The Spring Festival of 1935

April 24, 1935 fiction, Cold War

Maxim Litvinov collapsed into a deep leather armchair. The ceiling spun around his head in elliptical orbit, slowly on the long leg then viciously accelerating around the turns. He groped for the carefully folded handkerchief in his breast pocket and moped the sweat from his climbing hairline. He squinted at the ambassador and wondered which toast had cost him his spectacles.


William Christian Bullitt was slumped in the adjoining chair giggling and gasping for air.

I, I don’t know! Who was drunker? Radek or the bear?

The bear only had champagne and Rakek drank everything. But the bear is young and very inexperienced.

They both giggled.

Max, I really thought that Bukharin was about to have carnal relations with one of the goats.

A journalist is fearless.

From what I hear, he has much to fear.

Litvinov’s flushed face drained instantly.

Then you hear too much.

Just gossip, you know.

The state draws no distinction between gossip and espionage. Be very careful, Bill, and put fear into the loins of your young men.

Max, Max, the boys just want a little fun.

The fun must stop. No more gossip backstage at the ballet, no more pretense that pillow talk conveys informal diplomatic notes. I insist.

What’s the matter, Max? Didn’t get laid tonight?

No, but not from any lack of pimping on George’s part. He shopped all his former mistresses.

You gotta admit, through, it was a great party.

Historic, without precedent. I assure you that the Spaso House Spring Festival will never be surpassed. Or repeated. The honeymoon is over, and Moscow is about to become a hardship posting, I’m afraid.

It was Bullitt’s turn to blanche.

What do you mean by that Litvinov?

War with the fascists approaches, Mr. Ambassador, and you are siding against us. Your banks finance them, your factories supply them and your politicians openly admire them.

Trade promotes peace, Minister.

We shall see.

Litvinov rose with difficulty and steadied himself.

In the meantime, the Soviet peoples prepare. Good night. Please, do not rise on my account. I will find my way out safely.

Bullitt stared at Litvinov’s departing figure. He slumped deeper in the chair, closed his eyes and began to worry the future into being.

One day the following week, Bullitt looked around the anteroom as he waited for his interview. The rich Persian carpet was showing heavy wear, the ornate furniture showed crude repairs and the few paintings were insipid landscapes. This room is like Trotsky’s letter to the Peace Conference, he thought, written in clumsy schoolboy French, trying to keep up appearances.

A lean middle aged woman in uniform brought him into Litvinov’s office. They exchanged greetings and wary small talk for a few minutes until the woman returned with glasses of tea.

Bullitt sighed to himself and launched into the purpose of his visit.

Excellency, my government has been very patient on the matter of war debts …

Litvinov stood, spat on the carpet, and shouted “paid in the blood of the people and with the soil of Holy Russia.”

He suddenly sat.

Let me put it this way, Mr. Ambassador. When you lend money to a man who dies penniless, the best you can hope is that his heirs will want to uphold the family honor out of their own pocket. You lent to Karensky. Go ask him where he hid it. I can tell you with certainty that 60 million pounds sterling in gold ended up in the hands of Donetz.

Bullitt said nothing.

Litvinov began again, softly. We thought you were a friend. Lenin loved you like the lost son of a dead sister. He thought you came to bring peace. When Wilson betrayed peace, you denounced him before your Congress. You married Comrade Bryant. We thought you a friend.

But you come here like a gangster, with your flashy clothes, your oily polite manners, your tough Marine guards, the names of the powerful throughout the capitals dripping from your lips. You offer nothing. Where is the steel you promised? You sent it to Japan, didn’t you? You like emperors, after all, it appears.

We are not a mere minor domestic political problem in the United States. We are a Great Power in Europe and Asia. Fascism is on the rise. You applaud the improvements in train service. Germany rearms. You rush to finance arms sales to her. Japan ravages China and looks to Siberia and Roosevelt hopes to repeat his cousin’s triumph, but only after our defeat.

War is coming. Laval knows this. Churchill knows, although he is alone among a sea of pacifists. Hitler prepares. He is a fox in the dovecote. He will eat the bird on the left, then the bird on the right and then tear the balls from the weak fops whose owners they were thought to be.

He won’t find the bear so thirsty for champagne or so tasty. How will he find you? On your hands and knees searching the floor for lost gold pieces? I do not think he will find you to be the wolf circling behind the bear looking to be in on the kill. Only a hungry wolf hunts. Your profits keep you too well fed to care who the fox has for dinner. The devil take your unpaid loans!

Mr. Ambassador, please inform your government that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has nothing to add to our previous communications on this subject. Good day, sir.