When we published Angus Roxburgh’s memoir, Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent, in 2017 it was praised far and wide for offering a picture of the Russia we don’t see on the news. For the newest 2021 edition, with Russia as much in the news as ever, Angus reflects on the need for nuance and context in our own accounts of the country and what’s going on there.
From Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent by Angus Roxburgh (2021)
After publication of the hardback edition of Moscow Calling in 2017, I travelled the length and breadth of Britain talking to audiences at book festivals about Russia. There was, I realised, huge interest in a country that was rarely out of the headlines – but also, I sensed, a real appetite for deeper, more sophisticated coverage than was available in newspapers and on television.
There was certainly plenty to worry about. Russia had used internet trolls and secret agents to interfere in the 2016 American election that put Donald Trump in the White House. Russian assassins had deployed a deadly nerve agent, Novichok, in the streets of the English city of Salisbury. President Vladimir Putin’s most influential opponent, Alexei Navalny, was attacked with the same poison. The Kremlin had annexed Crimea and started a war in Ukraine. It sent troops into Syria and was deploying an array of sophisticated new nuclear missiles. Russia’s state media spewed out lies and propaganda, and opposition activists were thrown in jail. Worryingly, Moscow deployed a new secret weapon – using social media to sow confusion and spread fake news in Western democracies. And in 2020 Putin, by now the world’s most feared man, already serving his fourth presidential term, changed the Russian constitution to enable him to remain in power, if he wished, until 2036 (when he would be 83). The demonisation of Putin in Western media verged on something much more insidious – Russophobia, the stereotyping of an entire nation as villains. A former British defence minister cited the perfectly ordinary Russian word for ‘lying’ – vranyo – and claimed with a straight face that it denoted a particularly heinous ‘Russian’ form of mendacity.
The people who came to my talks were keen to know what lay behind the headlines and were wary of the hysteria that seemed to inform so much of the coverage. How could they square what was going on in Russia today with what they knew about Russian culture, literature, music? It seemed to strike a chord when I lamented that the prevailing portrait of Russia was so one-dimensional and politicised, as though there was nothing more to this great country than Vladimir Putin and his evil machinations.
When I started writing this memoir, I had no greater ambition than simply to retell some of the stories that have emerged from my long association with Russia. But in the telling, the book grew a second skin. I wanted to let readers feel what it was like to live in the Soviet Union and through the turmoil that followed it. This background – the history, the culture, the people and traditions – is not just an ‘optional extra’, but essential if we are to understand what Russia is today.
No country has suffered more than Russia (or the Soviet Union) in the last hundred years. Ever since the communist revolution of 1917, the nation has been hit by wave upon wave of hardship and killing. The revolution itself was followed by a bloody civil war; then came the Stalinist purges and enforced collectivisation of farming, leaving millions dead and millions more incarcerated in Siberian prison camps; then the Second World War that took 25 million Soviet lives and left half the country in ruins; then more purges, and the grinding hopelessness of the Soviet Union’s final decades; then the upheaval of change in the 1980s and 1990s, when the communist regime was ousted amid great hopes for the future. Those hopes quickly fizzled out, as democracy was stifled, and the promised market economy produced millions of poor people and a handful of billionaires – many of them Putin’s own cronies, propping up and benefitting from his corrupt, mafia-like rule. Millions of Russians emerged reeling from this horror movie. Those who had believed in the great Soviet utopia felt betrayed and duped as their heroes and ideals were ridiculed, while opponents of communism saw their dream of liberty fade to black.
