Remembering Andrei Mironov: An interview with Colin Peck

What is the best way to commemorate a dead journalist? I decided to interview one of his close friends to talk about issues that were important for Andrei.

Photo: Archive A.Mironov

The October 1993 events in Moscow, when Russia went to the brink of civil war as the result of a severe stand-off between Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Parliament, took the life of Northern Irish cameraman Rory Peck. In 1995, Rory’s wife Juliet established a special trust in Rory’s memory. The Rory Peck Trust remains the only charity which provides freelance journalists and their families with support in times of crisis. Colin Peck, Rory’s brother, collaborated extensively with Russian human rights campaigner Andrei Mironov, who spent a lot of time with Andrei on their team trips to war-torn Chechnya and Tajikistan. Andrei Mironov, born in 1954, was killed on May 24th, 2014 in Slavyansk, a small town located in the East of Ukraine. Andrea Rochelli, an Italian freelance journalist, was killed together with Andrei. They were trapped by mortar fire, presumably from the Ukrainian side. Their last collaboration was an article on the situation of two large families in Slavyansk teaching their many children how to hide in cellars during shelling. Rochelli’s penetrating photos of the children looking up from cellars shelved with precise rows of homemade preserves should be ranked among the most influential anti-war images of the 21st century.

What was Andrei’s driving force, in your view?

Andrei’s driving force was to stand up to bullying and superfluous authority.

On a trip to Tajikistan I had the great honor of sharing a prison cell with him, having gotten us both into trouble. Rather than discussing our exit strategy, he went into a nostalgic trance: “No no no, this window is not the regulation height from the floor. Look at this! The width is wrong too.” A terrifying glimpse into gulag hell and the resistance of turning imprisonment upon itself. Andrei had great tales of befuddling his captors with their own regulations; he held them up to their own ridiculousness. He had a great sense of the ridiculous and a wicked sense of humor to go with it. He did not mind authority as long as it had a beneficial reason.

How would you describe the role such people as Andrei Mironov play in journalism and human rights movements?

I worked with Andrei between 1994 and 1998. Afterwards he visited me in the West on several occasions… He was profoundly observant of peoples’ characters and motivations. He had a lot of emotional baggage and perhaps anger from his time as a political prisoner; he was certainly scarred by the experience. Not so much a personal anger, but a deep understanding and loathing of that system; how it treated people, destroying lives and being administered by ignorant, sometimes sadistic people. He was very much influenced by other dissidents and there was great solidarity among them. Andrei was a human rights campaigner first of all. Any journalist who worked on this topic, he would work for or help. He had fantastic contacts too. Andrei was more of an organizer than a producer. Certainly not a fixer.

Andrei once said that the events of October 1993 in Moscow would have disastrous consequences for Russia. His apprehension was proven correct soon after, when Yeltsin waged the first war in Chechnya. What is your estimation of the historical and personal tragedy October 1993 has been?

In October 1993 Russia lost its real parliament, and has not seriously attempted to reconstruct a functional one since. The real tragedy is that Russia has for over a hundred years occasionally struggled to form parliaments. It is cursed with the wrong people floating to the top too quickly. It is really the result of poverty and oppression going back for hundreds of years. Ivan Moneybags got things done by force and threats; it is imprinted in the Russian psyche. There is a middle class now, but it is too small and weak to change things yet. So little changes. The oligarchs are really the old Boyars. Once, on a trip in a horribly polluted industrial complex, myself and Andrei met a truly enlightened man. He understood what was happening around him, the industrial and political forces that prevented any improvement. The sort of person whose questioning mind makes uncomfortable company for a corrupt official or a bullying politician. Afterwards Andrei said to me, “he would have been the first to get executed by the Communists.”

Your brother Rory, what brought him to Moscow in 1993?

Rory was fascinated by Russia and he loved the Russians most of all. He liked their broad romantic outlook, their stoicism, their courage and eccentricities. Their sense of drama. Russia was a closed mystery to the West; we had been told so many bad things about it. Of course we did not believe half of them. But it was still a great mystery and Rory was drawn to mysteries.

Chechnya and the current crisis in Ukraine: is there any correlation, in your view?

