Posts tagged ‘Communism’

Walter Kubilius

Walter Kubilius

Walter Kubilius was a long-term member of the Futurians. He was also a pretty prolific (and published, that is) writer, but most of us hardly knew it, because he rarely took part in our discussions on the subject, and I’m pretty sure never got involved in our orgies of collaboration. He did quite a lot of collaborating with, for instance, Fletcher Pratt, but I, for one, wasn’t even aware of it until after Fletcher’s untimely death.

The most notable physical fact about Walter was his height, six feet eight or so. He didn’t talk much, just sat in the ranks, but you wouldn’t miss the fact that he was there because, even seated, he was taller than anyone sitting next to him.

I believe Walter joined the YCL when everyone did, and left, too, when everyone did that as well, but I can’t swear to dates, because Walter didn’t join the Flatbush 3 branch of which I was president but some other somewhere else. But I’m sure his motives were the same in both acts — a sense of duty, followed a few years later by heartbreaking disappointment. I’m not sure I ever saw him again after the Stalin-Hitler Pact, but believe he went on with his job — he was editing a trade paper — and his writing.

He did, I remember, at last find a good-looking girl almost as tall as he was. They got married and lived, I’m confident, as happily as could be until Walter died in 1999 or so, and she followed some years later.

Mtskheta, Georgia.

Mtskheta, Georgia.

A Christmas Story, sort of

To begin with, that’s “Prince Mtskheta,” all right. Mtskheta is a place in what was the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic at that time, and is now the independent, as long as they can keep it that way, nation of Georgia. The spelling is right. I can’t guarantee the word prince, though. It could have been count or baron, or even something like arch-bishop, but my opinion is that Prince is the term I once gleaned from an immigrant Georgian nurse in my hospital’s intensive-care unit. But my Georgian is poor — no, it is somewhere between lousy and non-existent — and her English was just enough to sustain a green card.

Now get on with the story.

At one time the Soviet Writers Union loved me — other times not so much, as once when I had just written a piece describing the USSR as a “police state.” But at this particular time it was all roses, and they offered to show their affection by comping me to a week’s vacation at any one I chose of a dozen or so Soviet cities. I skipped Leningrad and Kiev because I’d seen enough of them, had no particular interest in the western-state cities or Stalingrad, and settled on Tbilisi, once called Tiflis, the capital of Soviet Georgia.

It turned out to be a good choice, since I wasn’t particularly worried about dying of alcohol poisoning. Those Georgians sure did drink. They met me at their ratty little airport with a congratulations-on-your-safe-arrival stirrup cup and took me to a delicious, and alcoholic, luncheon in a beautiful dining room, and then escorted me to the afternoon’s entertainment.

This was drinking.

When Georgians set out to drink they don’t fool around. They take you to a specified drinking place, and the servitors start coming to refill your glasses. You can’t just toss a shot down when you feel like it, though. You only drink when you are offering or responding to a toast. You can’t even pick your own toast. That is the privilege of — well, of a Georgian word I don’t remember, but it means something like “toastmaster.” He picks, or accepts, a subject for the next toast. It can be something like “To all of our fathers!” or maybe “To the deathless heroism of the Red Army and American Army troops who met along the Elbe River and dealt the death blow to the forces of Adolf Hitler’s Germany!” Then those of us who want to do so go ahead and endorse that toast as flowerily as convenient and everybody drains his glass. Then we refill and celebrate, maybe, the beauty of Georgian women.

We did this on three successive warm, beautiful, chestnut-scented afternoons, in what may have been the prettiest little grove I had ever seen. Then we wobbled our way to a very tasty, I think, dinner, and then one by one collapsed into bed.

For three days.

By the fourth day, I was beginning to worry. Our toastmaster was the executive secretary of the Tbilisi Union of Soviet Writers, and a polished well-spoken man. As the leader of the drinking, I was pretty sure his refills went into a previously empty glass, and when he then emptied it, it was well and truly emptied into his one and only stomach.

Yet every day on beginning the ceremonies he was clear-eyed and articulate, and every evening upon ending them he bid us all a good evening without hint of stammer or slur. I didn’t think I could keep up with him much longer….

But then came the fourth day; the executive secretary did not appear. He had a small indisposition, one of his helpers explained.

I drew a breath of pure joy. “I hope he’ll be well enough tomorrow to go for a drive with me,” I said, “because I’d really like to see something of the area. Meanwhile, do you think I could have a cup of coffee instead of the brandy?”

Continue reading ‘A Visit to Prince Mtskheta’ »

Joseph Freeman

Joseph Freeman

I came across this poem somewhere when I was about 17 or 18 and still a YCLer, with every hope that most of the brutal and inexcusable things about the Soviet Union that I was reading every day in the New York Post or Times were just typical untrue capitalist press slanders — of which, I was well aware, there was a good supply at all times.

