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Excerpt: Lying Together: My Russian Affair

In her new memoir, Emmy-winning television producer Jennifer Cohen optimistically recalls quitting her job, flying to Russia, and falling in love with a college crush. On the first day of her new job, things start falling apart.

September 17, 2004

MOSCOW—The network's Moscow bureau is located on the main ?oor of the Slavyanskaya Hotel. Originally an American-Soviet joint venture, the Slavyanskaya was one of the ?rst establishments in Moscow equipped with enough Westernized touches to make folks from the States feel at home. Upscale boutiques and fancy restaurants line the entrance hall. It has a newsstand packed with English-language periodicals and a health club that features step aerobics and Cybex machines. But behind all that the culture is not apple pie American at all. In my poorer student days I occasionally took my friend Yulia there to indulge in a few frothy five-dollar cappuccinos and a pack of Camel Lights in the lobby cafe. Café Amadeus. Café Arm-and-a-Leg-Us in my college vernacular. From our posts at the marble-topped tables, Yulia and I watched Italian-suited, wedding-ringed businessmen sidle up to Barbie-doll beautiful call girls clad in Gucci and fur. After a few minutes of chitchat and giggles, they would totter away, arm in arm, toward the elevator banks. We watched processions of important-looking men with entourages of beefy guys walk through the marbled halls while other beefy guys stood in the shadows, whispering indecipherably into their wrists. Sometimes their hairy fore?ngers gently pushed at clear plastic earpieces, and, if we were lucky, we could spot a gun or two as they adjusted their sports jackets.

The accepted wisdom is that the Slavyanskaya is run by an unhappy partnership of Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhov, and some powerful Chechen mobsters. The American part of the deal was blown to bits a few years ago. Literally. The hotel was founded at the end of the glasnost era by a ballsy Oklahoma entrepreneur named Paul Tatum. Initially, the development went swimmingly well. George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev blessed the place during their 1990 summit. Businessmen and tourists ?ocked to its restaurants and bars, celebrating and sealing deals over cabernet sauvignon and sirloins. Western media companies like my network, Reuters, and the BBC anchored the prestigious tenant list, glad to be located away from the drudgery of Russian life that they otherwise had to deal with every day. But when communism fell, the hotel ownership switched hands four times, ultimately landing in the hands of a Chechen contract killer named Umar Dzhabrilov. Not long after that, the hotel set up a casino where a nonpro?t press center had been, meaty guys in black turtlenecks started to outnumber the well-dressed businessmen, and a 5.45-caliber Kalashnikov assault ri?e was pointed at Paul Tatum's head. He died on November 3, 1996, lying in a pool of his own blood, which dripped down the stairs leading to the Kievsky Vokzal metro station underpass.

Now, a little more than a year and a half later, I am moving with the undulating masses through the once blood-splattered subway exit, up the hard stone steps, and out to the dirty, damp streets above. I separate from my fellow travelers as I cross the gate surrounding the Slavyanskaya and walk past the rows of black polished sedans and up to the covered, heated entrance where a white-gloved bellhop holds the door open for me. I have a bit of time to kill before I am due for my ?rst day of work at the bureau, so I grab a copy of the Moscow Times from the concierge and make a beeline for a celebratory cup of cappuccino at Amadeus.

I can get used to this, I think, as the waiter places a porcelain plate ?lled with biscotti and a froth-?lled mug on the marble table in front of me. I skim the paper's headlines, and, once con?dent that I haven't missed too much during our day of transit, I pull out the white sheet of paper on which I had printed my notes and lists of story ideas. With visions of duPont Awards and Emmys dancing in my head, I ?nish off the cappuccino and, heart racing, stand up to go to work.

The bureau itself is in a small of?ce space behind a large glass door just past the main entrance, catercorner to a shop that sells gaudy gold statues and crystal chandeliers. A guard always paces in front of the store, a large semiautomatic slapping his thigh. At the bureau unarmed attendants sit behind the door and buzz people in or call for help when it's needed. Mostly, they pass time watching dubbed Mexican soap operas on the small black-and-white monitor balanced on the corner of the desk and gossip with the cleaning ladies.

I speak my name into the intercom.

The gaunt man with the blond crew cut who is sitting behind the desk buzzes me in without looking up from the television set.

He gestures, still not looking, for me to go to his left, which I do.

A dark-haired, darkly dressed young woman is sitting at the workstation just inside the bureau door. I explain who I am. She says her name is Mary and she is the only one here.

"Usually, no one arrives until about eleven," she says. "Welcome to a network news bureau, where nothing ever happens. Do you want some coffee?"

"No, thanks. I just had some."

"Join me for a smoke?" She tosses a black sheepskin jacket over her petite frame and I follow her back outside.

