Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent

Angus Roxburgh
Format: Hardback Pages: 368 pages, 16pp colour plates Publisher: Birlinn General Publication Date: 28/09/2017 Category: Politics & government ISBN: 9781780274928
by David Robinson

Back In The USSR

August 12, 2017 | by David Robinson

Back in the days when newspapers had money and could afford foreign correspondents, it was often felt that the best thing to do with these aristocrats of the trade was to shift them around every few years. That way, it was felt, they wouldn’t ‘go native’. As Angus Roxburgh makes clear in Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent he’d gone native over Russia even before he left Scotland. Consider the evidence: even as a teenager, he says, he spent half his free time listening to Radio Motherland on the Pye wireless in his bedroom.

He had no idea of what was being said in Russian, but loved ‘the dark, soft, sexy vowels, the clatter of its consonants, the susurrus of its fricatives and sibilants’ so much that he insisted on learning the language even though his school didn’t teach it. And why not: the Soviets dominated sport, space and much of Europe, and when Roxburgh finished his degree in Russian at Aberdeen, he decided to let them dominate his future too. ‘I longed for Moscow,’ he writes, ‘like Chekhov’s three sisters.’

Not, at first, though, as a foreign correspondent. Despite the book’s sub-title, about a third of it is given over to his first three years in the city (1978-81) when he was working as a translator. He had married Neilian, a fellow-linguist at Aberdeen, a month before they went to Moscow. His employers at a state publishing firm fixed them up with a fifth-floor flat on a soulless, muddy, halfbuilt estate by the outer ring road. The place was bugged – both with cockroaches and listening devices installed so carelessly by the KGB that their workmen didn’t even bother to clear away their cigarette butts. The local supermarket had sparrows flying about inside, the only old building in the area was a church used to repair tractors, the windows in their flat had ice up to a centimetre deep on the inside. None of this mattered: they were in love, and living the life they wanted.

Later on, Roxburgh will find himself at the epicentre of world politics. He will be kicked out of the USSR as a spy (a charge he vehemently denies). He will interview the politicians who called time on communism and relaunched Russia. He will be in the Baltic States when their thraldom to the USSR comes to an end. He will hear Gorbachev, his former hero, angrily explain how Yeltsin betrayed him. He will even be taken into the Kremlin to work as a consultant for Putin’s PR chief. Yet for all that closeness to power, seldom does Roxburgh capture the intensity of these early chapters charting his new life in Moscow.

Moscow Calling is at least two books in one – a memoir of those first years in Moscow, and a wider focussed story about covering one of the twentieth century’s biggest stories: the sudden decline and fall of the Soviet Union. Both parts are completely different in tone, almost as if the first were based on a diary into which he poured such discoveries as the boho seediness of Moscow’s Arbat district and the freewheeling vodka-fuelled conversations with artist friends like Garif Basyrov (now dead but eminently collectable). At leading translator and anglophile Volodya Korotky’s dingy flat, a feast is laid out in front of them that, because its ingredients could only have assembled by hours of queuing, is itself a testament to friendship. All of this is part of what ‘going native’ looks like. He’s living in the Russian equivalent of Leytonstone but gives the Soviets the benefit of nearly all his doubts. Yes, the shops might be empty, but who says consumer choice makes you happy? Freezing cold can be ‘exhilarating’. Those dull high-rises can look fine in spring. A snatched illicit radio signal can mean more than shelves full of western celebrity magazines.

Some doubts, however, remain. His employers insist he work on a piece of lowgrade propaganda rebutting claims in a new US biography that Shostakovich hated the Soviet regime. And when he is out mushroom-picking with Volodya, his translator friend asks him to tell him whether his own English is a bit, well, oldfashioned: someone at work had said it was, and he wanted to check. No it isn’t, Roxburgh replies, thinking to himself as he says so that that this was precisely what he had mentioned the other day to Neilian. Does this mean his friend is listening in to him – or is it all just a coincidence?

Uncovering such stories that explain the different realities of everyday life in the host country is a key part of a foreign correspondent’s job. Applied to his own pre-journalistic life, Roxburgh is good at it, nowhere more so than in describing the mind-numbing bureaucracy involved in leaving the USSR, which he does in order to work on a doctorate on Pravda and the Soviet mass media at Glasgow. But even by then, he had realised he wanted something more out of life, something he wasn’t going to find either in academia or as a translator. When he heard a BBC report in 1980 that the leading Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov and his wife had been arrested, he first felt the pull of journalism. The way he describes it, the lure consisted mainly of being on the inside, knowing something other people – his fellow passengers on the bus home, for example – didn’t. Getting to the story first.

