Russian Assignment

A graduate of Annapolis, VICE ADMIRAL LESLIE C. STEVENS, USN (Ret.), served in the Navy for thirty-six years as a specialist in naval aviation and foreign intelligence. In 1917, while still in the Academy’, he began his study of Russian history. He learned to read and write the language and when, in 1917, he uas sent to Moscow as our naval attache, he was able, as few of our representatives are, to meet the Russians on their own terms. During his years of duty in the country, he talked to people in all walks of life, often under observation, but finding numerous opportunities for unsupervised conversations. From his continuous encounters with the Russian people, he has written a book, Russian Assignment, which will be published under our imprint in October and from which the Atlantic will draw several extended installments.

by VICE ADMIRAL LESLIE C. STEVENS, USN (Ret.)

A LOUD-SPEAKER began to blare lively music, much too loud for comfort. It hung in the passageway that ran alongside the individual compartments of the international wagon of the Berlin-Moscow express.

“Yes, you will like Russia,” said the woman with the tired brown face and the bright brown eyes who had given Nell and me space in her compartment for some of our luggage, which seemed to have spawned en route. “It is a golden land, and it must be held firmly in the hands of the people.” She cupped her thin hands as she spoke. “Yes, in the golden hands of the people.”

“Please say it again, but more slowly,” I said. “My ears are not accustomed to Russian sounds. I can read almost anything, without a dictionary, but when it comes to speaking and understanding, I can only try.”

Her face lighted up with a smile that washed all the tiredness away. She spoke more deliberately, lingering over the stressed syllables as though she loved the sound of them. “One day your tongue will become untied, but understanding comes from the heart as well as from the ears. Do you know what it means when I say that the people of Russia have golden hands?”

Fortunately I did. Golden hands are as effective in all the manual tasks of life as a green thumb is for a gardener. She was a doctor, going back home to Russia for a much-needed vacation and rest.

The Russian passengers were well-mannered and amiable with us. A colonel of artillery with a crooked nose and big brown eyes asked me for something in English to read. When he was offered a current magazine, he said that that would do, although he would much prefer the Naval Institute or the National Geographic. He was too self-conscious of his English to try it on me, but volunteered the information that he, coming from Gorky, spoke Russian with different vowel sounds than one meets around Moscow. Two or three officers gathered round to teach me the distinctions in those sounds.

Once a portly general addressed me in English. He spoke slowly and stiffly, but correctly. He said that he had learned his English from listening to the Voice of America and the British broadcasts, and advised me to listen to the Moscow radio continually.

Although the long train was crowded with sweating, swarming humanity, nearly all the passengers in the international wagon were Red Army senior officers and their families. One burly, sullen-browed man in civilian clothes seemed to avoid me, although he talked from time to time with most of the others. Once as I went along the passage he was standing at the end with his back to me, engaged in an earnest conversation with the artillery colonel who had a preference for serious literature. He was saying, emphatically and authoritatively, “. . . but you must not talk with him about anything political!” As I passed, he stopped abruptly and turned to the window. From the look on both of their faces there was no doubt that I was the subject of their conversation, and a bit of a shadow went over the bright July day.

Copyright 1953, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

Late in the long summer afternoon we came to the Bug River and the Russian border. The train jerked slowly to a stop on the Russian side of the river. I was about to go out on the sandy roadbed to stretch my legs on Russian soil when a soldier locked the door of the wagon in my face and took his post in front of it. The bayonet on his gun was very long, and needle-sharp. Katya, the porter, closed and locked all the windows, and we sweltered there for the better part of two hours. Not one passenger left the train, for there were soldiers at each end of every locked wagon. The frontier guards began their inspection, swarming above and beneath every car. An uneasy silence fell over all the passengers.

At the border were bristling hills with blue and white flowers in the grass. Instead of a town there was a camp of frontier guards. Its entrance showed the first characteristic sign of the Soviet Union — a sort of bower, hung with green, painted red and blue and while, with big slogans saying “Glory to great Stalin!” and other signs urging vigilance. Within the camp, soldiers lay on the ground, studying or reading, or were gathered in little groups for instruction. There seemed to be something makeshift and poor about the scene, yet it was subtly disturbing and menacing.

Armed guards patrolled alongside the train, and also alongside were hundreds of German war prisoners working On the railroad, bare to the waist, wearing their German forage caps. A supervisor gave signals —one — two — and at a rolling “rrrrr” a gang would heave a rail to right or left. The men were dusty, sunburned, and gaunt, and the ribs and bones of their bodies stuck out in a way that was beyond mere thinness. A bemedaled officer on the train unlocked a window, lowered it, and shouted something at the captives, who gave him black looks. Katya came running up and again locked the window.

It was evening when we at last pulled into BrestLitovsk, a short distance further on, where we changed trains. It was a long time before the Moscow train was ready, but at last a squad of porters appeared, one of them with a fan of bristly red mustache like Old Bill in Bairnsfather’s cartoons of the First World War, and we followed them onto the broad-gauge train. We went to sleep in as comfortable a sleeping ear as there is anywhere — made in Germany. Russia may be able to make them, and perhaps she does, but this one had German markings on all its specially designed plumbing, and undoubtedly came out of Germany and not out of the communist economy. But there was a Russianmade blanket, long-haired and luxurious, which I was glad to pull over me before morning.

