home | about | documents | news | postings | FOIA | research | internships | search | donate | mailing list
Dobrynin and his wife of 68 years, Irina Nikolaevna, at home in Moscow


Dean of Washington's Diplomatic Corps, Eyewitness to the Superpower Rivalry, and Advocate for Opening Up the History of the Cold War

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 313

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Malcolm Byrne (with document advice from William Burr and Tom Blanton)

Posted - April 14, 2010

For more information: 202/994-7000

Bookmark and Share



Washington, D.C., April 14, 2010 - Anatoly Fedorovich Dobrynin--the former Soviet Ambassador to the United States who served under five Soviet leaders and six U.S. Presidents, and was a long-time academic partner of the National Security Archive, died on April 6, 2010, in Moscow.

Mr. Dobrynin became Soviet envoy to Washington in the critical year 1962. Virtually from the start, he found himself in the thick of the most important developments of the Cold War, playing a key role at major turning points like the Cuban Missile Crisis, which flared later that year and became the first crucible of his long diplomatic career. During the decades that followed, Dobrynin became the interlocutor on U.S.-Soviet relations for presidents, secretaries of state, and national security advisers.

After Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as Soviet leader in 1985, Dobrynin gave his full support to the new reform program (perestroika). In recognition of his expertise, he was appointed head of the influential International Department of the Central Committee and became a valued adviser to Gorbachev, with actively involvement in developing new policies toward the United States, toward the socialist bloc, ending the war in Afghanistan, and drafting the foreign policy sections of the report to the landmark XIX Soviet Communist Party Conference in 1988.

Anatoly Dobrynin was an invaluable participant in several projects of the National Security Archive. Even before the end of the Cold War, he showed a genuine interest in helping to uncover and explain that extraordinary period of history to the world public, going well beyond the usual authorship of memoirs.

As an early participant in a ground-breaking series of “critical oral history” conferences (organized primarily by professors James G. Blight and janet M. Lang) on the Cuban Missile Crisis (starting in 1988), followed by a project (in the mid-1990s) on the collapse of détente during the Carter-Brezhnev period, he was unrivaled in his generosity and willingness to be questioned for hours by scholars and to engage in keen discussions with his former American adversaries, including Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

His near-photographic memory for policy minutiae and his crackling wit gave a riveting sense of the atmospherics of his time and made it plain how he managed to gain the confidence and respect of so many during his tenure in Washington.

Substantively, his contributions to each of these multi-session academic conferences, full of deep insight and unforgettable anecdotes, substantially advanced our knowledge of the Cold War. His personal warmth and empathy toward Cold War partners and opponents alike will remain in the memories of those who were lucky enough to come to know him.

The National Security Archive mourns the passing of our friend and partner, Anatoly Fedorovich Dobrynin, and celebrates his life and achievements. We express our condolences and our heartfelt appreciation to his wife and closest partner of 68 years, Irina Nikolaevna.



Document 1: Anatoly Dobrynin’s Conversation with Robert Kennedy, October 27, 1962
[Source: Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation; translation appears in Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), appendix, pp. 523-526, with minor revisions]

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in late October 1962, Dobrynin negotiated the secret compromise on withdrawing U.S. “Jupiter” missiles from Turkey with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, which allowed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to save face in front of his own Presidium and remove the Soviets’ intermediate-range missiles from Cuba. Dobrynin remained involved, negotiating daily with members of the Kennedy administration until the crisis was fully resolved -- thanks to a large extent to his professionalism, persistence and the trust that developed between him and his American partners.

Document 2: Henry Kissinger and Anatoly Dobrynin’s Notes of Conversation, June 11, 1969
[Source: Richard Nixon Presidential Library (RNPL), National Security Council Files, box 489, Dobrynin/Kissinger 1969 Part II,  David C. Geyer and Douglas E. Selvage, eds., Soviet-American Relations: The Détente Years, 1969-1972, U.S. Department of State Publication 11438, (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007), pp. 64-70]

In the late 1960s, having established himself as a knowledgeable, efficient -- and famously affable -- diplomat, Dobrynin developed a close relationship with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, which resulted in a unique, secret communications link between the U.S. and Soviet leadership -- the “back channel.” During most of the Nixon administration, all important issues of the superpower relationship were discussed and often resolved within the framework of “The Channel.”

This conversation covers the entire spectrum of U.S.-Soviet relations, effectively establishing an informal agenda for President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev. A top priority of the new American administration would be resolution of the Vietnam conflict, on which Nixon sought Soviet help.  Other focal points included an early meeting with the Soviet leadership, arms control and non-proliferation, the Middle East, and European security. 

Compared to Kissinger’s version, Dobrynin’s notes of the conversation are much more detailed and precise, as was usually the case. (Note 1)

Document 3: Anatoly Dobrynin Taped Conversation with President Richard Nixon, December 10, 1972
[Source: Nixontapes.org, Conversation #034-030]

In this telephone conversation with Dobrynin during the final stages of the negotiations on the Vietnam war in Paris, and only days before the White House decision to renew heavy bombing of North Vietnam, President Nixon discusses his desire to remove the issue of North Vietnam as an “irritant” in U.S.-Soviet relations.  The snippet offers a revealing glimpse of Dobrynin’s personal approach to dealing with U.S. presidents.  While maintaining an almost cheerful informality with an evidently uncomfortable Nixon, the Soviet envoy shows his capacity for precise detail, even managing to correct the president on a small factual point.

