Starting in July 2018, I will also be writing on Russia’s foreign policy and recent history for Forbes.com. You can read my latest post ‘August: The Crisis Month That Shaped Modern Russia’ here , and more of my posts here, on my author profile.
This is the first part of an essay which I wrote for the current issue of the ‘British Journalism Review’. Based on my experiences reporting from Russia in the 1990s, and partly as a response to concerns raised by Channel 4’s Jon Snow in his 2017 McTaggart Lecture it argues that not all journalists are too close to political elites — especially foreign correspondents in countries where the elites don’t want to to talk to them. That gives them insights often denied to their better connected counterparts.
THE MISSED AND MISUNDERSTOOD STORIES of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – as well as political correspondents’ failure to predict Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority last year – have all led to soul-searching about whether journalists are too close to the elite. In his MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, Jon Snow described his own background and said: “We are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.”
Foreign correspondents often come into closer contact with those “not of the elite”. While the political upper class may want to talk to foreign media to get their international message across, these are more likely to be rare, set-piece events. In consequence, reporters overseas seek out other stories – those of the ordinary people who will more readily speak to them. Ryszard Kapuscinski was famous for this approach. It was also one often followed by western reporters in Russia in the early post-Soviet era.
It may seem strange, in this era of confrontation between the UK and Russia, to write this, but I have Vladimir Putin to thank for the experience which has led me to develop the argument I am going to put forward here. For it was during his own formative years as a politician – Russia’s troubled 1990s – that we western journalists based in Russia were left largely to our own devices. Senior politicians did occasionally give interviews, but the often chaotic world of Boris Yeltsin’s administration meant that they had plenty of their own worries to deal with.
This was when a large part of the political elite were keen to show that they were breaking from the Soviet past, promoting a western-style idea of a free press, a “fourth estate” permitted to speak truth to power. Russian journalists enjoyed then freedoms unknown before or since. We did, too.
The restrictions on travel which had been part of the Soviet police state were mostly gone. Travelling close to military installations without permission was an exception, as I discovered in 2009 when the FSB arrested my colleagues and me for visiting some glasshouses which happened to be about 20km from a naval dockyard.
Kept at a distance from the Kremlin’s innermost power struggles – as foreigners generally have been throughout Russian history (remember Churchill’s “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won”) – and allowed to explore the biggest country on earth, we had the chance to learn more than other generations of western journalists covering Russia. Going somewhere that your news organisation has never been before is always a help pitching a story, and travel – thanks to the troubled rouble – could be incredibly cheap. The weak currency did throw up some absurdities. One flight from St Petersburg to Moscow is memorable because the sandwiches in the airport café cost almost the same as the plane tickets.
With air travel literally as cheap as chips, and Russia’s overnight trains even cheaper, we took advantage. There was then a huge appetite for learning about Russia, with which we were enjoying much better relations. That has changed since. As I write this in late March, the talk – following the poisoning in Salisbury of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter – turns to tension between Moscow and London. The foreign ministry spokeswoman in Moscow has warned that British journalists will be expelled from Russia should RT (the Kremlin-backed channel formerly known as Russia Today) be closed down in the UK.
It was different then. In the late 1990s, colleagues and I travelled to Siberia to do a story on forest fires; to the far north east, above the Arctic circle, where blocks of flats, abandoned after their residents’ jobs went with the collapse of the planned economy, were being buried by massive snowdrifts. With Allan Little, I produced for the BBC’s Newsnight a lengthy report on how people of the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don coped with an economy that had largely ceased to function: workers at one of Russia’s biggest agricultural machinery factories got jars of gherkins instead of wages.
On that first trip to Siberia we also interviewed a coming strongman in Russian politics, the Afghan war veteran Alexander Lebed, then governor of Krasnoyarsk. He later died in a helicopter crash, but his growing popularity provided a clue to the direction Russia might later take. The consequence of these trips was that we saw how the country was changing.
It was not changing in the way that many people in the west hoped.
You can read the full article in the current issue of the British Journalism Review
HE SAW NO CONTRADICTION — even in the Moscow of the 1990s, where an especially uncaring form of capitalism was steadily sweeping away former certainties — in being a Communist, and a dollar millionaire. My interlocutor was a well-heeled member of the Russian parliament. His argument — that capitalism had borrowed from communism to create welfare states earlier in the 20th century, and now communism was borrowing in reverse — might not convince any serious socialist, but it has stayed with me for what it said about the time.
