John Beyrle: My father, Joseph Beyrle, a paratrooper, was the only American who fought both in the U..S and Red Armies during the Second World War. On July 6, 1944, his unit parashooted in over Normandy, where he was shortly afterwards captured by the Germans. He spent six months as a prisoner of war before being transferred to a concentration camp in Poland in January 1945. After failing twice to escape, he was successful the third time around as he made his way towards the sound of booming artillery to meet the advancing Second Belarussian Front. He trudged on until he wandered upon a Soviet tank batallion. He had no documents on him, save for a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which weren’t exactly a convincing form of identification. So he decided to bide his time and reveal himself when the Russian soldiers would be done with dinner and would be settling down for the night. These people had just returned from the battlefield, so approaching them right off the bat at such a tense moment wouldn’t have exactly been the smartest thing to do.
Some time later, my father finally approached the camp, showed them his precious pack of Lucky Strike—his only credentials—and said in Russian: “I am an American comrade”. This was all he could say in Russian, so the soldiers looked at him with puzzled expressions and wondered who this guy was and where he came from. When they found an interpreter, he explained that he wanted to fight alongside them. It was his dream to fight his way to Berlin, one that he nearly had to give up in captivity. My father was also determined to fulfill his duty as a soldier: his upbringing compelled him to.
He was the typical, meat-and-potatoes American guy, which, perhaps, helped him gain the Russians’ trust from the very start. He was given a PPSh-41 submachine gun and became a member of a tank crew. His tank was a Sherman supplied under the Lend-Lease and my father had no trouble setting up the onboard radio, proving his worth from the offset.
In the end, however, he did not make it to Berlin: He was badly wounded in a German air raid and spent the last months of the war in a Soviet hospital. There he met Marshal Zhukov, who was visiting the wounded. Apparently, somebody told Zhukov that one of the patients was an American paratrooper who had escaped from the Germans, and Zhukov made it a point to stop by my father’s room to talk with him.
You could call this encounter momentous or symbolic, but at the moment my father could only think about one thing: He had no identification after his escape and he had to prove who he was to everyone time and again. So he asked Zhukov to have an official document made that he could use as identification. Surprisingly, his request was followed up on the very next day. He never knew what was written on the paper since he could not read Russian, but it worked much better than any passport ever could. When he showed it to various officials on his way to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, they gave him all the transportation and food he needed without any further ado.
Arriving in Moscow, my father found out that he had been reported as killed in action and his parents had received a KIA letter. Not too long afterwards, however, the misunderstanding was rectified and Joseph Beyrle returned to Chicago to celebrate the Allied victory.
My father often reminisced about his first encounter with Russian soldiers. He was going hungry and absolutely exhausted when he first saw the Soviet tankmen. The way they treated him, gave him food, believed his story and even trusted him with weapons left a stong impression on him for the rest of his life.
I:Did they offer a shot of vodka right away?
J.B.: I don’t know whether they started with vodka, but he told me that he and his comrades in arms often gave toasts “to Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and the Studebaker truck!”
I should point out that my father didn’t know anything at all about Russia, its people and traditions. He was, so to speak, a child of the Great Depression. His family lived in a small working class town where my grandfather worked at a factory. They had always lived very modestly. My father often recalled the 1930s, especially the long lines at the soup kitchens; people would stand there, humiliated, as they waited for their helpings. My grandfather and grandmother hoped Joseph would be the first in the family to finish school. He even went to college, but then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the war broke out, so he volunteered to join the army. He was eligible for an athletic scholarship after the war, but he was so badly injured that a career in sports was out of the question, so he instead became a department manager at a local factory. His dreams, nonetheless, still came true to some extent: my brother, sister and I all went to college in Michigan. Putting three kids through college wasn’t an easy task for my family, but we still managed.
He almost never talked about his war experiences. Not wanting to talk about these sorts of things to just anyone is probably typical of veterans: They believe that only those who fought in a war can truly understand them, which is why every summer my father met up with his fellow veteran friends, with whom he felt enough at ease to open up. For instance, we learned that our father had been considered killed in action only from our family archive, which contained the KIA letter and some other messages from the Ministry of Defense. We knew that he was in Moscow at the end of the war, but he began telling me the details only after I had visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s, a time of détente when tensions between our countries started to ease. Obviously, with McCarthyism running rampant, it was risky to brag about fighting in the ranks of the Red Army.
