Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Yeltsin through the lens
There was a time in my life as a cameraman in the Moscow bureau when I would see Yeltsin quite often, at least a couple of times a month. He was big and burly. He was a large presence, a force to contend with, but also he liked to have fun and at times that meant he was okay with looking like a buffoon. As a cameraman that made him entertaining to shoot. I saw him most often in 1994 and early 1995- I would often get sent into the Kremlin to shoot whatever meeting or photo-op Yeltsin had going. As just a kid from Elmhurst, Illinois, It was always a thrill to walk inside the Kremlin all by myself (they often only allowed one person per TV news team) to shoot the pictures for CNN. The first time I got to see Queen Elizabeth was one of those times when she met with Yeltsin in one of its most beautiful and grandest halls.
My career in the Moscow bureau was tied to the events that Yeltsin was involved in whether he was spearheading or just trying to keep in control of events as they happened.
I arrived to fill-in at the Moscow bureau for a couple of months in early 1991. One of the very first stories I worked on during that time was the inauguration of Yeltsin as the first democratically elected Russian President. I was also there at the end of 1991 as Yeltsin forced Gorbachev’s hand to resign as the Leader of the USSR and bring about the end of the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter the freefall of the Rouble brought these changes home to millions of Russians. I moved to the Big Potato (Moscow) in early 1992 and stayed until 1996 covering all the business stories, war zones, feature stories and terrorist stories in between. I left shortly after Yeltsin got himself re-elected in 1996 even though he was very ill with heart problems. At the time I had the feeling that the arc of the Russian story had changed and in many ways it had, after Yeltsin got re-elected he never had as much energy as he had in his first term.
Watching the pictures of Yeltsin climbing up on the tank in 1991, being played on TV today reminds me of a few of the old CNN Moscow cameramen’s favorite Yeltsin stories.
Those pictures on CNN of Yeltsin climbing the tank were shot by another CNN Moscow Cameraman Michael Johnson. As Yeltsin was leaving the Russian “White House” towards the tank, Michael was walking backwards shooting him. Michael and another cameraman tripped over each other and the viewfinder on Michael’s camera broke. Consequently, Michael shot all the pictures of Yeltsin on the tank without being able to see the pictures. He was shooting it blind. They are still amazing pictures even more amazing when you know the background. Michael left Moscow years ago and now shoots steadicam in LA for shows like “The Ghost Whisperer” and “Desperate Housewives”. But I bet he is spending this week remembering his times with Yeltsin in Moscow.
One of the other Moscow cameramen was a huge guy named Hugh Williams. Yeltsin was big and burly… but Hugh was even bigger. One time when Yeltsin was at the opening of the second McDonald’s in Moscow, Hugh and I were there to cover it. Yeltsin’s bodyguards started pushing us back as Yeltsin shook hands with some of the crowd, but when Yeltsin saw Hugh with a camera towering over him- he gave him a look. A bemused look that Hugh and I took to mean that he was not use to seeing people who had a bigger presence than him. Hugh is now living In Australia- but I know that he too is thinking about his days in Moscow.
My closest Yeltsin encounter- was after Yeltsin had suffered his second Heart attack and had heart surgery in late 1996. I was back in Moscow covering his illness. Yeltsin hadn’t been seen in quite a long while as he recuperated at a sanatorium outside Moscow. I seem to remember nearly two months went by when he wasn’t seen. The call came in… we were to do pool camera shooting Yeltsin with a cameraman from a Russian TV station. I got to go. It was just me and a Russian cameraman. Nobody knew what he looked like. Thoughts of propaganda of Chernenko sick in Hospital being filmed voting so that it looked like he wasn’t ill and in hospital flashed through my mind. We were ushered into a room and there was Yeltsin, who smiled and talked to us briefly for a few minutes. Just he, a doctor, an advisor, a Russian cameraman, and I, the only American, were in the room and Yeltsin was focused on us the two cameramen. He looked thinner but healthier than we had seen him be in a while. When we were told we were done, and we were walking out, I saw Naina, his wife in a side room. She looked very apprehensive and very nervous as to how it had gone and how her husband had faired. To me, that struck home. While the world was looking to see how Yeltsin was doing for the news value and his effectiveness in running the country, she was living with how he was doing for herself. When I got back to the bureau- everyone wanted to know-‘How did he look?’ ‘What did he say?’ We put the pictures out as quickly as we could knowing the world wanted to see them.
From the West’s view, Gorbachev was always the soft, cuddly, intellectual leader of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin always seemed more a man of the people, brash, bold… a Russian Bear. It is still up to the history books to see how they will be remembered and perhaps they are exactly what they needed at the time when they served, but in meeting them both I can tell you that how they came across on TV is exactly how they came across in person as well.
Russia lost a big figure in its history - a Russian Bear - one who makes me miss my days in Moscow when everything was changing so very quickly than it seems today.
-- From Todd Baxter, CNN Chief Photographer/Video Producer, London
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