Two Russian Women
Major Svetlana Ahkromeyeva, a striking-looking blonde woman, looked out of the coach window as the train pulled in. There was a crowd on the platform waiting to board, and it contained a large contingent of young children, just barely under the control of a teacher. As the children swirled and chased each other, their brightly colored clothing contrasting with the sombre garb of the adults they were disturbing and irritating, Svetlana saw that a man who was helping the teacher restrain them was her husband.
Sergei was trying, with great seriousness but little effect, to persuade a little boy not to pull pigtails when Svetlana came up behind him and hugged him. After embracing for some time, they made their way slowly toward the exit.
It was an odd marriage, the only one in the world in which the spouses were, respectively, a Hero and a Heroine of the Soviet Union. Indeed, they had met in forty three when they were given their awards, and had been married only weeks later. Since the survival of neither had been very probable, and their joint survival hardly more than ten per cent or so, that marriage had been more a joint expression of good feeling and mutual respect than a building block for the future.
When the war ended, and they discovered that they really were married, both were throughly entrenched in their services, and were disinclined to leave. They decided to simply arrange things so that they could be together as much as possible, which would still be the minority of the time, and to work out something else when the children came. As it happened, there had been no children, and no need to alter the arrangments.
Since both Sergei and Svetlana had a special status, rules had been bent, and they had usually been stationed within a reasonable distance of one another. Moscow had often been the meeting place, and, even though they had never had a home, they had favorite hotels which they promoted to the rank of homes.
Svetlana's service was the VVS, the Soviet Air Force. At the outbreak of the war in the June of 1941, she had been a young civilian flying instructor. She and her friends had volunteered for the air force, and, since it was being systematically destroyed by the Luftwaffe, no one worried whether the recruits were male or female. Many of the women pilots, including the leading woman ace, had joined male units. More or less by accident, Svetlana had ended up in an all-female one, the 46th Light Night Bomber Regiment.
The unit's aircraft, and its mission, were almost farcical. That the unit was nonetheless effective was due entirely to the quality of the personnel. They flew U-2 biplanes which, ironically, had the same designation as the later American spy plane. The two could hardly have had less in common, and the original, Soviet, U-2 had been hopelessly obsolete since the mid-thirties.
A rickety little ship held together with struts and wires, it cruised at 100 kilometers an hour, hardly enough to keep up with a fast car on the road. The U-2s were sitting ducks for enemy fighters, and were consequently used only at night. They were still shot down in great numbers by ME 109 night fighters when caught against a light sky, but they at least had a chance.
Although they were light and operated at night, the light night bombers were bombers only by courtesy. They had no proper bombs, and, instead, the observer had a collection of hand grenades which she dropped from her rear cockpit. Their function might well have consisted only in disturbing German sleep, but they managed to be a sufficient disturbance to provoke something much more deadly.
The little U-2s, with their five-cylinder engines, could be heard for some distance, and were called "sewing machines" by the Germans. The latter then set up "flak circuses" to greet them. These consisted of some two dozen 37mm AA guns, together with a battery of searchlights. A circus which happened to be in the path of a sewing machine would wait for its approach, and then illuminate the plane. All the guns would open up simultaneously, and many young women had their planes blown apart with only a flash of light as warning. On the few occasions on which they crashed but survived, they were raped by the Germans.
The forty sixth regiment countered these tactics by sending out two U-2s together. One, at a couple of thousand feet, would attract the attention of a circus while the other, at tree-top level, would scatter grenades among the gunners grouped around the searchlights. They had their share of successes.
The way for a U-2 pilot to survive, when caught either by an enemy fighter or a searchlight, was to put the plane into a spin and hope to pull out just before hitting the ground. Svetlana had done it a number of times, and, on one occasion, an ME 109 trying to follow her had crashed into the trees with a great and satisfying explosion.
Despite these exploits, Svetlana had been, and remained, under no illusions about the VVS. It never really defeated the Luftwaffe, it just wore it out. The Soviet factories and training schools produced masses of aircraft and pilots, and they eventually out-numbered the enemy by a factor of ten to one or so. Even then, a Soviet plane and pilot wasn't usually a match for a German plane and pilot.
Svetlana had also been aware that the morale of the VVS was uneven. Many stormovik pilots were willing to press home attacks against tanks in the most determined and courageous way, but the fighter pilots had a deep-seated inferiority complex. Even late in the war when their aircraft were much improved, many would duck into clouds the minute German fighters were spotted. It was her opinion that, on the whole, the women pilots were steadier and more reliable than the men when it came to fighting against odds.
