The Song of the Victor
The music flowed in caressing waves through the twilit hall, under the great crystal chandeliers, between the lofty marble columns. The air was heavy with the warmth of human bodies, the titillating scent of subtle perfume, all the characteristic respiration of the life of a great city. I thrust my fingers behind my belt and looked about me eagerly.
I could hardly believe that only yesterday I had felt the Berlin sidewalks still shaking with explosions, that around me men in field-gray coats had been falling, never to rise again. I had the feeling that my uniform was still impregnated with the pungent stench of the Reich capital, the smell of burning, of powdered mortar and rubble, of gunpowder.
From the platform came the familiar words of soldiers’ song- simple, moving, and intimate. Where had I heard that song last? Of course, it had been a favorite of the tank-driver, Sergeant Petrenko. A young, dashing fellow, he often sang it to the sounds of an accordion he had knocked off. He was a great lad, was Petrenko. He didn’t quite get to Berlin: he was burned alive in his tank somewhere among the sand dunes of Brandenburg.
Lieutenant Belyavsky was sitting next to me. We had met in the college, and he had mentioned that he had tickets for a concert to be given by artists, every one of them decorated with the order: Meritorious Artist of the Soviet Union. “Come along with me,” he said. “You need a little cheering up.”
He slapped me on my back. And that was how, the day after my return to Moscow, I found myself sitting in the Pillared Hall of the House of the Trade Unions. During an interval we went to the foyer. For two months I had been in the most exposed section of the front-reason enough for watching Moscow life with hungry eyes. Even after a brief absence one notices many things which the regular inhabitants don’t see at all.
The great majority of this audience consisted of officers working in the defense ministry or members of the Moscow garrison, students at military colleges, and front-line officers in Moscow for short leave and seizing the opportunity to attend a concert again. Practically all the male members of the audience were wearing military uniforms; any man in civilian dress was regarded either as a hopeless cripple or as a doubtful sort of individual. There were many war-wounded, also in uniform, but without shoulder-tabs. And a large number of the audience, civilians included, were wearing orders or ribbons.
The authority of the military profession grew enormously during the war. Before 1939 officers were shown little consideration, they were regarded as drones and parasites. But in the war years the officer corps was enlarged by a mass of reserve officers. The army became an inseparable part of every family; people began to regard military service as a necessary and honorable obligation. The external and internal reforms in the army and all over the country forced everybody to revise their ideas of the military class.
The front-line officer was of all men the most respected. Before the war the civilians had looked down with some condescension on the military, but now the situation was diametrically opposite. The men in dark blue worsted civvies were inferior beings. The majority of them looked pale and worried; the feverish strain of unremitting labor had left its mark on them. The women, too, had the same gray look of chronic under-nourishment, everyday anxieties and need, in their faces and clothes. Their features were indifferent, pasty, and weary. Even the youngsters had lost the unconstrained, invincible, carefree air of pre-war days. The general war-weariness was much more perceptible at home than at the front.
The so-called ’Narcomatics’, the higher officials of the People’s Commissariats were in a class by themselves; they were well dressed, well fed, and repellently self-satisfied. One could recognize them at once in the street by their light-brown leather coats, which they had all started wearing as one man on one day. The Americans had sent these leather jackets over in 1943 as part of lend-Iease deliveries, together with hundreds of thousands of brand-new lorries. The jackets had been intended as service clothing for the drivers of the lorries.
The lorries were sent to the front, but the leather jackets remained in Moscow as official equipment for the higher functionaries of the commissariats. They were a quite unnecessary luxury for the men at the front, and ever since the early days of the revolution Soviet functionaries have had a childish weakness for any kind of leather garment. In Moscow it was rumored that the Americans were greatly astonished to find high Soviet officials decked out in chauffeurs’ uniforms. Perhaps they thought it indicated the proletarian modesty of the Soviet bosses.
After Belyavsky and I had wandered about aimlessly for some time among the brilliant orders and pale, hungry faces in the foyer, we came to the glass showcase of the buffet. Behind the glass were marvelous delicacies, the sort of thing one found in Moscow only in the best of the pre-war years. But the prices! It was painful to see men gathering round the case as though it were a museum-piece, then turning away with hungry looks and empty hands.
“I’m glad we haven’t any ladies with us,” Belyavsky remarked with stoic calm. “Why the devil do they put such things on show? I’d rather not have my imagination stimulated like that!”
The second part of the concert consisted of a performance by the State jazz orchestra, directed by the ’Meritorious Artist of the R. S. F. S. R.’, Leonid Utiessov. Utiessov was the most popular jazz-band leader in the Soviet Union: he was assigned the ticklish task of adapting western European jazz music to the frequently changing demands of the ’social command’. His repertoire consisted of foxtrots on the motifs of Stakhanovite songs, and blaring, anti-imperialistic marches. But now, with the help of trombones and saxophones, he was celebrating the demise of fascist Germany.
Utiessov, a tubby man, showed off quite unconcernedly on the platform. He was wearing the artist’s traditional uniform: evening dress complete with boiled shirt. In his buttonhole he had the Order of the Red Banner ribbon. He waved his arms in a fever of patriotic exaltation, squeezing the last drops of the ’Waves of Leningrad’ out of the perspiring band.
Utiessov had achieved a great public success with his ’confidential talks’ from the platform. “My father lives in luxury. I myself earn twenty thousand rubles.... My daughter brings home a little more, some five thousand.... And, of course, her husband -he’s an engineer - he helps a little too.... He contributes a full six hundred rubles a month.” This talk received wild applause, but of course he had to withdraw it quite quickly. Rumor has it that in the end he was snapped up by the Narcomvnudel.
