Diplomat, Scholar, Mentor

Vladimir Cherepanov shares memories of his senior colleague and friend Vladimir Sokolov, who passed away in November 2018.

A delicate knock on the door, and a lean white-haired man enters the room:

“I just thought I’ll check how you’re settling in and ask if you need some help.” His light eyes were looking up at me from under bushy eyebrows, radiating intelligent kindness. 

This is how I first met Vladimir Sokolov, a man of many talents, who was extraordinary both as a professional and as a human being. He had by then retired in the rank of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, but was still active as a diplomacy veteran and continued to conduct scientific research with great vigour. He taught at the Moscow State University of Culture and Arts, where he held the position of Assistant Professor of Journalism. He also served on the editorial board of our magazine and carried out a variety of other socially useful activities. I declined his offer of help that day — in part because I wanted to be polite, but mainly because I did not fully appreciate the generosity of the offer that was made to me, a new recruit of the Russian Commission for UNESCO and a novice in the world of multilateral diplomacy, by this man, who had long years of experience working at the UN Secretariat, at the central office of the the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR and Russia, at the Permanent Mission of the USSR to the UN, at the Embassy of Russia in Kazakhstan and, towards the end of his career, at the Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO.

Vladimir’s journey began with studying at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, UN courses for interpreters and Diplomatic Academy, followed by military service, a PhD degree and ten years of direct involvement in establishing a relationship of trust with the Non-Aligned Movement, which at that time played a major role in shaping international politics. He worked at the Embassy of the USSR in Zimbabwe at the time of the country’s chairmanship of the Movement in 1986-1989. 

As the saying goes, a wise man does not give advice — he answers questions. This is exactly how I would describe our meetings with Vladimir: accumulated experience, deep and multifaceted knowledge, shrewd observations about life, analysis of some of the most complex current developments on the international arena — he shared all this  in such a manner that his interlocutor felt as if he were a witness to or even a co-author of the small and big discoveries that those conversations, at the beginning seemingly trivial, culminated in. 

Together with his research, which was published as standalone works or appeared in respected journals such as “USA & Canada: Economics – Politics – Culture”, “International Affairs” constantly enriching the Commission’s library, my meetings with Vladimir gradually shed light on the subtleties of multilateral diplomacy, this extremely complex framework of international relations, and helped me to understand what stood behind the matter-of-fact reports about the work of outstanding figures of the field such as Andrei Gromyko, Yuli Vorontsov and Alexander and Oleg Troyanovskys.  

It was only much later that I realised what made Vladimir’s work so attractive, what the secret of his creative approach was. Irrespective of the topic, a real person with all his strengths and shortcomings was always at the centre of Vladimir’s narratives. He knew how to show the human side of the high-ranking professionals he was writing about, adding the needed dimension and vividness to their portraits without detriment to the depth of research into their activities. His own impressions from personal meetings, observations, little-known facts and new sources, Vladimir used everything to produce complete portraits that would reflect not only these men’s utmost professionalism, but also the motives behind their actions and some purely personal qualities and interests. These details were needed to complement the widely disseminated biographies and reveal the “blood, sweat and tears” behind these men’s accomplishments that found their way into textbooks of diplomacy. 

A good case in point is the following episode from one of Vladimir’s last publications, the 2015 book “Diplomaticheskie Ocherki”, which brought together texts on a variety of topics published over a number of years. In this episode, Vladimir examines the under-studied tenure of Yakov Malik as the Permanent Representative of the USSR to the UN, particularly in the years of the Korean War. The absence of the Soviet representative at the UN Security Council meetings in June-July 1950 in protest against the Taiwanese representative occupying the seat that was meant for China allowed the USA to avoid a Soviet veto on a range of resolutions, unfavourable for the USSR,  and secure the dispatch of US troops to Korea under the UN flag. For a long time, Soviet and Russian historians had been putting the blame for this foreign-policy mistake squarely on Malik. Based on some recently uncovered details, however, Sokolov indicates that the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR Andrey Vyshinsky influenced Malik’s behaviour by causing a delay in the sending of Stalin’s instructions on using the veto. In his account of this episode, Vladimir rightly points to the unenviable position of the diplomat, who was left without reliable information about the central government’s decisions in a critical situation. 

