BLAIR FRASER . . . REPORTS FROM MOSCOW . . .
A great Canadian reporter tells UNCENSORED* what he saw
How Fraser’s story
eluded the Soviet’s censors
Since he began reporting from behind the Iron Curtain a few weeks ago Fraser has been sending us copy by air, cable
and by hand with friends or coworkers—often all three routes.
This article arrived from Moscow by air freight via Stockholm. It reached Maclean’s untouched by the Soviet censors.
At a cocktail party with Bulganin and Khrushchev
Watching trucks spew from a 40,000-worker factory
Visiting a 33-story university for 16,000 students and a one-room home for a family of five
Looking at women workers laboring under back-breaking hods of cement
The most revealing incident of my three weeks in the Soviet Union was the “exposure” of four self-confessed agents of the United States, a dramatic performance at the Central Journalists Club here.
It was announced as a press conference, but when we got there we found it was a live, threehour television show in which foreign correspondents were an unpaid supporting cast. The four principals were all Russians taken prisoner by the Germans during the war who had decided not to come home. They were not very prepossessing men; one admitted he had actually joined the German army to fight against his own country. All said they were recruited in 1952 by other Russian expatriates, trained at a special school in West Germany and sent back to thennative land as American spies.
Whether they really were U. S. agents I have no idea. They didn't sound very plausible as they spoke their lines, but turncoats seldom do.
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BLAIR FRASER REPORTS FROM MOSCOW continued
Blair Fraser’s own photographs, flown direct from Stockholm, give rare glimpses of everyday Russian life in Moscow
However, the interesting points in their testimony were not the ones the Soviet government wanted to stress.
One was the date of their capture. This was omitted from the press reports next day, but all four told the television audience they gave themselves up to Soviet authorities by January 1954. They had been living quietly for more than three years without a word said about their treason—one, in fact, said he had pretended to go on working for American intelligence until that very moment, sending false information provided by security agents here.
Why were they being exposed now, after this long silence?
There was a clue in the instructions they said they had from U. S. intelligence forces. Among their duties:
To fabricate slanderous and provocative letters to Soviet newspapers, about the life, work, connections and behavior of prominent Party and government officials.
To disseminate within the country, particularly among the youth and the intelligentsia, provocative rumors slandering the Soviet way of life and the social system.
To pick out morally unstable persons expressing discontent with the Soviet system, recruit them and organize them into underground groups.
K. I. Khmelnitsky, the one who said he was still working as a counter-espionage agent, added this:
“During the Hungarian events in October I was instructed to be ready to move to the Bryansk woods, with the people I was supposed to have recruited, in order to begin intensive subversive activities on a signal from the American intelligence service.”
This television show is not the only evidence that Communist leaders are now dismayed and alarmed by the criticism which, in the first days of “the thaw” that followed Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin last year, they allowed and even encouraged. Neither is it the only evidence that the events in Hungary and Poland, even in the cautiously edited versions published in this country, have caused a profound shock among the Soviet people.
Shortly before Christmas, a professor at Moscow University went to address a student discussion group. It is customary at these meetings for the students to write out their questions to the speaker, who then picks out the ones he wants to answer.
On this occasion the professor shuffled through a stack of questions with mounting indignation:
“Poland . . . Hungary . . . Poland . . . Hungary ... I am not going to deal with these questions. I shall talk instead about the cult of personality.”
According to one of the few non-official Russians I have been able to meet, even the official version of the Hungarian revolt has caused some unintended reactions among Soviet citizens. One, which he had found especially among women, was: “They say our soldiers are going to protect the Hungarians from the Fascists. Why should we send our sons to be killed for the Hungarians? What have they done for us?” Another, slightly more sophisticated variant of the same feeling: “Why are we in the Soviet
Union handing out aid to everybody in India and Egypt and so on? Look at Hungary. Look at all we've done for Hungary, and still they back up a Fascist revolt the first chance they get.”
But long before the rebellion in Hungary and the near-rebellion in Poland, there were already signs of lively discontent in the Soviet Union. About a year ago, a Soviet literary magazine published in serial form a novel called Not By Bread Alone, by V. Dudintsev. It is the story of an inventor who, working on his own. perfects a new industrial tool, a vast improvement on the old. He is frustrated, systematically and implacably, by a bureaucrat named Drozdov.
