DINNER WITH STALIN
Few foreigners get inside the Kremlin. This writer did . . . and here's a closeup of a night behind those mysterious walls
(Although it is some time since the meeting of the late Gen. Sikorski with Stalin took place, this account of the visit has only recently been made available, and is presented here because of its detailed description of how Stalin entertains in the Kremlin.—The Editors.)
INTERNATIONAL correspondents know that the White House, No. 10 Downing Street, Palazzo Venezia and even Berchtesgaden are not altogether inaccessible; many journalists have been there and many still have a chance of seeing the inside of one of these houses. To meet Churchill or Roosevelt has always been relatively easy; to be received by Mussolini was not a particularly difficult achievement, and Hitler sees many people. Foreign correspondents know that the most inaccessible spot on earth is neither the Gaurisankar nor the Kilimanjaro, but a small hillock on the Russian plain, encircled by a sluggish river, separated from the outside world by a medieval wall, and full of abandoned churches and deserted palaces. Its name is the Kremlin.
Very few journalists have passed through the gates of the Kremlin. Very few indeed have had even the most casual meeting with that man, one of the most powerful in the world today, the man of a thousand legends, whose name conjures such loyalty and such hate—Stalin.
Mecca and Lhassa may be as inaccessible, but neither of them plays in the modern world a part
comparable to that of the old Moscow castle. The Mikado or the Dalai Lama may be as difficult to meet as Stalin, but the personal decisions of the Mikado or of the Dalai Lama are not likely to influence world affairs, but those of Stalin have changed a great many such affairs and may change others.
No wonder that the entire day of the visit was only a prologue to the great evening. It was a brief, icy December day, but it seemed to go on for ever. In the morning we went for a drive through Moscow, which was covered with snow and scintillating with icicles. The day was fine, sunny, but rather bleak. General Sikorski was taken to the Worobjewski hill, from which Napoleon had looked down on burning Moscow. The great city was spread below, with its smoking factories on the outskirts and the steely band of the. river cutting across it. The town was new by its smokestacks and old by its churches. Patrolling airplanes soared high above. In the streets I saw barricades far larger than any I had seen in Spain in 1936, in England in 1940, or anywhere else.
A few minutes before eight o’clock we came down from the general’s suite. The huge streets, recently rebuilt, were quite empty. The town seemed dead and the black-out was scrupulously observed. The Kremlin seemed to be quite near, more mysterious, medieval and Asiatic than it was by daylight. The strange outline of its towers, the odd pattern of the walls, seemed to be drawn in sepia on the silvery background of moonlit snow. Our cars flashed along the empty streets and did not stop until they reached a tall tower, somewhat Gothic in design, 100 yards ahead of Kremlin itself —the first gate. We stopped under it and the guards checked our driver’s papers
carefully. Then strong torches investigated the inside of the car, slowly, meticulously sweeping every corner. We drove across a kind of bridge over the former moat. Then there was another tower, a second gate and a new inspection as careful as the first. The silent beams of torches searched the inside of the car for some time. When we started again we heard the roar of the engines of our invisible motorcycle escort, accompanying us like black demon guardians. We were climbing the hill. It took only a few seconds. Then we stopped and the motorcyles grew silent.
Orgy of Light
SUDDENLY huge doors opened in front of us and a mass of dazzling light hit the darkness. It was an' orgy of light. We saw in its blinding glare the great, high stairway of gold and white. A red carpet ran down its middle, like a scarlet river. Globes of light and chandeliers recalled the Paris Opera House. Silent, motionless NKWD men lined the stairs. We were in the hall of the Bolshoi Dvoriec—the Great
Continued on page 34
Continued from page 13
Palace of the Kremlin. It was the overture of the spectacle. Fortunately on both sides of the hall there were cloakrooms, capable of holding the clothes of thousands of people. Their walls were panelled with dark wood, which dulled the glare of the light, and the world seemed more normal there. Under a large mirror there were brushes for clothes and for the hair. This impressed me, for the custom of laying out brushes is quite English and is seldom practiced on the Continent— least of all in Russia. This touch of modern Britain in the grim castle of Ivan the Terrible was most reassuring.
