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The New International, March 1946


Wartime Moscow

Interview with a Returned American


From New International, Vol.12 No.3, March 1946, pp.77-79.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The following interview took place upon the recent return to the United States of a young American professional man, referred to in the record as “J,” who spent two years of the war on an official mission in Moscow. “J’s” observations are those of an educated American who, however, has no background in the Marxist movement and no particular interest in political and economic questions. We publish his observations for their value as factual information. “J’s” attempt to evaluate the Russian scene in the last paragraph, above all his references to the “new freshness” and his contrast with unemployment in the United States, is likewise of interest despite (and in some measure, because of) his political naiveté. These somewhat optimistic conclusions about the future of Russia (even if the author thinks it good only for Russians) is of interest as a clue to that aspect of the Russian scene, which sets it apart from the economic stagnation of the world of capitalism and which indicates an aspect of Russian consciousness which the Stalin regime successfully utilizes to allay the discontent of the masses with present inequalities and oppression in the interests of the “better life” that lies ahead. – Editor.

B.: Where did you live in Moscow?

J.: At the Hotel Metropole, the finest in the city. All of us lived there and the Russian government bent over backwards to make us as comfortable as we could be, considering the circumstances. The waiters, servants, etc., felt a sort of worship for Americans and treated us like lords.

B.: How was the food?

J.: By American standards, miserable. But it was just about the best that could be had in wartime Moscow, that is for a steady diet. It consisted mostly of powdered eggs (with some fresh eggs occasionally), watered soup, meat mixed with rice or some other filler, tea or coffee, and plenty of bread. Once in a great while we had fish and on even rarer occasions, a piece of fresh fruit or fresh vegetables. Compared to what the mass of the people were getting all this was feast-food. Now all this was served at the hotel but if you had the money and the connections you could buy champagne and the rest.

B.: How much did your food bill run at the hotel?

J.: On an average of between 55 and 60 rubles a day.

B.: With your salary how could you afford to pay these prices?

J.: Simple – black market. The embassy tried to stop exchanging at higher than 12 to 1 by paying us only in checks. Then we were supposed to get rubles for our salary right at the embassy. But there were many ways to get around this. Some men had a few cash bills sent from home each month or so, although this was the toughest way. Most of us sold whatever commodities we could lay our hands on for rubles. I sold a 15-year-old wrist watch for 3,000 rubles. A carton of cigarettes went for around 300 rubles. Everything, absolutely everything, was saleable. You could sell the shin off your back, literally, and get a real price for it. In this way all of us were always flooded with rubles. I had a suit case full and tremendous amounts under my mattress. It soon got to a point where it was impossible to spend what we had.

B.: Who were these people that paid such prices for goods?

J.: I don’t know of any particular people because I didn’t sell directly. I had a fellow who did all my transacting for me. He would take a cut for himself, although I never knew what it was, and keep me well supplied with rubles. We never spoke to each other about it but all of us had our own “contacts” and went about it in the same way.

B.: Did you see any signs of what we call “free enterprise”?

J.: Not on any large, significant scale. All the stores and commodity centers arc under absolute and complete government control. But the government docs not discourage the people from coming to the market place and selling whatever they have. I mean this: if a Russian woman can somewhere get enough yarn to knit a scarf, she is free to come to the market and sell it for what she can get. Since material of all kinds is almost unobtainable this is not very easy to do but from what I saw I would say that after his day’s work, a man could supplement his income if he had the wherewithal.

Wages and Living Conditions

B.: What is the average wage of a Russian factory worker?

J.: The lowest base rate of pay was 300 rubles per month. More skilled workers, or workers who were particularly productive received more; that is 400 or 500 rubles per month, and so on. If you could produce more you usually got more.

B.: With the prices you describe, how did the mass of the workers manage to live?

J.: The answer is – they barely managed. I would say that unless the worker had some other means of supplementing his income, such as a bit of black market, if he had anything to sell, he reached at best a little short of bare subsistence. I noticed that whenever people had to climb long flights of stairs or engage in unusual exertion they tired easily. It was really touch and go with the great majority of the people.

