Skip to main content

The Return of the Buena Vista Social Club.

American guitarist and composer Ry Cooder. Cooder produced a new CD by Ibrahim Ferrer (ph), one of the singers with the band. A new documentary film called "Buena Vista Social Club," produced by Cooder, tells the story of these musicians.


Other segments from the episode on June 23, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 23, 1999: Interview with Ry Cooder; Interview with Sergei Krushchev.


Date: JUNE 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062301np.217
Head: Buena Vista Social Club
Sect: News; Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Cuban musicians are performing in the U.S. again, thanks to the loosening of the U.S. embargo.

The band Buena Vista Social Club has become quite a success story. This is a group of Cuban musicians who were popular decades ago but disappeared from the public eye for several reasons -- the embargo, their music was considered old-fashioned, and they had retired.

But their situation changed after American guitarist and composer Ry Cooder went to Cuba in search of forgotten musicians. He brought together a group of top players and singers and recorded them on a CD called "Buena Vista Social Club," which won a Grammy and sold over a million copies.

Cooder produced a new CD by Ibrahim Ferrer (ph), one of the singers with the band. A new documentary film called "Buena Vista Social Club," produced by Cooder, tells the story of these musicians.

As for Cooder's story, he has many albums of his own. He's worked with gospel, folk, and Hawaiian musicians, and has written the scores for several films.

Here's music from the CD "Buena Vista Social Club."


GROSS: Ry Cooder, welcome back to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: When you went down to Cuba, did you know who you were looking for, or what kind of music you were looking for?

COODER: Well, sure. This is the "son (ph)" -- the music is the "son," it's the root folk lyric music of Cuba, and you also have to say that the individuals who do this who are great are known because they've made records through the years.

And, of course, what happens over time is, some die and some live on, and you just never know who is left, and you never know who you can find. And we had very incredibly good luck to find the people we found alive and well. Some had gone.

And, for instance, Ruben Gonzalez (ph) was supposed to be dead. Everybody said he was dead. Then they said, Well, he's actually not dead, he's just got arthritis, and he can't play. And that wasn't true either. But because he'd been so -- he had fallen through the cracks, so to speak, of time and styles and everything else, and he hadn't been heard from in 20 years, and nobody thought a thing about him.

So even in a place that small and village-like, which, I have to say, Havana really is like a big village, a person as great and, you know, primary as Ruben Gonzalez just -- they thought he was dead.

GROSS: So if people were telling you that Ruben Gonzalez was dead, How did you actually find him?

COODER: Well, Juan de Marcos (ph), who's a -- who was our sort of -- he was our sort of all-purpose guide and helper, conductor, and musician finder -- being a band leader himself and in his 40s, old enough to know where people are. You know, you don't go to Musician Central and get the number and call on the phone. It doesn't work like that down there.

But he knew where folks were, and he went around, and it wasn't so very hard to do, I guess. They just had to be asked for, and no one had asked for them in all this time. And we did have -- Nick and I had a kind of list.

And then people started appearing, and they still are with this new record of Ibrahim's that we've made, some -- even more, you know, people are coming out of the woodwork, almost, now. We go down there, and, you know, once they find out it's a worthwhile and interesting thing to be doing, it's really, truly amazing. I mean, you know, we've been blessed all through the history of this thing in the last three years.

GROSS: Well, since you brought up the pianist Ruben Gonzalez, why don't we listen to a track that features him? This is "Pueblo Nuevo," from the "Buena Vista Social Club." Say something about this recording and this style of Cuban music that it shows.

COODER: Well, all of these -- all of the tunes on that record, on "Buena Vista Social Club," fall into the "son" category. And by that, I mean the kind of traditional -- it's based in tradition, as opposed to, shall we say, salsa, which is more of a popular, more contemporary form, less folk-based, or less traditional-based music -- I mean, even though it all runs together and it's all a development, you know.

