Viktor Sukhodrev, polished interpreter for Soviet leaders, dies at 81

May 17

Viktor Sukhodrev, a polished interpreter who was at the side of every Soviet leader for three decades as the English-language voice of the Kremlin and who was often the third person in the room during high-level summit meetings throughout the Cold War, died May 16 in Moscow. He was 81.

The Russian foreign ministry and other outlets announced his death. According to Russian news media reports, the cause was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Sukhodrev, who was born in Moscow, spent several years in London as a child and learned to speak English with flawless fluency. He put his linguistic skills to use in the Soviet foreign ministry and became the primary spoken-word interpreter for every Soviet leader from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev.

While Khrushchev spoke to a gathering of Western diplomats in Moscow in 1956, it was Mr. Sukhodrev who provided the on-the-spot English translation of what became perhaps the most memorable and most threatening statement of the Cold War: “Whether you like it or not, we are on the right side of history. We will bury you.”

The meaning of Khrushchev’s comment was endlessly parsed by Kremlinologists for decades, but Mr. Sukhodrev maintained that he gave an “exact translation” of the Soviet leader’s words.


Soviet interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev, center, with Soviet premier Leonid I. Brezhnev, left, and President Richard M. Nixon, at a Washington summit in June 1973. (Bob Burchette/The Washington Post)

Because language is so subject to misinterpretation, the long-standing diplomatic protocol at Cold War summit meetings had been for each country to bring its own interpreters. Over time, however, Mr. Sukhodrev became recognized as so skilled and discreet that he was often trusted to be the only intermediary between the two sides.

He was present at more meetings of the world’s superpowers than almost any other person in history, including the leaders for whom he spoke. As much as anyone else, he gave voice — in two languages — to the language of diplomacy and brinkmanship at the very highest levels.

“You cannot stop to ponder. You just can’t. If you do, you fail,” Mr. Sukhodrev told the New York Times in 2005. “An interpreter at that level cannot — not ‘should not’ — simply cannot make a mistake.”

In Moscow in 1972 and in Washington a year later, Mr. Sukhodrev was the sole interpreter at summits between President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev.

“There had been concern expressed that I should have a State Department translator present also,” Nixon wrote in his memoirs. “But I knew that Sukhodrev was a superb linguist who spoke English as well as he did Russian, and I felt that Brezhnev would speak more freely if only one other person was present.”

Henry A. Kissinger, who was Nixon’s national security adviser at the time, wrote in his book “White House Years” that the sole record of some of the Brezhnev-Nixon meetings came from “the splendid Soviet interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev,” who dictated his accounts of the sessions to Kissinger’s secretary.

For years, Mr. Sukhodrev was also the chief interpreter for longtime Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. He was in meetings with seven U.S. presidents, many secretaries of state and other Cabinet officers, plus countless world leaders, including Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney of Canada and Rajiv Gandhi of India.

“It’s an almost mystical feeling that you are bringing people together,” Mr. Sukhodrev said of his role as interpreter, “people who otherwise would never be able to communicate.”

Mr. Sukhodrev had a remarkable gift of mimicry and adapted his interpretive style to fit the audience. Depending on his listener, he could switch from perfectly accented British English to idiomatic American English without a moment’s hesi­ta­tion.

“He is incredible,” an anonymous source who participated in high-level diplomatic meetings with Mr. Sukhodrev told the Los Angeles Times in 1973. “When the speaker’s voice goes up, his goes up; when the speaker tries to be humorous, Viktor is humorous, and when the tone is serious, Viktor is serious.”

He had an ability to describe sensitive policies and diplomatic maneuvers with uncanny clarity and could translate slang from one language to another with vivid expressiveness. When Khrushchev was denied permission to tour Disneyland during his 1959 visit to the United States, Mr. Sukhodrev interpreted the unlettered Soviet leader’s dissatisfaction in these idiomatic words: “Is there an epidemic of cholera there or sump’n?”

One of the few times Mr. Sukhodrev was tripped up came when Nixon used a crude term for castration. Mr. Sukhodrev’s Russian translation referred to “cutting the fruit from the tree.”

To keep current with linguistic and social trends, Mr. Sukhodrev read many English-language publications, including detective novels. He was known as the “king of interpreters” and was held in awe by others in the field, but in other ways was something of an enigma.

He wore fashionable clothing not available in the old Soviet Union, and he had a smooth urbanity that was more James Bond than Leonid Brezhnev. Some people were convinced that he was in the KGB, the Soviet secret police.

“So what if he is a KGB man?” one U.S. diplomat told the Los Angeles Times. “He has to be something special because they trust him so much.”

Viktor Mikhailovich Sukhodrev was born Dec. 12, 1932, in Moscow. His father was a military intelligence officer who, according to some reports, may have served undercover in the United States.

His mother, a member of a Soviet trade mission, was based in London from 1939 until the end of World War II. As a child, Mr. Sukhodrev attended the official Soviet school in London, but his playmates were English, and he often accompanied the neighborhood postman on his rounds, learning accents and social customs at every turn.

“That is when I really believed, and never lost that belief, that when I grew up I was going to be the man in the middle,” he told the New York Times in 2005. “I was going to be an interpreter. And if I was going to do that, I felt, I was going to be damn good. Maybe the best.”

After returning to Moscow, Mr. Sukhodrev studied English at the country’s Foreign Language Institute, where diplomats and espionage agents were trained. He entered the Soviet diplomatic service in 1956.

His final official assignments were with Gorbachev during the waning days of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, when he was the interpreter at private meetings with President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. As the Soviet Union began to collapse, Mr. Sukhodrev held top diplomatic posts in Moscow and worked at the United Nations in New York before retiring to Moscow.

Survivors include his second wife, Inga Okunevskaya, a professor of English; and a son from a first marriage that ended in divorce.

Mr. Sukhodrev published a memoir, “My Tongue Is My Friend,” in 1999 that has yet to be translated into English.

In later years, he talked more freely about the Soviet system and the leaders to whose words he listened so intently for so long.

“Even while we would speak out and say ours was the best system,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 2004, “deep down we knew in our hearts that it wasn’t the best.”

Of the presidents Mr. Sukhodrev met, he admired John F. Kennedy — “he had such charisma” — and Nixon: “As a scholar of international relations, Richard Nixon may have been the most underrated president.”

Among the Soviet leaders, he had a certain fondness for the common touch of Khrushchev, even if he was “uneducated, uncouth, a peasant if you will” and “used lots of old Russian barnyard sayings that are not always easy to translate.”

Mr. Sukhodrev was with Khrushchev at the United Nations in 1960 when, in a moment of pique, the Soviet leader took off his shoe — actually a sandal, Mr. Sukhodrev noted — and began to pound his desk in protest.

No interpretation was needed.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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