Why did Viktor Posuvalyuk choose to pursue a career in diplomacy?
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: At first the choice was between a career in music and university education: he graduated from school cum laude, but also finished a music school and the first course of Gnessin Moscow Special School of Music. No one in the family had any talent in music or foreign languages. Diplomacy was out of the question then.
It was back in 1957 when Moscow held the World Festival of Youth and the iron curtain was lifted for the first time. It might not ring a bell for young people but at that time it greatly influenced the minds of our generation, there was an atmosphere of a global enthusiasm. The mass media covered national liberation movements led by such heroes as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indonesian President Sukarno, and leaders of India Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Their charisma was very encouraging. In many ways, it was one of the reasons why he chose the Institute of Oriental Languages at Moscow State University.
Elena Posuvalyuk: It is symbolic that later on he got a chance to interpret for Nasser.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: After the first course, MSU students were sent to help with harvesting in the steppe. That was in 1958. By chance, we happened to be in the same team and became friends for life. After finishing the fourth course, students of the oriental faculty were sent to relevant countries for language practice. Viktor went to North Yemen, to Hodeida, where Soviet specialists worked on the construction of a seaport. He said that when he first came to Yemen (he had two stopovers, one in Cairo and the other in Asmara) and met with native speakers, he realized that he could hardly understand the locals as well as they could hardly understand him.
Elena Posuvalyuk: It happened because at our universities students study al-Fusha, which is the literate Language of the Quran. However, each of 22 Arab countries has its own dialect. Sometimes, its turns out that the Maghrebin, the Algerian and the Lebanese communicate in French, otherwise they could not understand each other.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: In Hodeida, he worked as an interpreter for ten months. There he improved his knowledge of Arabic through regularly listening to broadcasts. He successfully studied the local dialect and started to collect Arab proverbs. Besides, there he learned to drive and the rest of the life he drove himself, even during his mission as Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman.
His diplomatic career started by accident. During his language practice in Hodeida, he got acquainted with ambassador Nikolai Sulitsky, who said that Viktor Posuvalyuk was a talented and promising young man. Later, Viktor graduated from university in Moscow, and started thinking about what to do next. And one day we went to the Bolshoi Theater where we met Nikolai Sulitsky. Sulitsky asked Viktor about his plans for the future, and invited him to work as an interpreter at the embassy of the Soviet Union to Yemen.
Elena Posuvalyuk: Evgeny Primakov once told an interesting story. They met in 1966 (Viktor Posuvalyuk worked as attaché, and Evgeny Primakov came to Yemen as a correspondent of the Soviet newspaper Pravda). Since then, Primakov followed his achievements as an expert on Arab studies and invited him to engage in research at the Institute of Oriental Studies. At the same time, the military invited him, too, promising the rank of a major.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: It happened after the negotiations between Defense Minister Grechko and the Egyptian authorities, where Posuvalyuk was an interpreter. Grechko noticed his talent and suggesting he move on to a military career.
Elena Posuvalyuk: Looking back on those times, Evgeniy Primakov said: “If I knew then that 30 years later we would manage to resolve the most pressing issue in Iraq, I would have never invited him to do research”. Later, working in Iraq, my father defended his PhD on the Ba'ath Movement, and Evgeny Primakov was his research adviser.
In other words, they worked side by side?
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: Not that they were very close friends, still there were a big age and rank difference, however, they always stayed in touch. And Evgeny Primakov always helped him when it was needed. In politics, they shared the same views and were convinced statesmen.
What prompted Viktor Posuvalyuk’s interest in the East and the Middle East settlement?
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: Well, it was not only Viktor Posuvalyuk who was interested in the Middle East settlement, but the whole world was engaged in it! This problem still remains unsolved, though from time to time it’s replaced by other concerns.
After his work in Yemen, then in Moscow, Viktor Posuvalyuk was appointed to the Soviet Embassy in Iraq. In 1970, he took part in high-level talks and personally met with Saddam Hussein, later this meeting helped him in the difficult negotiations with the Iraqi leader. In the 1980s, Posuvalyuk worked in Damascus. Since then he started to cooperate with Palestinians, who together with the Syrian government worked at its territory to establish an independent Palestinian State. Our young diplomats eagerly worked with them.
Thanks to his excellent knowledge of the Arabic language, he often was involved to participate in negotiations of our leaders, that’s why he personally knew almost all Arab authorities of the first and second tiers. Viktor Posuvalyuk defended the interests of his country whenever he could, and he did this not only in line of his work. He found favor in the eyes of Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. When diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel were restored, he managed to establish contacts with the Israeli authorities.
Tell us about when and how Viktor Posuvaluk wrote his poems.
