“Great deeds of great men endure, even as they pass away”. “Thank you for the Russian “No” is the name of a memorial to Vitaly Churkin and his veto in the UN Security Council, installed by Serbs in Eastern Sarajevo, Bosnia.
The memorial is black with a portrait of the diplomat and a concise inscription, which portrays something beyond strength of character, vigor, courage and outstanding diplomatic skills.
It is often neglected that military and diplomatic service are more alike than one may think. The state is of course the one to determine which of the two fits best in any given situation – “the warrior’s sword” or “the diplomat’s quill.” Two ancient concepts exist to show the dichotomy: “the man of advice” and “the man of war.” But they both have a common feature – it’s the selfless service to your country’s interests in its relations with other states. Selfless in the sense there is no such thing as a price too high, even your own life. Vitaly Churkin was that type of diplomat.
Young and with frizzy grey hair – that’s what he looked like when he first appeared in 1986 on live TV worldwide, as he was fending off verbal assaults from US congressmen after he, as a second secretary to the Soviet embassy in the US, decided to tell the world about the tragedy at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
“Don’t you think that the Chernobyl disaster shows the USSR is on the verge of collapse?” – Churkin was asked by one of the congressmen. “Don’t you think that the Challenger disaster shows the US is on the verge of collapse,” he parried.
The topic never resurfaced after that. His perfect English, ability to react quickly and take responsibility ensured a respectful reception of his actions in American media. It also showed for the first time Moscow’s transparency and readiness to cooperate in order to deal with the consequences of the disaster.
He immensely loved his job, finding it both interesting and enjoyable. Listen to his speeches as Russian Ambassador to the UN and you will see how sincere he was when he spoke; how took to heart the goal of protecting the honor of his homeland.
“I would like to ask the US Ambassador: are you still looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or have you already found them? […] Wasn’t it Washington, who threatened to use force against and even wipe out another UN member?”
While being respectful to his colleagues, he skillfully, sometimes caustically and pungently, responded to the claims and attacks from other diplomats. He had his most heated debates with US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, which were often reported by global media.
There were many occasions for such encounters – the situations in Syria and Ukraine provided a constant supply. When Power criticized the actions of Syrian government forces during a discussion about the situation in Aleppo in December 2016, Vitaly Churkin advised her to recall the actions of her own country.
“The speech by the US representative is particularly strange to me. She gave her speech as if she was Mother Teresa herself. Please, remember which country you represent. Please, remember the track record of your country. After you do so, you can proceed to judge from a position of moral superiority. Who and what is to blame is ultimately for historians and God to find out.”
When he had to protect official positions, Vitaly Churkin pulled no punches. He could, for example, suggest to Samantha Power, after meeting with the band Pussy Riot, to invite them to the Washington National Cathedral or organize a tour for them to the Vatican or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
“I’m waiting for her (Samantha Power) to invite the girls to take the stage in the Washington National Cathedral. I’m counting on it. Maybe they will organize a world tour for them: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, then maybe Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and then finally a gala near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. If Samantha Power fails in that, I’ll be very disappointed.”
“He served as Ambassador to the UN during one of the most difficult periods in American-Russian relations and did it with dignity and wisdom,” Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State said of Churkin.
“This is an everyday stress. As you know, there is an eight hour difference between Moscow and New York. There is a lot to be done here in New York – prepare the speech that demonstrates our position on the matter, send information concerning other countries to Moscow, receive instructions from there, do everything you can to fulfill them. That is probably one of the most difficult jobs. It goes on 24 hours a day,” Sergei Ordzhonikidze, former Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, said.
“I had been working as an interpreter for a long time. I even interpreted for Brezhnev when I was young,” –Vitaly Churkin said once. His experience as an interpreter, ability to react instantly; his sense of humor, especially in English, were his ultimate weapons.
His colleagues from other countries, as well as journalists working in the UN, especially from the US and the UK, have always admired how he wittily and at the same time diplomatically could fend off his opponents.
“If an alien suddenly visited for the first time our meeting here today, I’m sure that after listening to our discussion his heart would fill with pride for the Security Council members. These people adhere to their principles to the end! How rigorously they defend the principles of international law!” Churkin said during a UN meeting, August 29, 2008.
“In this respect one cannot but remember that there are such wonderful historical words in the US Constitution: ‘We the people’ The people of Crimea expressed their will quite definitely in the referendum for independence,” was Vitaly Churkin’s response to newly appointed US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who declared that the sanctions against Russia wouldn’t be lifted unless it returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine, February 3, 2017.
“The UK ambassador has passionately exclaimed: “Stop your bombing now!” Indeed, let’s stop supporting all sorts of rabble around the world – extremists, terrorists and others who like to destabilize the situation in any country. Let’s stop intervening in the internal matters of independent states at all,” Vitaly Churkin’s said in response to accusations from UK Ambassador to the UN Mathew Rycroft against Russia’s actions in Syria, October 9, 2016.
“This wasn’t even a speech; it was rather a set of delusional thoughts, not just anti-Russian, but Russophobic and anti-Orthodox. Fortunately for the Georgian people, the dusk of this man’s, whose psychological condition requires professional examination, political career is imminent,” Churkin said after Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s speech in the UN General Assembly, September 26, 2013.
“Let’s […] abandon those old colonial habits and leave the world alone. By doing so you will improve the situation in many parts of the world,” was Vitaly Churkin’s response to US and UK criticism against Russia’s decision to veto the resolution about establishing a no-fly zone above Aleppo.
“We cannot pretend that there are no politically motivated assassinations, mass reprisals and tortures. We cannot pretend that there are no abductions, assaults on journalists and human rights advocates, politically motivated imprisonments,” Vitaly Churkin said in a speech during a UN meeting devoted to the Ukrainian crisis, March 2014.
“What happened in the UN Security Council looked like the Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors, as some of its members were not interested in the fact that people are dying in the eastern part of Ukraine, not interested in the fact that there’s a humanitarian disaster in the region, but interested in the fact that Russia is sending humanitarian aid to the people who remain under artillery fire,” Churkin said at a UN discussion on the Russian humanitarian convoy, which delivered food and medical supplies to the people of Donbass, August 22, 2014.
“Vitaly Churkin was one of the few diplomats who were loved by the common folk. Vitaly Ivanovich told us that during his visits to Moscow he would use the Moscow subway, where he was often recognized. Sometimes in their urge to thank the diplomat, random fellow passengers did really cute things. One man, a harmonist, promised to give a concert in his honor right there, in the Moscow subway. Another one, who recognized the Russian ambassador, invited him to a restaurant, and after he refused, sent to his office a box of vintage cognac from Dagestan,” said Olga Denisova, Sputnik correspondent to the UN.
“It will be impossible to replace the man, who was a symbol of Russian foreign policy and its voice on the key international platform, the Security Council specifically, and in the UN in general. This man did not just roll with the punches, but also embodied with himself, his will, his vigor, his knowledge, his intellect the best of what has been accumulated and implemented by Russian foreign policy over the past decades. He symbolized the undying faith in the righteousness of our cause, our beliefs,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said.