By Anna Schuessler
Daily Journal staff
After decades of writing as a professional journalist, Belmont resident and former managing editor of the San Mateo Times Michelle Carter has chosen to turn her focus toward a source with whom she was less familiar as she puts the finishing touches on her soon-to-be-released memoir: herself.
Having covered everything from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to the effects of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl, Russia, the 72-year-old Carter has become a storied journalist. Her knack for writing and sense for asking questions even led her to take on a one-year fellowship with the United States Information Agency that sent her to Russia in 1995 to advise editors in the former Soviet Union as they grappled with concepts such as freedom of press and the free market for the first time.
But writing and reflecting on her personal experience — the thoughts, writing and feelings forming during that year and in those that followed — is a different beast for Carter.
“A memoir is a bit like dancing naked in the streets,” she said. “You can’t hold up any veils.”
Titled “From Under the Russian Snow,” the memoir has allowed Carter to face the professional and personal changes that transpired that year — including the unexpected death of her husband just before they were to reunite in Europe — more than 20 years later. She said she used weekly “slice of life” columns she filed for the San Mateo Times that year to trigger memories of that year, including where she was sitting in her Moscow apartment or in one of the more than 25 cities she visited while there as she wrote them.
“A lot of the book is re-creation of place,” she said. “If I have succeeded, my readers will have that sense of place.”
Reflecting on the time she spent helping Russian editors with every aspect of operating a newspaper, including everything from design and layout to advertising sales, has brought Carter back to what she calls the “post-Soviet, pre-Putin bubble of freedom” many believed would prevail for years to come.
“At the time, there was incredible hope,” she said.
Carter believes her biggest contribution that year was cross-pollinating methods and concepts between publications across the vast country. Though her 28 years of experience at a small daily newspaper equipped her with countless relevant experiences to share with editors revamping or just starting their publications, Carter said she was careful not to impress American notions of the freedom of press on her Russian colleagues.
“In Russia, they had no such protections,” she said, adding that libel laws in Russia have tended to favor public officials instead of private citizens.
Though Carter has had an interest in Russia since she studied the language in high school and college, her affinity for the country’s rich history and culture had been gaining momentum in the years leading up to her fellowship. A cultural exchange between her church, the Congregational Church of Belmont, and the Soviet Peace Committee, sent her on her first trip to the country in 1988. When she visited again in 1990, she said she could see the wheels coming off the Soviet Union, which would dissolve in 1991.
The instinct to share the cultural revolution she was witnessing with the world around kicked in for Carter, who quickly formed several close friendships with Russian citizens and began visiting the country two to three times a year to stay abreast of the changes the country was experiencing.
“I was reporting all the time,” she said. “This was an opportunity most people didn’t have.”
Her first book, “Children of Chernobyl: Raising Hope From the Ashes,” was spawned from these trips, several of which involved visiting a doctor treating young leukemia patients affected by the nuclear disaster Chernobyl. So when the opportunity to spend a year in the country as a journalist-in-residence for the United States Information Agency arose for Carter in 1994, her husband, Laurence Carter, urged her to take it. With two adult children and a long-term project with Del Monte Corporation that would take Laurence Carter to Stockton during weekdays, Carter decided to go for it.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘At 50 years old, can I still have a great adventure?’” she said.
Though Michelle Carter and Laurence Carter had planned on reuniting in August — some eight months after she began her fellowship — for a trip to Barcelona, Laurence Carter died unexpectedly. Stunned by the news, Michelle Carter reconsidered finishing the fellowship to allow herself time to grieve. She opted to continue her work in Russia believing she would process her grief no matter where she was, but she found her return to California after the fellowship had ended to be challenging.
“It was though all my grief was neatly stacked waiting for me,” she said.
Bay Area journalism
The San Francisco Bay Area had held a long history for the couple, who arrived in 1967 from Kansas City, Laurence Carter’s home town and the city where Michelle Carter began her career in journalism as a copy editor at the Kansas City Star. The couple moved to San Francisco when Laurence Carter received a job offer from Del Monte Corporation. After a brief stint with a San Francisco newspaper, Michelle Carter landed a job with the San Mateo Times.
Some 20 years later, Michelle Carter would become managing editor of the newspaper, which she is proud to say was the only paper on the street after the Loma Prieta earthquake rattled Bay Area newsrooms in 1989. Though the end of her fellowship in 1995 would also close her time at the newspaper, Michelle Carter has continued to share her stories and help others share theirs as magazine editor and a journalism instructor at Notre Dame de Namur University.
Russia in the news
She said her publisher for “From Under the Russian Snow” has accelerated her deadline in light of Russia’s many media appearances in the last year. Though Michelle Carter acknowledged the cry for democracy she has heard from her connections in Russia may be geographically far from Peninsula residents, she said it’s never been more important for Americans stay informed of what is going on in the world.
“We know right now that Russia is taking advantage of our lack of knowledge,” she said, adding that she hasn’t been surprised by allegations that Russian hackers affected last year’s presidential election.
And for Michelle Carter, who has been shaken by recent reports of violence toward Russian journalists, it’s never been more important to continue supporting journalists all over the world.
“We need to know what the cost of knowing the truth is,” she said.
Michelle Carter’s memoir will be released in September. Visit fromundertherussiansnow.org/events.html for a list of local appearances on her book tour starting in September.
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