John Morrison led Reuters Moscow bureau on cover of Leonid Brezhnev's death
Monday 28 August 2017
PHOTO: Reuters Moscow team who covered Leonid Brezhnev's death in November 1982, standing on the forecourt of the "Sad Sam" housing complex where Reuters offices were located and where most of them lived. L-R: Mark Wood, John Morrison, Brian Killen, Richard Balmforth.
It was some time in October 1980 when John Morrison, then number two in the Reuters bureau in Moscow, came into the office. He’d been reading up the night before, he said, on recent Soviet history and he had a hunch that an announcement of Kosygin’s resignation or death might be imminent. There were historical precedents, he said. Alexei Kosygin, Soviet prime minister, and a key member of Leonid Brezhnev’s politburo had not been seen in public for some time. Back then, any such public absence by members of the gerontocracy that ran the world’s second super-power provoked fevered speculation. JMM - such were his working initials - got the translator to check and we discovered a plenary session of the communist party’s central committee was about to start. “Get down there quick,” he told me. I did so, and an hour later standing alone in the press gallery of the Supreme Soviet I watched as Brezhnev announced that Kosygin had written to tender his resignation. Our urgent reporting was 45 minutes ahead of TASS news agency - light years for an agency - and we left our normal competitors beached. There were many that day who could claim credit for the cover which brought Reuters huge kudos (“You drove the Chicago grain market wild”, London exulted in one telex). But the mastermind behind the coup was JMM.
That unrivalled knowledge of Soviet and Russian affairs had served Reuters Moscow well when some time later he stepped up to the plate as Moscow bureau chief after the legendary Bob Evans moved to another post. John kept the operation on track and it was he who led the four-person team, also comprising myself, Mark Wood and Brian Killen, to cover the “big one”, the death of Brezhnev himself in November 1982. John himself had been on duty the previous evening and picked up on changes in mood music - cancellation of scheduled TV and radio programmes, an unusually grave-looking news reader, etc - and had characteristically taken the plunge and written that the death of LIB himself could not be ruled out. We were all in our blocks the next day when it was confirmed. John - dead calm and self-assured - rolled out the news that Brezhnev had gone and we in the bureau didn’t stop for the next 24 hours.
The menu of the day for the foreign press corps back then included the US grain embargo, Soviet crop failures, the beleaguered dissident movement, Soyuz space launches and the cost of the just-launched Soviet adventure in Afghanistan.
As a journalist, John brought a cutting edge to the file - he wrote forcefully, succinctly and with wit. The secrecy-obsessed Soviet political system - with all its clunkiness, evasiveness, cack-handedness and glaring inefficiency - was easy prey for his elegant, irony-laden reportage. He took full advantage.
He delighted in spotting the things that went unmentioned in the Soviet press and the TV images that were left out of the frame - all evidence to build a story from. “There’s the dog that doesn’t bark”, as he used to say.
He was an excellent linguist and his spoken Russian was second to very few in the foreign press corps.
Tall and austere-looking, he had an intimidating demeanour for some people who did not know him better. This though proved useful in the peculiar world we lived and worked in in those days. I recall being with him one day when a middle-ranking Soviet official, in the course of a rare meeting, made a careless reference to the Western press always telling lies. John was not prepared to let this go unchallenged and pressed him querulously to define exactly who he was talking about. The official, who clearly had not expected any such reaction, eventually backed off, flustered, and added that Reuters, though, was a perfectly “decent” news outlet.
Long after he had left Moscow bureau and after the Soviet Union collapsed John retained an interest in Russian affairs. He produced an unofficial biography of Boris Yeltsin, whom he admired, and while based in London he made the occasional short reporting trip in the 1990s to reinforce the bureau. He showed he had lost none of his elegance of reporting. When he interviewed General Alexander Lebed, a gruff, no-nonsense army man who was a rising star under Yeltsin, he began his story thus:
KALININGRAD, Russia, Oct 9 (Reuter) - Imagine a bass deep enough to sing "Boris Godunov" at the Bolshoi Theatre. Then go down another two octaves and tune into what sounds like a distant artillery barrage -- the voice of Alexander Lebed.
Foreign correspondents lived in a peculiar environment in those late-Brezhnev days. We all had apartments in a single housing complex known as “Sad Sam” together with assorted diplomats and military. Eaves-dropping by state security on our lives was taken for granted. Paranoia was de rigueur.
For myself and my wife, whom I had just married, John and Penny Morrison were a great stay and support in this odd “goldfish bowl”. Their flat was always open to colleagues. We always knew we could turn to them in a crisis.
Some felt an intellectual haughtiness about him. I felt this too at the start or our relationship, but realised soon that this was not so. He could be amusingly self-deprecating. He was loyal. a person of great principle, unmaterialistic and honest. He generously gave me - a newcomer to Reuters back then - a lot of sensible and selfless professional advice which helped me. ■