Women of Russia
|War correspondent Marguerite Higgins visiting Tokyo on July 19, 1950 while covering the Korean War for the New York Herald Tribune (AP Photo by Yuichi Ishizaki - source)|
This piece by Marguerite Higgins, the seminal war correspondent who covered World War II, the Berlin Blockade, and the Korean War (for which she received the Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Correspondence), describes a visit to a postwar Moscow in 1960.
From Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, pp. 35, 80-86:
Women of Russia
By Marguerite Higgins
We bumped through the crowded, bustling streets of Moscow, past the fine new buildings sprouting everywhere out of the jagged ruins, past the jungle of debris that was once the Kremlin and then the city was behind us. Suddenly Marina Kupryanova's tough peasant fingers gripped my arm. I had found this frail old woman 50 miles from Moscow vainly searching hospitals and registration centers for her youngest and last son. Now I was driving her home.
She motioned to stop the jeep. Turning, she took a long look at the strange sky line that will one day be a new dignified Moscow again, and said: "Moscow was the beginning and the end and now it is the beginning again."
My Russian is still poor and halting. I could just barely understand Marina, but I certainly shared her sense of unreality. I had seen Moscow at the close of the war in 1955 and my last impression had been one of decay and unredeemable chaos. Now it is hard to believe that so much has been accomplished in five short years of peace. Truly it is the beginning again not only for Moscow but for the whole of Russia.
My meeting with Marina Kupryanova was lucky both from a journalistic and a human point of view. She is one of those rare persons who can answer questions in a colorful and compact manner. Such a gift is a godsend to a journalist like myself who is fighting a daily newspaper deadline, but she has proved to be much more than a speedy source of information. This tough, amazingly resilient old woman is symbolic, to me at least, of the Russian ordeal of the last 43 years.
Marina was born a peasant, saw her husband, a revolutionary, killed by the White armies. She worked in the fields as a laborer, raised a family of five sons, and survived World Wars II and III. Two of her sons died in World War II. Another was killed, along with his wife, by a direct hit on a factory in the Moscow area—in 1953. The black sheep of the family—an MVD (secret police) man—was literally torn to pieces by his own people during the uprising in Moscow a few months before the end of the war. The fifth and youngest son is still missing.
Today, Marina, like millions of other Russian women—young and old—is alone, for this is a nation terribly shorn of men. She lives now with a hundred other refugees in one of the immense rooms of the huge palace which long ago belonged to the Sheremyetyev counts in the village of Kuskovo, about six miles from Moscow. Bunks of crude splintery wood are stacked four-high around the big rectangle; smoke from a dilapidated stove clouds the room; its acrid aroma cannot smother the smell of so many unwashed human beings living in such proximity, but it is home to Marina, for she was born there, the daughter of a coachman, 73 years ago.
After the 1917 Revolution, the Soviets carefully preserved the palace and its priceless contents of tapestries, carpets, chandeliers and objets d'art, along with the lakes, parks and magnificent statuary throughout the grounds, to show the Russian people how exorbitantly the nobles of the czarist regime lived. Red placards told how this fantastic private habitat was supported by the labor of 200,000 serfs. And everywhere in Kuskovo, the visitors were greeted during Stalin's regime with the slogan: "It is the Soviets who have saved you from serfdom." Marina has an answer to that in the form of a proverb I have heard many times throughout liberated Russia: "The czars held us with chains of gold; the Soviets with chains of steel."
As we drove on toward the suburb of Kuskovo, Marina's home, my mind went back to those terrible days of 1955 when the city, without leadership of any kind other than mob rule, lay choked with rubble and death, pervaded everywhere by the stench of disease. It had not been the sudden death of atomic blitzing which had caused the worst casualties here in Moscow. It had been the ancient scourge of typhus, sweeping through the panic-stricken city in the last months of the war like the black plague of ancient times, which had taken the greatest toll.
When the war ended in 1955, I had been one of the correspondents who accompanied the elite units of United Nations troops flown in to secure the city for the arrival of UNITOC (United Nations Temporary Occupation Command).
