It was in February 1989, thirty years ago, that the first independent press bureau in Russia began to work. The bureau was mine. Death and revolution were my preoccupations.
At the time, the foreign press corps in Moscow was dominated by the well-known American and British media. The Americans were as much the favourites of the Russian political opposition as they were of Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and of the faction of officials supporting him. Both Russian sides wanted to be loved by Americans; some still do. A handful of foreign correspondents worked for Communist Party media in their homelands; the senior ones were from India and Italy. They were trying to cope with the domestic Russian debate over how far and how fast to dismantle one-party rule by the Communist Party, and what means to employ short of force. In time, the old Communist reporters retired or died of natural causes; a Canadian communist party reporter turned into an American journalist – death by a natural cause Canadians are familiar with.
During that first year my despatches went to Ta Nea (“The News”), the leading newspaper of Athens, Greece. Published in Greek, the archive is inaccessible.
On March 25, the Congress of People’s Deputies was elected by a partial free vote, following vigorous electioneering inside and outside the Communist Party. On April 9, the Army intervened to halt public demonstrations in Tbilisi, Georgia; about 20 people were killed; hundreds hurt. On May 25, the Congress opened, its daily proceedings televised live across the country. On September 9, Boris Yeltsin began his first official trip to the US – a visit which proved to everyone capable of seeing what Yeltsin was made of, and more importantly, who was making him. On November 9, the Berlin Wall opened. On December 12, the second session of the Congress began, and Andrei Sakharov rose to introduce the new constitution’s articles on the private ownership of property and the end of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. Two days later, on December 14, Sakharov died. That left Yeltsin to lead the opposition to Gorbachev. Gorbachev trusted the US Government to support him in power; the US Government had another plan. To the first independent foreign correspondent, the quisling and the fool were obvious every day.
Death and revolution, I said. They were personal. My wife and writing partner, Claudia Wright, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and could no longer compose. We did not disclose this until the year was out.
“A great highway with broad horizons before it”, Gorbachev was promising the Congress at the time. Following the mass demonstration in Moscow of February 4, 1990, the direction of that highway was diverted fatefully. So was my road. This was the last piece published under Claudia’s byline; the first in English from the Moscow Bureau.
It is a very long way between Panton Street, Bendigo, where I started out, and Gorky Street, Moscow, where I have been watching one of the most remarkable crowds to be seen in the world. Perhaps I should say it is both a long way and not so far at all.
The explanation is in what impels us to travel far from home. The London writer V.S. Pritchett once described his passion for getting out of the suburbs he grew up in as a desire for “identifying myself with people who were not my own and whose lives were governed by ideas alien to mine.” That is exactly how it is. It is also one of the reasons that alien ideas and peoples can exercise the greatest attraction. But I remember the stronger my desire to get out of my Australian country town and see the “real world”, the more the reality would take off away from me – like the ocean horizon that is receding as fast as you sail towards it. Once I reach a place and its people lose their strangeness for me, that is when I like to hear of jet engines throttling down the runway and I need again to be where everything is foreign.
Russian lives are about as alien as it’s possible to be for most of us in the West. This was just as much so before the 1917 revolution as in the time of the reds-under-the-bed since then. As a child during the Second World War I remember wondering just once what the Russians must have been like. That was the time we were on the same side fighting against the Japanese – a bit of history, incidentally, which they remember better than we do.
At school we were asked to look about at home for shoes and woollen socks that we could spare so the Russians wouldn’t go barefoot during the winter. This didn’t seem a sacrifice; it was the Australian summer and we used to go barefoot a lot. I had no conception of the cold of the Russian winter. But if they needed something on their feet to beat the Japanese, I was ready to volunteer my socks and shoes, and so was everyone in our family. I would wonder years later, and ask the Russians I had met, did they see any parcels of socks and shoes, slightly dusty and scuffed from Bendigo’s playgrounds, during the war?
