Fiji

It is evening in Helena. After watching the McNeil-Lehrer’s Report and having dinner with Sheri, I went upstairs and sit in the sunroom with our Siamese cat, Fiji.  Looking from my second floor sun porch, I could see a thin layer of light pink sky above the nearby Elkhorn Mountains.  White cirrus clouds floated away in the higher sky, stretching thin in a wispy pattern.

As I watched, twilight crept in.  Figi was sleeping, curled up on my lap. This was our evening time together, alone on the sun porch. Fiji was used to me talking to her.

“Gigi, It’s swell to have a cat for a pal.”  It sounded too much like Hemingway.

Fiji opened her blue Siamese eyes in a squint, looking up at me, slowly closing them again.

“You and I have been pals for a long time, since Charles brought you home as a kitten, when he lived with us in Washington, before he moved to Texas.”

Fiji didn’t stir. She had heard my monologue before.

“When we visited a year later in El Paso, Charles was amazed how you still remembered me, following me around his house, staying near me, talking to me in your froggy Siamese voice.”

Fjii shifted position, stretching out across my legs, continuing to purr.

“I remember the day Charles called me in Helena after his divorce, concerned about you.  His mom was keeping you, but her cats chased you and forced you to live under her floor. You were dirty, and alarmingly thin. When I heard that, I packed the car.“

Liking the soft sound of my narrative with her name interspersed in it, Figi stretched out one arm, most of it now hanging off my leg in thin air.

“What Charles didn’t know was that I had been keeping a picture of you on my refrigerator. I hadn’t forgotten you.”

Figi was purring, her eyes closed.

“When I picked you up in New Mexico, you were scared and hardly noticed me. Your eyes were glued on the other cats as I put you in the travel cage. You didn’t calm down for a hundred miles, and I finally let you ride outside the cage. That’s when you relaxed, riding on my lap as I drove. You rode like that, two days on my leg.”

Fjii was still purring at the sound of my voice.

“That night in the Santa Fe, you were purring on the bed, and following me around the motel room like a shadow, like in the past.  I went out to PETCO, and came back with a red collar and nametag with your new address in Montana.  You were the happiest girl with your new collar, sitting on my lap as we drove north, me petting you all the way.”

A cold breeze came through a slight opening in the sunroom windows. I adjusted my legs, and Fiji opened her eyes and hopped gingerly down to the floor.  Her tail brushed against me on the way out, and I realized I was the lucky one.

Looking out from my perch, I saw people coming home from work in dirt-covered cars and pickups with the lights on. In the distance, I could hear the vibrating rumble of a train.   Helena Valley was becoming dark, lit with amber, green, blue, and red dots

Sitting there, I realized nothing has changed with the night, only our perspective. Night is an illusion, a disappearing trick, as the earth merely rotates one part away from the sun for a while.  Everything on the surface of Earth, although unseen, is still the same.  It will always be the same, lit and unlit, again and again, forever.

 

 

Advertisements

A Change of Heart

Krebs went to the Foreign Service from the Southwest. He learned a lot, and he had thrown himself into the cauldron, handling Cold War issues in some of the best bureaus in the State Department. He took initial assignments in Europe.

He had sacrificed his health in the process, and lost a marriage, too, and found himself a long distance from his three-year-old son. Along the way, he had learned his limitations. He was not good at handling stress. For some time, even as early as his first tour, he had begun to feel that he was in the wrong field. His talents were not those of a successful diplomat. He had good intuition, coming from a good knowledge of history, and was a good contact person, but lacked communications and foreign language skills.

His mind, he began to understand, was fuzzy, and his temperament artistic, centered on nuances and aesthetics. He would attend meetings with senior officers, focusing on their manner and how they dressed, rather than the substance of what they were explaining. He was not a good staffer, and hated crisis situations.

Gradually, Krebs began to change. First, he lost some of his ambition, seeing the cost success took on one’s private life. The setback to his health, his more realistic self-appraisal, and the cost to his marriage, had contributed to a new attitude. He began to choose easier, less glamorous, assignments. The loss of excessive ambition was a good thing.

The second change was that he learned to restrain the emotional side of his nature. His mother’s stroke, coming on top of his divorce, seemed to throw everything into overload. Working on Ethiopian famine that claimed two million lives, also had a great effect on him. Merely retelling the stories of children walking to feeding camps led him to tears. The only way he could cope with his mother’s illness, divorce, and the job was to push his feelings into the background. It was a case of denial. Except for his son, he pushed things out of his mind.

The problem was that he over-reacted, and turned off his emotions almost altogether. He lost empathy and avoided relationships. He let friendships lapse. It bothered him, not being able to feel. But, it was better than the anxiety before.

On the positive side, he had regained self-confidence working on Ethiopia, where he had distinguished himself. This was followed by a study tour at Berkeley, a reward. He became more self-contained and less ambitious, with a better sense of himself and what he believed.

In the early days of his subsequent tour in central Africa, he had gotten along well at first with the Ambassador, who had mentored him. But, Krebs’ new self-awareness began to change him. In the past, he had gone along with policies that bothered him, but here he rebelled, opposing U.S. support for a dictator who was our ally. During a discussion of the annual human rights report, Krebs argued we should not in good faith certify, as Congress required, that improved freedom exists in the country. As the Embassy’s Political-Military Officer, Krebs objected to U.S. military cooperation with the local government.