No correlation between Chechnya and the Crimea; that is more the case of a divorced husband demanding the wedding ring back. As far as the rest of the Ukraine and Chechnya are concerned, a short victorious war makes great support for Putin. And he really hankers after the good old KGB Soviet empire times. Unfortunately for so many people and other countries, that is his only comfort zone; it is a bit immature of him. There is this stated concern for the safety of Russians living in the near abroad. But we forget that it was the Chechens who ended up protecting and helping the Russians in Grozny while Russian forces bombarded the place. One thing we can hope Putin’s Russia has learned from Chechnya is that the initial conquest is one thing, but the hard part comes afterwards. One hopes, but we do not know.

What is the role of journalists in crisis? How is it possible to maximize their safety in conflict areas?

Not long ago, Moscow had complete control of the internal Soviet media. Rory Peck played a huge role in televising and broadcasting the events in Baku in early 1990. This came as a complete shock to the Soviet Generals, that the inglorious parts of their actions could be watched and commented upon.

The role of the journalist in crisis is information, information, information. People ask whether it makes any difference. Of course it does. Firstly, it puts a brake on the outbursts of collective madness that occur in conflict. Secondly, it prevents impunity and imposes responsibility on adversaries. Thirdly, the more a situation is understood, the more hope there is for a peaceful outcome as well as a general understanding of the dynamics of conflict. And history needs to be recorded. Finally and if all else fails, if people are going to have military crimes perpetrated against them, it is a small but important comfort for them that someone can hear their screams.

Journalists should try to take only well calculated risks. There are excellent training courses for journalists and every responsible employer should ensure that these courses are available for their news people.

As of now, more and more media outlets prefer not to staff their offices with permanent employees but to use freelance journalists. What do you feel are the pros and cons of such an approach?

Freelancers are more vulnerable without the backing of a large organization. They often work without insurance or proper training. The fallout for their families is often much worse. A few responsible large companies insure their freelancers. But if a freelancer walks into the office with the film already shot, are they to refuse it? The result of this trend is that there will be more journalists out there without insurance to look after their families if something happens. But the news coverage on the whole is perhaps richer and better with this development.

 If you follow the developments in Ukraine, what do you think awaits both people living in Ukraine and the world?

The bad outcomes are all waiting out there: a Balkan-style crisis, insurgencies, all-out war. Sometimes it looks like Putin needs a conflict to prove himself and justify his position. If so, it is a shame that one person’s antics are putting huge numbers of ordinary lives at risk.

What is evil, in your view? Can wars be justified as some “necessary” evil?

The real evil is when a government or leader plays upon peoples’ fears, envy and hatred to build up the momentum for war or to justify atrocities. Winston Churchill said that Hitler was like a snake: he covered his victims in spit before he swallowed them.

There are lots of opportunities for evil to thrive during conflicts. Groups of people do horrible things that the individuals comprising that group would be horrified to contemplate as individuals. Self-determination is justified; independence is justified when it is genuinely desired. And people will always fight for that. You have to fight for freedom, and sometimes that means war if all compromises are exhausted. Downright aggression too can be justifiably met with force.

Your experience as a journalist and a person has given you much knowledge about human nature. What can stop wars, and how can people help?

A contemporary account of the 1st World War: “They came through mud and with mud and in mud. The heavy horses of the gunners and transport men were all whitened with wet chalk to the ears. The mules were ridiculous, like amphibious creatures who had come up out of the slime to stare with wicked eyes at what men were doing with the Earth’s surface. Eight-inch guns were wallowing in bogs from which their shiny snouts thrust up, belching forth flame.” This was written by a witness in 1918. It is still fresh. Andrei Mironov did just this: relentlessly witnessing the madness of war, of what people are doing to each other at the behest of far-off “leaders.” In 1936, a lone carpenter built a bomb into a pillar in a Bavarian beer hall to kill Hitler. Hitler left early and the carpenter was executed. Andrei Mironov is such a lonely hero. I wish he was still here and I wish I had listened to him more. When the sound stops, the silence is deafening.

Oksana Chelysheva

Oksana Chelysheva

worked as the editor of the Russian-Chechen Information Agency at the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society until the ban of the organization in 2007 under the Law on Extremism. Now works with the RCFS from Finland where the organization has its legal entity.