Dusko Doder: He Covered the Kremlin!
And the Consequences of Embarrassing American Intelligence
In the twentieth century, as Russia became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and then again Russia when its empire shattered, Western correspondents based in Moscow were intrepid and occasionally controversial chroniclers of unfolding history.
John Reed, the dashing American writer who covered the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917-18, became a celebrity when his book Ten Days That Shook the World was published. There was also Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in the 1930s whose coverage of the famine in Ukraine was so compromised that over time there have been calls for his Pulitzer Prize to be rescinded.
A stream of books by Western correspondents over the past hundred years and counting are a library of distinction about Russia.
Through it all the KGB and its predecessors and successors have largely regarded journalists as a danger, portraying matters as they are and not as the Kremlin has wanted them to be seen. Correspondents have been harassed, surveilled, and expelled, and their Russian contacts often punished.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Toth of the Los Angeles Times and Nicholas Daniloff of U.S. News & World Report were taken to Moscow jails, where they were subjected to questioning – and in Daniloff’s case, custody – as purveyors of Soviet secrets.
Craig R. Whitney of the New York Times and Hal Piper of the Baltimore Sun were tried in absentia for libel. In my own time as the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent, I was summoned to the foreign ministry and warned to cease my “anti-Soviet” reporting. The particular story at issue made light of the fact that the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, at age seventy, was doddering and being hailed as, finally, middle-aged.
But only one correspondent of undisputed stature was actively undermined by the U.S. intelligence apparat, the FBI and CIA. That was Dusko Doder, the Moscow correspondent of the Washington Post from 1981 to 1985, in what turned out to be the final decade of the failing empire, when three Communist Party leaders in a row succumbed to old age, a signature of the society’s “stagnation,” as it came to be called.
The story is told in Dusko’s book An Inconvenient Journalist, written with his wife Louise Branson (herself a former Moscow correspondent for the Sunday Times of London) and published by Cornell University Press. In short, the FBI alleged to the Post, directly to Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, that Dusko had received money from the KGB, and that was reflected in his stories about Kremlin politics.
Eventually an article making that accusation appeared in Time magazine. Dusko then sued the magazine for libel. It took five years before Time agreed to pay Dusko $262,000, plus all his legal expenses, for defaming him. The magazine offered him another $75,000 if he would agree not to have the apology read in court. He refused. Here is Sarah Lyall’s article about the case and a column by Anthony Lewis, both in the New York Times
An Inconvenient Journalist is searing in its account of the professional and personal consequences for Dusko from what was a fundamental and – in journalistic terms – mortal assault on his character.
I knew Dusko well as an editor on the Post foreign desk and later as the editor of his book Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, published by Random House in 1986. Among the blurbs the book received was this from William Hyland, the editor of Foreign Affairs and a former U.S. deputy national security adviser:
“Unique reporting on the Soviet leadership…Dusko Doder provides penetrating insights into the men at the top and how they got there.”
In the 1970s, with Brezhnev and his cohort in undisputed charge and Soviet-American relations in the détente period, correspondents wrote widely and well on all aspects of Soviet life and covered dissent, democracy activists like the great scientist Andrei Sakharov, and the Jewish emigration movement, which had a formidable constituency in the United States.
In the 1980s, Dusko, by instinct, chose another form of coverage. In an email to me from Thailand, where she and Dusko now live (he is gravely ill), Louise Branson wrote:
“Dusko intentionally approached Moscow reporting in different ways from other Moscow correspondents. His ambition was to pull aside some of the secrecy around Kremlin power politics…but his creative, crafty evasion of many obstacles the Kremlin/KGB threw in our paths, and his reporting so often at odds with and more correct than conventional analysis brought him great trouble.”
On the night of February 9, 1984, when Moscow radio started playing funereal music and lights were on at the Defense Ministry, Dusko wrote that Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader, was almost certainly dead. When the story landed in Washington, the State Department dismissed it. But Andropov was indeed dead.
Intelligence agencies cannot abide being scooped, by a reporter no less.
The closest we’ll ever know as to exactly what happened next is in the pages of An Inconvenient Journalist. But FBI director William Webster’s private call to Bradlee, and the Time article that followed, were devastating. Many of Dusko’s friends, colleagues in and outside the journalism world, wrote and argued in his defense. And while the case was resolved, the pain would never disappear for Dusko.
And that is why on January 23, under the auspices of the Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, there will be an evening event to recognize Dusko’s remarkable work and to consider the ways in which coverage of Russia has developed over the years.
Louise will be there to represent Dusko. My hope is that this will a tribute from the world of journalism to one of its own and best.
All Western correspondents in the Soviet era, and even since, have been subject to harassment by Russian “secret services.” But Dusko was the only one whose reporting led to harassment by ours.
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Dusko and Louise made their way to some of the most important news stories and hot spots of the late 20th century and into the new one, and they inspired their friends and colleagues with their exceptional work and dedication to reporting the truth. Great piece by Peter on their important new book and a long overdue and well-deserved award and recognition for Dusko.
Excellent. The book makes clear both the lengths Dusko went to throughout his career to get the facts straight, and his anguish over phony nsinuations by the CIA and some of his colleagues in journalism that he got scoops like his exclusive on the death of the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1984 by being on the take frrom the KGB....What he had was diligent reporting and excellent sources, including authoritative Soviet ones close to or perhaps even inside the KGB. As a former Moscow correspondent myself I find it absurd to think there was anything wrong with that. Time Magazine did and published accusations Dusko sued them for in Great Britain, and he won, big time. Bravo!