The poem touched me where I was vulnerable. It described a post-Revolution USSR that had made peace with its bloody wars and managed to incorporate the class enemy into normal society. I didn’t think the poem described anything like contemporary reality — I was not that naïve. But I took it as a sort of science-fiction glimpse of where the Soviet Union was going to grow to.

I want to tell you about a sort of real-life Jernikidze I chanced to meet, and I’ve got it into my head that a good time to do that would be Christmas Day.

Prince Jernikidze
By Joseph Freeman (1926)

Prince Jernikidze wears his boots
Above his knees; his black mustache
Curls like the Kaiser’s; when he shoots
Friend and foe turn white as ash.

The movements of his hands are svelt,
Ivory bullets grace his chest,
The studded poignard at his belt
Dangles down his thigh. The best

Dancers in Tiflis envy his
Light Lesginka’s steady whirl,
He bends his close-cropped head to kiss
The finger-tips of every girl.

Over the shashleek and the wine
His deep and passionate baritone
Directs the singing down the line,
And none may drain his glass alone.

When morning breaks into his room
He dons his long Circassian coat,
Marches to the Sovnarkom
Knocks at the door and clears his throat,

Opens the ledger with his hand,
Bows to the commissars who pass,
Calls the janitor comrade, and
Keeps accounts for the working class.

Judith Merril

Judith Merril

So, take it all in all, by that part of the ’40s, Judy and I were doing quite well.

Was Judy happy?

Well, yes, more or less, in general. But there were some sources of displeasure. Judy had been a busy Young Socialist (Fourth International), more easily described as a kid Trotskyite. Many of our brainwashed citizens have been taught to think that anyone who approves of Socialism is a fool or a villain or worse. That wasn’t the case for Judy. (It hadn’t been for me, either, a decade or two earlier.)

Most of the people attracted to leftwing parties were driven there by revulsion against white men lynching black ones in the south. And crooked politicians calling their police out to spray strikers with machine-gun fire. And by about a million other social injustices. Neither Judy nor I could change any of these things, but writers could say what they needed to say, as long as they said it well.

Judy loved what people had said to and of her after “That Only a Mother.” She really wanted to see if she could get more of that kind of thing. But devoting herself to writing was not entirely compatible with holding a 9-to-5 job at Bantam.

This was a siren song not entirely lost on me. I have never really been thrilled to hold a job, especially if my boss expected me to spend 40 hours a week in his office to do it. But I also was quite pleased with solvency and the approbation of my bosses. I wasn’t ready to pack it all in.

And, after we talked it over at some length, she decided, wait a minute, maybe we didn’t have to quit our jobs right away. It wasn’t just boredom with an office that was bothering her. It was something that was much more important. Much more fundamental. Much more biological.

In short, the yearnings Judy had been suffused with, she said, had really been for another baby.

And what did I think of that idea?

Well, actually, after a moment’s thought, I loved it. I was madly infatuated with Judy’s little daughter, Merril, who had pretty much decided that I was the sort of Daddy, or at least the stand-in for one, that Mommy had promised they might luck into one day.

I did see some problems. I didn’t want my first child to be a bastard. What would Judy think of getting married before she got pregnant? Oh, positively, she said. She wouldn’t have it any other way. And was she thinking of the, you know, kind of marriage with all those forsaking all others vows and stuff, as contrasted with her own clearly expressed views on the subject?

Well, yes, she said. She had thought a lot about that, too. It was indeed possible that there might be trouble ahead. She hoped not, though. For a while, the simple fact of living in a family with Merril and me and Merril’s new baby sibling sounded just right to her. And if things went wrong at some time in the future we could try to work it out in some order we both could live with.

Well, it wasn’t a guarantee of peace and harmony. But we could take a chance, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to really want a lovable little Merril-sib of my own. We struck a deal, and began hunting for a friendly judge to say our vows.

To be continued.

Related posts:
Judith Merril, Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9

Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934

    Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934.

The way I met Isaac Asimov was the way I met almost everybody else who became not only important to me as a teenager but a lifelong friend. Like every other kid in the world, I met a lot of other kids in those years from, say, 14 to 19 — in school, in the neighborhood, in the YCL, in the (don’t laugh) Olivet Presbyterian Church Thursday afternoon teenagers’ class, which I attended until I was 17. But those friends came and went and were gone, while many of the ones I met through fandom were friends all their lives — Isaac, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Dick Wilson. In fact, there are one or two — Jack Robins, Dave Kyle — whom I still count as friends, seventy-odd years later, although none of us are very mobile these days and it’s been a while since we got together.

I digress. (In fact, you may have noticed, I do it often.) In those days, the thing was that we kids had been captured by science fiction. And when a burgeoning fandom gave us a chance to meet other captives, we signed up at once.

