Filming a force of nature: how to create a portrait of a dance superstar

Director Gerry Fox on the making of his new film, Force of Nature Natalia, which follows a year in the life of Royal Ballet principal dancer Natalia Osipova

natalia 1.jpg

I didn’t want to make Dancer. I didn’t want to make a salacious ‘personal life’ documentary, as I truly believed that Natalia’s real life revolved primarily around working on dance itself, so I felt the film needed to be a serious, grown-up look at the process of creating dance through her eyes…and feet!

The film would follow Natalia for a year in her life, observing her at work on Royal Ballet productions as well as other, more contemporary dance, dance-theatre and modern ballet pieces during the period. It would centre around the creation and performance of a thrilling new modern ballet ‘Mother’ based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen and choreographed by Arthur Pita, winner of the South Bank Show Award for Dance. We would follow closely the whole process from scratch, observing them working together, and also with fellow dancer Jonathan Goddard, as they improvise and collaborate to bring this beautiful but dark fable to life, a demanding work for two dancers only. The camera would record them at different stages of its creation, through early rehearsals right to the first night performance in Edinburgh. Through it we would gain a unique and real sense of how a work of dance theatre emerges into the light.

The film would also explore Natalia's rich dance history through wonderful clips and never-before granted access to her personal archive. These include her dancing as a child aged five in Moscow, through the Mikhail Lavrosky ballet school and Moscow State Academy, as well as highlights from her career at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, at the American Ballet Theatre in New York and at Covent Garden in London. She will also expand on her life and history, growing up in Russia, her journey to the Opera House and ongoing relationship with Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells. I felt that showing clips of her dancing as a child to early student and Bolshoi productions would really show the viewer how she developed into the stunning dancer she is today.

natalia 2.jpg

I also wanted to show intimate moments from her current life at the Royal Ballet, including rehearsals with the legendary Natalia Makarova as Osipova took on the challenge of dancing both female roles in ‘La Bayadere’. We also filmed rehearsals of a new ballet by Belgium’s star choreographer, the dynamic Sidi Larbi Cerkaoui, which he created in close collaboration with Natalia. My aim in all this was to fight my way into these rehearsals with two cameras and get as close to the action as possible. This wasn’t easy as there are a lot of understandable restrictions on filming rehearsals at major ballet companies. But I felt that if I could get in there and capture unique footage of her rehearsing with the legendary Makarova we might end up with something special on our hands.

Arthur Pita also worked on a separate duet ‘Facada’ with Natalia and her fiancé, Jason Kettelberger, and we filmed them creating and rehearsing this new piece as partners and lovers. They also rehearsed another emotionally charged dance created by Kettelberger himself in collaboration with Natalia called ‘I’m Fine‘ which they performed in Moscow alongside ‘Facada’. The two dancers talk intimately about the joys and difficulties of working together as both professional partners and lovers. The slight tension that is inevitably created by two people who are in a relationship working so closely together does come through in the film, I hope, which also gives you a strong sense of the way in which Natalia is able to collaborate with her partners. I think it is in getting her to trust the director that in the end is what makes a film like this successful; the more she trusts you the more she allows you in to the creative process and the more meaningful the footage you capture.

Finally, we filmed Natalia and Jonathan Goddard rehearsing their duet Flutter by Ivan Perez, which they had recently performed at Sadler's Wells, extracts of which also appear in the film. Again it is the intimacy of the rehearsal footage that makes it quite special, having that unique vantage point of observation combined with the dancers explaining their methods both through words and physical gestures that hopefully gives you a deeper understanding of the way in which dancers work together and with the choreographer to bring a new work into being.

“When Natalia crashed into me while dancing with her partner, I finally realised I’d probably succeeded in getting as close to the rehearsal process as it was possible to go…”

Through this rich tapestry of unique improvisatory and rehearsal footage, performance clips and interview, I very much hoped to present a multi-layered portrait of this stunning leading dancer of her day, someone who really encompasses all forms of dance. It’s that aspect that I found so fascinating and was determined to show in the film.

