As the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Bridget Kendall was a familiar teatime TV presence in the early nineties, reporting on the passing of the Soviet Union. Her book, The Cold War, is an oral history of that vast and seemingly interminable showdown
How much did you enjoy the Cold War personally?
Enjoyed is probably the wrong word. This was a major global conflict that gripped the world from the end of the Second World War until the Soviet Union collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, and war isn’t something most people enjoy.
But as a journalist did you find it exciting to be in the middle of?
You have to understand that the Cold War lasted a very long time. It went on for over four decades and began before I was born, so we all grew up with the fact that the world was divided between the Communist world and the non-Communist world, and that Europe was divided between east and west. It waxed and waned, of course, and that is what our book is about, the ups and downs of it, the moments of tension. The Cold War is the whole thing, so any excitement that came at the end when I was a journalist is only one small, final episode.
What prompted the book?
It came out of a BBC radio series in which we wanted to talk to ordinary people who happened to be at dramatic points in the Cold War to tell us what it felt like for them. Some of those points were pretty obvious, like the Berlin blockade, where suddenly Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets for over a year and they had to fly in supplies, or the uprising in Hungary in 1956 against Communist rule which led to a short and very bloody revolution which all Hungarians know about, but which other people don’t remember.
But we also thought, what else do we need to sketch on to this canvas to give people a sense of the global scale? We definitely wanted to include the moment that China went red – that had a huge impact, especially on the United States, and there was a kind of terror that this wasn’t just Joe Stalin, but now Mao Zedong as well, and they were kind of joining forces. We also wanted to have programmes that reflected events on other continents, for example in Africa and in Latin America where the Cold War began to be played out in local disputes where the two big powers sided with one power or another.
We needed to do the Sino-Soviet split, when in the 1960s the Soviet leadership and Mao Zedong fell out and suddenly it was a triangle instead of a binary world. And in Latin America we wanted to do the end of the Allende regime in the early 1970s in Chile. He was the first democratically elected president in South America and was toppled in a coup by General Pinochet, with background support from the CIA. Although we interviewed a CIA man who had been in the city at the time and he said they didn’t organise it, and he had only found out about the coup a couple of days before it was about to happen.
Did you believe him?
We left it open for people to decide. Perhaps we wanted to put that side because that’s his view and it’s worth airing because sometimes these things aren’t quite as cut and dried as you might think. But perhaps most compelling about that chapter was a young boy whose father had been an advisor to Allende and was in the presidential palace as it was being shelled.
Did you find your assumptions challenged by the testimony of the “unsung foot soldiers”?
What really struck me were the echoes that you found on both sides. Like the very young men who signed up to fight in Vietnam thinking they’d go and help the poor South Vietnamese who were being oppressed by the Communists and liberate them. When they got there they found themselves shot at by the people who they thought they’d come to help. Very quickly their mission was just to stay alive and in the end to shoot back. The heroism they went out with turned into quite a brutal reality where they had to behave in a brutal way. Lots of them came home with psychological problems, and they weren’t greeted as heroes either, unlike their fathers during the Second World War.
Then we decided to look at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979, through the eyes of Soviet soldiers. And similarly, we found young men who believed they were going to help the Afghans defend themselves against insurgents, and keep them in a world that would be modern, secular and pro-Soviet. They thought they were going to help, but found themselves shot at and became increasingly brutalised. And they found that back home people didn’t want to know. They also came back with loads of problems and that was quite interesting, to see that kind of parallel.
Were there other parallels?
On both sides it wasn’t just a Cold War, it was a shooting war and millions of people died in conflicts on the periphery in places like Angola or Vietnam. But it was also a war about information and propaganda, and it became clear from very early on that this was happening on both sides. So in the Italian election in 1948, Czechoslovakia had just been taken over by the Communists and the Americans were desperate not to have Italy do the same, so they ratcheted up a very strong anti-Communist campaign, which was a propaganda campaign with the help of the Catholic church, but also with loads of postcards from Italian Americans as well.
So what you realise was that as the paranoia grew between one side worrying about the other, the Soviets were worried about what was happening in Germany, but on the other side the Americans and their allies were looking at a world map going progressively red and they were reaching for the same tool boxes, but heading in different directions. Of course that has resonance today. As the temperature rises, the danger is that one set of paranoia seeds the other and people reach for the same tools to counter what they see coming from the other side and you end up with a very dangerous spiral.
Is there an injustice that particularly rankles with you?
I think the story of eastern Europe, these countries that were ravaged, many of them, by the Second World War; Poland, for example, and the Baltic states. A lot of them suddenly found when the war ended that another nightmare had started and that they were on the wrong side of the divide. It’s an appalling thing to have happened to half of the continent. And I think you have to understand what they went through in order to understand some of the sentiments we hear today and the fear there is of the same thing happening again. I think it is helpful to read ordinary people’s accounts of what happened to them at school or of finding a way to get out when the wall went up and swimming across a river worrying they would be shot at, and then arriving in the west as a refugee with nothing. It is easy to gloss over all that, but when you read the testimony I think you understand a bit more why there is the abiding fear of Moscow.
