THE present willingness of the Russians to encourage thousands of visitors to travel far and wide over the Soviet Union is evidence of their pride in the country’s achievement and of a kind of effrontery in challenging comparisons between socialist standards of living and those of capitalism. And the fact that thousands of Soviet tourists are now allowed to visit not only the satellites but also Western European countries suggests a faith in the loyalty of their citizens which Soviet leaders have not hitherto manifested.
This effort is part of the Soviet movement since Stalin’s death to compete favorably with Europe and the United States in economic aid, in cultural activities, in education, in science, and even in sports. For these purposes the Iron Curtain has been removed. The Soviet Union is on display.
Intourist has already established business contacts with more than 150 travel firms abroad in some 40 countries, and it has set up its own offices in various cities of the West. Special inducements are offered to international congresses; the architects, the astronomers, and the Slavists held their meetings in Moscow last summer. In the main hotels and at the principal transportation points menus and explanatory directions are in French, German, and English, and sometimes in Chinese.
Acceleration in tourism began in 1956, and official Soviet figures for that year claimed 487,000 foreign visitors from 84 countries and 561,000 Soviet visitors to 61 countries (neither figure applies solely to tourists). Though statistics for 1957—1958 are unavailable, all indications are that tourism has greatly increased since 1956.
Tourism, a government monopoly
One does not arrive casually in Moscow to learn by trial and error the virtues of the Russian cuisine and the vices of the capital’s night life. Everything is efficiently arranged and superintended by Intourist: the granting of the visa, the length of stay, hotels, restaurants, guides, interpreters, transportation and tours within the Soviet Union, and currency exchanges. Even automobile tours in your own car must follow prescribed routes and make use of the guide and interpreter services of Intourist. Within these limits, however, the tourist has considerable latitude and is hardly any less independent than he would be in any other foreign country whose language he does not speak.
The reaction of the average American tourist to the Soviet Union these days is one of mingled pleasure and puzzlement. The American masscommunication image of the Soviet Union strikes him as a bit absurd in the face of his observations and experiences. Soviet officialdom is fully aware of the reaction of both Soviet tourists abroad and foreign visitors to the Soviet Union. It is of considerable significance therefore that these leaders seem bent on a further expansion of tourism.
Living it up
Although the Marxian economy of abundance is still a mirage, material goods are available in quantity and variety surpassing any previous period. An air of well-being and relative contentment pervades the throngs in the streets, shops, and public places in the principal cities.
Gorky Street in Moscow on Saturday night is almost festive. The brightly illuminated display windows of the best shops would do credit to those on Fifth Avenue. Swarms of shoppers mill about. Young men attempt to pick up girls. Sellers of soft drinks, ice cream, and hot cakes are everywhere. Restaurants are crowded with convivial citizens from all walks of life, eating large meals, drinking vodka and wine, and dancing to jazz bands. In an atmosphere such as this, with its capitalistic flavor, it is not surprising to read in the press complaints that Soviet businessmen, in the pursuit of high living, are guilty of overworking their expense accounts.
However, the mass production and the efficient distribution of high quality but inexpensive consumer goods continue to lag behind the rapidly developing tastes and needs of the populace. Purchasers still waste endless hours waiting in the stores. Often as much as a half hour is consumed in buying a single item after the customer selects it. But at least efforts are being made in large cities to speed up the preparation and distribution of food products. Slot machines vending eatables, soft drinks, and — curiously enough — perfumes have been introduced, and frozen foods have been discovered. Self-service stores and cafeterias are coming into vogue, and at long last the Soviets are catching on to house deliveries of essential staples such as milk, bread, and vegetables. Even whole meals completely cooked may be bought in some localities.
Though improvements have been made in wearing apparel since the understandably low point in the early post-war years, there is still an obvious lack in quantity, and the quality and styling remain rather shoddy. It seems surprising that a country which produces some of the world’s finest airplanes, scientific equipment, and industrial machines has not yet succeeded in the mass manufacture — to take one example — of attractively designed inexpensive cotton dresses.
Soviet women, like their sisters in capitalist countries, yearn for pretty things, and an enormous potential market for them exists. Last year the sale of furs to women, according to the head of the industry, increased almost 50 per cent. And at a fancy shop in Leningrad one may see throngs of women any day eagerly waiting to inspect the models or to be fitted for high-priced dresses or suits. In fact, this establishment has justly earned the nickname of “death to husbands,”for a tailored suit costs in the neighborhood of 2000 rubles and the average monthly salary of a husband is 750 rubles. Clearly, ready-made clothes, if attractively designed, would take care of the impressive demand more satisfactorily and more economically.
Though the evidence of the drably dressed people on the street belies it, there is really no lack of talent in brilliant fashion designing. At the regular fashion shows of GUM, the huge government department store in Moscow, one may see expertly modeled samples of the latest Soviet styles for men and women.
However, at each of these shows are some five hundred shabbily dressed spectators. To the strains of soft music they watch starry-eyed the parade of models, like Soviet Cinderellas wistfully waiting for the wave of the socialist wand that will one day bedeck them in this fashionable and expensive raiment.
