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By Brian Garfield
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1973 Brian Garfield
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Avast gloomy building stands along the Potomac waterfront in Alexandria. Originally a torpedo factory, it now houses many of the military records belonging to the National Archives. I've been familiar with it for a dozen years; masses of research for all my books have come out of those miles of microfilm and documents.
The National Archives is supposed to be a civilian department—our government's historical librarian—but access to its military records is controlled and limited by the Pentagon. I had my first clash there in the 1960s when I began to compile material for a history of the Aleutian campaigns in World War II. Those campaigns ended in 1943 and the records I sought were twenty-five years old; yet they were locked inside "Classified" cabinets and it took nearly a year before I was able to wheedle the Pentagon into declassifying them so that I could use them for publication. The opposition was not based on argument, merely on bureaucratic inertia; but that made the obstacles all the more maddening, because they were unreasoning.
There was nothing sensitive in those files. It was only that no one had asked to see them before I came along. They'd remained under lock and key. When you took them out you had to blow the dust off them.
In the course of researching that book and others in the long warehouse, I developed a fair working knowledge of the scope and coverage of the NARS collections. I came to know the pale people who worked there, and the ways in which I could trace the erratic paths of reference in their muddled index of dusty possessions. In the end I followed those paths too far, I suppose: being a writer made me a scholar of sorts; being a scholar forced me to be a detective; being a detective made me a fugitive.
My mother was Ukrainian, perhaps I should explain that. She lived in Sebastopol until 1935, when freak circumstances permitted her to leave the Soviet Union. She immigrated to England. My father in those days had a minor post with the American Embassy in London.
They met one evening at the Haymarket Theatre; they were married in 1936. I was born in 1938 on board an ocean liner at a spot south of Iceland on a voyage from Southampton to New York; since my parents were of separate citizenships and I had been born on the high seas, I was allowed my choice of nationality when I reached my majority in 1959. I have carried an American passport ever since then but a good part of my childhood was spent outside the United States: Ottowa during the war, then London again—my father then Second Secretary to the Ambassador to the Court of St. James—then Bonn for two years, and a further two years in Switzerland. I went to a variety of schools and acquired four languages including my mother's native Ukrainian dialect, as well as German, English and St. Petersburg Russian.
During the war my mother's relatives managed occasionally to get letters out to her. She saved these carefully in a leather case and in later years she would let me read them. As far as any of us knew, all her relatives in the Crimea and the Ukraine had perished in the war. I'm sure it was those letters, and my mother's childhood memories, which inspired me to write my first book on the Russian Civil War and to lay elaborate plans to write the definitive history of the Nazi seige of Sebastopol—the project which took me into the Soviet Union in February 1973 and culminated in those alarming events with which this account is concerned.
When I was researching my book on the Nazi spies I first encountered German documents that referred to the Sebastopol siege. I had thought that such documents would be in Russian hands today, but that isn't altogether the case.
The Germans were compulsive paperwork addicts; our own Pentagon can hardly match the Nazi mania for record-keeping, which helped doom many of the war-crimes defendants: their bestiality was attested by document after damning document, many of them sealed with their own signatures.
When the Wehrmacht advanced it sent back its records to the Fatherland. When it retreated it took its records along. Nothing was left behind. Amazingly few records were destroyed, until right at the end of the war a belated effort was made to erase the evidence they had so carefully amassed against themselves. But at that point everything was collapsing around them and the ranking officers fled to preserve their skins while their subordinates found more pressing engagements than record-burning; so that a vast body of Nazi history fell intact into Allied hands at the end of the war in Germany.
Among these records were voluminous files from the Crimea. Even in rout; even under siege; even in the panic of desperate flight from the Red armies, the Germans threw their own wounded off trains and ships in order to make space for the transhipment to Germany of their paper records.
These trainloads fell into American hands, mainly in Austria, in 1945. Most of them were taken to Berlin (the American sector) for examination. Harried men, assigned to the Strategic Bombing Survey and the Allied Military Government in postwar Germany, had the jobs of sorting these endless millions of documents; collating them, indexing them, finding places to store them. (For a while many of them were kept in the bombed and burnt-out remains of the old Reichstag.)
