Introduction to The Yalta Stunts

When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt set the date for their historic conference at Yalta in late 1944, it seemed natural to include in their plans a series of elaborate stunts that would refresh their minds and keep their bodies active during the long hours of thoughtful scrutiny and political bargaining. Diversions such as charades and musical chairs had become immensely popular among the Allied High Command as early as 1942, and by the time of the Soviet capture of Lutsk in February 1943, more complicated amusements had become de rigeur for all major conferences. At the Quadrant Conference of August 11-24, 1943, for example, during the discussion of operation OVERLORD the U.S. Chiefs of Staff had managed to construct an immense pyramid of champagne glasses while simultaneously asserting that a vigorous Italian campaign was essential to draw off German strength. Roosevelt himself had balanced a plum on his nose to demonstrate his gratitude when Churchill suggested that a U.S. officer lead the cross-Channel attack. At the Moscow Conference of October 1943, Molotov and Eden had dressed like ministers and shouted rude insults at passers-by, and U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull had, on a dare, run naked through Red Square carrying a piglet and singing patriotic songs.

By 1944, however, some of this high-spiritedness had lost its charm, and the three giants decided that a radical change in the quality and character of these “strategy stunts” was needed. Stalin wanted more mentally engaging stunts — mathematical puzzles and logical games — while Churchill thought that the new stunts should involve a lot of squeaky noises and pot-banging. It was Roosevelt, however, who proposed the idea of commissioning a series of stunts from an internationally known artist or philosopher. This person would have to be a genius of rare quality, able to blend poignancy and rigorous intellectual discipline with a sense of silliness equal to the magnitude of the event.

None was more surprised, perhaps, than Krinst himself at the invitation to author these Yalta stunts. He had been aware of the war only insofar as he was frustrated at his inability to get good chocolate, and knew little of contemporary political matters, save that his landlord who professed Nazi sympathies was unable to tie his shoes or wash himself. He recognized only Stalin’s name (they had met in the 1920’s, possibly at the Kiev international plumber’s convention of 1926), and, because he initially thought Roosevelt was an old school chum whose copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles he had never returned, didn’t answer the request for some months. Only when attempting to purchase tickets for a spring cruise along the Rhine did everything fall into place. He wrote immediately and shortly thereafter commenced work on what would be one of his mightiest and most enigmatic texts.

The stunts proved to be ample fruits of Krinst’s unswerving, unnerving genius, combining political savvy (he brushed up quickly on current events by screening old newsreels and cartoon shorts on a rented projector) with playful aplomb, mixing mystic symbolism and old-fashioned fun in their often confounding demands. The unique presentation of the stunts was similarly novel; the directions for each activity were accompanied — on the facing page — by a puzzling imperative and an illustration, both of which seemed to hold a curiously anagogic relationship with the stunt itself. Above all, the stunts provided an atmosphere that enabled the three mighty lions to divide the world fairly among themselves — a context of the solvable for the often most rubbery of problems, suggesting merely that all that was needed to solve the most intricate political conundrums was a bit of dexterity, some imagination, and a few household items. All three leaders later declared that without Krinst’s stunts they would have been reduced to mean-spirited petty bickering and small-minded power struggles without care or concern for the millions of human lives they were controlling.

The actual text of The Yalta Stunts was not made public until 1958, as was Krinst’s name; in keeping with the ultra-secret nature of the conference, he had been referred to only by the codename “Substitute.” Immediate publication was delayed for some years as Krinst, interpreting certain government communications, thought he was being accused of Communist sympathies and went into hiding. After some clarification and a large cash settlement, however, the first edition appeared in 1963.

Due to the often cryptic nature of the texts, early attempts to recreate the stunts can only be described as brave failures. It was not until the second edition appeared in 1967 — with detailed descriptions of how the stunts had been interpreted and performed by Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt themselves — that the full splendor of this work came to be realized. Without a doubt the combination of global tension and overwhelming significance that surrounded their enactment, together with the regal personalities of those three great men, provided the force and inspiration for what can truly be called a definitive production of the stunts. Indeed, so much have the original interpretations been accepted that they can hardly be separated from Krinst’s work at all, and one might say with some conviction that The Yalta Stunts, as it stands today, is the work of four great minds working in awesome synchrony. Few modern performances have been anything but strictly adhesive to the Yaltic reading, and the virtues of the occasional departure (such as Ernesto Zingarelli’s one-man marathon in 1979) are of but occasional insight, and do not approach the sustained profundity of tradition.

The first commentaries, it should be noted, were most faulty. Not only were they rife with rumor and misinformation, but, more gravely, were edited and exaggerated versions, the results of frenzied nationalism. Soviet editions greatly overstated Stalin’s physical prowess and included fraudulent anecdotes in which the two Western leaders compared their own achievements with the Soviet’s in obsequious terms; “it is a truism,” Churchill was claimed to have said, “that Joseph Stalin’s exertions are to be called the most triumphant; ours are but lowly hijinks.” British versions tended to downplay what is best called Churchill’s extremely whimsical nature. The details of his enthusiastic and varied repetitions of Stunt IV were suppressed to the point of exclusion. U.S. editions were no better. They generally marginalized Stalin’s contributions, referring to him often by demeaning epithets, characterized Churchill as a well-meaning but uptight booby, and all but stated explicitly that Roosevelt had run the event like some comico-military wizard, a kind of Harpo Eisenhower in an atomic rocket sled.

In preparing the commentary for this edition, then, I have made every effort to provide an accurate description of the Yaltic interpretations. Where little evidence has existed, or reports have varied widely, I have not speculated. In a few cases, I have uncovered new information, or have corrected long unquestioned errors. My approach has otherwise been traditional, to give a short explanation of each stunt, more or less anecdotal as necessary, with an aim at providing a concise, codifed version of these excellent stunts. I have allowed myself the occasional judgemental remark.

Finally, I wish to thank Mr. Walter Smart for his assistance in negotiating the loan of certain Soviet documents, without which this edition would be much impoverished.

Emily MacGregor
August 1989