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Matt Wilce takes a look at the incredible life of career diplomat Oleg Troyanovsky ’37 and his role in some of the 20th century's major events.
“Nikita Khruschev, Face the Nation,” the announcer’s voice booms as black and white shots of Red Square fill viewer’s TV screens. It is June 2, 1957 and inside an office in the USSR’s Council of Ministers, five men sit awkwardly around a large table facing the first American TV cameras to be allowed to broadcast from within the Kremlin. Next to Nikita Khruschev, the Soviet premiere, sits CBS newsman Stuart Novins, who will moderate the interview. BJ Cuttler, Moscow correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, looks up nervously as the announcer introduces him. Asking questions with Cutler is Daniel Shaw, CBS’s man in Moscow. To one side, off camera, sits Oleg Troyanovsky ’37. Novins makes his introductory remarks and the interview begins with a dull question from Shaw on agricultural policies. Khruschev begins to speak, but the voice broadcast to viewers across America is not his—rather Oleg Troyanovsky’s lightly accented, nuanced English becomes the voice of the Communist leader.
Oleg’s pedigree made him the perfect choice for the demanding job of simultaneous translation on live television. Son of Alexander Antonin Troyanovsky, the first Soviet Envoy to Washington, Oleg had spent his childhood outside the USSR. The family first moved to Tokyo in 1927 when Stalin dispatched his father to Japan to take up the Ambassadorship. An expert on foreign trade, Troyanovsky Sr was felt to be a good choice for the position and his diplomatic skills were tested by strained relations with the USSR due to Japan’s activities in China and anti-Communist sentiment in the Japanese press. Troyanovsky was also to oversee the construction of a new embassy and the move from Ura Kasumigaseki to the embassy’s current location adjacent to the Tokyo American Club in Roppongi. The new building was to be an elongated two-story, white concrete structure with large windows, set in lush greenery, resting on a massive earthquake-resistant concrete pad.
Oleg enrolled in the fourth grade at The American School in Japan in 1929 and appears to have done well in the class of 13 students, skipping fifth grade to move straight into sixth. By seventh grade he was one of only seven in his class, which included John Holtom, Elizabeth Igelhart, Hans Kramer, Homer Pearce and Julie Shathin. Highlights at school that year were a visit from New York Yankees player Lou Gehrig and participation in the Washington Bicentennial Celebrations. Unfortunately Oleg was unable to continue with this cohort through the rest of Junior High School as his father was reassigned to Washington DC in 1933.
From ASIJ, Oleg transferred to Sidwell Friends School where he was a keen tennis player and described in the yearbook as “always tactful and courteous... blessed with charm [and] the certainty to please. He is adept at many diverse things, but we think he will be a diplomat.” The prediction was accurate. On graduation, Oleg went first to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania for a year where he studied English and maintained his academic and tennis prowess before the family returned to Russia. Graduating from the prestigious Soviet Foreign Language Institute, he worked briefly for the official news agency TASS and the Soviet Information Bureau during World War II before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1944. He was sent to London to work as an attaché at the embassy working on a joint Anglo-American and Soviet committee on psychological warfare against Germany. At the end of the war he was asked to join the Soviet delegation involved in the negotiating the charter for the upcoming Nuremberg War Crime trials, which he then took part in as a secretary to the Soviet judges. In 1946, he was tasked with translating at the Paris Peace Conference, which led to the development of the peace treaties between the Allies and Italy, the minor Axis powers and Finland. Oleg then took on a more prominent role as mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov—who lends his name to the incendiary Molotov cocktail—translating for him during the 1947 visit of US Secretary of State George Marshall. During the visit he was also called on to translate for Joseph Stalin—an old acquaintance of his father.
Six years before Oleg’s birth in 1919, Stalin had paid a visit to Oleg's father Alexander in Vienna. It was shortly after the new year in 1913, when Stalin appeared at the Troyanovskys’ large, comfortable apartment at 30 Schönbrunnerschloss Strasse. The previous month, Stalin, Lenin and Troyanovsky had all participated in a historic secret conference in Krakow attended by several Bolshevik members of the Duma. Lenin, who knew Troyanovsky well from his exile in Paris, reportedly recommended that Stalin stay with Alexander with the words “good people... they have money.” There was quite a confluence of future dictators roaming the streets of Vienna that January—failed artist Adolf Hitler and Daimler car mechanic Josip Broz, who would later become Marshal Tito, were both also living in the city.
