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Home > News > Specials > Encounter

From Stalin to Putin, a man of all seasons
Encounter/T P Sreenivasan

January 09, 2008

Yuli Vorontsov
To join the Soviet foreign office under Stalin and to die as a revered diplomat under Putin is to be a man for all seasons. To be the Soviet deputy chief of mission in Washington for 11 years, ambassador to India, Afghanistan, France [Images], the United Nations and the United States, deputy foreign minister and the UN secretary general's special representative for Kuwait is to be a diplomat par excellence. Such was the career of Yuli Vorontsov, who recently passed away after reporting to the Security Council on a recent visit to Kuwait. He will be mourned in India by many, who knew him as a sophisticated and friendly diplomat.

I was struck by Vorontsov's style and language, when he first arrived in Delhi as ambassador-designate to India. He flew in from Washington in an American light-coloured suit, seldom worn by sedate Soviet diplomats and spoke English fluently with an American accent. "Nice weather isn't it?" he said, like an American, as he stepped off the plane. With his spontaneity, eloquence and wit, he stood out among his colleagues. Having dealt with Soviet diplomats in Moscow [Images], I found him an exception to the general rule that Soviet diplomats are cautious, reticent and not too friendly.

I was witness to some of the important negotiations he conducted in India and New York, both during the Cold War and after. His style and mannerisms did not change, but he was like a computer whose software had suddenly changed. The anti-US sentiments he used to express in American language and style during the Cold War suddenly changed; he now spoke a new vocabulary to suit the changed world atmosphere. In fact, the transformation was more natural for him than for other Soviet diplomats, as he had the body language of a liberal intellectual. The new vocabulary appeared normal and natural when it came from him. While the other Soviet diplomats struggled with the new vocabulary, the 'hardware' and 'software' seemed to match in Vorontsov's case.

Vorontsov also witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union from close quarters and had to be content with becoming Yeltsin's ambassador in Washington at a time when Russia [Images] was playing second fiddle to the United States. Yeltsin thought the only way to remain afloat was to woo American capital to come to Russia. Vorontsov once again played his role in a masterly fashion and brought the United States and Russia in an embrace. He may have seen that the policy was short-sighted but, being the proverbial envoy, he carried out instructions in letter and spirit.

By the time the wind changed, blowing in the direction of bilateral relations with the advent of Putin, Kofi Annan brought him to the United Nations in what was considered a sinecure, the special representative of the secretary general to deal with the residual issues relating to Kuwait such as the return of displaced persons and the return of Kuwaiti property, plundered by Saddam Hussein. But Vorontsov remained in harness till his death at the age of 78 and earned the secretary general's praise for his 'dedicated and tireless effort.'

Vorontsov, as the Soviet ambassador to India, had the onerous responsibility of managing the Indian reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at a particularly difficult moment in Indian history. In December 1979, Charan Singh was still the prime minister. But Indira Gandhi [Images] was already elected to be the next prime minister and she had already begun the process of forming her government. It was at this very moment that the Soviet troops went into Afghanistan.

Vorontsov called me one midnight to say he had an urgent message to convey to Foreign Secretary Ram Sathe. Sathe had taken over just a few days earlier and was still in the External Affairs Hostel on Kasturba Gandhi [Images] Marg in New Delhi, not a particularly appropriate place to meet foreign dignitaries. I said as much to Vorontsov, but he insisted the matter was urgent and that he needed to see the foreign secretary at once with a message from the Soviet leadership at the highest level.

I spoke to Sathe and he asked me to bring Vorontsov in my car rather than in his big limousine. So I picked up the ambassador from a city hotel and drove him to the hostel in my Premier Padmini. He had a hard time fitting into the front seat, but he did so gladly. As we drove, we exchanged pleasantries and he did not say a word about the issue at hand.

Sathe had turned on the BBC as soon as he heard about the Soviet ambassador's midnight call and found that Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan and had killed Hafizullah Amin, the very leader who had supposedly invited them. So Sathe's first words to Vorontsov were, "I heard the BBC."

Vorontsov pretended not to hear it as he wanted his version to be delivered first before reacting to the BBC. He settled down and began reading from a note to the effect that a limited contingent of Soviet troops had been deployed in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan government and that the troops would be withdrawn as soon as the situation came under control. He sought the understanding of the government of India. He also requested a meeting with Prime Minister Charan Singh the next morning.

Sathe took note of the demarche, voiced general opposition to foreign troops in sovereign countries and promised to report the matter to our leadership. And then, Vorontsov relaxed and asked Sathe, "What did you hear on the BBC?" That was a masterly stroke.

Vorontsov did more than that the next morning. Charan Singh met him in the office, together with the foreign secretary and spoke to him sternly about the Soviet invasion, the extent of which was known by then. He particularly deplored the killing of Amin. Vorontsov listened patiently and then said without any sign of exuberance, "I met Mrs Indira Gandhi before I came here and she showed understanding of the situation." Charan Singh was totally deflated and the meeting ended.

It is a matter of record that India was the only country outside the Soviet bloc which did not condemn the invasion. Brezhnev, apparently pleased with Vorontsov's performance in Delhi, sent him to Afghanistan to handle a crisis that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One incident that amused us was that Brezhnev had become so senile that, on one occasion, he had difficulty recognising his own ambassador to Delhi. In the middle of a bilateral meeting, Brezhnev suddenly pointed to Vorontsov and asked Kosygin who he was. Kosygin replied, "He is our distinguished ambassador, Yuli Vorontsov." "But why is he Yuli? He should be "Yuri," said Brezhnev loudly.

Putin's foreign office paid handsome tributes to Vorontsov on his death. 'Yuli Vorontsov's diplomatic talent shone in everything he was entrusted with. Wherever he worked, his sharp intellect, high professionalism, gift as a negotiator, encyclopedic knowledge of the countries he worked in and remarkable intelligence were brightly displayed.'

The Rediff Specials: Encounter