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Soviets Hail Andrei Gromyko, Dead at 79, as ‘Devoted Soldier’

Times Staff Writer

Former Soviet President Andrei A. Gromyko, who became known as the world’s most durable diplomat after 28 years as foreign minister for the Soviet Union, was hailed Monday--a day after his death--as a “devoted soldier” to the nation.

But reaction in the capital to Gromyko’s death at age 79 was low key. Soviet television announced that the man whose career ended when he was pushed out of the then-largely ceremonial post of president in September, 1988, will be buried Wednesday in Novodevichy Cemetery, primarily a resting place for prominent Soviet artists and military and politicians, instead of being interred beside the Kremlin walls, the traditional place of honor for top leaders.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who announced Gromyko’s death Monday to the Supreme Soviet and then asked its members to stand for a moment of silence, told Western journalists during a break in the legislature’s session that he would not alter plans to begin a two-day visit to Paris today.

The cause of Gromyko’s death was not immediately announced. Soviet television said simply that he died after “a long, difficult illness.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman announced three days ago that Gromyko had undergone surgery for an unspecified vascular problem, and he apparently was in the hospital at the time of his death.

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Lie in State

The national television evening news program “Vremya” said that before the funeral, Gromyko’s body would lie in state for five hours Wednesday in the Red Banner Hall of the Central House of the Soviet Army so that the public could pay last respects.

“Good memories about him will stay forever in our hearts,” the television announcer said after recounting his career. “The party and the Soviet people have lost a devoted soldier.”

Gorbachev, in speaking to the Supreme Soviet, said of Gromyko: “His whole life was connected with history, with our achievements, our problems, with everything that falls on the lot of a person in the thick of events for whole decades.”

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Radio Moscow did not program solemn music, however, as is common on the death of a state leader, and a profile by the official Tass news agency was skimpy. It remembered Gromyko as a leader who “came from a peasant family and, due to his abilities and personal qualities, succeeded in rising to the top posts of the party and state.”

Worked With Stalin

One of the last survivors of the Kremlin leaders who worked closely with Josef Stalin in World War II, Gromyko was elevated to the presidency shortly before his 76th birthday in 1985. The promotion was engineered by Gorbachev, then newly installed as Soviet leader, to make way for his own official in the Foreign Ministry, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, in July, 1988.

Four months later, Gorbachev elbowed Gromyko aside from that post after having initiated reforms to give it far greater power. Those constitutional reforms were carried out earlier this year.

Gromyko lost his last remaining key post in the Soviet leadership in April when he was dropped from the ruling Politburo. He simply did not fit with Gorbachev’s “new thinking,” which called for younger, more vigorous leaders capable of coping with the Soviet Union’s massive social and economic problems and its desire to present a new face to the world.

Gromyko became a pensioner, living quietly and, through rare interviews, offered only an occasional glimpse into his long life as a key player in the momentous decisions of World War II and the East-West confrontations that followed.

“I feel sad over the fact that my position within the Communist Party has changed,” he said in an October, 1988, Central Committee meeting. “But age is a stubborn thing and there is no getting away from it.”

‘Iron Teeth’

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Gromyko was widely believed to have been a major supporter of Gorbachev for the post of general secretary of the Communist Party--the power position in the Kremlin. He reportedly nominated Gorbachev by saying: “This man has a nice smile--but he has iron teeth.”

The new leader, however, clearly wanted to dominate the conduct of foreign policy, and Gromyko was effectively pushed into the ceremonial presidency.

After he assumed that post, Gromyko remained out of the limelight. Although he helped arrange the Soviet-American summit in Geneva in November, 1985, he was not a member of the delegation that went with Gorbachev for the meeting with then-President Ronald Reagan.

And although Gromyko had been a member of the Soviet elite for decades, enjoying access to special shops and health facilities, he was assigned early in 1986 to tour food stores, medical clinics and hospitals and listen to ordinary citizens’ complaints about poor services.

Yet Gromyko dutifully carried out his chores, traveling to provincial cities and greeting foreign delegations, without ever indicating that he missed his former role at the center of power.

