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.