The name Drozdov has already become a common noun in the Russian language, as Babbitt and Pecksniff and Shylock have in the English. He is the arch-type and symbol of the ever-present Communist bureaucracy which, it now appears, is just as unpopular in the Soviet Union as a Westerner would expect it to be in the West.
Dudintsev's novel created a tremendous sensation which has not yet died down. Ever since I have been here, and for at least three months before, it has been under a steady barrage of criticism in the official press. “Discussions" of it appear in the literary papers every week, letters from readers which all. by an odd coincidence, damn the book as pessimistic, defeatist and not truly representative of Soviet life or “Socialist realism.”
The unpublished reaction to Not By Bread Alone has been quite different. Students have held meetings about it in Moscow and in Leningrad and no doubt in other cities too, and the meetings have been tumultuous.
One such meeting was attended by the author Dudintsev himself, who seemed almost alarmed at the tornado of approval and agreement his novel had brought forth. (He has reason to be alarmed. The story was to have been put into book form, but it has not yet been published and the three magazine issues that carried it have become collector's items here.)
No sooner had the speaker finished than the students took control of the meeting. Their “questions" were really speeches, far more fiery and daring than anything Dudintsev had said. His novel was merely a text for their own denunciations of bureaucracy, their own scorn for tame-cat apologists and party cliches, their own demands for an experiment in real democracy —“popular control from below.”
It is not difficult to get eye-witness accounts of these meetings—or at least it was not. until lately. Moscow University alone has hundreds of foreign students. Not all are from satellite countries, and even among the so-called satellites the Poles, for one large group, are healthily outspoken. Recently, I understand, steps have been taken to exclude foreigners from some of the livelier aspects of student life, but they don’t seem to have been very effective.
How widespread these attitudes arc among the Soviet population, how deeply they have penetrated the mass of the people, is another question that no transient and few resident foreigners are competent to judge. The visitor gets no more than the barest glimpse of the life of this country, and he has to strain for that. In some ways the Soviet Union seems even more mysterious after a brief visit than before. At
breakfast the other day, in a dining room that looks out on the Kremlin wall and up a short block to Red Square, a British reporter joined me who has been here many times and speaks Russian quite well.
"Whenever I reach the point of thinking 1 know something about this country," he said gloomily. “I run into some little incident that shows 1 know nothing at all."
The evening before, at a theatre, he had got into conversation with a Russian girl who stood beside him in the checkroom queue.
“Why are you coming to this play?" she asked. "It’s the worst in town. You're a foreigner. you can get seats to anything, and there are two plays running that are really good.
"At least. 1 haven't seen them myself." she went on, “but all the newspapers have attacked them. That always means a play is good."
Aha! thought my friend; here is one of the
people we’ve been reading about, the cynical, skeptical, disillusioned youth. As they talked on he became more and more sure of it. She told him of the poor quarters she had, the hard work she did, and how she was studying at night to be something better than her father, a postman. Quite casually she mentioned that her parents were married in 1937 and that she was born six months later—“so you see." she said tranquilly. “I was just an accident.”
But then, by some turn in the talk, the name of Joseph Stalin came up. For the first time the girl showed indignation.
“I don’t care what they say," she said. “I've had a picture of Stalin hanging over my bed ever since I can remember. No matter what they write about him now, I still think he was a good man."
My British colleague sighed: “What am I to make of that?"
The visitor who speaks no Russian is protected from this sort of conundrum by the warm, cozy blanket of his ignorance. Intourist, the Soviet government travel agency, does what it can to preserve this insulation by taking care that the traveler shall have as little contact as possible with the Russian people.
He isn’t necessarily cut off from the higher officials, or even the
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Blair Fraser reports from Moscow Continued from page 13
“Some of the Soviet leaders’ most spectacular utterances result from alcoholic exuberance”
very top. In my first three days in Moscow I was invited to two huge official receptions, one at the Czech embassy and one in the great white-domed reception hall of the Kremlin itself. Khrushchev, Bulganin and their whole entourage were there, and I was able to watch the extraordinary routine that they go through with foreign correspondents.
