Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin, a veteran diplomat who represented the former Soviet Union and Russian Federation for more than 40 years, died Monday while at work in the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations. He would have been 65 today.
The Russian U.N. mission said Churkin’s death was a “shock,” but offered no cause. The New York Police Department said there were no indications of foul play.
At the time of his death, Churkin was Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. He had previously served as Foreign Ministry spokesman and as ambassador to Canada and Belgium, among other posts.
Churkin was known as an unflappable and fierce defender of Russian policies at the U.N. Security Council, often in opposition to the U.S. on issues such as Ukraine and Syria. Despite Russia’s at times tense relationship with the international community, Churkin was widely admired by diplomatic colleagues.
Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who frequently clashed with Churkin, most recently over the Russian bombing of Aleppo, nonetheless called him “a diplomatic maestro and deeply caring man.”
Former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said of Churkin, “He was an outstanding diplomat and an intellectual star. His diplomatic skills, quick wit and ready sense of humor will long be remembered.”
Churkin first came to the attention of the American public following the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. In an extraordinary moment, Churkin, then a junior diplomat, testified before the U.S. Congress and was castigated for the Soviet Union’s handling of the accident.
It was the early days of liberalization under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Churkin was something new: a handsome, thirty-something diplomat with flawless English and none of the bellicosity for which Soviet officials were typically known.
Churkin went on to be Foreign Ministry spokesman, conducting the regular ministry briefing first in Russian, then answering questions in English, the better to reach western and in particular American audiences.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russian Federation absorbed the Soviet diplomatic corps and Churkin’s career continued uninterrupted. Among other missions, Churkin played an important though largely unheralded role in bringing the war in Yugoslavia to a close.
Churkin is survived by his wife Irina, daughter Anastasia and son Maksim.