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A grand preparation for life

It’s been my good fortune to have worked all these years in such a truly international culture with such knowledgeable, talented and (most important of all) humorous people; and in some wild and woolly places, not least Canary Wharf. Many things come to mind.  Indulge me (or not, as you see fit), if I go over the 400-word limit.

My thanks to all the local staff, from Moscow, Berlin, Istanbul, Ankara and other centres I’ve passed through, for their wisdom and their forbearance. Some are still around and some for various reasons won’t see this. 

Arriving fresh-baked in Cold War Moscow was baffling to start off with. Communism set like stone, an ailing leader who could scarcely stand for the weight of medals, war in Afghanistan and “counter-revolution” in Poland, dissidents, failing harvests, the scramble for oil. In a country where everything was a secret there was a special thrill to uncovering any nugget of truth. You learn codes. The exact wording of Pravda editorials, the meaning of the pen-names, the hints at major events buried in long, long speeches. Then suddenly, there was this younger man appearing in official pictures of state funerals (lots of them), his gradual rise reflected in ever closer proximity to the catafalque.

I return eight years later and the same man has become leader and turned everything on its head. Where before everything was banned, now it seems anything is possible. People start saying whatever they want, on TV, on the streets, in magazines, and there’s no-one around to arrest them. No rules. You can speak to the president, for goodness sake. A day of vodka and champagne with the commander of Strategic Bomber Forces will live in my memory. The darker side: wars and uprisings in Lithuania, Georgia, Latvia, Tajikistan, Moldova, Armenia, Chechnya. The Soviet garrison commander in Lithuania says what the country really needs is a Pinochet to sweep away this man, his commander in chief.

You really want me to quote you on that?

Yes, please.

By name?

Go ahead. Why not? It’s what we all think.

Well, yes, but.

Six months pass. On a rainy August morning, TASS announces Gorbachev is ill and an Emergency Committee has taken over the Soviet Union. At a news conference that day, the chief coup leader’s hands shake on the lectern almost as much as mine had done on the keyboard hours earlier. The Committee is falling apart. The tanks leave. The coup collapses, the Soviet Communist Party is demolished and in months the USSR itself follows it into history. Who ever would have thought? Not me, for sure. Two years later, Yeltsin’s coup. Shelling and shooting this time. A cameraman is killed at the TV tower.

Some images stick fast. The streets of Lockerbie littered with the shredded and twisted fragments of jet turbines blades. Standing with an elderly Jewish woman on the edge of the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev while she recalled how as a girl she escaped her executioners by hiding until nightfall under her mother’s body. Holding in my hand the secret interrogation document that Nikolai Bukharin, once Stalin’s ally, annotated in his cell days before he was shot.

Sometimes I wish I’d kept a diary - it all seems a little unreal in recollection - but I extend my thanks to the boys and girls of the Ministry for State Security of the German Democratic Republic for transcribing for my enjoyment some 3,000 pages of bugged conversations and colourful and imaginative surveillance reports. Also, some lovely snapshots (especially of me and my Mum). “Asks many questions, but answers none,” was the line from one informant after a reception in my shabby East Berlin flat. But that’s what we do, isn’t it? Then the observation from an early street surveillance that cut to the essence of this banal yet vile creature. “Walks with his toes pointing out.”

When the Cold War fell apart, there was Turkey, a country I expected to be half Middle East and half West. It was neither. Turkey is Turkey and all the better for it. When I left in 2003, the newly founded AK Party was full steam ahead, building democracy, loosening restraints on journalists, reforming the economy and judiciary, alleviating poverty, talking to the Kurds, easing the military out of politics. My best wishes to everyone past and present - text, TV and pictures - in Ankara and Istanbul bureaux. Turkey will always be a special place.

News may have a tendency to be dark, but there were bright or unusual episodes: A day at a GDR-style not-really-so-Japanese bathhouse in the mountains of the GDR, a picturesque, snowy spy swap vigil on the Glienicke Bridge, a mass circumcision in a sports arena arranged by the Turkish army for the sons of the poor.

Back in London, you see everything from the desk’s perspective but they’re the same professionals working with dedication, intelligence and, again, that humour, no matter what the pressure. 

I’d hesitate to single out any bureau or individual, but our Middle East staff do deserve special praise, operating as they do so hard in difficult and often dangerous circumstances covering a story that sometimes unfolds with dizzying speed. They are superb and superbly led.

My thanks also to the Pictures and TV people I have worked with overseas who produce such brilliant images and have done so much to keep me afloat. They always seem to know where it’s going to happen next. They are also, all too often, the ones that attract the most attention when things get nasty.

I wish all my colleagues the very best for the future. In times like these, Reuters is more important than ever before as a source of reliable, unbiased news to the world, an editorial operation not beholden to any government or ‘baron’ other than the one who founded it.

It was quite an adventure and a grand preparation for life.

Ralph Boulton joined Reuters in September 1979 and was assigned to Moscow the following May. In London he was EMEA editor, political and general news, but stood aside a few years ago (for family reasons), since when he has been subbing on the desk “and travelling a bit”. ■