Suddenly silence fell. The orchestra came to an unexpected stop, there were excited whispers, a feeling of uneasiness spread through the audience. From the back of the hall spotlights were switched on, focusing into a ring of light on the platform. Utiessov stood in the spotlight, a sheet of paper in his hand, a strand of hair hanging over his sweating face.
“Comrades... friends!” he shouted.
The entire hall held its breath expectantly. Speaking slowly, brokenly, he cried to the silent, excited audience:
“An order of the day... of the... Supreme Command.... This day, 2 May 1945, the troops of the First Ukrainian Army and the troops...”
His voice billowed from the platform, but I did not see where it was coming from. It beat in my own breast, it rose in my own throat, it might have been my own voice. So this was victory! In very truth, in the rumbling, stony gorges of the Berlin streets, in the turret of a staff tank, in the everyday existence of a soldier, all the pathos of struggle and victory was much more simple and plain than it was here, in this Pillared Hall of Moscow. There it was only the accomplishment of a military task. Here it was the climax of years of straining expectation, a moment of boundless joy and unrestrained pride.
The people of the home front were sick with a chronic psychosis. They were filled with an unshakable conviction that the day of victory, the day marking the end of the war, would be like a fairy story, would not only bring deliverance from all the fevered night-mares of wartime, but would bring something bigger and better than had existed before the war. This mass psychosis which marked the final phase of the war was visible in the eyes of every man and every woman. Clenching their teeth, they advanced to the victory like a runner making his final spurt: a last dash to breast the tape and then drop exhausted. Then all would be well. Then there would be a pleas-ant rest, the well-earned reward for all the arduous labor, the sweat and the blood.
I closed my eyes so as not to see the man on the platform. The voice swelled in the silence grew even stronger, rose in a triumphant shout: “Today, after bitter and bloody struggles, our troops have conquered the heart of Hitler-Germany, the city of Berlin.”
The entire hall rose as one man. The thunder of the applause shook the marble columns. These walls had surely never heard anything like it before. We clapped till our hands smarted, and we looked one another in the eyes. During the ordinary applause of official ceremonies Soviet people avoid one another’s eyes. But today we had nothing to be ashamed of; today we could give free rein to our true feelings.
I looked around. This was no highly organized ovation in honor of the Party and government leaders, when each participant would watch out of the corner of his eye to see whether his neighbor was clapping hard enough, and secretly waited for the chairman of the Presidium, the conductor of this show, to stop clapping, thus officially bringing the ovation to an end. This was a genuinely spontaneous demonstration. For the first time in my life I did not feel ashamed of clapping; I was taking part in an honest and passion-ate expression of feeling. The Russian people were thanking the Russian soldiers for fighting so hard and well, for shedding their blood.
From a long distance the words reached my ears: “To celebrate the victory over Berlin I order, today, 2 May 1945, at 22 hours Moscow time, a salute of twenty guns from two hundred and twenty cannon, in the city of Moscow, and in the heroic cities of Stalingrad, Lenin-grad, and Odessa.”
We left the hall and went out into Sverdlov Square. The crimson of the sunset had not yet faded on the horizon. The sky was bright over the victorious city sunk in the dusk. The house roofs emerged in marvelous silhouettes against the darkening azure. The May evenings in Moscow are wonderful at any time. But in the light of victory salutes, under the nimbus of military glory, they are fabulous.
Somewhere far to the west another city, a vanquished city, was lying in total darkness; its inhabitants had no feeling of joy that day. The ruins that once had been habitations were still smoking; bodies were still lying in the street, the bodies of men who yesterday had had no thought of death. The survivors huddled trembling in their locked rooms, without light or heat, starting fearfully at every sound outside the door. For them the future was heavy with the chill of the grave. Yet they hardly even thought of the future. They were still unable to measure all the depth of the abyss into which human arrogance had plunged them.
The fire of the last salute died away. In the ensuing stillness the closing words of the order of the day rang in my ears: “Glory and honor to the heroes who have fallen in the struggle for the freedom and independence of our native land.”
’May the blood you have shed not have flowed in vain,’ I mentally added.
Everybody in Moscow knows the monument to Minin and Pozharsky. The bronze figures of these Russian patriots have stood on the Red Square, close to the Kremlin wall, for many years. (Two heroes of the ’Troubles Times’ at the beginning of the seventeenth century, who organized and led the force that freed Moscow from Polish troops, 1612 - Tr.). The dreary rains of autumn wash them, the harsh December winds comb their beards with prickly snow, and the spring sun caresses them. The years pass over them like clouds across the sky. Tsars and dictators come and go behind the walls of the Kremlin, but Minin and Pozharsky stand inviolably in their place.
Surreptitiously crossing themselves, the old women of Moscow whisper the story from mouth to mouth that sometimes the bronze giants let their eyelids droop and close their cold eyes in order not to see what is happening all around them.
Yet once, just once in all the long years, they expanded their lungs to the full, they drew themselves up to their full height, looked each other joyfully in the eyes, embraced and kissed each other fraternally. The old women swear that on this occasion the cold bronze shed hot tears. And why shouldn’t they, these men of the Russian soil? I can well believe it, and every Russian who was in Moscow on that sunny morning of 9 May 1945, will confirm it.
For some days rumors had been running through Moscow that the Western Allies and representatives of the German Supreme Command were engaged in secret negotiations. Nobody knew anything exactly, but the uneasiness increased, the atmosphere of strained expectation came to a climax.
The true circumstances of the capitulation were not made known in the Soviet Union. It took place at the staff headquarters of General Eisenhower, a small schoolhouse close to Rheims, in France, on 7 May 1945, at 14. 41 hours Central European time. On the German side it was signed by Colonel-General Jodl, chief of the German General Staff, on the Allied side by General Elsenhower’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General W. Bedell Smith, and on the Soviet side by General Sussloparov.