Sergei, of course, belonged to another service, one to which Russians were more naturally adapted. He understood little of the problems of the VVS, and Svetlana was, for the moment, more interested in other things.
As always, they made straight for their hotel room. They had to wait while the clerks straightened out some confusion about the reservation at the front desk, and then the room itself was quite dingy. But they locked the door and nothing else mattered for some time. It was only later that they began to feel hungry.
It was a joke between Sergei and Svetlana that, because of their long separations, they were perpetually like teen- agers on honeymoon. Wandering the streets with their arms around each other, they chose a restaurant on impulse and ordered with abandon. Since they had both their salaries and neither had much in the way of expenses, it was another joke between them that they were the richest people in Russia. It was true enough that they never met any other people who didn't need to be concerned about money.
There were some things, however, that Svetlana didn't share with Sergei. He seemed to think that they were now both fairly safe. When not attached to a special institute, he commanded a tank unit. It might be hit in a nuclear exchange, but he assumed that there would be no such exchange. She commanded a squadron of big long-range Tu-20 bombers and flew the lead aircraft. She thought that there would be a war, and that her odds of being shot down were at least ninety five out of a hundred. She might possibly manage to parachute to ground somewhere in Canada. She sometimes said to her friends, but not to Sergei, that Americans treated their prisoners so well that she might end up in Hollywood.
As Tom Williams roared down to Fairmile in his old car, his experience with Ellie was vividly in his mind. He might know slightly more about women generally, but there was obviously a great gap between Ellie and a Russian woman like Anne-Marie. He did know that Russian women had been fighter pilots and guerillas during the war, and had fought the Nazis with whatever they had, sometimes even their claws. But Anne- Marie hardly fitted that description. He gathered that she had been in the war zone, but, surely, she had never killed anyone. She was more like a Parisian lady, all perfume and silk, than any sort of combat person. Tom nevertheless felt uneasy. Anne-Marie certainly managed her French role beuatifully, but, after all, she was an actress. Who knew what might lie behind the role?
Tom arrived about five, and Anne-Marie was again waiting for him, this time in a full-skirted dark red dress with a heavy necklace of gold coins. She looked rather severe, which was just as well. Tom had decided that he must have some specific questions and take some notes in a little steno pad he had brought with him. Once they were moving, he said,
"I've got some questions about the Soviet educational system, as compared to ours. In the kind of competition we're in, the quality of the schools will, in the long run, be more important than the quality of the armies."
This notion, although occasionally put forward by President Eisenhower, was nevertheless a fairly radical one. Science and technology had been critical in World War II, but most people thought that it extended only to the training of scientists and engineers, not to school children. Anne-Marie, at any rate, seemed to think the idea natural enough. She replied,
"It's fortunate that I'm a teacher here, then. I've often thought about the differences between the Russian and American young people and their schools."
Tom had, even before asking, a strong suspicion that Anne- Marie preferred the Soviet school system to the American one. When he did ask, she replied,
"I think the best thing about Russia is its educational system. A largely illiterate nation has been completely transformed in that respect."
"Isn't there a lot of propaganda in the schools?"
"Yes. As children, we all learned that Stalin was our friend. Not only that, a sort of favorite uncle to whom we could take our troubles. Of course, he was the exact opposite. But, really, that didn't matter much. It did nothing to prevent me from becoming a chemist, and then, later, from learning to be an actress. I was prevented from playing Hedda Gabler in public, but it was more of a challenge to play Tom Sawyer."
"It can be educational to have to overcome restrictions. Bertrand Russell's grandmother didn't like geometry and confiscated his book, so he proved all the theorems for himself."
"The students I have here have always had everything given them, even before they asked for it. They aren't used to struggling. It's easier to teach in a little Russian schoolhouse on a vast empty steppe with a log fire and a few tattered books. Everyone, teachers and students both, must use their imaginations."
"We used to have one-room schoolhouses on the prairie, but there's really no possibility of going back to them."
"I can give you an example of what the Russian system can achieve. I was once at a party where two middle-aged men, neither of them drunk, got into a fist fight over the relative merits of comedy and tragedy."
"Socrates was said to have spent a whole night in just such an argument."
"An ancient Greek, yes. But not a modern American. I can't imagine my colleagues here doing that."
Anne-Marie had fire in her eyes, and Tom conceded the point. She then said,
"The Soviet system teaches people to reason, but it involves the passions in the reasoning. It might be said to be passionate reasoning. It affects one for life. The students here learn to reason coldly and dispassionately. They forget everything they learn in one course by the time the next one starts."
