Our man in Moscow
He’s flown with chickens, had a wee alongside Harold Wilson (and taught him a Russian swearword), and pursued the most infamous British traitors. A former mayor of Southwold is now telling his story of life in Cold War Russia. Steven Russell goes back in time
He finds flat number 88, rings the doorbell and comes face to face with the scowling man who went to school in Norfolk before opting to trade in treachery. Maclean, who fled Britain in 1951, is wearing tartan carpet slippers. The “interview” in the corridor is swift – a few clipped sentences from a man determined to say little – but for the reporter it represents his first Moscow scoop.
It’s not the only encounter Miller has with the “Cambridge Five” spy ring. He interviews Guy Burgess – “frivolous, witty, amusing, disreputable, drunk” – and finds him much more voluble. In fact, Burgess lends the writer a couple of books – and once asks John to administer an injection in his backside because the nurse hasn’t yet been round. The reporter declines, telling the former double-agent “I’m not good at doing things like that and might faint.”
When Burgess dies in 1963, funeral organiser Maclean asks Miller and Daily Telegraph correspondent Jeremy Wolfenden, “as Guy’s friends”, to walk behind the coffin and carry wreaths.
The traitor Miller wanted to interview more than any other was Kim Philby. They met once: by chance, in the Baku restaurant in Gorky Street. Philby was rude and unforthcoming – though, with the help of a photographer pal, the journalist did manage to snap a picture of the former British intelligence officer.
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Such episodes were part of a colourful career in Moscow for John Miller – recounted in his entertaining book All Them Cornfields and Ballet in the Evening. (The title comes from a line, spoken by a Communist-leaning shop-steward looking at the Soviet Union from afar – and through rose-tinted glasses – in the 1959 Peter Sellers film I’m All Right Jack.)
The pages feature famous names such as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (a “bit of a card”, with his good humour and lack of taste, but also a bold reformer), Leonid Brezhnev (schemer and backstabber), and one of John’s heroes: writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (In fact, the great man unfortunately focused his ire on the journalist when a pack of reporters trampled over shrubs in a Zurich garden. Solzhenitsyn was staying there after being expelled from the Soviet Union. The Nobel Prize winner looked Miller in the eye and shouted “You are behaving worse . . . much worse . . . than the KGB”.)
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Then there were the visiting dignitaries who passed through the Iron Curtain, such as Harold Wilson. John remembers a conversation with the visiting British Prime Minister in a men’s toilet outside a former imperial palace near Leningrad. The loo was a simple wooden and corrugated iron structure. Wilson wondered about the graffiti on the wall and asked the journalist to translate. Some was quite fruity, and included the F-word.
“‘Hmmm,’ he said, ‘that’s a useful Russian word to know. How’s it pronounced?’ I coached him as he buttoned his flies and we strolled out into the sun. He got me to repeat the word several times, much to the amusement of his Russian guide, the KGB minders and the rest of the party, but he never managed to get it quite right.” Global powerbrokers aside – not to mention the lavish New Year parties at the Kremlin, and the beauty of Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral – John’s softback also paints a vivid picture of ordinary Soviet life: the drunkenness, the bureaucracy, the shortages of food and poor service.
“While the Russians were lovely people and disarmingly kind in their private lives, once they put on a uniform – and it seemed as though most of them did – or stepped into a job in which they dealt with the public, so they be-came as brusque and as rude as any ill-tempered traffic warden.”
He didn’t take long to work out why “a kindly and warmhearted people” could be so curt. They were wrung out. “They were tired of destruction and of wars. They were tired of the gigantic social, industrial and agricultural experiments that had taken place and to which no end was in sight. They were tired of the queues and the ceaseless shortages. And they were tired of being kicked around.”
Always at one’s shoulder was state paranoia and wariness, and the ever-watchful shadow of the KGB – the security, intelligence and secret police organisation. In the game of Cold War poker, the KGB kept tabs on foreigners and the West kept tabs on the Soviet Union.
