I always really enjoyed reading Erika’s writing. Yes, I’m so totally biased but in all honesty, I did think she was a great writer. I told her many times that one thing that I thought that made her stand apart was her ability to be thorough in very short articles. Some reporters get lost in the weeds in their stories. Some assume that the reader is current on the story’s situation. But when Erika wrote, she found ways to keep the reader current and I never came away from one of her stories thinking “What is this about?”
There were a few stories that she wrote that she was proud of, and I hope to share others here too. I recently thought of this one again. Her last article from Russia. It’s about her time there and having to close down the bureau as she was the last Moscow Bureau Chief for the Baltimore Sun. The Sun didn’t run this article, but Jim Romenesko did. Here it is, written December 18, 2007 and sent to her Baltimore Sun colleagues:
I am leaving Russia for good in the morning, and so is the Sun. I had hoped the piece that follows would be the last out of Moscow. Unfortunately, the paper did not find a place for it in its pages. I wanted to share it with all of you anyway, especially since some of our former colleagues, once posted here, contributed to it.
By Erika Niedowski
MOSCOW — This is a sad story.
Sad because it will be the last in the Baltimore Sun to carry a dateline from Moscow, where for nearly 55 years, the newspaper has posted a full-time correspondent to chronicle the goings-on in a nation spanning 11 time zones and a tenth of the earth’s land mass.
By the time you read this, I will have found a new home for the library that takes up a full wall of the Sun’s sixth-floor office not far from the Kremlin. I will have taken down the hanging maps, including one showing areas off-limits to foreigners during Soviet times. I will have turned out the lights, locked the door and closed a chapter on a kind of journalism this paper has been doing since 1887: the kind where foreign places like Russia and China and the Middle East are made familiar and, if we correspondents do our jobs right, what goes on in them, germane.
The Sun opened its bureau here in 1954, at least according to a document I pulled from the file cabinets and the memory of Tony Barbieri, a former Moscow correspondent and one-time Sun managing editor. It was then a grim, grey city in a state led by Communist Party Chief Nikita Krushchev, locked in an ideological war with the United States. It is still, at times, a grim, grey city, though now full of neon casino lights, restaurants that charge $10 for a French press and a tendency for excess that would, were he alive, send Lenin straight to the grave (or at least the mausoleum).
The Sun, the second American newspaper in Moscow after the New York Times, was in business here for the launch of Sputnik and the Cuban missile crisis; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Mikhail Gorbachev’s ground-breaking perestroika reforms; the collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Russia’s first democratically president, Boris N. Yeltsin; the free-wheeling chaos of Russia’s early experiment with capitalism in the 1990s; and the succession of Vladimir Putin and the resurgence of a country awash in oil wealth.
But this place is much more than the news inside the paper’s pages. This place has touched me and, I would venture, everyone that sat in this seat before me.
There is a saying: The more time you spend in Russia, the less you understand it. I still marvel at the contradictions: how Russians are at once sticklers for rules and adept flaunters of them. They will uncomplainingly stand in three separate lines to select, pay for and pick up an ice cream, yet they drive on the sidewalks and embrace a casual recklessness with such vigor that it’s actually driving life expectancy down.
They admire strength and a strong hand — witness Putin’s popularity — but believe that their own fate is beyond their control. They love things vast and colossal, but speak in a language filled with dimunitives. They can seem dismissive and cold on the surface, but are generous and warm to the core. In 2005, I interviewed a mother in the North Caucasus after her son was wounded by police who had accused him of taking part in a violent anti-government raid. At the end, she handed me — a complete stranger 30 minutes earlier — an entire watermelon, as a sign of thanks and respect.
Russia has taught me that Americans are uptight and overanxious, that I roll my eyes too often, that patience really is a virtue. Despite opposition talk of mass protests against Putin and an increasingly centralized state, I can’t envision a revolution here; the unwavering hardiness and endurance that have seen Russians through centuries of turmoil and unspeakable suffering are the very qualities that all but ensure they will not rise up.
Russian ingenuity, borne of necessity in Soviet times when stores were empty and even something as seemingly disposable as a ball point pen would be repaired, is unrivaled. Russians can improvise a fix to any problem. Scott Shane, the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991, told me the paper’s old Ford Crown Victoria once got a new exhaust system fashioned wholly out of welded pipes. The job cost him just two blank audio cassettes, which were incredibly hard to get at the time.
Russia is not for the thin-skinned. The answer to everything practically before you finish asking is nyet, which only if you are patient enough to try again (and again) actually often means, “Well, go ahead.” I spent three months fighting officials’ repeated refusal to allow me inside Russia’s last big piano factory for a harmless feature, which made me wonder whether there were some kind of state secrets to be found inside.
More than once I was dressed down at the all-but mandatory coat check for not having a hook inside my jacket, which requires the scowling attendant to go to the trouble of using a hanger. A friend visiting recently from Maryland had his jacket outright rejected for lack of a hook, even though there was one there. Only after my husband Chris dug it out did the woman “helping” him smile.
I asked my predecessors, some of whom worked in Moscow when it truly was a hardship post, what they remembered of their time; their memories were too many to record here. Dean Mills, the Sun’s Moscow correspondent from 1969 to 1972 and now dean of the University of Missouri Journalism School, recalled the day the U.S. embassy lifted the ban on correspondents’ access to food products — at least to the point of allowing them a spot of milk. The operation had to be carried out in “secret,”ť so Mills’ assigned driver shuttled him to the embassy to get the contraband, hiding it in the trunk for the trip home. The housekeeper put it in the refrigerator. “But none of us,” Mills explained, “said a word to each other about the milk and where it came from.”
Stephen Nordlinger, the Sun’s correspondent in Moscow from 1965 to 1967, told me he and his wife Marjorie were the first Americans to wed in the Soviet Union. The ceremony took place at the Palace of Weddings and ended with a simple question: “Do you marry freely and with love?” They both replied, “Da.”
Antero Pietila, Moscow correspondent from 1983 to 1988, noted the first time he checked in to a hotel in the far Russian North with a reservation slip from the Diplomatic Service Administration. He was greeted by a woman who proclaimed: “Thank God you are here, THEY had already asked about you.”
Barbieri, who worked in Moscow from 1979 to 1984, recalled meeting dissidents across the street from the newspaper’s office outside the famous Puppet Theater. The spot provided a perfect pretext for avoiding the attention of the KGB: Parents and children gathered at the top of the hour to raise their eyes to the spectacle of the mechanical cuckoo clock, filled with fairy tale characters, which still chimes to this day.
Barbieri also recalled the inevitable scolding whenever he ventured outside in cold weather without a hat, by all manner of babushki, whom he aptly described as “Moscow’s version of high school hallway monitors for whom no infraction was too small to be noted.” The same old women would reprimand anyone of child-bearing age who rested her rear on a stone wall, warning it would make them infertile (I have been told this on numerous occasions).
Cleaning out the Sun office recently I found an old, wrinkled tie at the bottom of a box of outdated maps; a few shell casings from God knows where; and a string of black-and-white photos of a much younger Pietila. I looked for a while at a framed picture on my wall, here when I arrived 2 years ago: It contains a now-yellowed page from the Sun, displaying headshots of the correspondents the paper had in its overseas bureaus at the time, including Moscow, what was then Peking, Mexico City, Jerusalem and London. Next to each photo is a caricature of some landmark there, like the onion domes, for the Soviet Union.
At the top, the paper says: “The Sun Never Sets On The World.”