Andrei Andreivich, as he was called, was a symbol of continuity in the fluctuating Soviet foreign policy in the postwar era. He was at Yalta with Stalin in 1945, earned the title of “Mr. Nyet” at the United Nations by casting 25 vetoes in the Cold War era of the 1950s and then turned amiable during the flowering of detente in the 1970s.

Memoirs Published

Last year, he published his memoirs in which he revealed, among other things, that Mao Tse-tung in 1958 planned to lure U.S. troops into the heart of China and then attack them with Soviet nuclear weapons. The plan, which the Soviets rejected, was based on Mao’s belief that his country could survive a nuclear war even if it lost 300 million people.

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Other tidbits in the two-volume work, which covered nearly 50 years of diplomatic service, involved his memories of the tense days of October, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev almost pushed the world to war over Soviet missiles in Cuba; Soviet sadness at Kennedy’s assassination just as the two nations seemed to be improving relations, and his youthful fascination with President Franklin D. Roosevelt--a man “who knew how to conduct conversation freely, without any tension,” and a leader who knew how to make and carry out policy.

In one of his last public appearances--a Moscow conference five months ago studying the Cuban Missile Crisis--Gromyko recalled his interview with Kennedy as “probably the most difficult that I ever experienced in all my 48 years of meeting Presidents of the United States.”

“The discussion with Kennedy was full of sharp turns, zigzags,” he recalled. “He was clearly nervous, though outwardly he tried not to betray it.”

‘No Real Threat’

He said the crisis presented “a certain degree of risk” of nuclear war, but then added, “There was no real threat of the unleashing of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. I have solid grounds for this statement.”

He did not elaborate.

Gromyko also expressed admiration for the pragmatism of President Richard M. Nixon but said Nixon did not have a good grasp of details.

In later years, when Gromyko acquired the power to shape decisions as well as advocate the policies made by others, he seemed to adopt a tough line in Moscow’s relations with the West. His attacks on the United States and its allies became more strident and matched the adjectives invariably applied to the man himself: grim, dour, tenacious.

At the age of 75, long after most people retire, Gromyko seemed to be at the peak of his power inside the Kremlin hierarchy. As far as outsiders could judge, he had virtual control over foreign policy despite the nominal leadership of Soviet President Constantine U. Chernenko, who lacked experience in foreign affairs.

The result was a Soviet hard line, including a walkout from nuclear arms reduction talks with the United States and blunt accusations that West Germany and Japan were returning to the militarism that brought on World War II.

Despite the Soviet denunciations of President Reagan as a warmonger, however, Gromyko held a lengthy meeting with the chief executive late in September, 1984, in the midst of the U.S. election campaign. It was Reagan’s first meeting with any senior Soviet official and Gromyko’s first visit to the White House in six years.

Knew 9 Presidents

During his career, Gromyko met with nine U.S. Presidents and 14 American secretaries of state. Although he lied about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba to Kennedy, Gromyko earned the admiration of several of his U.S. counterparts.

“It was suicidal to negotiate with him without mastering the record,” said former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.

The late W. Averill Harriman, who had served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow, once said that Gromyko deliberately schooled himself out of any human foibles.

Like his Soviet colleagues, Gromyko always wore dark, somber clothing, but at times, with a gray fur hat, he appeared almost natty. He was tall, with slowly graying hair, and was fluent in English and French.

He employed light repartee, cool reasoning, heavy sarcasm and table-pounding harangues in his diplomatic repertoire. But he also was expert at the slow, deliberate, detailed and unyielding Soviet style of negotiation, in which the aim is to draw out the adversary’s position without revealing your own.

With his remarkable memory and mastery of the historical record, he often tried to wear down the other side and win concessions by sheer persistence.

Perhaps his greatest diplomatic triumph was the Helsinki agreement of 1975, which had the effect of confirming the postwar frontiers in Europe without the necessity of signing a peace treaty with West Germany. In return, the Soviets agreed to a series of human rights guarantees that were only later, under Gorbachev, being partly fulfilled.

