Protests, 'biznez' and a failed coup: journalist Monica Attard on covering the empire Gorbachev allowed to collapse

·20-min read
Mikhail Gorbachev addresses American business executives in 1990. David Longstreath/AP
Mikhail Gorbachev addresses American business executives in 1990. David Longstreath/AP

It’s unlikely that in 1970, when I was 12, I could have imagined myself covering the collapse of an empire. Nor could I have dreamed that 51 years later, my passion for Russia would still be alive, if battered by its barbaric invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine, in February 2022.

But back then, when I was a young girl, I did dream of being a foreign correspondent; in particular, a foreign correspondent in what was then the Soviet Union. From that romantic notion to doom-scrolling social media for news on the latest atrocity in Ukraine is quite the narrative arc.

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As far back into my childhood as I can recall, there were dinnertime conversations about how brutal capitalism could be, how Joseph Stalin had saved Europe from fascism – and my favourite story of all, how the brave Soviet experiment with socialism would reap the benefits of communism at some point, sometime, in the future.

A new world, in the nirvana of time and place, where all human beings would live as equals! My father was from war-torn Malta, and he was a “believer”, at least in a better world. He remained that way to the end.

And when he encouraged me to go the Soviet Union for the first time in 1983, I was wearing his rose-coloured glasses. Everything seemed to be on the way to nirvana – even the empty shops, the long queues for offcuts of substandard meat, and the clothes shops that sold thousands of copies of just one item of clothing in the same size and the same colour. This, I reasoned, was a place sacrificing something – life – for something better.

From nothing to something, to uncertainty again

In 2022, after 30 years of Russia’s integration into the global economic and financial system, that long-lost world of deficits – the word Russians used for everything not available – was ancient history.

But by March 2022, the nirvana of nascent capitalism born in the 1990s had abruptly and eerily been shut down, thanks to the deep and wide sanctions imposed by the West on an invading belligerent Russia.

It’s been a long road from nothing to something to uncertainty again. The world is yet to see whether Russians will again rise against a ruler whose voracious appetite for land and blood has returned them to an Orwellian nightmare.

In 1983, when I first travelled to Russia with a friend in the dead of winter, Orwell was hovering in my mind. Although nothing I saw could have been further from my own reality, I reasoned there was purpose. The driver sent to ferry us from the then only international airport in the capital was such a welcoming touch, I thought. The driver was of course associated with the UPDK, the Directorate for Service to the Diplomatic Corps, an agency of the Foreign Affairs Ministry charged with looking over the shoulder of any and all foreigners who dared then visit for leisure or work.

UPDK still does much the same job, if now under commercial auspices – although as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin tightens the noose around the freedoms won by his own people, the agency may well return to its darker days. But back in 1983 there was still, for me, romance to the Russian capital. The streets from Sheremetyevo Airport to the city centre were virtually empty, because cars were in deficit, and the trip took a brisk 15 minutes. Magic, I thought – no traffic.

Arriving at the decrepit and now demolished Intourist Hotel on what was then Gorky Street, it was like being in the twilight zone. These two young female foreigners couldn’t figure out what all the men and women hovering at the front of the hotel were up to. Maybe they were there to greet us? How friendly, I thought. It turns out they were awaiting tourists of the male variety and businessmen to proffer the wares of what we discovered was a highly lucrative trade in sex work.

Inside, surly desk workers looked over our documents and briskly marched off with our passports, which was a momentarily discombobulating feeling. But when they returned minutes later with our passports in hand, I thought – how efficient! All foreigners, still to this day, need to have their passports registered with UPDK, as though our arrival at the airport and delivery to Intourist hadn’t already been clocked.

A rickety lift took us to our floor, where a babushka sat on a chair in the hallway, arms comfortably perched over her bosom, scowling at us for reasons unclear. Still, I thought kindly of her; it was icy cold outside and this poor woman had to come to work.

Looking out our hotel window overlooking Gorky Street, we spied huge red banners with Lenin’s image fluttering in the wind. “That must be the Lenin Museum,” we decided. This place is going to be easy to navigate, I thought. The next day, we decided to put our lives on the line and make our way across Gorky Street through foot-high snow underpinned by ice.

Gorky Street was what in Australia we’d call a highway – six lanes wide and connecting the heart of the city centre, across from the Kremlin, to the outer reaches of the city. We hadn’t seen the underpass to allow foot traffic to avoid the car traffic, which led to our first brush with the law. In the end, taking pity on us, the militsiya, or local police, accompanied us to the underpass and across the road, from where we emerged – like magic – just below the fluttering Lenin banners.

Sadly, a near hour-long effort to cross the road didn’t get us to the Lenin Museum. As we looked up Gorky Street, there were Lenin banners fluttering everywhere. Most were worse for wear – much like the rest of the city as it turned out – but flutter they did, as if to say, “Welcome to the land where we all sing from the same song sheet.”

