The first draft of history takes us only so far, says a journalist who watched the Soviet Union collapse
Sensing that change was coming – although perhaps not exactly in the way it very soon happened – the Soviet and international news media were out in great numbers. You could tell them apart then by their equipment – Western camera kit and recording equipment superior without exception then to that used by Soviet journalists – and their unmistakably Western clothes. “Yeltsin! Yeltsin!” chanted the marchers. They shouted their support for the renegade Communist Party boss from the fringes of Siberia who, now in Moscow, was to be the central figure in what would be the last summer of Soviet Russia.
The rush-hour traffic on one of Moscow’s main streets paused and parted to let the demonstrators pass. One foreign correspondent and his cameraman stood on top of a bus, idle at the edge of the street, to get a better angle for a piece to camera. Over the correspondent’s shoulder, the demonstrators streamed down Tverskaya (recently renamed from “Gorky Street”, as it had been for most of the Soviet period) towards the Kremlin. Three days later, June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federation. He was the first to hold the newly created office. His victory at the polls set him up for an uneasy political co-existence with Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union – a post of which he would be the last holder, and which would be gone by the end of the year.
“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.” Wordsworth’s lines on the French revolution always come to mind when I think of Moscow that summer – in my twenties then, and on my first foreign assignment. I was experiencing for the first time the excitement, nerves and adrenalin of covering a developing international story against intense competition. I was a producer for Visnews, a TV news agency, with one main rival, Worldwide Television News. We competed daily to send the best pictures to broadcasters around the world.
Yet the bliss then was not just mine. It was also that of millions of people across the world’s largest country. So many ordinary people were grasping with great enthusiasm the chance to say in public what they thought of their political system, and its leaders, for the first time in their lives. Like many revolutions, though, the consequences look very different today from what was expected then, 30 years ago. What unfolded that summer and the way things are now show the great difficulties involved in reporting world-changing events as they happen. For the feeling then, for a journalist born during the Cold War in a divided Europe, was that the world was entering a better time. Russia and the West were going to be friends, even allies. Nothing would be as it had been.
Within the Soviet Union, that was certainly true. Even then, before the system finally collapsed, it was creaking. Alongside the right to take to the streets and shout criticism of the Communist Party without fear of being beaten by the militia (as the Soviet police were called), there were food shortages. Many basic goods were difficult to find even in the capital. I suspect that many of the Soviet colleagues with whom I shared an office that summer (the Soviet agency that oversaw foreign companies in the USSR provided staff, at least some of whom were reporting to the KGB) ate because family members spent time queuing.
We Westerners did have access to shops – “Beriozkas” – selling imported goods that had to be paid for in foreign currency, but they were few and far between. So were restaurants. Finishing work late at night, I would be lucky to get a meal. Slim then anyway, I lost weight that summer – sustained by a diet including large amounts of nicotine and caffeine. When my Western colleagues and I could reserve a restaurant table, or get to the Beriozka, we had the right kind of cash to spend. For Soviet citizens, the pioneering outposts of capitalism – Western businesses were allowed by then to open “joint ventures” with Soviet companies, and charge in foreign currency – served to reinforce Cold War warnings. One afternoon that summer, I watched an elderly Muscovite sympathetically but firmly turned away from a newly opened branch of the American ice-cream chain Baskin Robbins. He had approached the door with a fistful of Soviet roubles – still bearing Lenin’s image – to find that they only took dollars.
The Baskin-Robbins was on the ground floor of the Rossiya hotel, down the slope from the onion domes of St Basil’s cathedral on the edge of Red Square. The hotel – a huge concrete structure that was more like a self-contained housing estate – is no more, demolished as a richer Russia smartened itself up in the Putin era. That summer, it was the base for the international press during what would be the last US-Soviet summit, between Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush.
The aim was to reduce further the nuclear arsenals that the two Cold War foes had amassed against each other. There were also talks to assist Gorbachev as the Soviet authorities struggled with empty shelves in the shops. The more perceptive correspondents, such as Serge Schmemann of The New York Times, understood the domestic challenges that such gestures raised for Gorbachev. Schmemann noted in one of his despatches that the Soviet leader had been criticised by Communist hardliners for ‘holding his hat out’ to the West. The sense of humiliation that such requests provoked was to have dire consequences later that summer.
Empty shelves and no fuel for our aircraft
First, though, in a departure from diplomatic protocol, and a recognition that power no longer lay solely in Moscow, Bush did not leave the Soviet Union directly from the capital. He went first to Kyiv (the dateline then always “Kiev”, a transliteration of the city’s spelling in Russian, rather than Ukrainian) in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. The experience of travelling there to cover the visit – as I did – laid as bare as the shelves in Moscow food shops the fact that the system was failing, perhaps for good.
On a hot summer evening, we boarded a flight from Moscow to Kyiv. Everything seemed ready for the departure time. The plane did not take off. After a wait of an hour or more, one of the flight crew announced over the plane’s public address system that the aircraft had not refuelled, and the airport’s management was refusing them the supplies they needed.
Eventually, this was somehow resolved – without the need for the passengers to accompany the crew to demand the fuel, as the stewardess had suggested.
In Kyiv, the next morning, as we waited for Bush’s arrival, one of my Soviet colleagues looked up from a local newspaper to share the news that – in some parts of the city at least – the authorities would begin rationing some basic foodstuffs. It made a quick piece ahead of the president’s arrival: one that exposed the woeful inefficiencies of the late Soviet economy. The timing – on the day of the visit of the leader of the USSR’s Cold war foe – could not have reinforced that sense of humiliation any more starkly.
