Obituary: Valentin Berezhkov

VALENTIN BEREZHKOV was a Russian diplomat who translated for Joseph Stalin and other Soviet officials during crucial Second World War conferences. Once freed from the constraints of Soviet historiography, he earned a good living recounting his experiences of the man he considered a great leader.

During his translating career, Berezhkov, to his continuing wonderment, met the entire Soviet leadership - and other world leaders as well, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.

He first met Hitler in his office in the Chancellery in Berlin while on a mission in November 1940 with the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Despite being complimented by Hitler on his Berlin accent, Berezhkov was uneasy. "His handshake was cold and moist to the touch, which evoked an unpleasant feeling," he recalled, "like touching a reptile." The following month Berezhkov was appointed the first secretary of the Soviet embassy in Berlin, translating for officials in their meetings with Nazi leaders.

At three o'clock on the morning of 22 June 1941 - the day Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union - Berezhkov was summoned to a meeting where the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop read out the declaration of war. "His face was swollen and purple," Berezhkov recalled. "He had obviously been drinking heavily."

Berezhkov and his colleagues immediately set about burning the embassy's secret documents, which they managed just before the SS broke in. They remained trapped in the embassy until an exchange of diplomatic personnel between the enemy states could be arranged.

Back in Moscow he became an assistant to Molotov on American affairs. He was a personal translator for Stalin during conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, and at the Potsdam Conference with Truman and Churchill later the same year.

Berezhkov was born in 1916 in Petrograd, then about to be engulfed in revolution. During the civil war he was taken south to Ukraine and survived the mass famine Stalin created in the 1930s. His father - like so many - was arrested, whispering in young Valentin's ear "Remember, I am guilty of nothing . . ." before being carted off by the GPU (the secret police). Unlike so many others, he was released as innocent.

Berezhkov graduated in engineering from Kiev Industrial Institute in 1938, before beginning work in the Arsenal plant. He was soon called up for military service and despatched to Vladivostok to serve in the Soviet Pacific Fleet. There he was plucked out to become a translator, thanks to his knowledge of English and German he had been encouraged to learn by his parents. In the spring and summer of 1940 he worked at the Soviet Trade Mission in Berlin, travelling through other Nazi-occupied countries.

He returned to Moscow, but was soon in demand as the Soviet embassy in Berlin desperately needed linguists for work discussing the terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact, signed the previous year. Molotov took him on as a translator - despite his pro-testations that he had had no formal training - and his new career began. He was fitted out in a dark suit, a grey overcoat and a trilby hat and despatched to the Berlin embassy clutching his diplomatic passport.

After the war, he became a journalist and later deputy chief editor of New Times, a foreign affairs weekly. In the 1970s, he was appointed to the diplomatic service and served in Washington. He was first secretary at the Soviet Embassy in 1983 when his 16-year-old son, Andrei, announced in letters to President Ronald Reagan and The New York Times that he wanted to defect to the US. This sparked a diplomatic confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union that resolved itself only when the youth renounced his wish to defect and returned to Moscow with his parents. (In 1994 Andrei was shot dead by an associate in Moscow.)

Berezhkov also served in the US as Washington representative of the United States and Canada Institute, the prestigious Soviet research centre on North American affairs. He was widely known on the diplomatic scene and often served as a tour guide for influential Soviet visitors to the US. For a time, he was editor-in-chief of USA magazine.

In the 1970s and 1980s he published memoirs of his time as Stalin's translator. In keeping with Soviet orthodoxy, he glossed over delicate subjects like the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet pact (allowing for the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia). He portrayed the closeness of the Nazi and Soviet regimes as a tactical necessity to foil the plots of the reactionary Western powers.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Berezhkov retained a fondness for Stalin, but realised he could be far franker about the details Russians and foreigners were dying to hear. What was Stalin like? He was happy to oblige with anecdotes that showed the good side of his former boss.

In 1991, Berezhkov moved to Claremont in California to teach and lecture on Russian-American affairs. He appeared in many documentaries recounting his impressions of Stalin and published a fuller version of his memoirs, At Stalin's Side, in 1994.

Felix Corley

Valentin Mikhailovich Berezhkov, diplomat and translator: born Petrograd 2 July 1916; twice married (two sons and one son deceased); died Claremont, California 20 November 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links