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FDR gets ready to light a cigarette at Yalta.
FDR gets ready to light a cigarette at Yalta.
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Booze, bathrooms, and bedbugs at the Yalta Conference

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Sometimes, international diplomacy involves checking for lice. On February 4, 1945 — 70 years ago today — the Yalta Conference began. In a single week, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin planned the fate of the postwar world. They had to sew together a torn continent and, in the process, negotiate competing domestic and international interests. But they also had to spend a week in the same place, and that meant sharing meals, getting drunk, and avoiding bedbugs.

Yalta is a resort town in the Crimean Peninsula, and it was so difficult to reach that Winston Churchill said "we could not have found a worse place in the world," according to State Department records.

The conference was half international tight-rope walk, half party. Each leader and their entourage had a palace to themselves: the Livadia Palace hosted Franklin Roosevelt and the Americans; Churchill and company stayed in Vorontsov Palace; and Stalin and his entourage were in Yusupov Palace. In some ways, the big three lived large.

But along with those luxuries, they had to contend with cramped quarters, a bombed-out European landscape, and the banal hassles of life away from home. Their stay was both decadent and disastrous. Each retinue had its own palace, but Winston Churchill called Yalta the "Riviera of Hades." They had multi-course dinners, but they also had bathroom lines that stretched for hours.

Yalta was a grimy diplomatic paradox: sometimes, history-making deals don't just need resolve — they also require a lot of small talk and booze.

Stalin and Churchill at Yalta.

-Alexander Cadigan, an aide to Winston Churchill, quoted in Yalta

While some of the representatives at Yalta felt the historic pressure, Churchill took the opportunity to imbibe. Churchill liked to sleep late and, like most of the attendees at Yalta, had a bottle of an exotic liquor called vodka supplied in his room. According to the papers of FDR advisor Harry Hopkins, Churchill also believed whiskey was "good for typhus and deadly on lice."

He also brought his favorite cigar case with him, and his forces were ready to supply him: the British brought 500 cigars to the conference, according to Rick Atkinson's The Guns at Last Light.

Meeting in the palace near Yalta.

-Air Force General Laurence Kuter, quoted in Yalta

Palaces or not, the facilities at Yalta weren't equipped to house hundreds, and that included the bathrooms. At Livadia, there were only nine toilets for more than a hundred people. Extra bathrooms were "constructed" by digging trenches in a deer park.

The horror stories lasted throughout the conference. Only Churchill and Roosevelt had private bathrooms — even Stalin waited in line. Worse, chambermaids bustled in and out of rooms without bothering to knock.

FDR in a Jeep after arriving at Yalta.

-Anna Roosevelt, in a letter about sleeping conditions, excerpted in The Conquerors

Livadia Palace was supposed to have been deloused, but the plague of bedbugs, lice, and other "creepy-crawly creatures," as Anna Roosevelt put it, proved otherwise. Even dinner wasn't safe, since mosquitoes hid under the tables. The American and British entourages suffered from extreme itchiness during the entire trip, and their solution wasn't much better — soldiers doused the quarters with DDT.

Men were packed six to nine to a room, and what beds there were had paper-thin mattresses which, according to Anna, were "so thin I could feel the springs."

FDR and Stalin at Yalta.

-Sarah Churchill, in a letter about a February 8th dinner with Joseph Stalin

Leaders hosted dinners at their palaces and, without fail, they were buoyant, boozy affairs — with a bit of simmering geopolitical tension for good measure.

After dinner on the first full day, FDR upset Stalin by revealing that he called him "Uncle Joe" as a joke. Uncle Joe got over the wound, however, and became more convivial later on.

On February 8th, Stalin invited the group to his villa for dinner. Kathleen Harriman, daughter of diplomat W. Averill Harriman, said that Stalin "enjoyed himself, was a splendid host, and his three main speeches were swell." All parties wrote that the tyrant was in good humor. Stalin frequently gave long toasts (and drank heavily as well, though there were rumors he only sipped half his vodka before chugging water).

Churchill and Roosevelt were happy to reciprocate Stalin's liquor-soaked praise: in one post-cocktail toast, Roosevelt said that the atmosphere was "that of a family."

Before the Yalta photo opportunity.

-Sarah Churchill, after Yalta ended

Shortly after the famous February 9 photo-op, when Stalin and Churchill sat to accommodate FDR's disability, Yalta became a ghost town again. As described in Joseph Persico's Roosevelt's Centurions and in State Department records, many gifts were exchanged. Presents included wine, caviar, and strong cigars for the Americans, while the Russians received custom medals. Instead of tips, the British and American guests were advised to give house servants cigarettes, candy, and chewing gum.

But the parties didn't linger. On February 11, Roosevelt dashed out at 4 PM, and Churchill, who'd planned on staying longer, hightailed it out. According to Sarah Churchill, Stalin "disappeared like some genie."

And, like that, the bedbug-infested, drunken, and bathroom-deprived place called Yalta became a part of history.

Images courtesy of:
Archive Photos/Photoquest/Getty Images
Gamma Keystone/Keystone France/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Keystone Features/Getty Images


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