Francis Greene: ‘I’m not at all certain that I love Russia… I love the Russian people, I’m certain of that.’ An interview with Evgeny Popov [Ogonek, 2001]
Evgeny Popov. Source: Wikipedia

23 December 2001

by Evgeny Popov. An interview with Francis Greene

Source: ‘У вас еще продается славянский шкаф?’ Kommersant, 23 December 2001

For many years, the Russian literary community was intrigued: who is the secret sponsor of the Little Booker prize that, “wishes to remain anonymous”? You can’t keep the cat in the bag – especially if the bag is full of money. It recently came to light that the name of this person was Sir Francis Greene, and the ‘Little Booker’ was but a small part of the many good deeds he did for Russia. Our columnist, the writer Evgeny Popov, learned all this back before the turn of the century.

Francis Greene

Back then, in another age, heading out for his first meeting with the ‘anonymous Englishman’, our correspondent wandered around Tekstilshchiki metro station among the faceless vertical monoliths they call blocks of flats until he met the man, mistaking him for a local. Tall and round-shouldered, with a straggly grey beard, the man was carrying his household rubbish with great care to the dustbin in the Moscow twilight. “Excuse me, my friend, I’m looking for a certain house. How might I find it?” asked the correspondent. “Are you the writer Evgeny Popov?” asked the shrewd fellow. “Why, you must be Sir Francis Greene!” guessed the shrewd writer in turn. They may well have missed one another, when in fact one of them was a Russian, and the other, the son of the most famous spy novelist in Russia…

Evgeny Popov: Hello, dear Sir Francis! One might say that a whole century has passed since we last met. I’m not going to go through all the formalities and then torture you with clever questions. After all, if you take life seriously, it makes more sense to hang yourself, doesn’t it? To begin with, forgive me, what year were you born?

Francis Greene (pauses to think): I’m 65 now.

Evgeny Popov (Without hesitation): I don’t know if this is welcome news to you, but you look almost as good as I do myself. Perhaps more so, and I’m (sighs) 55.

Francis Greene: Thank you for the compliment, but it’s quite a different story from where I’m sitting. There’s a scene in an American film where a young man sits in a restaurant and moans that he is drunk as a skunk. His girlfriend says to him, “Yeah! I can see from your eyes how far gone you are”. “That’s how it looks from the outside,” he replies, “Imagine what I’m going through on the inside!”

Evgeny Popov: What are you going through on the inside? Who do you feel you are as a person?

Francis Greene: I ask myself that question all the time.

Evgeny Popov: Is it true that you have a degree in physics?

Francis Greene: Yes, I graduated from Oxford University.

Evgeny Popov: For how many years did you work as a physicist?

Francis Greene: Less than a year, I’m afraid.

Evgeny Popov: Francis, that’s a record! I don’t know what it’s like in Britain, but in Russia that’s definitely a record! I always imagined it was only in Russia that people didn’t pursue their profession… I’ve a degree in geology myself and I gave five years of my life to geology after college… But later, I became a writer. A few writers still work in science, but there aren’t many of them… What attracted you to physics? Space? 

Atoms? Why did you suddenly give it up?

Francis Greene: It wasn’t sudden… Even in school, I liked all the physics equipment: all those copper thingamabobs, lenses, and tiny silver scales… But I was never great at maths, and the more time I spent doing calculations and not working with the instruments, the more bored I became. Another reason for the interests I had in my youth relates to Russia. Back then in Russia, the most prominent intellectuals worked in the natural sciences. People in humanitarian professions: linguists, philosophers, etc. were closely monitored.

Evgeny Popov: Well, yes! And our secret scientists from the secret institutions – “postboxes”?

Francis Greene: – It is a paradox, but they were freer: they could make risky jokes, read samizdat.

Evgeny Popov: – Of course: both Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk and Dubna were hotbeds of freethinking: avant-garde artists’ exhibitions were organized there, and the banned Galich gave concerts… Were you ever in Russia at that time?