B.: What did a factory manager or director receive?

J.: A manager of a large factory received about 30,000 rubles a month, sometimes more. In addition they got fine living quarters, that is fine in comparison to those of the workers. Also they and their families received extra rations and a share of whatever luxury items were available. They had the use of automobiles, boats, country villas and their children were giving preference and every advantage in the schools, trades and professions.

B.: Were you in a worker’s home?

J.: Yes, a number of times. They are almost beyond description. The average “apartment” is nothing more than one room, about 14' by 16', with one window. An entire family, which I found to be usually about 5 people, live in this one room. The furnishings are what you might expect considering the rest I’ve already told you. If a Russian worker were to walk into this apartment, lie would think he was in a palace.

B.: Were you in a factory?

J.: Yes, I was taken on tours several times. When you think of most of the Russian factories you shouldn’t look to our own factories for comparison. Most are old, cold and drafty. I saw the workers working along in heavy clothing, pausing often to blow their fingers so that they could hold their tools. Even in the newest one I saw, I realized in a few minutes how far behind the Russians are. You don’t get the feeling of easy, swift, mass production. Things look crude and reminded me of pictures I have seen of American factories a generation ago.

B.: How about the Russian trade unions?

J.: There are unions but they don’t mean a damn thing. Those that run for the positions of leadership are appointed by the government and are no different from one another. So the workers vote but it doesn’t mean a thing. The workers are supposed to come to their elected leaders when they have complaints but they seldom do – it isn’t wise or healthy. For example, here is what was going on while I was there: the first time a worker was late he was fined; the second time some of his rations were taken away; the third time he just disappeared.

B.: How do the workers react to this?

J.: Most realize that it’s best to say nothing and keep working. Those that do step out of line are either disciplined or arrested.

The Secret Police

B.: By the GPU?

J.: No, there is no more GPU in Russia. The new name and agency is NKVD. And they are feared by everyone. The saying I heard very often was, “every third Russian is NKVD.” Everyone suspects everyone else of being NKVD and therefore only the brave and foolish do any open complaining. Russians are accustomed to having friends and relatives – just disappear. When this happens no one asks for any explanations and shy away from those close to the victim. People who talk take their lives in their hands ... I want to tell you two personal experiences with NKVD. To begin with I should explain that the reason I had the freedom of the city as I did was that the Russian government did everything possible to keep the Americans friendly, sympathetic and so on. Then I was able to take advantage of this freedom because I speak the language perfectly and unlike the rest of the men on the mission went out on my own whenever possible rather than hang around the hotel or embassy playing cards, etc. ... I met a number of girls and found them very nice. They impressed me with their honesty and pride. Women in Russia, particularly the young, unmarried ones, seemed to have a greater sense of dignity and independence than American women. I took one out quite steadily when suddenly she disappeared. I asked about her but no one would tell me anything. After some time she contacted me and told me she could not see me again. I asked the reason but she said she could not tell me. Later I managed to see a close friend of hers and got the story: this girl had been reported to NKVD for being seen in the constant company of a foreigner – which incidentally is not allowed. She was picked up, her papers carefully checked and given a lecture along these lines: “You have been seen often with a foreigner. You know that is not allowed. You are not to see him again.” Another story: I noticed each day as I walked back to the hotel that a young girl was always there to meet me. We became friends and I found out she was but 14 and a school girl. She was a very sweet little girl and before long I was giving her candy bars. Life magazines and such stuff. Then suddenly she stopped meeting me. After a time she appeared again and whispered to me to meet her in a nearby hallway. She told me that she could not walk with me !o the hotel any more. She explained that the NKVD had told her that associating with foreigners was strictly forbidden. I should add that when this little girl saw the Life magazines she would keep asking me if this was what America was like. I told her that all of the pictures were of actual places and asked why she was so keenly interested. She explained that in school they are taught that the USSR has as its immediate goal the equaling of American standards. But since no one knows what the American standard is they do not know how tar away they are or when they will have caught up.

