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Never Fear

Yevgenia Albats, the International Institute and Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia Distinguished Faculty Fellow, has taken on torturers, Putin, and the KGB. Now she's helping LSA students understand Russia and how it fits into the rest of the world.
by Susan Hutton


This is an article from the spring 2020 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

Early in her journalism career, Yevgenia Albats, the International Institute and Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia Distinguished Faculty Fellow for 2019-2020, deliberately put herself in the way of danger — not for love and not exactly for money, but because she was looking for stories. 

After graduating from Moscow State University in 1980, Albats sought out adventure. She dove to the inky bottom of the Black Sea in a bathyscaphe, a free-diving vessel designed to reach the deepest parts of the ocean, and she climbed to the top of the sky in an airplane with the express purpose of leaping out of it. “I wanted to go to graduate school,” she explains, “but I have a Jewish last name and there was extreme anti-Semitism imposed by the state. The whole system was based on spoils and, of course, I wasn’t a member of the Communist Party, so I was not trusted enough to write any ideological stuff. I could only write about things that were divorced from ideology — and I had trouble with the KGB. 

“So I had to find stories myself,” she says with a smile. “And it was terrific!”

Impassioned and intrepid, Albats penned vibrant stories that landed her a job as a secretary at the letters desk at the Sunday supplement, Nedelya, a job that paid less than her rent. “The editor came from the republic of Uzbekistan, so he knew a little what it was like to be a minority,” she explains. “He said, ‘There is no chance you can get a job as a reporter — the Central Committee of the Communist Party won’t allow it. But you can answer letters and you can write. If it is good we will publish it, and we’ll wait for better times.’ 

“The better times came six years later, in 1986,” she laughs, “when I went to a new paper, the Moskovskiye Novosti (Moscow News).”

To supplement her salary, Albats reported science stories. “My beat was microphysics, history of the universe, what happened to the human body in orbit, in weightless conditions, this kind of stuff,” she says. In the Caucasus Mountains, she visited the Baksan Neutrino Observatory to report on efforts to understand neutrinos, subatomic particles that are devilishly hard to capture despite their proliferate presence in the universe. They are everywhere and impossible to catch except in the evidence they leave behind, a conundrum whose metaphor foreshadowed Albats’s investigation of the KGB. 

Secret Society

Part intelligence agency, part secret police, the KGB operated an infamous espionage network abroad and, at home, monitored the media, anti-Communist rhetoric, scientific research, universities, the church, and even athletics from 1954 until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The agency protected government leaders and arrested, imprisoned, and executed enemies of the state. “It was the most feared and most repressive institution of the Soviet Union,” Albats says. 

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had become general secretary of the Communist Party and appointed Alexander Yakovlev as his number two, taking helm of a government embrittled by corruption and an economy at risk of collapse. Both men understood the necessity for reforms, and that bureaucrats would fiercely oppose them because the reforms would strip bureaucrats of power. To stabilize the country, Gorbachev and Yakovlev understood they needed support from the general public, which meant they needed to free up some media to reveal some of the problems the Communist Party had kept hidden. At the same time, they wanted to control what should remain secret. It was in this social experiment called glasnost — or openness — that Albats had been hired as a reporter by the Moskovskiye Novosti.

Albats was reporting a story on the eminent geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who was arrested in 1940 and died in jail of dysentery in 1943. Under Stalin, KGB interrogator Alexander Khvat had tortured Vavilov in prison, and Albats wanted to find him. The KGB told Albats he was dead. Albats didn’t think so, but confirming her hunch was a challenge. 

“I know it’s very difficult for Americans to imagine a society where everything, all information, was forbidden,” she says. “There were no white pages. Maps were falsified to prevent people from finding streets and buildings. Information was the main commodity in the Soviet Union — not just for journalists, but for anyone.”

In 1987, if you wanted to find someone in the Soviet Union, you went to a street kiosk and filled out a slip of paper with whatever information you had — a name, when and where they were born, an occupation or employer. For a fee, the person on duty would search the files and maybe find what you were looking for. Albats filled in what she knew about Khvat — his name, that he’d been an investigator for the KGB. She took a guess at his age and turned in the paper and then waited nervously. When the clerk returned the slip of paper, an address — 41 Gorky Street, Apt. 88 — had been written in ballpoint pen. 

“I was sure that the people in the kiosk would report that I’d requested the address of a KGB colonel, so I had to go there immediately,” she explains. “And I just knocked on the door. He’d never seen a journalist before, and couldn’t imagine that someone could come to ask questions without permission from the KGB.” But that’s exactly what Albats had done. She questioned him for hours, and he answered, which was the last thing she expected. And she certainly never expected to be able to publish any of it.

























Opening Day

Glasnost had drawn the ire of the bureaucratic hardliners who were trying to destabilize Gorbachev, mute dissidents, and intimidate journalists. But Albats had secured a first-person account from a torturer working in Stalin’s prisons. Oh god, her editor said when she showed him. This is the last thing I need. Still, he published what she wrote, and it was a sensation. In a country that had never known anything like a free press, where thoughts were policed and ideology was controlled, Albats was inaugurating investigative journalism. And her subject — the KGB — was one that no one had ever written about. 

