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‘Better Red Than Dead', literally: Lavrov remembers the Soviet diplomat who turned Cold-War slogan into UN meme

‘Better Red Than Dead', literally: Lavrov remembers the Soviet diplomat who turned Cold-War slogan into UN meme
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oleg Troyanovsky, a sharp-witted diplomat who famously was painted red by Chinese protesters, only to snidely remark in response that it was better to be 'red than dead.’

Troyanovsky, the son of the Soviet Union’s first ambassador to the US, picked his father’s profession and represented his home country in several senior diplomatic positions. He served as the Soviet ambassador to Japan and China, as well as the envoy to the UN, a role that he held for a decade, starting in 1976.

The current Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took the same role eight years after Troyanovsky left. Lavrov said he was lucky to work under his predecessor at the UN and recalled an anecdote from that time which showcases his sense of humor.

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In 1980, Troyankovsky and his fellow American diplomat, Deputy US Representative to the UN William vanden Heuvel, were doused in red paint right in the Security Council chamber. The Soviet envoy responded with a Cold War catchphrase: “better red than dead.” The joke became quite popular at the time. “It became what we now call a ‘meme’ at the UN,” Lavrov recalled.

The paint-throwers were identified as members of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party of the USA, who had proper journalistic credentials, granting them access to the chamber, according to a contemporary report by The Washington Post. Their protest action was not apparently related to the issue that the UN Security Council debated on that day though. The body convened to vote on a resolution supporting Palestinians’ right to statehood, which the US ambassador voted against.


“Better red than dead” is one of two competing slogans of the Cold War, the other being “better dead than red.” The variant cited by Troyanovsky was popularized in the West by British philosopher and peace campaigner Bertrand Russell, who argued that living under a Communist government, while bad, per se, would still be better than a nuclear annihilation of all humankind.

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