A Member of the Politburo
Before me lies a yellowing sheet of coarse paper, which looks as though it has been torn out of one of my old school exercise books. Large writing, like a child’s, written in faint ink, which has been watered again and again.
I have difficulty in reading the carefully formed letters written with a rusty nib: “My dear grandson... I am sitting by the light of a paraffin wick, just like it was in 1921, to write to you. The electricity is switched on for only two hours a day, and that not every day. I have pushed the table over close to the oven, where it is a little warmer. There’s a terrible draught coming from the window, though I’ve stopped up all the cracks with wool...”
No electricity! No coal for the stove! And this two years after the victorious close of the war. And in the heart of the Donietz Basin, the richest coal field in Europe.
Yet it is not suprising. Before the war the students at our Institute attended lectures all the winter in fur coats and fur caps. Our fingers froze, but we couldn’t put our hands in our pockets because we had to take notes. The boiler for the central heating of the Novocherkassk Industrial Institute was intended to burn Donietz anthracite, but now it was fueled with useless shale. We were amazed when we saw that the German periodical, Der Bergbau, which was in the Institute library, contained advertisements offering Donietz anthracite for export at cheap rates.
A friend of mine, Vassily Shulgin, once achieved a temporary fame in the Faculty for Energetics. Somehow or other he got hold of an electrically heated airman’s suit, such as is used by arctic flyers. From the laboratory for electro-technics he obtained a transformer, which he placed under his desk, and it was easy enough to get hold of a long piece of cable. At one touch of a switch he became a celebrity. The first day he tried it out we were more interested in seeing whether he would go up in smoke and flames than in listening to our professor. To be on the safe side, one of his close friends brought in a fire extinguisher from the corridor and put it close to hand.
Vassily’s triumph was a nine-days’ wonder. Sometimes he proudly switched off the heat, and then the freezing students realized that he was too hot. We were all as proud of that baggy figure on the backbench as if we had shared in his ingenuity.
To the general consternation, one frosty morning in January he turned up in his old overcoat. When we insisted on knowing the reason why he curtly replied that the works had gone wrong. He confided the bitter truth to only a few intimate friends. He had been summoned to the Special Department, the N. K. V. D. representative in the Institute, where he was ordered to stop his ’anti-Soviet demonstration’; otherwise his case would be passed to the ’requisite organs’. To tell the truth, the Special Department showed him a great favor in this instance. Here were all the students freezing and suffering in silence, and one of them tried to get warm: counter-revolutionary agitation and undermining socialist economy!
That sort of thing continued all through the years before the war. That was the system. The people simply got used to it and didn’t even notice it.
Now, after the war, the Germans were freezing in their unheated homes. Naturally they cursed the Soviet officers, who had no need to count every briquette. But it did not occur to them that in Russia these same officers’ families were freezing even more than the Germans.
"... But I keep going. I’m on my feet all day; I manage all the housework. It’s a pity I haven’t got much strength, and my old bones ache. I can have only sweet tea, with a biscuit sometimes dipped in it. I only have two teeth left and I can’t chew anything.
“Your mother goes off to work every morning at seven. In the evening she can hardly crawl home with the aid of a stick; she helps herself along by the fences. It isn’t so much that she’s tired with work as her nerves. Everybody’s so irritable, they swear at the least thing and won’t listen to you. She’s afraid to go to the post now to get your parcels. Robbers are on the lookout for people receiving parcels from Germany, and they break into their homes at night and kill the people. And in the daytime young boys - ’craftsmen’ - hang around the post office and snatch the parcels in broad daylight.”
Mention of the ’craftsmen’ recalled to my mind the Molotov automobile works in the town of Gorky. I worked there at the beginning of the war, and I saw these so-called ’craftsmen’, the young recruits to the Soviet proletariat. Soviet industry began to experience difficulty in getting new hands, because the Soviet youth were not prepared to become ordinary workers, so the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet issued a decree: ’On the mobilization for factory-works and crafts schools’. In these schools millions of adolescents between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were enrolled.
At Gorky these ’craftsmen’ attending the trade school attached to the works ate in the canteen. Their food was poor enough, but it was better than that issued to the older workers; after all, adolescents are not so class-conscious as adults and you can’t feed them only on slogans. In addition, many of the ’craftsmen’ were sent food from the villages where most of them had been recruited. So some-times they left their rations, and even, boy-like, littered the inedible food about the tables.
As soon as the ’craftsmen’ had left the dining hall the workmen rushed in for their meal. Some of them hurried to the queue for food; others sat down at the table, for otherwise they would not have got a place until the more energetic proletarians had eaten; others went to the tables and surreptitiously ate the remains which the youngsters had left.
On one side of the hall was a small room from which came the smell of eggs and bacon. That room was the canteen for the factory management: the director, the Party organizer, and other leaders. The workers were not particularly envious of the leaders; the bosses changed so often that the workers hardly had time to remember their names. And they were just as little interested in their further activities after they had gone. The workers knew that the stork brought them and the crow, the black N. K. V. D. prison van, took them away.