2

NELL woke me quietly. ” Look out of the window,” she said. The train was stopped in some small town of western White Russia. Wisps of fog made the eerie half-light of early dawn still more mysterious. A bare dirt area, surrounded by a high picket fence with wire along its top and bottom, was opposite, serving as a waiting room, and huddled and grouped throughout this area were human figures, motionless and massed as though in the composition of some despairing painting. They must have been asleep, for their heads were all bent low. The women had drab gray shawls, coarse as if made from coffee sacking, pulled over their bowed heads and bent shoulders. It was evidently chilly outside, for most of the men were wrapped in ragged overcoats. One figure, quiet as death, wore a soldier’s overcoat and wrapped leggings, but its feet were bare. Many had legs and feet wrapped in coarse sacking. There were two or three gypsies in bright shawls. Scattered around were huge dark bundles, which must have been their belongings, but I have never seen such evidences of utter poverty as in that clothing. I was suddenly conscious of the pinched, haggard face of a small boy uplifted under the window and heard his thin voice, ghostly thin through the glass: Daitye khleba! Dyadyadaitye khleba!

A shiver ran down my back, for from his appearance he was not just a beggar, and those were the famine words — “Give bread, uncle! Give bread!” — which are familiar to everyone who has read of the great famines which Russia has periodically suffered. It was surprising to hear that in this land, two years and more after the end of the war. Also it was the first time I had been called “uncle.” While we were rummaging around for food to give, it grew lighter without, and the huddled figures began to stir. A gypsy woman balanced a heavy bucket on her head and walked along the tracks. People began to drift towards a thing that looked like a pump but which was not a pump, and which gave forth hot water. By the time we had found our food there were a dozen little children outside the windows, wailing the same cry. And there was no doubt about the need, for their eyes were unbelievably hollow and their ribs stuck out through their rags in a way that made the German prisoners seem well-conditioned.

All that morning, wherever the train stopped in the countryside, it was immediately surrounded by swarms of such hungry children and old women asking for bread. It was a broad, open countryside, more unkempt than Poland but with miles and miles of grain that was not yet ready for harvest, great fields of potatoes blossoming blue and pink, and heavy crude windmills on the horizons. There were many thatched roofs and the doorways and window frames began to be carved. Birdhouses were perched on tall sticks outside the peasant houses, and on one new house was a fir tree like a Christmas tree. There was no farm machinery in evidence, and I have never seen such worn, thin, wicked-looking blades as those on the many, many scythes.

Sometime during that evening we passed a prisoner train on a siding. It was filled with Russians, not Germans, and boxcar after boxcar was packed with people, the men stripped to the waist and the women barefoot. Gaunt faces peered out between the barred slits. On the outside of each car were guards with guns, and also, strangely enough, flowers and bunches of green leaves.

The next day there were no signs of hunger and not even a begger to be seen at any stop. The country was increasingly unkempt and wild, with long stretches of forest of birch or pine. The villages, both large and small, were made up of log cabins like those of Abe Lincoln, and almost always there were the onion domes of a church to be seen somewhere against the sky. All were excited at the proximity of Moscow, and as busy packing up their things as if they had been on a transatlantic journey. Suddenly, with no more warning than if we were coming into another big village or town, we were in the Moscow station.

3

WE LEFT others from the Navy office to take care of all the uproar and confusion over our luggage and drove to the Embassy to present my credentials to Ambassador Bedell Smith. The streets were crowded, but less with automobiles than with swarms of people on foot. They overflowed from the sidewalks and thought nothing of walking in the middle of the road, so that the air was full of a continual din of horns. Moscow seems to have been completely untouched by war damage, and I was thinking that its substantial buildings looked like those of many another city when, in the midst of all the façade of modernity, the Kremlin came into view.

It is fantastic and mysterious, vast, strong and beautiful, a walled town within a city. At the angles and corners of the mighty walls are medieval towers, no two alike, tiled and decorated and exotic as might have been the towers of Karakoram. The soft rosy brown of the old brick walls ties those towers together, giving a sufficient unity both by its color and by its long lines of deep, regular crenelations. Each tooth is notched at the top and slit for archers. The pattern is Asiatic, not European, and, though medieval, it gives no museumlike impression but rather one of continuing vitality.

Rising above the walls nre masses of creamyyellow palaces, with Renaissance columning and windowing as though they had been brought from Venice or Siena. In a way, they have been, for they were built under the supervision of Italians. Low, flat domes surmount some of these buildings, but soaring above them is a multitude of the lilybulb domes that are so peculiarly Russian, varying in shape and size as do living bulbs, but all of them shining golden in the sunlight, and over all, the tall, onion-topped lower of Ivan the Great.

The fairy-tale effect which the domes and towers give to the Asiatic medievalism of the fortress is changed into something still more Russian — yet surely not Soviet — by the forest of crosses with which the domes are surmounted. Each dome is crowned with a big golden cross, sometimes bigger than the dome itself — not the plain Roman cross, but that of the Greeks, with a lower crossbar set askew as a reminder of the broken bones of Christ . Each cross is stayed with chains, which sag ornamentally if not effectively. In spite of their size, the crosses give an effect of soaring lightness, for they are filigreed and complex. Sometimes there are crescents worked into their designs, giving them a very Oriental appearance.

