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Workers’ International News, December 1945
The New International, March 1946


Wartime Murmansk

Observations of a Seaman


From New International, Vol.12 No.3, March 1944, pp.79-81.
Originally published as “Observations of a Seaman” in Workers’ International News, Vol.6 No.3, December 1945.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The following; article first appeared in the Workers International News, the theoretical organ of the Revolutionary Communist Party, English section of the Fourth International. In the introduction to it they state the following:

“As the title indicates, this is not a theoretical article drawing sociological conclusions, it is a report. It is simply the observations of an eye-witness of conditions in the Northern part of the USSR. The writer is a sailor. He has made more than one voyage and more than one landing on Russian soil during the war. He has spent some weeks ashore, and being familiar with the Russian tongue has been able to make the most of the opportunities to observe which have been presented to him.” – Editors.

We were the last wartime convoy into Russia. What had formerly been the most dangerous run had become in the last weeks preceding the German collapse, as safe as your own backyard. But although the sea had become aware of the end of the war, the White Sea ports in the Arctic had not. In the month of May, 1945, we came to the port of Molotovsk, about 30 miles west of Archangel, a port which is almost entirely a phenomenon of the war, having been mostly constructed since 1941, for the purpose of receiving the Arctic convoys from Britain and America. Built up mostly on an Arctic waste of sand without vegetation, it consists of a scattering of houses, some old, some new, some solidly built, some jerry-built. There is the ubiquitous Intourist Hotel for the quartering of the upper bureaucrats, army officers and Allied personnel, and the equally ubiquitous public loudspeaker that broadcasts from dawn till dusk (24 hours service in the summer), or until 1 a.m.

A working battalion of soldier-dockers came on board to unload our cargo – mostly railroad equipment, locomotives and heavy industrial machinery. But they were not Russians. They were from Bessarabia. At another port along the line – Bakaritsa – another group of workers came on board – women, not in army clothing – from Eastern Poland. At a third port an analogous situation, although more cosmopolitan: men and women from the Urals, from the South and natives of Archangel. The population is apparently suffering shifts that are at once wide and far-reaching, thousands at a time, and in movement from one end of the country to the other.

To a great extent, this was a result of wartime necessities – displacement of populations from those regions which were in the center of front-line battles in Northern Rumania, Eastern Poland and the Ukraine. Demands of housing and feeding in those areas undoubtedly demanded such shifts of non-military elements to regions not directly involved in the war, where, nevertheless, they could be of use still. However, these people are not being returned to their native soil, nor is there any intention or practice of doing so; which means that at least to a limited extent, the Soviet Union is not particularly interested in the rebuilding of the lands immediately bordering on Russia, and may mean that for the future they intend to have a self-created cordon sanitaire, a magnified system of defense in depth for anti-invasion purposes than even they had in June, 1941. Strolling around the docks at Molotovsk and Archangel and the various lumber ports in the Dvina River delta, at whose mouth is Archangel, one observes the almost absolute equality of men and women. The women do the heaviest work required by stevedoring, handling cranes, winches, standards of wood, and share the foremanship of stevedore gangs, although for the most part over groups of women only. They are not spared but work twelve hours in a row with an hour’s break for meals at noon and 6, working where necessary in two shifts around the clock.

Wages and Living Standards

And for this they get, what? It is impossible to speak of money wages, for if it were said that the rouble is worth just under a shilling, or 18.8 cents or 9.5 francs, this would take into account neither the chaotic and for the moment meaningless status of international exchange nor – more important – the fact that the rouble can neither be exported nor foreign currency imported. In fact, it is only in the last few months that the Russians themselves assigned any value to a gift of a few roubles. Allied personnel permanently stationed in the USSR get a favored rate of exchange of about four roubles to the shilling or twenty to the dollar, but they claim that this is still a hardship for them. And for a reason: the almost complete lack of consumers’ commodities in Russia. What does a Russian worker get, other than a rouble wage? Six hundred grams (a half-pound, English) of black bread per day. What else? Practically nothing. A bit of meat which comes irregularly, infrequently and in bits no larger than a mouthful; tea, the national drink, a bit more regularly, but never in such amounts or intervals that it can be regarded as a staple; occasional discoveries of potatoes or cabbages – for their soup – which is then set aside for festive occasions; no butter, or in microscopic amounts and very little lard. Outside of the bread, no figures can be regularly given for their diet.

This is not typical of all Russia, and it is likely that by next spring the situation as regards food will improve. Nevertheless, it is indicative that the present conditions of nutrition in Russia are probably equalled by few places in Europe and surpassed by none in the direction of misery; and any improvement must first lift them from a level which is at present sub-standard by far. It is not for nothing that there is a daily box run in the newspaper Pravda with a report compiled nation-wide of the status of bread and grain crops. Overt symptoms of malnutrition are not widespread but the population in the North is young – probably heavily weighted, as all over in Russia – a statistical fact – in favor of youth.

Wages similarly expressed in terms of housing would also be low, since there is a housing crisis throughout the USSR, even though dozens of ship loads of timber per month in the last half year (the limit of my acquaintance with the White Sea area) have left the Archangel region for United Kingdom and Western European ports. But this is a trade phenomenon that promises to dwindle to about one-tenth by next spring when ice-free navigation will again be possible.

The export of what can be ill spared is in the interest of establishing credits abroad. And this is borne out in the matter of fish exports as well. Fishing is a great industry in the White Sea and Barents Sea regions; one sees fishing smacks and yawls heading in and out continually. Yet fish is also a luxury among the people. All for export.