During those war years a group of British sergeants and technicians worked at the Gorky Automobile Works, supervising the assembly of tanks sent to the U. S. S. R. under lend-lease. Of course they got a very favorable impression of the works.
“... Yesterday your mother bought two glasses of Indian corn in the market. I crushed them in a mortar and we’ve been having maize porridge. It would have been very tasty if we could have got some butter to go with it. But it is cold now and the peasants aren’t bringing much to market. Potatoes, peas and milk are dear, and we mustn’t even think of meat or butter.” Here followed several lines blacked out by the censor.
Two glasses of maize....
In the early spring of 1945 I graduated from the Military College, and as I had exemption in certain subjects, I got through my state examination quickly and managed to obtain a week’s leave. I spent this at home, on the pretext that I was carrying out official duties in my home district. I went to the Kazan railway station in Moscow and, with a rucksack on my back, wandered about trying to find a way of getting a seat in a train. That was pretty hopeless, for some-times people tried for weeks, and even then had to give it up. I began to study the layout of the station, to see whether I could get a seat by a trick. My only advantages were that I had no heavy luggage, but plenty of youthful energy and all a Soviet citizen’s experience in such matters.
“Brother, if I’m not mistaken you’ve got a T-T.” I heard a hoarse deep voice behind me, and a powerful hand clapped me on the shoulder. I looked round and saw a brawny sailor in the usual black blouse, his cap thrust to the back of his head. Despite the cold, his shirt was wide open at the chest, and his breast was gay with all the decorations of a sailor’s life; he was tattooed right up to his chin. One of those who ’don’t care a damn for anybody’ and always fall on their feet. He smiled at me as if we were old acquaintances and pointed to my pistol holster.
“Yes, it’s a T-T. What about it?” I asked.
“What train are you going by? The 11: 20?” he inquired. When I said yes, he gave me an even broader grin. “Well, then, everything’s okay! Let’s go!”
“When I say ’let’s go’, we go! You keep in my wake. Have you just dropped out of the moon, brother?” my new relation demanded. To sailors all men are brothers.
We went out of the station, crawled in the darkness over a roof or two, and through some fences. At last we reached the farther side of the station and the tracks. Guards were patrolling the platforms. Like diversionists we stole up to a train standing on the lines. All the carriages were locked.
“Now let me have your T-T, brother,” the sailor ordered.
“You’re not going to shoot?”
“Of course not! You hold the magazine. And now look: here’s your railway ticket to the entire world.”
He drew back the pistol hammer, and fixed it by the safety catch. Then he thrust the barrel into the carriage door lock. One turn and we were inside.
“I’ve used this ticket more than any other,” my ’brother’ proudly explained, as he handed the pistol back to me. After that I, too, had more than one occasion to exploit this unusual means of unlocking carriage doors.
On the threshold of my home I halted and looked about me. All the walls were sinking and slanting; the fences had gone; they had all been used for fuel. One could walk right through the town from house-yard to house-yard unhindered. As I opened the rickety door, with its rusty hinges and ingenious latch, I had very mixed feelings. In my heavy boots I stepped prudently over the creaking floorboards in the kitchen. Everything was rickety, neglected, rotting, like the old cottage in the fairy-story. I had to stoop to avoid knocking my head against the lintel as I passed into the next room.
In one corner of the room, a little, hunched old woman in an apron was sitting by the stove. At one time she had carried me in her arms; now I could have picked her up with ease. Her gray hair was neatly arranged under her white kerchief, she had the same old shawl round her shoulders. At the sound of the door being opened she turned.
“Grisha!” That one brief word conveyed all the experiences of the long war years: her hopes, her fears, her expectations and joys.
I put my arms round her shoulders; I was afraid she would fall. We remained standing a long time, with her head pressed against my chest; she wept like a little child, but they were tears of joy. I gently stroked her back under her old flannel blouse. I felt her fragile bones, and was afraid my rough hands would hurt her.
“Where’s mother?” I asked.
“She’s at work. She gets home at six.”
“I’ll send a boy to tell her I’m home,” I suggested as I took off my greatcoat.
“No, don’t, Grisha! For God’s sake!” my old grandmother murmured fearfully. “She’ll be so glad she’ll leave her work and come home, and then they may take her to court.”
I felt my collar suddenly grow tight as the blood rushed to my head and roared in my ears. So that was how a Soviet mother was allowed to welcome her soldier son after four years of separation!
My mother came home from work late in the evening. Granny had prepared a festive table in honor of my homecoming. She proudly brought out a tiny tin of honey and set it on the table, then a tiny medicine bottle of homemade cherry wine. When I went to my rucksack and began to hand out all kinds of cans of American preserves my mother’s eyes lit up with joy and relief. They were both hungry, but that was not so bad as the realization that they had nothing to make a feast for their son who had come safely home after a long absence. Now they had American cans of conserves on the table!