Whereas John believes most espionage activity of the period wasn’t greatly consequential, this case proved the exception. “It is hard to think of another spy in Penkovsky’s class who has had a greater impact on history. The stuff he shovelled to the West changed its perceptions of Soviet nuclear weapons. He helped President Kennedy outface Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 by revealing that, despite their bluster, the Soviets were not strong enough in rocketry to start a war.”
It’s not all cloak-and-dagger stuff, or vodka and surliness. John laces his pages with humour – “I have flown with Aeroflot with chickens, and once with a goat” – and plenty of personal material.
There was the time American film star Danny Kaye visited Moscow. When he left, he offered to pass on a message to anyone back home. “‘Yes, please, Danny,’ I said. ‘Speak to my mum in Enfield and tell her her son is having a lovely time.’ True to his word, when he got to London he telephoned my mother and said he was Danny Kaye. ‘And I’m Queen Victoria,’ she said.”
Then there was the reception to end all receptions at the grand Palace of Congresses, which Khrushchev built within the Kremlin. The Soviet elite were in attendance, fine caviar, smoked salmon, crab and delicious meats were on the menu – the kind of delights not found on Moscow streets – and the ruling Politburo members were “feeding their faces and waving their crystal goblets in the air at anyone who gave them a friendly smile”.
At midnight the Kremlin chimes ushered in the new year, and visitors had a chance to shake the hands of the men who ran the Soviet Union. This was too good a chance for an impish newsman to miss. The Soviet Foreign Ministry had earlier decreed it was forbidden to officially form a Foreign Correspondents’ Association, but a number of the Moscow-based journalists had decided to push the boundaries and organise a tie to show who they were. They were dark blue, with a golden motif of a Kremlin dome and a sickle crossed by a quill pen. Now Miller had the chance to present a tie to Khrushchev . . .
“We look upon you as our President. And we want you to have one.” The writer added: “Perhaps you will wear it at your next press conference?” But . . . “of course, he never gave another press conference; most, if not all, of the gang with him that night soon got rid of him and he disappeared into Trotsky’s dustbin of history, taking, I would like to think, our tie with him”.
John reckoned his curiosity with things Russian was whetted by rows between his dad and Uncle George about who started the Cold War. Father had been an intelligence officer in the RAF before working for the Financial Times; George appeared to believe the Red Army had fought the Nazis single-handedly. The brothers eventually tried to settle their dispute with a boxing match in the garden . . .
As a lad, John began reading about the USSR, Communism and Stalin. He found the national anthem stirring – buying a record of it! – and taught himself a bit of the language.
His call-up papers arrived in 1951, at a time when Stalin was at his most expansionist and the West was worried he’d break through Germany and start World War Three. Britain decided it needed hundreds of Russian-speaking soldiers. John was sent to Cornwall to learn the lingo and later found himself in Whitehall as a language clerk in MI10, the intelligence branch dealing with Soviet military equipment.
When he left the Army in 1953 he got a job in journalism on the Norwich Mercury and worked in places such as Wymondham, Brandon and Thetford. “In those days you had to stay with a paper for five years and then you took a diploma in journalism. I failed and went down to London to seek my fortune,” he tells eaman. That was in 1958 – a plum job with Reuters. He remembers flying in in January, 1960. Moscow was so cold it seemed to burn: –30C on a couple of days. The first article he wrote was about knickers: prime minister Khrushchev (“a wonderful old windbag”) was concerned the Soviet Union wasn’t producing knickers of good-enough quality, or in pretty colours. He gave a three-hour speech about it.
Moscow initially struck John as “a graceless, ugly city: the metropolis of the common man, part factory-hooter, part clarion-call. By no means was it a dream, but neither was it a nightmare. It had more the quality of a hangover . . .” Some sights could stop him in his tracks, such as the war-wounded beggars without legs, propelling themselves along on little trolleys.
“Over the years, Moscow became less of a mystery to me: less suffocating, less fearful. The sense of alienation, as though you belonged to some unrelated visiting species, never totally went away, but it significantly diminished. For Moscow was home . . . We began to appreciate its fusty, musty, dated flavour . . .”
