Moscow Days

This is one in a series of posts this week accompanying our report, Shrinking World.

I got to Moscow on 1st November 1989 to take up my role as Moscow Correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. On 10th November the Berlin wall came down.

So I was in the grandstand for the greatest show of the 20th century, the decline and fall of the Soviet empire.

I had been eyeing Russia for a time, and had a yearning to work there. So I decided I would go. I went to an East-West workshop in Moscow, and realised the Gorbachev story was a million miles further down the road than we were being told in the west.

I had worked for Associated Newspapers in the past, in London and Los Angeles, and went to see the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday about representing them in Russia as a freelance. Both jumped at this. The Daily Mail, in particular, had been unable to get any of their journalists into Moscow for quite some time. Their last correspondent had been booted out in a spy swap six years before.

I also got a call asking me to become the Moscow correspondent of the Daily Express, and explained I had to decline because I had already agreed to work for Associated Newspapers.

I remember vividly that when I arrived in Moscow I wanted to keep a diary, writing down my raw thoughts on Russia. I did not, because I had the fear, very much like Winston Smith in 1984, that the wrong people might see it. KGB in my case. Thought Police in his.

I worked from a coffee table in the front room, with a portable electric typewriter, a radio which could pick up Radio Moscow English language service, and a telephone from which I could only dial within the Soviet Union. I had to book calls abroad, and this involved me dialing a particular 3-digit number and requesting the call from an operator. I was allowed to book one call a day – for the next day. It took about 90 minutes for the operator to answer these calls.

Pravda and Izvestia were still major news sources, in fact the only official written sources of government messages. Moscow News, with editions in Russian and English, was making a name for itself as purveyor of behind the scenes news on what was happening in the government and in the Communist Party, and a firm backer of Perestroika.

Within less than two months of my arrival, the Communist Party of Lithuana had declared itself independent from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and renamed itself the Democratic Labour Party of Lithuania under its leader, Algirdas Brazauskas.

This was the first concrete sign of splits in the Communist Party which had held the Soviet Union together. It rang alarm bells in the country’s leadership, and Gorbachev called a Central Committee plenum to address the issue.

Gorbachev had the plenum send him to Lithuania, where he spoke to people in the streets. The Lithuania independence movement, Sajudis, held street rallies which were addressed by its leader, Vytautas Landsbergis, a music teacher.

The Moscow correspondents flocked to Vilnius, and on the night before Gorbachev’s last day in Lithuania, when he was due to address a gathering of Communist Party activists, Gennady Gerasimov, the colourful Foreign Ministry spokesman, advised journalists gathered in the currency bar of the Hotel Lietuva: ‘Listen very carefully to what Gorbachev has to say.’ At the gathering, Gorbachev said that they should not fear a multi party system, his first public hint than this was on the way. He said this in answer to a question, which, in view of what Gerasimov had said, was clearly a plant.

Sure enough, a month or so later, another Central Committee plenum voted to abolish Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which enshrined the Communist Party’s right to rule. The story the Moscow correspondents were basing their stories on was one from InterFax, an agency set up to market Radio Moscow material. I had been introduced to a Radio Moscow journo and called him to check if the story was based on verbal information, or if they had seen the Central Committee documents. They actually had the documents, and this meant that, after a suitably long debate, it would go through at the behest of the General Secretary. Because of this the Daily Mail was able to run with the story three days before the opposition, and resulted in my full page feature: ‘Why Gorbachev is Breaking Up the Party’.

Within a month, the republic of Lithuania, under Landsbergis and the Sajudis movement, declared independence, and the Soviet Union started applying political and economic sanctions, and had the army grab buildings around Lithuania owned by the Communist Party.

The Soviet government was still fumbling with glasnost, and a familiar facet around major events was a long Soviet silence. When there was a revolution in Baku, capital of the southern and Islamic republic of Azerbaijan, the Soviet army had surrounded the city with tanks. There was no official word of what was going on – this was around midnight in Baku – but Azeris in the city were telephoning news agencies to say that the army had attacked. I knew that a statement from Gorbachev would be prepared, and this would have to wait until a translation into English was ready. I had made contact with the English language service of TASS, the government news agency, at the time of the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, and called through to them and was told about the statement they were translating. So I had the news many hours in advance – the bureaucratic channels were to take hours – and had a splash which was exclusive in British newspapers under the headline: ‘Soviet Tanks Storm Rebel City’.

This was the key to gathering information about Soviet actions, knowing through which channels it was moving, behind the scenes. To the untutored eye, these were ‘Soviet silences’. Not so – a lot was always going on.

Harry Edgington is a journalist, who was Moscow correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday between 1989 and 1996. He is currently working on a memoir, Moscow Rules, about his time there. We are very grateful to Harry for providing us with this extract.