The Military College
As the call filtered through the thick cloth of my military greatcoat it seemed to be coming from an immense distance. Surely I had dreamt it! It was so warm under my coat; I drew it right up over my ears. My bed of fir branches was so soft and comfortable. Of course I’d dreamt it!
The shout again disturbed the nocturnal silence. Then someone muttered something to the guard pacing up and down between the rows of tents.
‘... He’s ordered to report immediately to the staff headquarters of the front,’ the voice said to the guard. Then once more came the shout: ‘Captain Klimov!’
‘Hell! Staff headquarters! That’s no joke!’
I threw off my greatcoat, and at once felt the damp air from the nearby swamp, mingling with the omnipresent, distinctive smell of front-line soldiers. In-visible mosquitoes were buzzing. Taking care not to disturb my comrades, I crawled out of the tent backward.
‘What’s up?’ I muttered, still half asleep. ‘Whom were you shouting for? Did you say ’Klimov’?’
‘Comrade Captain, here’s a courier for you from the staff,’ the guard reported through the darkness.
‘Where is he? What’s it all about?’
‘Comrade Captain, here’s an order for you.’ A sergeant in a leather helmet handed me a document. By the light of a torch I read: ’Captain G. P. Klimov is ordered to report to the Personnel Department of the Leningrad front staff headquarters on July 17, 1944, at eight hours.’ At the bottom of the paper was a hand-written note from my commanding officer: ’Order to report at once.’
’Hm, this might be interesting!’ I thought. ‘Have you anything further to communicate?’ I asked the sergeant.
‘I’m ordered to take you to the staff at once,’ he answered as he kicked down the starter lever of his motorcycle combination.
In the sidecar I quickly forgot my weariness. We jolted over the potholes of the forest road, then passed through a half-destroyed, deserted village. Against the slowly lightening sky I discerned the dark chimneys, the roof joists splintered by artillery fire. The motorcycle wheels spun in the sand; then we made a precarious crossing of a grassgrown ditch, and I was relieved to feel the smooth surface of the Leningrad high road beneath us.
A light early morning haze was hovering over the steaming earth, and now the little houses of the Leningrad suburbs began to appear amid the green of trees. In the distance rose the chimneys of the city’s factories and industrial works.
What was behind this urgent summons to staff headquarters? Away back in the tent my comrades would be just waking up. When they saw my empty place they would feel pretty glad that it was not they who had been called out. But then, when they learned that I had been taken urgently to the staff, they would scratch their napes thoughtfully and exchange uncertain glances.
At this time I was serving in a K. U. K. S. force, undergoing a course for advanced training of officer personnel for the Leningrad front. The K. U. K. S. was a very unusual type of military formation, a ’curiosity shop’, as the members of the course themselves called it. It consisted of comparatively young men with beards and whiskers of extraordinary shapes and sizes. These grim-looking individuals had a queer habit of wearing fur hats in the hottest of weather. In fact they were former officers and commanders of partisan detachments, who were being purged of their partisan ideas and spirit and were having army discipline drummed into them.
Shortly after the liberation of Leningrad from the German blockade in January 1944 the city celebrated the triumphal entry of partisans of the Leningrad province. But within a month Narcomvnudel Special Brigades had to be ordered hurriedly to the city to disarm the overzealous men of the woods. The partisans were behaving like the conquerors of an enemy fortress and were using hand-grenades and automatic pistols against the militia who tried to reduce them to order. They regarded every militiaman as a hereditary enemy and openly boasted of how many they had bumped off.
After the partisans had been disarmed they were packed quietly into cattle-trucks and sent to special Narcomvnudel camps. The newspapers had glorified the ’wild’ partisans as patriotic national heroes, but when they emerged from their forests into the light of day they at once came under the sharp eyes of the Narcomvnudel. Those partisans who were members of the regular detachments built up out of Red Army personnel, and the semi-regulars under commanders sent from the central command and obeying orders issued by the central radio and air force, were acceptable. But anyone who had fought in the forests and had had to resort to straightforward ’food requisitioning’ when their stocks of homemade vodka and fat bacon came to an end-God help them! The N. K. V. D. put them through a thorough purging before passing them on to the regular army, and their commanders were sent to receive special training in the K. U. K. S., such as the one for the Leningrad front.
While in the K. U. K. S. I often heard the enigmatic questions: ‘Where are you from? Out of the Eighth?’ “No, the Ninth,” the answer would come reluctantly. After a time I found out that the ’Eighth’ and the ’Ninth’ were storming battalions on the Leningrad front. ’Storming battalion’ was the official name for punitive battalions in which officers served as rank-and-file soldiers and were sent as such into battle. If they came back alive they were restored to their previous officer’s rank. The losses of storming battalions regularly amounted to 90 and even 95 per cent of the strength in every engagement.
As the Red Army went over to the offensive and began to liberate the occupied areas, all the former Soviet officers found in these areas were rounded up, and, like the partisans, were sent to special Narcomvnudel camps. Those whom the N. K. V. D. did not regard as worthy of dying on the gallows were given a preliminary purge, and then sent to the next department of the ’cleansing institution’, to a storming battalion. There they were afforded plenty of opportunity to purge their crime against the Fatherland with their blood.
Let them fight! There would be time to deal with them properly after the war!
Those who survived the ordeal by fire were usually sent straight from hospital-freedom from a storming battalion was gained only at the price of blood-to the K. U. K. S. for final retraining. A number of my comrades in the K. U. K. S. had paybooks which after the denotation ’soldier’ or ’infantryman’ gave the rank of ’regimental commissar’ or ’squadron commander’ in brackets.
Yes, there was some very interesting human material in our K. U. K. S.! In reality it was a permanent reserve for the Leningrad front. The officers being retrained were not allowed to lounge about, they had to play at soldiers in deadly earnest. The former commandeer of a machine-gun company had to learn how to take to pieces and reassemble a machine-gun of the Maxim pattern, while the commander of a rifleman’s battalion was instructed in the workings of the unsurpassable ’1891 muster’ rifle.
There was a large percentage of Ukrainians in the K. U. K. S. When the Red Army retreated from the Ukraine many soldiers who came from that area simply threw their arms into the nearest ditch and ’went home’. But when the Red Army began to drive the Germans out again these ’sons of the soil’ were hastily rounded up, weapons were thrust into their hands, and they were sent, just as they were, even without uniforms, into the front line. The banks of the Dnieper were strewn with corpses in civilian clothing.
Ordinary soldiers were simply returned to active service, usually without any preliminary purge by the N. K. V. D. Personal accounts between State and individual could be settled later; at that moment there was more need of cannon fodder for the army than labor power for the concentration camps.
