Gorbachev and his connection to Connecticut

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I never met Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who died last week.

But I do know that some Connecticut citizens and a local television station influenced his attempt to liberalize the Soviet media and provide more truthful information to its people.

The year was 1987.

In February, the New York Times published a column by an Emory University professor, “Television: Soviet Viewers See More News, Including About the United States. It was the work of reformist President Gorbachev.

Toby Moffet

I was co-anchor of the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts at WVIT, Channel 30, an NBC affiliate, where I found myself there as I licked my political wounds from an unsuccessful run for the post. of governor.

Before, during, and after my four terms in the United States House in the northwest part of the state, I had been active in anti-war and disarmament activities. Lou and Judy Freeman of Canton were inspiring leaders in these movements.

One evening in the spring of 1987, Lou called me as I was getting ready for the latest newscast.

“We are going on a peace cruise in the Soviet Union,” he said. “Do you want to cover it?”

As crazy as it sounds to have a local TV station thousands of miles away to cover such a thing, I couldn’t just say no or laugh at his idea. Lou was such a serious person.

The next day I went to see Al Bova, the station manager. To my surprise, Al found the idea intriguing. Covering a 10 day cruise involving Russian and American citizens, about 20 on each side, had a local angle as about half of 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 about how our two countries saw each other and where the paths to peace and disarmament might be. Americans saw Gorbachev as a hero; not all 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, his nightly audience for the 9 p.m. newscast “Vremya,” spread across 11 time zones, was 150 million. Mine was a few hundred thousand.

She and I hit it off, and at dinner the second night she extended an invitation.

“My bosses in Moscow invite you to put your own stories on our newscast over the next week.”

How could this be possible? We couldn’t run the risk of being censored.

During a stop in Togliatti, the main Soviet auto-building town on the Volga, I stood in line for a payphone. 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 see my reports just before Vremya airs them, to make sure we weren’t censored.

I forwarded this request to Svetlana and for several nights the following week my reports were broadcast, uncensored, on the newscast. Along with images of exchanges between American and Russian citizens, I have included comments critical of the Soviet system.

“What happened to the Korean airliner and why was it shot down?”

“Why does the Berlin Wall still prevent people from achieving freedom? »

One night I looked into the camera and raised my arm to show a wristband indicating my support for Soviet “prisoners of conscience.”

The Russians handled it all.

In mid-August, I was back at West Hartford station. The Associated Press published an article about a meeting between President Gorbachev and American teachers visiting Moscow. When one of the teachers asked why the Soviets didn’t have freedom of the press, Gorbachev reportedly said, “You should see the reports that an American ran on our biggest news program last month.”

Looking to find ways to capitalize on our new place in world history, Bova, Paul Frega, the news director at the time, and my co-anchor Joanne Nesti and I huddled together one afternoon.

Someone suggested we reciprocate and invite Svetlana and her camera crew to visit us and put her stories on WVIT every night. We asked NBC to pay the expenses.

His stories have been extremely well received by our viewers. She and I appeared on the “Today” show.

She was later invited by several NBC affiliates in major US cities to visit and report from their studios.

His visits lasted two years.

On Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet Union imploded. Gorbachev signed the papers to trigger his dissolution, then resigned as president.

We lost contact with Svetlana despite our best efforts to find her. Even Google couldn’t help.

Now, with the passing of Gorbachev, we are left to wonder: were his efforts to reform the Soviet Union in vain?

Putin would have us believe so. But hopefully it is still possible for American and Russian citizens to come together and imagine a very different future – the kind of future that Mikhail Gorbachev must have envisioned.

Toby Moffett is a former congressman from Connecticut and a former news anchor at WVIT in West Hartford.

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