NEWSWEEK correspondent Andrew Nagorski had two strikes against him when he arrived in Moscow in May, 1981. First, he had the combination of curiosity and irreverence that takes personal, as well as professional, satisfaction in investigative reporting. Second, both his name and his accent in Russian proclaimed his Polish background, and at the very time when the Kremlin's anger was rising over the dauntless Lech Walesa. Fourteen months after arriving, Nagorski was sent packing, the first American correspondent to be expelled in half a decade. Reluctant Farewell is Nagorski's engaging account of his brief sojourn in the U.S.S.R.
By his own admission, Nagorski filed some pretty hot material. He flew to Sochi to research a cover-up of high-level corruption there; he drove to Vologda to check on the food shortages firsthand; he traveled to Lithuania to sample attitudes toward Solidarity in that devoutly Catholic region; he visited Byelorussia to try to confirm reports on a nuclear accident there; and he roamed about rural Tajikistan in search of reactions to the war in neighboring Afghanistan. By the time they made it through the editorial process at Newsweek, some of these "scoops" were fairly pallid. Yet to the Russians they were enough to justify the charge of "impermissible methods of journalistic activities." Throughout the ages, censors have honored writers by taking them seriously.
Nagorski's account makes interesting reading. However impolitic it may have been, Nagorski's use of Polish in Lithuania and Byelorussia gave him access to people who might not have received him had he spoken in Russian. His visits to special stores, including one in the elite complex described in Yuri Trifonov's novel Another Life: The House on the Embankment, provide insights on the furtive world of Soviet privilege. Moreover, he has a good ear for gossip; witness the droll tale of delegates to the 1981 Party Congress unwinding with video tapes of Dirty Harry.
As we prowl around the U.S.S.R. with Nagorski, we are reminded of just how accessible that society has become. Far from being intimidated by the KGB, Nagorski's casual acquaintances regale him with every manner of revelation. Reading Nagorski, it is easy to develop an unseemly sympathy for those poor souls charged with keeping the lid on the naturally gregarious spirit of the Russian people.
IMPRESSED by the readiness of ordinary Russians to tell their tales to Russian-speaking foreigners, Nagorski has some blunt words about those correspondents from abroad who concentrate their attention on officially sanctioned contacts and sanitized releases from Tass. He makes this point persuasively, especially when he reports on the suppression of groups like Sergei Batovrin's Independent Peace Committee or on the anti-Afghanistan statements published by the underground Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church. It is no wonder that he is especially critical of the U.S. news media that rely on monolingual Americans for their coverage from Moscow, and of monolingual visitors like Billy Graham who limit their observations to what is served up for them.
Yet Nagorski overstates his case. He criticizes the use of the Soviet press but he himself relied upon the official Lateraturnaia gazeta for the first reports on the Sochi cover-up, just as he turned to Soviet sociological reports for his data on the fate of women in Russia. Reluctant Farewell gives us few clues about how deeply one could penetrate into Soviet society simply by staying home in Dayton, Shreveport, or Cabin John and meticulously dissecting official publications.
In his zeal for the unique evidence of oral reports, the author sometimes grasps at straws. It is mildly interesting to know that a senior official at Gosplan, the state planning agency, avowed "to personal acquaintances" that there exist two plans for the economy, one public and the other private, but this assertion hardly constitutes full evidence. Nor do the words of a few informants suffice to establish the claim that Andropov promoted himself by deliberately leaving uncovered the tracks of the KGB's investigation of the Boris the Gypsy scandal at the Moscow circus that eventually implicated Brezhnev's daughter. To be sure, such will-o'-the- wisps may prove important. But soft news is soft news, even from Moscow.
More traditional journalists may question whether the Moscow correspondent should set himself up as a kind of ombudsman for Soviet society. Yet it is precisely Nagorski's sense of justice that drove him to move so far off the beaten track, and that enables him to dig up the stories he did. At bottom, he is a moralist, and his memoir attests to the peculiar function that a passionate correspondent from abroad can fulfill in the U.S.S.R. Thankfully, Nagorski's muckraking zeal is tempered by a high degree of self-awareness. Even while citing his rights as a correspondent under the 1975 Helsinki accords, he admits to having had "a strong self-conscious suspicion that I was operating on borrowed time." In the end, he pushed beyond the limits of Soviet tolerance, but left us a timely memoir of the Russian scene during a difficult period of U.S.-Soviet relations and a thoughtful meditation on the tasks of a free press in covering a closed society.