Thursday, August 11, 2005

I finished reading Masha Gessen's Two Babushkas yesterday; loved it. Here's a note on one of the most memorable parts of the book:

It's been a sort of a shortcut to believe that most people in the Soviet Union knew little or nothing about the atrocities taking place in the country - and to somehow assume that those living abroad knew a great deal more.

The story of Harrison Salisbury, a New York Times correspondent Masha's grandmother Rozalia loved to read but was also forced to censor, disproves this assumption and shows how the Soviet censorship and the ignorant/indifferent editing back home affected the quality of the stories filed from Moscow:

[pp. 240-241]

Then I got hold of a long since out-of-print memoir by Harrison Salisbury, Rozalia's all-time favorite charge. Salisbury was different: for several of the chilliest years of my grandmother's tenure, in the early 1950s, he was the only foreign newspaperman in Moscow. The rest were wire-service scribes whose jobs did not require them to attempt analysis. Unlike many of his colleagues, who stayed in Moscow because they were married to Russian women who could not leave, Salisbury, a bachelor, was not one of Stalin's hostages. Nor did his political beliefs necessitate the sort of compromises that skewed some other Moscow correspondents' dispatches. Salisbury had no special expertise on Russia when he arrived - he never really mastered the language - but he stayed for a long time, and he had a talent for noticing simple things. He was also possessed of a dogged determination to work the censorship system [...].


But most of what Salisbury wrote was not cleared. In January 1950, for example, the censor killed thirteen (about half) of Salisbury's stories outright, and severely mangled the remainder. The reporter vacillated between badgering his editors at the New York Times to include a 'cleared by Soviet censor' disclaimer with his articles (they never did) [...].

The anecdote below, told by Salisbury himself in 1981, is as startling:

[...] January 1951 was a typical month. I filed 35 stories and only 6 were not censored. Sometimes I would try to write stories in such a way that they would get by the censors but their actual meaning could be understood by the editors.

Once I sent a story that included agricultural statistics showing productivity growth. I disguised the fact that agricultural productivity had finally reached the levels attained under the czars, and got it by the censors. Then I got a cable from New York saying that what I'd written about the growth of Soviet agricultural production didn't make sense because the same levels were reached under the czars. I wanted to confirm it, but by then the censors were on to me. [...]

Salisbury was awarded his Pulitzer in 1955, for the stories published after Stalin's death - and after the journalist had traveled across Russia, seen Siberia and the camps, and left the Soviet Union and its censors:

For his distinguished series of articles, "Russia Re-Viewed," based on his six years as a Times correspondent in Russia. The perceptive and well-written Salisbury articles made a valuable contribution to American understanding of what is going on inside Russia. This was principally due to the writer's wide range of subject matter and depth of background plus a number of illuminating photographs which he took."

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