January 17, 2017

1943. "It Happens in Moscow" by Quentin Reynolds

Moscow After Two Years of War
A crowd in Moscow listens to a speech by Foreign Minister Molotov announcing the German invasion of the Soviet Union (source)
From Collier's magazine, August 21, 1943, p. 19, 48-51:
IT HAPPENS IN MOSCOW

By Quentin Reynolds

Broad-beamed peasants buying greens in the market; a U.S. sergeant elbowing diplomats at the ballet; a Frenchman with a hen and a rooster in his kitchen; yellow sun and swaggering Cossacks and a Southern sea captain murmuring, "Friendliest damn' town I ever did see"—that's Moscow after two years of war

Jean Champenois, who writes for the Free French agency, is one of the most popular correspondents in Moscow. He has a comfortable apartment, and the other day he held a cocktail party. Actually, of course, there are no cocktails in Moscow—there's nothing but vodka and some Caucasian wine. 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 flowed and ebbed in 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 in 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 up 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 per cent to the war effort. Correspondents who share this existence have also come to regard life here as fairly normal, although they admit that outsiders would probably disagree with them.

The other 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 of the Columbia Broadcasting System, and David Nichol of the Chicago Daily News, were among the lucky ones to obtain tickets. They joined in 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 had a cigarette.

We are strictly rationed on cigarettes here in Moscow. American cigarettes come our way 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 masterminds hurriedly rolled cigarettes, using subway tickets and walked happily around the 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 theater.

Military Boys Are Ballet Fans

The ballet theater and moving picture houses are packed every night in 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. I heard such an argument the other night in the lobby of the Filial between acts of the ballet Don Quixote, which starred vivacious Lepeshinskaya, a favorite of most Americans here.

"Okay, okay. So Leppy is great in Don Quixote," the sergeant was saying to his pal. "But what the hell, brother. How about her arms? They ain't long enough to work in Swan Lake. Leppy don't look like a swan. Now Ulanova really is a swan when she's giving out in that second act of Swan Lake. And how about her arms? Yeah, what about her arms?"

"You forgot about Semenova. She's no palooka, you know. Her hand movement sin Bakhchisaraiski Fontan got me, all right, and nobody can give out with Fouette like her."

"She can't sell me nothing," his pal said scornfully, and then the bell rang and they hurried to their seats.

Moscow loves its theater. In addition to the Moscow Art Theater, the Maly, Filial, Stanislavski and other old-established theaters, 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 Theater, bombed more than a year ago, is still closed, but Moscow rejoices over rumors that it's to reopen soon. In all, there are thirty theaters in Moscow and there's seldom an empty seat in any of them.

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

Every Man His Own Critic

Dmitri Shostakovich, who lives across the square from me at the Moscow Hotel and whose Seventh Symphony raised 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, streetcar 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.

The Soviet Union has lost nearly one third of all European Russia and sixty 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 theater and operas.

All out 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 play hearts or gin rummy (our only dissipation), we usually play in Russian. Families of correspondents here might blink in surprise if they heard fond sons or husbands look at a hand and cry out with disgust "Ochen plokho!" which means a very lousy hand.

If I may bring up the delicate subject of the drinking of alcoholic liquids, it might prove educational to future visitors to Moscow. As I mentioned, we get only vodka, wine and on rare occasions Russian champagne, an excellent if rather sweet drink. We are rationed on vodka, being allowed to buy four liters (about three and a half quarts) per month. It costs about 120 rubles (24 dollars) a quart at the official rate of exchange.

Say what you will about vodka, it's not a lovable drink. I can't imagine anyone becoming a vodka addict because he likes the taste and, as a steady companion, vodka is a dreary, unpalatable friend. The brightest minds in the American embassy have invented a drink composed of one third vodka and two thirds canned grapefruit juice, which is excellent. But the supply of grapefruit juice has just become exhausted. We do all we can to disguise the taste of vodka, but only one intrepid correspondent has actually solved the problem.

I had a personal interest in his experiment because it was made on the occasion of by birthday. The scientist responsible is Walter Kerr, of the New York Herald Tribune. When we have a birthday party such as mine, we all contribute whatever we have. 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, where correspondents are quartered, to produce three lemons, an unheard-of luxury here. And then his 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 look at 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 is the name of a very famous Russian gun which we are not allowed to write about. It has killed many Germans. It is a great antipersonnel weapon. So is this drink, but it makes birthdays hearty for very homesick correspondents.

Moscow never forgets that there's a war on and that this war is in her back yard. Rings of antiaircraft guns encircle the city and are manned by men and women who are eternally vigilant. I have visited them and can bear testimony.