The end of the hall, which overwhelmed us with its lights and proportions, was also quite a relief to our eyes. The Great Palace of the Kremlin has been altered so many times and has known so many fires that parts of it have lost their original character. Catherine the Great, although she made St. Petersburg her residence, decided to put something of 10th century France into the Byzantine and oriental shell of the castle. She ordered Bolshoi Dvoriec to be rebuilt in the style of the Louis. Later several other less fortunate additions were made.
The first of the rooms which we entered had been altered much later and in better taste—in Stalin’s time. It housed the Parliament of the Soviet Union. The old St. Andrew’s room, very long and oppressively low, woodpanelled, was specially converted for that purpose. There were rows of benches, occupied on the great days by the representatives of the 160 nations known to the official Soviet statistics, the Uzbeks, the Chuvash, Zyrians, Buriats, Mordvians, Kazachs. The name of each of the delegates is engraved on a small metal plate, and in front of every seat there is a small loud-speaker to help delegates to hear the speeches made at the other end of the room without using ordinary loudspeakers. The Bolsheviks delight in such gadgets.
We passed through the next rooms so quickly that we should have had difficulty in finding our way back. They reminded us in turn of Victorian palace hotels, empty corridors in cold office buildings and antique drawingrooms lost in big country houses. The Bolshoi Dvoriec was becoming more magnificent as we went on; the frozen figures of the NKWD officials in their drab uniforms and softly treading snow boots of white felt were more numerous. They stared at us with impersonal indifference.
Finally we stopped under a vast ceiling, full of gilt, color and light. Huge chandeliers glittered with crystal. The long white table was covered with glass, silver and red flowers. I caught somewhere a glance of pillars of green marble or malachite. It was a colorful, rich picture, overloaded with glamour. Then I saw over the heads of General Sikorski, Ambassador Kot and General Anders, who led our procession, a small group of men approaching us through a long row of rooms on the opposite side of the banqueting hall.
They walked huddled together or so it seemed rather like a gang of workmen coming for a change of shift. Most of them wore dark clothes, so that the figure of a broad man of middle height, in a light suit buttoned up to the neck, stood out at once. A big black mustache, a crop of greyish hair over a broad forehead Stalin !
One is always surprised to see that the things we know from a thousand illustrations are just as we expected
them to be. What is Stalin like? Well, he is exactly like his portraits, of which there are thousands all over Russia, or like himself in the picture of Low’s cartoons. There is vast difference between the Soviet Union as it is imagined by people abroad and actual fact, but there is none at all between the popular idea of Stalin’s appearance and the truth. His hair is liberally sprinkled with white, but not his bushy eyebrows and characteristic mustache. He may be a shade stouter than he appears to be on most of his portraits. I did not see his pipe, but he smoked many cigarettes. What does it matter?
Portraits Come to Life
Ambassador Kot introduced each of us in turn and Vishinsky added a few words in Russian. I could not see very well the introduction of my predecessor, so I was rather surprised when the great man shook my hand and simply introduced himself, saying, “Stalin.” I did not know whether at that point I was supposed to tell him my own name, with which Stalin was likely to be somewhat less familiar than I was with his. The surprise was characteristic of the mixed simplicity and pomp of the evening at the Kremlin.
Then we shook the hands of men whom we had never met before, but whose faces were well known to us. The portraits of the members of the powerful Politbureau, which adorn the walls of so many offices and are displayed at the head of May Day parades, the photographs from the first pages of the Pravda and Izvestia—all came to life, talked and shook each other’s hands. All the gods of the Atheist Valhalla and of the Red Olympus were in the room. Hitler could have materially improved his chances if he had scored a direct hit on the Kremlin on that night.
I happened to be near General Anders, who seemed to be the tallest man in the room. He was acting as interpreter in the Polish-Russian conversation between Sikorski and Stalin. After a while Molotov and Vishinsky took charge of General Sikorski, and Stalin began talking to Ambassador Kot.
“. . . it happened sometimes,” said Stalin, “that some nations were driven out of their original ancient territories. Take East Prussia. I think one half of it was inhabited by Poles and the other by Lithuanians ...”
