Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment four: Eyewitness account of Leonid Brezhnev’s 73rd birthday party in the Kremlin, 6 December 1978

 In my previous archival installments I mentioned that I am now preparing a book of memoirs dedicated to my experiences as an expatriate senior manager in Moscow during the 1990s when the foreign community there numbered some 100,000 families. To my knowledge there has been no narrative published on our Russia ‘from the ground up’ whereas books have been written by those who occupied the halls of power in Washington, in particular Strobe Talbott’s “Russia Hand” looking down on us all from the Olympian heights. The small gems I presented in this space so far were intended as teasers for that forthcoming book.

However, during my work in parallel transcribing into MS Word files my extensive archive of diaries, business and personal correspondence going back into the mid-1970s, I have reached the conclusion that the scope of the book should be expanded to embrace two focal periods in my business career that merit simultaneous examination because of the very similarities and the contrasts in the Russia I visited so intensively in the earlier period and lived in during the later period. Indeed even the words ‘traveled to’ and ‘lived in’ have very qualified meaning when you consider that my visits to the USSR in the 1970s from my New York base were monthly and my residing in Moscow in the 1990s was punctuated by monthly trips back to corporate headquarters in London with time off at my family base in Brussels. Moreover, eternal Russia and….eternal America come up in both periods in ways that demand such comparison.  For business and intergovernmental relations, each period began with hoopla, great expectations, and each ended in recriminations and aggressive U.S. measures to isolate Russia and treat it as a pariah.  But I leave the big picture for the writing of the book.  Here and now I wish to present one more ‘teaser’ drawn from my time in the USSR in the 1970s.

To understand what I was doing in the midst of the august company at the event,I must explain first that I had an inverted business career. I started out and made my way into high business circles as a consultant, reaching the very top of American executive circles as witnessed by the account I present here below at age 33. I eventually moved on, with some assistance from then President Carter and his security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who closed down my business area by imposing crippling trade sanctions on the USSR following their invasion of Afghanistan.  In my reconfigured career, I took employment with the world’s largest conglomerate at the time, with an office based in Brussels and took business responsibility for the safer pastures of Poland and Yugoslavia.  Several jobs later, I found myself the head of representation of major German, Canadian and finally UK corporations in Moscow.  A top boss locally, and an upper middle level manager corporate-wide.  This is precisely the opposite of normal business careers where consultancy marks the end of a long career not the start.

As a young man in his early 30s I was the co-founder and sole professional in a marketing company selling consultancy services at the Board level to major US corporations in food processing and consumer goods having the ambition to achieve big sales in the USSR by way of industrial projects. In this capacity I joined the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council and established close working relations with the major force for foreign investment, turnkey factory construction and technology transfer at the time, the State Committee for Science and Technology, which was headed by Prime Minister Kosygin’s son-in-law, Dzherman Gvishiani.  In a sense, this period was as close as I ever came to being a ‘Kremlin stooge’ as our anti-Russian claque of academics and media generalists would call it today.  In fact, if I was a ‘useful tool’ of the Kremlin by bringing into negotiation for technology transfer companies that otherwise would never have set foot in Russia, all of my interlocutors on the Soviet side were to the same degree ‘dupes of Washington’.  Our careers on both sides were hostage to good and improving US-Soviet political and commercial relations.  There was nothing sentimental or self-deceptive about this either way.

The Moscow event described below took place in the context of the annual meeting of the Trade Council, which was held in alternate years in Russia and in the USA.  Out of the 267 U.S. companies then members of the Council, perhaps half came to Moscow with one or more members, including a large number of CEOs of the most important American businesses. The US government was represented by Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal and Secretary of Commerce Juanita Krebs. A number of iconic American statesmen and businessmen, including Averell Harriman, Armand Hammer and David Rockefeller were in attendance.

All participants were aware of the likelihood that Communist Party Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev would hold a reception in the Kremlin for a limited number of Council members on Wednesday evening, December 6th, which, as many understood, was Brezhnev’s birthday. Various companies were enlisted to help mark the event with gifts related to their businesses.  One of my corporate clients obliged by sending in airfreight 1,000 pounds of their dog food as a gift for the Chairman’s kennel.  That went without mention from the dais, though other dog-related presents are noted in my diary entry below.

In any case, the printed invitations to the event were distributed just a couple of hours in advance and only two busloads of us received them.  My inclusion may be explained on the technicality that I was a ‘corporate president’ which was a prerequisite, but more generally attested to the appreciation of the powers that be for the companies I was bringing to the negotiating table.