• • •
To me, as we drove through the rubble of the city in convoy that crisp February morning, five years ago, there had come again the realization of the deadly sameness of war. Though we had fought this war as humanely as possible, I was filled with a bitter sense of sadness and futility; for I had seen all this before. In World War II, in Korea, and now here, on a scale much greater than anything I had seen before.
The children thronging the streets could have come straight out of scenes etched in my memory from Korea. Hundreds of them, their legs like drumsticks supporting little bellies, puffed grotesquely by hunger, swarmed around our jeeps begging, grabbing (if they had the strength) for rations and then scurrying away to devour their loot. It was usually an empty conquest, for their sick stomachs were unable to take the rich, high-caloric content of the canned goods.
In some cases, these waifs had been lost or abandoned by their parents; but the majority had been in the care of state nurseries. Most of the personnel of these nurseries fled Moscow early in the war when the Politburo and, indeed, most of the Communist hierarchy, high and low, moved the seat of government to the Urals.
That first night in Moscow, we correspondents had found—and adopted as a temporary mascot—a ragged five-year-old whom we discovered wailing in solitary sorrow on the snowy corner of a ruined street. The refugees stumbling by him in the dark were laden down with enormous bundles and were often themselves dragging a child on either hand. They were too inured to tragedy, too satiated with their own sorrows to bother with the little boy.
The scenes of death had the same awful quality of repetition. We received the full impact; until the troops arrived, there was no one with the energy, or the means, to bury the dead. The worst sight confronted us in the ruins of Severny station. There, the typhus-racked corpses of men and women had been piled up in cattle cars and left along the tracks. The bodies were frozen solid, some in attitudes of agony, some only sullen and resigned.
Most of these unfortunate creatures, we discovered, were the remnants of Moscow's political prisoners. In a last vindictive act, the Red leaders deprived these "enemies of the state" of their chances of liberation.
Despite the typhus raging in the prisons, the MVD chief, the notorious Lavrenty Beria, had given orders, prior to his own flight, for the immediate shipment of all Moscow political prisoners to Siberia. These unfortunates were never transported farther than the railway stations. It had been a completely unrealistic order; the transport system was already shattered by the daily attacks of our tactical air force upon all the main communications centers. The real irony was the fact that, had these prisoners actually reached Siberia, they might have survived in the uprisings which took place there. As it was, however, these miserable prisoners, sick and starving, had been herded into the stations, where for days they were kept locked up in the cars or in the station building, like so many beasts.
This disgusting parallel with the Nazi era was still evident several days after our arrival. At that time, bulldozers appeared—slightly more modern than those we had been forced to use at Dachau—to shovel the bodies collected from all over the city into mass graves dynamited out of the still frozen earth. Because of the overwhelming numbers, it was the only thing to do.
The pattern of previous wars applied to refugees also. Those who remember the humanity-clogged roads of World War II will have some idea of what we witnessed in 1955 in Russia. The Red dictatorship had practiced the mass deportations of peoples to a degree never before found in history; and, as a sequel, the liberation of Russia produced one of the most fantastic mass migrations of all times.
From political prisons everywhere in the Red world came Poles, Lithuanians, Finns, Germans, Czechs, Japanese, Chinese and Russians, all searching amidst the destruction for some remnants of home and family; all desperately seeking some close human contact to help them back into the almost forgotten reality beyond the barbed wires. This great search, which reached its peak in 1957, and is even now going on, was already engulfing Moscow when we reached it in those early postwar days.
Marina, in the process of bringing me up to date with the past, told me of the blood bath which Moscow experienced during the closing days of the Red regime. Just as in the 1917 Revolution, the innocent as well as the guilty died at the hands of the mob. At the state nurseries, for example, some of the personnel had remained; and even though they were not party members, they were summarily tried and shot.
• • •
The chaos which had reigned in Moscow was shrugged off by Marina with typical Russian stoicism.
