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Michael T. Kaufman, 1938–2010

Remembering the founding editor of Transitions.

by Jeremy Druker 22 January 2010

A fine man passed away last week, a long-time New York Times journalist who, late in his career, chose to embark on a Prague adventure that would have fateful repercussions on the many of us who were lucky to meet him along the way and on the magazine that you are now reading.


Michael T. Kaufman died last Friday, 15 January, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 71. The New York Times obituary depicts well the sweeping life of a man who reported on many of the key issues of the latter part of the 20th century:


“A versatile, imaginative writer of seven books and thousands of articles, Mr. Kaufman covered wars, revolutions, politics and America’s turbulent 1960s. But he also explored the foibles of raising children in a violent world, his father’s years as a political prisoner in Poland and his family’s escape from invading Nazis in World War II.


“Taking after his boyhood hero, Jack London, he traveled widely as a correspondent, interviewing kings, presidents, dictators and the Dalai Lama. He accompanied mercenaries in Rhodesia; covered wars in Angola, Zaire, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan; talked his way through roadblocks; befriended an Israeli secret agent; was once arrested at gunpoint; and documented the approaching death of Communism in Poland.”


For someone who led such a full life, an obituary will inevitably leave out certain details, even notable detours with considerable results. In this case, the Times piece neglected to mention several years in the mid-90s, when Mike went on leave and, together with his wife, Rebecca, moved to Prague. He had been lured away by the intriguing idea of running the editorial operation at the Open Media Research Institute (OMRI), a joint venture between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Soros Foundation. Consuming several floors of a communist-era skyscraper in a suburb of Prague, OMRI had a mission of providing objective, in-depth information and analysis on Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – something decidedly lacking in those first, post-communist years. The institution had an impressive array of analysts, but not much journalistic “gravitas“ until Mike arrived in the fall of 1995, adding the instant credibility that being a veteran New York Times journalist with a 35-year pedigree, with many years of foreign reporting, brings with it. He would also become the executive editor of Transition, the OMRI flagship publication, one of TOL’s print predecessors.


My first encounter with Mike was as an OMRI summer intern. My graduate school professor, Tina Rosenberg, knew Mike (I think because he had reviewed her book on lustration in Eastern Europe, Haunted Land) and made the initial contact for me that ended up lasting the job. For someone who had grown up in Brooklyn reading the Times and then worked as a budding, inexperienced journalist in Prague in the early ’90s, going to work for a Times veteran, even just for a summer, was an amazing opportunity and more than a little intimidating.


I couldn’t have been more wrong about the intimidating part (the opportunity part I got right). Immediately friendly, engaging, and eminently approachable, Mike was devoid of pretension, even when it came to a mere intern. A mentor to many, the door to his office stood open, and he was happy to pass along lessons learned during his illustrious career – never with a hint of snobbery. And he was one of those rare people who told marvelous, vivid stories, but would also listen to others and inquire about their lives, genuinely and not just to keep the conversation moving. Mike was one of the reasons that, as I returned to school, I hoped that I could return once I finished my studies.


In the meantime, however, the joint venture fell apart, the future of the magazine threatened. I wasn’t around then, but I’ve heard that Mike virtually singlehandedly convinced the powers-that-be at the Soros Foundation to provide funding for a new monthly magazine – more journalistic, more ambitious – to rise from the vestiges of OMRI. He inspired the editorial staff that he took with him to create a world-class magazine, with exceptional writing and insight.


Michael Kaufman in PragueMichael T. Kaufman in his office in Prague, mid-1990s.
The publication would be slightly renamed as Transitions “to reflect,” Mike wrote in the introductory June 1997 issue, “the notion that no single set of transformative rituals will or should apply to all countries with the former Soviet Union and formerly communist Europe.” He continued, “Also, the plural name may better imply that changes in the wake of the 1989 convulsions require something more than a finite time span, like an election cycle or a five-year plan; transitions are always with us.” More than a dozen years later, it’s clear he could not have been more right.


Mike stayed on for about a year before returning to New York and the Times, but not before installing a reputation for quality and fairness at the new publication. In his farewell note, he wrote: “Two and a half years ago, I came to Prague hoping to help create an open and eclectic publication that would invite contributions solely on the basis of interest, rather than weighing them according to ideological positions, countries of origin, academic or journalistic standards, or national traditions of writing. I will leave it to you, the readers, to decide how well we have done in this endeavor.”


No matter whether readers agreed with that approach, they could see that Mike had a knack for connecting the dots of events and issues across this vast region and spotting trends before the rest of the media caught up. That came naturally to him. No doubt his many years in the field helped, but so did the staggering breadth and depth of knowledge he displayed on a wide range of subjects. He was one of those people you knew – even without visiting the Kaufmans’ book-laden apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan – was incredibly well-read, though, again, he would never show anyone up with that knowledge.


People who worked with him in Prague also remember his prodigious writing skills. I can’t say whether his was a talent that had been crafted over those many decades of work, under the tutelage of tough, old-fashioned newsmen and Times editors. But he was the kind of writer that could blow you away even with the phrasing or detail in a casual email, often supplemented with a wry comment or two. Last fall, I tried to entice Mike into writing an overview for our “20 Years After” special report, but he felt that he had left the region too long ago to do the piece justice: “My guess is that there are ample figures around who were there at the collapse and stayed on to contemplate the phoenix, or perhaps, more accurately the buzzard rising from the ashes.” For a taste of Mike’s writing, you can visit the TOL archives or those of the The New York Times.


It’s a pity that we never had a Prague reunion for those who still remember Mike fondly from those very early days,. It would have been nice to welcome him back for a beer or two and to thank him, in person, for his journalistic legacy in the town where he made it happen. But mainly it would just have been a lot of fun to sit back and listen to those great stories again, told with a profound intellect, grace, and humility.

Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director and editor in chief.


Portrait of Michael T. Kaufman: Random House of Canada; Prague photo: courtesy of Rebecca Kaufman.

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