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“How Would You Like To Be Attached To The Red Army?”

May 2024
13min read

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

Robert Hopkins was 15 years old when he first met Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the inauguration of New York’s Triborough Bridge in 1936. His father, Harry Hopkins, ran the WPA, which had built the bridge. Of course Hopkins remained FDR ‘s close lieutenant throughout the war, and once, as a newly minted GI, Robert was able to return late to Fort Dix bearing this note:

November 30,1941


Private Robert Hopkins is to be excused from reveille. He has been in consultation with the Commander-in-Chief.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Few soldiers can have had a more varied wartime career than Hopkins, who became a photographer and divided his time between being under fire on the front lines and breakfasting on caviar with the highest of High Commanders. So it was that early in 1945 he went from the German front to Malta, where he met his father. “Dad told me we would be taking off to fly to the Crimea that night and to be sure I had all my equipment with me. ” He was heading toward the Yalta Conference, where, for the last time, the three main leaders of the Allied effort met to begin shaping the postwar world .

We were flying over the Black Sea when I woke up at seven o’clock on the morning of February 3. I learned that we would be landing at Saki in the Crimea and would continue by car to Yalta, 90 miles away.

When our plane touched down, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was there to meet us. He remembered me from the Teheran Conference and greeted me in a friendly fashion. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already landed. The President and my father arrived a few minutes later in the President’s plane, The Sacred Cow. Also on the plane were his daughter, Anna Boettiger, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. Averell Harriman and his daughter, Kathy, and Maj. Gen. Edwin M. ("Pa") Watson, the President’s military aide.

Soviet soldiers in dress uniforms lined both sides of the runway. They snapped to attention as the President’s plane landed, and a Russian military band struck up. When the President was installed in a jeep and was talking to my father, I used some of my small supply of precious four-by-five-inch color film to photograph them. The result proved to be my favorite photograph of President Roosevelt and my father together.

President Roosevelt reviewed the honor guard with Prime Minister Churchill walking alongside his jeep. Then we boarded a convoy of cars and set out on the bone-jarring drive to Yalta. It took us five hours on that battle-pitted road, through the stark, scorched earth landscape, to reach our destination. The entire route was guarded by Soviet soldiers, most of them women, posted within sight of one another. That 90-mile drive from Saki to Yalta took almost as much time as our 1,400-mile flight from Malta to Saki.

Camouflage paint dimmed the splendor of Livadia Palace when it loomed out of the trees. The Nazi High Command, which had occupied the palace, had vacated it only months before we arrived.

My father went straight to bed to recuperate from the grueling journey. He had a private room near the President’s quarters on the main floor of the palace. Anna Boettiger, Adm. William Leahy, Gen. George Marshall, and Adm. Ernest King also had private rooms, but just about everyone else had to share. I recall that there were 16 Army colonels jammed, dormitory-style, in one room. Miraculously, I found a tiny room up under the eaves of the palace, furnished with a cot, a straight-back chair, and a small table. I immediately claimed it, enormously pleased at having found a room to myself. That night I had no sooner closed my eyes than I became aware that I was in fact sharing my room with a horde of Russian bedbugs that emerged from under the torn wallpaper in battalions. U.S. Navy personnel, responsible for the logistics of the conference, came to my rescue with aerosol insecticides. Russian bedbugs, however, proved impervious to the spray, and they bedeviled me and everyone else in the palace for the remainder of the conference. (Years later Anna Boettiger told me that Admiral Leahy was convinced that I had brought the bedbugs with me from the German front.)

Russian bedbugs defeated U.S. Navy insecticide. Years later, Anna Boettiger told me that Admiral Leahy thought I’d brought them with me from the German front.

Shortly after we had settled in, we received a mimeographed description of the palace and its surroundings. I have no idea who wrote it, nor have I seen another copy save my own since the conference. The portion concerning the palace is worth reproducing here to set the scene for the conference.

Livadia, the former summer palace of Tsar Nicholas II, is situated 1½ miles from Yalta. The new, or large palace was finished in 1911. Most of the frescoes, panelling, carved doors, etc., were prepared in St. Petersburg. The palace grounds formerly belonged to Count Potocki who presented them to the Romanov family in the 19th century....