“It was pretty easy to write something no one else had written about because everything was forbidden,” she says. Albats wrote about drugs, HIV and AIDS, and about being pregnant in Moscow, then a city of almost nine million people, that had only one maternity clothing store. After giving birth to her daughter, Olga, in a state-run maternity hospital, she described its conditions: all of the showers and bidets were broken, and there were no disposable syringes. And, as was the policy in all the state’s maternity hospitals, husbands were not permitted. 

“I got 15,000 letters from men who really couldn’t believe their offspring were born in such awful conditions,” Albats says. “They were just shocked.” The articles were reprinted in European newspapers and magazines, breaking open the seal the Cold War had placed on the Soviet Union. “The stories helped Europeans realize Soviets had their own intimate lives,” she says, “and that these lives were awful.” 

Albats’s experience and the insights that come from bridging Soviet life to the world outside it are exactly why LSA’s International Institute is so excited to have Albats as its inaugural fellow for its new Masters in International and Regional Studies Program (MIRS).

“With her Ph.D. from Harvard and her experience as a journalist, Albats brings an incredible breadth of knowledge to our students,” says Pauline Jones, director of the International Institute and professor of political science. “She runs the only independent NGO media outlet in Russia, and she’s an award-winning author. Her lived experience paired with her academic training offer a perspective on Russia that’s unparalleled.” 

Albats believes the most important understanding she can offer her students is not which events were the most important in Soviet history but where the Russian people have come from. American institutions, universities, and people from private businesses invested billions in Russia, she says. “They did a hell of a lot, but they were operating under the assumption that Soviets were just like Americans, and that we just spoke another language. They thought of Russia as the country of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov. That was true and not true. Yes, great pieces of literature were created in the Russian language, but we had no political philosophy except for Marx and Lenin. 

 “We never went through a period of European enlightenment that was extremely important for Europeans to move out of the Middle Ages,” she continues. “When I went to Harvard, I was stunned to see the wealth of knowledge that had been developed by Western civilization that was totally unavailable to us in the Soviet Union. Political science and sociology — they didn’t exist for us. And that, unfortunately, also extended into ethics, morals, to the whole understanding of the common good.”

People from the International Monetary Fund, economists from Harvard, and political scientists that had helped liberate Poland and Germany all believed they could do the same thing in the Soviet Union, Albats says. “But in Poland and in Germany, the job was to liberate the country from Soviet rule and the institutions of Soviet power. We Russians had to liberate ourselves from ourselves, and that’s a much harder, much more painful task.

“Fifty-six million Soviets were killed between 1917 and the end of the Soviet Union,” she continues. “According to the latest polls, almost half of Russians see Stalin as Russia’s greatest leader. It’s hard to understand. I’m very honest with my students: I don’t have all the answers. I know some of the answers, but I am still trying to understand my country. “ And so she does what she has always done. “I’m just trying to tell them the story.” 












Global Organization 

LSA’s International Institute unites students from different backgrounds in a rich and rigorous study of global politics, language, and culture, and it offers them access to learning opportunities around the world.

Established in 1993, the International Institute cultivates research and teaching on crucial regions of the world across multiple fields and disciplines. As the home to 17 centers and programs, the International Institute draws faculty experts from across campus who specialize in a range of fields. The institute’s rigorous approach to research paired with its support for students and faculty help to promote understanding on campus and to forge connections to research partners and institutions around the world.

In the fall 2019 semester, the International Institute launched the Masters in International and Regional Studies (MIRS), a new program that is designed to give students the perspectives and analytical tools they need to understand global issues in their cultural, economic, historical, geographical, and political contexts. The program combines an interdisciplinary curriculum with regional expertise and methodological training, and offers students international experiences too. 

“We wanted to create a program that leveraged the fact that we have great in-depth regional expertise and cross-regional expertise,” explains Pauline Jones, director of the International Institute and professor of political science. “And we didn’t want our area students to remain in a silo. Students take courses with students outside of their specialty, which both helps to build a cohort and to cultivate a global perspective. You might be a North African specialist, but in MIRS you’ll also understand how North Africa fits into the rest of the world.”

“We also wanted to design a master’s degree program that would be able to prepare students for different careers,” says Pär Cassel, director of graduate studies at the International Institute and associate professor of history. “We have students interested in working in academic environments, and others who are considering careers in government, NGOs, and other international organizations. Faculty expertise like that provided by Dr. Albats is critical. She’s incredibly dynamic, and she’s very much an insider. The privilege of working with her confers a valuable veteran’s knowledge.”

International Institute Centers and Programs

African Studies Center
Center for Armenian Studies
Center for European Studies
Center for Japanese Studies
Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies
Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies
Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies
Center for South Asian Studies
Center for Southeast Asian Studies
Copernicus Center for Polish Studies
Donia Human Rights Center
Global Islamic Studies Center
Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies
Nam Center for Korean Studies
Program in International & Comparative Studies
Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies
Weiser Center for Europe & Eurasia


Images created by Julia Lubas and photographed by Liz DeCamp

Release Date: 04/15/2020
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: LSA; International Institute; Center for Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies; Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia; LSA Magazine; Social Sciences; Susan Hutton