Skip to content

Business & Economy

Interview: A new kind of identity

Dr Fiona Hill went from the coalfields of County Durham to the corridors of US power. A miner’s daughter turned renowned Russia expert, she acted as a top security advisor to presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W Bush. Here, she tells Steven Hugill about her career journey, how the chaos of the US’ 45th leader left her feeling like Alice in Wonderland, and how she sees parallels behind Putin’s desperate search for identity in Ukraine and the childhood landscape her father urged her to leave behind.

“The best preparation I had for working with Donald Trump was reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking-Glass, because every day was like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

“We went in trying to think about a larger strategic purpose, but it just became a job of putting out fires all the time.

“I felt like my grandad, who was an air raid warden in Billingham during the Second World War, and went around sticking incendiary devices into a bucket of sand before the bombers came over.”

Dr Fiona Hill gives a half smile, the incredulity of Trump’s tyrannical reign too much to suppress.

As the tycoon-turned-politician’s deputy assistant and top Russia advisor, County Durham-born Fiona operated as an integral part of the White House’s inner power circle.

A former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the US’ National Security Council, she added colour to the country’s place within an ever-evolving geopolitical picture – all while trying to keep its firebrand leader in check.

A miner’s daughter, Fiona never cleaved the coal that helped spur the North East’s status as an industrial hotbed.

She did, though, inherit the spirit of the region’s underground endeavours, one lit by a torch of identity and community. 

And when she was thrust into the spotlight as a key witness in Trump’s first impeachment trial – based on allegations he abused power and obstructed Congress – the former Bishop Barrington School pupil channelled that fire, peering through the lens of her past to help the US look beyond its 45th president’s anarchic reign.

She says: “When you’re brought up in an environment where everyone helps everyone else, where there is a real sense of community and a real sense of public service, you are taught to stand up for what is right.

“If your house is on fire, you need to do something – and America’s house was on fire.

“I saw people about to destroy a country, and I wasn’t going to let it happen,” adds Fiona, whose testimony led to the creation of a Twitter page by supporters, which now has nearly 2000 followers.

Taking on Trump, of course, meant staring down the combative lawmaker, as well as his Republican allies and his baying mob of supporters.

Not that Fiona – who also served as a security advisor to US leaders Barack Obama and George W Bush – was intimidated.

She says: “Trump was an enormously flawed personality, and the whole presidency was a tragedy – there wasn’t any capacity to build something.

“I joined the administration to focus on Russia – I’ve tracked the country very closely since the 1980s – but quickly realised Trump’s negative impact on the US and its international affairs was having an impact elsewhere.

“And I found myself trying to contain the damage.

“As trial witnesses, we were attacked for being deep state coup-plotting bureaucrats, and our patriotism and sense of public service was challenged because we were naturalised citizens.

“But I wasn’t having that.


“Being from the North, sometimes people just get your back up, and I said, ‘don’t try that with me’.

“Most of the people I’ve worked with in government have come from humble backgrounds, and have wanted to serve their country and work with other people on a shared sense of mission.

“Growing up in County Durham, I learned that when you worked down the mine, you stood up for each other, you worked for your marra, and if there was an accident, you left nobody behind.”

She adds: “You have to stand up for what is right, and the most important thing you can do in life is tell the truth – it can be a powerful act when everyone around is telling a pack of lies.

“And I told the truth about what I saw under Trump,” says Fiona, who returned to a senior fellow role at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank after leaving the National Security Council in 2019.

That she found herself caught in the tremors of such a seismic political period owes everything to Fiona’s upbringing.

As a child, she was too young to experience the heyday of Britain’s ‘black gold’ rush, instead witnessing the social and economic fractures left behind after the headstocks had made their final turns.

Growing up in and around the once colliery heartland of Bishop Auckland, she saw towns and villages hollowed out, their inhabitants displaced and in dire search of meaning and worth.

She watched too as her father became an NHS porter (“every porter was a former miner; they didn’t know what else to do – there was no reskilling back then”), while others did what they could to survive, as centuries of industrial tradition crumbled.

The transposition sparked a curiosity in her, which began with family walks in the County Durham countryside, local landmarks filling the first spaces of what would become an enormous life jigsaw.

She says: “I’ve very fond memories of walking along what are now heritage trails with my mum, who worked as a nurse, pointing out what had been there before.

“We didn’t have a car, but there was always a sense of getting out and exploring the countryside; we had relatives all over the place, so would take the bus to see them.

“Growing up on the edge of Bishop Auckland, we’d regularly walk to Escomb, where there is a Saxon church from the seventh century, and I’d contemplate the nearby Roman fort, thinking about how people had been here for millennia.”

Those strolls set in motion a journey into academia, which would eventually wind its way to Washington.

Watching as the coalfields disappeared and Cold War tensions left the world on a nuclear knife-edge, Fiona saw education as an escape route.

And she was helped by a relation, who – half-jokingly – suggested she study Russian to understand the rapidly-changing world.

She says: “Places where my dad had grown up, like Crook and Roddymoor, and others like Sacriston and Brandon, were gutted; the industries that once brought a sense of knowing who you were had gone.

“After leaving the mines, he tried to get work elsewhere, going to a steelworks and a brickworks, but they didn’t work out, so he went to work at the local hospital.

“My dad threw himself into work; there was a strong culture that you shouldn’t be getting a handout from the state.

