Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Red Square May Day parade" - Sam Welles (1948)

My grandpa wrote in his book - Profile of Europe - about the 
Russian people which he said were 
"the single most impressive thing [he] saw in Russia" as 
exemplified by the 1947 Red Square May Day Parade

Sam Welles wrote in 1948:

          The people were the single most impressive thing I saw in Russia. They made the Red Square May Day parade my single most impressive experience there. The Russian border inspectors were right to be moved by that little lavender-colored pass. No one who has seen Moscow's May Day Parade could ever possibly underestimate the might and magnificence of Russia. I stood at one spot and watched a million people walk by. I have seen Bastille Day crowds in Paris and Holy Week crowds jamming into St. Peter's in Rome and the great square outside. I have seen the Easter parades of Seville, Spain. In Britain I have seen the processions and vast crowds for a King's funeral and a king's coronation. I have seen the crowds at Coney Island on a hot summer Sunday. They all shrink beside a Moscow May Day.
           I do not mean the military part of the parade, which took up the first hour. The troops, the tanks, the trucks, the guns were well deployed but nothing special. The 310 airplanes (which included only five four-engined planes, three of them bombers) were not impressive compared to Western nations' air spectacles. They did include 105 jet fighter planes, the first time Russia had shown jet planes publicly - and the Soviet censor, true to form, killed all references to them in reporters' cables.
          Nor do I mean the appearance of Stalin and other members of the Politburo on the reviewing level atop Lenin's tomb. That was interesting, not least interesting because of the heavy array of uniformed secret police officers - not soldiers, every one of them was an officer - flung around all four sides of the tomb and kept alert through the long parade by being replaced with files of fresh officers every half hour. The officers first appeared a few minutes before the Politburo put in an appearance. After the military part of the parade, extra files of secret policemen were marched in to line the entire circuit of Red Square, before the people were allowed in for their "spontaneous demonstration." Across the hundred-yard cobbled width of Red Square, other files of troops were placed every fifteen feet, stretching the whole length of the square from the Historical Museum on the west to St. Basil's Cathedral on the east. These troops stood literally shoulder to shoulder and alternately faced opposite directions so they could watch everybody. Every third one of these troops was also a secret policeman; the rest were picked soldiers from the Kremlin's crack Guards Divisions. These twenty files of troops split the people's procession into twenty long narrow lengths, like twenty parallel pieces of spaghetti, and of course controlled and directed the people every instant they were in Red Square.
          All these elaborate precautions were not perfectly successful. Just before May Day the American photographers - who had been given permission to stay on after the Moscow Conference and been promised hey could take pictures of the Red Square ceremony - were suddenly informed that they could have passes but could not take pictures. To tell that to an American photographer is just to egg him on. Tom McAvoy of Life slung one camera around his neck and another over his shoulder, each one bulkier than a pistol or a hand grenade. During the military part of the parade he stood on a balcony just outside the square, where he could get mass-effect shots. (He had first locked the door of the balcony, as well as the door of the room, so he would not be disturbed.) When the people's parade began, Tom turned spontaneous demonstrator and came in on the far side of the square, where he spent a busy quarter of an hour getting fine pictures of the parade, with Lenin's tomb and the Kremlin as a background. Finally, still not showing his pass and still using only the one Russian word pajolsta (please), Tom gradually angled the entire way across the slow-moving people's parade and through its twenty interspersed files of secret police and soldiers, to a stance directly in front of the tomb. He shot pictures of Stalin and the others to his heart's content - from a few yard's distance. All the secret policemen there and elsewhere assumed he was just another photographer who had permission to move about.
          To cap the climax, Molotov, standing beside Stalin, saw him busily snapping just below. Tom had photographed Molotov on his visits to America and, of course, regularly took his picture during the Moscow Conference. Molotov knew him, and had no way of knowing that sacred Soviet underlings had forbidden the American photographers to take any pictures on May Day. He nodded and beamed at Tom, and then waved at him.