So "Pueblo Nuevo" is a tune that Ruben wrote himself. When he wrote it, I don't know. It could have been any time in the last 70 years that he's been playing piano since he started at age 7, I think he said. And it's a "danson (ph)" piece, basically, "danson" being a dance, traditional Cuban dance form, that's a mid-tempo, it's kind of 19th century melodically. It's very Spanish, French, kind of a voice from the colonial times. And this is the Ruben is famous for, being a great "danson" piano player. And so that's what "Pueblo Nuevo" is.

GROSS: Why don't we hear it? This is from the "Buena Vista Social Club" with Ruben Gonzalez at the piano.


GROSS: That's pianist Ruben Gonzalez. That track is on the CD, the "Buena Vista Social Club," which was produced by my guest, Ry Cooder. Now there's a "Buena Vista Social Club" documentary film as well.

Ry Cooder, what were you doing on guitar in the track we just heard? I don't mean what were you doing on guitar, but...


COODER: Yes, yes, yes, yes. No, it's a good question, both are good questions. They don't need me, you know, at all. But I do like to play when I think it's appropriate or there's something I can do. I'm trying to think on this track now, and see what I did do. (singing) Da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da.

I -- you know, there's a kind of a -- the Cuban stringed instrument that you find that's most prevalent throughout all this music is called "tres (ph)," which is a six-string little guitar that's basically three-note instrument, and they play a rhythm style. It's a drum with strings, almost, in essence. I mean, you play it as though you were playing drum parts, but it has melodies.

So you can play it that way if you know how. I'm trying to learn all the time, you know. And also I find that sometimes this bottleneck style that I like to do fits, if you think of it as a kind of weird other instrument almost like a horn or something. And I sort of tried to sneak that in there down there. And they never had quite seen anything like it, and thought that was amusing and funny.

And they don't mind what I play, I don't think. If they did mind it, if they did object to it, they'd let me know that too.

GROSS: You were saying that, you know, the first rumor was that Ruben Gonzalez was dead, and then people said, No, no, no, he just has arthritis and he hasn't played in years.

COODER: Right.

GROSS: So did he have a crippling arthritis, or...

COODER: No. No, no, no. I mean, when you -- you might know that if you're an older person, he's in his 80s, and you haven't played piano and your hands -- you've done it all your life and then you stop, what's naturally going to happen is, the muscles stiffen up. It happens to me if I don't play guitar for two weeks or something.

And he didn't have a piano for practically 20 years...

GROSS: Why not? I mean, he couldn't afford it, or he didn't want to play any more?

COODER: Well, there -- yes, of course. No, no, no, he didn't have one. And I think he said that the worms ate it up, which in the tropics, a tropical climate like that, is not very kind to musical instruments, especially a great big thing like a piano. And so it's difficult to get pianos in Cuba, and he doesn't have any money, didn't have any money, any more than anybody else does down there.

And so what was he going to do? So he just didn't play. And he wasn't working. He was no longer appearing in groups or recording or traveling like he did all the other times. And so he just sort of dried up. And he just went into a kind of suspended animation, I think. Because now as I see him, as you would see him, and you see him in this film, he plays piano constantly.

When he's talking to you, he's running his fingers along some keyboard of his mind, you know, to -- It's been reawakened in him, and he's a powerful force. He was, after all, the greatest piano player of "son" in
the history of Cuba. There's just no doubt about that.

GROSS: People weren't clamoring for him to perform again? I mean, had he been forgotten in Cuba, or what?

COODER: Oh, totally. Yes, most of these people had, they'd forgotten. Styles change, you see, and when the -- salsa ascended as a popular form throughout all Latin America, I suppose in the '70s, '80s, anyway, and this music just was bypassed. It was also no longer done much in Cuba because it became -- it seemed to be a bit declasse, a bit outre, as they say.

These old timers just weren't working any more, you know.