Though the feeling never came into the open, there was constant tension between the Ukrainians and the Russians in our K. U. K. S. The Ukrainians usually kept their mouths shut, like younger brothers with bad consciences. The Russians only let fall a good-natured: ‘Ah, you Hohols!’ (Russian term of contempt for Ukrainians - Tr.)
‘Ah, those Germans!’ The Ukrainians sighed in reply. ‘They abused our trust, the blighters!’
One day questionnaires were circulated through the battalions of the K. U. K. S.; the command was attempting to establish which of the members of the course were Crimean Tatars. I remember noting Lieutenant Chaifutinov’s anxious face as he sat filling in the questions inquiring into his family. We had heard rumors that by the Kremlin’s order the entire Tatar population of the Crimean Autonomous Republic was to be deported; several million people were to be transferred to Siberia, and their republic abolished, because of their ’disloyal attitude to the Soviet regime during the German occupation’. This order provoked conversations like the following among members of our course:
‘Do you know how the Kalmuks behaved at Stalingrad? The Germans attacked, but they prepared the way. They cut the throats of whole Soviet regiments in the night.’
‘I’d like to know why the Don and Kuban cossacks looked on and did nothing,’ someone interjected.
‘What else were the cossacks to do?’ remarked a third. ‘You won’t find a single real cossack in the cossack forces today.’
These officers saw nothing surprising in the fact that the Kalmuks had exterminated their regiments, they were only amazed that the cossacks had stood by idly. For in the past the Don and Kuban cossack districts had been famous as centers of opposition to the Soviet regime. The artificially created famine disaster of 1983 had been forced through in those districts with more than the usual brutality. Down to 1936 the cossacks had been the only national group not called up into the regular army. And so it seemed incredible that the cossacks, who had been renowned throughout history for their love of freedom, had not risen against the Soviets.
Among the participants in the course were many former political officers of the Red Army. A number of men in this category had lost their heads already in the Narcomvnudel special camps, and those few who survived both these camps and the storming battalions must have had an unusually tenacious grip on life. And hardly had they arrived at the K. U. K. S., when they began with true communist wolfishness to clutch at their former jobs as shepherds of the human herds. Despite all the sifting and purging they had experienced through the N. K. V. D. even in the K. U. K. S. they managed some-how to get into positions as commanders of sub-divisions of our course. The other officers took every opportunity to address them as ’Comrade Political Director’ or ’Comrade Commissar’, though these ranks had been abolished in the army for some time.
Despite, or even because of the fact that the ’curiosity shop’ was such a haphazard collection of widely varied types, there was always much coming and going. Almost every day mysterious commissions visited us in quest of various kinds of ’commodities’. For instance, one commission came in search of partisans for Yugoslavia. The conditions were: 25, 000 rubles in cash, a month’s leave, then a parachute drop into that country. Our men needed no special training for such activities. There was a queue of candidates; the majority being former partisans who could not endure army discipline.
Then came a general search for men with Polish surnames, as recruits for the Polish ’National’ Army. Then there was a call for candidates to the Red Army Intelligence School. Conditions: nobody accepted under the rank of major, and graduation from high school. Yet even these strict standards could be met over and over again.
These ’trading activities’ were due to the great shortage of special cadres, which were particularly lacking in the army. And the K. U. K. S. contained a mass of fresh, still unsorted human material, which had not been available until recently, because it had been isolated in partisan bands or in the occupied areas.
The majority of my K. U. K. S. comrades were men almost literally from the other world. One youngster had fled right across Europe from a German prisoner-of-war camp in France. When he reached the Russian area under German occupation he was captured a second time, put into a concentration camp, and then escaped again. Twice he had been set up against a wall and had fallen seriously wounded, getting away by worming his way out from under his comrades’ corpses in the mass grave. He had had two years as a partisan in the swamps and forests around Leningrad. And as a reward for his love of the fatherland he had been ’purged’ in a Narcomvnudel camp, had experienced bloodbaths in a storming battalion, and at last had found the quiet haven of the K. U. K. S.
Practically every member of the course had had a similar past. They were the few survivors. Naturally, they were not very fond of telling their life-stories. In such company I was a real greenhorn, as innocent as a newborn babe. I had been sent to the K. U. K. S. after serving in the 96th Special Regiment of Reserve Officers. I had been wounded in the fight for Novgorod, and had spent three months in hospital.
It was during my stay in hospital, which was the former Leningrad Palace of Engineers, that the entire city was staggered by unexpected news. By order of the Leningrad City Soviet all the important, historical streets and squares were to have their former, pre-revolutionary names restored to them. Thus the Prospect of October 25th was renamed once more the Nevsky Prospect; the Field of Mars was relieved of its tongue-twisting revolutionary name and became again the Field of Mars. The changes left us gaping. If things moved at this rate even the collective farms would be abolished...
The staff of the Leningrad front had its headquarters in the horseshoe-shaped former General Staff building, opposite the Winter Palace. The way to the Personnel Department lay through the famous and historic Arches of the General Staff. It was through these Arches that the revolutionary sailors and red guards of Petrograd had stormed the Winter Palace in 1917.
On the broad windowsills of the reception room I found several officers sitting, dangling their legs.
‘Do you want this place too. Captain?’ one of them, asked me. When I nodded he asked me the unexpected question: ‘Can you speak any foreign language?’
‘Why, what’s going on here?’ I asked in turn.
‘At the moment it’s an examination in foreign languages,’ a lieutenant explained. ‘It’s something to do with selection for some special school, or possibly a college,’ another added. ‘The first requisite is knowledge of some foreign language, and graduation in secondary education. Obviously it’s something important. It’s even said to involve return to Moscow...’ he said in a nostalgic tone, and clicked his tongue hopelessly.
An officer, very red and sweating, shot through the door. ‘Oh, hell!... What’s the German for ’wall’? I knew ’window’, I knew ’table’, but I simply couldn’t remember ’wall’. Damn it all! Listen, boys! Mug up all the names of things you find in a room. He points with his finger and asks their names.’
Of the officers in that reception room, two knew Finnish, one Rumanian, and the others had school knowledge of German and English. I knew well enough what ’school knowledge’ meant. But the less chance a man has, the greater becomes his desire to reach the mysterious spot where this linguistic knowledge is required. Everything in any way associated with the thought of ’abroad’ automatically stimulated one’s curiosity and imagination.
