RUSSIA is an odd country to visit — odd from the very moment when the traveler decides to visit it. For Russians are quite as suspicious of outsiders as outsiders are of them; and if the traveler wishes to enter the country as a normal visitor he will find that the filling up of an application for a normal passport involves a revelation of his past, which may or may not bear revealing, and that he is at once on the defensive and regarded as an international spy or, at best, as an over-inquisitive and unwelcome Nosey Parker. But a tourist visa is a far simpler matter, since, for reasons connected with economics and remote from politics, Russian policy to-day is to encourage tourists. ‘Only,’ says the Soviet, ‘no tourist visa unless you take our tourist excursions.’ It is, maybe, polite blackmail: there is no private enterprise in Russia, and the Soviet manages its own tourist trade and makes state revenue out of tourists. But there is no alternative; and I was one among four hundred other inquisitives on a Baltic cruise who accepted the Soviet terms. All of us got in, save three unfortunate parsons who were described on their passports as ‘Ministers of Religion.’ ‘Ministers’ are highly political in Russia and religion is taboo. Three other clerics were wiser in their generation. ‘Clerks’ work in offices; what ‘Holy Orders’ conveys to a Russian, goodness only knows. Anyhow, the three ‘Clerks in Holy Orders’ sailed in — and I with them.
Once ashore, I might have been back in a war-time atmosphere of red tape and regulations; at the same time, I might have been back at school. But it was a Bolshevist Dames’ School. For the official guides in Russia are all women, — girls of the university type with a leavening of matrons, — and their guide curriculum for the education of tourists follows with tense concentration the school syllabus laid down by the Soviet Government.
In Leningrad, I came under the wing of a pleasant, plump, middle-aged lady, who had had a pre-war education in England and whose family had been rich under the old régime. In her altered circumstances she was, first of all, a housewife, and secondly a politician. But in Moscow my guide was too young to have clear memories of Tsarism, and had grown up entirely as a Bolshevik of the new régime. Both were extremely pleasant, extremely forthcoming, and extremely efficient. Both spoke English fluently, and their different outlooks gave me a wider view. For in Leningrad I listened to lowbrow domestic details; in Moscow conversation was on a highbrow political level. It was a good combination.
Mrs. Leningrad had a husband, two children, and one servant. They all lived in four rooms, in a house which had once belonged to a court chamberlain. They had not chosen it, she told us, and their quarters were most inconvenient. But in Russia man proposes, and the State disposes. The house hunter applies to the local commissar, with details of his salary and of his family, and the State must produce something; but he must accept what is produced. The rent is according to his salary, and the number of rooms according to the number and the ages of his family. Mrs. Leningrad asked us whether foreigners like ourselves could still move easily.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘it is terribly difficult. In fact, if a family is not comfortable, the only way to secure a change is to have another baby, after which one can return to the commissar to fill up a new form.’
Her husband worked as a state doctor and she as an official tourist guide and dressmaker, and they could just afford a servant, at twelve dollars a month, with an extra dollar, paid by Mrs. Leningrad, for health and unemployment insurance. Domestics, surprisingly, can go on pension at the age of forty-five.
But when we hinted at sympathy with her altered circumstances, Mrs. Leningrad was not at all sorry for herself.
‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘even if there were luxuries none of us would want them. We get all we need from the State and everybody works except the ill and the superannuated. And as for money, according to the way we live now, we need next to none, as the little we want to buy can be bought with next to none. Nor has anyone to save — indeed, it is illegal to hoard. There are state pensions for everyone; and after all, savings are only for one’s old age.’
Money, indeed, can be dangerous in Russia. One of my tourist companions had been asked to bring a hundred and fifty dollars to a Russian living in Leningrad. But the man, instead of being pleased, was terrified. ‘For goodness’ sake, put it away,’ he said. ‘What use is it to me? Luxuries? It’s a crime to hoard and I should be caught at once if I suddenly appeared with unaccountable money to spend. But I should not be the only one to be punished. You smuggled the money in, and if you were caught you would quite likely be an unwilling guest in Russia for a very considerable period.’
