My first international assignment was to Moscow in 1991. I ended up witnessing the end of the Soviet Union. That was the end of the Cold War. Now, more than twenty years later, relations between Russia and the West are worse than at any time since. For this month’s British Journalism review, I have written an essay on the value of journalism as history. Here’s an extract.
SOLID GOLD TEETH, SOFT CONSONANTS, HEAT, AND THIRST are what I remember from that day. The solid gold teeth were masterpieces of Soviet dentistry, filling the mouths of those who smiled now as they seemed to have won a famous victory over their masters in Moscow. The soft consonants were part of the Ukrainian accents I heard around me in the square in front of the Ukrainian parliament. Where most Russian accents pronounce ‘G’ as a hard sound, Ukrainian softens it. The crowd, intoxicated with the excitement of sudden change, chanted slogans of independence, and hissed insults about ‘Horbachev’, as they called the last leader of the Soviet Union.
They could say what they liked. The week before, an attempted coup by hardliners in Moscow had failed. Mikhail Gorbachev had been released from detention at his holiday house in the Crimea. Yet when he returned to Moscow just after midnight on 22nd August 1991, the Soviet Union he hoped to lead once more was cracked beyond repair, and already in the process of crumbling. As a producer for the television news agency Visnews (soon to become Reuters Television), I was sent to Kiev. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was trying to decide whether it would break away from the Union of which it had been a part for most of the 20th century – not to mention the Russian Empire before that. The session of the rada – the Ukrainian parliament – went on, while the crowd chanted and shouted in the hope of swaying the lawmakers’ decision. It was baking hot. There was little chance of anything to eat or drink. The food supplies of the late Soviet period were so unpredictable there was not much chance of grabbing a snack on the street. Suddenly, the crowd went wild with joy. The Soviet Ukrainian flag was lowered – hammer, sickle, and all – from the pole on top of the parliament. The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag rose in its place.
Formal independence followed, or so it seemed. As the fighting in Ukraine this year has shown, it was not that simple. The incident stays in my mind because the material I sent that day – a few paragraphs of script, and some shaky video material – contributed, in however small a way, to that famous first draft of history. Perhaps I did not fully realize it then – too pressed, as I was, by deadlines, and worrying whether I would beat the opposition – but this was part of one of the events which would define the time in which I lived, and worked as a journalist. For someone born, as I was, in Western Europe in the 1960s, the world as I knew it as a child was to change. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major milestone on that road of transformation.
Extracted from ‘Second Thoughts on First Drafts’ British Journalism Review, September 2014.
More details on the BJR website, here.