August 13, 2015

1943. Life as a War Correspondent in Moscow

The Curtain Rises
A group of war correspondents playing cards in Moscow, 1943
From the memoir The Curtain Rises (1944) by Quentin Reynolds, pp. 156-165:
Jean Champenois, who writes for the Free French Agency, is one of the most popular correspondents in Moscow. He has a comfortable apartment, and one day he held a cocktail party. Actually, of course, there are no cocktails in Moscow. But the party was a success. Two ambassadors and three generals were present as well as several correspondents. We sipped sweet wine, and conversation in French, Russian and English filled the room. A Soviet general was discoursing with considerable knowledge on the strategy of the Stalingrad victory when he was interrupted by the shrill crowing of a rooster.

A moment later, there came the unmistakable triumphant cackle of a hen. Both sounds seemed a bit out of place in an apartment at the center of Moscow. I asked Champenois where the noise came from.

"I keep a rooster and a hen," he said casually. "Didn't you know? They're in the kitchen. Come along."

I went into the next room and, sure enough, there was a belligerent-looking rooster that made ominous, throaty noises when we walked in, and a plump motherly-looking hen that had just deposited an egg on the floor.

"I get three eggs a week from the hen," Jean said proudly, quite unconscious of the incongruity of turning a kitchen into a farmyard. "I may get rid of the rooster. He doesn't like me. I think I'll have him for dinner some night."

"If you could only get a cow now, Jean, you could have milk and butter and an occasional steak," I suggested.

"I wish I had a cow," Jean said wistfully. "I could keep her here in the living room. But how would I get her up the stairs?"

Things like that happen in Moscow. The ambassadors and the British, American and Soviet generals saw nothing out of the ordinary in Jean's sharing his apartment with the hen and the rooster. In Moscow, the unusual seems normal, and daily life is a series of paradoxes. Technically, Moscow is still a city under siege, and martial law is still observed.

The midnight curfew rule is strictly enforced, even on correspondents, and, during the day, avenues are thronged with men and women in uniforms, armored cars, American jeeps and guns.

Yet, within the limits of military supervision, four and a half million people live fairly normal lives—as normal as life can be in a city dedicated one hundred percent to the war effort. Correspondents who share this existence have also come to regard life in Moscow as fairly normal, although they admit that outsiders would probably disagree with them.

One night the ballet Swan Lake was shown with the incomparable Ulanova as the prima ballerina. This is by far the most popular ballet in Russia, and the Swan Lake performance has all the glamor and ├ęclat of an opening night at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. No member of the diplomatic corps would miss it. Neither would the British and American military missions stationed here. It was a gala occasion, for which tickets had to be purchased weeks in advance. Between acts, according to Russian custom, the audience paraded around the large lobby.

Two American correspondents, Bill Downs and David Nichol, were among the lucky ones to obtain tickets. They joined the parade, jostling elbows with gold-epauletted Red Army generals, with American and British generals, with ambassadors and with the beauty and culture of Moscow. But they wanted to smoke, and neither one had a cigarette.

Everyone is strictly rationed on Russian cigarettes in Moscow. American cigarettes are available only when a visiting fireman arrives from America with a surplus supply. Downs had a package of smoking tobacco, but there's no cigarette paper in Moscow. Two great journalistic minds pondered the problem, and then canny Nichol, with a triumphant cry, drew from his pocket a book of subway tickets. These are printed on very thin paper.

The two master minds hurriedly rolled cigarettes and joined the moving circle, the cynosure of envious eyes. It is hardly a sight one would see at a fashionable New York opening, but it seemed quite normal in the lobby of the Filial Theatre.

The ballet theatre and motion-picture houses are packed every night in wartime Moscow. At present we have a large military mission in Moscow, and the boys are great ballet fans. Hard-boiled sergeants who a year ago were arguing as to the relative merits of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis now argue just as heatedly about Ulanova, Lepeshinskaya and Semenova.

Moscow loves its theatre. In addition to the Moscow Art Theatre, the Maly, Filial, Stanislavski and other old-established theatres, there are many others situated in various Moscow parks. There are five in a park called the Hermitage, only a few minutes from the center of the city, and three in the Park of Culture and Rest. The huge Bolshoi Theatre, bombed more than a year ago, is still closed, but Moscow rejoices over rumors that it is going to reopen soon. In all, there are thirty theatres in Moscow and there's seldom an empty seat in any of them.

The most popular dramas are the old favorites: Anna Karenina, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Cherry Orchard (in which Chekhov's wife, for whom it was written, still appears), while in opera The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky), Carmen (Bizet), A Life for the Czar (Glinka), and Traviata (Verdi) bring in the crowds.