From the moment we arrived, we had been aware of this Soviet control of foreigner’s money. There are no State Banks in Russia, but a Soviet Exchange Bureau was established on board ship before we landed. Our money was changed at the rate of two rubles to the dollar, and we were given certificates, which we had to sign, containing particulars of the transaction. And whenever we bought anything, this certificate had to be produced before we were given possession of our purchases, and on it had to be endorsed the amounts we had spent. Mrs. Leningrad told us we had no cause to complain. ‘It is only self-protection,’ she said. ‘You capitalists refuse to recognize our ruble or to quote it on your foreign exchanges; and, as a result, outside Russia our money can be bought at very low rates. We watch every visitor to see that he does n’t import cheap rubles to spend here. You will see the scheme working if you want to change your surviving rubles back into dollars when you leave. The Exchange Bureau will only pay you after they have verified, from an addition of the shop endorsements on your certificate, that you have not spent more rubles in Russia than you originally received when you exchanged your dollars on arrival.
‘I suppose,’ she went on, ‘all this sounds very queer to you. But, as a matter of fact, our life is far easier than yours in its routine. Our State is responsible for every Russian in Russia during the whole of his life. As a child he gets education and rations; as a worker, he gets pay and rations (and there is always work — we have no unemployment); as a pensioner, he gets pension and rations. And there is always cheap and good food for everybody. Into the bargain, housekeeping is easy, although I expect you would find it dull. Every householder has a series of ration books, covering both the essentials of life and luxuries; and only vegetables are an open market. The only shops belong to the State Coöperatives; and nothing can be bought without the production of the necessary ration book. We are only served if our books show that we have not already bought more than we are entitled to buy, according to state rationing regulations. I know exactly what I can have and cater accordingly. But my family only get the second scale of rations. We are sedentary workers. Manual workers get twice as much as we do. You see, it is not so complicated after all, and we understand rationing now and accept it because it suits us. And it applies to everything; not only food, but clothes, boots, soap, candles, oil — everything.’
Mrs. Leningrad was possibly speaking for many of her compatriots — but not for all. Another of my fellow travelers had an introduction to a professional Russian in Leningrad, and went to see him. His clothes were illfitting and worn; and in apologizing for them, he explained that three years ago he had had quite a good wardrobe, but that in 1927 the State had made an inventory of all the clothes in Russia, and had laid down by law what each person might possess. He had been left with only two suits and, according to ration regulations, he was not entitled to another for twelve months.
We told the story to Mrs. Leningrad, who shrugged her shoulders. ‘He is not used to it yet,’ she said, ‘and probably does n’t see what value this rationing has for the State. We buy what we need at cheap state prices, and the State provides without foreign imports. And as no one can buy more than his ration, money loses its point and the State can keep wages and pensions low. The scheme only hits me in one way. I should like to travel again as I did as a child. Of course, I can have a passport for abroad, provided I promise to return ; but what should I do in Paris or in London or in New York? I could not buy my cheap Russian rations in the Rue de la Paix, or in Piccadilly or on Broadway. And I certainly know that the little money I have would not last me one meal according to your restaurant prices.’
Mrs. Leningrad was timid in her comments on the State and Church issue. She had certainly been devout before devotion went out of fashion in Russia. But the more politicallyminded Miss Moscow was bluntly expansive on the topic. It was raised fortuitously. Sight-seeing over three weeks destroys all contact with time; and in Moscow one of us, surprised, after the emptiness of the Leningrad streets, to see crowds thronging the pavements, assumed that they were Sunday crowds enjoying their day off. The suggestion greatly entertained Miss Moscow. ‘Those people are enjoying their day of rest; but it’s not Sunday,’ she said. ‘We don’t go in for Sundays or Mondays or, for the matter of that, for weeks. We work on a fiveday cycle — four days’ work, one day’s rest. Thus the factories never stop and the shops never close. Sunday with everybody off together is out of date. It would interrupt our progress.’
‘But what about church?’ we asked.
‘Of course the priests keep Sunday,’ she answered, ‘and everybody can go to church who wants to. But very few do,’
We carried the war into the enemy’s camp.
‘That is, if they can find a church open,’ we countered. ‘Have n’t you closed most of them?'
‘Not a bit of it.’ Her voice was very metallic. ‘We don’t close churches; they close themselves. It is only when the priests and their congregations fail to keep them in good repair that the State intervenes. Churches with special claims to interest then become museums; otherwise, they are converted into warehouses and factories, of which Russia has far more need. The State has no objection to religion and tolerates every religion — but only so long as religion does not clog the machinery of our social and economic development. Under the old régime, our Church as a malevolent agency in Russia was second only to Tsarism. And the two worked hand in glove.’
