Obituary: Valentin Berezhkov
Friday 11 December 1998
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.
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.
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