Stalin’s Interpreter Speaks Out as a Witness to World Events
Late at night in suburban Claremont, Valentin M. Berezhkov scans the shortwave radio dial for news of his Russian homeland, listening with growing unease to speeches by Communist hard-liners.
The voices take him back half a century to the days when, filled with idealism and the invulnerability of youth, he interpreted for the most ruthless dictator in Soviet history, Josef Stalin.
Berezhkov was on the scene at critical moments in history, including Adolf Hitler’s 1941 declaration of war against the Soviet Union and the 1943 Tehran Conference, when the Allies agreed to open a Western front.
Working for Stalin and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, he met Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The tall, gaunt interpreter was at times the essential link through which communications flowed.
Today, at 75, he is still a commanding presence, sporting a leonine mane of white hair and speaking in faintly accented English as he navigates his way around the Claremont colleges, where he is a visiting professor of political science.
Berezhkov’s account of what Soviets call The Great Patriotic War and his later rise to prominence as a diplomat is a riveting tale filled with the stuff of spy novels: narrow brushes with death, Kremlin intrigue and a teen-age son who caused an international incident in 1983 by trying to defect to the United States.
But Berezhkov’s eyewitness account of how this century’s leaders carved up the world and charted a future that puts him in a unique position among scholars. He is a living repository of history whose most famous Russian book, “I was Stalin’s Translator,” is now being considered for publication in English by Random House.
Berezhkov says it was only fate--or perhaps uncharacteristic oversight--that led Stalin to spare his life when many who knew much less were being shot or sent to rot in Siberia. Lecturing to Pitzer and Pomona college students in a course titled “Gorbachev and Perestroika: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union,” he weaves in reminiscences and details that few academics can match.
“Now, of course, I know he (Stalin) was a bloody monster . . . and I wonder how I survived, but then I had no fear. I believed in Stalin, I felt he was a just man,” Berezhkov tells the class.
“But Stalin never trusted people who knew too much,” he continues. “By the end of the war, (KGB chief Lavrenti) Beria had already started to investigate me.”
Born in 1916, Berezhkov’s life developed along with Russian Communism. When he was 1, the Bolsheviks seized power from the czar. During his childhood in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Lenin’s New Economic Policy briefly filled the shops by encouraging small private enterprise.
In the early 1930s, he recalls stepping over the frozen corpses of peasants who died during the famine that killed from 4 million to 7 million people as Stalin forced Ukrainians onto collective farms.
His mother, an aristocrat, taught him German and English. He studied engineering in the mid-1930s, when he saw university classmates hauled off to jail for political activity. Through it all, he retained his belief in Stalin.
“Even when people disappeared, and you wondered, why him and not me, there was also a feeling that . . . you were clean, that’s why you weren’t touched.
“We felt we were creating the model for a better society that would be emulated by the rest of the world. We were young and we thought, ‘Stalin has led us through terrible times, and now things are better.’ ”
Still, the euphoria was tempered with prudence. “You were always watching what you said. Everyone had a censor inside of him.”
Berezhkov’s ascent into Stalin’s inner circle began at age 24, when he was plucked from obscurity in the Soviet navy, where he had whiled away boredom by teaching English to commanders of the Pacific Fleet.
It was 1940 and the Soviet Union desperately needed interpreters to talk to the West after Stalin’s paranoid purges decimated the country’s diplomatic ranks. So Berezhkov was hastily summoned to the Kremlin. He recalls the eerie stillness and empty desks in an office where 12 former officials had been shot as spies.
“They wanted young, new people who wouldn’t have any connections with foreign countries,” Berezhkov says. “I had no training or experience as a diplomat, and I was assigned as Molotov’s assistant.”
In normal times, Berezhkov might have been screened by the secret police and kept far from Stalin: He wasn’t yet a Communist Party member and his engineer father had been arrested in the 1920s on trumped up charges of sabotaging his factory, although he was eventually released.
But this was war and Berezhkov quickly learned stenography to record minutes of strategic meetings. He traveled with a two-volume Webster’s dictionary, which he scoured to learn political terms. He listened to BBC radio to sop up idiomatic expressions and to Nazi propaganda broadcasts to monitor Hitler’s increasingly strident speeches.