GROSS: My guest is guitarist and composer Ry Cooder. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Guitarist Ry Cooder is my guest. And he produced the "Buena Vista Social Club" CD featuring older Cuban musicians. And now there's a documentary of a concert that they did at Carnegie Hall, and there's a new CD by a singer named Ibrahim Ferrer, who was a member of the Buena Vista Social Club. And Ry Cooder also produced that.

Now, Ibrahim Ferrer is one of the musicians that you, you know, rediscovered for the "Buena Vista Social Club" CD. Tell us a little bit about who -- what kind of music he played when he was performing, and what happened to him when he stopped performing.

COODER: Well, Ibrahim is in his 70s. He's 72, maybe, now. So his time -- when he was active, you're looking at the postwar era, let's say '40s, and more like '50s and '60s. This is the era of the bolero and the kind of tenor, romantic tenor singing that was popular during those years in Latin American music.

And Ibrahim is, I suppose, the last great bolero singer. This is a style that died. It was killed off by gross commercialization and guys in silk shirts and gold chains. And it -- the beauty and the incandescence of the music seems to have -- I don't know, it fell on hard times. And there again, you know, a style can just disappear.

But when we asked Marcos, "Does anybody still sing this way?" -- this beautiful, high tenor lyric voice, he says, "There's only one guy left, there's only one man, and that's Ibrahim Ferrer, and he's hard to find, and he's on the street somewhere, and I'll go find him."

Then he went out, and he came back two hours later with this really strange-looking fellow, he's just very skinny, moves like an old cat, you know, like a -- some kind of aging cougar with this Chinese face. He's part Chinese, very black, and a little cap and a cigarette.

He says, "What do you want me for? I don't sing any more. Who wants me?" And I look at this guy, and I could see, he has this quality where his eyes don't move in his head. He's like an old guy from Mississippi. And I'm thinking, This is somebody, you know, this guy's heavy. Put him up in front of a microphone, let's see what he's going to do here.

And out comes this chocolate syrup voice, like a -- like -- I think of him like I think of Nat Cole, the rarest kind of vocal quality, and very rare in a person who's older, because age generally is not kind to that vocal quality, you know, the top extension in the voice is a thing that age starts to wear away. And like me.


And I think that, you know, it's bad pollution down there, and he smoked every day of his life and so forth. But he opens his mouth, and out comes this angelic sound. And he's very inward and he's very Zenlike, lived a life of poverty. And he'd never been known, he'd never had an opportunity to make his own records, never had a record with his name on it, had been just not only forgotten but ignored, the entire time.

And he had no idea what we were doing. We were saying, "Look, we're making some songs here, we're trying to do something nice that's good. Stick with us, you know, come back every day." "You want me to come back?" I said, "Yes, I want you to come back." Every day he would say, "You want me tomorrow?" I'd say, "I really want you tomorrow."

And so pretty soon he began to realize that this was something that was serious, you know, that we weren't just carpetbagging and running off with the music.

And fantastic experience as far as I'm concerned, because I really never expected to have -- to be able to record this music in the world again, because nobody could sing it, far as I was concerned.

GROSS: Now that we've heard a little bit of Ibrahim Ferrer's story, let's hear his singing. And I want to play a bolero called "Silencio (ph)," which Ferrer also performs on the "Buena Vista Social Club" documentary film. Tell us a little bit about this song.

COODER: Well, the song came from -- it's -- it has to do with your -- you know, we have a few tunes. We'd say, "Ibrahim, let's try this, let's try that," and I sort of know that in a few days something will come forward, you know, and it always does. He says, you know, "I know this tune, `Silencio.'" Turns out to be a pretty famous tune down there. I had never heard it.

And it has this fantastic quality that you do encounter in this ballad form sometimes of being -- to me, it's like stairs. It builds step by step and step by step, and it goes up, up, up, up, rather like a Hawaiian tune as well, until you reach this crescendo of -- where it all just collects to itself, and it really pays off, but it's very subtle and very quiet.