Francis Greene: No, I was just working in a nuclear research programme, and then at the ministry. So to come to Russia at that time, in the mid-sixties, it was impossible for me.

Evgeny Popov: Tell me a state secret: what were you doing at the Ministry of Atomic Energy? Were you forging a nuclear shield against the Soviet Union?

Francis Greene: I used to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Evgeny Popov: Foreign Affairs?! Wow. What could a physicist do in this very, as we wrote, FORIN OFFIS?

Francis Greene: I read the Soviet newspapers there. It was from the Soviet newspapers, for example, that we found out at the time that you had had a disaster in the Urals. I worked in a department that did not deal with classified information. All the secrets could be found out from your newspapers.

Evgeny Popov: How so?

Francis Greene: Not from Pravda, of course, mostly from provincial newspapers. The main secret for me was that those newspapers somehow made their way straight to London. I was a small clerk, not very good at reading Russian, but there were some in our department who were more talented and obviously more intelligent. One of them, a woman, a specialist in legislation, noticed something extraordinary was happening in the Chelyabinsk area: small local bylaws were being changed, new regulations, for example, were being introduced, how to sell fish at the market, train timetables were changed. We realized that something serious had happened there. We monitored the situation day and night, sleeping in the office. Naturally, we sent an urgent request to our Moscow embassy. They knew nothing. In the end, we figured out everything from newspapers: the scale of the disaster, the exact coordinates, the level of radiation.

Evgeny Popov: Francis, that was the Kyshtym disaster. My relative, a builder in the military, told me he was in this area a few years after the disaster. Even then, as soon as you got off the road, the radiation monitor went off the scale. Nevertheless, the surrounding population was catching fish in the ‘forbidden area’ – there was a huge amount of fish. And they traded this fish, notwithstanding any ‘bylaws.’

Francis Greene: My bosses wanted to use our information as a kind of weapon in the ‘cold war,’ to spread this information widely through the BBC, Radio Liberty and so on. However, the higher authorities stamped our research Top Secret. Even Americans received this information on the condition they would not use it.

Evgeny Popov: You have secrets and we have secrets… What should a poor farmer do?

Francis Greene: For many years this information was lying around and nothing was done with it, and only recently I understood why. They knew everything without us. Our people had a spy – Oleg Gordievsky. The publication of this information could have led to his exposure.

Evgeny Popov: And then he safely escaped to the West… By the way, I once listened to him on the BBC and was very frightened when he answered the question about what he was reading public: Venedikt Erofeev and, forgive me, Evgeny Popov. Oh dear, I’m completely done for! And at the same time, you know, a couldn’t help but feel an author’s vanity.

Francis Greene: And then I thought a lot about why we even need spies and all the headaches associated with them, when everything can be found in the provincial newspapers?

Evgeny Popov: But in the end, it was not the provincial newspapers that drew you to Russia specifically – you weren’t drawn to India, for example, like, say, your compatriots The Beatles? Furthermore, you hadn’t then seen Russia with your own eyes.

Francis Greene: No, I saw Russia. Back when I was 20 years old, in 1956, when the ‘thaw’ had begun, I went to the USSR for a couple of months. My father, through the Writers’ Union, got me a special visa that would allow me to travel freely throughout the country. In reality, problems immediately arose, whether it was being told that an epidemic had begun in the city that I wanted to visit, or that they had suddenly decided to replace the railway tracks on my route … One day, very early in the morning, I eluded the KGB and headed for the Caucasus in order walk along the Georgian Military Road. I did not know the language then, but I did not experience any unpleasantness among the hospitable population. When I descended from the mountain pass, near the very first village I was met by a whole crowd of people in civilian clothes who were shaking with fear … By the way, I didn’t even know at that time that there was a nuclear power plant in Ordzhonikidze.

Evgeny Popov: And I myself don’t know about it, even now… How did your diplomatic career end?

