Information flows like mercury

An honor guard marches on Red Square in Moscow in the bad old days.

By Charles M. Madigan

Consider for a moment the point at which the people in the Kremlin–behind the wall in this classic photograph of Red Square–in the Soviet era believed they could control the flow of information into the country. It was in the era of reciprocity, so there were just as many American correspondents in the Soviet Union as there were Soviet correspondents of all kinds in the United States.

I was one of them for a couple of years beginning in 1977. They didn’t want us there and did everything they could to make sure we knew that. Outgoing news that we wrote in the UPI Moscow bureau was punched on teletype tapes by people supplied by a division of the Foreign Ministry. The UPI bureau had a Soviet photographer who transmitted his own photos through a Soviet filter to Brussels. It was totally locked down, or so our Soviet handlers thought. We were watched, night and day, by a little army of KGB spooks. The assumption was this would deter us from spreading news about the Kremlin, about the Russians, about a whole array of taboo subjects.

But we had our own cameras, too, and our own sources, some reliable and some not so reliable. We gathered string and picked up pieces of this and that and, like building a puzzle, turned them into some pretty compelling stories. I carried a tiny Minox C, just right for the pocket, that you could use with just one hand. It had a big depth of field so you never had to focus it. Pull it out, aim it and snap. Take the film back to the bureau and wait until the Soviet photographer left and develop it and print it at night. Wire it to Brussels on a drum transmitter in the middle of the night. The photo would show up on the UPI wires later, sometimes, or sometimes not, perhaps with a story no one on that side ever thought would be written.

We were trouble makers, of the first order, and I believe my colleagues and I loved it.

Lots of what we reported, and the occasional audio clip from our boss, Joseph L. Galloway, who was known as “Golden Voice” because of his deep bass and Texas drawl, would pop up on Voice of America, Radio Liberty or Radio Free Europe, all of which broadcast by short wave transmission into the Soviet Union, despite elaborate systems set up to jam the broadcasts. I can’t believe we were the only people in the entire country listening to VOA, RFE, RL and the ever dependable BBC.

Sometimes you would get nothing but an irritating loud buzz, which meant the jammers were on. Then you would shift frequencies and find a new way to get what you wanted. I am certain lots of my Soviet friends were doing the same thing.

But I am not bragging about that part of my career. I continue to have regrets, all these years later, about what I didn’t do.

But not one about what I did.

What I learned was an invaluable lesson. If you are a reporter, don’t ask for permission, just do your job like it was a mission. Don’t assume there is an audience. Could be, or not. That wasn’t the point, ever. Doing the story was the mission.

Beyond that, news finds its way into people’s heads and hearts. It flows like mercury, no matter how hard the authorities try to contain it.

Vladimir Putin has unleashed so many goons on the independent news system that developed rapidly under Mikhail Gorbachev that it might seem unlikely that the Russian people have any knowledge of what is going on in Ukraine, save for the sad collection of zinc coffins that are showing up all over Russia as dead soldiers come home for burial. But that is not true. There are valiant and courageous Russian reporters all over the place, and they aren’t asking for permission to tell their stories.

Look up Moscow Times, just the English version online. That is what happened to many of the independent papers that grew to life during the liberalization of the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. When Putin’s people leaned too hard on it, it shifted to Amsterdam. Today’s headlines: “There’s No Way Back: Wagner Group Looks to Russia’s Jails to Bolster Ukraine Force,” or “The War Has Further Divided Russia’s Fragmented Society.” In Opinion, “Is It Possible to Plan for Life After Putin?”

Or this, one of the best of them all written by a courageous woman. Many of the stories are written by expats with deep knowledge of Soviet and Russian politics. They can write about “Russia After Putin” without risking their lives by staying in Moscow.

Or they can write the best of what in the United States might be called “explanatory journalism,” articles with clear understanding of what is happening, not only in the war in Ukraine, but inside the Kremlin.

Is it conclusive? Will it determine Putin’s future and lead to wide scale reform?” Those are interesting thoughts, but I would argue, not essentially what it’s all about.

What it’s all about is gathering that mercury and setting it flowing and letting it go wherever it can.

Look for Russia online and you will find a variety of these newspapers which have transformed themselves into internet presences. No matter how hard a government might try, it’s difficult to calm what happens on the internet. If you think it’s a crazy techno-world, you are most like right. But it is a great tool for valiant people who know how to use it. Media is great at finding cracks in the world’s back doors. People always have a way of finding out.

A couple of very traditional American news sources also play an important role in informing Russians about what is going on in the world. The Cold War stalwarts Voice of America and Radio Liberty have moved on line. In the Soviet era, they were regularly jammed, along with the BBC. Now they, too, are online, which makes them much more slippy, much more difficult to stop.

The mercury still flows.

Charles Martin Madigan is a veteran journalist and former college professor who now lives and writes in Evanston, Ill. He worked for small papers, then UPI and ended his journalism career after nearly forty years in the business at The Chicago Tribune, where he was a senior editor and reporter.

5 thoughts on “Information flows like mercury

  1. Excellent story about the hazards of reporting then and now — and the mission to get the truth out no matter how hard Big Brother tries to crush it. Just as relevant today. Nicely written.


Comments are closed.