Whenever Russian people hear mention of the words ’lend-lease’ they think of cans piled up like mountains. Those cans were to be found in the wildest and loneliest parts of the famous Bryansk forests, in the marshes of Leningrad, wherever the Soviet army passed.
Russia is undoubtedly a very rich agricultural country, with inexhaustible natural resources. Yet from 1942 to 1945 that country lived and fought exclusively on American products. We officers were all profoundly convinced that we could have held out without American tanks and planes, but we would have died of starvation without the American food. Ninety percent of the meat, fats, and sugar consumed in the Soviet army was of American origin, and almost the same can be said of life in the rear. Even the beans and the white flour were American. The one article of Soviet origin was the black bread - apart, of course, from water.
A word or two on water. People in Moscow seriously believed that the American embassy received even water in cans from America. Probably this was due to the amount of grapefruit and other fruit juices the Americans drank from cans. After the war it was said that the Kremlin had provided itself with American foodstuffs for many five-year plans ahead.
There was one time at the beginning of 1948 when all the shops in all the large Soviet cities were stocked to the ceiling with sacks of coffee beans. Before the war coffee in the bean had been a luxury article in the Soviet Union. But now all the empty shelves of the shops were stocked with sacks bearing foreign inscriptions in red paint. Coffee to be bought off the ration, at 500 rubles a kilo! At that time bread cost 150 rubles a kilo on the free market.
The people began to buy the coffee by the sack. It wasn’t that the Russians had acquired a foreign taste. Not at all! They cooked the beans, threw the fragrant liquor away, then dried the beans, pounded them in a mortar or a coffee-grinder, and made bread of the flour. Bread from coffee! Previously they had played the same sort of trick with mustard powder! Bread from mustard!
During the war all the metal utensils in the U. S. S. R. were made from American cans. It will be many years before the Russians forget those cans with their labels: ’pork meat’.
In an endeavor to diminish the effect of this propaganda by food conserves, the rumormongers of the N. K. V. D. spread stories that the Americans were canning the flesh of South American monkeys to send to the Soviet Union.
"... Dear Grisha, perhaps you have a cup or something of the sort where you are. I broke mine recently and haven’t any thing to drink my tea out of. If you can send me one I shall be very glad and will always think of you when I drink my tea, my dear boy.
"You always sew up your parcels in very good canvas, and we don’t throw it away, we make towels from it. Don’t be annoyed with us if we ask you for anything, you’re all we have in the world. I live only for your letters. And I haven’t much longer to live.
“Keep well, my dear boy. Look after yourself. Granny.”
I got hold of a sack in which to pack a parcel. I stuffed it full with ladies’ lace underwear, silk stockings, lengths of material, until it weighed the permitted 10 kilograms. In the very center I packed several china cups. And what else could I put in? They needed absolutely everything. They would sell what I sent and buy meat, and would go on wearing rags. You can’t fill a bottomless barrel.
That evening I had planned to go out, but granny’s letter robbed me of all inclination. I sat at my desk, and scenes from my past life arose before my eyes.
1921. At that time I was quite an infant. Perhaps the only memory I have is of the jackdaws. Daws hopping about the floor, in the light of the paraffin lamp. One of them was dragging its wing awkwardly, leaving a trail of blood. The lamp flickered, the dark corners were very mysterious, and wretched daws hopped about the floor.
In the winter they flew about in great black flocks. When they flew over the roofs in the evening dusk, the people said as they heard them call: “That’s a sign of frost. It’ll be still colder tomorrow.” Raspberry streaks left by the sunset on the horizon, the lilac, frosty mist, and the calling daws. They settled like bunches of black berries on the bare poplars in the orchards, and chattered away before retiring to rest.
My uncle thought of very ingenious ways of getting close to the daws with his gun. Normally they won’t let you come anywhere near. But he went hunting them to shoot them for a ragout. I’ve forgotten what it tasted like. Older people say it doesn’t taste any worse than ragout made from other wild birds. Every wildfowl has its own specific flavor.
In those days children wrapped in rags sat in the snow in the street and silently held out their hands. They no longer had the strength to ask for ’bread’. If you returned that way a few hours later you found they were no longer holding out their hands: they were frozen corpses.
People don’t remember 1921 to any extent nowadays. It was followed by many other years, which have been fixed more definitely in the mind. 1921 was something quite elemental, the result of war and the post-war ruin. So it did not seem so terrible.
1926. The later years of the New Economic Policy. “The period of temporary retreat in order to organize a decisive advance along the entire front,” as we can read in the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In those days, when my father gave me ten kopecks I was a rich man and could satisfy all my childish desires. The years 1925 and 1926 were the only time in all the existence of the Soviet regime when the people did not think of bread.
I don’t remember tsarist Russia. People of my generation regard the NEP period (New Economic Policy - involved a partial return to free market exchange of commodities. - Tr.) as the equivalent of a normal and affluent life. I heard various stories told by older people, but at this time I was a Young Pioneer and was more interested in playing a drum. Some museum-piece of an old man would throw his arms wide and say rapturously and regretfully: “Under Nicholas a dried fish that size cost three kopecks; and now....” He swallowed back his spittle and waved his hand resignedly.