The bizarre, glorious picture is completed by a great blood-red banner which floats from the top of the biggest and flattest secular dome and by huge red stars at the very pinnacles of the fantastic towers. Those great ruby stars are said to be mounted in real rubies for bearings, on which they turn in the wind like weathercocks.

The first day in Moscow, Nick de Tolly, the big, handsome, dark-faced acting air attache, had a large official luncheon at. one of the hotels for all the foreign air attaches. At the same time Alice, his lovely wife— she should be lovely, for she is the daughter of Alice Joyce and Tom Moore of the wonderful days of the old silent movies — had a luncheon to which Nell went. Nick’s luncheon, which I attended by virtue of my wings, was impressive. There were two or three high-ranking Russian officers there, in addition to General Serayev, who heeds OVS, the office of military liasison with foreigners, and some officers from OVS whose duty it probably was to go.

The luncheon lasted until half past five, and there was much vodka and many speeches. Few of the foreigners speak good Russian, so Nick acted as interpreter. He came by his Russian honestly, for he is a direct descendant of the Barclay de Tolly who was one of Kutuzov’s generals in the Napoleonic War. Sometime during the speeches Nick introduced me as a new arrival. Probably a bit unsteady on account of my bad knee, a burning desire suddenly seized me to make a speech myself, so I got up, told Nick that no interpreter was necessary, and did it in Russian. A hard-faced Russian general showed his appreciation by banging on the table and shouting “Molodyets!” which is a high expression of admiration and encouragement.

There is only one thing sure, which is that I shall get nowhere until this damnable language can be really mastered. It seems to me that a Russian who goes to the United States without the ability to understand English cannot help getting a distorted idea of America; and to be in a similar position here is not attractive. So that same evening at a party at American House, where there were several striking Russian girls who said they were language teachers, I promptly and enthusiastically hired Nina, the prettiest of them, for a daily lesson. Although here there is no other way of learning the spoken language than by getting a personal teacher, this precipitat ion seems somehow to be regarded rather coolly by Nell.

4

I WENT out into the crowds, around the corner, and up Gorky Street. There is a street for you! It was broadened by the Soviets from the old Tverskaya, and the process must have destroyed many an old historic landmark. Canal Street in New Orleans, which has always seemed to me to be an extraordinarily wide street, could be laid in it twice over.

Everywhere were women with kerchiefs and shawls on their heads which gave color to otherwise drab and even poor clothing. They seemed greatly to outnumber the men, who could claim no comparable touch of brightness to their shabby clothes. Certainly the women do all the work. Big, strapping, rosy-cheeked young women and little frail old ones swept the streets with brooms. They were besoms rather than brooms, for they consisted of bundles of twigs on the end of a handle, just like those the witches ride. One group of women was working on the streetcar tracks, and I was fascinated by the expertness with which one of them operated an acetylene cutting torch. They never wear overalls or slacks, but always short, grimy skirts. The faces of men and women alike were hard and shrewd. One never sees a fat and soft-looking individual.

The windows of the food shops are filled with the most implausible and unappetizing dummy hams and sausages I have ever seen. The famous Russian talent for illusion must lie in other fields. Attracted by another kind of window display, I stopped in at a secondhand bookshop, but found it disappointing. Apart from a counter which was crowded with Russians, all the books were stacked on shelves behind the trade counters, just far enough away so that it was impossible to make out their titles. One cannot browse through the shelves, but must know what one wants and then ask for it. Being run by the government, as is every shop and enterprise, it had a “complaint book” at the cashier’s desk for criticisms.

On the open counter I finally found a book on Russian engraving, illustrating, and black-andwhite drawing, rich with beautiful reproductions of Russian work in these techniques. It was expensive, but it was apparent that used books were generally valued higher than their original prices. It was necessary to stand in line to pay the cashier, who deftly did her sums on a primitive abacus, and then again to stand in line to present my receipt and get my purchase. That abacus was so intriguing that I bought one on the way home, only to find that it was not as tractable in my hands as under the stubby fingers of that Russian cashier.

Although the book appeared never to have had a previous owner, the pages being still clean and unmarked, one picture had been partially removed, not by cutting it from the page, but by carefully scraping or slicing it away from the surface of the paper. It was in a chapter on the portrait silhouettes by Kruglikova, who was a professor in the Leningrad Academy when the book was written. There were several other silhouettes of people such as Pasternak, Blok, Kropotkin, and Lunacharsky, but the head and even the name had been removed from this particular one. I looked at the date of publication. It was 1928. It could only be concluded that my missing portrait was one of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, or someone else who had been caught in the Great Purge and whose very name and face had been expunged from all record. It was too neatly and expertly done to have been malicious. Just impersonal thoroughness.

In addition to Sergei, my chauffeur, who is supposed to have one meal a day in our house and usually manages three or four, the household we inherited from my predecessor consists of a cook and two maids, all of whom sleep at their own homes. Natasha, the cook, is little and gnarled and wizened and old, but she is very shrewd and they say she makes lovely bread when flour is to be had.

Zoya is young, with a husband who works in a factory. She is not particularly pretty, but her trim little figure looks very well in her maid’s uniform, and better still when she is all smartly dressed to go home, for she manages to look much better than most Soviet girls. She always has a bright smile, and is remarkable in the way she can understand what Nell tries to toll her.

