The Fruits of Victory
The B. M. W. car works in Eisenach was one of the first large industrial plants in the Soviet zone to receive the S. M. A.’s per-mission to start up production again. It at once began to work at high pressure, turning out cars for reparations deliveries and for the internal needs of the S. M. A. The new car park at Karlshorst consisted exclusively of B. M. W. machines. In addition, heavy motorcycles were supplied for the Soviet occupation forces.
The Potsdam Conference had made a number of decisions concerning the demilitarization of Germany, and, with the active participation of General Shabalin, the Allied Control Commission drew up regulations strictly forbidding German industry to produce any kind of military or paramilitary material. Meanwhile, the same General Shabalin placed definite orders with the B. M. W. works for the delivery of military motorcycles. But of course motorcycles are only small items.
The representatives of B. M. W. Eisenach managed to get their agreement with the S. M. A. at Karlshorst settled unusually quickly; other firms offering their products against the reparations account hung about the place for days and weeks on end before they got any satisfactory answer. But the B. M. W. board was more than usually resourceful in their methods.
A few days after Shabalin had signed the license for the Eisenach firm to start up, I was looking through his morning post. Among other items I noticed a B. M. W. account for some 7, 400 marks, debited to Shabalin, and relating to payment for a car ’which you have received through our representative’. The account was stamped ’paid in full’. I threw Kuznetsov an interrogative glance, but he pretended to know nothing about the matter.
Next day, as I was crossing the yard of the house where Shabalin had his apartment, I saw Misha at the door of the garage. He was polishing a brand-new car, so new that it was not yet registered, shining in splendor in the dark garage.
‘Whose car is that?’ I asked in amazement, knowing that the general had no car like it.
‘Ah, you’ll see!’ Misha answered evasively, quite unlike his usual garrulous self.
When I noticed the chequered marque of the B. M. W. firm on the radiator I realized what had happened. The board had made the general a little ’present’. The 7, 400 Reichsmarks were a fictitious purchase price. And the general had ordered his adjutant and chauffeur to keep their mouths shut, just in case.
Already during the advance into Germany General Shabalin had ’organized’ two cars, and with Misha’s help had sent them back home, together with three lorries loaded with ’trophies’. In Berlin he made use only of the two service cars at his disposal, and did not make a single journey with his new B. M. W. Shortly afterwards Misha dispatched the B. M. W. also to Russia, together with two more lorries. Naturally, not against reconstruction or reparations accounts, but strictly privately, to the general’s home address. So now he had three private and two service cars. He exploited the service machines, and spared his own, shamefacedly keeping them quiet. In this respect the general was as thrifty as a usurer.
At first it did not occur to me to provide myself with a car. But later, when I saw how others were adapting themselves to local conditions, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea. It was easy enough to buy one, but it was much more difficult to get ’permission to possess a private car’. Such permission was issued by the head of the S. M. A. Administrative Department, General Demidov. General Demidov was subordinate in rank to General Shabalin, so I decided to sound Shabalin first. If he agreed, all he had to do was to phone up Demidov and the matter would be settled. I wrote out the requisite application and laid it before the general at the close of my usual service report.
‘Hm! What do you want a private car for?’ the economic dictator of Germany asked, rubbing his nose with his finger knuckle, as was his habit
The Soviet leaders take good care to see that others should not too easily acquire the privileges they themselves enjoy. Even if an American, even if General Draper himself applied personally to Shabalin, he would decide that the applicant had ’No need whatever of a car’.
‘Wait a little longer. At the moment I haven’t time to deal with it,’ he said as he handed back the application.
I knew it would get more and more difficult to obtain the requisite permission. But I also knew that no situation is insoluble; at the worst it was simply that one did not find the solution. ’You must howl with the wolves’ is one of the chief commandments of Soviet life. I had a strong suspicion that the general’s refusal was due only to his caution. He did not wish to run the risk of being charged with lack of bolshevik vigilance in allowing his subordinates to grow accustomed to ’capitalist toys’. He may have had that same feeling when he ’organized’ his own trophies, but the un-communist vestiges of desire for personal gain had overcome his fear. I decided to approach the question from a different angle.
‘Do you give me permission to apply to General Demidov, Comrade General?’ I asked in a casual manner.
‘Why not? Of course you can,’ he readily answered. So my assumption was confirmed. The general was not prepared to give his signature, but he had no objection to someone else taking the responsibility.
General Demidov knew quite well that I was one of General Shabalin’s personal staff. In approaching him I could exploit the element of surprise. The next day, with a self-confident air I laid my application on the desk of the head of the Administrative Department. ‘By General Shabalin’s permission,’ I said as I saluted.
Demidov read the application, assuming that Shabalin had already sanctioned it. In such circumstances a refusal would seem like opposition to a superior officer’s order.
‘But aren’t four cylinders enough for you?’ He knitted his brow as he looked through the car documents. ‘Six cylinders are for-bidden to private individuals.’
Demidov was well known as capable of haggling all day with the utmost fervor over ten litres of petrol, though he had thousands of tons of it in store. In order to get the illegal extra two cylinders I invited him cheerfully: ‘Then ring up General Shabalin, Comrade General.’ I knew Demidov would never do anything so stupid. And, in any case, Shabalin had gone out, and was unobtainable.
‘Oh well!’ Demidov sighed as though he were committing a crime. ‘As Shabalin’s agreed...’ He countersigned my application, stamped it, and handed it back to me with the words: ‘But don’t break your neck.’
This was a great achievement. Later on many officers spent months trying to get permission to own a private car, but had to go on being content with the trams.
Quite early on I was warned always to go on foot in Karlshorst, and to look in every direction before crossing a street. In fact, there was more traffic accidents in Karlshorst than in all the rest of Berlin. Normal traffic regulations were modified to quite an extent by the drivers themselves, or rather, by the men at the wheel. Lorries always had priority, because of their tonnage. The logic was unusually simple, and dictated by life itself: the one likely to suffer most damage in a collision should always give way. Not for nothing was Karlshorst called the ’Berlin Kremlin’. The rules of the game were the same.