I couldn’t help smirking. So here we wouldn’t be concerned with the five parts of the breech of an 1891 rifle! I stretched myself comfortably on a distant bench and attempted to continue my rudely interrupted sleep. When my name was called I went in, clicked my heels with all the precision laid down by Hitler’s army regulations and reported in German in such a thunderous voice that the major sitting at the desk started back in alarm. He stared at me in astonishment; possibly he was wondering whether he should ask me the German for ’table’ or ’window’. Then he asked me a question in Russian. I answered in German. He spoke again in Russian, I once more answered in German. At last he had to laugh. As he invited me to sit down he asked:
‘Where have you picked it up, Captain?’
I took out the documents relating to my civilian life before call-up - it was a miracle that I still had them safely - and laid them on the table.
‘Ah, this is wonderful!’ he remarked. ‘I really took you for a German at first. I’ll present you to the colonel at once.’
He showed me into the next room and introduced me to the head of the Personnel Department. ‘Comrade Colonel,’ he said, ‘I think we’ve got a genuine candidate this time! You needn’t worry about his language; he really put the wind up me. I thought he must be a diversionist.’ He laid my papers on the desk and withdrew.
The colonel took his advice, and did not bother about language tests. He started at once on the moral aspect. The moral and political reliability of an officer is the most important factor, and he is subjected to strict tests in this respect.
‘You see, Captain Klimov,’ the colonel began, ‘we’re thinking of sending you to a responsible and privileged higher school of the Red Army.’ He spoke in tones of great solemnity. ‘You will understand me better if I describe the position to you. Moscow demands a fixed quota of candidates from us every month. We send them to Moscow, and there all those who fail to pass are sent back to us. We send all failures to a punitive company,’ he remarked casually, giving me a meaning look. ‘Every day Moscow bombards us with the demand: ’send us men’. But we haven’t any.
That’s one aspect of the problem. Now for the second. You’re in the K. U. K. S., and there are a lot of men with doubtful pasts in the K. U. K. S. I don’t ask you your record. But one thing is sure: you’ve got to be spotlessly clean! Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a different place from the one we propose to send you to. And we’ve got to send you! Get that?’
I liked the colonel’s unusual frankness. I assured him that I was quite immaculate.
‘I don’t care a damn whether you’re immaculate or not,’ he answered. ‘You’ve got some extraordinary fellows in your K. U. K. S. Only yesterday one of your former colonels swore to me that he was a lieutenant of infantry. We wanted to send him to the intelligence corps school, but he dug his feet in like a mule and said he couldn’t write.’
I was not in the least surprised. Men who had held responsible posts and had passed through the usual preliminaries to K. U. K. S. lost all desire for rank and responsibility and had only one wish-a quiet life.
‘You may try to think up something on those lines,’ the colonel went on. ‘So I repeat, this is a serious matter. If we consider it necessary to send you we shall send you! And no monkey tricks or we’ll report you as refusing to perform military service. You know what that means! Field court-martial!’ he explained weightily. He knew well enough that members of K. U. K. S. courses and former storming battalion men were not to be intimidated with threats of punitive companies. Only a court-martial, with certain death to follow, made any impression on such cases.
He gave me a critical glance and picked up the telephone to get contact with the staff of my K. U. K. S.
‘We’re sending your Klimov away. Get his documents ready. He must leave for Moscow by the twelve noon train,’ he told the chief of staff. ‘And one other thing: why do you let your men go around looking like tramps? Fit him out at once. He mustn’t bring shame on our front when he arrives in Moscow.’
A few minutes later, in an adjoining room, I was handed a sealed and stamped packet which contained my personal documents and traveling passes for Moscow.
Back in the reception room, an excited crowd of candidates surrounded me. ‘Well, how did it go? Sunk? Were the questions lousy?’
I shrugged my shoulders and showed my order for Moscow. ‘So it really is Moscow!’ they exclaimed. ‘Well, good luck!’ and they shook my hands.
Out of the cool twilight of the archways, I stepped into the sunlit Winter Palace Square. I simply couldn’t believe that I wasn’t dreaming! In three hours I would be on the train to Moscow! Such luck, such incredible luck, made me feel queer. I knew of lots of officers, men whose homes were in Leningrad, who had served on the Leningrad front for three years without a single leave in the city. Even in the K. U. K. S. officers who came from Leningrad were not allowed local leave. When we went to the town-baths or on sightseeing tours we were marched in formation. As for Muscovites, even such a short and official visit to their home city was an unrealizable dream. Was it really possible that I was going home?
I looked about me. Yes, this was Leningrad, but in my pocket was a voucher opening my way to Moscow. Standing in the middle of the empty Winter Palace Square, I took it out and read it. I deliberately refused to give way to the patrols in green caps who were to be seen everywhere on the sidewalks and at the street-crossings. Leningrad was in the frontier zone, and the patrols of the Narcomvnudel frontier regiments were particularly strong in the city. The greencaps were the bitterest enemies of all men in uniform. It was not so long since I myself had spent two days and nights in a cold cell at their headquarters, without food and without cigarettes, until an officer armed with a machine-pistol had come from K. U. K. S. to take me back. My crime had been that I had left the baths and gone out into the street. While our command was having a steam bath I had a quick wash and slipped out into the fresh spring air. Right outside the door I had been picked up as a deserter by the greencaps. But today I could cock a snook at them. Today I was going to Moscow.
In the K. U. K. S. staff headquarters a princely reception was awaiting me. In half an hour I was completely refitted from head to foot; new cap, new uniform, even a new pack, filled with cans and cigarettes. Punctually at midday I presented my traveling voucher at the October railway station ticket office.
‘Fifty-six rubles,’ the booking clerk said. I felt hurriedly in my pockets. Hell, of course I needed money! The one thing I lacked. During my soldiering I had quite forgotten what it was. My pay was sent home automatically. A hopeless situation? Not at all! Under socialism everything is very simple, life is absurdly easy. I darted out into the station square, tore open my pack, and whistled. Hardly had I got the pack open when customers came running up. Five minutes later lighter by a few cans of food, but with my pockets full of rubles, I was back at the ticket office. And ten minutes later the train was carrying me to Moscow.
Through the carriage window I gazed at the straw-thatched roofs of villages, at poverty-stricken fields and glittering lakes, bombed-out stations. And yet I felt very light-hearted. Despite all the German resistance, our army was advancing. The scales of history were sinking slowly but surely in our favor.
It was not much more than a month since the K. U. K. S. had buzzed like an excited swarm of bees: the Allies had landed at last on the Normandy coast. For several days we had lived in the fear that the landing troops might be thrown back into the sea, or that it was only another diplomatic, not a military, maneuver. I had no connection with the men in the Kremlin and had no idea what they thought about it. But we in the Red Army had read all the Soviet papers with their continual appeals for help, and even their frequent charges that the Allies were pursuing a policy of deliberate inactivity.
