The Kremlin's Celebrated Scoop Artist

July 26, 1992|By ANTERO PIETILA

Ajournalistic era has ended in Moscow: Ed Stevens and Victor Louis are dead.

Ed Stevens was an American, a somewhat enigmatic Colorado native who moved to Moscow in 1934, married a Russian and stayed on. Generations of foreign correspondents had difficulty determining which was more impressive: his Pulitzer prize (for reporting for the Christian Science Monitor) or the unheard-of private house he was permitted to own in central Moscow. It was filled with icons and 17th-century French furniture.

''Though he remained always a U.S. citizen, he became more Russian than American, with his emotional warmth, bouts of uninhibited drinking and lively cynicism about the way the system worked which he knew inside out,'' The Times of London said in an obituary after the 81-year-old Mr. Stevens died in May.

Those recognizable Russian qualities endeared him to Soviets in high places. He enjoyed a rare but brief personal relationship with Nikita Khrushchev -- and may even have helped end censorship for Moscow's Western correspondents in 1961.

In the 1950s when official Kremlin policy discouraged contacts between Westerners and Soviet citizens, the Stevens residence was a rare place where mingling was allowed. While guests were having a good time upstairs, a young man dutifully kept watch downstairs on a large black teleprinter grinding out the Tass dispatches.

He was Vitaly Yevgenevich Lui, the translator, who had recently been released from Stalin's concentration camp. Whether he was there for political reasons (as he insisted) or for black-marketeering (as Westerners suspected) may never be known.

After he struck out on his own, he changed his name to Victor Louis, married a British nanny and became most celebrated scoop artist in Soviet journalistic history. For four decades he also was the only Soviet citizen allowed to work as an accredited correspondent for Western newspapers.

In 1964, he was the first to report the ouster of Khrushchev.

When President Konstantin U. Chernenko died, Mr. Louis filed a story for an Italian newspaper some 16 hours before the official announcement.

He missed the paper's deadline but his report the next day in a London evening paper still beat the official statement.

When Josef V. Stalin's daughter returned from exile to the Soviet Union, Mr. Louis did even better. He had the story about Svetlana Alliluyeva's change of heart for two weeks before she made it official by surfacing in Moscow -- but nobody believed him.

These kinds of scoops -- and sensational material to discredit dissidents -- convinced many diplomats and journalists that Mr. Louis was with the KGB. He always looked hurt at these allegations. ''Why do you people always call me colonel in the KGB?'' he asked a British visitor. ''Goodness, have you been promoted to general at last, Victor?'' the visitor shot back.

At a time when foreign travel was as realistic a possibility for ordinary Soviet citizens as a trip to the moon, Mr. Louis jetted around the world, hobnobbing with presidents and kings. He DTC boasted of having visited more than 100 countries.

His country home in the Peredelkino writers' village near Moscow was equally surreal. In a village where most residents still went to a well to fetch water, Mr. Louis had an indoor swimming pool and a video room. He also boasted a collection of rare cars, including a Bentley.

Mr. Louis and his wife, Jennifer, knew more about Moscow's foreign community than anyone else outside the KGB. Twice a year they published a book, ''Information Moscow,'' an indispensable resource because it listed telephone numbers in a city where there are no telephone books. It also listed diplomats, correspondents and businessmen by name, rank and marital status, denoting whether spouses lived in Moscow. Hard-currency hookers were known to pay small fortunes even for an old copy.

''If I ever wrote a book about foreigners in Moscow, I sure would have some stories to tell,'' Mr. Louis said.

Through his life, he made it clear that anything goes as long as the price is right. When he realized that the musical ''My Fair Lady'' was not protected by a copyright in the Soviet Union, he translated it into Russian. He even jazzed it up by adding a couple of songs from ''Gigi'' -- without asking for authorization.

''They sound much better in 'My Fair Lady,' '' he sarcastically told a Western visitor. ''And besides, what Russian audience will know the difference?"

Mr. Louis died last week at 64.

Antero Pietila is an editorial writer and former Moscow correspondent for The Sun.

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