Tables loaded with food and wines are arranged in a kind of horseshoe near one end of the reception hall. Inside and below this horseshoe are herded the correspondents and other hoi polloi, minor officials and the like. As they munch and sip they may goggle across the table at Khrushchev, Bulganin, their cabinet colleagues and honored guests, and sometimes—but not always—the diplomatic corps. (Qther times the diplomats herd with the commonalty.) Security police, who don’t bother at all to be unobtrusive, see to it that the sheep and goats remain separated until the sheep (if that is the right word for the Kremlin’s high command) decide otherwise.
But at a given moment, usually after an hour of eating, drinking and speechmaking, the great ones may come out from behind the table and mingle with the crowd. Instantly, each becomes the centre of a tight little circle of reporters. There is no nonsense about this being a social occasion—it is understood on both sides that it's an interview at which reporters take notes and photographers take pictures. But the atmosphere is informal. and the Soviet chieftains use this opportunity to deliver from time to time their famous “off-the-cuff" remarks.
To gauge how seriously these remarks should be taken, you must know whether or not the speaker was sober. Khrush-
chev’s fondness for the bottle is notorious, but Marshal Bulganin, for all his courtly appearance, is a heavy drinker too. At a recent dinner for a visiting prime minister he got so drunk he had to be assisted to his car at the end of the evening. Probably some of their more spectacular utterances may be put down to alcoholic exuberance. But, drunk or sober, they give the foreign correspondents rare flashes of fun, and occasional human interest to leaven the rather bleak, dry staple of news from the Soviet capital.
Intourist has nothing to do with these contacts, one way or the other. All Intourist tries to do is keep the traveler away from casual, unscheduled, unrehearsed chats with the ordinary citizen of the Soviet Union.
Not that there is anything so crude as open surveillance. Intourist just arranges everything for you. that’s all.
Before you can get a visa to the Soviet Union in the first place you must present what they call your “travel documents” — a book of Intourist coupons covering all the major expenses of your stay. For thirty dollars a day (the top price, but they won’t sell anything cheaper to a person traveling alone) you get a large room in one of the best hotels, all your meals, twenty-five roubles a day for pocket money, and the use of a car, driver and interpreter-guide.
Should you prefer to elude Intourist, hire your own taxi and your own interpreter if you can find one, eat at restaurants of your own choice with Russian diners-out, you may do so. but your expenses would probably run to a hundred dollars a day. Money can be exchanged here only at the official rate:
four roubles to the dollar. At this rate of exchange you pay five dollars for a small laundry, very poorly done, and S3.50 to have a suit pressed. Postcards are thirty-seven cents each. In practice, therefore, the visitor has no choice. He must take the meals, the car, the interpreter that Intourist provides among its prepaid services.
Intourist will arrange many interesting. valuable trips. Any museum, public park, ancient church or other such place of interest can be seen at a moment's notice. Intourist will get you seats at the Bolshoi Theatre, seats for which the average Russian must queue for hours and pay a day's wage apiece, and there you can see the finest ballet in the world. Absolutely superb—even Sadler's Wells cannot touch it.
I was taken also to such modern showpieces as the new Moscow University, finished in 1953 after only four years’ construction. Like all public buildings of the late Stalin period it is an architectural horror, a thirty-three-story skyscraper festooned with spires and steeples and gingerbread, but inside it is a fine, bright, well-appointed building. Here natural science is taught to abou¿ two thirds of Moscow's twenty-four thousand university students. Here, too. about half of the out-of-town science students live in excellent dormitories. Each has a small bright room to himself, shares a bath and toilet with his next-door neighbor. (The rest are still in old-style dormitories of the barracks type which I asked to see. but have not seen yet.)
Intourist also took me through a factory where fort>* thousand workers make a hundred thousand trucks, four hundred and fifty thousand bicycles and eighty thousand refrigerators a year. The trucks are close copies of American World War II models, presumably lend-lease, but they look durable enough. Much more hand labor is used than in a North American plant, so the assembly line moves more slowly; otherwise the operation looks modern and efficient.
As a special favor to a visiting journalist, Intourist set up a number of useful interviews too: talks with Soviet journalists, with university professors, with the nice, helpful, earnest ladies who work for VOKS, the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.
