Love that came in from the cold

June 10, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

When Susan Eisenhower fell in love with the top Soviet space scientist Roald Sagdeev, she found herself involved in an unsettling menage a trois: herself, Dr. Sagdeev and the KGB.

Love at the tail end of the Cold War made Ms. Eisenhower and Dr. Sagdeev an exceedingly interesting couple for lots of people both East and West. And if the CIA weren't as eager Peeping Toms as the KGB, Ms. Eisenhower thinks they were just as surely watching.

They met in 1987. She the granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the D-Day commander who became 34th president as the Cold War hardened. He a Communist Party member, a leading nuclear physicist and head of the Soviet space program.

He was the highest ranking official of the Soviet Union ever to contemplate marrying an American. She was a Washington insider with easy access to the highest echelons of power from the ambassador to the Soviet Union to the White House. She ran her own consulting firm, the Eisenhower Group, which advised Western companies on ventures in the Soviet Union.

"Certainly I come from a well-known American family, I think that would be fair enough," says Ms. Eisenhower, who tells all -- or pretty much -- in her new book "Breaking Free: A Memoir of Love and Revolution."

She and Dr. Sagdeev were the most prominentSoviet-American couple ever to marry. In an earlier time Dr. Sagdeev might have ended up in the Gulag, Ms. Eisenhower an endless supplicant for him, ostracized East and West, another sad footnote to the Cold War, like Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter who defected to the West.

"Until 1988, contacts with the West were very, very carefully scrutinized for ordinary citizens," Ms. Eisenhower says. "One can only imagined how much more intense it was for someone in this community."

In Dr. Sagdeev's community were space scientists, nuclear physicists, liberal reformers. He was a good friend of Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist banished to internal exile for his rigorous political dissension.

"Looking back, I can break out in cold sweat wondering whether we were crazy or not," she says.

But suspicions remain today. A Russian official in Boris Yeltsin's government denounced her as CIA agent "Colonel Eisenhower." She laughed. "We've done better than that. Other Eisenhowers were generals."

As it turned out, if their 1990 marriage wasn't made in heaven it was eventually blessed on earth by both Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush. They were married as Communism crumbled and a chunk of the Berlin Wall was easily their most symbolic wedding gift.

Richard Nixon phoned his congratulations when they announced their plans to marry. The Bushes invited them to a small dinner at the White House. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, now president of Georgia, "the most romantic man in the Politburo," sent effusive congratulations. Mr. Gorbachev's blessing came belatedly and reluctantly during a summit meeting.

Dr. Sagdeev was already in opposition. He had supported Mr. Sakharov. He had been the sole vote against Mr. Gorbachev in the Supreme Soviet. He was close to Mr. Yeltsin.

The most troubling part of his and Ms. Eisenhower's relationship came when he had to decide whether he would take a major part in the politics of the overthrow of communism. Ms. Eisenhower said she was ready to stand aside if he did.

She talks about those days and her new book in the Chevy Chase office of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies. She's chairwoman; Dr. Sagdeev is a board member. He talks about their life together by phone from his College Park office, where he is now Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He once was a Hero of Socialist Labor.

Ms. Eisenhower is starting out on a long book tour that will take her to 10 cities in 20 days. Dr. Sagdeev won't see her again until they meet in California on June 29.

Neither one was swept away when they met at a Chautauqua U.S.-Soviet friendship conference in New York in 1987.

Dr. Sagdeev's opening line: "I wanted to ask you, do you think [your grandfather] was serious when he formulated the concept of the 'military-industrial complex'?"

He told her she looked like Ike.

"May I take that as a compliment?" she asked.

"Of course," he boomed. He asked her to dance.

They were mature people. She was 35, married twice and the mother of three daughters. The youngest, 5, the oldest, 14. He was 54, separated from his wife of 30 years (they were divorced in 1989) and the father of a grown son and daughter, both computer scientists.

"When I first approached Susan, there were no romantic undertones," Dr. Sagdeev says. "I had heard about Susan and her part in discussions of space policy. Susan was quite outspoken."

Soon, he says, "I found it fascinating to talk to Susan."

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