The first floor of the palace was used by Nicholas and his son, Alexai, for living quarters. The left wing, facing the sea, contained the Tsar’s study and bedroom. The President’s private dining room was formerly a billiard room. The large conference room was the ballroom-banquet hall. The Tsar had many bedrooms on the first floor and was wont to sleep in a different room every night, even at times changing his room during the night for fear of assassination....

The second floor was used principally by the Tsarina and her four daughters. General Marshall is occupying the Imperial bedroom and Admiral King the Tsarina’s boudoir. The private outside staircase is said to have been used by Rasputin. The large rooms on the left wing were used by the Tsarevnas (daughters) as classrooms. The second floor conference room was a private reception room of the Tsarina. The second floor dining room was a private sitting room used only by the Tsar’s family.

The architect of the palace, Krasnov, often had to give way to the whims of the Tsar to the detriment, so he thought, of the palace. To avenge himself, he used lion head caricatures of the Tsar as armrests on the two marble benches outside the main door. The similarity becomes striking when a cap is placed atop the lion’s head.

In the afternoon of February 4, 1945, the day after President Roosevelt arrived at Livadia Palace, Marshal Stalin presented himself for an informal visit. There was no time to alert Prime Minister Churchill, who was at his quarters in the Vorontsov Villa, miles away, or to summon the main body of U.S. Army photographers billeted aboard the USS Catoctin , which was anchored off Sevastopol, 80 miles away. (The Catoctin was used as the communications link to Washington, and many members of the support staff lived aboard her during the conference. She was the first U.S. warship to enter the Black Sea since the Russian Revolution.)

When I received word of Stalin’s arrival, I scrambled downstairs with my Speed Graphic in time to photograph the President chatting with Stalin in a small anteroom just off the main entrance hall of the palace. They were seated on a plush couch with an inlaid table in front of them. Stalin’s interpreter, Pavlov, sat to one side, making notes and translating.

The President made Stalin a martini, apologizing for the lack of a twist. The next morning I was astonished to see a full-grown lemon tree that Stalin had had flown in.

The meeting was cordial and consisted primarily of Stalin’s welcoming the President to Yalta and making sure that he was comfortably settled. Since it was about cocktail hour, the President repeated a ritual he regularly performed at the White House: He made a pitcher of dry martinis. As he passed a glass to Stalin, he said apologetically that a good martini really should have a twist of lemon.

At six o’clock the following morning, when I came down to the main entrance hall, I was astonished to find, just outside the door to the anteroom, a huge lemon tree—I counted some 200 pieces of fruit on it—which Stalin had ordered flown in from his native Georgia so the President could serve his martinis with a twist.

The first plenary meeting of the Yalta Conference convened shortly after Stalin’s informal call on Roosevelt. By this time the entire American, British, and Russian contingents of official photographers had arrived. There were 16 U.S. Army still photographers and motion-picture cameramen, 2 British photographers, and at least 30 Russians; there were no civilian press photographers.

The main entrance hall of Livadia Palace was jammed; we were jostled from all sides, and taking pictures was difficult. I managed to photograph the arrivals of Churchill and of Stalin and their greetings to the other notables present. Outnumbered as we were by Russian photographers, it seemed to me that every time I raised my camera to take a picture, one of them would pop up in front of me, blocking my view. This became increasingly frustrating when the principals moved into the conference room and took their places around the table. The photographers were not allowed inside and tried to shoulder one another out of the way as they struggled to get their pictures from the doorway.

When the double doors closed and the principals began their deliberations, the American and British photographers complained that their Russian counterparts were running interference to hamper the efforts of the rest of us.

Although I was outranked by almost everyone there, I called a meeting, using a Russian interpreter named “Mike”—a former Columbia University student—to translate. When we all were assembled, I spoke, saying this was surely the most historic meeting of the war, and it was our responsibility to record it. But all we had done so far was take pictures of one another’s backs. The only solution I could see was to reduce the number of photographers.

After some discussion, the Russians agreed to cut their contingent to the one still photographer and two motion-picture cameramen, provided the Americans did the same.

(I said that there should be two motion-picture cameramen for each contingent because changing motion-picture film in 1945 was a lengthy process that involved putting the entire camera and a fresh roll of film into a light-tight changing bag. The camera operator would then slip his arms into elastic sleeves and, by touch alone, open the camera, remove the exposed film, and seal it into a can, then open a fresh can of film and thread it into the camera.)

To my surprise, everyone agreed, and the problem was solved. Because President Roosevelt had specifically asked me to cover the conference, I was the only American still photographer to record it for the rest of the time we were there.

