top of page

MOSCOW 1946-7

A host of vivid new impressions flooded in on us during those first few weeks in Moscow – the sunshine glinting on the gilded domes of the Kremlin churches, the Moscow River carrying its heavy burden of dynamited ice beyond Moscow to the plains, where it could safely melt away without endangering the capital’s basements, the companionship of the Chancery log fire, a favourite meeting-place for other Secretaries and Attaches, brilliant National Day receptions, the ballet, theatre, their beloved Russian music at the Tchaikovsky Hall, fine old Russian masters at the Tretyakov Gallery, the good-humoured earthiness of the peasant market, where they sold only their best produce for their own private profit, the shimmering light of silver birch forests, little kids with skates strapped to their felt boots making rings around your legs at Gorki Park, as they skated up and down the artificially frozen paths leading from the lowliest of seven ice rinks to the rink of the grandmaster class, the serene quietness of Sokolniki Park, where little wooden huts catered for the chess player even in winter, and the splendour, even in 1946, of well-stocked luxury shops in Gorki street, where the privileged classes could buy all they wanted.


The abundance in these shops clashed glaringly with the ill-stocked and often empty shelves of the Universal store and other shops intended for the general public.  Such contrasts between the privileged and the poor were to hit us for the rest of our stay.  The wadded jackets worn year-in, year-out by the milk-girl and the gang of women breaking up the ice of the roads jarred badly, for instance, with the fashionable furs and the well-heeled boots of the upper class ladies.  As did the one room assigned to the poorer class families, however numerous, kitchen shared with the other families in the block, with the three or four room town houses plus country dacha enjoyed by the privileged elite.  Of course the ravages of war had created very many shortages, and such luxuries as there were would not have gone very far if generally distributed.  But the wide gulf created by privilege still exists as firmly entrenched as ever.  A situation of overall shortage has long since disappeared, only to be replaced by chronic shortage of specific foods and goods, as agriculture and the transport supply situation fails to cope with their targets and the needs of the consumer.  Most people are by now better dressed and better housed, thanks to a vast programme of apartment block building in the main towns, and the trend can only go upwards. Chernenko can solve the agricultural and supply problems and keep the lid on the expenditure on military hardware demanded by his military backers as part of the pay-off for their support.


Our most shattering experience of all, however, was our total isolation from any meaningful contact with people. A 24 hour guard on the gate effectively kept us apart from any but the authorised Communist contacts, people in the streets shunned our gaze and hurried past, the parents of children playing with Peter never showed themselves, and on the rare occasions when somebody became inquisitive about the West and arranged to see us again, he would never turn up.  I was never conscious of being followed on my many walks from home or the Embassy, but then it was not necessary, for wherever I might drop in, there was the KGB agent, the head waiter, perhaps, or the barman, recognising me as a foreigner for my clothes, watching all that transpired, and ready to pounce at the slightest interest shown, by ordinary workmen enjoying a well earned beer after a long summer shortage, soldiers returning from the front full of goodwill for us, or Red Army officers in the restaurants anxious to dance with the ladies in our company. The warning never changed: “Pay your bill and get out. You are talking too much to foreigners”. Crestfallen, the more prudent would withdraw, but many, especially the officers, would remonstrate that it was no crime to wish to converse with their allies. That was that; they were frogmarched out and dumped in the street, and lucky if it stayed at that.


