“My husband knew what
Rose Marie Debecker remembers her husband
William Cole — the American champion
of the human rights movement inRussia
by Nicolas Miletitch
In August 1968, a 46-year-old American journalist, William Cole, arrived in Moscow. The Soviet Union had just invaded Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring liberalization movement, and several dissidents have been arrested for demonstrating in the Red Square against this intervention. Four months earlier, dissidents Yuri Galanskov, Alexander Ginzburg and Vera Lashkova have been sentenced to terms ranging from one to seven years in prison.
As a result, dissent at that time was quickly becoming the topic of primary importance to Western correspondents stationed in Moscow. As a way of response, the Soviet authorities would regularly expel journalists they considered to be in too close a contact with the dissidents.
Bill Cole, who became the new correspondent of the CBS — one of the three biggest American TV networks — learned this quickly, because only two months after his arrival, in October 1968, his colleague Raymond Anderson of the New York Times had been expelled from Russia. Anderson's "crime" consisted of publishing an article in NYT titled "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom" by academician and future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Andrei Sakharov.
Cole would also be expelled in June 1970 for his contacts with the dissidents. A month prior to that, his friend Andreï Amalrik would get arrested. Vladimir Bukovsky — another of Cole’s friends — would be arrested a few months later, sent again to the camps and then deported to the West in 1976 in an exchange for the Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan.
Many foreign journalists helped dissidents during the Soviet times, accomplishing feats such as smuggling documents to the West. But Cole is undoubtedly entitled to a special place in the memory of the former Western correspondents who had worked in the Soviet Union. The impact of Cole's interviews with Bukovsky, Amalrik and Pyotr Yakir was enormous:
millions of people got to watch his CBS report in the United States and in an array of other countries, and its transcript ran in numerous publications in the United States and in Europe.
The interview with Bukovsky (which Cole filmed on camera in a forest near Moscow) made it possible, in particular, to make widely known to the Western public the practice of interning dissidents in mental asylums where they were subjected to chemical treatments.
The CBS program was also the culmination of another extraordinary story: in the Mordovia camp where he was serving his sentence with other political prisoners, human rights activist Alexander Ginzburg had managed to record a program on magnetic tape. And it was a camp guard, aware of Ginzburg's reputation as a handyman, who had imprudently asked him to repair a tape recorder!
The audio tape recorded by Ginzburg began as follows:
Alexander Ginzburg's voice: Hello, dear friends. Our broadcast is being recorded in Camp No. 17 for Political Prisoners. Our literary program is a part of the "Poetry of the Soviet Peoples" series, and is dedicated to the works of Latvian poet Knuts Skujenieks.
This very special show ended five minutes later on an ironic note that marked the overall character of Ginzburg:
Alexander Ginzburg's voice: And this brings to a close our literary program from the camp run by Major Annenkov. Write to us at the following address: Mordovia, Pot'ma Station, Post Office Ozerny, P.O. Box ZhKh 385/17A. This program has been made possible by negligence of the prison administration and has been presented by Alexander Ginzburg.
Thanks to Cole’s TV report titled Voices from the Russian Underground, this cassette tape smuggled out of the camp (and transmitted to Cole by Bukovsky as the latter describes in his memoirs) has been heard by millions of people.
Left and right: Stills from William Cole's program Voices from the Russian Underground.
In their memoirs To Build a Castle and Notes of a Revolutionary, Bukovsky and Amalrik recall their American friend and tell in particular how, during their respective trials, the interviews given by them to Cole became important parts of the prosecution's cases against them.
William Cole died in 2006 in Tennessee at the age of 84. But his legacy has become part of Russia's history. Thanks to his reporting the issue of punitive psychiatry in the USSR ignited a campaign led by high-profile members of the Western intelligentsia, including Tom Stoppard, Iris Murdoch, Yehudi Menuhin, and Vanessa Redgrave, among others. His exposure of psychiatric abuses in the USSR contributed to the abandonment of the "roll-up" torture method in the Soviet mental hospitals in the mid-1980s. And in 1989 psychiatry ceased to be a method of political repression in the USSR. The legislation was changed and the Soviet authorities admitted that there was political motivation behind the psychiatric internment of human rights activists.