"It is almost the same thing as in 1941, when the Nazis were approaching Moscow," Marina said. "At that time, too, the Politburo slipped out of Moscow. Only the people were left behind. Nobody bothered to evacuate us. In fact, nobody bothered to tell us officially that the government had gone. The big difference in this war was the typhus. We had small outbreaks in World War II, but nothing like this."
With the complete breakdown of all transport, citizens had tried to escape the diseased city by foot, by cart, and even by dog sled—in the very few cases where the dogs had not been eaten. In a few instances, citizens banded together to try to get the trains rolling. One group had actually managed to drive a train 12 miles westward to the first big break in the tracks.
"The panic began to ebb," Marina said, "when the United Nations began parachuting supplies. But the chaos—no water, no light—within the city continued, since all the key officials had deserted long before. The looting and the mobs were just about what you would expect."
The parachutings to which Marina referred began soon after the United Nations learned of the uprisings in the city. Huge flying boxcars flew over the snow-covered ruins of the city, dropping medicine, food and disinfectants in crates attached to brightly colored red, yellow and green silk parachutes. The tins of DDT carried instructions for the prevention of the historic scourge of the Russian people—lice. (The price of these tins skyrocketed on the black market and soon were as valuable as canned milk, cigarettes and chocolate bars.)
In Moscow, as in all Russia, the population indulged in an orgy of revenge, once it was clear that a Red comeback was impossible. According to Marina, the prime targets among women had been the wives of MVD officials and the women officials of the prisons. I personally had counted several-score naked female bodies hanging in the bombed desolation of Red Square.
The anger against the MVD women sprang not only out of hatred for the repression their positions represented, but also out of sheer envy. For the MVD families were at the top of the rigid caste system that developed in the latter days of the Soviet empire. I had already learned something about this during the early days of the Soviet occupation of East Germany and Berlin.
I remember vividly, for example, the day in 1946 that the wife of an MVD colonel came with her husband into the salon of Gehringer & Glupp, leading fashion designers of Germany, and ordered in one swoop two Persian-lamb coats, one gray and one black, one long mink with turned-back sleeves, and a fox jacket. I got myself in bad with the fashion salon by reporting this incident in a feature article. The result was that orders went out to Soviet families: they were not to venture into the Western sectors except on official business. This, of course, cut off the fashion houses from some of their best customers at a time when customers were scarce.
I remember visiting, in 1955, the apartment which had belonged to Moscow's top secret police officer. What remained of the furnishings indicated a lushness so overdone as to be ludicrous. There were quarters for servants, a luxury reserved for the Soviet hierarchy only. In the kitchen, which had otherwise been thoroughly looted, there remained in lonely splendor one of those American-made combinations of blender-mixer. It was a machine which could do almost everything except talk, if you just mastered the very simple mechanism. It had been left behind by the mob for the very good reason that, unschooled in such luxuries, they had no idea what the apparatus was for.
The second rank in the hierarchy of privileged women in Red Russia belonged to the artists. These included ballerinas, concert pianists, opera singers, actresses, painters and authors. Ballet dancers such as Ulanova and Semyonova drew as much as $800 a month—over and above their day-to-day expenses. These artists lived rent-free by courtesy of the Communist regime, and even their jewels and furs were gifts of the state. Although they were the envy of the masses, the women artists were not, as a class, harmed when the upheaval came. The Russian people retained their respect for the kulturni side of life and people of talent, even in times of crisis. But the artists did not escape robbery and looting.
The third general group was the professionals: the women doctors and lawyers, the lady scientists and engineers. These women, overworked though they were, could from time to time indulge in such luxuries as silk stockings, cosmetics and even perfume. If they were lucky, they might even be able to afford their own apartments. It would, to be sure, probably consist of only one room; but at least they could enjoy human privacy, a very rare privilege in Red Russia. Under the Reds, 60 per cent of the doctors in Russia were women. After the UN occupation began, Russian women continued to take great pride in having a profession. Indeed, because of the acute shortage of men, the number of professional women will undoubtedly continue growing for some time to come.