We were living through a most crucial and uneasy period during that first year. The educated and intellectual classes had come through the war with high hopes that relations with the Western allies would from now on be based on a permanent friendship forged in the great patriotic war.  To win the war, controls had been relaxed both at the front and in Kuybishev, to which the Government had withdrawn as the Nazi armies approached Moscow, and where the Embassies rubbed shoulders with the intelligentsia – actors, writers, pressmen, ballerinas – much more closely than had ever been the case in the capital. The Red Army had seen other ways of life, private property, individual freedom, the acquisition of wealth and material comforts, and other capitalist fruits forbidden to them. They came back, in spite of a period of “reeducation” at rehabilitation camps, clamouring for the same privileges, while the intelligentsia demanded closer cultural relations with the West and more freedom to express their own ideas and choose their own forms of artistic creativity.  Such an explosive situation could not be allowed to continue, and so, just as Molotov presented rebuff after rebuff to all Western overtures for a genuine peace settlement, so the whole of Russia’s intellectual life was, between the spring of 1946 and December 1947, put back into the straightjacket of hard, undeviating Soviet Communist orthodoxy.  It is a measure of the strength of the intellectuals’ resistance, passive if you like, but nevertheless a drag on the speed with which the move could be completed that it took the Party a year and a half to do so.


The campaign began with attacks against the short story writer Zoshchenko and the famous poetess Akhmatova for allegedly copying Western bourgeois models in their writings, ran through every form of intellectual life including the press and the theatre, and ended up one Sunday morning in December 1947 with a whole front-page denunciation of their great composers and the whole musical world for aping Western bourgeois standards, suitable no doubt for the sound-tracks of decadent American films, but not at all what the faithful Communist could whistle on his way to work.  Shortly afterwards a full confession of the errors of their ways, coupled with the inevitable required attack on the Americans for stealing their music, appeared in Pravda over the signatures of Prokofiev, Shostakovitch and Khatchaturian, the Director of the Conservatoire was made the scapegoat and disappeared, there was a fortnights’ lull, then back came the full bourgeois repertoire of such forbidden masters as Bach, Beethoven and their own beloved masters!


The Russians have long since developed their own way of living with the ubiquitous controls, a kind of resilient disapproval which makes itself felt, even if their protests can come to nothing.  On the night of Stalin’s full blast against the musicians, there was to be a Beethoven/Mussorgsky concert at the Tchaikovsky Hall, for which we had tickets, and we decided to go to see what would happen.  There sure enough was the protest, a seething mass of angry, disappointed music lovers, choking the foyer, cloakroom and ticket office, and giving vent to their annoyance by demanding their money back and in other ways which left them unidentifiable short of the arrest of everyone present.  When press attacks against Britain and the West became too vituperative, Communist friends authorised to mix in diplomatic circles would become embarrassed and try to reassure us, not there and then at the party where informers and electronic devices abounded, but in the safety of the centre of the Red Square (no longer safe from sophisticated electronic eavesdropping, I fear).  They would point out, if it were any consolation, that it was 30 years since any sensible man had ceased to believe in anything the Soviet press wrote.  But they could do nothing about this kind of unscrupulous denigration of the opponent with every crime that could be invented, an infernal technique, which even the highest in the land had to experience when they fell from grace.


Such protests as the intellectual world could muster were, however, as ineffective as they were dangerous, the terror was daily being intensified, and by early 1948 contacts with Western diplomats had become just too risky to sustain.  Some disappeared without trace or satisfactory explanation, Mikhoels(1), for instance, the leader of the Jewish community, and his deputy Vladimir Ilych Potapov, who were said to be victims of the anti-Jewish riots in Minsk, but whose untimely deaths must remain obscure as rumour succeeded to rumour.  The diplomatic community would never have known, had not the Moscow Evening News made a mistake and prominently announced their deaths in its obituary columns. Vladimir Ilych had been well known among diplomats under the pen name of Golubov, a very happy, likeable man who after war time service in Murmansk had become a ballet critic.  He valued and sought after our opinion on the often bad miming posing as ballet which would be staged from time to time for political reasons.  “The Flame of Paris” about the storming of the Bastille, for instance, which was put on at short notice to please the French, who had every appearance at that time of sitting on the fence.  Nothing could be more calculated to destroy the dance than the horses stamping and prancing across the stage, nor the droppings they left here and there as they did so.  We told Golubov what we thought and what he knew already, and shortly afterwards he had it taken off.  He took many risks to come and see us, and was certainly outspoken in his criticism of the hard line, and perhaps the Jewish community for some reason unknown to us had been taught a lesson.  Mikhoels and Vladimir Ilych had become two more victims of the ruthless reinstatement of the Party’s iron control, which effectively throttled the intellectual world’s yearnings, nurtured and encouraged during the war, for more freedom of expression and closer friendship with the west.


