The century's greatest news story

March 30, 1996|By Hal Piper

OLD MOSCOW correspondents held a reunion in New York last weekend. The memories went back to 1930.

As the Western world stumbled into depression and fascism, Josef Stalin invited 1,000 American engineers and technicians to help him build mankind's rosy future in the Soviet Union. One who came and built a mining complex was Faye Gillis' father. His two daughters became secretaries to the correspondents for the New York Times and New York Herald-Tribune.

''The 'pinks' were coming to Moscow,'' Faye Gillis Wells reminisced. Lady Astor, George Bernard Shaw, Harpo Marx, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne all came to admire the unfolding socialist future. As young, unmarried Western women, the Gillis girls were popular dancing partners. The journalists would file their stories by midnight; then there was dining and dancing till 4. ''Every morning we would see the sun rise over St. Basil's cathedral.''

Faye Gillis had a pilot's license and became an officially designated ''aviation expert.'' She flew Red Army airplanes -- surely the only American woman ever to do so, before or since -- and when an aviation link was opened between Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Kabul, Afghanistan, she was invited to go on the maiden flight. It was scheduled for 37 hours. It took 19 days, with 44 emergency landings.

The water-cooled engines leaked copiously. Faye's job was to watch the engines drip. When the leaking stopped, she would shout to the pilot to cut the engine to prevent it from overheating and seizing up. Then the pilot would ease the plane down -- in some of the ruggedest mountains in the world. On the ground, astonished Afghans or Uzbeks would gather with bread and salt and musical instruments, and there would be a party until the radiators were refilled and the plane was ready to fly on for another hour or two.

Mrs. Wells led off a series of reminiscences by journalists lucky enough to participate in covering the century's greatest news story.

Birth of the Cold War

Richard C. Hottelet, of CBS, witnessed the birth of the Cold War on his first night in Moscow in 1946. A year after the end of World War II, the city was still holding air-raid drills. Stalin was talking about capitalist encirclement. The wartime alliance was over.

RTC Seymour Topping, of the New York Times, recited the extraordinary events he covered between 1960 and 1963: the Berlin Wall; the Cuban missile crisis; the first manned space flight by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe at the U.N., boasting ''We will bury you.''

The late 1970s were later dubbed by Mikhail Gorbachev the ''era of stagnation.'' George Krimsky of the Associated Press said it was because there were no more believing communists; he claimed to have met only two in his three-year Moscow tour. The story had deteriorated to sterile ''us'' and ''them'' accounts of failed arms-control negotiations and harassment of dissidents.

The pace picked up for Ann Cooper, of National Public Radio. She covered the Gorbachev liberalization, the first free Soviet elections, the overthrow of Communist power and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Today's generation of Moscow correspondents, she noted, has the fresh assignment of witnessing the ''period between communism and communism.''

As the reunion threatened to grow sentimental, Bob Toth of the Los Angeles Times rose. We must not forget, he said, the soandsos. (He used a harsher word.) ''They sprayed water on Pentecostalists who were at worship. They did worse than that to Jews. They were [soandsos], and those [soandsos] are still around.''

Some of the old correspondents, particularly the younger ones who worked in more hopeful times, thought it a graceless outburst. Others appreciated the reality check.

Hal Piper was The Sun's Moscow correspondent during the ''era stagnation.''

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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