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Veteran journalist made his mark across the globe

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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.

Roy Essoyan:
In 1958 he broke the
news of a rift between
the Soviet Union and
China, and was ex-
pelled from the USSR
for the “rude violation”
of censorship

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.

Star-Advertiser writer Susan Essoyan said her father wrapped up his turbulent, exciting life with gratitude.

“As he was slipping away from this world, his last words seem so fitting. They were, ‘Thank you very much.’”

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.

Roy Essoyan 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 whatnot.”

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.

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.”

As the conflict ended in 1945, Essoyan, 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. 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.

In 1958 he slipped past the Soviet 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.

He was banished from Moscow, but 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.

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.

Jim Becker, an AP veteran who worked closely with Essoyan in Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Hawaii, described his colleague as a fascinating and wonderful man with a wealth of experience.

The two worked together as the only staff of Hawaii’s AP bureau in the ’50s and covered its run up to statehood, and by coincidence both wound up retiring in the Aloha State, Becker said.

“He was a gentleman,” Becker, 85, said. “He never did a mean or dishonest thing in his entire life. I’m proud to have known him and to have worked with him all those years.”

Susan Essoyan said the same of her father’s character.

“The news world isn’t known for its gentility,” she said. “My father was a genuine gentleman. I remember his advice when I became a reporter. He told me that if I ever found myself acting tough to keep up with the competition, it was time to get out of the business.”

Star-Advertiser staff writer Sarah Zoellick contributed to this report. Richard Pyle is a former foreign correspondent who spent seven years in Tokyo as AP’s Asia news editor.

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