The scene of our discussion moved to the Church of the Redeemer, which celebrates the French defeat in 1812. Miss Moscow brought us to a small dais on which were two thrones. ‘While the common herd stood at worship,’ she said, ‘the Tsars alone sat, and this dais was to raise them above their subjects and nearer the Almighty, whom they claimed to represent on earth. As such, they could do and did what they liked without control or criticism — and the Church fostered the fiction. Now we have disestablished and disendowed it. It must never again have temporal power.’
In Leningrad, we had had a foretaste of how the Soviet is teaching the proletariat to regard religion. We had stopped opposite the Blue Mosque by the Peter-Paul Fortress. ‘It,’ said Mrs. Leningrad, ‘was built by the last Tsar to conciliate his Moslem subjects. In the mornings it is still open for Mohammedan prayers; but in the afternoons there are daily antireligious meetings for all and sundry.’
But Moscow is the headquarters of the movement, and there we were shown the Soviet Antireligious Institute, where students qualify as antireligious teachers in the government schools. ‘The next generation,’ said Miss Moscow, ‘will have been trained to regard religion purely as a spiritual force; and this knowledge will make it impossible, for all time, that the Church in Russia should again thwart the rights of the people.’
The Soviet has already in twelve years made great headway. On our peregrinations we overtook a tawdry, white-painted trolley, clattering briskly over the cobbles. On it was a coffin; it was unattended and, from the pace at which it was being carried, I assumed it was empty.
‘Oh, no,’ said Miss Moscow, ‘it is going to the cemetery. The family has paid the driver to fetch the corpse from the house, and someone else has been paid to dig a grave. The two between them will bury the body and that will be all.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘won’t there be any religious service?’
‘Maybe yes, maybe no — but most likely no.’
And there was a sequel. Later in the day the same trolley passed us clattering in the opposite direction. The coffin was still on it. ‘Corpses,’ said Miss Moscow, ‘are no longer buried in coffins. Coffins are far too expensive.’
There were repeated indications that the Soviet wished us to take a good impression of Russia away with us, and it positively pandered to our physical needs. Our meals were Gargantuan — but strongly à la russe. I met one elderly North of England merchant who expressed himself forcibly. ‘Sturgeon!’ he said. ‘Never want to see the stuff again. I thought I was eating horse.’ Personally, I enjoyed my meals extremely. I contrived always to seat myself at table opposite the caviare, and in three days ate at least ten dollars’ worth. Only the Soviet waiting was poor. ‘Buttling’ as a profession is out of date, for New Russia lives on state rations and waits on itself.
And Soviet attentions could also be delicate. In our train from Moscow, we were brought free early morning tea in glasses and free rusks; and just before journey’s end, the doyen of the Lady Guides, a lovely creature just like Pavlova, toured the whole train, like a hospital matron on her morning round. Speaking particularly for the men among us, we were charmed when, with a sweet smile, she asked us individually whether everything had been all right and whether we had had a really nice sleep.
But the Soviet Government, despite its solicitude for tourists, ostentatiously and, at times, pretentiously parades its belief in the maxim that charity should start at home. There are scores of canteens in the industrial quarters, where workers can queue up for their meat and bread rations and eat on the job, instead of having to go back to their homes for meals or bring food with them; there are crèches for workers’ children; and, on the Neva and Moskva Rivers, there are workers’ Lidos with swimming pools and water chutes and punts and skiffs and sun bathing. After we had seen the Moskva Lido, Miss Moscow showed us a full-blown Fun City with a fine helter-skelter, swing boats, roundabouts, and an ornamental lake. It was a pleasant and harmless, if slightly vulgar, resort; but Miss Moscow, whom we were coming to consider as being something of a prig, did not call a spade a spade. ‘We have christened this place The People’s Home of Culture and Rest,’ she said pompously. The idea was really comic, and it was not the only incident which betrayed a Soviet lack of humor. In Moscow and Leningrad, we were shown old music halls, riding schools, closed churches, and the like — only to be told that they now pass under the most wonderful high-sounding titles as ‘Institutes of this,’ ‘Seminaries of that,’ and ‘Symposiums of something else.’ And even in the cinemas, nearly all the films are improving in tone or propagandist; hardly any are even vaguely amusing. There is a similarity between this Bolshevist pretentiousness and that of suburban commuters, who will call their semi-detached villas ‘Sans Souci,’ ‘Quirinal,’ ‘Versailles,’ and even ‘The White House.’