We who were serving in the immediate vicinity of the front knew only too well what sacrifices were called for in an offensive, what sacrifices lay behind the laconic report of the Information Bureau: ’On the Narva front, no change.’ We knew that whole divisions were being slaughtered to the last man in fruitless attempts to break through the Narva front. The Estonian detachments fighting with the German Army held those positions on the frontier of their native land, and they held out to their last breath; they were even more obdurate than the Germans. But the Information Bureau reported: ’No change’. The only important things were visible results, not human lives. And that is the case wherever war is waged.
But now we felt grateful to our Allies, not only for their mountains of canned foods, soldiers’ greatcoats, and even buttons, but for the blood they were shedding in the common cause. An iron grip had closed round Germany’s throat. Even though life was hard, though hungry women and children held out their hands, begging, at every railway station, despite everything we were going forward to victory. We believed in victory, and even more strongly in something different that would come after the victory.
The story goes that when he heard the Allies had landed in France Stalin stamped his foot with rage. I don’t know whether the story is true, but I know we soldiers were filled with joy. The politicians share out Europe, we soldiers shared out our bread and our blood.
So now I was returning to Moscow. My thoughts wandered back to the day I had left it. It seemed ages and ages ago. After a fine day in the country, Genia and I were returning in the cool autumn evening by the suburban electric train to Moscow. I took the city military command’s order that I was to re-register out of my pocket and re-marked: ‘I’ll go along and get them to stamp my exemption to-morrow morning, and then I’ll come along to you. And we’ll see about it....’
‘But supposing they keep you there!’ Her voice quivered with agitation, her black eyes looked at me anxiously. I was terribly grateful for those words and that look.
‘Don’t talk rubbish! It isn’t the first time!’ I answered.
Next morning I went in my padded military jacket, in my blue trousers thrust into my military boots, and my extraordinary headgear, to report to the Military Commissariat. By wartime standards I was dressed like a gentleman. It was common form to be dressed like that in wartime Moscow, and it saved you a lot of hostile scowls. In my pocket I had Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, which I read in the Underground to practice my English.
After handing in my papers at the Second Department of the Military Commissariat I slipped into a corner and took out my book to pass the time. The room was crowded with an extraordinary collection of men: chalk-white faces, unshaven cheeks, and shabby clothes much too light for the time of year. Two militiamen were leaning lazily against the door. I read while I waited for my exemption paper to be handed back, stamped: ’re-registered’.
After some time the head of the department came out with a list. He read out a number of names, including mine. I had no idea what the list was for. The moment he left the room the militiamen gave the order: ‘Fall in the street’.
We were all, including myself, with my index finger still between two pages of my book, driven out into the yard. What joke was this? They couldn’t do this to me! I’d got exemption! I tried to turn off to the left, and found myself looking into the muzzle of a revolver. To the right: another revolver.
‘No protests!’ the militiamen shouted. ‘So long as you’re in our charge you’re prisoners. When we’ve handed you over at the assembly point you’ll be free again....’
Thus I marched through Moscow, guarded by militiamen with revolvers at the ready.
A mistake, you think? Nothing of the sort. There was a terrible shortage of reserves for the front. Yet the needs of the rear were just as great. The rear issued exemptions from military service. But the front carried off the men, together with their exemptions. Behind it all was the ’Plan’.
According to the Plan the Military Commissariat had to send fifty men to the assembly point that day. What else could they do but rake them in wherever they could? So they hauled the short-term prisoners out of the prisons-most of them were in for turning up late or slacking at work-took them under escort to the Military Commissariat and then to the assembly point. And if they were still short of men for the Plan, they threw in a few ’exempted’ men.
And that was how an exempted scientific worker in the Molotov Energetics Institute, which had been awarded the Order of Lenin, became a soldier. Neither Lenin nor Molotov made any difference. This was more exciting than Conan Doyle. The one pity was that I had no chance to say goodbye to Genia.
I soon learned to march as bravely as the rest. We were dispatched to the front, and I bawled out the Russian folk-song at the top of my voice:
‘Nightingale, nightingale, little bird, why don’t you sing me a cheerful song....’
All the songs of the pre-war period, about the ’Leader’, the ’proletariat’, and similar eyewash, had been swept out of the army as though by the mighty incantation of a magician. Instead, the genuine Russian marching songs conquered the soldiers’ hearts. Even quite unmusical fellows bawled them out, simply because they were now again allowed to sing about neighing steeds, old mothers, and young beauties. The magician in the Kremlin realized that such things were closer to the soldiers’ hearts than Karl Marx’s beard.
Now I was returning to Moscow. Only yesterday I had not dared even to dream of such a thing. I recalled when I had last thought of Moscow. One sunny spring day, as I wandered through a lonely glade in the dense forest of the Karelian Peninsula, I had come upon a deep shell crater overgrown with young green. At the bottom, greenish bog-water shimmered like transparent glass. Forest water, as clear as crystal, which we often scooped up in our helmets, to drink. But there, head in the water, his arms flung out in a last spasm, lay the body of an enemy soldier.
As I descended, digging my heels into the soil, clumps of earth rolled down into the pool. Little ripples wrinkled the surface and set the dead man’s hair in gentle movement with their mournful caresses. Oppressed by this close union of life and death, I squatted down. But at last my curiosity overcame my respect for death. I carefully opened the man’s breast pocket and took out a packet of papers.
The usual military documents, with the eagle astride the swastika, letters from home, and the photo of an attractive, fair-haired girl in summer dress. The photo was carefully wrapped in paper. On its back was written: ’To my beloved from his beloved’, the date, and the name of a town far away in the south of the Reich. I looked at the dead man’s hair in the green water, then again at the face of the girl on the bank of the Rhine. Where she was the orchards were now in full bloom and the vines were showing green on the slopes. One warm spring night this girl had gently caressed the hair of her beloved; now it was being caressed by the cold bog-water of a forest somewhere in Russia.
I took out my notebook and, sitting on the edge of the crater, wrote a melancholy note to Genia: ’Perhaps tomorrow I too will be lying somewhere with my face turned upward, and nobody will tenderly caress me, not even the green water of a bomb crater.’ Women like a touch of the romantic. And I, too, am not exactly made of iron.
At that time, when I had no hope of seeing Genia again for a long time, I had written simply, as all soldiers write to their sweet-hearts. Letters are almost the soldier’s only joy and comfort.
