Nation & World

The Cold War observed

8 min read

In a final seminar, a Sovietologist reminisces

The life of Mark Field ’48, Ph.D. ’55, may not be the stuff of thrillers, but it opens a window onto the tragedy of 20th century wars and the U.S.-Soviet Cold War that persisted for nearly half a century.

When World War I broke out, Field’s Russian-born parents were trapped in Switzerland. The family was prosperous but remained stateless, and slipped out of Europe for America in 1940.

Today Field is a renowned authority on medical sociology and Soviet-era health systems who has nearly seven decades of affiliation with Harvard. He shared a few stories on Dec. 14 during his last seminar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, with which he has been associated for 61 years. He moves to Washington, D.C., in January.

His family stories reach back to czarist Russia, swirl through both world wars, touch on the ruins of 1945 Germany, glimpse the early days of the Cold War, and recall a vanished, patrician Harvard. (He arrived at Harvard College in 1942.)

But Field’s final seminar also included an announcement: A small group of anonymous donors has made a gift to Harvard that will support the Mark G. Field Discretionary Fund for Research in the Social Sciences at the Davis Center. The coming donation is “very generous,” according to officials at Harvard University Alumni Affairs and Development.

The Davis Center’s acting director, Terry D. Martin, introducing the seminar in a concourse-level room at 1730 Cambridge St., called Field “very much the heart and soul” of the center.

Field, now 86, stood at the head of a round table, where about 20 friends and colleagues had gathered. Calm and matter-of-fact, he began simply: “This is supposed to be the story of my life.”

Field related the story of his family’s start in the port city of Odessa, his mother’s eyewitness account of a pogrom (she saw children thrown out windows), their exile in Switzerland (where Field was born in 1923), and their existence there as stateless Russian immigrants. “We had no country,” said Field, and only Nansen passports issued by the League of Nations.

In January 1940, the family boarded a ship in Milan for a life-saving journey to the United States. “Fortunately, and I will bless him forever, Mr. [Italian leader Benito] Mussolini was still neutral,” said Field.

In high school in Jackson Heights, Queens, “there were many children of Europe,” he said. The young immigrant was impressed by the quality of the teaching — “much, much better” than in Switzerland, said Field, where rote learning was still the order of the day.

After a year at remote Hamilton College, “in 1942, I came to this great place,” Field said of Harvard. Still more comfortable in French than any other language, he studied Russian with Professor Samuel Cross, who had been an interpreter at the Versailles peace talks in 1919 and reportedly knew 12 languages.

Drafted in 1944, Field was assigned to a special unit schooled in Soviet military lore and designed to communicate with Soviet troops. His stateside teachers included former czarist officers who still wore Russian military decorations from World War I.

Field arrived in Germany the next year, just before World War II ended in Europe. On May 8, 1945, the day of the German surrender, he was at Gen. George Patton’s Third Army headquarters in Regensburg on the Danube River. Rumors were still rife that the Nazis would fight on, which was on Field’s mind while swimming one day. A German man approached in a rowboat and displayed a Panzerfaust, a bazookalike anti-tank weapon. Fortunately, the man just wanted to surrender it.

By 1946, Field was a corporal stationed in a military occupation zone in Hof, Germany. It was the eve of the Cold War, and the Americans shared an uneasy border with Soviet troops, their earlier allies.

The duty brought him into contact with trainloads of so-called Vlasovites, Russians who donned German uniforms to fight Soviet troops. They were being shipped East for execution or imprisonment. Field also encountered then what he called a Soviet “obsession” with repatriation of its citizens, Russians and others who were seldom willing to go back to the Rodina, the motherland.

“They did not want to leave anybody back there in Europe,” he said of the Soviets, who firmly believed the West was a source of political contamination, an attitude that prefigured the deep chill of the Cold War.

Repatriation was not just for the living. One winter day early in 1946, Field was called to a farmhouse to help repatriate the body of a Soviet soldier. The man had been about his age, 21. He had committed suicide by placing a submachine gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.

Outside the farmhouse, the soldier lay sprawled in blood-red snow. A Soviet officer stood over him and exclaimed, “Durak,” “idiot” in Russian. The body was wrapped in a gray tarpaulin, bundled onto a handcart, and wheeled away by a German policeman.

At the scene, Field helped to interview a German farm girl. The Soviet soldier had visited the farmhouse to buy butter, milk, and eggs, she said. When he realized his errand into American territory would send him to Siberia for 25 years, the soldier despaired. He took off his wide leather army belt and carved his name and birth date on it, along with the name of a sister in Poltava, Ukraine. Then he stepped outside to end his life.

A few months later, Field’s Jeep skidded off a German road and hit a tree. “The Jeep stopped,” he said, “and I didn’t.” In a body cast, Field was shipped back to the United States, where after eight months in a hospital he resumed his undergraduate studies.

By Feb. 1, 1948, just after getting his bachelor’s degree, Field took a job for $175 a month as a research assistant at what then was the Russian Research Center. It had just opened its doors in a sprawling frame house on the site of what is now Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

The center’s small staff had a mission: to unlock the puzzle of the Russian people. In those days, the emerging Cold War was accompanied by a “general bafflement” over Soviet and Russian culture, said Field in an earlier speech, and the subject was “poorly served by clichés from the extreme right and the extreme left.”

Over the years, Field told the recent gathering, the center has taken criticism from both sides of the political aisle. In the early years, with a sign that included the inflammatory word “Russian,” the center’s windows were regularly broken. In the late 1960s, the center came under fire from leftists, who condemned it as an instrument of U.S. imperialism. “We should have stuck to Victorian poetry,” said Field.

He took the two-sided criticism in the same way he took criticism of his first book, “Doctor and Patient in Soviet Russia” (1957), which drew fire from both American physicians and Soviet health authorities. “So I feel good,” Field said earlier, “about having antagonized both sides.”

One of the earliest projects at the new Russian Research Center was a massive effort to interview displaced Soviet citizens who took refuge in Europe, which became the Project on the Soviet Social System that provided the grist for Field’s doctoral work.

He was interested in the evolution of the Soviet medical system in part because of its links to a tightening of labor discipline during Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s rule, a code of work conduct so strict that being more than 20 minutes late could result in a court trial and a loss of 25 percent of pay for six months.

“Doctors,” he told the seminar audience, “became instruments of the state” who embraced their jobs like bureaucrats with strict hours, regardless of patient needs, and who later cooperated in the medicalization of political dissent.

In 1956, Field made his first trip to the land of his parents’ birth, which had loosened restrictions on visitors in the years following Stalin’s death in 1953. With him was a young Harvard professor named Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was later the chief foreign policy adviser to the Carter White House.

They supplemented the earlier citizen interviews, spurring conversations by pretending not to have matches to light their cigarettes. Questions poured out of the Soviets, said Field, along with wonderment that American workers could afford to buy cars and houses.

Over the years, Field collected Soviet-era jokes, the self-deprecating, ironic, and slightly subversive stories told by everyday citizens. He prefers the term “anecdote,” said Field, who once wrote an essay called “The Anecdote as Antidote.”

Field was offered a book contract on the subject, he said, but “I did not want to go down in history as the guy who wrote the joke book.”

Nevertheless, Field told a few “anecdotes,” proof that humor survives the grimmest circumstances.

One was about the Soviet man who came back week after week to apply for a visa to go to Paris. Finally the clerk said, “Come back in five years.”

“In the morning or afternoon?” the man asked.

“What does it matter?” the clerk replied.

“Because,” answered the man, “the plumber comes in the morning.”