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American journalist Marvin Kalb writes memoir of a year that changed Russia

Some 40 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union in 1956 was once again wracked with turmoil and upheaval. In “The Year I Was Peter the Great,” journalist Marvin Kalb chronicles his experience living there as a young American during that tumultuous time and his brush with iconic leader Nikita Khrushchev. Judy Woodruff sits down with the author.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We return to Russia.

    Some 40 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1956, the country found itself again in the midst of turmoil and upheaval.

    That's the focus of Judy Woodruff's latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The year began with Nikita Khrushchev denouncing Stalin himself, leading to anti-communist uprisings throughout Eastern Europe and raising hopes within Russian.

    Veteran foreign affairs reporter Marvin Kalb was a young diplomatic attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and had a front-row seat in a tumultuous year that foreshadowed the breakup of the Soviet Union some 30 years later.

    He has written a book about that time, "The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956 – Khrushchev, Stalin's Ghost, and a Young American in Russia."

    And Marvin Kalb joins me now. Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    Hi. Thank you. Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, this is the story, as we say, of what happened at a crucial moment in Russian history and the history of the Soviet Union, but it's also your first memoir after 15 books you have written.

    We get a glimpse of who Marvin Kalb is.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    It was a fun book to write. I had never done anything like that in my life.

    When you write about yourself, it's much more difficult than, as you know, writing about the world or an event. And in Russia at that time, everything was just so exciting. And for me, as a young American there, it was an eye-opening, intoxicating experience.

    I loved every day of it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you had been at Harvard.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You were studying for your Ph.D. You already knew the Russian language.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You were studying Russian history. This opportunity came along to put you right smack in the middle of this place that you had been studying. And you were able to get to know some of the Russian people.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    I got to know the Russian people because one of the great advantages of being utterly unimportant at the embassy was that, when I wanted to travel to different parts of the Soviet Union, which had up to that moment been closed to foreigners, the ambassador, the wonderful Charles Bohlen, looked at me and he would say, "What have I got to lose?"

    So, Marvin would go to Central Asia, to Ukraine, to Northern Russia, everywhere. And after an initial period of caution, the Russian people opened up, at least in my experience, and I had a wonderful time with them.

    I really was able to hear their problems and understand what was on their minds in addition to having access to someone like Nikita Khrushchev.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, and I want you to tell that story, but we should remind everybody this year was crucial in the history of the Soviet Union, because a month or two after you arrived, Nikita Khrushchev surprises everybody, denounces Joseph Stalin, who had been a hero in their eyes.

    And everything changed, at least for a short time, when you were there.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    It was a fantastic moment in modern Russian history.

    Up to that time, the Russian people had never experienced personal freedom. And the Russian people, for the first time in their history, had an opportunity to think for themselves. And it was such a magnificent, fresh, wonderful thought for them and an experience for them that they began to think, wait a minute, maybe we can get freedom.

    And suddenly, young people, the future of Russia, they are denouncing the system itself. And that thought ran through Russia. Then it spilled over the borders and went into Eastern Europe. And, suddenly, you had the Hungarian Revolution.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And everything was closed up again.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    Because Khrushchev decided just to crack down to end that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, in the meantime, you had the opportunity to meet Khrushchev himself.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    Oh, yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tell the story, because that's where the name Peter the Great comes from.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    It was the July 4 holiday. Ambassador Bohlen was having a big event.

    Khrushchev decided to come with the entire politburo. I happened to be one of four Americans in a woefully understaffed embassy who spoke Russian.

    So, Ambassador Bohlen said, Marvin, you ought to look after Marshal Zhukov. That was sort of crazy in my mind because I had been a PFC in the United States Army. That was my top rank. And here I was responsible for dealing with a Soviet marshal.

    And he loved vodka. So, I fed him vodka, and I drank water.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's a great story.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    I drank water.

    And after about eight vodkas and waters, Khrushchev beckoned to both of us to come on over. And Zhukov was a little tipsy. And he said to Khrushchev, "I have finally found a young American who can drink like a Russian."

    Khrushchev loved that line. He looked up at me and he said, "How tall are you?"

    I said, "I'm six centimeters shorter than Peter the Great."

    Well, he loved the line. It brought the house down. And from that time, even when I came back years later for CBS, he always remembered me as Peter the Great. It was a great asset.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You had access in a way that no other American journalist had.

    But, Marvin, what did you learn about them as a people?

  • MARVIN KALB:

    What I think I learned more than anything else is how similar they are to us.

    I remember once being in a train with a young Azerbaijani woman, probably 22, 23, and we were traveling together. Just happened that way.

    And she was looking at me and she says, "Where are you from?"

    I said, "the United States."

    She said, "I don't believe it."

    "Why?"

    "Well, you speak Russian."

    I said, "Yes, but even an American can learn Russian."

    And there was an awkward five or 10 minutes when things were, oh, the Americans are very bad and this is very bad. And then, when she felt she knew me, and I felt I was getting to know her, everything sort of dropped, and we were two people, and we were sharing experiences and insights.

    And I found that to be the case with Russians, whether they lived in Central Asia, in the Caucasus, or Ukraine, Northern Russia. They are people just as we. They really wanted peace.

    Remember that this was 11 years after the end of World War II. Thirty million Russians had been killed in World War II, maybe more. And they all wanted peace, and yet they felt maybe they weren't going to get it. Maybe there would be war.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, so many telling stories, a wonderfully written book.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    It's fun.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    "The Year I Was Peter the Great, 1956 – Khrushchev, Stalin's Ghost, and a Young American in Russia."

    Marvin Kalb, thank you very much.

  • MARVIN KALB:

    Thank you, Judy. Thank you.

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