The Ambassador called Krebs in for a private meeting, asking “for his full support,” saying we can not always choose which governments to back, that we gain more by engaging this particular dictator, and, moreover, that we have strategic interests in the country which the local government protects, and these are not a trifle. Krebs countered, by saying “our long term interests in staying in country are actually undermined by supporting the local government.”  By starting to kill rather than imprison his opponents, the dictator has “crossed the Rubicon,” and would bring himself down. We will have been seen as collaborators.  What we need to do, Krebs argued, was show the people that there was hope for the democratic opposition, and that someone was on the people’s side.

The Ambassador agreed with Krebs on the dictator, whom we had to move to a better direction. We would continue to fight him on democracy and human rights matters. But Krebs was underestimating the need for stability.  Closing the argument, the Ambassador referred to “high-level support at all levels” for our policy, which the Embassy was only implementing. “The issue had already been decided in Washington.”

Out of personal loyalty, the Ambassador did not send Krebs home for inability to support his policy, which he could have. But, Krebs was cut out of the loop for the rest of his tour. He no longer saw intelligence reports or held the political-military portfolio. Krebs, for his part, continued to respect the Ambassador. It was simply a matter of balancing idealism and realism in American foreign policy. He and the Ambassador had different ways of attaining that balance.

Krebs received a lukewarm annual evaluation, ensuring no promotion, perhaps for five years. Those were the costs of dissent at a time when you could be thrown out for lack of promotions. But, for Krebs, this was an important step in his life. He had stood up for something.  He had grown in the process and discovered himself. He would live his life, not making big issues, but would calmly go about his life in a rational way, but would not be afraid of taking consequential decisions. He would not be afraid in general.

He found it suddenly easier to make decisions. Things became clearer; he had a more rational outlook.  He would no longer agonize over his son, but would spend vacations with him, and give him financial security and expand their time together over time. He would not worry about his own health problems. He would develop his side interests and moderate his career. Life was not about vertical development up the success ladder, but about horizontal development as a person with hobbies and family. The British understood that.  He would no longer just drift and allow decisions to be made for him. He would live for acquiring knowledge and writing and perhaps teaching someday.

Suddenly, his emotions came back as well, perhaps as a result of his fighting for the human rights. He had been rejuvenated. He had put aside ambition and fought the system, and had still survived with his honor intact. There would be good tours and advancement before him.

During his home leave, Krebs stopped over in Brussels, where he spent time at the Royal Museum. Looking at the Sumerian cuneiform scrolls, he launched into a new hobby, the study of ancient civilizations and humanities.  He would use future vacations to tour the museums of Europe. He was consumed by a desire for knowledge.

From this point on, Krebs’ career was divided between his work and his private interests, as the latter began to occupy more of his thinking.  He enjoyed the Foreign Service for the travel and the contact with foreign cultures.  But, international relations, which had occupied him since his worked in Germany as a college sophomore, and even before, as a boy in Mexico, was now taking second place to his original loves in college, the humanities, history, and American literature.

He found himself going through the motions in his assignments, making the most of them, learning about Africa and Russia, and advancing U.S. interests, but he was increasingly interested in time off and reading.  He would live for retirement, where he would reorient himself to the humanities. He would write or teach, starting a new chapter, and stay close to his son. That would come soon. He saw himself like Dick Diver, in Tender is the Night. How did Fitzgerald put it?  He was “like Grant at Galena, biding his time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film Review: “The Fog of War”

I watched the Errol Morris documentary again entitled “The Fog of War.”  The subtitle is “Eleven Lessons in the Life of Robert McNamara.” My wife claims I have watched this dozens of times. It won an Oscar in 2003.

McNamara, at age 85 when the documentary was filmed, has some good lessons. He participated in planning for Curtis LeMay’s 1945 fire bombings of Japan, the Vietnam War, and “three crises that took us to the brink with the Russians”: the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kosigyn’s threat, which I hadn’t heard before, made during the 1967 Six Day (Middle East) War, “if you want war, you’ll get war,” apparently related to reports that America was involved in Israel’s air victories.  I assume the third crisis was Berlin 1961.

McNamara cited the failure of our Vietnam policy, saying the lesson was that the United States should never act unilaterally.  If we couldn’t persuade the Brits, Europeans, Japanese and other allies at the time who share our values of the worthiness of the cause, we should not have gone it alone.

On the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara’s lesson was that you must empathize with your adversary.  Kennedy said we would never get the missiles out (of Cuba) by negotiation. Ambassador Tommy (Llewellyn) Thompson had the guts to disagree with Kennedy in EXCOM meetings, as we heard on tape, saying there was a way out, and that Kennedy could work with Khrushchev, who was not necessarily under the control of his military hard liners.  We could offer a quid, no invasion of Cuba, which would be sufficient for Khrushchev’s own political purposes.  Khrushchev had gotten himself in a bind, but he could get out of it by saying to the Presidium, “Kennedy was going to invade, and I saved Cuba.” In Vietnam, by contrast, McNamara charges that we did not empathize with our enemy.  We saw the war from our own Cold War perspective and never understood North Vietnam’s view of the struggle as one for independence.

Also, in fighting wars, we have to ensure in the future that we apply the principle of proportionality.  No matter what Curtis LeMay felt, it was not right to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with fire-bombings and two atomic bombs in order to spare the lives of American soldiers who would have to invade Japan.  We were, McNamara claimed, war criminals.

