Denzil Dean Harber

Seeing Soviet Russia

Clare Market Review, Lent Term 1933, pages 16-18, (1,483 words)

By D.D. HARBER (who was in Russia three months last summer and autumn as interpreter to a journalist ).

Every year the number of foreign tourists visiting the Soviet Union increases steadily. A few years ago a trip to Russia was considered a somewhat venture-some undertaking, and the returning tourist was greeted by his friends as one who had ventured to explore an unknown and semi-civilised country. At the present time with the advent of cheap tours and the example of the famous, the habit of touring Russia has become almost universal amongst the British intelligentsia. The tourist of to-day differs in many ways from the pioneers of a few years back. One thing, however, he retains in common with his predecessors—in almost every case he carries back with him the belief that he has learnt something about which the rest of the world remains in an ignorance which it should be his task to dispel. The result is a perfect flood of books, articles and speeches about the Soviet Union—almost all of a precisely similar character, and almost all, unfortunately, equally valueless. A tourist spending ten days or a fortnight in France or Germany, ignorant of the language, and having no previous knowledge of the country, does not come home thinking himself in possession of expert information about the country in question. Precisely the same amount of time is spent in the Soviet Union, however, apparently gives one the right to become an acknowledged expert on Soviet conditions. Yet it would appear from an examination of the facts that precisely the contrary would be expected. The tourist can visit France or Germany as he likes, and for as long as he likes, but for the average foreigner there is only one way of visiting Russia and only a definitely fixed time which he can spend there. Without very considerable in-fluence behind the scenes it is impossible to visit Russia except through the official Soviet organisation known as “Intourist.” The only people for whom exception is made are foreign communists and journalists recognised by the Soviet Government. Indeed, owing to currency difficulties, no other way is possible to the foreign traveller, unless he is a millionaire, or prepared to take the risk of smuggling in roubles from abroad. As things are, once the tourist arrives in the Soviet Union he finds everything done for him by the quite efficient organisa-tion mentioned above. Travel facilities, accommodation, food, guides and interpreters are all provided, and all for the most reasonable exclusive charge. An extensive programme of sight-seeing awaits the visitor, so exten-sive, indeed, as to occupy literally the whole of his available time. It is true that one is not obliged to go with the rest of the tourists—the individual can, if he wishes, go about by himself quite without restriction, but as he has paid for the sight-seeing, anyway, and as it is difficult to find one’s way about in a foreign city, it is but seldom that he does not fall in with the majority. As the average tourist does not know the Russian language it follows that what he hears and most of what he sees depends entirely upon the Intourist guides, who are, without dispute, servants, and markedly privileged servants of the Soviet State. A state of affairs which is hardly conducive to the acquisition of unbiassed in-formation. One does not expect any government openly to admit its failures.

Fortunately for the Soviet Government conditions in Russia are, at the moment, especially favourable for hiding the true state of affairs from the foreign visitor. As a result of the Five Year Plan immense progress has been made in many directions, most especially in the sphere of industry. This progress has, naturally enough, had to be paid for by the Russian people, and the price they have paid has been under-nourishment over a period of years, culminating in the last year in semi and even actual starvation, and the ruin of agriculture. Hence, as the result of enforced sacrifices which are apparently never ending, the workers and peasants of Soviet Russia are, in their mass, definitely hostile to the present Government, and are only kept down by “administrative measures.” But while it is easy for the foreign visitor to see evidences of industrial progress, it is extremely difficult for him, travelling with an official guide-inter-preter, to get reliable evidence of semi-starvation and general discontent. Yet such evidence abounds in every Russian town and village. Even the porters at the Intourist hotel could tell the tourists things almost incredible when contrasted with the official version if only he could understand their language. The peasant driven by starvation from his village to go to buy bread, or to find work in the town, and sleeping outside the railway station at which the foreign tourist arrives could tell him, were a few minutes private conversation if a common language were possible, exactly what he, and the vast majority of peasants, think about collective farms. The factory worker, against whom the foreign visitor jostles in a crowded tram could give him damning evidence about factory conditions and food rations.

Yet all these things must necessarily escape the foreign tourist even when they are almost thrown in his face. Throughout the spring and summer of last year the tourist while in Leningrad could see at night around the October Station (which is almost opposite his hotel) long queues of peasants, men and women sleeping on the bare ground, using a sack or bag for a pillow. If the said tourist had been sufficiently interested in this phenomenon to question his Intourist guide about it she would doubtless have given some quite satisfactory answer, probably to the effect that these were peasants coming from the villages to help in Socialist construction by working in the factories. Questions put to the peasants through her would, doubtless, have brought pleasant confirmation of this statement. But if the tourist had by some chance not been satisfied with this, and if he could have gone up to these people alone, and spoken to them in their native tongue, he would have heard strange things. He would have learnt that they had come from Ukrainian villages hundreds of miles away, and had come to Leningrad not to work in Socialist factories, but to buy bread to take back to their starving families. “But I had not heard that there had been a crop failure in the Ukraine,” the surprised visitor would have exclaimed. He would have been answered quite unemotionally, and without seeming bitterness, that in actual fact no such failure had occurred, but that the State had taken so much of their crop from them that there had not been enough left to feed themselves and their families. Hence they had come to town to buy back at a huge price their own grain which had been taken from them for almost nothing. All which might have given the foreign visitor new light on the “Socialist Reconstruction of Agriculture,”—especially if he had also learnt from these peasants that they had paid for the bread they had bought by taking to town and selling any industrial goods that they happened to have left, such as clothes, utensils, &c. This exchange between town and country of a nature so contrary to that which takes place in the unenlightened capitalist world, would doubtless have given the foreign tourist food for much reflection over “Socialist Industrialisation.”

Instances of this kind could be multiplied endlessly at almost every step the foreign tourist takes in Russia. Everywhere just beneath the surface are there to be found evidence of appalling human suffering and govern-ment inefficiency, and with but few exceptions the tourist passes them by, either without having noticed them, or having been satisfied by some ingenious official explanation, apparently confirmed by the people them-selves—even starvation does not do away with all concern for one’s personal security, and in any case, who can verify the interpreter’s rendering? And so the tourist misses it all and goes back home either quite satisfied or maybe vaguely doubtful, according to his political and mental make-up, but in any case without any knowledge of the real life of the Russian people, which, of course does not stop him, as we see above, from becoming an acknowledged authority on all things Russian and from contributing to the illusions of that very considerable group of people, represented by the “Friends of the Soviet Union” and “Russia To-day,” who, in most cases without even having been to Russia, damn every unfavourable criticism of Soviet conditions as a Capitalist Lie.

All of which is, of course, very regrettable, though how it can be prevented seems by no means obvious. The instruction of prospective visitors to Russia in the Russian language would appear the best remedy.

Last updated: 18 February 2009