The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

JULY 3, 1940

Spent the morning driving around town looking up friends of friends, none of whom were there. I wondered about the reactions of the Germans. I saw their officers in the restaurants, trying so desperately to be genteel when there was nobody to be genteel before. I heard that Goebbels was at the Ritz and thought how different that forsaken square, the Place Vendôme, must have seemed from the glamour and luxury of that place as he had pictured it. I was told that the Germans were making efforts to reopen the Casino de Paris for the benefit of their troops, but couldn't do so because all the British girls were gone and the French girls, if any could be found, were too individualistic to keep time in a chorus.

I struggled all day to find a metaphor for what had happened. Could one not say to the Germans that the spirit of Paris had been too delicate and shy a thing to stand their domination and had melted away before them just as they thought to have it in their grasp? Was there not some Greek myth about the man who tried to ravish a goddess, only to have her turn to stone when he touched her? That is what has happened to Paris. When the Germans came, the soul simply went out of it; and what is left is only stone.

There follows an excerpt from a letter written to my wife from Berlin, shortly before Pearl Harbor and my own internment by the Germans.

OCTOBER 21, 1941

In general, life in Berlin has been much as you knew it. The major change has been the wearing of the stars by the Jews. That is a fantastically barbaric thing. I shall never forget the faces of people in the subway with the great yellow star sewn onto their overcoats, standing, not daring to sit down or to brush against anybody, staring straight ahead of them with eyes like terrified beasts - nor the sight of little children running around with those badges sewn on them.

In 1944, having served in 1942 and 1943 in Portugal, and then in early 1944 in London, I was reassigned as Averell Harriman’s deputy in Moscow. In June of 1945 the Soviet authorities permitted me, then still serving as the number two at the American embassy in Moscow, to visit the leading city of Siberia, Novosibirsk, and the major metallurgical center Kuznetsk, not far from the Mongolian border.

The following is my diary account of the beginning of this trip.

JUNE, 1945

Left Moscow on Saturday, June 9, at 3:00 P.M., on the Trans-Siberian express. The train, pulled for the first hour or so by an electric locomotive, moved briskly through the Moscow suburbs-more briskly, indeed, than it was destined to move in general on its long journey to Vladivostok. Barracks, factories, dachas, swamps, and birch groves streamed steadily past the window. In little more than an hour we were stopping at Zagorsk and suffering the first of those invasions of women and children selling food which were to beset us at every station for four days and nights. Barefoot or beslippered, but always with clean scarves on their heads, looking exactly the same at one station as at another, they came bearing their offerings: milk (fresh, boiled, or curdled), cottage cheese, cream, eggs (raw or hard-boiled), radishes, berries, pancakes, boiled potatoes, onions, garlic, pickled carrots, and in Siberia, butter. Some of them traded at wooden stands set back a bit from the tracks, but most of them did business at trainside. There, on the black-cinder track, hard-trodden and greasy with the oil and the droppings from the trains, under the feet of the milling crowds of passengers, train personnel, and station hangers-on, without regard for the clouds of soot and dust, a thriving business was done; milk was cheerfully poured from old jugs into empty vodka flasks or army canteens; greasy cakes were fingered tentatively by hands black with train soot; arguments ran their course; bargains were struck; passengers pushed their way triumphantly back to the cars, clutching their acquisitions; and timid little girls with bare feet, who had not succeeded in selling their offerings, stood by in sad but tearless patience, awaiting with all the stoicism of their race the maternal wrath that would greet them when the train had gone and they returned home with their tidbits unsold.

There was little bickering. Where it occurred, it was generally over quantity, not price. In view of the great variety of receptacles used by buyers and sellers (each had to supply his own), there was considerable vagueness, and sometimes disagreement, over quantities. Strong words were passed; but they were passed, for the most part, with humor and good nature. I witnessed one scene where a soldier, surrounded by a sympathetic crowd of onlookers, accused an old peasant woman of tricking him over a purchase of milk. "You'd better be careful, little mother," he said gaily, "not to run across me in the other world. The archangels are all my friends." To the crowd's delight, the old girl crossed herself anxiously, and the incident ended in general laughter.

The car was captained and tended by two husky and good-natured girls: Zinya and Marusya. They had a tiny kitchen where they made tea from a samovar for the passengers. They fed the samovar from scraps of wood that they picked up along the right-of-way. It was their duty to emerge with little red flags at every stop, guard the entrance to the car, and drive off the ragged little boys and other species of humanity who tried to hide on the steps, the couplings, or the bumpers. This task they performed with vigor and dignity and without exasperation. They took turns at their duties, one sleeping while the other worked. I asked them what hours they observed. The question surprised them. They had not given any thought to it. One worked until the other was slept out. Then the other worked and the first one slept. It was very simple.

I was given the end compartment. The one next to it, which shared the washroom, was occupied by two uniformed NKVD officials: a fat and important one, and a young junior-member one with a dark, morose face. The fat one rarely left the compartment. The young one occasionally scuttled out at the stations, revolver flapping authoritatively at his side, to buy food. Sometimes when the train stopped, Icould hear the younger one reading aloud to his superior from Sepanov’s Port Artur. He read jerkily and laboriously but with commendable determination. Neither of them spoke to me at any time during the trip,

Among the other passengers there was a theater director from Irkutsk; a deputy of the Supreme Soviet from a district in the Urals; a husky man in seaman’s trousers, who had once been a Party agitator, looking slightly revolutionary and old-fashioned; a Jewish woman who was going to fetch an evacuated child back to Moscow from Krasnoyarsk. The theater director was a real Siberian, suffered from the heat, and spent the time wandering up and down the corridor clad only in pants and undershirt. He expatiated at any provocation on the beauties of the Angara River and the virtues of the Irkutsk winter. “Real cold,” he would say, thrusting out his arms in a species of deep-breathing exercise, “real broad Russian cold.” The deputy of the Supreme Soviet prepared with considerable ceremony to get off at a small stop in the Urals, only to get carried remorselessly thirty-two kilometers past his station. He was furious; and I could hardly blam him, for it must have cost him plenty of effort to get back.

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