The final capitulation document was signed on 8 May at 12. 01 hours Central European time in the Berlin suburb of Karlshorst, and was officially announced at once. In the Soviet Union Stalin himself announced the news of the capitulation in a broadcast on the night of 8 /9 May.
On the morning of May 9, as I lay in bed, I was struck by an earthquake. Someone was shaking me madly by the shoulder. Even before he spoke I read the news in Belyavsky’s dilated, jubilant eyes. I dressed feverishly, buttoned up my tunic with trembling fingers. He urged me to hurry still more, and I did; though I didn’t really know why. I still had my boots to polish; on such a day they must be as dazzling as the sun. And I must put on a clean collar, and polish my buttons with the sleeve of my greatcoat.
Never before had I felt such an urge to make a military uniform absolutely brilliant. I automatically slipped the strap of my swordbelt under my greatcoat epaulettes, though swordbelts were worn over the greatcoat only on parade and during guard duty. There wasn’t to be a parade today! But let anyone try pulling me up today for violating the regulations! We dashed downstairs. We longed to be among the people, in the midst of the joy, the triumph, and the jubilation.
The college was buzzing like a disturbed beehive. All the students fell in the yard, by faculties, to hear the order of the day issued by the commander-in-chief. The sun shone in the sky. And the orders sparkled on the officers’ breasts. Trumpets blared. Two adjutants with drawn swords marched in front of the crimson silk flapping in the wind, its golden tassels swinging; the standard-bearer and the adjutants were all ’Heroes of the Soviet Union’. The Head of the college read out Stalin’s order of the day, which marked the end of the Russian people’s heroic four-year struggle against Hitler-Germany.
Then the head of the Western Faculty, Colonel Jachno, spoke to us. But his remarks seemed feeble and hackneyed. They could not express all the greatness of this moment that we had waited for so long, that we had paid so dearly for. We all wanted to get out into the streets, among the people, where the joy of victory was unconstrained, exuberant. Without waiting for breakfast a number of us hastened to the city center.
On the way we turned into an ’Americana’ to drink a glass of beer at the bar. Only recently had it become possible to buy beer again in Moscow, at sixteen rubles a glass. One day’s officer’s pay for a pint of beer! Several of us hadn’t enough money in our pockets to pay for a glass; our comrades helped us out.
“You’re better off at the front than at home,” one of us remarked. “You have got something to drink, at least, at the front.”
“Don’t worry! Soon we’ll have everything!” another assured him.
“We’ve already got beer. Before many months have passed we shall be living like in a fairy-tale. We haven’t fought for nothing. You wait, you’ll soon see!”
His tones expressed an unshakable belief in the miracle that would shortly occur; you would have thought he already knew a present was waiting for him, only it mustn’t be mentioned at the moment. If any of us had expressed any doubt, he would have called him a traitor to his face. He wouldn’t have known why or how it was treachery, but he would have been perfectly sure the man was a traitor.
We didn’t talk much about such things, and the papers, too, did not write about them in so many words, though they made obvious hints. This mysterious and intangible something was in the air, we drew it in greedily into our lungs, and it intoxicated us. The name of that intoxicating feeling was hope. We were hoping for something. And that something was so drastic was perceived as so unattainable, that we could not bring ourselves to speak about it or even hardly to think of it.
What were we hoping for? The past would not return and the dead would not live again. Perhaps we were glad that we would be re-turning to the peaceful existence of the pre-war years? Hardly! Our great joy that day arose from the fact that we stood at a frontier, a frontier that marked the end of the darkest period of our life, and the beginning of a new, still unknown period. And every one of us was hoping that this new period would fulfill the promise of the rainbow after the storm, would be bright, sunny, and happy. If anybody had asked us what we really expected, the majority would have expressed our common feeling very simply: “To hell with all that was before the war!” And every one of us knew exactly what had been before the war.
I have witnessed many Moscow celebrations and parades. The strongest impression one got from them was that the people would much rather have really made merry and enjoyed themselves than be forced to demonstrate their merriment and joy. They were simply puppet shows, and one could not rid oneself of a loathsome feeling of hypocrisy. Most of the people tried to avoid thinking that the main reason for their presence at the celebration was the haunting desire not to be put on the list, not to give offense by being absent.
That day the feeling was quite different. There was no organized demonstration, nor was it necessary. The streets of Moscow were packed with people, everywhere: on the sidewalks, in the roads, at the windows, on the roofs. In the center the streets were so crowded that wheeled traffic came to a standstill. All the population of Moscow had taken to its feet.
As we walked along, a group of girls in bright spring clothes came towards us, happy and excited. They had flowers in their hands. In wartime Moscow flowers had been as rare as they are at the North Pole. Measured by European standards, they were more precious than a bunch of black orchids, or roses in January. Just in front of us several flying officers were talking together animatedly; they were obviously members of the Moscow garrison. One of them was in civilian clothes; his right sleeve was empty.
The left breast of his jacket was studded with orders and above the breast pocket shone two five-cornered gold stars: the stars of a ’Hero of the Soviet Union’. One of the girls, her eyes glittering like stars, rushed up to the airmen as though she had been looking for them for a long time. She kissed one, two, all the whole lot of them. She kissed them heartily, and they seemed embarrassed. But why? Proud and happy, in the sight of all Moscow, she was kissing the men who had risked their lives to defend the Moscow sky.
She thrust her flowers into the wounded man’s hand, and he awkwardly pressed them to his chest. The tender petals caressed the cold metal of the orders. The girl was particularly warm in her embrace of him, and did not want to release him. They said not a word to each other. Their feelings, ardent human feelings, were more eloquent than words.