The diary entry for 6 December 1978 set out below has been lightly edited to protect the guilty, meaning to avoid violation of client confidentiality. At the end I provide a key to the identity of speakers and fellow participants in the event who may not be widely known today and to whom I had no obligations of secrecy.

 

 Evening Reception at the Kremlin, Грановитая Палата 7.15pm – 10.00pm

 

Anxious anticipation in the whole group – two bus loads, all men with two exceptions.

(curious: whereas Marshall Goldman has an invitation, Harold Berman is not among us – must be fuming)

Wives sent packing to the opera at this executive only event.  Only FMC’s McClellan has made arrangements for his spouse.

On entering through the Верховный Совет main doors, we ascend a glittering marble staircase into a series of rooms, opening onto the enormous ball-room sized St George’s hall, which has exquisite parquet floors, elegant marble walls with gilded regimental histories in-set. We all gather in a reception area part of George’s Hall to the left and down a set of steps.

My dear Chris goes off in a corner – very poor mixer, especially in large crowd where he knows very few people. Doesn’t like all those high-powered egos around. I take him by the arm to meet Minister Lein of the Food Ministry, who is just then exchanging small talk with Kendall through a Ministry of Foreign Trade official acting as interpreter. While Kendall takes a deep breath I interrupt with “Господин Министр!” and introduce Chris and then say how his chairman will be here on Monday. It is a very rushed delivery, because he is anxious to get back to Kendall, but we do invite him to the signing ceremony and say a written invitation will be available next; on this basis we can say to the Food Ministry that Lein has already been personally invited.

Brezhnev enters – broad lion’s head, conspicuously wearing a hearing aid, large yet bloated and frail looking. Next to him his slick interpreter Viktor. He enters with Blumenthal and with Krebs on one arm, takes her up to see the St George Hall. Shakes hands with Rockefeller, Hammer, Harriman. Holds back a moment and Kendall looks alarmed that Brezhnev won’t shake his hand, but Brezhnev moves forward and does. Then Brezhnev moves to the doors which open and beckons us to follow him to dinner.  We pass through a low vaulted entry with heavy gilding into a magnificent high chamber with central columns painted wall surfaces throughout in 18th century Classical iconographic style, Old Church Slavonic script. Obviously much restoration work since it is in splendid condition. Long banquet tables are set rather simply with standard quality Russian porcelain and glass, stainless steel cutlery; it is a 6 glass dinner, however, with water glass, champagne, vodka, two wines and cognac.  Service is quiet and efficient, moving in quickly as we sit down from each toast to lay on the next course. The total number of us, including Soviets and officials at the head table, perhaps 300. The uncertainty surrounding the event itself and over the guest list, which lasted till 5pm today has raised anticipation and the great satisfaction of each attendee at having been selected for these great heights. Floral decoration is simple and restrained: separate modest bouquets of carnations and pink roses. All liquor is served by waiters – no bottles clutter the table, which is really quite formal though plain.

The round of toasts is begun by Brezhnev, who makes a 10 minute speech that goes over many of the same points we have heard repeatedly in the past few days. He remains statesmanlike and accommodating, high minded. Main single argument:  trade should not be turned on and off like a tap since it requires great mutual trust; we don’t have to love one another to respect each other and to establish normal, even good relations; we shall continue to trade with you even if no steps are taken by the US side to end discrimination against us, but such trade will not have a real basis and cannot expand.

Note that Brezhnev’s diction is seriously slurred, really as if he has had a stroke. However, no other obvious physical impairment; does wear a hearing aid prominently though. Very large head and wide frame on which clothes hang a bit loosely. Nonetheless, seems to be in firm control of himself and of the audience.  Blumenthal makes the first return toast and a 10 minute speech. Looking this speech over in written form, all seems quite unremarkable, moderate in tone; however, his delivery is very aggressive, in particular, as he underlines the phrase ‘we have given each other good advice in the past few days; let us now, each of us, try to follow that advice.’ Once again there is tension, sharpness in his voice, slightly smug sound. This type of presentation is reckoning more on the Americans present, to show Carter’s strength, than it is on Soviet hosts. Whereas Blumenthal sounded two years ago like a businessman in government, he now sounds like an Administration spokesman in business guise. It is slightly unpleasant to hear him presumptuously speak for all Americans present and continue to press the hard line on the Russians. Fails to recognize that this is a business gathering, that essentially we are the sellers and that as such we don’t make demands. Blumenthal offers a gift – a painting of a Newfoundland retriever.