Born in 1940 in Petrozavodsk into the family of a career diplomat, Vladimir could not avoid the ever sensitive topic of diplomatic dynasties in his writings. While analyzing the heritage of the Troyanovskys in his book “Iz Kogorty Vydayuschikhsia Diplomatov”, he quotes the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR Eduard Shevardnadze as saying during a conversation with Oleg Troyanovsky that he had started fighting against nepotism in diplomacy,

“There is no place for nobility in the Ministry!”

“Well, in that case you will have to fire me because my father was the first Ambassador of the USSR to the US,’ said Troyanovsky in reply. 

Shevardnadze looked at his subordinate closely and said with a smile, ‘This doesn’t apply to you.” 

Perhaps one of the central themes in Vladimir’s writings, which eventually brought him to UNESCO, was the cultural and humanitarian side of diplomacy. Back in the mid 1970s, when he served at the Permanent Mission of the USSR to the UN and also presided over the Russian Book Club in New York on a voluntary basis, he was confident in his knowledge that cultural ties are the best way to promote broader understanding between nations and, in particular, to help foreign partners free themselves from the narrow views they had about the USSR. When recalling his participation in organizing speaking engagements at the UN for the writer Konstantin Simonov, the poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, and other representatives of the Soviet artistic intelligentsia, Vladimir always highlighted that poetry, or literature in general, and diplomacy never interfere with each other. Rather, they complement each other naturally as they are united by the laborious work on the spoken or written word. 

There is a reason why Vladimir does not only depict diplomats as the ultimate professionals of their craft, but also immerses the reader into the world of their leisure pursuits dominated by art, literature and music. For example, Andrei Gromyko, the gloomy and in many people’s eyes austere Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, who was known in Western circles as ‘Mr. No’, is depicted in Vladimir’s writings from a rather unexpected perspective — as a connoisseur of films directed by the likes of Federico Fellini and Andrei Tarkovsky, music composed by Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke, and as someone who had a profound understanding of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s work. 

Vladimir had an inherent appreciation for beauty and could not help getting fascinated by jazz while living in the birth country of this musical genre. At first just an enthusiastic fan, he subsequently turned into a true connoisseur of this music and met many of the prominent Soviet and foreign jazz musicians, constantly working to promote each and every subgenre of this form of music. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Charles Mingus, John Lewis, David Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Harby Hancock, Leonid Utesov, Addie Rozner, Georgy Garanian, Boris Frumkin, David Goloshchekin, Aleksei Kozlov, Vyacheslav Ganelin, Igor Butman — it is difficult to name an influential jazz musician who was not at least briefly mentioned in Vladimir’s writings. However, it is the work of Oleg Lundstrem, Yuri Saulsky and Anatoly Kroll, who Vladimir invariably calls the pillars of Soviet and Russian jazz, that receive the most attention. Saulsky’s motto “Jazz is my music for life” can be absolutely legitimately applied to Vladimir. 

Sokolov never shied away from routine work. Using his brilliant command of the English language, he translated material for our magazine without asking for anything in return. He wrote for the journal himself, collected background information to prepare for speech events at the UNESCO, and advised on the multifaceted activities of the organization. 

Vladimir was open to discuss any topic, the only exception being his personal troubles. His readiness to help in an hour of need, to assist in finding a solution to a difficult problem and to offer emotional support was as strong as his reluctance to speak about his own trials and tribulations, about the losses among his family and friends and about his thorny destiny. Vladimir stayed true to himself when he left this world on a November night without troubling his friends and colleagues. He will remain in our memories as a well-spoken man with a bright mind and a kind heart.