          Tom is one of the most American Americans I know. He has all the humor, verve, nerve, and ingenuity which this episode implies. I was dumbfounded then utterly delighted when, from my front-row stand in the bleacher section nearest Lenin's tomb, I saw him come through the parade and start shooting the Politburo. Then he came over to our reporters' row, where he was supposed to have been from the beginning, and with twinkling eyes told us the whole story. I felt honored when he slipped me some of his film rolls to hold in case he got searched as he left the square. His pictures made a striking display in Life. They held a laugh and a hope. When Americans are American enough, they have a knack of peacefully getting through impossible difficulties.
          Stalin occasionally moved from side to side of the forty-foot reviewing walk on top of the tomb, to stretch his legs. But he never sat down, and he never long stopped waving in acknowledgement of the cheers. […]
          Such are the precautions to keep Russia's leader from assassination - far greater than those for a president, the only American official so protected. (Three American presidents have been assassinated since 1865; in that period only one czar, Alexander II in 1881, and one Politburo member, Sergei Kirov in 1934, have been assassinated, both in the city that is now Leningrad.) In the Soviet system, not one man but thousands are constantly protected. […]
          I have missed my main point in writing this chapter if I have not made it clear that for centuries the Russian people have been accustomed to a leader and to forms of collective living. Soviet Russia is a land where a handful of sunflower seeds is a generous gift to a beggar, where a sweater costs two months' wages, where jail is risked by a joke. It is a land whose people's spirit is a strange compound of pride and inferiority, hate and friendship, gentleness and violence, patriotism and dissatisfaction, fear and hope - all flavored with tradition. It is a land of less hope and more disillusion than in the early years of Communism, but one that still has some hope, at least enough to keep many young Russian striving. It is an old land, where youth is very important. It is a land of a great, unconquerable people who have been beaten into passive silence by a dictatorship. It is a land which any nation can live with, if it shows strength and patience, firmness and consistency, political health, and willingness to fight when it must for its principles. […]
         But nothing prepares one for that parade. What a milling mass of humanity it was. This, in the living, slowing moving flesh is the great flowing tide of man, woman, and child power that is the chief single characteristic of this vast land. Part of the procession was in organized groups. Most of it was people, just sauntering along. Whole families were there: mothers walking hand in hand with little girls and boys, fathers with still smaller children on their shoulders. There were not only endless pictures of Stalin and the Politburo; endless red flags; endless factory, club, shop and organization floats and banners. There were kids tugging at tow balloons and occasionally, as at any circus, losing their grip so the gay-colored bubbles floated up over the crowd.
          This slow, steadily moving mass goes on hour after hour after hour the whole great width and length of Red Square, without ever a break or gap or pause. A voice over the loudspeaker regularly bade those in the square to "Hurrah for Stalin!"[…]
          At last this seemingly endless stream of humanity did gradually taper to an end. It was Russia that had passed in the shape of her greatest strength: her patient, pliant, almost tireless people who can make up for almost any stupidity, brutality or miscalculation of their masters. The Russian people did that against the Tartars, Napoleon and the Nazis. They would do it against any other invader. No procession I am ever likely to see will have the force, impact or sheer splendor of those million ragged people.


On back of book:

          Sam Welles Author of Profile of Europe is an associate editor of Time and one of its top foreign news writers. During the war he served for three years in the State Department and in our London Embassy, where he was the Special Assistant to Ambassador Winant.
          At Oxford University, on a Rhodes Scholarship after Princeton, he took an honors degree in modern history. Ever since 1935 has spent a considerable part of his time traveling over Europe. In one thirty-nine month period he logged more than 100,000 miles from Connemarra to Constantinople; and during the Conference of Foreign Ministers in Moscow he walked more than 300 miles through that city and its suburbs. In the months that followed, he visited sixteen other countries, making his way across most of them by car. His equipment-including extra cans of gas, spare tires, tools, food and mountains of documents- would almost have outfitted a polar explorer.

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