The Irish journalist, his wife-to-be and the KGB

Conor and Zhanna O’Clery’s experiences encapsulated life in the Soviet Union

Photograph: Klubovy/E+/Getty

Not many Dublin residents' courtship stories involve the KGB. But Conor O'Clery, the former Irish Times foreign correspondent, and his wife, Zhanna, met in Moscow in the heady days of perestroika.

Having arrived in 1987 to document Mikhail Gorbachev's fast-changing Soviet Union for this newspaper, Conor wanted to find a Russian-language teacher and translator who wasn't spying on him. A Scottish friend brought a Russian-born Armenian PhD student to visit. "My apartment was pretty crappy, and there were water pipes rumbling like ships' engines. They made a terrible noise at times in the evening, and Zhanna was so affronted by this that she got on the phone and managed to find someone and get the noise stopped. So I was really impressed."

There was no romance at first. Zhanna had a husband and a daughter back in her family home of Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. Conor, who is 18 years older, had five children, and his marriage had ended. They met a few times for Russian lessons before Zhanna learned that her husband had died, tragically, after being assaulted, and she had to return home. "I thought I would never see her again," Conor says.

'They wanted me to spy,' Zhanna says. 'They said, 'Simply tell us who you meet, who you talk to.' I was, like, 'Are you crazy?' I told Conor immediately'

When she returned to Moscow, grieving and hurt – she also discovered her husband had been having an affair – they reconnected. They walked the streets so Conor could practise his Russian and because there was a lot to see in the city at that time. Eventually they became a couple, but then Zhanna returned to Krasnoyarsk to be an assistant professor.


Conor realised he couldn’t live without her and proposed. “She wouldn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no,” he says. “By this stage my Russian was up to writing such letters, and I wrote every week, telling her why this had to happen.”

The KGB was most likely reading those letters, he says, and at one point agents turned up to talk to Zhanna. “They wanted me to spy,” she says. “They said, ‘Simply tell us who you meet, who you talk to, etc,’ and I was, like, ‘Are you crazy?’ . . . I told Conor immediately, because there was no way I would keep it from him . . . They told me that if I co-operated they would make sure I could stay in Moscow, and they threatened that I would not get my PhD if I did not co-operate.”

"It was frightening," Conor says. "We were both very nervous. I went to Judith Devlin" at the Irish Embassy. "I took her out into the garden . . . 'I don't want anything done about this, I just want you to know it's happening, in case something unpleasant happens.' "

Zhanna refused to be a spy. There were, as it turns out, no serious consequences. She returned to Moscow with her daughter, Yulia, and she and Conor married in June 1989.

Room to grow: when Zhanna O’Clery (above, with her husband, Conor O’Clery) first moved to the West she couldn’t believe people wasted garden space on ornamental shrubs. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Twenty-nine years later we are sitting in their home in Co Dublin to discuss Conor's new book about Zhanna and her family, The Shoemaker and His Daughter. Their house, in Stepaside, overlooks the city; they have lived here permanently since returning from Conor's final Irish Times posting, in New York, in 2005. He used a pair of binoculars that sits on the window sill of their front room to report on the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack on September 11th, 2001. Nearby, on a heavily stocked bookshelf, sit three Gorbachev-themed Russian dolls. One, which Conor had specially made, is holding a faded copy of The Irish Times.

So what do you do when your husband tells you he’s thinking about writing a book about you and your family? Zhanna laughs. She never saw her life as worth documenting. “I just had a life. I knew it had ups and downs . . . but I thought that everybody had that in their lives.”

It had never occurred to Conor to write her family’s story, either, until it was suggested by two publishing colleagues. The more he thought about it, however, the more it made sense.

