BADEN-BADEN, Germany, Dec. 7 (UPI) — He accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev through Glasnost and Perestroika. His eloquent – if sometimes evasive – answers during the famous news conferences of the 1980s became a hallmark of U.S.-Soviet rapprochement. He speaks perfect German, English and French. Last week, this zeitgeist — Vladimir Lomeiko — celebrated his 70th birthday.
Lomeiko and I met 10 years ago in Paris. We were introduced by his colleague Boris Pankin.
Former Foreign Minister Pankin and I had been panelists at the 1997 Helsinki Committee’s Prague Human Rights Conference. We debated the topic of NATO expansion. I was in favor; he was opposed. Joining us were two leaders of the anti-communist movement: Rob McRae, now Canada’s Ambassador to NATO, and Martin Palous, now the Czech Ambassador to the United Nations.
Some hours after the debate, the Prague Society’s Barbara Day and I stumbled across Pankin and his wife, Valentina, in Prague’s old-town square. I smiled, said “Hello” and then bellowed, “Mr. Foreign Minister.” He turned to me — as did half the square. In an incoherent gibberish, I muttered some words that were an attempt to invite him to dinner. He looked puzzled. Even I didn’t understand what I had asked him. He quickly demurred. I was embarrassed.
As I walked away shaking my head, Day stated in British-deadpan, “That was exceptionally well done.” I just wanted to disappear. But then we heard a thickly accented voice call out to us. Pankin came close. “Valentina says you have sympathetic eyes. We would be pleased to join you for dinner.” As moments passed, with me tongue-tied, Day said, “That would be lovely.” And so began a marvelous association.
Following a distinguished career, Pankin was the highest-ranking diplomat to stand against the Gorbachev putsch in 1991. Ambassador Pankin had also stood down Czech troops who were massing against students and dissident leaders including Vaclav Havel. Awarded the Foreign Ministry by Gorbachev for his courage, he would be the last Soviet foreign minister.
In his time, Lomeiko was the spokesman for Gromyko, Shevardnadze, the foreign ministry and Gorbachev. He would be the last Soviet and the first Russian Ambassador to UNESCO. He would end his diplomatic career as special adviser to UNESCO’s Director General Frederico Major.
Lomeiko spent his youth amongst the rubble of Leningrad. He experienced the massive-destructive bombings by German troops. He was himself a runner. Those who have seen the film “Enemy at the Gates”, see the depiction of runners — in Stalingrad — and the pain inflicted on the Russian people in a Hollywood way. I am reminded that Russia and its people – 20 million were killed in World War II — were our allies before the Soviet Union became our enemy.
In 2000, Lomeiko retired to Baden-Baden, the famous German spa-town visited by numerous prominent Russians over the centuries. As executive president, he now organizes the respected Baden-Baden Forum, which brings together German and Russian leaders from politics and industry. I am honored to sit on the BBF’s board.
At the charming restaurant Traktir, Lomeiko had invited a few old friends to join him to celebrate 70 years of life. Included were former minister Henrikas Yushkiavitshus – who had been in charge of communications for the 1980 Olympics, later deputy director of UNESCO (1990-2001); his wife; the German energy brokers Nicholas and Juergen Malsch and his wife, myself, the lovely Israeli women’s leader Suzanne Schwellinger and her German husband, Walter, and last but not least the brilliant and tough Olga, Lomeiko’s wife.
Henrikas began the evening in traditional Russian style with a toast of vodka. He presented Lomeiko with a Kazakhstanian horse whip, and instructed Olga to use it on her husband regularly. “We know Olga that you are his only authority.” This began an evening of joyous drinking, laughter and emotions spanning the Cold War to present. “Tonight, my friends let us try not to speak about politics.” We all laughed, knowing this would be near impossible.
In good Russian tradition, the evening was filled with commentaries and song. At some point, I suggested each of us sing our national anthems. And so the U.S., Russian, German, Canadian, Lithuanian and Israeli anthems were sung with great passion, in great — and sometimes not-so-great – tones.
“Tonight I laughed a lot. I actually laugh and smile too little,” said Lomeiko toward the end. “You know, Marc,” he turned to me, “I like that you laugh so much, despite the many stresses in your life. One must always keep a bit of the child present in the man.”
Lomeiko was well known for “taking the road less-taken.” He, Yuskiavitshus and Pankin were among the earliest supporters of Glasnost and Perestroika. Lomeiko, a reticent and deeply thoughtful man, was considered one of the Soviet Unions leading experts on Germany. His doctorate and books speak volumes to his political wisdom and creativity.
As government spokesman Lomeiko would spin words into poetry – not always to the pleasure of the United States.
On this evening too Lomeiko showed that he is still the master of the spoken word.
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political personalities and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)