The global editor-at-large of Reuters news and former Rhodes scholar tells John Garth how she found herself at Oxford, just as her degree subject was dominating international headlines.
Why did you apply to Oxford?
What was particularly appealing to me – in addition to the great attraction of the Rhodes Scholarship – was St Antony's College. I was very interested in Russian history and literature – the subject of my undergraduate degree – and St Antony's is very strong in Slavonic Studies. I went there for a one-year Master of Studies degree.
How did you find Oxford after Harvard, your alma mater?
People might imagine Oxford would be more intimate than Harvard, but (possibly because my area was quite a specialised one) as an undergraduate at Harvard – just as in Oxford – I found I had good close relationships with my professors. So there was more continuity than there was difference.
How did current events impact on your time at St Antony's?
At that particular time the Soviet Union had collapsed. While I was studying I went back there for a few weeks and reported on the beginnings of the reconstruction of Russia for the Financial Times. I was very impressed at how engaged my professors were with what was actually going on, and how open they were to students being involved with this once-in-a-lifetime moment in the area we were studying: very different from the stereotype of Oxford professors – they were much more 'real-world' than you might have imagined.
Did you enjoy Oxford?
Yes, I only stayed for a year and with hindsight I would have stayed longer but Russia was rebuilding, and it was very hard to stay away. I wanted to be there in the thick of it, especially since I had chosen to be a journalist. But if it had been possible I would have spent two years at Oxford.
What kind of student were you?
I was very, very engaged with the subject, quite geekishly so. That was quite different from the way I had been as an undergraduate, because by this time I had reported on the Soviet Union and I really was interested in the ideas.
What were your tutors like?
Terrific – very smart, very supportive; they knew what they were talking about. St Antony's College might not have been a good place for everybody because it was a bit more geared towards the older, geeky student – but that was the kind of person I was at that time.
Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities?
Not too much. If I had been at Oxford at a different time in history I would probably have had a different experience. I was less involved in community life than I had been as an undergraduate, because I was a little bit more focused on my subject and on the ongoing developments in Russia and Ukraine.
What was the social life like?
I'm Canadian but I went to university in the US, and Oxford is the place where I reconnected with some Canadians – other Rhodes scholars, some of whom have become lifelong friends. For me being part of that Rhodes scholar community was (and continues to be) important.
How has your Oxford degree helped in your career?
I later became Eastern Europe correspondent and Moscow bureau chief for the FT. But the most important part about the course was the thesis I had to write: the longest piece of work that I'd ever done to that point. That was very helpful to me as a launchpad for the book I ended up writing on Russia, Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution (2000). The book wasn't an extension of my thesis, but my thesis was good training.
What did you take away from your time at Oxford?
It was a great place for me to develop, and extend, to learn more about my area. I think the whole sense of an intellectual community, which the tutorial system builds, is really quite special. Oxford provides a space for intellectual inquiry which is extremely valuable – especially now – yet harder and harder to find because money is so tight in the civic space.