President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian domestic leadership and aggressive use of force in Ukraine and Syria has Russia watchers wondering – what is his long-term plan? Is the former KGB officer trying to shape the country into a grand vision, or is he just seizing opportunities and reacting to crises like a well-trained field agent?
On Feb. 24, more than 180 former Moscow correspondents, OPC members and Russophiles gathered at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute to grapple with these and other questions. The Russia Hands Reunion was an opportunity to discuss Putin and the country’s trajectory, and to put current developments in historical context.
The afternoon included two panels. One focused on current events in “Putin’s Russia.” The other, titled “Communism and the Fall of Communism,” featured former correspondents in Moscow with postings that span more than six decades.
During the panel on Putin, Carol Williams, longtime Los Angeles Times correspondent, said that the Russian president “changed Russia’s narrative” by focusing on what he portrayed as threats from the West and a need to restore the country’s status on the world stage.
She said he did this by increasing control over media, returning to one-party rule, framing human rights as alien Western values and “systematically stifling all dissenting voices and restoring tsar-like omnipotence to the presidency.”
She said Putin, who inherited a country with “deeply wounded national pride,” has gained popular support that is more durable than many of his critics believe.
“I think he’s more responsive, and he’s very skilled at tactical maneuvering,” and adapting, she said. But “I don’t think when he deployed troops into Eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014 he knew how far they would go.”
Vladimir Lenski, anchor for Russian TV International, said that Putin lacks long-range vision and has made risky moves with unknown consequences, such as military operations in Syria and an aggressive standoff with Turkey.
“He seems to be reacting to these situations when they emerge,” he said. “That reflects in the situation with Turkey because there is no plan, no endgame. It’s very dangerous, however, because here we have the situation of two strongmen.”
Lenski said that while older Russians are returning to old Soviet habits of obedience and survival, younger generations of “very cynical people” may begin seeking escape from a possible new Iron Curtain to a more comfortable life in the West.
Timothy Frye, a professor at the Harriman Institute, cautioned against too much concern in the West over Putin’s stranglehold on domestic media and his fervor for global “information wars.”
“It’s important not to confuse visibility with effectiveness,” he said.
Even though Putin has poured vast resources into the Russia Today global news operation, Frye said the most recent Pew Global Survey of 40 countries found that only 30 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Russia. Only 25 percent trusted Putin to “do the right thing,” while President Barack Obama was trusted by 65 percent of respondents.
As Russia’s grip on media has tightened over the last few years, Russians’ confidence in media has dropped. In August 2009, 79 percent of Russians said that television was their most trusted news source – a figure that dropped to 41 percent by December 2015.
“I think we need to take a step back and recognize that there are real limits on the extent to which governments can simply put out a message and have people respond to it,” Frye said.
During the reunion’s second panel with veteran correspondents, Seymour Topping, longtime OPC member and former correspondent and editor for The New York Times, recalled reporting on the first signs of division in the Communist world soon after his arrival in Moscow for the Times in 1960, and on the Cuban Missile Crisis near the end of his stay in 1962.
“It was very much a frightened city during the crisis,” he said. “I would look at my four kids in double-deckers in our small apartment and wonder if there was a possibility of a missile.”
Topping said Communist leaders ultimately decided that Khrushchev, who was ousted two years later in 1964, made decisions that were too risky and reckless.
“When I think of that time, Khrushchev and confrontations with the United States and China, I sometimes wonder if Putin is making the same kind of mistakes,” he said.
Robert Kaiser, former managing editor and Russia correspondent for The Washington Post, started his post in Moscow in 1971, when he said relations with the U.S. were “lousy.”
He said the KGB was aggressive toward American correspondents, and the Soviets were fed up with the administration of President Richard Nixon, who was serving in his second year when Kaiser arrived.
In May 1972 he covered the first summit meeting in Moscow, when Henry Kissinger, serving as national security advisor at the time, explained the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-1). Kaiser called it “one of the greatest events of the Cold War.
“It would be difficult to overstate the change in the atmosphere that occurred with that summit meeting,” he said. “It just became much easier on every front. Officials began to grant occasional official interviews and Soviet journalists became much more friendly.”
Also during his tenure was the emergence of dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and human right activist who held press conferences in his apartment for years, and Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, author and 1970 Nobel Prize laureate. Kaiser interviewed Solzhenitsyn in 1972 ahead of Nixon’s visit.
Tom Kent, who works for the Associated Press and the Harriman Institute, covered Russia from 1976 to 1981 for the AP when Leonid Brezhnev was at the country’s helm. He said Western correspondents were barely tolerated then; getting government interviews was difficult, and ordinary people were “programmed” to avoid foreigners.
Amid the hardships of Soviet life, he said, people were generally more focused on “getting by” than on revolution.
“There was no familiarity with Western style freedoms and no particular sense of their absence.”
He said tight restrictions on foreign media worked against the country’s global image, fostering an anti-Soviet attitude among correspondents.
“In being isolated from ordinary people, and being cut off from official organizations, a lot of correspondents missed out about the general acceptance of the system and some of the accomplishments of the Soviet state.”
Ann Cooper, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School who served as NPR’s first Moscow bureau chief from late 1986 to late 1991, called her era “the good years.” The Soviet Union was changing rapidly from “grey and grim” conditions with phone bugging, minders and travel restrictions for journalists, to a sudden atmosphere of openness, public demonstrations and a
“chaotic flood of information.”
“At some point I realized the story I most wanted to do while in Russia was the disappearance of fear,” she said. “For me that was the story of my era.”
Cooper referenced a section of Dismantling Utopia, a book by Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Shane, who wrote that by mid-1988 “so much had been published that contradicted what was in school textbooks that school history exams for the year just had to be canceled.”
“It was exhausting, it was exhilarating, and it was also really challenging,” Cooper said.
David Hoffman, The Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent from 1995 to 2001, said he had expected a closed society, but was shocked by the free flow of information.
In 1998 he wrote for a whole year about the emergence of oligarchs who were setting up shop, using privatization to create giant business empires that made them wealthy.
“One of the things I realized in this enormous cascade of information is that [the oligarchs] loved to talk, and mostly they loved to talk about each other,” he said. “Information existed in that time, and you could report it.”
Remarkably, his reporting included a visit to a secret biological weapons laboratory and an interview with an aerospace engineer who worked on the Soviet answer to the Space Shuttle, a craft that was never meant to fly. He said this degree of access would be unthinkable today.
“We had no concept about how thin, how reversible, and how unsustainable it was,” Hoffman said. But he added that there is some hope despite growing restrictions under Putin.
“Vladimir Putin is not all of Russia. There’s a kernel left. Those green shoots have not been completely destroyed. But I’m sad that so much of what we saw in my time didn’t last.”