And this is a nice one because he sings it as a duet with Omar Portuondo (ph), who's a great -- another great singer from down there, from years, and it has this horn -- or rather string section arranged by Dimitrio Monys (ph), who's got to be the greatest string arranger I ever met, and a guy just who we met, you know, who's down there. "You like a little Ravel?" he says. "How about a little Debussy I throw in here?"

You know, what more do you want? So let's listen.

GROSS: So this is from Ibrahim Ferrer's new CD.


GROSS: Music from the new CD by Ibrahim Ferrer, a CD produced by my guest, Ry Cooder, who also produced the "Buena Vista Social Club" CD. And Ferrer was one of the Buena Vista Social Club members.

COODER: Right.

GROSS: And now there's a "Buena Vista Social Club" documentary film.

In the United States there are so many generational and also racial differences in people's musical tastes, and I'm wondering if there's a race and class divide in Cuban music as well.

COODER: There seems to be less of a divide, because of the early mix that took place, and as time -- let's say from the 19th century through the 20th century, the development was towards the -- for more and more Africanization of music. So you went from the kind of 19th century European melodies and rhythms towards a more African rhythm -- bass (ph), with the syncopation and everything.

So that by the turn of the century on into the -- let's say between 1900 and 1920, it was very clear that this was -- that the two things that characterized this "son" form was the Spanish and French melodic or harmonic structure on top with the African -- different African sort of rhythm concept on the bottom, and that's what makes Cuban music so, I guess, unique and interesting.

And it's very well done. I mean, a lot of very talented people spent a lot of time working this out, you see. They crafted it and treated it as an art. It was never -- it's not a country where business was ever very predominant any more than it is today. And the music business never existed down there, really. This was a vocation and an art that working people practiced, you have to remember.

Maddam Moros (ph), the greatest writer of "son" music from the '20s, the '30s, and the '40s, all through those years, was a chauffeur. His partners were truck mechanics and guys like that. They also recorded for Victor and sold millions of records, which, of course, nobody paid them any royalties, same old story.

But these were not, you know -- these were not -- they didn't live apart. They lived in the way that Cubans still live, which is to have a kind of -- maybe you have a job, but you also do some music at night, and pursue this as a craft and an art form. And that's full hearted (ph) for me to make that clear, but that's the way it looks to me, anyway.

GROSS: We'll talk more with Ry Cooder and hear more Cuban music in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.

That was Ry Cooder. He went to Cuba a few years ago in the hopes of tracking down forgotten musicians from pre-revolutionary times. He assembled a group that became known as Buena Vista Social Club. He produced the group's CD, a new documentary film about them, also called "Buena Vista Social Club," and a new CD by one of the group's singers, Ibrahim Ferrer.

There is -- I guess it's no big surprise -- elements of blues and jazz in Cuban music, and I think that's particularly evident on one of the tracks from the "Buena Vista Social Club" record, and I'm thinking of the song -- forgive my pronunciation -- (INAUDIBLE).

COODER: Yeah, (INAUDIBLE) -- "The Crazy Young Girl." It's just like saying, you know, I was in love with this crazy young girl. And this is a tune -- one of these tunes that (INAUDIBLE) in the '30s, a guy who used to go to movies, and he would see American films -- American films were hugely popular down there, especially musical films, and they got a lot of jazz, and a lot of influence from those films.

And this is one of these kind of swing tune Cuban songs, very unusual, but you have to remember that, after the Spanish-American War, a lot of Cubans left and went to New Orleans, especially musicians, and of course, at that time, that Creole sort of music style that Jelly Roll Morton later, you know, became famous for.

This is who he heard it from,there's no doubt. At least, that's what Ruben Gonzalez says. Hard for me to argue with that, you know.

GROSS: Now, this track opens with -- it sounds to me almost like a Jimmy Rogers style of guitar playing. Is that you?

COODER: Yeah, that's me and Compiaz (ph), sort of -- we play it together. He plays this -- Jimmy Rogers is -- that's pretty close. It's a kind of lyric guitar style that you find in that Caribbean -- Joseph Spence (ph) from the Bahamas was one such a player, I think.