Elena Posuvalyuk: Posted as an ambassador to Oman, at one of the meetings Viktor Posuvalyuk, along with other Arab ambassadors, composed poems in Arabic. He never got any formal training. They still remember this moment. As Viktor Posuvalyk himself said, it was easy for him to write poems and songs, and he always found time for this.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: Besides, it was not exactly the poems but songs, which he performed to the guitar for his relatives and friends. He played piano well, and later on he learned to play the guitar and always performed his songs by himself. Eventually, friends helped him to record 12 songs at first, and then another 12 songs. They were recorded on cassette tapes, then on CDs.
He didn’t write poems till 40. He appreciated his father much, and after his death in 1981, he wrote his first song about the war based on the father’s story. Of course, he was also influenced by Vladimir Vysotsky. We collected his tapes, and during long trips listened to his songs in a car.
How did he manage to do music, poems and study proverbs while at top diplomatic posts?
Elena Posuvalyuk: He had more interests. He was an avid athlete. He adored football, basketball, swimming and karate. He did all that with sincere love to sports. He was a highly organized person that’s why he found time to do everything.
Is there any chance that his book of poems will be published in Arabic?
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: It could hardly be possible, though there is a Russian edition: V. Posuvalyuk “The fate”; Eastern Literature Publishing House; RAS; 2000
Elena Posuvalyuk: Despite his busy schedule, Evgeny Primakov wrote his memoirs about Viktor Posuvalyuk for this book and personally presented the book at a presentation attended by his colleagues Veniamin Popov, Mikhail Bogdanov, Pavel Akopov, Andrey Vdovin and others.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: He also spoke in memory of Viktor Posuvalyuk at the presentation of “Crimson Skies of Baghdad”, which was held in January 2012, at the Foreign Ministry's Reception House. The presentation also was attended by Sergey Lavrov, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Ambassador, who awarded the Posuvalyuk family with the Order of the Star of Jerusalem as a symbol of gratitude from Palestinians. Previously, Viktor Posuvalyuk was awarded posthumously with the 2000 Star of Bethlehem Necklacein 2005.
When did Posuvalyuk begin the work on “Crimson Skies of Baghdad”?
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: He worked on his Baghdad memories in the autumn of 1998 while recovering after a cancer surgery. Now I realize that he tried to write his memories on paper before it was time for him to go. He did not have time to finish and edit his notes…
For a long time, his memoirs remained locked away; the pain of his loss was too strong. Besides, he wasn’t sure whether he could manage to publish it. I returned to this issue in 2008, I typed the notes and wanted to publish them to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his departure.
I worked on this book for more than a year with the assistance of Vasiliy Kolotusha, a veteran of diplomatic service. The book represents a compilation, where along with Victor’s memoirs there are my story about him, his friends and colleagues’ memories, and his analysis of the relationship between USSR, then the Russian Federation, and the Arab world.
Elena Posuvalyuk: The book was issued in January 2012. It is about the events in Iraq in 1990-1991. Currently, it is perceived as an exciting detective story, but what he had been through then! He had to be the only ambassador there, every day he had to hold negotiations with the Iraqi authorities on behalf of all the Western Coalition in such a hard time. He managed to deal with it, he even found time for playing piano to keep up the team’s morale. The team consisted of 13 persons, who stayed in Baghdad on behalf of our embassy after the most stressful days of evacuation in January-February 1991.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: The so-called “pipe”, a hastily-built construction from a half-buried concrete pipe with a diameter of two meters, was used as a shelter during bombardments. Inside this shelter they had electricity and telephone, benches stood by the walls and a table in-between. Together with Viktor Posuvalyuk, the ambassadors of Cuba and Palestine also stayed in Baghdad with their assistants; however, they hadn’t any access to the Iraqi authorities.Vasiliy Kolotusha: These is not just notes, but memories of a person, who was in the thick of things and had to ensure contacts between the Soviet and Iraqi authorities despite ceaseless bombardments.
In 1991, a presidential decree awarded him with The Order of the Red Banner for fortitude, bravery and heroism displayed during the long month of the Kuwait crisis, which is a rare case for diplomat officials who do not usually get military awards.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: Surely, many recall his role in the events of 1998, when Iraq faced off with the Western coalition. Then a chemical weapons commission provided its research, and Viktor Posuvalyuk together with Evgeny Primakov had to conduct enormous work. They experienced large psychological and moral tension, which probably affected Viktor’s health.
During the last years of his work as Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Posuvalyuk became a point of media’s interest; his personality, sense of humour, friendliness and the ability to express thoughts clearly, drew journalists’ attention. At that time his interviews were often published in our and foreign newspapers. And of course the fact that the deputy minister was a poet played its certain role.
