When Vitaly Churkin was Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman in the early 1990s, he would in effect brief the Moscow press corps twice.
First he’d speak in Russian, formally, behind a lectern.
Then he’d step to the side, his hands folded before him, and wait for the foreign broadcast journalists to approach with their cameras and microphones. The questions and answers were in English, and the audience, it was understood, was the United States.
I was then Moscow producer for CBS News and attended a lot of those briefings. The end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union itself, was underway. Many members of the Western press corps were, like Churkin, in their 30s, and while we weren’t exactly friends, I think there was a shared understanding that we were all living through the great adventure of our lives.
Churkin’s home phone number was in my Rolodex (imagine that today). I only used it once.
This was just before the outbreak of the Gulf War. A CBS News team — correspondent Bob Simon, producer Peter Bluff, cameraman Roberto Alvarez and sound man Juan Caldera — had been captured by an Iraqi army patrol and disappeared into the country’s prisons.
We learned that Moscow was sending a special envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, to Baghdad in an attempt to convince Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait and forestall the war. I called Churkin at home the night before Primakov’s departure. He was surprised but gracious.
Could Primakov carry this message to Saddam, I asked: Release — or at least ensure the safety of — our journalists.
Churkin never said another word to me about it, but within a few days, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was himself publicly expressing his concern for our colleagues. At the conclusion of the war, all four were freed by Baghdad — abused and tortured, but alive.
Churkin was a professional diplomat above all else. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he continued in that role on behalf of the Russian Federation. When he died on Monday, Churkin had been Moscow’s U.N. ambassador for more than 10 years. No matter how unpopular his country’s policies might be on the world stage, he fiercely defended them.
I heard Churkin lose his cool only once — the day after the Soviet Union came to an end. I needed to get a bunch of CBS people into the country quickly and called — this time, his office — to ask whether he could help with the visas.
Churkin, spokesman for the late, departed Soviet Foreign Ministry, snapped, “Call the Russian Federation,” and slammed down the phone.
I didn’t take it personally.
Mark Katkov is a news editor at NPR.
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