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By Sasha Rosshandler
On the 2nd November, the Henry Jackson Society hosted Angus Roxbrough in an event titled ‘Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent’ – which was also the title of his new book. Mr Roxbrough is a former Sunday Times Moscow correspondent, a former media advisor for the Kremlin, and the former BBC Europe and Moscow correspondent who has spent over 45 years working in Russia and its former Soviet satellite states. Having come under fire in war zone and been arrested by Chechen thugs, Mr Roxbrough has even been expelled from Russia during his time as a journalist and had his home bugged. From the dark, fearful days of communism and his adventures as a correspondent as the Soviet Union collapsed into chaos, to his frustrating work as a media consultant in Putin’s Kremlin, Mr Roxbrough provided a unique, fascinating and often hilarious insight into a country that today, more than ever, is of global political significance.
With the start of the event involving Mr Roxbrough reading the prologue of his new book, he continued to provide a chronological summary of some of the key events during his impressive career. Having originally gone to the Soviet Union in 1978 with his wife, Mr Roxbrough was mainly there to translate Soviet propaganda. What he had noticed however was that the then Soviet Union was an incredibly closed society – he and his wife had to live as Russians rather than as foreigners and it was a country that was trying to totally isolate itself from the outside world. At the time, this was a realistic possibility – there was no foreign travel for nationals, there was no internet – the only form of outside communication came from shortwave radio.
The Soviet Union was an incredibly different place to the UK. The degree of censorship was way beyond what Mr Roxbrough had ever seen. Whilst translating books, they would always have to be checked by a ‘control translator’ who scored out various things including a part about a composer who had fled to the USA. The economy too was described as ‘barely controlled chaos’ – the Soviet Union didn’t have what you wanted, but rather people ‘would just buy whatever they came across due to significant shortages’. With such shortages in shops, most places of work had special rations allowing people to place orders that allowed an order for ‘something special’ such as meat. Essentially this provision of goods by employers answered the riddle of ‘why shops were always empty but people’s fridges were always full’.
What struck Mr Roxbrough was that people rarely came across as unhappy. The levels of violence were considerably lower than that of the UK at the time and expectations of the citizenry were lowered. Resultantly, consumerism was not the most important aspect of life. Rather, family life and friends were top of the agenda – there was more of a sense of togetherness that maybe doesn’t exist to the same extent today in modern day Russia.
By 1986 Mr Roxbrough had become a journalist – the same time in which Mikhail Gorbachev ‘allowed the intelligentsia to create “the new society”’. Having found himself covering the fall of the Soviet Union as a journalist for the Sunday Times, it was an era in which grievances could suddenly be voiced – something that had never applied in the communist state. There was now the surprise in the voicing of concerns from the Baltic States regarding their occupation and their demands for autonomy and independence.
In 1989, Mr Roxbrough was expelled from the Soviet Union, shortly after Margaret Thatcher had expelled various Soviet diplomats from the UK. Now covering news on the region from the outside, Mr Roxbrough noted the reasons for the rise in the ‘Russian Oligarchs’. With all Russian’s issued a ‘private voucher’ that were essentially shares in government companies, many Russian citizens simply didn’t know what to do with them – many were sold and/or gifted to friends. As a result, those who knew what to do with them collected significant amounts of shares and therefore today have unrivalled amounts of wealth.
To conclude, Mr Roxbrough left us with an important message – that the media does not necessarily portray the Russian reality of today. ‘Russia is not Putin, and Putin is not Russia’, being the key quote regarding the modern day image of the country.
The Henry Jackson Society would like to thank Angus Roxbrough for his deeply insightful and fascinating talk, ‘Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent’.