Former colleagues remember ‘intelligent, playful, constantly curious’ news assistant and friend
and in Moscow
Ruben Sergeyev, a longtime consultant and friend to Guardian correspondents in Moscow from the Gorbachev era through to the Putin years, has died of Covid-19 at the age of 65.
He died on Wednesday after being admitted to hospital in Moscow. Sergeyev worked from 1988 until 2014 as a news assistant, fixer, and all-round explainer of Russia during a time of rapid change. He helped a succession of bureau chiefs including Jonathan Steele, David Hearst, James Meek and Miriam Elder.
A popular and polymathic colleague, Sergeyev was responsible for reading Russian newspapers each morning at the Guardian’s pokey Gruzinsky Pereulok office. He seemed to know everything and was an expert on ballistic missiles, party politics, medieval history, air balloons and Italian opera.
Sergeyev never quite embraced the digital age. Instead, he would sit at a desk piled high with yellow cuttings that he had sliced from the Russian press using a Stanley knife. He described this archive as his “valuables”. When Hearst tried to persuade him to throw the papers out, Sergeyev transferred them to the boot of his car.
“Ruben was one of the most intelligent and chaotic people I have ever worked with. He was playful, open to everyone and everything, and constantly curious,” Hearst said. “His cuttings must have done thousands of kilometres. Ruben always told me he had the character of a rhinoceros.”
Tom Parfitt, who worked with Sergeyev from 2005 to 2012, described him as “very kind and much-loved”, dispensing advice to friends and neighbours. “He was excellent at getting people of all kinds to talk to him – and therefore to the Guardian. This hugely enriched our reporting,” Parfitt said.
He added: “Ruben was incredibly loquacious. Even after 20 years or more working as an assistant to correspondents, he remained gloriously oblivious to the newspaper schedule and would always put his head around the door at deadline time, wanting to elaborate at length on some point of Soviet history which he felt you had inadequately understood.
“It could be exasperating, but halfway through you would get interested and then couldn’t help asking questions – making yourself later and later for your deadline.”
Sergeyev’s family played a major role in 20th-century Soviet history. His grandfather Fyodor was a leading Bolshevik and friend of Lenin’s. When Fyodor was killed, possibly by Trotsky supporters, Stalin adopted Fyodor’s son Artyom, who grew up in Stalin’s household and was friends with his son Vassily. During the second world war, Artyom led a partisan unit fighting behind German lines, later taking charge of air defences.
Sergeyev was always a democrat, despite his impressive communist credentials. A young expert on arms control, he first met the Guardian’s then Moscow correspondent, Jonathan Steele, in 1988 or 1989, at a time when US-Soviet relations were largely focused on the other side’s nuclear weapons systems. After numerous animated conversations, Sergeyev joined the Guardian bureau.
“He was clear-eyed about the mistakes and thievery that accompanied the chaotic transition from state-control of the economy to capitalism,” Steele said. “He was never as enthusiastic about Boris Yeltsin as the Russian staff in other British and American correspondents’ offices.”
Steele added: “Ruben was a ball of physical and particularly intellectual energy, endlessly curious about new developments in politics and international relations. Driving with him on the increasingly hectic Moscow streets was a perpetual thrill as Ruben negotiated traffic jams while constantly talking. I had to urge him not to turn his head to look at me while he spoke but focus on the view of the road ahead.”
Sergeyev’s English was fluent and sophisticated, and peppered with some archaic military terms, such as “men in galloons” to mean soldiers and security service people. Sometimes he threw in Russian words such as komplot (conspiracy). When he spoke to Guardian correspondents in Russian, he enunciated clearly to make sure they understood.
Meek, who worked with Sergeyev in the 1990s, described him as “a dear, kind, intelligent man”. He said: “I can hear his voice now, standing in the office amid great yellowing stacks of old Russian newspapers, his insistent voice, pointing out to me that some obscure moment of legislation was, in fact, another step towards the destruction of the Eden the Soviet Union might so nearly have been, saying: ‘James. James. This is a very serious thing.’
“He was also a representative of that part of the Russian intelligentsia which, no matter how contemptuous and despairing they might have been of the Yeltsin- or Putin-era authorities, never saw in America or western Europe some repository of higher values that would ‘save’ Russia from itself.”