HOW WE MET : VITALI VITALIEV AND CLIVE JAMES
Vitali Vitaliev, 41, was born in the Ukraine. His articles in Krokodil, the satirical magazine, attracted the wrath of the Soviet authorities , and he defected in 1990. He lives in London and works as a writer. He is divorced, with one son. Clive James, 56, was born in Sydney. He went to Cambridge, then settled in Britain. Apart from his television work, he has written poetry, novels and autobiographies. Married, he has two daughters and lives in Cambridge
I was led to a little room where I was completely on my own, just facing the muzzle of the camera. Behind me there was a weather-beaten photo of Red Square just to show the viewers I was in Moscow. Then there was this crackling voice in my earphones, sounding very cheerful and saying: "Can you hear me, Vitali Vitaliev?" I smelt a rat from the very first minute because if you look at the tape you can see I looked very serious, expecting to be interviewed in a serious way by the BBC. But the questions were not exactly serious, and for the first two or three minutes I looked quite ridiculous because there was this funny man in London and this man in Russia taking him very seriously. But then I saw it was a game and I started tentatively making some little jokes and getting into the spirit of it all. And the producer phoned me afterwards and said that they were sorry, they were pulling my leg, it wasn't a serious show and they did this sometimes with people who didn't know the programme. And they said that next time they wanted me to appear as I was, and that's how it started. What I didn't know then was that appearing on this show and meeting Clive James was going to play an enormous part in my life.
My impression of him when I talked to him by satellite that first time was good, because his voice was pleasant and friendly, and I could tell that he was trying to help me out. And his sense of humour was lovely and sardonic, and his questions were very tongue-in-cheek. I did several programmes and became their Moscow correspondent.
When I went to Britain it was a complete shock. Everyone knew me, even customs officers at the airport. Then I started being perceived as the Russian Clive James, something I'm getting a bit fed up with, not because I don't like Clive James - I adore him, he's a wonderful man - but because it's a cliche. I defected in January 1990 and we came here. Because I wanted to get as far away as possible from the Soviet Union, Clive said: "Why don't you go to Australia?"
So I went to the High Commission and the moment I entered the building they all said: "Oh, we know you, mate. You're Clive James's Moscow man," and within a month I had an Australian resident's permit and off I went. I spend a lot of time in Britain now, so Clive and I see more of each other. I've always admired his versatility so much, his TV shows and his books. I always feel his presence and I've always relied on his advice because I think he is a very wise man and he really cares about me, and I care about him.
We are both defectors. I left Russia and he left Australia, though for different reasons. We are both exiles. I think that destiny drew us together. We used to drink quite a lot of vodka together - I taught him how to do it properly. We have lunches that grow into dinners, we go for walks in the fields around Cambridge and we talk a lot. Clive's range of interests is very broad, he knows a lot about Russian literature and Russian culture, he can speak Russian too. I think we go well together on an intellectual level because we have lots of things to discuss. And he's had this enormous influence on my life. Funnily enough, we are both pursuing more or less the same range in writing and journalism, and I think that his sense of humour is very similar to mine. He is very ironic, and I love irony.
Our backgrounds are very different but we laugh at each other's jokes, not because we want to please each other, but because we find them funny. I think he's a very generous person and I don't just mean with money - though he is. I think he is generous in his attitude to people. He is extremely busy, but he is still very interested in people, and gives them his time. And he's very, very clever. I would call him one of the intelligentsiya, which is a very Russian word which has no real equivalent in English. It's something much more than someone who is just a knowledgeable person. It also involves compassion, and a sense of guilt for every injustice in the world.
Sometimes in his television appearances I think he goes a bit over the top - there is a very fine line between irony and ridicule and sometimes his jokes border on ridicule, but maybe this is just a requirement of the genre. As a person he is sometimes too sad, but most of the people who have to be funny, they are often quite serious people in their normal life. When we talk, lots of things we discuss are very serious, and, yes, sometimes he is a bit too sad.
I think he is a wonderful writer and poet, and although television is a good medium and very addictive, I think writing should come first. When I'm in Australia I often re-read his Unreliable Memoirs and the sequels. I have a tape of them and I put them on in the car and it's as though Clive is talking to me. I think his autobiographical trilogy is beautifully written, it's classic, and his poems are really fine, so I wish he could do more writing. If I didn't see him I would miss him so much. I think I would miss this light-hearted wisdom that he has, which isn't found very often. He is one of these people who can say something wise and profound in a very light-hearted manner. I think that's a very great skill, and that's where I would like to follow in his footsteps.
CLIVE JAMES: I first met Vitali in 1988 on a satellite link to Moscow. I was doing my weekly television show and Vitali was a correspondent that our researchers had discovered. We learnt that he was famous, or notorious, for saying things that the government didn't like, and which the KGB didn't like, so he was obviously a very brave guy.
