From Eastern Approaches
by Fitzory Maclean
All next day we rattled across Europe.
A little before midnight, leaving the last Polish station behind us, we plunged again into the dark pine forests. The snow was piled high on either side of the track and stretched away dimly under the trees. Suddenly, as I looked out of the window, I saw that we were coming to a high barbed-wire fence, floodlit, and broken at intervals by watch towers from which machine-guns protruded. The train slowed down and then passed through a high wooden arch with over it a large five-pointed red star. We were in Russia.
Soldiers, their bright green-peaked caps adorned with red star, hammer and sickle and their long grey greatcoats reaching almost to the heels of their soft top boots, boarded the train, and a few moments later we steamed into the frontier station of Negoreloye.
Here we were to change trains. Outside, on the platform, the intense cold took one’s breath away. Then we were herded into the overpowering warmth of the Customs building. This was a fine big, bright room, decorated with murals depicting scenes from Soviet life. Across its walls streamed a procession of preternaturally happy and healthy soldiers, peasants, workers, old men, women and children, getting in the harvest, driving tractors, building houses and manipulating large and complicated machines. All round the room, in half a dozen languages, golden letters a foot high invited the workers of the world to unite. In the corners stood pots, wrapped in crinkly pink paper, in which grew aspidistras.
It was then that I first noticed the smell, the smell which, for the next two and a half years, was to form an inescapable background to my life. It was not quite like anything that I had ever smelt before, a composite aroma compounded of various ingredient odours inextricably mingled one with another. There was always, so travellers in Imperial Russia tell me, an old Russian smell made up from the scent of black bread and sheepskin and vodka and unwashed humanity. Now to these were added the more modern smells of petrol and disinfectant and the clinging, cloying odour of Soviet soap. The resulting, slightly musty flavour pervades the whole country, penetrating every nook and cranny, from the Kremlin to the remotest hovel in Siberia. Since leaving Russia, I have smelt it once or twice again, for Russians in sufficiently large numbers seem to carry it with them abroad, and each time, with that special power of evocation which smells possess, it has brought back with startling vividness the memories of those years.
At last we boarded the train. I had been given a sleeping-compartment to myself. It was not unlike an ordinary European wagon-lit, but higher and larger and more ornate, with a kind of Edwardian magnificence. On a brass plate I found the date of its construction: 1903. The conductor, too, an old man with yellow parchment skin and long drooping moustaches, was of pre-revolutionary vintage and told me that he had held his present appointment since Tsarist days. With shaking hands he brought me clean sheets, and half a tumbler of vodka, a saucer of caviare and some black bread and a glass of sweet weak tea with lemon in it. Presently the engine gave a long, wolf-like howl, and we moved off at a steady fifteen miles an hour across the flat snow-covered plain in the direction of Moscow. In a few minutes I was in bed and asleep.
Next day I started work in the Chancery, reading back files, studying the Annual Reports and, with my gradually increasing knowledge of Russian, ploughing laboriously through the turgid columns of the Soviet press.
In Paris much of our information on the political situation had come to us from our social contacts with the people directly concerned, French politicians, journalists, civil servants and other public figures.
In Moscow things were very different. Apart from routine dealings of the strictest formality with one or two frightened officials of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, whose attitude made it clear that they wished to have as little to do with us as possible, we had practically no contacts with Russians. It was notoriously dangerous for Soviet citizens, even in the course of their official duties, to have any kind of dealings with foreigners, for by doing so, they were bound sooner or later to attract the attention of that ubiquitous organization, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD.
The greatest ‘purge’ in the history of the Soviet Union was reaching its height. Fear hung over the city like a mist, seeping in everywhere. Everyone lived in terror of everyone else. Everyone denounced everyone else. Agents of the NKVD were everywhere. No one could be trusted. No one was safe.
For our knowledge of what was going on about it in the country in which we were living, we relied on the columns of the Soviet press, often surprisingly revealing; on rumours, for the most part of dubious value; on such information as one could glean from the little incidents of everyday life; and on what one could see for oneself as one plodded in one’s heavy snow boots along the streets of Moscow.
But I, for one, had not altogether given up the hope of seeing Soviet life at rather closer quarters; nor had I for a moment abandoned the idea of somehow or another getting to Central Asia. With the melting of the snows, I started to draw up a plan of campaign.