JOHN TULLOH. Through the Iron Curtain to Moscow and across Siberia 50 years ago.

Sep 26, 2017

Earlier this year, Pearls and Irritations ran an account of the 50th anniversary of my first major foreign news assignment, the Six-Day War. This is about another 50th anniversary assignment, the Russian Revolution. The centenary is next month. 

It was a chance phone call. I was on the news desk at Visnews in London (now Reuters TV), the world’s biggest TV news agency, when the Vienna-based cameraman, Sepp Riff, phoned about some minor news matter. He mentioned in passing that he had been assigned to go to Moscow for the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, but the budget did not allow him to take a sound recordist which annoyed him. Sensing an opportunity to enter the Soviet Union on the coattails of a media visit separate to the limited tourist trail, I volunteered to come with him, taking holidays and paying my own way. I managed a quick visa by giving my occupation as a tractor salesman – reliable foreign machinery for the vast state-owned farms being in demand then. No questions were asked.

We drove from Vienna to Moscow in two days, a distance of almost 2000 kms. We crossed the Iron Curtain into what then was Czechoslovakia and into the USSR at Brest on the Polish frontier, a town famous for the treaty which ended Russia’s involvement in WW1. I felt a sense of wariness because the Soviet Union at the time was the West’s great bogeyman, a paranoid and menacing place ruled over by a caricature of the unpredictable Russian bear, Leonid Brezhnev. 

The route followed that of the Germans in WW2. Across the bleak landscape were regular stone markers listing the grim death toll in that particular area. Casualties in four figures, five figures. It was a shocking reminder of the enormity of the Russian sacrifice less than 25 years earlier. We travelled in a Citroen DS which to Russians looked like a spaceship. The road was like an airport runway and bereft of traffic. Every 10 kms or so was a watchtower where a soldier monitored traffic, alerting the next tower in case the car diverted anywhere which was off-limits which back then was almost everywhere. Air bases were hidden behind high levee banks and you realised they were there only when an MiG whistled low overhead. We passed Minsk, now the capital of Belarus, getting our first taste of the soulless ‘Stalinist architecture’.

We arrived in Moscow at night and the sight of the lit-up Kremlin fortress under its great red star and St Basil’s Cathedral was a thrilling introduction to the very heart of Soviet power and empire. We stayed at the wedding cake-shaped Ukraine Hotel overlooking the Moscow River. The dining room gave us a taste of Soviet indolence. Waiters sat in a corner, ignoring guests. We soon learned that aiming a camera at them would scatter them into action.

The next afternoon, a Sunday, we had a visit from the official in charge of our visit, a large, burly man with ginger hair, bloodshot eyes and cheeks of a pallor suggesting a liking for alcohol. He was Mr Krasulevich from the State Committee for International Broadcast Relations. We offered him a glass of Johnny Walker Black Label whisky. ‘NO’, he almost shouted, ‘we are here to discuss business, not drink’. Sepp, the cameraman, a charming Austrian, decided he would have a drink anyway. Mr K’s eyes became fixated on his glass as he drank. Finally, he said as if making a big concession, he decided he would have a drink after all. I asked him if he would like water with it. ‘NO’, he shouted again, ‘we don’t have water with our drink’. The upshot was that Mr K got so drunk that he collapsed as he stumbled his way down the corridor. The hatchet-faced concierge on our floor, hearing the noise, gave him a sharp kick and sent him on his way. The alcohol connection proved to be an appropriate introduction to life in Russia.

Moscow then was unrecognisable compared with today. It was grey and dreary. What few shops there were had very little to sell. Much of the traffic consisted of smoke-belching trucks and very basic cars. The middle lanes of the major thoroughfares were reserved for Communist Party officialdom, speeding through the city in their shiny black Zils. As the daughter of the long-time Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, once remarked, ‘The only thing he knew about life in Russia was what he saw from the back of his limousine’.

Despite the omnipresent official escort/interpreter, you had the sense there were official eyes everywhere. Once, when roaming Red Square on foot alone, I found myself being trailed by a stony-faced man in a raincoat and hat, the archetypal Russian heavy. When I zig-zagged, he zig-zagged. We were once stopped by a traffic policeman who wanted to fine us for having a ‘dirty car’ which was understandable after such a long journey. He thought better of it when we pointed out he had a grubby uniform.