1930. 1 was attending school. The name of the school was changed every three months; the curriculum changed accordingly. I was not greatly interested-1 hadn’t time to be, for I spent most of the day queuing for bread. Queues stood outside the bakers’ shops day and night. Six hundred, seven hundred... Often the number written in indelible ink on my hand was over the 1, 000.
We boys regarded it all as a kind of game. When the cart drove up to the shop and the loaves were unloaded there was a bit of a riot. Women screamed as they were half crushed to death, one heard curses, groans, and tears. Meanwhile we boys tried to find a way into the shops through a window or some other opening. In other countries the children played ’Red Indians’, but we fought for our lives to get bread. That was how the youthful builders of socialism were reared, that was how the steel was tempered.
We went to school in two shifts; it was as cold inside the building as outside. It was much more pleasant in the street, where you could run and keep yourself warm. What point was there in our teacher telling us stories of the Paris Commune? We stormed not the Bastille but the bakers’ shops.
1932. General collectivization. People starved to death, their bodies lay about the streets. The living had difficulty in dragging themselves about, for their legs were swollen with famine dropsy.
My elder brother, who was in the Young Communists, was called up to perform special duties. He and his comrades were given weapons, and they mounted guard all night over the church, which was being used as a transit camp for prisoners. There were not enough prisons; there were not enough guards. Of an evening, hundreds of ragged men and women peasants, arrested as kulaks, were driven into the church. Mothers carried babes in arms. Many of the prisoners could hardly shift their feet. The youngsters who had been issued arms went hungry to the church to guard hungry people.
Each morning the ragged class enemies were driven on northward. Many dead bodies were left lying on the stone flags inside the church. So far as they were concerned, the problem of liquidating the kulaks as a class was already solved.
Winter passed, spring arrived. The campaign for collecting the State grain fund began. The peasants were baking bread made from tree bark, but men armed with pistols demanded that they should hand over corn for the spring sowing. During the winter the peasants had eaten tree bark, cats, dogs, even horse dung. Cases of cannibalism were not unknown. Nobody can say how many millions of people died of hunger in 1933: possibly one-third or one-fourth of the agricultural population of southern Russia.
During the summer the few half-savage dogs still left alive wandered through the deserted villages, devouring human flesh. First man ate dog, and then dog ate man. Many fields were left uncultivated; there was nobody to harvest those that were sown.
Day after day we scholars of the higher classes were driven out to harvest these fields. The road ran past the town cemetery. Each morning as we went to work we saw dozens of deep, freshly dug pits. When we returned in the evening they had been filled and leveled with the ground. Some of the more inquisitive scholars tried digging up the loose soil with their boots.
They lost their curiosity when they came upon human hands or feet beneath the shallow layer of earth. Sometimes as we went past the cemetery we saw swollen corpses being thrown from carts into the pits; they had been brought from prisons and hospitals. The wild steppe grass rapidly covered these graves, and nobody will ever know the exact cost of that resounding word ’collectivization’.
The artificial famine of 1932 - 1933 was a political measure taken by the Politburo; it was not an elemental disaster. The people had to be shown who was the master. The decision was taken in the Kremlin; the result was the loss of millions of human lives. From that time hunger became a new, full member of the Politburo.
Yet at that same period the Soviet government was dumping! They offered wheat at very cheap prices, much cheaper than the world market price. The principle was simple: grain taken from the collectivized Soviet peasant at 6 kopecks a kilo was sold to the Russian workers at 90 kopecks a kilo. In such circumstances it was easy enough to indulge in dumping.
The Soviet Union offered its grain at knockdown prices on the world market. The greedy capitalists rushed to buy it. But the Canadian and Australian farmers started to burn their grain, while the Moscow radio howled in delight: “Look what is happening in the unplanned capitalist world.” But after burning their grain the Australians and Canadians had no money to buy the British industrial goods, consequently British factories began to close down and unemployment increased. The British workers had no money to buy the cheap Russian grain.
But over the sea, in the marvelous land where communism was being built, there was no unemployment, and bread was so cheap that it was being sold abroad for next to nothing. And so there was a wave of strikes and revolutionary movements in the West. “The revolution is continuing. Comrades,” they said in the Kremlin, rubbing their hands.
In Denmark the pigs were fed on cheap Russian sugar. In the U. S. S. R., people drank their tea with the sugar on the table to look at, or on Sundays and holidays they nibbled a knob as they sipped their tea. The Soviet workers and peasants went hungry, but there was money enough for financing capital construction, while machine tools and machinery were imported. Heavy industry increased proportionately to the rest of the country’s economy. The workers and peasants were told that heavy industry would make the machinery for light industry, and this in turn would make cloth and boots. But meanwhile tanks and aeroplanes were the chief production. There was nothing to be done about it: it was all due to the capitalist encirclement.
