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George Feifer, journalist and author who chronicled the Soviet Union, dies at 85

Journalist and author George Feifer was a guide for the 1959 American exhibition in Moscow, where he fielded questions while standing alongside a new Ford Thunderbird.
Journalist and author George Feifer was a guide for the 1959 American exhibition in Moscow, where he fielded questions while standing alongside a new Ford Thunderbird. (Family photo)
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George Feifer, who chronicled mushroom hunting, ballet, prostitution, black-market sweetmeats and other fixtures of daily life in the Soviet Union, and who drew on his own encounters with Russian intellectuals and a fuming KGB agent for a pair of semi-autobiographical novels, died Nov. 12 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 85.

The cause was complications from diabetes and congestive heart failure, said his son, Gregory Feifer, a former Moscow correspondent for NPR.

A onetime piano student at Juilliard in Manhattan, Mr. Feifer dropped out of school to work on a farm, only to abandon the rural life, graduate from Harvard University, learn Russian in the Navy and serve as a guide for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where he fielded questions about U.S. automakers and race relations from thousands of Soviet citizens.

Mr. Feifer returned to Russia as an exchange student in 1961, taking classes at Moscow State University and sitting in on civil cases that provided material for his first book, “Justice in Moscow” (1964), a widely praised account of the inner workings of Soviet courtrooms.

He went on to abandon a PhD at Columbia University to devote himself to “writing about real life,” as his son put it, including in stories about taxi drivers who functioned as pimps, debates over how to address a Russian (was it “comrade,” “citizeness,” “girl” or simply “you”?) and “the ordeal of a Russian winter.”

“It is not a season of the year like other seasons,” Mr. Feifer wrote in a 1982 article for Harper’s magazine, “not merely a longer, darker, crueller span of time than that which annually slows the countries of northern Europe and America. It is a life sentence to hardship that prowls near the center of the Russian consciousness, whatever the time of year. As a prime cause and a symbol of Russia’s fate, it molds a state of mind, an attitude toward life.”

Early in his career, Mr. Feifer worked briefly for CBS News alongside foreign correspondent Marvin Kalb, who recalled that Mr. Feifer was “deeply absorbed in the people and the culture of the country.” Another veteran Moscow journalist, Bruce Nelan of Time magazine, was more blunt: “He actually liked Russia and Russians. This was a contrast to the rest of us Cold War Soviet watchers.”

Based in London for many years, Mr. Feifer flew regularly to Moscow or St. Petersburg while reporting for British newspapers and American publications such as the New Republic, the Atlantic and the New York Times. He also wrote more than a dozen books, including “Message From Moscow” (1969), released in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and originally credited to an anonymous “Observer,” to protect Mr. Feifer’s friends from reprisals.

“Its unique virtue, and its aim, is to tell you what life is really like in the Soviet Union,” wrote syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop. “The wisest, most experienced American experts agree that in this respect, there has been nothing quite like ‘Message From Moscow’ in the whole postwar period. . . . Everyone who wants to understand the world we live in should buy and read his book.”

Mr. Feifer later interviewed Russian-born novelist Vladi­mir Nabokov at his home in Montreux, Switzerland, and — with David Burg — wrote one of the earliest biographies of Nobel Prize-winning author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was then living in the Soviet Union.

With help from Solzhenitsyn’s family and friends, Mr. Feifer exchanged notes with the author, which he burned after reading to avoid leaving a paper trail for Soviet officials. But “Solzhenitsyn” (1972) was released amid anger from its subject, who accused Mr. Feifer of spreading KGB lies and relaying “fables” and “coarse secondhand gossip.”

“That was very Russian,” Mr. Feifer said, according to his son’s book “Russians: The People Behind the Power.” “Here was another prophet fighting for truth by lying. He denounced my book without having read a word, and I stupidly thought I was helping him by increasing his fame in the West, his only real protection.”

The biography also resulted in Mr. Feifer’s being thrown out of the Soviet Union for the third time. For years, he said, his work in the country was tracked by a KGB agent who sought to enlist him as a spy in “the struggle for world peace.” When he returned to his room at the Rossiya Hotel in Moscow one night after meeting with a friend of Solzhenitsyn, he found the agent sitting on the edge of a chair, angry “enough to burn a hole in the door.”

“Entry to the Soviet Union is forbidden to you!” he said, according to the “Russians” book. Mr. Feifer, however, nervously mistook the Russian word for “entry” for the similar-sounding “exit.” Horrified, he recalled thinking: “ ‘I’m stuck in the Soviet Union for the rest of my life!’ No doubt I turned white, which is just what he wanted.”

George Feifer was born in Paterson, N.J., on Sept. 8, 1934, and raised in Manhattan. His father owned a slipper factory, and after his parents divorced he lived with his mother in Passaic, N.J., where he was editor of his high school paper.

Mr. Feifer graduated from Harvard in 1956 and studied Soviet law at Columbia, where he received a master’s degree in 1961. On his first trip to Moscow, for the American exhibition, he stood alongside a new Ford Thunderbird and answered questions from Russians including Tatyana Leimer, whom he married in 1969.

She taught English literature and, with Mr. Feifer, co-hosted a BBC television program in 1980, “Russian: Language and People.” Their marriage ended in divorce, partly inspiring his 1995 book “Divorce: An Oral Portrait,” drawn from interviews with divorced couples, lawyers, psychologists and children of divorce.

Mr. Feifer began writing fiction with “The Girl From Petrovka” (1971), about an adventurous Soviet farmworker (a woman) who falls in love with a cynical American journalist. The novel was adapted into a 1974 movie starring Goldie Hawn and Hal Holbrook, with Mr. Feifer making a cameo as a Red Army soldier.

His follow-up, “Moscow Farewell” (1976), was inspired by the Soviet bohemian circles he frequented, with characters drawn from model Galya Milovskaya, known as “the Soviet Twigg;”; her husband, Sergei Milovsky, a well-connected Moscow lawyer; and the KGB agent who shadowed Mr. Feifer.

He also collaborated with Soviet-born dancer and choreographer Valery Panov on his autobiography “To Dance” (1978), and with Barbara and Barry Rosen on “The Destined Hour” (1982), a first-person account of Barry Rosen’s experiences in captivity during the Iran hostage crisis.

After moving to Sharon, Conn., in 1980, Mr. Feifer befriended a Marine veteran neighbor, who told him of the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, a critical engagement during the World War II battle of Okinawa. Mr. Feifer chronicled the battle in a 1992 book, “Tennozan,” a Japanese term for a decisive battle, and later wrote “Breaking Open Japan” (2006), about the end of that country’s isolationist foreign policy in the 1850s.

He moved to Los Angeles in February to be near his daughter, Anastasia Feifer, a physician. In addition to her and his son, of Bethesda, Md., survivors include his longtime partner, German journalist Barbara Ungeheuer of Roxbury, Conn.; and two grandchildren.

After being banished from the Soviet Union for his Solzhenitsyn reporting, Mr. Feifer made his way back into the country in the early 1980s, where he reported that people had started complaining about the low standard of living. Soviet society, he said, had grown “sick.”

“He loved the place, while hating its politics,” his son said in a phone interview. “He felt that Russia was the place where he felt the most human connection. Life was oppressive for most people, prospects were limited, so that by default the things that were important to him — love, food, friendship — were the things that were important to Russian society.”

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