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Donald Graves, 79; State Dept. Cold War Analyst

Donald Graves, a top American Kremlinologist, was called
Donald Graves, a top American Kremlinologist, was called "Mr. X" in a 1982 Washington Post article. Graves remained publicly unidentified until now. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

Regional Soviet newspapers in 1980 were reporting an unusually large number of deaths of rocket scientists, and the obituaries were running a bit later than usual.

Donald Graves, who collected facts and data about the Soviet Union with a zeal matched by few others in the U.S. government, noticed the reports and suspected something was up. Several high-level officials who had an interest in Soviet space matters had also recently died, but the dates and places of the deaths had been obfuscated.

Putting bits of information together, Mr. Graves soon realized the scientists and officials had died simultaneously, probably in an accident at the Plesetsk launch site. Mr. Graves, widely considered one of the best American Kremlinologists of the era, wrote and circulated a memo about his findings to his State Department superiors and other high-ranking U.S. officials. The official Soviet press said nothing.

The rest of the world learned nine years later that more than 50 people had been killed when a Vostok rocket exploded during fueling at Plesetsk, the world's largest space facility, March 18, 1980.

Mr. Graves, 79, died of cancer of the salivary gland July 2 at his home in Washington.

"He was an analyst of the pre-computer age and was one of the great minds in the Department of State who thoroughly knew his subject," said James F. Collins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. "His judgment was valued by people who wanted real insight into the Soviet leadership."

It might be hard to imagine in this age of instant information retrieval, satellite-enhanced eavesdropping on communications and easy duplication of documents how difficult it used to be to collect verifiable facts about the Soviet Union.

Mr. Graves, and others like him, would pore over hundreds of newspapers published in the Soviet republics, and obtained with great difficulty. He treasured a hard-to-obtain directory of the Supreme Soviet, which contained about 50 words of biography and a low-quality photo of each of the legislators.

Mr. Graves, a slight, bespectacled and taciturn man who spoke with painstaking care, was the owner of "the most important shoeboxes in town," a Washington Post magazine cover story reported in 1982. Inside those cardboard boxes were 800 index cards containing the career history of individual Soviet officials, data gathered over years from a multitude of public sources.

"What we have on any Soviet leader is highly idiosyncratic. Riddled with holes. But I know where the holes are," Mr. Graves said. "It's an archaic, hand-operated, paper-and-pencil system. But there is no real alternative to it."

The article, "The Secret Files of Mr. X," was remarkable not just for its exposure of some previous secrets, but because Mr. Graves disliked talking to newspaper reporters, and the idea of being identified in print horrified him, said Charles Fenyvesi, the former Washington Post reporter who wrote the article. He was called "Mr. X" throughout the article and remained publicly unidentified until now.

Mr. Graves's work in the Soviet internal affairs division of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research became irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, it was crucial for U.S. officials desperate for knowledge about their Cold War rivals.

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