We saw an old woman in a white kerchief, peering about her uncertainly, as though looking for someone in this seething torrent of human beings. Obviously she was not accustomed to the bustle of the city. Just a homely, Russian mother. We had come across thousands of such mothers as we entered the villages evacuated by the re-treating Germans. And hardly had we taken one step across the thresholds of their cottages when we were calling them ’mother’. Without a word they thrust a hunk of bread into our greatcoat pockets and surreptitiously signed the cross over us as we turned away
Two elderly soldiers in ragged front-line uniforms were leaning against a house-wall. Their faces were unshaven and bristly; wretched packs hung over their shoulders. You could see they had either come straight from the front or were on their way back to it. But they were in no hurry; today they had no reason to fear the military police patrols.
They warmed themselves peacefully in the sun and stared blankly at the people, who seemed to have lost their senses. The two men calmly rolled themselves cigarettes from their favorite homegrown tobacco and a strip of newspaper, just as if they were at the front. What more does a soldier need than a piece of bread in his pack, a small packet of tobacco in his pocket, and the sun shining?
The old woman in the kerchief pushed uncertainly through the crowd, and went up to the two soldiers. She spoke to them in an agitated voice and tried to pull them by the sleeve. The soldiers looked at each other. Of course they must do as she asked: she was a mother.
How many sons had she given for the sake of this sunny morning? The sons who were to have been her support and comfort in her old age had been taken from her. All through the war she had held on to an expensive bottle of vodka, not exchanging it even for bread. She had suffered hunger and cold, but that bottle of vodka was sacred. Her son Kolya had fallen at Poltava; Peter the sailor had gone down in a sea-fight; her happy-go-lucky Grishka had vanished without trace. But now her heart was no longer suffering in its loneliness. She had gone into the street to find her sons, to invite the first soldiers she met to celebrate the victory with her. Today the bottle of living water would be brought out. These two men should know the heart of an old mother, the mother they had sung so often in their soldiers’ songs.
Comintern Square. Outside the American embassy, between the Hotel Metropole and the block of the Moscow University, there was the same solid mass of human beings as everywhere else. Women were gazing curiously out of the open Embassy windows; they were wearing clothes so brightly colored that they could never have been mistaken for Moscow inhabitants. Cameras were clicking. The embassy was calm and silent. Old Glory fluttered sluggishly in the gentle breeze.
The people in the square stared up inquisitively, as though they expected the American ambassador to step on to a balcony and speak to them at any moment. The crowd eddied round the building like water streaming over shallows. But the ambassador had gone to the Kremlin. What had he to do with this gray, impersonal mass? And besides, it’s hardly politic for a diplomat to speak to the people over the heads of their government.
The consulate automobile made its way slowly through the mass of people. Then an American officer in cream-colored trousers and green tunic attempted to get to the embassy. If he did not know of the Russian habit of tossing people into the air, he must have been rather alarmed when he went flying up. Up he soared into the sky, then dropped gently into many outstretched hands and went up once more. Thus he was carried above the people’s heads, thrown up again and again by dozens of hands, till he reached the embassy. He pulled down his wrinkled tunic and went up the steps, cap in hand, smiling with embarrassment and obviously not knowing whether to say “Okay!” or “Goddamn!”
The sun shone down graciously on jubilating Moscow. People embraced and kissed one another in the street. Strangers invited one another into their homes. Everything was set on the table, the pockets were unloaded. Life had been difficult, but now it was all over. We had held out and won. Now an end had been put to the bloody battles, to all the difficulties and privations. The leader would thank the people for their faithful service to the fatherland. The leader would not forget!
The psychiatrists are well acquainted with the phenomena of psychosis. But in its mass aspect it remains unexplained. Yet any one who was in Moscow on 9 May 1945, and who had gone through what every Russian had gone through during the years of the war, knows exactly what mass psychosis is. I have seen and experienced it only once in my life, and I am not likely to experience anything like it again. It was the discharge of a nervous-system accumulator, the discharge of a force that had been accumulating for years. Many did not understand it, but all felt it.
During the last years of my studies at the Industry Institute, examination time was a difficult period for all the students. Later, at the front, I seldom saw any man really worked up before going into battle. But I do remember that while waiting outside the door of the examination hall the students suffered nervous convulsions. At the front a man can only lose his life. During examinations we risked losing hope. For the soul of man that is a much more important matter. During the actual examination I myself was superficially calm and never felt any great excitement. But after it was over I lay on my bed for days without moving, as though I were paralyzed.
So was it that day in Moscow. A prolonged and complex psychic process in the soul of the nation was finding vent at last. The outbreak of war had initiated the process. The people regarded it with relief, as an opportunity to free themselves of the hated conditions of the existing regime. The curve of this feeling of relief gradually flattened as the people realized that their hopes had been disappointed. This was followed by a period of comparative stability, when the people were aware of only one thing: the vanity of all hope. Then the process of charging the human accumulators began.
Simultaneously with the growth of a negative attitude towards the external factor of the war a new hope was sown and began to strike root - the hope that a better future could be achieved by their own power, once the foreign enemy was defeated. At that point the external factor became their enemy. Driven by their hate for the enemy and by their growing hope of a better future after the war, the people went through unimaginable difficulties.
The Russians smashed the Germans out of their desire for vengeance, vengeance for the unfulfilled hopes, the shattered wishful thinking. But still stronger burned the guiding star of a new hope. They would never have fought in defense of the fatherland they had known before the war. And at first they had no desire to fight, they hoped the Germans would bring them to the Promised Land. But then they turned and fought because they thought they saw the Promised Land on the other side.