Many were not indexed with any care. The principal target of the hunt was documents to incriminate those accused of war crimes; anything that didn't seem to have a direct bearing on that objective was discarded and consigned to the oblivion of "miscellany." Later, when the military occupation ended, the American forces brought the captured material back with them. Most of it was stored intact and unopened; in the intervening years it has been examined piecemeal but there has never been any systematic attempt to get it sorted out. There is still enough unopened material to keep historians busy for a century.
When I came across the first clues I was tempted to shelve the book on Nazi spies and plunge straight into the Sebastopol material. I did abandon the spy book for several weeks until it became obvious that I was not going to get enough material from those files to justify doing that particular book. The key material was Russian; and of course it remains in the Soviet Union.
Clearly I had to have access to the Russian archives. I began to make approaches to the Soviet government, by mail and through their embassy in Washington, while at the same time I returned my immediate attention to the Abwehr and Gestapo records and proceeded to complete that project.
Predictably the Soviet authorities were obstructionist; I knew it would take years to break down the barriers, if it could be done at all. At that time no Western historian had been allowed into any Soviet archive.
I hoped my dual nationality would help. Also there was the fact that I had treated the Russians fairly in all my books, particularly my history of the Russian Civil War—my first book. I hoped that would count for something. (Since then some things have changed. Even then I was dabbling with material for a book on Aleksandr Kolchak and the White armies. But the Soviets weren't to know that.)
I completed the manuscript of the Nazi spy book in the autumn of 1965. After that there were the usual revisions, the work of obtaining photographs to illustrate the book, the preparation of the bibliography and index, all the other irritating post-partum chores that go into the publication of a book which from the author's point of view is already completed. It was well into 1966 before I had breathing space in which to begin the next project.
The Soviets still hadn't budged. I was making pleas through intermediaries by then—old friends of my father's, people in the diplomatic corps—but none of it had worked; the Russian archives were still closed to me. It was going to take years, if it was to happen at all. To the Soviets history is not a source, not a tool, but a god. Like all gods its interpretation is subject to revision—periodic expedient changes to fit the requirements of the present. No crime, regardless how heinous, can be condemned if it is performed in the service of Red history—a system of rationalization which is reminiscent of the Inquisition and the Crusades. But as long as history is the Red religion it is small wonder that the Soviets resist incursions by outside students, and I had few illusions about my chances.
So I turned to the Aleutian campaigns and spent two years on them (1966–1968), after which I assembled the vignettes that went into The Master Spies.
Those were years when my daughter died in a stupid accident and my marriage broke up. I mention those things only to explain why I did not devote more wholehearted efforts to opening Russian doors a crack. I had too many problems. For a while my work took a back seat; in fact for more than a year I was drinking too much to do decent work. But I don't mean this to be a confession or an apologia; my personal life has only a limited bearing on the facts that must be divulged here.
For one reason and another it was near the end of 1970 before I returned to Washington to begin work on what I intended to be the definitive popular history of the Siberian Civil War in 1918–20—Kolchak's War. It was shortly thereafter that all this began. I remember the date quite clearly: January 26, 1971.
George Fitzpatrick, who has a Boston Irish sense of humor and a practical joker's temperament, was throwing one of his bacchanals. He detested the hoary Washington practice of throwing every party "in honor of" someone. This one, I recall vividly, was thrown in commemoration of the date of Oscar Wilde's death.
I had been weeks sorting the boring files of Graves' Expeditionary Force in Siberia and I welcomed Fitzpatrick's invitation in the hope the party would pull me out of my dulled mood.
Fitzpatrick is a Boston lawyer, a registered lobbyist; he keeps a suite of rooms year-round at the Hay-Adams. In the lobby that evening, conventioneers with name-tags on their pockets swarmed like prisoners of war and it was with great difficulty that I made my way to the bank of elevators.
A man arrived there just ahead of me; he put his finger on the depressed plastic square and it lit up. He turned and we looked at each other with the tentative smiles of people who think they recognize each other but aren't quite sure.
Then he said, "Harry Bristow." He pumped my arm in a politician's handshake, left hand on my elbow. "Been a hell of a long time."
I still didn't remember him well enough to put a name with the face.
"I didn't realize I'd put on that much weight. I'm Evan MacIver. Remember?"
I had to do the self-deprecating laugh and disbelieving head-shake; he was right, I should have remembered him—we'd roomed together one semester at Columbia.
MacIver brightened; we asked each other how we were, after which he said something complimentary about my books.