I’d like to say I have met a babushka, now nearing sixty, who cherished her socks and shoes from Bendigo through the bitter years of the war, and has saved them still. But I haven’t. As for approaching the Russians, I have something of a handicap as far as being a writer is concerned. You see, my brain is being damaged by a disease, Alzheimer’s, and the part which has been hurt the most is the part which does most of the communicating. Luckily Russia is not such an advanced state that the office buildings have revolving doors. Because my brain doesn’t register as quickly as it needs to get into the door before it flattens me, or how to get out before I’m bowled over. This is not the only thing my brain doesn’t do as it should. It doesn’t instruct my hands on how to write words, dial telephones, and so on.
So I can’t write about Gorky Street, Moscow, quite the way I would like. And I can’t talk to Muscovites like a professional Western journalist. This doesn’t seem to bother the Russians, and my handicap can be something of an advantage. For one thing, I am much more patient with things that don’t work in Russia at the same speed and efficiency they have in the West, such as the telephone. And since I don’t read or write Russian, what I miss in the newspapers and on television is what most other Western reporters also miss, because they depend on a translator or interpreter. The fact that I can’t read English too well doesn’t matter so much in an alien place.
Russians argue a great deal over whether they should act more like we do in the West; this argument has been raging in Russian politics since at least the time of Peter the Great. (He is the one the anti-Western slavophiles blame for the first opening the door that let the telephone in.) I enjoy hearing this argued because it is the alienness of Russia which attracts me. Russian doctors have also tried some very curious things to jolt my brain into action, like the juice extracted from a Siberian weed. But that’s another story.
What my brain can do is to think through memory; this is the part of the works that seems to be sparking better, as if to compensate for what has been performing less well. Looking with memory at a place you have not seen before singles odd things out. I remember again the wartime shoes, and what strikes me about the Moscow crowd slushing down the Gorky Street pavement on a winter’s day is the sound of their shoes.
Gorky Street is the city’s broadest and most important avenue. It starts at Revolution Square, where the tsar’s riding academy used to be in front of the Kremlin. It continues for roughly five kilometres to the Garden Ring, the road which marks the boundary of old or inner Moscow. On the way the avenue passes Moscow’s first, and as every Muscovite now knows, the world’s largest McDonald’s.
Imagine then that the six lanes of traffic have been closed off and a crowd of Russians is walking twenty to thirty abreast down the full width of the avenue. From Revolution Square I can see nothing but people walking slowly down the street. And the square itself (much less photographed than Red Square on the rise in front of the Kremlin, but very much larger) is also filled with people, standing shoulder to shoulder. By expert count there are at least half a million.
What is also quite strange, for this is the largest mass demonstration in Moscow since the war ended, is the silence. There are no marching bands. There seems to be hardly any talking. Instead, there is just the sound of roughly one million shoes slushing down the street in unison.
The Gorky Street demonstration, February 4, 1990 -- banners, rear left: No to fascism! Rear right: No to war and bloodshed! Centre, rear: Workers intelligentsia (unreadable); centre, middle: Support Gorbachev!; centre, front: 74th Article in action! Art. 74 of the Soviet Constitution of 1997 said: “The laws of the USSR shall have the same force in all Union Republics. In the event of a discrepancy between a Union Republic law and an All-Union law, the law of the USSR shall prevail.” This banner was defending the Union against secession of the national republics.
After two hours of pouring in to fill up the avenue and square, the shoes stop and speeches begin. These are broadcast over amplifiers, but there are so many people and the crowd is so tightly packed together, it is impossible to see who is speaking, or even where the voices are originating. They sound muffled by the wool and fur which everyone is wearing.
There are other oddities. The overwhelming majority of the crowd are not young, as they might be in political rallies in Melbourne, Paris or Berlin. They are middle-aged, and so were children during the war when German artillery was within shooting range of Gorky Street.
They are far from being communists or even democrats. Flags and banners fly the colour of the Romanov family, the deposed tsars; the Ukrainian independence movement; the Azerbaijani Muslim popular front; and the anarchists. There has never been a time in Russian history, not under the tsars nor under the Communist Party, when the black flag of anarchy has flown undisturbed under the Moscow sky.
There will be many large demonstrations for who knows how long and for who knows what future. The crowds may exceed those I have seen. But in being drawn here from so far, to watch the alien Russians make their second revolution in a century, I can also see something I had always wanted to witness at home. The sound of so many shoes is the clue. On Gorky Street today you can see people making the earth move.