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Secrets of a Soviet Ambassador

Matt Schudel

Anatoly Dobrynin, the former Soviet ambassador to the United States, died this week at the age of 90. He was the ambassador from 1962 to 1986 and was a huge presence in Washington during those 24 years. He was affable and spoke English well enough to negotiate directly with presidents and secretaries of state. His had sources and acquaintances at the highest levels of Washington's political and journalistic class and was deeply plugged into every administration from John F. Kennedy's to Ronald Reagan's.

Dobrynin and the Kennedy brothers -- John and Robert -- personally negotiated the settlement to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and Dobrynin had a long association with Henry Kissinger, which led to nuclear arms talks in the 1970s.

Even though the Soviets had placed missiles in Cuba in October 1962, Americans might have been a little less worried if they had known about the primitive communication system the Soviets had at the time.

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Dobrynin and the Kennedys negotiated a settlement to the crisis by suggesting that the United States remove its missiles from Turkey in return for a Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. Dobrynin sent this cable to Kremlin leaders, quoting U.S. attorney general (and semi-secret negotiator) Robert F. Kennedy: "If that is the only obstacle ... then the President doesn't see any insurmountable difficulties in resolving this issue."

What no one knew until Dobrynin wrote about it more than 30 years later was that the Soviet embassy (which happens to sit across an alley from The Washington Post) evidently didn't have capability to transmit messages back to Moscow. Dobrynin's coded cable, which defused a tense moment that many feared could lead to nuclear warfare, was carried to Western Union by a bicycle messenger and sent to Moscow as an ordinary telegram.

Given the record of upheaval in the Kremlin, it was amazing that Dobrynin held on to his position in Washington as long as he did. But he was a consummate Communist politician who knew which people to flatter and which to avoid. He also had no ambition to ascend to the leadership of the Communist party in Moscow and was content to remain a diplomat in Washington, which he came to know well.

In 1995, Dobrynin published a surprisingly candid autobiography, "In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents," that is a remarkable document, particularly for a Soviet diplomat. In it, Dobrynin describes what he thought of Soviet -- and his American counterparts.

He had an early encounter with Stalin, after he joined the Soviet diplomatic service in 1944: "I was walking briskly along a Kremlin corridor to the Politburo hall when I suddenly saw Stalin and his guards slowly approaching from the other end of the long corridor. I quickly glanced first to the left, then to the right: There was neither a door nearby nor a side corridor down which I could disappear. So I pressed my back against the wall. Stalin did not fail to notice my confusion. Stressing his words by slowly moving a finger of his right hand in front of my face, he said: 'Youth mustn't fear comrade Stalin. He is its friend.' "

During a strange summit meeting between Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1973, Brezhnev got drunk and began spilling Kremlin secrets that Dobrynin claimed not to translate in full to Nixon. Even more bizarre, however, was a late-night encounter with first lady Pat Nixon, never revealed until Dobrynin's memoir. It seems the first lady was sleepwalking through the halls of Nixon's San Clemente home, and the baffled Soviet contingent didn't know what to do. Finally, a KGB agent delicately picked up Mrs. Nixon and carried her back to her bedroom.

By Matt Schudel  |  April 9, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  | Tags: Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, Cuban Missile Crisis, Henry Kissinger, John F Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Soviet Union, United States, Washington  
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