B.: You mentioned before the special privileges given to factory managers. Isn’t this odd when in Russia there are no classes?

J.: But there are classes in Russia. The Russian papers keep saying there are no classes but anyone with half an eye can see that there are. Russia is divided, from what I saw in two classes: the mass of the people, workers, farmers, etc. and the intelligentsia.

B.: What do you mean by this “intelligentsia”?

J.: That was the name given by foreigners to the generals, factory managers, government officials, ballerinas, musicians and artists that got the little cream that was to be had in Russia.

B.: What were their privileges and advantages?

J.: As I have already said they had the best living quarters, extra and special rations, fine clothes, opportunities to push their children ahead to a similar station and salaries which permitted them to enjoy whatever cultural facilities existed. For example: theoretically speaking, everyone in Moscow could attend the ballet. Actually only this intelligentsia could afford to buy tickets considering the price. I was able to get a seat for a performance whenever I wished, having only to mention I was an American. This automatically told them I was above the rest, an “honored” guest, and could afford the price.

B.: When you say government officials were a part of this intelligentsia do you mean all government workers, such as clerks, typists and the like?

J.: No. These people were no better off than the factory workers. I mean officials fairly high up in the government, those with positions of authority. You know the Russian government did what I think is clever and correct as regards all their artists, writers, dancers and so on. Instead of placing them in the fighting forces, they allowed them to remain behind for entertainment purposes. I saw in the ballet orchestra young men, many, many young men, all of draft age. The same was true of writers, poets and dancers.

The Russian Army

B.: What was your impression of what you saw of the Russian army?

J.: Well, I think their fighting record speaks for itself. I was impressed with a few things: first it seems to be an army of officers. Every Russian soldier is an “officer.” Second the discipline is even stronger than in our army. The enlisted man just doesn’t rate, unless he has won a high award in the field, such as “Hero of the Soviet Union.” In that case he is entitled to 60 per cent off for anything he wants to buy while on leave in the city. I should say the number of such awards corresponds to the number of Distinguished Service Cross winners in our army. When a clerk or ticket seller sees that award on a soldier’s tunic, he or she immediately does everything possible to accommodate the bearer. The Russian soldier is in the classic sense of the word a perfect soldier; he accepts the worst hardships without complaining and is a real fighting man. I noticed too that the soldiers are dressed better than the civilians and wherever and whenever possible get more and better rations. All this is at the expense of the workers behind the lines but I guess the government feels it is necessary during a war.

B.: What did the other men in the mission think of Russia?

J.: They hated it. They didn’t like the food, the accommodations and the entire atmosphere. They kept comparing it to America and naturally Russia didn’t show up too well in comparison.

B.: And what is your opinion of the Russia you saw and the entire set-up?

J.: Well, for the first year I felt the same way as the rest did. Then I started going about on my own, meeting average Russians in the streets and so on. I like the Russian people. In spite of what they have been through and are still going through they manage for the most part to remain friendly, honest and sincere. They love America and Americans and very many that I met would give anything to get to America. It is hard to find out what they really think of their set-up since they are all afraid to talk about such things as their factory set-up or government, but they all hate the Fascists and are proud of their revolution. I felt sort of a thrill after a while. I felt as though I was seeing a country grow up. That is, they are all sure that they are going to catch up to America and some day all have autos and such luxuries. Personally I don’t see how they can get that far within two generations. Anyway it seemed to me that Russia was a country with a future, a country that had some place to go. It is backward, the people are not able to grasp mechanics as Americans do, and yet there is a new freshness about the whole thing that I can’t explain away. As I say, I get the impression that Russia has somewhere to go whereas I come back home and find that with all our mechanics and factories we still haven’t solved unemployment. I admire the Russian people and what they are trying to do. But I will say this, and probably it’s because I am an American and am used to our way of living – I would rather shoot myself than go back to Russia to live.

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