The veteran journalist, who moved to Moscow in 1988, charted the collapse of a superpower. But, he tells his successor, the Gorbachev revolution has been poisoned
When Jonathan Steele moved to Moscow for the Guardian in 1988, the story of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms was getting “hotter and hotter”. But with all the restrictions on foreign journalists in the Soviet Union, the question was how to report it. The sources were mainly local journalists authorised to speak to foreigners or dissidents. The phones were likely to have been bugged. You could not travel more than 25 miles out of Moscow without permission and travel plans needed to be sent to the foreign ministry in advance by Telex.
“It was very annoying because you wanted to go to someplace because there was a story, but because there was a story they didn’t want to give you permission,” Steele recalled.
Over the next six years, until he left in 1994, the veteran foreign correspondent reported on the collapse of a superpower and the birth of a new politics, as reporters gained access to many corners of a crumbling empire. “I often say that I came to Russia as a political correspondent and left as a crime reporter,” he said, recalling how the story had moved from politburo manoeuvrings to the chaotic transition to a market economy. At times, he added, “it was hard to watch”.
Steele, who had already served as chief foreign correspondent for the Guardian, had a long history with the Soviet Union. A student of Russian, in 1961 he had taken a Land Rover with four Cambridge classmates to St Petersburg, Moscow, and then down to Tbilisi through the Georgian military highway. That was a year before the Cuban missile crisis and several months before Stalin’s body was moved from the mausoleum on Red Square and buried inside the Kremlin wall.
While family circumstances had kept him from reopening the Guardian’s Moscow bureau in the mid-80s, he had “put his marker down long before” his return in 1988, along with his wife and teenage son, who attended a Soviet special school. Arriving with a child was good fortune, he recalls, because it gave a rare excuse to sit on a park bench and chat with Soviet parents.
Few, if anyone, could predict the dramatic events of the next three years: the fall of the Berlin Wall, independence movements in the Soviet republics, an abortive Kremlin coup and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. “Everybody, the western diplomats and journalists, were so used to the immovable system, we didn’t see the chance for change being so rapid as it became,” he recalled. “We were surprised when the thing just broke up.”
Still, events were moving quickly. In July 1988, Gorbachev announced at the 19th party congress that he would open the party to contested elections. Steele likens the experience of covering the resulting Congress of the People’s Deputies to becoming “like a western lobby correspondent in parliament in Westminster: you could chat to MPs, it was a new experience for them and for us.”
The pre-election meetings were raucous too. “Suddenly the thing became revolution from below because these election meetings were incredible,” he said. “It was incredible that people who had been silenced and were apathetic for decades were suddenly given a voice. Instead of being polite … there was heckling and shouting and if someone went on a bit too long someone yelled ‘Get off the stage!’”
As the independence movements in the Baltic states grew stronger in 1989, the Guardian used a combination of local stringers and roving reporters, often traveling under the radar, to report on protests in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In some republics the KGB was losing interest in foreign reporters. During a 1989 trip down to Yerevan, Steele asked his local host, an ecologist, whether he should inform the local KGB about their presence: “I can tell them but they won’t care,” came the reply.
I asked him about one of his best known scoops, the story of how he managed to reach Gorbachev during the attempted coup of 1991, when hardliners had taken the Soviet leader prisoner at his Crimea dacha on the Black Sea. A copy of the Guardian article, signed by Gorbachev himself, hangs from his study wall.
Getting the story involved a great deal of intuition and luck, including a U-turn “in a Saab going at speed” to follow a convoy of black Volgas to Vnukovo airport. Only as he talked his way on to the plane (he sat quietly in the back to avoid being thrown off) did he realise the flight was bound for Crimea, where Steele became one of three journalists to see that the Soviet leader was alive and well after being held incommunicado for days.
Through all the crime and corruption, I felt the revolution Gorbachev had brought in had been spoiled and poisoned
But the greatest scoop of his career had one wrinkle: there was no way to report it. Neither officials, nor a Kremlin operator, would let him place a call to the Guardian newsroom. By the time he could call in the story, Gorbachev had flown out to Moscow and the evening edition had gone. “The hot news we had was cold by the time we got there,” he said; he had to write a descriptive feature instead.
It is difficult to imagine today that a journalist could go off-grid for almost a day, especially as a coup attempt was unfolding in Moscow. Luckily, someone spotted Steele at boarding and word had reached London he was “on a plane going somewhere”. His editors were not very happy until more details of the flight emerged.
“There was no 24-hour news cycle then,” he said, asked about how his experience differed from modern reporters. “I pity sometimes modern journalists who can’t always reflect and really polish a story. They have to keep updating, keep changing the lede [introductory paragraphs].”
The relentless news cycle notwithstanding, as Steele’s latest successor I have seen some perks from the internet revolution. In my decade of reporting from Russia, the last three years for the Guardian, the biggest improvement may be how social media and smartphone cameras have made it ever more difficult to keep secrets here.
In many of the stories I’ve reported on, from Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine, to the poisoning of Alexei Navalny by an FSB hit squad, to efforts to cover up the true death toll of the coronavirus epidemic, leaked information has played a crucial role. When a medic in Dagestan or a doctor in Barnaul can upload a picture of bodies stacked in a morgue, the rosy official numbers begin to look far more suspect.
Yet, paradoxically, people seem even more scared of speaking openly, especially to reporters from western newspapers such as the Guardian, which some see as an extension of the UK Foreign Office (as a native New Yorker, there is a bit of humour for me in that). Some potential sources fear they could be arrested or fired, but often it is societal pressure – fear of online abuse, of being Googled by future employers, or of losing friendships over politics – that keeps them on the fence.
The result is that reporting in Russia today can be a mind-bending experience, where everyone understands a simple truth but no one wants to admit it. And while it is not a return to the Soviet Union, I see a shift toward a kind of internal emigration, where politics are left to closed Telegram chats (the modern equivalent of the kitchen table), or better not at all.
In the chaotic years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Steele recalls visiting a high school where the principal rented out the basement of the gymnasium to a cigarette company storing Marlboro cigarettes in order to pay the teachers’ salaries.
“The story had changed,” he says. “Through all the crime and corruption, I felt that the revolution that Gorbachev had brought in had been spoiled and poisoned.”
I ask whether he was surprised that the era had led to the rise of Vladimir Putin. “I could see why he was quite popular at the beginning,” he says. “I don’t think I would have predicted that he would become so authoritarian and vindictive … But I think he is still popular, perhaps 50% or 60%. And I think sometimes that’s maybe not reflected enough in western reporting. People make a kind of lazy equation that strongman equals unpopular.”