Document 4: Telephone Conversation between Anatoly Dobrynin and Henry Kissinger, May 25, 1973
[Source: RNPL, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts (Telcons), Anatolii Dobrynin File, box 28, May 1973-June 1973]

Dobrynin’s relationship with Kissinger quickly became a comfortable one and it evolved into a personal friendship, as is evident in their telephone conversations, which are full of jokes and mutual teasing. However, this closeness was also crucial to helping both men deal with international crises such as the October 1973 war in the Middle East. On a lighter note, the two officials broach a subject that comes up often during their conversations in the back channel. Dobrynin notes that Kissinger has been seen with an attractive young woman previously pictured in a Playboy calendar. Kissinger calls Dobrynin a "dirty old man" and expresses his "hope she isn't a nice girl."

Document 5: Telephone Conversation between Anatoly Dobrynin and Henry Kissinger, May 26, 1973
[Source: RNPL, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts (Telcons), Anatolii Dobrynin File, box 28, May 1973-June 1973]

Ambassador Dobrynin and Henry Kissinger trade more banter as the ambassador offers to sing "Happy Birthday" to Kissinger a day before the latter travels to New York. Kissinger then asks for a favor: “Now Anatol do you mind not letting KGB guys run[] loose in the streets of Washington where I see them at night[?]” Asked if he too had been “running around the streets” the night before, Kissinger answers, “If you must know, I just brought a girl home.” They then turn to a discussion of logistics for Brezhnev’s upcoming U.S. visit and details of various arms control proposals.

Document 6: Telephone Conversation between Anatoly Dobrynin and Henry Kissinger, August 23, 1973
[Source: RNPL, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts (Telcons),box 28, Anatolii Dobrynin File, Box 28, July 1973-September 1973]

Dobrynin congratulates Kissinger on his nomination to the position of Secretary of State and passes on high praise from Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Gromyko. When told that the Kremlin had made a decision in connection with the news, Kissinger speculates whether it was to appoint him a member of the Politburo. Dobrynin laughs and says: “Almost … You probably know all our secrets,” then adds: “Secondly, they would like you to get a permanent visa to go to Moscow and just to call you ‘Excellency’ when you come.” Kissinger later calls Dobrynin "not just a colleague, but a personal friend."

Document 7: Anatoly Dobrynin’s Conversation with General Alexander Haig, October 26, 1973
[Source: RNPL, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts (Telcons), Anatolii Dobrynin File, box 28, October 1973]

After sharp remarks from President Nixon at a news conference on the Arab-Israeli crisis, Alexander Haig telephones Dobrynin to reassure him the president did not intend to ratchet up the crisis. Dobrynin launches into an emotional response describing the difficult position Nixon’s comments have created for the Politburo “domestically” (and by implication for Dobrynin himself who has to explain U.S. actions to his superiors). He says the Kremlin is particularly upset about the president’s comparison of the situation with the Cuban missile crisis (which the translator erroneously records as the “human crisis”), and resents the implication that as a result of U.S. actions the Soviets were made to look like "weaker partners … against [the] braver United States." But after a few moments, the Soviet envoy calms down and repeatedly thanks Haig and the president for their concern to “keep the personal relationship as strong as it was before.”

Document 8: Anatoly Dobrynin’s Conversation with Henry Kissinger, July 12, 1974
[Source: RNPL, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts (Telcons), Anatolii Dobrynin File, box 28, January 1974-August 1974.]

In the mid-1970s, Dobrynin was also the main conduit between the U.S. and Soviet leadership on the Conference for European Security and Cooperation (CSCE), including the very sensitive Basket III provisions of the Helsinki Final Act. In this conversation, Dobrynin and Kissinger talk briefly about the Conference and the progress of SALT negotiations. Kissinger asks Dobrynin to "cooperate a little bit on Basket III," which encompassed human rights and individual freedom of movement. Dobrynin emphasizes the importance of the Conference to the Soviet Union, and the confidential nature of the exchanges on this subject, saying that "Gromyko … will keep this close to his heart. It is a project that he likes very much." 

As usual, the conversation is sprinkled with humor. After Dobrynin assures Kissinger that he has been wrongly informed that Dobrynin is about to become foreign minister, Kissinger laments: “Well, we’ll have to take that wiretap off the Kremlin then.” To which Dobrynin responds: “ … [O]r you have to fire those who are making them … and get a better one.” The two go on to compare the difficulties of working for one man (the president) versus a Politburo of 15, including one unnamed member, as Kissinger cracks, “who thinks he is an expert.”