What it won't do is put you in touch with a Soviet family, help you see inside a Soviet home, give you any notion how ordinary Russians live. Intourist has orders (one of its workers finally admitted to me) to show the visitor a certain range of objects and nothing else.
The other day, when some arrangement had fallen through, I proposed going down anyway and trying to see my man without an appointment. Intourist made objections; I insisted. Finally
the manager told me, reluctantly but firmly, that I was not allowed to do this.
“You are our guest.’’ he said, "and you cannot just go wherever you like."
Of course 1 could, and in some cases did. make my own appointments with no Intourist aid. What I could not do was go without an appointment at all. I would not have got past the door.
Offices here are government buildings, and government buildings have police guards to repel unauthorized callers. At lass, the Soviet news agency, everyone,
employee or not. who goes in or out must show the constable a pass with his picture on it. (This is a special document in addition to the ordinary internal passport, also with photo, which every Soviet citizen must carry at all times.) At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the door is guarded not by a mere policeman but by four commissioned officers of the security troops, the MVD's private army.
I still don't know what is the object of all this secrecy and caution. If it is designed to blind the visitor to the har-
sher aspects of Soviet life it is a failure. Nothing can hide the fact that life in the Soviet Union is very hard indeed.
Nowhere, even in Arab countries, have I seen such heavy work done by women as in the Soviet Union. In the foundries women swing heavy mallets. Along assembly lines women push great trucks full of parts, trucks that at home would be motor-driven. The clean streets of Moscow are kept so by gangs of women sweeping, chopping and shoveling all day. On construction jobs, which go on throughout the winter here, the cement
is mixed and the hods carried by women.
These outdoor female laborers wear high canvas boots over their swaddled legs, grubby grey-white aprons, grey quilted jackets. Wool kerchiefs are drawn around their grey faces. They all look old, and as sexless as a colony of worker ants. It is a shock to perceive, when you look at them closely, that some are quite young and might, in other circumstances, be pretty.
They must work because the average man’s earnings will not support a family. Wages here are low.
An ordinary office worker gets eight hundred roubles a month, which is exactly the price of the cheapest ready-made suit in a city department store. A factory worker, semi-skilled, would earn about the same. College graduates might start at a thousand.
These are the better-paid people. The legal minimum in Soviet industry is three hundred roubles a month. When it was raised from two hundred and twenty, last January 1, the increase cost the Soviet wage fund eight billion roubles and affected about six or seven million wage earners.
No one can live very lavishly on that money. There is no evidence of real hunger in the Soviet Union—not in the big cities, anyway—but there is plenty of evidence of poor nutrition. The doughy complexions, the pale flabby cheeks tell their own story: too much starch, not enough protein.
You need only look in at a food shop to see why. Meat is about twenty-five roubles a kilogram, almost a day’s pay for an office or factory worker, two days’ for the lowest-paid laborer. Evidently it cannot be a daily item in the average family diet.
However, the shops do have plenty of food. The long queues that you see at the counters appear to be caused by Soviet bookkeeping methods rather than by any actual shortage. (It takes ages to buy anything.) Also, even though the clothing is expensive and shoddy in appearance, everybody seems to be warmly clad, nobody is in rags. I haven’t heard of any serious complaints by Soviet citizens about either food or clothing.
Housing is another matter.
Soviet housing is a disgrace, and the authorities know it and are ashamed of it. The first thing 1 requested when I came to the Soviet Union was a visit to a housing project with someone who knew the facts and figures. Ever since, it has been promised vaguely for “tomorrow or the next day.” Today, my
seconYl-last in the Soviet Union, I finally got to see a half-built apartment house, but I was not at all surprised to find that the housing expert who was supposed to come with us couldn’t come.
The new apartments look fine; nothing fancy, but good bright fiats of one, two and three rooms, the larger ones with their own kitchens and bathrooms. What I could not find out is how many such flats are available to Moscow citizens, and who gets them.
To see the more typical Moscow dwelling, all you have to do is take a fiveminute bus ride in any direction from Red Square. Then, walking along the sidewalk, you can see, through their open, faintly steaming windows, oneroom basement apartments with two. three, sometimes even four beds in them. Some may have running water, others have a pump out in the yard or a community tap in the street nearby.
