Aleksei I. Adzhubei (1924-1993) was an important Soviet journalist during the Cold War era, and was married to Nikita Khrushchev’s daughter. When his father-in-law emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, Adzhubei joined a group of political insiders close to the premier, who served as advisors and speechwriters. He was also editor of the Soviet Union’s second topical newspaper, Izvestia.
Aleksei Ivanovich Adzhubei was born in 1924 in the historic city of Samarkand, located in Soviet Central Asia (today Uzbekistan). His surname was the Russification of a common Tartar surname, Hadji Bey. Although his father died when he was a child, Adzhubei was lucky enough to grow up in Moscow, where food, educational opportunities and cultural offerings were relatively abundant. During World War II, from 1943 to 1945, he served in the Russian army. After the end of the war, he began his studies at Moscow University, and it was in the late 1940s that he began attending Rada Khrushcheva, whose father Nikita was then First Secretary of the Kiev Community Party organization.
Played in Reno
While he was still busy with his college-level journalism courses, Adzhubei started working for Komsomolskaya Pravda, the official newspaper of the communist youth organization Komsomol. It was the third national newspaper of the Soviet Union, behind Pravda (“Truth”, the organ of the Communist Party), and Izvestia (“Information”, the official newspaper of the government). From 1951 onwards, Adzhubei wrote for the newspaper and served on its editorial board. While serving as a foreign correspondent in 1955, he traveled to the United States as part of a delegation of Soviet journalists, where he visited the gambling mecca of Reno, Nevada, and played blackjack.
Adzhubei was also Komsomolskaya Pravda’s arts and literature editor before being promoted to director in 1957. His two-year tenure has seen significant changes in the newspaper. The circulation almost doubled after the introduction of numerous editorial changes, including photographs, short stories and first-person accounts of average Soviet citizens. He also sent journalists from Komsomolskaya Pravda on the street and encouraged them to meet the people they wrote about; it was a practice almost unheard of at the time in the socialist press.
Lately, it was the political career of Adzhubei’s father-in-law, Khrushchev, that reflected his own trajectory. Adzhubei had married Rada Khrushchev in the early fifties, and the two had three children. With the death of
The long-time Soviet leader Josef Stalin, a well-known communist fundamentalist and fear-inducing tyrant, created a political vacuum, and Khrushchev – then secretary of the Central Committee and first secretary of the Moscow Communist Party – surprised many when he emerged as part of a new leader troika. In the following years, Khrushchev consolidated his power and launched a series of reforms that ushered in a new, much less totalitarian era for the Soviet Union.
Newspapers like Izvestia and Pravda gave the first hints of this relaxation. They, for the first time, started printing letters from citizens complaining about consumer inconvenience and scarcity of goods. Later, a speech by Khrushchev at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956 inaugurated a period of Soviet communism called “The Thaw”. In it, Khrushchev denounced the massive human rights violations of Stalin’s government. That summer, millions of political prisoners were released and radical changes were made to the judicial system.
In 1959, Adzhubei was elected Soviet deputy supreme representative of the Krasnodar Territory, the same year he took over the leadership of Izvestia. Once again, Adzhubei began a series of changes to the newspaper whose dying style had become legendary. Izvestia introduced first-person stories, photojournalism, and cut the long speeches of government officials that had usually been reprinted in full. Under his guidance, the spread of Izvestia increased significantly.
Khrushchev and Disneyland
The year 1959 also marked the first visit of a Soviet premier to the United States when Khrushchev arrived in September. On his return to Moscow, Adzhubei and Izvestia told the historical journey in detail. Adzhubei wrote about his father-in-law’s attitude towards the security measures to which he was subject, which made him feel almost as if he were under arrest. In another incident of almost farcical proportions, Khrushchev was unable to visit the Southern California amusement park, Disneyland. “Adzhubei suggested that the real reason Khrushchev was not allowed to go to Disneyland was that it was a Saturday, a day when tens of thousands of ordinary people and their children filled the park, people that the authorities did not want to meet the Soviet Premier,” reported the New York Times on September 22, 1959. After the visit, Adzhubei wrote a 700-page book on Khrushchev’s journey entitled Litsom k litsu s Amerikoi (“Face to face with America”).
With the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960, a new period of reconciliation between the United States and the Soviet Union developed, and Adzhubei took on an increasingly important role. Neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy trusted their foreign ministers completely, and often used advisors and close friends to carry private messages across the border. This climate helped Adzhubei obtain an exclusive interview with Kennedy in November 1961. It was the first time for a Soviet journalist and announced a new era for both Soviet openness and Soviet journalism. The two-hour interview took place at the Kennedy family home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
Interview has opened up new ground
When he came out of the momentous conversation, Adzhubei answered questions from journalists at a press conference. “He is a young president of a great country,” said Adzhubei, according to the New York Times. “You should all be proud of him.” The publisher of Izvestia also showed a sense of humor similar to that of his father-in-law, who once took off his shoe and threw it on a table during a UN session. Giving journalists a short biography of himself, Adzhubei finished joking: “Then, according to American doctrine, I met a beautiful daughter of a future premier and that’s how my career began”.
