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By John Helmer, Moscow

In February 1989 I started the Moscow Bureau with a first despatch to Ta Nea, then Greece’s leading daily newspaper. That was thirty years ago, a generation in time and several generations in Russian politics.

A generation is the time it takes for individuals to grow into adulthood acquiring the shared understandings which come as their life cycles run together. Knowing more than the generation around you understands can make you into a celebrity or a pariah; reward you with power, medals and money or turn you into a pauper. Knowing too much about Russia has been a life-or-death story for me. How to survive to tell the story, so that you can anticipate the future we hope to share – this is what Chris Cook, host of Gorilla Radio in Vancouver, asks in today’s broadcast.

The first 1989 despatch from Moscow was about Mikhail Gorbachev’s struggles with his opponents in the Communist Party Politburo and in the election campaign for the reform parliament Gorbachev had proposed the year before – the Congress of People’s Deputies. The election took place on March 26, 1989. The first session of the Congress opened on May 25. It was the beginning of the end of power for Gorbachev, vain, stubborn, uncomprehending — the ideal target for reporting the talkative sources around him. It was the beginning of the start of power for Boris Yeltsin, vain, stubborn, corrupt – the ideal target for reporting the talkative sources around him. Russians who want to be loved by Americans talk too much.  To most Russians, and to the majority of the 2,250 Congress deputies, they, like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, were unconvincing liars.

In 1989 the Gorbachev-Yeltsin contest, and dozens of others, created unprecedented freedom for Russians to reveal what was happening to them. To the US Government in Washington, this freedom was just what the doctor ordered for a 70-year old disease; the prescription was for euthanasia, followed by cremation: the destruction of Communist Party power in half of Europe, then of the Soviet Union, and finally of the Russian Federation. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin border gates were opened and the wall started coming down. In Moscow Gorbachev was begging President George Bush to help save him when, by no stretch of the Russian or American imagination, that was in the US interest to do so. Gorbachev was uncomprehending; Yeltsin understood.


Left: George Bush with Mikhail Gorbachev, December 3, 1989;  Bush with Boris Yeltsin, March 1, 1993.

My Greek newspaper’s owners were uncomfortable having as their Moscow correspondent a former aide to the defeated prime minister, every one of whose officials had been purged by the prime minister elected months earlier. The Greek contract was cancelled. New ones replaced it from Australia and Singapore. In time, understanding the forces at work in Russian politics wasn’t in the interests of Australian and Singaporean newspaper proprietors.

Understanding can’t be stopped so easily or for so long.  Listen to today’s Gorilla Radio broadcast from Victoria, British Columbia, starting at Minute 02:00.  

Gorilla Radio is broadcast every Thursday by Chris Cook on CFUV 101.9 FM from the University of Victoria.  The radio station can be heard here.  The Gorilla Radio transcripts are also published by the Pacific Free Press and on the blog.  For Chris Cook’s broadcast archive, click to open.   

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