- Historic Sites
Full House At Yalta
Vodka at breakfast was only one of the minor problems when Russians entertained Americans
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Finally, on January 15, and with the ambassador’s approval, I informed the Soviet office that if no flight was permitted that day, I wanted passage on the midnight train going south. It was a three-day, 65O-mile trip, but it seemed the only way to get to Yalta. We were jammed into a couple of compartments with two Soviet naval liaison officers and several Foreign Office officials headed by a Mr. Chuvakin. We prepared our own food on a little Sterno stove, and we also took care of our own bedbugs, using the containers of DDT we had been provided with. Many miles of the track had been systematically uprooted by the retreating Germans and painstakingly pieced back together by the Russians, making for a slow, decidedly bumpy ride. At every station there was a crowd of people, most of them clothed in burlap rags, struggling to get on the train. We didn’t dare get off even momentarily for fear of never getting back on.
After three full days of such travel, we looked forward to ending our trip at Semfirople about 3 P.M. on Thursday, January 18. We pulled in at midnight. We were met by Lieutenant General Ivanov, local head of the Soviet secret service, Lieutenant General Karanov, commander of the Crimean airports, and two girl interpreters, one a gorgeous blonde named Gania who had been brought down from Poltava, where she had worked with Americans before.
We were taken to a pleasant Army cottage, where a full hot dinner awaited us. The two generals were fine hosts. Vodka and brandy toasts were exchanged throughout the dinner, a soldier accordion player entertained in the background, and, following a Russian custom, we all danced with the two interpreters and the waitresses. Somewhere about 3 A.M. we got to bed, tired but feeling no pain.
We were up at seven on Friday morning, had a good breakfast, and climbed into automobiles for the four-hour trip over the mountains to Yalta. I would have preferred Gania to Captain Alien as interpreter, but General Ivanov carefully tucked her in beside him. We left General Hill at Semfirople with the Soviet air general, as it was his job to check the arrangements at Saki airport for the big passenger planes scheduled to arrive.
The ride to Yalta was lovely. There was much snow in the mountains, but the roads were clear. Once beyond the mountains, we entered the rolling hills of grape-growing country. It reminded us of places in Italy and France. We noticed how much more balmy and springlike the air was, even though it was only mid-January. We approached Yalta along the coast of the Black Sea on a road high in the hills. Snuggled on the slopes of a valley, with a nice little harbor of its own, the town made a very pleasant scene. There were many comfortable-looking rest homes, and it was not until we entered the town that we realized how thorough a job of general destruction the Germans had done before departing.
We passed through the village, depressed by the devastation we saw, and were taken to a small tavern on the outskirts. Here we were to stay until quarters were available at the Livadia Palace. We had pleasant, spacious rooms, but when I opened the door to the toilet I stood back aghast. The bowl was incrediblyfoul, and the overhead flushing system was obviously out of order. I slammed the door shut and asked the servant, “Where to now?” He shrugged and pointed to the back garden. I went for Chuvakin and showed him the problem; then I headed for the garden!
General Ivanov came by shortly after lunch to take us for our first look around the palace. That, too, was a shock and an eye opener. Livadia Palace was built in 1911 as a summer palace for Czar Nicholas n. The whole interior was beautifully elaborate and ornate, with frescoes and carved doors and panels. There were three buildings: the palace itself for the czar and his family and two others for his suite. The park stretched down to the Black Sea, seven hundred feet below, and contained fifteen kilometers of allées lined with cypress, cedar, yew, and bay trees. There were numerous greenhouses, stables, and other buildings constituting the village of Livadia. There were many bedrooms, and it was said the czar slept in a different one every night for fear ol being assassinated. The second floor was used by the czarina and her four daughters. In our assignments later, General George Marshall occupied the imperial bedroom, and Admiral Ernest King slept in the czarina’s boudoir. The private outside staircase was said to have been sometimes used by Rasputin.
After the Communists overthrew the Kerensky regime, they used the palace as a tuberculosis sanitarium and a rest home for worthy workers. Then when the Germans invaded, they set up their headquarters in it; and when they retreated in the spring of 1944, they had to evacuate in a hurry—but not before they had removed everything of value and battered the buildings badly. Fortunately, they did not bomb or totally destroy them. Since then, the Soviets had not repaired or used the buildings, as far as we could learn.