Vitali agreed to do a satellite transmission for us from television studios outside Moscow, in one of those huge concrete buildings. I could see him, but he couldn't see me, because I was communicating with him by audio. He did this terrific piece for us about Soviet TV, and he had this stunning command of English for someone who had never been outside the Soviet Union. He went far beyond the limit of what he could say and still be safe, and I learnt that he was in great danger. I knew other things he was saying in Soviet newspapers and journals which got him into trouble, and we heard the KGB were after him.
Vitali came on my programme a few times, and he was a big star. He attracted a lot of attention here and in Australia, where the programme was also broadcast. So when he left the Soviet Union, he went to Australia, because he was having problems getting a UK resident's permit, and because his family were keen to go there.
What I remember most about when I met Vitali was just this charming guy, bursting out of his suit with energy and sheer goodwill. I don't know how he got like that. It's like Gorbachev - where do these men and women who changed everything come from? It turned out that the Russian mafia were getting heavy with him, too. He wanted to go to Australia and the Australian High Com-mission wanted some referees for him, and so I was very happy to oblige. He got his papers and his family went off there, and we stayed in touch as he and his family shuttled back and forth to Europe. Then Vitali decided to make his base here in Britain because he felt too cut off from Eastern Europe. He made his own television documentary in the Soviet Union and he did insanely brave things like walking into Chernobyl without any protective clothing. He was the first emigre Russian journalist ever to go on television in this country and talk about the Russian mafia. Of course, nobody believed him.
Vitali was on a BBC programme here discussing the situation in the Soviet Union after Gorbachev, and he said that not only were things not going to change in the direction of democracy as everyone blithely assumed they would, but there was a new danger and that was from gangsterism. He was almost cut off the air on the BBC for saying this - nobody believed that it was relevant.
Vitali and I are drinking friends. I don't drink any more, unless I'm with him - when, for some reason, the vodka bottle comes out, the top flies off and there we are drinking Smirnoff. He taught me how to drink vodka properly. He takes me out of myself. He's had a very adventurous life, he's taken real chances and I admire his writing, which gets better and better. He's getting to the point where he can express himself in English almost as well as in Russian.
I've had a very lucky life but Vitali and his generation didn't. It took great individuality and courage for him to become what he is. I admire that. He's an example of what can be done.
I admire the way Vitali operates bet-ween two languages with complete confidence; to me it shows that journalism and writing aren't just a question of the language you write in - it's what's underneath; it's what you're about as a person. There's nothing much that annoys me about him except that he's too happy - he gets a big, big bang out of life, and I'm enough of a puritan to wonder why he smiles so much. I wish I could be as mer- ry as he is. I'm a bit of a sad bastard, and with less reason. We're both interested in the history of the 20th century, but he's lived it, and I've been a spectator.
I feel that Vitali plugs me into history. In the West we live our media lives and don't affect what happens, we just report on it. To people like Vitali, what they said and did really mattered, and there were consequences for saying it - some of them very perilous. I often wonder what I would have done in the same circumstances, and I've a suspicion I wouldn't have been as brave, that I'd have shut up. A lot of people in the Soviet Union were trying to close Vitali down and I think they would have found it easy to close me down. It would only take one guy in a tightly-fitted suit to look at me sideways through his dark glasses to make me take up a different profession, so in a way Vitali is my conscience. We're both exiles, but there's a big difference bet-ween leaving your country because your life is in danger and switching location to find a job, as I did when I left Australia.
We both enjoy talking - when we're at the dinner table it's a riot - but on the whole he's a different character from me. You end up saying more than you expected because he gets everybody into conversation, which is ideal for his journalism. He's kind of adorable. No man likes to have that said about him - most of us would like to be thought of as dangerous and brooding. I don't know if Vitali would take kindly to being told he's adorable, but he is. 8
THIS TO GO IN STANDFIRST
Clive James born in Sydney 1939 and studied at Sydney University and then at Pembroke College ,Cambridge. He moved to england in the early sixties, and has worked in television ever since. In addition to his television work, he has written poetry,novels and a series of autobiographies, 'Unreliable Memoirs', 'Falling Towards England' and 'Mayweek was in June'. He is married with two daughters and lives in Cambridge.
Vitali Vitaliev was born in Kharkov in the Ukraine , in 1954 and studied at Kharkov University. He was an interpreter for several years and then became a journalist. He won several awards for his journalism, but his articles in 'Krododil', the satirical magazine,got him into trouble with the authorities and he defected in 1990, He was a columnist on the Melbourne Age for 2 years, and then moved to London where he works as a freelance journalist and writer. He is divorced, with one son, and lives alone in London. His book about the mini-states of Europe, 'Little is the Light' has just been published by Simon and Schuster.
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