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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Loved Kennedys, Too




ST. PETERSBURG -- The latest Kennedy tragedy has evoked sympathy in Russia for a family almost Pushkin-like in its string of youthful lives cut short, along with nostalgia for his father, President John F. Kennedy ? a man who decades after his death is still seen by many here as the ideal romantic leader.


Little is known in Russia about John F. Kennedy Jr., who died with his wife and her sister in a plane crash this week. But Kennedy Jr.'s father, the 35th president of the United States, has for years enjoyed a certain cult status in Russia.


"For people of my generation, Kennedy was a romantic hero," Tatyana Korebanova, 39, a language teacher, said. "The absolute best compliment a girl could give a boy was to tell him that he looked like John F. Kennedy."


The Kremlin-connected media and oil tycoon Boris Berezovsky commented on this several months ago. He began a speech to a Harvard University-sponsored U.S.-Russian investment conference by musing upon the Kennedy era.


"Already at that time, the young people of my generation in the U.S.S.R. were beginning to feel the winds of change," Berezovsky told a crowd of professors and politicians gathered at the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. "And while it may sound strange for some of the Americans here, the embodiment of those changes for us was John Kennedy."


Why Kennedy? According to political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, because JFK "was everything that our leaders were not ? charismatic, young and glamorous."


"There was a kind of Kennedy-mania in the Soviet Union in the 1960s," Piontkovsky said. "He was young, energetic, and there was a romantic aura about him. I think we loved him even more than the Americans loved him."


In popular fascination, President Kennedy is probably rivaled only by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As to the younger Kennedy, for Russians he will always be the famous 3-year-old first son who was shown on television saluting the coffin of his slain father ? an image shown repeatedly on Russian television over the weekend.


"It is as if an evil fate follows this family," Yevgeny Kiselyov, host of NTV's weekly current affairs program "Itogi," said. News of Kennedy Jr.'s death this weekend led the "Itogi" broadcast on Sunday night and most of the weekend newscasts in Russia, and won prominent headlines in the print media.


Despite Cold War tensions, the Kennedy mystique managed to penetrate the Iron Curtain. The attraction is particularly strong with the generation of Russians known as the shestidesyatniki, those who came of age in the 1960s. These people, now in their 50s, approached adulthood during Kennedy's presidency ? which coincided in the Soviet Union with a brief liberalization, known as the "thaw," under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.


"I liked President Kennedy very much and I wasn't alone. Most of my generation adored him," St. Petersburg poet Viktor Krivulin, 55, said. "He was the first American president that we saw as a good and humanitarian person. In fact, many of us sympathized with Kennedy a lot more than with Khrushchev."


"When Kennedy was killed, I realized that history will not tolerate a political leader with a human face," added Krivulin, who was a teenager when Kennedy was assassinated. "The first thing I thought when I heard the news Saturday" ? of Kennedy Jr.'s disappearance ? "was, my God, that poor family. I am certain they are cursed."


The Russian fascination with the elder Kennedy even extends to the Kremlin. At the G-8 summit meeting in Cologne, Germany, last month, President Boris Yeltsin ? trying to mend the troubled Russian-U.S. relationship ? handed U.S. President Bill Clinton a strange and unexpected peace offering: Soviet KGB secret files on the Kennedy assassination.


The thick stack of KGB files included surveillance information about alleged Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, who lived in the Soviet Union from 1959 until 1962, and details about Moscow's reaction in the hours and days following Kennedy's assassination.


Staff writer Matt Bivens contributed to this story.