Aleksei Ivanovich Adzhubei

views updated

Aleksei Ivanovich Adzhubei

Aleksei I. Adzhubei (1924-1993) was a prominent Soviet journalist during the Cold War era, and was married to the daughter of Nikita Khrushchev. When his father-in-law emerged as leader of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, Adzhubei became part of a group of political insiders close to the premier who served as advisors and speechwriters. He also served as editor of the Soviet Union's second leading news paper, Izvestia.

Aleksei Ivanovich Adzhubei was born in 1924 in the historic city of Samarkand, located in Soviet Central Asia (now Uzbekistan). His surname was the Russification of a common Tatar surname, Hadji Bey. Though his father died when he was a child, Adzhubei was fortunate enough to grow up in Moscow, where food, educational opportunities, and cultural offerings were in relative abundance. During World War II, from 1943 to 1945, he served in the Russian Army. After the war's end, he began his studies at Moscow University, and it was in the late 1940s that he began dating Rada Khrushcheva, whose father Nikita was then First Secretary of the Kiev Community Party organization.

Gambled in Reno

While still busy with his graduate-level journalism courses, Adzhubei began working for Komsomolskaya Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist youth organization, Komsomol. It was the third national newspaper in the Soviet Union, behind Pravda ("Truth," the organ of Communist Party), and Izvestia ("Information," the official government newspaper). From 1951 on, Adzhubei wrote for the paper and sat on its editorial board. While serving as its foreign correspondent in 1955, he traveled to the United States as part of a delegation of Soviet journalists, where he visited the gambling mecca of Reno, Nevada, and played blackjack.

Adzhubei also served as Komsomolskaya Pravda's arts and literature editor before being promoted to editor in 1957. His two-year tenure there saw marked changes in the paper. Circulation nearly doubled after he introduced numerous editorial changes, including photographs, feature stories, and first-person tales from average Soviet citizens. He also sent Komsomolskaya Pravda reporters onto the street and encouraged them to meet the people about whom they wrote; it was a practice almost unheard of at the time in the socialist press.

The Thaw

Ultimately, it was the political career of Adzhubei's father-in-law, Khrushchev, that his own trajectory would mirror. Adzhubei had married Rada Khrushchev in the early 1950s, and the two had three sons. With the death of longtime Soviet leader Josef Stalin, a notorious communist hardliner and fear-inducing tyrant, a political vacuum was created, and Khrushchev-then secretary of the Central Committee and first secretary of the Moscow Communist Party-surprised many when he emerged as part of a new troika of leaders. Over the next few years, Khrushchev consolidated his power and launched a series of reforms that ushered in a new, far less totalitarian era for the Soviet Union.

Newspapers such as Izvestia and Pravda gave the first hints of this relaxation. They, for the first time, began to print letters from citizens complaining of consumer inconveniences, and shortages of goods. Next, a February 1956 speech by Khrushchev at the 20th Party Congress inaugurated a period in Soviet Communism referred to as "The Thaw." In it, Khrushchev denounced the massive humanrights violations of Stalin's rule. That summer, millions of political prisoners were freed, and sweeping changes were made in the judicial system.

In 1959, Adzhubei was elected as Supreme Soviet deputy representing the Krasnodar Territory, the same year he took over as editor of Izvestia. Again, Adzhubei initiated a series of changes at the paper whose moribund style had become legendary. Izvestia introduced first-person stories, photojournalism, and cut the long-winded speeches by government officials that had usually been reprinted in full. Under his leadership, Izvestia's circulation rose significantly.

Khrushchev and Disneyland

The year 1959 also marked the first visit by a Soviet premier to the United States when Khrushchev arrived in September. Back in Moscow, Adzhubei and Izvestia chronicled the historic trip in detail. Adzhubei wrote about his father-in-law's attitudes toward the security measures he was subject to, which made him feel almost as if he were under arrest. In another incident of nearly farcical proportions, Khrushchev was unable to visit the Southern California amusement park, Disneyland. "Adzhubei suggested that the real reason Mr. Khrushchev was not allowed to go to Disneyland was that it was a Saturday, a day on which tens of thousands of ordinary people and their children filled the park, people whom the authorities did not want to meet the Soviet Premier," reported the New York Times on September 22, 1959. After the visit, Adzhubei wrote a 700-page book about Khrushchev's trip titled Litsom k litsu s Amerikoi ("Face to Face with America").

With the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960, a new period of reapprochement between the United States and Soviet Union developed, and Adzhubei came to play an increasingly important role. Neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy trusted their foreign ministers completely, and often used close advisors and friends to carry private messages across borders. This climate helped land Adzhubei an exclusive interview with Kennedy in November of 1961. It was a first for a Soviet journalist, and heralded a new era for both U.S.-Soviet openness and for Soviet journalism. The two-hour interview took place at the Kennedy family home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Interview Broke New Ground

When he emerged from the momentous conversation, Adzhubei answered questions for reporters at a press conference. "He is a young President of a great country," the New York Times reported Adzhubei as saying. "All of you should be proud of that." The Izvestia editor also displayed a similar sense of humor as his father-in-law-who once took off his shoe and banged it on a table at a United Nations session. Giving reporters a short biography of himself, Adzhubei finished by joking, "then according to the American doctrine, I met a pretty daughter of a future Premier and that's how my career got started."

