The Man Without a Country
James L. Choron
by James L. Choron
know. I stole the title, and it’s not a title that goes with most
of the things I write about. You’ll see why I used it, later. There
just isn’t any other suitable title for this piece, and if you have
to steal from other writers, as the late Robert A. Heinlein said,
steal from the best. Heinlein produced great literature, within
his genre. He knew what he was talking about. I don’t write "literature".
I’m just a newsman, and you know what they say about us, anyway…
been in Russia for a long time; probably as long, or longer than
all but one or two other "foreigners" here in Moscow,
and certainly longer than any of the other "outlanders"
living in our little village of Mamontovka, which is one of Moscow’s
suburbs. Because of this, over the years I have been asked a lot
of questions concerning life in Moscow, Mamontovka and in Russia
is understandable, because in many cases, fact does not mesh too
well with the popular conception. We get a lot of tourists and business
visitors, now. A lot of them wind up, like me, staying here permanently,
or for long periods of time. It wasn’t always that way. When I came
here, you could count the foreigners… those not associated with
embassies or other government agencies… on your fingers. In the
ten years before I came, you could number them, especially Americans,
in the hundreds… not many.
Westerners who have never been here think of Russia as cold and
dark… as a place of frozen wastelands populated by somber and dreary
people. For years, we in the West thought of Russia as the largest
part of Reagan’s "Evil Empire," or as time passed, as
a place of chronic shortages and rising crime. In fact it isn’t,
and hasn’t been a bad place in which to live. Russia is a land of
contrasts; one of the few places on earth where one can see changes…
changes for the better, on a daily basis.
been here as long as I have, one of the things that has made my
life really "interesting" is the fact that I’ve met a
lot of people… Some of them rather famous or well known… in a few
cases, you can truthfully say "infamous," who are known,
in the West, only by hearsay or in books and the news. As a foreigner,
especially in the first few years that I was here, when there weren’t
very many of us, I was introduced to a lot of people because of
my "novelty" value, and invited to a lot of parties and
functions, because, like I said, there weren’t many of us. I’ve
found that most of these people, like their country, are nothing
like what we had been taught.
like to write about people that I’ve met… I like to tell about people
like Yuri Nikulin, the "Russian Red Skelton"… and one
of the most famous clowns who ever lived… people like Dr. Andrei
Gromiko, the famous diplomat and Valentina Teriskova, the world’s
first female astronaut. I was introduced to Gorbachev, and I knew
Putin, before he was ever in politics, in any way. I know a man
who was present when they executed Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s notorious
NKVD director, and I know several people who knew Stalin, Nikita
Kruschev, and Brezhnev personally. I knew Ivan "the terrible"
Kozhedub, the highest scoring "ace," and most decorated
fighter pilot who ever lived. I’m not bragging. I’ve just been privileged,
in my life, to meet some interesting people both here in Russia,
and back in the States. As a newsman, that’s great.
all of those people are interesting, and they make good "copy,"
but… the people I most like to write about are "regular"
people that I know… people like Victor Maslov, the beat-pounding
cop who doesn’t carry a gun and brags about "thirty years without
a single incident." I like to write about people like Masha
Vorotnikova, Moscow’s infamous "pothole lady," and about
Elena Boika, who worked at the Moskvich Automobile factory for sixty
years, and probably put lug nuts on half of the cars sold in Russia.
It’s this kind of people… the ones that you see on the street every
day… who say the most about what life, here, is really like. It’s
the same all over, I suppose… but…
there were people like Philby. Yes, that Philby… You know,
Kim Philby… Cambridge Philby… The man who "sold"
the atomic bomb… Oh yes… I knew Philby. I knew him for several years.