On 9 May 1945 the charge of the people’s psychic accumulator had reached its culminating point, the overcharge was causing sparks to fly. And now came the discharge. No wonder Moscow lived as though governed by electric impulses, no wonder strangers embraced us and kissed us simply because we wore uniform, no wonder men wept openly in the street.
Outside the History Museum I ran into Lieutenant Valentina Grinchuk. A smile was playing on her face, as though she could not understand this entire bustle and excitement. She had found her way infallibly through the darkness of the forests in her partisan days, but here she was like a little child, lost in the primeval forest of human elements. She did not even notice the admiring looks of the men who turned to stare after her.
“Well, Valia, congratulations on the victory,” I said, as I had said already a dozen times that day. I looked into her violet-blue eyes, took her by the chin as though she were a child, and raised her head. Those blue eyes shone at me earnestly and a little sadly.
“Congratulations on victory, Valia.” I bent down and kissed her on the lips. She did not resist; she only looked helplessly with her dilated eyes, staring into the distance. Beneath the hard leather of her belt I felt her delicate, girlish figure.
(You seem so very tiny today, Valia. What’s up? Why, you have more right to enjoy this day than anyone else. Open your blue eyes still wider, you child with orders on your breast and wounds on your girlish body. Fix this day in your memory for all your life, this day for which you have sacrificed your youth.).
She and I spent a long time wandering through the city, right along Gorky Street, past the Bolshoi Theatre, along the embankment below the Kremlin wall. One would have liked to absorb all the spirit of the victory-drunk metropolis that day. One would have liked to soar high above the world and thus observe all that was happening below, to memorize for ever this day in all its unique greatness and exaltation. For not to everyone was Fate so kind as to allow them to be in Moscow, to be in the center of those vast events.
Valia and I walked in silence; each sunk in his or her thoughts. If there can be such a thing as perfect happiness in this world, then I was perfectly happy that day. Humanity’s golden dream of peace all over the world came down to earth, that sunny day of 9 May. The evil forces had been routed. The majestic hymns of the victorious powers were sounding over the world. They proclaimed freedom to the peoples. Freedom from anxiety for their own lives, freedom from the race-hatred of Nazism, from the class-enmity of communism, freedom from fear for one’s freedom. Were not the words of the Atlantic Charter eloquent in their sublimity?
Our leaders had turned their backs on the doctrine that it was impossible for the capitalist and the communist systems to coexist. With the blood of their soldiers the western democracies had won the indissoluble friendship of the peoples of our lands. The mutual relations of peoples and nations, of states and governments, had been forged in the fires of war. Such historical cataclysms sweep political systems and states from the face of the earth, change the political map of the world. The war, which had now ended, must lead inevitably to a fundamental change in the Soviet system. With good reason had the Party and the government given the people clearly to understand that, during the last years of the war?
I glanced down at Valia out of the corner of my eye.
“Why are you so quiet, Valia?” I asked. “What are you dreaming about?”
“Oh, nothing,” she replied. “I just feel a bit down, somehow. So long as the war was on one simply went on fighting. If you ever stopped to think about it, you only hoped that it might soon be ended. That end seemed so splendid, but now it’s all so ordinary. And this day will pass, and once more....”
She did not finish her remark, but I knew what she was thinking. I suddenly felt sorry for her. Without doubt she was thinking of the straw-thatched roofs of her forest village, the crane over the well, and the little barefoot girl with water-buckets in her hands. In her own soul she was pondering on the question that now confronted every one of us. She was afraid the hope that had kept us going all through the years of the war might vanish, and that then once more....
Through the dusk that was falling over the city the aluminum balloons of the barrage swam slowly into the sky. They were rising for the last time, to take part in the last victory salute. Searchlight batteries were posted all round the Kremlin; young girls in field-gray military greatcoats efficiently controlled the mechanism of those gigantic electric eyes. Today their beams would grope across the sky of Moscow for the last time.
I said goodbye to Valia and joined another group of officers from our college. We made our way slowly to the Red Square. Soon now the guns would be firing their salutes, and the Red Square afforded the best view. No official demonstration had ever drawn such an enormous crowd outside the Kremlin walls. It was impossible to do anything but let the torrent take charge and carry one away as it wished.
Amid this human ferment the Kremlin stood silent and lifeless, like a legendary castle fallen into an enchanted sleep. The granite block of the Lenin Mausoleum rose above the heads of the crowd. The leaders and minor leaders stand on that platform on days of parades and demonstrations and smile amiably from a safe distance behind the bayonets of the armed Narcomvnudel guards. Now the granite platform was empty. And the bayonets were absent. That day the solely to the people.
Hundreds of thousands of heads. Since early morning people had filled the Red Square, waiting and staring as though they were expecting something. But the powerful loudspeakers, which were ranged in numerous batteries round the square, were silent. More and more people poured into that vast open space. What was drawing them there?
The Kremlin remained silent in its sleep. The silvery firs stood on guard along the ancient walls. The pointed pinnacles of the towers pierced the darkened sky. The ruby-red stars gleamed high above, on the invisible points of the towers.
When I was a child we used to be told that the red five-pointed star was the symbol of communism. The symbol of the blood that had been shed by the proletariat of all five continents. Truly, much blood had flowed on account of those ruby-red stars on the Kremlin.
The earth began to thunder under our feet. Above the black out-line of the Kremlin the sky turned crimson with gunfire. Lightning from hundreds of cannon illuminated the battlemented walls, the pinnacled towers, the black cube of the mausoleum, the sea of human heads turned upward. Hundreds of lines of fire drilled into the sky above the victorious city, driving away the darkness of the night.
