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Compassionate Leadership with a Humorous Touch

Pictured: Commander-in-Chief of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, Army General V. I. Chuikov at a meeting with GDR President Wilhelm Pieck. Far-left—A. Y. Bogomolov, Berlin, 1951.

While conducting research on Marshal Chuikov’s leadership experience in East Germany, I discovered several sources which described these years of service. One source in particular titled Without Protocol presented Chuikov as a down-to-earth, relatable yet professional leader. What struck me as I read this account is the strong positive impression Chuikov left on his German translator, Alexander Yakovlevich Bogomolov. In memoirs written in 2010, Bogomolov shared the following:

“Both [Ambassadors Georgy Maksimovich Pushkin and Mikhail Georgievich Pervukhin] remained in my memory, along with Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov and Ivan Ivanovich Ilyichev, as well as Vladimir Semyonov and Andrei Smirnov, as the most remarkable figures in Soviet foreign policy of the [1950s], especially with regard to the formation and development of the GDR. Unfortunately, all of the above have already passed away. They were distinguished from their colleagues by exemplary decency and high morality, not to mention their professionalism.”

Bogomolov continues sharing several anecdotes and memories of his time in Germany with Army General Chuikov, and his first day as a translator for Vasily Ivanovich was one to remember:

“My predecessor, Major Lebedev […] was the senior translator of the Soviet Control Commission in Germany. He translated all the negotiations of Army General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov with the leaders of the GDR. Lebedev planned to study in Moscow after completing his military service in order to receive a diploma of higher education, but Chuikov refused him for a long time. Lebedev was ordered to find someone who could replace him. His choice fell on me, and for several weeks I was subjected to a thorough check in Berlin. I did oral and written translations, read aloud German newspapers, retelling texts, was introduced to several German teachers and professors, including the Russian language specialist Else Zeisser, who was often involved in translations.

At one time, a protocol on reparations deliveries of the GDR to the Soviet Union was signed in Berlin twice a year. The signing of the protocol always took place in a solemn atmosphere, […] and the ceremony usually took place in the officers' mess. At the beginning of my translation work, another such signing was just ahead, in which I had to take part.

Lebedev instructed me how I should behave with Chuikov: ‘He speaks loudly, and so do you; he lowers his voice and you do the same; speak to him only in the right ear, because he is deaf [in the left ear] from Stalingrad. It is important that you are always next to him, preferably on the right side.’

Meanwhile, it was ten minutes to 8 PM. Chuikov was not yet there when Lebedev and I entered the dining room. At the back of the room, which was rather dimly lit, I saw many burly old men standing. ‘Now,’ I thought nervously, ‘I see the leaders of the GDR gathered together, for whom I will translate.’ So, the first day of my working life begins.

Someone shouted: ‘Chuikov is driving up!’ I felt a very strong emotion and saw the General of the Army quickly going up the steps of the stairs. As soon as he passed us, I felt a strong push and Lebedev wished me in a whisper on the path, ‘God bless you!’

Chuikov took a few more energetic steps forward and said loudly: ‘Hello, comrades!’ With excessive zeal, I loudly shouted into the hall in German: ‘Guten Tag, Genossen!’ Chuikov stopped, turned to me in surprise, and said good-naturedly: ‘Yes, brother, you have reported a little [early]. The Germans are not here yet.’ I stood as if paralyzed and perceived only thunderous laughter in the depths of the dining room. To this day, I don't know if I had tears in my eyes or cold sweat from fear.

Soon the guests arrived: Walter Ulbricht, Wilhelm Pieck, Otto Grotewohl, Heinrich Rau, Fred Elsner, Gerhard Ziller, Bruno Leitner and others. Lebedev stood next to me and showed me who is who.”

During Alexander’s first year of service in East Germany with Army General Chuikov, he was called home for a family emergency. When the situation seemed bleakest, Vasily Ivanovich showed compassion on his German translator and offered his personal plane to take him back to Russia. Chuikov understood the importance of the situation, as he was also a husband and father who loved his family. When he learned how urgently Bogomolov was needed back home, Army General Chuikov did not hesitate to assist his aide:

“In mid-October [1951], my mother-in-law called from Moscow. She said that my wife Nina had serious complications after the birth of our first child, and I had to go to Moscow as soon as possible. I promised her this. But there were no tickets at Aeroflot ticket offices for the next three days. I felt bitter disappointment, my situation seemed hopeless.

The next day I told Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov about my worries. Chuikov immediately said: ‘Then take my plane and fly to Moscow tomorrow.’ In the evening, he told me through his assistant that one more general of the logistics service would fly with me. We met him only during the flight. I told the general why I was returning to Moscow. Four hours later we landed at the small military airfield Astafyevo not far from Moscow. There was deep snow on the airfield. There were no stairs with steps. We just jumped down. Then we ‘floated’ freestyle through the snow until after almost fifty meters we reached a wooden hut. I carried a small suitcase with me. The general didn't have any luggage, and he got to the barracks before me. Just when I finally thought I had caught up with him, I heard the sound of a car driving away…

I got to the clinic only late in the evening. My wife, at first glance, looked good and smiled happily at me. The nurse handed me a red-haired baby. After his birth, we both agreed that we would name the boy Nikita in honor of the surgeon Nikita Ivanovich Makhov, who in 1945 saved my life by performing six difficult operations. Then Nina told me what happened: first, her left side was paralyzed. Ten days later, the paralysis disappeared, but she stopped seeing [with] her right eye. Doctors said that a blood clot clogged a vessel that supplies blood to the optic nerve. I tried to calm my wife. […] A month later, she returned home with the child.

I flew back to Berlin. Thanking Chuikov for the plane, I also spoke briefly about my fellow traveler. After that he inquired what I thought of the general. I smiled and asked if a common soldier had the right to tell the truth to an army general about another general.

‘Well, of course! And only the truth!’ Chuikov answered.

‘He's a scoundrel,’ I declared, and told how he left me in the snow to my fate. In the same winter, Chuikov removed the general from his post. Perhaps he had his own reasons for this…”


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