Welcome to Josef Stalin’s ‘Hotel California’ in Moscow
The Red Hotel -The Untold Story of Stalin’s Disinformation War by Alan Philps (Headline, 2023 pp. 464 £22.00)
Review by Trevor Grundy
The 4th century BC historian Thucydides advised his readers to be wary of the stories told by those who were eye-witnesses to landmark events that changed the course of history.
In his introduction to ‘The Peloponnesian War’ he said that those who were there when great things happened are usually less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of a sympathetic public.
What they remembered and wrote about was lost in what Thucydides called “the unreliable streams of mythology.“
With that in mind, let’s give three cheers to Alan Philps, a British historian of growing stature, whose book “The Red Hotel” is a brave attempt to show how a pack of mainly British and American newshounds told the world what Stalin wanted them to hear at a time of mind-boggling change in Russia.
Philps knows the history of the Soviet Union as well as anyone, having worked in Moscow first for Reuters in 1979 and then later on for “The Daily Telegraph.” He is a well-respected figure in the international media.
“The Red Hotel” is a worthy successor to one of the greatest books ever written on this subject – Eugene Lyons’s “Assignment in Utopia” (George G.Harrap & Co, 1938).
Josef Stalin never wanted Westerners in the Soviet Union writing about starvation in Ukraine, terror trials in Moscow, or the Red Army’s collapse after Hitler’s invasion of Russia.
It was Winston Churchill who persuaded him to let a posse of mostly British and American newshounds reside in Moscow to tell the western world about the bravery of “Uncle Joe” and the heroism of the Red Army.
Churchill wanted good positive stuff out of his journalists in Russia in order to justify his and Roosevelt’s decision to send military equipment to the Russian Government which Churchill declared war on in 1917.
More than a dozen scribes found themselves holed-up in the Metropol Hotel (which gives this book its title) a huge art-nouveau edifice just off Red Square and close to the headquarters of the NKVD (later the KGB).
In the 19 30s the British American hack Walter Duranty lived and played there.
This vile man made his name and his fortune by keeping quiet about mass starvation in the Ukraine. He was rewarded with an interview with ‘Uncle Joe’, an interview that made Duranty famous and which established him as the un-challenged doyen of the Western press pack.
Duranty moved around a bit but God help any enterprising reporter who strayed far from the hotel which was little more than a luxury knock-shop and rumour factory for well-paid British, America, French media ‘prisoners.’
Very few hacks spoke more than a few words of Russian.
Some came as lovers of Communism. But most of them left disillusioned with Stalin’s Marxist heaven on earth.
It encouraged rather than stopped them writing best-sellers when they got back to London or New York.
Alan Philps knows so well how to survive in a press pack bubble and tells his readers how dependant foreign correspondents are on local “fixers” and translators.
They played vital roles in Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s but all of them were closely scrutinised by the NKVD. But God help them again if it was discovered any of them spoke out of turn or moved closer to what was really going on in the Ukraine, or in any of the backstreets of Moscow where it was rumoured Russians were getting ready to sing the praises of the approaching German Army.
Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who did so much to expose Stalin’s starvation of millions of people in the Ukraine. He was murdered by KGB agents in China in 1935.
The role played by the press-pack bubble changed the way Westerners saw ‘Uncle Joe’ and his underlings.
It is hard to calculate the damage they did.
I have spoken to and taught English to young Russians who deny there was ever hunger, yet alone starvation, in Ukraine in the 1930s.
Laurence Rees sums it up well in his books “Hitler and Stalin” (Penguin Books, 2020). Rees says –
“Hitler, as the world knows, presided over the most horrific crime in history -the Holocaust. But the shadow cast by this terrible event has meant that much less attention has been paid to the enormous number of civilian deaths that Stalin was responsible for at the same time. This lack of focus on Stalin’s wartime crimes, combined with the perception that as an ally of the West he was on the side of righteousness during the conflict, has meant that the Soviet leader has largely escaped the level of censure that he deserves.”
When the celebrated American reporter Edward Snow slipped on the pavement at Gorky Street, he accepted the hand of a passer- by. When he heard Snow thank him with an American accent, the Muscovite fled.
The death penalty was Stalin’s reward to anyone talking to a foreigner.
The Australian journalist Godfrey Blunden persuaded his ‘fixer’ a woman called Nadya Ulanovskaya to introduce him to some ordinary Russians in Moscow.
She did and Blunden promised her name would never be mentioned in anything he wrote about the visit. Anyway, he told her, it was to be material for a novel not a report.
The book came out in 1947, ”A Room on the Route.”
The research made it obvious who had shown him around an out-of-bounds part of Moscow.
For Nadya, that was a grim start from the horrendous Lubyanka NKVD torture house to forced labour camps in the Arctic shovelling human waste.
Philps with his richly detailed descriptions about how the press bubble floated along the surface in a country that rivalled the atrocities of Nazi Germany has written a book that deserves a place in the knapsacks of any young reporter off to dangerous places to make a name for himself/herself.
Western journalists still build their careers on the broken backs of ‘fixers’ and translators.
Yet, when the war is over and the public wants new butterflies to chase, they are left without hope.
Think what happened to all those translators and ‘fixers’ who worked for the British and Americans in Afghanistan.
The comparisons are obvious and any reporter off to cover the latest flashpoint would do well to dip into “The Red Hotel” before leaving home.
Trevor Grundy is a life member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). He worked as a reporter in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966 to 1996.