de Gaulle in USSR
1966 was an extraordinarily busy year for Charles de Gaulle. Re-elected the previous year, le Grand Charles had envisioned a France acting as a balancing force in the dangerous rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. He moved away from the Atlantean foreign policy into more neutral waters by withdrawing the French commitments from NATO and demanding all foreign bases removed from French soil. In January, he scored a victory in Empty Chair Crisis, thus permanently killing off European Federalism.
In July, De Gaulle made an 11-day, 6,200 mile trip across Russia, during which he attended a Soviet satellite missile launch at Baikinour. On the other hand, he rebuffed the Soviet demands to recognize the co-existence “of the two German states”. Devoutly Catholic, he insisted on attending mass in Leningrad, and he ended his visit with a joint call for an end to foreign intervention in Vietnam, a proclamation he would echo in a famous Phnom Penh speech two months later. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin reciprocated the visit with a grand 9-day visit to France.
De Gaulle capped the year of diplomatic frenzy with an emotional, yet controversial state visit to Poland. The first non-Communist European leader to visit Poland since the Second World War, the president who actually had led the Poles against the Soviets after the First World War was enthusiastically received. There were hails of Duzy Karolek (Long Charlie) from the youth who wore copies of the képi military cap he wore during the war. (To this day the cap is known in Poland as Degolówka). But de Gaulle angered the West Germans by visiting the once-German town of Hindenburg, which had become Zabrze, and said it was la ville la plus polonaise de la Pologne (the most Polish town in Poland).
Elliot Erwitt was the only American photographer covering de Gaulle’s visit. His photo of the General and the Soviet Presidium in the most casual of settings indeed made the cover of Paris Match and was published worldwide. He remembered the curious affair:
“I was there at the French Embassy with all the other dozens of photographers taking the usual handshaking pictures and when it was all over I went back to my hotel and took my shoes off and suddenly thought I should not have left. So I put my shoes on again and went back to the Embassy. There were only a few people still there, the event was over, so I just walked in and opened a few doors and then opened one door and there was the entire Soviet government sitting down with de Gaulle and chatting. Nobody looked up so I just walked in with my camera and started taking pictures. They didn’t question my presence because I acted natural. Noboday said anything and after a while I got up and left. It is very important to know when to leave. No one took any notice. I went back to my hotel and called Paris Match, who could hardly believe it. They broke their cover waiting for my pictures.”