Stepping out of the Komsomolsk railway station in Moscow, I plunged into the bustle of the Underground, whistling a front-line song as I went. I had given a whole eternity to the State. It could not be regarded as a great crime that I now wished to devote a few minutes to myself. Besides, Genia would never have forgiven me if I had preferred any military unit whatever to her.
I found her door locked, pushed a little note through the crack, threw my pack over my shoulder again, and gave myself the order: ’Left turn, quick march!’ Having dealt with my personal affairs, I returned to affairs of State.
Half an hour later I arrived at my service destination. As I walked down a long corridor I was amazed. True, there were many men in uniform scurrying around like ants disturbed from their ant-hill, but the place reminded me more of a university during finals than an army unit.
Some men put their books down open on windowsills to enter into an excited argument, others hurriedly repeated their lessons, wrote notes, and hurriedly took them off somewhere. Nobody taking any notice of distinctions of rank, or shoulder-tabs, nobody was thinking of saluting. They all had other cares. Most of them wore expressions very different from those of army officers, whose faces, as well as their souls, are imprinted with the stamp of barrack drill.
Close by me two officers were conversing in some incomprehensible language. I noted shoulder-tabs of all kinds, from air force to infantry. And even the black coats of the navy. But most astonishing of all was the large number of women and girls in uniform. Hitherto only a few women had been accepted for propaganda purposes in certain military schools. Here was a very different situation.
I felt a little awkward, and decided to try to get my bearings. At one of the windows I noticed a first lieutenant in a sand-colored greatcoat, and riding breeches of similar material. He must be from Leningrad! I was wearing exactly the same sort of uniform, and I had never come across it outside the Leningrad sector.
When the Americans were preparing for the landing in North Africa they ordered an enormous number of cool, silky, sand-coloured uniforms for their soldiers. Later, they found they had such a superfluity of this ’African’ clothing that in their friendship for their Russian allies they transferred it to us. So our resourceful supreme command presented this tropical attire to the very coldest, namely the Leningrad, sector of the front. And thenceforth we had no difficulty in picking out our colleagues from that front on any occasion.
‘Tell me, lieutenant,’ I addressed the officer in the sand-colored uniform. ‘Are you from Leningrad too?’
Yes, the Karelian sector," he answered very readily. Apparently in this hubbub he felt as lost as I did, and was glad to meet a friendly colleague.
‘Well, how are things?’
‘So far, not bad. I think I’ve fallen on my feet,’ he answered. But despite the confident answer there was a hint of disillusionment in his tone.
‘But what is this show: a boarding house for respectable girls?’ I asked him. ‘I’ve only just arrived, and I don’t get it at all.’
‘The devil himself wouldn’t get it! For instance, I’ve been assigned to Hungary. The devil can take the whole of Hungary!’ The disillusionment in his voice was now more pronounced. I grew more and more puzzled. ‘Now if I could get into the English Department,’ he sighed. ‘But that’s hopeless, unless you’ve got connections. You have to be a general’s son at the least. See them swarming around? And every one of them with a letter of recommendation in his pocket!’
He pointed to a door. On it was a notice: ’Head of the Training Department,’ and before it was crowded a group of officers in elegant boots of the finest leather and in extra-smart uniforms. They certainly didn’t look like front-line officers.
‘Then what’s the best way of tackling the situation?’ I asked. ‘What languages do you know?’
‘A little German, a little English, a certain amount of Russian...’ “Quit fooling and tell them you know only English. The English Department is the best of the lot,” the future Hungarian advised me.
From various conversations I began to realize that this mysterious educational institution was concerned with training personnel for abroad. None of the novices appeared to know its name. But after I had had a talk with a flying officer, a student at the air force college, who-apparently through influential connections-was attempting to get transferred from the third course of the college to the first course of this mysterious school, I felt convinced that the place must offer considerable advantages.
During the next few days I filled in a sheaf of questionnaires which attempted to establish all my past: whether I had any relations or acquaintances abroad; whether I had any relations ’in areas temporarily occupied by the Hitlerite land-robbers’; whether I had ever belonged to or had any sympathies with groups hostile to the Party or was planning to have such sympathies; whether I had ever had any doubts of the correctness of the Party line. The questions which showed interest in the negative aspects of my life far exceeded those that were concerned with my positive qualities. I had already brought all these questionnaires with me in a sealed envelope from Leningrad; now I had to fill them in all over again.
I remember a scandal that occurred over a questionnaire, which one of my colleagues of student days had filled in for the Special Department of his Institute. He gave his year of birth correctly as 1918. The next question, ’What were you doing when the revolution broke out in 1917?’ he answered with the precise statement: ’I was in the underground movement.’ Because of this answer he was summoned again and again to the Narcomvnudel for interrogation.
I spent several days being examined in German and English. Those who failed in the language tests were excluded from further tests and were returned to their previous units. However, the favorites of patronage were an exception: they were all assigned to the first course, and were not subjected to such strict requirements. All others were thoroughly sifted out; if they had sound knowledge they were assigned to one of the higher courses, otherwise they were returned to their units.
After the questionnaires and the language tests came examinations in Marxism-Leninism. In my twenty-six years of life I had passed all the half dozen normal and three State examinations in this branch of knowledge. These were followed by quite insignificant tests in philosophy and dialectical materialism, in general and military history, the Russian language, and economic geography.
All this procedure left me pretty indifferent. There was no knowing when the war would end, but one thing was certain: it had already passed its critical phase and was coming to its close. My one idea was to get out of uniform as soon as possible after it was over. Against that, this educational establishment might prolong my time of service in the army, if not extend it into eternity. For the majority of the youth, this school was a means of learning a profession, which would enable them to earn their living after the war. I was less interested in that aspect. But the army was the army; here orders were supreme, and one could only obey them.
It was a fierily hot summer. Entire caravans of barges laden with timber were being hauled along the River Moskva. All through the war Moscow had been heated exclusively with wood, even the locomotives were burning wood instead of coal. The city was uncommonly still and peaceful. The only variety was provided by the patrols of the town command, which checked your papers at every step. They treated me with particular distrust: I had a front-line officer’s tabs on my shoulders, but I sauntered about like an idler.
All my private plans had collapsed like a house of cards on my being drafted into the army. When I returned to Moscow I had unconsciously assumed that now life would return to its old courses. But life doesn’t stand still, and I, too, had changed, after my experiences of front-line life. And now, during my aimless wanderings around the battlemented walls of the Kremlin, I felt only a vague yearning and an empty void. Just one thing seemed to be clear: the war must be brought to an end. For so long as this war lasted there would be room neither for private life nor for personal interests.
