Archive for March 21st, 2010

Six Degrees of Separation

BerezkhovThe Day I Met Stalin’s Interpreter

My old friend and former business partner Chris Carlson has a belief about meeting a total stranger. Chris contends that if you talk long enough and ask enough questions about the stranger’s friends, family, job and geography you’ll discover some person you both know. I’ve seen him do it and I’m a believer. It is a small world.

It has been said that we are all connected to everyone else by no more than “six degrees of separation” and often it’s really only one or two degrees of separation.

This then is the story of my, dare I say it, one degree of separation with Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and most of the other leading figures of World War II.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been enjoying a fine new book about the historic and controversial Big Three conference of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945. The man who served as an interpreter for Stalin and Russian Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov – the Molotov Cocktail was named after him – was quoted in the book. I met and interviewed the interpreter for Stalin and Molotov in Moscow in 1984. As I look back on that encounter, it feels like my own first hand brush with the history and personalities that shaped the 20th Century.

Valentin Berezhkov - that’s his photo at the top of this post – had quite a life and I’m confident my interview wasn’t on his Top Ten list of big events. In addition to providing translation services for Stalin at the wartime conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill, Berezhkov was present when Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop – that’s the Ribbentrop who was executed after the Nuremberg war crimes trials – signed the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact in Berlin in 1941. That infamous deal divided Poland between the Russians and the Germans and cleared the way for Hitler to invade Poland and begin World War II. Later, when Hitler invaded Russia, Berezkhov burned papers at the Russian embassy in Berlin before the SS broke in and kept him captive until he could be exchanged for German diplomats who had been trapped in Moscow when war broke out.

Later in his life, Berezhkov was a writer and diplomat. He served in Washington and was often a spokesman for the Kremlin on a whole range of political, diplomatic and historical issues. He left Russia in 1991 and re-settled in California where he taught at Occidental College. Berezhkov died in 1998.

In 1984, I had the remarkable opportunity to make a reporting trip to the Soviet Union. My Idaho Public Television colleague at the time, Peter Morrill, now the general manager of Idaho PTV, and I accompanied a group of Idahoans on a “people to people” exchange. We spent more than two weeks in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Minsk and Vilnius in Lithuania. The film Peter shot and the interviews we conducted were shaped into two documentaries. During the course of that remarkable trip – quite the adventure for an aspiring young reporter from Idaho – we spent an hour in the Russian capitol with Valentin Berezhkov. I still have his business card.

I confess to not understanding much about Berezhkov’s importance or personal story at the time of that interview. We had asked to speak with someone who could talk about the Russian experience during “The Great Patriotic War.” Our Soviet-era handlers offered him up and he spoke with authority and vividly about the horrible suffering of Russian civilians during the war. He treated us with genuine respect and kindness and seemed to take the rookies from Idaho seriously. I remember wondering just how much of what he told us was pure Soviet propaganda, carefully scripted for the rubes from the West.

When I read the new book on Yalta, and saw the reference to his role in the history of World War II, it all came together. This guy was an eyewitness to some of the greatest history of the 20th Century. He participated in some of the pivotal events that shaped the modern world. I wish now that I had been smart enough to ask him more and better questions.

In Berezhkov’s memoir, published in 1994, he recalled shaking hands with Hitler at the Fuehrer’s office in Berlin in 1940. ”His palm was cold and damp,” he wrote in the book, ”giving me an unpleasant sensation, as if I were touching a reptile.”

As the Independent noted in his obituary, during his translating career, Berezhkov, “to his continuing wonderment, met the entire Soviet leadership – and other world leaders as well, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.”

In his memoir – At Stalin’s Side – Berezhkov writes with critical insight about how his own life spanned the century from the Bolshevik Revolution to “the disappearance of the great empire in which I lived all my life.” He acknowledges the great tragedies and the awesome failures of communism, but also remembers the sense of hope that existed before what he calls the ultimately “doomed” experiment of communism came crashing down. Late in his remarkable life, he wished for a democratic future for Russia and that his own grandson will enjoy a better life.

I am glad I met and talked, even for a few minutes, to an eyewitness to the history that fascinates me; the history that I can only read about. I’m also glad to know that Hitler handshake was unpleasant. After all, I shook the hand that shook that hand. Small world, indeed.