Earlier this month Soviet History Lessons archive got in touch with William Cole's former wife Rose-Marie Debecker, who now lives in Spain, and who kindly agreed to share her recollections of her family's dramatic time in Moscow.
Nicolas Miletitch: When did you arrive in the Soviet Union?
Rose Marie Debecker: We arrived in Moscow in August 1968, at the start of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet troops. I accompanied my husband who went to do a report in Akademgorodok, a town in Siberia where there were many scientific institutes. There, a researcher wanted to see us and speak with us. It was he who told us about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. We didn't know about it until then.
N.M.: Did your husband have a particular interest in Russia and the USSR before coming to work in Moscow?
R.M.D.: Absolutely not.
N.M.: Did he speak Russian?
R.M.D.: He did not speak Russian when he arrived in Moscow, and neither did I. During our stay, he did not have time to learn it. With me, it was different, I had free time. I wanted to go to the university, but I was not allowed to. So a teacher would come to our house. She spent her time teaching me grammar while I mostly wanted to learn vocabulary so that I could communicate with people.
N.M.: What was your life like in Moscow at the time?
R.M.D.: We lived in buildings reserved for foreigners where many other journalists lived. There was a checkpoint at the entrance with a guard who wouldn't let everyone through. We had Soviet friends who we couldn't bring home because they wouldn't be allowed through the entrance to our building. We could only meet outside, never in our building. We had to go to their houses to see each other.
The dissidents, on the other hand, we managed to get through to come to our house. We would go get them and when drive in, and the building guard could not stop us. But the authorities knew full well who was in the car.
We had a maid named Shura. The people who worked for foreigners at the time were almost all veterans of Word War II. They were often people who had done exceptional things. And Shura was truly exceptional: she had participated in the Battle of Stalingrad when she was only 16 years old, and she had received several decorations. She was a very pleasant woman, quite Russian, a classic image of a Russian woman. She had been there for several years already and had worked for many former CBS correspondents. She was a bit of a CBS journalist's maid. At first, for a year, everything was going well with her. After that, we started having problems, from the moment my husband began to meet with the dissidents.
N.M.: What made your husband take an interest in dissidents?
R.M.D.: For him, meeting with the dissidents was an outlet. He couldn't stand the lack of freedom, he couldn't take it anymore, he absolutely wanted to do something. Being in contact with the dissidents was a way to heal his wounds, to let off steam in a way.
In fact, my husband had a terrible time in Moscow. And I felt that little by little, things were deteriorating. Every evening, there were meetings in our apartment with other foreign journalists, French people in particular. I could see my husband was getting depressed. He started drinking with the other journalists to relax. And from then on, his health and mood began to slide a bit.
N.M.: Your husband was more committed than other journalists to supporting the dissidents.
R.M.D.: Yes, very clearly. Freedom was very important to him. It was really close to his heart. I think it came from his American upbringing. Besides, he had lived a lot in Europe and traveled a lot, so he was more open to a whole range of things. When he arrived in the Soviet Union, he was very naive. He discovered an entire world which he didn't think existed! He fell into something that was beyond his imagination. Morally and even physically, he did not accept it at all.
N.M.: How was the meeting in the forest prepared, and the interview with Bukovsky filmed?
R.M.D.: We first had to find a pretext to get rid of Shura, our maid, who was in fact spying on us, who observed everything we were doing at home and who prevented our driver and our secretary from working normally. My husband decided that we could no longer tolerate this and that we had to separate from her. She gave us a pretext: one evening when we were invited to the theater, she arrived late and the next day we sent her away.
