The Decatur-Moscow Road

Decatur, Illinois, stands beside Russia in the big picture of possibly one person on earth. That’s Steve Hurst, who knows each place so intimately he can identify it with a great love of his life. “Russia’s problems are eminently solvable. As are Decatur’s,” he says. “But I guess the worrisome thing on both fronts–if you want to draw comparisons, which I wouldn’t–is that I don’t necessarily see a plan for either that is in place.”

Not in place at the scene, or not in place in Washington? I wondered.

“Either,” says Hurst.

Hurst knows Washington too. If Decatur is his hometown and Moscow the city that haunts him, Washington helped him decide to leave journalism. At an early age he was the city editor of the Decatur Herald & Review, then moved on to the AP, which sent him to Moscow in 1979, then to NBC and to CNN, for which he covered the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993 CNN rotated him to Washington, and last year Hurst retired at 52. “I think there are Washington journalists, and then there are other journalists,” he says. “And I think I’m certainly the other. I’m certainly a Moscow journalist. I’d go back in a second if I could find the right kind of job.”

Hurst felt a lot more optimistic about the future of Russia when he left it than he does now. “A lot of very wise people who studied political systems kept saying that Russia’s big problem was that there were too many parties, too many political factions, and I think I ignored that. A great deal of Russia’s problem right now is that it can’t get anywhere because there are too many people fighting over too small a pie.

“Russia is still enormously armed. It is a place made up of an incredible number of splinter nationalities. I think it is ripe for civil war or civil disturbances, and at the very least you’re going to see an enormous outflowing of people trying to get away from the disturbances. Kosovo’s a cakewalk compared to the same kind of conflict if it erupts in an enormous and powerful country like Russia.

“The other possibilities are that the technology Russians have gets into what we’d call the wrong hands. They have an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials and, I’d assume, bacterial and biological weapons, chemical weapons. All of those things can certainly find themselves spreading throughout the world. I’m not a doomsday scenarist, so I can’t even think the worst. But certainly the potential’s there for a lot of nasty stuff.”

In its small-potatoes way, Decatur made its own headlines in the 90s. There were the Caterpillar and Bridgestone/Firestone strikes, the A.E. Staley lockout, the legal turmoil at Archer Daniels Midland. Hurst’s wife, a college writing teacher, tells me Decatur is their “touchstone” and that he came home to it after Washington to work with his hands remodeling houses–“It was extremely therapeutic to do something physical.” Hurst says he discovered Decatur to be “a good place to really get into the belly of American society again. It isn’t Chicago, New York, or Washington, or even a Cincinnati. Sadly for Decatur, I see it as one of those places that exhibit some of the greatest problems in American society today. It has a small college in it. It has an agricultural base. It has an incredibly large industrial base that got grabbed up in rust-belt problems. It has all the social ills. It’s routinely had some of the highest unemployment in Illinois and problems of crime. It’s kind of a last bastion of old-labor-style unionism.”

But for all Decatur’s woes, the interstate connects it to Springfield, Urbana, and the rest of America. “Russia’s a place where there is not even a very good road between Moscow and Saint Petersburg,” Hurst says.

When he thinks about Decatur or Russia, he wonders about America. He’s not sure there’s enough national will anymore to lift a finger on behalf of either. “I was overseas essentially from ’79 to ’93, and it seems to me that a country that was already very diverse has become even more splintered. There seems to be less of a center,” he says. In Moscow he always tried to answer the question, why does this matter? But when CNN brought him back to cover the State Department, he discovered that context was out of fashion. “That wasn’t what the game was all about. The game was more about who could be first with the latest little twitch inside Washington.”

Without a context of national interest to consider it in, why should Americans care about the fate of Russia? “Coming back, I could see a very definite lessening of interest in things happening abroad. Maybe because the cold war is over, people think it’s not as dramatic or dangerous out there. I contend that things are more dangerous, while somewhat less dramatically dangerous. There probably is a national absence of understanding about things like Serbia and Kosovo. Racial and perhaps religious hatreds are very broadly drawn in this country. Race relations are black as opposed to white and, depending on where you live, perhaps Hispanic. I don’t think anyone in this country, unless they’re a fairly raw immigrant, can really understand the kind of animosity that exists in places like Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Chechnya. Not understanding them, I don’t think we can make very good national judgments about them.

