By Alan Philps

Headline Publishing Group 2023

ISBN: 978 1 0354 0131 4

RRP: $34.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


It is hard to imagine any untold stories left from the days of Stalinist Russia. But Alan Phips has found a new way to tell some old and sadly forgotten stories. Thanks to the records left by other writers who were there, long after. In doing so, he scripts the real story of the Soviet Union under attack from Nazi Germany, along with the disintegration, accompanied by terror, of Stalin’s ruthless hold on information. Phips has woven together some of the reality – dark and light – that lay behind the censored reportings of foreign journalists at the time, many of whom were happy to propagandise in favour of Russia’s interests.

Using the memoir writings of war correspondents based in Moscow during the years of the Allies’ alliance with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany’s second front which attacked Russia after June 1941, Phips has craftedThe Red Hotel wherein the ghosts of Stalin’s disinformation war and the foreign correspondents billeted at Moscow’s Metropole Hotel, just along from the Kremlin, recapture that dystopian society and all its guises, misadventures and inevitable cruelties. Alongside them, an assortment of Russian citizens engaged in a propaganda tussle while working as Russia’s blackmailed spies at the hotel. These locals’ closeness to the foreigners eventually helped many locals break out from their indoctrinated refusal to accept the Soviet reality in World War II. It also stripped back the façade that had hidden from the world how millions of Soviet citizens, before and after the war, were purged and exiled in material and mental terror.

But Phips’ account is no Gulag Archipelago. In racy opening chapters, his characters come to life across a dangerous landscape, almost like figures in a novel – naïve fellow travellers, adventurers, those seeking to break the big story, loyal Russians locked in by a totalitarian social network, and spies.

Protected in many ways by diplomatic immunity, the foreign correspondents offer their Moscow colleagues something of a good life amid the destitution of what, at the time, was a deprived and desperate city suffering intense hunger and a lack of so many ordinary commodities. An alliance with a foreign correspondent gave many Moscovites, especially women, a chance of small luxuries – from cigarettes to a hot bath. It also endangered them as liable to be condemned as corrupted by capitalist foreign influences and purged. Foreigners who married Russian brides could never take them out of Russia if returning to the West.

Alan Phips is a former foreign correspondent who first visited the Metropole Hotel with his Russophile mother as a 15-year old. He was a Reuters trainee in Moscow in 1979 and went on to open a North African bureau in Tunis where he met Tanya Matthews (nee Svetlova) former translator and Russian widow of British correspondent Ronald Matthews who had regaled him with tales of the Metropole Hotel in war time where she had married Matthews. She became a fearless reporter in northern Africa in her later life. After more stints as a correspondent in Moscow, Phips was set on bringing back to life the ambience of the Soviet war years and beyond, set around the foreign correspondents at the Metropole Hotel – from the post-revolutionary years it had become a bastion for the Bolsheviks and in the war years was the nerve centre for foreign journalists – centred on Room 346.

Phips assembles a mixed line up of Westerners at the Metropole alongside significant locals. They become the spine of Phips’ unravelling Soviet story as the war drags on and the Stalinist terror winds back up. The purges of the late 1930s eased as the Germans advanced, with all hands on deck to save the motherland. The 1930s had been a golden age for foreign correspondents but, after the Nazi invasion, Moscow became what Phips labels a “journalistic desert” where war correspondents from all Allied countries were competing to pitch tents. The new alliance with Russia had opened doors on a secret society with possibilities for scoop stories.

Among the Phips’ Metropole figures is Alice Leone Moets from the US, an adventurer and single woman who spoke five languages, a rare and unattached diplomat. Journalist Charlotte Haldane had married up and was a committed communist, firm in her belief in the Soviet Union and writing articles to arouse the UK’s faith in Russia’s ability to defeat the Nazis. She described Russia as the lantern of the world. In time, Haldane would become as disillusioned as any. Ralph Parker, with his Russian partner Valentina a former sniper in the Red Army and thought to be a colonel in the NKVD, is a man living between the lines. After the war, his publications would be used as Soviet propaganda.

Then there are the cluster of translators, mainly women, who get to work at the Metropole alongside foreigners, both entrapped by their position and living with its perks. In payment for the privilege of keeping foreign company, reports to the secret service are expected. One such is Nadya Ulanovskaya, wife of Red Army hero and apparachik Alex Ulanovsky – their family becomes emblematic of what happened to ordinary Russians in spite of their loyalty to the party. They would survive war, torture and the gulag and exhibit the complex psychology that emerged in citizens terrorised, trapped and betrayed.

