Obituary: John Miller
Thursday 21 January 2021
John Miller (photo), who has died at the age of 88, was a Reuter correspondent in Moscow and New York in the early 1960s before starting a long newspaper career and becoming over 30 years an almost permanent fixture in the Soviet capital's foreign press corps - and notably in Reuters Moscow bureau.
Seen by some as something of a Kremlinologist, John never took himself that seriously and was happiest writing about the lighter, and darker, corners of everyday life - from a “British” panda at Moscow Zoo to the crimes of a serial killer known as “the MosGaz man,” Bob Evans writes.
“They told me in London they wanted lots of brights,” he said. “Brights,” the human interest pieces that were supposed to make the reader laugh or cry, were then an obsession with Reuter editors, and John dug them up from all but barren soil by scanning through the less-censored provincial Soviet newspapers with his morning coffee in bed.
With his excruciating but effective Russian and a wicked grin, John had the knack of getting under the skin of officialdom, winning him the high accolades of “dyed-in-the-wool anti-Soviet slanderer” and “hired hack of the yellow capitalist press” from the government daily Izvestiya, and similar soubriquets from other parts of the Soviet media.
One of these labels stuck. “Nyekiy Miller” - a disparaging Russian term roughly meaning “a type called Miller” - was pinned on him by one Moscow newspaper, portraying him as the instigator of disgraceful behaviour by Western journalists in actually asking real questions (“provocations” they were called) at an official press conference.
Eventually we shortened the label and for foreign and Soviet friends he became just “Nyekiy.”
“Nyekiy” had the knack of finding himself in the right place at the right time - on one occasion next to Harold Wilson in a makeshift toilet in a field outside Leningrad when the pair exchanged thoughts on linguistics as John translated the Russian obscenities on the wall in front of them.
He was well up on local profanities, a normal part of everyday Russian conversation. Early on he set himself the task of learning as many as he could, and they often helped him talk his way into places where he shouldn’t be. Once, outside the Lubyanka, he even made a KGB guard smile.
He also made a speciality of tracking down British defectors in Moscow - Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess were among the early ones in his Reuter days. Then in a restaurant in the late 1960s he found himself at the next table to Kim Philby. This time his cheeky charm failed and the master-spy, using an English profanity, stalked out.
“Nyekiy” was also adept at sniffing out relatives of dead or disgraced Soviet figures. When Stalin’s wayward daughter Svetlana defected to the West in 1967, he found her son, the dictator’s lookalike grandson Iosif, in the ill-famed apartment building on the Moscow river from which many of the victims of the 1930s purges were hauled to their deaths.
Iosif gave John an interview at the door of the family flat, but later the KGB got to him and he never spoke to a foreign reporter again.
John was brought up in Enfield, a north-east London suburb, and started journalism on newspapers in Norwich, where me met his wife Brenda. He joined Reuters in 1958 on the strength of his National Service-learned Russian and was posted to Moscow in January 1960.
They already had one son but a year later Brenda had the first British twins ever born in the Soviet Union, a fact of which he was inordinately proud.
In 1963 John was transferred to New York, covered the Kennedy assassination, but was lured to the Daily Telegraph by a larger salary and was sent back to Moscow. For the Telegraph, he also spent three years at the turn of the 1970s in apartheid South Africa. “Their police thugs weren’t much nicer than the KGB,” he said.
But Russia called, and for the last 20 years of his life as a journalist he shuttled constantly between London and Moscow, adding two more generations of Reuter correspondents to the one which knew him in the 1960s.
In a colourful and humorous 2010 memoir - whose title, All Them Cornfields and Ballet in the Evening, he lifted from Peter Sellers’ trade union militant in the 1950s film comedy I’m All Right, Jack - he says the Reuter experience was invaluable but cramping in time and writing style.
In the book, he recalls, as many of us do, that the company was not generous in the 1950s and 1960s. “It paid rotten wages, and there were no bylines and little glory,” he wrote. But he did appreciate the sheepskin coats Reuters bought for the Millers’ midwinter Moscow posting.
John made no secret of the fact that he detested the Soviet system, as much for its pernicious treatment of ordinary Russians as for the mendacity of its state propaganda.
But he had real affection for the people. “The Russians are a funny old lot,” he wrote in his book. Typically, he once insisted that we head off in a blizzard over rutted country roads to a village outside Moscow for the funeral of an alcoholic handyman who swept the yard in our building who was one of John’s favourite tovarishchi.
When he retired from the Telegraph he signed up with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as an election observer and had several trips to the new post-Soviet state, enjoying as he said seeing Russians enthusiastic about voting after decades of one-party rule.
When he had had enough of that, he and Brenda settled in Southwold on the Suffolk coast where John became something of a celebrity. He was town mayor in 2008 and spent 16 years on the Council. He also became a local historian, writing notably a history of the resort’s famous multi-coloured bathing huts.