“I think we’ve muffed a golden opportunity to do a good deal more for Russia. I recently gave a speech in which I–and I’m certainly not alone in this–called on the United States and western Europe to develop some sort of Marshall Plan for Russia, because the stakes are at least as high in Russia now as they were for the United States and western Europe after World War II. We’re playing the wrong kind of game. If you tell us you’re working toward a market economy and democracy, according to our definition of the terms, we’ll give you little handouts. It’s not going to work that way. Russian history is too dramatically different for that to work. And I’m not so certain that our contention that market economies and democracies are the one-two punch of a better world–”

Is a very smart contention?

“I can’t imagine that it is. To think that because you apply market capitalism as we understand it and the rules of democracy as we understand them to Russia, and that you’ll turn around and find out it’s France, or Germany, or England, is a ridiculous assumption. But it’s the assumption on which our policy is based.”

In 1989 Hurst was CNN’s Moscow bureau chief and Claire Shipman, 16 years younger, arrived as an unpaid intern. For a very brief time he questioned her competence. They married in an Orthodox church in 1991 and–as People would tell the story four years later–came back from a quick honeymoon on the Black Sea to cover the August coup attempt that Boris Yeltsin would foil by barricading himself inside the Russian parliament building. Shipman put on a bulletproof vest and talked her way into where Yeltsin was, while Hurst, worried sick by rumors the army intended to attack the building, was outside commanding CNN’s coverage. In Hemingway’s phrase, that was life lived all the way up. “I miss it horribly,” he told People from vapid Washington. “When we left, Gorbachev called us in to say good-bye and gave us each a bear hug. It’s that kind of place.”

But back in the dull, ahistorical United States the marriage didn’t keep. Hurst and Shipman split, and in 1996 he remarried Kathy Beaman, his high school sweetheart who’d left him in Moscow in 1990 and gone home to Illinois with their three kids. Had Hurst and Shipman (who now covers the White House for NBC) fallen as much in love with the moment as with each other? “I don’t have an answer on that,” says Hurst. “Having no answer, I just can’t give you one. Obviously it was a large mistake to have ended my marriage to Kathy in the first place.”

After Washington, why Decatur?

“I think basically I put myself in kind of a self-imposed period of reflection,” he says, “and I did it in my hometown because of it being my hometown.” The period’s over. He’s starting a book on his years in Russia, he’s thinking of getting back into print journalism, and he and Kathy now live in Vermont. “We’ve taken a year to ponder and think, and part of the result of our pondering and thinking is that there’s probably a better place for us to be right now than Decatur.”

While they were there he and Kathy remodeled two houses. They rebuilt the first just the way they wanted it–first-class all the way–and no one bought it. It turned out there’s no market in Decatur for the kind of houses they wanted to do. The second one, they slapped some plastic siding over 75-year-old shingles and sold it immediately. “With all of the business acumen a journalist has, you can imagine the smashing success we’ve had,” says Hurst. “If you took all of the journalists in the world and put them together they couldn’t run a popcorn stand successfully.”

News Bites

There’s something otherworldly about press codes written to guarantee the rights of high school newspapers. Whatever the law says, free expression won’t flourish under either a publisher or a principal who has no use for it. Fortunately, some educators genuinely believe that introducing students to liberty is as important as introducing them to Shakespeare. Student newspapers at these schools tend to offer more high-spirited self-indulgence than excellence, but then everyone’s growing up.

Editors of the Weekly at Francis W. Parker School are given enough rope to hang themselves, and they often do. But this past year it was the best high school paper I’ve ever read. For a change it had bosses–Sarah Duncan, John Raskin, and Lexi Weintraub–who sweated details. They rewrote and proofread obsessively, producing the editorial equivalent of a sound mind in a sound body. But the Weekly was often as witty as it was meticulous, and the graduation issue was four sections long. The acid test was the mass arrest of students for under-age drinking at the spring-musical cast party in the backyard of the student-government president; it was an event noted in both Chicago dailies and it prompted urgent institutional soul-searching. Duncan’s long, careful article illuminated a subject many student papers would never have been allowed to touch.

Is anyone serious ever? I just thumbed through a stack of Brill’s Content on my desk. Here are the last four covers of the dashing young journal that bills itself as “the independent voice of the information age.”

March: “JFK Jr. gets personal with George.” April: “Head to Head [Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric] Their fight for your morning.” May: “GOSSIP–How the World’s Hottest Gossip Column Really Works.” June: “Op-Ed Vixen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matthew Thorsen.