The isolation and tense climate began after a while to have its psychological effect.  Fortunately, as diplomats we at least lived in a gilded cage, for credit must be given to Burobin, the organisation providing for foreigners’ needs, that even in the direst postwar shortages and the most difficult periods of confrontation, they provided us with most of the material comforts enjoyed by their own elite (excepting the most exclusive Gorki Street shops closed to diplomats).  Our home was part of the former Finnish Legation, in a quiet alley near Krasnie Vorota metro station, panelled throughout with oak wainscoting, and warmly heated from the town’s central heating supply (a necessity in these cold countries and even more effectively copied in Mongolia).  Marusia, a Byelorussian, and Dusia, Ukranian, were very happy to serve us, Marusia in her rather superior way, Dusia more forthright and down to earth, my mental picture of whom will always be a sturdy peasant woman, skirt tucked into her bloomers, washing or polishing the parquet floor Russian style with rhythmic scything movements of her right leg.  She was indeed a rough diamond, reputed to have been a Stakhanovite until a girder hit her over the head and she was from then on judged unfit for any other but domestic service with diplomats.  Certain it was that she had a streak of devilment in her which would impel her to argue with our guests, and to teach Peter, then only two, all the pithiest Russian swear words she could muster, to be trotted out against her sworn enemy the battleaxe who did day shift on guard duty.  She delighted on feast days, of which there are many in the Soviet calendar, in hoisting Peter on her shoulders and making for the Red Square, where religiously and repeatedly she would point out to him the members of the rogues gallery.  “Look, Petenka”, she would say, “there’s Uncle Stalin (“Dyada” in Russian sounds much more endearing), there’s Uncle Lenin, there’s Uncle Molotov, and there’s Uncle Beria”, and so on.  Not surprisingly, he knew them all by heart, and there was a sequel.  We went on holiday that year on board the “Sestroretsk” from Leningrad to London, and going into the salon for tea, Peter was overjoyed to recognise in the bald head waiter his old friend Uncle Lenin.  Even greater was his joy when, looking around for more rogues to identify, he spotted the French Military Attache sipping tea at a corner table.  “And there’s Uncle Stalin!” he cried, recognising him from the shock of black hair and heavy black moustache.  Both recipients of the honour were highly amused, and responded with a show of recognition; thereafter Peter contentedly accepted, with his two uncles protecting him, the rough seas of the Baltic, and the corkscrew movement of the ship peculiar to that sea.  Nicolai, Marusia’s husband, chauffeured the Ford V8 pickup which he had with difficulty got on the road by cannibalising the wrecks lying around from the war.  He gave Henrietta her first driving lessons, but he had been a tank driver in the war, traces of which still show up from time to time in her shock tactics at the wheel.


We spent much time around the house entertaining, pursuing our interests and hobbies, or just resting from the trying psychological climate.  In winter the rather nondescript garden became a star attraction, for the tennis court which we flooded when the frost was at the right temperature made a superb skating rink.  Preparing it was a major ritual.  First the hosepipe would be warmed up in a hot bath, then I would run out to attach it while the dvornik rushed downstairs to turn on the tap before the drops of water in the hosepipe could freeze up.  I would begin at once to lay an even surface, swishing the hose rapidly from side to side, for any rest or hesitation would have built up a mound of ice as quickly as any icing cake.  Many colleagues came to try out the rink, the best skaters being the Hungarians and the Americans, the worst the British.  Lots of snow had to be shovelled off regularly, or rather cut out with one of those huge wooden plasterboards which was an ideal snow remover, and gradually huge mounds built up around the rink, the ridges of which became the favourite haunt of our lovely Samoyed bitch, Moiska.  She would lie there for hours contentedly watching the pirouetting, straddled across the ridge with front paws stretched out over one side and rear paws over the other, belly buried deep in the cold snow.  So hardy is the breed.