The lowest category in the female caste system had comprised the majority. These were the factory workers and the wives of factory workers. Families in this class lived, as a rule, eight and more to a room. Kitchens and bathrooms were shared by at least two and, more often, by five or six families. In ages, the families stretched from grandma to young babies. The lack of privacy was provocative of quarreling and bickering even for the most temperate of personalities, and Slavs, of course, are renowned for their temperament. Labor-saving devices, such as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, were simply unheard-of among the masses.
Women at all levels of society generally held down some kind of job. Madame Molotov, the wife of the Soviet Foreign Minister, for example, was once head of the big Soviet cosmetic trust. Some women at the top of the caste system confined their activities to Communist party work or to running a household. But they were rare.
• • •
Women in Russia functioned as streetcar conductors, police, automobile mechanics, even as ditchdiggers. Marina told me that once, during the great famine that accompanied enforced collectivization in the early thirties (10,000,000 Russians died), she had had to substitute for a horse and draw a plow. All the horses in her area had been butchered by the hungry populace. And the Communists drafted the able-bodied—men, women and children—to serve as horsepower!
Because of long hours in the factories, women industrial workers had been forced to relegate care of their children to state nurseries. Marina claimed that it was a matter of course in a factory for the mother of a new baby to breastfeed her child while remaining at her machine. The child was "loaned" to her at specific times during the day. Thus the factory nursery system enabled the hard-driving Red regime to refuse all excuses a mother might put forward for interruption of work.
Actually, the much vaunted "equality" of Russian women amounted mainly to equal opportunity for backbreaking jobs. Russian women never held top policy-making spots in the Communist government; yet Lenin had promised that the Bolshevik Revolution would permit even a cook to run the country! The feminine sex was conspicuously absent from the Politburo.
Today the Russian females' willingness to do rough work is proving a boon to the country. The rebuilding of Moscow is being done chiefly by women. One sees them by the thousands, bandannas round their heads and rags round their feet, patiently scraping the bricks by hand, placing them in orderly piles, and sweeping away the rubble. German women were doing the same thing in Berlin in 1945.
Nobody knows at this time just how greatly the women outnumber the men in liberated Russia. United Nations experts estimate that the total Russian population fell during the third World War from 212,000,000 to 180,000,000 persons. At war's end, the experts estimated that at least 60 per cent of the adult population were women. Indeed, while this is a small point, the most popular song among the women here today is a lament for their lost menfolk, called Propavshiye, which literally translated means, "The Lost Ones." Since the occupation began, the population has increased at least 10,000,000 and, as the younger generation comes of age, the excess of women is being cut down.
• • •
There have been so many drastic upheavals in the family life of Russia since the 1917 Revolution that the current postwar emotional binge causes little surprise to someone like Marina. She has seen so much that she is beyond astonishment. We talked a lot about the teenagers, who, after a generation of intensive antichurch propaganda, present one of the greatest problems in Russia today.
"The attitude of the young in some areas of Russia today reminds me of the years right after the Bolshevik Revolution," Marina said. "In those days my children mocked me because I balked at the current ideas of free love. It was a time when marriage was a signature on a piece of paper and divorce could be obtained by a post card sent from one mate to the other. Abortions were officially sanctioned by the state. Even in our village they were performed by the hundreds."
According to Marina, the Soviet State in the thirties suddenly and ruthlessly reversed its attitude toward marriage and the family. The new moral code was enforced with a stringency indicative of the urgency with which the Red dictator, like the Nazi and Fascist dictators, desired an increase in the population.
By 1936, abortions became a crime punished by as many as 10 years' slave labor in such infamous camps as Karaganda in Siberia. So it turned out that many women strong enough to survive the disease and cold of the camps passed years in slavery for an act that was once official policy.
In their zeal to foster the family unit, the Reds finally made divorce virtually impossible. Still the "scientific" state made plain its purely biological—as opposed to moral—considerations. Illegitimate children were given the same treatment as others. And no stigma was attached to an unwed mother. The state wanted babies and it was pleased to get them either in or out of wedlock. But once the formalities of marriage were entered into, they could not be ruptured, lest this slow the process of procreation and inject human complexities into the controlled pattern of society which the police state had established.
