Yulduz Khaliullin: ‘I observed how a great superpower was dissolving from the world’s roof with a heavy heart’

Exclusive interview with a legendary Soviet and Russian diplomat

Yulduz Khaliullin: ‘I observed how a great superpower was dissolving from the world’s roof with a heavy heart’
Photo: Maksim Platonov

A celebrated Russian diplomat and expert in Eastern Studies who comes from our republic Yulduz Khaliullin has visited Kazan recently. During his visit, he participated in events dedicated to the 25 th anniversary of the Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan and presented his books. Yulduz Khaliullin also met with a correspondent of Realnoe Vremya, talked to him and revealed some secrets of diplomatic service, remembered interesting episodes from his rich bio and shared his opinion about the events that are taking place in the world now.

Mr Khaliullin, to start with, could you tell what books are you presenting here?

Here I was invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan. I participated in the events with a great pleasure. Five books were printed in Moscow and Kazan by my jubilee. I issued 10 books after I retired from diplomatic service. These books are additional. East with the Eye of a Diplomat is a reprint of a book, which was issued 10 years ago. I retired 10 years ago after a 40-year service in the system of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR and Russia. The book East with the Eye of a Diplomat was printed one year later. Now I have reprinted them without any changes, even photos remained.

Has nothing changed in the East in 10 years?

Something has maybe changed in the East during 10 years. But my book is a book of memories. Everything what has changed during this time in the East has been covered in other books. This book is more valuable – it is a 40-year anniversary of my diplomatic service in eight different countries of the East – Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh… I worked in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan as a senior diplomat after the dissolution of the USSR.

Perhaps something changed in the East during 10 years. But my book is a book of memories. Everything what has changed during this time in the East has been covered in other books. This book is more valuable – it is a 40-year anniversary of my diplomatic service in eight different of the East – Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh…

You did your diplomatic service not only in the East. You served in Romania for some time…

I worked in Romania for 4 years. It is not connected with the East. I was supposed to be sent to India or Pakistan again. I refused because my daughter was to go to school. At that moment our kids were not allowed to study at other schools except Soviet schools of the embassy. Neither India nor Pakistan had a 10-year school. I said: 'I will go to any country that has 10 grades'. I was offered Romania. I learnt Romanian 'passively' – to be able to read Scînteia [which is a mouthpiece of the Romanian Communist Party]. There was not a wide range of papers to read. In general, I worked with the diplomatic department. Information was 'pressed' under Ceaușescu. I talked to other foreign diplomats in Russian, English, other languages. I even created an Indo-diplomatic club for Indian-speakers. I headed it. We had 20 diplomats – from the embassy of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So I practiced my Indian languages – Urdu (national language of Pakistan) and Hindi (language of India).

How many languages do you know?

About six. Urdu and Hindi are my main languages. I had to learn Indonesian because I was sent to Indonesia. I know English, it goes without saying. I also speak French, Turkish, Tatar.

The worst thing happened during the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. I was an acting chargés d'affaire of the USSR to the Kingdom of Nepal. In other words, with pain I observed how a great superpower was dissolving from the world's roof. I had to explain the heads of this country what was going on in my country to maintain those good friendly relations between the USSR and Nepal during such serious changes.

View from the 'world's roof' on the dissolution of the Soviet Union

You lived in eight countries. Was not it difficult to get used to new conditions?

I had to do it. I lived in Pakistan for 10 years. At first I worked as vice-Consul in Karachi. Then I became Consul. One needs to get accustomed to not only political but also climatic conditions.

Could you tell how you faced the turbulent events in 1991 that took place in our country?

The worst thing happened during the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. I was an acting chargés d'affaire of the USSR to the Kingdom of Nepal. In other words, I observed how a great superpower was dissolving from the world's roof with a heavy heart. I had to explain the heads of this country what was going on in my country to maintain those good friendly relations between the USSR and Nepal during such serious changes. I remembered 18, 19, 20, 21 August during the State Committee on the State of Emergency. I met with the PM Koirala every day. I remember every hour on 19 August 1991. I woke up at 5 o'clock in the morning because of a small shake. A seismic instability is a common thing in The Himalayas. I woke up and looked – my wife and daughters were sleeping. It meant they did not feel. I went out on the balcony: were there people outside? Nobody went out: probably they missed or did not feel it. I could not sleep any more. I took mango – my favourite fruit – ate it and went to the swimming pool. I had a breakfast at 6. The legation town is single – we both lived and worked in one place. I was there at 7 o'clock. I had to write an encrypted telegram. One day before the Indian envy informed me about upcoming high-level Indo-Nepal negotiations. The meeting was due to take place in Delhi. I wrote I had to call a cypher officer and tell him to send a message to Moscow. I did not manage to push the button when a cypher officer entered with a paper. It meant he had a very important message for the head. He gave an instruction of the State Committee on the State of Emergency: something happened in Moscow, Gorbachev was suspended from his duties, some people came to force. 'Immediately inform the government of the country you reside in. Explain the state of affairs'. I was to be going to the airport at 9 o'clock. I had to accompany the Chinese Ambassador who was leaving Nepal after 4-year residence there. All the ambassadors had to say him goodbye at the airport. What could I do? I had to inform them immediately. Sure, I could call the secretary of the PM, so that he would receive me because we had good relations. But I decided to be late a bit. So I had to approach the plane with delay, so that nobody would ask me what was going on in my country. As for the accomplishment of the mission, I did it much later.