Now there was no room for bourgeois sentimentality. Statistics show that fertility and population increase are in inverse proportion to the living conditions. The worse people live, the swifter they multiply. On the one hand there are India and China, where thousands die of hunger every year, but where millions are born in their place. On the other, the well-fed, enervated countries in the decline of civilization, such as France and Britain, with their falling fertility curve, and where the age-groups past the prime of life play a predominant part. Given these circumstances, Stalin had no need to fear the consequences of the famine policy; whatever happened, he was assured of soldiers and labor. In every respect the State would show an active balance.
September 1939. Signature of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of Friend-ship. Trainload after trainload of Soviet grain, Soviet butter, Soviet sugar steamed off to Germany. Simultaneously all these articles disappeared from the Soviet shops, which in any case had never had any remarkable stock of them.
To explain the change of political course the N. K. V. D. rumormongers spread the story that Ribbentrop had brought to Moscow the photocopy of a document, which had been signed by fourteen foreign powers. These powers had offered Hitler aid if he attacked the U. S. S. R. Hitler preferred our friendship: we desire peace. But for that we have got to pay!
1941. War. Hunger passed into its final, perfected form. The ration-card system. No longer under-nourishment, but out-and-out starvation. In the winter of 1941-2 a kilo of potatoes cost 60 rubles on the free market: the equivalent of a week’s wage. A kilo of butter cost 700 to 800 rubles: three months’ wages. The worker received sufficient on the ration card to keep him on his feet and capable of working. In practice the main, indeed the only food issued was bread - 600 grams daily-the same bread that caused the German prisoners of war to suffer from gastric ulcers and to die off like flies.
One day I had called on the director of the Lenin radio factory, to discuss some business. A knock at the door interrupted our conversation. His secretary put in her head and reported: “Serdiukova is here; is she to come in or wait?”
Serdiukova came nervously into the room. Her face was dirty, and it was difficult to tell her age. She was wearing a black, greasy jacket, and her stockings were of sailcloth; she had men’s boots on her feet. She stood at the door, silently waiting. Her expression seemed despondent, yet indifferent, stamped with the apathy of infinite weariness.
“Why didn’t you come to work yesterday, Serdiukova?” the director asked. “To stay away’s a serious crime, punishable under war legislation. You know what the punishment is for it.”
“I was ill, Comrade Director. I couldn’t get out of bed,” she answered in a hoarse voice. She shifted from foot to foot. A pool of water formed on the parquet; it was dripping off her boots.
Absence from work without good reason involved the punishment of forced labor even in peacetime. In wartime it might bring ten years’ imprisonment, on a charge of sabotaging war industry.
“Have you got a doctor’s certificate?” the director asked.
“No. I hadn’t anyone to send for the doctor. As soon as I could get up I came to work.”
Serdiukova was one of those typical Russian women who uncomplainingly endure all the difficulties of life, who accept every-thing as inevitable, as sent from above. In this silent humility there is a kind of religious quality. It is not weakness; it is a source of the Russian’s enormous spiritual strength.
As I looked at her I recalled an old soldier who was returning from hospital to the front after the latest of his many wounds. As he carried a machine-gun tripod on his back he quite calmly gave expression to his secret desire: “Ah, if only I had lost an arm or a leg! Then I’d be going back to my village.” I was shocked not so much by his words as by the composure with which he said them, his genuine readiness to lose an arm or a leg in exchange for return home. Yet he was an exemplary soldier.
“You must know the law,” the director went on. “Absent without good reason. I’ll have to send your case to court.”
She began to mutter in a broken voice: “But, Comrade Director! ... Day after day, fourteen hours at the bench... I haven’t the strength... I’m sick...”
“I can’t help it. It’s the law. We’re all sick like that.” Her face twisted with anger. “You’re all sick like that?” she shouted, stepping closer to his desk. “But have you ever seen this?” Tears streamed down her face as, in an uncontrollable impulse of fury, she snatched up the edge of her skirt. She was no longer a human being, no longer a woman, but a creature mastered by the courage of despair. “All of you? All as sick as this?”
I saw her white body, all the whiter against the gray background of the office wall. She did not have a woman’s shapely legs, but two deformed pillars with no curve to the calves, with the knees touching. Two garters of red automobile inner tubing cut deeply into the swollen mass of her bluish flesh.
“Have you ever seen that. Comrade Director? Have you got legs like this?” she screamed, beside herself with indignation and shame. “For five months I’ve not had a period. I’ve dropped unconscious at the bench again and again....”
“Is there really nothing to be done?” I asked him when she had gone.
“What can I do?” he answered, and stared hopelessly at the papers on his desk. “Half the women are like that. Pills are of no use in such cases.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean referring it to the court. Can’t you overlook it?”
“Concealment of absenteeism is punished as heavily as absenteeism itself. If I overlook this case the N. K. V. D. will put us both inside. You can’t hide anything from Luzgin,” he answered.
I had not made Luzgin’s acquaintance, but I had heard a great deal about him. He was the head of the works Special Department: the eyes and ears of the Party.