The discussion between Adzhubei and Kennedy was far from light. Adzhubei asked Kennedy about the divided German city of Berlin with its newly erected wall. When the complete transcript of the interview was published three days later in Izvestia, it also made the front page of the New York Times. “President Kennedy told the Soviet people today that he could live in peace and plenty if his government would stop its efforts to promote conspiratorial communism around the world,” Max Frankel of the New York Times wrote in his main sentence.
Adzhubei also questioned the American leader about the possibility of a nuclear test ban and the possibility that West Germany possesses nuclear weapons. More significantly, the New York Times noted that Kennedy blamed all the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union on the USSR, and those “words were faithfully reproduced in today’s edition of the official newspaper of the Soviet government, Izvestia.“. Two months later Adzhubei returned to the United States and had lunch at the White House with his wife. The couple also attended a White House press conference where Kennedy presented the editor, and joked that Adzhubei “combines two dangerous professions of politics and journalism”, according to the New York Times.
Other West German game Irradiated
In the following years, Khrushchev increasingly relied on Adzhubei for the unofficial diplomatic service. In 1962 he was on tour in Latin America, and at the beginning of the following year he helped to improve relations between the Vatican and the Soviet Union, when he became the first Communist dignitary to be officially received by the pontiff. But Khrushchev’s radical changes also earned him numerous secret enemies. Not only his reforms, but his own personality incited disapproval: he was an unusual leader for the Soviet Union, had an exuberant personality, and was anything but gloomy and imposing.
In the summer of 1964 Khrushchev sent Adzhubei to the West German capital of Bonn, apparently to pave the way for an official meeting between Khrushchev and the West German Chancellor at a later date. Adzhubei, who had no real diplomatic credentials, was considered an unlikely choice for such a mission, as the two countries had not yet resolved some key issues dating back to World War II. Adzhubei, according to William J. Tompson in Khrushchev: A Political Life, “was reported to have promised the West Germans that the Berlin Wall would disappear after Khrushchev’s visit [West Germany]. This
triggered a crisis for the leadership of East Germany, which still feared to be sold out by Moscow.
Back in Moscow, Adzhubei denied making such a statement, but his brother-in-law Sergei Khrushchev then wrote in his book Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era that his father and other Soviet leaders had been informed that intelligence sources had Adzhubei’s observation on tape; Sergei Khrushchev admitted that the tape may have been made.
Vanified in darkness
Three months later Khrushchev was ousted from power by a coalition of Politburo supporters led by Leonid Breznev and Aleksei Kosygin. According to Khrushchev: A political life, when Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was questioned about the event, said: “‘Why was Khrushchev removed? Because he sent Adzhubei to Bonn, that’s why”. The internal coup was announced by radio shortly after midnight in October 1964. The New York Times reported that day that “unofficial but reliable sources” claimed that Adzhubei had lost his job as editor of Izvestia. He was awarded the post of editor of the illustrated monthly magazine Sovetsky Soyuz (Soviet Union), but lost his post on the Central Committee due to “errors in his work”
According to some reports, Adzhubei was persecuted by the KGB after Khrushchev’s memoirs were smuggled to the West for publication, an extremely illegal act in the Soviet Union at the time. “They called him and suggested he leave Moscow for a job with a publisher in the Soviet Far East,” wrote Sergei Khrushchev in Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era. “Aleksei … he was frightened, and sounded all the alarms. He refused to move and declared that he would immediately write an official complaint to the Secretary General of the United Nations. Surprisingly, his threat worked and he was no longer disturbed.
Khrushchev died in 1971. A week before his death, the former premier visited his daughter and Adzhubei, and said to his once promising son-in-law, “Never regret living in stormy times and working with me in the Central Committee. We will still be remembered.” In his last years, the once somewhat rude journalist would be plagued by health problems. During the era of glasnost, Adzhubei’s account of Khrushchev’s expulsion was published in the Russian magazine Ogonek. His memoirs were published in 1991, but did not appear in the English translation. He died in March 1993 at the age of 68.
More readings on Aleksei Ivanovich Adzhubei
Khrushchev, Sergei, Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era, edited and translated by William Taubman, Little, Brown, 1990.
Tompson, William J., Khrushchev: A Political Life,St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
New York Times, 9 May 1959, p. 2; 15 September 1959; 22 September 1959, p. 21; 31 December 1959; 26 November 1961, pp. 1, 3; 29 November 1961, pp. 1, 18-19; 1 February 1962, p. 1; 16 October 1964, pp. 1, 14; 30 October 1964, p. 13; 24 November 1964; 21 March 1993.