After I had passed the questionnaires and the tests I was summoned to the head of the Educational Department, Colonel Gorokhov. Behind a large desk sat a little man with the blue tabs of a cavalry officer and a cranium that was as bald as a billiard ball. In his sly, foxy face twinkled colorless, watery eyes.
‘Sit down, Comrade Captain,’ he said courteously, pointing to a chair on my side of his desk.
This was a very different reception from normal army discipline. It was much more like the atmosphere of university lecture hall and absentminded professors. The colonel ran his thin fingers through the numerous documents devoted to my moral and political standing, the attestations of my participation in battles, my questionnaires and test reports.
‘So you’re an engineer! Well, well!’ he observed in a friendly tone. ‘Speaking quite generally, we don’t give a warm welcome to engineers. We have a few here already. Too self-opinionated and not sufficiently disciplined. What is your view of your future career?’
‘As the interests of the State require,’ I answered prudently, but without the least hesitation. I wasn’t to be caught by such questions.
‘Do you know what sort of educational establishment this is?’ he asked.
When I answered vaguely he began to tell me slowly, with many pauses: ‘It is the Military-Diplomatic College of the General Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. You must be aware of the fact that, according to the law, men with military high school training, in other words men who have graduated from the military colleges, are obliged to give life-service in the army. The State spends an enormous amount on your education, and so it cannot allow the men to do, as they like afterwards. The State has poured out quite a considerable sum on you personally.’ He glanced at my diploma testifying that I was a graduate of the Industrial Institute.
‘I should feel very sorry to sacrifice more time and money on you’ he continued with the air of an economical housewife. ‘And so I must make it perfectly clear that if you are accepted in the college you must throw overboard all your civilian stuff and forget all about demobilization. There are some that think that when the war’s over they can slip away out of sight. Forget it! You are of interest to us in so far as, judging from your documents and tests, you have a solid groundwork of knowledge, such as we need. You will give us less trouble to train than others will. For that reason, and solely for that reason, we are interested in your case.’
After this introduction he proceeded to details. ‘What made you take up foreign languages after you had graduated from the Industrial Institute?’
‘I considered a knowledge of foreign languages was essential for an engineer.’
‘Good! But what the devil made you’-he took another glance at my papers-"graduate from the First Moscow Institute for Foreign Languages, and the Pedagogical Department at that? Didn’t you like being an engineer?"
The colonel was well posted in all the subtleties of the changes of interests and professions which so frequently occur in present-day Soviet society. Owing to the comparative ease with which one could get higher technical education in pre-war days, the students at the technical high schools included quite a large percentage who were completely unsuitable. As soon as they started practical work they found it unsatisfactory both morally and economically, so they packed their diplomas away and went off to seek a more lucrative or less responsible profession.
For engineers were frequently imprisoned for the most trivial of technical mistakes, and they received relatively low pay. Also, many women with high school education preferred to get married and stay at home rather than follow their profession, provided their husband’s salary was large enough. If not, they, too, went in search of a new profession. And so people traveled with their diplomas from one end of the country to the other. The State took steps to stop this: it tied the young specialist down to a definite works or factory for five years, and if he broke his contract arbitrarily he was imprisoned.
‘How did you come to know foreign languages at all?’ the colonel continued. ‘You must have had a governess, surely?’
This was as good as a Narcomvnudel interrogation! In my childhood, to have a governess signified that you belonged to the people of the ’old days’. But now the word ’governess’ no longer had this compromising connotation: in the Moscow parks swarms of children from the Kremlin’s upper circles were to be seen accompanied by governess who talked to them in French or English. After they had overthrown and libeled their predecessors the new ’upper ten’ had quickly adopted their habits.
‘I learned languages parallel with my other subjects. I took my finals in languages and the State examination as an internal student at the Moscow Institute at the one time,’ I answered.
‘Aha! So you studied at two institutes simultaneously. You must be very studious!’ the colonel deduced, and stroked his baldhead thoughtfully, as though some new idea had occurred to him.
I simply don’t know what made me decide to study foreign languages. Every student has some bee in his bonnet. I happened to discover that in the Moscow city library there was a mass of unsorted and uncatalogued works in foreign languages. There was nobody to put them in order and submit them to the censorship. Yet until they had been censored they could not be used. I quite quickly obtained permission to work on these materials, and a completely new world, closed to all others, was opened to me.
My linguistic knowledge was far from brilliant, but in Soviet conditions even restricted knowledge of foreign languages was exceptional. A Soviet citizen has such a small chance of making practical use of such knowledge that it doesn’t occur to anybody to waste time studying languages. ’It might easily bring you to the notice of the Narcomvnudel’, was the way people reasoned.
‘Well, now to business.’ The colonel tapped his pencil on my papers. ‘We can pack whole street-cars with German linguists. And we’ve got more than we need of English. But as I see you’re studious and you’re not a child, I’ll make you a much better proposal.’ He paused significantly, carefully watching my reaction. ‘I’ll assign you to an exceptionally important department. In addition I guarantee that after you’ve passed out you’ll work in San Francisco or Washington. What do you say to that?’
I didn’t bat an eyelid. What was he after? Neither English nor German.... Work in Washington.... I know: as a liftboy in some embassy! I had heard rumors of such things happening.
‘I’ll assign you to the Eastern Faculty,’ he added in a condescending tone. I went hot and cold. ‘The Japanese Department,’ he said in a tone of finality. ‘And you’ll find more use for your English there than anywhere else.’
I shivered a little across the shoulders, and felt thoroughly uncomfortable. ‘Comrade Colonel, isn’t there something just a little less complicated?’ I said feebly. ‘I’ve only just recovered from a head wound....’
‘This isn’t a shop. The choice is limited.’ His face changed completely, it went cold and hard. He was obviously regretting the time he had wasted on me. ‘Two alternatives: either the Japanese Department or we send you back to your unit. That’s settled. I give you two hours to think it over.’
The colonel in Leningrad had threatened me with a court-martial if I was sent back. And here I was faced with lifelong forced labor on the Japanese language. ’It strikes me, my dear Klimov, you’re in a jam!’ I thought.
When I left the room I was surrounded by a lively group of my new acquaintances, all anxious to know the result of so protracted an interview.
‘Well, how did it go? Where are you assigned to: the Western Department?’ they clamored.
‘The geisha girls!’ I answered dejectedly.
For a moment they stared at me in silence, then there was a roar of laughter. They thought it a good joke; but I didn’t see it.
