“The attempt to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 really kept me awake”


Portuguese journalist José Milhazes, who has been a Moscow correspondent since the USSR time, recalls that “he had to get up early to wait in the lines”, where he had to stay “endless hours” to buy essential goods that were missing. What mostly kept him from sleeping in media coverage was the attempt of the orthodox Communists to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev between 19 and 21 August, 1991.
What was it that really kept you awake when you were covering the Soviet or Russian political events and at the time you were correspondent in Moscow?
There were quite a few sleepless nights, because I found myself in the middle of very important events. In August 1991, when the Soviet orthodox communists attempted to overthrow President Gorbachev, that was probably when I had less sleep.

Vladimir Putin said that, whenever he is asleep, today’s Prime Minister Medvedev stays awake and this is how they manage to govern a large country with many different time zones. Is it just a gag or does it contain some truth?
It is one of Putin’s many statements that are supposed to show his “sense of humour”.

Was it easy for you to adapt to the time difference when you lived in Russia? What about returning to Portugal? When going to the USSR, it was hard getting used to the sleepless nights, but it is a matter of time. After returning to Portugal, I started to wake up a little earlier than most Portuguese.
Back in the USSR period, when you were living in Moscow with your family, did you have trouble buying certain essential goods because of the political and economic crisis? Did you have to get up get up early to stay in lines?
There was a day when I actually had to get up early to wait in the line, where I stayed endless hours.

In one of your books on the Portuguese revolution you wrote that when it came to PREC [the period from the Carnation Revolution to the new constitution] the USSR was more sensible than the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party)... In an article from Avante [PCP’s official newspaper], of November 13, 1975, on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, people still wrote: “we insist on asserting, being it both our purpose and our hope, that we too shall have our October one day“…
The goal of a revolutionary party is to start a revolution and to seize power. In the Portuguese case, the “Portuguese comrades” were more sensible than what has been written in Avante.

Was the November 25 a sleepless night for the communists?
I think not, because there was nothing left for them to do in terms of seizure of power.

You recently released a book called O Favorito Português de Pedro O Grande (The Favourite Portuguese of Peter the Great, not translated). What were the conditions that allowed so many Portuguese to reach success in Russia?
Work, competence and honesty.

According to your research, this “favourite Portuguese”, whose name was Manuel António Luís Vieira, ended up exiled in Siberia. Under what conditions did he live?
In Siberia, he lived in appalling conditions, but he managed to return after 15 years of exile and died two years after, next to his family and politically rehabilitated.

What do you think about the expression that God does not sleep?
I simply add that He may sometimes be a little distracted, or too busy.

Do you often have insomnia?
Not yet, fortunately.

You attended seminary school from ages 12 to 15. How were sleep habits there?
We went to bed too early and we got up too soon as well. But I got used.

Do you remember any amusing personal or professional history related with sleep or lack thereof?
On the morning of August 19, 1991, a colleague of mine from TSF radio station phoned me to say that something unusual was happening in Moscow. I was asleep, so I told her to stop joking – of course in less literary words – and I hung up the phone. It was not until her second call that I realized that it was not a joke and of course I apologized.

Can you tell us a fanciful dream you have had?
While studying at seminary school, I dreamed that God came to me and told me that I was not in the right place. The next day, I decided to radically change my life.