Obituary: Alexei Adzhubei

Jeanne Vronskaya
Sunday 18 September 2011 11:36

Alexei Ivanovich Adzhubei, journalist, editor, politician: born Samarkand, Uzbekistan 10 January 1924; editor-in-chief, Komsomolskaya Pravda 1957-59; editor, Izvestia 1959-64; married 1947 Rada Khrushchev (three sons); died Moscow 19 March 1993.

ALEXEI ADZHUBEI was nicknamed 'king of the Soviet press' in the 1960s. Nikita Khrushchev's son-in-law, he was editor-in-chief of the official government daily newspaper Izvestia, which he transformed from a dull rag into a vivid publication with analytical reports and investigations. But Adzhubei became involved in politics and made powerful enemies. Between 1962 and 1964 he was one of a small group who advised Khrushchev. He was also close to Vladimir Semichastny, Chairman of the KGB, who later became one of the leading plotters in Khrushchev's downfall in 1964.

Adzhubei was born in 1924 in Samarkand. His father, a Ukrainian peasant, had been a choirboy and rose to sing solo roles in opera with the great operatic bass Feodor Chaliapin. Alexei's parents separated when he was two. His mother, Nina Gupalo, also a Ukrainian, married a Russian lawyer, Mikhail Ganeyev, and Alexei grew up with his stepfather. But Ganeyev died in 1932 and Nina took Alexei to Moscow where he went to school and she worked as a dressmaker, including the wives and daughters of members of the Politburo among her clients.

Alexei tried to become an actor. He enrolled as a student at the MKHAT Studio School, an elite theatrical establishment where, he told me, 'I was such a failure. I had no talent. Nothing became of me.' He left the school and became a student at the journalism faculty at Moscow University. Here he met his future wife, Rada, a fellow student and Khrushchev's third and youngest daughter; they were married in 1947. Seventeen years later, after his father-in-law was ousted, Adzhubei was stripped of all his posts at an emergency session of the Politburo; he defended himself against a hostile audience, made up of people who until recently had courted his friendship: 'I married Rada before Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Communist Party and head of state.'

Before graduating, Adzhubei joined the staff of the official daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda ('Young Communists' Truth'). After graduating in 1952 he became its editor-in-chief. In 1958 Boris Pasternak, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel Dr Zhivago, became the target of a huge campaign of persecution. Khrushchev's son Sergei, in his memoirs Khrushchev on Khrushchev, mentioned how Adzhubei came to Khrushchev and said: 'Nikita Sergeyevich, have you heard a new joke? There are three plagues in Moscow: rak (cancer), Spartak (a football team at the time doing very badly) and Pasternak'. Sergei Khrushchev wrote: 'My father's face puckered. He disliked such cynical jokes.'

After Nikita Khrushchev's sensational exposure of Stalin's crimes and the millions of victims in the gulag, Adzhubei became 'journalist number one' and moved in 1959 as editor to Izvestia, the mass-circulation official daily. He began acting as his father-in-law's envoy, visiting presidents and even meeting the Pope. He kept up a lavish way of life, driving fast cars and mixing with foreigners, a privilege allowed only to a small circle. Among his close friends was Vladimir Semichastny, with whom he played football and drank.

When Khrushchev was recalled from his holiday in the Crimea for an emergency session of the Politburo in October 1964, he was met at the airport only by Semichastny. In his memoirs, Khrushchev remembered: 'Seeing my son-in-law's friend alone meeting me, the head of state, I realised everything.' Straight after his father-in-law had been deposed Adzhubei lost all his posts. He was lucky to be appointed editor of a propaganda illustrated magazine, the Soviet Union, designed for sale abroad.

At the height of his power, Adzhubei lived with Rada and their three sons in the so-called House on the Embankment, a grey block of flats where families of the government, leading military and the NKVD lived, among them relatives of Stalin, the family of the Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and the family of Marshal Georgi Zhukov.

The Adzhubeis later moved to the Politburo residence on Granovsky Street and from there to a high-ceilinged, four-roomed flat, full of books and plants, in a block off Tverskaya, until recently Gorky Street. I visited them there in the summer of 1990. Above the entrance door and on the wall opposite were hung heads of gazelles which Adzhubei told me he had killed during hunting sessions near Prague; beaters drove the trusting animals towards the eminent guests from Moscow, who first offered them food and then shot them dead at point-blank range.

At the time of my visit Adzhubei was already ill. From time to time he used to send an article to his former colleagues, some of whom had had successful careers. But his pieces were scarcely noticed in a mountain of interesting material submitted to newspapers now engaged in tough competition. Adzhubei could not absorb this blow. I visited him and Rada at their country house some 60km from Moscow the following summer. They had bought their property in 1970 and spent lavishly, engaging a French architect to design their dacha.

Last autumn in Moscow Adzhubei obtained a licence to set up his own paper. He invited his former friends to write for him. I bought a copy. He wrote three-quarters of the material himself. He could not pay, so nobody wanted to work for him. There were difficulties with distribution. But having his own paper had slightly raised his low morale.

Adzhubei had a notable sense of humour. There is a rhyming motto in Russia: 'Ne imei sto rublei, a imei sto druzei' ('Don't have a hundred Roubles, have a hundred friends'). Adzhubei remade it: 'Ne imei sto rublei, a zhenis kak Adzhubei' ('Don't have a hundred Roubles, marry like Adzhubei').

He is survived by his wife and three sons. The youngest, also Alexei, is a biophysicist working in London.

(Photograph omitted)

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