In The Red Hotel, journalist Alan Philps uses the celebrated Metropol Hotel in Moscow as the theme around which to centre the history of Soviet propaganda in the Second World War. He illustrates the unceasing efforts of journalists, diplomats, and Soviet dissidents living and working at the Metropol to reveal the truth about Stalin’s Russia in wartime. While Philps largely succeeds where his subjects failed in piercing the curtain of propaganda, the book avoids drawing concrete lessons from the Metropol for modern journalists and diplomats in dealing with the Russian propaganda system today. 

Philps assembles a significant ensemble cast of western journalists and diplomats, and Soviet translators, spies and informants who lived at the Metropol. He employs a novelist’s eye for detail – never missing an opportunity to describe the piles of caviar on display, the vodka and whisky-soaked escapades, and the devastating poverty surrounding the Metropol – as well as an intimate understanding of the internal motivations of a wide cast of characters. Westerners and Russians from across the political spectrum make an appear-ance, from communists who become disillusioned after seeing the Soviet system up close, to Soviet dissidents and true believers. The Metropol Hotel itself is described lovingly through-out the book, although about half the chapters take the reader beyond its walls to investigate the backstories of its residents and the repressive tactics of the Soviet regime. 

In Philps’ book, it appears Canadians had very little to do with the day-to-day activities at the Metropol. Lord Beaverbrook makes a brief appearance at a Kremlin party, in his role as the British Minister of Supply, and an unnamed Canadian “diplomatic couple” have a tipsy, but revealing conversation with a general renowned for defending Stalingrad, until another comrade sobers the general with a word and cuts the conversation short. The Metropol cast are overwhelmingly Americans, Brits, Australians, and Russians. 

The book is striking in how it portrays the porous boundaries between the worlds of diplomacy and media, and the underground domain of espionage. On the Soviet side, almost all the translators and interpreters working for western journalists hailed from Soviet security services, or were coerced into becoming informants. On the western side, the reader becomes accustomed to the seemingly common career path from espionage agencies to foreign correspondent, and vice versa. While these truths may not be surprising for the amateur Cold War historian or an aficionado of le Carré, they are intriguing for showing how restricted the diplomatic world has become since the Second World War. 

Diplomacy during crisis is a key theme in the book, which recounts the negotiations to obtain visas to both enter and leave Russia, some of the daily work of running an embassy during wartime, and the various ambassadors’ efforts to protect and open doors for the journalists, even across national lines. The book also covers the significant stress that could arise from the diplomat-journalist relationship, in particular detailing the pains lavished on the American ambassador after he rashly extended an invitation to Moscow to a New York model and socialite wanting to try her hand at journalism. Nothing the ambassador could do or say could compel the blossoming correspondent to leave Moscow, resulting ultimately in their simultaneous departure, clouded by scandal (p. 263). 

Until the end of the book, Philps makes limited references to modern Russian propaganda. He does not draw direct comparisons between Soviet tactics – such as the use of battlefield visits or the bold denial and fabrication of evidence relating to atrocities, like the Katyn massacre (p. 265) – with the techniques used by the Kremlin in the 21st century. There is one notable exception where he alludes to Russian propagandists alleging that the United States used biological weapons in the Korean War; a familiar refrain used incessantly by the Kremlin today in their efforts to rationalize the invasion of Ukraine. 

In no uncertain terms, the Metropol media corps was unsuccessful in their venture to present a true portrait of Russian life under Stalin and during wartime. Kremlin officials, intent on maintaining complete control of what was published in Russia and by foreigners about Russia, rarely relaxed the censorship strictures enough for any meaningful disclosure; and, western diplomats consistently complained the reporting from the Metropol was too friendly and untrustworthy. 

The book succeeds greatly at unearthing the fleeting moments of resistance, a glimpse through the cracks of propaganda where the light shines in. Unfortunately, even when soldiers and citizens risked their reputations and livelihoods to share an honest word, nothing could guarantee that a journalist would print it, or that it could make it past the domineering pens of the censors. In one revealing episode, even the BBC balked at airing any negative first-hand accounts of the average Soviet experience (pp. 318–319); such was the pressure to keep up appearances about the West’s relationship with Uncle Joe. 

Philps offers very little in terms of tangible lessons for journalists or diplomats in dealing with modern Russian propaganda. He relies on a wealth of firsthand accounts from the journalists and translators themselves, as well as western archival sources to tell the stories of the Metropol. But without providing his own theory on what this means for the modern reader, diplomat, or journalist, too often the book feels like a simple compendium of stories and events that others have already put down in print, with the occasional newly-uncovered detail. 

In the face of this absence, I propose the key lesson for diplomats and journalists is to always be on the lookout for those dissident voices, clamouring to break through the regimes of control and censorship. These voices will exist in any conflict, and under any oppression, we need only listen for them carefully.


The Red Hotel:
Moscow 1941, the Metropol Hotel, and

the Untold Story of Stalin’s Propaganda War



PEGASUS BOOKS, JULY 2023, 464 pp, $39.95

ISBN 9781639364275



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