Valya, the other maid, is just a dark, heavy ox, almost surly in comparison with the other two.

In addition, there is an adolescent long-haired gray-and-white cat with huge eyes, which seems to have lost its mind, if it ever had one. It is an extraordinarily playful cat. When it is not elaborately stalking some unseen object or, with twitching tail, watching the sparrows through the big windows, it is making mad leaps about the apartment, startling everyone out of his wits. Nevertheless, it is a lovely little beast.

“What is its name?" I asked Natasha.

“It has no name. Just call it Koshka.”

No foreigners can just go out and get themselves a servant. All Soviet employees of any sort must be satisfactory to the Soviet government and registered with Burobin, the office which is responsible for all dealings with foreigners that come under the general head of housekeeping as distinct from diplomatic or military affairs. They tell me that every Russian employee, including servants and teachers, is required to report back to his government on everything he can regarding foreigners — their interests, their characters and abilities, and what they are up to. Too many employees have either thoughtlessly or deliberately told of this for there to be any question about it.

Although no reference is ever made to this circumstance, the servants know that we know this. They have no choice in the matter, and are very apt to be reported on themselves, so no one has any particular feelings about it. Sometimes it is a good thing to give them something to report. Nevertheless, it is a strange relationship, by our standards, and one to which it is difficult to accustom oneself.

Also, there have been too many established cases of wiring for sound for one to feel comfortable even when there art; no Russians about. One feels safe in talking onlv in the presence of noise, or when one is outdoors. It would be naïve and foolish for a foreigner to fail to observe these precautions, whether or not he believes in their absolute necessity under all circumstances. Perhaps the reporting system will reflect a clear conscience, and so establish a reasonable amount of confidence in one’s intentions.

I made my formal call on General Serayev, at the Soviet military liaison office, and was taken through corridors that were strangely empty and silent for an office establishment to a dark, bare room with only a long table about which were a few chairs.

I remembered Serayev well from his previous tour of duty as military attaché to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. He is a chunky, mild-mannered man, snub-nosed and blue-eyed. Although he speaks good English, we talked in Russian. He was neither formally stiff nor affable, but soft-spoken in a noncommittal sort of way.

They say that no Russian can have a foreigner in his home, nor are they permitted to accept informal social invitations. Although I had known Serayev well enough to make such exchanges natural, there was no indication that they would be forthcoming. Perhaps it was because his wife was out of town.

I told Serayev that I regarded myself and my naval personnel as guests in Russia, and that we would conduct ourselves as such. As soon as the spoken language could be brought under control, I hoped to be able to visit some of the famous and interesting places in Russia, particularly Samarkand and the Asiatic Republics. He said to put in a request whenever I was ready, and they would tell me whether or not it would be permitted.

I also told Serayev that I would like to pay my respects to any of their senior officers in all cases which he considered appropriate, and would await word from him. This is another thing which they say is not permitted in Russia. All the time we were talking, a silent Russian took stenographic notes of the conversation.

5

I FIND that I am ex officio a member of such Embassy committees as those which run American House and the commissary. Durbrow, the MinisterCounselor, is next senior to Ambassador Smith, and he does much of the internal managing of the Embassy. He is short and plump, and, since this is his third tour of duty in Moscow, he is a mine of sensible and sensitive information.

The commissary is not supported by the government, but is a coöperative effort of Embassy personnel to provide American food and supplies, for no one can regularly afford the Russian prices. Food has become a genuine problem here, for the Russians are refusing to release our commissary shipments from customs. Each Embassy was given an annual allowance of 900,000 rubles equivalent in duty to cover everything to be imported. No one can find out what the customs rates are, but the first shipment to be released was one of office supplies. Since we have a large Embassy — some hundred and forty people in all — it was a large shipment, and it ate up 840,000 rubles of our year’s allowance. Although newcomers have been told in the past that they should not bring food, it was decided that from now on every new diplomatic arrival should bring with him a year’s supply of food. The initial household shipments of those few of us with diplomatic passports are admitted with no reference to our customs allowance, so in this manner we may be able to feed the great majority of Americans who are not in a diplomatic status.

This in itself is sufficient reason for having to depend on Russian servants rather than bringing in American ones. We simple could not feed American servants. As it is, the commissary supplies are strictly rationed and insufficient for ourselves, so that we must depend partly on the Russian market and must feed our servants entirely on Russian food.

With a ration of only two pounds of American sugar a month and with Russian eggs at fifty cents an egg, Nell has found it necessary to put a stout padlock on the supply cupboard and makes Natasha come to her every time she needs anything. One can almost as easily afford to feed them caviar at seventeen dollars a pound.

It seems to me that the many foreigners who consider Russian servants dishonest because they make away with food are doing them a bit of an injustice. A Northerner who goes to live in the South may regard Negro servants who take food home as dishonest, but Southerners know that the Negro is much more apt to regard a little toting as a perquisite of the job, and so they think nothing of it. In spite of the widespread problem of food, Russians are traditionally generous, even prodigal, and so are apt to consider our necessary prudence as a sign of meanness.

