Anatoly Dobrynin, a Soviet diplomat who represented Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis and later in key superpower negotiations to curb the growth of nuclear arsenals, has died at age 90, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported Thursday.
His death came the same week that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met in Prague to sign a landmark treaty to shrink the Cold War superpowers' arsenals to the lowest point since the frightening arms race of the 1960s.
Dobrynin died Tuesday in Moscow, Itar-Tass said, adding that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, expressed deep condolences on learning of his death.
During his last years, Dobrynin had been an honorary professor at the Russian Diplomatic Academy, training a new generation of post-Soviet Russian diplomats and officials, Itar-Tass said.
The accidental diplomat
Dobrynin never intended to become a diplomat, but ended up as one of the Cold War's most prominent and respected, playing a key role in resolving the Cuban missile crisis and representing the Soviet Union in Washington for a quarter-century.
In public, Dobrynin always followed the Kremlin line assiduously, but senior U.S. officials respected him for his ability to get their points of view across to the leadership in Moscow.
He was both sides' preferred channel of contact between the Kremlin and U.S. presidents for 24 years as both countries swung through enormous changes.
Dobrynin's ambassadorship began in 1962, the Nikita Khrushchev era when most Americans saw Soviets as crude and bellicose men in ill-fitting suits. Dobrynin, however, was warm and suave, with fluent English; his style meshed with the sophisticated image cultivated by U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Dobrynin quickly established a back-channel relationship with Kennedy's brother, Robert, the U.S. attorney general. The relationship was put to a stomach-clenching test within a few months, when U.S. spy planes took pictures of Soviet nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba.
President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba as Soviet ships steamed toward the island while Soviet Foreign Minister Alexei Gromyko denied that such missiles were in Cuba. The world watched in dread, fearing that a clash over Cuba would touch off fighting in divided Berlin that would engulf Europe and lead to global nuclear war.
Although Dobrynin stood with Gromyko when he denied the missiles' presence, in private he was meeting with Robert Kennedy. Through those meetings, Khrushchev proposed that the United States withdraw missiles from Turkey in exchange for Moscow taking the missiles out of Cuba and Khrushchev announced the withdrawal two weeks after the crisis began.
The tension and public attention were in stunning contrast to the quiet and obscure life that Dobrynin had aspired to as a young man. Trained as an engineer, he was working as a designer in an aircraft factory in 1944 when his life took a sharp turn.
According to his memoir "In Confidence," he was ordered to report to the Communist Party Central Committee. There, an unsmiling man told him "There is an opinion to send you to study at the Higher Diplomatic School."
That phrasing, he wrote, was a common way of phrasing an order. "You did not know to whom to appeal, and the only way out was to consent," Dobrynin wrote.
He never knew who came up with the opinion or what had attracted him to the authorities' attention. But Dobrynin had not only the blue-collar background valued by the Soviets, he also was notably cultivated.
His mother labored as an usher at Moscow's Maly Theater and through her he wrangled free passes to many of the capital's renowned drama performances. He clearly knew how to adapt to roles and he rose rapidly.
He was sent to Washington as an embassy counselor in 1952 and became head of the Foreign Ministry's U.S. and Latin American Department in 1960. He returned to Washington as ambassador in 1962 at the notably young age of 43.
After the Cuban missile crisis, Dobrynin continued to cultivate relations with presidents as different as Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, while representing Kremlin policies ranging from the grim freeze of Leonid Brezhnev to the epochal liberalization of Mikhail Gorbachev.
How much effect he had on policy decisions is unclear, but the secretive Kremlin apparently valued him as an astute analyst of U.S.-Soviet relations and he pleased the American public with gestures such as taking his daughter to fast-food joints during free time.
Dobrynin stepped down as ambassador in 1986 to become secretary for foreign affairs of the powerful Communist Party Central Committee. But he still had one more appearance to make in the background of superpower nuclear drama.
In his party position, he was a key adviser to Gorbachev at the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Reagan, where the two leaders came to the brink of unexpectedly extensive nuclear weapons cuts, then faltered over the U.S. insistence on developing the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative.
Upon Dobrynin's retirement in 1988, former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Malcolm Toon praised him as "one of the ablest diplomats of the 20th century."