Alexander, handsome nobleman and veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, and his beautiful, politically- engaged first wife Elena Rozmirovich played host to Stalin for several weeks while he worked on his seminal essay “Marxism and the National Question.” The Troyanovskys were energetically engaged in establishing and financing the Bolshevist magazine Prosveshchenie, which led to a friendship with Maxim Gorky. The magazine published Stalin’s extended article in serial form over three months from March 1913. Stalin’s biographer, Simon Seabag Montifiore, describes Stalin's stay with the genteel Troyanovskys—Stalin’s first experience of a Western-style family—as “a revelation.” When he wasn’t working on his thesis, Stalin took evening walks with the couple around Schönbrunn Park, bought sweets for their daughter, flirted with the nanny who he asked to help him with German translations, played chess and met with other Bolsheviks such as Nikolai Bukharin. Stalin would remain fond of Troyanovsky throughout his life, even sparing Alexander in his purges, after his recall from Washington, and despite his former host’s sometimes public criticism.
Many years later, Stalin would repay the hospitality to Alexander’s son. The 26-year-old Oleg was dispatched by the Foreign Ministry to Gagra to interpret for Stalin, who was meeting a group of British MPs from the UK’s
Labour Party at his dacha. Stalin immediately took a shine to Oleg and invited him to remain as his guest once the British had left. “Why don’t you stay on and live with us for a while. We’ll get you drunk and then we’ll see what kind of person you are,” Oleg recalled Stalin saying. Unable to turn down the unexpected invitation, Oleg had no choice but to stay even though he had no desire to “be a burden to Comrade Stalin.” Oleg was invited on several occasions to play billiards with his host as well as dinners with Politburo members. Stalin reminisced about his time in Vienna with Oleg’s father and encouraged Oleg to rest. Being Stalin’s guest was anything but restful though. After nine nights, Oleg found the courage to ask if he could leave, explaining that he wished to return to Moscow to become a Party member. It was a clever ploy and Oleg was able to escape without offending Stalin, who dispatched him with a basket of fruit and wishes of “good luck.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Oleg was appointed a deputy foreign minister and his language skills were employed with further high profile assignments. He accompanied Nikita Khruschev and Nikolai Bulganin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, during their April 1956 visit to the United Kingdom, the first international trip for Stalin’s successors. Following their arrival at Portsmouth on the cruiser Orjonikidze, the party traveled to London where they stayed at the luxurious Claridges Hotel. Exhaustive talks with their British hosts followed, including several sessions with the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden at Downing Street to discuss topics such as the Middle East and nuclear disarmament, as well as dinner with Sir Winston Churchill, and an audience with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. It was no doubt a punishing schedule for Oleg who interpreted at each session.
Little did Troyanovsky know that his career would later be filled with far more punishing and critical translation tasks.
The president of the United States, still in his pajamas and slippers, sits on the side of his bed in the White House holding a photo. It is October 14, 1962, and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy has been waiting all night to hand President John F Kennedy the pictures taken by a U-2 reconnaissance plane over Cuba. The president, who had been in Pennsylvania on a campaign trip until 1:40am, carefully considers the photos showing the construction of Soviet missile launch sites. “We’re probably going to have to bomb them,” he says.
Reports of a Soviet military buildup in Cuba had started to come in during the summer, but with the exception of the CIA Director, Kennedy and his advisors refused to believe that the Soviets were deploying missiles capable of reaching the United States. The evidence now in hand showed that Khrushchev appeared to be preparing to challenge the Americans in their own backyard. For several days, Kennedy and his ExComm team— the Executive Committee of the National Security Council—met in secret, running hypothetical scenarios and strategies, trying to devise a response. “We must assume that Khruschev knows that we know of his missile deployments, and therefore, he will be ready with a planned response,” the president theorized.
Kennedy gave him too much credit and the truth was that Khruschev was not really prepared for the United States’ response nor did he have a plan to counter it.
When Troyanovsky learned of the plan to put missiles on the Caribbean island from a colleague back in May, he was “flabbergasted” that Khruschev was considering sabre rattling on such a scale. A staunch advocate of better relations with the United States, Troyanovsky voiced his concern about a situation he saw turning into a “nightmare.” Khruschev listened to his advice but dismissed it, saying he was merely doing what the Americans had when they deployed their own missiles in Turkey and other strategic locations along Soviet borders. Troyanovsky felt that his boss had “totally ignored the mood in the United States and the possible US reaction.”