What struck me as I began to talk about the book was the way that the great events of history impacted on Zhanna's family

"What struck me as I began to talk about the book," he says, "was the way that the great events of history impacted on the family. The fact that Zhanna's grandfather lost his life in the second World War; the fact that Zhanna's father witnessed the genocide of the Chechens; the fact that the events of Nagorno-Karabakh" – the disputed region between Armenia and Azerbaijan where Zhanna's mother comes from – "which exploded in war when the Soviet Union broke up, were to impact so much on Zhanna's family; the fact that Zhanna's aunt had to flee Grozny [in Chechnya] when war started there. Then the impact in Krasnoyarsk of the slow breakdown of the Soviet Union through the era of stagnation and then the shortages and the coming of crime and the fact that Zhanna's family was robbed by the state at least three times because of the economic turmoil . . . and the mess that followed. The family were buffeted by history."

The more Zhanna thought about it the more she realised the power of the story too. It was the “story of a regular family”, she says. “Mostly when you read the books of the Soviet Union it’s either from the point of view of dissidents or former KGB people . . . This is like history in the back door. Here is the family and here is what they experienced.”

It wasn’t painless, she says. “I was so apprehensive about the whole thing, because there were several situations which were very painful in the family, and we didn’t really talk about them much.”

“It was emotional sometimes,” Conor says.

The most painful subject was one that was long a source of shame and secrecy for Zhanna’s family: the time that her late father, Stanislav Suvorov, spent in prison for “speculation” in the 1960s. Suvorov, a quietly heroic figure, was sentenced to seven years in prison (he ultimately served less than five) for selling his car outside official government channels. “Conor was the first one to hear about my father being in prison, and I said to him, ‘If my parents knew I was telling you this, they would be terrified,’ ” Zhanna says. “Because it was such a shame the family went through. It was never talked about.”

“His imprisonment was a real injustice,” Conor says. “People were selling and buying stuff. That went on all the time. Party officials were doing it. I’ve a feeling that some party official wanted his car, because cars were very hard to come by . . . but to get seven years for selling a car? He was a victim of Khrushchev’s tantrums.”

Back in the USSR: Stanislav Suvorov at work in Krasnoyarsk in 1973. Photograph courtesy of Zhanna and Conor O’Clery

The stigma of his imprisonment forced the family to leave Grozny for Krasnoyarsk. Yet this unjust jailing never turned the family against the system. Her father "never complained about the system or what was done to him or anything, and that's how we grew up", Zhanna says. "I think people worked within the system and lived in the parameters of the system, accepting that some things you couldn't talk about and maybe you talked quietly at your kitchen table or read the books passed to each other . . . He laughed a lot. He made jokes about the Communist Party, but he never said, 'I'm so fed up with this. We're going to leave. We're going to emigrate. Look what they did to me. Look what they did to our family.' "

“He was never a dissident,” Conor says.

The family ultimately did well in Krasnoyarsk. Zhanna's mother, a party member, became a union leader and factory administrator. Her father worked two jobs, one at a shoe factory and another as a shoemaker at the Pushkin Theatre. Zhanna herself was a conscientious student who was a member of two Soviet youth groups, the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation and the Komsomol, and, ultimately, of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The family eventually even acquired their own countryside dacha, albeit one that had a nuclear missile silo at the end of the garden. A sign there said: "Stop. Go back. Fire will be opened without warning." It's now in their bathroom.

Conor climbed down the silo before it was blown up, he says. “And there were rooms at the bottom.”

Was Zhanna aware of living in a repressive system? Mostly you just avoided any difficult conversations, she says. “We all knew most of it was lip service . . . I don’t feel we grew up at the time when we were furiously crazy people believing in something.”

Does she feel living that way affected her personality? “I’m a very, very direct person,” she says.

“Get away,” Conor says, and they laugh.

“I know my mind and I speak it,” she says, “and I don’t know if it’s because I grew up confident as a person or whether being in the West opened this part of me up. It’s very difficult for me to say.”

Did she feel that she had to be careful all the time? “I don’t feel I was completely repressed by the system, but of course when I think back on the KGB and the rest of it, I think, How come I didn’t see all that? . . . Why didn’t I say, ‘I don’t want to join the party?’ . . . But I was thinking about my promotion; maybe they’d put it in my [file] that ‘she refused to join the party’. We knew that there were no elections. There was no freedom. There was no voting.”