Wife Brenda gave birth to Jane and Timothy in a Moscow hospital: the first British twins born in the USSR since the revolution. Home was a block of flats on Sadovo Samotechnaya, part of the ring road. It became known in shorthand-speak as Sad Sam and was a foreigners’ ghetto set aside for journalists, diplomats, businessmen and the like. The couple’s first child, Dodik (the diminutive form of the Georgian for David) went to nearby school No. 186. Not far away, behind a bread shop and a scruffy milk-factory, was the area’s detskii sad – a kindergarten which the toddlers attended.
“Here they enjoyed friendly, if enforced, conformism. The teachers tried to persuade my son to stop writing left-handed so that he could write the same as every Soviet child, but desisted when we discussed it with them,” says John. “Essentially, my children had the same political indoctrination as little Russians, learning songs and poems about Lenin and the rodina or ‘motherland’ . . .” From the start, though, dad made it clear that Lenin was not “Grandpa” or “Uncle Lenin”. He reckons the kindergarten propaganda had no lasting effect.
After the fall of the USSR “they have found no trouble at all adapting to the new world of McDonald’s, Reeboks, chewing-gum, commercials and rubbishy American films”.
In 1964 John was appointed to Reuters’ New York bureau. “Within a year the Daily Telegraph asked me to go back to Moscow. We were there until 1968, when I was appointed the South African correspondent for the Telegraph.” He worked in London as a diplomatic correspondent from 1971. “But I still visited the Soviet Union regularly as a holiday stand-in for the correspondent there and also covered Eastern Europe.”
John adds: “After the Soviet Union collapsed I went several times in the 1990s to monitor the elections on behalf of the Foreign Office, visiting Moscow, Novosibersk, Saransk, Chita, and also covered elections in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan.” The USSR’s had remained “a rotten system” until the Berlin Wall came down. “It was against everything – freedom, democracy, truth, religion, property, people, and more.”
John laments the subsequent influence of the Mafia, but is generally optimistic.
“After seventy-five years of the grossest tyranny that prevented the emergence of a civic society, shattered institutions and attitudes associated with property and law, Russia is on the move. The rise from the wreckage of Communism is gradual and painful, but it is happening.”
He feels – ahem – that Russians are generally “lazy, submissive, risk-averse . . . and often outrageously xenophobic. They are prone to much talk and little action. And too often drunk. And they are ridden by ills and plagued by superstition.
“They have done some dreadful things to each other and to others – in very recent history Chechnya comes quickly to mind – and I fear they will behave badly again. But there is a good side to the Russian character . . . and it is beginning to surface.
“They are creative and persistent. Entrepreneurship, thwarted for so long, is on the rise . . . and millions of Russians are discovering their national identity, history and religion, even if they have got out and gone elsewhere – there are said to be 300,000 living in and around London, and I’ve even heard Russian spoken in Southwold by a family who hired a beach hut.”
It’s true that Putin’s Russia “lacks any ideology except a crude notion of capitalism. But I am convinced that the day is coming when Russia will be an ordinary, normal and – heaven forbid – boring country. A place beset by normal problems, rather than shattering crises and disaster. A state of full civil rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression”.
• All Them Cornfields and Ballet in the Evening is published through Hodgson Press at �12.99. ISBN 978-1906164126
Life in the East
AFTER Moscow came . . . the Suffolk seaside (via London).
“After a short spell on the Sunday Times I decided I had had enough of Fleet Street,” explains John Miller, now 77. “Because of our Norwich connections – my wife’s parents lived there – we looked around Norfolk and Suffolk and found Southwold. It was love at first sight – 23 years ago in August.
“I have been a town councillor for 14 years, the mayor in 2002, and chairman of the Southwold Common Trust.”
John and Brenda’s two sons live in London. Dodik is a photographer who has worked for many newspapers. “My daughter Jane has worked in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for some 15 years. In July we went to Buckingham Palace for an investiture by Prince Charles. She received the OBE for her work in Tanzania on the control and elimination of malaria.”
Jane – “one of the ‘Red Star twins’ – has twin girls and her brothers between them have five children, so there are seven grandchildren in all.
• John Miller is appearing at the Ways with Words literary festival in Southwold at noon on Monday, November 15. Tickets are �9. Bookings 01803 867373 and www.wayswithwords.co.uk