On July 4, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev arrived at Spasso House, the Moscow home of the American ambassador, as if he did not have a care in the world. He had begun to make a habit of dropping in on national day receptions, his way of telling the world that a new day was dawning in the Soviet Union. Ambassador Charles Bohlen had been informed the night before that Khrushchev and several other top government officials would be attending America’s national day celebration, and Bohlen alerted the embassy’s three other Russian speakers, me among them, that each of us would be responsible for a Soviet leader, meaning we had to make certain that he was enjoying himself. The ambassador, of course, would get Khrushchev, and I got . . . Marshal Georgy Zhukov! Why, I don’t know, but there was something wildly incongruous about my new responsibility. Zhukov was a 60-year-old marshal in the Soviet Army, a World War II hero who had led troops into battle at Kiev and Stalingrad, a minister of defense in charge of nuclear weapons. I was a 26-year-old, ex–Private First Class in the U.S. Army, a translator who happened to have learned enough Russian to get a job at the American embassy in Moscow.
He ran to the kitchen, where he found the large round tray, on which he would serve drinks at the reception. He held it out in front of him. “When I come to you and the marshal,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes, “I shall be holding the tray just like this.” He nodded to the right side of the tray. “That’s where the vodka will be. The water will be in the same type of glass, but always on the left side.” Tang looked up at me. “Understand, sir?” he asked playfully.
“Indeed, I do,” I replied, feeling as though I was party to a diplomatic conspiracy that only a Metternich could appreciate.
At exactly 3:00 p.m., Khrushchev and company arrived. The garden in back of Spasso House was magnificently aglow with colorful flowers, none more stunning than the red roses hanging from red-white-and-blue trellises. Tables groaning with food and drink were situated strategically so that none of the hundreds of guests had to move more than a few feet for replenishments. And of course Tang led a small army of waiters, each carrying a tray of goodies, including Russia’s best caviar and America’s best hot dogs. Everywhere, American flags fluttered in the breeze. Khrushchev, as usual during the summer, wore a suit that was off-white in color and in desperate need of pressing. He seemed to be in good spirits. Bohlen greeted him with a friendly handshake.
“Happy July Fourth, Mr. Chairman,” he said in his fluent Russian. “I extend the best wishes of the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, and all of my staff here at Spasso House.” With the easy grace only the best ambassadors seemed to possess, Bohlen spoke a little about the weather, which was uncharacteristically hot for Moscow, and then joked a bit about the American presidential campaign, which attracted Khrushchev’s full attention, before introducing his designated Russian speakers to their official guests.
When the ambassador introduced me to Marshal Zhukov, I of course shook his hand. “Welcome, Marshal Zhukov,” I said. “It is a special honor for me to meet one of the great heroes of World War II, a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were allies against Nazi Germany.” It was a well-rehearsed, well-planned greeting—it flattered him and recalled a time when both superpowers were reading from the same script, and I spoke his language.
“Very good, young man,” Zhukov replied, then adding, “We must then raise a toast to ‘peace and friendship.’” It was the popular Soviet greeting of the day. I beckoned to Tang, who was standing on alert only a few feet away. Drinks were served. (I remembered — vodka to the right, water to the left.) But in truth it was only when I felt the cool water sloshing down my throat that I was able to take a deep breath. Tang bowed ever so slightly. He could not conceal the grin forming around his mouth.
“Come, Marshal,” I said. “Let me show you our beautiful roses,” and off we went to a convenient trellis, where we quickly slipped into a conversation about his wartime exploits at Stalingrad. “What was the turning point?” I asked with excitement. Zhukov was happy to answer my questions. Tang seemed always to be available, his vodka tray conveniently at hand, as the marshal, one after another, downed his vodkas and I my waters.
After the better part of an hour, during which time I introduced Zhukov to a number of diplomats and journalists, we walked back to the patio, where Bohlen and Khrushchev were chatting. I thought the marshal was a bit tipsy. He must have drunk seven or eight vodkas by this time.
“Nikita Sergeyevich,” Zhukov bellowed, as if he was preparing to announce a scientific breakthrough, “I have finally found a young American who can drink like a Russian. Meet Marvin Maksimovich!” I heard a few giggles, mostly from the Americans, but Khrushchev extended his hand, which I shook with unaccustomed vigor. I wanted to prove, if nothing else, that Zhukov had taken a proper measure of me as an American who could hold his vodka. Bohlen, who knew I didn’t drink except for that occasional glass of wine, looked at me with questions in his eyes, but none were asked and the illusion of me as a tough, heavy-drinking American held.
