NEW YORK >> Born in a Japanese fishing village just after his refugee family landed there in a desperate 1919 escape from Russia’s Bolshevik revolution, Roy Essoyan arrived in the Soviet Union nearly four decades later as an American journalist.
But after three years of hobnobbing with Premier Nikita Khrushchev and other communist leaders, The Associated Press reporter’s Cold War adventure ended abruptly. In 1958, he was expelled for reporting that a serious breach had developed between the USSR and Mao Zedong’s China.
The foreign ministry called it “a rude violation of Soviet censorship,” but Essoyan had exposed what became known in diplomatic parlance as the “Sino-Soviet split” — and earned himself a one-way ticket out of Moscow.
From Hong Kong, a pulsating world away from the dreary Soviet capital, Essoyan continued a career that took him around the globe, with stops in Cairo, Beirut and finally, Tokyo.
In 1985, he retired to Hawaii, where he died Thursday at age 92.
Born Karekin Essoyan, he was the youngest child of Armenian parents who, in fleeing from Vladivostok as the communist-led upheaval gripped Russia, became part of that ethnic nationality’s 20th century diaspora.
Stateless when they reached the coastal fishing town of Tsuruga, where Roy was born, the family found Japan welcoming to foreigners — but destined to become less so as war-fevered militarist factions gained influence and power.
After starting a new life in the city of Kobe, the Essoyans moved in 1932 to Shanghai, which offered its own business opportunities. They were there when the Japanese took over half of the city in 1937.
Roy had aspired to be a journalist even before graduating from Shanghai’s Public & Thomas Hanbury School in 1936. “I always wanted to write,” he said in a 2002 interview. “I thought I had a flair with things like essays and what not.”
When Shanghai’s English-language newspapers refused to hire him as a cub reporter, the 17-year-old shipped out on a Danish freighter, the Peter Maersk, and spent the next year and a half at sea.
Essoyan’s daughter, Susan, said “the ship’s captain found his given name, Karekin, too difficult and asked, ‘What do I yell when I need you?’ They settled on Roy, which later became his byline.”
Returning to Shanghai in 1939, Essoyan and a friend teamed up to publish small newsmagazines, and he was working as an editor for the English-language Shanghai Times when World War II finally reached Asia in late 1941, trapping many foreigners in China.
Essoyan had been married on Dec. 5, 1941, and when the newspaper called him to work on Dec. 8, saying war had begun, he hung up the phone.
“I thought they were being funny,” he recalled. “And sure enough, I went out on the street and Japanese soldiers were everywhere. … Overnight they had effectively completed the whole takeover by commandeering utilities and power companies, the telephone company, the radio stations.”
Life became hard during the occupation. Roy’s older brother was killed by a hit-and-run Japanese army truck, and the Essoyans found that being stateless did not protect them from the harsh treatment endured by citizens of western countries living in Shanghai’s famous International Settlement.
“It was better to have a government standing up for you,” Essoyan said in the 2002 interview.
As the conflict ended in 1945, Roy, then 26, got a $90 a month job with the AP in Shanghai, and impressed his boss enough to be offered a visa and assignment to Hawaii. There, he became a U.S. citizen and burnished his English, his third language after Russian and Japanese.
He also lost his wife, Sadie, and a son, Daniel, to illness.
In 1953, he married Betsey Biggs, a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He is survived by Biggs; daughters Susan and Catherine; two sons, David and Stephen; and nine grandchildren.
After a steady news diet of Hawaiian volcanoes and VIP visits to the islands, the Russian-speaking Essoyan was tapped in 1955 — the height of the Cold War — to join AP’s Moscow bureau. Years later, he recalled how foreign correspondents were forced to live in state-assigned apartments where elevators took passengers up but not down, and government eavesdropping was so pervasive that “even the lampshades were bugged.”
Denied contact with ordinary Russians, reporters scoured propaganda-laden newspapers and official pronouncements for nuggets of news and never missed diplomatic receptions where Soviet officials might turn up. But everything was subject to strict and sometimes arbitrary censorship.
In 1958, Essoyan slipped past the censors a “news analysis” saying Khrushchev and Mao Zedong were secretly but sharply at odds over Mao’s refusal to agree to an international summit meeting unless his Communist regime replaced Nationalist China as Beijing’s representative.
Essoyan had been warned twice by Soviet censors, but his expulsion from Moscow — a distinction regarded by many Western journalists as a badge of honor — was likely assured when the influential Washington-based columnist Joseph Alsop singled him out for praise.
“If the Russian censors have permitted Essoyan to say that Nikita Khrushchev has suffered a public setback, then Nikita is out,” Alsop told his readers.
That wasn’t what happened, Essoyan noted later. The censors had not approved his story, and Khrushchev was not out. Essoyan was.
Being banished from Moscow, however, did not end his interaction with Soviet officials. During a visit to Indonesia years later, Khrushchev spotted a familiar face — Essoyan’s — among the press, and to the dismay of other reporters, invited the American to join him for a private talk.
As they chatted in Russian, Khrushchev made a sneering comment about Essoyan’s baseball cap: “Why do you wear those silly beanies?”
Essoyan responded by playfully sticking the cap on the Soviet leader’s head — a moment captured by photographers.
Based in Hong Kong after leaving Moscow, Essoyan helped the AP cover the early days of the Vietnam War, accompanying South Vietnamese troops and their U.S. advisers on helicopter-borne operations. Essoyan described one such mission as “gamesmanship, beautifully orchestrated and achieving absolutely nothing because the Viet Cong knew what was happening, the (South) Vietnamese didn’t want bloodshed. I wrote a lovely, long story, which ended by saying, ‘As we flew away, the flag of South Vietnam was flying, but tomorrow morning the communists would be back.’ And this is what happened … most of the time.”
After a brief stint in Cairo, Essoyan was named the AP’s chief of Middle East operations in Beirut in 1965 and became its chief of North Asia services, based in Tokyo, in 1973 — coming full circle to the land of his birth.
Colleagues admired Essoyan as a plain-speaking, old-school professional with a lively sense of humor but always ready to battle with editors in New York, where the news cooperative is headquartered, when he deemed it necessary.
Harry Koundakjian, a fellow Armenian in Beirut who later photographed Lebanon’s civil war for the AP, recalled that New York chiefs had ordered Essoyan to “fire Harry” after his photos from earthquake-ravaged Iran showed up only in Life magazine.
“Roy answered back, saying I was only a stringer, and AP’s New York and London photo desks had earlier rejected my photos. Then came another message: ‘Hire Harry.”’
James Abrams, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who joined the AP in Tokyo in 1979, recalled Essoyan as “everyone’s mentor” in a bureau stocked with legendary AP veterans and ambitious newcomers.
“Everyone, from the uptight Japanese newspaper executives who loved his company, to the young Japanese and American reporters who learned from him, were infected by his hearty laugh and buoyant take on life,” said Abrams, a longtime member of the AP’s staff in Washington.
In interviews after retiring, Essoyan offered a nostalgic view of the fast-paced, demanding craft of wire service reporting.
“It was a great life, 40 years of expenses-paid vacation,” he told one interviewer. “Think of all the places that people want to go to, whether it’s the Pyramids or the Sphinx or the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal, I’ve been there.
“We used to say, ‘How else do you get to talk to kings and emperors and presidents and prime ministers?’
“The AP was more than a family to me,” Essoyan said. “It was like a nationality.”
Richard Pyle is a former foreign correspondent who spent seven years in Tokyo as AP’s Asia News Editor.