Francis Greene: – By them wanting to send me to Moscow for five years.

Evgeny Popov: – They began to make inquiries about you and found out about how you ran away from the Chekists? And they decided: you will not be an ambassador! Is that right?

Francis Greene: No. Everything was much more romantic, Mr. Popov. I was young, in love, and had quit the ministry. I became a programmer, then got a job at the BBC, made films. However, even there, I’m telling you, I was not particularly happy and even thought it wouldn’t be so bad if God decided to have me meet him sooner rather than later … So when the Six-Day War broke out in Israel, I sent a telegram to the BBC, apologising that I would not be going to work on Monday, and, taking a camera, flew to Tel Aviv on the last scheduled flight. The good folks at the BBC footed the bill for my absence. Then, as a photographer, I visited Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I was a freelance artist. It had its advantages – I did not depend on anyone – but it did once almost cost me my life. This is the other side of the coin for anyone who seeks adventure. When dangerous adventures become part of your memory, they are thought of with amusement. But back then, I wasn’t happy at all when I was arrested on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, spent the night naked in a pit and was to be shot in the morning…

Evgeny Popov: Stop! I must explain to the young readers of Ogonek that the United States once fought North Vietnam and the guerrilla trail bore the name of the Vietnamese communist leader at the time, the name of what is now the former capital of South Vietnam, because the Americans had in fact scr… lost the war.

Francis Greene: That’s what happened. But it wasn’t the Vietnamese who arrested me. There is the so-called Golden Triangle – Laos, Thailand, Vietnam. Laos was neutral at the time, but there were secret American bases there with these, you know, tiny little black planes that supplied the warring hill tribes with drugs and weapons. The Americans, of course, denied all this. With the help of a local prince, I was able to get to one of these airfields and started taking photos of it. I was arrested by Laotian soldiers and was saved by an unknown American radio operator who turned out to be someone with a conscience and, at risk of his career, told the British embassy in Vientiane about me. I still don’t know his name, but I am very grateful to him.

Evgeny Popov: And how! I had a wild thought: maybe your saviour will read this issue of Ogonek and get in touch?

Francis Greene: I would be very glad. The place was called Bolaven Plateau, there were a lot of poisonous mosquitoes and I got meningitis fever, I began to get memory lapses.

Evgeny Popov: For how long? In the aesthetics of ‘black humour,’ you could answer this question: ‘I don’t remember.’

Francis Greene (laughs): Forever. When I look at the sky at night, I see stars and some spot. It takes a long time for me to remember that this spot is called a ‘cloud.’

Evegny Popov: I hope that after these adventures you began to lead a more measured style of life?

Francis Greene: I guess so. I got my licence and started flying sports planes.

Evgeny Popov: Oh my God!

Francis Greene: Then I met an interesting girl at the BBC, who became my wife. I was treated for my illness, I flew. A normal life, which lasted until your perestroika… After that, new passions appeared, and Ogonek was to blame.

Evgeny Popov: What?!

Francis Greene: Living in London I used to buy Ogonek in order not to forget Russian and at the end of the ‘80s I read in your magazine an announcement about the creation of the Memorial Society. And I sent them a letter. At that time I was again working at the BBC and was a science correspondent with Time magazine. A reply didn’t come very quickly, but I remember it was written in lovely informal tones…

Evgeny Popov: Your associate at Memorial, Irina Osipova, told me that that year she was preparing the first exhibition ‘Creativity in Camps and Places of Penal Exile.’ She was told that some crazy Englishman was offering to help in any way he could. When she saw that your letter had gone more than six months without an answer, she was horrified and responded immediately with a big apology: ‘We record the memories of former prisoners and would be grateful if you would send us at least one dictaphone.’ She said you sent a whole big box of dictaphones, and soon you came yourself.

