As official Khmer translator for the Soviet embassy in the twilight of the Cold War, Oleg Samorodni was privy to a lot of sensitive material. Almost 30 years later, he remembers some parts of that tense time as if they were only yesterday
It was a hot day in Phnom Penh in the late 1980s when a football match was organised at the sprawling embassy of the Soviet Union. But the players were hardly run-of-the-mill. The captain of the away team, composed of senior Cambodian government officials, was Hun Sen – then, as now, prime minister – while his opponents were all Soviet embassy employees.
Oleg Samorodni, a writer and journalist now living in Estonia, remembers the friendly match well: as the chief interpreter of the embassy, he was picked as the referee. Not that one was necessary. To ensure warm relations between the USSR and the Vietnamese-backed regime known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the match was fixed.
“Before the match, the [Soviet] embassy met … and we decided there would be a draw,” Samorodni remembered with a chuckle during one of his recent visits to the Kingdom.
Samorodni, whose three-year service sparked a passion for Cambodia, offers a unique window into the Soviet Union’s history here and its relations with the country’s ruling clique, which remains at the nation’s helm to this day.
Samorodni arrived in Cambodia in 1986, after studying Khmer intensively at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. At the time, Phnom Penh was a much quieter town. Still recovering from five years of forced abandonment during the Khmer Rouge, infrastructure was terrible, restaurants few and far between, and tourists close to zero.
The embassy was not considered a particularly strategic posting, and the Soviet Union was content to let Vietnam, a close ally, run Cambodia as it had since its toppling of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Young and eager to use his fluent Khmer, Samorodni remembers coming up with various initiatives – such as analysing Khmer Rouge radio broadcasts – that were tolerated but hardly encouraged.
Nevertheless, Samorodni loved the “mysterious and interesting” city of Phnom Penh, driving his embassy car through deserted streets as late as possible before the nightly curfew began.
And as the official interpreter of the Soviet embassy, Samorodni often rubbed shoulders with Cambodia’s governing elite.
Officially, much pomp and respect was given to the “sovereign” Cambodian government, which the USSR bankrolled to the tune of about $1.5 billion during the height of the Cold War. (The loans have yet to be paid back.)
But behind closed doors, the Soviets knew Vietnam was running the show, and held a somewhat condescending attitude towards their ostensibly socialist brethren. In particular, according to Samorodni, they thought little of a certain Hun Sen, the lanky youth who quickly rose through the ranks to become prime minister in 1985.
“The Soviet diplomats thought he was comical, a total puppet of the Vietnamese. He didn’t speak foreign languages, had little education … Officially, we showed respect, but the Soviet diplomats thought he was a temporary figure.”
In private, the diplomats even gave Hun Sen a Russian diminutive: “Senya,” a nickname typically used for little boys.“That is, the attitude of the Soviet diplomats towards Hun Sen was like one towards a little boy.”
But as a Khmer speaker, Samorodni’s impression of the man was different. He noticed that, to make up for his lack of formal qualifications, Hun Sen surrounded himself with the best advisers and aggressively promoted them.
“I saw that Cham Prasidh [the then vice minister of the prime minister’s office, now minister of industry] was a real educated person who was well-connected – and I saw that Hun Sen kept him close.”
Although Samorodni never grew close to Hun Sen, he became friends with some other Cambodian officials who are prominent today, most notably Neth Savoeun, then the deputy head of Phnom Penh police and now Cambodia’s national police chief.
Aside from occasional interactions with Cambodian officials – and tipsy weekly cinema nights – life at the Soviet embassy was quiet.
Still, some intrigue certainly took place. Samorodni claims that of the about 30 “diplomatic passport” holders at the embassy, maybe 10 were actual diplomats, with the rest split between Soviet military intelligence and the KGB.
“Like in all other countries, the KGB were here to recruit agents within the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
They assembled all kinds of information.”Whether the reports dispatched to the foreign ministry in Moscow were ever of much use is another question.“It was joked that we were only working for historians in 50 years’ time, who would be able to read our reports then.”
Samorodni’s service ended in 1989. Today, he is a freelance journalist and writer in Estonia, but he has returned numerous times to Cambodia and written three books (in Russian) about the country.
The Khmer Rouge regime is one of Samorodni’s main passions, and he met twice with the regime’s former head of state Khieu Samphan in the mid-2000s in Pailin.
For a movement widely considered to have killed as many as 2 million people, Samorodni has taken the controversial view that the Khmer Rouge were not universally evil.
“Among the Khmer Rouge there must have been sadists, who always appear under totalitarian regimes. But I do not think that all the Khmer Rouge were sadists. Among them certainly were people who sincerely wished the happiness of Cambodia and the Khmer people,” he said.
In his book The Mysteries of Pol Pot’s Diplomacy, Samorodni also argues that the Khmer Rouge had a much less xenophobic foreign policy than scholars believe. He thinks much of this history has been lost because it was based on ties with foreign leftist political parties rather than governments.
“It seems their foreign policy was focused on intra-party relations, because they wanted Democratic Kampuchea to become a hotbed of the leftist revolutionary movement,” he said, explaining that leftist representatives from the United States, Australia, Canada, Europe and possibly Africa visited Democratic Kampuchea to see communism in action.
Samorodni’s passion for Cambodia runs deep, but he says he much prefers the quieter country he knew in the 1980s to today’s glitzy inequality. It’s a change that has affected some of his old friendships as well, like the one with national police chief Neth Savoeun.
“We still communicate today … but he’s too high a rank now. One time a few years ago he asked me, ‘So what are you up to these days?’ I said: ‘You know, I write some books – I’m a journalist.’ And he thought it wasn’t very serious that I wasn’t some big businessman.”
“There isn’t the same friendship that there was at the time, of course.” Oleg Samorodni’s book The Mysteries of Pol Pot’s Diplomacy is available at the Snake House restaurant and guesthouse in Sihanoukville and at Irina’s Restaurant in Phnom Penh.