Less than three weeks later, the hardliners who still occupied senior posts in the Soviet leadership had had enough. Declaring Gorbachev to be too unwell to continue as leader (he was, in effect, under house arrest in his official holiday residence in Crimea), they announced that the country would now be run by an “Emergency Committee”: themselves. Muscovites woke on Monday morning, August 19, to tanks on the streets and Swan Lake on TV.
Incredibly, given the Soviet Communist background from which the coup plotters came, they did not think to control the international media. Even Gorbachev, it later turned out, was able to listen to the BBC Russian Service to learn what was happening – and reporters in Moscow were able to cover everything they saw, including Yeltsin’s dramatic and risky speech of defiance on top of a tank outside the “White House”, a government building in central
Moscow. The plotters themselves gave an unconvincing news conference in which one of their number, Gennady Yanayev, visibly trembled – perhaps from nerves, or, it was suspected, strong drink. Their biggest mistake was undoubtedly not to follow the methods of their revolutionary ancestors and cut off communications so that they could manage the message, as had happened in 1917. In the 1990s, a very different communications environment from today, that would not have been too difficult. Instead, the foreign media were allowed to do largely as they wished. “The coup plotters made three mistakes,” Ralph Nicholson, then Visnews bureau chief responsible for the links that carried much of the television material to the outside world, told me in an interview for my book Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin. “They never shut down the TV centre, which allowed us (and others) to get a signal out of the country, they never shut down Sheremetyevo [airport], which would have prevented us getting any further journalists, crews, equipment, etc, into the country. And they never shut down the rail stations, which meant we were able to move around the country.”
Once it was clear that the coup had failed, cries for independence from Moscow went up across the Soviet Union. In early September, I was back in Ukraine, filming on a small video camera the moment when the Soviet-era flag came down from the parliament building in the centre of Kyiv to be replaced by Ukraine’s now more familiar blue and yellow. The crowd on the square in front of the parliament surged forward. They sang in celebration as if the blue skies and plentiful harvests that the flag symbolised were certain to follow soon in reality. By the end of the year, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – praised in its own national anthem as “indestructible” – had fallen apart. Back in London, working in the newsroom on Christmas Day, I watched Gorbachev’s valedictory speech as the last Soviet leader. Shortly afterwards, the TV feed from Moscow switched to pictures of the red flag being lowered from the roof of the Kremlin.
Demonstrations, tanks in the streets, flags and monuments torn down as the old regime cracked and collapsed: what a story it had been, especially for a producer for a TV news agency constantly seeking the most striking and dramatic pictures. As that story ended, countless others – often much more difficult to tell in hard news terms, yet which have had huge consequences – were taking shape. The consequences are still very much with us today so, with the benefit of considerable hindsight, I offer a few thoughts on the challenges and rewards of reporting on revolutionary change.
It all had its roots in the Summer of ‘91
The rewards are obvious, and considerable. To see events that will change the world, to tell the world about them, is the greatest journalistic experience that international reporting can offer. The excitement that accompanies it, the sense of having met the challenge that covering a story like that brings, is surely the purest form of professional satisfaction. The rewards endure for the rest of your career, at least as memories – but the feeling of having told the story in full might be as fleeting as the initial experience of excitement.
I covered Russia for much of its first chaotic and violent post-Soviet decade. I returned to Moscow in 2006 for a three-year posting as BBC correspondent. Through all that time, I drew on what I had seen and experienced in the summer of 1991, for all the big stories seemed to have roots in those last days of the Soviet Union. The big story now, Russia’s
tense relations with the West, certainly does. It has its roots in the pensioner turned away, shamefaced, from the American ice-cream shop. It has its roots in the way that Gorbachev was seen to be ‘holding his hat’ out to the West, and the food rationing in Ukraine that summer. It has its roots in the hauling down of the Soviet Ukraine flag I witnessed in the late summer of 1991, signalling the start of Ukraine’s still-unfinished attempt to plot a course between East and West. That was still ongoing when, in 2014, Russia struck back – annexing Crimea and, in consequence, triggering sanctions and counter-sanctions. A correspondent can never know what is going to happen. The best analysis piece is still educated guesswork.
Travelling around Russia in the 1990s, you sensed growing anger at the lost jobs, soaring inflation, unpaid wages and street crime that seemed to have been imported along with Russia’s experimental dose of liberal capitalist democracy. That was combined with a sense that the West was lording it over a weakened and impoverished Russia. Those outsiders who arrived with the new system were often guilty of swaggering arrogance: 20-and 30-something American businessmen probably the worst offenders. As the decade wore on, though, the emergence of a leader like Putin seemed to become more and more likely. But when was the moment? There wasn’t one single incident, one single day when, like the lowering of one flag and the raising of another, you could say things changed. Those gradual changes – as a new society takes shape after a revolution – are much harder to sell to an editor on the other side of Europe, or the world.
The challenge then was not simply to report the frustration and rage this humiliation engendered, but to evaluate its likely political consequences – and try to understand how likely a counter-revolution might be. Thirty years on, it seems to have happened. To look at Russia now – restrictions on journalism, jailing of political opponents, the leader in the Kremlin trading playground insults with the president of the United States about who may or may not be a killer (impossible to imagine such an exchange between Gorbachev and Bush senior) – it might almost be as if 1991 did not happen in the way it did.
How different, really, would Russia be now if the plotters against Gorbachev had not succeeded? How many of those smiling demonstrators, later disgusted with the way things turned out, have been enthusiastic voters for the former KGB man in the Kremlin? To say nothing of the improved relations between Russia and the West that came and went. What a story that summer was, though. With apologies to Wordsworth, bliss it was in that dawn to have filed.
James Rodgers is a former foreign correspondent. He analyses the news coverage of Russia throughout history, from the coverage of the siege of the Winter Palace and a plot to kill Stalin to the Chernobyl explosion and the Salisbury poison scandal in Assignment Moscow, published by Bloomsbury.