In this regard, the media released publications under such bright headlines as “A singing deputy minister”, “Solo of the Ambassador”, “Brusilov’s breakthrough” of Viktor Posuvalyuk”, “Vazir-Mukhtar of our days”. He became a popular media person and was invited to analytical programs hosted by Russian TV stars Mlechin, Svanidze, Leontiev, and Sorokina. Somebody said that Posuvalyuk’s impact was bigger than from an army.
Elena Posuvalyuk: I even heard that famous female poet Bella Akhmadulina was very upset about his death, noting his poetic talent.
How do people in the Middle East feel about Viktor Posuvalyuk’s merits?
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: Politic figures, diplomats and people highly appreciated his ability to spice up the conversation with some poem, funny story or Arab proverb, which he knew a lot. He was well-known in the Arab world. Even now after 18 years had passed, many people remember him.
Elena Posuvalyuk: The book mentions that after his death there were statements pouring from representatives of various countries, including the countries of the Arab world. I think it is fair to say that for many of them Viktor Posuvalyuk was a legendary person.
“It is with great sadness that I learned about the death of Mr. Posuvalyuk, Deputy Foreign Minister, Special Envoy to the Middle East, co-chairman of the Russian-Palestinian Commission for the Middle East Peace Settlement. He was a real diplomat and skillful politician, appreciated by all people who knew him. Also, he was a friend of mine and all Palestinians”. Yasser Arafat
“I knew Mr. Posavulyuk since his appointment to the post of a special representative of President Boris Yeltsin to the Middle East. We had fruitful cooperation and good relations. Soon I learned to appreciate his skills, knowledge and practical experience, applied by him to achieve peace in our region. Mr Posuvalyuk made a significant contribution to the promotion of Middle East peace process. It is sad to realize that he is no longer with us”. Sincerely yours, Eitan Bentzur, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: Certainly, it is our personal point of view. In any case, we really appreciate all the enthusiastic reviews on Viktor Posuvalyuk’s work. We thought that both Arab partners and our colleagues treated him in a special way. Many people highly appreciated his diplomatic talent, brilliant knowledge of Arabic and his charm. Certainly, many of them remember his deeds in 1991, when he, being the Soviet Ambassador to Baghdad, had to evacuate quickly more than 8,000 of our colleagues together with their families. It was one of the first cases in the world diplomatic practice.
You studied Arabic at the IAAS MSU. How did your father’s interest to Arabic and the East influence you?
Elena Posuvalyuk: I think it had a direct impact. When I was six months, my family and I were in Yemen. Then we moved to Iraq and lived there with my parents for two years before my entering school. Then I couldn’t learn Arabic, however since then every Arab country makes me feel like home. Unfortunately, the situation was extremely dangerous for a child to stay there. But I still love Arab countries and wish to visit them. The Arab language helps me to communicate.
Svetlana Posuvalyuk: Certainly, the choice of Arabic studies is in our genes. Our family has a lot of ties with the Arab world, since we lived in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, the Sultanate of Oman, then again in Iraq for more than 18 years. Victor’s youngest sister Lyudmila also chose Oriental Studies after school and married a specialist on the Arab world. She became an excellent specialist in Arab historical literature and for many years worked at the Publishing House of Eastern Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Therefore, Elena was destined to choose this way.
The opening speech of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the presentation of “Crimson skies of Baghdad” by Viktor Posuvalyuk. January 20, 2012.
I am very pleased that so many people are attending today’s book presentation of Viktor Posuvalyuk, an outstanding Soviet and Russian diplomat and our friend. The book includes his memoirs and diaries as well as some literary works of his friends and colleagues, who worked with him together.
Viktor Posuvalyuk was a great man, a talented diplomat of the highest quality, who mastered all the aspects of our profession. He devoted himself completely to this work. At first, he started his career as an interpreter at the construction of a sea port in Yemen, and later he became a respected companion of kings, presidents and ministers.
We highly appreciate the presence of Mr. Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian National Authority, who closely cooperated with Viktor Posuvalyuk within the Russian-Palestinian working committee for the Middle East.
Iraq took a special place in Posuvalyuk’s heart. He devoted to it almost ten years of his life, also as the Russian Ambassador when country experienced its worst times. That’s why he called his book “The Crimson Skies of Baghdad”. Serving as Deputy Minister, Posuvalyuk carried out instructions of Foreign Minister Evgeny Primakov. He tried to postpone the events which later became inevitable in relation to Hussein. At a certain stage his efforts helped to avoid a devastating blow against Iraq in 1990.
He was a great professional, poet, musician, in other words, Viktor Posuvalyuk was a multi-talented person. He charged all people around him with his energy and charm and highly appreciated his friends. His family, wife, daughter and granddaughter were very dear to him.