Viktor Sukhodrev was an interpreter at the side of every Soviet leader for three decades and who was often the third person in the room during high-level summit meetings throughout the Cold War. Born in Moscow, he spent several years in London as a child and learned to speak fluent English, becoming the primary interpreter for every Soviet leader from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev.
When Khrushchev spoke to Western diplomats in Moscow in 1956, it was Sukhodrev who translated what became perhaps the most memorable and most threatening statement of the Cold War: “Whether you like it or not, we are on the right side of history. We will bury you.” The meaning of Khrushchev’s comment was endlessly parsed by Kremlinologists, but Sukhodrev maintained that he gave an “exact translation” of the Soviet leader’s words.
Sukhodrev had a remarkable gift of mimicry and adapted his style to fit the audience. Depending on his listener, he could switch from perfectly accented British English to idiomatic American English without hesitation.
Sukhodrev became recognised as so skilled and discreet that he was often trusted to be the only intermediary between the two sides. He was present at more meetings of the world’s superpowers than almost any other person in history, including the leaders for whom he spoke. As much as anyone else, he gave voice to the language of diplomacy and brinkmanship at the very highest levels. “You cannot stop to ponder,” he reflected in 2005. “You just can’t. If you do, you fail.”
Viktor Mikhailovich Sukhodrev, interpreter: born Moscow 12 December 1932; twice married (one son); died Moscow 16 May 2014.
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