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.