Mr. X's Legacy
by Matt Getty
November 1, 2008
Donald Graves ’53 established the scholarship for Russian studies at Dickinson after a 35-year government career providing insight into the Soviet Union for the CIA, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
Long before he became "Mr.
X," the State Department's premier Soviet Union expert during the Cold
War, Donald Graves '53 knew that understanding Russia was vital for America.
The realization came when he was just a teenager serving in the U. S. Army
Signal Corps, helping to intercept Soviet radio transmissions in occupied
Germany after World War II.
"Being on the front lines of
the Cold War, he really saw the Soviet Union as the existential threat to the
U.S.," explains Graves' son Richard. "He felt an obligation there
because he saw that all the experts and translators we were relying on were
from eastern Europe, and they had a different perspective on the issue."
That realization led Graves to
Dickinson, where, armed with the GI Bill, he began the Russian studies that
would take him to Moscow, the CIA and the State Department. At the height of
the Cold War he was widely regarded as America's top Kremlinologist, his work
so important and sensitive that a wellknown 1982 Washington Post profile could
refer to him only as "Mr. X."
During his retirement, however,
Graves often worried that America wasn't paying enough attention to the former
superpower. "After the Soviet Union fell, everyone stopped paying
attention to Russia," recalls Richard. "My dad thought that was just
a critical mistake. He'd always say, 'Russia isn't going away. Their economy
may be collapsing, people may think they're democratizing, but that isn't the
way they operate. … Not paying attention to Russia is going to come back to
haunt us.' " Those concerns led Graves back to Dickinson.
"He felt like Dickinson had
given him his start," says Richard, noting that his father believed the
college's strength in global education made it an ideal training ground for the
"next generation" of Russia experts. "But he worried that the
rising cost of college might prevent the next great analyst from getting their
own start in the field." So in March 2008 he made a gift to the college to
establish the endowed Donald Graves '53 Scholarship Fund for students studying
Russian language and culture.
If Caitlin Rice '09 is any
indication, it looks like Mr. X's gift is working exactly as he planned. The
first recipient of the scholarship, Rice is a Russian major who has twice
studied abroad in Moscow and shares Graves' concern for understanding the re-emerging
"A lot of my friends joke with
me and say, 'Isn't the Cold War over?' " she says, noting that Russia's
recent resurgence makes Graves look prophetic. "But it's not about the
'Cold War.' There's a fundamental difference in the way our two countries see
things. … I think there are a lot of opportunities to find common ground, but
we just see things through different lenses."
When she learned that the alumnus
behind her scholarship was once considered the State Department's foremost
Russia authority, Rice felt driven to write a letter to both thank Graves and
let him know that he was a "living example of what [she] hope[d] to
Unfortunately, Graves died of cancer
this summer before Rice's letter arrived. But the fact that his legacy continues
at Dickinson is both a comfort and an honor for his family. "It's really
gratifying to see that his work will be carried on in this way," says
Richard. "My dad believed in investing in the next generation to handle
the great crises that America would be facing. This was his way of doing
And the importance of that
investment definitely isn't lost on Rice.
"The Russian language is my
passion," says Rice, who plans to pursue a diplomatic career in either the
State Department or the United Nations. "But I want to make sure I use it
productively. I don't want it to be just for business or tourism. I feel like I
owe it to Mr. Graves to do something to make a real difference with the chance
I've been given."