And he's so old, Compiaz, 92, so that his musical sense is coming from turn of the century -- and, you know, for sure, this is where he learned music. This is when he was learning, around in there.

And he plays a really archaic style of guitar, which is, at this point, Jimmy Rogers is pretty close. What did Jimmy listen to, you know. Who knows what he was hearing. Since you figure everybody heard something. It didn't come out of the air, you know.

GROSS: So this is music from the Buena Vista Social Club.


GROSS: Music by the Buena Vista Social Club. My guest, Ry Cooder, featured on guitar. Ry Cooder produced the Buena Vista Social Club record, as well as a new record by one of its members, Ibrahim Ferrer.

There's also a new Buena Vista Social Club documentary film that focuses around the concert that they gave at Carnegie Hall.

How was the experience of working with these older Cuban musicians affected your own music and your own guitar playing -- you know, your composing and your playing.

COODER: Well, I mean, I don't know that -- I don't know that I'm so directly affected -- and you know I'm 52 now, so I play kind of the way I play, although, I must say, tres was an instrument I always wanted to learn, and I had a chance now to do what I wanted to do in the '70s, when I started going down there, try to learn it.

And it's a great thing to find an instrument that's close, but exotic, that you can transfer some of your, you know, thoughts into, and it opens up a new door, you know, because you're going to, like, start playing in somewhat different ways, of course.

And you have to do this in order to keep yourself interested and amused and everything else. But this, I don't think that -- you know, I can't turn into a Cuban musician. Nobody can do that sort of stuff.

These guys are born into it. They are it. I'm a fan, you know. At the same time, I see that, you know, there's a -- there's going to be some changes. I mean, I play this tres every day now, maybe three, four hours, if I can, and I just find that it opens my mind up a little.

I don't think in the patterns that I do on guitar. I'm so used to the guitar it's a problem, you know. You end up playing the same darn thing all the time. You can't help it. So it's always good to have input.

GROSS: I'd like you to choose a track of one of the sessions from (INAUDIBLE) Buena Vista Social Club or Ibrahim Ferrer's new record -- a track that has special significance for you, either because you learned something from listening to it, or a tune particularly struck you, whatever, but tell us what you find so striking about this in your introduction.

COODER: Well, let's see. I think I would have to say that, on Ibrahim's new record -- I love all these songs very much and everything.

There's this one tune, though, "Arrilo de Sombras (ph)," is a very -- has a lot of power for me, because it seems to have everything you could want in a song. It's got all of these elements with the strings and the singing.

This is a tune that I learned from a Feros (ph) record. Delosa Feros (ph) were a four-voice do-wop quartet in Cuba, very unique, and they sang a kind of New York rhythm and blues style, of course in Spanish, and this is something absolutely fantastic.

I'm happy to be able to report that, very soon, there will be this compilation of there material, and I recommend this to everyone. This is sensational.

And we were -- they're all dead, except that we were able to find the guitar player, Manuel Galbano (ph), who played and arranged their music. He is on this record of Ibrahim's. It was one of the great, fantastic appearances, you know, that happens down there all the time, and here he is, you know.

You can hear this strange Cuban twanging, Duane Eddy almost style electric guitar, and it's a really beautiful song, and it just takes me away. You know, I listen to this, and I go somewhere every time.

GROSS: So this is a song from the new Ibrahim Ferrer record. Ry Cooder, I want to thank you very much.

COODER: Thank you.


GROSS: Music from the new CD by Ibrahim Ferrer. We heard from Ry Cooder, who produced this CD, as well as the Buena Vista Social Club CD and new documentary film.

Ibrahim Ferrer once performed in Russia, with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in the audience. Khrushchev invited the band to dinner and asked Ferrer to sit next to him.