While working in the town of Gorky I was crossing Sverdlov Square one day in March. There were puddles of snow and mud lying in the roadways. Just in front of me two young girls, probably students, with document-cases under their arms, were trudging through the water. Suddenly one of them dropped her case; it fell into the muck of the sidewalk and flew open.
Books and exercise books were scattered in the mud. The girl took a few staggering steps towards the wall of the nearest house, but then her legs gave way under her, and she slowly sank to the ground. Her blue kerchief slipped off, the strands of her chestnut hair were mingled with the melting snow and mud. She had a deathly white face, with blue under the eyes. She had fainted.
Her friend hurried to her aid. One or two passers-by helped to pick her up and carry her to the gateway of the nearest house. The crowd excitedly asked her friend what had happened, but she answered in some embarrassment: “It’s nothing, only a faint.” An elderly woman in huge boots asked her: “Where’ve you come from? From the center?” Without waiting for the answer she began to lament with all the commiseration of a simple woman: “Poor kids! You’re hungry, hardly able to stand on your feet, yet you’re giving your last drop of blood. You can’t go on like this. You’ll be in your grave before long.”
A large proportion of the donors attending the blood-transfusion centers consisted of girl students and mothers with little children. In exchange for 450 cubic centimeters of blood they received 125 rubles, which would buy not quite a kilo of black bread. After each transfusion they received an extra ration card entitling them to 200 additional grams of bread each day for a month. They also received one supplementary ration consisting of 250 grams of fat, 500 grams of meat and 500 grams of sugar. These mothers and girls knew their patriotic duty well enough, they knew the blood was for their husbands and brothers at the front. But it was chiefly hunger that drove them to the centers. The mothers tried to feed their hungry children at the price of their own blood; the students preferred to sacrifice their blood rather than their bodies.
Special letter blanks were obtainable at the blood transfusion centers, and many of the girl donors used these to send letters to the front, to the soldiers for whom they were donating their blood. Frequently these letters marked the beginning of a correspondence and friendship. After the war there were quite a number of cases of the writers meeting and marrying: a marriage sealed in blood.
In the center of the town of Gorky there is a square: ’The Square of the Victims of 1905.’ One side of the square is bounded by the walls of an old prison, in which the heroes of Gorky’s novel The Mother were imprisoned. On the opposite side is the Municipal Opera and Ballet Theater.
One evening I stood with a group of comrades in the foyer during an interval. Dancing was going on in the hall, to the music of an orchestra. A slim, good-looking girl dancing with an officer attracted my notice. Her slender form was clothed in a gray dress of matt silk; her hair was arranged in a simple yet original style. Her toilet and all her bearing indicated her good taste, and a sense of her own value.
“Who is that girl?” I asked a comrade who was well acquainted with life in the town.
“A student, she’s in the last year of the medical faculty,” he answered curtly.
“An interesting girl,” I said.
“I’d advise you not to go running after her.”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“I just advise you not to, that’s all!” He would not say more.
His words aroused my curiosity, and I asked another acquaintance the same question.
“The girl in gray?” he said, taking a glance at her. “If you’re interested in knowing her for a night, it’s very simple: one can of conserves or a loaf of bread.”
I stared at him incredulously. I was fond of student life, and still thought of myself as belonging to it. His words seemed like a personal insult. In pre-war days the students had been the morally cleanest and most spiritual group in society. Could one year of war have brought about such a change?
“Don’t talk bosh!” I retorted.
“It’s not bosh, it’s the mournful truth. She lives in a hostel, in one room with five other friends. They have two or three visitors every night. Chiefly officers. Who has anything to spare these days, apart from officers?”
Before the war there was practically no prostitution in the Soviet Union. The average Soviet man’s budget did not include this item of expenditure. There was only prostitution for political purposes,
under N. K. V. D. protection, in the neighborhood of the Intourist hotels and restaurants and wherever foreigners congregated. And some commerce in human bodies went on, to a small extent, among the higher circles of the new ruling class, who had the means to buy such articles.
But now, during the war, hunger was driving women on to the street. Not for silk stockings, Parisian perfumes, or luxury articles. Only for bread or a can of preserves. And worst of all, the first victims were the students, who would form the future Soviet intellectual and professional classes. They paid a high price for their higher education.
Two old men, Nikanor and Peter, were employed in the constructional department of Factory No. 645. They had both been pensioned off long before, but hunger had driven them back to work, for they found it impossible to live on their pensions. At one time Nikanor had been a well-known engineer aircraft constructor.
Before the First World War he had worked at the Bleriot works in France, where he had helped to build the first aeroplanes in the world. He had known all the fathers of Russian aviation personally: Zhukovsky, Sikorsky, and Piontkovsky. Under the Soviet regime he had worked hard in the field of aviation and was proud of his many letters of congratulation and praise, his awards, and newspaper cuttings in which his name was mentioned. Now he was only a helpless ruin of a man. He had been taken back into the works mainly out of pity, for he was really too old to work.
