September 12, 2016

1943. War Correspondents and the Soviet Censors

The Cell of Moscow
Bill Downs' Soviet ID, or propusk (пропуск): "The People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs certifies that [Bill Downs] registered as a correspondent."

IN MOSCOW, 1941-1945

In June 1941, Hitler's surprise invasion of the Soviet Union caught the world's attention, and Western reporters wanted to be there to cover it. An assignment to Russia was a shot at adventure; a chance to witness firsthand the largest military front in human history. Those fortunate enough to get the post, however, found it a frustrating, disappointing, and often tedious affair.

For four years foreign correspondents lived in the city's Hotel Metropol along with their secretaries and translators. Their provisions were tight, but certainly better than those allotted to the average Muscovite. The newsmen had enough to get by, and sometimes even enjoy themselves, with Bill Downs writing 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. The bureaucrats knew that information coming out of Moscow could affect worldwide opinion of the country, and perhaps also the perceived viability of its 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 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 publications as their 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 a little too far in challenging the censors was thrown out of the country. Bill Downs' successor Jim Fleming met this fate.

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 reporters 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, so 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 the government's track record, the 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 government made a show of it. They hoped to convince the Western Allies that this was yet another Nazi atrocity, in part because Joseph Goebbels had previously used the discovery of the mass graves as a propaganda boon against the Soviets. It proved that cautious skepticism was key.
A foreign press party in Rzhev in 1943. Bill Downs is in the center in the far rear.
Bill Downs was CBS' Moscow correspondent from December 1942 to January 1944. He stayed at the Hotel Metropol with about thirty other Western journalists and their staff. In 1951 he 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

Some of Downs' broadcast transcripts were rejected entirely. Below are three examples from April 1943. The portions in parentheses were struck from the transcripts before officials decided to kill the reports outright.

A Boy and His Pig
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 1, 1943
Here's one of the most human stories to come out of the Russian war. (I'm not sure about all the details and I can't confirm it.) It is repeated by a Red Army captain who recently returned from the Smolensk front.

It seems that at one of the liberated villages west of Rzhev there was a little boy named Aliosha. (Aliosha belonged to the Pioneers, a Soviet youth organization which is a kind of Russian combination of the Four-H club and the Boy Scouts of America.)
Aliosha was raising a pet pig named Khrushka when the Germans came to the village. He loved his friend Khrushka and was very much afraid when the Germans started collecting all of the other pigs and cows and chickens in the village to send back to Germany.

When the Germans came to his house to get Khrushka, the boy hid the pig behind the big peasant's stove (that was heating the small house. He told the Germans that Khrushka had run away.) 
The Germans finally went away. When Aliosha went to get Khrushka, he found that the pig was dead. You see, peasant stoves are very hot during the Russian winter and Khrushka had suffocated.

Aliosha was very sad and wanted to give his friend Khrushka a fitting burial. (However, he was afraid that the Germans might kill him if they found him with the body of Khrushka after he had lied to them.) So Aliosha got another boy in his village and dug a grave by the side of the road. At night, they carried Khrushka to the grave and carefully buried the pig.

However, both of the boys knew that Germans are very careful about freshly turned earththey are always looking for hidden parachutes or arms or valuables when they see that something has been buried.

So Aliosha made a rough cross and got a German helmet. On the cross he carefully copied the first German name he could remember. It was Schmidt . . . or Schwartz . . . something like that. Aliosha put the cross at the head of his pet pig's grave and placed the German helmet on top of the cross. It looked just like a score of other German roadside graves that dotted the area.

Then the German headquarters moved to the village. The German general stopped to examine the grave and gasped when he read the name. It was the same name as the general's son, who was missing on the front.

The General immediately called his officers and demanded that his son be buried with more honor. He ordered the body be disinterred.

This story ends with the sweating officers digging out the grave, with the German general standing bravely aside, waiting to view the last remains of his son. No one stayed long enough to see what happened when the general discovered that his "son" was the prize pig Khrushka.
Convicts in the Red Army
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 14, 1943 - Story prohibited from broadcast
There are a lot of things that most of us don't know about the Red Army. This goes for me here in Moscow as much as for you people back home.

