“I’VE had everything thrown at me,” says Fiona Hill, the Russian expert from Bishop Auckland who worked in the White House for three US presidents – and testified against one.

“I’ve got people making stuff up about me, calling me names. It just feels like being back at Bishop Barrington comprehensive school, going to the girls’ bathrooms and seeing rude things written about me on the wall.”

Dr Hill’s childhood in the County Durham coalfield gave her the resilience to ride the wave of hostility that hit her when she gave evidence at the first impeachment trial of Donald J Trump.

“There’s been physical intimidation, people threatening to kill and rape me, people telling me to go and commit suicide, but, again, I went to a British comprehensive school in the 1970s and 1980s so don’t think I haven’t had this before – people wanting to “knack you”, that good old north of England saying.”

The Northern Echo:

Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington

Not only did Dr Hill’s childhood toughen her up to face down the Trump supporters, but it provided the beginnings for the world view on which her career is built. She grew up in communities struggling to cope with industrial decay and found similar struggles in Russia, as the Communist command economy broke down, and in America, where rust tarnished once productive factories.

In America, her home for the last 30 years, she has lived the true American dream: she arrived as an immigrant student but took the opportunities to rise to the top tables which she shared with Barak Obama and Vladimir Putin. She tells her story in her new book, There Is Nothing For You Here – a phrase her coalminer father used, followed by the familiar word “pet”, as he urged her onward – and now wants to use her success to increase opportunity for those in her hometown, where her mother June, a midwife, still lives.

Her father, Alf, started down a pit at the age of 14, but as the coalfield contracted so the opportunities narrowed and the only job he could find was as a hospital porter.

Her childhood, therefore, was poor. She tells of watching television through a neighbour’s window and of cycling the Durham countryside to visit her grandparents in Roddymoor as the family didn’t have a car.

“Everything in Bishop Auckland was closing down,” she says, her accent having lost none of its south Durham edge in her 30 years in the US although she now uses the American “bathroom” instead of “toilets”, as they say in Bishop.

“The dam was being pulled down, the railway station was getting pulled down, the Eden Theatre was being demolished,” she continues. “There was the Cold War and the feeling that we were all going to get blown up, and then the miners’ strike started – everything was in turmoil.”

She tells how at Bishop Barrington school the football pitch collapsed due to mining subsidence, a kid broke into the stationery room and was hospitalised after sniffing the Tipp-ex and a German teacher was locked overnight in a cupboard. The highlight of her weekend was a trip to the “golden mile” of Newgate Street to see the bright lights of “Bish Vegas”, as she ironically knew it.

Her mother made her a pair of trousers out of a curtain remnant from Doggarts, and attached an Abbaesque tasselled fringe to the front which slowly unravelled on the walk to school. She was called “Curtain Legs” for a year after that, and then “Treasure” as she was “the girl with the sunken chest” – a degree of nickname originality which the American haters couldn’t match, so they just called her “the Russian bitch”.

The Cold War vibe of the early 1980s encouraged her to study Russian – her uncle wanted her “to find out why the bloody hell they’re trying to bomb us” – as did the town’s MP, Derek Foster. She went to St Andrews University in Scotland where an exchange gave her a first taste of Russia.

“Being the child of a former coalminer gave me a cachet,” she says. “Everyone had heard of County Durham because their miners’ unions had had whiprounds for our striking miners, and I even got a small grant from money miners from the Donbas region of Ukraine had sent to the Durham Miners’ Association, so for me it was an easy leap.”

The Northern Echo: Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, during a public impeachment

There was great media interest when Dr Hill, right, testified at the impeachment hearing

There were many similarities in the problems the people of Durham and the Soviet Union were facing.

“Russia had declared towns and villages to be “without perspective” which meant they were ruled out from further investment and their people were encouraged to move on,” she says. “This had happened to my grandparents up at Roddymoor which had been placed in Category D by the county council, but if you are in Category D in Siberia, where do you move to? The distances are phenomenal, so I was researching the same phenomenon but on a huge scale.”

After graduating from St Andrews, Dr Hill went to study at Harvard university in Massachusetts, itself surrounded by automotive decline. She worked for the National Intelligence Council and in 2006 became an intelligence analyst on the National Security Council for George W Bush and Barak Obama.

In 2017, she was called into Donald Trump’s White House as a senior director for European and Russian affairs, and became close to Trump’s National Security Advisor, the moustachioed John Bolton, which led to a face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in June 2018.

The Northern Echo: Fiona Hill with Vladimir Putin and John Bolton on June 27, 2018. Picture: The Russian President

Fiona Hill with Vladimir Putin and John Bolton on June 27, 2018. Picture: kremlin.ru

“Putin is extraordinarily guarded, very careful with his expressions, trying to make sure you can’t glean too much,” she says, “but when he was annoyed, there was a little twitching vein on the left side of his head.

“He’s very careful about what he eats and drinks, extraordinarily well turned out in handmade clothes and a nice fancy watch, and he’s short sighted, just like the rest of us in our 40s and 50s – I could see his note cards. He was very well prepared and loves sparring with people verbally.”

The Northern Echo:

President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2019

As well as a chair from which to observe the Russian president, she had a ringside seat to watch the chaos around the Trump administration. At first, the president assumed she was a secretary; at last, when he heard she was writing a book, he called her “a deep state stiff with a nice accent”.

“He didn’t have any ideology apart from idolatry – he wanted to be adored, have people admire and praise him,” she says. “I felt sorry for him. I couldn’t understand how anyone could have such a fragile ego. He’s the kind of person who demands complete loyalty and adoration, and as a result people never stand up to him.

“He’s not a cartoon character in private. He has flashes of empathy and sympathy for people, and he had some really good instincts about foreign policy – although a complete nightmare on domestic policy. He understood what people wanted, he was really canny politician – he would have fitted in well in Newcastle with T Dan Smith in the 1960s.”

Property developer Smith was jailed for his corruption, and Trump was impeached for his, with Dr Hill testifying for 10 hours. At the heart of the proceedings was a telephone call the president made to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, after which Zelensky announced an investigation into the son of Joe Biden, who was running against Trump for the presidency.

“It had nothing to do with foreign policy or national security or Ukraine,” she says. “It was all about Trump staying in power in 2020. That was the revelation.”

The Northern Echo:

Now she is speaking out against the “pandemic of populism” which, in the aftermath of deindustrialisation, she sees infecting Russia and America as much as the UK.

She’s kept a close eye on the changes in Bishop Auckland – the Ruffer revolution and the collapse of the red wall – and was due to address her old school in the New Year, but the pandemic has put that on hold. Still she’s bursting with ideas about improving educational opportunities to increase social mobility and give meaning to a Government slogan.

“We had been up to Roddymoor when everyone was losing their jobs and it was so grim,” she says. “It had been such a vibrant community. My dad said ‘we are like refugees in our own land’ and that we needed to call in the UN to bring something back.

“So how about levelling up aspiration and opportunity. Bishop doesn’t have to end up looking like Kensington or Islington, but you can give people a sense that they can do something for their community.”

The Northern Echo: There is Nothing for You Here by Fiona Hill

There is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century by Fiona Hill (Mariner, £22.05)