Unfortunately, just when the conversation was promising to take an interesting turn, thanks to Stalin’s reference to East Prussia, I was recalled by one of my embassy colleagues. They were putting the finishing touches to a Polish-Soviet declaration of friendship which was being drafted in the next room. I was furious to be put on diplomatic fatigue just when there was a fascinating journalistic job on hand. But then I could never have got there as a reporter, except perhaps in a crowd of hundreds of people.
However, after returning, and before sitting down at the table, I had another good look at one of the greatest men living. I have always believed that even insignificant details have a certain meaning when a great man is concerned. The old interest in trifling details of the lives of the great, spread once by gossip and now by the press, does not seem to be as futile as we might think it at first. Trifles, mannerisms, habits, may reveal much of a man. Short of other evidence, they may help to build up a picture of character and mind. It is a work of detection and reconstruction of a whole from fragments. I had no better occupation that night than to observe the
dictator of Red Russia and the Kremlin of old Russia. The inaccessibility of both only whetted my curiosity.
“Desert of His Own”
I observed Stalin for several minutes. He talked little and quietly. He listened carefully. Now and then he would leave the talking groups and stand aside, alone. He would then light a cigarette and smoke it alone. He was in a desert of his own. Nobody dared to break his silence or his solitude. Stalin was always the first to end it, with a joke or remark addressed to someone by name. The person so addressed would join him for a brief conversation and then Stalin returned to his guest—Sikorski.
His whole bearing, characterized by the simple introduction with the word “Stalin,” was modest and unpretentious, but he seemed to impress all those around him as a giant would pigmies, or a god, mortals. They all saw him without looking at him; they thought about him when talking about something else. One felt that they were all ready to carry out his orders at any moment. Stalin himself looked rather like a man who instead of having to issue orders, wishes his thoughts and desires to be guessed before they are formed. Complete calm, determination, ability to shrink from nothing, nothing whatsoever—these were the qualities one could discern in him that evening.
According to the French, clothes reveal their wearer. Stalin was dressed in his usual buttoned-up vest, and trousers tucked into big Russian boots. Some things which are unnoticeable in photographs could be observed at close quarters. His clothes, although apparently simple, were very neat. The beige cloth of which they were made was obviously of the finest quality and texture. The trousers, though tucked in Russian fashion, were beautifully creased. The boots were very well made. Even his heavy strong hands were carefully groomed and had an expression of their own. There was a meticulous finish about it all. One of my friends, who has lived in Berlin and saw Hitler several times, told me that the Führer’s clothes looked rather as though he had bought them off the peg and did not take care to match the dirferent pieces. Nobody could say tnat about Stalin.
At last we sat down. I easily found the card bearing my name. With unerring instinct I looked for it at the lowest end of the table. Stalin sat at the other end, on the opposite side, so I was able to continue my observation. He had at his right General Sikorski; at his left Ambassador Kot; and Molotov sat opposite him.
My neighbors were both Soviet generals—one of them an important, figure, General Zukov. They served both in the Army and in the NKWD —with whom General Anders had much to do. The table was laid out with rich simplicity. On lovely tablecloths of Dutch linen I saw plates of the Moskva Hotel—an old pattern of faded grapes and leaves marked “Imperial Manufacture of St. Petersburg.” Only the Imperial monograms were different . There were some pieces with the N. 11 of the last Emperor, surmounted bv the crown of the czars and some with A. Ill, recalling that fearsome bearded giant, Alexander III. In the centre of the table there were old crystal vases and heavy silver jugs of marvellous workmanship. The table silver, on the other hand, was modern, with the hammer and sickle. In front of each of us there was a long menu, in Russian and in French. Each guest also had his own tray of hors
d'oeuvrrs and his own bottles of various drinks.
Habitues of international banquets certainly would not think the dinner at the Kremlin dull or monotonous. Among the servants I recognized some of the waiters from the Moskva Hotel; of course, it is not a hotel in the accepted meaning of that term, but rather a special government hospitality house reserved for few people. They wore no livery, only stewards’ white jackets. Some of them spoke English.
I learned later that the Kremlin has no team of its own footmen, but borrows them from the official hotel when they are needed for a big reception. There was something else which suggested that the profession of valet had no bright future in this country; each of us had his own zakuski and his own beverages. It meant that the “help yourself” principle was not unknown to Kremlin banquets. As a compromise in favor of Western methods, the same zakuski and drinks were also served by the men in the white jackets. Thus there were two ways of obtaining the varied salads and famous Russian fish—the salmon, bieluga, siomga and, of course, caviar of all possible colors and of the best quality. They were washed down with Russian brandy, bitter zubrovka vodka, Moscow vodka and the best of all riabinovka, the red vodka.
