The last Soviet summer: Moscow 1991

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 It is part of an unpublished memoir I have occasionally worked on in the intervening years.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 Kremlin, summer 1991. The Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is flying. © James Rodgers

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.

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The Soviet Foreign Ministry building in Moscow, June 1991. © James Rodgers

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.

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A Press pass issued to me by the Soviet Foreign Ministry for a Gorbachev-Bush summit meeting, summer 1991.



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’.


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.





Book Review — Russia’s battle for belief


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

Last month I reviewed Jen’s Mühling’s A Journey into Russia for ‘Open Russia World’. You can read a brief extract of my review here, and there’s a link to the complete piece at the end of this post. If you are interested in Russia, as I am, and especially in its post-Soviet period, the book is well worth a read.

In his inauguration speech as Russian president in May 2008, Dmitry Medvedev made an astute observation on the nature of post-Soviet Russia.

‘We must ensure true respect for the law and overcome the legal nihilism that is such a serious hindrance to modern development,’ Mr Medvedev told his audience. Church, crown, and communism all having been cast aside at various stages in the preceding century, Russia had been left with little to believe in – especially as, in the eyes of many Russians, the first experience of capitalism in the 1990s served only to confirm communist warnings about its nature. No wonder nihilism had thrived.

Jens Mühling does not mention Mr Medvedev’s concerns, although his characters occasionally echo or confirm them. For in his engaging A Journey into Russia, Mühling is looking not for nihilists, but for believers. It is a rewarding approach.

Read more here

More details on the book here, on the publisher’s website.

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Restoration work on a chuch in Rostov Veliky, nothern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

#Waterloo200: lessons from remembering ‘a most bloody battle’

This piece was published this week on the website of The Conversation. You can see that version here.

Our views of war are sanitised today. In an age of professional armies trained for increasingly technical tasks, few of us have witnessed combat, much less taken part in it. In that vein, commemorations of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo will focus on the battle’s strategic significance. There are, though, individual accounts that give us a glimpse into what sword fights and cavalry charges must have been like – and the deadly consequences of defeat.

One such story was sent home by James Russell, a Serjeant (his own archaic spelling) in the North British Dragoons, a regiment known today as the Scots Greys. Russell was my ancestor, and my family still has his letter. “Since I wrote to you last we have had a most Bloody Battle with the French as ever was fought,” he writes to his wife, Mags, on June 24, six days after Waterloo.

Russell lists the dead and wounded – as a cavalryman, he also mentions the horses that suffered – before concluding that it was, “the sorest stroke any Cavalry Regiment has suffered at one day’s fighting since the memory of man”. And they were victorious.

The Greys won great renown for one of their number, Ensign Charles Ewart, captured a standard – a Napoleonic eagle – in hand-to-hand fighting. With his feat of arms, celebrity came to Ewart, and “he travelled the country making speeches at dinners with Sir Walter Scott, his friend and unofficial agent”.

After recounting the fate of his regiment, Russell turns to how he fared. “I have lost all my things,” he explains:

This day I am getting a dead Frenchman’s shirt washed to put on. My horse was wounded and sent into Brussels during the action and has lost my whole kit so I am now as I stand.

If such were the spoils of victory, imagine the loss of defeat.

Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

In Paris recently, I visited the Invalides – both Napoleon’s massive marble tomb, and the adjoining museum. I saw no mention there of the upcoming 200th anniversary of the battle, although it seems the French leader was even-handed enough to concede, alongside recognition of his qualities as a general, and a politician, that he was a “warlord” and a “despot”.

We are now in the midst of four years of commemorations of the World War I. A century after Waterloo, Britain and France were allies, and it is in this spirit of comradeship that these events are taking place. Other alliances have shifted, though. Without Russia’s heroic struggle against Hitler, World War II would not have been won as it was, if at all.

Today, Russia may not be a direct enemy of the West, but it is hard to think of it as an ally. Waterloo; World War I; World War II (or the “Great Patriotic War”, as it is known in Russian) – all of these victories have played a vital part in creating the identity that binds the nation state together.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, seems to understand very well the power of celebrating past victories. As a correspondent in Moscow in 2008, I watched the first VE Day military parade of the post-Soviet era roll across Red Square. The event seems only to have grown since.

Russia is telling itself that, whatever else it may or may not have accomplished in the 20th century, victory over the Nazis was a shining achievement which can never be tarnished. Memories of those Ukrainians who sided with Hitler’s troops in the hope of ending Soviet power are evoked now to justify Russian policy towards its neighbour – the sorest point in generally sour relations with the West.

While triumphs are celebrated, failures seem soon forgotten. Watching television pictures earlier this year of the service at St Paul’s to commemorate combat operations in Afghanistan, I wondered whether that campaign would be remembered in 200 years, as Waterloo will be this summer. For who now commemorates the British Mandate for Palestine, or other less glorious episodes of imperial history?