Only briefly in the scheme of time has this turned out to be untrue. The more than 30 years between 1991, when the old order collapsed, and 2022, when it threatens to rise again, was perhaps the nirvana.

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Foreign correspondent

When I was a child, being a foreign correspondent seemed like the best job in the world, particularly for a kid from the inner western Sydney suburbs at a time when travel was expensive and rare. I didn’t see the inside of an aeroplane until I was 17.

But as a child, I imagined the vest-wearing, bespectacled, notepad-carrying reporter in fields of war, penning stories for faraway Australia, hungry for news from the world out there, far, far away from our marooned island nation. And so it came to pass for this dreaming migrant child, carrying the burden common to my socio-economic and racial class of low expectation. Just minus the vest. But it didn’t come easily.

Monica Attard (second from left) with friends, former foreign correspondent Debbie Whitmont, Maxim Raoutenfeld and young Xenya as he was known. Author provided
Monica Attard (second from left) with friends, former foreign correspondent Debbie Whitmont, Maxim Raoutenfeld and young Xenya as he was known. Author provided

I had spent years in newsrooms, commercial and the ABC, spiriting myself over to the then Soviet Republic of Russia each year on my annual break to poke around and observe. I’d been travelling in and out of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, since that first trip in 1983. Friends in Paris who, as young university students on exchange to Moscow’s State University, had met some like-minded Russians, led me to a woman who would become my lifelong friend.

Natasha Yakovleva was a film archivist with the state archives. She died recently, so trips to Moscow now feel empty. Back in 1985 when I met Natasha, she was as curious about me as I was about her, and surreptitiously she showed me the weird and wonderful underbelly of this intriguing city, about which, oddly, I felt I understood less and less with each visit.

By 1989, the ABC was ready to open a Moscow bureau and post its first correspondent. I was devastated when the job didn’t come my way, although when the second position did later that year, I was happy not to have been the first correspondent in. Establishing a physical bureau, navigating the vagaries of UPDK and hiring support staff while filing on a big story would have been a herculean effort for a then young, single female.

Soviet society was thought by its members to be matriarchal. And in the sense that women carried the major burdens of life, including family life, in a country of constant deficits, perhaps it was. But men, like everywhere else, in every significant aspect of life outside the home, held all the power.

Operating as a foreign correspondent in this environment was often confusing. My questions were always entertained, but I was invariably considered exotic for having asked. My desire to understand the place was always welcomed but my curiosity was considered, by some, a little unbecoming for a woman.

The one saving grace for me was that socialism had given the Soviet people a strong sense that everyone was in the same sinking boat – men, women and children. There was an affordance of empathy for hardships suffered and help when help was needed. That made a difference in reporting the place.

The demise of the Soviet Union was slow, burning with disappointment and rage and, of course, with anticipation. By the time I arrived as a correspondent, it was well and truly underway, though the end couldn’t have been imagined.

Politically and geo-strategically isolated, the Kremlin plastered over the long and obvious economic disasters while holding out the promise of better days to come. And coercion was the tool of choice to ensure people maintained the faith, much as now in 2022, even if the faith is no longer communism but nationalism.

Mikhail Gorbachev came along in the mid-1980s. Perestroika (political and economic reinvention) and glasnost (openness) gave people the right to think for themselves about how they wanted to live and work.

But it enraged the bureaucrats and the hard left of the Soviet Communist Party. As a result, it wasn’t a smooth, seamless transition from diktat to free thinking, and it brought societal schisms – some of which were entirely predictable, some of which were not.

There were those who feared freer thinking would let loose the hounds of capitalism, which would kill off the achievements of their forebears whose blood and hard work had built the Soviet industrial base and, of course, rip away the sureties on which their lives were built. There were those who thought just a little freedom would do the job of making people feel valued and hopeful of a better life, and give them the chance to do something for themselves, outside the regime’s boundaries, to make their lives better. And there were those who wanted the chains to be thrown off completely.

Add to that potent mix 14 largely resentful republics outside of Russia (the most politically and economically important republic of them all), and the result was years of social upheaval, from the Kremlin to the most far-flung corners of the Soviet empire.

The reverberation from that upheaval, the breaking apart of a 70-year-old federation of states built on dogma and held together by coercion and fate, is what the world now sees playing out in Ukraine.

By 1989, when I arrived in Moscow as a correspondent, even the most fearful regularly took to the streets in protests for and against Gorbachev’s rule. There would be tens of thousands, sometimes even a million or more people, crushing into each other, carrying each other along with sheer body weight, overseen by scores of KGB and militsiya.