McNamara claims to have been privately arguing with President Johnson to get the U.S. out of Vietnam while publicly supporting the war.  I’m not sure that this stands up, given what other historians have said about McNamara and what I remember.  Perhaps the most compelling message of the film related to Vietnam and the Quaker protester, Morrison, who burnt himself to death at the Pentagon beneath McNamara’s window, throwing his infant daughter to safety just in time.  Morrison’s wife, McNamara recounts, sadly said the lesson was simply that people must stop killing each other.

McNamara says we are bound to make mistakes, but should try to learn from them.  It became clear to me, watching LBJ’s pondering the War in Vietnam, that President George W. Bush made the same mistakes in Iraq, forty years later, getting mixed up in a civil war and posturing it in larger geo-strategic terms, seeing it as a fight for freedom, relying on faulty intelligence, and believing in military might.

McNamara’s lessons are valuable. It should be the primary objective of any President to keep the nation out of war.  We should never get involved unilaterally in military conflict, except for direct danger to the U.S. mainland. Most important, given the danger of nuclear weapons, it is inevitable that nations will be destroyed someday.  We need to rethink our attitudes on killing and war before it is to late. This is a problem with human nature that we need to correct, the need for weapons and aggression. We have to change our mind set, now with nuclear weapons.  Kennedy and Khrushchev and Castro were all rational men, and yet came close to destroying the world in 1962.

McNamara asked Castro thirty years after the crisis, in 1992, if he would have recommended to Moscow that they launch the IRBMs at the United States had we invaded, and Castro said yes, even if Cuba were destroyed.  That was pure madness.

The film itself is magical, with Philip Glass’ music and beautiful slow motion scenes of Japanese walking the streets of modern Tokyo, interspersed with McNamara’s voiceover talking about the devastation of Japan in 1945, with terrible statistics turned into images of numbers falling from the sky like bombs, and with clips of sailors on U.S. ships imposing the quarantine on Cuba in 1962 and on the Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1965, and recordings of LBJ’s talking to McNamara on the phone, demanding escalation in Vietnam, and slow motion sequences of Vietnamese on bicycles in the streets of Saigon while talking about “Rolling Thunder.” All this is done with the haunting, retrospective music in the background, with three rising scale flute notes breaking through at times, suggesting peril and momentous events.

 

Thinking About Hemingway

I am thinking about Hemingway, planning a course on his novels, once we finish his short stories.  I would enjoy this, being able to read prose passages from For Whom the Bell Tolls (“Nay Rabbit, I won’t be going to Madrid with you”); Islands in the Stream (“He was happy on the flying bridge”); A Farewell to Arms (“She can’t die, but what if she does”); Hemingway’s walk with Bill Gorton through the streets of Paris, starting at the Left Bank, in A Moveable Feast; N”Cola’s laughing at the hyena in Green Hills of Africa; and Brett and Jake in the horse taxi at the Madrid Palace hotel in The Sun Also Rises.  Maybe add Belmonte’s scorning of the crowd in Death in the Afternoon and Cantrell’s handling of the surly guide in duck hunting in Across the River and Into the Trees.

Teaching Hemingway, like teaching Frank Lloyd Wright, has helped me see the forest for the trees, gaining understanding.  At first, I was just carried forward by my passion and the detail, only now discovering what Hemingway was all about.  I started with a few simple themes, elaborated during the initial lectures on short stories: survival in a violent world; the use of courage and dignity to persevere; the importance of ritual and routines and simple pleasures; the recuperative power of nature; and the disillusionment, psychic shock, and Existentialism of the Lost Generation.  I began to understand heroes like Nick in “Big Two Hearted River” and the Major in “In Another Country,” the haunting prose, the impressionistic descriptions framing laconic dialogue, the clear glass descriptions of nature, the irony and pathos.  Mainly I love the beautiful slices of life: World War I Italy, 1920s Paris’ and its Luxembourg Gardens, races at Auteil, and the Velidrome,  the Madrid of “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” and Madrid in the Spanish Civil War.

Hemingway brings World War I and the Spanish Civil War alive like no other writing.  He brings post war Paris alive like Fitzgerald does in Tender is the Night.  I began to piece themes together.  The Sun Also Rises was about people coping, Brett and Michael, and Robert failing, and Jake coping and enduring, and Bill Gorton and alcohol.  It is the same for the short stories– a tough world and you learn to endure by various means.  The world gets everyone; there’s no escaping.

Then Hemingway begins to change a bit in the 1930s, new wife, new setting in the U.S., new world and themes of the great sportsman.   He is reengaged, no longer expatriated or disillusioned.  His themes in Spain’s conflict are the search for truth by all means, and the dangers of ideology, and the tragedy of wasteful death.  In the outdoor sports arena of marlin, lion, and Miura bulls, there are codes to live and play by. That is how you get through life, more than just with dignity as in his World War I convalescent stories.  You play by the rules and have professional competence to get through.  Hemingway is a bit more macho, less Separate Peace.  Man tests himself against brutal nature, and qualities like courage and honor are still important.  This is the era of Hemingway on the Pilar, the Nordquist Ranch, and Philip Percival in Tanganyika.  It is also Hemingway’s era of non-fiction, and of reduced output due to drink at Sloppy Joes in Key West and at the Finca Vigia in Cuba.  It is the era when Hemingway’s ego, Papa Hemingway, starts injecting itself into his writings.  But, it is still man in nature and against nature, a man confronting violence through a personal code, looking for true values found in the primitive, lasting truths seen in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

These are masterful stories with beautiful prose on hunting, fishing, and bullfighting elsewhere.  It is no longer the apprenticeship of Nick Adams.  The theme is professionalism, courage, endurance, and rules of the game.  The heroes are a bit less heroic tutors suffering psychic scars, despairing.  They are tough men.  They don’t persevere with dignity alone, albeit shattered. They persevere through skill and courage, and make the transition to men, like Macomber.   It is more of a man’s world, less shell shock and disillusionment and the careless lifestyle of the expatriates.

