Dispatches from the Soviet Union: 5 tales from Marvin Kalb’s memoir on his year as an American attaché in Moscow

Marvin Kalb in Red Square, Moscow, 1956

9780815731610As headlines herald the onset of a new “Cold War” between the United States and Russia, distinguished journalist and Russia expert Marvin Kalb lightened the mood last Thursday at Brookings, delighting audience members with tales from his year as an American diplomatic attaché in Moscow. On November 9, the Brookings Book Club hosted Kalb who discussed his new memoir “The Year I was Peter the Great: 1956—Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia” (Brookings Institution Press) with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Here are highlights from the book that will leave you eager to get your hands on the full story.

First, Friedman offered these kind words about the book:

1. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev nicknamed Kalb “Peter the Great” 

Ahead of the annual Fourth of July reception at Spaso House, the ambassadorial residence, U.S. Ambassador Chip Bohlen learned that Nikita Khrushchev and his entire Politburo planned to make an appearance. Kalb was tasked with entertaining Georgy Zhukov, the minister of defense and marshal of the Soviet Union, who, Kalb said, “really liked his vodka.” Kalb recalled that, “to avoid the start of World War Three, I had to find a way of giving him vodka and giving me water.” The embassy’s butler cleverly placed water on the side of the serving tray from which Kalb took his drink.

By the end of the night, Marshal Zhukov was so impressed with Kalb’s tolerance that he exclaimed to Khrushchev: “I have finally found a young American who can drink like a Russian!” Kalb explained to the audience that when Zhukov then introduced him to the Soviet leader, he gained from Khrushchev the sobriquet found in the title of the memoir. Hear how he got that nickname:

2. Soviet intelligence used Bolshoi ballerinas to target potential foreign assets

While finishing his graduate work at Harvard, Kalb got a call from Marshall Shulman, the deputy director of the Russia Center. He had an opportunity in Moscow for someone who “speaks the language, knows about the country, has a top secret clearance and can leave in a week.”

Needless to say, Kalb signed on. During an outgoing security interview at the State Department, the investigator quizzed him on his artistic preferences. “‘The ballet—do you like the ballet?’” Kalb nodded. “I said ‘Yes, I love the ballet. I intend to go to the Bolshoi as often as I can,’” to which the investigator replied “‘that’s the problem. They generally use ballerinas [for recruiting or compromising foreigners].’”

Kalb acknowledged that the State Department official was “absolutely right.”

3. Late one night, Kalb woke up the ambassador to report on student protests in the Lenin Library  

Kalb recalled how news of Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech in February, in which the Soviet leader denounced former leader Joseph Stalin, spread among the Soviet Union’s people. Was greater freedom coming? Although the subsequent Soviet invasion of Hungary in November should have dispelled this expectation, Kalb saw first-hand how student protesters felt emboldened to criticize the regime.

“I was trying to get into the Lenin Library to do research … and it was an effort,” Kalb said. “They kept turning me away. No foreigner was allowed into the Lenin Library.” Having befriended one of the librarians, Kalb gained access to the reading room. There, one night after the speech, he “began to hear young Russians stand up and begin to denounce communism … and also Khrushchev and the corruption and the miserable living conditions.”

Kalb went on: “I kept my head down” and began to take extensive notes. After the library closed: “I walked as fast as I could to Spaso house” and asked to speak to the ambassador, breaking protocol. “You don’t wake up the ambassador,” he laughed. But Ambassador Bohlen went immediately to the embassy to write and send a cable based on Kalb’s reporting, the first eyewitness account of the impact of Khrushchev’s speech on the people.

4. Reading between the lines of state propaganda, Kalb learned to detect hints of internal political strife within the Politburo

“The Russians also have a very special grapevine,” Kalb noted. “When they read the Russian press, they know what is baloney and what is true. There’d be the usual way in which you would read what they call a ‘leader piece,’ their lead editorial, and the first three columns were … absolutely nothing.”

“And then there would be the word odnako. It means ‘however’ or ‘hold on a second.’ And then if you read it carefully, it was remarkably revealing.” From this section, Kalb would piece together the underlying tensions “of a political disagreement with the party.” The telling language, Kalb explained, often described an incident such as “former members of the communist parties expressing ideas which they probably picked up in the capitalist West.”

5. Kalb’s article on Soviet youth landed him a call from (and eventually a job with) esteemed broadcast journalist Edward Murrow

Kalb’s reporting on rebellious young Russians eventually landed on the pages of the New York Times. Having completed his year in Moscow, he returned to Harvard where he continued his graduate work. Engrossed in his studies, the librarian approached Kalb with a message: Edward Murrow from CBS News was on the line. “Hang up on him. Murrow is not calling me,” Kalb exclaimed.

After second phone call, Kalb realized “it was Edward R. Murrow without any doubt.” Praising Kalb’s article on Soviet youth in Time magazine, Murrow invited Kalb to his office in New York for an appointment at 9 a.m. the next day.

In the midst of bombarding Kalb with questions on Soviet youth, Murrow threw him a curve ball. “How would you like to work for us?” Murrow asked. Kalb told the audience he was “thrilled” and it was “a great honor.”

You can read more stories like these in Marvin Kalb’s “The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956—Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia,” available online or at a bookstore near you. You can watch the entire event here.

Miranda Lupion, events intern in Communications, contributed to this post.