Frank Csongos, veteran UPI journalist who witnessed Cold War, dies at 77

By Tom Foty
Frank Csongos joined UPI in 1971. He worked for the agency in West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Washington. On assignment, he witnessed the end of the USSR in Russia in 1991. Photo courtesy of Csongos family
1 of 2 | Frank Csongos joined UPI in 1971. He worked for the agency in West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Washington. On assignment, he witnessed the end of the USSR in Russia in 1991. Photo courtesy of Csongos family

Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Veteran UPI journalist Frank T. Csongos, who lived the early part of the Cold War, witnessed some of its tensest moments and later reported its end and aftermath, has died.

Csongos was 77 when he died Monday of congestive heart failure at his home in Fairfax, Va., his daughter, Caroline Csongos, said.


Born in Hungary shortly after after the end of World War II and Nazi occupation of that country, the 10-year-old Csongos witnessed Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary's capital city of Budapest in November 1956, as the then-Soviet Union forcibly put down Eastern/Central Europe's first revolt against its postwar Stalinist "Iron Curtain" rule.

More than six decades later, writing for the website The Place for Stories, he recalled: "We lived within walking distance of the Elizabeth Bridge, in the very center of Budapest. One of my own alarming experiences occurred after I found several shiny machine gun bullets on the street close to our apartment building, courtesy of the rebels or the Soviet soldiers. I took one of the bullets home without thinking much more about it.


"But a few days later, I heard a radio report that communist soldiers were searching apartments in our area, trying to find freedom fighters. That broadcast said any residents found with weapons or ammunition would be shot dead, right there and then.

"I immediately began a search for the machine gun bullet, looking all over the apartment. Unable to find it, I feared for my life. Luckily, none of the soldiers came to our place."

As Soviet-dominated Communist rule was re-established after the failed revolution in Hungary and then loosened over time, recooked as "Goulash Communism" by longtime party boss Janos Kadar, Csongos and his parents remained until 1964, when they were allowed to emigrate to the United States.

They settled in Cleveland, where his parents had relatives among the city's large ethnic Hungarian community. His education suddenly switched from propaganda-heavy Communist Hungarian elementary school to a high school in Cleveland. He was later graduated from Case Western Reserve University.

'Never flinched'

His journalism career began in 1969, not long before he became an American citizen. For the Cleveland Press, he covered general assignment stories and the police beat. Armed with that experience, and a journalism master's degree from Ohio State University, he applied for a job with United Press International in 1971 and was hired for its bureau in Charleston, W.Va.


From there, he moved to Pittsburgh then UPI's New York headquarters, where he mostly edited stories from other UPI bureaus, but also found time to do celebrity interviews and profiles.

He returned as bureau manager to Pittsburgh for several years in the late 1970s and in late 1980, he was transferred to his last UPI assignment, Washington, where he filled numerous roles as desk editor, transportation and communications industry reporter, chief diplomatic correspondent, D.C. metro editor and Washington manager.

His 1980s Washington bureau manager and former UPI managing editor Ron Cohen described him as "a fine and gentle man, who never flinched at any assignment I threw his way ... just did it enthusiastically and professionally. A real team player."

He covered many major stories in Washington, including the breakup of the original AT&T telephone giant and the deadly January 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the icy Potomac River.

But he reported what he considered the most important story of his career from thousands of miles away. While assigned to the State Department during the George H.W. Bush administration, he traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East with then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III.


On one momentous U.S. diplomatic mission, he found himself in the Kremlin just as the onetime world superpower Soviet Union was disappearing into history in late December 1991. It was breaking apart, as Soviet republic after Soviet republic declared its independence of Moscow.

Csongos was there as Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced the end of the USSR, which was collapsing after the loss of its Iron Curtain European satellites (including Hungary) and an aborted coup against its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who let those satellites out of the Soviet orbit.

Recalling it two decades later for fellow news agency alumni, Csongos said, "UPI gave me no cellphone but I was able to con a KGB guy to use a land line in a Kremlin office by telling him in my broken Russian, 'I am with the Baker delegation.' That left the impression that I was part of Mr. Baker's troops and it did the trick.

"It was a huge story, truly one for the history books. It meant the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union itself. It meant that Russia would be the successor state and would assume control of all the nuclear weapons.


"I took a bit of satisfaction in the fact that I had the privilege of reporting on this event. Thirty-five years prior to this event, I was in Budapest as a 10-year-old kid witnessing Soviet tanks rolling into the country to crush the Hungarian uprising," he said.

Csongos left UPI in 1993.

Radio Free Europe

After a brief stop with a Washington-based trade newsletter, in 1995, he joined another reminder of his Budapest past, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose role in encouraging the 1956 Hungarian revolution has long been a source of controversy.

He spent a dozen years with RFE/RL, much it reporting on or editing news of the post-Soviet world for countries that had been a part of it. He served three assignments in Washington, where he eventually headed the RFE/RL bureau and sometimes covered the State Department again, as well as the White House, including an interview with President George W. Bush.

In between, he did two tours back in East/Central Europe at the then new RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, symbolically relocated from Munich, Germany to the Czech Republic after the domino-like fall of the European Communist systems.

"The world's three oldest professions are prostitution, espionage and journalism," he liked to quip. "The third one uses elements of the first two but is not as well paid."


Following his 2007 retirement from RFE/RL, he engaged his passions for art, theater and cinema, jokingly using a character name from his favorite film, Casablanca, as an email alias. He taught international journalism as an adjunct professor at George Mason University and contributed book reviews to The Washington Times.

Csongos was born on Dec. 30, 1945, in Kiskoros, Hungary, to Istvan "Pista" Csongos and Zsuzsi "Susie" Csongos (Muncsik), survivors of the Holocaust.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Sylvia Csongos (Gluck), son-in-law, William Robbins, grandson, Alexander Robbins, granddaughter, Alyssa Robbins and several cousins.

A funeral is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Fairfax Memorial Park, 9902 Braddock Rd., Fairfax, Va. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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