Elsey, George

Kane, Jim


Lunghi, Hugh

Roberts, Frank


Continuation of Interview with Sir Frank Roberts

Q: You've talked about how Khrushchev was a lot less predictable than Stalin, can you describe the particular outburst directed at yourself as a.. when he thought you had full knowledge of the building of the Berlin Wall.

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Oh, yes. Well, one met Khrushchev a great deal, I'm not talking about official meetings in the Kremlin when one had a special thing to go and talk about, but he loved meeting people, particularly Western ambassadors. He got very bored with his own ambassadors or the communist ambassadors. And he used to go to all the sort of receptions, and we met him at all these receptions a great deal, and he always used to come over and have a talk, not just passing the time of day and saying, you know, it's a nice day or something, but really getting down to whatever was the subject of the moment and, of course, the Berlin.. Berlin blockade.. I'm sorry, the second Berlin crisis, which led to the Berlin Wall eventually, was the subject of the moment for most of the time I was in Moscow, the first year I was there. And it got more and more difficult. You know, no solution could be found, Khrushchev had insisted on there being a solution. He used to talk about if you had a very painful tooth in your mouth wouldn't you want to get rid of it, and that's like me in Berlin, you see. And he tried to get us to agree to a United Nations presence in Berlin instead of us, you see, and we hadn't agreed, and so on. That's also quite a funny story. But anyway, time went on and no solution. And at one of these parties, suddenly Khrushchev saw me and came over, and said to me I want to let you know that I've appointed Major General so and so to command our troops around Berlin. Well, although Khrushchev had liberalized the regime a good deal compared to Stalin, still he hadn't inaugurated giving us military secrets. I mean, and the appointment of generals was a military secret. So I was very surprised. I mean, I thought what can this mean? Berlin.. unimportant.. must be important. And so I said nothing. And he got a bit annoyed. And he sent for the vice-chief of the general staff, Gretchko. He said will you confirm to the British Ambassador, or Sir Frank or something and, of course, he confirmed, you see, and I still couldn't make out what this was. I mean, it obviously meant something, but what, I didn't know, because we, in Moscow, certainly didn't know, but even in Berlin we didn't know of the preparations that were then being made to build the Berlin Wall, which happened quite soon after this - this meeting. And then he lost his temper. And well, if you take it like that, let me just tell you that I can destroy your country with 8 of our nuclear bombs. And I thought well, I can't you see, so I Khrushchev, I think that would be a mistake, you know, we're a rather small country, I think 6 would be enough. But then, don't forget, that we, without the aid of the Americans, and this was true at that time, the RAF can come and bomb Moscow, and about 19 of your other cities and destroy them, and that wouldn't be very good either, would it, you see, and so.. and Khrushchev said well, maybe you're right, let's have a drink, you see, so we had a drink. A kind of extraordinary conversation. But of course, I thought now what is the.. Oh, yes, at one point he'd said and Major General so and so restored liberty in Budapest in 1956, you see, and that was rather significant. And, of course, he, looking back on it, he must have thought that I knew or that our people in Berlin knew and had informed me that there was a plan to build a wall in Berlin. And this was the warning that if we reacted to that, he already had made his arrangements, you see, for military opposition to any reaction we might take. It's the only logical explanation.

Q: When you were in Moscow weren't you aware that standards of living in comparison with what they had been in Russia were improving?

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Oh, yes. I mean, I mean, going back to Moscow, under Khrushchev, it was a quite different place from Moscow under Stalin. I mean, apart from the fact, I mean, that obviously, it was what, about 16 years since the end of the war, and so they'd had time to improve. But what was much more important was, of course, the whole attitude of the population had changed, you see. In Stalin's time most people slept with a little case at their sides, lest they might be knocked up in the middle of the night and taken to a concentration camp. Well, that finished, I mean, under Khrushchev. He did still have these medical sort of places where they pushed a lot of people in rather unpleasantly. But the big concentration camps were all finished with. I mean, where there were millions and millions of Russians. And the Russians ceased to have this feeling that they might suddenly be arbitrarily arrested or anything like that. And they began to feel to criticize their leaders, they never criticized Stalin at all. But they didn't like Khrushchev when he went and bashed his shoe on the desk at the United Nations, they thought that was very undignified. And the Russians like to have dignified leaders, even if they're Stalin. They said this was "uncultured" - they never quite recovered from that. But on the other hand, he did - he did improve life for Russians in Russia a very great deal, and he certainly improved the life for diplomats in Russia a great deal. First of all, we met him a lot and he talked to us a lot, and a lot of the conversations were much pleasanter than the one about the bombs. But also, I can't say that you could invite any Russian to come and have lunch at the embassy, not quite, but still, they were much more ready to talk and to meet and to behave normally.

Q: What about their advances in space technology? You were there when Gagarin came back.

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Of course. And this, of course, also had.. and the fact that Russia was actually ahead in space at that time, it had a great effect on Khrushchev himself. I mean, obviously he felt now, you know, I really am getting places and one of these days we will be top dog as it were, with any luck. But for the ordinary people it was a great thing. Russians are very patriotic and very proud, and they were very proud of having Gagarin up in space. Although they didn't lose their sense of criticism. I remember just when Gagarin, who was the first great spaceman, you know, came down and there was a tremendous reception in the Great New Palace in the Kremlin. I mean, there must have been about 6,000 people to celebrate all this - diplomatic corps and.. it so happened that the next day, we had to drive to Leningrad. We were driving, we needed the car at the other end for some reason. And all the way - Leningrad's about 700 kilometers, I think, from Moscow, and if you go by at that time there were starting to fill my Rolls, which takes quite a lot of petrol, and the automation had gone wrong, and so they were having to do it by hand. And a jeep from a nearby farm came along, and was waiting, and the two chaps were talking to each other. And one said well, there you are, this is our Russia all over, you see, yesterday, we celebrate the first man in space, today, we can't even fill the tank of the British Ambassador. And that was typical in many ways of the Russians. A lot of things were better, but a lot of things didn't work. But - but going back to the general attitude of the public, Khrushchev had a great slogan that I think it came out about that time, which was "Now we must catch up with and overtake the Americans" - and the story going round Moscow was - "Mmm, Nikita wants us to catch up with and overtake the Americans.. Mmm. Difficult. Maybe - maybe catch up with. Yes, let's try and catch up with them, but on no account should we overtake them. Why? Because then they would see the patches on the seats of our trousers." That's typical.. the Russian public were not easily persuaded that things were as good as Khrushchev hoped they were.