by V. M. Karren
Upon graduation from High School my classmates voted me the person most likely to become the youngest Supreme Court Justice of the United States’ because of my obsession with politics, law and world events. There were many who signed my senior yearbook who expected me to run for the presidency of the United States. My classmates expected me to come very close to the proverbial “power seat”, if not sit in it for 8 years. What very few of these old friends of mine know is that I came very close to that power seat just eight months after we received our first diplomas; in fact I got too close and spoiled everything.
My brush with power came on January 30, 1992, just a few weeks after the Soviet Union had officially been dissolved on Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of that defunct super power, live on international television. My studies had taken me to London, England and I was staying just across Bayswater Road from a long street, lined by foreign embassies on London’s west-end. On many evenings this street was closed to all foot and motor traffic due to visiting foreign dignitaries, kings, queens and prime ministers on the move in motorcades of black limousines with tinted glass and wailing police escorts. On more than one occasion we saw the British prime minister, John Major, speeding away with his own security detail after a meeting and photo session with one visiting president or another. Power surged from this neighbourhood. One could feel influence oozing from the walls and windows if one didn’t speak while walking up and down the street.
The morning of January 30th was a typical London morning in winter; it was not cold enough to freeze anything except one’s nose and ears, with no sunshine. I had plans of doing some artistic photography that morning in the winter fog and I had just loaded my camera with a roll of black and white film when a roommate came crashing in the front door, out of breath, with incredible news!
“In fifteen minutes, Boris Yeltsin will be at the Russian Embassy across the street!” Clint announced.
I ran down the street and crossed Bayswater Road against the light and continued as quickly as I could to join the crowd assembled outside the newly reflagged Russian embassy. London’s Metropolitan Police and Russian secret service agents were in full force making sure that the public stayed behind the barricades. Desperate just to see my hero Yeltsin in the flesh, the man who had altered the course of modern politics, I pushed my way to the first row of onlookers and held my ground.
I had known about and watched Boris Yeltsin for several years as he slowly eroded the legitimacy of the Communist Party in Russia and across the Soviet Union. When he was elected the President of the Russian Federation after resigning from the ruling communist party, the hope of the Velvet Revolution rolling through the Soviet Union itself kept me glued to the news reports as eastern Europe continued to shed the oppression of Moscow’s dictatorship. Having seen Yeltsin openly and publicly oppose the coup d’etat in August of 1991 I fully expected him to be assassinated by the KGB’s Alpha group as he stood atop that tank in Central Moscow in August of 1991, urging Russia and Russians to demand their freedom. In 1991 there was nobody greater in my eyes in Russia, or world politics, than Boris Nicholaevich Yeltsin.
After a long wait in the cold, Yeltsin’s motorcade finally arrived. To my disappointment the car carrying the Siberian bear pulled right up to the door of the embassy. Yelstin, a large, strong man even at sixty years old, was almost physically forced against his will by his bodyguards into the embassy without the crowd being able to even get a decent glimpse of him. He did manage a quick wave to those of us stuck behind the barricades, but was almost knocked over by his security detail when he paused to give us all a quick smile and a thumbs up. Many in the crowd were sorely disappointed with such a brief appearance and grumbled as the crowd broke up. Even many of the journalists and photographers who had come to get a quick photo packed it in and sped away to the next assignment or siting.
Even though many of the curious onlookers began leaving, the security guards and policemen remained. They didn’t move in closer to the house, and the driver of the car who delivered Yeltsin to the embassy never even got out from behind the steering wheel nor turned off the motor. All of these things said to me that he wasn’t staying here long. Twenty minutes passed and a beautiful green, classic Jaguar pulled through the crowd with its lights blinking, flanked by two policemen on motorcycles. Margaret Thatcher appeared on the stairs of the mansion and descended rapidly with her security team, climbed into the emerald Jaguar and sped away with little fanfare. A few more people appeared after Mrs. Thatcher left, but they were faces that I didn’t know and didn’t care about. Each of them simply jumped into a waiting car and sped away with police sirens wailing as they turned onto Bayswater Road, heading back to Whitehall, the British power seat.
I waited for about an hour before the doors of the mansion swung open again. From the street one could not see into the shadowy doorway, but we knew immediately that it was Yeltsin, due to the amount of camera activity from the press pool who had been allowed to wait on the staircase of the house. Flashes, flashes, shouting and more flashes. To my dismay, just like the other visitors, he was rushed through the crowd of photographers and journalists right to his waiting car. The door was flung open by a waiting security agent and stood wide open, ready for him to dive in and speed away in safety.
Yeltsin looked healthy, strong and happy to be alive. His silver head of hair was full, his posture straight and chest puffed out and he strode with confidence and purpose. He was watching and waving to the crowd, shouting “Halloo, Halloo” over the heads of the guards, almost walking on his tip toes to see over their heads. He had not yet grown into the somber, grumpy man that he was when we left his post in 2000, but seemed to have a glow of excitement and vision in his face. He seemed almost childish in his reaction to the crowd’s adoring calls and applause. He stepped up to the open car door and with a strong swing of his hand, he slammed it closed in front of him, and bullied his way through the crowd of security guards around the trunk of the car. He was heading straight toward the barricades and the crowd behind them and I was front and center in the swooning crowd.