We ended up with another maid, who was completely innocent and not a spy at all. From then on, my husband had more freedom, the driver and the secretary too. I don't know what happened after our expulsion with the driver and the secretary, but it must not have been pleasant… It is not that they really helped us, but they still assisted us in a certain way, by driving, by bringing people in... And they could see everything that was happening anyway! It is likely that they did not report fully to the KGB. They must have made reports, because they had to, but probably not complete reports. Thanks to the fact that Shura was no longer there, we were able to organize this meeting in a clearing in the woods near Moscow.
I believe the dissidents were the ones who have found that spot. They chose it well! There were quite a few people invited to that trip, in order to make it more difficult for the KBG to conduct their surveillance. It was my husband who filmed the interview. But the dissidents were the ones who have organized everything. It was important to them.
I was not present. We thought, my husband and I, that it would be better if I didn't go. During that time I was taking care of my small daughter in Moscow.
N.M.: How did the film with the interviews of Bukovsky, Amalrik and Yakir reach the West?
R.M.D.: There we had a big problem. Because when we wanted to take the film out of the country, we realized that everyone was giving up on us. Everyone! There was no one who would allow us to put the film into their diplomatic bag. And this film had to be released! The American Embassy couldn't help us, they were so sorry but couldn't do it. They were in too much trouble already at the time with spying allegations.
Everyone dodged us… There was no one, except — in the end — for the Canadians, the Canadian diplomats who took the plunge. It were the Canadians who took the film reel. We had spoken with everyone, but they were the only ones who have agreed. Thank you to Canada, it's a great country! It was my husband who organized everything with them, I wasn’t part of that.
N.M.: What were your relations with the dissidents who came to your house?
R.M.D.: For me, it had nothing to do with journalism. I had a very human connection with them. I really liked these people, they were people of temperament… they were real Russians, with a generous temperament. They had no money, but every time they came, they brought gifts. One of them gave me an icon, a very small icon. Some of those we met were very religious. I was amazed at their faith.
Among the dissidents who came to us, I especially remember Bukovsky and Amalrik because they are the ones we saw most often. They spoke a little English and we were able to understand each other and communicate with them. I remember that Bukovsky had shown us the after-effects of his wounds… He had experienced terrible things. He was young at the time, he was very strong, very strong, morally and physically. He physically lived through very difficult things, he really suffered in his flesh. Amalrik was the intellectual of the group. He was quite different from Bukovsky. We were very good friends with his wife, Güzel, who was a painter.
N.M.: Your husband once said these dissidents were "the bravest people he had ever met"...
R.M.D.: He found these people extraordinary. For him, these dissidents were heroes. Freedom, for him, was very important and these dissidents represented freedom. A real affection had developed between them and him. He loved them. These were real feelings. It also motivated him to act the way he did. It went well beyond his profession, it was no longer about journalism, it was really on a human level.
My husband knew what courage was: He had fought in the Pacific when he was very young, without any experience, like many Americans who had been sent there. He went through terrible things from which he never recovered. He had nightmares at night, he would jump out of bed and look for a gun under the bed… He suffered a lot from that.
N.M.: On July 28, 1970, the authorities told your husband that he had been expelled for "activities incompatible with his status as a journalist."
R.M.D.: We were both in Moscow when we learned of our deportation. We were given 48 hours to pack our bags and get home. At the time I was pregnant, I was having a miscarriage and we were afraid of an infection. That's why we had to go through Helsinki to drop me off at the hospital. I lost my baby… It was a disaster, it was tragic on a personal and family level. My husband went to New York on his own with our daughter to give his comments to the CBS about the film along with the interviews. I had to stay in Helsinki for a while.
N.M.: How did your husband feel about being expelled from the USSR?
R.M.D.: I think it was a relief for him because he couldn't take it anymore. And then he really drank a lot at night, to forget or to survive, I don't know… It was time for him to come home. In fact, we weren't really surprised. We expected it to happen any day. We knew very well that it would eventually happen anyway.