Finally, we get to the third phase, Cuba and Martha Gelhorn and Mary Welsh, and the weakness of Across the River, his World War II stories, parts of Islands in the Stream The Garden of Eden, and A Dangerous Summer, but also the good:  The Old Man and the Sea and the Gulf Stream Esquire Articles and A Moveable Feast and the first part of Islands in the Stream.

The rules of the game, of the Hemingway “Code Hero,” I finally understood, were a metaphor for life.  They represent belief in honor and courage and professional skill.  Jake Barnes believed in them, as did Mendoza in Pamploma.  This extended beyond the etiquette of the ring, treating the bull with dignity, displaying bravery by killing over the horns, “reciebiendo,” not using too many banderillas to lower the bull’s head, working close, respectful of danger and having an obligation to the sport in your personal as well as in the corrida behavior, as Romero has and Garcia in “The Undefeated” has.  You do things well, like in baseball, hit the cut off man, lay down sacrifice bunts, run out fly balls, hustle, no grandstanding, that honors the sport.

The rules of the game, the code, extends to dying well in life, like Catherine Barclay, Richard Cantrell, and Harry in “Snows.”  Stoic characters, like Garcia and Robert Jordan as well, die quickly and violently, but are not afraid.  And, it applies to facing death and danger well, like Macomber and Belmonte, and the pudgy Lieutenant Colonel in the “Retreat from Caporetto” scene in Farewell, and the French soldier in “Under the Ridge,” and possibly Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, and it includes how to face psychological and other scarring like Jake Barnes in Sun and the Major of in Another Country, and in other short stories,  including Nick in “Big Two Hearted River,” “Now I Lay Me,” and “A Way You’ll Never Be,” and facing old age in “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”

Thank you Hemingway, first and foremost, for the slices of life, or the world around World War I, the romantic world, for the Madrid well lit cafe, the Milan hospital in 1918, the Hotel Florida in Madrid in 1937, the Apartment on Rue Cardinal Lemoine, the Cafe des Lillas in 1925 Paris. Thanks for the great nature stories, the Venetian marshes and duck hunting, the wonderful blue and sliver marlin of the Gulf Stream, the wounded lion in Macomber, the trout in the pools.  Thanks for Hadley, Brett, Pilar, Kid Sister (Hare), Catherine.  Thanks for the terrible, wonderful endings, the French soldier lying stretched out under the ridge, the man who came closest to victory; the Italian Major who stares at the wall looking straight ahead while using the hand therapy machine, Jake Barnes, who says “isn’t it pretty to think so,” sitting next to Brett in the cab in Madrid, the old man at the bridge whose only luck is the fact that his cat can take care of itself, for Garcia in the infirmary in the corrida, for Santiago dreaming of lions on the beach, for Frederick Henry walking out of the hospital in Switzerland, for Nick deciding he can fish the swamp some other day, for the maid bringing the tortoise shell cat to the door in “Cat in the Rain,” for the praying mantis on the hook in “Now I Lay Me,” and the silk handkerchief, and blast furnace door opening, and for the two men on bicycles, and especially for Harry’s dream that he is riding in the plane as it turns left towards Nairobi and there is the flat topped Kilimanjaro, where he knows he is going.  Thanks mainly for your cats, F Puss and Boise.

 

Back in the World of Lightness and Brightness

There is a collection of light images, elegant works of man and nature, scattered like treasures along the course of civilization, brightening our lives like lampposts along the way.

They string along in our consciousness, a collection of delicate forms, having subliminal influence on our lives, a string of light colored motifs, like a pearl necklace, stringing through time.

One can skip from stone to stone along their path, along the high notes of a piano register, light and sharp and crisp, like ice cubes on crystal, or crystal itself.

It is 21 ballerinas in white, pizzicato notes on a violin, Ravel’s airy flute.

It is the beauty of Greek columns and sculpture, of Bernini’s ivory and Cellini’s silver, of Monet’s dresses, and Louis XV chairs, and Women in White, and glass skyscrapers

There is an elegant journey in our minds, a Wagon Lits ride from Minoan Greece through the Renaissance, Hapsburg Austria, Impressionist France, and Art Nouveau.

It is about art making us feel lighter: Sisley’s light yellow impressions, Overcamp and Brueghel’s snowy landscapes, Chenenceau on the Loire, Swan Lake and white tutus, and Van Eyck’s delicate veiled ladies in white.

There is nature’s list: birch and aspen, white amber, and opal.  There are flute solos, soprano arias, and Mozart.  St. Exupery, T.S. Eliot, and Beloit’s monoplane, and DiMaggio in his home uniform.  It is sails and clouds, and birds singing.

 

 

 

The Dark Forest Drive

I was most fortunate to have spent time in places like Russia, Belarus, Cuba, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, where I saw the tragedy of communism up close, the gray world it created and its effect on human beings.  The lasting impression was of a society devoid of religion, and thus of morality which is based on religion, leaving a materialistic world of eating, sleeping, and working.  It was a strange place, centered around an unreal view of things based on economic determinism and means of production.

