Monday 26 September 2011
In my first month at the Reuters Moscow bureau I was out of my depth. I spent a lot of time sitting miserably at my screen, trying to pretend to be busy.
At the end of one very long morning, I felt a pair of hands grab me by the shoulders. They shook me roughly for a good 20 seconds. When the quake subsided I turned to see a grinning round face topped with a scrag of white hair.
“That is how we do it in Abkhazia,” the old man said, then walked off cackling. It worked too. It cheered me up for the rest of the day.
That was how I met Robert Eksuzyan. He was, for me and I think for generations of Moscow correspondents, the soul of the Reuters bureau: translator, organiser, raconteur, librarian, eccentric smoking companion and friend.
Robert could always be relied on to add extreme random-ness to almost any situation. In the build-up to the Iraq War when the question of Russia’s veto at the United Nations was of crucial significance, the bureau chief and two senior correspondents were deep in conclave about the potential consequences. For Robert, it was an irresistible opportunity. He stomped up to them and waited to be noticed. Eventually one of them asked irritably what he wanted.
“Abkhazia will crush the United States,” he said, and stomped off, chuckling.
He left Reuters in 2008. I had also left the company by then, but I remembered him very fondly so when I was in Abkhazia in 2009 researching a book that never got anywhere I decided to look him up. It was a spur of the moment decision, I had no idea of his address so I just wandered the streets of Gagra looking for people who might know him.
It did not take long. The first woman I asked grabbed my hand and marched me to his door. I knocked and he opened in his underpants. He had been watching a football match, but squealed at the sight of me and shook me warmly by the hand.
For the rest of the day, I felt like a visiting dignitary. Everyone here had heard all about Reuters in Moscow, and his foreign friends, but I was the first of these Westerners to turn up for years. I met his son, and his wife, and his cousins and his friends. Even the ladies in the market were interrupted in their work and told to meet his Reuters colleague.
It was a sign of how much he loved Reuters that he took so much trouble to show me off to his friends. And it is a sign of how much his friends loved him that they were interested in me. When Richard Balmforth - who was, incidentally, one of those senior correspondents in conclave at the time of the Iraq War - rang me to tell me he had passed away, it felt like the end of an era.
But I hope his spirit will stop by the Moscow bureau to cheer up young correspondents with a vigorous shaking; and to wind up the bosses every now and then too. ■