However, generals’ cars introduced a controversial note into this ’traffic regulation’, and frequently the conflict between tonnage and prestige ended in crushed radiators. Then the glass of smashed headlamps scrunched underfoot at the street crossings, and the more inquisitive studied the nearest trees and fences in an attempt to reconstruct the details of the accident from the torn bark and twisted railings. The safest way of traveling through Karlshorst was in a tank.
The drivers generally, ordinary soldiers most of them were genuinely annoyed at the fact that generals’ cars bore no distinguishing marks. How were they to know who was sitting in the car: some snotty-nosed lieutenant or a high and mighty general? You see, there was an unwritten law, strictly observed, that nobody had the right to overtake a general’s car.
I remember an incident that occurred once when I was driving with General Shabalin from Dresden to Berlin. We were traveling along a narrow country road lined with apple-trees when a speedy little D. K. W. fitted past right under the nose of our weighty Admiral. The officer driving it did not deign even to glance at us. Misha looked interrogatively at Shabalin, sitting beside him. Without turning his head the general curtly ordered: ‘After him and stop him!’
As a rule Misha was not allowed to drive fast because the general suffered from gastric trouble; now he did not need to be told twice. In anticipation of the pleasure that he could experience so seldom he stepped so violently on the gas that the general pulled a face.
Not in the least suspecting the fate that threatened him, the unfortunate driver of the D. K. W. took up the challenge: he stepped on it too. After some minutes spent in furious pursuit the Admiral drew ahead and began to block its rival’s path. To give the maneuver an impressive touch the general stuck his head with his gold-braided cap out of the window, and shook his fist. The effect was terrific: the D. K. W. stopped with a jerk some thirty yards behind us, and remained at a standstill in expectation of the thunders and lightning about to be let loose.
‘Major, go and give that blockhead a good punch in the mug,’ the general ordered me.
I got out to execute the order. A lieutenant was standing beside the D. K. W., fidgeting nervously. In a state of consternation, he tried to make excuses for his behavior. I took a cautious glance back and saw the general watching me from our car, so I let fly a volley of curses at the unlucky officer. But I was astonished to observe that he was far more frightened than the incident justified. So, as I was running a keen eye over his papers, I glanced inside his car. From the depths of it a German girl stared back at me, her eyes filled with tears. That explained the officer’s fright: this might cost him his tabs, for acquaintance with German girls was strictly forbidden. I gave him a searching look. He stood like a lamb awaiting the slaughter. I placed myself with my back to our car and said in a very different tone: ‘Hop it as quick as you can!’
When I returned to our car the general greeted my cheerful face with an irritable look and muttered: ‘Why didn’t you knock out his teeth for him? And you’re a front-fighter!’ To appease his injured dignity I replied: ‘It really wasn’t worth it, General. You’d already given him such a fright that he’d got his breeches full.’
‘You’ve got a long tongue, Major. You’re always finding excuses for getting round my orders,’ he grumbled, and nodded to Misha. ‘Drive on. But not so fast!’
Accustomed as I was to traffic conditions in Karlshorst, and especially after I had repeatedly had to drive on to the sidewalk to avoid a pursuing lorry, I found driving through other parts of Berlin a queer experience. I was out of my element. Even along the main street you drove at a reasonable speed, and you stepped politely on the brake when a huge American truck shoved its nose out of a side street. A truck that size driven by a Russian would never have given way even to the marshal himself. But the stupid American shoved on his pneumatic brakes that groaned like an elephant, and waved his hand from his superior height: ‘Drive on.’ Wasting his gas like that! He didn’t understand the simplest of traffic and other rules: ’If you’re the stronger you have priority’.
The numbers of victims of car accidents rose threateningly. Marshal Zhukov was forced to resort to draconian measures. When a Mercedes in which General Kurassov, the first chief of staff of the S. M. A., was driving was smashed up at a Karlshorst crossing there was a furious development of car inspections. Next day all the street crossings were decorated with red ’prohibited’ signs, traffic lights, German traffic police and motor-patrols from the Soviet Military-Automobile Inspection. It was more confusing to drive through Karlshorst than through a virgin forest.
The problem of guarding the Soviet citizens against the corrupting influence of the capitalist West caused the Soviet authorities in Germany many a headache. Take cars again, as an example. According to Soviet dogma a private car is a bourgeois luxury. As a rule there were to be only service cars, put at the disposal of those whom the State deemed worthy of them because of rank and position. Exceptions were few and of no importance, being made chiefly for propaganda purposes. But the time of vulgar equality and brotherhood was long past. Now we had scientific socialism. He who learned his lesson well had had a service car for a long time already.
But then a struggle set in between the ’capitalist vestiges in the communist consciousness’ and the Soviet dogma. Despite thirty years of ’re-education’, those ’capitalist vestiges’ proved to be extraordinarily tenacious and, when transferred to other conditions, flourished again in all their beauty.
In 1945 every Soviet officer in Germany could buy a car at the price of a month’s pay. In this case the policy of ’control through the ruble’ was ineffective. So the authorities had to resort to other methods. Patrols of the Military-Automobile Inspection, armed to the teeth, combed out all the yards in Karlshorst, and searched the garages and cellars for cars whose possession was not ’licensed’. Documents showing that they had been acquired quite legally made no difference whatever. Anyone could buy a car, but who would drive it was another matter. By such radical methods officers were deprived of cars that they had purchased officially and quite regularly, but for which they had failed to obtain a license. They had to deliver their cars to the State, or have them confiscated. Expropriation as a method of socialist education!
In 1945 any officer holding the rank of major or higher could venture to apply for permission to own a private car. From May 1946 onward only officers of colonel’s or higher rank were allowed to apply, and this practically amounted to a ban on all officers. The Germans could come to Karlshorst in their cars and call on you. But the Soviet officers often had to use streetcars when visiting Germans. ‘I’ve left my bus round the corner’ was the usual formula in such cases.