At any rate, Natasha always looks grim when she comes around for supplies and when she produces scraps of paper filled with highly illegible Russian writing to show what she bought in the markets. In spite of the fact that there is nothing on which you can put your finger and that they are respectful and know that the khozyain, the owner or boss, can do as he pleases, we have a feeling that we are not fully accepted by any of the servants, but are regarded with a sort of suspended distrust. Alone among the three military services, the Navy’s allowances have been set up by Congress so that all servants — and their food — must be paid from one’s own personal funds.

There are some things about the Soviet system whose implications are difficult to grasp. All wages are paid by the state, so they can be doubled overnight or cut in half, merely by decree. Similarly, the price of food can be doubled overnight or bread can be given away free. In the long run, though, the regime must be up against the same problems that exist in other economies. If people get more money than there are things to buy, the prices cannot be held in line, and black markets spring up. The Soviet government apparently tries to keep such a balance between wages and prices that every citizen must use all his energies to make both ends meet. The principle that “he who does not work shall not eat ” is backed up by controls which make it necessary that every individual of a family work in order to keep that family in food.

The weeks go by, but the redecoration of our apartment makes little progress. Nell has herself been doing a bit of supervising on that job. One of the painters told her that the reason they were so slow was that they were weak from lack of food, saying that one of the men had fallen from a ladder from sheer weakness. There is a divergence of opinion on the question of feeding such workmen, for some say that if they are fed they will never finish. Nevertheless, they are all now getting soup and bread from Nell’s jealously guarded stores, though even Natasha is not sure it is the quickest way for us eventually to get settled.

6

IMAGINE a city bigger than Chicago or Philadelphia, with all its office buildings, factories, warehouses, shops, and stores. If you then imagine what it would be like if every one of all those buildings was a government office, you would have some idea of Moscow. Not far from the Embassy, for example, is a big building which covers about a city block — the Bureau for the Repair of Sewing Machines. The scope of universal state planning is difficult to grasp. Someone has to worry about the stocking and distributing of spare parts for sewing machines and keeping them in order, but it is not done on a selfregulating system of supply and demand, but by a conscious bureaucratic planning process. Since it must all be based on data of some sort, everywhere special voluminous records are kept of everything as a basis for that planning. The overhead involved must be tremendous. The Soviet papers are full of exhortations about trying to keep down the continually mounting overhead.

Most of the civil servants with whom the stores and shops are staffed are obliging and polite, particularly when they realize that they are dealing with a foreigner. They seem to have a natural desire to be helpful. Yet there was a much higher proportion than anywhere in the West of those who were indifferent and uninformed. It was noticeable that this was not because I was a foreigner, for those same people were the same way with the Russian customers.

There is a stamp collector’s shop in Kuznetski Most, and it seems to be the only one in Moscow. I had a long list of Soviet stamps that people back home wanted, and the attendant was endlessly patient, finally taking my order for a complete set including one of every stamp he had in stock for what seemed a very reasonable price. While I was talking with him, someone took me by the arm. I turned in surprise, for although I am always a center of curiosity no one had yet been that familiar.

It was the crooked-nosed artillery colonel of the Berlin train. He was friendly as could be, telling me how his family was getting along, asking about Nell, and saying that my Russian had already improved greatly. This seemed an unusual opportunity, so I asked him if he would bring his wife to have dinner with us, but he became ill at ease and full of excuses, and left almost immediately. On thinking it over afterward, it seemed possible that there was nothing sinister about the incident, but that he was not in a position to repay any hospitality, and I have already learned that this is a very important point with a Russian. Also it was just as well that he did not come, for he might have made trouble for himself with his own people.

A Russian girl who has been teaching one of our assistant attachés and who has been helped by him with food and such has ended up by getting into trouble with the Soviet authorities, or so it seems. She has been threatened for some time by the authorities, and has now disappeared, sending word through others that she will be sent to Siberia unless he can come to her assistance in some way. When she first began to be threatened, he went to the Ambassador with the story, and the Ambassador showed me his statements.

The amazing thing about the case is the way in which she has implicated a considerable number of Americans in one way or another, including such statements as “please do not have anything to do with so-and-so, for he gives information to the Soviet police,” and “do not tell such-and-such a person about this, for he is being used by the police, although he doesn’t know that that is the case.” I know enough about some of those who were involved to be absolutely certain that what she had to say was false. The whole thing seems to be deliberately intended to sow suspicion among Americans. It is so full of inconsistencies that it is impossible to tell where the truth, if any, begins and ends, to tell how willingly she may have said these things, or even to ascribe motives. It is the sort of thing that would be full of trouble if it were known and discussed through the Embassy.

7

THERE is an air of excitement over Moscow because of the approaching prazdnik to celebrate its eighthundredth anniversary. Moscow is doubtless much older than that, but the first dated record of any mention of the city was just eight hundred years ago. A full-length portrait of Stalin at least thirty feet high has gone up on the front of the Historical Museum at the entrance to Red Square, and the top of the Moscow Hotel has a row of gigantic portraits of the Politburo. The very size of those port raits gives one a peculiar sensation of power behind them, even though one knows that the intent behind it all is to create just that psychological impression. Since there is no speculation or comment in the press regarding possible changes in individual power, everyone, including the Russians, is tremendously interested in seeing whether or not the portraits of any of the Politburo are omitted, and whether or not Molotov and Beria will retain their positions next to Stalin.