If it is true — and the countless books and TV programmes of the past couple of years suggest the opposite — that, as one of the contributors to Why the Russian Revolution Matters says, the events in Russia in 1917 are ‘largely forgotten or ignored’ — then there are plenty of reasons why they should not be forgotten, and that is the case that the film makers put forward.
As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in The Age of Extremes, ‘A mere thirty to forty years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, one third of humanity found itself living under regimes directly derived from the ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’.
That alone is reason enough for us to understand why the Russian Revolution matters: it shaped the last century, and therefore our own. It may not always have rushed ahead with the head-spinning excitement of John Reed’s story as he described those ‘Ten Days’, but the way it evolved influenced human thought and history like nothing else throughout the 1900s.
The film makers set themselves the considerable challenge of re-telling this story for an audience which may not be as familiar with it as those of us who were born during the Cold War. Even then, the version which we received was necessarily influenced by the global politics of the age; the view handed down to you dependent on which side of the confrontation between capitalism and socialism you were on when you received it.
The producers of Why the Russian Revolution Matters consider the significance of the world-changing events of 1917 from the point of view of politics; culture; and society. As my own current research is focused on the way that western journalists report Russia (my next book, Assignment Moscow, is due to be completed next year) I was pleased to see journalists such as John Reed and Louise Bryant mentioned, too.
There is a wide range of contributors, and the producers deserve credit for what must have been a daunting task of gathering and editing material. That said, some of those who do contribute might be considered enthusiasts for, rather than experts on, the events of 1917.
It might also have been better — given the case that is made for the global significance of Russia’s revolutionary year — to have had a more diverse range of interviewees. These are overwhelmingly middle-aged or elderly white men — with female contributors appearing only later on. Discussion of the relevance of Lenin’s ideas to 20th century South Africa, and recognition of women workers’ role in the February revolution are examples of broadening of the film’s focus which work well.
What also works well is the film’s core argument: that this really matters today. The west has always struggled to understand the resentment Russia felt throughout the last century at attempts by Britain and others to crush the revolution by sending troops.
In his 2005 book, On My Country and the World, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wrote of his belief that ‘nothing [had] been forgotten’ since that time when western powers planned that ‘Russia not be regarded as a unitary state.’ This view shaped the Soviet Union’s attitude to the west, and arguably does that of Mr Putin’s administration, too.
That surely is why the subject this film addresses does matter: a century may have passed, but our world today might be very different had events in Russia in 1917 not unfolded as they did.
In this week’s New European, my article on how western correspondents covered the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, as the USSR came to know the Bolsheviks’ coming to power. The first few paragraphs are reproduced below. You can read the full piece in the paper.
We in the west have tended to look warily towards Russia: fearing and yet fascinated by the vast land lying at Europe’s eastern edge. Often, as now, we have seen it as a threat.
If in the second half of the last century, it was nuclear warheads – and they have hardly gone away – today we are more concerned with cyberattacks. In those countries bordering Russia, and formerly under its influence or control, people look nervously at the annexation of Crimea and ask if computer hacking may turn into something more menacing.
Since it enlisted General Winter to help to defeat Napoleon, through to Stalingrad when it turned the tide against Hitler, Russia has intervened at key moments to change European history. Some might add Brexit to the list, with Kremlin-backed TV channels and websites playing their part in boosting nationalist sentiment in the west.
A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution was certainly one of those moments. The full extent of its consequences may not have been fully grasped, but its significance was well understood, and in those confused, fast-moving times, it was the job of Western authors and journalists who found themselves in the country to try to make sense of it.
‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE USSR WAS?’ asked the Ukrainian I had got talking to in London.
The USSR was many things to me — although I think it has taken a quarter of a century for me fully to understand something of what it was to others.
‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!’ wrote Wordsworth in ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. That is how it felt to me to be in Moscow in 1991. I was in my 20s, and on my first foreign assignment as a TV producer, for the Visnews agency.
Russia’s post-Soviet revolution was ‘at its commencement’. For someone of my generation, who had spent their teenage years worrying whether the acceleration of the nuclear arms race in Europe was going to lead to conflict, the end of the Cold War between East and West was indeed blissful. The excitement of being on assignment in Moscow as a young journalist ‘was very heaven’. The world as I had known it all my life was changing forever, and I was there to see it.
