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Journalist Marvin Kalb on dangers, thrills of reporting from Russia during the Cold War

On the NewsHour bookshelf tonight, Judy Woodruff peeks behind the iron curtain in her conversation with veteran journalist Marvin Kalb about his latest book, "Assignment Russia: Becoming a Foreign Correspondent in the Crucible of the Cold War." It details the dangers and thrills of reporting amid bitter relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    On our Bookshelf tonight, Judy Woodruff takes us behind the iron curtain in her conversation with veteran journalist Marvin Kalb about his latest book, "Assignment Russia: Becoming a Foreign Correspondent in the Crucible of the Cold War."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Marvin Kalb, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    A remarkable career, for sure.

    But before I ask you about so much in this book, what was it like to be one of the first correspondents to join CBS News? You were one of Murrow's boys. Edward R. Murrow brought you in.

    What was that time in broadcast news like?

  • Marvin Kalb:

    Becoming a Foreign Correspondent in the Crucible of the Cold War": Well, I was the last of the people that Murrow brought into CBS.

    And he brought me in because he felt it was terribly important that CBS have somebody in Moscow who spoke the language, who knew about the history of the country. He didn't want somebody to just sort of parachute in and not know enough about the country.

    I was not a journalist at that time. Everybody there was serious. They were a serious group of people who wanted very much to president the most straightforward account of reality to their listeners and their audience in general. They were serious people in their way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were barely 30 years old, as you write, and you went off to cover — to Moscow to cover the Cold War. It was exciting, but it was also challenging.

  • Marvin Kalb:

    It was challenging, and it was also dangerous.

    One of the things that, as we look back on that period of time right now, we were in the midst of the Cold War. That was an incredibly dangerous moment in the history of the United States and the Soviet Union. And on one occasion, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as many of us will remember, there was actually a moment of such high tension, people thought there would be an exchange of nuclear weapons.

    Fortunately, the leaders on both sides, Khrushchev in Russia and Kennedy in the United States, both found a way of backing off, while still protecting the national interests of their country.

    But we were still in a very tense time. And for a reporter, it was incredibly exciting, because in the United States, there was a desire to know everything that was going on in the Soviet Union. And I was their man there. I spoke the language. I spoke to the Russian people. I would try to find out what they were thinking.

    And it was remarkable and so incredibly exciting to sort of get behind the Iron Curtain.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you got to know some of the key players very well. In fact, you got to know Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, very well.

    He called you Peter the Great.

  • Marvin Kalb:

    Yes, right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have written about that.

    That was a remarkable thing.

  • Marvin Kalb:

    Well, it was remarkable to have a Soviet leader actually recognizing me and associating me with a major figure in Russian history. Part of that was simply, if you're 6'3", you were considerably taller than most Russians.

    Khrushchev and I got into a conversation about basketball, of all things. He said: "How tall are you?"

    I don't know why I answered it this way, but I said: "I'm three centimeters shorter than Peter the Great."

    Great. He began to laugh. He thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. But it was an amazing thing. In Paris in May of 1960, Judy, there was the summit meeting. There was Eisenhower and Khrushchev. And I got a crew and went to the Soviet Embassy very early in the morning. Khrushchev came out at exactly 7:00, two bodyguards.

    I rushed toward him with a camera crew. The bodyguards reached into their pockets, obviously, for weapons. And then Khrushchev said: "No, no, no, it's all right. He's Peter the Great."

    And then I had an opportunity to ask him about Berlin, to ask him about disarmament, to ask him about summitry with Eisenhower. It was my first exclusive, and it was on my first day as a foreign correspondent in Paris. It was exciting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After the fall of the Soviet Union…

  • Marvin Kalb:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    … there was a sense maybe there — it would be a less autocratic place, but now, under Vladimir Putin, certainly much more repressive.

    Do you see that in line with really the entirety of Russia's history?

  • Marvin Kalb:

    I really do.

    I think that what Putin represents more than anything else is the kind of leader who only had to put on a crown and he'd be a czar, or had to act like Stalin, a man whom he happens to admire in certain ways, not completely.

    Russian history has always been split between Russians who want to tilt toward the West and Russians who feel that they represent something unique, something extraordinary. And when you examine the Russian psyche, when you read their literature, when you talk to their political leaders, you will get a sense of this conflict between West and East.

    And Putin is the perfect representative of that conflict, only he tilts toward the East very — in my judgment, anyway, very dramatically. He is now not as strong as he was. He's facing a lot of internal opposition, but he still has enough strength to hang onto power for as long as — who knows how long, really.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so what you see today in Russia and Russia-U.S. relations, is it as bad as it was during the Cold War? And what advice do you have for President Biden?

  • Marvin Kalb:

    I had hoped that Biden would have, I don't know, the boldness, I guess, to simply recommend a summit meeting very early on, in other words, in February and March of this year, because if you give somebody like Putin time to think, he thinks in negative terms.

    That's the natural thing for him. And in that time that has passed, with Biden also saying that Putin is a killer, that made the Russians feel that they had to fight back in some way. So, there's been diplomats on both sides being thrown out.

    It is not, however, what it was when I was based there in the late '50s, early '60s. At that time, the Soviet Union was led by communist leaders who felt that it was in their interests to communize the world.

    We were representing a democratic form of governance. And we had to face the possibility that the Russians could do something reckless. In those years, there were a lot of things that went on representing a communist effort to communize the world. Today, that is not in the cards, but it is still very dangerous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Marvin Kalb, remarkable career.

    The book is "Assignment Russia: Becoming a Foreign Correspondent in the Crucible of the Cold War."

    Thank you so much. We appreciate it. Very good to see you.

  • Marvin Kalb:

    Thank you, Judy. Thank you so much. Thank you.

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