In pleasant contrast, the Workers’ Rest Home which we visited on the Neva Islands had the spontaneity and unassuming simplicity of a mixed summer camp. These homes are all through Russia, and are established in the suburban and country houses of the ci-devants. Workers are entitled to a fortnight’s free holiday a year, and they run the homes themselves with one Soviet restriction only — prohibition. The home we saw had belonged to an imperial general and the grounds had been lovely. In ten years they have been allowed to fall into unlovely decay. But near the mansion there were badminton courts and gymnasium apparatus, and we met party after party of holiday makers returning from boating and swimming in the Neva.
Mrs. Leningrad gave us her set piece, standing beneath a huge picture of Lenin crudely frescoed on the wall of what had been the general’s hall. ‘Formerly,’ she said, ‘the house was open for, at most, three months in the summer, and then only for the benefit of the general, his wife, and his son; to-day, it accommodates 270 workers and is open all the year round. Under Tsarism there was nothing but work, work, — day in, day out, — for the workers. And now I will show you how jolly this place has become.’
In the kitchen, ‘duty-men’ were cutting bread and chopping meat for rissoles; in the four dining rooms, ‘dutywomen’ were laying the tables; the dormitories, where they slept by sexes, were tidy and well, if simply, furnished; in the recreation rooms — the old drawing-room, library, and boudoir — groups were talking and reading; finally, in the music room, a large party was listening to a long-haired impresario, who only broke into bourgeois jazz when we appeared. But Lenin was everywhere, the fairy godfather, as it were, of the holiday makers.
The Soviets are past masters of propaganda. We, as tourists, expected to be propagandized; but to all of us it was a surprise to realize the intensity of Soviet propaganda among their own people. Wherever we visited — in churches, in museums, and in palaces — we met scores of other touring parties — Russian parties of soldiers, sailors, and workers, each in charge of an official guide of the Soviet Educational Corps. In the Hermitage, I saw Mongols from Turkestan gaping at a Rembrandt; a spectacled girl of eighteen was explaining Velasquez to a group of bucolic soldiers; a class of children tittered over an overdeveloped nude by Rubens.
To watch them was to be moved to mirth; but in Tsarskoye Selo, the last Leningrad home of the last Tsar, I was moved to inarticulate wrath. In the imperial bedroom, we overtook a group of sailors standing round a blackboard, on which was pinned a photograph of Rasputin. It had been placed opposite the Tsarina’s bed by the Soviet, and the sailors’ guide was tense and fanatic in her explanations. What she said I could only guess; but I saw the sailors grinning and nudging each other. The presence of that photograph in that room was an outrage to common decency.
And on two occasions I had cause to marvel over the thoroughness of Soviet psychology. These propaganda visits are wearying and promote hunger. In the Hermitage, I came across a peasant workers’ group, enjoying a ration lunch of garlic and black bread on a silkcovered Empire sofa, placed specially for their repose; and in the Hall of the Winter Palace, where formerly the Imperial Guard watched imperial departures, a long snack-counter now provides workers, who have completed their educational tours, with fish and onions at a dime a plate.
There was no suggestion in our guides’ explanations of monuments of any tinge of apology for the past. We were bourgeois; as likely as not we were Imperialists; some of us might even be aristocrats. Offense is the best form of defense. So, in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Leningrad, we were told that the building was crying evidence of the callousness of imperial squandermania. It cost mints, and thousands of serfs died in the digging of its foundations in the fever-stricken Neva mud. In the Hermitage, British Royalty was ridiculed. Mrs. Leningrad halted us before a Van Dyck portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria. ‘In life she was ugly and squat. Here she is lovely and graceful. Queens always insisted upon being passed down to posterity as fair as Venus.’ But she was crudely gruesome in her belittlement of the beauty of the Church of the Resurrection, where Alexander II was murdered by Nihilists. ‘All this grandeur is bourgeois vulgarity,’ she said, ‘and it was only to hoodwink the world that we Russians mourned the murdered man. As a matter of fact, we were delighted when he was killed.’
