Soviet Diplomat Testifies on the Hill

Vitaly Churkin
Vitaly Churkin

So here is a headline you certainly won’t see every day, and you certainly wouldn’t see something like this in the 1980s. In the Cold War edition of Ghosts of DC, here’s a cool article that we came across in The Washington Post. This was the first time an official of the Soviet Union testified before a House committee, by Vitaliy Churkin, in an attempt to be transparent after the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

…the appearance of Churckin, a second secretary of the Soviet Embassy here, turned into a clash of political philosophies that revealed few new details of what is being called the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

For more than an hour, the well-tailored diplomat, displaying an array of English slang and the Gorbachev emphasis on image, parried with members of the House energy, conservation and power subcommittee. He fended off the political barbs of one congressman as “mumbo jumbo” and advised the panel not to use such a “commanding tone” if it hoped to elicit cooperation from Moscow.

When subcommittee Chariman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) demanded to know why the Soviet government has failed to inform its own people of the accident, Churckin replied that “the citizens who were affected by the accident are very well taken care of, and if they have any medical problems they will not even have medical bills to pay.”

Asked whether American farmers should prepared for an increased Soviet purchases of grain because of radioactive contamination in the Ukraine, the breadbasket of Russia, Churckin noted dryly, “I understand this question was not based entirely on humanitarian grounds.”

“We are in a capitalist country right now,” Markey shot back.

“I realize that very much,” said the Russian.

The sometimes spirited repartee was reminiscent of past Hill hearings, with members of Congress grilling the witness and the witness artfully dodging the hard questions.

At one point, Rep. Norman F. Lent (R-N.Y.), noting that the subcommittee was addressing Churkin as it would a U.S. official, conceded that “perhaps we’ve been unfair” in demanding detailed scientific information.

“I’m glad you realize that,” the diplomat replied, seemingly undaunted.

Churking, who appeared after the Markey staff extended an invitation to the embassy, noted the “unique experience” of a Soviet official testifying before a House panel. But he quickly established limits by reminding questioners that he was an embassy employe, not a nuclear scientist.

Asked repeatedly by panel members about the cause of the Chernobyl accident, Churkin, met the questions with a question of his own: “Can you tell me in certain terms why the Challenger accident happened?”

“We deal with our problems in the open,” said Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “That’s what we’d like in the Soviet Union.”

After his Hill experience, Churkin sat for an interview on the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” Asked if the Soviet government had approved of his testimony, he replied, “I don’t think we asked. We’re very courageous fellows here.”

Washington Post headline
Washington Post headline