Columns

A writer to remember

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 27 2000
Columns

A writer to remember

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 27 2000

A writer to remember

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

One night in 1990, Artyom G. Borovik sat in a Georgianstyle restaurant in Moscow and brooded, in classic Russian style, about death. At the time, he was in his late 20s, and had confronted—and created—plenty of ways of meeting his own demise. As his country’s most celebrated and controversial journalist of the day, Artyom had gone on repeated sorties in wartorn Afghanistan with the spetsnaz—the cowboy commandos of the old Soviet Union. In Moscow, he endured heavy-handed suggestions that his probing into wrongdoing by senior officials might be bad for his health. On this night, a few friends—most of us foreigners based in Moscow—sat with him at a window table at Upirosmani Restaurant, gazing across the street at Novodevichy Cemetery, where Nikita Khrushchev is buried. Artyom mused, in his fluent English, that “by the time Khrushchev died, you knew, no matter how his enemies tried, no one would forget him.” That, added Artyom, might be the most anyone could ask for.

Artyom used to joke with mordant humour about how his last-ever flight to Moscow would likely be in a “Black Rose,” the term Soviet army vets used for the coffins that brought dead colleagues home. But the Afghani snipers never did get him in their gunsights: nor did those people making the notso-veiled threats. His life ended earlier this month in a more sadly everyday fashion for Russia, a place where nothing works as it should: the small plane in which he was a passenger crashed after takeoff from a Moscow airport. On the eve of elections on Mar. 26, sabotage was suspected: Artyom was publisher of the magazine Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret), and he’d recently made more enemies. But in the end, the crash seems to have been just another case of badly made, malfunctioning Soviet-era equipment.

Some people regard journalism as a business, others as a calling: sometimes, the latter are the least trustworthy. Artyom was an exception. Rumpled, casually dressed, babyfaced, he seemed forever in high dudgeon about professional matters—balanced by high spirits about his overall life. In the early 1990s, his television show Vzglyad (Glance) was pulled by the government because his reports infuriated senior officials. His TV version of Top Secret was cancelled last year after probing possible Kremlin corruption. But he had other outlets: in addition to the magazine, he remained a special correspondent with CBS’s 60 Minutes. He wrote more than a dozen books drawing on his reporting in places like strifetorn Nicaragua in the 1980s (he spoke fluent Spanish), to Afghanistan, to the time he trained with the American army in Fort Benning, Ga., in 1988. Artyom’s English was so Americanized that many grunts didn’t believe he was from the Soviet Union: they thought he was pulling a prank.

The confusion was understandable: Artyom seemed at home everywhere. When he visited Kabul, the Afghan capital, rebellious locals used to regularly abduct and knife Soviet soldiers in broad daylight in the Chicken Street main market. But Artyom would loudly speak English as he strolled the streets, so everyone figured he couldnibe Russian, and let him alone. His reports for Ogonyok magazine under editor Vitaly Korotich—the Ben Bradlee of his day—created a sensation: all 1.7 million copies would sell out within two hours of reaching newsstands. In his pieces on the Afghan occupation, he detailed how freaked-out draftees spent their tours in drug-induced hazes, while superiors got drunk nightly watching bootleg videos of Apocalypse Now. He was the first Soviet journalist to draw the painful comparison of that campaign with the Americans’ in Vietnam.

Artyom’s father, Genrikh, was a Brezhnev-era journalist/ diplomat posted to the United Nations, so Artyom basically grew up in New York. (His wife, Veronica, was raised in similar circumstances.) That made the son part of the so-called nomenklatura—and, for all its socialist airs, there may never have been a more class-conscious society than the Soviet Union. Artyom could have been a perfect Kremlin propagandist, like Vladimir Posner, the Soviet mouthpiece whose hardline views seemed softened by his Manhattan-accented delivery. Instead, Artyom’s fondness for blowing the whistle on malfeasance among his father’s peers infuriated them that much more.

Like many Russians, Artyom felt deeply torn towards his homeland. He despaired about his people’s fondness for authoritarian rule. He and his father had a loving, conflicted relationship: Genrikh worried about his headstrong son, and Artyom appeared sometimes resentful of his father (in part because of suggestions Genrikh engaged in more clandestine information-gathering work than journalism). But Artyom could be defensive when Westerners criticized too much. Once, we argued about the limitations of state-run journalism. “How popular would you be,” he responded, “if you wrote in Canada that communism is good, and capitalists evil. Why are you surprised if we can’t say the reverse here?”

We talked a couple of times in the past 10 years when he visited North America. His view of Russia’s future wavered between enthusiasm and depression, but his passion stayed intact. In a 1988 essay for Macleans, Artyom—who didn’t often discuss religion—cited the famous line from the Gospel according to St. John: “In the beginning was the word.” And a word, Artyom concluded, “can also be a deed.” He lived his life by that code. Artyom is now buried in Novodevichy Cemetery. Neither friends nor enemies will forget him.