The golden days of 1945, when the Soviet western frontier was practically non-existent, was now part of the legendary past. The majority of the champions of private property, who had nursed the hope of showing off in their ’private’ cars in their home towns, and of traveling on their own horse-power all the way from Berlin, through Poland, to the Soviet Union, had their secret wish-dreams shattered: on reaching the Soviet frontier they had to leave their cars behind, and to drag their heavy cases to the train. The import tax on a car greatly exceeded its purchase price. It might have cost 5, 000 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of 2, 500 rubles; but the customs authorities fixed the tax according to the purchase price of the corresponding Soviet machine, i. e., between 10, 000 and 12, 000 rubles, and then imposed a tax of 100 to 120 per cent of this hypothetical purchase price. Of course nobody had such a large sum in his pocket.
His fellow travelers in the train consoled the sinner thus being brought back to the Soviet fold: ‘Don’t worry, Vania. It’s better so. It only saves you further trouble. You think it out. Supposing you arrive in Moscow. Before you can dare to register the car you’ve got to have a garage built of brick or stone, and you yourself will have to live in a timber house with accommodation of nine square yards per soul. And you’d never get a license for purchasing petrol, and buying it on the side means either bankruptcy or the clink.’
An obviously highly experienced individual poked his head down from the upper berth of the sleeper, and rubbed balm into the late car-owner’s soul: "You thank your lucky stars you’ve got out of it so easily. There was a demobilized captain in my town-he brought back a wonderful Mercedes with him. And what happened? He’s likely to be a nervous wreck for the rest of his life. He was just an ordinary sort like you or me, not a district Soviet chairman, and not an active worker. And suddenly this quite ordinary sort of individual goes driving around in an elegant automobile. All the local leaders were peeved. And they put their heads together to think up a way of swindling the Mercedes out of him. And then he had had it! Somewhere in the district a cow was run over by a train, and he was summoned before the public prosecutor: ’Why did you kill that cow?’ Somewhere a bridge collapsed with old age; he was called to the court again: ’What did you smash that bridge for?’ Whenever some misfortune happened in the district he was charged with it: ’You did it with your auto!’
‘At last this comedy began to get him down, so he decided to sell his car. But that wasn’t so easy: nobody would buy it. After much worry and trouble he arranged with the head of the local Machine-Tractor Station to exchange the car against a calf and a few sacks of corn from the next harvest. But then the Party Central Committee issued a regulation ’Concerning the Squandering of the Property of Collective Farms and Machine-Tractor Stations’. The head of the Tractor Station was arrested for his past sins, and the captain didn’t dare say a word about the calf and corn he was owed. So you see how that sort of game ends? Of course you’d have been wiser to sell your car and get drunk on the proceeds. But you can’t foresee everything.’
After this story the car-owner felt greatly relieved, and began to think he’d been rather clever to leave it at the frontier. He even started to argue that under socialist conditions the non-existence of a car was an advantage. ‘Yes, you’re right,’ he remarked. ‘It’s only unnecessary trouble. In Germany, if your car goes wrong even on a country road, you’ve only got to whistle and a German jumps out of the nearest bush and puts it right for you. But in Russia you could have a breakdown in the middle of a town and you’d be as badly off as Robinson Crusoe.’
When he arrived home that man felt he had been fortunate in ridding himself of the burden and becoming again a full member of Soviet society.
‘The best thing to do with this tobacco is stuff a mattress with it.’ The captain with a bleached greatcoat and his cap pushed back on his nape flung his half-smoked German ersatz Mixture Six furiously on the ground and contemptuously crushed it into the loose sand. A group of officers was sitting at the foot of the five-yard high obelisk, hurriedly knocked up from strips of veneer and painted all over with red paint, that stood outside the S. M. A. building. The socle of the obelisk was in the shape of a five-pointed star, and was made of red-painted boards, the center being filled with sand. The officers were warming themselves in the slanting rays of the autumn sun. In Germany the sun is genial, and apparently it is accustomed to order. It never forces you to seek shade; it only warms you, pleasantly and affably.
The officers had made themselves comfortable on the veneer star while waiting to be summoned into the staff. The years of life at the front had taught them never to be in any unnecessary hurry, and to shorten the time of waiting with cigarettes and philosophical chats.
‘Thank goodness the war’s over, at any rate,’ said a young artillery lieutenant dreamily. "You didn’t think much in those days: today you were alive, tomorrow you were for the Land Department or the Health Department-who cared? Only when you had a letter from your mother did it occur to you to take care of yourself. So as not to worry the old people.
‘Yesterday I was sitting in the little square opposite the ’Capitol’,’ he went on. ‘There’s a marble woman stands there with a small mound at her feet, and on it is a little stick with a tricoloured flag. I asked some passing Germans: ’What’s all that?’ and they told me a Frenchman was buried there. Just where he fell, poor devil, there they buried him in the middle of the street. A rotten spot; I’d far rather be buried in a field, where there’s grass growing and the wind blowing. But that Frenchman isn’t allowed a moment’s rest. On 7 November our Pioneers had a fireworks display on that very spot in honor of the revolution. They buried six-inch shell cases in the earth and began such a firing that half Berlin was stood on its head. The Germans thought war had broken out again and Karlshorst was being bombed.’
The lieutenant enjoyed talking, and he went on: ‘Yes, you can say what you like. It’s better on top than under the earth. I’m sorry for those who have to lie underneath. They say there used to be a memorial to the Unknown Soldier somewhere in Berlin. Fire burned everlastingly in front of it and in the roof above was a round hole and you could see the blue sky through it. And when you went inside you felt as though you were midway between this world and the next. That’s where the Germans soothed their consciences over those who had fallen in the fields and forests. And any mother who went there could think the fire was burning for her son. They say they’ve got a similar idea in Paris. So they haven’t forgotten the little Frenchman lying opposite the ’Capitol’.’
An older captain, who had been only half listening, was interested in this theme and commented: "There are lots of strange things in this country. You’ll find a memorial to fallen soldiers even in the smallest of villages. And none of your veneer rubbish, but a real memorial; as you look at it you feel you’ve got to take off your cap. Made of granite or unhewn stone, the soldiers’ names carved in it, all overgrown with moss, and a spring with waters gurgling just by it. Great people, these Germans! They even make the dead comfortable.
