22 December 2017

To Russia with Thatcher and Le Carré

By Elizabeth Roberts

In 1987, 30 years ago, I was 43. As a Russianist, I had been a member of the Great Britain-USSR Association for a quarter of a century. I had been married to John C Q Roberts, the director of the Association, a second marriage for both of us, for just 4 years.

In March 1987, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher paid a historic visit to First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. The visit was historic not because of any breakthrough in disarmament talks, but because of an interview that Mrs Thatcher gave on her last morning before she left to three Soviet journalists.  The interview was broadcast, unedited, that evening and caused a sensation in homes the length and breadth of the USSR.

The sensational nature of the broadcast consisted not only in what she said – which in itself was quite revealing, in that she stated without contradiction that the USSR had just as many if not more nuclear weapons aimed at the West as we had aimed at them – but because as a forceful woman trained first as a barrister and then, as a politician, practised and battle-hardened in the weekly no-holds-barred bear-pit of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, she wiped the floor with the three Soviet journalists.

It is not known whether Gorbachev bothered to see the interview before it was broadcast on primetime TV. Perhaps he assumed that it would consist only of platitudes. How wrong he had been. The Soviet public were used to being lied to. Here was a senior foreign politician telling them things they could believe about their own country. More than that, it was a woman. The top echelons of Soviet society were dominated by men – to be fair, the same was true of Britain at the time.  Not only was Mrs Thatcher a woman, “with the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe” as French President Francois Mitterand described her. Here was a woman who interrupted, talked over, gave as good as she got.

A major part of the director of the Great Britain-USSR Association’s job in those Cold War years was to negotiate a schedule of exchanges between interesting people from here and people from there. Not just the usual party hacks, but ideally opinion-formers, people of genuine achievement. On our reasonably frequent visits, we would pay a brief visit to the Embassy to bring our Ambassador up to speed with anything interesting or unusual that had happened.

One such briefing session took place a day or two after a KGB man had bowled John a googly at lunch in 1986.  He had suddenly suggested as we ate that it might be appropriate to celebrate the life of “the patriot Kim Philby”.  As John digested, or rather choked on, this bright idea, I had stepped in: “What a good idea!” I said. “And we for our part could celebrate the life of the patriot Colonel Penkovsky.” The conversation moved on to other things.

When John was regaling Sir Bryan Cartledge with this anecdote a couple of days later, the Ambassador’s hand was moving towards the chimney piece reaching for a private letter propped up there.

“I received a letter this morning from David Cornwell,” he said. “We did our National Service together.  He has finally been cleared to visit the Soviet Union.  He needs someone to help him meet people for research he is doing into his next book.  Would you be interested?”

So it was that on one morning in May 1987 that two almost-identically dressed Englishmen set off in their grey flannel trousers and tweed jackets from our house in Chelsea to Heathrow and points east. David – who is better known as his pen name, John le Carré – hoped to meet both “zoological specimens and their keepers” – people in the world of the arts and the Soviet security services. Their visit encompassed many long nights in Moscow and a visit to Soviet Central Asia, where they ate horse together.

The resulting le Carré book, The Russia House, was later made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery. A couple of years later, we took the director of the film, Fred Schepisi and Michelle Pfeiffer to a play at the National Theatre by Tom Stoppard who was to write the screenplay. After a long day at the office, John shook Fred’s hand, then inquired politely of the diminutive Burberry mac-clad figure by his side: “And what do you do?”

These and many more stories are in John C Q Roberts’s memoir, 'Speak Clearly Into the Chandelier' available from Elizabeth Roberts at £20, post and packaging extra. Contact [email protected]