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Roosevelt wanted to buy a piece of Crimea in final days of World War II

April 22, 17:27 UTC+3

Crimea unveils bust of FDR remembering closer ties between Moscow and US during world’s darkest days

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© TASS Archive

On April 22, 2017, a bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States commonly known as FDR, was unveiled in Yalta, on a street named in his honor.

Back in the 1960s, one of Yalta’s oldest streets was named after Franklin D. Roosevelt. The city authorities decided to commemorate the 32nd US president’s participation in the 1945 Yalta Conference of the “Big Three” leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition.

Roosevelt impressed by Crimea

The conference was held in the Palace of Livadia, where the largest group of the US delegation was housed. The reason for the decision to accommodate the American delegation in the Livadia Palace was because of the physical condition of the US leader who had been bound to a wheelchair after contracting polio in 1921.

The palace left a great impression on the American leader. In fact, according to a transcript of a conversation with Stalin in February 1945, Roosevelt said that he felt very well in Livadia and stated that once he was no longer president, he would like to ask the Soviet government to sell Livadia to him. He noted that he was fond of breeding trees and would plant lots of them in the hills around the palace’s vicinity. 

“Roosevelt’s personal apartment was located on the ground floor and he could move around by himself, quite easily. It should be noted however that a slight lapse in security was permitted as the delegation and its leader were accommodated where the sessions were being held. Though the frontline was far away, security measures during the conference were unprecedentedly tight,” says Dmitry Blintsov, a research fellow at the Livadia Palace museum’s exhibition department.

The Livadia Palace and its picturesque park impressed the US leader so much that he asked Stalin, in earnest or not, to sell it to him. The transcript of Roosevelt’s personal meeting with Stalin of February 4, 1945 puts it as follows:

“Roosevelt says he feels very well in Livadia. When he is no longer president, he would like to ask the Soviet government to sell Livadia to him. He is fond of gardening. He would plant lots of trees in the hills around Livadia.”

Roosevelt arrived in Yalta accompanied by his daughter Anna. Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, and one of the daughters of US Ambassador to Russia Averell Harriman, Kathleen, were also there. “I think their daughters provided psychological support to their fathers after the long and heated political debates so far away from their homes,” the historian suggests.

Nevertheless, despite the positive impressions from Livadia, upon returning home Roosevelt said that he had been shocked to see the devastation that the German Nazi forces had inflicted on Crimea.

During my stay in Yalta, I saw the kind of reckless, senseless fury, the terrible destruction that comes out of German militarism… And even the humblest of the homes of Yalta were not spared… I had read about Warsaw and Lidice and Rotterdam and Coventry—but I saw Sevastopol and Yalta! And I know that there is not room enough on earth for both German militarism and Christian decency Franklin D. Roosevelt's address to Congress, 1945

Authentic Venetian glass

Little has survived from that time in the Livadia Palace. You can hardly find any authentic furniture, tableware or other items used by the Big Three back then. Even the interiors of some rooms are no longer as they used to be.

After Stalin’s death, the palace was used as a health resort.

The first-ever exhibition was organized here in 1974, ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Yalta Conference and a visit to the USSR by the 37th President of the US, Richard Nixon. “But it was not until 1993 that the Palace of Livadia was granted its museum status,” Blintsov says.

The historian shows us around one of the rooms, boasting about the authentic interior of the Yalta Conference period. It is the Waiting Room, which was given its name before the Bolshevik Revolution as it was here that guests used to wait to be received by the Russian Royal family. 

“These dark walnut panels and the wooden ceiling, the Venetian glass chandelier, the fireplace, the chairs and the table – all of these things were here during the Yalta Conference. The room was turned into Roosevelt’s study. He met with Stalin here twice. It was here that the issue of the USSR’s entry into the war against Japan was discussed,” the historian explains.

Aspirations for peace

The Yalta Conference is believed to have yielded new world frontiers and the post-WWII global order. The United Nations, the then new international institution put together to protect this new world order, owes its birth to the Yalta Conference too. Historians say the atmosphere at the conference was friendly, with all sides showing mutual respect.

"I am sure that under the agreements reached at Yalta, there will be a more stable political Europe than ever before," Roosevelt said in his address to Congress on March 1, 1945

Being eager to reach political results, the parties openly demonstrated their readiness for dialogue, often indulging in “diplomatic curtsy.” Thus, Stalin invited Roosevelt to chair the conference ceding his right as its host to the main partner he saw in the US leader.

At one of his receptions, Roosevelt told Stalin how he had arrived at the decision to establish diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1933.

“When he first took office as president, his wife Eleanor was on a nationwide tour of the US. During her visit to a school, she noticed a map of the world with a big blank patch. She was told that it was the Soviet Union and its name should not be pronounced. At the reception in Livadia, Roosevelt told Stalin that after his wife had recounted this story to him he understood that this ‘big blank space’ must not exist on the map, so it was high time to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union,” says Blintsov.

The historian says that naming a street in Yalta in honor of Roosevelt back in the 1960s and the current unveiling of his bust there can be seen as a tribute to the memory of one of the few periods in history when the Soviet Union and the United States sincerely wanted to improve their relations. And, as the US leader of the time, FDR embodied those desires for friendlier relations.

Uncle Joe, communication glitches and a white Russian’s son

Various unexpected incidents that occurred during the Yalta Conference didn’t spoil the good rapport between the partners. There was a widely publicized episode at a reception, where Roosevelt called Stalin "Uncle Joe" - a nickname the US president and Churchill used for the Soviet leader amongst themselves.  Though slightly embarrassing, the misunderstanding was quickly ironed out so as to avoid any tight spots.

Another unexpected incident involved the establishment of radio contacts with a US ship anchored in Sevastopol Bay that was used to ensure communications with the United States. The ship was linked with Livadia by an 80-km cable laid underground.

"The cable had malfunctioned for quite some time and the Americans could not figure out why. They thought that it might have been because the Russians had plugged into the line. They warned that if the problem was not resolved within 24 hours they would place their soldiers along the entire cable line to control it. The next day, the problem was gone," says Blintsov.

One more unforeseen episode was linked to an individual from the US delegation. One of its interpreters, Oleg Pantyukhov, turned out to be a son of a White Russian officer who had fled the Soviet Union. This fact had already been revealed in Crimea.

"The Americans then told Pantyukhov that he was to leave immediately at the Soviets’ request, defining it as a security precaution since the Soviet side could not let a White Russian’s son - a security risk by default - be beside Stalin," explains the historian.

The Soviet driver who saved Roosevelt’s life

One accident that occurred during the Yalta Conference could have changed the negotiations dramatically, and world history for that matter. “A very serious accident took place here. The American delegation was on its way to Alupka when Roosevelt nearly fell out of an open-air convertible. The Soviet driver, Fyodor Khodakov, managed to grab him with one hand and pull him back into the car,” says Blintsov.

“Notably, Khodakov was neither rewarded, nor punished by the Soviet government for the incident. Yes, Khodakov was responsible for Roosevelt’s safety but it was American bodyguards who were too careless, so the Soviet leaders decided not to punish the driver,” the historian notes.

However, the American leader thanked the driver personally. Later on, after the president had passed away, his wife Eleanor, while visiting the Soviet Union, searched for Khodakov in order to convey her gratitude to him for saving her husband from possible injuries or, probably, more serious consequences.

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