My memoir covers the last forty-five years or so of this tragedy, the years I witnessed personally. It is the story of my own experiences in Russia since the 1970s, when I first visited the USSR as a student. In later years I worked there as a translator, as a correspondent for newspapers and for the BBC, and as a media consultant to the Kremlin. From the darkest days of communism and the Cold War, through the exhilaration of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms and the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s rebuilding of capitalism, to the recidivist Russia of Vladimir Putin, I have seen four decades of contradictions and surprises. Russia – as most people who fall in love with it agree – is an exasperating country that inspires and disappoints, attracts and horrifies in equal measure. This book is about the friendships I made, the hardships and the delights, the maddening way Russia makes you want to love it, despite everything! In the end it is simply about the way Russians live and have lived, what they have endured, what has kept them going, over these decades of upheaval.
And the pain goes on . . . In the summer of 2017, I made one of my frequent trips to Russia and once again experienced the paradoxes that seem to mark the country in every age. On the one hand I was welcomed, as always, by my dear Russian friends, who see their way through every dark cloud with a mixture of stoicism, resignation . . . and vodka. Some of them were with me one Saturday afternoon when supporters of Putin’s arch-critic, the anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny, staged a large demonstration on Tverskaya Street in the centre of Moscow. As usual, peaceful defiance was met with violence. Blackhelmeted riot police ploughed into the crowds, beating people with sticks and arresting random protestors (including – I had to laugh – one man who was telling a journalist what a fine leader Putin was).
If that wasn’t enough to persuade me that Russia had once more become a police state, then a day spent under arrest in the city of Nizhny Novgorod certainly helped. I was there with a group of tourists on a study trip, and we were meeting a local politician (not a critic, but a member of Putin’s own party) over breakfast, when a posse of leather-jacketed agents dragged us off to a police station. Most of the group were released after about four hours; I was detained for seven. A young plain-clothes officer interrogated me about the ‘real reasons’ for my visit, demanded to know why anyone should want to go on a ‘study trip’ to ‘Putin’s Russia’ and released me only after extorting a small ‘fine’.
A few days later, back in Moscow, we were invited by Anatoly Kuzichev, the host of a political talk show, to sit in the studio during a live broadcast on state television’s Channel One. Nominally the topic under discussion was the anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941 – but that turned out to be a pretext for a hate session against Ukraine, Poland and anyone who dared to criticise Russia.
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, citizens gather for ‘Hate Week’, where images of the state’s chief enemy are shown and the audience scream their hatred at him. Here, pictures of a man being arrested in Ukraine for carrying a Soviet flag flickered on the screen, and a token Ukrainian ‘expert’ was allowed to explain why communist symbols are banned there. But within seconds she was shouted down by the two alpha-male hosts, who sneered at her, denouncing the Ukrainian government as Nazis and Russophobes. Her only role, it seemed, was to act as a punch bag. After the show I asked her why she agreed to put herself up for such humiliation. She turned away and refused to speak.
One of the presenters, Artyom Sheinin, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, strutted around like an exploding parcel of boorishness and manufactured anger. He cursed the Polish parliament for voting to remove memorials to the Soviet occupation of their country. ‘I won’t shy from the word,’ he said, ‘these people are bitches, animals . . .’ His lip curled as he spat the words into the camera.
Sitting next to me was a young floor manager, scarcely in her twenties, whose job was to orchestrate the applause. Whenever the hosts made some particularly venomous comment, she cracked her palms together – giving the signal for the audience to burst into applause – and then after about four seconds gave a circular ‘wind down’ signal, which the audience also followed. I had seen shows like this on Russian TV and found them distasteful and crude – but seeing it behind the scenes left me speechless. I turned to the hate-leader during a commercial break and asked her if she had read George Orwell. She didn’t know who he was.
This, sadly, is Russia today. But how did it come to this? Why has this wonderful country, the home of Tolstoy and Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, ended up, once again, in the international doghouse? And, more importantly for its own people, in the hands of a ruling clique that smothers dissent and enriches itself at the expense of ordinary folk? How do Russians feel about themselves, as they struggle – still – to emerge from decades of totalitarian rule? I can’t claim that my memoirs answer all of those questions – far from it. But hopefully they add some perspective and context to today’s depressing narrative.