Daring deeds of the diplomat

Across the Moscow River
September 27, 2002

John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World has become a classic account of the 1917 revolution. Rodric Braithwaite's Across the Moscow River deserves to become the successor classic about the final undoing, in 1988-92, of Russia's 80-year experiment.

Braithwaite was lucky. He was Britain's man in Moscow for four extraordinary years. And, according to his own account, he had a second piece of luck: "Everyone in Russia, from Gorbachev down, was fascinated by the British prime minister. I got to see people and places simply because I was Mrs Thatcher's ambassador."

He was also daring. Often the Foreign Office ordered him to sit tight in the embassy when exciting things were happening on the streets. Usually he obeyed. But not always. In December 1989, Andrei Sakharov, nuclear physicist and enemy of authoritarianism, challenged Gorbachev in the Congress of People's Deputies, seeking repeatedly to question the Communist Party's total grip on the state. Gorbachev, in what Braithwaite describes as "a brutal exercise of the power of the chair", refused to let Sakharov speak. The last thing Sakharov said that night before going to bed was:

"Tomorrow we'll have a fight." Then, in his sleep, he died of a heart attack.

On the day of Sakharov's funeral, troops waited in side streets to go into action. A cautious British ambassador would either have consulted London - and been told to stay indoors - or he would have judged that keeping lines open to Gorbachev was obviously his primary task and no act that might anger the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union should be contemplated. Braithwaite, with his wife and their son and daughter, waited in the crowd, amid the slush and greyness, for the cortege. That evening they attended the wake at which Sakharov's supporters shared their memories of him.

During the coup of August 1991, he was even more daring. He writes: "It was frustrating to hang around in the office while history was being made. I had suggested to Downing Street that I should show solidarity by going down to the White House (the parliament, then being besieged by Soviet army tanks). The prime minister's private secretary promised to ring back. Meanwhile I drove off in a Russian jeep."

Had the party and army men who had seized power managed to hang on to it, the fact that the British ambassador went in a Russian jeep rather than the embassy's Rolls-Royce would have done him no good. He would have been out of Moscow in a day. But he rightly judged that the coup would not last, so his fraternising with the supporters of Yeltsin did him no harm.

The big attraction of Braithwaite's book lies in the sections about his own involvement with events. So I had high hopes for his descriptions of the meetings he attended between his bosses, Thatcher and Major, and the top men in the Kremlin, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. These sections are, however, not quite so revelatory. One cannot, I suppose, expect a diplomat to be totally undiplomatic.

Nevertheless, he is gloriously open about errors of judgement - by himself, by the Foreign Office and by the occupants of Number 10. He is best on Thatcher's biggest foreign-policy error. He attended a conference in the Foreign Office that was undermined because "Mrs Thatcher had decreed that officials were not even to think about German reunification". And this was just a month before the Berlin Wall came down. Even after the fall of the wall, Braithwaite writes, the prime minister had still not taken "her head out of the sand". He concludes that her "prejudice against German reunification showed that her political instincts were no longer in working order".

He is just as hard on himself. Indeed, one of the winning characteristics of the book is that he seems never to miss a chance to tell us that his own advice to the Foreign Office was wrong. For example, he agreed with Gorbachev and then Yeltsin in their belief that the Soviet Union was "unlikely to fly apart into its 15 constituent parts". He writes: "It was not one of the most accurate of my predictions."

While personal anecdotes and revelations provide the spice and the joy, they are by no means the whole book. Braithwaite has gutted all the memoirs of Kremlin insiders. Several produced honest records of life in the Gorbachev years. Braithwaite skilfully weaves them into the story to complement his own information.

Finally, I should declare an interest. While Braithwaite was ambassador, I was responsible for a BBC television series called The Second Russian Revolution . It was not easy to get the Politburo, and other insiders we needed, to give us interviews. The ambassador invited several of them to dinner at the embassy to meet us. Among those who came was Georgi Shakhnazarov, Gorbachev's chief political adviser. The success of the series was in significant measure due to the ambassador's opening doors for us in this way.

But I am not praising his book to thank him for dinner. It is an absolute must for scholars and will be a source of delight and insight for non-scholars. Above all, it is a brilliant description of the difficulty of bringing about change. Braithwaite's conclusion is that Gorbachev skilfully set about introducing freedom and the rule of law. He succeeded in both tasks. But he failed to realise that his success would destroy the power of the party. And that is why he fell.

Brian Lapping was executive producer of the BBC television series The Second Russian Revolution .

Across the Moscow River: The World Turned Upside Down

Author - Rodric Braithwaite
ISBN - 0 300 09496 S
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 372

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