“How tall are you?” Khrushchev asked, changing the subject.
“Very tall, but still six centimeters shorter than Peter the Great,” I replied, reaching back into Russian history for an interesting but unimportant fact. Peter stood six feet, eight inches tall—204 centimeters. He was a giant of a czar who tried mightily to modernize his backward empire by importing Western engineers and craftsmen and exporting Russian noblemen to study at Western universities. Why show off my familiarity not only with Peter’s height but also with Russian history? And why do this with Russia’s supreme leader? To this day, I have no sensible answer. Maybe it was because Zhukov and I had spent part of our “happy hour” discussing Russian military victories, and on one occasion I had mentioned Peter the Great’s victory at Poltava, when he defeated Charles XII of Sweden.
Khrushchev apparently liked my answer. “Peter the Great,” he grinned. “Wonderful, absolutely wonderful.” Then a cheerful thought entered his mind. “You must play basketball.” Khrushchev was not a man of few words; it was clear he wanted to talk.
“Yes, I play basketball,” I said. “I love the game.”
“Then,” Khrushchev continued, “you must know that last night, our best team, from Lithuania, won the national championship.” I had actually followed Soviet basketball while reading through my morning newspapers. I even saw a game, and I was left less than impressed by the quality of Soviet basketball. I often thought about my City College’s remarkable twin championships—how could I not? In my mind I compared the Beavers with the Soviet teams. No doubt they were better and could beat the Russians!
Khrushchev then struck a theme common those days in Soviet propaganda—that Russia (or the Soviet Union) was better than anything non-Russian. Not only better, but the best ever. “The Lithuanian team is the best team in the entire world,” he boasted, emphasizing each word. “I’m sure there is no team in the United States that could possibly beat our national champion.” In the oddest ways, I thought, Russians would disclose chronic feelings of inferiority, in this case by boasting wildly about basketball. They had made major contributions to literature, music and science, and much else. There was no need for Russians to feel inferior, and yet they did.
It was clear that Khrushchev did not really understand the beauty of basketball, but in my answer I tried to be diplomatic. “Well, maybe one or two on an especially good night might be able to provide some competition. Just one or two.”
“No.” Khrushchev shook his head. “No team could beat our Lithuanian team. It is the best team in the world.” Nikolai Bulganin and the other Russians nodded in predictable agreement. For them it was the thing to do. As for me, I felt a strong urge welling within me to speak truth to power, even though it made no diplomatic sense and ran a risk of creating unnecessary trouble.
“With all due respect, Sir, I believe that any really good college team, like Kentucky or Bradley, could beat your Lithuanian team.” I do not know what possessed me. Who was I to challenge Khrushchev on an issue that was truly of no significance? Maybe I had mistaken Tang’s vodka for water.
For a very brief moment Khrushchev’s peasant eyes flashed with anger—I cringed, expecting a storm, wondering how I could explain my comment to Bohlen; it was, I knew, totally uncalled for—but then, as quickly as the clouds had gathered, they vanished. Khrushchev again smiled, and his smile had the instantaneous effect of a sunburst of reassurance to anyone, American or Russian, listening to our exchange. “Let’s start an international basketball competition,” he proposed with both hands making strange motions of excitement. “You against us. I know we’ll beat you.” In Khrushchev I found in one man two Russians raised under communism: one a brutal party apparatchik, capable of both pride and shame in his work; the other a tough politician with a striking blend of humanity and humor.
The diplomat in Bohlen seized the moment. He leaped into the conversation and blessed Khrushchev’s proposal. “Superb idea,” he said with a smile. “I shall discuss it with the president immediately.” Everyone laughed, and the crisis, such as it was, subsided into relieved chatter about how difficult it would be to get tickets.
In short order Khrushchev gathered his flock and proceeded to the door. Everyone followed him. The Americans quickly formed a line to wish him a proper farewell. As the Soviet leader passed me, he paused and tossed a comment to his buddies: “Here is Peter the Great,” he said, “and Zhukov says he can drink.” I never told Khrushchev the truth, but I did tell the whole story to Bohlen later in the evening.
“You had me worried there for a moment,” he admitted. “I didn’t know where you were going.”
“Neither did I,” I replied.
Excerpted from The Year I Was Peter the Great 1956—Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia by Marvin Kalb, with permission of Brookings Institution Press.