His initial posting in 1940 was to Berlin as first secretary to the Soviet ambassador. At 3 a.m. June 22, 1941, Berezhkov and the ambassador were roused from sleep and summoned to the office of Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who informed them that the Nazis had invaded the U.S.S.R.
“We turned and walked out,” Berezhkov told his spellbound class one recent day. “And then something unusual happened. Ribbentrop followed and whispered in my ear that he . . . had tried to dissuade (Hitler) from attacking. Ribbentrop thought it spelled doom for Germany. ‘Say to Moscow that I was against this,’ ” the Nazi minister hissed.
A prisoner swap brought Berezhkov back to Moscow 10 days later, where he became the Foreign Ministry assistant for Soviet-American affairs and began translating for Stalin. He recalls their first session: “It was an enormous tension to be in his presence,” Berezhkov said. “It was a combination of my belief in him plus knowing his power and cruelty. He was like a god, some kind of mythological figure.”
Berezhkov never saw Stalin drunk but says the dictator “liked very much to have other people drunk,” his interpreter said. “Then maybe they would say something, and he could find out about their souls.”
The two met late at night because the dictator often worked until 6 a.m. Elite Kremlin guards would issue Berezhkov a one-time permit and escort him down long, silent halls into the dictator’s presence.
Berezhkov says Stalin was far from a one-dimensional villain. While denouncing religion in public, the dictator secretly sent money to the cleric father of his top general. Yet Stalin once ordered a dog shot because it kept him awake. When he learned his soldiers had merely hushed the animal, which belonged to a blind peasant, Stalin had both dog and master killed.
Berezhkov said Stalin, a peasant’s son with only four years of formal education, held his own at Tehran, where Allied leaders gathered informally around a table and discussed strategy without notes or protocol.
In October, 1944, Churchill and then-British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden met Stalin in Moscow and Berezhkov interpreted. He says Churchill laid down a paper that outlined proposed spheres of influence for various countries. Berezhkov recalls it listed countries such as Yugoslavia: 50% British, 50% Soviet; Romania: 90% Soviet, 10% British. Stalin scrawled a big check mark across the paper and slid it back to Churchill.
Berezhkov’s translating career came to a sudden end one day in late 1944, when he came under KGB suspicion as a Polish spy for a visit he had made to the Polish Consulate in Kiev 10 years earlier, while working for the Soviet tourist agency. Molotov urged his assistant to leave the Foreign Office and found him a job editing an obscure magazine.
He told Berezhkov: “If you want to live, you must become invisible. You must write under a pen name and never tell anyone who you are or what you did.”
The ex-interpreter submerged himself in his new life and raised a family. He wept at Stalin’s death in 1953 and marveled in 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in a speech that signaled a short-lived thaw.
Under the stagnant Brezhnev years, his journalism career flowered and in 1969, Berezhkov founded USA: Economics, Politics, Ideology, the journal of the USA Institute in Moscow.
In 1978, still during the Brezhnev era, Berezhkov returned to diplomacy, serving a five-year stint as first secretary to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. Just weeks before he and his family were to return to Moscow, his youngest son, Andrei, 16, wrote President Reagan asking to defect.
The Soviets denounced it as a forgery and the family, including Andrei, was eventually permitted to fly home. But in the Washington Post magazine last year, Andrei Berezhkov, now a businessman in the Soviet Far East, explained he sent the letter impulsively and changed his mind once he realized the pain of leaving his family.
When Berezhkov finishes his Claremont stint in June, he will move to the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies for a year of teaching.
His students will miss him. “He tells a lot of specific stories that aren’t in history books,” said Cornelia Frame, 21. “He can tell you, ‘It happened in this building, in this room,’ because he was there.”
But today, Berezhkov still fears the former apparatchiks who provoke the crowds in his homeland with promises of more food and steady jobs. He hopes his people can hold out until the end of this year to give Yeltsin’s reforms time to work.
“In our history, we had many opportunities to start something new,” muses the man who interpreted for one of the bloodiest dictators in history and lived to tell about it. “But somehow, it seems our country is always doomed.”