Money and Markets

Roubles are plentiful in Archangel. Hordes of children, for the most part in tattered clothing and blue with cold, swarm around the seamen as they leave the ship, begging for cigarettes, candy, gum, anything. And they are willing to pay fabulous prices for what they cannot obtain by begging: 30 roubles for twenty cigarettes, sometimes 40 roubles.

A black market does not exist in Russia – to the best of my knowledge. There is, on the other hand, a market place generally near the center of any town where exists the Skol’ka Market – the “How Much” Market. Here the peasant from the country, from the kolkhoz, takes the produce he has grown over and above the quota established for him to the town and sells, not for what he can get, but for prices in terms of primitive barter, which is supervised by the state economic police. For example, one egg changed hands for two packets of 20 cigarettes each. By comparison, a novel may sell for 15 to 20 roubles, a textbook on economics for a similar amount, in the state-owned bookstores; a gramophone record for 6 roubles.

A Stakhanovite worker, or a bureaucrat with influence may get supplementary rations and this is in lieu of extra pay. He takes a note to the local Skolka Market entitling him to so much butter at a reduced rate, and with fewer or no ration stamps. But there is extra pay as well, and savings are enormous in the state banks. War-bond flotations, I am told, have been over-subscribed, especially by peasants and factory workers – certainly by bureaucrats and functionaries – and the bank deposits have risen commensurately during the war. All deposits are guaranteed by the state and pay an interest rate of 2 per cent, as compared to ½ per cent for private deposits in English banks and 1 per cent for American banks.

The Children

The children who inundated us as we left the ship were for the most part in rags. Their boots had holes, their coats were out at the elbow – and Archangel is Arctic in weather. They begged, demanded, wheedled and tricked, all for a piece of candy, for a cigarette – for papa, comrade, not for me. They tried to sell medals, home-made knives, rings, ornaments, a bit of colored glass, in exchange for the cigarettes, etc. But there were some of these ragamuffins who had it a little better than most. The poorer ones worked in the sawmills around the docks from 14 years onward, possibly even younger, but certainly at that age. The others, the luckier ones, possibly who had made higher marks at an elimination examination, or whose fathers had influence or a good record, for any reason, kept on in school, entered the Pioneers, then the Komsomol – YCL – then the party. Excelsior!

I had an opportunity to see some of the school texts used; these were not far different from those in any other country – the familiar barnyard animals in the book of an 11-year-old, the sly fox, the crow, and the Russian witch and scarecrow, Baba Yega. The history and indoctrination schoolbooks have sketches of Lenin, Stalin, Kalinin, Molotov. The Red Army was founded by Stalin with the connivance of Budyenny, inter alteri – no mention of Trotsky, which was to have been expected. There was a universal reluctance to repeat certain key words in recent Russian history (this was true both of children and adults) such as Revolution, the Left and so on.

The regime – the army officers, the higher bureaucrats – do not like Archangel very much. Those who are there are either on their way up or down. A vodka commissar who was formerly in charge of the Moscow District Vodka Trust and who could not account for certain shortages or superfluities in his line, might be dispatched to Anchangel for a while, himself a superfluity. The manager of an Intourist Hotel who had made a good record for himself may be moved to Odessa.

Nevertheless, they have the best the region can afford: quarters with running water, electric light and steam heat, food which is only a little worse than that allotted to foreign seamen coming in (principally in the matter of the butter ration) and the thousand amenities of personal service which are associated with life in a well-run hotel, the best hotel in town.

Attitude Toward Regime

The attitude of the people toward the regime is extremely difficult to estimate. There is no grumbling, except when there are no witnesses. Those who arc cognizant of conditions abroad are more on the defensive against comparisons with the outside world, the capitalist world. One young fellow, who was a bit better informed than most, a Russian, who was in a position to be, was challenged by a group of us on the question of the one-party system in Russia and the matter of free speech. “Of course we have free speech in Russia.” He looked around himself quickly. “But don’t tell anybody I told you.”

The workers, men and women around docks, have it hard, and they know it and they tell you so. Even as in the 19th century, emigration, especially of the West, is a dream for them. But those peasants of Bessarabian origin just want to go back home; and their nostalgia is strong. Yet even this they do not want to speak of very much.

The more intelligent, the college educated, like life abroad very much. Paris means a great deal to the girls still. Socialism has nothing to replace it with. I found one or two sarcastic expressions regarding the change in theoretical tendencies in the regime. Not much, very little in fact. But a slight awareness that things had changed from the days when world revolution was advocated. For the most part a tendency not to think or remember at all, certainly a tremendous reluctance to express these thoughts and memories to a foreigner who might not know enough to keep his mouth shut.

The Soviet Union is still at a state of war. There are soldier guards along the docks, around vessels of all nationalities. Control of all those who enter the docks and leave is strict, and passes are examined minutely. Russian money found on foreign seamen entering the country is locked up, and the customs (frontier guard) search of the ship as it is preparing to push off, is undoubtedly the most thoroughgoing in the world. Soldiers, when they leave the army, still wear their uniforms. This is because they have no choice, because clothing replacements, even for basic needs, like coats and dresses and suits are almost unobtainable – except for girls of pleasure and those with influence.

The stratification in terms of wealth – not capital – and position is sharp and wide and obvious; and there is no shading off between them, or middle ground. There are more jobs than manpower in the USSR and above all there is a crying need for skilled labour. The dock workers were learning, the entire country is learning. From zero they have built themselves up to a great power but with the whole country subordinated to the needs of defence. There is no unemployment in Russia, but there is also no butter.

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