We saw this again on the streets of Russia’s big cities in 2022 as people protested Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, only this time the protests were smaller in number, people were instantly arrested, and they were entirely unified in what they wanted – no war.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the protests were almost confused; some wanted a break put on reform, others wanted more and faster reform. There were uprisings against rulers and parliaments across the 15 Soviet republics, the most frightening of them being when local Soviet officials defended their political fortresses with force, though relatively few were killed. As punishment, the food-producing republics and their subjects who wanted freedom from Moscow imposed food blockades on the capital. Deficits of cars, furniture and clothes produced by decades of a malfunctioning economy suddenly seemed quaint, even preferable.

Throughout it all, I had a group of Russian friends holding my hand, taking me to the edges of Soviet society, where I could see how people were experiencing the teetering of an empire. Some of them are still holding my hand to help me understand what rage and fury brought their country to invade its neighbour.

When the USSR finally collapsed in December 1991, I again felt as I had when I first travelled there in 1983: I was in the land of the brave. Their new world was something neither they nor their forebears could ever have imagined. Now, in 2022, it all seems threatened.

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Russia and women

The odd thing about Russia’s relationship with women was the strange contradiction at its heart. While women had and have no real power, they simultaneously had and have all the power.

They cleared those underground crossings of ice and snow in labour for which they were physically unsuited. They were prevalent among university graduates in medicine and engineering, even if that led to a downgrading in the salary and status of both professions. They rarely appeared on politician roll calls, yet their influence was evident in politics. And, most certainly, the influence of women’s thinking, needs and demands was evident in the manoeuvrings of local communities. There was a respect, and it was not secret.

When it came to journalism, some of the toughest were women. Anna Politkovskaya is a name still recognised in the West. Her fearless reporting of the war Russia waged against the semi-autonomous republic of Chechnya as it tried to break away from Moscow remains a high point of independent journalism in a country where that has never been easy, and where it now appears to have been snuffed out completely by a new law penalising journalists for telling the truth about the war with Ukraine.

When Politkovskaya was gunned down returning to her apartment in Moscow in 2006, the Russians I knew were sad but not shocked. They expected something to happen to her. Who writes about atrocities perpetrated by the Kremlin without consequence?

Politkovskaya’s murder – and the murder and harassment of dozens of journalists, activists and politicians since 2006 – put paid to any notion that media in Putin’s Russia was free in the sense we understand media freedom in the West.

But like all those killed or harassed, Politkovskaya was respected, heard. The Kremlin might wish to forget her and her reporting, but many haven’t. To this day, no one sits at her desk at Novaya Gazeta. (In March 2022, following two warnings from the censor, the paper suspended its operations until, it said, the end of Moscow’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.)

Still, the retort I hear most often about this assassination is – why didn’t she just stick to issues that were safe to cover, issues that women should cover? There’s that odd relationship with women, again.

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“Biznez” and the mafia era

Into this I waded, in my early thirties, single, very excited to be on my first posting and covering what appeared to me then to be the most consequential story in the world. The USSR was in its death throes.

Gorbachev was tussling for authority with Boris Yeltsin, and on the streets, Russians were rooting for both men. The hard left of the Communist Party was keeping a watchful, anxious eye on the new liberties granted: the ability to trade; the new television programs which questioned; the protests which, while overseen by a still operative KGB, gave the newest freedom of all – the right to protest.

Even though many in my circle thought that if communism was going to survive, it would need more than a little miracle, no one thought it would collapse. The system was corrupt and few showed any real loyalty to it. But the system did provide free health care, education and accommodation. Cradle-to-grave security was a big deal.

Russians also knew that the nirvana Lenin had promised, Stalin had corrupted and Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko had failed to revive was gone – as an idea as much as an achievable destination. But life without the Communist Party was still unthinkable.

The new buzzword was “biznez”. Making do in a nation of deficits was no longer cutting it. Even the class of people who proudly maintained “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work” were looking to find ways to do their own thing. My local state cafe, which rarely had anything but diluted coffee to offer its customers, and from which its manager, Galia, made a paltry amount of money each month, suddenly changed.

Galia was an imposing figure: tall, graceful and gracious, and most of all, determined. She decided to offer the locals something new – real coffee, food and service. With her blonde beehive perched atop her strikingly Slavic face, Galia tapped into her contacts in the caviar industry, sourcing bucketloads of the stuff, red and black. When word spread, the customers came, queuing around the block to buy a slice or two of bread with caviar, and Turkish coffee that tasted real. She was in business for a good six months before the cafe was firebombed.

The era of mafia had taken hold, with thugs whose only way of doing “biznez” was to extort. Galia refused to pay for protection and her business was annihilated. This was life as the Communist Party lost control.