From early morning Nikanor and Peter would sit at a table in a. quiet corner and barricade themselves off with a drawing board, while they talked about all the various kinds of food they had had in their long lifetime. Every day they told each other of some new dish, which they had recalled, out of the mist of the years. Thus they sat, hour after hour, day after day, capping each other’s stories, and Sometimes even quarreling over the method of preparing some sauce or the details of a recipe for mushrooms: The other members of their department thought them a little funny in the head.
One day I happened to overhear Nikanor complaining to Peter: “This is the third day I’ve gone without porridge. We’ve eaten all the mallows in our street, and I shan’t find any more anywhere else. Porridge made from mallows is very tasty, I assure you, Peter. Just like sucking pig with chestnut stuffing. Now I shall have to look up the books again; they say there are other edible roots to be found.”
Two hours before the midday break Nikanor took a pocket watch on a heavy silver chain, two more tributes to past services, out of his waistcoat pocket and laid them on the desk before him. Every few minutes he looked expectantly at the slowly moving hands. Fifteen minutes before the break he began to rummage through his drawers in search of his spoon and fork. Then he made sure his goloshes were firmly over his boots. All this was in preparation for the start, for at the age of seventy he was not very fit for the coming race. At last he even obtained permission from the factory management to go to dinner five minutes before time.
After all these preparations he trotted across the yard to the dining hall, with one hand holding his pince-nez on his nose. There he would have his dinner: a first course of boiled green tomatoes, and a second course of water-gruel made from oatmeal, and without seasoning - a serving only sufficient for a cat. He scraped his aluminum plate thoroughly, licked his spoon carefully, then back to work - and after work the search for edible roots.
1944. The Soviet army struck like a battering ram at the most important sectors of the German front. Soviet territory was almost completely freed of German troops. The tank wedges thrust towards the frontiers of the Reich. The soldiers in the reserve regiments waited impatiently to be sent to the front - not out of patriotism, but simply because of hunger. In the reserve regiments the rations were so low that many of the men went rummaging in the dustbins in search of cabbage leaves or a frozen potato.
“The way to the soldiers’ hearts lies through their stomachs,” Napoleon said. Stalin modernized the remark to meet his own needs. In the Soviet army there were twelve ration standards: front ration No. 1, front ration No. 2; immediate rear ration No. 1, immediate rear ration No. 2; and so on, down to the twelfth, called the sanatorium ration. Only the first and last of all these ration scales could be regarded as normal; the others simply connoted various stages of hunger.
The difficulties of wartime! Again and again I have tried to find this justification for all the misery that was to be seen at every step. I was a Soviet officer; I should know what I sent men into battle for. In those days I often asked myself what would happen after we had driven the last German off our soil. Everything as before? I had no wish to recall the ’heroic workdays of socialist construction’. In Soviet Union hunger has been elevated into a system. It has become a means of influencing the masses; it is a full member of the Politburo, a true and faithful ally of Stalin.
Leningrad. It is a proud name. I was there shortly after the city was freed from the blockade. Nobody knows the exact total of victims from hunger during the siege. As the Germans advanced, all the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside flocked into the city, swelling its population to almost eight millions. At least three million died of hunger.
One day I and another officer were walking along the shore of a lake just outside Leningrad. Right beside the water was a small cemetery; young grass was growing among the neglected graves. A block of red granite attracted my attention. ’Flight-Lieutenant... died the death of a hero in the battle for the city of Lenin.’ I read the inscription carved in the stone.
“Lucky blighter!” said my companion, who had taken part in the defense of the city from the very beginning. “Those who have survived the blockade are only husks of men today.”
“I’m a passive murderer,” another inhabitant of the city once told me. “I saw a man lying in the snow in the street; he had fallen and was too weak to get up. He asked me to help him; otherwise he’d freeze to death. But I couldn’t, I’d only have fallen myself and been unable to get up again. I’d only have frozen at his side. I staggered on, leaving him to freeze in the snow.”
I would give every citizen of Leningrad the highest decoration possible. Since the days of Troy, history knows no similar case of mass civic heroism. Was it all a strategic necessity, or simply a question in which Stalin’s prestige was involved?
’When one man dies, it is a tragedy; when millions die, it’s only statistics.’ Especially when the death of millions is contemplated from behind the Kremlin walls.
Shortly before the end of the war I traveled back to Moscow from Leningrad by train. At every station, every wayside halt, crowds of ragged women were standing with children in their arms. The infants’ faces were translucent, bluish white, their eyes were glittering with hunger, and their faces were aged, joyless, and serious. Other children stretched out their thin hands and asked for ’Bread, bread!’
The soldiers undid their rucksacks and silently handed their rations of hard tack or bread through the windows. Each of them was oppressed by thoughts of his own wife and children. They gained a momentary feeling of relief as they handed out their food, but they were left with a nagging sense of shame and bitterness. Can you feed a whole starving land with bits of bread?
As the German prisoners return home from Russia they will doubtless tell of the desperately low food rations in the Soviet prisoner of war camps. And as they see it they will be justified. By European standards the prisoner of war conditions were murderous, the soggy black bread was simply poison to a European digestive system.