‘Do you know how many signs they have got to their alphabet?’ one man asked sympathetically. ‘Sixty-four thousand. An educated Jap knows about half of them.’
‘There have been three cases of suicide here during the last year,’ another told me cheerfully. ‘And all three were in the Japanese Department.’
One of them took my arm. ‘Come and I’ll show you the Japanese,’ he said.
When he opened the door of the department I saw a disheveled creature sitting with his legs tucked under him on a bed; he was wearing pants and horned spectacles. He took no notice of us whatever, but went on with his occupation, muttering some exorcism and simultaneously describing mysterious figures in the air with his finger. I saw several other similar individuals in the room. They were all in various stages of Buddhistic trance; their naked skin showed through their undergarments.
‘These are your future colleagues,’ my companion informed me cheerfully. ‘Here is the source of all wisdom. And every one of them is an epileptic, so beware!’
A swarthy-skinned, lean and lanky lieutenant-the only man in the room still wearing epaulettes-was sitting at a desk, describing artistic figures on paper. He had begun at the bottom right-hand corner and was continuing his course upward, from right to left. Outside the window was the hot Moscow summer; hopeful youngsters were swarming in the corridors, but these poor wretches were stuck here with the droning flies on the wall and were harassing them-selves stupid in their endeavor to split the granite of eastern wisdom.
During the next few days I wandered about the college like a deceived lover. I had been promised a fabulous beauty, but behind the veil I had seen a toad. I made the firm decision to drop Japanese at the first opportunity. But as I saw no possibility of doing so at the moment I began to settle down in the college.
It had only recently returned from evacuation, and had been given temporary accommodation in several four-storied buildings standing on Tagan Square. The various faculties were scattered all over the environs of Moscow. Our building was in a quiet side-street high above the granite embankment of the River Moskva. The windows looking out over the river afforded a view of the Stone Bridge and the Kremlin walls on the farther side.
Of an evening we frequently enjoyed the cheerful and fascinating sight of the victory salutes thundering over the city. The picture of the city lit up by the fire was one of exceptional beauty. The batteries were grouped round the Kremlin in concentric rings. It was said that Stalin often went up one of the Kremlin belfries to enjoy the sight. Our Military-Diplomatic College had been founded in the war years, when changed international relations necessitated the extension of military-diplomatic ties with countries abroad. By the repeated changes in the college curriculum it was possible to trace the course of Soviet foreign policy for several years ahead.
The college was based on the pattern of the High School for Diplomacy, the Military Intelligence High School, the Institute for Eastern Culture, and several other higher military and civilian educational institutions. To give an idea of the difficulties attending the selection of candidates, one need merely mention that the High School for Diplomacy only accepted men with completed secondary education and who in addition had at least five years’ Party membership.
The Eastern Faculty of the college covered not only Japanese and Chinese, but Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Indian, and Afghan Departments. In addition to English, German, and French, the Western Faculty had Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Dutch, Italian, and other departments. There was also a Naval Faculty, which had departments for all the various naval powers. The Air Force Faculty had been temporarily transformed into a Faculty for Parachute Groups, with special emphasis on countries with which Soviet forces might shortly be making contact. As the college itself had been founded only recently, the students attending the first course were numbered in thousands, those in the second course in hundreds, and the third course students numbered only a few dozen. The last, the fourth course, was only in process of organization.
In the case of the Eastern Faculty there was an additional fifth course. For entry to the higher courses the requirements were extremely high, while the number of candidates was very small, and so suitable men had to be sought all over the Soviet Union. Foreigners were not allowed to attend the college, but on the other hand Russian citizens with knowledge of foreign languages were a rarity. Approximately half of the students in the first course were the children of generals or high officials in the Party or State service; it was practically impossible for a man of ’ordinary’ origin to get accepted in that course. However, ’Heroes of the Soviet Union’, young officers who had particularly distinguished themselves in the war, and celebrities generally were the exception to this rule.
All the college knew the young Tadjik girl named Mamlakat. During the ’thirties her picture had been distributed all over the Soviet Union. In distant Tadjikistan the little Mamlakat had achieved a record in cotton picking. About that time a conference of Stakhanovite workers on collective farms was being held in Moscow, and so Mamlakat was brought to the city and decorated with the Order of Lenin at the conference. Stalin personally gave her a gold wristwatch and was photographed in a fatherly pose with her.
Since then years had passed. Mamlakat had long since stopped picking cotton, but she still sunned herself in her fame and the favor of her leader. There were smirks as the college students told the details of her career. On returning to the luxurious apartment of the Hotel Moskva after the conference, she had been so excited over her fame and Stalin’s gift that she jumped into her bath without stopping to take off the watch. The watch stopped, and she put the whole hotel in turmoil with her wild wailing.
Now she was twenty years old. Since that time she had graced four different institutes in succession with her presence, attacking each in Stakhanovite tempo, and now she had entered the haven of our college. She found it necessary to change her subjects and place of study after each examination. But if Lenin Orders and Stalin watches cannot affect cerebral activity, at least they open many doors to their possessors. It was rumored that Mamlakat was again on the point of changing the scene of her operations. The college students included a number of such parasites living on past glories.
Somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow a second educational institution existed which had tasks similar to those of our college, but where the students were all foreigners, being trained on the recommendation and instigation of the officially dissolved, but in fact highly active, Cornintern. They formed a reservoir for Soviet foreign agents. They had no diplomatic passes at their disposition, but their labors were more important and in any case far more active than those of the official diplomats.
In addition, many well-known foreign communists, such as Rakosi, Dimitrov, and Anna Pauker, took training courses at the Sun Yat Sen University or at the Lenin Political Academy. You don’t know everything! Our college wasn’t talked about much, for that matter, though its objects were quite legal, namely, the training of personnel for Soviet military missions abroad. An interesting and quite safe job. If you did happen to come to grief, you were only sent back home. What happened when you got home was another matter.
Strange to say, Jews were rigorously excluded from our college. Here for the first time I found official confirmation of certain rumors, which had been persistently circulating in the country. On the nationalities question the Kremlin had taken a largely unexpected course. Until recently the Jews had played, and they still do play, an important part in Soviet diplomacy and the foreign service generally. Yet now the doors of a diplomatic college were closed to them. Perhaps Stalin could not forgive the fact that in the Moscow trials of 1935-38 a large number of the accused was Jews.
