The intern who could speak Russian

In 1990, British anthropologist Gillian Tett kept busy making cups of tea for journalists in the Financial Times (FT) office in London, where she was an intern.

Then one day, the newspaper's foreign editor asked his colleagues if any among them could speak Russian. He needed someone to report on the revolution breaking out in Lithuania.

Tett told him she could; she had spent a year in Tajikistan, Afghanistan's northern neighbour, living in a remote mountain village where she wore Tajik clothes, spoke the local lingo and tended goats. If she could do nothing else, she once quipped, she knew how to milk a goat.

She had lived there as part of her PhD thesis in social anthropology at Cambridge University.

She wound up in FT, though, because she disagreed with how anthropologists were approaching the discipline, calling it "intellectual suicide". She says more about this in her book, The Silo Effect.

The foreign editor did send her to Lithuania. As Tett, 48, told The Guardian's Laura Barton in 2008, it was her "total Hollywood moment".

She did so well that FT put her on its trainee programme. By 1993, she was its correspondent for Europe and the area previously known as the Soviet Union. By 1997, she was heading FT's Tokyo bureau.

Most famously, in 2006, she predicted the 2008 global financial crisis. But nobody would listen to even one as elegant and eloquent as she is. "You could see everyone's eyes glazing over," she told Barton.

Then again, she mused after her experience in war-torn Tajikistan: "To be really cynical, once you've lived through a brutal civil war that's shattered your community and you're dealing with massacres and stuff, today's banking crisis is bad, but guess what - it isn't that bad."

Tett, a single parent with two daughters, has since won a clutch of press accolades, including the British Press Awards' Journalist of the Year in 2009 and Columnist of the Year in 2014, and the 2011 British Academy President's Medal.

She is FT's United States managing editor again, after taking 21/2 years off to write The Silo Effect.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'The intern who could speak Russian'. Print Edition | Subscribe