“But all of this was now set against a backdrop of being uprooted, of losing a sense of identity and community.”

Fiona adds: “And I wanted to know why this Silicon Valley of its day had gone into a massive decline.

“It was starting that search for explanation that led me to where I am now.

“My great-uncle Charlie Crabtree had been in the merchant marine during the Second World War, and he couldn’t understand how we’d gone from being allies with the Soviet Union to enemies in such a short period of time.

“And with the 1983 war scare, and the backdrop of being pitted against the other great industrial power of the post-World War Two period, I thought, ‘why not study Russia and figure it all out?

“Coming from a region that was heavily industrialised, I quickly realised the Soviet Union was a bigger version of the same thing – albeit with a very different ideological slant!

“The North East has a lot of links to the Soviet Union, which include some of the great writers of the Bolshevik revolution.

“Yevgeny Zamyatin – who wrote ‘We’, the precursor to Orwell’s 1984 – also wrote ‘Islanders’, which was based on his time in Newcastle’s shipyards.

“And the miners of County Durham were linked to the miners of Ukraine’s Donbas region too.

“The same industrialists that built the North East also built up the industries of Imperial Russia – and I became really interested in those ties.”

Fiona’s voyage of discovery was aided, in no small part, by time in the Soviet Union.

Having participated in a Moscow study programme, she was recruited by an American broadcaster to bolster its coverage of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in the late 1980s.

She says: “NBC News were looking for English speakers, and I got the opportunity to work as a stringer.

“I then met an American professor, who told me all about the fellowships to study at US universities.

“At that point, I knew I wanted to learn more about the Soviet Union, and I also thought I really ought to see what is happening in the US.

“I’d never been before, but my family had been somewhat obsessed with US culture, and we had a relation who’d married a GI during the Second World War.”

From those academic chats, Fiona embarked on Soviet studies and a doctorate in history at Harvard University, before holding a number of positions at the institution’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

She served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at The National Intelligence Council during the late 2000s, and more recently penned books on Vladimir Putin and US socioeconomics and the country’s similarities to modern Russia – the latter titled ‘There’s Nothing For You Here,’ a play on her father’s assessment of home as a child.

“I’ve gone full circle,” smiles Fiona.

“I find myself talking more and more about that period in the 1980s.”

And like so much in her life, a great deal of those conversations centre upon identity.

She says: “During my experiences in the Trump administration, trying to explain why he was elected, I realised it was the story my family and I had lived through in the North East.

“It was all about de-industrialisation, the loss of place and identity, people looking for ways to turn back the clock, and having someone address their grievances and resentments.

“Watching Trump was like an exercise in social anthropology.

“His support base was very similar to Putin; it was people feeling like they’d lost their place in the world.”

The latter’s quest to revise such apparent social and geographical displacement was further exposed last year, when Russia launched its assault on Ukraine.

Fiona, who previously took part in meetings with Putin, describes his attack as “nuclear blackmail” rooted in a desperate bid to overturn a century of history.

She says: “Putin has a big base of support from the old industrial areas of the Soviet Union, the Newcastle and coal mining equivalents, if you will, who are looking to him to turn things around.

“But he’s trying to revise 100 years, and the territorial dispositions from the dissolution of the Russian Empire.

“He talks about being a cornered rat, but he’s the one who pushed everyone in a corner.

“He’s doing what Kaiser Wilhelm and the Germans did in the First World War, and what Hitler did in the Second World War – and he’s trying to frighten everyone with the idea of a Third World War by returning to the nuclear horrors of the past.”

Fiona adds: “He threatened Trump during the G20 Osaka summit, in 2019.

“When the US was pulling out of the INF Treaty, he said, ‘Remember the Euromissile Crisis and the Caribbean Crisis (Cuban Missile Crisis); we might come back to that’.

“But the US isn’t mobilising nuclear weapons.

“This is one country not liking the international order, and wanting to rupture it.

“But we shouldn’t be scared – we’re not talking about absolute warfare.”

Nevertheless, Fiona says the world must look at Putin’s motives with great seriousness, adding leaders and the global ruling community must quickly come to terms with how it contends with Russia’s offensive, in terms of the rhetoric and real-time ruin of a country, the ending of a world order and the fresh identity of another.

She says: “This is someone who uses whatever instruments he can – polonium, Novichok, assassinations, throwing people out of windows. The guy is ruthless.

“And he thought he’d found the best moment to strike in Ukraine, with the US having pulled out of Afghanistan, Angela Merkel’s era having ended in Germany, the French elections looming and the UK being at odds with its European neighbours.

“He’d told Estonian and Finnish leaders in the weeks leading up to the invasion that he’d bought off the West, and that nobody would do anything.

“He expected the Ukrainians would capitulate immediately, and that we’d crumble more widely too.

“But there was a realisation across Europe that this was like conflicts of the past, and that we couldn’t just stand by.”

Fiona adds: “It is a very different situation to what we had in the 1960s and 1980s.

“We had been engaging with Russia on strategic stability talks, and there was a lot of effort before he made the decision to invade, to find a solution to this.

“And we have to continue to engage in diplomacy, and push back against his framing.

“Everything is going to change – we’re already in a new world of economic warfare.

“We’re not going to be reliant on Russian energy any more, and we’re going to have to go through a lot of pain.

“But when you know what you’re up against, you must face your fears – like we have before – and prepare to deal with them, not scare yourself silly.”