Book review: Moscow Calling - Memoirs Of A Foreign Correspondent, by Angus Roxburgh

A woman stands near a destroyed building in Leninakan (now Gyumri), the second largest city in Armenia, following the devastating earthquake of 1988 PIC: JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images
A woman stands near a destroyed building in Leninakan (now Gyumri), the second largest city in Armenia, following the devastating earthquake of 1988 PIC: JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Angus Roxburgh’s objective investigative reporting from the last years of the Soviet Union until the presidency of Vladimir Putin will be well known to many. These memoirs show us the understanding, empathy and the compassion that underpinned the knowledge and authority of that reporting. It must also be said that this book goes beyond memoir: it is a gripping story, scintillatingly told.

Roxburgh’s journey takes him from teaching himself Russian to a degree in the language at Aberdeen University and then on to a job in a Moscow publishing house, where he found himself translating everything from turgid Communist Party tracts to Tolstoy. The experience of his first few years in Moscow takes up a quarter of the book and gives credence to the poet Fyodor Tyutchev’s line, “Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone…” Readers are deftly drawn into the Russian landscape, climate, language and above all into Roxburgh’s friendships with locals.

But then there is a gear change. The contract with the publisher comes to an end and back in the UK Roxburgh is trying to get into journalism, struggling to breach the old “closed shop” that restricted access into the press and broadcasting.

Once this has been achieved, via the BBC Russian Monitoring Service, the route opens for our man to return to Moscow to cover the rise and fall of Mikhail Gorbachev, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the Armenian earthquake, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the first Chechen war.

More powerful than the simple fact that Roxburgh witnessed all these things is the perspective we get of a reporter working with picture editors and camera crews, making fast and difficult moral decisions, working out how best to show the story to a viewer whose knowledge is limited. This might mean, for example, filming a family’s shell-damaged home or going for a series of re-takes of an old woman sat begging in the shelter of an underpass. Roxburgh does not shirk from discussing the controversies that he has been caught up in either, as when later in his career he accepts a job with the President Vladimir Putin’s public relations consultants.

Moscow Calling is certainly essential reading for any young person thinking of a career in the media, but it is a book that will engage any reader. I guarantee that it will have you laughing out loud in places, move you close to tears in others, and that you will know much more about Russia when you have read it.

*Moscow Calling: Memoirs Of A Foreign Correspondent, by Angus Roxburgh, Birlinn, £17.99