All Moscow is hung with flags and bunting like an old-fashioned Fourth of July, but here every flag and decoration is a lurid, exciting crimson. Troops of soldiers sing as they march through the streets, and everywhere there are crowds out to see the decorations and the arrangements. At each end of the plaza outside our windows big platforms have been erected for speeches and entertainment. Up Gorky Street a monument has been erected to Yury Dolgoruky, the Muscovite prince who first used Moscow’s name for the benefit of posterity. His name means “long-armed,” and the Russians say, off the record, that that is an apt name for any Muscovite in power. Our servants have always been remarkably sober, even abstemious, yet today little old Natasha said that we should all have some vodka with which to drink to the prazdnik, so I sent Valodya, the new chauffeur, out to get some.

Nina, who has been obviously ill with a heavy cold for the last few days, was in today to say that the doctors had told her she should have a vacation in the Caucasus. Some of her recent remarks have made me wonder about her motives, and though she is a beauty as well as a good teacher her prospective departure came as somewhat of a relief. I told her that since the language was of such importance to me, another teacher would have to be obtained to replace her. Somewhat to my surprise, she was not at all taken aback, but seemed to expect it. That seems to shoot the theory that she was specially detailed to work on me. Perhaps they had decided that I was not vulnerable, but if that was the case, she had not tried very hard before reaching such a decision. There is still a good chance that she was actually what she represented herself to be, but in any case it is something of a relief that she is gone.

By the eve of the prazdnik the crowds had thickened until it was difficult to get through the streets. Bands and music from the loud-speakers gave everything a carnival air. The two platforms in Manezhny Place ran a continuous entertainment, and it was solid entertainment, with no political speeches — wrestling, boxing, choruses, bands, comedians, and dancers. Dense crowds gathered around the platforms, and in the more open areas little eddies of people were dancing with each other in the streets.

As it grew dark, the lights came on. Although there had been plenty of workmen in evidence for days, we were not prepared for the effect. The whole vast outline of the Kremlin was picked out with lights which followed faithfully the crenelations of the walls and the outlines of all the fantastic towers. All the bridges across the Moskva River were similarly outlined with strings of lights, and as far as one could see in all directions were similar illuminations. One whole side of the Moscow Hotel consisted of an electric fountain which danced and sprayed in colored waves of light.

Nell and I wedged our way through the crowds into Red Square, which was a blaze of light from fixed projectors as well as from the thousands and thousands of lights on the surrounding buildings and the Kremlin gates and towers. In Red Square is the Head Place where the execution block and gallows stood for cent uries, and where, in the Time of Troubles in 1606, the body of the False Dmitry, with a vile mask on his belly, a flute in his mouth, and a bagpipe under his arm, was flouted by the mob with the placard, “YOU, SCOUNDREL, HAVE MADE US PIPE OFTEN, NOW YOU PIPE FOR OUR AMUSEMENT.” Now the Head Place was a great bouquet of rippling red banners in the glare of the searchlights.

The orderliness of the crowds was very noticeable. There was no rowdyism, no contagious bursts of extrovertism. It is not that the people were apathetic, as some foreigners say, for they were interested and curious about everything. Perhaps the police keep crowds here from becoming bumptious, but whatever the reason, the people were dignified and self-contained as they strolled about with their children of all ages, and at the same time they were full of smiles and good nature, with eyes that danced at the spectacle. Once two hard-bitten little Cossacks with their wide trousers stuffed into their boots, suddenly, for no reason at all, decided to do a wild Cossack dance. They paid no attention whatever to the crowd around, but had a grand time all to themselves.

Two or three times I tried to talk with some of the people who were drifting around, but soon gave it up. Perhaps those Russians were hesitant to get into a conversation with a foreigner in public, but whatever the reason, they seemed uneasy and turned away.

The day of the prazdnik the crowds were enormous, and all day long the continuous entertainment went on on the platforms in the plaza —singers, orchestras, and dancers. There were stamping peasant dances, sailor dances, Cossack dances, Circassian sword dances. Masses of people surged with uplifted hands around big trucks in order to buy ice cream and little pies.

Half-organized little parades went past. One consisted of three or four small trucks hung with scarlet bunting and decorated with evergreens. In the leading truck was a little band playing valiantly against all the noise from the amplifiers and loudspeakers, and each of the little trucks that followed was piled high with potatoes, cabbages, and harvest produce. It gave such a childish homemade effect that it was almost touching.

In the afternoon, driving through the crowds only with the greatest difficulty, we went to the Sports Parade at the stadium. The edges of the stadium and all the aisles were outlined by the blue caps of the MVD, seated or standing close together. Whole blocks of people in the audience were vivid with the national costumes of the Republics, blue, cerise, and green, with long, full, heavily embroidered skirts and white puffy peasant blouses. Even the babies had elaborately embroidered headdresses.

The parade itself was tremendous, with endless formations of hundreds of young athletes. I counted sixteen hundred people in a single formation. There were acrobats and tumblers, gymnastic teams, cyclists and motorcyclists, and teams that did acrobatic trick riding on motorcycles, all performed with beautiful precision and timing. The figures that were formed were intricate and shifting, full of color and unexpected developments. Once the Kremlin wall was formed in the middle of the field by human figures. Flower bearers gave bouquets to the winners of cross-country bicycle and motorcycle races which finished in the stadium.

