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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,057


This is the grave of Arkady Shevchenko.

Born in 1930 in Horlivka, in what is today the eastern Ukraine (or at least until Putin finishes his conquest), Shevchenko grew up pretty well for Soviet society. His father ran a tuberculosis sanitarium and thus had a lot of value to the regime. He and his family were evacuated to Siberia during the war. But his father was called back by Stalin to Yalta to observe FDR’s failing health for Soviet security. In any case, Shevchenko and his family were relatively untouched by the purges and he was admitted in 1949 to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He trained in diplomacy and after graduation rose pretty fast in the Soviet foreign policy apparatus.

Shevchenko graduated in 1954 and went to work for the Soviets in the United Nations. His expertise was disarmament, which made him a very high powered person in Soviet foreign policy given the extreme sensitivity of these international negotiations. But he definitely had the trust of Khrushchev. He was the Soviet representative in a 1958 UN disarmament talks and then attended the 1962 Geneva Convention on Disarmament Negotiations. He lived in New York from 1963 until 1970 when he was named chief of the Soviet UN delegation’s Security Council and Political Affairs Division. Now, I don’t really know how it was being a Soviet leader living in the U.S. for a long like this. Obviously he had access to a lot of material possessions that even an elite like him probably would have struggled to get access to back home. He also witnessed massive change in the United States during years when the Brezhnev stagnation was hitting the Soviets. But he very clearly did not hate the United States. He was however, still a strong Soviet during these years, which included witnessing the Cuban Missile Crisis from American territory. By 1973, he was named Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, which effectively meant his job was to push the UN to adopt Soviet policies.

Shevchenko became a top deputy of the powerful Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. In fact, many thought he was being groomed to eventually replace Gromyko. But by the mid-70s, Shevchenko started providing the CIA information. No one would have thought he would be the kind of guy to do this. His reputation was as the competent, boring, stone-faced Soviet functionary who might occasionally tell a joke about the Soviet bureaucracy, but that was it. Mostly, Shevchenko provided information on the inner workings of the Soviet government. He wasn’t being asked to give information on nuclear programs or whatever. It was about understanding the people who ruled the Soviet Union. When reading about this, what comes clear is the extent to which stereotypes about the other side existed on both sides of the Cold War. We know that Reagan and his team for instance really did believe that the USSR was an Evil Empire controlled by maniacally evil commies. What Shevchenko told the Americans was that the Kremlin really did think that Wall Street capitalists and dumb military brass controlled the U.S. through their politician stools. He also began to believe that the Soviets were undermining the international agreements negotiated through the 70s, using the West as pawns for their own internal political gains. I don’t doubt this is true; I’m just surprised that he was so surprised. He seems have to have become more committed to the international governance of the UN than his own country. He approached the CIA about defecting in 1975, but the CIA was not stupid. It knew that Shevchenko was more valuable providing them information. So they pressed him to keep working at the UN as long as he felt he could do so.

In 1978, Shevchenko finally defected. The reason was that he realized the Soviets were on to him. He was being tailed and then he got an order to return to Moscow. He wasn’t going to do that. To make it worse, he wrote his wife a note as he walked out the door finally telling her what he was doing. She called the KGB. Then she was sent back to Moscow, where she died by “suicide” a few months later. So he was not exactly trusting of Moscow at this point. In fact, he believed that she threatened Soviet leaders by exposing their corruption in order to gain leverage for herself and so they killed her. Certainly plausible.

Shevchenko’s defection was huge news. He was a very big deal. This was not some minor league player. He was the single most important Soviet defector in the entire Cold War. Amusingly, the Carter administration was NOT HAPPY. This was during the SALT II talks. The last thing Carter and his team wanted was to piss off the Soviets. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that Shevchenko had the usual reasons for defecting. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t doing it for money. According to the CIA men who knew him, he just realized that the Soviet system didn’t work and the United States was a better country. Amusingly, one of the CIA officers debriefing was Aldrich Ames, who evidently took inspiration from him….

After his defection, Shevechenko lived in a suburban Maryland home. He had to support himself, which he did by going on the right-wing lecture circuit, as well as government functions, to talk about the evils of the Soviet Union. That included a 1985 book, Breaking with Moscow, about his choice to defect. The book was largely panned, with many accusing the stories of being exaggerated. Of course, he was big enough that others who knew took advantage of this. In fact, in 1979, the year after he defected, a prostitute who the CIA paid to service Shevchenko wrote a book about her experiences with him, Defector’s Mistress: The Judy Chavez Story. He was supposedly horrified that his own personal life was exposed. Welcome to America. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he disappeared from the spotlight entirely.

When Shevchenko died, probably of a heart attack, at home in 1998, he was 67 years old. I don’t know if he ever visited Russia again after the fall of communism. At the very least, he would not have been very welcomed by the people.

Arkady Shevchenko is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

It’s a bit hard to find the graves of defectors–there aren’t very much of them. But if you would like this series to visit other Cold War figures, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joe McCarthy is in Appleton, Wisconsin and Arthur Nicholson is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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