‘There was a memorial in the little town where I worked in the commandatura,’ he continued. ‘It was in the shape of a large stone ball, probably to represent the earth, with a dying soldier spread out over it, with his face turned to the ball, his arms out-stretched, his hands clawing into the ground as though he were trying to embrace all the world. Our political commissar wanted the commandant to have it blown up, he said it was military propaganda. The commandant looked at him and said: ’Listen, commissar! You devote your attention to the living, and leave the dead in peace. Understand?’’
The lieutenant agreed: ‘Yes, the Germans know how to respect their dead. One day I happened to drive on my motorbike into a cemetery, and I felt ashamed. It was so tidy, it suggested everlasting peace. But in Russia the only time I visited the cemetery was to strip zinc from the coffins. All the graves were opened, and the dead lay arse upward. And there were scoundrels fleecing the dead, because you could get more off the dead than the living, I had to go there to get hold of zinc for accumulators,’ he explained in self-justification.
A third officer, who had a strong pair of spectacles with thick lenses on his nose, and a shock of curly hair on his head, joined in the conversation. You’ll always find someone who must take the opposite side of a question. He smiled: "That’s all bosh! In my hometown of Gorky the dead are cared for as well as anyone. Why, they’ve even made a dance floor.
‘Whom for?’ the lieutenant asked. ‘For everybody, living and dead.’ The others looked at him dubiously and expectantly. He explained: "There was a cemetery in the center of the town. The Town Soviet ordered that it was to be turned into a park. And so it was done, in accordance with all the rules of science and technique. The cemetery was ploughed up and a Park of Culture and Recreation named after Sverdlov was made of the site, with a dance-floor and other amusements. And the whole town called the park ’The Club of the Living and the Dead.’ The daughters dance a fox-trot on their fathers’ bones. But the old women cross themselves as they go by: ‘0, Jesu! Jesu!’’
‘A similar sort of thing happened in Rostov, where I come from,’ said the lieutenant. ‘They built a new theater there, the Maxim Gorky. The plans provided for the front of the building to be faced with white marble. They looked around to see where they could get the marble from, and decided to put a tax on the dead. All over the district of Rostov they took down the white marble monuments and lined the theater front with marble plates.’
‘Yes, it’s a fine theater, but its acoustics are rotten. I was in it once,’ said the officer with the shock of hair.
‘When it was finished everybody concerned with the building of it was arrested,’ the lieutenant explained. ‘It was an extraordinary thing, but you could hear better in the gallery than in the front row of the stalls. Of course they blamed the builders: sabotage. But the people whispered among themselves that it was the dead playing a trick.’
The captain spat into the sand. The lieutenant thrust his next lot of Mixture Six into the sand, rose, stretched himself luxuriously, and tidied his tunic. The officers, thoughtfully, did not throw their cigarette ends and litter on the green grass, but thrust them into the sand of the star socle.
They would have been not a little shocked if the earth had opened in front of them and the indignant spirit of their former supreme commander, the hero of the drive into Berlin and the city’s first Soviet commandant, Guards’ Colonel-General Bersarin, had risen from his grave beneath the littered sand and the peeling veneer. Neither the Soviet officers, nor the German workers who hung hopelessly around the staff headquarters, suspected that the nameless red construction which disfigured the yard, offending the eye with its lack of taste, was a memorial raised over a grave, that it was intended to honor the memory of the Soviet hero who played a part only second to Marshal Zhukov in the battle for Berlin.
There was an absurd turn of Fate for you! To go unscathed right through the war on the most dangerous sections of the front and at the head of an army breaking through all resistance, to survive to see the victorious end, to enter the conquered metropolis as a conqueror crowned with fame, and then literally the next day to be the victim of a stupid traffic accident!
General Bersarin had the habit of going for a motorcycle ride every morning. In a sports shirt with short sleeves, coatless and hatless, he drove a powerful German motorcycle out of a side street into the main Treptow-Allee, which runs to Karlshorst. A heavily loaded column of military Studebakers was driving along the Treptow-Allee at full speed. No one ever knew whether the general was affected by that sporting daring which possesses most motor-cyclists, or whether it was just an accident. In any case, he tried to dash between two of the speeding lorries. The driver who went over him swore at first at the fool who had torn right under his wheels; then, when he saw the general’s insignia, he drew his pistol and shot himself. It is not known where the driver is buried, but probably he is resting more peacefully than General Bersarin.
During the early days after the victory we were reminded at every step of those who had won that victory. Once Major Dubov and I were taking a walk through side streets not far from the Kurfurstendam in the British sector. It was Sunday; the streets were deserted. We just felt like wandering around and plunging for a few moments into the real Germany as we had imagined it before the war: quiet, clean, and orderly.
The broad streets were lined with trees. Like archaeologists, we attempted to discover and reconstruct the pre-war Berlin in the ruins all about us. Not the ’dens of the fascist monsters’, as it had been presented to us and thought of by us during the past few years. We wanted to see the city and the people who for many of us were a genuine symbol of culture before they began to be dominated by megalomania.
We came to a little shady island at the intersection of three streets. Under the spreading boughs of chestnut trees two mounds had found shelter in a fraternal community in the middle of this chaotic ocean of the enormous city. Struck by the uncommon sight, we went closer. At the heads were two plaited crosses of birch bark. On one of them was a German steel helmet, on the other a Soviet helmet. A Soviet helmet! All around the unbridled passions of the world were raging; but here.... The living should follow the example of the dead.
Apparently, when the street-fighting ended the people of the neighboring houses found the two bodies at the corner and buried them as best they could, in the shade of the chestnut trees. Respect for the dead was stronger than earthly hate.
Suddenly I noticed something which caused an inexplicable, almost painful feeling to rise in my breast. The major had noticed it too. Fresh flowers! On both mounds lay fresh flowers, put there by a kindly hand. As though at a word of command we took off our caps, then we exchanged glances. The major’s eyes went moist, heavy puckers gathered round his mouth. He took out his handker-chief and wiped his brow, which was suddenly damp with sweat.