Pompous and Menacing
The best moment for looking round the room was before the speeches and between one helping of caviar and the next. The room in which we sat, the old St. Catherine’s hall, belonged to the Frenchified—the luxurious part of the Bolshoi Dvoriec. It had a rich rococo ceiling of gold and plaster and its walls were covered with slightly faded strawberry colored fabric. Each of the walls was adorned at the top with an oval medallion, enlaced with a mauve ribbon with the Russian words, “Za liubov k'otieczestvu”—For Love of Country. I guessed that it was the hall of the Order of St. Catherine, instituted by the Empress as a decoration for distinguished ladies of the court. The dull red and gold pleasantly reflected the light, which gleamed on the splendid parquet floor and streamed past the thick green columns. Then it vanished in the depth of countless rooms, in a reddish twilight. It was gorgeous, impressive, magnificent; it was heavy, pompous and menacing. Everything had been done to make it a Versailles, but it was still the Kremlin.
The Gargantuan masses of food ¡ completed the picture. The Caucasian j and Crimean wines, the brandies and liqueurs from the Persian border, had a flavor of their own. In the dishes labelled with French names one felt the background of traditional Russian cooking—rich, spicy and nourishing. Courses followed each other quickly, or, j I should say, simultaneously. The i dinner proper started with two soups to j choose from, an excellent Polish borsch, which is clear and thin, unlike the | Russian variety, and a Russian fish ! soup known as shchi. My gastronomic j patriotism left me no choice.
After the soups there came meats, poultry, fish and game in a tremendous variety. The first bottles were replaced with new ones and glasses were filled again and again. Conversation became j louder, freely assisted by gesture and mostly terminated by guffaws of I laughter. The Polish and Russian i officers seemed to be the first to come | to a mutual understanding.
I remember few of the countless toasts which followed in the second j part of the banquet. They seemed j
Continued on page 37
Continued from page 35
episodes lost in the rich, luscious picture of that strange feast in which proletarian simplicity was mixed with shadows cast by a dead Empire; a feast which was held somewhere between Europe and Asia. Molotov was the continual speaker. He was tireless in toasting every one of the Polish guests in turn. The last of his toasts in that series was in honor of the young generation of Polish officers. Molotov very cautiously addressed it to the only Polish junior officer present, Captain Klimkowski, aide-de-camp to General Anders. The unexpectedly honored hero, a typical cavalry officer, was absolutely stunned when he heard his name in an official toast. He well might have been. A few months earlier he had been a political prisoner of the Soviet, in the Lubianka jail. Now he was in the same city of Moscow, but at the Kremlin, sitting in full uniform at a table with the rulers of Soviet Russia and with the Polish ministers, and being toasted by the Premier of Russia, Molotov. Rather too much for a gallant cavalry subaltern.
The end of the toast embarrassed the captain even more. Molotov lifted his glass toward him, which meant, according to the local custom, that Klimkowski should touch the Prime Minister’s glass with his own. He was at least a dozen places away from him, so that he had to get up and walk along the room. Klimkowski had just started his ceremonial procession when he was faced with a new problem. Stalin had risen from his seat and made a few steps toward Klimkowski. That was the limit. Stalin happened to be on the opposite side of the table, so that Klimkowski was in a dilemma— should he carry on his march toward Molotov or should he turn back to Stalin? He decided on the latter course and I saw the brave captain walk carefully, perhaps even shyly, along the slippery, lustrous floor toward Stalin and touch his glass with his own. Then he started a new journey around the table in his cavalry boots—which did not strike anyone there as odd at dinner—marching toward Molotov to perform the ritual again. After that our friend was allowed at last to return to his seat, which he did, probably with considerable relief.
The climax of the evening was, of course, Stalin’s speech. His way of speaking was as unconventional as himself. Stalin is a peculiar speaker with a method of his own. He asked questions, then proceeded to answer them. He used picturesque examples and anecdotes. He talked like a teacher, who partly instructs his class and partly hints at certain conclusions. He dealt with the relations between Poland and Russia. There were, he said, many quarrels, conflicts and mutual claims. There was a time when the Poles held Moscow; then the Russians took Warsaw . . .