Khruschev believed, “if we installed the missiles secretly, and then the United States discovered the missiles after they were poised and ready to strike, the Americans would think twice before trying to liquidate our installations by military means.” As long as he retained the ability to fire even one or two missiles, the Americans would be dissuaded from military action against Cuba. Troyanovsky found the gambit ludicrous. “It is beyond my comprehension,” he said, “how... one could seriously hope to keep it a secret, while its success hinged entirely on springing a surprise.” Troyanovsky had spent the whole summer, during which the missiles were shipped to Cuba, feeling as though he was in a car “that had lost its steering.” On October 15, alone in the Soviet leader’s office in the Kremlin, he broached the subject with Khruschev again. “Soon the storm will break,” Khruschev told him. “Let’s hope the boat will not capsize altogether,” Troyanovsky countered. Khruschev spent a moment lost in thought, “Now it’s too late to change anything,” he replied. The Soviet premier had come, Troyanovsky thought, to the realization he had gone too far.
A year earlier in 1961, Kennedy had refuted Khruschev’s claim that the USSR had an arsenal of ICBMs ready to obliterate the United States with evidence that only a handful of missiles were operational. When he later gave an interview indicating the United States would consider a first strike option should circumstances dictate, Khruschev was rattled. “Khruschev was always anxious about our prestige, he was afraid the Americans would force us to back down somewhere,” Troyanovsky told Pravda in 1997. “He’d worked too long with Stalin and well remembered his words ‘When I am gone, they’ll strangle you like a kitten.’” Khruschev was not about to be strangled and his ploy of placing medium-range missiles in Cuba effectively doubled the number of warheads that could strike major American cities. Troyanovsky recalled Yuri Andropov—future General Secretary of the Communist Party—telling the Soviet leader, “Once this is done we’ll be able to target them at the soft belly of the United States.”
On October 22, after many days of discussion with ExComm, Kennedy announced a blockade of Cuba. “The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear capability against the Western Hemisphere,” he warned. Although the ExComm tapes reveal that he privately thought the deployment was political rather than a military offensive.
Almost 5,000 miles away in Moscow, after hearing that Kennedy would address his nation, Khruschev had gathered the Politburo. Red-faced and agitated, he waited to find out the American reaction, second-guessing himself and whether the island would be invaded or the USSR attacked. “The thing is we were not going to unleash war. We just wanted to intimidate them, to deter anti-Cuban forces,” he told the room. The tension was palpable. An hour before Kennedy spoke to his fellow Americans, at 1am Moscow time, the Foreign Ministry relayed the English text of a letter the president had sent via diplomatic channels along with the text of his speech. Troyanovsky translated the letter for the rest of the Politburo. Their mood instantly changed and Troyanovsky recalled Khruschev’s initial reaction was “relief rather than anxiety.” The blockade did not seem like an ultimatum or an attack, leading the Soviet leader to exclaim, “We’ve saved Cuba!”
The potential for conflict was far from gone though. Over the next week, each day turned the screw, ratcheting up the tension between the superpowers. Backdoor diplomacy, letters, official statements, surveillance, intelligence product—every possible means to draw inference and strategize a way out of the standoff was utilized by both sides. Troyanovsky was there throughout the days and nights of debate and negotiation, playing the vital role of interpreting for Khruschev and the Politburo, drawing on his knowledge of the American psyche. The prospect of war and the possibility of reaching a compromise seemed to hang in the balance, shifting slightly each day and with each interaction between the two nations. But the darkest moment before the dawn of resolution was about to come.
Around noon on October 27, a U2 spy plane piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson ventured over Cuba. The Cubans, who Fidel Castro had ordered to fire at any plane infringing their airspace, failed to hit the U2. Lieutenant General Stepan Grechko, Soviet air defense commander on Cuba, had asked Moscow for permission to engage any enemy aircraft and placed his surface-to- air missiles on standby. When Major Anderson’s plane flew into Cuban airspace, Grechko or one of his men gave the order to fire—convinced that the battle was about to start.
When the news reached Washington, support for retaliation was strong. Kennedy vetoed any immediate action.
It was the middle of the night in Moscow and Troyanovsky, who was spending his nights in the Central Committee building on Staraya Square, received a telegram at 1:10am. It was from Castro. Troyanovsky immediately called Khruschev and relayed the contents which were intended to persuade Khruschev that an American invasion was imminent and that an American nuclear first strike needed to be stopped. Castro’s letter missed the mark. “Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose... to keep the United States from attacking Cuba,” Khruschev said and not to launch an attack against the United States.
