From Yalta to Geneva, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, he was the diplomatic
voice of the Soviet Union. But last week Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko—the great survivor of Kremlin power struggles—was given a new stage on which to perform: the largely ceremonial post of president of the U.S.S.R. His appointment ended a remarkable 46-year career in the foreign ministry that spanned the era between the Second World War and its closing summit meetings and the current Geneva arms control talks. During that time Gromyko served six Soviet leaders, from Josef Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev, dealt with nine U.S. Presidents and 14 American secretaries of state. Gromyko, 76 next week, is the only man alive who can say of virtually every important East-West meeting in the past four decades, “I was there.” Winston Churchill threw cigar butts at him during the Yalta talks of 1945 which partitioned Europe after the Second World War. John F. Kennedy called him a liar during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But ultimately the unflappable Gromyko, a dour, thin-lipped intellectual noted for his remarkable memory and self-control, earned the respect of his peers. Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger described him as “honorable.” And Cyrus Vance, secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter, said he was “a man of great skill and high intelligence.” Averell Harriman, the noted American Kremlinologist, once said of Gromyko that it was “almost as if he had deliberately schooled himself out of any human foibles.” Gromyko dismissed such analysis as irrelevant. “My personality does not interest me,” he once said. “I am only an executor.”
That was certainly true during his years under the late Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. “If I ask Gromyko to take his trousers off and sit on a block of ice, he will obey—and he will stay there until I tell him to move.” But as his Politburo colleagues disappeared from the scene, Gromyko acquired increasing authority—particularly in matters affecting U.S.-Soviet relations. Indeed, some experts speculated last week that Gromyko’s U.S. fixation—to the exclusion of other areas—was one reason Gorbachev chose to find a new foreign minister.
Born in 1909 in the village of Gromyki, near Minsk, to poor, virtually illiterate parents, Gromyko earned a degree at the Institute of Economics in Moscow and taught at the Academy of Sciences before joining the diplomatic service. In
1939, at 30, Gromyko joined the Soviet Embassy in Washington as counsellor to the ambassador. Four years later he was named ambassador to the United States, the youngest in Soviet history.
Gromyko took part in summits at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, and in 1945 he helped draft the charter of the United Nations. In 1946 he became deputy for-
eign minister and permanent representative to the UN. It was there that Gromyko earned the nickname “Mr. Nyet” by delivering 25 Soviet vetoes of Western resolutions and creating a UN “first”—walking out of a 1946 Security Council debate over the presence of Soviet troops in Iran.
In 1952 and 1953 Gromyko was ambassador to London and he became foreign minister in 1957. His rise in the diplomatic corps was steady, but it was not until 1973 that Gromyko was made a member of the Communist Party’s rul-
ing Politburo. Because of his foreign postings, Gromyko never established a party power base—a factor that precluded a reach for the leadership but also accounted for his political longevity. Commenting on a Politburo shakeup, Gromyko once said: “You know how it is here, a bit like the Bermuda Triangle. From time to time one of us disappears.”
But Gromyko endured—explaining the Kremlin’s policies to the world through the Cold War tensions that developed in the late 1940s. Then, he projected Soviet thinking on the space race that followed the launching of the Soviet Sputnik I satellite in 1957, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis the following year, the Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979), East-West détente in the 1970s, Star Wars and successive rounds of nuclear arms control talks.
In his early diplomatic years, Gromyko was called the grim “grom”—the word means thunder in Russian. But as the years passed he became “amiable Andrei” to his associates, occasionally allowing his dry sense of humor to surface. Meeting Kissinger for the first time at a UN reception, he approached the Nixon administration adviser and said, “You look just like Henry Kissinger.” Asked his opinion of a New York Times article about himself, Gromyko replied: “About half is true and half is false. Since the Times is a balanced newspaper, that is to be expected.” But his wit was not without a cutting edge. Gromyko once described Canada as “the boring second fiddle in the American symphony.”
Throughout his career Gromyko avoided the cocktail circuit, preferring to stay at home and play chess with his wife, Lydia, or to read Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac and Hugo. An editor of an economics review in the 1930s, he wrote three academic books—two under the pen name G. Andreyev. In a recent collection of speeches, Gromyko wrote: “People say that to be a pessimist is simple and safe. I have been and remain an optimist. My optimism is based on my faith in human intelligence.” As the newly elected president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Gromyko vowed to apply that optimism to “economic and social development and raising the welfare of the Soviet people.” Few more dedicated or determined men could have been chosen for the task.
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