‘Our first thought was to raze all the German cemeteries to the ground,’ he said in a thick voice, ‘Damn this war and whoever invented it!’ he added quietly, after a moment.
An old woman walking with a child not far from us stopped to stare inquisitively at the Russian officers, rare visitors to this part of the city.
‘Who put those flowers on the graves?’ The major turned to her. His voice was sharp and cold, as though he were giving a battle order.
She pointed to a house; we went up its half-ruined steps. The elderly German woman who opened the door to us started back in alarm when she saw the crimson bands on our caps. A twilit corridor, a neglected home, with none of the usual comfort to be seen, and obviously lacking several of its former inhabitants.
The major waved his hand to reassure her. ‘We saw the flowers on the graves. Did you put them there?’
The woman had not recovered from her fright and she had no idea what the question was leading up to. She answered irresolutely: ‘Yes... I thought....’ She nervously gripped her hands together under her apron.
The major took out his letter-case and laid all the money it contained-several thousand marks-on the table without counting it.
‘Go on laying flowers there,’ he said. Then he added: ‘On both graves.’
He spread a sheet of notepaper with the Soviet crest and the S. M. A. address on the table and wrote: ’In the name of the Red Army I order all soldiers and officers to give Frau... every help and support.’ He signed it and gave it to the astonished woman. ‘If you have anything to do with Russians, this paper will help you,’ he said. Then he looked round the empty room and asked, as though he had just thought of something else: ‘Tell me, have you a husband or a son?’
‘My husband and one son fell at the front. My second son is a prisoner of war,’ she answered.
‘Where?’ he asked curtly.
She hesitated a moment, then whispered: ‘In Russia.’
He looked at the standard prisoner-of-war postcard, which she held out to him, and noted down the name and the field-post number of the prisoner-of-war camp.
‘I shall write to the camp commandant and the higher authorities. I’ll intercede for his earlier release,’ he turned and said to me.
I had come to know Major Dubov while still at the front. He had been head of the Reconnaissance Department of the divisional staff, and he had had to screen the prisoners. If he saw the S. S. death’s head emblem on a prisoner’s cap, he knew that the man had dozens of men’s lives on his conscience, and did not hesitate to send him as one of a special group to the rear, though he knew their lives would end beyond the next turn in the road.
In the street, pigeons were strutting about the pavement; they politely made way for us, like equals with equals. The full September sun streamed down on the lindens and chestnuts of Berlin, the leaves rustled quietly. Life went on. Life is stronger than death. And life is particularly good when there is no hate in the heart, when a man feels minded to do some good to other men, whether living or dead.
During the first few months of my work in Karlshorst I was not greatly interested in the surrounding world. I had to work hard, and left Karlshorst only on duty. I forgot the very existence of the calendar on my desk, and when I did remember it I turned over a whole week at a time.
One Sunday I awoke at the sound of the alarm clock and sprang out of bed as usual. The flowers and trees of the garden were brilliant through the wide-open window, purple plums showed ripely between green leaves. The morning sun streamed down, playing merrily on the walls of my bedroom. The quiet, inviolable peace of the Sunday morning filled my entire small house. The clang of the neighboring church bell rolled through the air. The clear morning air poured into my room, and cooled my hot skin and refreshed my body. I felt like doing something. I wandered aimlessly from room to room. Today I had got entirely to myself. What should I do with it?
Suddenly I was overcome by a strange feeling: where was I in such a hurry to get to? A man goes on treading the treadmill all his life without stopping to think about it. But if he does stop to think, then he wonders why one is always in a hurry. Most men only recognize that when it is too late.
Recently I had got hold of a German propaganda pamphlet, ’In God’s own Country’, in which they poked fun at America and the Americans. They were particularly sarcastic about the rate at which the Americans lived, and their everlasting pursuit of the dollar, of success. ’Your luck’s just round the corner.’ The American tore at full pelt to the corner in the hope of finding his luck. But he found only a vacuum. On the other hand, there were plenty of other corners. And so on all through life.
On this count I’m with the Germans. But how can one learn the art of enjoying life?
I took a cigarette from my bronze casket, lay down on my couch and stared at the ceiling. There wasn’t a single fly on that ceiling. What a queer country! You never saw any flies.
I got up and fidgeted with the electric coffeepot, then went out on to the balcony, stretched myself in a deck chair and lit another cigarette. But after a few minutes I was seized with a deadly bore-dom. In the end I seated myself at my desk and prepared to write letters. I thought with longing of Moscow, and imagined what the people there were doing at that particular moment.
Just then I heard noisy footsteps in the next room, behind my back. Without turning round I called: ‘Who’s there?’
‘Ha-ha-ha!’ There was a roar of laughter behind me. ‘Just look at the way they live here!’
I turned round. Mikhail Belyavsky was standing at the double doors, and Valia Grinchuk’s fair head appeared over his shoulder. They were both roaring with laughter at the sight of me: I was sitting in nothing but a pair of trunks, with shoes on my sockless feet.
I hurried to my bedroom, returning fully dressed a minute or two later. ‘How did you get here, Misha?’ I asked, still astonished at this unexpected visit.
‘We arrived yesterday. A whole group of us from the college. We’ve been sent here to help you out.’
‘How are things in Moscow, and what’s the latest news?’ I asked.
‘What news would you expect? Now Germany is all the rage. Everybody in the college dreams of being sent to Germany to work.’ He looked about the room. ‘Yes, you can live here! You’ve already got used to it, so you no longer notice the difference.’
‘Do tell me something about Moscow,’ I pleaded.
‘Oh, you read the papers!’ he replied evasively. ‘I’m glad I’ve got away from it. I’d rather you told us how things are here.’
‘You’ll soon see for yourselves. How would you like to go in to Berlin today? We’ll plunge into the thick of its life.’
‘That’s just what Valia and I were wanting to do. That’s why we came to haul you out of it.’
‘Well, then, let’s go!’ I exclaimed.
We left Karlshorst just before midday and took the streetcar for the city center.
The Reichstag. At one time we Russians regarded this massive building rising against the background of the Brandenburg Gate as the symbol of Hitler’s Reich. ’To the German people’ was inscribed in gold letters above the entrance to this enormous gray mass. Today those words could only seem like a malicious sneer to the Germans. The windows were walled up with bricks, with loopholes in between; the smoky traces of fire played over the walls. Inside, great heaps of scorched brick, puddles of stinking green water; the blue sky showed through the shattered dome. The wind blew about scraps of paper with black eagles printed on them. Half-used machine-gun belts, cartridge cases; gas masks.
On the walls, innumerable inscriptions: ’Ivan Sidorchuk, of Kuchevka; 14. 5. 1945.’ ’Simon Vaillant, Paris; 5. 7. 1945.’ ’John D. Willis, Chicago; 23. 7. 1945.’ Frequently one could not think how the writer had reached the inaccessible point on which he had written his name in order to leave his everlasting mark in history. The inscriptions were written with coal, ash, pencil, and chalk. One inscription, scratched with a bayonet point by one of the Reichstag defenders, read like the last cry of a drowning man: ’Heil Hitler!’ On the opposite wall, carefully painted with oil paint, were the words: ’Here did Sergeant Kostya of Odessa shit.’
Truly, the atmosphere of the place reminded one of certain well-known lines in Heine’s poem: ’Germany’. Evidently the Reichstag was being used by quite a number of people as a public lavatory these days. Certainly an instructive historical memorial!
Between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, among the ruins of past glories, a new life was seething. Here was the inter-national black market. Looking about them anxiously, surreptitiously, Germans were selling umbrellas, shoes, and old clothes. The Russians were interested mainly in watches, and offered cigarettes, bread, and occupation notes in exchange. An American jeep pulled up not far from us. Without getting out, the negro soldiers in it began a lively trade: in chocolates, cigarettes soap. They emptied their packs, laughing all over their faces, and looked about them. One of them noticed us, and whispered something to his companion. Then he turned to us with a lively gesture, apparently inviting me to buy something. ‘What?’ I asked.
He took an enormous army Colt from under his seat and raised two fingers: two thousand. I shook my head. So he pointed to the pistol hanging at my belt and asked the price. To the Allies’ obvious surprise I explained that it was not for sale.
‘What are you selling, then?’ the negro asked in businesslike tones.
‘Nothing,’ I replied.
‘Then what are you buying? Would you like a jeep?’ He slapped his hand on the seat of his car. I only laughed.
A Soviet military patrol came along: two soldiers with red armbands, carrying automatics. Not far away a feeble old man was selling newspapers. He had enormous shoes on his feet, and he had difficulty in moving, either because he was weak or because of those awkward shoes. As the patrol approached him he held out his hand to beg, and smacked his shriveled lips: ‘Comrade, papyros’ (cigarette). One of the soldiers, who evidently thought he was beginning to be a nuisance, took the old man deliberately by the collar and pushed him aside. But he had overestimated the man’s powers of resistance. The beggar went sprawling like a sack into the road, leaving his enormous shoes behind him, while his newspapers scattered fanwise on the stones.
Before Belyavsky could open his mouth to reprimand the soldier the man again seized the old fellow by the collar and hauled him up, to set him on his feet. He was rough, but there was no malice in his manner; rather was it a mixture of disgust and chagrin. He had not expected his push to have such an effect. The old man hung in his arms like a sack, lacking the strength to keep his feet.
‘Let him be! Come along!’ the second patrol said.
‘Wait! You bloody Fritz!’ the man scolded roughly, to cover his own embarrassment. ‘You, Fritz, hungry?’ The old man had sunk to the pavement again, and the patrol nudged him with his foot. But the beggar made no answer. ‘He’ll die anyway,’ the soldier grumbled, and looked around as though seeking something.
A Russian girl in sergeant’s uniform happened to come along, carrying a satchel. It contained several dozen packets of cigarettes wrapped in cloth. Under her arm was a loaf of bread, also destined for exchange.
The patrol reached for the loaf, snarling: ‘Don’t you know it’s forbidden to trade here?’
The girl vanished in terror into the crowd, leaving the loaf in the soldier’s hand. He turned back to the old man, who was still sitting on the sidewalk. People standing round had gathered up his papers and put them in a pile beside him.
‘Here, Fritz!’ The soldier held out the loaf to him. But the man only blinked, as though blind. The patrol swore at him again, stuck the loaf in the newspaper bag, which was tied to the old fellow’s waist, and went off.
We were amazed at the crowds of old men and women in the streetcars and on the streets. They were neatly dressed, the passers-by treated them with respect, gave up their seats to them in the cars, helped them across the road.
‘Ah, those godly women!’ Belyavsky sighed as he noticed two old women in neat black dresses with white collars get out of a streetcar. ‘In Russia they’ve given up all their souls to God long since. By way of natural selection.’
What we were seeing was not any novelty to us. We knew a man should show respect for the aged. Not only did we know it, but we ourselves felt the need to behave like that. And yet we could not but admit that we had grown rough, we had forgotten how to be courteous and obliging in our relations with others. Existence forms the consciousness, so dialectical materialism proclaims. Soviet existence has changed old people into a burden and has made the corresponding dialectical adjustments in our consciousness.
Later, as we came to know conditions in Germany more intimately, we realized that though the German social insurance seemed so small, it always assured a living minimum in the form of pensions and pay, it enabled the old people to live out their days in human conditions. In the Soviet Union old-age pensions are a completely fictitious concept. In practice a man can live only if he works, or if his children support him. And who can expect support from his children when they themselves have nothing?
We saw many convalescent Soviet soldiers from Berlin hospitals roving around. Many of them were engaged in speculative activities, some of them did not stop at robbery in broad daylight. One man snatched something and fled into the ruins, while his companions used their crutches and sticks to cover his retreat. The war-wounded were embittered and rancorous, many of them were tipsy and ready for a fight. The Germans feared them like the plague, and even Russians kept out of their way if possible.