"I bet you demand more of your students than the other teachers. They've not only got to learn the material but have the right attitude."
Anne-Marie touched Tom on the arm as she said,
"You're imagining yourself in my class, and you think it might be frightening."
She was precisely right, but Tom wasn't prepared to admit it. He asked,
"What do your colleagues think?"
"My friend, Ruth, thinks I succeed, but only because I'm exotic. She claims she couldn't get as much out of them no matter what she did."
"That's probably true, except for the occasional really bright kid."
Tom was then surprised to hear Anne-Marie say,
"The American system is better when the student is a genius, both in school and afterwards. Russia produces many people of genius, but only one in ten is allowed to use his or her ability. The other nine get increasingly frustrated, and generally turn to drink."
"Have you known people like that?"
"My husband was one. He was the director of our theatre, and he had wonderful ideas. But he had to deal with stupid people who positively enjoyed blocking him at every turn."
"I've read my Dostoyevsky. I know that Russian officials have always been perverse."
"There's a kind who sets himself up to be the enemy of all intelligence, and who enjoys watching the spasms of intelligent people when they're tortured in this way. My husband had to deal with a couple like that, and it was really they who brought about the alcoholism that finally destroyed him. He wasn't very strong, but he could have done remarkable things with encouragement."
They were getting a bit off the declared subject, but Tom thought he could learn the most just by encouraging Anne- Marie to talk about herself.
Comrade Kholmanski was a handsome and engaging person with curly black hair who operated at approximately twice the speed of those around him. He was temperamental at the best of times, and, when his speed was reduced to about half the normal human one, and a quarter of his natural one, he reacted in unfortunate ways. Sometimes, he shouted and screamed at the officials who were his tormentors, and he sometimes got drunk. Often, he did both. He was almost removed as director of the company several times, and his best actors were often arbitrarily assigned elsewhere. Indeed, he seemed to have married Anne-Marie partly because he was afraid of losing her in this way.
The final crisis came in deepest Mongolia, near Genghis Khan's old capital of Karakorum. It was getting toward winter in a country where the fierceness of the winters is exceeded only by those of Antarctica. According to Anne-Marie,
"I'm half Mongol, but the desolation and isolation of the country has a powerful effect even on me. For western Russians from the cities, it can be quite overpowering. Victor took one look at the landscape, and was horrified. Then, he got hold of a translation of the Secret History of the Mongols, and that seemed to be too much for him."
"You mean he was unhinged by reading a book?"
"Well, he was already convinced that he would be sent on an endless tour of such places, and he also believed that the people hadn't changed much since the days of Genghis Khan. It was what the book told him about the people that discouraged him so much. And, of course, it didn't help that I was half Mongol."
"What did the book tell him?"
"It's a seven hundred year old account of primitive people, which should be read in that light. It says that Genghis Khan was descended from a great gray wolf."
Tom laughed at that point, and Anne-Marie explained,
"That's the sort of thing you get in primitive literature. But Victor took it more literally. I don't suppose he actually believed that a man was descended from a wolf, but he believed either that the wolves we could hear howling had some quasi-human characteristics, or that the villagers were like wolves to the point of being able to kill like a wolf. Probably both."
"Was he crazy at that point?"
"Not about most things. He was as intelligent as ever, and could be as charming whenever he wanted to be. He was still pretty good with most people, but fell apart when he was alone. Drinking, of course, was part of it."
"Were people in the area ever killed by wild animals?"
"Occasionally, in the ordinary way. But they gave us a little cabin at the edge of town, and, when they dropped us off there each night, we were pretty well on our own until the next morning when they picked us up. It was rather wonderful in its way, and I'd go out for walks at night in the frozen forest. Victor was convinced that the wolves and/or people were lying in wait for him, ready to rip off his arms and legs. He wouldn't even show himself in front of the windows."
"What did he think when you went out and nothing happened?"
"It proved to him that I was really one of them."
"So he finally did go crazy?"
"Not quite. The final straw came at a dinner party."
Anne-Marie laughed. What had obviously once been extremely painful now had its humorous aspects, and she told the story in such a way as to amuse.
A touring theatrical troupe was a big thing in Mongolia, and they were entertained as royally as local resources permitted. There was, in particular, a banquet presided over by the regional party secretary, in effect, the head man for all of Soviet Mongolia. Anne-Marie explained,
"The high officials in Soviet Asia are usually Asiatic themselves, but they're fascinated with the west and ape its ways. One way they can gain status is to have a wife or mistress, preferably beautiful, from European Russia. Victor would be placed next to the party leader at the banquets, and I'd be paired with the wife. The wives were usually sophisticated and intelligent, and they were always almost entirely unprepared for life in the east. Several of them told me that I was the first person with whom they'd had an intelligent conversation in months."
