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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The break up of a union: news and history

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

CONFLICTS AROUND HE WORLD are daily stirred by the hand of history. How can you understand the Middle East today, or Yugoslavia in the 1990s, without knowing at least something of what had passed in those places in the preceding century?

Political discussion in western Europe is largely free of that. There are exceptions, of course: Ireland is one; recent discussions of how Spain should remember, or not, its civil war of the 1930s may become another. In Britain in recent years, mass public discussion of history and its relevance today has tended to focus on victories, however costly, in the two world wars of the last century, and on landmark moments of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

That has changed during the campaign leading up to the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. There has been debate over whether or not the E.U. has kept the peace in western Europe since 1945. The views of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, have also been used to back both sides. One BBC story even went back as far as the Duke of Wellington — victory over Napoleon — to guess what Great Britons of the past might have thought.

War was one part of European life and history which Churchill and Wellington both knew well. This is an experience which today’s leaders largely lack: perhaps a partial explanation for the eagerness of Messrs Bush and Blair to launch the invasions they did in the first decade of this century.

As I noted in my previous post, I was there a quarter of a century ago when the USSR fell apart. In the years which followed, there was great hardship for millions of people. There were predictions of civil war. Russia avoided that — although, in the decade which followed the collapse of communism, there was fighting in the streets of Moscow, in 1993, and tens of thousands (perhaps as many as a hundred thousand or more — no one has ever come up with a reliable count) of people were killed in separatist conflicts in Chechnya  .

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Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Yugoslavia was another matter. The breakup of that union did lead to civil war; a refugee crisis; and a challenge to Europe’s security systems which they were unable to meet without the assistance of the United States.

No one in this referendum campaign has gone so far as to predict war if the U.K. decides to leave, although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, came close when he asked, ‘Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?’

Responding to a dangerous and terrifying world 

We cannot be sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured. As Christopher Clark persuasively put it in the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his recent book on the causes of the First World War, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ Clark continues, ‘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, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.’

The European Union is not the Soviet Union — although some ‘leave’ campaigners might enjoy trying to make the comparison. Nor is it Yugoslavia. Yet the consequences of any massive political change can be catastrophic — especially when they are not addressed by good leadership. Chechnya is a case in point. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, was remembered even in his obituary for having boasted that the separatists could be sorted out in a couple of hours. Fifteen years after the military campaign was launched, the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, described the region as Russia’s biggest domestic problem.

In the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, I covered some of the bloody conflicts which followed the Cold War. In that world, the one in which we live today, all that is necessary is a lack of foresight, and a refusal to learn from the past, in order for disaster to strike. The ‘unpredictable array of forces’ will do the rest.

International journalists often have an insight which politicians lack.  We talk to people, not just to other politicians. We also know that, while today’s world can be a dangerous and terrifying place, we cannot cut ourselves off from it any more than we can stop it raining in London in June (given some of their claims, it is almost surprising that neither side in the referendum has promised better weather).

That is one reason why I will definitely be voting for the U.K to remain a member of the European Union. There are many others. I believe that we in Britain should better direct all the energy which has gone into an increasingly poisonous referendum campaign into making the E.U. work better. I have been privileged — if that is the right word — to witness the wars of others as an observer who could usually leave if I wanted to. The conflicts I covered had an element of evil, of course, but also large measures of folly and irresponsibility. Both are better avoided. Leaving he E.U. risks doing quite the opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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’.

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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.

 

 

 

 

From perestroika to Putin: journalism in Russia

Next week sees the publication of an essay I have written on journalism in post-Soviet Russia. It will appear in a book Media Independence Working with Freedom or Working for Free? (edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange), and published by Routledge. You can find out more details from the publisher’s website, here. I gave a talk based on the essay at a conference in Prague last month. The subject of the essay is not specifically about the reporting of conflict, but, in its later stages, it does discuss the impact of the first Chechen War, which began 20 years ago this month. To give a taste of the book, I am posting here the first two paragraphs of the essay.