The film is shot in a close, handheld fashion with wide lenses so we get the strongest sense of Natalia as a ballerina at the height of her powers. When Natalia crashed into me (as second cameraman) while dancing with her partner Jason I finally realised I’d probably succeeded in getting as close to the rehearsal process as it was possible to go without actually injuring the dancer! Natalia was amazingly generous in letting us observe her dance work so closely, saying that she is so focussed on dancing that she isn’t that aware of the cameras, but I am certain that it was an added pressure for her so am deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to achieve this.

natalia 4.jpg

The audience hopefully gains through the documentary a unique insight into what it takes to be a prima ballerina and highly successful soloist in many different mediums of dance. Natalia’s personality and determination to succeed in whatever form of dance she undertakes shines through and in her candour and openness we are afforded a real opportunity to understand how new works are conceived and brought to the stage.

This film is not Black Swan or Dancer. It is rather a feature-length portrait of what it really means to be a contemporary ballet dancer. It is the truth of endless work and rehearsal that characterises the daily life of a superstar dancer. Shot over the course of a whole year, the film gets up close and personal to reveal the blood, sweat and tears of being a ballerina, and the demands of ballet stardom in the 21st Century. I wanted it to be a riveting and beautiful feature film, a rich portrait of a ballerina hard at work, doing what she is best at and has spent her whole life striving for. With Natalia’s incredible input, her accessibility and determination to succeed, I hope we’ve realised it….somewhat, anyway.

Force of Nature Natalia is screening at Curzon Mayfair today (16th July) and on these dates in the future.

gerry fox.jpg

About the author

Gerry Fox is a BAFTA and Grierson Award winning director who has created films on famous figures in the arts, including Marc Quinn, Bill Viola (this documentary to screen on BBC1 in the Autumn following its theatrical release in the spring), Gilbert and George, Robert Frank, Sylvie Guillaume and others. For over 20 years Gerry was lead producer at the South Bank Show alongside Melvyn Bragg. He sits on the board of the British Film Institute.

An Abundance of Uncle Vanyas: Chekhov on the Russian Stage

Pippa Crawford examines the staying power of Russia’s greatest playwright

Chekhov (centre) reads to the Moscow Art Theatre troupe, 1900. © Popperfoto / Getty Images

Chekhov (centre) reads to the Moscow Art Theatre troupe, 1900. © Popperfoto / Getty Images

Spend an afternoon wandering around a European capital of your choice, and I can guarantee it won’t be long before you stumble upon Anton Chekhov. The pre-revolutionary dramatist, with his darkly comic tales of unrequited love, suicide and artistic failure, has become a well-worn favourite, his plays staged more often than those of anyone bar Shakespeare. He is revived so relentlessly that one questions how he could ever have been considered inert. So just what is it about these plays that has endured over a century of performances, with countless regime changes and butchered translations along the way?

Chekhov in his Time

No history of Chekhov would be complete without a mention of Konstantin Stanislavskii and the Moscow Arts Theatre. Stanislavskii, who pioneered naturalistic ‘Method’ acting, directed the 1898 revival of The Seagull, appearing himself as Trigorin. The play had premiered two years previously in Petersburg and been poorly received, with audiences laughing uproariously at tragic speeches. Luckily, Stanislavskii’s production was a big hit, cementing his reputation and Chekhov’s. The two had a turbulent relationship, with the author at several points lamenting: ‘Stanislavskii has ruined my play!’ Nonetheless, Stanislavskii’s influence was significant; if you’ve been lucky enough to catch a production of The Seagull, some techniques — the use of shadows and sensitive sound effects (chirping crickets, running water) — can be traced back to these early shows. Chekhov’s mistress and, later, widow, Olga Knipper, for whom the parts of Masha in Three Sisters and Ranevskaia in The Cherry Orchard were written, was also closely involved with the Moscow Arts Theatre. She continued to appear in and champion Chekhov’s plays long after his death in 1904. 

