Hans-Wilhelm Steinfeld tells his story
This is Hans-Wilhelm Steinfeld
Lives: Holmenkollen, Oslo
Family: Married to Julia Ferkis, four children, four grandchildren
Education: Cand. philol. (History, Russian, and Civics)
Occupation: Journalist, correspondent, author, lecturer, and partner in a corporate communications firm.
Career: Has covered ten civil wars and spent 19 years as Norway’s NRK correspondent in Russia. More than 80 interviews in total with former Russian presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Has authored twelve books and received six awards for journalism.
Reporting from Moscow, Hans-Wilhelm Steinfeld narrated the fall of the Iron Curtain. He spoke of glasnost. He was in the Russian White House during the coup against Gorbachev. He spoke with Boris Yeltsin in private. He was served coffee by Putin, when Russia’s president was just an assistant to the mayor of St. Petersburg. The man in the Loden coat who hails from Bergen really was on the scene when it mattered.
This winter, his 19 years and four NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) stints in Moscow have become a part of history, with no live images or dramatic commentary. Steinfeld will not return. He resigned when he was not given a fifth assignment in Russia and has turned down an offer for his own TV show. Now, between lectures and consulting assignments throughout Norway, he enjoys a bit of cod in Oslo. He will only be going back to Russia in the summer, as a tour guide.
“Do I have withdrawal symptoms from the news? Not at all. I have passed the point of no return. I’m done with reporting.”
At junior high school, Steinfeld received a low grade in conduct, but at university he took top honors in Russian and History. While working on his thesis, he studied at Moscow State University and visited the North Caucasus. There he met a very nice tractor driver who would become a lifelong acquaintance: Mikhail Gorbachev. Steinfeld had a flair for the language and over the next few years he would make good use of both this and his college buddies from Moscow.
Proud of his Jewish heritage
Steinfeld had chosen his educational path for an important reason, one that many are unaware of: the tragic story of his own family during the Second World War. His great-grandfather, Moses Steinfeld, was a Jew who fled from Latvian Liepaja, then in the Soviet Union. Half of Steinfeld’s father’s family died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Steinfeld’s own father was tortured nearly to death by the Gestapo. As a 17-year-old, Hans-Wilhelm Steinfeld saw for himself the terrible consequences: KZ syndrome, “the enduring personality change after a catastrophic experience,” as psychiatrist Leo Eitinger put it.
“In 1968, my father shouted to my mother: ‘Don’t get in the car! The Gestapo has put poison darts in there!’”
His father, who survived the concentration camps, suffered these kinds of attacks four times. Steinfeld’s voice is much quieter when describing the private family drama. “It was hard to see a man of 1.87 meters collapse because of things that had happened 25 years earlier. The fate of my father and the rest of the Steinfeld family has made an impression on me and prompted my lifelong interest in the study of dictatorship. I’m fascinated by dictatorship and totalitarian attitudes. What is it that causes people to hate so much that they commit completely insane acts?”
Have you ever wanted to hide your Jewish background? “No, but in 1987 I turned down the post of Beirut correspondent, because that was when they had started taking hostages down there. I’m not Jewish – my mother is Norwegian – but the surname Steinfeld is Jewish and I didn’t want to expose myself to danger. But I have always talked about my father’s side of the family and I’m very proud of it.”
“Knowledge is the key to everything”
His tough, weather-beaten face looks like it has been chiseled from the very granite of Western Norway. He is as rugged as a Russian brown bear, built for ice swimming in the Moscow River, vodka in his tea, and long winters in Siberia. When he was first sent to the Soviet Union, in the days of Brezhnev, he had to shoulder responsibility for an area spanning eleven time zones and covering one-sixth of the Earth’s surface. He quickly learned creative ways of working, established contacts, found the loopholes and positions – and the right buttons to push in the Kremlin.
“Knowledge is the key to everything. I spent a lot of time reading and familiarizing myself with the routines and practices.”
The Cold War was a harsh reality and his biggest shock came in 1984. The Izvestia newspaper printed a double-page spread accusing Steinfeld of being a recruitment agent for the CIA. “Who are you, Mr. Steinfeld?” was the title. The article came in the wake of the arrest of Arne Treholt and Norway’s expulsion of Russians. “It was all very dramatic, but I was never deported because I had a trick up my sleeve: I had taken out an insurance policy against political expulsion with Lloyd’s of London. I was afraid of being pressured, had young children, and wanted to come home with some money in my pocket. Under the terms of the insurance, I would have gotten a million kroner from Lloyd’s had I been expelled. I made sure to give a copy of the insurance policy to an old acquaintance whose father was a general in the KGB,” says Steinfeld.
The most important interview of his life took place on October 3, 1989. Steinfeld’s Hungarian wife, Julia, was heavily pregnant and at home in Oslo with their two-year-old daughter. She could have gone into labor at any time. In the Kremlin, Moscow, a Norwegian-owned BMW slipped past security. The guards knew the driver and let Steinfeld drive his own car into the palace. The head of the Soviet Government, Nikolai Ryzhkov, gave him 30 minutes. The NRK correspondent asked, “Yesterday there were tens of thousands on the streets of Dresden and Leipzig calling for freedom, perestroika, and Gorbachev. Is that not an uncomfortable thing for you to embrace?”