It was a world where the individual (soul) was not important, and man was a cog in a supposed worldwide worker’s revolution, in the fight against worldwide “capitalism.”  In this revolution, the end justified the means, which has meant that everyone, without exception, must believe in the ideology of communism. Those who protest are removed.  Religion has no place; art is important only as a means to advance this revolution.  Man’s sole allegiance is to the state.

Being a materialistic world, and one that is poor, it was a world on Dickens and Darwin, and of the Industrial Revolution’s mill worker.  Marx was a product of this milieu.  But, the communist world I experienced was not quite Dickens or Orwell.  Dickens was not quite materialistic enough.  The worst part was not the shabbiness or the industrial aesthetic, but the strange ethics accompanying a world seen through a revolutionary or utopian prism.  Right and wrong were somehow reversed in the need to justify the end.  This was illustrated best by the purges of the 1930s, with executions in the name of progress to weed out possible skeptics.  Solzhenitsyn, Koestler, and Milosz described this best, as did Orwell.  All aspects of daily life were entwined around ideology.  Thus, reality was twisted.  Friends and parents were enemies and suspects.  God and religion were bad.  History could be reinvented.  The central reality was the struggle between classes.  The central reality was that “capitalism” was in its last stages, and using nationalism to manipulate the workers in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.   Aesthetics were not important.  The spiritual-material dualism in man, so central to Western tradition, was broken for the first time in the name of science.  In retrospect, it is amazing that this distorted system held on until 1991.

The worst part of the system was that it was dehumanizing.  It created something called the new Soviet man, who was to be devoid of emotions and human weakness, which could thwart sacrifices need for the revolution.  Westerners could not really communicate with the Soviet (dogmatic) man, as we found out in trying to reason with Molotov and Gromyko.  Words meant different things.  There was no common language.   In their vocabulary, “peaceful coexistence” meant a bilateral truce while they went ahead with their support of revolutions.  “Democracy” meant a Poland under a communist government, where people lacked individual freedom but had economic egalitarianism.  When pressed at Potsdam on Poland, Stalin said, “If it is not fascist, it is democratic.” What the Russians were doing in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany in 1945 was, to them, “democratic,” despite the fact that one-party states were established without any legitimate opposition parties or “bill of rights” freedoms for individuals, to attend church, read a free press, say what he or she wants, believe what he or she wants, and have meetings on political issue with whom one pleases, etc.

The Soviets scoffed at this “illusion” of democracy, which was, to them, exploitive of the masses and a smokescreen for upper class control of all means of production under the guise of liberalism.  This is what the Soviets really believed.  Soviet man saw no need for international news or travel abroad.  Paradise was at home, despite its temporary shortcomings.  Foreign Peace Corps volunteers, businessmen, and diplomats were obviously spies.  Foreign magazines were banned, as were foreign radio broadcasts.  Foreign novels and books were censored.

Brutality was admired for being “tough minded.”  In the civil war and purges, this meant killing priests, intellectuals, and the propertied classes, starving the middle class farmers, and even killing family members.  Lenin said you had to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Unfortunately, this meant you had to have a police state, and as Barbara Tuchman has pointed out, whenever you have a strong security service, it eventually takes over the control of the political figureheads at the top.  The KGB was the real power behind the throne, not the Communist Party.  It was the state within the state.

When I was in Moscow from 1979-81 during the communist era, everyone was the same except for a few dissidents.   All were loyal Soviets, proud of their state and genuinely critical of the “bourgeois” West.  Apparently, however, a lot had reservations beneath the surface, and grew tired of communism after the glow of World War II wore off in the 1970s and 1980s and their idealism faded amid consumer shortages and party corruption.  Along came Afghanistan, Solidarity, and Chernobyl and Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

When I returned in 1991, after Yeltsin took power, it actually became easier to lift the veil, and see things in Russia as they really were.  The new changes exposed the old system.  You could juxtapose modern Russians of 1991, who wanted freedom, with those who could not initially make the mental transition to a new world.  The latter included the pensioners who, mentally, still lived in the 1940s and 1950s; the “orthodox” Party intellectuals, ideologues, professors, and writers, who taught and lived the communist ideology; and the KGB and military, hard liners who were front line soldiers of the Cold War.  These were the elites, or “halves”, of the old system.

A lot of Western observers during the 1991-94 era felt the struggle for reform was not really over ideology, but over pragmatic control over resources and power.  They felt the old communists had really been cynics all along.  Various state enterprises were fighting economic reform because they were trying to maintain their market share in the face of Western competition.  But, I felt I knew better, perhaps better than my colleagues in Moscow and St. Petersburg, because I had more direct contact with Russians, out in the provinces.  The old system died hard in the minds of the people. The socialistic mentality had not changed.

I saw a split among the elites. The newly appointed “reform” governors, put in office by Yeltsin, had the right feelings about capitalism and democracy, mixed with some concerns for maintaining some sort of social net. But, they ran up against the local military and security chiefs, former Communist Party district and regional officials, major newspaper editors, local legislative leaders, and state factory and enterprise directors.  Yeltsin and reform were surprisingly supported by a majority of average citizens in the big cities, including factory workers, bureaucrats, enlisted ranks, fishermen, etc.  But, they were up against the old power structure working behind the scenes to block any reforms towards a market economy, those who were still communists and fighting Yeltsin.  The rural areas were more conservative.