I myself have been in camps for German prisoners of war and have seen the conditions. But I can only ask: did the German prisoners notice that the Russian people on the farther side of the barbed wire were fed on even lower standards? Did any of them think that these so-called ’Russian’ conditions were the result of the Soviet system and that in due course they will flourish in Eastern Germany?
Moscow. The last days of the war. A lively trade was going on in the city markets. Pale, exhausted women huddling in corners, a few knobs of sugar or one or two herrings in their extended hands. They were selling their meager ration in order to get milk or bread for their children. Bread, bread! In all eyes was the same mute cry.
The article that sold best - was the Russian homegrown tobacco called ’mahorka’ - 15 rubles a glass. The markets swarmed with war-wounded, without legs, without arms, in front-line greatcoats and tunics, with red wound stripes on their chests. The militiamen turned a blind eye to these violators of the Soviet trade monopoly.
If any of them did try to take away one of the war-wounded, the air rang with indignant shouts: “What did he fight for?” "What did he shed his blood for?" His comrades came hurrying up, waving crutches and sticks.
Berlin capitulated. A few days later all Germany unconditionally surrendered. People thought that things would be easier literally the very next day. That was the hope of people who had nothing but their hopes.
Now the first post-war year had passed, the second was drawing to its close, and we members of the Soviet occupation forces in Germany were reading our letters from home. As we read they acted on us like poison. Our bitterness was intensified by all that we saw around us.
One day Andrei Kovtun and I were discussing the situation in Germany. Little by little the conversation turned to comparisons between ’here’ and ’there’.
“The Berlin Underground is really rotten,” Andrei said. “When I compare it with the Moscow Underground I feel really good. These days I often catch myself looking for things in Germany that tell in our favor. It’s difficult to get used to the idea that all our lives we’ve been chasing after shadows.”
“Yes,” I commented; “here people live in the present, whereas we have lived all our lives in the future. Or rather, for the future. I quite understand how you feel. It’s a violation of the inward harmony, as the psychiatrist would say. The only remedy is to recover faith in the future.”
“Look, Gregory!” Andrei replied. “We’ve got splendid aeroplanes and tanks, a powerful heavy industry. Let’s leave out of account the price we’ve paid for all these things, let’s forget all the blood, the sweat, and the hunger. You’d think that now the time’s come to exploit all these achievements for our own benefit. After all, we haven’t seen anything of life yet. It’s always been nothing but aims and ideals for us: socialism, communism.
But when shall we really start living? D’you remember what Professor Alexandrov said at the Higher Party School of the Party Central Committee? ’If the proletariat of other countries cannot achieve their own emancipation, we shall stretch out our hands to help them.’ We know what that ’helping hand’ means. What if all the promises of wartime are only unsecured bills of exchange? I didn’t know what fear was during the war, but I do now. Yes, I’m afraid all right now.”
He was expressing the same thoughts and fears that possess the majority of the young Soviet intellectuals and professional people. We are proud of our country’s achievements, we are proud of our victory. We do not regret all the difficulties and deprivations we have experienced, the price we paid for the victory and for our country’s glory. But we who were living in the West were beginning to feel keenly that all the things which Soviet propaganda claims as the exclusive achievement of the Soviet regime are colossal lies. We used to have our doubts, but now the doubts have been transformed into certainties, and we cannot fight them.
We have come to the realization that we haven’t started to live yet, that we have only continually made sacrifices for the sake of the future. Now our faith in that future is shattered. As the post-war situation develops we are increasingly filled with alarm. What is it all leading to?
In those early post-war years Berlin was the political center of the world. And we were sitting in the front rows at the chess tournament of international politics. More, we ourselves were pawns in the tournament play. The post-war experience showed that there was no basis whatever for the hopes and expectations which Russian soldiers and officers possessed in the war years.
And what now?
“Politics is politics, but life is life.”
Andrei’s voice sounded in my ears.
“But what have we got out of life? The Germans are having a thin time at present, but they have a past they can recall, and they still have a hope of the future. They can at least hope that one day we shall clear out and they’ll be able to live again. But what can we hope for... we victors?”
Two years had passed since the end of the war. Now our worst fears were being confirmed. Once more hunger was stalking our country, a still worse hunger than in wartime. Once more the Party had decided to take the people firmly in hand, had decided to make the people forget and turn from the illusory hopes which the Party itself had cleverly stimulated and encouraged in the critical period of the war. The Party had once more decided to show the people who was the real master, and had summoned its first servant, famine, to its help.
In past days famine had been an elemental disaster; today it is an instrument deliberately wielded by the Kremlin.
A clock struck; I rose and looked round my room, at my feet, shod in leg-boots, at my blue breeches with their crimson stripes. My gaze passed over the gilt buttons of my green tunic. I had gold epaulettes on my shoulders. It was all so close and so well known - yet it was all so alien.
The walls of my room dissolved to reveal the dark, starry night over Europe. And somewhere beyond, far to the east, was the frontier of my native land. But there it was dark and still, like a leaden tomb.