Ryzhkov smiled and said, “No. Here at the Kremlin we know exactly what we are doing. And if our efforts are in harmony with the hopes of other nations, we cannot call that uncomfortable.”
“A shiver ran down my spine when I realized what I had gotten on tape. It was the most important interview of my career,” Steinfeld says today.
The interview helped strengthen the impression across the whole of Eastern Europe that President Mikhail Gorbachev was serious about both glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). In a way, it fanned the flames.
Following the interview, Steinfeld flew Moscow- Bratislava-Prague. At 10pm that evening, the authorities in Prague opened the borders, allowing thousands of East German citizens to take the train to West Germany, leaving their Trabants on the back streets of Mala Strana in Prague, where the embassies of the United States and West Germany were located.
In the days that followed, as demonstrations for democracy grew, Peter Steinfeld was born into a new Europe on October 13, 1989. Four weeks later the Berlin Wall fell.
Encounters with Gorbachev
But the drama in the Soviet Union was not over. On June 6, 1991, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, Francis Sejersted of the Nobel Committee and Steinfeld were waiting for the world’s most popular politician. President Mikhail Gorbachev would deliver a thank you speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded the year before, but had not dared to travel to receive. Steinfeld had been awake since 5am and the BBC was reporting that Soviet tanks had surrounded the parliament building in Vilnius.
“I wasn’t quite myself. My ulcer was playing up. But I knew I had to confront Gorbachev. When I asked him to comment on the tanks, he looked at me as if I had hit him across the face with a dirty wet washcloth. He finished brusquely before walking past me. I think he was shocked.”
Two and a half months later came the attempted coup d’état against Gorbachev, who had gone on vacation, and wasn’t due to return until August 20, when a new agreement on the Soviet Union was to be signed. Perestroika wasn’t working, there were food shortages, and Boris Yeltsin was increasingly popular. Those behind the coup believed this would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and went to Gorbachev, demanding he declare a state of emergency or resign. When he refused, they placed him under house arrest.
“I flew in to Moscow on the morning of the 19th of August, spending the night of August 20th at The White House.”
Steinfeld knew that the KGB had cut off power to the building, so he sat in the darkened office of the Chairman of the Russian Parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, while Yeltsin slept.
“There were candles everywhere, like at a hippie party. In one of those long corridors sat an old man with a young partisan sleeping on his shoulder. It was the worldfamous cellist Rostropovich. I was with Russian TV journalist Vladimir Moltchanov. At 3:30 in the morning we were to wake up Yeltsin. The KGB had shut everything down. We couldn’t broadcast on TV, but Moltchanov kept filming the entire time. “Why are you filming?” I asked. “For the future,” he said. “We walked through the candlelit corridors on the day the coup collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of people had begun to gather outside the Russian White House, acting as human shields.”
Steinfeld was allowed two minutes with Yeltsin. Turning away after the interview, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Yeltsin, who had one more thing to say, “Only through broadcasts such as yours can we reach Gorbachev sitting in captivity in Crimea and tell the Western world that this is a struggle for freedom.”
“I knew that the KGB had forgotten the underground cable from the office to YLE, the Finnish TV broadcaster in Helsinki. An hour later my interview with Yeltsin went out on the BBC World Service.
Before that, no one had known what was happening in the Russian White House. It was indeed a coup d’état.”
When Gorbachev returned to Moscow on his release two days later, and those behind the coup had been arrested, he told Yeltsin that his bodyguards had managed to put together a crystal set, allowing him to hear the interview.
The most fearful moment
Steinfeld has called himself “a traveler through death and depravity.” When not working, he has sought refuge with his family in the calm surroundings of Borre, Norway, and at his wife’s cottage in Hungary.
On December 23, 2004, as he left work, he told colleagues that he was treating his family to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean for Christmas. For the first time in a long time, he was going to have a long vacation with his wife Julia, and their two youngest children. The in-flight movie to Thailand was The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster movie about the polar ice caps melting and the disruption of ocean currents.
On Boxing Day, in the middle of their hotel breakfast, they heard what sounded like 20 diesel buses running without a muffler.
As the gray, rumbling wall of water came ever closer, Steinfeld roared, “Run for your life!” He saw an alleyway fifteen meters above beach level and pushed his wife and children towards it. He knew nothing about tsunamis – but he did know they had to get to higher ground.
Only once he and his family were safely on higher ground did Steinfeld borrow a cellphone and place a call to NRK. He asked for information but his colleagues knew even less than he did. As another tsunami alarm went off, NRK news program Dagsrevyen called, asking him to report.
“I can hear that you’re out of breath, should we wait?” asked presenter Jon Gelius.
“No, do the recording while we’re still alive,” said Steinfeld. The voice was hoarse and unfamiliar.
Never before had Steinfeld been as afraid as he was at that moment, especially for his beloved family. And never had he been more lucky. The family returned home, all present and accounted for, with just a few cuts and bruises from the thorny undergrowth in the jungle.
“A cat has nine lives. I’ve used eight of my mine in the service of NRK. The last life is reserved for Julia, my children, and my grandchildren, the cottage, and a normal life.”
Text: Kristin M. Hauge Photos by Geir Dokken