We visited Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) for two days, including the astonishingly beautiful Hermitage Museum, which was founded by Catherine the Great, and the Tsarist cruiser, the Aurora, which fired a blank shot to signal the start of storming the Winter Palace and the revolution. Enroute we had been due to visit the new city of Kalinin. Instead we got our minder so drunk that he passed out in the back seat, allowing us to venture down a muddy track to a dilapidated Tolstoy era village which our hosts most certainly did not want us to film.

Back in Moscow, we parted company – Sepp returning to Vienna while I boarded a train for the week-long journey across the Urals and out into the vast Siberian expanse of larch forests and taiga. Music uncannily in the mood of the weather and passing countryside was played interspersed with various announcements.  Late on the first afternoon there was a sudden commotion in the carriage as people began cheering and surging up and down the corridor waving bottles of vodka. They had just heard that the loathed Moscow football team had been beaten. As I was to discover, the further east you went, the greater was the contempt ordinary Russians had for Moscow.

The train was a rare example of Soviet efficiency. It kept meticulously to time, stopping no more than 12 minutes in the biggest cities. After all, at any one time there were literally dozens of trains on the same line. As we headed east, signs of the free market came to light with hawkers selling home-grown produce on the platform of every station with not a picture of Lenin to be seen. One town was said to be a place of Jewish exiles.

The train was like a milk run with people getting on and off. I shared a six-bunk compartment with many generous Russians who would unwrap old copies of Pravda to reveal hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and cold meat which they insisted I share with them. In return, I offered them Rothmans cigarettes, which they savoured as if they were the best of caviar. I rewarded some with souvenir ballpoint pens – an unheard-of luxury – from a Miami radio station inscribed with palm trees and the slogan of ‘Sun, Surf and Sand’. They came from a girl I’d met whose father was connected with the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society. I often wondered what he would have said in view of the hatred at the time of anything or anyone connected with communism.

My rail journey was terminated 8300 kms later at Khabarovsk, the last main city before Vladivostok on the Pacific coast and then a nyet-nyet to foreigners. It was on the Amur River and close to the border of what was once Manchuria. It was a very relaxed place compared with Moscow. I stayed at its only hotel where a Red Army officer invited me to join the drunken wedding party of his son or daughter. I became an honoured guest when I gave him a packet of Rothmans. I asked him if he would take me to the Chinese border, where there were tensions at the time. Of course, he said. But his hangover got the better of his memory.

By now, I was so far from Moscow – eight time zones in fact – that I became emboldened to use the 16mm film camera Sepp had given me. My new minder, a well-dressed young woman in an elegant hat, was not in the least bothered by what I filmed. I couldn’t believe my luck when a rehearsal of the military parade for the 50th anniversary took place right outside the hotel. It was an almost refreshing world compared with the suspicions and sullen drabness of Moscow.

I returned by air to Moscow via a few days in snow-bound Irkutsk as a guest of Komsomol, the Young Communist League. It was like the Wild East. I visited a timber mill on Lake Baikal where the workers, lunching on fish caught from the lake, drank prodigious quantities of vodka. Back in Moscow, I took the Helsinki train which curiously had velvet seats. It stopped at the border in the middle of a pine forest for departure formalities, including luggage inspection. I was apprehensive as I was carrying news film taken without the usual authorisation. The Customs officer was in a military uniform with several rows of battle ribbons as was common with a lot of Russians at the time. I pointed to them, nodding in approval and giving the thumbs up. He immediately began talking excitedly about what I assumed were his wartime experiences. There was no stopping him until the train whistle sounded and he had to depart. The news material made it safely through and was widely syndicated as a rare glimpse free of propaganda into a part of the Soviet Union which the world never saw.

Despite the enormous difference in attitudes across Mother Russia, there were three common threads 50 years ago. One was the enthusiastic thirst for vodka at any opportunity. The second was the world-weary stoicism and resilience of Russians about their lot. The third was the stale odour of cheap carbolic you encountered everywhere, a symbol of a system already in decay.

FOOTNOTE. The Soviets had the last word. I took colour photos of Nina, the concierge of the Siberian train carriage who looked after the samovar with its hot tea. She wrote carefully down in Cyrillic her home address as she had never had a colour picture of herself. Back in London, I made copies and posted them to her only to have them returned a couple of months later with that all too common Russian word of the time on the envelope: Nyet.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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