His big break came in 1985 when the Sunday Times needed a profile of Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader. He’d been working at the BBC’s Monitoring Service at Caterham and, unbeknown to his employers, had approached the Sunday Times and offered his services as a freelance. Two years later, he was their man in Moscow.

These were the days of glasnost and perestroika, when the unsayable suddenly became sayable, and Roxburgh catches their excitement. Every night there was a new underground meeting to go to, at which Roxburgh would catch glimpses of the coming changes. The first crack in the ideological ice was about the past: Lenin had wanted Bukharin, not Stalin, to be his heir, readers of the Moscow News were told – in fact he had warned against Stalin all along. The collapse of the official version of history was only the start. ‘Every article you write,’ the editor of Moscow News told his staff, ‘should be one I could get sacked for!’
Roxburgh is good at showing how the unexpected rapidly became routine. The first demonstrations. The rehabilitation of dissidents. Unscripted television. In August, 1988, he witnessed a demonstration in a small town in Latvia. There were only a thousand people there, but they hoisted Latvia’s banned flag, demanded the official restoration of their language and called for economic independence. It was, he realised, the first spark in a revolution he would find himself chasing down, first of all in all three Baltic states, then over the rest of Eastern Europe.

In the middle of it all, on 21 May 1989, just as first meetings of the new parliament were turning the country into a democracy, he was told he was to be expelled. Technically, he had violated some travel restrictions while taking his family on holiday, but the real reason was that the Kremlin needed to make up the numbers to match the eleven Soviet spies whose expulsion Thatcher had just ordered. When a KGB officer guarding his Moscow home in the foreigners’ compound asked him if he’s had a good weekend, Roxburgh burst into tears. Would a real spy have done that?

Yet if that KGB man was shocked, so too is the reader. For the previous 200 pages this has been a memoir with not much ‘me’ about it. Even at the start, Roxburgh doesn’t bother telling us where he lived, what school he went to, anything much about his family or about himself other than that he grew up ‘halfhippy, half-nerd’. His private life remains just that – and that’s fine, because it’s the threading together of his Russian friendships and the times they’ve all lived through that give this book its greatest strength.
As it turned out, expulsion wasn’t the caesura in his career he feared. After covering the end of Iron Curtain communism for the Sunday Correspondent (he was the only western hack to witness Ceaucescu’s last hurrah at the 1989 party congress), he was allowed back into Russia – first as a consultant for the six-episode series on perestroika made for the BBC by Norma Percy and Brian Lappin, and then, from 1990, as Martin Sixsmith’s replacement as the BBC’s Moscow correspondent.

He is not, he admits, a TV natural, and certainly hadn’t the rhinoceros-thick hide necessary to be even an occasional war correspondent, as his new job required in the brutal second Chechen war, where he saw many horrors. The voracious demands of 24-hour news took another kind of toll, and he resigned after four years as the BBC’s Europe correspondent in 2002. After that, there was a small amount of work for BBC Scotland, and not much else. ‘For six whole months,’ he writes, ‘I did almost nothing except stare mindlessly out of the window…. When a psychiatrist tested me for depression, I scored top marks.’
In 2006, when a former colleague offered him a job as a consultant to the Kremlin’s PR machine, he took it, though he hated himself for doing so. He writes too briefly – a mere 15 pages – but with entertaining bile (‘I saw little to change my perception that PR was all charlatanism’) about the three years in which he saw the Kremlin from the inside. He only stayed because in the now-debased state of newspapers he couldn’t find an escape route: the best freelance rate he could find was the £100 offered by the Independent – and even then only for a page-lead story.

Towards the end of the book, Roxburgh comes across an article by Alexander Gelman, a playwright whose work blossomed under glasnost but who now ‘talked like the archetypal “superfluous man” – a Chekhovian ditherer, beating his breast in despair, wishing he could change things but powerless to do so’. Switch the state of the media for the state of the nation, and could the same thing be said about Roxburgh himself?
Perhaps, but Roxburgh has at least three things to throw on the counter-balancing scales. First: Putin, Russia and the West, the award-winning four-part BBC documentary series screened in 2012. In it, he helped uncover the kind of scoop he dreamed of in 1980 – that in 2007, the Russians and the Americans had actually agreed that Russia would be covered by the missile shield the US planned to build, only for this to be vetoed by the military and political hawks in Washington. Second, there’s all his other exclusives from the collapse of the USSR. And lastly, because he has found his own escape route – and it’s one I never knew about. In his memoir, he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve at all. But in the songs he’s written – sung with tender, impressively sweetvoiced lyricism – and recorded in his album Harmonies for One, he most definitely does.

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