this.


Bill Downs

Downs, Bill (1943). From the William R. Downs papers at Georgetown University.

Gilmore, Eddy (1954). Me and My Russian Wife. Doubleday, pp. 82-84.

Lawrence, Bill (1972). Six Presidents, Too Many Wars. Saturday Review Press.

Moorad, George (1946). Behind the Iron Curtain. Fireside Press, Inc., pp. 15-16.

Reynolds, Quentin (1944). The Curtain Rises. Random House.