I did not see all my own photographs until after the war.

When my father returned to Washington, he sent one complete set of prints to my mother to hold for me until I returned; another set went to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, and the third is, I understand, in the National Archives.

Before the second plenary meeting, I gave my father a Soviet 10-ruble banknote on which I wrote my name and “Short-Snorter—Yalta—5 February 1945.” I asked him if he could arrange to get Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin to sign it for me as a souvenir of the conference.

I watched him take it into the conference room. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill signed it without hesitation. Marshal Stalin balked, however, obviously baffled. Later my father told me that Roosevelt explained to Stalin that the Short Snorter Club had been formed by American pilots who ferried bombers across the Atlantic to England and that anyone who flew across the Atlantic was eligible to join, provided he was brought into the fellowship by two members. Stalin pointed out that he had never flown across the Atlantic Ocean and therefore was not eligible. Roosevelt said that he was taking it upon himself to waive that requirement in this instance. With obvious reluctance, Stalin signed.

That evening President Roosevelt was the host at a dinner for Churchill and Stalin and their immediate staffs, including my father. When I photographed the guests around the dinner table, one seat at the end of the table was empty because Major A. H. Birse, Churchill’s interpreter, had not yet sat down. This picture was featured on a full page in Paris-Match magazine with the caption “The empty chair was General de Gaulle’s,” reflecting French bitterness at his exclusion from the Yalta deliberations.

There was an abundance of beluga caviar at Livadia Palace. In fact, a heaping saucer of caviar for each person was the first course at breakfast every day, followed by herring, bread, fruit, and tea. The menu never varied. I longed for orange juice, fried eggs, toast and coffee, and I knew that the President’s entourage included the Filipino mess boys who staffed the presidential yacht Potomac . I discovered they had brought with them enough food to feed the entire U.S. delegation of 258 people and that there were whole cases of fresh eggs among their supplies.

But the Russians insisted on cooking every meal. Two headwaiters recruited from the Hotel Metropole in Moscow served us all. They were an unsmiling pair who spoke no English. I usually had breakfast with my father in his bedroom because there was no other time for us to be alone together. He was amused as I vainly tried with gestures and sketches to describe to the waiters the breakfast I preferred. Finally, after several days, they triumphantly brought me a platter of one dozen fried pullet eggs, preceded by a saucer of caviar and followed by herring, bread, fruit, and tea.

Generally, I had lunch and dinner in the second-floor dining room with members of the Secret Service and the Navy staff responsible for communications and logistics. The meals were copious, but the menu, which was the same for both lunch and dinner, never varied. As with breakfast, the first course was caviar, followed by roast pheasant, string beans, cabbage, and potatoes, all accompanied by excellent Georgian wine.

My father was weak and bedridden for most of the conference, but he attended all eight of the meetings at which Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were present, seated directly behind the President. Many of the lower-echelon meetings were held with him in his bedroom. There he would advise members of the American delegation on positions to take with their British and Russian counterparts at a ministerial or military level.

On the few occasions when dad was up and dressed but not involved in a meeting, I took pictures of him with other members of the U.S. delegation, including Ed Flynn, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had no role to play at the conference but whom the President invited along as a courtesy; with Charles (Chip) Bohlen, an assistant to the Secretary of State who would act as FDR’s translator; and with Stephen Early, the President’s press secretary. After I took Steve’s picture with Dad, I turned my Speed Graphic over to him so he could photograph my father and me together on the balcony of Livadia Palace, with the Black Sea in the background.

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!”

“I mean you can’t go. Think about it. If you were attached to the Russian Army, they’d never let you near the front. Even if you got to the front, they wouldn’t let you take pictures. And if you were clever enough to take pictures, they’d never let them out of the country. You go into Berlin with the American Army.”

There was no persuading him. He was adamant, and I had to admit to myself that he knew the Russians better than I.

“What will I tell Marshall? What will I tell Stalin?”

“That’s your problem,” he said.

Deflated, I visited General Marshall in his room and told him what my father had said and withdrew my request for temporary duty with the Russians.

Then I went to Stalin and told him I could not go but thanked him for his offer.

Stalin merely shrugged.

Not long after, we got aboard a luxurious old train—Dad slept in the Tsar’s bedroom on it—and when I awoke the next morning we were on a siding next to the Saki airfield.

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