We were pretty close, or as close as he ever got to anyone, just
before he died. It’s funny, but it’s another one of those things
that I had to "unlearn" when I came here. Old Philby was
nothing like the way he was shown to us, in the West. I never liked
Philby much. No one did. I don’t think it was possible to
like him. Even if he hadn’t been who and what he was… Even if he
hadn’t done what he’d done… he just had that kind of cold, distant
personality. Even in his "normal" life, if he ever had
one, he must have lived in an "ivory tower." Still, he
was a traitor, but he wasn’t a monster. I’ve never
written about him, before, but I will, now. Like Hale said about
"Philip Nolan"… he’s dead now. He has been for a long
time. It can’t hurt him… or anyone else. Maybe writing about him,
and what he was like, outside the "legend," will do some
foreigners avoided Philby. We even avoided mentioning his name.
I remember, once, a few years before the old man died, there was
another guy who came here, by the same last name, and he was always
trying to make sure people understood that he wasn’t related to
that Philby. Certainly the English shunned him like the Black
Death. They didn’t make it any secret that they’d rather be around
Typhoid Mary. You can’t really blame them. I met him by accident.
He wasn’t the kind of person that I’d go out of my way to meet,
even as a reporter. Back then, because there weren't a lot of us,
we foreigners tended to invite each other to parties, or just casually
"arrive" if we found out about one that we hadn’t actually
been invited to. We used to have a lot of parties, back then. It
was about the only kind of social function that would allow us to
speak our native languages. Sometimes Philby would show up, I don’t
think he ever got invited, or at least not often.
course, when he did, any British who happened to be present would
leave at once. If they didn’t, you pretty well knew that they were
MI-6. I don’t know if it was "official" or not, but the
British weren’t allowed to associate with him under any conditions.
Some of us eventually came to feel sorry for the old guy and made
sure to invite him to things that we planned. He had a pretty lonely
life, socially speaking. Even at that, he wouldn’t usually accept
an invitation. Like I said, the British despised him. Most of the
other foreigners would only tolerate him, at best, and didn’t want
to get "too close." You know, none of us wanted to be
associated with a "spy," not even, or should I say "especially"
a famous one that was just bound to draw attention. Back then, the
"Cold War" was still pretty "hot." The Russians
didn’t trust him, of course, even though they’d helped him get out
of England, and tolerated him, in Russia, afterward. The Communists
saw him as a "tool"… something, not someone, whom they
had been able to use for their own ends. He’d already sold out his
own country, after all, and what was worse, he didn’t really get
anything for it. I think this suited Philby, to some extent. He
didn’t trust them, either… any of them. Of course, that’s
what caused all of his troubles in the first place.
was a strange old bird, I mean really strange. You could
see it in his eyes. He was a really "odd duck," but not a "mercenary"
in any sense of the word. Most people would never believe me if
I told them what he said about doing what he did, but looking back
at it, in hindsight, and from his perspective, what he said
made a lot of sense in some ways. He wasn’t political in any way
that I could tell, but he was a "true believer." That
sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. It is, however, hard
to explain. He was an idealist. He didn’t see "governments"
or "politics." He saw, in his own mind, the human race
as a whole, and he saw the world of "science," not "government,"
as being custodians of the "welfare of the species." It
was hard to do, but if you ever got him wound up, his eyes would
literally glow like one of those Old Testament prophets that you
read about, as he talked.
always said that the reason he did it was to "insure balance."
He was afraid of his own country’s strength, and didn’t trust America’s
leadership. He said that Truman was a good man… a decent man… and
he respected Eisenhower… but no one knew, or could know, what might
come next. He would smile grimly and comment that we "Yanks"
could "always wind up with another Roosevelt." He never
elaborated on the subject, but you could tell just from his voice
that he didn’t care for FDR. He believed, and I think he
truly believed, that if only one nation, or one side had
the bomb, then they could dictate terms to everyone else in the
world. He’d seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they terrified him,
just like they had every other scientist or journalist who worked
on, or around, the bombs.
seen the hydrogen bomb tests, and they’d terrified him even more.
