They barred the entrance to the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, and we were left to shiver in the snow with thousands of protesters who had marched up the hill from Independence Square. Serendipitously, Yulia Tymoshenko – the opposition firebrand with the peasant braid, whom we had interviewed the previous day – spotted us in the crush. ‘Let them in,’ she ordered the guard, ‘they’re journalists.’ Fifteen years later I can still picture his panicked expression as, knowing that she was not technically in charge but might be by tomorrow, he meekly complied. In my colleague and I rushed, pressing close behind Tymoshenko and her ally Viktor Yushchenko, his face disfigured by a bid to poison him during the presidential contest that, according to the rigged official count, he had just lost. We paused at a window to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd: Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, my colleague and I.
We all store up past versions of our ideal selves, and that Zelig-like moment at the window in Kiev in 2004, amid the euphoria of the Orange Revolution, is one of mine. Those were exhilarating days, which I covered as a correspondent for The Economist. There were wild rumours of defections and crackdowns, of Spetsnaz and sniper nests; there was meddling by the Kremlin and machinating by the country’s oligarchs, and a general, electric sense that the rules had been suspended. Even so, for me the memory is, in the end, a sad one. When you see violence up close, I have learned, it always feels like an abomination, even if, in the greater scheme of things, it is too small-bore to make the evening headlines. Likewise, when you witness the kind of mass courage that Ukrainians mustered that winter – the young women putting roses in the perforations of riot shields, the sign-language interpreter on state television proclaiming that the news was a lie – it is natural to think that the arc of history must be bending towards justice.
Looking back on that time now, as the narrators in my new novel, Independence Square, do, it all seems a bit more complicated than that. Carnage was averted and the phoney result was annulled, but afterwards the oligarchs didn’t go quietly, and neither did the Russians. Nine years later there was another revolution, this one bloody, after which Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas. These days, in Kiev, the old idealism lives on, but it remains locked in a life-and-death struggle with corruption. Meanwhile the rest of the world is grappling with the technology of lies that blighted the election in 2004, only in more sophisticated forms, with disinformation and smears whizzing across continents and oceans, speeded on their way by dark money. It seemed then that freedom and democracy were advancing irresistibly; now it is clear that they were on the verge of retreat.
Especially poignant, from a British perspective, is the memory of legions of people on Independence Square waving the starry flag of the European Union, which to them was shorthand for progress, clean elections and the rule of law. In my story, a fictional journalist wonders whether it would be okay for him to report that the crowds were demonstrating against the EU, rather than for it; his editors in London would definitely prefer that, he explains. The book mixes up fact with invention, as all novels do, but that particular detail, I’m afraid to say, is based on a real exchange.
Putin once said that there is no such thing as a former KGB officer. I suspect the same goes for Moscow correspondents. Russia and the former Soviet Union make an opaque, often tragic subject, but they are also hopelessly addictive. The stakes are sky-high. Freedom or repression? Democracy or authoritarianism? War or peace? In that part of the world, you encounter a moral range – from conscienceless assassins to saintly human rights activists – wider than that found in tamer places, where, fortunately, we are not obliged to take the sorts of risks or make the kinds of choices that corrupt autocracies elicit. The moral categories are slippery. Bad guys redeem themselves, often in prison; some good people allow themselves to be co-opted, and who are we to blame them? A friend of mine once left Russia in a hurry, exhausted by what he called the ‘struggle for everything’; on arrival in London, he immediately began lobbying to go back again. My case is not as acute, but, many years after coming home, I still find myself listening to Tchaikovsky and throaty Soviet chansons, making sentimental toasts of a kind that are a Russian speciality and reading novels set in my former patch.
Some of the challenges of first-person fiction are predictable – the craft required to delineate a voice, say, or the whole business of conveying to the reader things that the narrator cannot see. One glitch I hadn’t anticipated when I published my first novel, Snowdrops, was the assumption made by some readers that my narrator was merely a front for an autobiographical confession. In the book, a thirty-something British lawyer called Nick recounts to his fiancée his gradual moral degradation in Moscow; in retrospect I can see that although (unlike Nick) I was never complicit in any acts of grand larceny or murder, the fact that I was a thirty-something British Moscow correspondent was bound to lead to some confusion. Several well-meaning readers wrote to say that they hoped my betrothed had been able to forgive me. Initially stumped for a reply, I settled on ‘Thanks’.