When Jonathan Steele moved to Moscow for The Guardian in 1988, the story of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms was getting “hotter and hotter.” But with all the restrictions placed on foreign journalists in the Soviet Union, the question was how to report. The sources were mainly local journalists authorized to speak to foreigners or dissidents. Phones have likely been tapped. You could not travel more than 40 kilometers outside of Moscow without permission and travel plans had to be sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in advance by Telex.
“It was very annoying because you wanted to go somewhere because there was a story, but because there was a story they didn’t want to give you permission,” Steele recalled.
For the next six years, until he left in 1994, the veteran foreign correspondent reported on the collapse of a superpower and the birth of a new politics, as reporters gained access to many corners of an empire in ruins. “I often say that I came to Russia as a political correspondent and I left as a crime reporter,” he said, recalling how history had gone from politburo maneuvers to the chaotic transition to a market economy. Sometimes, he added, “it was hard to see.”
Steele, who had previously served as the Guardian’s chief foreign correspondent, had a long history in the Soviet Union. A Russian student, in 1961 he had taken a Land Rover with four companions from Cambridge to Saint Petersburg, Moscow and then to Tbilisi via the Georgian military highway. That was a year before the Cuban missile crisis and several months before Stalin’s body was moved from the mausoleum in Red Square and buried within the Kremlin wall.
While family circumstances prevented him from reopening The Guardian’s Moscow office in the mid-1980s, he had “left his marker long before” his return in 1988, along with his wife and teenage son, who were attending a special school. Soviet. Arriving with a child was good luck, remember, because it was a rare excuse to sit on a park bench and chat with Soviet parents.
Few, if anyone, could predict the dramatic events of the next three years: the fall of the Berlin Wall, independence movements in the Soviet republics, a failed Kremlin coup, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. “All Western diplomats and journalists were so used to the immovable system that we did not see the possibility of the change being so fast,” he recalled. “We were surprised when the thing broke.”
Still, events were moving quickly. In July 1988, Gorbachev announced at the party’s 19th congress that he would open the party to contested elections. Steele compares the experience of covering the resulting People’s Deputies Congress to becoming “like a Western lobby correspondent in the Westminster Parliament: you could converse with MPs, it was a new experience for them and for us.”
The pre-election meetings were also raucous. “Suddenly things became a revolution from below because these electoral meetings were incredible,” he said. “It was incredible that people who had been silenced and who had been apathetic for decades were suddenly given a voice. Instead of being polite … there were boos and yelling and if someone lingered too long someone would yell ‘Get off stage!’ “
As independence movements in the Baltic states strengthened in 1989, The Guardian used a combination of local correspondents and roving reporters, who often traveled under the radar, to report on protests in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In some republics, the KGB was losing interest in foreign reporters. During a trip to Yerevan in 1989, Steele asked his local host, an environmentalist, if he should inform the local KGB of his presence: “I can tell you, but you won’t mind,” was the reply.
I asked him about one of his best-known firsts, the story of how he managed to get to Gorbachev during the 1991 coup attempt, when the hardliners had taken the Soviet leader prisoner at his Crimean dacha on the Black Sea. . A copy of the Guardian article, signed by Gorbachev himself, hangs on the wall of his study.
Getting the story involved a great deal of intuition and luck, including a U-turn “in a Saab going full throttle” to follow a convoy of black Volgas to Vnukovo airport. Only as he spoke to get on the plane (he quietly sat in the back to avoid being thrown) did he realize that the flight was headed for the Crimea, where Steele became one of three journalists who saw the Soviet leader he was alive and well. after being held incommunicado for days.
But the biggest scoop of his career had a catch: There was no way to report it. Neither officials nor a Kremlin operator allowed him to call the Guardian newsroom. By the time he could tell the story, Gorbachev had flown to Moscow and the afternoon edition was gone. “The hot news we had was cold when we got there,” he said; instead, he had to write a descriptive article.
It is difficult to imagine today that a journalist could disconnect from the network for almost a day, especially when a coup attempt was unfolding in Moscow. Fortunately, someone spotted Steele while boarding and word reached London that he was “on a plane going somewhere.” His editors weren’t too happy until more details about the flight emerged.
“There wasn’t a 24-hour news cycle then,” he said, asking how his experience was different from that of modern reporters. “Sometimes I feel sorry for modern journalists who can’t always reflect and really polish a story. They have to keep updating, keep changing the LED [introductory paragraphs]. “
Despite the relentless news cycle, as the latest successor to Steele, I have seen some benefits from the internet revolution. In my decade of reporting from Russia, the last three years for The Guardian, the biggest improvement may be how social media and smartphone cameras have made it increasingly difficult to keep secrets here.
In many of the stories I have reported on, from Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine, to the poisoning of Alexei Navalny by an FSB strike squad, to efforts to cover up the true death toll from the epidemic of coronavirus, leaked information has played a crucial role. When a doctor in Dagestan or a doctor in Barnaul can upload a photo of the bodies piled up in a morgue, the official rosy numbers start to look much more suspicious.
Yet paradoxically, people seem to be even more afraid to speak openly, especially to reporters from Western newspapers like The Guardian, which some see as an extension of the UK Foreign Office (as a native of New York, there is a bit in the mood for me on that). Some potential sources fear they could be arrested or fired, but it is often peer pressure – fear of abuse online, being Googled by future employers, or losing friends over politics – that keeps them on the sidelines.
The result is that reporting in Russia today can be a mind-blowing experience, where everyone understands a simple truth but no one wants to admit it. And while it is not a return to the Soviet Union, I see a shift towards a kind of internal emigration, where politics is left to closed Telegram chats (the modern equivalent of the kitchen table), or better not at all .
In the chaotic years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Steele recalls visiting a high school where the principal rented the gym basement to a cigarette company that stockpiled Marlboro cigarettes to pay teachers’ salaries.
“The story had changed,” he says. “Through all the crime and corruption, I felt that the revolution that Gorbachev had brought had been spoiled and poisoned.”
I ask him if he was surprised that the time had led to the rise of Vladimir Putin. “I could see why it was quite popular at first,” he says. “I don’t think I would have predicted that he would become so authoritarian and vindictive… But I think he is still popular, maybe 50% or 60%. And I think that sometimes that is not reflected enough in the western reports. People create a kind of lazy equation where strong man equals unpopular. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism