I went to work in Moscow in summer 1988 as a young correspondent for the Reuters news agency. My wife, Roberta, and I arrived in the city after a road trip across Europe and through Ukraine that took us perilously close to the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which had exploded two years earlier. Our shiny new Volvo estate car was piled so high with supplies that when we opened the rear doors they began to cascade out onto the ground. Stashed away beneath the jumble of clothes and shoes and household appliances were more than 100 bottles of wine. I had been warned by my future colleagues that it was difficult to find any wine – or anything much else, for that matter – in Russian shops. They were right.
Home was a gloomy little ground-floor flat in a complex for foreigners near the Rizhsky Market in the north of the city. The Reuters office was in a rather grander complex in Sadovaya Samotechnaya Street, known among the expat community simply as Sad Sam. A team of three interpreters, hired through the UPDK, the all-powerful organisation that took care of foreigners, watched over us in shifts. They all also worked for the KGB. At night we went to parties with an extraordinary fin de siècle feel.
When we drove around Moscow in the Volvo, now bearing number plates that began K001 – ‘K’ for correspondent and ‘001’ for Great Britain – we took it for granted that we were being watched. Returning home, we often found the drawer in which we kept our documents had been left open. Sometimes the phone would ring a few minutes later. There was never anyone there. Nina, who visited the flat every morning to teach me Russian, structured her grammar questions in such a way as to extract details about my private life; she was especially interested in our Russian friends.
The Soviet Union, even in its final days, was a curious place in which nothing worked quite in the same way as it did in the West. But, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to power in 1985, it was changing fast. In the years that followed, I had a privileged front-row seat as the political, economic and socialist system, built up since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, unravelled before my eyes and something wild, new and untested emerged to take its place. There was a sense of freedom and exhilaration in the air, but also a feeling of foreboding mingled with that perennial Russian fear of chaos. When I left for good in 1995 the country’s future path still seemed uncertain, yet there was a feeling of optimism.
In 2016 I returned to Moscow to research my book, Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War. It was a very different city from the one in which I had lived before. People complained about the collapsing rouble and Western sanctions and how tough life had become. But I couldn’t get over how affluent the place looked compared with my time there. In the intervening two decades Russians had come to take for granted the shops, bars, restaurants and other trappings of a modern developed economy that had seemed so exotic when the first McDonalds opened in Moscow in 1990.
Yet the optimism and euphoria that had reigned in my early days in the city had long since been replaced by a sense of resignation, grievance and wounded national pride. In my book I have set out to track how Russia has changed over the past quarter of a century through the prism of the ups and (mostly) downs of its relations with the West. It is a story of high hopes and goodwill but also of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. A new chapter in this story has begun with the election of Donald Trump.
Trump is not the first incoming US leader to make improving relations with Moscow a priority. Bill Clinton tried to integrate post-Communist Russia into the West, while attempting to keep the hard-drinking Boris Yeltsin on the straight and narrow. George W Bush, who followed him, went away from his first meeting with Putin claiming to have “got a sense of his soul”. Barack Obama began his presidency with a “reset”. Yet all three left relations with Russia in a far worse state than when they came to power. By the time of Obama’s departure in January 2017, they had sunk to a new low.
Will Trump do any better? The new president has one clear advantage: he is not Obama – or Hillary Clinton – both of whom have become hate figures to the Kremlin. The admiration he has so often expressed for Putin has raised Russian hopes of a “grand bargain” with America that might eventually pave the way for the fulfilment of the Kremlin leader’s dream: a return to the days when Washington and Moscow ran the world together.
Yet sealing a deal will require more than just personal chemistry between the property magnate turned reality TV star and the former spy. Putin’s tendency to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game and his insistence on dominating any international organisation of which he is a member will complicate relations with the West. Trump is equally determined to appear a strong leader, which will reduce the scope for him to negotiate any deal that smacks of giving ground. Some key members of Trump’s team are markedly less enthusiastic about Putin than their president is. Many in Europe will also be rightly nervous of anything that looks like a sell-out of their interests to Moscow.
A new start to rescue relations between East and West from the dead end they reached under Obama is long overdue. Experience since 1991 suggests it is not going to be easy. Some time this year, perhaps in early summer, Trump and Putin will meet for the first time. We must wait until then to see if they can turn their long-distance bromance into a serious and enduring relationship. It is not an exaggeration to say the fate of the world will depend on whether they succeed.
Who Lost Russia - How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is out now!