He said that none of them really knew what the thing would do, exactly,
until they saw it. Not even the tests showed how powerful and destructive
the bomb really was, and the tests didn’t show the after effects,
what the residual radiation would do, at all. They knew the bomb
was powerful, but not that powerful. He’d laugh, and say,
it was probably the only time in his life that Einstein had been
I don’t know if he was lying, or not. You can’t ever know
something like that for sure. But… I can’t see what he’d get out
of lying about it, forty-odd years after the fact. I mean, he knew
he could never go back to England. He just didn’t have anything
to gain from lying, at least not by the time that I knew him. I
mean, he wasn’t like the Rosenbergs or Hiss. He never denied doing
what he did. He didn’t have any "reputation" to "clear."
He didn’t leave anyone behind, in England. His wife was all the
family he had, and he met and married her, here. By the time he
came here, his other wives, and there were several of them, and
his children, wouldn’t speak to him.
always said that Hiss, Chambers, and the Rosenbergs were "guilty
as sin" and would tick off three or four others to go along
with them. He didn’t care for any of them. He held himself above
them, for what he honestly thought were moral reasons. It was arrogance
in one respect, supreme arrogance, but it was genuine, or
seemed to be. He said that he didn’t want any "pay" for
what he did… you could tell that by looking at the flat that
he lived in and the way he lived… and he sure as Hell didn’t want
any one country, or ideological system to rule the world. That,
he said, was why he did what he did in the first place.
thing that always struck me about Philby was that he always said
that there were more… He would stare at the floor and shake his
head, and say that there were dozens of people who piped
secrets to the Soviets… and were never even suspected. He acted
like it bothered him. He said, rather piously, that they were "only
out to get all that they could, for themselves." He wouldn’t
name them, no matter how hard you tried to get him to. He wouldn’t
give out the first clue, but he gave every indication of knowing
who they were. Years later, when they opened the old KGB archives,
he was proven right about the Rosenbergs, Chambers, and Hiss… and
about a dozen others.
any case, when the Cold War broke out, right on top of the Hot one,
Philby decided that it was just too dangerous for only one side
to have something as devastating as the bomb, and started funneling
information to the Soviet Union. There were several others who did…
people like Hiss and Chambers and the Rosenbergs. Most of them did
it for money, or for political reasons. Some of them mixed it with
ideology. I think Philby was telling the truth. I don’t think he
did it because of any of that. I think he did it out of fear.
say that he had been recruited at Cambridge back in the thirties,
with Blunt and the others. Some say that he even recruited Blunt
and the rest. I never knew any of them, so I can’t say. Maybe it’s
true. I don’t know. If it is true, it’s nothing unusual.
There seem to have been a lot of "communists" around back
then… and a lot of them seem to have come from Cambridge. Of course,
his "autobiography" goes into a great deal of detail on
the matter, but you can’t tell much from that, owing to when and
where it was written. He never said much about his early life, and
nobody ever asked him that I know of. It was just something that
you didn’t talk about with Philby.
idea was that the Soviet Union was the only country that was powerful
enough, and stable enough in the postwar environment, to be trusted
with that much power alongside any Western government. He said that
none of them could really be trusted with it, but,
that China was in the middle of too much upheaval at the time, Germany
and Japan were in ruins, and, besides, he had just helped fight
a war against them. He knew that they were aggressive, or potentially
so. He just plain hated the French. He figured that the "Yanks,"
as he called Americans, would never start a war with the Soviet
Union, and vise-versa, if both had the bomb, and… because Europe
was "in the middle," they’d help keep the lid on. Once
the genie was out of the lamp, so to speak, the only way that he
saw to control it was a balance of power. Maybe it was what the
newspeople of the time called it… a "balance of fear."
I said, if he was telling the truth, and I think he was… looking
back at some of the "winners" we’ve all had in power,
since then, I think he might have been right. Can you imagine what
would have happened if Nixon had won in 1960, and had the bomb when
nobody else did… or if Mao had gotten hold of it before he did?