No Complacency in This City

No bomb has dropped on Moscow for a year, but we all know that many times German bombers have attempted to get through the outer defenses of the city only to be repulsed by antiaircraft guns and night fighters, and we have had "alerts." 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 see them when we come back home at night, standing alert in the still pale night, for darkness doesn't really come to Moscow now until close to midnight. Yes, we expect air raids soon. But we have faith in defenses, both military and civilian.

Moscow is already thinking of next winter. Every factory, ever civil, social and political organization 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.

It would be absurd to say that the people of Moscow have all they want to eat these days. Naturally, the best food and plenty of it goes to the front. No one here would wish anything else.

The staple diet of the ordinary family is cabbage or vegetable soup with black bread. Occasionally they have cereals and now and then a piece of meat. But this diet, meager as it would be to an American family, seems to agree with Moscowites. American Army doctors, here to take care of embassy and military mission illnesses, say that there's very little disease and no starvation at the capital.

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 sees strange processions trooping to various railroad stations. Hundreds of men and women and children walk along with hoes, spades and rakes over their shoulders, bound for their own little plots.

Special trains, with transportation costing virtually nothing, take them to the country. They cultivate these small plots. City-wise Moscowites are rapidly becoming an urban agricultural community. Many spend the night sleeping in the open by their plots of ground and then work all day Sunday on their potatoes, carrots and cabbages. Moscow newspapers tell them how to till their soil and when to plant and harvest.

Victory Gardens—Russian Style

Only yesterday one paper carried a page-one story warning people that they had only 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—Mokhovaya, had a ten-foot strip of grass in front of it, running the length of it. Even this has been transformed into a truck farm which produces radishes, cabbage and carrots.

The ambassador's residence, large Spasso House, is likewise half farm and, under the skilled hand of Boston-bred Eddie Page, second secretary, thirty-three chickens, three rabbits and eight ducks are being fattened in a garage and in the yard back of the house.

City-wise Page thought he had made a ten-strike when he got rabbits. He had visions of hundreds of them scampering about and later gracing the embassy table. When weeks passed and the rabbits didn't obey their traditional function by multiplying, 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.

Now that summer has come, Moscow has thrown aside he somber winter raiment, and the streets are alive with color. Girls in bright print frocks mingle with crowds of uniformed men. The most common Red army uniform is a 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 are common sights on Gorky Street. Occasionally, a tall Cossack swaggers by complete with round fur hat and a dagger hanging at his waist.

The market on Tsvetnoy Boulevard is one of the centers of Moscow life. Collective farmers who produce more than their schedule bring their surplus produce here and sell. These goods are unrationed and may be bought by anyone who has the money. I visited the market this morning. Hundreds of women stood behind counters in the open, while thousands passed by with filled baskets; and yet prices were rather high today.

Bearing in mind that a ruble is worth about 20 cents, you can figure that if a pint of milk costs 35 rubles, that's seven dollars in American money. By the same token, a broiler weighing a pound and a half costs $150; butter is $80 a pound; and enough mushrooms to garnish a steak—if you had the steak—would cost $10. This is all on the open, unrationed market.

I suggested to a Soviet official that in Britain and America the rich are given no such privileges for buying extra rations just because they have the money, and that Churchill and Roosevelt are as strictly rationed as the lowest paid worker. I said there was no open market in Britain and America.

He answered that the open market is a necessary evil, but it has the purpose of encouraging individual enterprise.

What price Communism? I'm beginning to think that this is the one country in the world with no Communism.

In the market were stalls selling flowers. Peonies, lilies of the valley, forget-me-nots, buttercups, all brought in from the country by farmers, were eagerly snatched by people who wouldn't mind the lack of meat on their tables if the table could show a few flowers.

No one could ever accuse Moscowites 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. They never worry about tomorrow or borrow trouble. If you mention hard times sure to be ahead, they shrug their shoulders, smile, and murmur their favorite word, "Nichevo!"— which can be best translated to American expression as "So what?" Money is merely something to be quickly transformed into commodity goods.

It is typical of Moscow that, although prices are fantastically high on unrationed goods, you can 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, asks half a pound of sugar or a quart of vodka.

The Moscow maiden takes good care of her clothes. 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 recently, the 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.

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 here 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 knew it at home. Such pie!

Star-Spangled Solo

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. Hearing that Janet was an American, she had come to ask her to teach her our national anthem.

Happily, Janet 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.

Recently, 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 walk 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.

But you don't have to understand Russia to know that this city of Moscow, although dedicated to war, has not allowed the scanty food, the lack of fuel and the horror of battle front only an hour away by air to dampen its spirit or to shake its faith in its eventual destiny.

THE END