I could not help recalling certain incidents that had occurred comparatively recently. During the retreat of 1941, Jews were not evacuated from the abandoned areas, but were left quite deliberately to be exterminated by the Germans. The people of Moscow well remember the autumn days of 1941. Hardly any of the Moscow Jews, apart from the Party and government officials, obtained per-mission to leave the city. When the Germans captured the approaches to Moscow on October 16, thousands of people sought salvation in panicky flight. The majority was Jews, for the ordinary Muscovites had neither the possibility nor the desire to flee. Stalin sent Narcomvnudel forces to block the Moscow-Gorky main road, and gave them orders to shoot at sight anybody who tried to flee without an evacuation pass. This order was published only after the Narcomvnudel forces had been posted, and the result was hecatombs of Jewish bodies on both sides of the Moscow high road.
During the war years the unity of the peoples of the Soviet Union was put to a severe test. The national minorities had not justified the Kremlin’s hopes. In the army a new, incomprehensible insult came into use: ’Yaldash’. In the language of the Asia Minor peoples the word means ’Comrade’. Introduced to them during the revolutionary period as an official form of address, it was now transformed into a term of contempt.
Another Asiatic word, which enriched the Soviet army vocabulary during the war, was ’Belmeydy’. In the early days the national minorities went over to the Germans en masse, practiced self-mutilation, and later resorted to the passive ’Belmeydy’, ’I don’t understand’. With true Asiatic impassivity the Turkmen and Tadjiks called up for the army answered every question with the brief ’Belmeydy’. And if they were ordered ’left turn’ they unhesitatingly turned right.
General Gundorov, the President of the Pan-Slav Committee, was responsible for putting into circulation the term ’Slavonic Brothers’. And after that, whenever some filthy trick, some act of looting or some senseless stupidity was observed and discussed in the army, the remark was made: ’That’s the Slavonic Brothers!’ This was the ordinary soldiers’ own way of criticizing certain things that were encouraged by the higher authorities, things which unleashed the dark instincts of the less responsible sections of the army. When each of these ’campaigns’ had served its turn the same higher authorities threw the whole blame on to those who had carried it through, issuing an indignant order and having the scapegoats shot.
The derisive term ’Slavonic Brothers’ was often applied to the Polish and Baltic formations of the Red Army. The Red Army men spoke of the Estonians and other Balts who fought on the German side with more respect. The Soviet soldiers had no idea what sort of ’autonomy’ the Germans contemplated conferring on the Balts, but they knew quite well what sort of ’independence’ these peoples had received from the Soviet regime in 1940. The Russian soldiers had been thoroughly trained in the spirit of abstract internationalism, but during the war they had had an opportunity to view events from the national aspect, and they appreciated even their enemies’ fight for national freedom.
‘They hold on, the devils!’ they frequently remarked with more respect than anger in their tones.
Some months after the war had begun, during the construction of the second ring of landing grounds around the city of Gorky, I came across thousands of foreigners engaged in excavating and leveling the sites. Their dress at once revealed them as foreigners. Their faces were sullen. They were former citizens of the Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian Soviet Republics, who had worked hand in hand with the new Soviet rulers. They had become militiamen and Party and State officials of the new republics. When they fled before the Nazi forces into the homeland of the world proletariat, spades were thrust into their hands, so that they could learn what it meant to be proletarians. Later still they were transferred to the Narcomvnudel’s forced-labor camps. And when in due course it became necessary to organize national army units, they were sent into the Estonian and other national brigades, where the majority of them finished their days. Such is the career of the petty opportunists.
August passed into September, and we began regular instruction. I still could not reconcile myself to being condemned to a diplomatic career in Japan. When I talked it over with acquaintances they laughed as though they thought it a good joke.
One day, as I was hurrying across the college yard, I collided with a woman in military uniform. A military man’s first glance is at the tabs. Astonished to see a woman with the high rank of major, I looked at her face.
‘Olga Ivanovna!’ I exclaimed joyfully, surprised at this unexpected meeting.
Olga Ivanovna Moskalskaya was a doctor of philology, and had been professor and dean of the German Faculty in the First Pedagogical Institute for Foreign Languages. I had met her there in the days of peace, and she had been pleasantly touched by my interest in foreign languages. She was a woman of great culture and unusual personal charm.
‘Comrade Klimov!’ she exclaimed, just as astonished as I. She gave me a swift look up and down.
‘In uniform? What are you doing here?’
‘Oh, don’t ask, Olga Ivanovna!’ I replied, rather crestfallen.
‘But all the same... Have you taken up German again?’
‘No, Olga Ivanovna; even worse... Japanese!’ I answered gloomily.
‘What? Japanese? Impossible! You’re joking!’
‘It’s no joke, I can tell you.’
‘I see!’ She shook her head. ‘Come along to my room and we’ll have a chat.’
On the door of her room was the inscription: ’Head of the Western Faculty’, and her name. So she held an important position in the college.
‘What idiot has put you in the Japanese Department?’ she asked. I saw at once that she was well acquainted with conditions in the college.
‘It wasn’t an idiot, it was Colonel Gorokhov,’ I answered.
‘Would you agree to being transferred to the German Department?’ she asked in a curt, businesslike tone. When I said yes, she added: ‘I’m just engaged in making a selection of candidates for the last course, and I’m racking my brains to know where to get the people from. If you don’t object I shall ask the general this very day to have you transferred. What do you think?’
‘Only for God’s sake don’t let Colonel Gorokhov think it’s my personal wish... Otherwise I don’t know what will happen,’ I replied as I gratefully shook her hand.
‘That’s my headache, not yours. See you again soon!’ she laughed as I left her room.
Next day the head of the Japanese preparatory course sent for me. As though he were seeing me for the first time in his life he asked distrustfully:
‘So you’re Klimov?’
‘Yes, Comrade Major,’ I answered.
‘I’ve received an order from the general to transfer a certain Klimov’ - he contemplated the document - ‘to... the fourth course of the Western Faculty.’
He gave first me, then the paper, a skeptical look.
That look was quite understandable. Conditions’ in the college were decidedly abnormal. The students of the preparatory course lived in a state of bliss. Those assigned to the first course, especially those concerned with the ’leading’ nationalities, were inflated with conceit. Those attending the second course were regarded as made for life. Of the members of the third course it was secretly whispered that they must have pulled unusually effective strings. As for the fourth and last course, little was known about it, but it was regarded as the dwelling-place of the gods.
‘Do you know anything about this?’ he went on to ask suspiciously.
‘Oh no. Comrade Major,’ I replied.
‘Very good! Here’s the order-as we haven’t any other Captain Klimov at the moment-and you can go off to the West. But I think there must be some mistake, and we’ll be seeing each other again soon,’ he added.
‘Very good, Comrade Major!’ I clicked my heels.
So now I was in the final course of the German Department. Fortune had smiled on me after all.