What a Jewish Journalist's Visit to Soviet Russia Can Teach Us About Iran

Reading about a Jewish-American journalist's trip to the Islamic Republic reminds me of an editor – from the same newspaper – whose 1927 visit to Soviet Russia became one of the most consequential journalistic assignments of the 20th century.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
Abraham Cahan
Abraham CahanCredit: World Telegram & Sun, Wikimedia
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The Forward’s scoop on Iran marks the first report from the Islamic Republic by a credentialed reporter from a Jewish newspaper. It was brought in by the paper’s assistant managing editor, Larry Cohler-Esses, who reports that the situation for Jews there is better than we’ve heard. It’s not the first time the Forward has sent its brass to check out life under a hostile regime. The Yiddish Forward’s founding editor, Abraham Cahan, went to the Soviet Union in 1927. He reached a decidedly different set of conclusions.

It’s not my purpose here to carp about Cohler-Esses’ cables. Though his politics could not be more different from mine, he’s entitled to his opinion and he’s no doubt prepared for controversy. It is my purpose to recall how Cahan covered his visit to the Soviet Union and how the Forward reacted. The Bolshevik Revolution, after all, turned out, much like the Islamic Revolution, to be a revolution gone bad, and Cahan may yet have something to teach.

Cahan went to Soviet Russia in 1927 for a visit that would turn the tables. He went as the representative of a newspaper that had greeted with exhilaration the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of democratic socialism in Russia. I have related the story in my biography, “The Rise of Abraham Cahan.” After the assassination of Alexander II by the organization known as Narodnaya Volya, Cahan himself had to flee Russia one step ahead of the police. Returning more than 40 years later to what had become the Soviet Union, he was already disillusioned by the Bolshevism that had conquered the country.

The great scoop of his 1927 trip was just how bad the communist tyranny had become. Cahan told of how he went everywhere, always trying for unbiased reporting (this is similar to Cohler-Esses). He’d even instructed his deputy back home to go easy on the Soviet regime, at least in the paper’s editorials, while he was in Russia. For the most part, he later claimed, no one knew he was a guest, though that seems to be unlikely, as he swept into sites he was touring via automobile and with a retinue.

Cahan had the sense that he was being watched. He was visited at his hotel by an ex-colleague who’d returned to Russia and gone over to the communists. He was wary, too, of visits from the Forward’s own Moscow leg, Z. Vendrov, a New Yorker who’d gone back and was thought to be a Soviet sympathizer.

What really rocked him, though, was his visit with Vera Figner, who’d been born into a well-to-do family and eventually threw in with the Narodnaya Volya and helped plot two assassination attempts on Alexander II. When the group was betrayed, Figner had drawn a death sentence; it was commuted and she spent 20 years in prison and two in internal exile. She grew disillusioned with the Revolution and criticized the dictatorship until it forced her into silence. When Figner introduced Cahan to a group of surviving members of Narodnaya Volya, she referred to him, sotto voce, as “one of us.” Cahan then heard one after another of them voice their opposition to the Soviet regime.

Cahan quickly recognized that it didn’t matter how free or frank people seemed. Things were radically worse. Cahan kept out of the Forward the identities of his informants, though he told David Shub, his deputy, that the visit with Vera Figner was “one of the most moving moments” in his life. I would argue that the visit also helped change the world, proving to be one of the most consequential newspaper assignments of the 20th century.

The Soviet Union, Cahan had come to believe, was even worse than Russia under the Czars. The newspaper didn’t abandon its socialist ideals. But it emerged as a leading hawk in the struggle against Soviet Communism. By the late 1920s, the newspaper was up to its eyeballs in launching the beginnings of what came to be known, after World War II, as the International Confederation of Free (meaning anti-communist) Trade Unions, or the ICFTU.

Its organizers included Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown, the latter of whom went to Europe after World War II to lead the twilight struggle against the Soviet for control of European labor. This was a major, strategic, anti-communist bet. It was the ICFTU that backed a little known free trade union at Gdansk, Poland, called Solidarity. Solidarity eventually rose up to crack Soviet rule in the East bloc. It’s no coincidence that the president who bestowed on Irving Brown America’s highest honor, the Medal of Freedom, was Ronald Reagan, the president who was himself a veteran of the anti-communist labor movement.

When then-Senator Barack Obama was making his run for the presidency, he went to Europe and spoke in Berlin. At the time I warned that he lacked advisers from the Free Trade Union Movement that offered hardline advice to both Democrats (like JFK on his visit to Berlin) and Republicans (like Richard Nixon and Reagan). The anti-communist labor movement, and the Forward, warned against negotiations and compromise with the communists, until the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended in the triumph of freedom. How the world could use such savvy now in respect of Iran.

Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of The Forward's English weekly and a former foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.

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