Yet discussion between Adzhubei and Kennedy was anything but lightweight. Adzhubei asked Kennedy about the divided German city of Berlin with its newly-erected Wall. When the full transcript of the interview was published three days later in Izvestia, it made the front page of the New York Times as well. "President Kennedy told the Soviet people today that they could live in peace and plenty if their government halted its efforts to promote conspiratorial communism throughout the world," wrote the New York Times's Max Frankel in his lead sentence.

Adzhubei also questioned the American leader about the chance of a ban on nuclear testing and of the possibility of West Germany possessing nuclear weapons. More significantly, the New York Times noted that Kennedy cast all blame for U.S.-Soviet tensions on the U.S.S.R., and those "words were faithfully reproduced in today's edition of the Soviet government's official newspaper, Izvestia." Two months later Adzhubei returned to the United States and lunched at the White House with his wife. The pair also attended a White House press conference at which Kennedy introduced the editor, and joked that Adzhubei "combines two hazardous professions of politics and journalism," according to the New York Times.

West German Trip Irked Others

Over the next few years, Khrushchev grew increasingly reliant on Adzhubei to serve in an unofficial diplomatic capacity. He toured Latin America in 1962, and early the next year helped improve relations between the Vatican and the Soviet Union when he became the first Communist dignitary to be officially received by the pontiff. Yet Khrushchev's sweeping changes also earned him numerous secret enemies. Not just his reforms but his very personality incited disapproval-he was an unusual leader for the Soviet Union, possessing an ebullient personality, and was anything but dour and imposing.

In the summer of 1964 Khrushchev sent Adzhubei to the West German capital of Bonn, ostensibly to smooth the way for an official meeting between Khrushchev and the West German chancellor at a later date. Adzhubei, who had no real diplomatic credentials, was considered an unlikely choice for such a mission, given the fact that the two countries had still not resolved some key issues lingering from World War II. Adzhubei, according to William J. Tompson in Khrushchev: A Political Life, "was reported to have promised the West Germans that the Berlin Wall would disappear after Khrushchev visited [West Germany]. This triggered a crisis for the East German leadership, which still harboured fears of being sold out by Moscow."

Back in Moscow, Adzhubei denied having made such a statement, but his brother-in-law Sergei Khrushchev later wrote in his book Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era that his father and other Soviet leaders were informed that intelligence sources had Adzhubei's remark on tape; Sergei Khrushchev did concede that the tape may have been fabricated.

Vanished into Obscurity

Three months later Khrushchev was ousted from power by a coalition of Politburo hardliners headed by Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksei Kosygin. According to Khrushchev: A Political Life, when Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was queried about the event, he said, "'Why was Khrushchev removed? Because he sent Adzhubei to Bonn, that's why."' The inside coup was announced by radio shortly after one October midnight in 1964. The New York Times reported that day that "unofficial but reliable sources" claimed that Adzhubei had lost his job as editor of Izvestia. He was given the editor post at the illustrated monthly, Sovetsky Soyuz (Soviet Union), but lost his seat on Central Committee for "mistakes in his work."

By some accounts, Adzhubei was harassed by the KGB after Khrushchev's memoirs were smuggled into the West for publication-an extremely illegal act in the Soviet Union at the time. "They called him in and 'suggested' he leave Moscow for a job with a publisher in the Soviet Far East," wrote Sergei Khrushchev in Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era. "Aleksei … was frightened, and he sounded all the alarms. He refused to relocate and declared that he was going to write an official complaint immediately to the secretary general of the United Nations. Surprisingly, his threat worked and he wasn't bothered again."

Khrushchev died in 1971. One week before his death, the former premier visited his daughter and Adzhubei, and told his once-prominent son-in-law, "Never regret that you lived in stormy times and worked with me in the Central Committee. We will yet be remembered!" In his own later years, the once-robust journalist would be plagued by health problems. During the glasnost era, Adzhubei's account of the Khrushchev ouster was published in the Russian journal Ogonek. His own memoirs were published in 1991, but have not appeared in English translation. He died in March of 1993 at the age of 68.

Further Reading

Khrushchev, Sergei, Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era, edited and translated by William Taubman, Little, Brown, 1990.

Tompson, William J., Khrushchev: A Political Life, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

New York Times, May 9, 1959, p. 2; September 15, 1959; September 22, 1959, p. 21; December 31, 1959; November 26, 1961, pp. 1, 3; November 29, 1961, pp. 1, 18-19; February 1, 1962, p. 1; October 16, 1964, pp. 1, 14; October 30, 1964, p. 13; November 24, 1964; March 21, 1993.