On the morning of October 28, news of the downed U2 reached Khruschev and the Politburo. Meeting at a dacha outside of Moscow, Troyanovsky and the others sat at a long dining table panicked by the news. “Moscow found out about it only when the wreck was burning out on the ground,” he later told Pravda. Troyanovsky described the atmosphere as “highly electric” with everyone “on edge from the outset.” Only Khruschev spoke at length, the rest of the Politburo staying silent “as if to say to Khruschev ‘You got us into this, now you get us out’” Troyanovsky thought. “The whole great, lengthy work of compromise was nearly wrecked... Khruschev was very alarmed,” he later recalled in an interview. “In a situation when everyone was at the end of his tether, one spark could trigger an explosion,” Troyanovsky noted.
Khruschev asked Troyanovsky to read aloud Kennedy’s last letter—the fact that the sign-off omitted the customary “Sincerely” was taken as a bad omen. Before anyone could react to the letter, Troyanovsky was called to the phone to hear a report from Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on his meeting with US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. “The entire tenor of Robert Kennedy’s words indicated the time of reckoning had arrived,”
Troyanovsky wrote later. It didn’t take long for the room to decide to accept the President’s conditions and a response was drafted. Khruschev agreed to remove the military installations from Cuba in return for Kennedy’s assurance that he would not invade the island and a secret promise to remove his missiles from Turkey.
Tennis, like diplomacy, is a game of strategy, stamina and skill and so it should come as no surprise that Troyanovsky excelled at both. Retaining his youthful passion for tennis throughout his life—Oleg met his wife Tanya on court and the pair regularly played mixed doubles together. Following a move to Tokyo in 1967, to take up his father’s old position as Soviet Ambassador to Japan, Oleg and his wife became a fixture at the Lawn Tennis Club in Hiroo. Jane Rees—socialite, longtime columnist at The Japan Times and Asahi Evening News, and mother of Ricky ’62 and Robin ’64—recalled playing doubles against them. Oleg was known as strong player and served as president of the club from July 1971 until April 1976.
Troyanovsky spent a total of nine years as Ambassador in Tokyo, much longer than his predecessors, and he proved to be particularly successful in the position. Like his father, he became the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and was a well-liked member of the international community. After a checkered history, relations between Japan and the USSR improved—despite the lingering question of the disputed northern territories. From the sweeping pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, which towered over the rest of the park, to the first Soviet-Japanese summit in Moscow in 1973, Troyanovsky’s time in Tokyo saw great strides in economic cooperation and the initiation of several major joint projects. There was discussion at the time about whether the Soviet Ambassador would visit his alma mater, but it was decided not to extend an invite to ASIJ in case it proved embarrassing for Troyanovsky. It is likely that he would have handled any proposal with good grace as was the case when he was later invited to join the pre-war alumni reunion in 1989 his telegram response sent polite regrets that his schedule as Ambassador to China prevented him attending.
When Troyanovsky was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations in 1977 he met his match—on the Security Council and the tennis court. US Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and his wife would often play Oleg and Tanya during their tenure at the UN—even swapping mixed doubles partners in an effort to model detente. The on court diplomacy carried over into the Security Council and as a result the Soviets did not veto an American proposal during the period both Troyanvosky and Young were Ambassadors and tennis rivals.
Troyanovsky proved himself to be a calm, capable and hardworking diplomat in New York. While his staff dealt with an increased volume of work—putting in the long hours worthy of a Japanese salaryman—the team worked smoothly under his leadership. One former colleague recalled that "With Troyanovsky we got into a golden age of worthy of Catherine Great.” An expanded calendar of protocol events saw the embassy play host to numerous receptions, breakfasts and dinners where Troyanovsky could bring together guests who were interesting and helpful to each other's company. An important opportunity to strengthen his contacts and clarify his position, they included a diverse range of guests from financiers such as David Rockefeller to the author
Norman Mailer. Troyanovsky’s poise and quick wit were tested in an infamous encounter with a Marxist dissident at the United Nations, who had snuck into the Security Council in the guise of a journalist. When Troyanovsky ended up doused in crimson paint he flipped the McCarthy era slogan on its head and quipped, "Better to be red than dead!"
Troyanovsky’s final diplomatic appointment was to Beijing in 1986 where he served as Ambassador for four years. He ended his career as a highly decorated career diplomat earning two Orders of Lenin (1976, 1982), the Order of the October Revolution (1979), three orders of Red Banner of Labor (1951, 1966, 1989) and the Order of Honor (1969). Following his retirement in 1990, Troyanovsky returned to the Motherland where he wrote and lectured on international relations and worked on his memoirs. From Popes to Presidents, war criminals to Queens, to dictators and diplomats, Troyanovsky had a cast of household names and several lifetimes of material to draw on. After spending his life with a front row seat to history in the making, the title he chose was apropos—My 20th Century.
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