World Europe First Look

UN envoys pay tribute after passing of Russia’s Vitaly Churkin. Who was he?

Mr. Churkin, whose decades-long career concluded as Russia's envoy to the United Nations, was remembered for being not only a fierce champion of Russian policy, but a personable colleague.

The United Nations Security Council observes a moment of silence for Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations since 2006, died suddenly after falling ill at his office at Russia's UN mission Monday.He was the longest-serving ambassador on the Security Council, the UN's most powerful body.
Richard Drew/AP | Caption

Diplomats from around the world shared tributes to Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations and the longest-serving member of the Security Council, after news of his sudden death in New York on Monday.

Mr. Churkin, whom many of his diplomatic adversaries and allies alike described as an intelligent, personable man, got his start in international politics during the Soviet era, bridging the gap between shifts of power in Russia and the country's relationship to the rest of the world. 

"In my short time at the United Nations, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin showed himself to be a gracious colleague," the new US ambassador to the UN, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, said in a statement. "We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country's positions with great skill."

Churkin's public career began as a child actor, starring in three films during the height of the Soviet Union, including two Vladimir Lenin biopics, according to The New York Times. Later, he trained as a diplomat and a translator, and earned a reputation in the international community for his quick wit and steadfast defense of Russian foreign policy. In 1986, he became the face of the USSR's new approach to foreign policy with the United States when he testified before the Congress about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in fluent English. His friendly, humorous tone and direct engagement with Congress were all new in an era that had been accustomed to the adversarial and shady atmosphere of the cold war.

Since 2006, Churkin had been Moscow's envoy to the UN, where he became the longest-serving ambassador on the Security Council. But despite his loyalty to Russia, he recognized the importance of international cooperation.

"I think the UN continues to be an indispensable mechanism," he said in his last interview, with the state-funded Russia Today news organization. "Without the UN, we would be acting all on our own."

According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin admired Churkin's "professionalism and diplomatic talents," and was deeply upset by the news of his passing.

"The loss sustained by Russia is grave and irreplaceable," Pyotr Ilyichev, Churkin's deputy, said in a statement. "Ambassador Churkin remained at his work post until the last minute. He devoted his whole life to defending the interests of Russia and was to be found on the very front lines and in the most stressful posts."

Many members of the international community agreed with the sentiments, even those who had been on the receiving end of his more scathing defenses of Russian policy. One such diplomat was Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN.

Last year, Churkin had criticized Ambassador Power's denunciation of the Russian bombing in Aleppo, Syria. "The weirdest speech to me was the one by the U.S. representative who built her statement as if she is Mother Teresa herself. Please, remember which country you represent. Please, remember the track record of your country," Churkin said at the time.

Despite the harsh words, Ms. Power was friendly enough with Churkin to take the Russian ambassador to a performance of the hit American musical "Hamilton," according to The New York Times. Upon hearing of his passing, she described her erstwhile adversary on Twitter as a "diplomatic maestro and deeply caring man" who had done all he could facilitate cooperation between their two countries, often in the face of extreme distrust from both sides.

In a statement, the UN Security Council offered its "deep condolences to the family of the ambassador, the government and the people of the Russian Federation." An informal meeting of the General Assembly held a moment of silence in honor of Churkin on Monday.

This article contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.