Photograph by David Rothenberg
I once saw a plaque on the wall of a church in St. Petersburg commemorating parishioners who had died during the First World War, and it struck me that in all my years in Russia I had never before seen a public memorial to that conflict. At least 1.7 million Russian soldiers were killed in the war, yet their memory had been obliterated. World War I, of course, had led to revolution, civil war, Stalin and the gulag, which might explain why Russians didn’t care to dwell on it. Recently, President Vladimir Putin has tried to spur Russian awareness of the war; we’ll see if he succeeds.
That plaque led, eventually, to the writing of my book, March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution.
With my wife, the journalist Kathy Lally, I spent 12 years altogether in Russia. We were there from 1991 to 1995 and from 1997 to 2001 for the Baltimore Sun, and then a third time, from 2010 to 2014, for the Washington Post. It was a time of great upheaval, of poverty and recovery, of war and peace, and yet in so many ways it seemed that nothing could ever change Russia. Maybe this is what got me thinking about the cataclysm of that long ago war.
I worked for a number of years as a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and editorial writer for the Sun, which was once a paper that gave its roving journalists considerable latitude in deciding what to write about. Between our first two Moscow stints, I took part in a project that investigated shipbreaking – that is, the scrapping of old ships for their steel – and I roamed from Rhode Island to San Francisco to Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas, and eventually all the way to Alang, in the Indian state of Gujarat. That series won a George Polk award, an Overseas Press Club prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, in 1998.
My siblings have wondered how I, who grew up in a comfortable suburban home in Pleasantville, N.Y., and was never very adventurous, ended up as a foreign correspondent. Besides India and Russia, I covered war in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring in Cairo. When our two daughters, now grown, were very young, Kathy and I spent five months in Glasgow, working on an exchange for the Glasgow Herald. Maybe that’s where we got the bug. Sometimes, I guess, you just go where your nose leads you.
It was on a trip to Korea in 2007 that I struck up a friendship that would lead, a few months later, to my joining National Journal as a White House correspondent. This was my first real plunge into Washington journalism, it lasted two-and-a-half years, and it helped give me the courage to tackle the American angle in this book.
I studied English literature as a Harvard undergraduate, because I figured novels would be more interesting than textbooks. Yet it was the master’s program at Columbia University’s journalism school that actually taught me something about writing. Now I’m finally getting around to the book form.
I still live in Baltimore; I still work at the Washington Post, commuting every day to a job on the foreign desk.