How Stalin Manipulated the Western Press During WWII

From a Washington Post review by Paul Musgrave headlined “How Stalin manipulated the Western press during WWII”:

The journalist in wartime enjoys an enviable image: a hard-bitten idealist filing pages from the front lines, interpreting the chaos of battle for the audience at home. During the Second World War, expectations of thrill and reward attracted ambitious Western journalists to the Soviet Union. From the first shots, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June 1941 was clearly going to be a historical turning point. The reporters who ended up with a posting to Moscow would surely enjoy a privileged view of the clash.

Alan Philps’s “The Red Hotel: Moscow 1941, the Metropol Hotel, and the Untold Story of Stalin’s Propaganda War” documents the lives of those British, American and Australian journalists. In his telling, the principal risks they faced were not bullets but boredom. Far from accompanying the Red Army during its battles against the fascist invaders, the correspondents instead spent almost all of their time confined to Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, a czarist-era hot spot for playboys’ galas and trysts that became a wartime gilded cage. By filing censored stories while playing the role of adventurous journalist, they contributed to a propaganda operation in which Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union sought to manage Western public opinion.

Stuck in the Metropol, the reporters had little to do but eat their ample rations and drink their regime-supplied vodka. (The Soviet government ensured that the foreigners were unaffected by the shortages of a country at war.) Many of the journalists did not speak Russian, and even those who did were unable to roam Moscow to report. Even on the rare occasions they did leave, contact with a Soviet citizen could mean their sources could be thrown in the gulag. As a result, Western reporters — and, through them, their audience — based their stories on official statements and Soviet newspapers. The government-furnished interpreters who helped the Westerners navigate this system, Philps writes, became “the eyes and ears of the visiting journalists.”

Truth was scarce in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The heroes of Philps’s ensemble biography are those who sought to smuggle that precious factual cargo out of the country. In an irony, the interpreters, officially responsible for shaping the news in a light favorable to Stalin, proved to be the system’s weak point. Some of them, who had suffered the regime’s cruelties and hypocrisies, viewed their contacts with the journalists as a chance to set the record straight. They did so under difficult conditions, not least of which was the sexual harassment that the interpreters, exclusively female, faced from some of the journalists, who were largely male.

Chief among his heroes is translator Nadya Ulanovskaya, a Ukrainian who had become a revolutionary and then a spy. Tasked with assisting the Australian journalist Godfrey Blunden, Ulanovskaya went beyond her portfolio to help him see the real Moscow: cramped rooms, short rations, fear and resilience. Blunden used those experiences and his war-correspondent cachet to write a novel in which Ulanovskaya and other sources appeared as thinly veiled characters. When the book was published, Ulanovskaya and her family spent years in hard labor in Siberia on charges of anti-Soviet activity.

Blunden, at least, wrote something close to the truth. Philps excoriates other correspondents for actively conspiring to keep the truth hidden. A combination of ideological sympathy for the Soviet project, the financial inducements of taking a pro-Soviet line (including tax-free income while resident in the country and book sales at home), and the unstated but real physical threats of consequences for telling the truth led others to hide the facts about Stalin’s regime and its flaws. Perhaps the apogee of this willing assistance came with New York Times correspondent Ralph Parker’s 1943 publication of a letter from Stalin in which the dictator pledged that the Soviet Union wanted “unquestionably” to see a strong and independent Poland after the war. (Poland became a Soviet satellite state, and Parker lived full-time in Moscow after the war.)

Not all journalists come off so poorly. The initially pro-Soviet leftist Charlotte Haldane (wife of biologist J.B.S. Haldane) left the Soviet Union convinced of the rot of the Stalinist system, a conviction that cost her what remained of her marriage and her comradeship in pro-Soviet circles. Despite such occasional figures, one wonders whether the sacrifices that Ulanovskaya and other interpreters made were worth the risks they took, given how little truth actually managed to find its way into print.

Philps clearly wants “The Red Hotel” to do justice to those who served truth and mete out some punishment to those who failed it. The book’s structure somewhat hinders this ambition. It awkwardly jumps between past, present and future, and from one set of interpreters and journalists to another. In one jarring temporal shift, Haldane returns to England in 1941 where she breaks up with her husband because she refuses to temper her portrayal of Stalin’s government. On the next page, Ulanovskaya and her own husband are engaged in a covert mission to Weimar Germany in 1921. A more conventional narrative structure might have served the story better, or at least made it easier to keep straight which journalist was piggishly exploiting which interpreter.

The other challenge that Philps faces is historical. A longtime foreign correspondent with experience in the Soviet Union and Russia, Philps has ably reconstructed the different stories and settings of the Metropol. Yet he also seems to aspire to say more about the role of truth and translation in wartime — and about what these wartime experiences can say about journalism in today’s conflicts.

The people who exerted the greatest influence on those issues, however, are Stalin, Winston Churchill, and other rulers. They crafted the conditions under which the wartime journalists would be allowed to do anything at all, and they did so for often cynical reasons. Churchill, Philps reports, wanted journalists to be allowed into the notoriously secretive Soviet Union to sell the British public on the need for diverting scarce war materiel to the Communist front. Stalin viewed hosting them as a barely tolerable price of receiving that aid. Publishers in Britain and the United States themselves seemed resigned (or worse, committed) to publishing what amounted to propaganda as they chased their own audience. Yet those powerful figures are peripheral to the grounded story Philps lays out, leaving him to instead condemn the stolen valor of reporters who were mostly mere vectors of misinformation.

Philps’s book does, however, raise questions about how audiences should interpret news about contemporary conflicts. The emergence of alternative sources, from satellite imagery to social-media analysis, means that it is harder to sustain such a totalizing censorship regime now. After all, we could follow along with the Wagner Group’s mutiny in real time. But the confusion of the mutiny’s meaning and purpose also shows that simply having access to data cannot penetrate the fog of war.

In the end, Philps’s book vindicates the value of truth, most of all by depicting the lengths that a rare few will go to share it. Yet Philps is also clear-eyed enough to show that truth will not always come out — at least, not easily, and not without cost.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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