Such selection means that important lessons are ignored. While World War I commemorations have focused on Europe, surely the real consequences of that conflict for us today are in the Middle East: think of Islamic State’s keenness to demonstrate that the Sykes-Picot agreement is finished.

My recent research has included looking at newspaper archives of the reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. The failure of this episode in late imperial history to deliver, or even prepare the ground for, a just and lasting peace in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean may be given little thought in Britain today, but it is still very much on the minds of those who live with the consequences.

My ancestor would no doubt have been dismayed to see Europe again in 1915, or 2015. In the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his account of the causes of World War I, historian Christopher Clark writes of the “raw modernity” of the events of the summer of 1914, when failed diplomacy led to war. As someone who began their career in international news during the last summer of the Soviet Union, I take the phrase to be a warning of the possible consequences of the direction our own unstable age, which arguably began then, might take. For what is the conflict in Ukraine, if not the unfinished business of the summer of 1991?

“We are in hopes that another firm battle will settle this business,” James Russell writes towards the end of his letter. Perhaps to spare his family, he offers little detail of what he had seen at Waterloo. But he did not forget.

His son, David, would later recount a childhood memory of “big tears coursing down the cheeks” of his father and his fellow veterans on the anniversary of the battle. As we remember triumph at Waterloo this week, let us not ignore the lessons for foreign policy which can also come from failure.

#Russia2018: so much to play for

Restoration work on a chuch in Rostov Veliky, northern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

Restoration work on a chuch in Rostov Veliky, northern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

PATRIOTISM guided their hands as much as professional pride. In the summer of 2008, I visited some of the towns of the ‘Golden Ring’, the name given to the tourist route which takes in some of the splendours of Medieval Russia.

In Rostov Veliky, craftsmen were carefully restoring frescoes. At best frowned upon during the Soviet era, churches were now benefiting from the riches flowing into the new Russia with rising oil prices. Scaffolding surrounded onion domes finally being fixed up after decades of hard winters.

It was not just artists and masons who were making Russia proud that summer, as I noted in a piece for the BBC’s ‘From our own Correspondent’ programme. The nation’s footballers had made greater progress than any Russian team since the collapse of the USSR. They reached the semi-finals of the European Championships. As would happen anywhere in the world, there was a surge of support for the national team. Russia was back.

2008 was a key year for Russia in international football. In addition to the achievements of the team, Moscow successfully hosted the Uefa Champions’ League final. Experiments with visa-free travel for fans, and a charm offensive by the most aggressive police units (I was astonished by the uncharacteristically polite assistance offered by members of one group when I was looking for the media office), were a great success. It seemed then to be part of a Russian bid to host a major tournament. Sure enough, the country was later awarded the 2018 World Cup.

2008 was a big year in Russia’s international relations, too. A few weeks after my trip around the Golden Ring, I was reporting on Russia’s war with Georgia. Sparked by the Georgian government’s deployment of troops to the separatist region of South Ossetia, Russia responded by invading South Ossetia to drive them out. It was a low point in post-Soviet Russia’s relations with the West, where few accepted Moscow’s claim that it had acted to protect civilians in the breakaway Georgian territory.

It had also acted to end Georgia’s ambition to join NATO. This it did, at a time when both Georgia and Ukraine were making moves in that direction. Yet the campaign, hailed then in Russia as an example of a once weakened former superpower striking back, also exposed shortcomings in Russia’s combat readiness, and military technology. Acting on lessons learned then, Russia seems to have learned to move much more efficiently against the current Ukrainian government’s desire to move closer to European and Atlantic institutions.

That confrontation has damaged still further Russia’s relations with the West. It is in that already tension-filled arena that another diplomatic row is kicking off — one which is football-related. President Putin has already suggested that the U.S.-led investigation into alleged corruption at FIFA may be ‘ part of an attempt to take the 2018 World Cup away from his country’, as the Moscow Times put it last week.

At the weekend, a top FIFA official, Domenico Scala, raised the prospect of tournaments being taken away from both Russia and Qatar, ‘should there be evidence’ that they had won the right to host them, ‘only because of bought votes’.

So there is a lot to play for. Confrontation over Ukraine, and controversy over Russia’s dim view of gay rights, may have meant that the Sochi Olympics last year did not deliver Moscow the international acclaim it presumably sought when it bid.

Football has been an important part of Russia’s drive to regain the status it lost at the end of the last century. Losing the right to host the World Cup will not be seen in Moscow as only a game.

#VEDay70 : amid division between East and West, remembering a hero of #journalism

Where once they celebrated together their World War Two victory as allies, Russia and the West are now staying from each other’s ceremonies. This post reflects on past VE Days in Moscow, and on a journalistic hero, Vassily Grossman.