N.M.: Was your husband proud to have been able to do these dissident interviews?
R.M.D.: It was a huge scoop for the CBS, but my husband took no pride in it. He was already very afflicted by then. He didn't take advantage of the success of that program, Voices from the Russian Underground. He didn't want to take advantage of it, it wasn't important to him. He had done that in a certain sense for himself, to free himself from all this suffering, but above all — for them, for the dissidents.
N.M.: After his expulsion, did your husband keep in touch with his dissident friends via the American journalists in Moscow?
R.M.D.: No, we no longer had a connection with Moscow. We came back to France, we lived in Paris where my husband worked for the CBS.
N.M.: Did your husband wish one day to return to Moscow?
R.M.D.: No, he did not want to.
N.M.: Did he keep an interest in the USSR after being expelled?
R.M.D.: No. I think it was over for him. Maybe he was still thinking about the people he had known there but he hadn't kept any interest in the country. All I liked about the Soviets was what was left of their Russian soul. That's what I liked. I would often go for walks on my own to the market to meet people and try to talk with them. I was fascinated by the people. Him, not at all. For him it was much more politicized, it was much more the issue of freedom. For me, who knew Russian literature well, it was different, I tried to make the most of my stay and had some very pleasant moments.
N.M.: When Bukovsky, expelled from the USSR, arrived in the West in 1976, did your husband try to contact him?
R.M.D.: No, I don't think he tried. I don't think he wanted to reconnect, I think he considered this story to be over. Nor do I believe that Bukovsky tried to reconnect. My husband was in terrible pain at the time. He was suffering from a depression. All the consequences of his stay have emerged. He never recovered from his stay in Moscow.
Translated from the French by Natalia Ibrayeva.
William Cole and his wife Rose Marie Debecker in the early 1970s, after being expelled from Moscow.
A still from Soviet surveillance footage of Bill Cole in Moscow.
Following his journalistic coup Bill Cole became a pet peeve of the KGB and, after his expulsion, the unwitting hero of a Soviet propaganda film released in 1973,
titled "Pautina" (The Spider's Web) which denounced the Western world in general, and foreign journalists in particular. As it should be, Voices from the Russian Underground is at the center of the accusations leveled in this film against Cole.
The film is only available in Russian (https://youtu.be/ovH10oeTzqg), and the episode dedicated to Cole begins at time code 13:54 and ends at time code 17:53. We see in particular images of Cole in the streets of Moscow shot by the KGB’s hidden camera. The voiceover says: “Not so long ago, Cole roamed Moscow in search of people hostile to our way of life. This is how he found himself with this person [Andreï Amalrik appears on the screen]…”.
Amalrik, Andrei. Notes of a Revolutionary. Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
ISBN: 9780394417561. Pages: 343.
After Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? was published, I gave my first interviews to American correspondents: Jim Clarity for The New York Times and Bill Cole for CBS. Clarity spoke Russian well, but very slowly. He was a melancholy man, with a mustache and a body which reminded one of a walrus. When he interviewed me, he was tossing and turning in his chair so awkwardly that it
collapsed under him -- we then somehow glued the chair together and no longer offered it to the Americans. Cole, on the contrary, was lean, agile and nervous — it was clear that life in Russia was not for him, he took everything to heart, he did not speak Russian. We established good relations with both of them, and we visited them several times. <…>
On May 25  I was “pulled” out of my cell. The officer on duty wanted to have me handcuffed, but Kirinkin and Sidorov protested and safely took me to the Investigation Department of the USSR Prosecutor's Office. In the “Ruling on Prosecution under Art. 1901 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federal Soviet Republic” my crimes were as follows: Will the USSR Survive Until 1984?, Involuntary Journey to Siberia, my article “Russian Painting of the Past Decade”, and the interviews I have given to Clarity and Cole.
Cole managed to bring to the West part of the footage from the first interview, but the audio tape was confiscated in its entirety, and a few days later it was played to me in prison — all this was called "the presentation of material evidence."