Coming up, we talk with Khrushchev's son Sergei about why he's becoming a U.S. citizen.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Ry Cooder
High: Guitarist and music producer Ry Cooder is the creator of the Cuban band The Buena Vista Social Club. It features Cooder performing with many of Cuba's top pre-revolution era musicians. Their debut album won a Grammy for best tropical Latin album. The new documentary film "Buena Vista Social Club" profiles the group. Ry Cooder, one of the film's producers, talk about rediscovering some of the great artists of Cuban music.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Music Industry; Latin America

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Buena Vista Social Club

Date: JUNE 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062302NP.217
Head: Interview with Sergei Khrushchev
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The name Khrushchev once signified American fears about the Soviet Union. After all, it was Nikita Khrushchev who was the Soviet premier during the Cuban missile crisis. It was Khrushchev who vowed to bury us. But whose son, Sergei Khrushchev, is becoming a U.S. citizen.

We are going to hear an interview that I recorded with Sergei Khrushchev before taking his citizenship exam today. Sergei, who is now 63, has lived with his wife in Providence, Rhode Island, since 1991. He is a senior research scholar and lecturer at Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development.

His father had led the Soviet Union for about a decade when he was ousted in 1964. Sergei edited his father's memoirs, is the author of "Khrushchev on Khrushchev," and is finishing a new book about his father.

A few days ago, I asked Sergei Khrushchev if he expects his life to be any different when he becomes a U.S. citizen.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV, AUTHOR, "KHRUSHCHEV ON KHRUSHCHEV": What is different or not different, I don't know. I don't expect any real differences, A, B, C, D. But, I am thinking that if you are deciding to live in a country, you have an obligation to be a citizen. So, we talk with my children, we talk with my wife, and then decide to apply for citizenship.

GROSS: Your father, Nikita Khrushchev, was the premier of the Soviet Union, and in 1964 he was ousted from office and denounced. And I'm wondering if you and if your father felt betrayed by your own country when that happened.

KHRUSHCHEV: No, I can't feel that somebody ousted from office and feel that they were betrayed by the country. He was (INAUDIBLE) betrayed, but he was betrayed by his friends and colleagues that worked within together in the government, but not the country. The country cannot betray you. You can be betray country.

GROSS: After he was ousted from office, he was basically written out of history, and I wondering how that was done. How has your father basically disappeared from Soviet history?

KHRUSHCHEV: No, I think that you, of course, have no knowledge of the totalitarian system, because whoever is in control, then you are not mentioning some names, one year, two years, 10 years. And then it disappearing because nobody remembers you, you have only written history. There is no mentioning in the written books or newspapers or anywhere, then people will forget you.

GROSS: Do you think that the KGB ever spied on your family?

KHRUSHCHEV: I feel, of course, they spied all the time on the family, because they want to be secure that nobody knows anything important, and because they want to have this control over the family, and so they bugged, of course, our home, and they bugged my telephone.

And I tell you, even when they stopped listening to me during the Gorbachev times, and then some people asked me, "What are you feeling that they are not bugging you?" I told them, "I am feeling now that I am not important. Nobody needs me."


GROSS: Now, you worked in the space program and the missile industry. When you were designing missiles, did you ever think that there was likely to be a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union?

KHRUSHCHEV: No, really, you know, when you are designing something, you are more thinking of how it functions, but not that it can really be a weapon. I don't think that it is possible to design such thing if you really, if you think about all these moral aspects.

When I talk with my American counterparts who worked in the same field, they also never thought that they would build weapons that would kill Russians or Americans. We just designed that our accuracy will be the best in the world, and we will just deliver, as we were told, this threat to this port where it was targeted.

And we never saw the Americans, as a people, as the enemy. We thought that we have to defend our country and they will not begin the war, we will never use these weapons.

GROSS: Do you think your father believed there would ever be a nuclear war -- even during the Cuba missile crisis, did he think that it might come to war?

