Maria Golovnina - one of the greats
Thursday 26 February 2015
Maria Golovnina was a rare and exceptional talent.
Fiercely intelligent and totally committed to her profession, she burned with a passion for news, a determination to seek the truth and a strong sense of right and wrong, leavened by a mischievous sense of humour, touching modesty and great human warmth.
She was born to be a foreign correspondent. The daughter of TASS’s bureau chief in Tokyo, Maria grew up in Japan in a journalistic household, living in a profoundly different culture to that of her family yet never forgetting her Russian cultural roots. Her astounding linguistic talent - trilingual in Japanese, Russian and English - allowed her to operate effortlessly in all these cultures, while never quite belonging fully to any of them.
An obvious choice as a Reuters graduate trainee, Maria was taken on in Asia and her early promise led rapidly to assignments in Tokyo and Moscow. But it was in the vast, exotic expanses of the Central Asian steppe where Maria really came into her own. Posted to Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan, a largely Soviet-built city nestling at the edge of the Himalayas close to the Chinese border, Maria had a natural correspondent’s eye for the bizarre, often fantastic nature of politics, government and society in the “Stans” - republics which mixed Communist-era totalitarianism with crony, Wild East capitalism and eccentric leaders.
Travelling with Maria in Central Asia on stories was a particular pleasure. I remember arriving at Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s gaudy, mock-French palace in the newly and hastily-built capital Astana and waiting in the vast hall downstairs, staring at the huge thick columns soaring up towards the ceiling. “Tap the columns,” Maria whispered to me with a wink. They were hollow, as fake as the facade of democracy covering that country.
Upstairs, we conducted our interview with Nazarbayev, a stern autocrat who had seamlessly moved from Soviet-era boss of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic to President of independent Kazakhstan and stayed in power ever since. We quickly ignored the scripted questions and went freestyle but Nazarbayev maintained a fixed smile until, five minutes from the end, Maria lobbed in a verbal grenade. She asked him about the murder of a series of political opponents, something considered completely unacceptable in the highly stilted confines of Soviet-style leader interviews. Nazarbayev’s face turned to thunder and the encounter quickly ended. His press chief got on the phone minutes afterwards, alternately screaming at us for asking the question and begging us not to publish the answer. We ignored him, of course. A week later, he was fired.
As well as possessing a prodigious talent for reporting and writing, Maria also had a keen sense of fun. For one bureau chief visit, she arranged dinner in a yurt halfway up a mountain outside Almaty, where we feasted on cold horse meat, vodka and other unrecognisable but intriguing local delicacies. Her reporting ranged far over the steppe, taking in visits to former Soviet gulag towns in minus 20 degree winter weather, the launch site of the Soviet and then Russian space programme, former nuclear weapons testing grounds, the revolutions that convulsed Kyrgyzstan (where her quick thinking saved the life of a colleague caught in a street riot) and to the huge oil developments of the Caspian - to name but a few.
During the four years I worked with her in the former Soviet Union, Maria was unfailingly professional, totally reliable, hugely talented and great fun. We encouraged her to move to London, learn the World Desk and spread her wings. She found ready and natural soul mates on the desk and it was not long before she was volunteering for fireman assignments including helping to cover the Libyan civil war, which she did with distinction. She moved to the London bureau as chief correspondent, bought a flat in Islington, and enjoyed the occasional eccentricities of the UK and the diverse, highly international nature of London.
We thought she might settle a little. She spoke of trying for British nationality, a way of leaving behind the Russian passport which she hated because of its associations with a regime she regarded as corrupt, brutal and inimical to the values she stood for. London seemed an ideal base for occasional forays into action abroad, coupled with a lively story on her doorstep. But the foreign correspondent in Maria stirred again, restless and curious.
And then came the assignment to Pakistan. None of us doubted that she could handle it as well as any of the other jobs she had performed with aplomb. We told her at a farewell drinks in the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street that we would miss her and wished her well. I don’t think any of her many friends in London ever imagined it would end like this, suddenly and shockingly, at the age of just 34. What an unspeakable tragedy.
Maria, you were one of the greats. We salute you and mourn your passing. And we grieve, deeply. ■