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“How Would You Like To Be Attached To The Red Army?”
A cameraman at Yalta tells what it was like to spend a few days in claustrophobic luxury with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt— and to be offered a job by Joseph Stalin
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
When conferences were in session, I was free to photograph the palace and gardens. On one occasion Anna Boettiger, Kathy Harriman, and I took a walk through the grounds and down into the town of Yalta. We were followed at about 20 paces by a Russian soldier. On our way we encountered a child of about four. We stopped to talk to him, with Kathy interpreting. Anna offered him a Hershey bar, which he accepted. At that point the Russian soldier rushed up to us, snatched the candy bar from the child, and forced it back into Anna’s hand, saying, “Russian children don’t need food!” Our protests were to no avail, and the frightened child ran back to his house, empty-handed.
Yalta was a charming town, and I could understand why it had been such a popular resort. We entered a church where a Russian Orthodox mass was in progress and found it filled to capacity with very old women and young children; all men and women of military age were away in the armed forces. There were no pews or chairs, and at prayers the worshipers prostrated themselves on the smooth stone floor. I had understood that religion was stifled in the Soviet Union. But here, at least, it continued to thrive.
I sensed a kind of euphoria at the last session among all the delegates for what had been accomplished. Their faces reflected relief, and there was laughter and banter.
The final plenary session of the Yalta Conference was held on February 11, and Steve Early set up a photo session in the courtyard of the palace that afternoon. The sky was slightly overcast, providing good, even light for our pictures.
The courtyard was surrounded on all four sides by an arcade, and there was a well in the center. Oriental rugs were spread over what had been gardens, and three chairs were placed in front of the well for Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.
When the photographers were admitted, President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin were already seated. Prime Minister Churchill arrived shortly after, wearing a Russian fur hat, to the amusement of both Roosevelt and Stalin. Their military and diplomatic staffs were milling around in the background. Dad was too ill to attend.
I sensed a kind of euphoria among the principals and members of all three delegations for what had been accomplished during the conference. Their faces reflected relief from the strain of negotiations, and there was laughter and good-natured banter.
Of particular importance were agreement on the partition of Germany after its defeat; Stalin’s acceptance of free elections in Poland with the participation of Polish exiles in London; Stalin’s agreement to join American and British forces in the Far East to defeat Japan; and, most of all, the three-power agreement on the terms for the establishment of the United Nations as a means for ensuring world peace.
“How do you want to handle this, Robert?” asked the President.
“First, Mr. President, I’d like to have Mr. Stettinius stand behind you, with Mr. Molotov behind Marshal Stalin, and Mr. Eden behind Prime Minister Churchill. Then I would like the others who participated in the deliberations to move in so that they will be included in the photographic record of the conference.”
The three senior diplomats took their places as I requested, but the others did not move out of the way, as I had hoped. It didn’t really matter because each individual there had made an important contribution to the discussions.
As I was taking a picture of Stalin and Molotov under the arcade, Stalin motioned me to approach. He smiled and shook my hand and asked me what I had been doing since we last met. Molotov acted as our interpreter as we talked.
I told him that I had just returned from filming action on the German front.
“What are your plans now?” he asked.
“Well, I want to be the first American photographer in Berlin, but this seems unlikely, since your troops are on the outskirts of the city, and we’re 125 miles away.”
“How would you like to be attached to the Red Army?” he said. “Then you could be the first American to film the fall of Berlin.”
This proposal took my breath away. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Could you arrange that?,” momentarily forgetting that he could arrange anything in the Soviet orbit.
“You take care of it from your end, and I’ll take care of it from ours,” said Stalin.
I thanked him, shook hands with him and with Molotov, then raced down the corridor of Livadia Palace, encountering General Marshall on the way. I told him of my conversation with Stalin and asked if he could arrange for me to be placed on temporary duty with the Russian Army so I could film the fall of Berlin.
“Yes,” he said, “I can arrange that.”
Thrilled, I hurried to my father’s bedroom and told him about my conversations with Stalin and General Marshall.
“You can’t go,” he said flatly.
“What do you mean, I can’t go? It’s all arranged! This will be the biggest story of the war!”