The Muscovites are justly proud of the brilliant ballet, opera and theatre life.  Glittering spectacles such as ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Sleeping beauty’, ‘Eugene Onegin’ and ‘Prince Igor’ are a vital part of their cultural heritage, identified by each and every member of the audience as part of their very own private legacy, and the rounds of spontaneous and rapturous applause greeting each well-known scene or movement would bring the house down.  For most of them it was a rare, memorable occasion which, as it was a reward for work well done, would be unlikely repeated, but which they would treasure for the rest of their lives.  There was not just one theatre, famous as the Stanislavski is, but twenty or thirty; even running to a Jewish and a Gypsy theatre, colourful and fascinating to begin with, but fading like everything else after a while under the endless repetitive pounding of the same old hard ideological line.  Few forms of art and entertainment escaped the Communist dragnet, but when they did, they were loved the more for it.  Obraztsov’s puppet theatre (his pen name means ‘Image-man’) comes to mind at once, that highly gifted glove puppet show which never ceased to create the illusion, minutes after it had begun, of watching real, live actors, and drew gasps of astonishment from the audience at the end when the puppet manipulators rose like giants from the well of the stage to take their bow.  It became one of the favourite haunts, and a magical, fairy world for young Peter, as the ‘Jungle Book’, Gogol’s ‘Night before Christmas’, the ‘Nutcracker’, ‘Dr Ai Bolit’ (‘Dr Ooh, it hurts!’) and other famous Russian tales unfolded before his eyes.  The Zoo and Circus, where the renowned clown Kar An Dash (“The Pencil”) was then at the height of his powers, were also favourite distractions, and the 30 Kilometre limit on diplomats’ movements embraced not only the Parks, but also the Moscow/Volga Canal, a popular boat journey past droves of bathers, some in the nude, enjoying themselves in the hot sunshine on the canal banks.  Also one of our best-loved picnic spots near Podolsk, set in the translucent silver birch woods on the banks of the crystal-clear River Mocha (which means ‘Urine’ in peasant parlance, I’m afraid), where we could pick wild strawberries and swim in the pure, clear water among the nibbling fish to our hearts’ content.  Only the KGB, alerted as usual by Nicolai the chauffeur, would have their man there, whom we would accept and chat with as though it were the most natural thing in the world to have him along with us.


To break out of the 30 kilometre cordon without detection was well-nigh impossible, but the Head of the Embassy Russian Secretariat, the Air Attaché at the French Embassy who had served in the Normandie/Niemen squadron near Orel during the war, and myself succeeded in breaking out early one fine Sunday morning, long before the guards were awake.  We were heading for Tolstoy’s country estate at Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula area, and the going was very bad, far worse than it could have been in Tolstoy’s day.  For big Panzer battles had been fiercely fought over the terrain, gouging out huge chunks of the road surface, and most of the time we were travelling on the grass verges.  The country house had been spared, and so had the lovely vista through the long avenue of tall trees pointing to the Western horizon, where Tolstoy wrote much of ‘War and Peace’.  One of Tolstoy’s descendants gracefully received us and showed us round.  Everything was jealously treasured and meticulously preserved by the Soviet authorities, a peaceful haven and a fitting place for pilgrimage to the home of Russia’s greatest son.  But an unpleasant shock awaited us back at the car.  An irate KGB officer was waiting for us with a bombardment of awkward questions.  How had we left Moscow?  Who had given us permission, etc., etc.? Talk of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of movement or of our wartime alliance cut no ice, and we were getting nowhere with an officer more worried than we were, when the Air Attaché suddenly produced his expired Soviet pass for the Niemen squadron.  The effect was electric, the officer’s attitude changed completely, he smiled, clicked his heels, and with a salute wished us a pleasant incident-free journey home.  We called on the way on the family of our French companion’s wartime girlfriend in Tula.  They were terrified, so deep was the dread of the secret police, and although with traditionally warm Russian hospitality they gave us tea, they were visibly relieved when we cut the visit short and made for home.


