Former Soviet Union interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev dies, aged 81

The Russian interpreter who earned the respect even of the presidents of the United States dies of cardiac arrest at the age of 81

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 3:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 3:27am

Viktor Sukhodrev 

Viktor Sukhodrev, an 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 meetings throughout the cold war, died on Friday in Moscow. He was 81.

The Russian foreign ministry and other outlets announced his death. According to Russian media reports, the cause was cardiac arrest.

Sukhodrev, who was born in Moscow, spent several years in London as a child and spoke English fluently. He put his linguistic skills to use in the Soviet foreign ministry and became the primary spoken-word interpreter for every 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 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 was re-analysed for decades, but Sukhodrev maintained that he gave an "exact translation" of the Soviet leader's words.

You cannot stop to ponder. You just can't. If you do, you fail
Interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev

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 widely recognised 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 super-powers than almost any other person in history, including the leaders for whom he spoke. As much as anyone else, he gave voice to the language of diplomacy and brinkmanship at the 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.

"There had been concern expressed that I should have a State Department translator present also," Nixon wrote in his memoirs. "But I knew that Sukhodrev was a superb linguist who spoke English as well as he did Russian, and I felt that Brezhnev would speak more freely if only one other person was present."

For years, Sukhodrev was also the chief interpreter for long-time Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.

He was called to work in meetings with seven US presidents, many secretaries of state and other officers, plus many world leaders, including Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney of Canada and Rajiv Gandhi of India.

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 US, Sukhodrev interpreted the Soviet leader's dissatisfaction in these idiomatic words: "Is there an epidemic of cholera there or sump'n?"

One of the few times Sukhodrev was tripped up came when Nixon used a crude term for castration. Sukhodrev's Russian translation referred to "cutting the fruit from the tree".

To keep abreast of linguistic and social trends, Sukhodrev read many English-language publications, including detective novels. He was known as the "king of interpreters" and was held in awe by others in the field, but in other ways was something of an enigma.

He wore fashionable clothing not available in the old Soviet Union, and he had a smooth urbanity that was more James Bond than Leonid Brezhnev. Some people were convinced that he was in the KGB, the Soviet secret police.

Of the presidents Sukhodrev met, he admired John F. Kennedy, who "had such charisma", and Nixon.

"As a scholar of international relations, Richard Nixon may have been the most underrated president," he wrote.

Among the Soviet leaders, he had a certain fondness for the common touch of Khrushchev, even if he was "uneducated, uncouth, a peasant if you will" and "used lots of old Russian barnyard sayings that are not always easy to translate".