Washington D.C., December 18, 2020 – Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan was born on November 25, 1895, in Armenia. From a modest background and early revolutionary activity in Armenia he joined the Bolsheviks and eventually became one of the most significant statesmen of the Soviet Union. On the 125th anniversary of his birth, historians still debate his role in Soviet domestic and foreign policy. Soviet folklore had a saying about Mikoyan: “from Ilyich [Vladimir Ilyich Lenin] to Ilyich [Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev] without a heart attack or paralysis,” meaning that he managed to survive the changes of leadership in the USSR for five decades and died from natural causes in peaceful retirement, surrounded by his extensive family. This was no small feat for a prominent member of the Communist Party who lived through Stalinism.
This posting focuses on Mikoyan’s role in Soviet foreign policy, on his role as a key diplomat, who represented the Soviet Union in the most critical moments of its relations with an array of friends and opponents. Today the National Security Archive publishes documents from Russian archives and Mikoyan’s personal archive, which have never been published before in any language. They represent a tiny drop of the voluminous archival evidence that exists (all too often inaccessible) in Russia, the United States, and other countries that document Mikoyan’s diplomatic work. Although Mikoyan never held a formal diplomatic post, he was sent by the Soviet leadership to negotiate on the most sensitive issues and put out fires in hot spots around the world including the United States, China, India, Pakistan, West and East Germany, Hungary, and most importantly—Cuba. In many of those countries, long before Mikhail Gorbachev, he literally became the smiling face of the Soviet Union, Mr. Da, in striking contrast to Andrei Gromyko’s Mr. Nyet.
In 1936, Mikoyan discovered the real America for the Soviet Union. He went to the United States as People’s Commissar of the Food Industry to learn about food production and consumption in the U.S. and with an eye to what of the United States’ best practices could be adopted for the USSR. As a result of his trip, the Soviet Union purchased U.S. industrial equipment and started its own industrial production of sausages, ice cream, hamburgers, and even popcorn. In a stunning report to the Central Committee [Document 1], Mikoyan, although a Soviet true believer, was not afraid to praise U.S. practices and deliver sharp criticism of the Soviet economy and food industry. Mikoyan’s role in shaping that industry and the culture of public food services in his country has not been adequately addressed in the historiography.
Mikoyan’s star as a prominent diplomat really rose with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign after the momentous XX Congress of the Communist Party in 1956. That same year, Khrushchev relied on Mikoyan to carry his “peace offensive” to the world. Mikoyan traveled extensively to deliver the message of peaceful coexistence, to honestly address the mistakes of Stalin’s foreign policy and the cult of personality, and to repair relations with the West. Although, technically, Mikoyan was Deputy Prime Minister at the time, he probably was as influential as Khrushchev himself (and certainly more capable as a diplomat) in Soviet foreign policy. He was trusted with the most sensitive issues such as briefing Jawaharlal Nehru on Khrushchev’s secret speech to the XX party congress (Document 3), resolving issues of arms sales disputes among the countries of the socialist camp (Document 2), trying to mediate the growing tensions in Hungary in the fall of 1956 prior to their revolution, and establishing trade and security relations with the countries of the Middle East. He participated in practically every important meeting with foreign dignitaries who visited the Soviet Union, such as Shah Reza Pahlavi (Document 4), Fidel Castro, and Richard Nixon (Document 10).
In 1959, Mikoyan was sent on an important mission to the United States—to improve U.S.-Soviet relations, start a dialog on disarmament, expand trade, and address the crucial issue of the time—the ongoing Berlin crisis. In the United States, ostensibly as a private citizen—“a man on holiday”—he met the entire roster of top U.S. officials including President Dwight Eisenhower (Document 8), Vice President Richard Nixon (Document 6) and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (Documents 5 and 7). In his meetings with U.S. officials, Mikoyan pushed for a settlement of the German question, expanding U.S.-Soviet contacts at all levels, negotiating an end to the Cold War, and especially expanding economic ties, which would allow the USSR to import Western technology and consumer goods. The documents published here today include a selection from the State Department’s invaluable Foreign Relations of the United States volumes to provide context and the American perspective on these important discussions.
In 1962, Khrushchev sent Mikoyan on his most important mission—to negotiate a conclusive resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was publicly settled by the Soviet leader’s announcement on October 28 that the Soviet Union would withdraw its offensive weapons from Cuba in return for a U.S. non-invasion pledge. But Fidel Castro was embittered at the idea of being abandoned by his superpower patron and the Kremlin badly needed to patch things up with this important Third World ally. In November 1962, Mikoyan essentially became “the man who saved the world,” as he persuaded Castro to let the remaining Soviet nuclear weapons (which the U.S. had been unaware of) leave the island without further aggravating the dangerous situation (Document 11) and finalized all details regarding inspections and mutual assurances with top U.S. officials including President John F. Kennedy (Document 12). The National Security Archive addressed Mikoyan’s mission in Cuba extensively in several earlier postings
Last Nuclear Weapons Left Cuba in December 1962
December 11, 2013
Mikoyan’s last trip to the United States was on a sad occasion—he was sent by Khrushchev to pay last respects to President Kennedy, the man he had just negotiated with a year earlier. At the reception, Mikoyan had a brief emotional meeting with Jacqueline Kennedy, describing how “nearly sobbing” she asked Mikoyan to continue what her husband and Khrushchev started in search for peace (Document 13).
The National Security Archive benefitted greatly over the years from advice and donations of documents from our long-time partner, the late Sergo Mikoyan, Russian historian and son of Anastas Mikoyan.