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Independence – nezavisimost’ in Russian – was, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, a word which helped to describe some of the head-spinning changes which hastened the end of a superpower. It took its place alongside perestroika (usually translated as ‘restructuring’) and glasnost’ ‘openness’: the key words of the reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. He was, of course, to be the last to hold that title. It disappeared in the same historical storm which swept away the USSR itself. From the wreckage of the “indestructible Union of Free Republics” , as the Soviet anthem so boldly described it, there arose fifteen new independent states. Ideas of ‘independence’, therefore, began to influence all aspects of late Soviet life, not just the political sphere. Co-operative cafés; joint ventures with companies from the capitalist world; small businesses – all began to appear where once there had only been the state-run economy. For the Russian news media, it was the biggest period of change and opportunity certainly since the advent of Soviet power, and possibly, given the speed with which it happened, since the birth of Russian journalism itself.

The purpose of this essay is to try to analyse what has followed from the opportunities of that era. Perhaps it did not seem so at the time, but, with hindsight, those hybrid forms of economic activity outlined above could almost be seen to anticipate the compromises which Russian journalists would come to make in the world which awaited them. For though this was an era when ideas of political independence took centre stage – even Russia itself, despite having been the heart of the Soviet Union considers that it too became independent at this time — this essay will seek to show that journalism’s independence (in the socio-political sense defined by James Bennett in the introduction to this volume) did not last long. I argue that developments in Russian journalism, and therefore ideas of Russian journalism’s independence, are inseparable from the political environment in which they occurred. Given that one of Russian journalism’s tasks, as in any country, has been to chronicle and reflect upon political, economic, and social change, any idea of ‘independence’ has that limitation. That being the case, this essay will try to consider the extent to which Russian journalism has been able to act independently in editorial terms, in the ‘industrial’ and ‘formal’ senses of ‘independence’ defined for the purposes of this book. What kind of angles has Russian journalism pursued, what proprietorial or political constraints has it been forced to accept?

Second Thoughts on First Drafts

My first international assignment was to Moscow in 1991. I ended up witnessing the end of the Soviet Union. That was the end of the Cold War. Now, more than twenty years later, relations between Russia and the West are worse than at any time since. For this month’s British Journalism review, I have written an essay on the value of journalism as history. Here’s an extract.

SOLID GOLD TEETH, SOFT CONSONANTS, HEAT, AND THIRST are what I remember from that day. The solid gold teeth were masterpieces of Soviet dentistry, filling the mouths of those who smiled now as they seemed to have won a famous victory over their masters in Moscow. The soft consonants were part of the Ukrainian accents I heard around me in the square in front of the Ukrainian parliament. Where most Russian accents pronounce ‘G’ as a hard sound, Ukrainian softens it. The crowd, intoxicated with the excitement of sudden change, chanted slogans of independence, and hissed insults about ‘Horbachev’, as they called the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Goodbye Lenin? A monument in Moscow, 1991 ©James Rodgers

Goodbye Lenin? A monument in Moscow, 1991 ©James Rodgers

They could say what they liked. The week before, an attempted coup by hardliners in Moscow had failed. Mikhail Gorbachev had been released from detention at his holiday house in the Crimea. Yet when he returned to Moscow just after midnight on 22nd August 1991, the Soviet Union he hoped to lead once more was cracked beyond repair, and already in the process of crumbling. As a producer for the television news agency Visnews (soon to become Reuters Television), I was sent to Kiev. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was trying to decide whether it would break away from the Union of which it had been a part for most of the 20th century – not to mention the Russian Empire before that. The session of the rada – the Ukrainian parliament – went on, while the crowd chanted and shouted in the hope of swaying the lawmakers’ decision. It was baking hot. There was little chance of anything to eat or drink. The food supplies of the late Soviet period were so unpredictable there was not much chance of grabbing a snack on the street. Suddenly, the crowd went wild with joy. The Soviet Ukrainian flag was lowered – hammer, sickle, and all – from the pole on top of the parliament. The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag rose in its place.

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Formal independence followed, or so it seemed. As the fighting in Ukraine this year has shown, it was not that simple. The incident stays in my mind because the material I sent that day – a few paragraphs of script, and some shaky video material – contributed, in however small a way, to that famous first draft of history. Perhaps I did not fully realize it then – too pressed, as I was, by deadlines, and worrying whether I would beat the opposition – but this was part of one of the events which would define the time in which I lived, and worked as a journalist. For someone born, as I was, in Western Europe in the 1960s, the world as I knew it as a child was to change. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major milestone on that road of transformation.

Extracted from ‘Second Thoughts on First Drafts’ British Journalism Review, September 2014.
More details on the BJR website, here.