Zhanna 'never knew about Stalin's repressions. That was a shock to her. She never knew that Lenin was accused of crimes. Lenin was the father figure'

People lived a sort of double life, she says. "Look at what happened with the Catholic Church here. People half-knew, but it was not talked about . . . Some things you knew were happening, and my parents, I'm sure, knew much more than they let on. I'm pretty sure they knew about the purges and people disappearing."

Indeed, as a child in the 1940s, her father saw the trains deporting Chechens from Grozny. Did he know he was observing something terrible? “He never knew explicitly,” Zhanna says. “Because maybe people were a bit scared as well to say, ‘Look, where are they taking them?’ ”

“I think it’s worth saying,” Conor adds a little later. Zhanna “never knew about Stalin’s repressions, never knew about . . . the killing of tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people in the 1930s. That was a shock to her. She never knew that Lenin was accused of crimes. Lenin was the father figure.”

Meeting Conor helped Zhanna see the country from a foreigner’s perspective, and in turn Conor could now see what was happening from the perspective of those who lived there.

It was an exciting time to be in Moscow, and there was a flowering of music and theatre and culture generally. Conor recalls visiting a new jazz club and also hearing a Russian poet recite WB Yeats's The Lake Isle of Innisfree over the grave of the newly rehabilitated Boris Pasternak. "When perestroika came, and glasnost," Zhanna says, referring to Gorbachev's policies of reform and greater openness, "that's when it all poured out of us and we were so hungry for information."

New information about the country’s history was coming out every week. “You didn’t wonder what the future would be in a year; you wondered what the past would be in a year,” Conor says.

Yet there was no sense the system would collapse entirely. “There was this belief that [the Soviet Union] was a permanent thing, that the one-party system was going to go on forever,” Conor says. “I thought it was headed towards a Swedish model.”

Back in the USSR: the Suvorov family in Krasnoyarsk in 1970. Photograph courtesy of Zhanna and Conor O’Clery

Zhanna had a lot of respect for Gorbachev initially but was a little more cynical about what he could achieve than her new expat friends were. “Foreigners were so supercharged about Gorbachev,” Zhanna says. “And I was, like, ‘Hello . . .” She says a Russian phrase.

“That means ‘A lot of words’,” Conor says, and he laughs. “The reason Zhanna was so sceptical was because life was just getting worse and worse . . . Partly because the country was running out of money, the system was collapsing. The managers of big companies didn’t want Gorbachev to succeed, so they were withholding goods, and then when it became clear a market economy was coming they kept everything back, because they wanted to get a big price whenever the big bang happened. So the shortages got more and more acute, and Gorbachev’s stock went down.”

They talk about the shortages in supermarkets and the growing poverty. “It was dreadful, and it was humiliating to see,” Zhanna says. “My mother said this, which encapsulates a little bit: ‘With a new system at least I don’t have to humiliate myself for a piece of cheese.’ Everyone was hopeful that good things were going to come about soon, but the whole country was sold out without any sort of social-welfare system for the people. You saw these pensioners who had a difficult life or lost their husbands standing there selling whatever they could sell.”

Initially people were hopeful, Conor says, because everyone was given a share of the country. “Zhanna’s mother, for example, was head of a trade union in a factory . . . and she thought that the manager would take over the factory, they would all have a stake in it, and they would bring in new machinery and modernise it, and everything would be better. But he had access to money because he was a senior official in the town. He bought up all the shares. He now owned the factory. He sacked everybody and he enriched himself . . . That’s how the oligarchs emerged.”

Back from the USSR: Zhanna and Conor O’Clery at The Irish Times for his retirement, in 2005. Photograph: Eric Luke

Zhanna was, she says, part of that process. When they moved to Washington, DC, in 1991 – "I left Moscow before the coup, which was incredibly good timing," Conor jokes – she worked with the World Bank team that was guiding market reform in Russia. (She is now an associate director of development at Trinity College Dublin.) "Totally without any ground, we thought that this was going to be orderly," she says. But as the Soviet Union collapsed "there were all these people who were waiting there to jump the system to quickly become rich". Gorbachev's successor, Boris Yeltsin, "and his people didn't think to keep in the hands of the government natural resources, so they could share and use the money from natural resources to provide for some sort of social infrastructure or social support for the people. They went and sold off everything."

