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 on foreign journalists in the Soviet Union, the question was how to report it. The sources were mainly local journalists authorised to speak to foreigners or dissidents. The phones were likely to have been bugged. You could not travel more than 25 miles out of Moscow without permission and travel plans needed to be sent to the foreign ministry in advance by Telex.
“It was very annoying because you wanted to go to someplace because there was a story, but because there was a story they didn’t want to give you permission,” Steele recalled. Over 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 a crumbling empire. “I often say that I came to Russia as a political correspondent and left as a crime reporter,” he said, recalling how the story had moved from politburo manoeuvrings to the chaotic transition to a market economy. At times, he added, “it was hard to watch”….
Rafael Behr: 30 years after the Moscow coup, democracy is in a crisis of self-esteem
In 19 August 1991, citizens of the Soviet Union woke up to the news that Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist party, was standing down due to ill health. That news was a lie, as many of those citizens had come to expect from their media. Tanks rolling through Moscow told the true story: a coup by politburo hardliners, determined to abort Gorbachev’s experiments in democratisation. They failed. The coup unraveled within two days. Five months later the USSR had ceased to exist.
No one in the west saw it coming, but shock at the unpredicted event yielded to conviction that it had been inevitable. The implosion of a superpower built to fulfil Marxist prophecy should have served as a warning against all claims to know the rules of history and chart its destination. But no. The fashionable idea took hold in western policy that liberal democracy was the ideological terminus. Thirty years of hindsight have not improved that judgment.
A democratic spirit was uncorked in 1991, but not irreversibly. Vladimir Putin has it rebottled. He has described the breakup of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, which should be preposterous even in Russia when world wars contend for that title, but the line resonates with people whose identity and national pride were fused with Soviet geography and institutions….
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