KHRUSHCHEV: Of course, politicians calculate all possibilities, including nuclear war. But he did everything to prevent this war, and I think it is one of his biggest achievements, that, during his reign, 10 years, from '53 to '64, he, working together with President Eisenhower and President Kennedy to turn the world from war to peace, because in '53, we were very close to the war.

And then, even through all of these crises, he just went not to the war, but from the war, towards the peace, or as he called it, (INAUDIBLE).

GROSS: In the United States, people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s had these nuclear bomb drills, where in school, we were taught to hide under our desks in case of a nuclear bomb. There were fallout shelters all over.

Was there an equivalent in the Soviet Union? Were children being trained in what to do if there was a nuclear attack?

KHRUSHCHEV: Yes, it was very similar. We were trained in school and also in each governmental office, you must have the shelters, it may be half the money spent on the shelters in the buildings, but, you know, the nature of the people are different, as I told.

All the time, you lived protected by the two oceans, you have (INAUDIBLE) enemies, and our people, through the different wars in this century, two World Wars and the civil war and several small wars. So, there was not much serious about all these drills.

Remember, there were these drills in school when they told us about the nuclear explosion, that you have to cover something with the white and it was just a joke, that you have to cover yourself with the white blanket and then slowly move in the direction to the cemetery.


Why slowly? Because you mustn't create panic.


GROSS: What did you think of the United States during the Cold War?

KHRUSHCHEV: You know, it was a big similarity in the Cold War on both sides of the Iron Curtain. You had the fear that we would begin the war with the first possibility. We thought that you would begin the war with the first possibility. You think that we are an evil empire, we think that you are an evil empire.

So, in some of my articles, I'm using "we" and "you," and they told it depends where you are. You can think that you are American or you are Russian, or we are American and we are Russian. So, it is very similar on the both sides.

GROSS: My guest is Sergei Khrushchev. We will talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev, who was the Soviet premier at the height of the Cold War. He was ousted in 1964.

What was it like when you were the son of the premier of the Soviet Union? What -- how did that change your life? What are some -- were there any privileges that came along with that status, or responsibilities?

KHRUSHCHEV: It's very similar in every way. There is no difference when you were living in Kremlin, because we never lived, physically, in Kremlin, but, for you, this was -- you were living in the White House or in Windsor Palace in England, because you have privileges of course, more than others, but we had not so many.

We have no bodyguards, no limousines. We used subway when we went to the university and the cars. and -- but, from the other side, of course, you have to calculate everything, because you are under the -- such -- I would say, surveillance of the people.

It was no freedom of media, it was no paparazzi in our country, they will not make, I don't know, your topless photographs and publish anywhere. But, it will be rumors every single day, same as my parents told.

All the time, you have to remember that you are Khrushchev, you have the name Khrushchev, and what you are doing, it was just be transformed into rumors about your father and your family.

GROSS: You know, in the United States, the image of your father, Nikita Khrushchev, was as someone who was very loud, very unpredictable, something of a peasant, and, I'm wondering if that angered you, if you knew what the Americans image of him was and how you felt about it?

KHRUSHCHEV: Well, you know, I think what I am working on, trying to present the real image, because if you were on the opposite side and you are feeling that people are your enemies, you are trying to make this image useful for you, as bad as possible.

And sometimes, it's a misunderstanding between the different cultures, and, sometimes, my father exploited this image, threatening the opposite side. He used that, we think -- he is unpredictable, he would do everything. And he, many times, use it in his speeches and his, sometimes, negotiations, even in his interviews.

Because, I remember when he gave the first TV interview, he was very nervous because before it was on the papers, so you present him questions and then he give you answers, and he can change everything that he wanted.

And, here on the screen, you cannot change. And when they prepared in the next room to his office in Kremlin, and he just walked in his office -- his assistant told me, who was there -- and then he made his decision. He opened door to this room where there was the American crew, and he began to shout, "You know, you Americans, all the time, you are trying to find the worst thing, you are asking such bad questions..."