Moscow’s Orbit

From the Soviet point of view, this agreement ratified the existence of Communist states in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslavakia, Hungary and other nations in Moscow’s orbit and reduced the potential threat from a reunified Germany.

But the Soviet Union also suffered setbacks during Gromyko’s tenure at the Foreign Ministry. The split between Moscow and China, for example, erupted and was not healed until Gorbachev visited China this past May.

In Western Europe, despite a massive Soviet propaganda campaign, U.S. missiles were installed at bases in West Germany, Italy and Britain. While the United States said the weapons were needed to offset Soviet missiles aimed at European capitals, the Soviets regarded it as an unacceptable escalation of the nuclear arms race.

As a result, the Soviets walked out of arms talks in Geneva, blaming the Americans for undermining the discussions on intermediate-range and strategic weapons. Western analysts, however, said Gromyko’s insistence on removal of the U.S. missiles before talks could be resumed was an overly rigid policy that could lead nowhere.

But Gromyko won Politburo backing for his hard line, and diplomacy came to a standstill while Washington and Moscow blamed each other for the impasse.

The deadlock over the missiles was finally broken under Shevardnadze, Gromyko’s successor at the Foreign Ministry, when Gorbachev and Reagan signed the historic Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December, 1987, that called for the elimination of all ground-launched missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles.

‘Like Bermuda Triangle’

At times, Gromyko showed flashes of humor. Once, in Moscow, he alluded to the casualties of Kremlin infighting when he said: “You know how it is here. A bit like the Bermuda Triangle. From time to time, one of us disappears.”

But for many years he was the ultimate survivor in the Soviet system, not only escaping the purges of the Stalin era but adding to his power and prestige with the passing years.

Born into a poor peasant family in the White Russian village of Gromyki, he was educated at the Minsk Agricultural Institute and taught at the Institute of Economics in Moscow. At the age of 22, he joined the Communist Party.

In 1939, he suddenly switched careers and entered the Foreign Ministry, where he was assigned to the American desk. Two years later, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Gromyko was sent to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. Two years after that, at the age of 34, he was named ambassador to the United States.

Following the war, he took part in the founding conference of the United Nations and later became the best-known Soviet envoy to the world body. He made one big mistake there--he walked out of a Security Council meeting at the wrong time and allowed the United States to get U.N. backing for the war against North Korea without the expected Soviet veto.

Gromyko also served in London and Moscow before he was named in 1957 to replace the out-of-favor Vyacheslav M. Molotov as foreign minister. But it was not until 16 years later that he acquired real power by being named to the ruling Politburo, the small group of Communist Party leaders who really run the country. He received the added title of first deputy premier in March, 1983.

Sheer Competence

By all accounts, Gromyko made his name through sheer competence. Although he lacked a power base, he did not offend others by showing signs of political ambitions himself. He was the model technocrat who let others take the limelight.

At times, Gromyko’s inherent dignity was offended. The boisterous Khrushchev once said in public that his foreign minister would take down his pants and sit on a block of ice if Khrushchev gave the order. On another occasion, Khrushchev brusquely directed Gromyko to join a Swedish folk dance troupe with the advice: “Shake a leg, Andrei.”

Fellow diplomats called him “Grim Grom,” a play on the Russian word grom, meaning “thunder.” Conversely, during the days of detente he was called “Amiable Andrei.”

In contrast to other aging Kremlin leaders, Gromyko always seemed to be in good health. He was known as a workaholic, often putting in 12-hour days and meeting up to 10 of his counterparts during the sessions of the U.N. General Assembly.

At home, he liked to play chess with his wife, Lidya, one of the few Kremlin spouses who was seen on the diplomatic banquet circuit. He is survived also by their two children: Anatoly, a specialist in African policy, and Emilya, who is married to a diplomat.

Eaton was Times Bureau chief in Moscow from 1984 to 1988. Times staff writer Masha Hamilton also contributed to this story.


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