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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Superpower Translator

When Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to announce a new era of Soviet-American friendship to George Bush during the 1989 Malta summit, it was Pavel Palazhchenko who did the talking.


A translator with eight superpower summits under his belt, Palazhchenko, 44, told Bush that the Soviet Union no longer regarded America as an enemy.


"Those really were historic words; those words definitively ended the Cold War", he said in the smooth English that made him the U. S. S. R'. s highest-profile translator.


Today, the mustached translator remains where he has been since 1985 -- by Mikhail Gorbachev's side whenever the ex-president needs to communicate in English. That position has given Palazhchenko a unique view of some of the most important events that ended the Cold War.


At Gorbachev's first summit meeting with Ronald Reagan in 1985, relations between the two men remained cool, partially because of each man's strong ideological positions, Palazhchenko recalled.


"Reagan sometimes assumed an accusatory stance", he said in the Gorbachev Center where he now works. "That did not last very long. Gorbachev would say that 'Mr. President, you're not a prosecutor and I'm not an accused, and so let's just get on with business'".


Over the next few years, both leaders experienced fundamental revolutions in their world outlook, and their relations warmed considerably.


"Gorbachev changed tremendously over the years from an initial idea of what he wanted to do in the country, which is basically to rejuvenate the old system, he came to an understanding that the old system would have to be replaced", Palazhchenko said.


By the time Gorbachev visited Washington in December 1987 to sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, relations between the Cold War hawk and the Communist ideologue had warmed considerably to the point that both were on a first name basis.


Palazhchenko was first inspired to tackle the language after hearing the rock music of the early 1960s.


"Everyone was a fan of the Beatles, and we listened and learned the lyrics and tried to understand some of the funnier lyrics", he said.


After formal language study as a college student, Palazhchenko was sent to work with the Soviet Union's U. N. delegation in New York, where he lived from 1974 to 1979. He then worked as an arms-control translator for the Foreign Ministry before becoming part of Gorbachev's team.


The long years on the job have molded a strong inner professional code that Palazhchenko believes all translators should follow. The first rule is that translators must refrain from interjecting their personal views.


"Sometimes one does not like the position or the policy, but one still does one's work professionally", he said. "As a pro, a translator normally can't afford the luxury of thinking too much".


Another rule is cool detachment, a trait often captured in past summit photography in which Palazhchenko is serious and businesslike as Gorbachev and Reagan warmly shake hands or share an intimate moment together.


"Nervousness, overexcitement, this is something that you just have to kind of unplug", he said.


Of course, Palazhchenko does have his own impressions of world leaders and events and is now writing his memoirs, but he said it will not be a "kiss a tell" tome of revelations. For instance, he has nothing but praise for George Bush. "Bush is probably one of the nicest men I have seen in my life, also very knowledgeable", he said. "He was really very competent".


He did acknowledge that Ronald Reagan occasionally became overwhelmed in details of arms control.


"His qualities of leadership are not associated with the mastery of details", he said. "His qualities of leadership I think are associated with his ability to inspire people".


And what about Gorbachev's reputation as a long-winded speaker who often rambles?


"Even though his sentences can sometimes be rather confused, it is always something that has a point in it, he makes sense politically and he makes sense grammatically", he said. "Some people say he leaves sentences unfinished; I don't think he does that very often. He very often goes on some kind of tangent, and he may include a huge parenthesis to his sentence, but then he comes to what he initially was beginning to say".