The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre © A.Savin, WikiCommons

The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre © A.Savin, WikiCommons

Revolutionary Chekhov

The 1917 revolution triggered a crackdown on artistic freedom, which was at first introduced gradually. Amongst Chekhov’s plays only The Cherry Orchard, in which an aristocratic family are forced to sell their estate to a nouveaux-riche former serf, was seen as ripe for revolutionary reinterpretation. The divide between the fading, nostalgic characters and the hopeful idealists is already discernible in Chekhov’s text, but productions such as Nemirovich-Danchenko’s in 1940 made heavy cuts, and played it minus the author’s sympathy for the old order. 

The Thawing of Chekhov

The execution of director Vsevolod Meyerhold, also 1940, cast a long shadow over Soviet theatre. Like Shostakovich, Meyerhold was accused of ‘formalism’ — paying more attention to a work itself than to its ideological meaning. It wasn’t until after Stalin’s death in 1953 that unadulterated Chekhov could finally be performed again. Now, you might be wondering: would Chekhov’s small-scale genteel ‘tragedies’ continue to move audiences who had experienced ‘real’ horror on the grand scale — thirty-six years of on-off warfare and ideological oppression? The answer is yes. Chekhovian characters wrestle with individual demons, they pace and pontificate about family, existence and God, and this was appealing to Khrushchev’s society. After all, such personal questions had been deemed irrelevant for decades. The word ‘soul,’ cut by Nemirovich, was put back in for Tovstonogov’s 1965 Three Sisters at the Bolshoi. The late 60s saw several bold productions, which made explicit the sexual tension implicit in Chekhov’s prose. New directors emerged: ‘Efros the Terrible’ put on a controversial Seagull, in 1966, which executed Konstantin by gibbet. Stagnation under Brezhnev brought both the past and future of the Soviet state under the microscope, and directors used Chekhov’s disillusionment with the late Tsarist period to channel these concerns. 

Georgii Tovstonogov’s ‘Uncle Vanya,’ at the Bolshoi, 1982 © Wittenborn Art Books, Alan Wolfsy Fine Arts

Georgii Tovstonogov’s ‘Uncle Vanya,’ at the Bolshoi, 1982 © Wittenborn Art Books, Alan Wolfsy Fine Arts

Chekhov Today

Post-perestroika, Yeltsin’s ‘New Russia’ grew fat on Makdonalds and MTV. The classics could easily have been forgotten, yet instead a new generation of Russians were tempted back to the theatre by directors like Sergei Zhenovach. In a 2000 interview he stated: ‘we are returning ... because the need has arisen in people for something eternal and steadfast; life is so shaky, so unstable, so unpredictable. Today there is one ruler; tomorrow there will be a different ruler... There is a desire for something pure, real and sincere, candid feelings, genuine passions.’ Prescient words indeed as we move into the Putin era. Mirzoev’s 2015 Cherry Orchard, a dark rewrite whose transfer from Moscow’s Pushkin Drama Theatre to the Barbican was facilitated by Roman Abramovich, explores Russia’s uneasy relationship with wealth. Russia may have changed irrevocably, but Chekhov’s richness is such that there is something in each play to highlight the particular foibles of each new era, as well as a mordant wit that withstands the passing of years. 

Chekhov Abroad

Parallel to the story of Chekhov in Russia is the equally tangled trail charting his afterlife overseas. After the first wave of émigrés left Russia in 1917, Chekhov’s plays were introduced, country by country, to an intrigued and sometimes baffled public. Chekhov’s longstanding relationship with British theatre has been well-documented, from the 1937 Saint Denis production of Three Sisters starring Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and John Gielgud, to Rebecca Frecknell’s freshest interpretation, currently showing at the Almeida.

But did you know that Chekhov was particularly popular in Ireland? According to Senelick it was both the ‘comic’ and ‘fatalistic’ elements that resonated. American audiences in the wake of the Depression also empathised particularly with the ‘small town’ characters in Three Sisters, bounded to the fringes of a vast landmass and dreaming of a distant metropolis they would never visit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Bear did not go down well in Nazi Germany. Despite the ideological gulf between themselves and the Communists in power in the Eastern Bloc, the Fascists condemned Chekhov’s characters for much the same reasons: their inertia and decadence.

