Guest Commentary

Peter Worthington

Soviet Days

(Editor’s note: journalist Peter Worthington died in 2013 at 86. He was a newspaperman for 57 years. In 2009 Worthington spoke with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan on his early career as a foreign correspondent in the U.S.S.R. Following is a transcription of Worthington’s recollections)

In 1965 the Toronto Telegram assigned me to Moscow as a correspondent. This was the Cold War. We had a real sense that two worlds were on a collision course. My father had been Canada’s first federal Civil Defence Co-ordinator, waiting for the Russians to come over the North Pole.

At one point the Telegram constructed a bomb shelter in downtown Toronto and sent a reporter to live in it for a weekend; readers were invited to come down and see the shelter with the ‘survivor’ inside.

We’d stocked it with food for the weekend but forgot the sugar. Nobody could live in a bomb shelter without sugar, so we waited till nightfall and poured sugar down the ventilator.

I’d commanded a platoon in the Korean War. I had no thoughts then of communism, or saving the world for democracy. It seemed like an opportunity. The military instills a bit of education in young people, at an elementary level. What did I learn in the army? If you walk fast and carry a brown envelope, you can go anywhere. Just look like you know what you’re doing.

In the end most Canadians felt Korea was a useless kind of war, which did not surprise anybody in the army. Once the Vancouver Sun ran the same Korean War dispatch on the same page every day for a week – and did not get a single reader’s complaint. Nobody even read it.

So, the Telegram sent me to the Soviet Union. They want to be communists, that’s their business. I set out to write about life in general. It was a goldmine! Everything was make-believe.

The U.S.S.R. could make tanks and Sputniks, but they couldn’t manufacture a ballpoint pen. At one point the city ran out of toilet paper. In Moscow I bought a Russian car, and discovered if you didn’t remove the windshield wipers every time you parked the car, someone would steal the blades. In winter you couldn’t get antifreeze. There were four gas stations in the city. It was a nightmare.

Moscow was full of amusing signs in those days: “Glory To Cement,” that sort of thing. It was such nonsense. But a Russian friend told me, “You’ve got to remember, in our system if you repeat the same nonsense 500 times it means they’ll die for it.”

In my time in the Soviet Union, the only thing I found that really functioned well was the secret police. As you delved deeper and deeper into Soviet life, you found every apartment building, every complex, every workplace, had its informer and KGB people. It created a terrible, paranoia-driven system. Nobody would carry on a conversation inside a house, or within earshot of other people.

In the end I found the Soviet Union a sad, dispirited place. I was not sorry to leave.

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