"That sounds all right for you."
"What then happened was very strange. The best way to understand it is by means of a passage in the Secret History. On one occasion, one of Genghis Khan's generals captured an attractive woman in a town that he had taken. He sent the woman on to Genghis, and the latter then almost decided to have the general executed."
"Why was that?"
"There was a delay of a few hours in the forwarding of the woman, and Genghis Khan was suspicious. He didn't like delays. Comrade Kublaikov may, for all I know, be a direct descendant. He certainly is in this respect. He took a fancy to me right at the dinner table."
"What about his wife?"
"He gave her the sack while she was sitting next to me. Divorce is easy in the Soviet Union, particularly for a party secretary. The poor woman was instantly stripped of all her possessions and privileges, practically everything but the dress she was wearing. She sat beside me in a state of shock, crying softly while I tried to comfort her."
"What about your husband?"
"A determined strong man could have resisted. No one in the Soviet Union has the kind of arbitrary power Genghis Khan had, and a high official isn't allowed to take a man's wife away from him. But Victor wasn't up to it. And, of course, there was friction between us. He may no longer have wanted me so very much."
"Victor disappeared after dinner. It was late October and snowing. His clothes were found on a street corner, and Victor's naked body was later found frozen in the snow, just at the edge of some woods. No animals had touched him."
It was then that they arrived at the restaurant Tom had found in a guide book, a rather imposing looking thing with white pillars on a hilltop. He asked,
"Are you sure you want to have dinner after that?"
"Yes. Victor Victorovitch may have thought that the wolves would eat him, or may have wanted them to, but that's nothing to me now. I'll eat sauteed wolf if they serve it."
There was no wolf on the menu, but, having ordered, Anne- Marie surprised Tom by asking, quite insistently, about his own history, his family, and his background. He said to her,
"I come from a fairly ordinary New England family, and I've never done much but go to school. This is my first real job."
That seemed to him to pretty well sum up his life, but she remained curious. Tom discovered that it could be fun to be examined, to have someone probe and tease. Sometimes, Anne- Marie would suggest unlikely motives for his past actions, and then, when they are denied, discover the real ones. Just as he was beginning to relax, she said,
"Tell me about your girl friends and romances."
"There haven't been any."
Anne-Marie refused to believe it, and, finally, Tom said,
"There was one girl I went out with quite a lot in college. She married someone else at the end of her senior year."
"Were you very upset?"
"I suppose I was. On our last date, she explained to me that she was going to marry this man even though she didn't love him very much. She thought they were well-matched, and her parents approved."
"She was trying to get you to propose marriage to her. That's an old trick."
"I don't think so, really. But I've thought about it. She wasn't a very pretty girl, and she was getting a lot of action only because the men out-numbered the women seven-to- one at Harvard. She was about to graduate and go somewhere else. She knew she had to get someone before she left, and this guy looked like the best bet."
"Yes, I'm sure she wanted someone before she left. That's the way plain women think. But she wanted you, and took the other only when you didn't react. You're lucky that you were shy around women. Otherwise, you would've been trapped."
"How do you know that I didn't propose and get refused?"
"I just do. You're capable of love, but not that simple- minded kind of love."
"Well, I thought she was asking for advice, and it didn't seem like a good idea to me. But I didn't think it was proper for me to say so."
"So you were non-committal. How did she react?"
"She said the only thing she feared was falling in love with someone else after she married this man. But she said she'd stay with him no matter what."
"A pathetic girl. If you had saved her by marrying her, she would have paid you back with a life of misery."
"That never occurred to me. I suppose I should be careful who I get involved with."
This seemed to delight Anne-Marie, and she replied,
"I'm sure your mother would approve this extremely responsible decision."
Tom noticed that Anne-Marie hardly ate, toying with her food and pushing it around on her plate. At one point, they both overheard a man at a nearby table talking about the latest Soviet-American mini-crisis. Tom was unpleasantly reminded of the general state of the world and said,
"I can't understand why the Soviets do these things. They just create danger without solving any problems."
Anne-Marie replied, a little sharply,
"They may be interested in things you wouldn't care about, like the liberation of a few thousand people in some obscure corner of the world."
It hit Tom all at once. In the light of what he had told her, he was, in her eyes, a pampered rich boy, complaining because he didn't have a complete monopoly on all the toys in the neighborhood. He had also been close to thinking that she might be one of the toys. Anne-Marie still smiled, a little teasingly, but he began to wonder if she really liked him at all. Tom replied,
"I'm sorry, I guess we lose patience. It's probably just fear."