This was not open revolt, except for one attempt in Moscow, but they were putting the brakes on legally, using their influence in state parliaments, city councils, associations of factory directors, and so forth.  The Director of the Lenin Shipyards was a virtual Czar in Komsomolsk-na-Amur, a city of 500,000, and fought change there.  The Dalzavod Ship Repair and Construction plant in Vladivostok, the largest defense factory in the Russian Far East, had similar influence and power. Only one of the nine defense plants in Vladivostok was moving quickly to privatize

The former governors (Communist Party First Secretaries) had been removed, but remained shadowy figures still running in the informal “old boy” networks consisting of former Komsomol youth leaders, the natural leaders, long ago identified for key roles, who now controlled the levers of power and employment in the regions.

I would see the former communist era governors, all powerful in their day, still mingling at state and city receptions, now as private citizens, standing in a close circle with the current deputy governors and district administrators, plus some key enterprise leaders in fishing, ports, defense industries, etc. Some of the deputy governors seemed to have local mafia connections. A lot had worked for the former communist governor and believed he might be back in control again in the near future.  The former, communist era, governor in Vladivsotok was the “eminence grise” and I was his enemy.  As a Western diplomat, I could never approach his group. They would turn their backs, or walk away.  They were bitter, and the new reform governors had to fight to take them on.

When I arrived in Vladivostok in late 1991, the new reformist governor was in a losing battle with the local state legislature, which shared power with him. He was forced out after a year, and replaced by a mining company director who was willing to support Yeltsin, but slowed reforms.  In Khabarovsk, the governor and state legislature were more openly communist and hard-line. The Governor was pragmatic, but had to move reforms very slowly in that conservative city, which was previously the bureaucratic and administrative center for the Soviet Far East region until 1991.

In Sakhalin, a very reform-minded governor made some changes, before being forced out and replaced by a communist mayor who pretended to be pragmatic.  Reforms generally slid backward until the late Nineties, when a reformist deputy governor associated with the oil industry took over.  In Magadan, the democratic-minded governor was supported by a number of local reformers, in a city influenced by the Gulag experience and proximity to Alaska.  The state monopoly, the North East Gold Co., which controlled the town, was privatized and broken up, but future governors had to go slowly since the economy was hurting.  In Kamchatka, the governor was hard line and reform never took off.  Blagoveshchensk and Amur Province, like Sakhalin, was schizophrenic, with a healthy market oriented sector versus a Siberian old style group.  Amur had China across the border, liberalizing, and they had Archer Daniels Midland, and for a while a democrat was elected, then removed later as times got tougher.

The strength of democratic governors depended on how well President Yeltsin was faring in Moscow against the hard liners, Zyugannov, Khasbulatov, Rutskoy, etc.  Despite the setbacks to reform and democracy, the system did reform itself from below, with small entrepreneurs gradually taking over more of the economy and obtaining slightly more latitude.  Reform did not come from above, except for the fact that Yeltsin represented the state official ideology, despite his weakness in securing necessary legislation on taxes, ownership, investment laws, banking, etc.

Ultimately, the hard-liners and those sitting on the fence saw the people wanted a more Western-style government and economy despite the hardships.  That is what carried the day in Moscow and the provinces.  That is why the tanks did not run over Yeltsin in 1991, and why the military and KGB did not intervene in 1993.  Each year, as Westerners poured in and Russia joined the world, the generals and admirals saw more clearly how bankrupt the old communist system had been both spiritually and economically.  They had begun to shed the old Soviet lenses of class struggle, and began to recognize the world as it really was.  They began to want it for their kids.

I was never sympathetic with the hard-line communists, even the older people.  I had seen too much of the worst aspects of totalitarianism as it had been manifested in practice in Nazi Germany and communist Russia.

The Holocaust, a Nazi rather than Soviet crime, was one manifestation of totalitarianism. Near the end of my tour in Minsk, I was invited by my friend Marty, the Brooklyn-born Israeli Ambassador in Belarus, to attend a ceremony at a downtown theater hosted by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, to honor a Belarusan lady who had sheltered a Jewish girl during the Holocaust. The honoree was an eighty-five year old Belorussian grandmother, a typical “babushka,” wearing peasant clothes and with a scarf tied over her head. She was given a plaque and had a tree planted in her name in the row of the “righteous” at Yad Vashem.

The Israel officials present, having flown in from Jerusalem, read her plaque stating the relevant facts. In 1942, the righteous woman, a non Jew, had been handed an infant Jewish girl by the child’s mother in their village when the German SS arrived in their small village and were hauling away all the Jews.  The mother of the child was taken away and never seen again.  The Belorussian lady being honored had taken the child, and had hidden it in her house, even from her neighbors, fearing all the time that the baby’s cries would give her away, leading someone to tell the authorities who would then execute both her and the baby.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the infant Jewish girl, who had been saved and reunited after the war with relatives, now in her early 60s, came up on the stage and hugged the elderly woman who had hid her for two years.  The elderly woman being honored came forward, embarrassed by the fanfare, saying in Russian that she only did what any woman would have done in that situation.  Marty looked over at me, knowingly.

