| Rubles for John-John By Melor Sturua |
Wednesday, July 21, 1999; Page A21 The day when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas was unforgettable for everybody, including me. On that particular day I was on duty in Izvestia in my capacity as an acting foreign editor of this official Soviet government newspaper. The horrible news came too late to be printed in our afternoon edition. The paper was already on sale in the streets of Moscow. But our weekly literary supplement, Nedelya, was still available. I ordered the printing of a big picture of the murdered president in a black frame with a short, appropriate commentary. My decision was not only journalistic and humanitarian but also political. The wire services were stressing in their dispatches that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had spent some time in the Soviet Union. The implications were obvious, although nobody was making any overt connections. To omit the news could only feed these suspicions.
As soon as I came home, the telephone rang. Comrade Leonid Ilyichev was calling. Ilyichev was at that time the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in charge of ideology and propaganda.
"Did you give the order to publish President Kennedy's picture in a black frame?" he asked.
The timbre of his intimidating voice wasn't promising anything good.
"Yes, I did," I answered.
"So you are so powerful that you even can elevate the American president to the status of the members of the Politburo?"
I was really taken aback.
"Because only deceased members of the Politburo are entitled to pictures with a black frame. So come tomorrow morning to my offices at the Old Square, and don't forget to bring your membership card. I promise you that you will leave my office without it."
At that time, being expelled from the Communist Party meant social, political and professional death, especially for a journalist who worked at the government newspaper.
I had a horrible, sleepless night.
In the morning, before going to my execution at the Old Square headquarters of the Central Committee, I went to my editor in chief, the powerful son-in-law of Nikita Khrushchev, and told him what was happening. He became angry and agitated and cursed Ilyichev with unprintable words.
"Leonid doesn't know anything," he said. "The Politburo has just decided to send [an emissary] to Washington to represent the Soviet Union at the state funeral.
"Your decision was correct."
"But what about Ilyichev?" I asked.
"I will handle him myself."
The funeral of President Kennedy was shown on Soviet television. By the way, it was the first direct, uncensored transatlantic transmission. The whole country was moved by the ceremony, and of course the most touching scene was the 3-year-old John-John standing outside St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington squinting into the sun and raising his hand in a military salute as his father's coffin rolled by.
Beginning the next day, letters with rubles in small denominations began to pile up on the desk in my office. The senders, the majority of them ordinary Russian women, were asking me to send this money "to the poor widow and her children." Almost everybody was mentioning the "heart-wrenching" scene of John-John's salute.
The mail, especially the money, created substantial difficulties for us. We could not keep the money and could not send it to Jacqueline Kennedy. To send it back also was not so easy. Many senders didn't give their return addresses. But the most difficult part was to compose letters with a tactful explanation that would not insult the good, compassionate and kind people that the wealthy widow didn't need their worthless rubles.
Almost 30 years went by before I first met John F. Kennedy Jr. At that time I was a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, and young John and his uncle Sen. Ted Kennedy came to us for some social gathering. During the luncheon, I told John the story of his father's picture in the black frame and of the mail with rubles. He was visibly moved, and to hide his emotions he joked: "Well, you better send those rubles on to my mother. You know, she needs money."
The untimely and unfair death of John Kennedy Jr. has shocked Russians, particularly Russian women, who know how to feel compassion. But times have changed, for better and for worse. Nobody sends money for the poor Kennedys, but on the other hand, nobody is punished by the extinct Central Committee for publishing John Kennedy's picture.
And what a pity that John Kennedy Jr. left this world so early that he couldn't have his own John-John, who would salute his father's coffin.
The writer is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.