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Viktor Sukhodrev, center, was the English translator for Soviet leaders from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev. Here he interpreted a toast by Leonid Brezhnev at a 1973 summit with President Richard Nixon, who trusted the “superb linguist” to be the only translator in the room at high-level talks.

Bob Burchette • Washington Post,

Viktor Sukhodrev, center, was the English translator for several Soviet officials, including Leonid Brezhnev, left, at a June 1973 summit with President Richard Nixon, right.

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Obituary: Viktor Sukhodrev was Soviets' interpreter from Khrushchev to Gorbachev

  • Article by: Matt Schudel
  • Washington Post
  • May 18, 2014 - 6:04 PM

 

Viktor Sukhodrev, a polished interpreter who was at the side of every Soviet leader for three decades as the English-language voice of the Kremlin and who was often the third person in the room during high-level summit meetings throughout the Cold War, died Friday in Moscow. He was 81.

The Russian foreign ministry and other outlets said he died from cardiac arrest.

Sukhodrev, who was born in Moscow, spent several years in London as a child and learned to speak English with flawless fluency. He put his linguistic skills to use in the Soviet foreign ministry and became the primary spoken-word interpreter for every Soviet leader from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev.

While Khrushchev spoke to a gathering of Western diplomats in Moscow in 1956, it was Sukhodrev who provided the on-the-spot English translation of 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 for decades, but Sukhodrev maintained that he gave an “exact translation” of the Soviet leader’s words.

Because language is so subject to misinterpretation, the long-standing diplomatic protocol at Cold War summit meetings had been for each country to bring its own interpreters. Over time, however, Sukhodrev became recognized 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 — in two languages — to the language of diplomacy and brinkmanship at the very highest levels.

“You cannot stop to ponder. You just can’t. If you do, you fail,” Sukhodrev told the New York Times in 2005. “An interpreter at that level cannot — not ‘should not’ — simply cannot make a mistake.”

In Moscow in 1972 and in Washington a year later, Sukhodrev was the sole interpreter at summits between President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon’s national security adviser at the time, wrote in his book “White House Years” that the sole record of some of the Brezhnev-Nixon meetings came from “the splendid Soviet interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev,” who dictated his accounts of the sessions to Kissinger’s secretary.

For years, Sukhodrev also was the chief interpreter for longtime Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. He was in meetings with seven U.S. presidents, Cabinet officers, plus countless world leaders, including Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney of Canada and Rajiv Gandhi of India.

“It’s an almost mystical feeling that you are bringing people together,” Sukhodrev said of his role as interpreter, “people who otherwise would never be able to communicate.”

Sukhodrev had a remarkable gift of mimicry and adapted his interpretive style to fit the audience. Depending on his listener, he could switch from perfectly accented British English to idiomatic American English without a moment’s hesitation.

He had a way of ­translating slang from one language to another with vivid expressiveness. When Khrushchev was denied permission to tour Disneyland during his 1959 visit to the United States, Sukhodrev interpreted the unlettered Soviet leader’s dissatisfaction in these idiomatic words: “Is there an epidemic of cholera there or sump’n?”

Viktor Mikhailovich Sukhodrev’s father was a military intelligence officer and his mother, a member of a Soviet trade mission, was based in London from 1939 until the end of World War II. As a child, Sukhodrev attended the official Soviet school in London, but his playmates were English, and he often accompanied the neighborhood postman on his rounds, learning accents and social customs at every turn.

“That is when I really believed, and never lost that belief, that when I grew up I was going to be the man in the middle,” he said in 2005. “I was going to be an interpreter.”

Sukhodrev was with Khrushchev at the United Nations in 1960 when, in a moment of pique, the Soviet leader took off his shoe and began to pound his desk in protest.

No interpretation was needed.

© 2014 Star Tribune