Document 9: Anatoly Dobrynin’s Conversation with Averell Harriman, December 1, 1976
[Source: Translation appears in “SALT II and the Growth of Mistrust,” briefing book for conference # 2 of The Carter-Brezhnev Project: A Conference of U.S. and Russian Policymakers and Scholars Held at Musgrove Plantation, St. Simons Island, Georgia, May 6-9, 1994]

Even though the back channel did not function under the Carter or Reagan administrations, Ambassador Dobrynin continued to provide a trustworthy direct link to the Soviet leadership.  Dobrynin found himself in a difficult situation having to negotiate on arms control while responding to the Carter administration’s unwelcome pressure on human rights violations in the Soviet Union, as he would later to the Reagan administration’s arms buildup.  In this conversation with former Ambassador to the USSR Averell Harriman, who had served as a conduit to Moscow for Democratic Presidents since World War II, Dobrynin is informed that President-elect Carter intends to move quickly to finalize and conclude an agreement on the limitation of strategic weapons with Leonid Brezhnev and sign a treaty at an early summit with the Soviet leader.

Document 10: Politburo Instructions to Soviet Ambassador in Washington for his Conversation with Vance on the Question of “Human Rights,” February 18, 1977
[Source: Ibid.]

Ambassador Dobrynin receives instructions from Moscow to meet with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and deliver a rebuttal to recently inaugurated President Carter’s human rights initiatives and specifically his support for Soviet dissidents, which Moscow sees as an example of interference in Soviet internal affairs. Dutifully, Dobrynin subsequently tried to explain to Vance how the public human rights campaign was perceived in the Soviet Union and how he believed it could interfere with progress in arms control negotiations.

Document 11: Anatoly Dobrynin’s Conversation with Cyrus Vance, March 21, 1977
[Source: Ibid.]

In this conversation on the eve of Vance’s departure for Moscow to present a U.S. proposal for “deep cuts” of strategic forces to the Soviet leadership, Dobrynin warns the Secretary of State that this idea would be unacceptable to the Brezhnev Politburo on the grounds that it is deeply asymmetrical and represents an abandonment of an earlier agreement that Brezhnev was prepared to sign. His warning proves to be prescient, and Vance’s visit marks the beginning of a major downturn in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Document 12: Personal Memorandum on Afghanistan from Yurii Andropov to Leonid Brezhnev, early December 1979
[Source: Cold War International History Project, Virtual Archive. Original source: Archive of the President of the Russian Federation, from notes taken by A. F. Dobrynin and provided to the Norwegian Nobel Institute; provided to CWIHP by Odd Arne Westad, Director of Research, Nobel Institute; translated for CWIHP by Daniel Rozas]

This extraordinary memo from KGB chief Yurii Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev represents a back channel of a different kind -- an end run around the Politburo to persuade the Soviet leader of the need to send troops to Afghanistan. The decrepit Brezhnev by this time had ceded virtually full control of foreign affairs to the troika of Andropov, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Defense Minister Dmitrii Ustinov.  After reading Andropov’s “alarming information” about “a possible political shift to the West” by Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin, Brezhnev consents and within days the entire Soviet leadership has signed off on the invasion. 

Dobrynin gained access to the Russian Presidential Archive and was permitted to take notes of the document, which he then presented to an international conference in Norway in 1994. Without his personal involvement, this and many other critical pieces of historical information might never have entered the public domain.

Document 13: Anatoly Dobrynin’s Memorandum to Mikhail Gorbachev, September 18, 1988
[Source: Gorbachev Foundation archive, Fond 2, Opis 2]

In this memorandum, Dobrynin, as head of the International Department of the Central Committee, advises Gorbachev on his next moves toward the United States. Dobrynin explains perceptively the dynamics of the presidential campaign in the U.S. and suggests that Gorbachev should try to meet with President-elect George H.W. Bush as early as possible, before he is inaugurated, in order to preserve continuity and momentum in U.S.-Soviet relations. The best time and location for such a meeting, Dobrynin advises, would be in New York, especially if Gorbachev is to deliver an address to the U.N. General Assembly. As predicted, the address provides a major stimulus for a new start in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Document 14: Excerpt of Anatoly Dobrynin Remarks at Conference on “SALT II and the Growth of Mistrust,” May 7, 1994
[Source: Transcript of conference # 2 of The Carter-Brezhnev Project: A Conference of U.S. and Russian Policymakers and Scholars Held at Musgrove Plantation, St. Simons Island, Georgia, May 6-9, 1994]

In this memorable intervention during a “critical oral history” session on U.S.-Soviet relations during the Carter-Brezhnev period, ex-Ambassador Dobrynin explains the secrecy and compartmentalization of Soviet decision making in foreign policy. Among other undesirable effects, it results in Soviet diplomats being forced to learn the terminology for Soviet weapons systems from the American negotiators.



1. See the uniquely valuable compilation of backchannel communications edited by David C. Geyer and Douglas E. Selvage, cited above.


home | about | documents | news | postings | FOIA | research | internships | search | donate | mailing list

Contents of this website Copyright 1995-2017 National Security Archive. All rights reserved.
Terms and conditions for use of materials found on this website.