Life as a Moscow correspondent
A review of Assignment Russia. By: Marvin Kalb. Publisher: Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, 2021.
In May 1960 Marvin Kalb, the new Moscow correspondent for CBS News, flew to Paris for a Cold War summit. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was meeting US president Dwight Eisenhower. The encounter was overshadowed by the dramatic events of five days earlier, when an American U2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory. A furious Khrushchev arrived in France demanding an apology.
How to interview him? Kalb had an idea: at six am he turned up outside the Soviet residence on Rue de Grenelle. Khrushchev was known to go for early walks. At seven am the iron doors clanked open and Khrushchev appeared. The Soviet premier spotted Kalb, who had spent a year in Moscow as a translator with the US embassy. “Well, it’s Peter the Great!” Khrushchev said. He told his suspicious bodyguards: “He’s a friend. He’s good”.
The American reporter– 190 cm tall – and Khrushchev – a mere 167 cm – went for a stroll. They popped into a boulangerie, where Kalb emerged with croissants. “Vkusno, ochen vkusno, [Tasty, very tasty]”, Khrushchev declared. With a CBS crew filming, Khrushchev accused Washington of humiliating his country and rudely violating its borders. He shook the reporter’s hand and walked back into the residence. Kalb had his first Moscow scoop.
Assignment Russia is Kalb’s spry and hugely enjoyable account of his time in post-Stalin Moscow. The book is the second of three volumes and ends tantalisingly mid-assignment, before the trial of the U2 pilot Gary Powers, the building of the Berlin wall and the Cuban Missile crisis. It is a Russia memoir and an affectionate portrait of Kalb’s CBS colleagues. They included the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, who gave Kalb his professional break.
Kalb, now 91, was a relative rarity among American correspondents in Moscow. He arrived speaking fluent Russian following a PhD in Russian history at Harvard University. He joined CBS in 1957. He began by writing overnight radio reports but soon became a sought after commentator on Soviet affairs. In 1960 he got his dream job after a more senior colleague failed to get a Moscow visa, for unexplained reasons.
Much of what Kalb experienced is familiar to any correspondent who has spent time in Russia. He immediately ran into the implacable Soviet bureaucracy in the shape of the manager at the Metropol hotel, where Kalb and his wife Mady were assigned two tiny rooms. Their bed was too small. The manager told them to “adjust”. A solution took months, with CBS eventually shipping his bed from home in New Jersey.
A different challenge came from the Soviet foreign ministry’s press department. Its prevailing assumption was that all American correspondents were CIA spies. The KGB, of course, did place its officers abroad under journalistic cover and assumed other nations did the same. Kalb insisted he was a reporter. He was never quite believed. The same enduring suspicion is alive and well in Putin’s Russia.
Khrushchev’s unorthodox style and fondness for mingling with the foreign press made for good copy. But getting the story out could be fraught. Kalb had to give his scripts to a censor at the central telegraph office. This was painless if the story accorded with what Khrushchev wanted published – on his first day Kalb went to see the wreckage of the U2 spy plane in Gorky Park. Often there were frustrating delays.
Another theme was Boris Pasternak and his refusal under intense official pressure of the Nobel Prize for literature, awarded after the publication abroad of Doctor Zhivago. When Pasternak died in May 1960 Kalb attended the funeral. He shot unique footage of crowds around Pasternak’s coffin, mourners with flowers and a Chopin nocturne. Kalb entrusted the film to a “pigeon”: An American tourist about to fly to Paris. She never delivered it, and the images were lost.
Best show in town
The book includes marvellous pen portraits of historical figures. In 1959 Kalb interviewed Soviet exchange students studying in New York. One, the leader of the group, was an “intensely serious” 33-year-old expert in Marxist theory. He had a “receding hairline” and “glasses slipping playfully to the bottom of his nose”. This was Alexander Yakovlev, Mikhail Gorbachev’s future Politburo colleague and the architect of glasnost. Another was Oleg Kalugin, then 27, and a star student at Columbia university’s school of journalism. Kalugin was popular with Americans, candid, and intelligent. He had a “sunny disposition”. He was also KGB. Kalugin would go on to a spectacular career in espionage, as deputy rezident in Washington and a general by 40, before he broke with his service and settled in the US.
Kalb writes colourfully about Khrushchev. He was “the best show in town”, and a charismatic tsar who “rewrote the script for a Soviet leader”. “His politics, policies and personality fascinated me. He was raucous and unpredictable, pushy and aggressive, tough as his peasant background, but when the occasion arose he could also be charming, flashing a smile as wide as the Siberian plain,” Kalb observes.
During his Moscow stint he frequently wondered where Khrushchev’s desire for “peaceful co-operation” with the West might lead. What was going on inside the Kremlin? At a diplomatic reception Kalb spotted Leonid Brezhnev standing next to Khrushchev and laughing at his boss’s jokes. Brezhnev and other hardliners would oust Khrushchev in 1964, ending the USSR’s modest thaw and ushering in an era of repression and stagnation.
Other veteran reporters have also written well about this period. They include Kalb’s late contemporary Whitman Bassow, who worked for the agency UPI. Bassow’s book The Moscow Correspondents chronicles the tribulations: interminable hours, a meagre diet, the lack of toilet paper and the gruelling physical environment of post-war communist Moscow – a drab, grey and depressing city. Plus the ever present threat of expulsion, a fate that befell Bassow in 1962.
Kalb and Bassow also capture the joys: the camaraderie between journalists working under adverse conditions, the privilege of reporting from the superpower frontline, and the art of reading between the lines – sifting for clues in Pravda. Moscow, in short, can be challenging and intensely exhilarating, a springboard for book-writing and for further adventures.
Subsequently Kalb had a distinguished career at CBS and NBC. He became a professor at Harvard University and a fellow at Brookings Institution. He makes clear his youthful job as Moscow bureau chief was the absolute highlight. This is a delightful and readable memoir of one reporter’s formative years, the first draft of history vividly revisited in old age. I look forward to the Cuban Missile crisis in the next volume.
Luke Harding is a British journalist with the Guardian and served as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent between 2007 and 2011. His most recent books include Shadow State. Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West (2020), and Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win (2017).