A fear of Moscow that is growing…
It is very unfortunate because in the beginning of the nineties there was a lot of hope that with the post-Soviet Russian government of Boris Yeltsin we were in a new world and could put all this behind us, and now it has turned out that it was not as simple as that. Vestiges of it remain and it has been rather easy to recreate some of the old rhetoric and the old sense of conflict.
You hear people say that things were better under the Communists, which perhaps doesn’t indicate a desire to return to those days, but do you think there are ways in which things were?
You need to be quite careful when you pose that question and whether you are talking about eastern Europe or Russia, because one of the problems of the collapse of the Soviet Union is that for those who left, such as the Soviet republics or the countries of eastern Europe, they gained something. They gained an independent country, a new identity, a sense of purpose and a sense of being liberated from a yoke which had constrained their lives before.
But for Russians it is a lot more complicated, because for quite a lot of them they didn’t feel they gained anything. They felt they lost. Whereas other countries got their freedom, they felt they lost territory, and where other countries felt they could say “Well, the Cold War or Communist oppression was all the fault of the people who did it to us,” essentially the Russians and Moscow, what are the Russians to say about themselves? Are they to say, “We were to blame”? Or are they to say “We were victims too”? It is much more complicated to come to terms with if you are a Russian, and that’s why today we hear a very different sort of rhetoric and story coming out of Russia from what we hear in any of the former Soviet republics, or from most people in eastern Europe.
Do the Russians have much to be nostalgic for?
So there are two ways of talking about the good old days in Russia. One way is to say, “Oh, it was wonderful, nobody was unemployed, we all knew where we were…” Well, let me tell you, I lived through that, it wasn’t great. Everyone had very little, there were huge, long queues, you couldn’t get even the most critical things like proper medicines or schoolbooks. They don’t talk about that now, but it was awful on the economic front. So when people say this to me I say, “I lived there, I know what it was like.” These rosy spectacles are not painting the world I remember.
But the other aspect is, “We were a great superpower, the world respected us and we could stand up to the Americans. We had as many missiles, we did as well in the Olympic games, we had lots of Nobel prize winners. Then suddenly when the Soviet Union collapsed I could no longer go and visit my aunt in Ukraine without a visa, the world treated us like poor relations and that was humiliating.” That for them is why Putin’s message that “We are strong again,” and “Stalin was a great leader because he won the war,” and “Don’t just do down the Soviet period and talk about the bad things, there were lots of really good things too,” resonates with people because they were left at the end of the Soviet Union with a very difficult picture to accept. Many people say with Russia it is like Germany after World War Two, that until they can accept and look back on the Soviet period and accept the testimony of people who were in the prison camps or who were executed or were reported on by their neighbours… But why would people want to remember that time if they think that their families might be the ones doing the reporting? It’s very difficult, so it is just going to take a long time for people to come to terms with.
Is there a country that you particularly empathise with?
In some ways I empathise with the Russians, because it is most important that we understand what is going on there too. The Cold War wasn’t just something that happened to eastern Europe or to the western world because there was a Communist power in Moscow seeking to spread their ideology worldwide. Russia is full of people who are still leading very difficult lives. I’m not condoning what happened, but I think we need to understand it.
Who do you most admire from the Cold War?
I would say a lot of the writers and the poets, who played a very important part in different countries in trying to adhere to some greater standard of integrity beyond politics, and have left wonderful works of literature. There is a whole raft of wonderful Russian poets. In a world with a lot of ideological confrontation, we need not just the politicians and the diplomats and the military on each side to play out this political and military game, we do need poets and artists and writers.
It’s interesting to hear people in the book say just how precious an instrument the typewriter was…
Nowadays they’d say a computer. I’ve interviewed people in present day Russia, Putin’s Russia, and asked them if they think they live in a democracy. I’ll never forget one young man who put up his hand and said, “When I look at the television I think, no, I don’t, but when I go on the internet then I think I’m living in a democracy because it is free and I can express my opinion, and read whatever I want from around the world.” So that is a big difference between now and the Cold War. Modern technology means you can’t cut one half of the world off from the other. But the sad truth we’ve learnt today is that you can still marshal propaganda in a way that can shape the way people feel and think at a certain moment.
As a former Moscow and Washington correspondent are you constantly called on to forecast what lies ahead?
Not really. Forecasting is a very difficult business. So many things happen which come out of the blue. The impact of the 9/11 attacks, for example, shifted the view in many capitals about what the main security threats we face now are. The emergence of social media and the ability for people to link up with each other at a horizontal level without going through some sort of level of authority or establishment has had an extraordinary impact on the world that we are still struggling to comprehend. And it is also an area where it is possible to collect a lot of data on people and then use that in different ways. How could one journalist, however experienced, possibly predict how these sorts of things could change the world we are living in? It is too unpredictable.
Bridget Kendall MBE was the BBC’s Moscow correspondent from 1989 to 1995. After a spell as Washington correspondent, she took the Diplomatic correspondent post in 1998. She was elected first female Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge in 2016. She still contributes to the BBC.
The Cold War is published by BBC Books, £12.99