That May, as the days lengthened and the temperature rose, I stayed in the Rossiya hotel. Said then to be the largest in Europe, it sat solid on the banks of the Moskva River. On the evening of May 8th, the corridors filled with a tinkling sound. Thousands of medals  chimed against each other as their owners, sometimes unsteady with age or ancient wounds, made their way along the hotel corridors. The decorated veterans had come to Moscow to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their country’s victory over Nazi Germany.

Western leaders came to the Russian capital, too. The half century of hostility which had followed 1945 was over. It was a time for celebration, reflection, and belated recognition. The then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, told his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, ‘the Cold War obscured our ability to fully appreciate what your people had suffered and how your extraordinary courage helped to hasten the victory we all celebrate today.’

Twenty years on, much has changed. Russian and Western leaders will not be celebrating together. Their views on the world today, especially Ukraine, differ too strongly for them to stand side by side. The Rossiya Hotel is gone: its brutal concrete ugliness too grim even for a modern Moscow which takes pride in its Soviet past. Gone too are the veterans, or most of them. I remember talking then to Tom, from Belarus. Of ten boys from his village school who left for war, only he returned. When I heard Mr Clinton’s words that week, I thought of Tom.

The centre of Grozny, 1995. Photo © James Rodgers

The centre of Grozny, 1995. Photo © James Rodgers

Russia was fighting then, too — against separatists in Chechnya. Grozny, the main city of that rebellious southern region, looked then uncomfortably like pictures of Stalingrad: city of suffering and extraordinary courage half a century earlier. It had been the scene of astonishing reporting, too — of which more later.

The war in Chechnya then drew the West’s disapproval, but not attending the Victory Day celebrations would have been out of the question. The hope and optimism which had come with the end of the Cold War were simply too valuable to put at risk.

It has not lasted, of course. In 2008, the West looked on with a mixture of fear and fascination as tanks rolled across Red Square on Victory Day for the first time since the Soviet era. Cold warriors in London and Washington perhaps enjoyed the guilty pleasure of nostalgia as they sensed the thrill of looking once more at what was on show.

That day, I was on Red Square, part of a group of foreign correspondents, close enough to the few remaining veterans to offer in person our congratulations on the national holiday.

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Russian forces in Georgia, 2008. Photo © James Rodgers.

Three months later, the army which rolled past us that day was at war with its smaller southern neighbour, Georgia. I was soon back in the Caucasus, writing about the consequences of a conflict which largely destroyed what relatively little remained of the 1990s goodwill between East and West.

Relations now are even worse: a source of sadness for those, especially of my generation, whose childhoods were overshadowed by Cold War, and who were relieved at its end.

So this weekend, as I, like countless others across Europe and beyond, reflect on the suffering and ‘extraordinary courage’ of the Second World War, I will also take the time to look again at the work of one of my journalistic heroes: Vassily Grossman.

I have written about him on this site before, at greater length in the academic journal ‘Media, War & Conflict’, and in my first book, Reporting Conflict. His war reporting — published in English as A Writer at War — is peerless. His account of travelling to the front in the early days of the Nazi invasion; his interview with a Stalingrad sniper; his witnessing the liberation of Treblinka: all are striking even today. If you have not read them, you should. Like the sacrifice of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, his work not well enough known in the West.

Another Russia?

Renewed tension between Russia and the West has also led to renewed interest in London, Washington, and elsewhere as to the state of the Russian opposition.

Earlier this week, The Guardian published an interesting piece by Timothy Garton Ash  which looked at Russia as a country suffering from a loss of empire. Garton Ash argued that there was also another Russia ‘represented by the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, and the people who come to lay flowers on the bridge where he was assassinated’.

Yesterday, the paper published a letter in which I argued that the state of Russia today could not be fully understood without reference to the role that NATO enlargement, in the post-Soviet era, had played in forming Russian foreign policy. You can read it on The Guardian‘s letter page, here, and the text follows below.

Timothy Garton Ash (‘There is another Russia’, Monday 20 April) makes some interesting points, but misses others. While it is true that some ‘Putin understanders’ do seek to ‘excuse all’ when looking at Russia today, there are also pitfalls in adopting the opposite approach. Nowhere does the article mention NATO expansion. One can agree or disagree as to the wisdom or otherwise of NATO’s policies in Eastern Europe since 1991. One cannot disagree that the admission of the Baltic States in particular, and earlier discussions of the possible accession of Georgia and Ukraine, have been used by Vladimir Putin’s administration to fuel his popularity.
There is another Russia today, but it is of limited significance. I was in the audience at Chatham House recently when Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave a lecture. Those of us present who lived in Russia in the 1990s saw a picture of the past rather than the future. The ‘other Russia’ had its chance then. Its day may come again, but it is not here now. Overlooking this, combined with an apparent general lack of Russia expertise (not least in language skills) is one of the reasons why the West has found itself caught on the hop over Ukraine.