What a golden opportunity Stalin missed at the end of the war.  He had won the war by rallying the overwhelming forces of deep patriotism and love of the motherland. The people had endured untold suffering for Mother Russia, and it would have been a stroke of genius to have relaxed the Communist stranglehold and to have given them, under a more benevolent form of dictatorship, some of the freedoms for which they yearned. Many were deluded into thinking that the easier war-time relationship would be carried over into the peace, just as many in the West thought that winning the war together would lead to a real friendship and cooperation making for lasting peace and stability. No such thing was ever on the cards.  The Party had to reassert its iron grip the moment danger had passed, reverting to all the measures familiar to the Russians as far back as Tsarist times – secret police surveillance, repression of all opposition, secrecy and censorship, and isolation of the foreigner from the Russian people, and the Russian people from contacts with the West. If this had been the limit of their resumption of control, one might, while deploring the dangers of the isolation from the West, have seen in it simply the return to a harsher dictatorship made necessary by the unrest. One might have argued that it was needed to restore stability in an Empire made up of so many restless nationalities, and incorporating not only the Western-orientated Baltic States, but also the more advanced nations making up their East European buffer zone.  Another constant factor, even in 1948, was the fear and mistrust of China, with whom there are several borders in dispute, requiring them to watch on two fronts at once. But the Party did not limit its measures to the internal situation only. It is permanently committed to the ideological duty of proselytising the non-Communist world, and to this end the old Comintern was revived in the guise of the Cominform, which however never really took off, and for all practical purposes was more effectively replaced by the direct involvement of instruments of the Soviet State in any form of subversive activity which might undermine the capitalist world.  Quite apart from the national Communist parties, which depending on the party are to a greater or lesser extent furthering the aims of Soviet policy, the Soviet Union is itself directly engaged in overt and covert propaganda and espionage, exploitation of weaknesses in the West and the developing world, and peace campaigns and other publicity offensive directed at Western public opinion with the aim of influencing the people against the declared policies of their government and above all their resolve to maintain a strong defence. No wonder there is deep mistrust of this alien system, which never ceases its attempts to foist itself on Western democracy, and of the prodigious build-up of their armed forces and nuclear arsenals out of all proportion with their defence needs.


There can be only one policy for the Western allies in the face of these grim realities, and that is a policy of strength, firmness and cohesion in Nato, coupled with patience and readiness to enter into meaningful negotiations whenever possible.  For the Soviet leaders are above all hardened realists respecting strength when they encounter it. Forms of appeasement such as the unilateral nuclear disarmament movement are simply seen as signs of weakness and exploited by them for their own ends. Change cannot be brought about by such manifestations of Western pacifism, but only through evolutionary processes in Russia itself. Thankfully there are some signs of this – for instance, a steady improvement in the material conditions of life and greater consideration for the demands of the consumer, provided always that whatever improvements are made do not impinge on the Party’s all-powerful control of the State. The present rulers are also showing a more enlightened awareness of the dangers of the international situation and a cautious circumspection in dealing with its problems.  Perhaps, with the west remaining firm and united, with patient, persistent diplomacy, without interference in each other’s internal affairs, and through steady evolutionary processes, it might be possible at last to establish and maintain a more stable era of peaceful coexistence.

1. Solomon Mikhoels was a Soviet Jewish actor and artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. During the war he served as the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and his position as a high profile leader of the Jewish community led to him being a target in Stalin’s increasing anti-Semitic persecution. Disguised as a hit-and-run, he was murdered along with his friend, Vladimir Ilich Golubov (Potapov), who was a well-known journalist and drama critic, in January 1948.

bottom of page