Obituary: Viktor Sukhodrew / Polished, trusted interpreter for Soviet leaders

Dec. 12, 1932 - May 16, 2014

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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.

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 Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid 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 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 Mr. Kissinger's secretary.

For years, Mr. Sukhodrev was also the chief interpreter for longtime Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Mr. Sukhodrev 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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