Caught by the restrictions of their Soviet hosts, the team of Metropole correspondents go about their reporting, endlessly frustrated but continuing to believe they can be properly served in their attempts to report the war. Deluded, Phips records their futile attempts to get to the front, especially on the occasion of a trip to the war zone in September 1941. Organised clandestinely for a select group of foreign correspondents by Palgunov, head of the Press Department, the party made its way westward in six small cars, a soldier in each and with great expectations of scoops to follow.

The trip, sponsored by Russian hosts, turned out to be nothing short of a wasted sideshow, disappointing pioneering American photographer Margaret Bourke-White who had dressed for the event in fashion plate bright red with black-and-white checked slacks. Phips belittles the exercise describing the correspondents’ outfits as if they were going on a picnic outing. The Russians took them nowhere near real enemy action, much less the front line, offered specks of war damage always favouring the Russians, and nothing denoting the fact that the Russian army was being pulverised at the time by the invading German enemy. At one point, the Russian hosts managed to feed the group “a banquet on a long table … laid out among the tress”. The vodka flowed. There was a car bringing them food among the cars of the convoy and they were being offered hospitality not real reporting opportunities.

The real reason for the trip is revealed as being a backdrop to the meeting due in Moscow with Averell Harriman and Lord Beaverbrook for the Allies which would confirm the supplies of munitions and materiel coming to Russia from its new allies. Positive reporting from such foreign correspondents would enhance Russia’s chances of a good deal. The correspondents had been had – their reports would be expected to advance Stalin’s manipulation of his Western friends while the real war lay behind a wall of silence.

It is in this account that Phips makes best use of the correspondents’ memoir material later published. One revealing and woeful story was missed by most of the party. But two of the women in the press party witnessed the real story of the Soviet Union, both at war and in peace. On the fifth day, these women sat in a car watching a group of peasant locals near the German bombed out village of Dorogobuzh. As Phips tells it:

… a procession of men came into view. They were carrying primitive farming tools, dressed in rags, their unkempt hair falling to their shoulders, their feet in sandals made of plaited birchbark. Each had a small bag round his neck with a hunk of bread in it. They trudged by in silence, without the strength even to look up at the car … To Charlotte it was a scene from Dante’s Inferno. …After about ten minutes, another procession, a small one, followed them. It consisted exclusively of women, also carrying agricultural implements, with the sacks of bread hanging down their backs …

This silent collection of downtrodden locals was a group of Russian peasants attempting to resist the effects of collectivisation.

In the car returning to Moscow, correspondent Alexander Werth speaks to a hitchhiker they had picked up who, risking his safety, advised the correspondent not to believe the Soviet propaganda about the war. Germany had struck the Soviet Union’s industrial heartland and inflicted untold suffering on its starving and homeless population. He begged Werth to report the facts. As Phips tells it, commenting on the effects of Soviet censorship of such reports, “Werth never included in his reports even the mildest suggestion of his Soviet hosts.” Only two decades later, as with others from that time, would Werth reveal the truth in his memoir.

Remarkably, it is with the story of an Australian foreign correspondent that Phips’

Red Hotel reaches a climax. Geoffrey Blunden, born in Melbourne’s St Kilda, was one of the very few roving Australian correspondents and had worked for The Daily Telegraph. Sent to Moscow in February 1942, he experienced similar frustrations as the Red Hotel journalists in not being able to get to the front. But he did manage to travel with the Red Army to Volokolamsk in September, Rjev in December, and Stalingrad in January 1943 albeit not permitted to interview Russian soldiers or German prisoners.  From Kharkov, Ukraine, in March he was the only Australian to report from the front line on the Nazi regime’s systematic mass murder of the Soviet Jews.

In Moscow, Blunden also came to know Nadya Ulanovskaya. From Nadya and her family, he learned much about the repression of ordinary Moscovites in their daily lives. She would become the model for his main character in The Room on The Route, published 1947 and written from the experiences of his time in Russia. Tragically, Nadya would be sent to the gulag for helping Blunden with details of Soviet life. When the book hit the market, much of Western intelligentsia was still rapt in Stalin’s disinformation campaign, disguising its realities behind a general revulsion at the Nazi holocaust.

This did not stop Blunden’s book from having a substantial effect on dragging back the curtain of lies about Soviet life. The American novelist John Dos Passos, who had visited Russia in 1928, compared it to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, as a classic portrayal of Stalin’s Great Terror. The exiled head of the Russian provisional government in 1917, Alex Kerensky, described it as “the only authentic novel about Russia written by a foreigner”.

In Red Hotel – The Untold Story of Stalin’s Disinformation War, Alan Phips restores our faith in the printed record of honest reportage.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.