Familiar with Nixon and Brezhnev, interrogated a Russian spy: the boring story of the legendary Russian-speaking American
The fate of the Russian-speaking Americans, Robert (Boris) and Olga Parr, without exaggeration, has embraced an entire era. Children of immigrants from Russia, both of them were born in China before the Second World War, but first met only many years later, already in America.
In the new country, which became his second homeland, Boris devoted 39 years of his life to the American army, rising to the rank of colonel of the US Air Force. Over the long years of the Cold War, he worked as a translator during historic negotiations on the limitation of strategic arms in Austria and Helsinki, attended a personal meeting of Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon in California, and participated in interviewing the Soviet defector.
On the way to America
Boris Parr was born in 1932 in the Chinese city of Hankou (now Wuhan). His family was more fortunate than many of their compatriots: they left Russia before the 1917 revolution. Boris’s father worked in China’s maritime customs, and in early childhood, the boy got the opportunity to travel the world. Participating in a British gymnasium, he had no problems with English, and in 1941, together with his family, during his father's long leave, he even lived in California for several months. At that time, the family did not think about emigration, and returned to Shanghai just at the time when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The war made adjustments to the life of emigrants, and the family was able to leave for San Francisco only 6 years later, in 1947 - already completely.
Olga’s family was less fortunate than Boris’s family - her parents found all the hardships of the revolution in Russia and the civil war that followed.
“My great-grandfather was Alexander Kasimovich Kazem-Bek, a Russian orientalist, the first dean of the Department of Oriental Languages at St. Petersburg University, who created alphabets for many peoples of Russia. My mother Elena, his granddaughter is nee Kazem-Bek. After the revolution, when the Bolsheviks began to physically destroy the middle class that had formed in pre-revolutionary Russia, our family literally had to flee. Mom said that she had to cross Lake Baikal in winter on foot, on ice. Finally, they reached the ship that was carrying out the evacuation of refugees from Russia. There were a total of 120 such ships, and they brought emigrants mainly to Asian countries. No one knew where he ended up. Mom and her family, for example, initially got to Korea, and only then did they get to Harbin, and then to Shanghai. Mom’s cousin, Vladimir Kazem-Bek, later became a famous doctor in Harbin, ”says Olga Parr.
Olga was born already in exile - in 1937 in the Chinese city of Dairen. According to her, in the new country they had to endure both poverty and hunger. The family lived in a bamboo house in a Chinese village without running water and electricity, growing vegetables. Olga and her sister Elena played in the cotton fields and drainage ditches surrounding the village, collecting leeches. If young Russian rich people passing by hiding outside the city from the summer of Shanghai heat passed by, sometimes rare delicacies fell into the girls. In 1944, Olga's father found work as a security guard at a Japanese warehouse at Shanghai North Railway Station. The family huddled in one room in an unheated concrete building along with other warehouse workers.
“It was constantly hungry and cold, but in a typical Russian style, someone started playing the balalaika, and people picked up songs and shared stories,” recalls Olga.
Life began to improve only in 1945, when Olga's father found a job as a security guard at a power station in Beijing.
“We experienced incredible joy when the Second World War ended,” Olga recalls. - Happy American soldiers ran through the streets. At Sacred Heart School, my sister and I became friends with Chinese children. "
However, a serene life did not last long. When the Communists came to power in China, the family again had to flee the country. They did not have the opportunity to go to America, and in 1949 refugees were sent to Australia. It took another 5 years to get an entry visa to the USA.
Olga's family came to San Francisco in 1954 without any livelihood. Due to the excellent school grades in China and Australia, Olga was offered a scholarship at the University of California at Berkeley. However, the girl had to give up the opportunity to study and go to work in an insurance company to help her parents with money. In 1955, at the wedding of friends, she met a young man, and a year later they got married.
“My friends used to mention Olga to me, but I did not attach importance to their words. However, when I met her, I instantly felt: this girl will become my wife. It really was love at first sight, ”Boris recalls.
After the wedding, Olga worked as a draftsman in an engineering company. Three years later, their son Michael was born, and after him - Alex. Olga entered San Francisco State University with a degree in Russian, but suddenly found a new love there - art. She began to take painting lessons and in 1970 joined the Society of Western Artists and the Society of Art of Burlingame.