Perhaps what drew as much interest as anything was two horsemen, one a Cossack in long skirted coat with cartridge pockets across his chest, who put their beautifully schooled horses through their paces at opposite ends of the stadium while other acts were going on. Throughout the whole show the crowd roared “Slava! Slava Stalinu!" (Glory! Glory to Stalin!) in a tremendous chorus. The football game which ended the show was tame compared with all that had gone before.

When we got home we found that the crowd in the big squares around the Kremlin and in all the streets leading to it had grown until there were no open spaces left, except that held by mounted troops. There were at least one million people to be seen from the balcony. They were packed so tight that they were like a solid pavement. The upturned faces that watched the dancers and jugglers made circles of white around the platforms. In the center of Manezhny Place a sound truck poured out music for street dancing, but the dancers were choked in the throng. New checkered taxis, which have recently appeared in Moscow to the admiration of the people, were unable to penetrate the crowds, and stood like cars bogged down in snow.

As night came on, the lights began to blaze on the outlines of bridges, walls, domes, spires, and towers, the colored fountains began to play, and the floodlights made occasional weird silhouettes of dense masses of people. Suddenly there was a simultaneous flash in all directions, and then from all over the city rockets rushed upwards in a complete fiery encirclement and burst into glory against the night sky, followed by a crash of gunfire. After a moment of silence and before one had recovered from the glory, there was another salvo, synchronized in color as well as in time. Once the rockets would be all green everywhere, then all red, then white, and then varied, cascading and hanging in great lurid bursts in every direction as far as one could see, glittering, drifting, shimmering, dying, while the salvo of gunfire echoed through the city. And with them came the searchlight dance, straight bars of white or colored light, upright like a field of trees, and then weaving and swaying together throughout the sky. In occasional intervals of darkness, high up in the dark sky one could see the huge numerals “800,”red flags and pictures, doubtless suspended from balloons. Someone, seeing Stalin’s portrait in the heavens, murmured, “Oh my! They forgot to put on his wings!”

8

WHEN one encounters the real greatness of the Russian theater, there is no mistaking it, just as there is no mistaking the greatness of old Egyptian and Assyrian sculpture. We went to see Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard at MXAT, the Moscow Art Theater, and I have not been so impressed since seeing my very first play when a small child. In fact, there was something in common between that early childhood wonder and the effect created by this Russian production — a deep delight that such a thing was possible. It may have been due in part to the fact that I had just finished reading the play, so that I caught almost every word at the show itself. Never before has the Russian language been so beautiful and understandable to me, so it is quite possible that that had something to do with the sensation of looking into a completely new and different world. There was an unusual clarity in the speech, for MXAT sets the standard for diction in the Russia of today.

But the sweeping away of the language barrier by no means accounts for all of the glamour, for it was a matchless production. Every actor lived his part, completely submerging his personality in it. If it had not been for that tremendous sincerity, one would have said that they overacted, for there was a dramatic sweep and confidence about every gesture that made it almost stylized. It was the sincere acting of great talent within a pattern, just as Shakespeare and Keats and Millay express themselves within the pattern of a sonnet, and it was tremendously moving.

As the program, which one buys for half a ruble, shows, eight of the twelve actors and actresses who had significant parts had received Soviet decorations for their artistry. There is a hierarchy in such decorations, which are awarded either by the separate Republics, such as Kazakhstan or the Ukraine, or by the RSFSR, which is the largest and most important division of the USSR and includes the Great Russian nation. One actor held a decoration for his work in other aspects of the theater than acting, and the other seven had all been decorated by the RSFSR. Three of them had received the Stalin Prize.

All of the Russian theaters play repertoire, and apparently almost any actor can and does take almost any part, no matter how important or how small. They do not operate on the star system, for no part is permitted to overshadow the other roles. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that every actor is a star. I have never before seen such a varied and fascinating portrayal of character in the theater. One minor part in particular, played by a young actor named Byelokurov, that of a lackey who had once been to Paris, was made so boorish in its studied refinement, so utterly revolting, that the audience was laughing all the time he was on the stage. But interwoven with the laughter were tremendous currents of sympathy for the impractical, lovable, but vanishing types which had tragically outlived their time.

And the stage settings and effects were out of this world in their skill, spaciousness, realism, and frequent beauty, from the cherry blossoms outside the windows of the house to the dull sounds of the axes that eventually cut them down. When the furniture of the old house is all dismantled in the last act, there are faded spots on the walls showing the shapes of the pictures that once hung there. The scene of the ball has a tremendous living room in front, with a ballroom on beyond in the background, and the distant strains of the Sobre las Olas waltz gives an atmosphere of indescribable nostalgia. I have never dreamed of such enormous stages, in depth as well as in all other dimensions.

In spite of the sympathy with which the disintegrating bourgeois family was portrayed, the social significance was not lost. There is a part which is so minor that it was scarcely noticeable on reading the play, that of a tramp who mildly ruffles a peaceful scene in passing. On the stage, that moment somehow becomes a portent of all the violence of the Revolution that was to come.

