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Cameraman tales: Jan Borg – Mission to Moscow

The 50th anniversary of the Russian October revolution. November 7 1967.

A week  before the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Jan Borg was sent to Moscow to cover the great news event.  The coverage had been planned more than a year earlier.  Reservations had been made in the top floor corner suite, with balcony, at the luxurious National Hotel.

The Russian authorities had announced that a new intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the TP20 P,  would be exhibited in the military parade. The corner suite of the hotel provided an excellent view down to Tverskaya Street, where the parade passed, and even a better view of the entrance to Red Square.

UPITNs plan was to shoot the rockets passing down Tverskaya Street and then entering the Parade Square.  A motorcyclist would bring the 3 minute 16mm film reel to Sheremetyevo airport, where a passenger would bring the package back to London on the direct British Airways morning flight, far ahead of Moscow TVs censored and edited contributions to Eurovision in the late evening news exchange. The airline passenger hand-carrying a package for UPITN or UPI was then known as a “pigeon”.

In the sixties nobody was allowed to film in Moscow streets without permission and UPITN failed to get the green light from the authorities for that special event.  But no problems – they had ringside seat from the balcony – or so they thought.

A few days before the parade, Borg got a telephone call in his room from a woman asking if he could meet her in the hotel’s so called dollar bar on the first floor where no locals were allowed.  The redheaded Russian girl spoke fluent Norwegian. As Borg entered the bar he recognized the lady immediately.

russiaShe had worked as the official interpreter for Khruschev during his three weeks round trip to Denmark, Sweden and Norway in the summer of 1964 – an event covered by Borg on a daily basis.  Over two glasses of Johnny Walker Black Label on the rocks, the redheaded lady introduced herself only with first name Eva. She said she was working in Moscow Radio – Scandinavian office – and asked it Borg could make a 20 minutes radio broadcast, giving his impressions of the preparations for the jubilee, for Moscow Radio’s weekly broadcast to Norway.  In return for this she would provide a ticket to the stand next to the Lenin Mausoleum during the parade.

When UPI’s legendary Moscow bureau chief Henry Shapiro learned of the meeting with the Russian lady at the National Hotel’s Dollar Bar, he was furious and immediately gave orders for Borg to refuse her offer. Shapiro, who had been UPI’s Bureau Chief in Moscow since 1937, said “Members of the UPI staff do not work for Moscow Radio”. She got the message and nothing happened until the very early morning of November 7.

Borg was the first guest to enter the breakfast room, on the ground floor, when doors opened at six in the morning. Fifteen minutes later the the restaurant was filled up to the very last table. Apart from UPITN’s cameraman all the guests had their breakfast served very quickly.

Numerous requests to the serving ladies fell on deaf ears and after one hour waiting Borg threw the towel in and returned to his tower suite on the sixth floor.  He got quite a shock when he realised that uninvited guests had been in his room.  The room was in total darkness.

The electric power had been switched off, all fuses removed and, outside the balcony, all the windows were covered with thick black cardboard.  Both the door to the balcony and all the windows were closed with 20 centimetre long nails.

Jan Borg

Jan Borg

Only 15 minutes before the parade was due to pass the National Hotel. Borg, managed, in the total darkness, to grope his way to his 16 mm Arriflex camera, run down the six floor stairs to the front desk and rushed out to the street, hoping to dodge the KGB s agents who always followed foreign television crews at close range.

Three minutes footage of the intercontinental missile down the Tverskaya street would be enough for the BEA direct morning flight to London. Luckily no one followed Borg, who managed to hide in the crowd of people when the first missile appeared at the top of the street.  The first footage of the huge missile was brilliant footage.

Jan Borg tells the story:

Twenty seconds later however, UPITNs man was served the worst dish you ever can give a cameraman on the job : SALAD. – a horrible sound in the camera before the winding stopped. When the lid was opened some 6 – 7 meter  of 16 mm Kodak film was thrown right in the face of the cameraman.

While I was waiting for his breakfast KGB agents not only managed to darken his suite and blocked the entrance to the balcony, they had also opened his camera and removed the important winding spring.

Result: The motorcyclist missed his generous earnings, the English businessman, our pigeon, avoided the inconvenience of smuggling the film package out of Moscow, UPITNs coverage of the 50 anniversary of the October revolution was blank and I became unemployed for the rest of the day. The little redheaded Eva never again turned up in the dollar bar on first floor at National Hotel Moscow.

KGB vs UPITN 1-0

© Terence Gallacher and, 2012.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For more articles in the Cameraman tales series click here.

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