And all others, and they were so surprised, sit looking at him. And then he did this (INAUDIBLE) about five minutes, then he stopped, and turned back, went to the door, and closed the door. And then, they were so scared that they did not ask any questions that he did not like. So, he knew this -- about this image and he tried to use it in his favor.

GROSS: Your father died in 1971. That was seven years after he was ousted from office. Did his non-status in the Soviet Union affect the kind of burial that you were able to give him?

KHRUSHCHEV: Well, yes, of course, because of this status we could not bury him on Red Square, the same as it was like here, the Arlington Cemetery. But, they decided that they will bury him in the other -- how to say -- less-prestigious place, but it's also very prestigious and I think it was even better, because, in the Kremlin, there are so many bad people, and criminals that are laying, and (INAUDIBLE) around him are his friends: generals, and writers, and composers.

So, I prefer him to be buried in this (INAUDIBLE) cemetery than to lay near the Red Square, in the Red Square near the Kremlin wall.

GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest is Sergei Khrushchev, and he is the son of the former Russian premier, Nikita Khrushchev.

Were you worried that the war in Serbia was straining relations between Russia and the United States?

KHRUSHCHEV: Oh, it depends on the stupidity of the leaders. You can use everything to destroy the relations, because it is so easy to ruin and it is very difficult to restore. You know, it was such expression of my father, he told that, "Each fool can start a war, but they need so many wise men to stop the war."

But, I hope that's not -- I don't think that it is so important region with United States and Russia that they would begin to quarrel too much with each other.

GROSS: What are some of the thing you are most looking forward to doing as an American citizen?

KHRUSHCHEV: Working. Each citizen have to work, and (INAUDIBLE) that the American citizens are doing differently than any others. I don't think that they drink more.


GROSS: So, you don't think that it is going to feel much different?

KHRUSHCHEV: You have the obligation, living here, that you are citizens. That doesn't mean that you will behave differently. I worked before, I am working now and, I will work in the future. I'm teaching, I'm lecturing, I'm writing.

And I am doing everything that I can, and also I am enjoying my life, just working in the garden with my wife, Valentina (ph), and we like nature, so we have the different roses, flowers, strawberries, tomatoes. Now, we planted grapes, and when we have time, we are working and going to the parks -- enjoying ourselves.

GROSS: You know, for a lot of Americans, you're becoming an American citizen has a lot of symbolic significance. Here is the man who is the son of the Soviet premier from the period of the height of the Cold War, when the Cold War with at its real coldest, and I'm wondering if you think it's reading too much in it, or if it's appropriate to gave your citizenship a lot of symbolic weight?

KHRUSHCHEV: But, you know, I think that it is symbolic, but in a very different way, because I not became American citizen, becoming American citizen at the some, (INAUDIBLE) the Cold War. It's just a sign that everything changes.

It's no Cold War, because I wouldn't even think of such possibility during the Cold War. It's no opposition now and we are trying to create a new life and new relations between two countries. And the best signal this -- that, if I live here, it will be no negative reaction in Russia.

And I've talked with the people, and they told me, you can be an American citizen and (INAUDIBLE), and you will come here and we will come there and visit you. I think it very good for the world.

The people often think that they are still living in the Cold War. What can we do? Many people can change themselves.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KHRUSHCHEV: OK. Thank you.

GROSS: And enjoy your life as an American citizen.

KHRUSHCHEV: Thank you.

GROSS: Sergei Khrushchev, recorded a few days ago, before taking his exam today to become a U.S. citizen.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Sergei Khrushchev
High: Sergei Khrushchev, son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, becomes an American citizen today. He currently is a senior fellow at the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University. He has written several books about his father and the Soviet Union, including "Khrushchev, Crises and Rockets: Observations," and "Khrushchev on Khrushchev," which details his father's dramatic struggles with the KGB over his attempts to write his memoirs. He is currently writing a new book on his father "Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower," due out in October.
Spec: World Affairs; Profiles; Authors; Books

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Sergei Khrushchev
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue