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On being 'hired hacks of the Western bourgeoisie'

JOHN MILLER - All Them Cornfields and Ballet in the Evening - Hodgson Press - 2010

It was on a wet spring day in 1962 on a muddy soccer pitch near Moscow University that I first came across John Miller. On the principle of full disclosure, I have to record right away that it was he who put the idea into my head of abandoning my then clearly-mapped career path into National Health Service administration and applying to join Reuters. So I owe him a debt of gratitude (I think) for my close on 50 years - in one guise or another - with the Baron. John, then moving towards the end of his Reuters Moscow tour, came up to the Lenin Hills to join a bunch of British exchange students in a kick-about. I always wondered - but never thought to ask - if his unstated purpose, and I am sure he had one, was to pick up chat about the ferment then brewing among Soviet students as the extent of the crimes of the Stalin period was increasingly aired in the Moscow media. Foreign journalists were not allowed onto the campus, but we actually lived there.

We did in fact have a good idea of what was happening. Some of the meetings I had slipped into at the University were in tone quite startlingly revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary as some rather forlorn Young Communist League leaders attending argued. But I didn’t tell John. Apart from preparing a post-graduate paper on Soviet linguistics, over that year in Moscow I also had a secret agenda - to write an article or two for the New Statesman about Soviet youth. And I wasn’t going to devalue my own script by passing exclusive information on to Reuters.

All the same, I followed John’s advice as soon as I got back to Britain in the summer of 1962 and offered my services. Promptly, and to my surprise, I found myself taking down nuggets from Moscow Radio at the company’s Green End monitoring station, and then, back at 85, translating and rewriting mailed features from a Bolivian stringer before being moved onto the African Desk. It worked out well enough, so three years later, newly married, I was back in Moscow as the third correspondent in Reuters’ bureau, then headed by Sidney Weiland with Andrew Waller as his deputy. But there was an effective Fourth Man, or so regular a visitor that he might as well have been - John Miller, now Daily Telegraph correspondent and living just a floor above our office.  

Despite the total of 18 years between 1965 and 1991 that I subsequently spent in Moscow for Reuters, I never found the time nor the application to write at length about it. My admiration therefore goes to John, with whom I and other Reuterian muscovites shared many of the moments recorded in this funny, yet also educative, page-turner of a memoir. He has done it, where many of us only think or talk about it. True, he also talked about it for years, but it was worth the wait.

John’s first-hand experience in the Soviet Union, later Russia, stretches from 1960, when he arrived for Reuters to join then chief correspondent Peter Johnson, right up to 1996 when he was there as an election observer for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Although his four-year stint from 1964-68 for The Daily Telegraph was his last permanent posting to Moscow, through much of the 1970s and 1980s he was a regular visitor on shorter assignments for the newspaper. He draws a hilarious portrait of the progressively doddering Leonid Brezhnev, Communist Party chief and later also state President for a full 17 years, who gathered ever more state awards and medals as his decrepitude increased. John was there in 1981 when Brezhnev died, and provides an insightful account of the strange 24 hours of silence as Moscow buzzed with rumours of the Kremlin chief’s passing. He was there again in August 1991, this time at his own expense, on the eve of the abortive coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that brought the collapse of the Soviet Union just a few months later. On these two seminal events, which I missed because on both occasions I had just been posted elsewhere, John brings valuable insights, not just into the Kremlin’s bizarre rituals but also on how foreign correspondents in Moscow had to handle the pressure from head offices to report the death before the official announcement in the firm knowledge that if they did, and they were wrong, it meant expulsion. Writing about the coup, and its chaotic aftermath as Boris Yeltsin riskily seized the high-ground and the roof of a tank to condemn the incompetent plotters, John firmly squashes both the myth of a mass popular uprising against the desperate Kremlin hard-liners and the equally persistent myth that the three young men who died as uncomprehending tank crews drove through Moscow waiting for orders were run down or shot while resisting the military. The truth, as he shows, was more prosaic. The pro-Yeltsin demonstrations were never that large. And as for the “Martyrs of the Fight for Democracy” as the three dead youths were later called, two - as John recounts - accidentally fell from an overpass onto the passing tanks while the third was killed by a stray bullet from a panicking soldier. 

Away from kremlinology and high politics, John is at his best on what it was like to be a foreign correspondent, especially in the 1960s, in a country where we were all regarded by officials as enemies, “hired hacks of the Western bourgeoisie,” an attitude that only changed in the time of Gorbachev when the snarl was replaced by an at first reluctant smile and then a genuine readiness to swap opinions. He recalls sinister encounters with the KGB but also a rare light-hearted moment when he actually made a security policeman laugh rather than arrest him outside the organisation’s Lubyanka HQ - John was trying to get a peek into the dreaded courtyard behind the iron gates. He rightly dismisses as “a lying, shifty careerist, the worst kind of apparatchik” Leonid Zamyatin, successively head of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department and the official TASS news agency, who seemed to delight in seizing every opportunity for making foreign journalists’ life a misery. Zamyatin, who never gave a briefing, at any rate to Western journalists, once called us to the Ministry “for an important announcement” at 2 pm on December 25. On our arrival, after of course keeping us waiting for nearly half an hour, he came in to tell us that he knew it was “our” holiday but felt he had to disturb our family festivities because of what he had to say. He then proceeded to talk for an hour and a half on a topic that was of so little news interest that I could hardly remember what it was by the time I got back to the office, let alone now, 42 years later. As we moved to file out when it was over, he held up his hand. “And one other thing: Happy Christmas,” he said with total lack of sincerity.

John never endeared himself to people like this, refusing to be intimidated and applying his effective if wildly ungrammatical Russian (learned during National Service) to ask them the questions they neither wanted to hear nor to answer. The tame Writers’ Union newspaper once reported that nekii - a term that can mean “a certain” but has a pejorative undertone better translated in this case as “a type called” – Miller had tried to stage an anti-Soviet provocation at a press conference by pestering the speaker with slanderous insinuations. The sobriquet stuck and John was forever after dubbed “Nekii” by his approving colleagues, and by Reuters’ long-serving translators Alla Nusinova and Lena Yengibaryants who both for years nursed a crush on him, as also did in a matronly way Galya Kotlova, housekeeper for a series of chief correspondents.

As the 1960s moved on in Moscow, the dissident movement began to gain strength - and courage - with the emergence of two one-time members of the Soviet nomenklatura, first former army general Pyotr Grigorenko and then academician Andrei Sakharov as its titular figureheads. John and I spent hours walking and talking with the general, struggling to understand his Ukrainian peasant Russian, and it is a disappointment that this brave old man, who later did his time in the KGB psychiatric hospitals but remained unbowed, does not figure in this book. Sakharov though does, and John excellently captures the former top nuclear scientist’s combination of gentleness and absolute determination to speak out any way he could on human rights abuses despite the calumny heaped upon him by the official media and by some of the semi-official “Soviet sources” used to plant disinformation on us.

Alongside the political dissidents, there appeared a host of ordinary Russians with stories of abuse by Soviet officials - pensions stolen, vital surgical operations denied because the required bribe could not be raised, unfair dismissal from work for reporting a corrupt trade union leader to an uncaring Party cell, a family turfed out of a nice apartment because a Party official in a flat next door wanted to expand his living space. How these people, emboldened by hearing statements from Grigorenko, Sakharov and others on Western radio broadcasts, got our telephone numbers, as John says, we never found out. But we would end up walking and listening to them endlessly in a park near the Sadovo-Samotechnaya (inevitably dubbed Sad-Sam) bloc where we both lived. He conveys well the mixed feelings aroused in us by these people and their sad, sometimes tragic, stories which touched our hearts but had no news value: how to make them understand there was nothing we could do to help them without coming over as no better than the cold bureaucrats they knew so well? It was a dilemma never resolved except when the petitioners dropped out of sight, either disgusted with us or taken in by the KGB.

John is excellent on all these characters, and on the host of others who appear in his book: Evening News “stringer” Viktor Louis, the prime source of any official “unofficial” leak, yet, both of us perhaps still naively believe, a loyal friend at least to us despite his obvious KGB connections; Len Wincott, 1931 Invergordon mutineer who was despatched to Leningrad by the British Communist Party in 1937 to run a propaganda club for foreign seamen and was then abandoned to spend 10 years in an Arctic Circle labour camp when after World War Two someone in the Kremlin decided he was a spy for Winston Churchill; Sir Geoffrey Harrison, a haughty British ambassador whose first act on arrival was to cut off access for the tiny British correspondents’ corps and their families to the embassy commissariat but who then, as we learned many years later, fell for the charms of his Soviet housekeeper and had to be withdrawn in a hurry when the KGB provided photos of his love trysts and sought favours in return for keeping the affair to themselves; the sad Dev Muraka, a decent Indian journalist and a commentator on the left-wing weekly Tribune in London in the 1950s, who had a tumultuous 30-year career as Moscow correspondent for several Indian newspapers but quarrelled with all of them, finally dying in the 1990s for want of decent medical care; Rory Chisholm, a dashing British diplomat whose official role as Consul-General covered up his real job as head of the Moscow SIS station; and Andrei Amalrik, a wiry young man with a crew cut and a beautiful artist wife who was one of the most devastatingly effective analysts of the ills of the Soviet system from the inside and was probably the main organiser of the dissident samizdat underground publishing system that flourished in the second half of the 1960s, although even in confidence he would never take the credit for it.

So where then did John get the intriguing title for his book? He and his wife Brenda did love the ballet and my wife and I often made a foursome with them at the Bolshoi, enjoying cheap caviar and heartburn-inducing Soviet champagne in the interval, courtesy of a late middle-aged waitress also under John’s “cheeky chappy” spell. He also recounts a close encounter at an embassy reception - he was not alone in enjoying this male ego-boosting but rather bewildering experience - with prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, still a man-eater in her 60s. But the nearest his memoir comes to cornfields is the suggestion - Naughty John! - that he originated what was in fact a Reuter scoop about the size of the disastrous grain harvest of 1975. The figure, never officially announced, was extracted through complicated mathematical calculation by Patrick Worsnip and Mark Brayne, both top-class Russian linguists, from a deliberately convoluted formula in a windy speech by a second-level politician from the Ukraine to the Supreme Soviet. (John and I were enjoying couscous at a Middle Eastern Embassy National Day reception at the time). Pat and Mark’s story, as we were advised by a newsdesk herogram the next day, “rocked the Chicago exchanges”. As John intriguingly admits at one point in the book, The Daily Telegraph often did tell him Reuter stories were “like yours”. Perhaps on occasion they were too like ours...

In fact, as John says in his preface, he chose the title long before he wrote the book. It came from the 1957 British film satire on trade unionism, I’m All Right, Jack. Shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, admits to a young acolyte that he has never been to the Soviet Union. Then, a vision of the workers’ paradise clearly passing before his eyes, he adds dreamily: “I’ve always wanted to though... all them cornfields and ballet in the evening.”

Kite may have been starry-eyed. But John wasn’t. And this welcome, and highly recommended, contribution to the library of journalistic memoirs on reporting the Soviet Union is all the better for it.

Bob Evans studied Russian at school and was trained as a military interpreter during National Service 1956-58. He then studied Russian at London University 1958-61 and from 1961-62 spent a year as a postgraduate exchanges student at Moscow University. He joined Reuters in September 1962 and was a junior Reuter correspondent in Moscow from 1965 to 1969. He returned to Moscow for Reuters in 1973 and in 1975 became chief correspondent, leaving for Paris in 1981. In 1986 he returned to Moscow as chief representative and was posted to Geneva in July 1991. He retired at the end of 1999, but still works part-time in the Geneva bureau. ■