The housing problem
Since the early years of the Soviet regime adequate housing has been a serious problem for the city dweller. The urban population has more than tripled since 1926, and even before the war vast numbers had to get along in no more than a single room to a family. The major resources of the country during this period were concentrated on building up heavy industry and agriculture. The immense devastation of the war intensified the housing problem: 1700 towns were either partly or completely destroyed, and 25 million people were made homeless.
The government, which has undertaken a huge program to remedy the lack, has announced that adequate housing for all will be available in from nine to eleven years. The extraordinary amount of construction which one sees everywhere in the major cities is evidence of how vigorously the program is being carried out.
In keeping with Khrushchev’s new plan for economic decentralization, the central ministries have been shorn of their prerogatives to undertake building operations. New local authorities in the big cities have their own building organizations, although a certain uniformity in function, design, and standards is maintained. The government insists that every priority be given to housing and has recently ordered a severe retrenchment in the construction of other categories of buildings.
Broadly speaking, two types of building operations in housing are employed. There are the huge state projects which aim to construct virtually se1f-contained “apartment cities. ” An example is the new Chereniushki District project in Moscow, which consists of 16 blocks of buildings designed to provide 75,000 flats. The buildings are four to five stories high (the skyscraper notion has been dropped as uneconomical in a country where space is abundant), and the construction is speeded up by the availability of many prefabricated parts, which are delivered direct from the factory to the building site.
When finished, this apartment city will include various food shops, a department store, restaurants, a laundry, a day nursery, kindergartens, a school for 900 children, a telephone exchange, storerooms, drying areas, pram sheds, a cinema, an open-air swimming pool, and other conveniences. Similar state apartment house projects are under way in Moscow and elsewhere.
In the second type of construction, the state provides the land free, but private individuals build their own homes with the aid of long-term lowinterest loans from government banks. Such loans, it appears, are also available to support the construction of apartment houses in which the individual flats are privately owned. It is estimated that 230,000 privately owned houses and apartments will be erected on this basis in 1958, and that over the next seven years some 6.5 million of them will be built.
Another interesting plan, designed to alleviate the congested conditions of large cities, is the construction of satellite towns not unlike those which have been built in some Western European Countries. Whole industries and their workers will be shifted from the crowded cities to these model constructions. Moscow’s first satellite town, Kryukova, is already under way and will be finished by 1963, and two more are in the planning stage.
Such vigorous and extensive efforts to solve the housing problem will do much to improve one of the most wretched aspects of the living conditions of ordinary Soviet citizens. However, a flat in Soviet terms still consists of no more than two rooms to a family, with bath and kitchen in addition, and this appears to be the standard in all the apartment buildings under construction. And though adequate modern comforts and conveniences are supplied in this new housing, one may well question the quality of the construction, if the rate of deterioration to be observed in structures only two to three years old is any criterion.
The young intellectuals
Among the young people, one observes encouraging signs of an intellectual ferment and a desire for new forms and content in artistic endeavors. They are disillusioned with Stalinism and eagerly reach back beyond him to the twenties, the only revolutionary and innovational period in Soviet thought and art. The accumulated impact of education — even Soviet education — has developed a more questioning intellectualism, and contacts with Western thought and art and even people have become more widespread. The Hungarian and Polish revolts have also had their influence.
These young people are not disloyal to the Soviet regime. They are proud of its accomplishments and are convinced of its future progress. They believe that the artists of a socialist society must express a reality and ideals and values which are different from those of a capitalist society. But they also believe that such expression can have validity and meaning only if the artist is free to create as his artistic conscience dictates.
These youthful artists, however, grow discouraged as their efforts are repeatedly rejected or distorted by the worried party hacks who control all avenues of artistic expression and production. When anything fresh and experimental gets before the public, it is usually a happy accident, though it often turns out unhappily for the artist.
Frustrated in their desire to treat contemporary reality in an original manner, some seek relief in individualistic treatment of themes of the past in historical novels, plays, and films. Outstanding products of these efforts are the recently released twoand three-part films: Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Aleksei Tolstoy’s Road to Calvary, and Sholokhov’s The Quiet Don.
Clipping the wings of genius
Even the limited success of this youthful intellectual and artistic ferment is reflected in the party’s campaign against it. For several months the press has been running numerous pieces on the duty of the artist to devote himself to themes of contemporary life and to recognize the role and inspiration of the Communist Party in all creative efforts. These editorials, which deplore the lack of original works of art and castigate the new crop of young artists for their failure to grasp the present and make it live in compelling images, reveal the old dilemma of the party: it first clips the wings of genius and then complains that it does not soar.
Khrushchev is aware of the part intellectuals and artists played in the Polish and Hungarian revolts, and the significance of the turbulent reaction of Soviet university students at that time was not lost on him. In several hard-hitting speeches to writers and artists he has harshly condemned the notion that there can be any freedom of artistic creation outside the directives of the Communist Party. The Pasternak incident is a case in point.
Khrushchev’s recent demand that the ten-year school period be shortened to seven or eight years and that all who aspire to enter institutions of higher learning must work for two years in industry or agriculture is a reflection of his anti-intellectualism in relation to the youth of the Soviet Union. The assumption is that hard work at the lathe or in the wheat fields will drive out the silly notions of freedom that have been incessantly cropping up in the younger generation. Indeed the fact that Khrushchev — if one may judge from his speeches — has now usurped the position of Stalin as the universal authority on the arts bodes ill for their future in the Soviet Union.