Meanwhile, Boris, in America, taking on the name Robert, after graduation, entered the University of California at Berkeley and at the same time - in the reserve of the US Air Force. However, despite serving in the reserve, he was called up for active military service for two years (in those years, the United States still had a mandatory draft in the army).
“After the army, I myself decided to return to the Air Force. In parallel, I graduated from high school, became an officer and remained in the army. At one time, dad insisted that I do not forget the Russian language. Now I am very glad that I listened to him. In the army, my language skills were extremely useful. I was often sent on business trips to Berlin, and the last time I went there in 1991, when the Berlin Wall was already destroyed. I was a translator during an interview with a Soviet deserter in a safe house, for which I subsequently received a thank you medal, and during a visit by USSR Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev to California at the invitation of Nixon, ”Robert said.
Shy security Brezhnev
“Soviet radio operators and radio correspondents installed a radio station on the mountain to broadcast the results of the meeting. The transfer was carried out directly to the Union through space satellites. Brezhnev was in his repertoire: he read out his speech for radio speech from huge posters, and several times he had to interrupt the recording when he was confused and mistaken. Most of all I remember his main translator. He spoke with the American press with an American accent, and when he translated Brezhnev in England, he spoke pure English. I talked with him several times, and he obviously had a difficult preparation, ”said the American colonel.
According to Robert Parr, the venue for the meeting of the Secretary General was carefully chosen, based on security considerations, but this seemed not enough to the Chekists from the Brezhnev’s guard.
“They demanded to block the entire highway from the airport to the meeting point and the huge area around the negotiation site. We explained that this was not the case with us, and assured that only security cars would be located at a distance of 250 yards in front and behind the car with the presidents. However, this did not suit them. In the end, they had to come to terms with the fact that Moscow was not here and agreed to our terms. As a result, the weather was good, and Brezhnev arrived by helicopter without using the freeway. Of course, no excesses occurred during the meeting, and both leaders were safe, ”says Parr.
Complicated negotiations and general cognac
According to him, such behavior was characteristic of the Soviet KGB in other situations.
“They were always very private and constantly afraid that someone would infiltrate them and steal their secrets. I remember that when the talks on limiting nuclear weapons began, the first logical step was to tell the other side how many bombs and missiles you have. However, the Soviet delegation did not utter a word on this subject. They did not answer a single question. We were confused, because without unleashing the nuclear potential it was impossible to continue negotiations. Then American intelligence itself listed how many warheads the Soviet Union possesses. The Russians did not object, but did not add anything to our information. True, over time, seeing that the American delegation was behaving more openly, the Soviet partners also revealed some of their secrets. But they kept to the end more closed than the Americans, ”recalls Robert Parr.
True, the colonel admits that in the negotiations directly related to the conditions of disarmament, both sides had to reveal their cards and clearly indicate how many and which weapons they should eliminate.
Some representatives of the Soviet delegation, however, were revealed from a very unexpected perspective.
“During the negotiations in Austria, we met the General and part-time Minister Semenov in the Catholic Church. It turned out that he is well versed in Catholic masses, ”said the couple.
There were other moments of informal communication with the Soviet side.
“During business trips to Berlin, on July 4, we invited representatives of the Soviet embassy to celebrate US Independence Day. We set a chateau on the lake, grilled barbecue. I remember how I went to the Soviet women and invited them to our barbecue, but they did not even move. Then I realized that they mistook me for a Soviet deserter and were afraid to even speak with me. I had to explain to them that I was American, was born in Harbin, and I know Russian only because my parents were emigrants from Russia. After that, they relaxed, ”says Olga.
“Once at one of these meetings I met a Soviet general. We talked about the towns. I played in towns in China in a community at the Russian church. 5-6 months after this meeting, a package from the Soviet general came to America: a bottle of cognac, a bottle of vodka and a little book with the rules of the game in the towns. I was very moved, ”admits Bob.
Then an incident occurred: at the checkpoint of the Berlin Wall, Soviet border guards shot and killed an American major. After that, any joint celebrations ceased.
“Nevertheless, we always felt that we were Russian: not Soviet, but specifically Russian. From childhood we absorbed our language, culture and faith, and we never left it, ”the spouses assure.
Today, Boris and Olga are regular parishioners of the Orthodox parish, actively participate in charity and volunteering, and try to help newly arrived immigrants. At 87 years old, Robert-Boris is actively involved in sports, is in good physical shape and advises all newly arrived immigrants not to forget their native language and culture.
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