Vitaly Churkin, 64, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations since April 8, 2006, died on Feb. 20. A statement from the Russian mission to the UN said Churkin “died suddenly.” It added curtly: “A prominent Russian diplomat has passed away while at work. We’d like to express our sincere condolences to Vitaly Churkin’s family.”
Churkin was said to have been working in his office at the Russian mission, at 136 E. 67th Street in Manhattan, when he was apparently stricken by what the Fire Department of New York has classified as a heart attack, based on information it received from a call by the mission at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 20. First responders were at the scene two minutes later and transported Churkin, who was still alive, to New York-Presbyterian Hospital at 10:22 a.m. The New York City Chief Medical Examiner is conducting tests to determine the actual cause of death, with the results available in a few weeks, so by mid-March.
[Update: The United States mission to the United Nations requested that the autopsy report and cause and manner of death being determined by the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner be withheld from the public, citing Churkin’s diplomatic immunity, even in death. The city authorities complied with the request.]
Churkin would have turned 65 years old on Feb. 21. He leaves his wife, Irina; a grown daughter, Anastasia; and a grown son, Maxsim. Churkin was both admired and disdained among diplomats at the UN, not only because he was the voice of Russia — a stalwart defender of the grisly war in Syria and the illegal annexation of Crimea — but also because he was a wizard at diplomacy, able to run linguistic and technical loops around his colleagues.
Yet, it didn’t take much prying to uncover a different Churkin, who savored his important role at the UN and the attention he received in the Security Council, even when it didn’t favor him. Underneath his gruff demeanor he joked easily, humored by himself and others, flashing his smile of smooth, very white teeth.
He adored the attention the media at the UN showered on him as well, handling with verbal aplomb question-and-answer sessions on Syria and the Ukraine, as thousands of fatalities piled up in both wars over the years.
“It is a big loss,” said Lachezara Stoeva, a Bulgarian diplomat at the UN. “He is one of the smartest and world-class diplomats I have had the opportunity to observe.”
Géraud Araud, previously the French ambassador to the UN and now the ambassador in Washington, D.C., spent many long hours in the Security Council with Churkin. Araud wrote on Twitter about him: “A extraordinary colleague during my 5y in the UNSC. Abrasive, funny and technically impeccable. Sincere condolences.”
The UN held a minute of silence on Feb. 20, with Peter Thomson, the president of the General Assembly, concluding, “Rest in peace, dear Vitaly.”
Churkin was usually happy to talk to reporters. He told me after the election of Donald Trump and the decisive turn of events in Aleppo in the Syrian war in December that the “long saga” was finally over. He seemed visibly relieved, although the war has continued regardless of a so-called cease-fire. He also appeared to be jubilant about the Trump win and said he was looking forward to the holidays.
But US actions taken by President Obama in reaction to accusations of Russian hacking the US election, might have dampened Churkin’s holidays.
In his last formal remarks to the media at the UN, on Dec. 30, 2016, above, as the US had evicted Russians from an estate that Moscow owns in Oyster Bay, N.Y., Churkin’s voice was raspy, sickly. Although he apparently did not spend time at the Oyster Bay estate but hung out on summer weekends at the second Russian estate, in Glen Cove, N.Y., which is unheated in the winter, he was upset about the US actions. (The Glen Cove estate was not affected by the Obama action.)
In fact, Churkin told me that the Glen Cove mansion was costly for the Russian government, but that no one would buy it because of the upkeep. (An investigate article by PassBlue about the US eviction of Norwich House in Oyster Bay revealed, for one, that Churkin had signed off on the architect’s work on the mansion.)
The timing of Obama’s eviction of the estate, Churkin bemoaned in his peevish way, could not have been worse for the Russian diplomats’ children, who were looking forward to using the estate for their holidays — never mind, it seemed, that Russia’s heavy bombing of Aleppo had left countless children murdered that month.
He said it was “quite scandalous” that the US “chose to go after our kids.”
A medical journalist, Dr. Catherine Mullaly, who has written for PassBlue, noted on first observing him in the UN Security Council in September 2015 that he did not look well.
Dr. Mullaly, an anesthesiologist based in Canada, recalled how she had been watching and thinking about the council as an operating room, when her “eyes rested on the Russian ambassador,” remembering his airway and how it looked potentially difficult for an anesthesiologist. “And then I wondered what the protocol was for a heart attack in the UNSC [UN Security Council] — how to get from the galley to the chamber floor — through security. And if they had AED machines (for defibrillation) dotting the UN.”
Recently, Churkin had contemplated taking a top UN job, running the counterterrorism office, but according to one Eastern European diplomat who asked for anonymity, Churkin “decided to show his patriotism and dedication to Russia.”
Churkin told the diplomat that “the work here at UN makes him feel he has to be with his country, not working just for UN, as his heart bleeds for Russia.”
Churkin was born in Moscow and educated, like many government elites, at Moscow State University of International Relations. He was a child actor, a starry air that he exuded when he stepped in front of the microphone and cameras at the UN media “stakeout” outside the Security Council. His vanity knew no bounds: one time, he was seen combing his hair before he stepped before the lights and the media.
As a Russian diplomat, he held many positions, including as ambassador to Canada and Belgium and “liaison ambassador” to NATO. He was director of the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia from 1990-1992, so he would have played a large role in the transformation of the collapsed Soviet Union into the Russian Federation.
One of Churkin’s biggest tensions as ambassador to the UN was undoubtedly his relationship with Samantha Power, the previous US ambassador to the UN. They sparred publicly in Security Council meetings on the horrific fallout from the Syrian war, behaving at times like an old warring couple thrown together through thick and thin, a role embodied perhaps by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
In one famous episode in the Council last December, Power directed her anger toward Churkin as Aleppo fell before the world’s eyes, saying: “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?”
Churkin shot back, accusing Power of acting like “Mother Teresa” despite America’s “track record” in the Middle East.
“I wouldn’t want to remind this Western trio [France, US, Britain] which called for today’s meeting and carried it out in a raised voice, about your role in the creation of ISIS as a result of US and UK intervention in Iraq,” Churkin said.
Power, on her Twitter page, remarked about Churkin’s death nevertheless: “Devastated by passing of Russian UN Amb Vitaly Churkin. Diplomatic maestro &deeply caring man who did all he cld to bridge US-RUS differences.”
Certainly, Churkin was not shy on any topic. In one brief conversation with me, when I asked him if he would agree to be interviewed for a video about sexism at the UN, he said he’d be happy to talk on the topic, saying in the same breath, in one-hundred percent sincerity: Women are not discriminated against. Look at you, you’re here talking to me!
This article was updated.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.