March 27, 2013

1948. A Cake of Soap

"A Cake of Soap"
"You know, we are performing a most important social experiment here in my country. But believe me, it is not very pleasant being a guinea pig."
The Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Photo by O. Smagin (source)
From the anthology As We See Russia published by the Overseas Press Club of America, pp. 125-128:

A CAKE OF SOAP

by BILL DOWNS
One night in the Metropole Hotel, Moscow's answer to the Messrs. Statler and Hilton, I had a visit from a bright-faced young girl, not the usual type of devushka, that managed somehow to show up in our lonely rooms. She couldn't have been over seventeen years old, and in honor of the occasion she was wearing a gaudy Mickey Mouse pin. At first I figured she was just another one of them. Maybe out of the stable of a foreign attaché's office, or perhaps a special friend of a minor official in the United States Embassy.

The girl spoke English, which obviated a lot of picture drawing on my part—my favorite substitute for a language. It developed that she had spent several years in America, where her father had been a commercial attaché in New York. Part of her schooling in the United States was in Brooklyn. And as far as I ever found out, she just wanted to talk with someone about America, and once again to try out her English. The English wasn't bad.

The time was the cold February of 1943, shortly after the great Red Army victory at Stalingrad. Perhaps it was the spirit of victory, the first since the gigantic Nazi attack on Russia, that gave her the courage to obtain my name and visit me. I never found that out either. Personal questions were seldom asked. Moments, some of which lasted for an hour and some for weeks, were plucked out of life in those days, to disappear in the memory. Questions about the past or the future did not play any part of those moments.

We talked at first cautiously, as was the custom. Under the corrupting influence of a bit of chocolate and some Nestle's coffee concentrate, the girl relaxed and began to talk more freely. She asked for more coffee the first, she said, she had tasted since leaving America.

The girl asked permission to take off her shoes. The wooden soles were wet. And with the composure that so many Russians have, she also removed her stockings and took them to the bathroom to dry. When she returned, she was wearing my house-slippers, as if she had known where they were all the time.

We talked about America, about Times Square and the subways, the bridges and the tunnels. She asked whether it was true that Deanna Durbin had died, a Russian rumor that seemed to have spread throughout the country at that time. Miss Durbin is still an unofficial heroine there since her picture "One Hundred Men and a Girl" was allowed to play in the nation's cinemas. The picture is extremely popular. Some of the Komsomolskaya (Young Communist League) bobby-soxers said they had seen the film as many as twenty times.

I assured my new friend that Miss Durbin was alive and well, and told her about the brownout in Times Square America's answer to the blackout in Red Square. And then the conversation got around to life in Russia.

"Yes," she said, "life is ochen trudna (very difficult) here. There is the war, of course. But life has always been hard in the Soviet Union. We Russians know it and accept it. You Americans know nothing about it."

I asked her if she would like some vodka. She refused. The Russians, particularly the educated ones, are the most Victorian people since Britain's last reigning queen.

I asked the girl if she thought life in Russia would be easier after the war. "Life will be easier," she replied. "The war will not be here. But life will still be hard, because our nation is still growing and developing."

Since it was to be an intellectual evening, I had the vodka.

The girl reminded me of my sister. She was about the same age and had the same boyish way of propping her legs up on the closest piece of furniture.

Yes, she continued, more Americans should see her country. We should see what they had achieved. Did they not have the finest library in the world? And think of the future before their country! All of the land east of the Urals to be developed. All the boys and girls in her school studying engineering wanted to go to the East, as early-day Americans wanted to go west. Forests and mines and farms to be made to serve the Russian people. Why, she continued, in some of the collective farms in Siberia, the Stakhanovite farmers were even spreading dried grasses and wood over potential farm lands and burning the cover to thaw the ground. Then they would plow, and by keeping the land cultivated it would never freeze solid again and could be used to raise quick-maturing crops during the short, near-Arctic summer.

The girl spoke of these things matter-of-factly. She read them in Pravda and was taught them in her classes, and as far as I know they were true. I later confirmed this enthusiasm of Soviet youth for the development of Siberia, in talking with Russian students. The political expansion of Russia may be manifesting itself westward in the postwar world. But the physical expansion of the country most definitely will be eastward if the teachings in the schools and colleges in 1943 were any evidence.

