From 2006 to 2012, Tony Halpin was The Times’ Moscow Correspondent. Here, he talks to Josh Black about life as a foreign journalist in Russia, the Litvinenko affair and the Russo-Georgian War.
How did you become interested in Eastern Europe?
That’s quite a long story but I’ll give you the brief version. I was sent to Armenia in 1992 by an American magazine that was interested in the collapse of the Soviet Union to write about the Caucasus and the civil wars there. I lived there again in 2001 for a year with my family, including my wife, who is Armenian, ran some journalism training projects and set up an English-language online newspaper, which still runs to this day. From there, The Times approached me to work for them, initially in London, but in 2006 I was sent out to Moscow.
2006 was the nadir of Britain’s relations with Russia. The atmosphere must have been quite tense…
I arrived six weeks before the Litvinenko affair began, so it was a baptism of fire in every sense. It was like being in the centre of a whirlwind. At the time, it was the biggest story in the world. There were clearly very high levels of intrigue and interest in what was going on in Moscow. We had the spectacle of Scotland Yard being sent out, which was unheard of before. The British Ambassador at the time, Tony Brenton, was already the subject of a sustained campaign of harassment by the pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, and that merely added to a sense of a relationship in crisis, which thereafter went beyond a crisis and pretty much broke down.
Did the relationship change while you were out there?
No, not really. Medvedev came in in 2008 and within four months of his taking office, there was the war with Georgia. That immediately characterised Russia’s relationship not only with Britain but with Europe and the United States as being in crisis, so Medvedev never had any chance to define himself, if indeed there was anything to define. In 2007, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, David Miliband’s first action as foreign secretary was to expel Russia’s diplomats. Russia started attacking the British Council, which soon became very unpleasant.
How is the experience of being a reporter in Moscow? Is it really one of the hardest places to be a journalist?
It’s very odd. On one level, it’s exhilarating, because it’s a big story and things always happens in Russia, and if not, it happens in the surrounding Republics. At the same time, you’re very conscious that the Kremlin and particularly the security services consider every foreign correspondent to be a spy, and treat them accordingly. There’s a high level of suspicion, mixed in with a desire to have their point of view taken seriously.
I make the comparison with the United States. The White House doesn’t really care what the US correspondent writes about Barrack Obama because there are no votes there. However, the Russian government does care, because it affects the international image of Russia.
There’s a lot more access granted than you might expect but you never get a running press commentary. When you ring a Ministry for a quote, the standard operating procedure is to send a fax. They’re within their rights to take a week to answer you and so they never get their point of view taken into account. From that, they take the view that foreign journalists are irredeemably biased against them, but it’s just that they’re not very good at working with you. That said, I often got calls from the Kremlin, more so under Medvedev, to say ‘the President is meeting leaders of the opposition parties, would you like to come along?’ Of course, you never get to ask a question but they do see it as their engagement with the media.
What was your favourite story to cover while in Moscow?
The Litvinenko story was tremendous because it was so fast-moving. I got to know Andrei Lugovoi, who is a very strange character, and like all his friends, ex-FSB or GRU. The War in Georgia was fascinating, because it was an opportunity to see the Russian army in action for the first time in many years. It didn’t perform terribly well, and I think the Kremlin drew that conclusion because afterwards there was a pretty intense period of reform.
There was one occasion during the War when I interviewed Mikhail Saakashvili late at night – Saakashvili never started an interview before midnight – where he told me that Putin’s rockets were aimed at the Presidential Palace. I think it was American pressure that halted the War, but had the army gone all the way to Tbilisi, I don’t know what they would have done.
Do you feel that Moscow correspondents do a good job of reporting on the wider region, given the obvious constraints?
It’s up to you as a correspondent to forge local links, but there’s no substitute for being there. Certainly, distance and economics militate against travelling a great deal. You have to make a judgement whether travelling to Vladivostok is going to be a worthwhile use of your time, and what happens if something develops in Moscow. It tended to be one of my frustrations that when I left Moscow I often left Russia, so I saw less of Russia’s East than I might have wished. As a correspondent, you tend to rely on national wire services, such as RIA Novosti or Interfax, but the internet means that you can at least read the newspapers in Murmansk from anywhere.
We hope you enjoyed reading this interview. Part two, covering the Moscow protests of 2011-12 and politics in Russia, will be published later this week.