Finally, in the libraries at Tsarskoye Selo, she stressed the maps and the long rows of military books on the shelves. ‘Tsars, after Napoleon’s time,’ she said, ‘thought only of wars and Empire aggrandizement. Russia and its needs — education, hygiene, industry— were nothing to them, so long as they were the most magnificent monarchs in the world.’
As sight-seers, we were absolutely under the thumb of our fair guides; but as visitors we became more independent. And my party of four wanted to shop. There was no objection; and, with Miss Moscow, we learned how shopping is done in Government ‘Loot’ Shops. They are stocked with the débris commandeered by the State after the Revolution from the houses of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. But the one we visited might have been a jumble sale. We were at least two hundred tourist clients, and there were, at most, six saleswomen, and they spoke English indifferently. We snatched and grabbed like bargain fans at a summer sale; but eventually I succeeded in earmarking six imperially crested Wedgwood plates. And then the queues began. First, I had to queue up for my bill; then, in a different place, for another official to check the bill; next, farther down the shop, to settle the account; finally, with my receipt, I started again at the bottom of my first queue to get possession of my plates. Four officials were doing the work of one efficient salesman.
That experience taught us all we wanted to know of ‘loot’ shops. But we had not yet sampled ‘queue’ shops. We had seen scores of them; but in discussing them our guides had betrayed no irritation with the system. ‘The people can only go in one by one,’ they explained, ‘as each ration book has to be checked individually before anyone can buy anything.’ Miss Moscow, however, was less calm when we suggested joining a long queue outside a candy store. ‘It is impossible.’ ‘Why?’ ‘It is impossible.’ ‘We don’t see why.’ . . . Five minutes’ poste and riposte before she capitulated. Ten minutes later, we had our invitation from the Soviet shop manager to make some purchases ‘privately.’ ‘Privately’ in Russian does not mean ‘privately’ in English. With us in her wake, Miss Moscow bullocked straight through the queue. Thank goodness Russians are stolid. A low-town pit queue would have murdered us. But once inside we might have been buying candy at home, save that my two ounces of chocolate creams were filthy and cost half a dollar. But while we bought bourgeois fashion, the queue carried on Bolshevist fashion. Candy, it turned out, does not need ration books, and in turn the shoppers demanded at the cash desk whether the candy they wanted was in stock and at what price. If both answers were satisfactory, they passed what they wanted to spend over to the cashier, who gave them a coupon. With this token, they bought their candy at another counter. It all seemed a futile ‘much ado about nothing.’ But in answer to our torrent of questions, Miss Moscow’s replies were masterpieces of feminine evasiveness.
‘We have got used to them,’ she said. ‘To these people candy queues are no more irksome than theatre queues to you. In fact, many workers pass all their rest days queue-ing up. They only buy enough at one time to last them to the top of another queue; then they buy again and go back to the bottom of the next one — and so on and so on. After all, queues are grand places for gossip. Some, of course, buy to resell at a small profit; and others on commission for those who are too lazy to go for themselves. I, personally, never stand in a queue.’
I felt exactly like Alice talking to the White Queen; and although I have seen a Russian queue in action, all I can say about its working is that it is a good thing that the New Russian has such a strong queue complex.
During our three days, the Soviet fed us well and guided us brilliantly; but transport was not so uniformly satisfactory. We started well in Leningrad in a well-sprung government car, — there are neither private cars nor taxis in Leningrad, — and presumably, while we toured, some commissar who normally rode was, to his deep disgust, walking to his office. But in Moscow our cruel fate was one of the few private taxis in Russia. It had no springs, the windows would not open, and the engine functioned on the principle of dot-and-carry-one. Miss Moscow gave us no sympathy. ‘You are spoiled,’ she said, ‘with your money and your luxury. Here, taxis are utter luxury. We Russians never use them. We either walk or ride in trams which are run by a Department of State with very low fares.’
