- Mussorgsky in the Extreme
As a young man searching for a way to get to Russia, I was assigned by Radio Liberty in Munich to conduct a "sociological survey" among the tens of thousands of Russian displaced persons (DPs) stranded in refugee camps spread over West Germany since the war's end. My task was to search for hidden radio talent and simultaneously to bolster morale among the Russian DPs.
Before getting to Mussorgsky I must explain who these Russians were and what they were doing in the refugee camps. At the end of World War II, some seven million Soviet citizens remained in West Europe—two million prisoners of war, millions of forced laborers, and those who had left the USSR together with retreating German troops. In a secret agreement at Yalta in April 1945, the Allies agreed to repatriate—forcibly if necessary—any Soviet persons classified as deserters or collaborators with Nazi Germany. In practice, guilty and innocent alike were rounded up and handed over to Soviet authorities. [End Page 96]
Despite Allied goodwill and cooperation in carrying out the accords with Stalin, about one hundred thousand Soviet citizens escaped repatriation and remained in the West, adding numbers to the emigration from the USSR. The more fortunate of them soon immigrated to the USA or Canada, while those remaining in West Germany had been rejected by all immigrant countries: they were too old or ill, had dubious backgrounds, or were unfortunate for never being in the right place at the right time.
During a record cold winter at the end of the 1950s, I traveled in an old Volkswagen from camp to camp, from settlement to settlement, from Bavaria to Berlin—from Dachau to Degendorf, Ingolstad, Landshut, Passau, Nürnberg, Bamberg, Ulm, Stuttgart, Hanover, Hamburg. Each day I spent hours with emigrant families living in converted German army barracks, the long bays divided into living areas by heavy tarpaulins hanging from the ceiling, corridors stinking of urine, many of the inhabitants too sick to immigrate anywhere. The former Soviet citizens had forgotten why they were there; the reasons were too complex and too far removed for them to comprehend. They just found themselves there, fifteen years since they had left their homes in Russia—like yesterday, or perhaps it seemed to them an eternity ago. They were surviving objects of a maddened history. Things just happened to them.
Frequenting the camps nearly daily, I soon learned to avoid accepting the hospitality of chai, which, as those who know Russians of that generation know, meant a meal. It reached a point where I was eating six and seven times a day and drinking enormous quantities of beer and vodka. I passed that entire winter traveling, meeting emigrants, reading Anna Karenina in Russian, eating pelmeni and borscht and shchi, learning to speak the language, and listening to Russian opera.
Ironically, a kind of historical counterpoint exists: at the same time in the late fifties, dozens of aspiring American opera singers arrived in West Germany to study and audition for jobs in the wide circuit of repertory opera houses operating even in small cities like Ingolstadt and Passau. Through an American baritone friend, I met a group of them in Munich. Inspired by the singers, I hit on the idea of "opera concerts" for the homesick emigrants in the camps—by no means could they be called "émigrés" in the old romantic sense of the so-called White Russians in Paris or New York. They were social dependents and pawns of history. [End Page 97]
The political justification for the "concerts" was to counteract the work of the "General Mikhailov Committee for Return to the Homeland" located in East Berlin, dedicated to luring disillusioned emigrants stranded in the camps in the West back home with tailored radio broadcasts and newspapers. Quite a few emigrants had already responded and returned voluntarily to the USSR. It is still unclear what happened to them; maybe their forgotten records are buried somewhere in dusty files in Moscow.
That winter there were about one thousand Soviet emigrants in the refugee camp in Dachau, on the outskirts of Munich, not far from the...