'The Red Hotel': Trying to cover World War II from a 'gilded cage' in Moscow When Russia's Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he clamped down on the media. In his new book, author Alan Philps sees parallels to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who confined reporters in World War II.

'The Red Hotel': Trying to cover World War II from a 'gilded cage' in Moscow

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he also clamped down hard on the media. Author Alan Philps sees parallels to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin back in World War II. In his new book, "The Red Hotel," Philps documents how Stalin kept Western journalists in a gilded cage at the country's most iconic hotel, the Metropole. NPR's Greg Myre has the story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Joseph Stalin tossed out most Western reporters well before World War II began, and he certainly didn't want them back when his forces were being routed by Nazi Germany in the early stages of the war.

ALAN PHILPS: This was the last thing that Stalin was interested in - the last thing he was worried about.

MYRE: Alan Philps is a British journalist and author who was based in Moscow at various times in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. In his book, "The Red Hotel," Philps recounts how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a war correspondent in his younger days, told Stalin that Western journalists could provide stirring stories that would benefit all the countries battling the Nazis, so Stalin relented.

PHILPS: Journalists who, before, had despaired of ever being able to report on Russia - they fought tooth and nail to get on a boat - on a plane to Moscow and cover the epic battles.

MYRE: Around 50 journalists - most all of them men - from the U.S., Britain and Australia, were allowed in. But Stalin was still Stalin, so there were rules. Journalists had to live and work under constant scrutiny at the Metropole Hotel, just a couple short blocks from the Kremlin.


MYRE: The Metropole was and is the country's most famous hotel. A glitzy promotional video shows off the art nouveau structure with its soaring ceilings, stained glass windows, a huge fountain in the dining room and gold leaf everywhere. However, the Metropole's glory days had faded by the time the journalists checked in, and it was also short on hospitality.

PHILPS: What they went prepared for was a very chilly welcome. They did find themselves in a sort of luxurious confinement, almost house arrest in the hotel.

MYRE: Despite wartime scarcity, the journalists always had plenty of caviar, booze and even cream cakes, but they were kept far from the front lines. They were force-fed Soviet propaganda and faced heavy-handed military censorship. The most prominent American there was Edgar Snow of the Saturday Evening Post. Here's how he described life at the hotel in a 1942 diary entry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Many correspondents do not leave the hotel for weeks in winter. A secretary orders breakfast, shops for cigarettes and vodka, translates, interprets, teaches you Russian and sometimes goes to bed with you.

MYRE: The one thing journalists couldn't get was a real story. When the Nazis besieged Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, civilians faced extraordinary hardship, including widespread starvation. Yet when the Soviets briefed the Western journalists in Moscow, the official line was that civilians had enough to eat and were coping just fine. The reporters knew this was a lie.

PHILPS: If you were in Moscow, you actually had to join the parallel universe of Stalinism. You had to build on that fantasy such that everything was fine and dandy.

MYRE: As Philps researched his book, he planned to focus on the Western journalists, yet he found the more compelling tale to be the Soviet women carefully chosen by Soviet authorities to work as translators for the reporters. Consider Nadezhda Ulanovskaya.

PHILPS: She was an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary biography.

MYRE: Ulanovskaya grew up in Ukraine when it was part of Russia. As a young woman, she and her husband were Soviet spies, sent abroad to steal military secrets in the U.S., Europe and China. Back home, during the war, Ulanovskaya, who had fluent English, was chosen to work with and keep tabs on the Western journalists. However, Ulanovskaya had become disenchanted with Stalin's rule and sought to tell the truth about her country at great personal risk. She took an Australian reporter, Godfrey Blunden, to secretly meet two elderly women at their apartment. Meeting ordinary Soviets was forbidden, and both these women had lost their husbands in Stalin's purges before the war. As they walked back to the hotel after the meeting, Ulanovskaya told the journalist...

PHILPS: You can't report any of this. You can't put it in writing. And he said, don't worry, Nadezhda, we'll fictionalize it.

MYRE: By the war's end, the Western journalists had checked out of the Metropole, returned home, and many wrote books. Blunden's very successful 1947 novel was a thinly veiled disguise of his time in Moscow and sharply critical of Stalinism.

PHILPS: It didn't take the security police long to work out where he'd been, who the two ladies were.

MYRE: Soviet police soon came knocking on the door of Ulanovskaya. She was interrogated for days until she began hallucinating from a lack of sleep. Ultimately, she spent eight years in Soviet prisons. Today, Philps sees parallels between Stalin and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

PHILPS: Putin has established total control of the written and broadcast media over 20 years, just as Stalin did.

MYRE: Tactics vary, but the aim is similar, Philps says. Stalin permitted Western journalists in Moscow under tight restrictions. Putin's crackdown has prompted most Western reporters to leave. One who stayed, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, is currently jailed and accused of espionage. Greg Myre, NPR News.

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