Andrew Waller - a tough and quiet operator
Thursday 7 February 2019
Andrew Waller arrived in Moscow in the mid-1960s to work with Peter Johnson, the then bureau chief. But their time together was to be short because Peter was expelled in 1964 for reporting on a Red Square protest by African students. So Andrew found himself holding the fort alone for some weeks on his first ever assignment in one of the world’s most tense cities while Sidney Weiland waited for a Soviet entry visa to replace Johnson.
Andrew was undoubtedly the most important person for me in my first, formative decade at Reuters.
He was to be my first bureau chief in Moscow when I arrived as a trainee in the spring of 1971 at a most difficult time for western media. We tend to forget how hard it was working in the eastern bloc in those days. Jewish emigration to Israel was beginning, but not without considerable struggle on the part of those trying to leave, as were the stirrings of intellectual dissent, personified by the likes of Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn with a host of lesser known people who took the risk of disseminating dissident material and protest letters, often ending up in labour camps for their trouble.
Andrew decided that no one single correspondent could handle these stories on his own. The work had to be shared among all four of us in the bureau, spreading the risk of retaliation and expulsion.
The dissident story in fact earned Andrew a rare and not all that welcome a distinction: he was called in for interrogation by the KGB in September 1971 to be questioned about his ties to a dissident.
Andrew and I were alone in Moscow at the time. The two other correspondents, Donald Armour and Chris Catlin, were reporting in the provinces.
One lunchtime, I was manning the office when the phone rang. A man with an unusually cultivated voice asked in Russian to speak to Andrew. I said he had gone home for lunch. The caller then asked for his home number and I, going against all the rules since someone so refined just had to be a friend, gave out Andrew’s private number.
About 10 minutes later, Andrew appeared and asked me to go for a walk with him, a common tactic to avoid the bugs we always assumed were around us. Outside, Andrew told me he had been summoned to the KGB headquarters at the Lyubyanka the next day. I asked what the caller’s voice was like. Most refined, replied Andrew. I owned up to passing on his number and Andrew replied without any anger: “he would have found it on his own anyway.” His interrogator turned out to be a Major Korkach. Andrew then wrote an account of his meeting with the KGB which astonished me for his calm and quiet responses which gave next to nothing away. Korkach later became nationally famous when he was invited by Soviet television under Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika in the late 1980s to discuss, and condemn, the methods the KGB had used to suppress dissent.
Andrew and I were to cross frequently in my time at Reuters.
I remember his kindness and good guidance when I was sent to Beirut in the summer of 1976 to allow him to take well-earned leave after the frightful first year of the Lebanese civil war.
In 1980s, I was to replace him as bureau chief in Brussels where he went to great lengths to help me settle in and meet contacts. I was struck in both Beirut and Brussels by the loyal following he had among the staff.
We remained friends and stayed in touch for all the years after with both Andrew and his wife Jacquie. We met last at the May 1968 50th anniversary dinner in Paris organised by Steve Somerville, Andrew’s predecessor in Beirut, last year. I last heard from Andrew before Christmas, when his annual card arrived just a few weeks before his final illness. ■