“Well,” interjected Ambassador Kot, who as a historian knows the story of the Polish occupation of Moscow in the 18th century, “the Poles only stayed in Moscow for a few months, but the Russians held Poland for over 100 years. Why did you stay with us so long?”
Then Stalin passed to two topic's for which he is said to have a sentimental weakness—his revolutionary youth and Lenin. The Russians, he said, did not appreciate the sensitiveness of the Poles, a nation so persecuted by the Imperial Russian Government that it learned to hate everything Russian. “I did not understand it myself,” said Stalin, “but Lenin did.” Then he told
us a story to which everybody listened l in absolute silence, as they did throughout the speech.
“The Poles helped me to cross the j frontier between Russian and Austrian j Poland, some years before 1914. I was ! visiting Lenin, who was hiding in southern Poland. He understood the Poles. I didn’t. Once, when I was travelling in Galicia, the train stopped j at the station about lunch time. I was j hungry and I had a quarter of an hour’s | time, so I went to the restaurant and ordered luncheon. I sat down and waited. My neighbor on the right-hand side was served; the one on the left, j too, but I was not. Even people who j came much later got their meals, but 1 I did not. It was obviously intentional. I Finally, two minutes before the train was due to leave, they brought me a Í plate of soup. I am a hot-tempered ; Georgian. I threw two Austrian crowns on the table and I turned the plate of soup upside down. Then I walked out, still hungry. In Zakopane I told Lenin about this incident, abusing the Poles. Lenin,” continued Stalin, “heard my story and then asked: ‘What language did you speak to them?’ ‘What language? Why, Russian, of course.’
“Then Lenin began to laugh and he laughed at me for a long time: ‘You
don’t understand these things. Don’t you see that after all they suffered from the Russian Government the Poles must hate the Russian language? Like every oppressed nation, they have just cause for their resentment. That is why you were served last.’
“I understood,” Stalin concluded his toast, “Lenin’s lesson of knowledge of other nations’ susceptibilities and of respect for them. That is why 1 drink this toast to General Sikorski and his party, our guests, to their prosperity, to the honor of the famous Polish Army and the liberation of Poland from enemy hands. Poland will rise after this war greater than ever.”
It was the end of the banquet. The dessert, according to Russian custom, was served in the next room, a large red drawing-room furnished in Louis Philippe style. The two - headed Imperial eagle was still spreading its black wings over the gilded doors between the two rooms. The Polish and Soviet diplomats were still having a trifling discussion about the wording j of the Polish-Soviet declaration, which ¡ was to be signed presently. I had to take the matter up with Molotov. After listening to both sides of the case he started a train of reminiscence:
“Ah, when we were signing the pact with the Germans ...” He meant, of course, the famous Stalin-Ribbentrop pact, signed at the Kremlin on Aug. 23, 1939—the pact of the partition of Poland, which opened Hitler’s way into Europe. Not a particularly pleasant reminder. I interrupted him and said: “Don’t you think, Mr. People’s Commissar, that the Soviet-German agreement was not among the more fortunate treaties concluded by the Soviet Government?”
Molotov, who obviously had made his remark without ulterior motive and without realizing how delicate was the subject, protested his good intentions.
“And besides,” I added, “we hope that our present agreement may be more lasting than those signed by Mr. Ribbentrop ...”
Finally the literary trifle was dealt with, just in time, for everybody was rising from his seat. We all went into the dark pit of the endless rooms of the Bolshoi Dvoriec, from which the party of the Politbureau had emerged a few hours before to meet us in St. Catherine’s hall.
The revolution had never passed there. Old Louis XVIth furniture, dark Dutch paintings, dimmed Venetian
mirrors in gilt frames, all languished in the boredom of forgetfulness. It was another of the great country mansions erected at enormous expense and then abandoned by new generations of heirs who preferred less antique and glamorous houses. Over 100 years before the October Revolution the Bolshoi Dvoriec was left by the Court in favor of the palaces of St. Petersburg. The Revolution brought the capital back to Moscow, but it did not return the Bolshoi to the glory of the first Romanovs. The Imperial furniture was still there;(only the silent agents of the NKWD, fully armed, hovering in the background of the great dim rooms, represented the New Power.
