Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly dismissed the allegations that Russia-backed hackers interfered in the U.S. presidential election, dubbing such claims "hysteria" meant "only to distract the attention of the American people." But if Putin did attempt to meddle in the race, he apparently wouldn't be the first Russian head of state to do so.
At least one other Kremlin leader has suggested he successfully influenced a U.S. election. That happened at the height of the Cold War, in 1961, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met the then-recently elected John F. Kennedy in Vienna.
According to Khrushchev's memoirs, he told the U.S. president: "You know, Mr. Kennedy, we voted for you." The comment (which was also published in a slightly different wording in a later version of the memoirs) was described as a joke. But beneath that humor lay a serious point.
Khrushchev, the son of rural peasants, had ended up leading the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. By the late 1950s, he had made some limited internal reforms and was attempting to find a more stable relationship with the West. He famously allowed then-Vice President Richard Nixon to visit the Soviet Union in 1959, and later that year he became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States.
Khrushchev apparently did not take to Nixon. In Moscow, the pair attended the opening of an exhibition devoted to the United States, then launched into a public argument of the merits of capitalism vs. communism — while standing inside a model kitchen. "You don’t know anything about communism – except fear of it," Khrushchev told Nixon.
In his memoir, published as "Khrushchev Remembers" in 1970, Khrushchev said he told other members of the Soviet leadership: "If Nixon becomes President, I don't believe he will contribute to an improvement of relations between our two countries."
And conveniently for them, the Soviets had a hand to play in the election. On May 1, 1960, a U-2 surveillance plane operated by the CIA was shot down by the Soviet air force while flying near the city of Yekaterinburg. The U.S. initially said the plane had been studying weather patterns for NASA and had simply strayed off course. Information recovered from the plane's wreckage quickly proved otherwise.
The U-2's pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was taken prisoner and put on trial for espionage, eventually being sentenced to a decade in a Soviet prison. Powers's fate became a point of tension in the Cold War, ruining a planned summit in Paris between the superpowers. Making matters worse, an American RB-47H reconnaissance bomber was shot down by Soviet forces in July and the Soviets took the two survivors captive.
As tense as things were, Khrushchev believed those events also gave the Soviets a small amount of influence over that year's presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy.
"I expressed my opinion to the leadership: The United States government has asked us to release Powers," Khrushchev wrote in his memoir. "Now is not the time to do it."
Noting that the two candidates were at a "stalemate," Khrushchev recalled saying that if Powers or the other Americans were released before the election, it could give Nixon a boost. It would be better to wait until after the election, the Soviet premier thought.
"My comrades agreed, and we did not release Powers," he wrote. "As it turned out, we'd done the right thing. Kennedy won the election by a majority of only 200,000 or so votes, a negligible margin if you consider the huge population of the United States. The slightest nudge either way would have been decisive."
The two Americans on the RB-47H were released just days after Kennedy's inauguration. Powers was eventually released in 1962, swapped for a Soviet intelligence officer, Vilyam Fisher, who was serving a prison sentence in the United States for espionage (that exchange was later portrayed in the Stephen Spielberg film "Bridge of Spies"). The American pilot spent the rest of his life tainted by accusations that he had been too weak-willed in the face of Soviet interrogation, though the CIA's own report found he had acted honorably. He died in 1977.
According to Khrushchev's account, Kennedy laughed when he brought up his role in the 1960 election. "You're right. I admit you played a role in the election and cast your vote for me," Khrushchev's memoir has Kennedy saying. Another account, however, from former Soviet ambassador Oleg Troyanovsky, suggested Kennedy wasn't so sure about the idea that Moscow had helped him win the election.
Despite the seeming politeness of the conversation — Khrushchev's memoir describes Kennedy in Vienna as "pleasant and reasonable" — Kennedy didn't feel the meeting went well. The president told the New York Times' James Reston that Khrushchev "just beat the hell out of me" and that it was the "roughest thing in my life." Soon, Khrushchev and Kennedy were at loggerheads over Berlin and Cuba.
Nixon finally won the Oval Office in 1968 and implemented a policy of "detente" with the Soviet Union, visiting the country again in 1972. By then, Khrushchev had been retired for eight years. He had been removed from office in 1964, but he was allowed to live in relative comfort in a guarded compound outside Moscow. He is said to have began recording his memories on tape in 1968 at the urging of his family.
The tapes and a transcript were smuggled out to the West, where they were soon published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1970. Khrushchev died the following year.
Ironically, given the Soviet tactic of "misinformation" at the time (a tactic that many see echoed in modern Russia's alleged support of "fake news") there was widespread suspicion that the book was a KGB forgery — a somehow shrewd attempt to influence the United States under Nixon. However, the tapes were later released, convincing the naysayers.
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