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103 Meridian East » History »  Life in Moscow in the Soviet 1960s: Memoirs of a British Journalist Part 1
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LIFE IN MOSCOW IN THE SOVIET 1960S: MEMOIRS OF A BRITISH JOURNALIST PART 1

Without the help of the KGB I would have had difficulty becoming an award winning journalist. They definitely helped me on my way in the Soviet Union when I began as the correspondent of the British left wing weekly, the New Statesman, in the early 60s.

I had graduated from London University's School of Slavonic and East European studies with a degree in the Russian language. At the time, I was very left wing. I was never a member of the British Communist Party but I flirted with the nucl eardisar mament people and the Committee of 100 led by Bertrand Russell and his lieutenant Ralph Schonman. Such were the political times in England.

While I was a student, the Soviet Embassy was very active entertaining any left wingers they could get their hands on. Free Soviet champagne and caviar canap.s were appealing to penniless protesters. I became friendly with a Third Secretary. It was only much later that I understood the Soviet modus operandi, how the government spread its tentacles everywhere. One year later, the Third Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in London engineered a meeting for me in Moscow with a man from the KGB.

Moscow at that time was a very grey city. There were no neon lights. Old women mostly clad from head to toe in black queued for hours on the streets at intermittent stalls to buy items of food that were in short supply. Entry visas for people like me were also hard to come by. Trolley buses, which ran up and down Gorky Street and elsewhere were packed to the gills.

Over a six hour liquid lunch at the Aragvie restaurant off Pushkin Square, Vyacheslav Ivanovich became my contact. In the typical KGB style, I was never to learn his surname even after many years. I never again saw my friend from the Soviet Embassy in London. I was seamlessly passed on to his colleague.

He did not actually give me stories. What he did was confirm or deny material I brought to him. He provided the real information behind a rumour or a whisper. I was allocated an apartment by the Foreign Ministry as a correspondent. I did not like it. It was too far away. Vyacheslav Ivanovich swopped it for me. I was given another apartment right next to the Reuters office and the Central Market in Sadovaya Samotyochnaya.

This was the place where tomatoes at Christmas time cost what today would be 30 euros a kilo. It was a colourful place full of Georgians, Armenians Uzbeks with exotic looking vegetables piled up miles high. The actuality of this non-Communist market was "pay-the-price-or-queue-for-ever-inthe-state-shops" where some vegetables and meat could be found but much older and much less fresh.

Politically, I began being sympathetic to the Soviet regime. However, my views started changing rapidly when I discovered there were no hair pins in Moscow, pillows or Tampax. I had never realised that being in the communist world meant women were discriminated against. I was learning fast about the disadvantages of communism.

The British Foreign Minister came to Moscow for a diplomatic visit. At a press conference, he said: "Ask Miss Stewart what is going to happen while I am in Moscow. She and the New Statesman know more about it than I do". I had written an article about the talks before he arrived after a briefing by Vyacheslav Ivanovich. I always met my KGB contact in the cocktail bar on the eleventh floor of the old hotel Moskva. He even ordered champagne cocktails at 10am, for which he paid. There was no question of me paying for any assistance he gave me.

Also, as a Western journalist, I was not allowed to travel more than 60 km outside of Moscow without permission. One night, a group of well-connected young people I had been dining with decided at 11.30pm that it was essential to drive to Zagorsk, where there was a famous monastery, well outside my limit.

Things communist at that time were still an enigma clothed in a mystery to me. My heart was in my mouth all the way. It amused them to flout the law. Of course we were pulled over by some police. I sat shaking. I was told to say nothing at all. One of the guys in the front seat apparently was the son of a Central Committee member and he had a special red communist party card. A flash of this card caused the police man to salute and wave us on our way.

I also discovered the hidden shops where the top communists could buy what they wanted with vouchers. This militated against my egalitarian left wing principles. The Western correspondents used to occasionally have lunch together at the National hotel near the Kremlin. I discovered that eating in a Soviet restaurant was an endurance test. It usually took about two to three hours because the service was so slow. Then, the food was ghastly.

With the help of various Russian friends (it was Krushchev's time and Russians were getting less frightened of speaking to people from the West), I gradually began eating in the specialist Soviet clubs: Dom Aktyorov, the actors club, Dom Kino, film club, Dom Zhurnalistov, the journalists club. All of these were for Russians only. Foreigners were strictly banned. At the Dom Zhurnalistov, I was always told to say I came from Latvia. That was to explain the mistakes I made in the Russian language. I went there often with a Russian journalist and a number of his friends.

In these clubs, I collected stories galore. I used to retreat to the ladies and write everything down in a notebook before the oceans of vodka, followed by glasses of wine, addled my brain. A few months after my arrival in Moscow I started working as a correspondent for the London Evening Standard. That doubled my income.

An English man called Gerald Brook was arrested by the Russians. With the help of Vyacheslav Ivanovich I got a pageone scoop in the Evening Standard. I was the only journalist with all the details. The British journalists were furious. I was a freelance and paid only on results. They were paid colossal salaries and expenses. I had made them look foolish. Of course they did not speak Russian the way I did. Some of them, like the Daily Express correspondent, in fact, spoke no Russian at all.

They plotted against me to get me thrown out of the British Embassy briefing, which took place every week. The briefing at that time was actually a pointless waste of time. The Embassy seldom knew anything. The Foreign Office in London tried to get the New Statesman and the Evening Standard to fire me. Fortunately, I was on a short trip to London when this happened. I even got to read the confidential memo the Foreign Office had written.

Both the editor of the New Statesman, Paul Johnson, and the editor of the Evening Standard, Charles Wintour, objected violently to this. When I returned to Moscow I became a regular dinner guest at Sir Humphrey Trevelyan's residence. He was the British Ambassador. Both Sir Charles Wintour and Paul Johnson had told the Foreign Secretary that I knew more about what was happening in the USSR than any of their diplomats.
To be continued.

By Gloria Stewart

 

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