Obituary: Arkady Shevchenko

DEFECTIONS are mostly stealthy affairs, hushed up if possible by both winners and losers, albeit for very different reasons. Not so, however, the sensational passage from East to West of Arkady Shevchenko, Under Secretary-General at the United Nations for Political and Security Council Affairs, the highest-ranking Soviet diplomat ever to change sides during the Cold War.

Routine briefings at UN headquarters are rarely exciting, but the one of 11 April 1978 dropped a bombshell. Shevchenko, the spokesman noted, "has informed the Secretary-General that he is absenting himself from the office and, in this connection, he mentioned differences with his government".

It had been some two and a half years earlier that Shevchenko first decided to cast in his lot with the Americans, the climax of a long disaffection with his own country and government. Upon contacting the CIA, however, he learnt to his unpleasant surprise that he was required to remain in place; the international civil servant would have to sing for his supper, and earn sanctuary by spying. Slowly, Moscow's suspicions grew.

Finally, on 31 March 1978, came the cable of which every traitorous Soviet official abroad lived in dread, recalling him immediately for consultations, and "discussion of certain other questions". A couple of days later Shevchenko slipped from his Manhattan flat, climbed into a CIA car and was whisked off to a safe house in Pennsylvania to begin his second life.

His former masters, their fury matched only by their embarrassment, pulled out every stop to get him back. The KGB concocted wrenching letters from his family, and mingled promises of clemency with the most unsubtle of threats if he did not comply. To no avail. As Shevchenko was being debriefed in Washington, he learnt from a press report that his wife Lena had died in Moscow. Officially she had committed suicide. Shevchenko would always suspect she had been murdered by the KGB.

In some ways Arkady Shevchenko was an unlikely candidate to turn his back on his country. Born in Ukraine in 1930, the son of a doctor, he had spent much of his childhood in the relative paradise of the Crimea (where his father met Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta in 1945 while secretly evaluating the health of the dying US President). Shevchenko enjoyed the best the Soviet Union could offer: a prominent role in the Komsomol youth organisation, and then a place at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, academy of the diplomatic elite.

He became a protege of Andrei Gromyko, the hugely influential and seemingly eternal Soviet foreign minister. Shevchenko accompanied Nikita Khrushchev on his famous visit to America in 1960, and from 1963 to 1970 served at the Soviet mission to the UN. After three years in Moscow as a senior aide to Gromyko, he returned as Under Secretary- General in 1973, aged just 43. By then he was one of the brightest stars of his diplomatic generation, surely destined for a senior ambassadorship, perhaps even deputy foreign minister. As a card-carrying member of the nomenklatura, he would - by Soviet standards - want for nothing.

Shevchenko abandoned it all. One reason was material, stemming from a first stunning glimpse of New York on an earlier official mission in 1958: "I had seen photographs," he wrote, "but nothing had prepared me for the impact of the towering city on the horizon" (and, even more pertinently, of the plenty in its shops). From that moment, he was materially hooked on the West. Spiritually, the constraints and dishonesties of the Soviet system, magnified for one who lived abroad, became too much to bear. In retrospect, Shevchenko's defection was inevitable.

Its actual importance has been much debated. Certainly, he does not rank with Col Oleg Penkovsky, or the KGB station chief in London, Oleg Gordievsky, or even Igor Gouzenko, the cypher clerk who fled from the Soviet mission in Ottawa in 1945 carrying evidence of Moscow's elaborate wartime spy rings in the West and of how America's nuclear secrets had been passed to Moscow. A natural self-promoter with no doubt of his own talents, Shevchenko may moreover have parlayed the information he brought into rather more than it was.

Nevertheless he was a notable catch. During his service as an American "spy" at the UN, he passed over details of Soviet policy on every major issue. As a lifelong specialist in arms control, Shevchenko provided precious insight into Soviet negotiating strategy for the disarmament talks that stuttered along in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Third, no defector has ever known as much about the high-level workings of the Soviet state, the inter- play between the Foreign Min- istry, the military and the omnipresent KGB.

By the end of his life, of course, most of this was an irrelevance. The Soviet Union had vanished, and the man whose 1985 autobiography, Breaking With Moscow, had been an international best-seller had been washed up, forgotten, on history's strand. When he died, he was labouring in obscurity on a study of Soviet foreign policy.

But, as a symbol of the decay of his country in its later years, few match Shevchenko. And he understood what lay ahead. In June 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev was at the height of his powers, Shevchenko told an interviewer that the Soviet leader then beguiling the West was "a transitional figure, because he still believes his glasnost is compatible with a Leninist Socialist society. It is not. What will be the political shape of Russia in the next century I cannot judge, but Communism there as a system is doomed." Shevchenko expected collapse might take a generation. It happened within four years.

Arkady Nikolayevich Shevchenko, diplomat: born Gorlovka, Ukraine 11 October 1930; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Bethesda, Maryland 28 February 1998.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL DBA (2005/2008/2012, projects, storage requirements)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried