The KGB interrogated my turkey

John Kampfnerrecalls 25 December 1991 in Moscow - the day Gorbachev resigned

I had a question for the British ambassador. What country were we in, I wondered? He stopped, frowned, and replied that he was as lost as I was. This was 1991 and a run-up to Christmas like no other.

I had arrived in the Soviet Union at the start of that year for my second posting there. Mikhail Gorbachev was facing a pincer movement. On the one side were the liberation struggles of the Baltic republics and the pro-democracy activists in Moscow; on the other was the Communist Party and the security apparatus that supported it - the army and the KGB. That was the year when it all unravelled, a year of extreme hope and fear.

Each day brought startling developments. As Gorbachev's power slipped away, Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation and his arch enemy, slipped off to a hunting lodge near the Polish border. It was there in early December that he and the heads of Ukraine and Belorussia agreed to kill off the USSR. After that it was a matter of when, rather than if, Gorbachev would stand down and the Soviet Union would formally cease to exist. And in those intervening days, no one knew who was in control of what or where one country's jurisdiction began and ended.

Gorbachev decided to do the decent thing on 25 December. For Russians, it is just a normal day - under the Orthodox calendar Christmas falls two weeks later. For western diplomats, journalists and the growing number of businessmen, Gorbachev's timing was inconvenient, to say the least.

In those days the western community was small enough for most people to know each other and to do the rounds of the parochial Christmas parties. Christmas brought certain rituals. For those with a weekend to spare there was the trip to Helsinki in early December, to a department store called Stockmans. From there crates of food, household goods and clothes would be brought by lorry over the border and to your front door in Moscow, no questions asked by customs. But greater invention was required to get the two most essential items for a British Christmas - the turkey and the Christmas pud.

My wife, Lucy, was returning from a quick trip to London and decided to bring a giant turkey and a Marks and Sparks pud with her. Anyone arriving at Moscow airport is familiar with the vagaries of customs there, and this time they decided to have some fun. She was told to take the bird out of its special deep-freeze container. The officers could not believe anyone would go to such lengths to bring in an oversized bird. They were particularly perturbed by the plastic bag containing giblets. Was she not hiding more dangerous substances? Sufficient "duty" was paid to make it worthwhile for all. While the country was teetering on the brink, business was continuing as usual.

The biggest frustration that Christmas was that my newspaper, like most of them then, did not have a Boxing Day issue. So I would have to witness one of the most momentous days of postwar history without being able to write about it. We decided to spend the first half of the day normally. Our traditional Christmas lunch was followed not by the Bond film or any of the usual British TV fare, but by a televised statement at 3pm. "Dear fellow countrymen, due to the situation which has evolved, I hereby discontinue my activities in the post of president of the USSR."

A few minutes later Gorbachev signed a decree handing control of nuclear weapons to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As he did so, his pen ran out, and he had to borrow one from the head of CNN, who was standing by for an interview.

I called various friends who were finishing work that day. We went to Red Square where at 7.30pm the Soviet flag was lowered and the white, red and blue tricolour of Russia raised in its place. The symbolism left them unmoved. Later that evening I went to the home of Lev Kerbel. He was the country's most celebrated socialist-realist sculptor. Just about every giant Lenin worth its marble around the world is his creation. It seemed appropriate that on the day the Soviet Union died, I should go and see a man proud to have been born on the day of the Bolshevik revolution. He was hunched in his small kitchen watching a re-broadcast of Gorbachev's farewell on his flickering screen. He made tea, poured some brandy and tried to make sense of it. "We fought fascism, we fought for the Soviet Union, and now we are told it's no longer there," he said.

The following few years would see more breathtaking events under Boris Yeltsin, and more strife and instability. We spent subsequent Christmases at our country dacha, our weekend retreat. That, in itself, testified to change, good and bad. The village had always been closed to foreigners. Its large houses and the forests that led off them down to the Moskva river were for the scientific elite. But they were running out of money and needed dollars. A new elite was emerging, based entirely on wealth. Even my old friend Lev Kerbel was learning to adapt, turning his mind from heroes of Soviet history to heroes of earlier Russian history. This was the new Russia; there was no need to go to Helsinki to get decent provisions - or to charm the customs men to let our turkey through.

John Kampfner was the Moscow bureau chief for the "Daily Telegraph" and "Sunday Telegraph" from 199l-94. He is now a political correspondent for the BBC