Strolling down Gorky Street with a group of Scandinavian women peace marchers one sunny spring day some years ago, this reviewer was unpleasantly surprised to catch sight of a pudgy young man who had offered, some time before, to trade information about the Soviet prison system for old copies of Playboy magazine.
Being neither a subscriber to Playboy nor interested in accepting secret information from total strangers, I had turned him down, a decision that was reinforced by his next offer: to become a spy for the CIA.
All that was months before, and there had been no contact since.
But now the young man, his knuckles tattooed in the prison camps, had joined the parade down down Gorky Street. "Give me money or you die at 1 p.m.," he whispered.
It was then 12:45 p.m., but after some reluctance, the police were prevailed upon to take the thug off the street. The peace march of the Scandinavian women concluded without the unpleasantness of a knifing.
An investigation followed, and in the end, a police lieutenant said it was my own fault: "You should use better judgment in choosing your 'friends.' "
Was this the work of a KGB provocateur, or just crude extortion? It's hard to tell.
But it illustrates a major challenge of reporting from the Soviet Union: How to tell the real Russians from the provocateurs and find out what is really going on, a goal that has tantalized American correspondents for more than 70 years.
In this account, Whitman Bassow tells their story, from John Reed, a Harvard-educated radical who wrote "Ten Days That Shook the World" from inside the Bolshevik Revolution, to Nicholas Daniloff, a descendant of Russian nobility who finished his assignment on the inside of a KGB prison cell.
Although Reed was not unbiased, his eyewitness account, which is still studied in Soviet high school English courses, may have come closest to capturing the elusive goal, Bassow finds.
"(Reed) was like a flash of lightning that illuminated earth and sky and disappeared. His successors were of a different mold, largely apolitical, more experienced professionals, and for the most part, less gifted. Their challenge was vastly different, to report in an intelligible way not the drama of a revolution but significant changes in a country that was to be transformed in less than 30 years from a peasant society to a world power."
A former Moscow correspondent for Newsweek and the United Press, Bassow came to the Soviet Union with a Ph.D. in Russian history from the Sorbonne. But he ultimately won his highest professional distinction from the Soviets themselves: expulsion, apparently for reporting a popular joke about then-leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Starting with the decision to write this, his first book, at a vodka-soaked banquet of ex-Moscow hands in 1983, Bassow relies on personal interviews, published memoirs and easily digestible dollops of Soviet history to recount the adventures of what he calls "the most exclusive club in American journalism." Today, there are about 30 American correspondents in the Soviet capital, the highest number ever and about a tenth of the total since 1917.
Censorship ended 27 years ago, but correspondents still have to deal with cold, isolation, poor food, xenophobia, unprincipled competitors, harrassment by the secret police and the perennial shortage of toilet paper.
Many of them also delight in the sheer intellectual challenge of trying to grasp the pungent language and blood-soaked history of the Russian people, and in warm friendships with colleagues and Soviet citizens.
Access to Soviet decison-makers apparently was greater in the early days, when a New York Evening Post correspondent opened the door of his hotel room overlooking the Kremlin one evening to find a neighbor, Lenin himself, in the mood for "a little conversation."
But things went downhill from there, as Walter Cronkite recalls. A wire service correspondent during the most frigid days of the Cold War, the future anchorman found himself "defeated, beaten" by the strict censorship and the fear that Russians had of any encounter with a foreigner.
This passed with the death of Stalin, but the life is still a hectic one even under the glasnost of Mikhail Gorbachev, as Daniloff's arrest for accepting a packet of "secret information" from a trusted source attests.
Devoid of footnotes, this work is not a contribution to the academic literature on the Soviet Union, nor is it meant to be.
Still, it will go a long way to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who reads the news from Moscow and may have wondered what it takes to write about the daily reality of what is still a hostile power.
One minor cavil: In at least three cases, the employers of three of Bassow's sources were listed erroneously.