Reporting Russia in Revolution


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.


Reflections on 2016, and 1991: two revolutionary years


A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers

‘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.


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

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.


World War Two defences on the coast of East Lothian, Scotland, October 2016 ©James Rodgers

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.






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


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 .

Moscow, October 1993

Twenty years ago this week, as a TV news producer in Moscow, I watched as the city where I had worked for much of the previous 18 months suddenly turned into a war zone. Political confrontation became armed conflict; demonstrations turned into a flash into riots. I am working on a longer account of that crucial week in modern Russian history for a future book. To mark the 20th anniversary, I am re-posting an entry I wrote earlier this year, with Egypt in mind, about the challenges of reporting revolutions. You can read it here. The photograph is taken from the window of the flat in central Moscow where I was living at the time.



Reporting Revolutions: Egypt now, and Russia then

The centre of the capital city became a battleground. Tanks took the place of rush hour traffic. Shoppers and commuters passed soldiers warily peering around corners for fear of attracting sniper fire.

Two years after the advent of democracy, political opponents took up arms to settle their differences.

Tanks on a bridge over the Moskva River, central Moscow, 4 October 1993 ©James Rodgers

Tanks on a bridge over the Moskva River, central Moscow, 4 October 1993 ©James Rodgers

This was Moscow in October 1993, two years after the end of the Soviet Union. The idealism, the euphoria, which had accompanied that huge and unexpected change in the summer of 1991 was gone, and it has never returned. Russian public life in the post-Soviet period has perhaps been best described by then President, now Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, when he spoke of the need to confront his country’s ‘legal nihilism’.

Two years ago, after Hosni Mubarak had been deposed as Egypt’s President, I met a number of Egyptian activists at a conference in London. Their optimism and idealism was infectious, but I was reminded of other twentysomethings I had seen in Moscow, twenty years before, celebrating the collapse of Communism. They did not, and have not, got the country they expected then.

The truth is that revolutions take a long time. They are not over in a moment, or even a year. Orlando Figes’ history of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, A People’s Tragedy, has as its subtitle ‘The Russian Revolution 1891-1924’.  A history of the end of the USSR would probably need to look at an equally long period before and after 1991. How long will it be before we can judge the consequences of the Arab uprisings?

This makes reporting them difficult. Not necessarily in the sense of day-to-day hard news: there is usually plenty to say, plenty of drama, plenty of human interest. The challenge lies in trying to interpret events that no one really understands – whatever politicians and expert analysts might say – in order to explain to audiences what the possible outcomes are.

Speaking about Egypt on the BBC’s Today Programme this morning in the UK, the Foreign Secretary William Hague used the phrase ‘strategic patience’: good for policy makers, perfect for historians – all but an unaffordable luxury for journalists facing hourly deadlines.

Perhaps the hardest challenge is to see the full picture. Reporters focused on the events as they unfold in capitals do not see the provincial towns and villages where populations may be less enthusiastic about radical change. Social media – credited with such an important role in Egypt that the events of 2011 have even been referred to as a ‘Facebook Revolution’ – do mean that more voices are much more accessible to journalists. In a country where only about a third of the population has access to the internet, how representative are they?

Russia and Egypt are different countries, their revolutions at different times in history. Yet there are parallels: a military/ security establishment reluctant to give up power, and a population yearning for some degree of economic stability, and prosperity. In Russia, that led to a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, being elected President in 2000. He holds that office today, and many other powerful men in Russia apparently share his background.

That was not what people were marching for in the early 1990s. It is what they ended up with.

In a BBC interview at the end of 2011, the year of the ‘Arab Spring’ the late historian Eric Hobsbawm said of those revolutions, ‘We know it won’t last.’

Russia’s young democrats found that in the blood and bullets of October 1993. President Yeltsin may have stayed in office, but innocent idealism was dead. The ‘Facebook’ revolutionaries look unlikely to get any real power in Egypt, however this current crisis develops. President (former President?) Morsi and his supporters may now feel it applies to them to.

‘We know it won’t last’ could be a good guiding principle for anyone reporting on a revolution.