Francis Greene (pause): – Yes, that was in the summer of 1990. At that time I was in Estonia, St. Petersburg, and Solovki. Then from Arkhangelsk we travelled by car all the way across Russia to Moscow. Then there was absolutely nothing in Russia. Anything you wanted you had to get with the help of small gifts, like Winston cigarettes for example. Those were strange times: you could get petrol at a gas station for a bottle of vodka…

Evgeny Popov: How the corrupted steel was tempered! … But Russia doesn’t seem as strange to you now? 

Francis Greene: There’s a lot I don’t understand to this day. For example, explain this to me: you come up to a bog-standard block of flats, you can see the stairs are falling apart, there’s rusty rebar sticking out of the walls, the pipes are riddled with holes, everything stinks – but the building only went up ten years ago. 

Evgeny Popov: And the stench was there even earlier!

Francis Greene (seriously): That’s exactly right. In the early 18th century, a Venetian ambassador arrived in Russia, and even then, he observed that, in other countries, buildings turn into ruins gradually, over time, but in Russia, they cut to the chase and build ruins straight away…

Evgeny Popov:  I beg to differ on that point. After all these years, the Kremlin is still standing… I couldn’t stand the Soviet regime, and you can blame them for a lot of things, but it’s not their fault that people throw their rubbish out the window and urinate in their entryways. 

Francis Greene: In Siberia, I was at an organization where we were discussing the preservation of historical archives, and I spent a great deal of time examining how the building was made. The bricks had been laid any which way, stuck together with a thin layer of concrete. I was certain that this building had been built using prisoner labour. And that the prisoners hadn’t been building it for themselves, but for people ‘at liberty.’  I asked about this, and I turned out to be right… Another example: last summer I was in Magadan, travelling along the highway Shalamov describes in his Kolyma Tales. We spent the night in a place that was half a family home. I turned on the Geiger counter, and the reading was off the charts, almost like the incident with your relative. When I got back to Magadan, I told everyone who would listen, asked people to pass this information along to the people in charge. There was no reaction whatsoever. I still can’t wrap my mind around it…

Evgeny Popov:  And yet Russia is your great love: Siberia, the Russian Far East, the Russian North, central Russia…you’ve seen more of Russia than most Muscovites!

Francis Greene: I’m not at all certain that I love Russia… I love the Russian people, I’m certain of that. I’ve been to the kinds of places where, according to locals, foreigners have never set foot. In 1990, it sometimes seemed as if I were in the depths of central Africa or on the far side of the moon. And I’m certain that Moscow isn’t representative of Russia. Petersburg falls somewhere between Moscow and the provinces. But all of the provincial cities are unique and very different from one another. I’ll admit that I sometimes find myself bored in the company of the Moscow or St Petersburg intelligentsia. But in the provinces I come across, for example, school teachers and all kinds of clever, sensible people – truly intelligent people, but not part of the intelligentsia. You could spend the whole night having the most remarkable conversations with them. I’ve never experienced anything like it since my university days.  

Evgeny Popov: I don’t know. I was in the UK recently, and it was so interesting to talk to Martin Dewhirst and Robert Porter, professors of Slavic studies at Glasgow, as well as the noted journalist John Roberts, who is friends with our great theatre director Yury Petrovich Liubimov….

Francis Greene: A Russian catalyst…

This phrase gave our columnist pause: was Sir Francis referring to Liubimov or to Popov himself? But he didn’t bother to clarify: in any case, Sir Francis clearly had in mind the proberbial enigma of the ‘Russian soul’…

Evgeny Popov: You financed the Russian Little Booker Prize, which supported mostly writers from the capitals. So what brought you to my home region of Krasnoyarsk, where you founded the Anglo-Siberian Society?

