Anatoly Dobrynin: Soviet ambassador to Washington who helped steer a course of peace during the Cold War

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The Independent Online

Anatoly Dobrynin's credentials to serve the Soviet Union were impeccable.

On the ring line of the Moscow underground visitors may have alighted at the Dobryninskaya Station. The station's original name, Serpukhovskaya, came from the street of the same name, which appeared in the 17th century as part of the road to the town of Serpukhov. In 1961, however, the whole district and the metro station were named after Pyotr Grigorievich Dobrynin, an active participant in the October Revolution who lost his life in 1917 near the station.

A bust of him was placed outside the station in front of the ground-level vestibule in 1967. Anatoly's family connection with the October Revolution appealed both to Nikita Khrushchev and his immediate boss Andrei Gromyko.

In March 1962 Dobrynin was appointed Soviet ambassador to the United States at the age of 43 by Khrushchev. He served during the administrations of six presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. It is no exaggeration to say that in 1962 he was a significant calming influence during the Cuban Missile Crisis which could have led to the Third World War. Dobrynin mattered both in Washington and, crucially, in Moscow. He was not only a diplomat but was at the epicentre of the Soviet Central Committee.

In November 1981 I was one of six Labour MPs who formed that year's delegation to the United Nations in New York. I expressed in strong terms to our host, the British ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons, my disquiet about HMG's support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Parsons told me that he was the servant of government policy, but that since he thought I was serious and well informed, he would ask his friend Oleg Tryanovsky, the Soviet ambassador to the UN, to see me. I was whisked round to the fortress in New York which was the headquarters of the Soviet UN delegation and ushered into the presence not only of Tryanovsky but of Dobrynin. Gennady Fedosov (a cultural attaché from 1975-79 in Washington and 1985-89 in London) told me that Soviet ambassadors in Washington and New York often had an uneasy relationship, but Dobrynin and Tryanovsky were great and genuine friends. Both made an indelible impression as formidable and principled men devoted to rational behaviour and, above all, peace.

Anatoly Dobrynin was born in 1919 of a professional family sympathetic to Communism and educated at the Moscow Aviation Institute. In the war he was in a reserved occupation as an engineer at aircraft plants. Changing course, he joined the diplomatic service, rising quickly to be minister/counsellor at the Russian embassy in Washington in 1952, having caught the eye of both Andrei Vissinsky and his successor as foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, with whom he was to have a firm and lifelong relationship of mutual respect.

Returning to Moscow in 1955 he became an Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, in 1957 the Under-Secretary General for Political and Security Council Affairs, and then Head of the American Department of the Soviet Foreign Office. In 1962 he was to begin an astonishing and unprecedented tenure of 24 years in Washington in the most important overseas post of the Russian Foreign Office.

He quickly developed a respect for the US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and indeed, played chess with him. Dobrynin's attitude about McNamara was that, agree or disagree, he was capable of changing his opinion to suit the circumstances. He liked the fact that McNamara was not dogmatic: he started as a proponent of nuclear weapons, and Dobrynin recalled that he ended up propounding the theory of mutually assured destruction: "If we produce weapons which are so powerful, suppose the Russians start attacking," he said. "Even after their first strike, we, the Americans, should have enough nuclear weapons to deliver the second strike, because if the Russians think that their first strike can destroy everything, then they can easily deliver this first strike. So they should know that what they destroy still leaves a lot intact and that we remain strong enough to retaliate."

Dobrynin said that McNamara had confessed to him that in the American programme of 1961, which covered the period up to 1967, they proceeded from what they thought was the Russians' potential. But they had over-estimated that potential and produced too many nuclear weapons. When these misunderstandings became apparent the seeds were sewn for the Non-Proliferation Treaty of which Dobrynin was one of the major architects.

Dobrynin's view was that when John F. Kennedy was assassinated almost all Russians were in deep mourning because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that he was murdered because he changed the course of history in wanting to improve political relations with the USSR. Subsequently, Dobrynin had to deal with a number of awkward situations, in particular when the spy plane of Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet airspace, but nothing comparable to his baptism of fire as ambassador in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba in response to the discovery of Soviet missile silos on the island. Kennedy sent his brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to negotiate with Dobrynin, and together the pair came up with a formula that averted the threat of nuclear war, involving the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and Nato missiles from Turkey.

Later, when Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were in the White House and détente was in the air, Dobrynin liked the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, from the first time they met; they shared a delicate sense of humour. Dobrynin formed a back-channel which involved the president giving Kissinger the right to maintain negotiations, bypassing the State Department because he wanted to keep negotiations secret. In America matters leak into the press very quickly; and it was important that information about American/Russian relations did not become public too early – because if they did the press would interfere, stir up public feelings and there would be hell to play in Congress.

With the Soviets, the situation was exactly the opposite. Neither the press nor the Russian parliament knew anything. The Russians kept their secrets and anyone who leaked them could find themselves in prison.

The ability to hold negotiations in private made it possible to introduce corrections and amendments. Dobrynin could adjust his position without losing face. The relationship became a matter of: "Henry, mind you, you should realise –" followed by some thinking aloud, and Dobrynin recalled what Kissinger would reply: "Well, Anatoly, why should we get stuck at this? Why don't we do it in a different way?" Seldom in modern times can an ambassador have had such an opportunity to negotiate – but the premise was that Dobrynin as ambassador had the closest relations with the powers-that-were back in Moscow.

Dobrynin was a pivotal figure in the improving relationship between Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev which started badly but ended up in great friendship. The Richard Nixon who as a congressman had set up the anti-Communist witch-hunt committee, did not seem to Dobrynin by the time he became president to be as much of an anti-Communist as he had seemed during his election campaign. Dobrynin had the feeling that he had simply been acting to improve his rating at the polls. By patient work Dobrynin was instrumental in the signing of Salt I, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

When I was in Moscow in September 2007 I inquired about the possibility of meeting Dobrynin. I was told that he had led a very quiet existence confined to his flat for the last decade and illness made a visit out of the question. I shall remember him in his heyday and salute his many achievements for peace, often unsung.

Anatoly Fedorovich Dobrynin, diplomat: born Krasnaya Gorka, Moscow region 16 November 1919; Official, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1946–52; Counsellor, Counsellor-Minister, Embassy to US 1952–54; Assistant to Minister for Foreign Affairs 1955–57; Deputy Secretary General, UN 1957–60; Chief, Department of American Countries, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1960–62; Ambassador to US 1962–86; Secretary, Central Committee, Communist Party 1986–91; Deputy, Supreme Soviet 1986–91; Hero of Socialist Labour 1992; Order of Lenin five times; married Irina Nikolaevna (one daughter); died 6 April 2010.