I: How did you get interested in Russia?
J.B.: Everyone thinks that it all has to do with my dad, but it turns out that it all happened subconsciously. After high school, I could speak German and French, so I decided to pick a more difficult language. The Russian professor at my university was an exceptionally charismatic lady and she persuaded me to go for it. She said that I would be able to read Dostoyevsky in the original. Or maybe it was Chekhov. I do not remember exactly.
In the 1970s, when I got to Grand Valley State, the Cold War was already subsiding, and in addition to Russian having been an appealing language from a literary and cultural point of view, it also carried some political weight. Overall, people weren’t as afraid of the Soviet Union as they used to be.
I: Was the public really afraid of the Soviet Union?
J.B.: I was just eight years old when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out. At school we had drills, we would hide under our desks, all in the event of a nuclear attack. And I also clearly remember our family sitting around the kitchen table and listening to the radio. John Kennedy was making a speech, in which he said that the United States was on the brink of nuclear war. Of course, I was too young to understand it all, but even we as children felt that something serious was going on. I saw that my parents were very worried. The Soviet Union was our ideological enemy and people were naturally concerned that the situation around Cuba could escalate into a disaster. I, an eight-year-old American boy, was afraid, too. I even remember the color of the radio set: It was green.
Since we now know, however, that the United States was clearly the supreme nuclear power, this fear may seem odd. But at the time only the Pentagon knew of huge discrepancy, while the public believed that America was in grave danger.
I: Since we are the same age, I can add that although Soviet children were better informed about the “American imperialists’” plans, the conventional enemies in all our games were Germans, not Americans. The one exception was with genuine American jeans, at that time something everyone dreamed of getting their hands on, which were jokingly refered to as “potential enemy pants.”
J.B.: You see, Cuba is just 90 miles away from the U.S. coastline, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was closer to us in every sense of the word; it had a stronger emotional impact. But I didn’t know that jeans were called “potential enemy pants” in the Soviet Union, though I probably sold a couple of pairs when I was a student.
I: This was most likely in 1976 during your first visit to the Soviet Union through a student exchange program. What were your impressions when you first arrived in Leningrad?
J.B.: We got in on a late February evening and everything was pitch black In terms of street lights and neon billboards, Leningrad could hardly impress a young American. But I had been seriously studying Russian, plus I was familiar with Russian culture, history and literature, therefore seeing this city for the first time was something special.
We of course knew that the standard of living in the Soviet Union was incomparable with that of the United States, but I was still shocked by it! If you remember, a year before, in 1975, the Soviet Union and the United States had successfully completed the near-orbit Apollo-Soyuz program, and the highly sophisticated docking technology, an essential component of this endeavor, was designed by Soviet engineers. Meanwhile, I suddently found myself in a country where people spent hours waiting in endless lines. I thought to myself: “How can this be? A country is capable of running a complex docking operation in space, while at the same time its people spend hours upon hours in line for markers you can easily buy in any American store for 50 cents a piece?” This paradox came as a revelation to me, a problem I felt I had to get a grasp on.
There were five students crammed in our dorm room. In keeping with the spirit of the Cold War, the tap water was cold, but hot water was also available during scheduled periods. This was the first time I hand-washed my clothes with soap. Right there in the shower. Taking a shower every day was the hardest habit to break, but people as you know, even Americans, can get used to anything.
I: People often say that Russians and Americans are initially much alike. What do you think?
J.B.: It goes without saying that differences do exist, but only minor ones, whereas on the whole … Look, the United States and Russia are large continental countries stretching across many time zones. Both possess bountiful natural resources, which explain why Russians and Americans see their role in international affairs and responsibility in them in a similar light. Besides, the majority of both countries’ territories was settled at about the same time in history. That is why both our personalities are deeply rooted in an urge to discover entirely new things, and not just geographically speaking, but also in space or the sciences. Another important factor is that both Russia and the United States have a plethora of ethnic and religious groups, while at the same time all of them identify themselves as Russians or Americans. Having a Christian from Vologda, a Muslim from Kazan and a Buddhist from Elista being able to come together as Russians sounds very American, if you ask me.
The differences largely stem from how history has played out in each respective country, especially over the last 100 years. The 20th century was a particularly difficult time for the Russian people. This explains, I think, why Americans often seem to be much more optimistic and more confident that they can determine their own future. Yet, what has always struck me about Russians—and I have lived here for many years—is their ability to preserve the best of what their personality has to offer, no matter what obstacles life might bring their way.