The Soviet Union would have looked like the surface of the moon,
and the fallout would have made Europe a radioactive wasteland.
What if McCarthy had been nominated for President in 1952, and won?
They really didn’t know very much about the after effects
of the bomb, then. Most of Europe, let alone Russia, would most
likely be an uninhabitable wasteland, still, and for generations
to come. Ever seen an old movie called "On the Beach"?
It’s a scary thought.
not going to try and justify Philby, or what he did. That’s not
the point of this piece, and I don’t want it to be taken as such.
You can’t justify Philby. Legally speaking he was a traitor.
There’s no doubt about it. Even he admitted it. Still, I
always felt sorry for old Philby, in a way. He wasn’t like the others
in that rat nest, or didn’t seem to be. He didn’t expect, or get
anything, to speak of, out of what he did. The only thing he managed
to do was live, and to stay out of prison. The way I saw it, his
life became his prison. He was like the main character in Edward
Everett Hale’s story "The Man Without a Country." The
only difference is, he did what he did with his eyes wide open,
and knew what the likely results of his actions would be.
"exile" weighed down on him pretty heavily, I think. Toward
the end, he was a little crazy. If you talked with him, you had
the distinct feeling that you had just conducted an interview with
"Hannibal the Cannibal" Lecter. He sounded rational enough,
but at times… well, it was "scary." He’d get this "glazed"
look in his eyes and go off on abstract topics that didn’t have
a thing to do with whatever it was that you were originally talking
about… things from the past… fifty years ago, and more, even at
the time. And… if he knew you well, he spent a lot of time trying
to "justify" what he did. He really didn’t care what the
public thought of him, but he seemed to want what few friends he
had to know that he didn’t "sell out" to hurt anyone,
but to try and save lives. I think that when death finally came
for him, it came as a relief, if not as an outright friend.
heard a lot of people say, even now that he’s dead, that it was
a shame that they didn’t hang Philby. You can’t really argue with
them. Legally speaking, they’re right. I’ve heard an equally large
number of people say that they "wish" that they’d hanged
him instead of "letting him get away." That’s ironic.
You see, after forty-odd years of "exile," I think Philby,
himself, would have agreed with them. You see, Philby wasn’t "lucky,"
as some would say.
he actually did, when he left his native England, was exchange the
gallows, or at best, a small prison cell for a very
large prison cell. You know, shortly before his death, he
was awarded the "Hero of the Soviet Union" medal, and, on top of
it, an "Order of Lenin"... it was a fine political move, but little
else. Most of us thought that it was a last gasp by the regime to
get some mileage out of Philby before it was too late. When he finally
died, the Soviet Union even issued a postage stamp in his "honor."
But... they wouldn’t even allow his ashes to be returned
to England. At least "Phillip Nolan" got to go home… eventually…
even if it was in a box. Of course, Philby never repented for what
he did. He was, after all, a "true believer."
L. Choron [send him mail] is
a journalist living in Mamontovka, a suburb of Moscow, Russia. He
has resided in the Russian Federation for over seventeen years,
and is a former senior executive with the Eastman Kodak Company.
He is currently owner and CEO of Old Guard Productions, a company
dealing in motion picture and television logistics, and American
Business Training, a company which deals with sales and customer
service training for Russian companies seeking to introduce Western
business practices and standards. James Choron was born in Dallas,
Texas, in December 1953 and raised in the small East Texas town
of Center, where his parents still reside. He is a graduate of Center
High School, and Stephen F. Austin State University where he received
a Bachelor’s Degree in History, as well as a graduate of Moscow
State University with a Masters Degree and a Ph.D. in the same subject.
Mr. Choron has been working journalist for just over thirty-two
years, and has columns appearing in numerous publications in both
Russia and the United States.
States and Russian Federation Copyright © 2004 James L. Choron.
All rights reserved unless specifically granted in writing.