Francis Greene: — And this had to do with the Booker Prize. We wanted the Russian ‘boonies’ to take part in it, not only Moscow and Leningrad. I was given the pleasant mission of getting to know outstanding individuals like Viktor Astafiev. This was extremely interesting, regardless of whether I agreed with him or not. The first time, he and I spent an entire day at his place in the village of Ovsyanka. He wanted to feed us, so he opened his  refrigerator, where he had a cooked sausage, cucumbers from the garden… We drank real vodka, as he put it, from Baikal water. We binged on listening to him four hours straight… He was an exquisite conversationalist. He told stories about the war, his childhood, why he and Rasputin had gone their separate ways… At the time he was already far from young, but his habits were youthful…

Evgeny Popov: Ah, Viktor Petrovich, God rest his soul… How do you like our young people? People have taken to cursing them — they have no spirit, don’t read books…

Francis Greene: Oh, yes!.. In that same Krasnoyarsk I met some remarkable young people known as Stolbists.

Evgeny Popov: Now you have to explain what the Krasnoyarsk Stolbi are…

Francis Greene: The Stolbi are these wild, very high cliffs that take a long time to climb to the top of with the help of ropes. The Stolbists had a little hut at the top. They recited poetry there and sang their songs with so much fervour that even the rocks trembled.

Evgeny Popov: In Moscow, of course, there are no such young people.

Francis Greene: In Moscow they’re different. At the recent Nonfiction bookfair in Moscow, I saw young people crowding around with backpacks and buying books, although for you, and especially for them, they’re fairly expensive. I was able to talk to some of them. Whereas in 1956 people were simply afraid to talk to me…

Evgeny Popov: Since we’ve brought up those times, I have to tell you that for me it was always a mystery why the Bolsheviks published your father’s books. The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana…  Was it because of his condemnation, as it said in the encyclopedia, of the imperialist policy of enslaving peoples?

Francis Greene: Yes, probably. But my father opposed the publication of his novels in the Soviet Union after the writers Sinyavsky and Daniel were arrested in 1965.

Evgeny Popov: Then I understand why the lecturers at the Znanie [Knowledge] Society, which Solzhenitsyn called the society for the dissemination of ignorance, implied that your father was a spy. That way, your father shared the fate of writers like John Dos Passos and Steinbeck, who were first welcomed in the Soviet Union and later dethroned.

Francis Greene: By the way, about spies and strict secrets… Not one of the Russians I told confidentially that I was the sponsor of the Little Booker ever disclosed my secret in the press. In one city, I was even taken for the son of your novelist Aleksandr Grin. We know, we know, they said . . . Crimson Sails

Evgeny Popov: And you didn’t try to dissuade them, of course… Francis, don’t answer my last question if you don’t want to, but has it been a great bother for you being your father’s son?

Francis Greene: I’ll answer your question. Very much so. But I love him.

Evgeny Popov: Don’t you think that your adventures, your adventurous life, could have been the subject of one of his novels? What did he think of all these crazy schemes of yours in general?

Francis Greene: He was a very good father. He was more like my older friend than my father. It’s hard to imagine what he went through when the Daily Telegraph wrote that Graham Greene’s son had perished in Vietnam.

Evgeny Popov: A nightmare! And what did he say to you when you suddenly ‘came back to life’?

Francis Greene: He was too tactful and well-bred to talk about things like that. Even with his son…

P.S. There is something much more incredible about Francis Greene’s appearance in Russia than our first meeting near the Tekstilshchiki metro station. The indefatigable Greene became interested in the history of the so-called Catacomb Church — a few thousand people, in the 1920s, who, not wishing to pray for the Bolsheviks, went deep underground. Some of these people are alive to this day, refusing to accept passports or pensions on principle. With Greene’s help, groups of activists were formed to help these old people and record their memories. At this point it turned out that in Kyiv there was an underground monastery and the church’s bishop (later executed) had prophesied that one day AN ENGLISHMAN WILL COME to the surviving flock, who will have to tell him everything that happened to us. For a long time, one of the aged monks refused to speak with Greene’s associates, saying that their bishop had told them to WAIT FOR THE ENGLISHMAN… Until he realized the Englishman HAD COME.

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Simon Cosgrove, Tyler Langendorfer, Sarah Vitali and Marian Schwartz

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