IX The War Came Close to Moscow.
OUR CAR LEFT KUYBYSHEV at seven next morning, January 12th, in order to get to the airport. The young chauffeur, nineteen years old,(155) did not know the way any too well: a few miles from the town, we I'ui lost in a busy factory district. We passed many new houses, all alike , built in monotonous rows. They were dwelling places for the workers, each of them large enough to shelter three or four families. Hundreds of men and women were walking, all in the same direction, on the snow-covered roads, to take their shift in the plants. Those who came from more distant houses were being carried in large, old busses to the place of their work.
I soon discovered that the most useful tool for automobile drivers m Russia was the spade. Several times the car skidded on the frozen rind and stopped only when it got stuck in the soft snow. The driver got out with his-spade and began digging around the wheels in order to clear the way. Then he tried to start the car again, while Lieutenant Muston and myself pushed the machine from behind with all our might.
We thought our troubles were over when we got onto a straighter in.id, in a heavy traffic of military trucks—but they weren't. The shiver made a sudden yaw to avoid running over a dog. The car skidded again, turned completely, and dashed into the snow. This tunc we dug and pushed for about half an hour before the car moved at all. When we got to the airport at last, the two motors of our plane were being heated before departure. It was the coldest day 1 hid had in Russia so far: the frost was biting my face and stiffening my hands while I carried my bag toward the Russian-built Douglas. Very soon, we took off and found ourselves flying low over an im¬mense white plain.
1 his was a military machine, not a passenger plane like the one that hid brought me from Iran. Everything in the transport aircraft had been fitted for war. There was not an ounce of weight wasted. We MI on a light, metal bench, our backs to the windows. Our luggage WHS gathered together in the remaining empty space. Right in the Huddle of the plane there was a square platform of rough wood, the leight of two steps of a staircase. On this improvised pedestal stood ii gunner. A glass turret allowed him to see the sky above us and to aim his revolving machine gun at eventual aggressors. During our four-hour trip, the gunner, who wore giant fur-lined boots climbing high above his knees, stood all the time in this awkward position and never stopped watching for invisible enemies.
The glass turret and the machine gun had obviously been added bcently to the plane. This had meant carving a large hole in the top til the fuselage, and the net result was a frightful frost and a frightf (156) noise inside the aircraft. As we flew smoothly over the forests and monotonous fields buried in the snow, each of us started an individual struggle against the growing cold. There were fifteen of us, mostly Russian officers. The only women were my companion and myself, and I was the only foreigner. After a while two of the men-civilians—started walking back and forth in the empty space of the plane, to get warmer, just as if they had been in a street, without the pilot seeming to mind. Meanwhile a lot of wrapping up and tapping of feet and hands was going on among us. I had first tried to con¬ceal how deadly cold I was, but then I made this important discovery: the Russians were cold too, just as cold as I, a simple Westerner. I stopped being self-conscious and just let myself shiver without shame.
The metal seat was cold. The window, dimmed by the frost, was cold. Our teeth became cold whenever we spoke, and our frozen breath looked like white steam. In front of me sat an officer, rather old, wearing a brown leather coat. His face was gradually becoming pale green, and I could see his jaws actually shaking, his body shiver¬ing all over. Another officer had curled upon the bench, hoping that to sleep might help. Liuba Mieston's round face was hardly visible between her fur-lined cap and the collar of her military sheepskin coat —a wonderful garment, of white fleece inside and white skin outside, that made her look like an enormous Christmas toy, a bulky Teddy bear. Every one of these frozen people found a little energy left to laugh at me and at my strange costume: corduroy slacks, any amount of woolen socks and sweaters, sheep-lined boots, the whipcord-and-civet-cat coat, the fur-lined hood and, over all that, the yellow Persian pustine, whose sheep lining had even stopped smelling, so cold it was.
An icy sunshine welcomed us on the Moscow airfield, where I could see several military aircraft—transports, bombers, and fighters —all of Russian make. While we were carrying our bags to a car across the snow, a Red Cross plane, coming from the front, landed only a few yards away from us. An ambulance drove up to it immediately. It was one of those aircraft in which there is just room for two lying men. Suddenly, the war was there, right close to me. The suffering inflicted on the men by the winter and the sanguinary fight¬ing became extraordinarily real.
We drove through the city. The avenues were unusually wide and the sidewalks Ather narrow. The contrary, somehow, would have been better: niany more people were walking than riding, and a dark, busy crowd edged the half-empty streets, where there was only a scarce traffic of automobiles and streetcars. Liuba Mieston, overjoyed,(157) was looking excitedly at everything. Moscow was her home, and she had not been back there since the tragic days in the fall, when her Information Bureau had been hastily evacuated to Kuybyshev. This trip with me was giving her a chance to come back to her beloved town. She was sighing with happiness and muttering:
"I am going to see my flat again. I wonder if it has been bombed. And, who knows—with a little luck, I may come across my husband: his regiment is at the front not very far from here. Oh, and I will go to the station. . . . Do you know that, at the outbreak of the war, all my civilian clothes got lost: I packed them in a suitcase, left the suitcase for a day at the station's package room, and in the general turmoil the suitcase vanished. That was awful, for clothes here cannot be replaced. I have only my unifocal left—and my husband always says to me: 'Liuba, I don't like you in uniform, I like you in a dress.' "
We got to the Moskva Hotel, which had the solemn gloom of a necropolis. It was an enormous, modern building of about twelve floors, with hundreds and hundreds of rooms. There was an attempt to cut down drastically the consumption of electricity and coal: the lobbies were dark and icy cold, and the rooms only moderately heated. However, the Moskva, as compared to the Grand Hotel in Kuybyshev, represented a prodigious luxury: a hot bath was prob-ably in sight.
The place was crowded, and the only accommodation we could get was a double room, with a bathroom and a very useless drawing room containing a piano that age had rendered mute. It cost eighty rubles a day—sixteen dollars at the official rate of exchange. The em¬ployee at the reception desk, who gave the impression that he worked in a cave, because of his dim desk light and the coat in which he was shivering, promised us that the next day each of us would have a room—at a more reasonable price.
While I took a bath, Lieutenant Mieston did some telephoning, and while she took a bath I tried to get some food downstairs, in the chilly dining room where every table was occupied, mostly by of¬ficers. I managed to find an empty seat at a table; I also managed to explain to the waiter that I wanted to eat the same things that the officers at the next table were eating—small cutlets of hashed meat—but that was as far as I got. I waited and waited, and no food ever came. I figured out that, rather than be cold and hungry in the dining room full of drafts, I would much rather be warm and hungry in my room, and I went up again. I was rescued sometime .................