[At the trial on November 11-12, 1970] only two witnesses were summoned in my case: the customs officer Stanishevsky and Güzel.
Judge: What do you know about this case?
Stanishevsky (after lengthy contemplation): I do not know anything about this case.
Judge: Do you remember the circumstances under which the tape was seized from the American journalist Cole?
Stanishevsky: I perform the duties of political control at the customs at the Sheremetyevo Airport. I stopped William Cole, a CBS correspondent accredited with the APN, who wanted to carry in a few reels of film on his way out of the USSR. I asked him what he had. He answered: music. Since it is possible to export film of 16 mm and wider only with the permission of the Ministry of Culture, I detained him and subjected the film to a screening. It turned out that this was not music, but a recording of an interview.
Judge: What exactly is this interview?
Stanishevsky (after lengthy contemplation): I have not seen this TV film. I listened to parts of the tape, but I don't remember, I'm afraid to mislead the court, it was a long time ago. I remember well that when we seized the tape, the relevant agents reacted quickly.
Prosecutor: So, the film was seized only because it was 16 mm?
Stanishevsky: Of course.
Neither Shveisky nor I asked questions. One could have asked -- given that the only issue had been the film's 16 mm format -- whether it wouldn’t have been easier, without confiscating the film, to send Cole to the Ministry to get a permission.
Having asked Güzel, like all other witnesses, questions about the place and year of her birth, her nationality, place of residence and occupation, the judge solemnly said that although she was my wife, it was her civic duty to tell the truth — what does she know about this case?
Güzel (timidly): I know that my husband, Andrei Amalrik, has been illegally arrested.
Judge (kindly): Unlawfully arrested by the investigating authorities?
Judge: What do you know about your husband's books being published abroad? Is he is the author of the book Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?
Güzel (as I have instructed her): I know nothing.
Judge: But you must have read your husband's books Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, Involuntary Journey to Siberia and others?
Güzel (proudly): Of course I have! (Chuckles in the gallery).
Judge: What do you know about his TV interviews?
Judge: We will remind you. By the way, there is your voice on it too.
The judge said that since I refused to testify, the recording of the interview would be listened to in court — they didn’t show the TV interview, so as not to lead those present into temptation. We listened to a small excerpt - about psychiatric hospitals and about the attitudes of "the Soviet people" toward the United States, while the assessors' facial expressions showed horror and indignation.
Judge (turning off the tape recorder): I think that is enough. (To me): Is that your voice?
I: I will not testify.
Andreï and Güzel Amalrik. Amsterdam. 1976.
Bukovsky, Vladimir. To Build a Castle.
First published by Andre Deutsch in 1979. Reprinted by Dissent Books in 2017. ISBN: 9781912022038.
In May 1970 I gave my first interview to the AP correspondent Holger Jensen. I told him about the prisons and the camp. I laid most stress on a description of the mental hospitals — it was because of them, in fact, that I threw myself into the fray once again. Then I gave a long television interview to our friend Bill Cole, the CBS correspondent in Moscow, exclusively on the subject of the psychiatric repression of dissent.
This was a major operation. About twenty of us, Russians and correspondents, went off to the woods outside Moscow, together with wives and children, for a picnic. The KGB kept in the background and watched us from a distance — their main worry was not to miss the moment of our departure.
Therefore it was fairly easy for Bill and me to arrange it so that the agents couldn't see him filming the interview. In fact, that was no problem — but smuggling it out was. Bill did two more interviews — with Andrei Amalrik and Pyotr Yakir — and I gave him a taped statement by Ginzburg that had been smuggled out of the Mordovian camps. This considerable package took three months to reach America. <…>
The Prosecutor summoned me to his office, attempted to scare me, and threatened me with jail. As if I didn’t know already that I would be back inside before a year was up. Our television package was still slowly wending its way to America.
