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

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times