While danger was everywhere for those Russians trying to make a go of the new trade freedoms, fear of it was abating among others. By 1990, just six months before Russians experienced their first dance with democracy with the election of President Yeltsin, young people were making their voices heard. They would gather on street corners to deride the “party mafia” that guarded its own turf and operated protection rackets to ensure only a new class of post-communist entrepreneurs could live well. People weren’t afraid to talk about the issues anymore.

On television, Vzglyad, or Outlook, was a talk show hosted by the immensely popular Alexander Lyubimov, the son of a well-known spy. Looking back now from Putin’s Russia, this was a high point of media freedom. Lyubimov openly discussed with guests the ills of Soviet communism, what people wanted from government, how they would get it, what Gorbachev was doing right and wrong, how the feud between Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic, and Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, might hinder progress towards a capitalism-based nirvana.

In 1990, my friends could barely believe what they were watching. Now, in 2022, even using the word “war” to describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine is penalised. As I spend nights doomscrolling for information on the war with Ukraine, I wonder how Lyubimov feels about the gains he forged being squashed so comprehensively?

As a correspondent, I would often hit the streets back then to test the limits of the newfound intolerance of the regime, and the reactions, while mixed, had one idea in common. Living as they had was no longer possible; personal freedom couldn’t be the price for cradle-to-grave security.

Of course, few ordinary folk followed their desire for more freedom and a better life in a functioning economy to its logical conclusion. They thought the old structures could be reformed, renewed, revitalised. Certainly, no one I knew thought the old structures might actually collapse under the weight of the reforms. Not even Gorbachev.

And so, as 1990 ushered in a newly empowered Yeltsin, who held court at the Russian parliament, oddly named the White House, the demands for more grew louder and louder – led by the non-Russian republics. The Communist Party was becoming very tetchy indeed.

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Putin is different

On August 19 1991, Russia – and the world – woke to startling news. Gorbachev had been put under house arrest while holidaying with his family in Crimea. In the dead of night, a group of 11 men (of course) had hastily put together a State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) to return the USSR to its “natural” pre-Gorbachev state.

Led by the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the committee declared that the Soviet Union was falling apart. It said Gorbachev had refused to return order to the country and the protesters had eroded the authority of the state; extremism had taken hold. The GKChP encircled Moscow with tanks, and by morning, the capital had erupted in fury, fear and concern for Gorbachev, who was by then incommunicado.

On February 24 2022, when Putin sent Russian tanks across the border into the Donbas region of Ukraine, proclaiming his intent to rid Russia’s neighbour of its extremists and Nazis, I thought of what Gorbachev had said about the Emergency Committee many years after the failed 1991 coup:

I said to them they must be mad if they think the country would simply follow another dictatorship. People are not that tired.

Russian shelling may yet break the Ukrainian resolve to fight. But it won’t be soon. Putin is now assessing how much fight the Ukrainians have in them and how many urban Russians still have memories of 1991 coursing through their veins. The difference: Gorbachev was largely unwilling to turn his military against his people. Putin is different.

When, in August 1991, the centre of Moscow was occupied by its own military, with columns of tanks rumbling through its main streets and soldiers armed with assault rifles fending off angry citizens, Muscovites screamed for sanity to prevail. “Go home to your mother,” was the most frequent refrain. “Do you know what you are doing?” was another. While there was animosity towards Gorbachev for failing to deliver on his reforms, he was preferable to the putschists.

I felt safe, mostly. But never safer than when I scrambled onto a tank to speak with a group of soldiers in their early twenties. They looked terrified, like they wanted to jump off the vehicle and go home. Today in Ukraine, some young Russian conscripts have been doing just that – refusing to use force to overcome the Ukrainians who’ve stood in their path. Not enough of them have yet decided to defy their leaders to turn the tide, but the war is still young.

Through three days of heartache, confusion, mayhem, destruction, defiance, resilience and hope, Russians and the world were united – the GKChP must fail. Little did anyone know that its resolve to turn back the tide would be eroded by internal disorder. Defence minister Dmitry Yazov and KGB chief Kryuchkov were at odds while the other committee members, overwhelmed by their own anxieties, drank themselves into a stupor. They had all failed to understand how perestroika and glasnost had changed their own people.

By day three, their efforts to end the Gorbachev era looked shambolic. Their so-called “constitutional transfer of power” was over before it had begun. The grave errors the putschists had committed were evident – Yeltsin, the leader of the defiant, had not been arrested, the TV tower had not been captured, allowing media to broadcast the truth, mass arrests had not taken place.

Putin, a student of history, has no doubt studied the dying moments of the August 1991 putsch. He has not committed the same mistakes in Ukraine.

This is an edited extract of Monica Attard’s essay in Through Her Eyes: Australia’s Women Correspondents from Hiroshima to Ukraine by Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts (Hardie Grant), published 6 September 2022.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Monica Attard, University of Technology Sydney.

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Monica Attard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.