It was a stupid conversation, the usual wrangle. He maintained that everything I had said in the interview was slander, while I offered to show him the proof and call witnesses.
He was unable to show in what way I had slandered anyone, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with my suggested proofs and witnesses. <...>
Holger [Jensen] was recalled toward the end of 1970 and sent off to Vietnam. Bill Cole had been kicked out by the Soviet authorities even earlier, “for activities incompatible with the status of a correspondent”.
I was sorry to part with them, it was like parting with labor-camp friends — I knew I'd never see them again. Bill was glum, but put a cheerful face on it, maintaining that everything was okay. “I didn't want to stay here anyway,” he said. “A decent man is bound to get himself thrown out.” <…>
By August the investigation had ground to a halt. Apart from clippings of my interviews in the Western press and copies of Bill Cole's films, the authorities had nothing to go on. They even started calling their own KGB agents in as witnesses but this didn't give them much help.
Finally, Ivan Ivanovich gave me a piece of news that I had long been expecting: they were going to dispatch me to the Serbsky Institute and pronounce me unfit to plead. <…>
My arrest had interrupted me in the middle of my work and deprived me of the opportunity to collect new evidence which would deliver the final blow to the psychiatric method. Now, by an irony of fate, I was faced with the prospect of becoming evidence myself — perhaps the most vivid and dramatic exhibit of all.
Not long before my arrest, our psychiatric documentation had been presented at a press conference in Paris. Bill Cole's television interview was shown in six different countries.
Our appeal to Western psychiatrists was published in the London Times, and the World Psychiatric Congress had been set for the autumn. So just let them try to proclaim me insane now, under the gaze of the entire world. We would see whether they were really so omnipotent. <…>
For the trial they chose a remote district of Moscow, where it was easier to cordon off the building and keep out my friends and foreign correspondents. The body of the court, as usual, was filled with KGB employees and Party functionaries, portraying an “open trial.”
The whole thing was done in a fantastic hurry — for some reason they were determined to get it over with in a day. The charges had been drafted so vaguely that not even the Party officials in court had any idea what was going on. I had “systematically sent slanderous, anti-Soviet fabrications abroad”; the Western newspapers in which these “fabrications” had been published were listed.
The judge extracted the newspaper cuttings from a file, held each of them aloft in turn, and then neatly placed them back in the file again. It was the same with Bill Cole's film: they showed it right there in the courtroom, using the back wall for a screen.
The film was shown in English, and no one in court, not even the judge or the prosecuting counsel, could understand its contents. <...>
They were determined to keep away from any discussion of the heart of the matter, and I was equally determined to bring them back to it. They wanted to keep their hands clean, wanted not to hear about all the insults, murders, blood, and filth.
What did it have to do with them? After all, they weren’t killing anyone themselves, weren’t suffocating people in “roll-ups”, breaking spines, or trampling people with their boots.
All they did was shuffle papers, sign them, and rubber-stamp them. And the end result of it was none of their business. They had comfortable positions and slept soundly at night. Never mind, you’re going to sit and listen to it all from me now! And into that hushed and hate-filled courtroom I emptied all the stench of a Special Mental Hospital, all the sickening details of its tortures. Let them suffocate, even if only for a moment.
Vladimir Bukovsky in March 1971 -- shortly before his final arrest.
Nicolas Miletitch served as the Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent in Moscow from 1978 to 1981 before having been expelled by the Soviet authorities, and led AFP as its Editor-in-Chief from 2006 to 2009. He personally carried many key dissident texts and documents to the West and is the author of two highly acclaimed documentaries on human rights in Russia: L'Histoire Secrète de l'Archipel du Goulag (The Secret History of the Gulag Archipelago) and "За успех нашего безнадежного дела" (To the Success of Our Hopeless Battle). His book Trafics et crimes dans les Balkans about the organized crime in the Balkans has been published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1998.
Excerpts from William Cole's CBS program Voices from the Russian Underground.