9

AT LAST I have had a definite reward for my concentration on the Russian language. Up until now it has seemed that I was always in the hands of other people’s opinions, and it was easy to see how those opinions might be affected by strong considerations other than the real nature of things. After months of immersing myself in the language, talking it at every opportunity, reading almost nothing but Russian, putting in endless hours at the theaters and listening to the radio, and coming very close to antagonizing Nell as well as many others with what must have seemed to them to be an overemphasized interest, I have at last reached the point where the barrier of language is being washed away and I know what is going on around me beyond that barrier.

There are many reasons why Russian-speaking foreigners do not really mingle with the Russian people. One of them is that they frequent the better places, such as the bars of the big hotels, and there they are always subject to surveillance. It takes a strong stomach and there is even an element of danger in going alone into the swarming secondclass or third-class restaurants and bars where one never sees another foreigner, yet in such a place, alone, one is much more approachable and accessible to Russians.

Last night I decided to launch out on my own, so I walked through the cold windy streets until I found a combination restaurant and bar of the sort that might be frequented by taxi drivers or laborers in America. It was early and the place was only about half full, so I sat down alone at a small table in a corner and ordered some cheese and a big heavy mug of the sweetish Russian beer. The restaurant began to fill up, and soon a thin-faced man in his thirties with bright, tormented black eyes sat down at my table. He wore a soft white shirt with no tie and his clothes were shiny and threadbare, but he was no different in appearance from many others around us. He ordered beer and pulled from his pocket a little package of sausage and black bread. We sat in silence for half an hour or more, replenishing our beer from time to time.

At last, when he had finished eating and had carefully restored to his pocket what was left of his sausage and bread, he started to fish around for a match. Without a word, I offered him one, and he lit his cigarette with only a nod of his head in acknowledgment. He sat back in his chair and there was another long silence while we surveyed the people at the other tables.

Then he looked at me and said, “Are you a Lett ?”

“No,” I answered.

There was another silence, during which he became more interested. “Perhaps a German?“ he asked. “Your clothes are better than ours.”

“No,” I said, “American.”

He looked at me curiously. “What are you doing here? Do you work for the Soviets?”

“No. I work in the American Embassy.”

“Might I see your papers?” he asked, eying me suspiciously.

I showed him my Russian identification papers and told him who I was. In return he told me that he was an agricultural expert from a collective farm and showed me his own papers, although he seemed to be thinking about something else. His name was Petrov, and he had come to Moscow to check up on the delivery of some equipment for the farm. He was married, but had no children. His wife worked in the administration of the farm. But all the time he was distracted, twisting nervously in his chair, his eyes darting from table to table. I decided that he was afraid of me because I was an American, and when the conversation died down, fully expected him to leave.

But suddenly he made his decision. He looked swiftly around him, hitched his chair over close to mine, and the floodgates were opened. He spoke quietly but urgently, and so rapidly that several times it. was necessary to ask him to go more slowly and to repeat, and all the time he was looking around and glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was noticing us. It was perhaps the first time in his life that, because of my position, he was absolutely sure that the person with whom he was talking would not betray him to the secret police.

“You cannot possibly realize the unhappiness and discontent that is everywhere in Russia, particularly in the villages and on the farms, nor the dog’s life which we lead. I have seen parents, unable to feed their children, deliberately do things that would get them sent to the prison camps, for then the government will give the children food. The whole land is ripe for a new revolution, and we would rise up against our leaders overnight if we could only get our hands on the means with which to do it. But we cannot organize ourselves to do a single thing: we Russians cannot talk about our sorrows with other Russians. There are so many spies and informers that we do not know whom to trust.”

His hatred of the regime was so impersonalized that it added greatly to my feeling that his was not a highly individual reaction and that he knew whereof he spoke. He did not so much question the sincerity of the Soviet leaders or damn their motives but railed against their stupidity. Again and again he repeated that they were mixed up and confused. “They are not the caliber of men who should be in charge. They have neither the education nor the intelligence of real leaders, but are themselves nothing more than revolutionary conspirators. The problems of the Russian people are completely beyond their ability to solve, and some day they will be swept away.”

He gave me a picture of Soviet life which was full of deprivation, frustration, unfulfilled desires and, above all, violation of all instincts of decency, and through it all was no complaint of his own personal lot. “I myself,” he said, “can manage all right. I have a good position and do not live badly, but it makes me boil to see what goes on all around me.”

I was worn out with his intensity and with the strain of having to pay close attention to his low, swift words. “There are many things I would like to ask,” I said. “Meet me in this same place one month from tonight and I will be better able to put my questions into Russian words.” Since he came often to Moscow on business, Petrov said that he could easily do that. We both wrote the date on our documents so that we would not lose it and drank in vodka to our next meeting.

On leaving, we both slopped in the washroom. It was smelly, dirty, and disorderly, and had no claim to distinction other than that it was tiled. Petrov looked about with an air of genuine pride. ”Ekh, kulturny!” he said.

I do not think that I overrate the importance of last night’s conversation, and it has had a tremendous impact on me. It seems very significant that my first real opportunity to talk with a chance Russian who had not previously been oriented with reference to foreigners should have brought forth such strong evidence to support one viewpoint on Russia with which everyone is familiar. Out of the millions of Muscovites who might have shared my table, my chances of having encountered an exceptional case seem extremely remote. And what a country this is, where it is so extraordinarily difficult to find out things whose counterparts are common knowledge in any country in the West! That in itself is a damning commentary on Russia.

(To be continued)