Sitting in the lobby of Moscow's Metropol hotel at some moment in the mid-'90s, a client and I (I was working in finance at the time) gazed at those wandering by—hard-looking men involved in who-knows-what business, sleek women involved in we-knew-what business, some wealthy "new Russians" sporting haute couture and ostentatious disdain for Soviet drabness—all stock characters in Weimar Moscow. The two men deep in conversation at a neighboring table were under investigation in a financial scandal then making headlines in the U.K. "What is this, Casablanca?" asked my client, who had never been to Russia before. "Pretty much," I replied.
In the highly readable The Red Hotel, Alan Philps contrasts the extreme deprivation endured by most of Moscow's inhabitants during the Second World War with the way of life enjoyed by some of those staying on "the magic island of the Metropol." Half a century later, the hotel, secure (more or less), comfortable, and orderly (more or less), was a refuge from the turbulent, hardscrabble city outside its walls, an island again, after a long period in the latter half of the Soviet era when it was merely, writes Philps, "the best of a bad bunch of Moscow hotels."
The Metropol's beginnings had been considerably more glamorous. A rambling Art Nouveau building conveniently located near the Bolshoi Theater and a short walk from Red Square, it was opened in 1905 as a symbol, relates Philps, "of modernity and progress," and quickly turned into a reliably dissolute playground for the rich. The first "girls of the Metropol" showed up, and, unless the place has been transformed in recent years, have rarely been absent since.
But then Russia was overwhelmed by a darker vision of the future. The Metropol was requisitioned by the new Bolshevik government as accommodation and office space for those operating Russia's latest despotism. The hotel descended into squalor prior to its revival as "an island"—that word yet again—"of plenty where influential foreign visitors were schmoozed." But it was an island that could be raided. During the purges of the 1930s, those who had made the hotel their home could, like Evgeny Veger, one of the Communist Party's rising stars, find themselves dragged off by the secret police at night. The next morning, recounts Philps: "The sound of weeping drifted down the corridor from the Boyarsky Zal, a function room where Solange [Veger's wife] had sought refuge to hide her distress from the children."
Veger was shot, Solange was confined to a psychiatric hospital. The Boyarsky Zal is still a function room.
In June 1941, Germany invaded the USSR. In the following months "at least fifty of the world's leading war correspondents—and a few intrepid chancers" headed to Moscow to cover the conflict. The Soviet leadership, desperate for military equipment from the Americans and the British, had accepted that it couldn't bar Western journalists, but did everything it could to limit what they saw and what they published. The Red Hotel revolves around its author's description of this effort and the reporters' reaction to it. Philps is a gifted and perceptive storyteller, with a keen eye for a telling anecdote, including, to my amazement, one featuring something close to a (threatening, naturally) witticism made by Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's notoriously dour foreign minister. Philps's narrative also benefits from the perspective he has gained as a journalist. He first worked in Moscow in 1979, "when the system of press control perfected in 1941 was less invasive but still recognizably the same."
The Kremlin's opening gambit was to isolate its unwelcome Western media guests. Installing them in the Metropol, that carefully watched "island," cut them off from almost any ordinary Russians who might otherwise have risked talking to a foreigner. This cordon sanitaire was extended within the Metropol's walls: The dining room was closed, reducing the chances of contact with the hotel's long-term residents, who included many old Bolsheviks awkwardly well-acquainted with the inner workings of the Soviet regime. Needless to say, the journalists' female secretary-translators were screened by the secret police, trusted to report on their charges, and feed them the party line. A handful chose instead to disclose what they could about life in the Soviet state, a perilous decision, with, as Philps reveals, sometimes horrific consequences.
The war correspondents were also typically kept some distance from, well, the war, or, more specifically, the front line (understandably perhaps, in the earlier stages of the fighting, given the scale of the catastrophe that engulfed the Red Army). A lavishly catered, vodka-saturated excursion to a newly (and briefly) liberated town near Smolensk, which culminated in a banquet grotesquely close to the misery the Germans had left behind, was not quite the same thing.
Under the circumstances, the ability of Western journalists to do much more than rewrite official press releases in the rooms where they worked by day and slept by night was severely constrained. And that was before the censors got to work. Some of the reporters, true believers convinced, explains Philps, "that Stalin's victory would usher in an era of peace and progress throughout Europe," were content to "polish up Kremlin propaganda." Others, more cynical, just went along, kept in order by the fear of losing their Soviet visas. Apart from anything else, they were generally well paid (often tax-free) and given generous expense allowances. There was also the possibility of earning yet more "by writing books about Russia, which were assured of huge sales." But, even when they lacked the help of someone courageous enough to tell the truth, neither the cynics nor the optimists could have been unaware of the nature of Stalin's rule. The paranoia and the controls to which they were subjected, let alone occasional glimpses of what they were not meant to see, must have left them in little doubt, even if those who took a rosier view might have rejected their full implications. Meanwhile, the journalists who tried to file more critical copy "spent their energies fighting the censor, and losing."
No wonder so many turned to the cheap drink that, along with hard-to-find good food (a couple of sugar lumps was an acceptable tip for the hotel's waiters), was made so freely available to them. To Edgar Snow, one of the visiting journalists, the Metropol "looked and smelled somewhat like a vast but failing whorehouse." Nevertheless, it was a gilded cage, however grimy, complete with mostly reliable heating, access to an impressively fitted air-raid shelter, and the luxury of hot water in en-suite bathrooms, an aid to seduction as well as cleanliness.
Philps's storyline relies heavily on a close focus on some of his principal protagonists, from the heavy-drinking, toothpaste-sipping journalist who gets the girl, to the former revolutionary and communist spy who turned against the Soviet dictatorship. They are worth the attention. I also wanted to know more about the Cockney Bolshevik who was the Metropol's assistant manager, but unfortunately no further details were forthcoming.
Philps concludes, rightly, that "Stalin won the propaganda war" and that this was partly due to the complicity of the Moscow press corps in the suppression of negative coverage of the Soviet Union. And that was to matter as the old war drew to a close. "Fed for years on a sanitized image of Stalin," the British public (and, I'd add, not just them) was dangerously ill-prepared to confront the terrifying reality underpinning the Cold War that lay just ahead.
The Red Hotel: Moscow 1941, the Metropol Hotel, and the Untold Story of Stalin's Propaganda War
by Alan Philps
Pegasus Books, 464 pp., $29.95
Andrew Stuttaford is the editor of National Review's Capital Matters.