In Russia during the war, you seldom spoke of communism versus capitalism. In the first place, we were then comrades-in-arms and the subject was not important. In the second place, the official line of the inevitable struggle between capitalism and communism was a bit confused. Marshal of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin had indicated to Commander-in-Chief Franklin Roosevelt that the two systems could live in Diplomat-at-Large Wendell Willkie's One World side by side.

And anyway, being a guest in Russia makes practically every Russian your host, and they generally are too polite personally to bring up such embarrassing prognostications. At that time, the white lard and the fine-grained sugar and the canned red meat called Spam were beginning to appear in the ration of the Muscovites. They knew it was American food more by rumor than by credit given officially. And they were seeing the six-by-six trucks of Studebaker and Willys jeeps in the fighting areas. It was an era of good feeling, even though the Chief of Staff of the Soviet Stalingrad armies later was to tell us the trucks didn't count in the battle "because they don't shoot."

My new friend by this time was worrying about the ten o'clock curfew. I was worrying about getting her out of the room and also wondering if I was giving her enough material to justify her trip, in event she had to make a report to the secret police. We always suspected the girls of wearing a path between the Metropole and the NKVD's headquarters on Lubyanka Square, although no one ever proved it.

But in looking back on it, here was a perfectly ridiculous scene. A seventeen-year-old girl sitting in the room of a foreign correspondent. Compromising, at the time, more to her than to me. The discussion ranged from Hollywood movies through the Lincoln Tunnel to the politics of the Communist Party in Russia. The ten o'clock curfew was past, and she started collecting her shoes and stockings.

After she put them on, I gave her a piece of chocolate to take home. I discovered later that she had already appropriated a half-bar of soap in the bath. You got so you expected that and didn't mind it at all. Russian soap then more resembled pumice stone than a saponified detergent. The process was more scraping than washing. Anyway, Russians are among the cleanest people in the world, and a visitor there with soap just naturally wants to keep them that way. Particularly if they are your friends.

By this time my friend had dressed herself for the cold night. There was the neatly patched coat. The outer garments always smelled of wood smoke. This was because so many people lived in rooms heated by the make-shift tin, out-the-window stoves that smoked so badly. The iron radiators and heavy stoves long ago were taken as scrap for armaments.

The scene still remains before me as one of the most vivid in my memory of life in Moscow. With the deliberate movements of a debutante at the Stork Club, the girl shook out the gray wool scarf—a grandmother of a scarf, at least four feet at the corners. It was deftly folded, triangular, and centered over the head, wrapped under the chin, crossed over the breasts, behind the back, and tied in front. Pre-Schiaparelli, but warm, almost a badge of Russian womanhood since Genghis Khan.

The girl paused before going out, and said, "Thank you very much for the chocolate and the coffee. It was very nice to hear again about New York and to use my English." She started for the door again and paused. "You know," she said, "we are performing a most important social experiment here in my country." She adjusted her scarf and coat and looked solemnly at me. Then she said: "But believe me, it is not very pleasant being a guinea pig."
On page 304 the book includes a brief bio up to 1948:
BILL DOWNS (William Randall Downs, Jr.) headed the Moscow bureau of the Columbia Broadcasting System from December, 1942 to January, 1944. Then, landing with British troops on D-day in Normandy, he covered the campaign in northern France and Germany until the Nazi surrender, arrived in Manila to see the end of the Pacific war and landed with the initial occupying units in Japan. Mr. Downs was one of the flying reporting unit organized by Tex McCrary to cover the U.S. Twentieth Air Force in the Pacific, and after Japan he toured China, Burma, Siam, Indo-China, the Malay States, and Java with this group.

Before going to Moscow for CBS, Mr. Downs was a foreign correspondent for the United Press in London. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1914, he began his news career with the UP in Denver and in 1939 was transferred to New York. Since the war, Mr. Down's [sic] assignments for CBS have included America's postwar industry and labor readjustments, Test Able at Bikini, and a trip back over the European victory route to Berlin. Currently, he is based in Detroit, covering the steel, coal, rubber, and automotive industries for CBS's "News of America."