David Robinson Writes: On Moscow Calling

PART OF THE The Second Spring ISSUE

‘In June Angus Roxburgh found himself under arrest in a police station in Nizhny Novgorod.’

Our monthly columnist meets Angus Roxburgh, the former foreign correspondent and former Kremlin PR advisor, to talk about his newly published memoir Moscow Calling. Roxburgh reveals some of the highlights of his long-standing career from Soviet times to the present, and explains why he has always felt affection for, and been compelled to understand, the inner workings of this complex country.

In June, far too late to include in Moscow Calling, his new book of memoirs, Angus Roxburgh found himself under arrest in a police station in Nizhny Novgorod.

These days, he no longer works as a foreign correspondent. Those stories he once filed for the Sunday Times and the BBC about the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Wild West capitalism that replaced it, are old news. But every summer for the last few years, for those with enough money and interest, he has led political study tours to Russia, and that’s what he was doing, chatting over a hotel breakfast with the group he had shepherded into Nizhny Novgorod the previous evening, when five policemen walked in and placed them all under arrest.

Roxburgh couldn’t understand it. He’d led political study groups like this before, and there hadn’t been any trouble, nor was there any hint of anything wrong on this trip when they’d visited Moscow. The man they were meeting over breakfast was a supporter of Putin’s party, not an opposition leader. It didn’t add up.

The police took three members of the group and interrogated them for three or four hours before letting them go, but they held on to Roxburgh. Finally, his lawyer arrived. He went out of the room to talk to the police inspector and returned 20 minutes later. “You’ve got a choice,” the lawyer told Roxburgh. “Either they deport you now or you sign a confession admitting that you have broken the condition of your visa and pay a small fine.”

“I didn’t have a choice at all,” he tells me. “I had to look after the group. But I still don’t know what will happen the next time I apply for a visa when I apply again next summer.”

You have only to read Moscow Calling, recently published by Birlinn, to realise what Russia would lose if, next year, some idiot bureaucrat denies Roxburgh a visa. Foreign correspondents like him have long since became an endangered species, but someone like Roxburgh has an Russia that few if any westerners can match, from charting the wild absurdities of its bureaucracy to the innermost circles of the Kremlin, where he subsequently worked for three years as a PR adviser.

Let’s take absurd bureaucracy first. Back in the USSR, when he began working there as a translator in the late Seventies, Roxburgh saw it at first hand on innumerable occasions. When he and his wife wanted to return to Scotland and take Russian books home with them, anything published before 1976 had to be taxed at 100 per cent, so he had to provide a list of his books with publication dates certified by the Lenin Library with a fee payable at another building. Friends’ paintings could only be evaluated at a convent in the city on Tuesday mornings, with three photos of each painting and a letter approving export from the artist. No parcels could be wrapped, no notes left inside books, only one post office in the city could deal with anything sent abroad, no parcels weighing more than 25kg could be sent per day, each of them had to have four customs declaration forms and one accompanying form checked at a different counter…  You get the idea.

Despite all that, Roxburgh’s affection for the country ran deep. He loved its contrariness, the bravery of its intellectuals, the depth of the friendships he made there. And when communism collapsed, he had a ringside seat. He was at the dissidents’ meetings at which the unsayable became sayable, saw the fissures open in the Baltic states and widen all the way across Eastern Europe. He’d just started working as the BBC’s man in Moscow when, on 8 December, 1991, Yeltsin and the leaders of Belorussia and the Ukraine signed a deal that effectively ended the USSR. He rang the newsdesk and informed the deputy news editor. “Oh, they’re always saying things like that, aren’t they?”  was the reply. On the day the USSR ceased to exist, it didn’t even make the BBC headlines.

For the last three years, Roxburgh has been living in Edinburgh, writing this memoir and working on a number of other projects – including writing some rather excellent songs (check them out on YouTube). But if he were back in Russia, I ask, what would he want to be reporting on now?

“Same as everyone else, I think – the crackdown on human rights, the threats to internet use… At the moment, the authorities could switch off whole sites at a time. They could do that with political sites at any time if they wanted to. Young people don’t watch the propaganda rubbish that goes out on Russian television, but they do watch the internet. You can go on the Moscow Metro, log onto the free wi-fi, and log onto as much anti-Putin material as you want.” True, the internet was a big factor in the spread of anti-corruption demonstrations organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny across the country earlier this year, but Roxburgh reckons that they are no real threat to Putin, who will next year easily be re-elected for another six-year term, when he will try to find a successor who won’t turn against him “the way that he himself turned against Yeltsin”.

What, then, about the notion popularised last year by British general Sir Richard Shirreff in his book 2017: War with Russia, that an expansionist Russia will follow its invasion of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine by moving into the Baltic states, ostensibly at the request of their Russian minorities?

He smiles. “That’s all greatly exaggerated by the people there and by Nato. I don’t think that’s remotely in Putin’s mind to invade. He may be adventurous, but he is not crazy. Firstly, they are members of Nato, secondly the Baltic states were never part of Russia. Of course, there are parts of western Latvia that are practically 100 per cent Russian. Last year there was this notorious film on the BBC which postulated that if there ever was a war, this would be where it would start, and that the Russians there would demand that their troops come over the border to help them.

“Well, this summer we went there as part of our first political study tour of the Baltic republics, and we went to that part of Latvia. The people there just laughed at the idea. The fact is that people in Latvia have a much better life than they would in Russia. They are members of the European Union with all of its benefits. Why on earth would they want to be invaded by Putin? It’s just not going to happen.”

Understanding Russia, he says, is easy enough. All you have to do is to put yourself in their shoes. When you do, you see a country facing an alliance that spends ten times more on defence, facing what it sees as US meddling in Ukrainian elections and encirclement. Add that to a history of civil war, collectivisation, purges, unimaginable brutality in the Second World War, more purges, and more economic brutality as with the arrival of capitalism. “If you don’t understand what the Russians have had to suffer, and what they have been through in the last 100 years,” he says, “you’ll never understand why they feel they need a strong leader who they think will defend them.”

Roxburgh has spent a lifetime understanding Russia, and it shows on every page of his engrossing memoir. The next time he’s in Nizhny Novgorod, somebody should tell that police inspector not to go arresting the wrong guy all over again.

Moscow Calling by Angus Roxburgh is out now published by Birlinn priced £17.99.

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