And further shocks awaited us on our last day in Leningrad. It was pouring with rain, and presumably the weather had given the commissars an excuse to demand the return of their cars. Anyhow, our last excursions in Russia were made in a hard-sprung bus, which was not only an agony but a peril. But our railway experiences were happier. The whole two hundred of us for Moscow had clean and roomy sleepers; the linen was fresh; and all the stories of things walking and crawling in our mattresses proved to be moonshine. But one lady had believed them disastrously. At Hels ngfors, she had bought a kill-me-quick insecticide, the whole of which she at once broadcasted over her cushions. The liquid was a virulent form of tear gas, and she and her very indignant daughter wept all the way to Moscow.
While I was in Russia, I found myself listening rather than looking; what I saw was of less interest to me than what I heard. Leningrad was the more depressing of the two towns we visited. The streets, mainly empty, were in shocking condition, with potholes as large as shell holes and mud inches deep. But they were in keeping with their surroundings. Slums succeeded squalor; genteel poverty succeeded slums; and over all brooded melancholy and despair. It was a tenement town. Plaster was peeling from dingy walls; drainpipes were rusted and broken; the glass in the windows was cracked and dirty; nothing had known the feel of paint for years. Shops were boarded-up caverns gaping on to the road; and in street after street those queues propped themselves patiently against the walls. ‘Ichabod’ was written black over Leningrad.
The centre of the town was less dead. There were trams; there were policemen and policewomen, both smoking; there was some horse-drawn traffic; and there was movement on the pavements. But, though the people looked sturdy and well-fed, my depression deepened. Their clothes, though possibly warm, were subfuse and ill-fitting, and I longed for a splash of color to relieve the general drabness. And there were no advertisements. Here, gaudy or crude, they would have been actually welcome. And it rained continuously, and the street walkers had no umbrellas. Leningrad was ghastly.
Moscow, after Leningrad, seemed alive — almost impudently alive. The streets were as bad, if not worse, and the houses cried as loudly for paint and plaster; but the pavements were crowded and so were the trams, the shops made some show of window display, and there were signs of building activity. Above all, the people seemed less drab and more virile. Many were in summer whites, and their linen was well laundered; and the inevitable crowd outside our hotel seemed somehow to convey almost a sense of superiority in their looks. ‘You may have fine clothes and any amount of money; but now, we can get on quite well without you, thank you.’
In one respect only did Leningrad take the palm from Moscow. The Oktober Prospekt is the only modernly paved Russian street we saw. Our first view of it was at night, as we were going to our Moscow train. It was brilliantly lit all down its three miles of straightness; it was crowded, and the shops, being closed, did not betray their nakedness. ‘Only at night,’ said Mrs. Leningrad, ‘when the lights are on can I remember that this Prospekt used to be the Nevsky Prospekt of my girlhood.’
I had been told for years what a terrible place Russia was, and having seen it, I do not at all want to live there. But when I am now asked how Russians behaved toward us . . . well, you might as well try to analyze the feelings of one cow toward another cow.
We were incidentals, not features, in the Russian landscape. Only once was there an incident of articulate hostility. We were standing harmlessly round Mrs. Leningrad listening to some explanation of a monument, when a country cart rumbled past. No sooner did the carter spot us than, in uncontrollable fury, he began to shout himself black in the face, and the air became so thick with invective that our chauffeur leapt from his seat and tore after the cart and took its number and the carter’s name. What the sequel was, goodness knows. Mrs. Leningrad confined her comment to the statement that such incidents gave tourists a bad and a wrong impression of Russia.
But another incident, in which I was the hero, completely blotted out all bad impressions of the carter and his oaths. When I got up to dress in the train from Moscow, it was streaming with rain and the carriage was cold. Drowsily, I seized what I thought was the lever of the heating apparatus. Instead, I pulled the communication cord, and, with a hiss from the Westinghouse brake, the train stopped. I was horror-struck. What would be the Russian penalty for ‘improper use’? Archangel? But in the end I thanked my lucky stars that I was in Russia, and that the guard looked and was as paternal as Hindenburg, and had a sense of humor. Although our only language was by signs, my pantomime, as I reconstructed the crime in my flannel pyjamas, was so ludicrous that the Hindenburgian traits relaxed and suddenly, to my great relief, the old Field Marshal was roaring with laughter. He whistled the train on and went to tell some colleagues the joke. When I was safely back on board our good ship, I wondered to myself what would have happened to me had I pulled one of Mr. Mussolini’s communication cords.