Getting a taste of capitalism, Moscow 1991

This is the second extract from a memoir I have written about my time as a TV news producer in Moscow in the summer of 1991. You can read the first piece here . It describes a day in Moscow shortly before a summit between the then Soviet and American leaders — and concludes with an incident I always remember when trying to explain to westerners why Vladimir Putin has been such a popular leader in Russia.

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Copies of the Communist Party newspaper, ‘Pravda’, from the last summer of the Soviet Union

A few days before the summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and George W. Bush, I got a couple of hours off in the middle of the day. I decided to go to Red Square, while it was still easily accessible to the public, before summit security measures closed large parts of the city centre. I took a taxi. I went into GUM, the shopping arcade which runs the length of the square opposite the Kremlin. I recognized GUM’s exterior as the backdrop to Soviet military parades crossing Red Square on Revolution Day and Victory Day. It had been built as a monument to pre-revolutionary elegance and opulence: long halls with galleries of shops rising above on either side. It had become an embarrassing example of Soviet shortage. Despite this, it remained the closest that Moscow, or indeed the entire Soviet Union, had to a luxury goods store. Shoppers never knew what they might find so, even when it was woefully poorly stocked, it still drew the crowds. One benefit of the crumbling Soviet system from the employee’s point of view was that it didn’t always matter very much whether or not you turned up for work. So if you thought they might finally have say, towels, in GUM, there was nothing much to stop you wandering down there for a look. That day, plenty of people had. I loved Soviet watches. To me they were exotic, and cool, and I felt that now, after a couple of months in Moscow, I would have a special claim to wear one in London once I returned. At the watch department, all I could see were crowds pressing around cabinets which, when I got close, turned out to be almost empty. It was natural there, as anywhere else, that suspicion of spotting a rarity made people stop and look. The extreme circumstances here meant that two or three people dawdling too long might provoke rumours of a delivery of rare stock, and draw a crowd.

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The Kremlin, summer 1991, with the Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flying. © James Rodgers

 

I walked out onto Red Square and towards Lenin’s mausoleum. It was almost midday and the guard was about to change. Tourists pressed up against the rope which kept the public back from the doors to the mausoleum. The Soviets in GUM behind me were desperate for material goodies. The western tourists already had expensive watches. They wanted to see a Communist ritual which to them was much more of a rarity.

As the Kremlin bells began to chime, the ceremony began. Green uniformed members of the guard goose-stepped from the tower next to St Basil’s cathedral, with its multi-coloured domes, towards the door of the mausoleum. As they marched, they held their rifles, with bayonets fitted, balanced in the palms of their left hands. Their right fists, clad, like their left, in white gloves swung rhythmically as they strode on their way. The change itself happened as the hour struck – life size figures with movements so precise that they too seemed to be mechanically controlled by the clock. It was an intricate dance with not a single step out of place. The sergeant oversaw it all. He marched out with the new guards, and then back with the ones who had been replaced. Their extreme formality – white shirts, gold braid, highly polished boots up to their knees, made the motley clothes of the onlookers seem almost profane. It seemed wrong to be watching in jeans and a t-shirt.

When they had marched away, I walked to the edge of Red Square, past St Basil’s, and down towards the Rossiya hotel – a mass of concrete which, with hundreds of rooms, a concert hall, and a cinema all incorporated into its gigantic frame, was said to be the biggest hotel in Europe.  An American ice cream company had recently opened a shop on the ground floor. I wandered in. A group of overweight Americans in training shoes that cost far more than a Soviet surgeon’s monthly salary enjoyed a taste of home. An elderly Muscovite made his way to the door, apparently eager for a first taste of this foreign delicacy. He went no further than the threshold. “Only for hard currency?” His face fell.  He repeated the words he had been told when he found out his roubles were worthless there. He left. Perhaps he forgot about how much he wanted the ice cream. He can’t have forgotten his experience. In the shadow of the Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power, the workers in whose name the Communists ran the country were being embarrassed and shamed by their ideological enemies.