And with contemporary Chekhov on the international stage, symbolism is becoming ever more fluid. Nekrošius used Uncle Vanya’s oppression as a metaphor for Russia’s dominance over Lithuania; under Suzuki in Japan, where Chekhov has a huge fanbase, the same play became a dreamlike study of personal loneliness. These plays are invariably associated with Chekhov’s homeland, but as Russia herself likes to play with the definition of ‘Russianness’, ‘Chekhov in exile’ is definitely worth a watch. 

So if you can’t make it to Moscow this time — don’t panic.

pippa+headshot.jpg

About the author

Pippa Crawford is studying Russian at UCL. She looks forward to getting deeper into the literature and theatre scene this year in St. Petersburg.

Laughing their heads off: Political jokes under Stalin

Jonathan Waterlow details the history of humour under totalitarianism

59c9138a85600a38003b3bc0.jpg

Stalinism. The word conjures dozens of associations, and ‘funny’ isn’t usually one of them. The ‘S-word’ is now synonymous with brutal and all-encompassing state control that left no room for laughter or any form of dissent. And yet, countless diaries, memoirs and even the state’s own archives reveal that people continued to crack jokes about the often terrible lives they were forced to live in the shadow of the Gulag.

By the 1980s, Soviet political jokes had become so widely enjoyed that even Ronald Reagan loved to collect and retell them. But, 50 years earlier, under Stalin’s paranoid and brutal reign, why would ordinary Soviet people share jokes ridiculing their leaders and the Soviet system if they ran the risk of the NKVD breaking down the door to their apartment and tearing them away from their families, perhaps never to return?

We now know that not only huddled around the kitchen table, but even on the tram, surrounded by strangers and, perhaps most daringly, on the factory floor, where people were constantly exhorted to show their absolute devotion to the Soviet cause, people cracked jokes that denigrated the regime and even Stalin himself.

The fate of Boris Orman, who worked at a bakery, provides a typical example. In mid-1937, even as the whirlwind of Stalin’s purges surged across the country, Orman shared the following anekdot (political joke) with a colleague over tea in the bakery cafeteria.

Stalin was out swimming, but he began to drown. A peasant who was passing by jumped in and pulled him safely to shore. Stalin asked the peasant what he would like as a reward. Realising whom he had saved, the peasant cried out, ‘Nothing! Just please don’t tell anyone I saved you!’

Such a joke could easily – and in Orman’s case did – lead to a 10-year spell in a Siberian labour camp, where prisoners were routinely worked to death. Paradoxically, the very repressiveness of the regime only increased the urge to share jokes that helped relieve tension and cope with harsh but unchangeable realities. Even in the most desperate times, as Mikhail Gorbachev later recalled, ‘The jokes always saved us’.

And yet, despite these draconian responses, the regime’s relationship with humour was more complicated than we tend to assume from the iconic narratives we’ve long internalised from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

Satirical magazine  Krokodil , Issue no. 1, 1922 - cover by Ivan Malyutin

Satirical magazine Krokodil, Issue no. 1, 1922 - cover by Ivan Malyutin

Krokodil  issue no. 3 - designed to look like a police case file

Krokodil issue no. 3 - designed to look like a police case file

The Bolsheviks were certainly suspicious of political humour, having used it as a sharp weapon in their revolutionary struggle to undermine the tsarist regime prior to their dramatic seizure of power in 1917. After they consolidated their position, the Soviet leadership warily decided that humour should now only be used to legitimise the new regime. Satirical magazines like Krokodil therefore provided biting satirical attacks on the regime’s enemies at home and abroad. Only if it served the goals the revolution was humour considered useful and acceptable: as a delegate to the Soviet Writers’ Congress of 1934 summed up, ‘The task of Soviet comedy is to “kill with laughter” enemies and to “correct with laughter”’ those loyal to the regime.

