National Geographic : 1952 Jun
Where Turk and Russian Meet An American Newspaperman Reports on Conditions Along the "Barbed Wire Curtain," Turkey's Remote Soviet Frontier BY FERDINAND KUHN «T T HY DO you want to see Turkey's S/oviet frontier?" Dr. Halim Alyot, SV Director of the Turkish Press and Tourist Bureau, asked me as we sipped coffee in his office in Ankara. "Because," I answered, "it's going to be our frontier too. When Turkey comes into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an attack on your country will be an attack on mine." * I said I would like to see what kind of people live on this frontier in the very shadow of Soviet power. I wanted to learn what they thought of their Soviet neighbors, and why their sons had volunteered to fight the Com munists in Korea, thousands of miles away. Dr. Alyot was friendly but noncommittal, reminding me that the whole 350-mile frontier with Russia is a military area. He thought he could let me go as far as Kars, provincial capital close to the border. He wasn't sure I could get military permission to go all the way to the boundary, 35 miles beyond (pages 745-7, 752, 762). But Dr. Alyot was better than his word. Within a week I was standing in the tower of a Turkish army post on the frontier itself. Behind me the mountains and plateaus of Turkey stretched westward for some 800 miles to storied istanbul and the Straits. Ahead, only 300 yards from the observation tower, was the Soviet Union. (See the new map of Southwest Asia, a supplement to this issue.) From where I stood, the oil fields of Baku, a major source of Soviet power, were only about 325 miles away-little more than an hour's flying time for propeller planes, much less for modern jets. A Look Behind the Iron Curtain A tall Turkish soldier in a British-type helmet was looking through a spyglass from the tower (page 758). "What do you see over there?" I asked him. He handed me the glass. I took a long, hard squint through an aper ture in the wall. Straight ahead was a grassy plateau about five miles wide. It was as if a giant had laid out a colossal bowling alley leading into Soviet territory. The sides of the alley were smooth, rounded hills, as bare of trees as some of the hills I have seen in Wyoming or Arizona. At the end of the alley was a rise just high enough to hide what lay beyond. From a near-by hill I could have seen the snowy cone of Mount Alagez, 13,435 feet high, in Soviet territory. But from the border post the great peak was invisible, and there was no hint of the mighty Caucasus Mountains that rear their heads to the north, between the Black Sea and the Caspian. The Turks had told me that the Russians had 26 divisions in the Caucasus area, a force greater than the entire strength of the Turkish army. I had expected to see impressive fron tier fortifications, but the only visible evidence of this jealously guarded border was a barbed wire fence that stretched across the huge bowling alley. "The Barbed-wire Curtain," I called it. Through the spyglass I saw observation posts on the Soviet side, but no soldiers, no villages, no people. I shivered to think of this treeless no man's land in the winter, when winds whistle down from the Caucasus and the temperature plum mets to 30° below zero F. Lone Tractor Proves "Mechanization" Luckily, I was there on a brilliant summer day. The border was as still as the surface of the moon except for the twitter of birds and the droning of a single gasoline engine. I turned and saw a tractor on the Soviet side, slanting down a grassy slope. After days of traveling through the bare, almost tractorless grazing land of eastern Tur key, I thought the tractor looked as odd as a camel in Connecticut. I asked my Turkish soldier friend whether there were many trac tors on the Soviet side. "Sir," he said with a smile, "our unit has 35 miles of this border under direct observa tion at all times. And the only tractor any of us has ever seen is right here, opposite this tower." The Russians have made many claims that they are transforming Soviet Armenia, next door to Turkey, into a paradise of mechanized farming. But no foreigner can go there to see for himself. The Turks are sure that this tractor, next to the Barbed-wire Curtain, is there for show purposes, solely to impress them. I handed back the spyglass and twisted down a spiral staircase into the spotless bar racks of the Turkish border guards (page * Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organi zation on February 18, 1952.