Twenty five years ago this week I flew to Moscow for a short assignment to cover the 1991 Russian Presidential Election: the first in the country’s history. I ended up staying much longer, and witnessing the end of the USSR. This post is an account of part of the first week I spent in the Soviet capital. It is part of an unpublished memoir I have occasionally worked on in the intervening years.
THE CENTURY was about to end. To look at the calendar, there were still nine years left, but one of the forces which had shaped the 1900s was about to collapse. The world which I had known all my life was about to change forever, too.
The air inside the terminal building at Sheremetyevo airport was stale. There were hints of cigarette smoke — somehow different from the smoke in the west — and of cooking somewhere in a distant canteen.The air outside was hardly less close. Recent rain had only cooled the afternoon a little. It was humid. The sky threatened a storm.
The hotel where I unpacked that evening, June 6th 1991, was a new world to me – the world of Communist luxury. The hotel was called the Oktyabrskaya, named for the October revolution which had brought the Bolsheviks to power. It had been built to house their provincial successors on visits to Moscow. The corridors smelt of fresh polish. The furniture was wooden, heavy. In my room, a tray and a set of glasses stood on the table. They looked like copies of antiques, so old-fashioned that they could almost have come from the pre-Soviet period. Next to them stood bottles containing bizarrely-coloured blends of fruit and fizzy water: Communist refreshments not seen west of Warsaw. The television set was enormous. The colours on its screen seemed to compete with those of the soft drinks for which could be more unnaturally bright. The radio was so large and outmoded it would have seemed an antique in my grandparents’ house. It might not have seemed so to hotel staff then. Few, if any, of them had ever seen beyond the mostly closed borders of their country. From the window, I could just see the nearby spire of the Soviet foreign ministry: one of the gigantic, grey, skyscrapers, broad at the base, tapering towards the top, which Stalin had commissioned to dominate the skyline of the capital of world socialism.
I spent my first few days acclimatising, both to life in the city, and to my work. I was a producer for Visnews, a television news agency, which soon after became Reuters Television. It was my first foreign assignment. I was excited, curious, nervous that I might make mistakes. A recent University graduate in Russian language and literature, I had been sent out to help to cover the election of the first President of the Russian Federation. I arrived in the first week of June, in advance of polling day on June 12th.
For all that the city felt new and unfamiliar to me, I soon realized that it was the same for many Muscovites. The world was changing around them in a way that made some people, especially the young, feel as they never had before. It was euphoria. It probably only happens once in a lifetime; once in a century. Politically, one man stood at the centre of that: Boris Yeltsin. He was the favourite candidate to win the election. Two days before the vote, his supporters held a rally in the city centre. A statue of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky looked down from its pedestal. He sung the praises of the Soviet system at its birth. He died from a bullet thirteen years later. The official story is that the shot came from a gun he held at his own head. There has always been another story that he was shot by a police agent who sneaked into his flat through a secret entrance. At his death, he disillusioned with the revolution, or love, or both. The sculpture showed him as the square-jawed son of the new Soviet world, one which was now old and about to end.
The demonstrators prepared to move. The Soviet system to work down even to the tiniest detail to frustrate dissent. The marchers, as they assembled to show their support for Boris Yeltsin, lacked paper and glue to make banners and signs. As part of my preparation for this trip, I had read everything I could about what was happening in the Soviet Union in the run-up to the election. I even kept a scrap book of newspaper cuttings to aid my research. I had read plenty about shortages and empty shops – yet this still stood out. I just could not believe that things which I could easily buy in any corner shop were in such short supply in the capital city of a superpower. One elderly man, in thick Soviet spectacles and a white linen cap, fumbled with a complicated series of knots to tie his placard to its handle. Yet all these were minor inconveniences. The marchers had put up with decades of deception and deficit. Now they were allowed to ask for something different. They seemed to sense it could be theirs. ‘Yeltsin’s our man!’ the bespectacled marcher insisted. Others agreed that he was ‘wise, honest, an ordinary person.’
They set off towards the Kremlin. It was late afternoon. The heat that had been building up in the pavements and the road surface all through the day was now starting to radiate back upwards. “Yeltsin, Yeltsin!” they chanted. They were ordinary Muscovites for the most part, dressed in clothes that looked different from mine, Communist bloc clothes. The young wore stonewashed denim dirtied by the summer dust. Older women wore printed dresses. Middle aged men wore shirts of orange and brown: colours which, in the west, had vanished in the early 1980’s. Gold teeth gleamed in the demonstrators’ smiling and chanting mouths. Some of them carried the Russian tricolour. Conformist Communists frowned on it as a relic of Tsarism. A few years earlier, unfurling it in public might even have got you arrested. The marchers disappeared in the direction of Red Square, and the Kremlin.