"We're all afraid. I've been afraid for as long as I can remember. First, it was the Nazis, then the Americans, and now my own countrymen."
"Then, the things they do must worry you too."
"Of course they do. But they don't do them just to create dangerous situations. Khruschev is a long way from Stalin. Some of his objectives are perfectly legitimate."
Anne-Marie was no longer smiling, and, somehow, Tom managed to ask her the right question.
"What is it that bothers you most about America?"
"The way people spend money for things they don't need!"
Tom said nothing, and she relented a little, smiling as she said,
"I know, I've learned to spend money too. I wouldn't have been dressed this way in Russia. But everything here encourages it. It's patriotic to spend money. And it's that aspect of the system that brings out the worst in people, greed and jealousy. The whole middle class behaves that way, and then the rich are much worse, worse than anything I ever saw at home."
"I guess you must come across some unpleasant parents."
"There's one woman who talks to me because I'm her daughter's teacher, and she wants information about Susie. She cares nothing whatever about me. She'd hardly notice if I were replaced by someone else. And she doesn't really want to know anything important about her daughter. She just wants to be told that Susie won't grow up to be an embarrassment. I've never met a Russian woman like that."
Tom hardly wanted to argue with Anne-Marie. It was much more interesting just to watch her face and the ever-changing moods which drifted across it. At one point, she said,
"And here am I, a poor little defector, with a young man who springs at me from the heart of the American power establishment with lust in his heart. What's to be done?"
"What makes you think I have lust in my heart?"
"I can tell by the way you look at me."
"I see. But I don't think Colonel Smith would like it if I made improper advances. You could always complain to him."
"But what about Mr. A. L. Seiss? He wouldn't be so very shocked would he?"
Then, with another sudden change of subject, Anne-Marie said,
"That's a handsome man over there. The one who looks like Frankenstein."
It was true. The man had well-cut features, but his facial movements were stiff and jerky, perhaps due to arthritis, and, when he got up to go to the men's room, Tom expected him to totter in the Frankensteinian fashion. Even before he had a chance to look, she pointed discreetly to a woman entering the dining room with a man and said,
"She's the wife of the man she's with. She couldn't be anything else."
That, too, was true. She was so very unattractive, particularly in comparison with her rather presentable husband, that he couldn't have chosen freely to be with her.
On the way home, Tom asked,
"Was it your idea to be a French teacher here?"
"Not entirely. Colonel Smith suggested it."
"That's surprising. I didn't realize that he was sensitive in quite that way."
"Oh yes. He's a gentleman. He was also appalled at my original suggestion."
"What was that?"
"I wanted to work at race tracks exercising horses."
"I bet that did surprise him. Can you ride well enough to stay on a race horse at full speed?"
"It's part of any Mongol's heritage. Not only that, my grandfather Shaposhnikov loved horses and racing. I learned to ride so young that I can't even remember not knowing how."
"You probably didn't realize it, but race tracks in this country are quite squalid, and the people who work with the horses are sometimes bad characters."
"That's true everywhere. I would have fitted in as well as I do at the Fairmile Academy, probably better. I have a bad wild side to my character, the Mongol side."
Anne-Marie was turned partly toward Tom, and she arched her neck and stretched herself like a cat. Then she asked if she had alarmed him. He denied it, falsely, and said,
"I guess I agree with Colonel Smith. Anyhow, I can't imagine you out in the mud hosing down horses and things like that."
"The grooms do that, but I wouldn't mind. I've dug trenches during the war, and then spent days and even weeks in them. Can't you imagine me in heavy boots shovelling manure?"
As if to make that feat of imagination even more difficult, she lifted one foot and pointed her toe, giving her sleek ankle a remarkable reverse curve. Tom shook his head and admitted that he could not. Anne-Marie replied,
"You have a romantic idea of a lady, mostly associated with clothes and perfume. But the clothes can come off, and the scent will go away quickly enough. We're all just animals recently promoted from the barn yard."
"I suppose that's true. I just don't think of it that way."
For the rest of the drive, Anne-Marie hardly said anything that didn't have mysterious and humorous overtones. When he said good night to her on her doorstep, she took his large hand familiarly in both her small ones and thanked him for the evening. She then added, with her little smile,
"The food was actually rotten, but it was a delightful dinner."
Tom left, more confused than when he had arrived. But he also felt good, even better than he had after parting from Ellie.