Dminitri Shostakovich, who lived across the square from me at the Moscow Hotel and whose Seventh Symphony won such rapturous praises when performed in New York last year, is not considered quite the greatest in Moscow, where the critical faculties are very well developed. Factory workers, street-car conductors, and Red Army men and women will argue that Dmitri, while a nice young guy, really doesn't belong in the same league with such big-timers as Tchaikovsky, Moussorgsky, Rachmaninoff or the brilliant Khachaturian. Toscanini, incidentally, sent Shostakovich the records of the New York Philharmonic playing his Seventh, but at a party given by Ilya Ehrenburg, the composer told one of the guests (a Russian war correspondent) that he hadn't heard the records yet. He didn't have a phonograph.

The Soviet Union has lost nearly one third of all European Russia, and six million of her people have been killed, captured, or temporarily enslaved in occupied territory. Yet Moscow, much as she grieves in private, sees no reason for giving up her theatre and opera.

All our military people here speak the language. With typical army efficiency, they were all trained in Russian before being appointed to this post. It's strange to hear unmistakable Brooklyn or Middle Western accents arguing amiably in Russian. All correspondents, too (with the exception of this one), know Russian fairly well, and when we played hearts or gin rummy (our only dissipation), we usually played in Russian. Families of correspondents might blink in surprise if they heard fond sons or husband look at a hand and cry out with disgust, "Ochen plokbo!" which means a very lousy hand.

The brightest minds in the American Embassy invented a drink composed of one-third vodka and two-thirds canned grapefruit juice, which was excellent. But the supply of grapefruit juice was soon exhausted. We did all we could to disguise the taste of vodka, but only one intrepid correspondent actually solved the problem.

I had a personal interest in his experiment because it was made on the occasion of my birthday. The scientist responsible is Walter Kerr, of the New York Herald Tribune. On such occasions we all contributed whatever we had. Most of us contributed vodka, but Eddy Gilmore of the Associated Press and Harold King of Reuters each managed to snare a bottle of champagne. It was Kerr who invaded the kitchen of the Metropole Hotel to produce three lemons, an unheard-of luxury here. And then this genius went to work.

The idea, he said, came to him in a dream. He squeezed three lemons into a large glass pitcher, cut the rinds up and threw them in, poured in a bottle of vodka after that, and then filled the pitcher with champagne. The drink was ochen khorosho—as the boys say when they want to bestow particular praise on something. Kerr had one thing to add that made us regard him in awe. It proved the value of the scholarly influence of the Herald Tribune.

"I have named this drink Katusha!" he said solemnly. Katusha (a Russian gun) is a great anti-personnel weapon. So was this drink, but it made a birthday for a very homesick correspondent.

Moscow never forgets that there's a war on and that this war is in her back yard. No bomb has dropped on Moscow for a year, but we all know that German bombers have attempted to get through the outer defenses of the city many times only to be repulsed by anti-aircraft guns and night fighters. Perhaps the enemy bombers will break through some night. Moscow is ready. Air wardens are on duty at every office building, factory and block of apartment houses. We would see them when we came home at night, standing alert in the still, pale light.

In the spring Moscow thinks of next winter. Every factory, every civil, social and political organization sends selected groups into the country for short periods. There they fell trees, cut trunks into logs and cart wood back to Moscow. There was a shortage of fuel last winter in Moscow, and thousands of apartments had to go without heat. There will be no shortage of wood next winter.

Moscow has inaugurated a tremendous back-to-the-land movement. Every Moscow citizen has been allotted a plot of land outside the city. Each Saturday afternoon, one would see strange processions trooping to various railroad stations. Hundreds of men, women and children walked along with hoes, spades and rakes over their shoulders, bound for their own little plots.

Special trains, with transportation costing virtually nothing, took them to the country. Urbane Moscovites developed into amateur farmers. Many spent the night sleeping in the open by their plots of ground and then worked all day Sunday on their potatoes, carrots and cabbages.

One day a paper carried a page-one story warning people that they only had five more days in which to plant potatoes, by far the most precious and sought-after vegetable in Moscow.

In the city itself, every back yard, every vacant lot has been cultivated. The American Embassy, on one of Moscow's main streets—Mokhovaia—had a ten-foot strip of grass in front of it. Even this was transformed into a truck farm which produced radishes, cabbage and carrots.

A portion of the grounds of Spasso House, residence of the of the American Ambassador, has been transformed into a farm. Under the skilled hands of Boston-bred Eddie Page, Second Secretary, thirty-three chickens, three rabbits and eight ducks were being fattened in the garage and in the yard back of the house.

