Now that the weather has turned frigid in the United States, my thoughts return to past visits to Russia about this time of year. Russia was known then as the Soviet Union, or the U.S.S.R., The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
During these trips I found the Churchillian quote “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” to be accurate if not quite an a understandable description of the country and its society. I did discover though, that ordinary Russians tended to be proud of their country, patriotic, secretive, cautious, impetuous, cowed by authority, and a genuinely earthy lot once you got to know them. They appeared to love sustained repetitive hard work, social gatherings, and their addiction to alcohol and tobacco is of course legendary as well as nationally debilitating. The Russians feel their harsh environment has made them a sturdy, self-reliant, and an exceptional people ready for any challenge the world may toss at them. Americans residing in the U.S. mid-west would probably describe them as “As rough as a corn cob.”
Russia is a vast mineral rich country and at the same time individually a very poor people, most often due to the intemperate climate, corruption, and mismanagement. There are deep-seated sociological factors as well. Perhaps it is their Viking heritage dating back to the ninth century, or the Mongol invasions, or the acceptance of the Eastern Christian Orthodox faith from Constantinople in the 14th century that have contributed to the Russian mindset. Here I will cite three unusual accounts and let the reader attempt to determine the riddle of the Russian soul: a combination of mindless discipline and reckless disorder. I gleaned two of these vignettes from readings, and I owe Professor Hans J. Morgentau credit for them in his book, The Politics of Nations. Morgenthau taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University before his retirement and subsquent death in 1980, so I don’t think he’ll mind.
In Berlin during late August 1945 at the end of the war, a group of German prisoners were being escorted down a main Avenue. The Nazi prisoners were defeated, haggard, hungry, dirty, and hopelessly facing a morbid death in a Siberian labor camp,. The prisoners may well have known the cruel vial treatment they would receive at the hands of the victorious revenge seeking Russians. Suddenly a female bystanders screamed out in anguish indicating she recognized one of the prisoners as a loved one, perhaps a husband or bother. The guard stopped the procession as the woman ran out from the crowd, and clung desperately to the prisoner while hysterically crying. The guard observed the sight, paused and allowed the couple a last tearful embrace. Realizing the depth of the emotional experience before his eyes the guard then pushed the couple into the crowd and began walk his vigil as the line moved forward. After a few meters, the guard stopped to realize he had lost a man and was one short. The Russian guard had shirked his duty, was responsible and punishable for the error. He walked back into the crowd of bystanders and arbitrarily selected another man to take the place of the lost one. He roughly pulled and pushed the man into the file and the party moved on with the innocent new prisoner among them, to a fate unknown.
ST. PETERSBURG the U.S.S.R.
In the late Winter of 1934 a group of children were playing on the extensive garden lawn of the Royal Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. One or more of them was the granddaughter of a Communist official. As the children played, the mother watched her daughter among the others. Peering out some distance over the lawn she saw a lone soldier standing guard duty in the middle of a snowy field. Each subsequent day she viewed and wondered of the soldier (s) posted alone out in the cold because the station seemed to have no purpose. Thinking it strange, she informed one of the servants of her sightings. The staff didn’t know, had no idea. Later she approach the Commissar of Security for the Palace who said he would investigate. Checking schedules and guard posts, the Commissar was astounded. The guard had been officially posted to the middle of the field each day during daylight hours and evidentially had been for a long time, so far back no one knew. Investigating further and interviewing old pre-revolutionary Winter Palace staff he discovered that in the early Spring of 1908 a child possibly one of the Czar’s, a Czarina, discovered the first flower of Spring in the snow, and showed playmates and family of a rather small blossom poking out from the cold snowy earth. After the long cold winter, they were delighted at the childs finding and it was table conversation that evening. Czar Nicholas II ordered a guard posted next to the flower so no one would collect or claim it and so others could view the curiosity. Of course within days, a week warmer weather arrived in St Petersburg and the discovery was forgotten, but not the posting which continued repetitively each day for 26 years until that winter day in 1936.
KHABAROVSK, THE FAR EAST, U.S.S.R.
It was Winter again and I was attending a small private gathering of 30 or so Soviet Officers and enlisted men at a club on the outskirts of Khabarovsk Airbase. There were several military men and women who spoke exceptional English and we were having a pleasant time discussing our political differences and general topics of the day. Our countries had recently passed a nuclear crisis concerning Soviet arms to Cuba and the long-lasting Cuban embargo. President Kennedy and Castro were among the main subjects as was the history of the Russian people. The topic of the Soviet Union since 1917 was at best a dismal one. Taking everything into consideration, looking at it through a dark glass, the Allied forces landing at Archangel in 1919 to crush the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war between the Royalists White Army and Bolshevik Red Army, the death of Lenin, the rise of a cruel Stalin, and the Ukrainean famine which starved an estimated 5,ooo,ooo people. Khrushchev by this time had disclosed the injustices, economic, and political mistakes of Stalin. Still in the Soviet Union Stalin was a hero, a true and dedicated leader who oversaw the Great War against the Hun which sacrificed 27,000,ooo Russians, and the shocking German advance that ended within 30 Kilometers of Moscow. As the evening wore on vodka and beer flowed freely. Being the only American in attendance a half-dozen younger enlisted men surrounded me or sat near. Most were inebriated, but happy. The subject of Joseph Stalin came up again and I listened to what I thought was a mild debate. Suddenly, one of the young men quickly rose to his feet and shouted “We love Stalin, great patriot hero” and half ran half staggered about ten meters forward and dove head first through the second floor glass window. There was a rush outside, I followed, an ambulance was called, the man was conscious and talking. Luckily the layers of previous and fresh snow cushioned his fall. Shortly the party broke up at one a.m. The next afternoon the soldier with head bandaged, his arm in a sling, and hobbling approached me at the train station to apologize for his drunken behavior.
You can’t make this stuff up.
All the Best,
A further note: You won’t find a record of my trips Russia because they occurred during the height of the Cold War. At the time the option for those wanting to travel incognito was to use a separate Soviet visa page stapled in the passport. Official Soviet stamps were chopped on to the page as you travelled in and out of the Soviet Union, and the page destroyed before or after your final destination at home or abroad. As an example: Japanese immigration would stamp your official passport going out of country and on your return. Authorities scrutinizing the passport at some later date would only come to realize a missing two weeks, but just where you were was open to conjecture and it would take days of manifest prying and investigation to determine just where you had gone, if at all. Only a top intelligence organization would be interested with such deception, and for me fortunately they never were concerned. To them I was just another anonymous Mister X.