Nevertheless, while many Soviet people no doubt found some comic relief in these state-sanctioned publications, humour can never be entirely directed from above. In the company of friends, and perhaps lubricated with a little vodka, it was frequently nigh-on impossible to resist taking things several steps further and to ridicule the impossible production targets, ubiquitous corruption, and the vast contradictions between the regime’s glittering promises and the grey and often desperate realities ordinary people encountered every day. 

Take, for example, the gallows humour of Mikhail Fedotov, a procurement agent from the Voronezh region, who shared a common anekdot that laughed at the true costs of Stalin’s uncompromising industrialisation drive:

A peasant visits Bolshevik leader Kalinin in Moscow to ask why the pace of modernisation is so relentless. Kalinin takes him to the window and points at a passing tram: ‘You see, if we have a dozen trams at the moment, after five years we’ll have hundreds’. The peasant returns to his collective farm and, as his comrades gather around him, clamouring to hear what he’s learnt, he looks around for inspiration and points to the nearby cemetery, declaring ‘You see those dozen graves? After five years, there will be thousands!’

A joke like this could relieve oppressive fears by making them (briefly) laughable, helping people to share the enormous burden of a life lived – as another quip ran – ‘by the grace of the NKVD’. But even as it helped people to get on and get by, sharing an anekdot became ever more dangerous as the regime grew increasingly paranoid over the course of the 1930s. With the threat of war looming over Europe, fears of conspiracy and industrial sabotage ran amok in the USSR. As a result, any jokes which criticised the Soviet political order rapidly became tantamount to treason. From the mid-1930s onwards, the regime came to see political humour as a toxic virus with the potential to spread poison through the arteries of the country.

According to a directive issued in March 1935, the telling of political jokes was henceforth to be considered as dangerous as the leaking of state secrets – so dangerous and contagious, in fact, that even court documents shied away from quoting them. Only the most loyal apparatchiks were permitted to know the contents of these thought crimes and joke-tellers were sometimes prosecuted without their words ever being included in the official trial record.

Ordinary people had little chance of keeping pace with the regime’s paranoia. If in 1932, when it was more risqué than dangerous to do so, railway worker Pavel Gadalov could crack a simple joke about Fascism and Communism being two peas in a pod without facing serious repercussions, the same joke was five years later reinterpreted as the tell-tale sign of a hidden enemy. He was sentenced to seven years in a forced-labour camp.

This style of retroactive ‘justice’ is something we can recognise today, when the uncompromising desire to make the world a better place can turn a tweet from 10 years ago into a professional and social death sentence. This is a far cry from the horrors of the Gulag, but the underlying principle is eerily similar.

However, like many of us today, the Soviet leaders misunderstood what humour is and what it actually does for people. Telling a joke about something is not the same as either condemning or endorsing it. More often, it can simply help people to point out and cope with difficult or frightening situations – allowing them not to feel stupid, powerless or isolated. In fact, something the Stalinist regime failed to appreciate was that, because telling jokes could provide temporary relief from the pressures of daily life, in reality it often enabled Soviet citizens to do exactly what the regime expected of them: to keep calm and carry on.

When we tell jokes, we are often simply testing opinions or ideas that we are unsure of. They are playful and exploratory, even as they dance along – and sometimes over – the line of official acceptability. The vast majority of joke-tellers arrested in the 1930s seemed genuinely confused at being branded enemies of the state due to their ‘crimes’ of humour. In many cases, people shared jokes criticising stressful and often incomprehensible circumstances just to remind themselves that they could see past the veil of propaganda and into the harsh realities beyond. In a world of stifling conformity and endless fake news, even simple satirical barbs could serve as a profoundly personal assertion that ‘I joke, therefore I am’.

We laugh in the darkest times, not because it can change our circumstances, but because it can change how we feel about them. Jokes never mean only one thing, and the hidden story of political humour under Stalin is far more nuanced than a simple struggle between repression and resistance.

Jonathan Waterlow’s book, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin, is available on Amazon now.

Five Minutes with Serhii Plokhy

Serhii Plokhy talks about his experiences researching and writing 'Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy', winner of the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.

Why did you want to write about Chernobyl?

