Key U.S. Kremlinologist during Cold War

Washington Post

Regional Soviet newspapers in 1980 were reporting an unusually large number of deaths of rocket scientists, and the obituaries were running a bit later than usual.

Donald Graves, who collected facts and data about the Soviet Union with a zeal matched by few others in the United States government, noticed the reports and suspected something was up. Several high-level officials who had an interest in Soviet space matters had also recently died, but the dates and places of the deaths had been obfuscated.

Putting bits of information together, Graves soon realized the scientists and officials had died simultaneously, probably in an accident at the Plesetsk launch site. Graves, widely considered one of the best American Kremlinologists of the era, wrote and circulated a memo about his findings to his State Department superiors and other high-ranking U.S. officials. The official Soviet news media said nothing.

The rest of the world learned nine years later that more than 50 people had been killed when a Vostok rocket exploded during fueling at Plesetsk, the world’s largest space facility, on March 18, 1980.


Graves, 79, died of cancer of the salivary gland July 2 at his home in Washington.

“He was an analyst of the pre-computer age and was one of the great minds in the Department of State who thoroughly knew his subject,” said James Collins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. “His judgment was valued by people who wanted real insight into the Soviet leadership.”

It might be hard to imagine in this age of instant information retrieval, satellite-enhanced eavesdropping and easy duplication of documents how difficult it used to be to collect verifiable facts about the Soviet Union.

Graves, and others like him, would pore over hundreds of newspapers published in the Soviet republics and obtained with great difficulty. He treasured a hard-to-obtain directory of the Supreme Soviet, which contained about 50 words of biography and a low-quality photo of each legislator.


Graves, a slight, bespectacled and taciturn man who spoke with painstaking care, owned “the most important shoe boxes in town,” a Washington Post magazine cover story reported in 1982. Inside the boxes were 800 index cards containing the career histories of individual Soviet officials, data gathered over years from a multitude of public sources.

“What we have on any Soviet leader is highly idiosyncratic. Riddled with holes. But I know where the holes are,” Graves said then. “It’s an archaic, hand-operated, paper-and-pencil system. But there is no real alternative to it.”

The Post article, “The Secret Files of Mr. X,” was remarkable not only for exposing previous secrets but because Graves disliked talking to newspaper reporters.

The idea of being identified in print horrified him, said Charles Fenyvesi, the former Washington Post reporter who wrote the article. Graves, who was called “Mr. X” throughout, remained publicly unidentified until his death.


Graves’ work in the Soviet internal affairs division of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research became irrelevant after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. But during the 1970s and 1980s, it was crucial for U.S. officials eager for knowledge about their Cold War rivals.

In 1986, Graves’ insights led him to predict that the Soviet Union would collapse internally in the near future. This analysis, which contradicted the Reagan administration’s foreign policy positions, was not welcomed. Graves was removed as head of Soviet internal affairs, although he continued to work in the intelligence field. He returned to the bureau under the first Bush administration.

Born April 10, 1929, in Bennington, Vt., he grew up next door to poet Robert Frost. He enlisted in the Army Signal Corps after high school and served in occupied Germany after World War II, where he worked on intercepted Soviet radio transmissions.

After his discharge, Graves graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and earned a master’s degree in Russian studies from Harvard University in 1955. He moved to Washington and joined the CIA, where he edited “The Survey of the Soviet Press.” A decade later, he was transferred to the State Department.


From 1974 to 1976, Graves was at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as first secretary and head of the internal affairs branch of the political section. Upon returning to Washington, he oversaw the Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Soviet internal affairs division, a job he held until 1986. Before retiring in 1992, he took a post in Baku, Azerbaijan, with the Foreign Service reserve corps.

His support of those struggling against Soviet oppression led Graves to secretly assist Norton Dodge, a Maryland college professor, to collect 20,000 works by dissident Soviet artists and smuggle them out of the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s. The art, now on display at Rutgers University, and its retrieval were the subject of author John McPhee’s “The Ransom of Russian Art” (1994).

Graves was divorced.

Survivors include two children, Hester Graves of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Richard Graves of Washington; and a brother.