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Reporting the dawn and the death of Soviet Russia: 1917 and 1991

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Earlier this week, I published a piece on the website of The Conversation. Drawing on my time as a correspondent in Moscow in the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as on my current research, the article looked at the challenges of covering revolutionary Russia. You can read an extract below, and there’s also a link to the full piece.

“NO NEWS FROM PETROGRAD YESTERDAY”, was the headline in the Daily Mail on March 14, 1917. The story – or non-story – which followed, was only a few dozen words: “Up to a late hour last night the Russian official report, which for many months has come to hand early, had not been received”, it ran. So why publish it? The non-appearance of the daily news bulletin from the Russian government had led the Mail’s writer, trying to prepare a report in London, to suspect something was going on.

It was.

During the silence, the last tsar, Nicholas II, had abdicated and centuries of autocracy had come to an end in Russia. Correspondents in Petrograd were only able to tell their stories later. Russia’s links to the world were cut off. Donald Thompson, a pioneering news cameraman from the United States, later related his experience at the telegraph office: “The old lady in charge … told me not to waste my money – that nothing was allowed to go out.”

You can read the rest of the piece here .

Ukraine: politics, and football

The thirst which came with being trapped in a huge crowd on a late summer day, and the excitement of change — unprecedented, and, until shortly before, unforeseen — are the two strongest memories of that day.

Two things which have happened this week have brought those memories back. The first was the latest round of political uncertainty in Ukraine. The second was a football match.

In September 1991, Visnews, the TV news agency for which I was then working, sent me to Kiev. The city was then still capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I can only understand a little Ukrainian, but I think this press pass says ‘3-10 September’.

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However hard you try to plan for what is going to happen, most foreign correspondents know that success is often a result of luck as well as judgment. I was fortunate that hot day because I did get a front row seat — actually, in spectating terms, it was really a cramped standing space — as history unfolded.  I filmed the Soviet-era flag being lowered from the flag pole on the top of the Ukrainian parliament. It was replaced by the yellow and blue — for cornfields and sun — which still flies today.

In a 2014 essay for the Wall Street Journal, Serhii Plokhy, author of several acclaimed books on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, wrote of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, ‘The roots of today’s crisis go back to the last days of the Soviet Union.’

An underestimation then of what those last days meant still has consequences today. Ukraine became the focus of the most serious crisis in Russia’s relations with the West since the Cold War. In choosing to challenge the West by annexing Crimea, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has shown an excellent understanding of his constituency.

For the many years I lived in Moscow after the end of the Soviet Union, a mention to a Muscovite of an upcoming trip to Ukraine might prompt the response, half-joking perhaps, ‘Tell them to give us back Crimea.’

On my travels around the former Soviet Union — often linked, as the news agenda goes, to reporting on armed conflict, I was struck by the number of people who still thought of themselves as Soviet. The USSR had collapsed politically and economically, but it still existed culturally.

This was not always well enough understood in the West, but Mr Putin and his supporters understood it very well, and have exploited it. Remembering now that sunny day — the picture with Professor Plokhy’s article was taken then, I think — it is hard not to regret the passing of the euphoria and optimism that radiated from that crowd.

‘We wanted the best, but it turned out like always,’ as Russia’s post-Soviet Prime Minister, later ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, once observed. He was reflecting on the roughness of Russian life in the 1990s, but his words describe pretty well Russia’s current relations with the West.

25 years on from that hot afternoon, Ukraine is not the place that crowd hoped it would be. Watching the UEFA Champions League on TV the other evening, I saw the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, among the spectators for Dynamo Kyiv against Manchester City. Mr Poroshenko was surrounded by men — presumably his body guards — in military fatigues: their clothes a reminder of the conflict in the east of the country.

I have supported Manchester City since long before the end of the Soviet Union. For years, I never imagined they would enjoy the success they do today. Both as a football fan, and foreign correspondent, you get used to the fact that everything changes — though rarely in ways you expect.