It was a mixture of my personal interest and the availability of new materials. Chernobyl is the story of my own life. It was very emotional and personal for me and my family. I grew up in Ukraine, 500km down the Dnieper River from where it all happened. I remember this complete lack of information, and then gathering little pieces of advice on what to do from the BBC. So in summer 1986, I kept my children in our apartment, not allowing them outside. My friends and some of my students were summoned to the army and sent to Chernobyl. Then I realised there were new archives I could use from the Communist party headquarters and the KGB, in Kyiv, including documents of the commission in charge of evacuation.

How important was Chernobyl in the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Once I started working on the book, I realised I was able to make a relatively strong case that it was a major factor in the dissolution of the USSR. Quite a few people say Afghanistan was a major factor but I don’t see that: the war was fought in secrecy and there was never a major mobilization of population against it. Chernobyl produced all of that. Look at the rise of the pro-independence movements in the two crucial republics in the collapse of the USSR – the first in Lithuania and the last in Ukraine. The mobilisation of mass movements first happened around anti-nuclear protests; then the newly formed organisations put independence on their banners.

Was it also the beginning of ecological activism?

In Ukraine, and the post-Soviet space in general, you see the ecological movement and mobilisation around 1988-89. The first political party created in Ukraine apart from the Communists was called Green World. But by 1992-93, you see the death of the environment as an issue. It was overtaken by the really terrible economic condition and never came back. The same parliament in Ukraine that voted to go nuclear-free, stop construction and shut down existing reactors reversed its decisions. It took major pressure from the west to convince the government to shut down Chernobyl in December 1999.

What is new in your book?

Despite the abundance of publications both in the West and even more in the region, I think mine turned out to be the first really comprehensive history of the accident from the start. There have been oral histories, personal experiences, some very good, very moving emotionally, sometimes very technical works, but nothing that covered the whole story. My book establishes the chronology, following what happened before, during and for years after the accident, and the political impact it had.

What surprised you during your research?

I was really surprised at the degree to which the people working in the industry were not prepared for the reactor meltdown. It was not part of their thinking that reactors explode. For the first 24 hours, denial was the first reaction. That explains a lot about how people reacted and why evacuation took a long time. Also, the city of Prypyat - a ghost town, a nuclear Pompeii – was evacuated not because the radiation was considered dangerous but because the authorities were expecting a second and third explosion which would be much bigger.

How is it viewed now in the region?

Chernobyl is commemorated in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia every year. Every April 26, the journalists find someone who has not yet been interviewed. The idea is that we mourn what happened, that there was a tragedy, honour, heroism. But I don’t see any reflection as part of these discussions that Ukraine still gets more than 50 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, Belarus wants to build a nuclear reactor and Russian builds them not only at home but also abroad. We need a public discussion on whether we are safe today and what have we learned. I don’t think that has happened.

What are the broader lessons today?

There was a very lax general safety culture, with pressure from government and party officials to fulfil quotas. But we can’t say it was just about an evil Communist system. Chernobyl was about business. The most horrible thing operators could imagine if they shut down the reactor was that the quotas would not be met and they they would be fired. You can look at what is happening today around the world with the nuclear industry going through financially difficult times, and realise these same concerns and the implications for safety are as important today as 33 years ago. The decisions to build nuclear power plants are made by sovereign states and the beneficiaries are those states. But when something goes wrong, it’s the international community that is affected, and which picks up the multi-billion dollar bill. It would make sense to increase their role and institutions in regional decision making, and to be sure the safety culture and procedures are there and implemented.

What’s your next book?

It’s coming out in October. During the second world war, the US had three airbases on Soviet territory. It was flying from Britain and Italy, but refuelling in Ukraine. Now from the KGB archives, I am exploring the surveillance of the Americans and the contact of the local population with them. I also use the American military archives. It’s really fascinating when you can look at both sides.


Serhii Plokhy was in conversation with Andrew Jack, chair of the Pushkin House Book Prize Advisory Committee, former co-chairman of Pushkin House trustees, and a journalist at the Financial Times.