Compared with when I first visited Leningrad as a student, Russia today has become virtually unrecognizable, particulalry its bigger cities. But the people are just as kind-hearted, hospitable and aware of the value of sincere friendship and a tightly-knit family as they used to be.
I: You worked on several occasions with U.S. Secretaries of State James Baker and George Schultz, who later spoke almost in unison of the less-than-admirable quality of Soviet diplomacy during Perestroika. What’s your take on this?
J.B.: My negotiating experience with Soviet, and later Russian, diplomats comes from Vienna and talks on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. That was a unique period in history that coincided with the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty, followed by that of the Soviet Union. I clearly remember a round table where Warsaw Pact diplomats lined up on one side and us, NATO, on the other. One day, however, we entered the conference hall to see the Hungarian ambassador sitting somewhere in the middle, away from both the Warsaw Pact and NATO member countries. Then and there we realized that the world was changing right before our eyes. All systems were go.
I: What is the principal difference between today’s reset in U.S.-Russian relations and the Cold War détente?
J.B.: The short answer is that there is a time for everything: The détente is history, while resetting U.S.-Russian relations today is our agenda. Détente was a Cold-War era policy that tried to find some common ground between the United States and the Soviet Union without addressing its fundamental causes. Today’s situation, however, has been taking place in an entirely different context that allows us to build upon more or less normal bilateral relations.
The deadly threat fueled by our ideological rivalry during the Cold War has long vanished, and our relations can go through natural ups and downs without causing any fear that someone’s political decision may lead to nuclear Armageddon. We are currently working together where we have shared interests, while doing our best to minimize any inevitable friction. At least, that’s how I see it.
I: Russia is concerned about U.S. plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. The main question is what you are going to leave behind?
J.B.: Together with our allies and partners, including Russia, which provides valuable support to NATO and American forces in their mission, we want to give the Afghans a real chance to take their future into their own hands. This nation has seen a lot of suffering over the 20th century spill into the 21st century, and I believe the Afghan people have earned the right to have their turn at being a prosperous nation. We also cannot give Afghanistan up to the Taliban or Al-Qaeda because of its critical geopolitical position and the region being too volatile as it is. We haven’t forgotten where the 9/11 attacks were launched from, and we do not want to see them happen again. Our good intentions and military efforts, however, are not enough: we need reliable partners.
I:Aren’t Americans tired of Russia’s persistence in trying to “catch up with and overtake the United States?” Take, for example, the Skolkovo innovation center. This is an initiative that is blatantly modeled after Silicon Valley.
J.B.: The electronics industry in California heeds all the way back to the 1950’s, and close links between leading universities and private companies have paved the way for its unimpeded growth. The U.S. government did have a hand in the process, but it has never been the driving force behind Silicon Valley. In our experience, government can create a favorable environment for innovation, but it is the private sector with its energy and enterpreneurial spirit that should lead the way. We are happy to see that a number of American companies have expressed their interest in Skolkovo through substantial investment plans.
I: From a historical vantage point, do you think U.S.-Russian relations hold more or less promise now than during the height of perestroika?
J.B.:The Soviet Union I saw for the first time 35 years ago in no way reflects modern-day Russia. The biggest difference is that Russia and America are no longer ideological adversaries, and instead of dreaming about working together, we can do some practical things where we have common interests, or wherever we would like our interests to have more in common. Afghanistan is an excellent example of where our strategic goals are truly one.
Russia and the United States have never fought a war against each other. We have been friends, partners and even allies throughout the better part of our 200-year diplomatic history.
I took part in the delegation that accompanied President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife on an official visit to the United States in the summer of 2009. The atmosphere was beyond any comparison with what I witnessed during the Cold War years. For example, when Medvedev and president Barack Obama were meeting, I thought back to 1962, when, in the very same room at the very same table sat President Kennedy with his advisors as they discussed the real threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Fast forward to 2010, and we are talking about how the United States will support Russia’s bid to join the WTO and how to resolve the issue of US chicken exports to Russia. This is much better than talking about the high technologies of mutual distruction.
This is an excerpt of Itogi’s longer interview with Ambassador Beyrle, which can be found, in Russian, at the magazine’s website.