Walter Cronkite Remembers

Reported by Reese Erlich, Producer, the Russia Project

WALTER CRONKITE: From 1946 until late 1948, I was United Press correspondent in the Soviet Union. And I've had an intense interest in that country ever since. Producer Reese Erlich and I sat down to discuss my days in the Soviet Union. Then he visited some of my old haunts in Moscow to see how things have changed.

[1940s chorus singing]

Moscow after the war was as war-torn places are likely to be, terribly crowded for housing. People are doubled, tripled, quadrupled up in small apartments, and they weren't about to let me have a hotel room. Fortunately, Dick Hotelet of CBS had two small apartments in the hotel—the Metropol. We sat in the lobby of the Metropol for a number of days.

REESE ERLICH: Today, the Metropol is a renovated, five-star hotel. Retiree Nicolai Fedosov, who worked the reception desk from 1947 to 1954, fondly remembers the days when foreign reporters such as Cronkite lived in the hotel.

NICOLAI FEDOSOV: (Via Translator) Most of the guests here were the foreign correspondents that lived here. But among the correspondents, the most famous were from England and America, and they were really rich because they could afford the office. They could afford the accommodation where they could rent their own rooms, and especially the United Press and Associated Press.

ERLICH: In 1946 the cold war had begun, and Joseph Stalin said the Soviet Union needed to defend itself from American aggression.

[Stalin speech over loudspeakers]

American reporters were suspect.

CRONKITE: It was psychologically difficult for any reporter from the Western countries. Two years in Russia was two years under arrest, practically. Not behind bars, but no freedom of movement whatsoever. To get a car, you had to hire a driver because the whole purpose of this was to keep track of foreigners. All these people worked for the secret police. And that's how they kept track of you.

ERLICH: Retiree, Fedoso, says such surveillance was justified.

FEDOSOV: (Via Translator) I think that the KGB was definitely needed to protect socialists because there were lots of guests and lots of foreigners coming. We had to do that. Those times were really vulnerable and socialism was just starting. I remember all the workers from KGB were women. It was very interesting because, like, there was a maid on duty from KGB and she was remembering everybody. She was very good. She had a memory to remember everybody who was coming in and coming out. So, those kinds of things were needed.

ERLICH: But foreign correspondents had more to worry about than the KGB. It was impossible to speak with ordinary people. Roy Medveyev, a famous Soviet historian and political dissident, remembers the political climate of those years.

ROY MEDVEYEV: (Via Translator) I didn't have any thoughts about ever talking to foreign correspondents, let alone the American correspondent, because it was absolutely impossible. Even in the 60s, the first meeting with Solzhenitsyn by Walter Kaiser and Hedrick Smith was a secret meeting actually, because they had to leave the car somewhere behind—some blocks away from his apartment and they were just afraid that they will be expelled from the country. It was dangerous for the ordinary citizen because they might be arrested.

ERLICH: So how did Cronkite and other reporters file their stories?

CRONKITE: Rewrote the newspapers. That and whatever intelligence our own embassies and other friendly embassies would yield to us. But that kind of intelligence was very limited because they knew it went through censorship, of course, and they weren't about to expose themselves.

[Traffic and people walking]

ERLICH: For two years Cronkite lived in an apartment owned by United Press near Moscow's famous Arbat Street.

CRONKITE: The apartment we were in, we were the only foreigners in it. And they never kicked us out of it. We never paid any rent. We had a free apartment. They never caught up with us. But, by the same token, there was no maintenance of the building. It was a pretty miserable place. All the rest of the apartments were filled with Russians.

[Sound of food cooking on the grill]

They had a hot pot on the stove all day long, run by one of the babushkas, one of the grandmothers, who stayed home to do that. She watched the pot and others would buy the one cabbage they could buy that day. The one beet they might be able to buy that day. They were desperate right after the war. If they were lucky enough to get a piece of meat, it looked like it was left over from a train wreck.

ERLICH: Eventually the USSR recovered from the hardships of the post-war period. And Arbat Street underwent a change that Cronkite could never have imagined back in 1948.

[Music and talking from Arbat Street]

Vinay Shukla, a correspondent for the Press Trust of India and long time Moscow resident, says Soviet generals used to eat dinner at the Prague Restaurant at one end of Arbat Street.

VINAY SHUKLA: During the Gorbachev-Perestroika year the traffic was closed; it was made and converted into a pedestrian street and it was, at that time, it was Moscow's Hyde Park with a lot people coming with lots slogans and speaking speeches and other things, you know, different views. And since it was very close to the Kremlin, this was the place where the public pressure was all the time mounted on the new emerging fledgling democracy in this country.

ERLICH: But Arbat's years as a free-speech have long passed. Today, it's crowded with people selling chotchkies to foreigners, items that—ironically enough—would be quite familiar to Cronkite.

SHUKLA: It's mainly a tourist attraction. You have got rows of souvenir vendors. You can get Russian Metrushka dolls and many other Russian souvenirs. Old army uniforms. You can buy one even like general's uniform here and old posters of Lenin and all that. All Soviet artifacts you can get here.

[Russian Internationale]

ERLICH: In many ways Walter Cronkite's neighborhood reflects the massive changes of the past 55 years. Where proud Soviet generals once strode, today only their jackets remain. For the Russia Project, I'm Reese Erlich, Moscow.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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