The fire streamed higher and higher, hung motionless in the zenith for a moment, then burst downward in sparkling, multicolored little stars. The stars shivered sank slowly earthward, then fell faster, ever faster, to die in their flight. Hardly had the last sparkles faded when the air was shattered with the rolling thunder of a salvo. The first salute to final victory! The last seconds of a glorious epoch.
Open your eyes, open your hearts, and fix those seconds forever. The earth drummed again, the crimson fire of the victory salute lit up the walls of the Kremlin, the sky, and the soul of the people. Once more the fire shot into heaven, once more the little stars shone out like rays of hope, and faded. This was victory captured in a point of light. You saw the victory; you felt its breath on your face.
The fountain set upon the historic place of execution in the Red Square began to play, to gush in a vehement rainbow. As the fountain sent the water running over the square it splashed in little streams under our boots. The arrows of the searchlights quivered and danced. The ancient cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed was thrown up somberly in the flaming salutes. A boundless sea of men and women surged under the Kremlin walls.
From the mist of the past another Red Square emerged in my memory.
The morning of 7 November 1941 was leaden and dull. A flurry of falling snow blurred the face of Moscow. The Kremlin was feeling a draught. The enemy was at the gates! Moscow was threatened! The crenellations and pinnacles of the Kremlin walls showed gloomily in wintry twilight. The cupolas of the Kremlin churches were obscured under palls of snow. Cold and raw was the Red Square that day.
In full field equipment the troops marched past the granite mausoleum. A man in a soldier’s greatcoat, standing on the platform, stretched out his hand to the troops as if he were a beggar. With outstretched arm the man greeted the divisions that were to march from the Red Square straight to the fight at the gates of Moscow. My ears still hear the words of the marching song of those days:
“For my Moscow, for the dear city...” We kept our oath of allegiance, leader! Now it is your turn.
But now, on that day in May, the Kremlin was silent. The crimson stars on its towers glowed like blood. Nobody knew what the men in the Kremlin were thinking. Hand in hand with the people they had won the victory. Would they not be stretching out their hands to the people’s throats again tomorrow?
Not far from us two elderly workmen were standing, rather unsteady on their feet. They were wearing caps with broken peaks; their white shirts were open at the collar. Because they found it difficult to keep their feet they supported each other. Probably they had been drinking beer on an empty stomach.
“Come home, Stepan,” said one of them, a man with reddish, tobacco-stained whiskers.
“Home? I’m not going home,” the other protested.
“What d’you want to hang about here for? The midnight mass is ended. Come along!”
“Wait a bit, Ivan... There’s sure to be a decree.”
“You’ve already got your decree: don’t oversleep your knocking-on time in the morning.”
“But I tell you there’s sure to be another decree. Do you or don’t you know what a decree is? As soon as twelve strikes a decree will be issued. It will shine out in the sky like a star.... Where’s the star?” He swayed as he stared upward.
“There’s your star.” His companion pointed to the red star on a Kremlin tower. “Come alone, do!”
“There’s something wanting;” one of my companions turned to me. “It’s twelve o’clock, but the people are still hanging about, showing no signs of going. They know quite well there’s nothing more to be seen, yet they’re still waiting.”
“Shall we go?” I asked.
“No, let’s wait a little longer.” He hesitated. “There may be some-thing yet.”
We wandered aimlessly about the square for a long time. The people looked at one another, looked about them, and went on waiting for the belated wonder. At last, when the hands on the clock tower above the Spasskaya Gate drew near to one o’clock, they began to stream away to the Underground station. The trains would stop at 1a. m. They must get home, so as not to be late next morning.
“Pity the day’s gone so quick!” my companion said. “There was obviously something lacking.”
We took the Underground. Opposite us sat an elderly woman in a threadbare military uniform. She looked as though she had come straight from the front. Her eyes were closed with fatigue, and she swayed to the movement of the train. At the next stop a lieutenant got in. All the seats were already occupied, so he glanced at the epaulettes of the seated military people.
In Moscow the regulation is strictly observed that the junior in rank gives up his seat to a superior officer. The lieutenant’s eyes rested on the sleeping woman in front-line uniform. He stepped across and ordered her brusquely: “Get up!” She opened her eyes in bewilderment and sprang up automatically. The lieutenant roughly pushed her aside and sat down in her seat.
“There’s your reward to the victor,” my companion remarked. “Get up and give your place to someone else.”
May-time in Moscow is rarely accompanied with such filthy weather as we experienced on 24 May 1945. A fine veil of rain had hung about the city since early morning. Vainly did we stare up at the sky in the hope that the clouds were breaking. It was as though the celestial powers were deliberately out to ruin our festive spirit. For it was a day set apart for a great celebration: by special order of the day issued by the commander-in-chief, a great victory parade was to be held in the Red Square. A review of the best of the best.
The parade had been long and carefully prepared. Soldiers and officers who had distinguished themselves in the war had been recalled to Moscow during April. The choice fell chiefly on those who had most distinctions, orders, and medals to wear on their chests. On arrival in Moscow they were allocated to special units, and were issued with new dress uniforms, such as we had seen hitherto only in pictures. Special training for the parade went on for more than a month. The people of Moscow were lost in conjecture as to why these fine companies and battalions of men hung about with decorations from head to foot were marching in full dress uniform through the Moscow streets while desperate battles were still going on at the front.
Those of us students who were selected to take part in the parade wore through more than one pair of soles as the result of our daily four-hour exercises on the parade ground. We were drilled very strictly, for military exercises were not regarded as of much importance in the college, and so normally they were neglected. Now we were forced to acquire the infantry knowledge that we lacked. In preparation for the parade we polished our buttons and buckles till they dazzled, and tried on our new uniforms again and again.
And now this endless steady drizzle was falling. We knew that if the weather were unfavorable the civilian demonstration would not be held only the military parade. Soldiers are used to being wet to the skin.
