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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A long-established, technology rich ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable