Throughout five decades in journalism, Russian Vsevolod Ovchinnikov's life has been intertwined with China's history. Ovchinnikov experienced what he calls the golden years of China's communist revolution, witnessed the early years of Japan's economic take-off in the 1960s and the political landscape in Britain before Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. But most painful of all, he witnessed Russia's downfall in the 1990s. 'I would like to return to 1991 so we [Russia] could start all over again,' said Ovchinnikov, 74, in Taipei last week after attending the inauguration of President Chen Shui-bian. Ovchinnikov was awarded a medal for his bravery fighting in World War II, although he said he 'had not hit a single German tank'. Then he was assigned to the Moscow School of Oriental Studies, where he learned Chinese - and started almost two decades of involvement with Chinese affairs. He was posted to Beijing in 1953 for Pravda, the then-Soviet national daily. For six years he interviewed numerous Chinese officials and visited Tibet twice - interviewing the Dalai Lama before Tibet's spiritual leader fled to India in 1959. He sat through meetings between Soviet leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and the late chairman Mao Zedong. Luckily for Ovchinnikov, his romance with China temporarily ended in 1959 before Mao plunged the country into a series of disastrous political movements, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution. Ovchinnikov's own nightmare began when he returned to the Soviet Union in the 1980s when the country was on the threshold of revolutionary change. From Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, Ovchinnikov said the country had fallen from being a superpower to a 'banana republic without bananas'. 'What happened in Russia has greatly discredited democracy. Now people in Russia want some strong generals who can give them law and order,' Ovchinnikov said. 'I believe we need a strong authoritarian state before we can reform the political system. Even though Ovchinnikov has published 16 books, which have sold more than seven million copies, his savings shrank to just US$45 (HK$350) when the Russian economy collapsed. His daughter, a professor of Japanese, works for a pittance to support her two sons. Having lost almost everything, he returned to China in 1992 as a 'foreign expert' for Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency. He admitted that great changes had happened since he left. 'The Chinese have changed not for the better but for the worse,' he remarked, comparing today with what he regards as the golden days of the 1950s. 'The older generations feel nostalgic that people were much more honest in the 1950s.' But he is convinced the Chinese, rather than the Russians, have chosen the right path to reform. He also complimented China for lifting millions of people out of poverty - an achievement he said was often ignored by Western media. 'After a certain stage of economic development there is, after the country has passed the stage of economic reform, a time when you can start building civil society and political reforms,' Ovchinnikov said, adding that this was exactly what had happened in Taiwan. As for the mainland, he is confident that changes are not far away with the emergence of the Internet and globalisation. 'Inevitably, China will need to change and political liberalisation will come.' Ovchinnikov said there were signs the Chinese Communist Party was itself changing, citing the leadership's commitment to promote the rule of law.