In the Red Square, the gigantic crimson banners on the buildings of the All-Union Executive Committee and the History Museum hung in heavy folds. In broad daylight the square looked very different from its aspect at night under the gunfire of the salutes. Sober and plain. As if the road did not end but only had it’s beginning here. A gray road into a gray future.
Eyes right! There, on the platform of the mausoleum, stood the leader, our sorrow and our glory. In honor of the victory, today he had abandoned the modesty of his usual parade uniform and was decked in the brilliant uniform of a generalissimo. When Joseph Vissarionovich signed the order conferring the rank of generalissimo of the Soviet Union on Comrade Stalin, he must have smiled wryly at the thought of his colleagues, Franco and Chiang Kai-shek.
The picked regiment of the People’s Commissariat headed the parade for Defense and the Moscow garrison. It was followed by the picked regiment of the First Ukrainian Army, which had always been flung in where the main battle was to be fought, and which had stormed into Berlin.
The picked regiments of victory and glory marched past: tankmen in blue overalls and leather helmets, cossack cavalry units in long Caucasian cloaks with red and blue hoods; airmen with golden wing-badges. The glorious infantry marched past in an endless gray-green band, men of various complexions, various tongues. Now they all had one thing in common: on the chest of each one burned the tokens of intrepidity and heroism, the orders and medals of the great patriotic war, the proofs of faithful war-service to the fatherland.
At the head of each picked regiment marched the outstanding generals from the various fronts. Gray-blue uniforms, silver belts and swordbelts, lacquered boots. Gold on their buttons, their caps, their orders. The stars glittered, the medals gleamed. They were transformed, were those once so modest proletarian generals.
Amplified through batteries of loudspeakers, the greetings of the party and government leaders thundered over the Red Square to the victorious army.
One after another the captured banners of the German divisions, the standards of the S. S. storm troopers, were thrown down at the foot of the mausoleum. Symbols of departed glory, once proudly fluttering over Europe; they lay in a formless, pitiable heap at the foot of the Kremlin wall.
Despite the rain, despite our soaked uniforms, we felt light and joyful at heart. This was the last solemn act of the great struggle. We had sacrificed so much for this day: flourishing towns and villages, millions and millions of human lives. The bloody wounds that those in search of ’living-space’ had inflicted on us would be gaping for long yet. For many years to come the husbandman’s plough would go on turning up alien bones from the Russian earth, and for many years to come would the burnt-out hulls of tanks go on rusting in the midst of cornfields.
But all this lay behind us. We had emerged from the struggle as heroes and victors. Through hard work we would heal the wounds, we would begin a peaceful and happy life. We would begin a new life, and all would be better than before the war. There was much that we forgot in our consciousness of victory, as we looked hopefully to the future.
An old, sturdy sergeant marched along with a weighty step.
A real rock of a man. Thick whiskers, like those shown in the picture of the old-time Zaporozhe cossack camp; sunburnt face, heavily lined. Rows of orders and distinctions glittered across his chest.
All his life he had flourished the hammer and sickle, but he had never been able to endure their representation on a red ground with all the trimmings of communist fripperies. Nonetheless, today he threw out his chest, with its many orders bearing these symbols.
At the front the sergeant had had less regard for his head than for his luxuriant whiskers. During the years of collectivization he had shortened them considerably, in order not to be taken for a kulak. In those days things had been worse than they ever were at the front. In those days nobody knew whether and when fate would knock at their door. But now a free wind seemed to be blowing. You could even grow your whiskers long again.
During the war many quite young soldiers and officers had let their beards and whiskers grow. Before the war such liberties had been risky. A small beard was regarded as Trotskyist, a thick beard indicated a kulak, a long beard a priest. Then there were merchants’ beards, archbishops’ beards, and generals’ beards. The position was just as bad in regard to mustaches. A small mustache was regarded as ’white-guard’, a bigger one suggested a Tsarist policeman. Over such superficial social distinctions one might find oneself behind bars! But today the old sergeant didn’t know whether to be more proud of his orders or his whiskers.
There had been great changes during the war years. Before the war, would anyone have dared even to mention the George Crosses of the Tsarist days? The chevaliers of the Cross of St. George had thrown their medals away, or buried them deep in the earth. But today the old sergeant marched across the Red Square, past the Kremlin walls, with four George Crosses hanging on his chest beside the Soviet orders. After that, let anyone tell me that the Soviet regime had not made any revolution, that the collective farms might not be abolished tomorrow! And weren’t the churches open again, weren’t the bells ringing from their belfries?
Before the war hundreds of thousands of priests had been liquidated as propagators of ’opium for the people’. Of those few that were left in freedom the Soviet people knew only one thing with certainty: they were agents of the Narcomvnudel. Every week, under cover of darkness, they slipped through the doors of the Narcomvnudel with reports on their flocks.
But now religious freedom was proclaimed. A clerical training college had been opened in Moscow, and a Special Committee for Religious Affairs had been set up under the Council of People’s Commissars of the U. S. S. R., with Comrade Karpov in charge. The church had been harnessed to the service of the State. It was wiser now, and would obey.
Only one thing astonished us in all this comedy. The newly opened churches were filled with people. Church weddings had become quite fashionable, especially in the country. Despite everything, it had not been possible to cut religion out of the people’s souls. Even I often felt a hankering to enter the open church doors. But as a student in a Kremlin college I knew certain things only too well. I could not risk the possibility that later the head of the college would hand me a photograph taken of me in the church, with the observation: “You appear to have forgotten that students of the college are strictly forbidden to let themselves be photographed anywhere else but in the college’s special photo-studio.” That was the kind of false step that often served as a ground for expulsion from the college.
