by Malcolm HASLETT (July 2020)
I first met Marjorie in the early 1980s, when she was working for Amnesty – covering the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – and I was working in a very small department in the BBC World Service (me and one other!) covering those same areas. Because we were such a small unit, my colleague and I were often dependent on outside contacts – journalists, academics and people like Marjorie – for many of our insights into the often complicated goings on in the Eastern Bloc, as it was then called.
I was immediately impressed by Marjorie’s openness and friendliness, and struck even more by her thorough knowledge of our mutual areas of interest. I would hope that I was of some assistance to her in return, with whatever knowledge I had been able to glean. I do remember that I was able to translate some samizdat documents relating to cases she was following – I remember particularly the case of dissident former General Pyotr Grigorenko, specially targeted by the Soviet authorities for the very reason that he was a general, and therefore should have been part of the Soviet establishment. There were also official court documents which Amnesty had got hold of through dissident sources, including accounts of the persecution and trial of Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the most famous of the inakomyslyaschie, those courageous people who in the 70s and 80s had begun to rebel against the all-pervasive official lies of the authorities and question the whole basis of Communist Party legitimacy.
For my part I was able to provide her with some of the insights gained from BBC and other western correspondents in Moscow, and from the whole range of academic expertise that one acquired from those one met at the yearly NASEES (National Association of Soviet and East European Studies) conference, usually held at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge – though I often had the impression that Marjorie was ahead of me, and knew it all already!
Being a passionate linguist, I was also able to help her with some of the languages of Eastern Europe. I believe I offered to help her learn some Lithuanian.
Another country I visited in those days was Albania, still under the extraordinary paranoid grip of Enver Hoxha. And I had acquired a two-part Albanian grammar, the first volume of which I gladly lent to Marjorie. I still have the second part on my bookshelf. I don’t think I ever go the first volume back!
But it was not just thoroughly useful to meet Marjorie. It was always a pleasure. We had other things in common, including a shared interest in liberal Christianity. She was a Quaker, and I was a member of the United Reformed Church – a union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians. To my surprise, because I had always viewed Quakers as ultra-liberal, she was rather more ‘religious’ than I was, in a conventional sense, underlining the mystical side of religion, while I tended more towards John Wesley’s dictum about “doing all the good you can, to as many people as you can, whenever you can”. But our beliefs overlapped in many ways.
Later on, we both had a special interest in the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, but sadly in this period we did not have the opportunity to collaborate so closely. I think that certainly was my loss.
Marjorie was one of those unique, warm and perceptive human beings, whose friendship one valued highly. And she is sorely missed!
From Marjorie’s diary
Friday, 9 September 1983
I went to the BBC to meet Malcolm Haslett for lunch. General Ogarkov was giving a press conference in the USSR on the Korean plane that got shot down, so Malcolm was broadcasting a live interview about it…
We talked about the USSR all the time, and very interesting it was too. We talked about Russian nationalists in opposition and in power, and about religion in Lithuania and Central Asia, and then our religious views. He said he’s a product of a generation and sees religious witness in moral decisions and good works. I said I veer more towards the mystical and see many good works as devoid of religious content. He gave me a copy of Novy Mir with Chinghiz Aitmatov’s story in it, and a spare copy of Dina Kaminskaya’s Final Judgement.