What I have just said about old-age pensions in Russia is also true of war pensions. They are too much for death, too little for life. And yet in return we must show our gratitude. ’Our happiness is so boundless that one cannot describe it’, as one of our songs puts it. In conquered Germany the war-wounded of a lost war get higher pensions than those of the victor country. Paradoxical, but true.
There are many children to be seen in the streets of Berlin. Even in the first world war, but still more in the second, the Germans attached great importance to the birth statistics. Ludendorff and Hitler did all they could to avoid any fall in the birth-rate during the wars, and that, and not humanity, is the main reason why the German soldiers were given regular home leave. The results strike the eye.
The sight seemed strange to us, for during the war years infants were an uncommon occurrence in the Soviet Union. The Red Army men never had leave during the war. In due course the Soviet leaders will be faced with a serious problem, for in the years 1941 to 1945 the birth statistics dropped almost to zero. That will have its effect when those years are called up for military service.
Berlin lay in ruins. But out of the ruins new life was reaching up to the light. That new life is particularly striking when seen against that background of dead ruins. Man’s will to live is stronger than the forces of destruction. We were astonished by the numerous florists’ shops in the dead streets. The burnt-out carcass of a building rises to the sky, surrounded by a dead sea of ruin. And in the midst of this joyless world, the brilliant colors of innocent flowers smile at us from the ground-floor windows.
We returned to Karlshorst late in the evening; we were tired and dusty. During the following days I frequently met Belyavsky and Valia. He had been appointed to a post in the Air Force Directorate of the Control Commission, while she worked in the private office of Marshal Zhukov, the commander-in chief of the S. M. A. They were both very glad they had been able to remain in the capital and had not been posted to the provinces.
In Moscow I had known Valia only as a fellow student. But here, far from one’s intimate circle of friends, she suddenly became dear and precious to me as a part of that for which I was yearning, as a part of Moscow and all it signified. In Valia I found an unusual quality which made me value her friendship highly: she was a true child of nature, untouched by the filth of life. She said what she thought, and she acted on what she said.
A Sunday or two later Belyavsky and Valia again called on me. As I looked at him I was not a little astonished. I saw a very elegant young man in irreproachable light coffee-colored civilian dress. A dazzling tie and a brilliant felt hat completed the transformation. Hitherto I had seen him only in uniform.
‘What are you all togged up for?’ I whistled and examined him from all sides.
‘I want to go to the Opera, but Valia doesn’t. So I’ve decided to entrust her to your care.’
‘Really, Misha, the more I get to know you the more convinced I am that you’re a fine fellow! You’ve brought Valia along to me and now you’re going to vanish. Have you ever known such a disinterested friend, Valia?’
I tried to persuade him to drive with us through the city, but he was as immovable as a rock. ‘My legs are still aching after last Sunday,’ he declared.
The day was unusually sunny and warm. We put Belyavsky down in Friedrichstrasse and decided to go for a drive out of the city. To right and left of us historical relics of the past went by like museum pieces: Unter den Linden, a great name, now lined with ruins, and not a trace of green. The trees of the Tiergarten, shattered with shells and bombs, littered with the wrecked and rusting carcasses of aeroplanes. The Siegessaule, with the faded gold of its angel, the symbol of the victories and glories of 1871. Before us stretched the broad and straight East-West Axis.
Berlin had its own aspect. The aspect of the capital of the Reich. The stones of Berlin are trodden with history. Germany gave the world dozens of men whose names are precious to every civilized being. The street nameplates testify to that: Mozartstrasse, Humboldtstrasse, Kantstrasse.
Before us rose the Grunewald. Valia looked about her, then she leaned her head against the leather back of the seat and looked up into the sky, which hung over us like a blue dome, and remarked: ‘D’you know what, Grisha?’ “Yes?”
‘Somehow the sun shines differently here....’ “How d’you mean?”
‘I can’t explain it myself. I feel strangely different here. Tell me, don’t you feel it?’
‘It’s the feeling of the conqueror, Valia. That’s why the sun seems different too.’
‘It’s beautiful here,’ she said dreamily. ‘I have such a longing for a peaceful life. I often feel I could throw off this uniform and simply live for the sake of living....’ “What’s preventing you?”
‘I sometimes feel sorry I’m in uniform. It had to be during the war; but now... I want to be free.... How can I explain it to you?’
‘Explain it to someone else!’ I smiled. ‘And let me give you some good advice: don’t forget that here is the S. M. A. That forest is darker and more dangerous than your partisan forests. Otherwise you’ll feed the gray wolves yet. Get that?’
She looked at me fixedly, was silent for a while, then said in a quiet, earnest tone:
‘You see, Grisha, often I feel so lonely; I’ve got nobody I can talk to. I love everything that’s good, and there’s so little of it in our world.’
Before us the gray arrow of the river Avus cut through the autumn glory of the Grunewald. I took my foot off the accelerator, the car rolled slowly to a halt. The golden autumn extended all around us in a sluggish languor. The distance danced hazily in the sunlight, it slowly came to meet us.
‘Tell me, what are you thinking of?’ she whispered.
‘I’m thinking which way to take, left or right. The Wannsee must be somewhere around here.’
The Wannsee is one of the largest lakes in the vicinity of Berlin. Its banks are lined with fine, large villas, the former residences of the wealthiest inhabitants of the capital. And here, too, was the largest and most modern of Berlin’s bathing beaches.
We drove round the lake. It was quiet, almost deserted. The stones of the road were all but hidden under a thickly strewn carpet of leaves. To right and left fences overgrown with green, gates standing wide open, empty villas abandoned by their owners. Some had fled to the West before the Red Army’s advance; others had been transferred to other dwellings in the neighborhood, former wooden barracks for foreign workers. I turned the car in through the open gate of a particularly fine villa. Antlers that once had adorned the master’s room lay on the graveled drive; on the steps of the main entrance the wind was turning over papers bleached with rain.
Below, by the waterside, was a small platform paved with square tiles, bridges from which to fish, and moorings for boats. Close by was the rusting shell of a boathouse.