Page thought he had made a ten-strike when he decided to breed rabbits. He had visions of hundreds of them scampering about and later gracing the embassy table. When weeks passed and the rabbits still remained three in number, a more rural-minded member of the embassy staff whispered into the ear of Page that, unfortunately, all his rabbits were of the same sex.

With the approach of summer, Moscow threw aside her somber raiment, and the streets became alive with color.

Flower stalls in the markets were gay with masses of peonies, lilies-of-the-valley, forget-me-nots, and buttercups brought in from the country by farmers. The flowers were eagerly snatched by people who wouldn't mind the lack of meat on their tables if they could decorate them with a few touches of summer.

Girls in bright print frocks mingled with crowds of uniformed men. The most common Red Army uniform is the green blouse, dark blue trousers, black boots, and khaki cap trimmed with red. Officers wear golden epaulettes on their shoulders. The immaculate whiteness of our own naval officers and trim U.S. Army uniforms were common sights on Gorky Street. Occasionally, a tall Cossack swaggered by, complete with round fur hat and dagger hanging at his waist.

No one could ever accuse Moscovites of being hoarders. Secure in the knowledge that pensions will take care of them in their old age and that medical care is free should illness come, they spend every ruble they earn to make life more easy. If you mention the hard times inevitably ahead of them, they shrug their shoulders, smile, and murmur their favorite word, "Nichevo!" Money is merely something to be quickly transformed into commodity goods.

It is typical of Moscow that, although prices were fantastically high on unrationed goods, you could obtain a precious, almost priceless icon in exchange for two bars of soap. And a dressmaker, instead of charging you rubles for embroidering a blouse, would ask half a pound of sugar or a quart of vodka.

The Moscow maiden takes good care of her close. This is especially true of shoes, which are now virtually unobtainable except on the black market at a cost of $500. Obviously, all the leather is needed for the army.

Coming out of the opera one night, a crowd was greeted by a terrific downpour. In Moscow, everyone walks (no cabs or private cars, and the subway range is very limited).

Shoes do not last long if subjected to many downpours, and this night I saw a half dozen women remove their shoes nonchalantly, put them under their coats, and brave the rain barefooted. And one army officer, obviously wearing new boots, followed suit.

Things happen in Moscow which happen nowhere else. Janet Weaver, Moscow correspondent of the New York Daily Worker, is popular with her colleagues not only because she is the only American girl who has been in Moscow throughout the war, not only because of the charm which seems to be part of any Georgia-born girl, but because she is the only woman in Russia who can make lemon meringue pie as we know it at home.

One night there was a knock at the door of the apartment where Janet and her husband live. A fifteen-year-old girl stood there. Her name was Nadia Tomova and she was going to graduate from high school soon, she said. She had been selected to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Nadia had a copy of the words, but did not know the tune. Knowing that Janet was an American, she had come to ask her to teach her our national anthem.

Janet had once taught school in her native Georgia. She took the child to the home of a friend who had a piano; there she taught Nadia the tune and the correct pronunciation of the words. At the graduation exercises, Nadia Tomova was a terrific success.

One day, Captain Herbert Callis, skipper of an American merchant ship temporarily anchored in a Russian port, came to Moscow for a week's vacation. I showed him around town. Captain Callis, whose home address is Blakes, Virginia, made a rather profound observation on Russia's capital.

"Friendliest damn town I ever did see," he declared enthusiastically, in his Southern drawl. "And it's the truth that anyone in this town big enough to talk is wearing a uniform."

That's almost literally true; and those who aren't in uniform are doing other war work. Moscow is a strange town, but it's a town of friendly people. No foreigner, and very few Russians, understand this country of paradox where the unusual is typical.

Once when I was very puzzled about something that happened in Russia, when I was trying to rationalize something that just wouldn't add up, I brought my perplexity to my colleague, Leland Stowe.

Lee said, "Don't try to rationalize this country or you'll go nuts." There was a Russian poet named Tyutchev who has been dead about one hundred years. A few lines from one of his poems have become a proverb in Russia: "You cannot understand Russia with your reason; you cannot measure Russia with a yardstick; you can only believe in Russia."

I have followed the poet's advice ever since. I think Russia has earned our faith. You don't have to understand the strange, paradoxical country to know that although she is dedicated to war, she has not allowed the scanty food, the lack of fuel, and the horror of battle to dampen her spirit or shake her faith in her eventual destiny.

Rumors reached us even in far-off Moscow that a big operation was due soon in the Mediterranean. I thought it was time I did some traveling with the American Army. I said good-bye to Russia, leaving the country with high faith in her destiny and with the conviction that when the war is over Stalin will be very easy for us to do business with. I headed for Cairo.

Moscow, June, 1943