What I — and the other young western journalists I met, and who were in some cases to become lifelong friends — saw that summer seemed good. Especially in the Soviet capital, we saw a population enthusiastic for change — brave enough, when the time came, to stand with sticks against tanks to defend it. They faced down a coup attempt by hardliners in August 1991 . Later that year, and 25 years ago this month, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. Back in London, I was in the newsroom on Christmas Day when Mikhail Gorbachev went on air in Moscow to resign, and the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin.
For some Cold Warriors in the west, that was victory. For one prominent American academic, this was — absurdly, it is now clear — the ‘end of history’. For those of us who spend a lot of time reporting from Russia in the 1990s, it came to be something else: the beginning of an age of great hardship, uncertainty, and humiliation for millions of people in Russia, and other parts of the former USSR.
‘We keep on failing to understand the nature of the trauma that hit all Russians in 1991,’ Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the last British Ambassador to the USSR, told an audience at Chatham House 20 years later. Policy makers did not understand well the possible political consequences of that trauma either — at least until it was too late.
For it was in those days that the wrath of post-Soviet Russia was being nursed. It came to adulthood in the annexation of Ukraine, and, on the wider global stage, in the Middle East. The end of history mindset seemed to have prevailed among policy makers, too — again until it was too late. When relations with Russia turned bad, there were not enough people who understood why. ‘What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers,’ complained Rory Stewart, then Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, in a 2014 interview with Prospect Magazine , as Russia cemented its hold over Ukraine.
Experts: in 2014, a senior Conservative politician said they were lacking; in 2016, another, Michael Gove, said Britain had ‘had enough’ of them.
Many disagreed — but enough were persuaded to accept the case made by Mr Gove and his fellow ‘Leave’ campaign leaders that Britain should leave the European Union.
That is one of the ways in which 2016 has helped me understand 1991. Now, in middle age, I have a perspective on how it must have felt for Russians in their 40s and 50s to see their country go to hell, taking with it all they had known.
This year, it has been the turn of my country to have a revolution — for that is what ‘Brexit’ is — and head off in an unknown direction. Not even those who most fervently sought this turn of events can claim that it has been adequately prepared for.
As a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and 2000s, I saw other people’s political systems fall apart. Both in the former USSR, and in the Middle East, this led on occasion to wars which cost countless thousands of lives. There is no prospect now of war in Western Europe, although that was the way we chose for centuries to settle our disputes. It is not simply coincidence that the era of the European Union has also been an age of peace.
The signs of other times are still there to see. As a frequent visitor to both Scotland and Denmark, my seaside walks lead me past Second World War fortifications scarring the beaches on the North Sea coast.
Will Europe ever be as divided again in my lifetime? As Christopher Clark wrote in the introduction to his excellent 2014 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ He continued, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces.’
That’s why we need good journalism. Those of us western journalists who lived in Russia in the 1990s understood very well the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power (I wrote about this at greater length in a recent piece for The Conversation).
So, yes, I did know the USSR. A quarter of a century later, I know this, too: like the USSR, nothing lasts forever. Blissful dawns do not necessarily lead to sunny afternoons, or peaceful evenings. The demagogues who have tasted victory in 2016’s tumult would do well to remember that.
‘WRITE ABOUT TODAY. People will be asking you about this in 25 years time,’ I suggested on Wednesday to some of my MA International Journalism students at City, University of London. They were exhausted, having worked through the night to produce excellent coverage of the potentially world-changing events across the Atlantic. Some, themselves from the United States, had the experience of watching from afar as journalists something which will undoubtedly affect them as citizens.
Two issues among the many which will now be discussed are the effect Mr Trump’s victory will have on U.S. foreign policy, and what his win means for those established media organizations who failed to foresee it, and who cannot expect favourable treatment, even in terms of access, from the incoming President.
My world — and that of my generation — changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the USSR. The latter was my first foreign assignment as a journalist. This week I have written two pieces for The Conversation reflecting on Russia’s role in the world today: both in terms of politics and media.
In one, I argue that Mr Trump’s victory is also a victory for Russia’s opposition to western, liberal, values — an enmity which has its roots in the end of the Cold War. In the other, I contend that Russia Today, or ‘RT’ as it now prefers to be known, is a successful part of Russia’s drive to regain some of the prestige and influence it lost with the collapse of Communism. Its success is a challenge to western ideas journalism as an impartial fourth estate — at a time when that kind of journalism is under unprecedented pressure.
To see what a divisive issue Russia remains, you have only to look at the comments…