For example, today I discovered that, among those soldiers of whom the Soviet Union is most proud, are the men who have disobeyed Russian law and been sentenced for minor crimes.

Doctor Goebbels is going to have a lot of fun with that one. He's going to say immediately that the Red Army is an army of "criminals." Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I talked to a young Soviet lawyer today who at the age of 35 is one of the assistant prosecutors of the USSR. He not only told me that men with criminal records are serving in the Russian armybut he's proud of it. The evidence he presented explained why.

This young prosecutor, his name is Vladimir Diakonov, said that since the beginning of the war, men who have been convicted of crimes calling for sentences of less than three years detention had on examination been admitted to service in the Red Army.

"Not in a single case have we found that they have failed their country," the prosecutor said. "Of course, we don't send dangerous criminals into the army. They are a danger to society and would be a danger to the army as well. But we feel that a man convicted of a minor crimesay embezzlement or a first offenderis not necessarily an incurable criminal or an unpatriotic citizen. It is the aim of any prison system throughout the world to make these men useful citizens again. We think we have succeeded. And the records prove it."

It seems that there are scores of men with criminal records serving in the Red Army. Some of them have completed terms and joined. Others are serving while under conviction and may have terms to finish after the war is over. And there are others who have joined the army who are waiting for conviction. Settlement of their cases will also be made after the war.

I saw evidence where many of these men have been decorated with the highest Red Army orders for their courage. Many have risen from privates to be officers.

But not one, according to the deputy prosecutor, has turned out to be a bad soldier.

 News from the Western Allies
Bill Downs 
CBS Moscow
April 14, 1943
The Soviet Union is expecting big things from the American, British and French forces now advancing in Tunisia. For many days now the Allied North African offensive has been the biggest military news in the Soviet press.

This morning the army newspaper, Red Star, printed an analysis of the situation written by one of its leading military experts, Colonel Tolchenov. Colonel Tolchenov said that the Hitlerian command undoubtedly understands that their campaign in Africa is lost and no regroupment or reforming is able to save the situation.

Then the Colonel proceeded to say some of the nicest things about the Allied armies that have appeared in Russian press since the war began.

He said: "There is no doubt that Hitler is willing to sacrifice the troops remaining in Tunisia in order to gain time and delay realization of the further plans of the Allied command. Of course, attempts to evacuate certain parts of the German troops are not excludedbut they are connected with enormous difficulties. The naval bases of the Allies have approached close to the central Mediterranean and operations of the Anglo-American ships have compelled the Italian navy to hide in its ports. Anglo-American air forces already are blocking the air lines across Sicilian straits."
(Then the Red Star military analyst said "Fighting operations in Tunisia have reached a decisive phase. The only object of the enemy is to gain time. The attacking Allied troops have to overcome certain difficulties in connection with operations in the northeast Tunisian mountains, but they possess all conditions to achieve a complete victory.")
Then the Red Star article ended with the statement "It is only a matter of time before the Axis troops will be driven from Africa. It must be supposed that the Allied command will concentrate all efforts to reduce this time. The quicker the Tunisian territory is cleared, the more rationally our allies could use the big forces which are now attached to this front."

The second biggest military news in Russia this morning are the details of the Russian bombing of Koenigsberg the night before last. The Soviet air force gave Koenigsberg a two hour plastering, which was its heaviest bombing of the war. Russian pilots reported they hit the city's power plant, railroad junctions, a big war factory, and particularly smashed a gigantic store of military equipment near the center of the city.

Special scouting bombers were assigned to fly over the city during the attack and assess what damage was done.

This morning the Russian press points out that Koenigsberg is the biggest center of the eastern Prussia war industry. There are steel smelters, armaments factories, ship buildings and chemical plants centered in the city. It is a railroad junction for lines connecting Latvia, Poland and Eastern Germany. And more important, it was the base for the German drive into the Baltic States which ended at Leningrad.

This bombing was not unconnected with the recent flare-up in fighting on the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts and the battles south of Lake Ilmen.


Downs, Bill. 1943. "Bill Downs Papers." Georgetown University Special Collections.

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.