On another occasion, he and I had traveled as part of the diplomatic corps in Minsk to a killing site in northwest Belarus, in order to honor victims of the Holocaust.  The visit, organized by the Belarusan government, included visiting delegates from four European nations.  We were taken to a hillside clearing in the forest, near a small village of about 50 wooden houses, where Jews from the village were shot. I was at first surprised that the killings took place within sight of the village, probably three hundred yards away, meaning the locals had to have seen what was happening.

The second surprising thing I learned that day was that a group of Italian soldiers, who were allies of Germany at the time, refused to do any shooting, and some of them were allegedly killed for not following orders.  It is a matter of pride for the Italian government, which is why the Italian Ambassador always comes along, that their soldiers risked death and were in fact shot because they refused to go along with the massacre.

The European delegates included a middle aged French woman and an elderly Belorussian man, who were two of the survivors.  These two, along with a third man, made a run for it and escaped into the woods.  They made it to the partisans in the forest, but one of the men had not been believed and had been shot by the partisans.

On another occasion, I went with my boss, Ambassador Speckhard, to Grodno, a city on the Polish-Belarus border, where we met with the sole Jewish survivor of the Holocaust from that town.   This man, twenty years old then, told us over coffee about how he jumped from a train carrying all 2000 of Grodno’s Jews to the Treblinka death camp in the Ukraine.  He later did some research, and learned he was the only person on that train who escaped death.  The others on the train were marched directly from the railhead to the gas chambers.   On a separate visit to Vilnius Lithuania, I saw the streetcar stop downtown where the Jews had to assemble on orders of the German occupiers, from which they were taken outside of town to Ponary Forest and shot.

Then, there were the Soviet crimes, Stalin’s crimes. Outside Minsk in the Kuropaty Forest are the buried remains of perhaps 150.000 victims of Soviet purges.  It appears that a lot of Baltic and Polish soldiers and intelligentsia were rounded up by the Red Army and NKVD in World War II, and taken to the forest where they were shot.

Near Smolensk Russia on the Belarus border is Katyn Forest, where up to four thousand Polish POW officers were shot by the Russian NKVD in 1940, a crime the Soviets tried to pin it on the Nazis.

There are Stalin’s 1936-38 purges.  In addition to the killing fields in the Kuropaty forest outside Minsk, I saw a similar site where 30,000 victims of the Stalin’s terror were buried outside Khabarovsk Russia near the city cemetery.   A “Memorial” plaque marks the site.   I saw the building in Minsk, now the Army Navy Club, where convicted enemies of the state were reportedly shot in 1938. In Vladivostok, it was the basement of the NKVD Headquarters building downtown, now the Far Eastern State University Law School.  In Magadan, it was a small concrete blockhouse with no windows just outside the grounds of the Intourist hotel.  In Vilnius, Lithuania, it was the KGB Headquarters Building, now a museum, whose basement was a prison with isolation cells, water cells, etc.  The inner courtyard was the execution site for political prisoners. There was a tennis court size area with a cement wall on one side where the condemned where shot within eyesight of prisoner’s windows.  Prisoners were also shot In the arched driveway leading into the prison. Truck motors were revved up to muffle the sound of the shots.

I also saw a killing site in Minsk from an earlier period when the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, academics, and priests were eliminated shortly after the 1917 revolution and during the Russian Civil War on Lenin’s orders.  This site in question is now the Interior Ministry hospital in downtown Minsk, primarily a geriatric hospital for retired MVD police officers.  The grounds around the hospital are surrounded by a cement fence, and include a radio tower.

I also encountered the disbanded camps from the notorious “Gulag” prison system that we read about in Solzhenitsyn.  I visited one camp outside of Magadan, where prisoners had been marched from the trains over the ice to the bay where the camp was located.  All that was left was some low, grass roofed dilapidated barracks, some guard towers and barbed wire fences.  I also saw the notorious Gulag Transit station in Vladivostok, although no one ever showed it to me or spoke of it during my three years in Vladivostok.  I recognized it from photographs of similar Gulag transit buildings on the rail lines in my studies.  The dissident poet Osip Mandelstam died in this one.

This was all part of the terrible milieu that I visited in the dark forest.  Most of these things I learned from Russian contacts, who were local businessmen or democrats, and who whispered to me what to look for in a particular building as we drove past.  It recalled my trips with taxi drivers in Moscow in 1980, when we would drive through Manenge Square, passing the Lubyianka KGB Headquarters Building, where so many were executed.  I would casually, as a tourist, ask the driver what building that was.  All would profess not to know what building that was. Of course, I never let them off the hook.

 

Katya

With breakfast over, I walk up the stairs to the second floor study to write for a couple of hours, my study being the only place I have been able to write consistently, looking out to the nearby hills, Mount Ascension to the southeast, and Mt. Helena to the west.  My cork bulletin board on the bookcase next to my desk displays postcards from a few of my favorite places: the Grand Tetons; the Madison River in Montana; and Canyon de Chelly. There is also a postcard from the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park, showing Hemingway with his favorite cat on his lap, a black cat with some white markings, named “Boise,” a stray he found at the Ambose Mundos Hotel in Havana and took home to the Finca. He named Boise after the US Navy cruiser.

Seeing that postcard reminds me suddenly of my own cat, Katya, who is outside. I quickly go downstairs to check on her, and find her, as usual, yelling at the back door to get in. From the time we took her in off the street in Belarus, eight years ago, she has been high maintenance, bossy and vocal.