Five Minutes with Taylor Downing

Taylor Downing talks about his experiences researching and writing '1983: The World at the Brink', shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.

How did you become interested in Russia?

I had always been interested in Russian history from studying it at university onwards, but had never had an opportunity to dig deep. Then in the 1990s I was a producer on a 24-part TV documentary series on the Cold War and co-author of the book of the series. I made lots of trips to Russia, mostly interviewing people. The whole 1983 Able Archer story came up then but we knew very little about it. We didn’t really know what had happened or how serious the scare had been. I became quite fascinated with whether World War Three had nearly started by accident.

Why did you decide the write the book?

I was very struck by the story of Able Archer. Over the years, more emerged for instance when the Clinton administration came to an end in 2000 and a whole series of documents were declassified. One was a secret CIA report into November 1983. I tracked down the guy who wrote it and met him several times. I managed to crowbar out more and more of the story. I travelled to Russia, where I was making a series of films about its role in the Second World War, interviewing the great, extraordinarily brave men who had fought in that conflict. I eventually found several people who remembered the 1983 scare clearly. It was a very tense point in the Cold War, and those who were involved recalled being on maximum alert: in nuclear missile silos, in submarines with nuclear weapons, at SS20 launch sites, describing their feelings on that particular night very powerfully. Then the National Security Archive in Washington opened a vast trove of documents and finally gave me the impetus to pull whole story together.

What did you learn during your research?

It confirmed what I had felt, answering the question I had posed 25 years ago: conventional wisdom was that the most dangerous point of the Cold War was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which was very well reported and known about. In the west’s perception, that was the nearest we came to nuclear war. The idea that there was another more dangerous recent moment absolutely fascinated me. It became my obsession over a couple of decades.

Were people happy to talk?

Everybody had reason not to talk about 1983. The American intelligence establishment potentially missed the biggest threat of the Cold War entirely. The Soviets potentially misread the situation so badly that they nearly launched a nuclear war. A regular NATO exercise had nearly triggered nuclear war. Nobody was proud of their role. Nobody was keen to talk about it for several years. But more recently they have been more open and reflective. MI6 was the one group not willing to talk to me. The British intelligence establishment totally clammed up, which is bizarre because it had picked up the scope of the scare via the defector Oleg Gordievsky and was passing that information on to Washington. 

How important was Gordievsky's information?

At the time he wasn’t key. Rainer Rupp, the German spy, was far more significant in November 1983. Working at centre of NATO, he passed back information to Moscow that Able Archer was simply an exercise. That helped defuse situation on the night of panic. But, in the long run, Gordievsky’s information to British intelligence, passed on to Washington, fundamentally changed the US attitude to the Soviet Union, with a realisation Reagan had to reach out more. It played a crucial role. It helped informed thinking in Washington that he had gone too far and his bellicose stance was provoking the other side into action.

Are there lessons for today from 1983?

One of the lessons is that the Soviet leadership was genuinely paranoid, largely because Yuri Andropov at the forefront of the crisis was an ex KGB man, and saw threats everywhere – internally and externally. Paranoia reigned supreme. There’s a certainly legacy of that today, with a sense that the west is still out to put down modern Russian and not give it the respect it deserves on the world stage. That is behind what we see in some of the current unfriendly aggressive actions. I hope there isn’t any possibility of the accidental use of nuclear weapons now. But most importantly, nobody in the west understood the thinking in the Kremlin. They had a massive amount of detail about Soviet technological capabilities: bombers, missiles, weapons, where they were located, how the radar systems operated, etc. But nobody understood how the leadership was thinking. This was a vital omission and a reminder that today it’s so important to try to understand the other side and why they are doing what they are doing.

What is your next project?

There was really no way to follow-up the 1983 book. It’s such an extraordinary story, that no matter how much publishers say “have you got any more like that?”, I don’t. But I’m writing a book about the Holocaust, and how it affects one particular family over several generations.

Taylor Downing was in conversation with Andrew Jack, chair of the Pushkin House Book Prize Advisory Committee, former co-chairman of Pushkin House trustees, and a journalist at the Financial Times.