Yeltsin was growing bigger and bigger in the viewfinder of camera and when I finally realised that he walking directly toward me I could see only his face and shoulders in the little window of my camera. In the late 1980’s, the Goodwill Games between the USA and the Soviet Union had been held in Seattle. I had learned a few Russian phrases that I had used every now and then when I met a group of athletes on the streets of downtown. They were uncomplicated greetings, a few adjectives, yes, no, and “my name is” etc., etc. As Yeltsin came within two steps of me, I let the camera fall and dangle on its chord around my neck as I stuck out my hand, looked him straight in the eye and blurted out in poor Russian, “Hello, how are you?”
He was pleasantly surprised and slapped his hand into mine and said something back to me which I didn’t understand. He gave me a smile, a firm handshake and a slap on my left shoulder before he moved on to the numerous other hands waiting to shake his. My camera could not take photos fast enough! Yeltsin climbed over the waist high fence in one large stride and mixed right into the crowd. He shook the hand of anybody and everybody who wanted to wish him well, and even kissed two babies. Then at the urging of his security team he began back to the waiting car. As he walked backwards to the waiting limousine he shouted “New York” to the crowd and made a motion of an airplane arcing over the ocean towards New York City, and he then shouted “United Nation.” Then with one big wave of both of his hands high over his head, he disappeared behind the bullet-proof tinted glass and sped away, with police sirens wailing, on his way to the world’s power seat at the General Assembly of the United Nations.
I was not the only person taken off guard by Yeltsin’s disregard for his personal safety. The police and body guards scrambled from all over the street to get next to him as he turned and twisted through the crowd, bending down to say hello to even the smallest of well-wishers. Those who were taken the most off guard were the photographers and reporters who were sent there to get a few good pictures of Boris Nicholaievich while he was in London. After Yeltsin’s motorcade was gone a number of professional photographers came quickly to the crowd and began asking if anybody had had a chance to get good photos of the man of the hour. As I was standing at the front of the barricades I was asked directly if I had been able to get two or three clear pictures of the Russian President. I was reluctant to tell them anything because I wanted these photos and nobody was going to take them away from me! I finally admitted to a photographer from Reuters that I believed that I had been able to take a number of pictures straight on and then quite a few of him with the crowd while he was shaking hands with others…and that my film was in fact black & white. This news made several photographers very eager to get my pictures and they began bidding for my film.
I refused to sell the film that now contained what I considered to be an irreplaceable treasure. The photographers wanted to take the film right out of my camera and give me 25 to 50 pounds for the roll. The money sounded great, but I refused. The more I refused, the more money was being offered. When the photographer from Reuters realised that I was not going to let the film out of my possession, he invited me to come down to Fleet Street to deliver the film myself to the darkroom. He invited me for a tour of the Reuters News Service while the negatives were developed and would pay me 50 pounds per suitable photo and I could keep the negatives. He scrawled his name and direct telephone number on the back of an envelope and asked me to meet him at his office no later than 2.00pm, or else the opportunity would be lost for the Sunday morning papers.
I arrived at the Reuters building in the heart of the London news district at a quarter to two. The reception desk would not let me and my two classmates pass as she did not believe the story that I had taken better pictures of Boris Yeltsin than their in-house photographers. I showed her the envelope that their photographer had given me and asked her to phone his direct line and verify our story. She would not. I had to find a telephone myself and phone my contact to have him come down and meet us.
I delivered my film directly to the darkroom manager as was promised, and my name and phone number was put on the envelope before it was taken away for processing. In the meantime my classmates and I were given a tour of this news-powerhouse’s news floor, the “wire room” and the photography labs. The rooms all bustled with nervous, almost frantic activity of reporters fighting time for their cut off times. Phones chirped, keyboards rustled and printers churned. They were like a hive of bees with each one of them busy with their own task, paying no attention to the bee in the next honeycomb, who could very well be working on something completely different and unrelated. Their worlds began and ended with their own stories. Creation, Existence and Judgement in three hours’ time. We benignly observed the creation and deterioration of several solar systems in the time that we waited for word on the photographs.
Finally the word came down that the negatives were ready. We found the darkroom manager where we had left him and he showed me the negatives displayed on a light board. Five of the frames had been tagged with small pieces of red tape on the margin. I was counting the cash and imagining my photograph of the Russian president on the front page of the London Times!
The dark room manager began to critique the photos. “These are fine photographs. You used some very fine film. These are great head and shoulder shots. Can’t believe they let you this close to the man.” I held my breath. The fellow continued, “thing is though, I showed these photographs to the editor and I’m afraid he cannot use any of them. He was hoping to have pictures of Mr. Yeltsin with somebody in the crowd or shaking hands with somebody.” Visions of fame and fortune quickly evaporated, “I’m sorry son…you were just too close!”