The PM Koirala received me. He said: 'We took the democratic changes of Gorbachev very seriously.' He did not encrypt. I asked him: 'Are not you going to deliver a speech in the Parliament before you go to Delhi?' He answered: 'I am'. 'What about?' I asked. 'What we talked about. I have to assess the processes that are taking place in your country,' he said. I could not calm down: 'Could you be so kind to inform me?' He took the document out of his pocket and asked to make a copy. I got the information before he announced it in the Parliament officially. It was exclusive. But I was worried because it was written that 'We hope Gorbachev will return'. Then he received me on the second day. On the third day he received me in his residency, so that I could inform about Gorbachev's return. He had a temperature of 40° on that day – it was malaria. He received me despite it. We had so good relations.

'Nothing changes drastically after one leader leaves'

Leading powers, not only China, Russia and India but also USA, are interested in Middle Asia. The USA has its liabilities in Near East. Everyone wants to strengthen its positions in these countries. We need to keep an ear to the ground.

Do you follow the events that are taking place today?

As soon as I returned from Middle Asia, I wrote a book about what changes took place there, how we were losing positions that had being gained for several centuries. Before its publication, I sent it to the Institute of Eastern Studies for review. I received quite good opinions. But I did not like it. I burnt the manuscripts. I won't come back to it because these questions are difficult. What I observed 15 years ago and what I am seeing now are different things.

What will happen in the regions after Islam Karimov's death? Will the Uzbekistani-Russian and Uzbekistani-Kyrgyzstani relations change?

Nothing changes drastically when one leader leaves regardless of what kind of leader he was. The country remains, ties remain, they will develop. The identity of the leader has a very important importance, of course. For example, Nazarbaev is very popular in eastern and western countries. He knows to keep in touch with them. We have very good relations with Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan also has good economic possibilities. 18m people live on a territory of 3 million square metres. India has almost the same territory where 1bn 100m people live. Do you understand the ratio and how can these ties be fulfilled? Kazakhstan sells hydrocarbon, maintains relations with the West and China. But there is a Caspian problem. The status of the Caspian Sea has not been defined for 25 years. We know there are big gas and oil resources there. After the dissolution of the USSR, we did not manage to come to an agreement – what part belongs to Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. The problems have not been solved here.

What countries do the elites in Middle Asian countries orient to – Russia, China, USA, Iran or Arabs?

Orientation is to be even, though it can also change. Leading powers, not only China, Russia and India but also the USA, are interested in Middle Asia. The USA has its liabilities in Near East. Everyone wants to strengthen its positions in these countries. We need to keep an ear to the ground.

Diplomats are under strict control from three sides – their own special services, other services (of the country of residence) and absolutely distant services, for example, England, USA. Any violation in these three dimensions immediately affects a diplomat's status. Many diplomats don't withstand this stress and have to leave the stage.

Three dimensions of diplomats

You worked in Pakistan, Bangladesh for some time. People of these countries are Muslims. Did you have to deal with different forces, including radical forces in these countries, for example, the Taliban?

I tried not to deal with them. When I worked in Pakistan in the 60-70s, the situation was different. For example, I knew the first president Najibullāh. At that time he was sent to exile. I met with him in the Cultural Centre of the USSR in Karachi. I maintained relations with politicians of Pakistan – in the country of residence. It should be remembered. Living in a country, diplomats live in three or four dimensions. Firstly, they must be in touch with the people of their country. Secondly, all the people have to respect all the national traditions, customs, habits, assimilate with the country. Thirdly, they must follow the rules of the diplomatic corps where there are tens, hundreds of countries. In other words, diplomats are under strict control from three sides – their own special services, other services (of the country of residence) and absolutely distant services, for example, England, USA. Any violation in these three dimensions immediately affects a diplomat's status. Many diplomats don't withstand this stress and have to leave the stage. Even after the retirement, anyway, I could not get rid of this approach even outside. Nevertheless, I write frankly.

By Timur Rakhmatullin. Photo: Maksim Platonov