This summer of 1960 has seen notable improvements. For one thing the great black markets in stockings, sugar, butter and coffee are virtually gone. Oddly enough, there is a thriving black market in one commodity: high-heeled shoes.
Russian women, whose longing for perfumes and silks has been accentuated by the drab years under Stalin, are still by no means free from austerity. Just the same, in Moscow today it is possible to find some Russian women looking just as chic as those of New York. The fashion shows which were arranged here by New York's Hattie Carnegie, France's Christian Dior and Britain's Norman Hartnell have, of course, influenced Moscow fashion. Queues of women, many miles long, waited to see the showings which were held in the Dynamo Stadium, the huge arena built in 1927, on the outskirts of the city. They were as popular as a World Series back in America. It was the first time that the average Russian woman had seen a real fashion show, and about 50,000 women attended.
As a result of these showings, the industrious Russian women set to and made (if they could not buy the reasonably priced, practical clothes which were the only types shown) dresses, suits and overcoats based on the designs they had seen. Castoff army uniforms and burlap coats suddenly appeared with a definite modern line; some even used flour bags to make quite presentable two-piece summer suits. Their owners, the women who worked at the airfield unloading the flying freight cars during the days of Operation Flour, have proved most inventive and their "Pillsbury Suits" (as they are called) are the rage.
Russian designers took the cue after the first showings and six months later put on the first all-Russian fashion exhibition (I call it the first because the average Russian woman had never been given the opportunity under the Soviets). The designs shown were not sensational, but certainly better than anything Russian women had ever been offered under the Communist regime. The stadium was used again and just as many women turned up. There was one comical aspect: instead of the light music which generally accompanies fashion shows, the Russians employed a brass band, which opened the proceedings with a roll-out-the-barrel-type popular song which has been sweeping Russia. It's called Stalin-Durak, meaning "Stalin the Fool."
Hosiery is plentiful now, but silks and satins are still rationed; foundation garments, due to an acute shortage of elastic, are also in very short supply. Such items as soap and cosmetics, which were almost impossible to obtain in the early days, are just now beginning to come on the market and at reasonable prices. One brand of lipstick, the first to be made in Russia on a mass scale since the end of the war, is selling so well that the factory where it's produced is now working a 24-hour shift. The name of this cosmetic best seller is Lyubit Vsegda (To Love Forever); this is certainly an improvement over the efforts of Soviet publicists of 15 years ago, who once named a state-produced perfume "Tractor 815."
The nonfraternization rules of World War II were never imposed here, and in the last five years hundreds of marriages have taken place between UN troops and Russian girls. Americans from Texas and the Western states particularly were enamored by the volatile Slav women; especially the high-cheekboned, blonde descendants of the Varangian (Norse) invasion of Russia. The Russian women (the troops call them "Jennies," a derivation of the Russian word Zhenshchina, meaning woman; the Russians called all UN troops "Ikies") were, for their part, at first amazed, then delighted by the deference shown to them by American males. They have never been on such privileged perches before and they are sometimes baffled by the details of their new station in society.
One day, after describing the strange but pleasant attitude of American men toward their women, Marina observed with complete lack of originality: "You American women must live like queens." It was, of course, an observation I had heard all over liberated Russia, just as I had heard it in Germany after the second World War.
• • •
It is truly heartening to see the Herculean efforts made by the United Nations to assist this beaten nation. Some of the suffering, it is true, has been beyond our power to alleviate. But we have always tried. I was proud to show Marina the work of the sanitation squads, the food distribution centers, the hospitals and mobile medical units. More often than not, the operating rooms were in tents; but, nonetheless, the medicines and medical instruments were there and the people were being helped.
We are, in sum, doing our best to carry out wartime promises that we are here as liberators and not as imperialist conquerors. It seemed that we learned something from our experience in Germany. And as the palace—Marina's home—came into view I could not help but think that the reason why there is little resentment toward us and why the occupation has been a success so far is simply this: we are letting the Russian people find their own paths into the future. In short, we have not tried to punish them into being democratic. — THE END