RICE, CHESS, AND DIPLOMACY ON THE ROYAL CARPET
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
In 1969 Yerevan was celebrating the centenary of the great Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan. It was a grand celebration of international scale. A government committee had been formed, however the event was being organized by the Minister of Culture Kamo Udumyan, who was one of the most active figures in social life and politics, and whose energy and unconventional methods surprised and even terrified the parochial functionaries and dogmatists.
Armenia has had exceptional ministers of culture during the Soviet period, who, unlike the ever changing ministers of the present day Republic, could make any country or government proud. Many would agree that Udumyan was one of the best.
During the Tumanyan days, when the Soviet Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva was visiting Yerevan, Udumyan organized a dinner party at the Government Reception House in honor of the guest. The dinner party turned into an art festival, during which the hosts introduced the guests to Armenian culture. But an incident spoiled everyone’s mood. Furtseva tried to come down from her bedroom at night (probably wishing to have another drink; she was addicted to alcohol), fell down and broke her leg. She had to stay in Yerevan for another week, but she confessed before leaving: "Despite this absurd situation, these have been the best days of my life. You are a truly great nation, your cultural heritage is magnificent, it is matchless, and you, Kamo Babiyevich, are one of the best ministers of culture in the Soviet Union . . .”
Then Udumyan became the Foreign Minister of Soviet Armenia.
By 1944 the foreign ministries across the Soviet Union were purely symbolic. It couldn’t have been otherwise. Becoming the Foreign Minister, Udumyan expanded the ministry that had only three workers by creating the Political Analysis and Media Departments. However he also sensed that diplomatic protocol would be promising in the long run. And he actively started working in that direction. Soon after Yerevan began to receive delegations of various types, including politicians, diplomats, arts and cultural representatives, and famous writers. His goal was to show Moscow and the world (I am not talking about the Diaspora) who the Armenians were, and he succeeded in his task by stressing the importance of diplomatic protocol, which earned a legendary reputation among the foreign ministries of the Soviet Union.
During those years, Yerevan hosted small and large groups of representatives of diplomatic missions accredited in Moscow, students and auditors from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and the Higher Diplomatic School of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (currently the Diplomatic Academy). And the finicky guests would leave our country with unforgettable impressions, captivated by Armenia, its people and culture. Udumyan was able to incorporate in diplomatic protocol the best national values and traditions, which added a unique charm to the dry rules of etiquette. And it’s not accidental that a few years later Udumyan was approached on Moscow’s Smolenskaya Square that houses the Foreign Ministry and offered the position of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Soviet Union to the Kingdom of Nepal.
The political situation in the Far East during his mission was critical. The superpowers were fighting to expand their territorial control and influence. Moscow’s relations with Beijing were so tense that they were on the brink of war. The two communist armies kept clashing on the Usuri River. China was doing everything possible to take over Nepal. Udumyan had two tasks: to slow down China’s expansion in Nepal and to revitalize the stagnant relations between Moscow and Kathmandu. I will leave the question of whether he succeeded in resolving the first task to the regional experts, but his success in moving the Moscow-Nepal relations out of a deadlock was unequivocal. What’s more, he built an embassy complex, which is nearly an impossible thing to do, and was able to establish excellent relations with the king of Nepal. Any professional would envy their relationship.
The king would receive the ambassador in his palace, where they would sit on the floor with their legs crossed, play chess, and have dinner. Time after time the king would take some rice with his oily fingers and put it in the ambassador’s mouth. The latter would swallow with a grateful smile. One could only imagine how straining this must have been for Udumyan, who was known among his close friends in Yerevan for easily getting nauseous and suffering from paruresis. When years later Udumyan told one of his friends about the dinners with the Nepalese king, his friend naturally asked him how he did it and the latter replied with his usual humor: "What wouldn’t you do for your country?”
After Nepal he was sent to Luxemburg and was as successful there as in Nepal. Many of his colleagues remember his warm receptions and national zest with which Udumyan would surround his guests and visitors from the Soviet Union irrespective of their rank or position. Before Udumyan’s appointment, Boris Yeltsin, who then was the head of the Construction Department of the CPSU Central Committee, was planning to visit Luxemburg. Udumyan’s appointment coincided with Yeltsin’s visit and he started preparing for the reception with his typical zeal, making appointments and arranging meetings with other statesmen. However Yeltsin was appointed to the post of First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party and the Kremlin decided that his visit to Luxemburg should be postponed. Perestroika was in progress and the state had other burning issues that needed to be addressed. But Udumyan was not one of those men who would abandon what he had started. He probably realized or sensed that Yeltsin was a rising star in the changing system and that his visit to Luxemburg could play an important role in the development of the two countries’ relations. Udumyan bombarded the Foreign Ministry with telegrams, substantiating the significance of Yeltsin’s visit, and when the Center didn’t respond, as it would usually happen, he flew to Moscow and didn’t return to his post until he reached his goal.
Yeltsin’s visit coincided with the 1985 anti-alcohol campaign in the Soviet Union. In his speech to the diplomatic mission in Luxemburg, Yeltsin talked long and passionately against alcohol consumption, explaining its devastating effects on the Soviet citizenry and the political and socio-economic importance of the Communist Party’s campaign against alcohol abuse. However in the evening, when Yeltsin and Udumyan were dining together, Yeltsin suddenly noticed, "Where is the bottle?”
Yeltsin left Luxemburg satisfied. He was pleased with the ambassador’s courage, frankness, ability to communicate with people and style of work. Once, on a different occasion, he told Eduard Shevarnadze: "Udumyan was such an ambassador!”
|4142 reads | 09.11.2013|