Mary tells me that she's been living in Moscow for almost ?ve years. Originally from New Jersey, she came over upon completing a master's in Russian literature and never looked back. The television news business happened by default. When the White House (the Russian Parliament building) was under siege in 1993, the network desperately needed translators for all the clueless producers and correspondents they had ?own in, and Mary desperately needed money. Five years later she is still here. Her of?cial job is "desk editor;" she watches the wires, the news, and the phones, coordinates the crews, sets up satellite feeds, and has the honor of being the second-lowest person on the totem pole. She still has the interns to yell at. But this is her day job, and, generally speaking, it is completely undemanding. Mary's real passion is working as a liaison for American couples looking to adopt Russian orphans. Periodically, she takes a week or two off to help incoming couples navigate the corruption and bureaucracy and, they all hope, bring their dream child back to the States.

"I volunteered at an orphanage a few years ago," I tell her.

"So you care about this country?"

"I guess so," I say.

"Then you won't care for this job." She grinds out her cigarette butt against the dark marble wall of the hotel and goes back inside. I follow behind.

At around 11 o'clock people start trickling in. Mary gives me the lowdown on each, one by one, like a runway show. The research assistant is a Russian guy who was working as a nuclear physicist until he found that he could make more money doing grunt work for American journalists. There is a ?ftysomething British camera operator who has seen too many wars and drunk too many drinks to forget them, the audio technician who really wants to be a tape editor, and an old BBC tape editor who recently married a Russian woman half his age. And there is the rotating pool of three desk editors, Mary included. A brand-spanking new correspondent, Douglas Marshall, and a new bureau chief, Sylvia Smith, are starting fresh with me.

We gather in Sylvia's of?ce, piling onto the couch, squatting on the carpet.

To welcome the new team the network sent over one of its Emmy-laden veteran correspondents, a guy who was based in Moscow for a few years at about the time the cold war was ending. Mr. Emmy sits down in the large leather recliner opposite Sylvia's desk. She fawns on him, offering tea, then coffee. He declines, explaining that he outdid himself at breakfast. She laughs and they compare notes about overdone eggs and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The rest of us squirm, cramped in our seats.

We are waiting for Marshall. His new car hasn't been cleared by customs yet, so one of the bureau's drivers had to go pick him up.

"Where did they house him?" I ask no one in particular.

"Oh," the researcher-scientist says in a perfectly accented but disparaging tone, "the correspondent's apartment is in the CNN complex. On Kutuzovsky."

"Nice," I say. Kutuzovsky Prospect is a ?ve-minute walk away, just past the new McDonald's.

"Where are you living?" Mary asks me.

"Next to the zoo, on Krasnya Presnya"

"No, shit."

She says we are neighbors, that she lives on the other side of the prosecutor's of?ce.

"Oh, I think I know where that is," says Sylvia. "I just bought some kitty litter at that supermarket across the street."

"The Su-pier Mark-yet," I say, mimicking the large transliterated Cyrillic sign I noticed this morning.

"Exactly."

We are all gregarious. On good behavior.

"No more universams anymore, huh?" laughs Mr. Emmy, misusing the old Soviet word for large department stores. He leans over and taps me lightly on my stocking-covered knee.

"Oh, it's a regular Wal-Mart I've got on my block, honey," I say, exaggeratedly batting my eyelashes. He laughs again, and I relax into the couch. We banter some more. Mr. Emmy asks about my ring. I say I am engaged. They all say they know Kevin's name from his bylines.

"I'll bet he's got some good connections," says Sylvia.

"His connections are all mine," I say, emphasizing the all. I smile.

"Who's got the connections?" The question resonates around the room, but it emanates from the chisel-chinned man walking in the door. His voice has that deep broadcast timbre, and his head has that perfect broadcast hair, with just enough gray to garner respect.

"Hello, everybody," he says to nobody, pale blue eyes scanning the room.

"Doug!" Sylvia jumps up. "We were beginning to get worried."

He ignores her and takes the seat that the researcher has vacated for him.

"This is Douglas Marshall," Sylvia says, even though we already know. She points her ?nger at each of us, reciting fractured but embellished biographies as she circles the group. When the greetings subside, she runs through a well-practiced monologue about her vision for the bureau and the network's enthusiasm for all the fresh blood.

We talk story ideas. I list mine (and Kevin's). Mr. Emmy picks at his ?ngernails.

"These are great ideas, Jen." He says this without one drop of enthusiasm.

"But?"

"But they will never ?y with New York."

"Oh, come on," says Marshall, coming to my rescue. "Those are fabulous ideas. I love the one about the off-shore money in Cyprus. What elements do you have for that?"

"Look," says Mr. Emmy before I can answer. "These are important and interesting stories but they aren't clichés. As much as I hate to say it, after almost 25 years at the networks, I have learned the hard way that our job is to perpetuate the clichés."

I am silent.

"Don't tell anyone I ever said that," he adds with a nervous laugh.

Jennifer Cohen is a producer for CBS News and The Early Show. This is excerpted from Lying Together: My Russian Affair, by Jennifer Cohen. Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Cohen and published by The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin. Excerpted with the permission of the author and publisher. You can buy this book at Amazon.com.



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