I open the back door, and she comes in fast, her tail up, and her raspy voice going non-stop.  I have been especially nice to her lately, since she is recovering from lymphoma. She is on prednisone, and in remission, but there is no telling how long she will be okay.

Sheri and I got Katya in 1999 in Minsk, while serving in the U.S. Embassy where I was the acting Ambassador. We first noticed her in the Embassy courtyard in April, as Belarus was emerging from a long winter.  She appeared one day on the compound, like a lot of other stray cats. One of our guards claimed she jumped over the wall from the Russian Embassy next door.

But this stray was special. She was the femme fatale of cats, a European shorthair, the typical Russian cat with snowy white fur and patches of gray. But, she was the ultimate model, not enough gray to take away from the overall white impression, like a birch tree on the snowy Russian steppes.  Seeing birch trees would remind me of her.

She was thin and had a kind of Natalie Wood cat face, with slightly oriental eyes, pure white, distinct lips turned up at the corners, a beauty mark near her nose, and those famous bright Russian eyes.  Hers were jade, and laser-like, locking on you with great intensity when she wanted something.  It was like the world stopped still, no sound, no movement anywhere, noting but her, frozen, communicating a most important message directly to your eyes. She was the most determined animal I had ever seen.  She was determined to get food and wouldn’t stop bothering people until she got it. And need food she did.  We discovered later that she was pregnant.

She walked with beautiful, quick ballerina movements, almost like dancing, making those fast short steps as if on the ballet stage, almost on tip toes like Anna Pavlova playing “Giselle,” the beautiful country girl.  When she walked slowly, she sashayed.  She had a beautiful voice, raspy when most serious, and otherwise very loud and soprano.  And, it didn’t stop.  It went on and on, sometimes almost like a siren.  A local newspaper at the time had an article about several performing cats that had disappeared from the Minsk Animal Circus, which was located near the Embassy, leading me to wonder if she could be one of those?  She certainly acted like a prima dona.

I first heard about our new stray at my desk in the front office, when one of the staff said to me, by the way, “have you seen the new cat on campus?”

“No, but there are always strays around.”

“No, this one is unique.  She accompanies people along the sidewalks, talking to them loudly as they go along, walking beside them and looking up, begging. There is something interesting about her.  Maybe it’s her determination to get fed.  Half the Marines and your secretary, too, are feeding her.  Look behind Post One, you’ll see open cans of cat food on the floor.”

“This is the first time anyone has mentioned a particular cat.  Usually the Marines are quick to drive them off.”

“Not this one, this is their first defeat.”

The next day, I got the treatment when I left the chancery building to walk across the annex.  With her walking beside me, I could tell she was a real survivor.  There was something about her that got to me. On the second day of her following me around the compound, I called my driver and asked him to pick up the cat and take her to my apartment. My secretary was happy the entire day, on the phone, telling everyone.

Sheri didn’t know about our new cat, our first pet, until she got home. We named her Katya. She was Sheri’s first pet, and a few months later Sheri nursed her to health, using vodka to clean her stitches after a bad spaying operation at the local clinic. Thereafter, Katya became devoted to Sheri. Each morning, I would wake up to see Sheri at the bedroom desk in Minsk, doing paperwork, and Katya would be sitting on her lap, facing Sheri, eyes in a trance, kneading on her.

Katya loved anything from the table, but she also ate crusts of hard bread and even old potato skins, revealing her background in the alleys during Russian winter. She was a bit wary of people, probably having been chased.  For some reason, she didn’t like closed doors in the house. We would learn over time she was fearless with other cats, even toms, never giving up her territory her yard.  Screaming at them with her loud voice, the sound always stopped them.  She had no doubt relied on that scream on the streets. She was serious and didn’t play with cat toys.  We gave her a ball, but she stood on it with her back feet, looking confused.  Life had been serious. I admired her for that.

As she got older, and I began to take her to the vet for her regular check ups and vaccines, surprised to find she would give me love bites on my knuckles when we got home, knowing I was helping her.  At some point, I started taking her on walks down the street. She loved these walks, without a leash, and would start across the yard towards the sidewalk when I called out to her, “pa shli,” or “lets go” in Russian. As a show of appreciation, she would rub against my leg as she passed me, leading the way. I always spoke to her in Russian.

It was shortly after we moved to Montana, that Katya came down with lymphoma, falling off a table one day, unable to get up, gasping for air.  I carried her to the vet, who cut her open to explore, finding swollen lymph glands.  She was dying, and I devoted my full attention to her, being home and not working.  Sheri and I force fed her after her chemotherapy, after she had stopped eating. That went on for seven weeks, but she finally started eating on her own.

Sitting at the dining room table now, after finishing my work upstairs in the study, I see through the hallways that Katya is lying in her donut-shaped cat bed on the library floor near the bay windows. She has lost weight.  I walk over quietly and look down at her as she lies on her side, eyes closed, sleeping.  Her legs are extended over the side of the donut, and are crossed. The white fur on her side is ruffled, what is called “rough coat.”  And, there are bare patches of skin on her forelegs where the fur has been shaved to place i.v.s, and on her stomach where she had been cut open.  The sun catches her face.  She has throwing up a lot lately. I can see her sides moving, breathing deeply, but, at least, her nose and nostrils are not flaring. I have to watch for that because the doctor said if she started having breathing problems we would have to put her down to avoid her having breathing panics.

I walk back to the dining room, proud of my little girl from the streets. Hemingway must have felt the same way about Boise.    (October 2007)