I remembered him as a self-possessed jaunty youth; a magpie with a raffish way. Now he had the somewhat defeated air of a worn-out roué: a big rumpled man with the jowls of a bulldog, the rheumy eyes of a bloodhound and a hard round belly on him. In profile his nose was an exact right triangle with a bit of a point on it. He was only two years older than I but he looked badly used at thirty-five. He wore a beet-hued tie and a gray flannel business suit as if he had been born in them; there'd been a day when he wouldn't have been caught dead in conventional attire. And his manner somehow suggested that the good education he'd once absorbed had gone stale through shiftless indifference.
At Fitzpatrick's floor the elevator doors slid open with a soft scrape. The hallway was wide and carpeted, intersected at intervals by painted doors. MacIver said, "You going to the Fitzpatrick bash? You know the way?"
"I've been here before," I admitted and led him along the corridor. I made conversation: "What have you been up to?"
"Oh hell, you know how it is. A little of this, a little of that. I did time at grad school after you left. Few years overseas—Kyoto and Darmstadt, mainly. Married a German girl while I was stationed over there, got my inactive papers, came back here."
"I got my wife and she's got me." It was wry because, evidently, there was truth in it. "Other than that no, no children. How about you?"
"No ties at the moment." I saw no point in going into detail. I rang the bell and a laughing girl let us in.
Among those who know, an invitation to a Fitzpatrick party is a privilege. There is always a White House crisis or a Capitol Hill scandal to fuel conversations and the guest list insures that a good number of animated and heated disputes will break out in the course of the bibulous evening.
You never see quite the same crowd there twice; you're kept on your toes by the presence of strangers who throw lethal darts into your best set-piece opinion speeches. A bore never gets a second invitation. There's a slight artificiality to it—Fitzpatrick's principal aim is to recreate the Algonquin round table—but nobody minds. The best sarcasms are honed here. Tomorrow's political-humor newspaper columns often have their geneses around George's bar. I believe it was at one of his early parties that the phrase was coined, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Or at least legend would have it so.
Evan MacIver and I were separated almost instantly on entry; I found myself marched into the center of the main room with George Fitzpatrick's thick arm thrown across my shoulders. Around me vied the fumes of his Black Label Cologne and Cutty Sark whiskey. George stopped to introduce me to a trio of allegedly beautiful people and left me there to find my own way to the bar; I don't recall speaking to him again at all that night.
I was in the wrong mood for it; I knew that right away. I'd been immersed in dry research too long; wit, like love, is something you have to keep working at—otherwise it withers. I constructed some sort of drink and found a neutral corner in which to swizzle it reflectively. Across the room I saw a glamorous woman, the wife of a young Senator who wasn't here with her, take offense at something someone said to her; she took a reef in her floor-length dress and swept straight out the door. When it closed behind her the entire room burst into raucous laughter: there was no such thing as an embarrassed silence at one of these bashes. Manners were suspended; anything went; she had broken the house rules and nobody had sympathy for her: the room echoed with ridicule when she returned for her forgotten coat.
A columnist buttonholed me and tried out a funny idea he was thinking of using. Evidently he was speaking to me but he seemed to be aiming somewhere over the top of my head. I laughed in the right places.
Another drink, too fast. I saw MacIver drifting through the crowd, looking curiously like an eavesdropper: he was out of place here, the company was too fast for him. I wondered where Fitzpatrick could have come across him. What did MacIver do nowadays? He hadn't said. I had thought he was taller than he seemed now; perhaps events had shrunk him. He was burning his cigarettes away in long drags.
I found a chair in the lee of conversations; someone had just vacated it to charge into the midst of a spirited argument nearby. Laughter hung in the room in waves that bounced from one end to the other; the various knots of joke-tellers seemed to have found synchronization. I settled into the chair and went through the time-consuming ritual of getting my pipe going.
For a little while I let things drift by me. Then my attention drifted toward a young woman who sat in the corner opposite me, beside the window. Her head was bowed so that her dark hair shielded her face; people went by and there was an undrunk glass of something in her hand but she paid nothing any notice.
"She's Israeli. Separated from her husband, not divorced. Twenty-eight, I think."
It was Evan MacIver, suddenly at my side, sitting down hipshot on the arm of my chair. "She's got a son in some Swiss boarding school. She's staying in a consulate apartment out in Georgetown."
"Why tell me all that?"
Excerpted from Kolchak's Gold by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1973 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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