Now, from time to time, church bells, miraculously saved from destruction, sounded over Moscow. Priests were hurriedly brought back from Siberia, straight from forced labor to the altar. Before the calluses had vanished from their hands they were offering up prayers for victory and asking heaven to grant the leader health. The people listened with unconcealed joy to the bells. But nobody had any doubt that the new priests were in close contact with the Narcomvnudel.
The Narcomvnudel never forgets its old clients. When they have done their eight or ten years in a punitive camp, on their discharge the majority of its prisoners are invited to serve it as informers. “Justify the trust we are putting in you, in giving you back your freedom,” is the way it is put. In reactionary countries, when a prisoner has served his time he is left to his own devices. But we show greater thought for the man. Freedom is granted him as an act of grace, which he must be thankful for, working to justify the ’trust’.
Innumerable orders glittered on the Red Square. Many new decorations had been created during the war years. Even they had made their evolution backward. The rank-and-file Glory medals instituted in 1944, and the medal for ’Participation in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945,’ were a direct borrowing from the black and orange ribbons of the Tsarist George Cross.
New orders, the Ushakov and the Nakhimov, were instituted for admirals and captains in the navy, and medals similarly named for the sailors. The army generals were adorned with Suvorov and Kutuzov orders, the higher officers with the Alexander Nevsky and Bogdan Khmielnitzky orders. But the most widely distributed of all was the Order of the Patriotic War. Not just any war, but the Patriotic War! And for marshals there was a special Victory order, made of gold, platinum, and diamonds, and worth 200, 000 gold rubles.
Though they remained five-pointed, the stars of these orders were very similar to those issued by Katherine II. And there were Guards regiments again, Guards standards, and Guards distinctions. But in pre-war days? God protects a man from letting the word ’Guards’ slip out!
The impersonal greeting, ’Good day, Comrade Colonel,’ had been replaced by the official ’Zdravia Zhelayu’ (I wish you health). And the gold epaulettes? In past days the worst charge an investigating officer of the Narcomvnudel could have made against anyone would have been to designate him a ’wearer of gold epaulettes’. The generals, marching along on parade just like the portraits of former Tsarist generals, had mottled silver belts. The ’International’ had been superseded by the new ’Hymn of the Soviet Union’. Even the slogan ’Proletarians of all countries, unite!’ had vanished from the front page of Pravda.
According to a recent decree of the U. S. S. R. Supreme Soviet, on retirement generals were to receive a piece of land for life tenure, and interest-free loans for the erection of their country houses. There we have the aristocracy of socialism! The only snag to all these blessings was the circumstance that so many of the Soviet generals ended their careers in the Narcomvnudel.
The people simply went dizzy with all these innovations.
The victorious army marched in parade step across the Red Square. The drumming of their feet found an echo in my breast. To me, today, the army meant not simply military service: in the army I had first found my fatherland. Before the war I had lived in an illusory world of new concepts: communism, socialism, Soviet farms, collective farms. The papers had given me astronomical figures, fine words and slogans, talk of tractors and factories, new houses and construction works. Nonetheless, like everybody else, in my own life I had experienced inhuman difficulties and privations, though I justified them all by reference to the necessities of ’the great upheaval’.
But when the war broke out I saw all the wretched impotence of the world in which the Soviet man lived hypnotized by propaganda. Yet as it went on I recognized something greater, I recognized the nation. I felt for the first time that I was a member of the nation, and not merely a unit in a Marxist classification. I was not the only one to realize that: millions shared it. It did not come to us as the result of the new maneuvers of Kremlin policy, suddenly switched over to emphasis on the national, fatherland aspect. That maneuver was rather simply a consequence, a forced way out of the situation that had been created.
The war stirred the country to its innermost depths, brought to the surface things that hitherto had been concealed in those depths. All the artificial trimmings were pushed into the background, and the true power, man, was restored to the foreground. The man as he really is. In blood and agony is man born; in blood and agony men learn to know one another.
In the light of real life, among living men, all the theories of dialectical materialism faded and were put in the shade. I realized that all that for which we had made incredible sacrifices over twenty-five years was, if not the product of an experimenter’s delirious fantasy, at any rate only an experiment that called for great improvement. Now as I marched across the Red Square I still saw no way out. But I was thoroughly convinced of the falsity of that which we had lived for in pre-war days.
The victory parade thundered across the Red square. Dashing soldiers in blue overalls stuck their heads out of the open turrets of the heavy tanks. Proud of their gold epaulettes and their George ribbons, they signaled with their red flags, saluting the Kremlin walls and their leader.
Generalissimo, today we greet you and congratulate you on the victory! Just as you greet and congratulate us.
Yet we remind you: do you think of the summer of 1941? Do you remember how you suddenly struck up a new tune? ’Dear brothers and sisters, citizens and citizenesses...’ you said. We could hardly believe our ears. For twenty-five years you had set brother against sister, sister against brother. Until that summer of 1941 the word ’citizen’ was commonly used only by the investigating official sitting behind his desk in the Narcomvnudel, using it as a form of address to an alien, enemy element.
Where had your communists, your commissars, political functionaries and other ’comrades’ got to then? You were right in calling us ’citizens and citizenesses’. We were not your comrades! When you felt the rope round your neck you called to the people for help. And we came. We died, but we fought. We hungered, but we labored. And we conquered. Yes, we conquered, and not Generalissimo Stalin and his communist party.
But today, in honor of the victory, I shout a thunderous, triple cheer. And may the walls of the Kremlin tremble!
Thus victory came. And whenever my thoughts turn to that V-day I recall the thrill in my heart, the feeling that rose in my throat. The victor raised his head and sang his victory-song. And he rejoiced at the road that lay open before him, the road into the future.