I never met Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who died last week.
But I do know that some Connecticut citizens and one local television station influenced his attempt to liberalize Soviet media and get more truthful information to its people.
The year was 1987.
In February, the New York Times ran a column by an Emory University professor, “Television: Soviet Viewers Are Seeing More Including News of the US. This was the work of the reformist President Gorbachev.
I was a co-anchor on the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts at WVIT, Channel 30, an NBC affiliate, ending up there as I licked my political wounds from an unsuccessful run for governor.
Before, during and after my four terms in the U.S. House from the northwest part of the state, I had been active in anti-war and disarmament activities. Lou and Judy Freeman of Canton were inspirational leaders in those movements.
One night in the spring of ’87, Lou called as I was preparing for the late newscast.
“We’re going on a Peace Cruise to the Soviet Union,” he said. “Do you want to cover it?”
As crazy as it sounded to have a local tv station go thousands of miles away to cover such a thing, I couldn’t just say no or laugh off his idea. Lou was such a serious person.
The next day, I went to see Al Bova, the station manager. Much to my surprise, Al found the idea intriguing. Covering a 10-day cruise involving Russian and American citizens, around 20 from each side, had a local angle to it since around half the Americans would be from our state.
We hired a film crew from Minnesota.
In mid-July my wife and I landed in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city on the Don River. We boarded a boat, and the journey began.
During the day, there were discussions on how our two countries viewed each other and where the paths to peace and disarmament might be. The Americans viewed Gorbachev as a hero; not all the Russians were so sure.
On our first night, I sat across from Svetlana Stardomskaya at dinner.
She, like me, was a news anchor.
Unlike me, her nightly audience for the 9 p.m. “Vremya” newscast, spread across 11 time zones, was 150 million people. Mine was a few hundred thousand.
She and I hit it off and at dinner the second night, she issued an invitation.
“My bosses in Moscow invite you to put your own reports on our newscast during the next week.”
How could that be possible? We couldn’t run the risk of being censored.
At a stop in Togliatti, the major Soviet car manufacturing city on the Volga River, I waited in line for a pay phone. I called Bova.
Again, he surprised me. “Why don’t we call their bluff?” he said. He suggested that we ask the NBC Moscow Bureau Chief to view my reports just before Vremya aired them, to make sure we were not being censored.
I conveyed that request to Svetlana and for several nights the following week my reports aired, uncensored on the newscast. Besides footage of the exchanges by U.S. and Russian citizens, I included some commentary that was critical of the Soviet system.
“What happened to the Korean airliner and why was it shot down?”
“Why is the Berlin Wall still keeping people from freedom?”
One night I looked into the camera and held up my arm to show a wrist band indicating support for Soviet “Prisoners of Conscience.”
The Russians ran every bit of it.
In mid-August, I was back at the station in West Hartford. The Associated Press ran a story about a meeting President Gorbachev had with some U.S. school teachers visiting Moscow. When one of the teachers asked why the Soviets did not have freedom of the press, Gorbachev reportedly said, “you should see the reports that an American aired on our biggest news program last month.”
Seeking to find ways of leveraging our new place in global history, Bova, Paul Frega, the news director at the time, and my co-anchor, Joanne Nesti and I huddled one afternoon.
Someone suggested we reciprocate and invite Svetlana and her film crew to visit us and put her reports on WVIT each night. We got NBC to pay the expenses.
Her reports were received extremely well by our viewers. She and I appeared on the “Today” show.
She was then invited by several NBC affiliates in major U.S. cities to visit and report from their studios.
Her visits spanned a two-year period.
On Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet Union imploded. Gorbachev signed the papers to trigger its dissolution and then resigned as President.
We lost touch with Svetlana despite our best efforts to find her. Even Google couldn’t help.
Now, with Gorbachev’s passing, we are left to wonder: Were his efforts to reform the Soviet Union in vain?
Putin would have us think so. But one can hope that it’s still possible for U.S. and Russian citizens to come together and imagine a very different future — the kind of future Mikhail Gorbachev must have envisioned.
Toby Moffett is a former member of Congress from Connecticut and a former news anchor at WVIT in West Hartford.