From Eastern Approaches
by Fitzroy Maclean
Slowly gathering speed, the long train pulled out of the Gare du Nord. The friends who had come to see me off waved and started to turn away; the coaches jolted as they passed over the points, and the bottles of mineral water by the window clinked gently one against the other. Soon we had left the dingy grey suburbs of Paris behind us and were running smoothly through the rainswept landscape of northern France. Night was falling and in my compartment it was nearly dark. I did not switch on the light at once, but sat looking out at the muddy fields and dripping woods.
I was on my way to Moscow, and, from Moscow, I was going, if it was humanly possible, to the Caucasus and Central Asia, to Tashkent, Bokhara and Samarkand. Already, as I watched that drab, sodden countryside rushing past the window, I saw in my imagination the jagged mountains of Georgia, the golden deserts, the green oases and the sunlit domes and minarets of Turkestan. Suddenly, as I sat there in the half-light, I felt immensely excited.
In many ways I was sorry to be leaving Paris. It had been an ideal post at which to begin a diplomatic career, and the years I had spent there had been uninterruptedly happy. It had been, too, an agreeable city to live in. There was the broad sweep of the Champs-Elysées and the Avenue de Bois; the magnificence of the Place Vendôme and the Place de la Concorde; the grey stone of the buildings gilded by the sunlight; the green of the trees; the life and noise of the streets less overwhelming, more intimate than the roar of the London traffic. There were those pleasant walks on summer evenings along the banks of the Seine, under the trees, to the Ile de la Cité; friends’ houses with their cool panelled rooms; the lights reflected in the river, as one went home at night.
But now it was time for a change. I have always relished contrasts, and what more complete contrast could there be after Paris than Moscow? I had seen something of the West. Now I wanted to see the East.
My knowledge of Russia and the Russians was derived largely from the charmingly inconsequent White Russian émigrés of both sexes to be found in the night clubs of every capital in the world and at that time particularly well represented in Paris. From these and from an occasional Soviet film shown at a little Communist cinema behind the Odeon, I had, rightly or wrongly, gained the impression that Russia must be a mysterious and highly coloured part of the world, different from other countries, and offering a better chance of adventure than most places. In the back of my mind lurked the idea that through Moscow might lie the road to Turkestan, to Samarkand, Tashkent and Bokhara, names which for me had then, and still have, an unrivalled power of attraction. It was largely this that had led me to apply for a transfer to Moscow.
Everyone whom I consulted about my projects told me that I was deeply mistaken. They assured me that the Moscow Embassy was a dead end. Life there would be even more sedentary and a great deal duller than life in London or Paris. I should see no Russians and gain no insight into the intricacies of Soviet policy. As for Turkestan, I should never get there. No one, they said, had been there for twenty years. Even before the revolution the Imperial Government had done their best to keep out foreigners, and now travel there was quite out of the question – especially for a British Government official. Why not stay where I was until in the normal course of things I was transferred to Rome, Washington or Brussels?
A spirit of contradiction has always, to some extent, guided my behaviour. This well-meant advice made up my mind. I was now determined to go to Russia as soon as possible. In the Private Secretaries at the Foreign Office I found surprised but ready allies, for I was the first member of the Service who had ever asked to go to such a notoriously unpleasant post, and the necessary dispositions were made with alacrity.
And so, on the cold, rather dreary evening in February 1937, I found myself comfortably installed in a centrally heated first-class sleeper, travelling eastwards.