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Jerrold Schecter, Who Procured Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Dies at 90

Jerrold Schecter, a journalist who in the late 1960s helped smuggle to the West the revelatory memoirs of the former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, the first published account by a Soviet leader of goings-on inside the Kremlin, died on Feb. 6 at his home in Washington. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by his son Barnet Schecter.

Mr. Schecter, who went on to become an author and a foreign policy adviser in the Carter administration, was Time magazine’s Moscow bureau chief when he played a pivotal role in the publication of what became three volumes of reminiscences and reflections by Khrushchev.

Khrushchev, who was ousted in 1964 and consigned to a compound near Moscow, covertly recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with the assistance of his son Sergei.

In “Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History” (2002), Mr. Schecter and his wife, Leona, recounted the stranger-than-fiction intrigue behind the publication of the three books by Khrushchev, along with magazine excerpts.

They revealed that Mr. Schecter had been approached in Moscow by Victor Louis, a journalist and freelance K.G.B. agent who represented Khrushchev. The former Soviet leader was by then “lonely, angry and bored,” they wrote, and some of his successors, with the connivance of the K.G.B., were complicit in turning a blind eye while Khrushchev discredited the atrocities committed under his predecessor, Joseph Stalin — as long as they were not implicated themselves.

Through Mr. Louis, Mr. Schecter obtained  audiotapes and transcripts, which were then authenticated by voice analysis technicians hired by Time.

Mr. Schecter recruited Strobe Talbott, then a Time intern and a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford and later a deputy secretary of state, to translate material that would be excerpted in Life magazine and then published by Little, Brown, a Time Inc. subsidiary, as “Khrushchev Remembers” (1970).

The publisher funneled $750,000 (about $5.8 million in today’s dollars) to Khrushchev through Mr. Louis as Khrushchev’s agent. Mr. Schecter also bought the former premier a derby and a Tyrolean hat from Lock & Company in London, which bills itself as the world’s oldest haberdashery.

The second volume, “Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament,” was published in 1974.

The second volume of Khrushchev’s memoirs was published in 1974.

“What we are confronted with in these two remarkable volumes of Khrushchev’s,” Harrison E. Salisbury wrote in The New York Times in 1974, “is some 500,000 words of observations, firsthand accounts, afterthoughts, musings, political back-stabs, rambling anecdotes, warnings for the future, pietistic platitudes and political common sense by one of the most idiosyncratic (and vital) statesmen of our day.”

A State Department brief on the book said, “Khrushchev concludes that if Stalin were alive today he would vote that he be brought to trial and punished” for his “cruel and senseless” crimes. Those crimes included torture, mass incarceration and the deportation of ethnic groups from their ancestral homelands, as well as a policy-driven famine that killed millions and the executions of dissidents in the hundreds of thousands.

In 1989, Mr. Louis released the last 300 hours of tapes, which had been secreted in a vault in Zurich.

A third volume of the memoirs, “Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes,” which was translated and edited by Mr. Schecter and Vyacheslav V. Luchkov, a Soviet scholar, was published in 1990, after Khrushchev’s death and as the Soviet Union was coming apart. Recalling the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in that book, Khrushchev branded Fidel Castro a “hothead” who had beseeched Moscow to attack the United States.

Mr. Schecter, who was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, later recalled in Nieman Reports, “What I took away from the memoirs was that Khrushchev played an instrumental role in destroying Soviet Communism with his revelations, which he intended to salvage and restore his own place in history.”

Mr. Schecter later collaborated with Nguyen Tien Hung, a former adviser to the President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, to write “The Palace File: The Remarkable Story of the Secret Letters From Nixon and Ford to the President of South Vietnam and the American Promises That Were Never Kept” (1986).

That book exposed the Nixon administration’s deceptions in persuading Saigon’s government to sign the Vietnam peace accords by offering empty promises that if the North Vietnamese reneged, Washington would retaliate with heavy bombing.

Mr. Schecter, right, was an aide to Zbigniew Brzezinski, center, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, when the two went out for a morning jog outside the White House in August 1979. Credit…Ira Schwarz/Associated Press

George McT. Kahin, a professor of international studies at Cornell University, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that “the authorspersuasively present a charge of duplicity, directed primarily against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but also implicating Mr. Nixon” and, ultimately, President Gerald R. Ford.

The Times chose “The Palace File” as a notable book of the year.

In another book, “Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness — a Soviet Spymaster” (1994), Mr. Schecter and his co-author, Pavel Sudoplatov, a former ranking K.G.B. officer, accused Manhattan Project physicists, sanctioned by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the wartime director of the Los Alamos atomic laboratory, of leaking details of America’s atom bomb to the Soviets. The physicists’ intention, they claimed, was to create a balance of power with the United States overseen by scientists rather than by governments.

The book’s allegations were repudiated by the American Physical Society and Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. They were also rejected by the F.B.I. as lacking credible evidence. Mr. Schecter insisted that proof would eventually emerge from classified files in Moscow. So far it has not.

 

Jerrold Leonard Schecter was born on Nov. 27, 1932, in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Edward, was an insurance executive. His mother, Miriam (Goshen) Schecter, was an interior designer.

After graduating from James Monroe High School in the Bronx, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1953. He served in the Navy in Japan during the Korean War and was discharged as a lieutenant.

Mr. Schecter began his journalism career in 1957 as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He joined Time in 1958 and was the Time-Life bureau chief in Tokyo from 1964 to 1968 and in Moscow from 1968 to 1970. He was a White House correspondent for Time from 1970 to 1973 and diplomatic editor from 1973 to 1977.

From 1977 to 1980, he was an associate White House press secretary and spokesman for the National Security Council. After a stint as vice president for public affairs of Armand Hammer’s Occidental Petroleum Company from 1980 to 1982, he returned to journalism as Washington editor of Esquire magazine from 1982 to 1984 and edited newspapers in Moscow from 1990 to 1994. He was also chairman of the Schecter Communications Corporation from 1983 to 2003.

In 1954, he married Leona Protas, whom he had met as a colleague working for The Daily Cardinal, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin.

In addition to his son Barnet, Mr. Schecter is survived by his wife, a literary agent and writer; four other children, Evelind, Steve, Kate and Doveen; 10 grandchildren; and three great-granddaughters.

Mr. Schecter collaborated with his wife and children on a memoir, “An American Family in Moscow” (1975), which was followed by a sequel,  “Back in the U.S.S.R.: An American Family Returns to Moscow” (1988). The second book was the basis of a “Frontline” documentary on PBS.

Reviewing the sequel, Harlow Robinson, a professor at the State University of New York, Albany, wrote in The Times Book Review that “for the most part, it successfully conveys a sense of the excitement, pluralism, complications, contradictions and new possibilities that have recently come to Soviet life.”

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