Interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev, Fulcrum Of The Cold War, Dies At 81

Robert Siegel speaks with Cold War-era Moscow correspondent Marvin Kalb about Sukhodrev's life and work. The legendary interpreter died last week at age 81.Over three decades, Viktor Sukhodrev was the interpreter for every Soviet leader from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For three decades, when Soviet leaders met face-to-face with English-speaking foreign dignitaries, there was always someone between them. His name was Viktor Sukhodrev. He was the interpreter.

VIKTOR SUKHODREV: I have personally known eight Americans presidents and every Soviet leader from Khrushchev to Gorbachev.

SIEGEL: That's Viktor Sukhodrev speaking to Russian Television in 2009. He died Friday in Moscow at the age of 81. He told Russian television about the challenge of translating for so many different Soviet leaders.

SUKHODREV: There was Khrushchev who was very Earthy. And there was Brezhnev who did nothing but read prepared statements. There was Gorbachev who was frequently very convoluted and hard to really find out what he was trying to say because he used too many words to spell out something simple that he had in mind.

SIEGEL: It is almost impossible to imagine that somebody could have been in the room with so many world leaders talking with so many Soviet leaders all those times and be nothing but a human tape recorder. Did he know a lot of what was going on and did he talk at all?

MARVIN KALB: I think that he was one of the smartest guys I had ever met among the Soviet leaders. Khrushchev, whom I had some dealings with, I put at the very top but Sukhodrev was there interpreting Khrushchev for the world and Khrushchev used very earthy Russian when he spoke. And Sukhodrev would try very hard to smooth out the edges and to make Khrushchev seem a bit more sophisticated than perhaps he was.

And every now and then I, perhaps other reporters as well, had an opportunity to catch Viktor on his own. And I did in Vienna after the Khrushchev-Kennedy summit. And I went over to him, I said, Viktor, what does Khrushchev think of Kennedy? And he said not very much. He thought of Kennedy as too young, callow, inexperienced, always surrounded by his aides.

That struck me as particularly interesting because normally Sukhodrev would never say anything like that. So it must really have struck Khrushchev in a strong way that Kennedy didn't come through at that time as a real strong American leader.

SIEGEL: Sukhodrev managed, as you say, Nikita Khrushchev, kind of an earthy character, come out sounding like Lawrence Olivier when he was translated into English. The same for Leonid Brezhnev, who wasn't the most lively speaker, and Mikhail Gorbachev whom I gather sounded to lots of Russians like a very windy bureaucrat. They all came out sounding pretty good though the words of Mr. Sukhodrev.

KALB: Well, you know, it's terribly important what kind interpreter you have. Sukhodrev was capable of not just translating the words of the Soviet leader, but conveying the personality of the Soviet leader. He conveyed the ebullience and the excitement of Khrushchev and the rather dour, quiet conservatism of Brezhnev. And you got the true quality of the man because Viktor was such a complete pro at what it is that he was doing. I mean Viktor was the best.

SIEGEL: Well, Marvin Kalb, thanks for talking with us about the late Viktor Sukhodrev, the interpreter for so many Soviets leaders.

KALB: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Marvin Kalb, formerly of CBS and NBC News is now a senior advisor to the Pulitzer Center in Washington D.C.

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