Simplicity was certainly not the keynote of Russian architecture. After passing through countless rooms we went along strange corridors, stairs and passages, with unexpected turnings and concealed doors. They were probably much older than the Versailles part of the palace, perhaps dating from the time of the old Moscow of the boyars, before Peter the Great. It was a labyrinth as mysterious as that of the Minotaur and hardly less sinister.
Return to Modernity
Then we returned to modernity. There was a small projection room with a white screen and deep, soft armchairs. Stalin sat beside General Sikorski, Kot next to Molotov and the others occupied the remaining seats. Servants brought cigars, coffee and sweets. Stalin and Sikorski talked over a small piece of white board. It was no map and no draft treaty, but the program of the show. The lights went out and we saw on the screen newsreels of the recent October parade in Moscow, of Stalin’s speeches and then of Sikorski’s arrival in Russia, of his welcome in Kuibyshev, in Moscow . . .
The Bolsheviks, with their usual ambition to emulate the tempo of America, produced shots of the most recent events, taking us up almost to dinner itself, practically to the very moment when we entered the cinema room. The Kremlin has little to learn from Hollywood. It even surpassed it in sound effects, for as we sat down in silence, watching the show, we distinctly heard a distant booming rumble.
Uhuuu . . . Uhuuuu . . .
After three years of practice we had no difficulty in recognizing it. We looked at each other and the show went on. After all, the front was not more than 15 miles away. Heavy guns were at work somewhere in the night and their roar shook the thick walls of the Kremlin and penetrated to the private cinema of Stalin.
It was nearly midnight when we rose from our seats and began the return journey to the main entrance, through the old rooms, even more dead and somnolent than before.
The night was no longer as dark as before. The full moon hung high up in
the sky. The view of the River Moskva in its bed of granite, of the sleeping deserted city and of the streets white under snow was eerie and fantastic as ever. In order to assist at the signature of the Polish-Soviet declaration we had to pass to another of the Kremlin palaces, which housed Stalin’s private office. It was too near to use the cars. I liked the walk through the Kremlin courtyards, deep and black like canyons, between many churches, chapels, monasteries. All these temples were closed and obviously disused, or perhaps turned into museums. There was something grim and sinister, majestic and melancholy, about that castle sanctuary.
We went up by lift and Stalin met us upstairs. He did not go out of the Bolshoi Dvoriec with us and yet he was ahead of us. How? Mystery. A secret, well in keeping with the tradition of the Kremlin, of Russia and of the Soviets. In the large room with two big conference tables and walls covered with maps, rolled and unfurled like window blinds, the photographers were waiting and the documents were ready for signature. The statesmen put their pens to the paper, there was a flash of magnesium and all was over.
Our hosts bade us farewell downstairs, as we were getting into the cars. The sound of running engines made me suddenly realize that there still was outside this rectangle of red walls, another life, less monastic and monarchic, less intense and mysterious, less fascinating and more normal. The evening at the Kremlin was over and so was the tale of Scheherazade. Falling asleep in my comfortable, warm, modern hotel room, I had a subconscious feeling of satisfaction at having seen it all and having finished with it. I felt like a spectator who rises from his seat after a splendid dramatic performance, superbly acted and staged, and yet feels glàd that he does not have to live at Lady Macbeth’s castle, nor at Hamlet’s Elsinore.
Mail by Electric Eye
Sorting of mail electronically could be accomplished if a row or rows of black and white squares were used to designate the first main geographical subdivision in addresses. A second row would identify the postal substation and a third row the city postal carrier district. A form of rubber stamp would be used by the sender or at the first post office to imprint this design on the letter, utilizing a key sheet to prepare the design from the elements of the address to which the letter is to be sent.
Letter envelopes could then be run through a machine that lines up a photographic scanner along the bottom edge of the envelope and, as the letter whisked in front of the electric eye, it would do the equivalent of reading the address in the coded squares and then automatically route the letter to the correct mail bag or container. This would be repeated again for the second row and again for the third row when the letter arrived in the final postal subdistrict. Thus it would have to be looked at only by the carrier.—Scientific American.