- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

DISCOVERING RUSSIA: 200 YEARS OF AMERICAN JOURNALISM

By Murray Seeger

AuthorHouse, $25.45,

484 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” said Winston Churchill in a 1939 radio address in the opening days of World War II. According to Murray Seeger’s thoroughly researched and well-written book about how Americans — diplomats, merchants, and, most of all journalists — have had trouble coming to grips with Russia, Churchill should not have been embarrassed.

Russia is a hard story to cover. It is a vast, traditionally despotic, part Asian culture where virtually none of the rules that give comfort to a Western visitor are visible. And that is when Russia’s rulers, from czarist, to Stalinist, to Mr. Putin’s KGB retreds, want you to see.

If you are fascinated with Russia, if you are curious about the craft of journalism and its seemingly endless failings, if you merely question about how so many American intellectuals could have swallowed so much of the bosh written about communism back then and about Russia even today, then Mr. Seeger has answers that will slake your thirst and discomfit you at the same time.

Mr. Seeger is one of the old-school of professional journalists who tried his hand at anything and did it well. A former reporter for The New York Times and Newsweek, I first met Mr. Seeger nearly 40 years ago when he was the Washington economics correspondent for the Los Angeles Times bureau. In 1972 he became that paper’s Moscow correspondent and during his subsequent stints in Bonn and Brussels he had occasion to make frequent trips back to Russia. He provides evocative reading of his own travails against Soviet police censors and competitor colleagues such as the Times’ Hedrick Smith and Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post during the era when Richard Nixon tried to sweeten dtente with Pepsi-Cola.

America’s fascination with Russia began even before our own independence was secured. An early diarist was the 14-year-old John Quincy Adams who went on our first diplomatic mission to the court of Catherine the Great and who would later return as an early ambassador. But even his diary had cribs from other visitors.

The narrative picks up when Mr. Seeger comes to that band of privileged turn-of-the-20th-century sympathizers who traveled to the 1917 Revolution as witnesses but who really were Leninists-in-waiting. The best known to us are John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant, but there was a host of others whose faith in the promise of the Revolution took them over the edge of partisan observers and into outright participation in the struggle. Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” is a classic book of advocacy; less well known are the propaganda pamphlets he wrote for the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile U.S. publications from the Times to The Nation churned out the group’s apologies and glosses as any hope of democracy was throttled at birth. Little wonder American readers marveled.

Lenin’s death and Stalin’s bloody rise to power marked the arrival of a new generation of even more dubious correspondents including that touchstone of New York Times haters, Walter Duranty. A Cambridge-educated Briton, Duranty appears to have had the double motives of a deep sympathy for communism and a burning desire to win a place of honor at The New York Times. In one sense he was just one of a pack of Brit and American writers who hurrahed Stalin’s succession of disastrous attempts to collectivize the Russian economy and to crush any dissent within the ranks of the Comintern. But Duranty’s steadfast refusal to admit to the extermination by starvation in the 1930s of millions of people stands alone because the reportage earned him a Pulitzer Prize despite the open doubts of his own editors. Times officials to this day steadfastly refuse to turn it back or the Pulitzer committee to demand its revocation.

Through the decades that Mr. Seeger chronicles another fact about the Russian beat stands out in stark relief. While whoever is in charge of Russia has proved singularly adept at using the carrot of access and the stick of harassment to keep journalists in line, Americans who cover this complex, fascinating and crucial story too often come to the job astonishingly unprepared either to understand the language, the history or the political dynamics of the place. Even though Mr. Putin’s Russia is in some eyes a more open story to cover, this book helps the reader while there is still this vague suspicion that we are not getting the full story even today.

James Srodes is a veteran Washington journalist and author.

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