Like most of us in the New York area, Isaac’s first clue that there was a way to join others came from reading Hugo Gernsback’s magazine, Wonder Stories. In an effort to improve sales, Gernsback had started a correspondence club, the Science Fiction League, and allowed some members to charter local chapters. One, the Q (for Queens) SFL, was in the New York area and was the point of first contact for most of the area’s newbies because they’d read about it in the magazine.

So the QSFL was where Isaac first showed up, but we Futurians kept an eye on their new blood. Anyone who turned up with an interest in writing sf as well as reading it, we kidnapped; that was one of the reasons the QSFL’s heads, James Taurasi, Will Sykora and Sam Moskowitz, weren’t real fond of us. And Isaac made it clear that he was definitely going to become an sf professional writer, as soon as he figured out how.

At that time Isaac didn’t give many indications that he would achieve that ambition, much less that he would become I*S*A*A*C  A*S*I*M*O*V. He was, if anything, deferential. Isaac was born Russian-Jewish, brought to America as a small child when his father, who had immigrated early, was at last able to send for his family.

Many of the Futurians had already begun to write sf stories, showing the mss. to each other and talking about the stories’ successes (few) and flaws (many). One or two of us had actually made some tiny sales. (Including me. I had had a truly sappy poem published in Amazing Stories.) A few of us had begun teaming up as collaborators. Isaac yearned, but he had to miss most of that. His parents owned a candy store at the eastern edge of Prospect Park, and their children had to help with the work of running it. Isaac got to our meetings when he could, but seldom to the writing sessions.

Continue reading ‘Isaac
Part 1 of I don’t know how many’ »

Walter Schneir

Walter Schneir

Admit it, you have no idea who Walter Schneir (who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 83 on 11 April) was. I’ll never forget him, though.

In 1965, along with his wife. Miriam, he had published a Doubleday book, Invitation to an Inquest, about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the New York couple who had been tried as spies who had given atomic-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, convicted and executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing. The book, which argued that the Rosenbergs hadn’t received a fair trial and might well have been innocent of the charges, came to the attention of Long John Nebel, who ran an all-night radio talk show in New York.

He invited the Schneirs to appear on his show, along with Roy Cohn, the former McCarthy aide who had been involved in the Rosenberg prosecution, and me. (Why me? Because I was a pretty good talker and rarely turned John down when he asked … and because I loathed Roy Cohn for what he had done as Senator Joe McCarthy’s pit bull and couldn’t resist the chance to meet him in person. It was that sort of attitude that put me in front of John’s microphones dozens of times when I would have been better advised to stay home and get a good night’s sleep.)

The Rosenbergs

  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

After forty-odd years, the only clear memory I have of Cohn is as a very efficient killing machine. He never sat still and he never stopped talking.

The Schneirs had done an admirable job of collecting evidence that the Rosenbergs had not received a fair trial in many ways: The judge allowed the prosecution improper liberties; their defense attorney had no experience in that sort of case; witnesses changed their stories on crucial elements; worst of all, the case against Ethel Rosenberg in particular rested on the unsupported testimony of just one witness, her brother, David Greenglass. (Who much later confessed to writer Sam Roberts that he had given false testimony, as told in Roberts’ book The Brother.)

All those things and more the Schneirs said into Long John’s mikes, but how much the radio audience heard I cannot say. Cohn talked right over them, never stopping, never conceding a point. So a lot of people — everyone from Bertrand Russell and the Pope to Pablo Picasso — thought the Rosenberg trial was unfair? So what? Those people hadn’t been in the courtroom, and the verdict was in.

On the other hand (you might ask), what about me? I had been in that studio all the long night, listening to every word that had been said, and what did I think?

Why, I thought they were not guilty and should have been acquitted. And the other thing I thought was that they should have been shipped off to Moscow on the next plane to spend the rest of their lives there.

McCarthy and Cohn

Sen. Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn

The thing about Julius Rosenberg was that he was a true believer. All the things he said to intimate friends that he thought were private (and that those friends then testified to as prosecution witnesses at the trial) and every defiant thing he had said to the court and to lawyers and reporters when the verdict was in showed it. He thought America was evil and the USSR was the hope of mankind. Given any chance to help them triumph over us, he would have been false to his core beliefs if he hadn’t seized it.

I didn’t actually think he had ever had such a chance, though. I didn’t think he knew enough to be able to steal any useful atomic secrets to betray. I thought he was all talk. And in that I was at least partly wrong.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, a lot of ultra-top-secret KGB documents fell into American hands and some of them do specifically name Julius Rosenberg as an agent of espionage for them. They don’t say that his spying was of any value. They don’t come anywhere close to saying that anything Rosenberg did was of the slightest use to any Russian arms designer. But it does show that, against the odds, Rosenberg did somehow make contact with the Russian spy network, and they took him at least seriously enough to record his availability.

And wonders will never cease.