We got out and wandered through the garden. High above us century-old trees were murmuring. In between were trenches with caving walls, entangled rolls of barbed wire, cartridge cases. Higher up was a villa with a red-tiled roof, and draped with the colorful autumn attire of a wild vine.
‘Let’s have a look at the house,’ I suggested.
The wind was blowing through the rooms. The boards creaked underfoot. Gas masks, remnants of furniture, cans of conserves were littered about. Upstairs we found the former master’s study. Faded heaps of photographs were lying on the floor, among them the features of bewhiskered men in high, stiff collars. These people could never have suspected that some day Russian officers’ boots would tread on their portraits.
‘Let’s get out, Grisha!’ Valia tugged at my arm. ‘It isn’t good to walk in a strange house.’
After the twilight indoors the sun streaming on to the balcony dazzled more than usual. Below us extended the lightly crinkled surface of the great lake. Stirred by a gentle breeze, the reeds swayed and nodded down to the water. The wind sighed through the crowns of the trees. A dead picture of the collapse of human hopes behind us, and everlasting, inextinguishable life at our feet.
Valia and I stood silent on the balcony. After the stony chaos of Berlin the peace and stillness of the Grunewald made a deep impression on her. Her face was overcast, as though she had a headache. Her breast rose and fell spasmodically, as though she lacked air..
‘Tell me, Grisha, what is happiness?’ she asked without turning to me.
‘Happiness? Happiness is man’s ability to be content with what he has.’
‘But when he has nothing at all?’
She turned her face to me. Her eyes were serious, they looked at me searchingly, and they demanded an answer. A furrow clove her forehead between her eyebrows.
I was silent; I didn’t know what to answer
A man who is released after a long spell of prison cannot get used to freedom at first; he has a fear of space. There is even a special term for this: aerophobia. We, too, had that same sort of feeling during the early days of our stay in occupied Germany.
In 1945 we had unrestricted freedom, we could openly visit the sectors held by our Western Allies. Twelve months later we had only the memory of those days. But meanwhile all the allied soldiers’ and officers’ clubs in the western sectors were open to us; we were always treated as welcome guests. To our shame it must be admitted that the guests often behaved in such a way that the hosts were forced to be more prudent.
The following story was often told in Karlshorst. One day, a Soviet soldier traveling through Berlin got lost, and wandered by mistake into an American barracks. The Americans were delighted at this rare visit and made the mortally terrified Ivan welcome, relieving him of his pack. What else can a Soviet soldier have in his pack but a loaf of black bread and a couple of leg-rags? So the Americans made Ivan sit down at the table, and gave him such a quantity of good things to eat and drink, as he could never even have dreamed about, and persuaded him to spend the night in the barracks. Some versions add that they even provided him with a sleeping partner. Next morning they stuffed his pack full with all kinds of overseas delicacies and saw him to the barrack gates.
Many of the narrators say that he applied to be taken into the American army. They all swear by God and all the saints that they personally met this Ivan right outside the gate of the American barracks.
We were all struck by the fact that the Allies were far better equipped than the Soviet soldiers, and enjoyed much more personal freedom. Our officers who worked in the Control Commission used to remark with a smile that the American soldiers smoked the same cigarettes as their generals. In the Red Army, soldiers, non-commissioned officers, officers and generals are allotted various kinds of tobacco or cigarettes according to their rank. This is in token of their general equality and brotherhood.
At first we lived as though on a forgotten island. As we were all ’living abroad’, we were not subject to any form of Soviet taxation, not once were we bothered with the voluntary state loans that one cannot avoid subscribing to in the Soviet Union. And-something that was completely incomprehensible-we were even freed from political instruction and study of the great and wise book which feeds up every Soviet human being, the Short Course of History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks).
Stalin committed the greatest of errors when he allowed Soviet citizens to see Europe, and on the other hand showed Europe Soviet conditions. The Soviet personnel began to take a much more critical view of what was going on behind them in the Soviet Union. And as the West came to recognize the true features of Stalinist Communism, it lost a large part of its illusions and was cured of certain rosy intentions.
The first few months of the occupation were of great significance. In the midst of the chaos of shattered Germany, in the midst of ruined Berlin, in the life of the people who yesterday had been our enemies, we saw things that at first only amazed us. But then we gradually began to understand them aright and our views of things were modified in accordance.
We had to overcome the enmity we felt for everything connected with the name of Germany. We had to seek new standards of measurement. But meanwhile, out of the dust and rubble left from the long years of the Hitler regime, the total war and the unconditional capitulation, we were able to reconstruct the normal life of the Germans, and of Europe generally, only with difficulty.
The Soviet personnel were amazed at the astonishingly high living standards of the average western man. The words uttered by a Soviet soldier when he saw the home of a European worker: ‘Are you a capitalist?’, became proverbial among us. During the years of the occupation the Soviet soldier began to give these words an inverse application to his own life. Every Soviet citizen who has seen Europe is lost to the Soviet regime. He continues, like a wound-up piece of clockwork, to perform his functions, but the poison of his recognition of the truth has not left him unscathed.
As the years pass the impressions of those early days will be erased. Everything will seem more ordinary, the contradictions will lose their sharpness, and men will grow accustomed to them. Others will replace the front-line soldiers and officers who formed the backbone of the occupation forces. And when they return to their homeland it will be difficult for them to share their impressions of Germany with others. Who wants ten years for ’anti-Soviet agitation’?
Our first meeting with our conquered enemy opened our eyes to many things; we began to recognize our place in the world. We felt our strength and our weakness. In the light of subsequent experiences the impressions of the first post-war months are seen as a distinct phase in the life of the Soviet occupation troops. It was a kind of transient period of post-war democracy. Nobody else in the Soviet Union was as conscious of the victory as we, the men of the occupation forces. We looked victory in the face; we sunned our-selves in its light.
Simultaneously the victory and our encounter with the West aroused old doubts and engendered new ones. In their turn these doubts strengthened our desire, our longing and hope for something different, for something that differed from what we had known before the war. In the rays of victory we lived in hope of a better future.
That short period of post-war democracy allowed us to have this hope. That can be understood only in retrospect.