In the aftermath crime increased to levels never seen before. (Zhanna's cousin Ararat was murdered on the street in Krasnoyarsk in 2003.) Her parents' savings became worthless. (They lost their savings three times in this tumultuous period.) And when the Soviet Union collapsed old enmities resurfaced. Her aunt and her family had to leave Grozny as Chechen nationalism rose there; and her cousins became embroiled in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh province. Her cousin Araik was injured by a mine, she says. "The situation there is dreadful . . . Nobody talks about this. Ten per cent of Armenians leave Armenia every year."

You can start a business, sell what you want, but don't challenge the system, don't demonstrate and don't raise your head above the parapet

In an odd contrast, the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where her mother still lives, is now almost indistinguishable from a modern European city. Conor describes how, during their last visit, all the young Siberians seemed to be paying for coffees with their smartphones.

What do they think of Russian politics right now? "I think it's got steadily worse," Conor says. "Three Russian journalists investigating corruption in Africa connected to an oligarch were killed just last week," he says, referring to Orhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko. "I've no doubt in my mind that the Kremlin was behind the Skripal event and the Litvinenko killing."

A little later Zhanna brings up the murder, in 2015, of Boris Nemtsov, a politician, physicist and outspoken critic of Putin.

“Nemtsov was one of our most respected Russians,” Conor says. “Zhanna worked with him on the privatisation of Nizhny Novgorod ,and he was killed beside the Kremlin.”

“And the Chechens are blamed for everything: blowing up apartment blocks and killing Nemtsov, etc,” Zhanna says.

“You have in Russia a regression, to some extent, to the Soviet type of authoritarianism,” Conor says. “You do have much more freedom . . . You can live somewhere else, you can start a business, sell what you want, but don’t challenge the system, don’t demonstrate and don’t raise your head above the parapet.”

Watching the Soviet Union disappear has made them very aware of the fragility of other systems. "I'm not so optimistic," Conor says. "History shows that things change . . . Having seen the Soviet Union collapse within a very short period of time, I am aware that the dynamic of history can be repeated in other areas, like the European Union. "

Zhanna's mother, Marietta Suvorova, was hugely helpful to Conor in the creation of the book. What does she think of it now that it's finished? "I think she's positive and maybe a little bit flattered by the fact that her story is valid and is a useful illustration of what happened," Zhanna says. "And that Stanislav is rehabilitated. But it was difficult for her as well . . . I knew we had a picture of him in the prison . . . But when I asked my mother could she pull out some pictures for the book, she never gave me that picture. The book was already done when I said, 'Mam, could you have a look?' And I knew she was very reluctant, because who wants to show their husband in the prison? Nobody in their right mind."

“It’s the best photograph in the book,” Conor says.

Back in the USSR: rare smiles inside Grozny’s prison camp in 1963. Photograph courtesy of Zhanna and Conor O’Clery

There is, I think, a certain dacha-like atmosphere at the O’Clery home in Stepaside. It’s up a tiny winding lane, and they have their own well and a vegetable patch. (Zhanna gives me a bag of tomatoes before I leave.) When they first moved to the West she couldn’t believe people wasted garden space on ornamental shrubs.

Do westerners have misconceptions about life in the Soviet Union? Yes, Zhanna says. Largely, she says, they misconceive it as entirely miserable. “You don’t necessarily think, ‘This is hardship’ . . . You still had a happy life, because you delighted yourself in little pleasures. You had very strong relationships and families, and support for each other was tremendous, because you could only rely on each other for help.”

“And that provided for closer relationships,” Conor says. “If you knew where to get something that was scarce – bananas or something – you’d share them.”

Zhanna shakes her head at this example, and they both laugh. “Conor, there were no bananas.”

The Shoemaker and His Daughter is published on Thursday, August 23rd, by Doubleday Ireland