“Krebs delivers a long toast as prologue to her prepared speech: it is to present the hunting dog puppy that she has named ‘Decoy’ together with a collar bearing a silly inscription “I belong to Leonid Brezhnev. If lost please return to the Kremlin.’  Then a long-drawn out and overly cute song and dance about the significance of the name ‘decoy’, to the effect that trade is not our real goal, it is a decoy that will bring us to the real target, which is better relations for world peace. This is belabored still more in her official toast, which is not for the success of the Council though that is important, not for the sake of trade though it is important, not for several other causes, but rather for the benefit and wellbeing of mankind.  A typical liberal; one feels she doesn’t give a damn about this session, and therefore invokes the meaningless cause of mankind. Her tone is irritation, seems to enjoy modulation of her own voice too much. There is something treacherous about Krebs. She sounds insincere. Amazing gaffe: appears to say ‘Hope you enjoy Decoy in the little time left to you’ – obviously meaning free time but that’s not what comes out. Even the interpreter Viktor is puzzled. Verity and Forrestal make short toasts.

The meal service itself is sensible – portions are delicate and well complementary.

In the midst of the evening, it is remarked that December 19th [December 6th Old Style] is Brezhnev’s birthday and so all 300 of us stand with glasses in hand and lustily sing “Happy Birthday to You.”  Incongruous!  A gathering of America’s top executives singing on cue to Mr. B.

My neighbors at the table: to one side, a partner in the New York law firm Lackenbach, Lilling and Siegel, patent and trademark lawyer who is here representing the US Chamber of Commerce; short, peppery man in his mid-50s; throws back his vodka with relish, talks loudly and merrily. Says Wella is among his clients and offers to pass my name along to them for areas outside hair spray, e.g., for dyes and tints.  When Brezhnev finally makes his departure, he jumps up to join the line and shake Brezhnev’s hand; returns to his seat overjoyed. Says, “I went to the White House and they didn’t even give me a cookie, whereas look at this reception.”  How easily we are bought off by flattery and attention.

Nearly opposite me is Gregorian, stout and sturdy Armenian who runs a California trading company. To the right, an Englishman working for the engineers and construction company Badger Inc., compares his experiences here with what he has seen in Peking; super-sophisticated, with snobbish tinge. At the end of the table, four or five seats down and across sits a Brigadier General, Brezhnev’s personal body guard from the days of WWII; genial looking old chap with close-shaven, pinkish cheeks and well pressed tunic; like his boss, he is in mid-70s. Next to him a rotund protocol chief.  Opposite me across the table is a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rep in his late 30s who has just returned from a tour of duty in Canada.

At 10.00 Brezhnev announces that he must leave, because early tomorrow he has to officiate at a diplomatic event. Bids us to stay on with his associates. He makes his way around our side of the room, shaking hands, then leaves. Within minutes, the reception closes and we leave on foot back to the hotel.

The talk around me is about Brezhnev’s tremendous stage presence and continuing mental acuity despite physical frailty. However, one fellow mentions having heard from medical authorities here that Brezhnev has kidney dialysis and regular blood transfusions because of some blood deficiency associated with the bone marrow.

Others curse Krebs, saying ‘that damned woman, just like Margaret Thatcher in England, just doesn’t know when to stop talking.’ Say she should have stayed at home. As continuation one says the real warfare in the coming 25 years will be between men and women, that we will find ourselves in the trenches.  To which another adds that he doesn’t mind so long as he can share a trench.

Although I had wondered why Brezhnev exposed himself to scrutiny of outsiders and their possibly vicious evaluation of his health, it is clear that most have been favorably impressed. Moreover, for him to live in full seclusion would only give rise to still more damaging speculation over the real state of his health.

Note: at the close of the evening, when Brezhnev filed by to shake hands, he reached Marshall Goldman, seated about 8 seats from me across the table. Goldman had a big smile as he pumped Brezhnev’s hand.

Names

Armand Hammer – chairman of Occidental Petroleum, one of the first Western businessmen to have done deals with the new Soviet state after the Revolution

Averell Harriman –  Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Moscow in WWII, former governor of the State of New York, patrician statesman

Donald Kendall – chairman of Pepsico, recently stepped down as co-chair of the Trade Council, active pro-détente campaigner, had at this point a monopoly position on Soviet vodka and hard liquor exports

Viktor Sukhodrev –  Brezhnev’s very savvy long time interpreter who gave sense to the Secretary General’s speeches in his failing years

Marshall Goldman – expert on the Soviet economy, deputy director of Harvard’s Russian Research Center

Harold Berman – law professor at Harvard, leading American scholar on Soviet law at the time

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]