By a stroke of luck Í was invited into one such dwelling. 1 didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was; I have since learned that a foreigner can live here several years and never see the inside of a Soviet home. The authorities discourage it, and F can see why.
This was a room maybe twenty feet long and ten feet wide. In it live five people of three generations, grandmother, parents and a young sister, and a fouryear-old boy. A gas stove out in the corridor is shared with the family next door. The room itself has a wash basin. A line of child’s laundry hung diagonally across it at the time F was there.
This particular family is unusually fortunate in that one corner is partitioned off into a small cubicle, big enough to hold a double bed. The little room has neither window nor door, and its wall is just one thickness of board, but it is at least a kind of gesture in the direction of privacy.
The apartment F saw was one of about forty one-room flats in a five-story building, a solidly constructed block that dates back to czarist days. It looks as if it has had no maintenance since. Paint is peeling off the walls of corridors and stair-wells, bricks have fallen out here and there. The stairs are lighted, but not the corridors. For the ninety-odd people who live in the block there are two toilets, both in appalling condition. The building does not contain a bath or shower of any description.
By Soviet standards these are not slums. My host, whose name I do not know, is a white-collar worker apparently of good education. The people going in
and out of such dwellings are relatively well dressed. I watched one little boy walk home from a food shop—a bright, clean youngster in well-pressed grey flannels and neat warm coat who disappeared through the front door of as dismal a looking house as I have seen in downtown Moscow. (The log shanties on the outskirts of tou'n are something else again.)
1 don't want to exaggerate. These are not the worst slums in the w'orkl. 1 have seen worse in Karachi, among the refugees of Pakistan, and in the squatter settlements of Hong Kong.
But Moscow is a modern city and the Soviet Union boasts of being, and is. the second industrial power in the world. Most of the best buildings were put up before 1917. but some are new. Even the famous Moscow subway, with its splendid marble chambers which seem almost a heartless extravagance to one who has just been looking at Moscow homes, nevertheless shows what the Soviet Union can do in the building trade.
Housing is as bad as it is. not because the Soviet Union cannot build better, but because housing has had a lowpriority in Soviet planning.
Western observers suspect that the Soviet people realize this. They think perhaps the mistake that is now openly admitted in Hungary and in Poland, the mistake of trying to build heavy industry w'ithout enough concern for human welfare, has also been made in the Soviet Union itself.
So maybe the attempt by lntourist to keep the visitor and the people apart has really an inward rather than an outward purpose. Maybe the idea is not to keep the foreigner from talking to the Russians, but to keep the Russians from talking to the foreigner.
The Oliver Twists want more
They seem to want to talk to foreigners, when they are let alone. Here in Moscow, of course, foreign tourists are relatively commonplace and attract no notice, but even in Kiev, itself a capital city and a tourist town, you find a difference. People are interested in the mere presence of an outlander, and try to make contact with him. Visitors who are lucky enough to have traveled in the Soviet interior say that the difference is more marked, the farther away you get from the beaten track.
1 have been told by others, and my own small experience confirms, that the questions put by Russians often follow the same pattern. First they ask how things are done in Canada or the U. S. in their own trade, whatever it may be. Then they ask about houses: what kind of dwellings do we live in? How' many square metres per person? (All housing statistics here are in square metres. The idea of a dwelling unit, a self-contained home for each family or a room for each person, is not yet even a dream in the Soviet Union.)
During most of my stay here the Supreme Soviet, the parliamentary body which is nominally sovereign in this dictatorship, has been in session over at the Kremlin. The speeches tend to resemble each other. They contain lots of praise for the Powers That Be and a certain amount of self-praise, then a certain amount of criticism, not too severe, and finally a plea for more help from the central authority for the speaker's own region. The criticisms and the appeals for help are mostly alike—complaints about bureaucratic delays and obstruction, requests for higher living standards and some of the amenities of life.
Apparently two hundred million Oliver Twists have suddenly begun asking
for more. and. God bless them. I hope they get it. These are friendly people. (Astoundingly friendly when you consider what they are told every day about the Anglo-American Fascist-imperialist wolfpack, but that subject deserves a separate article.) They positively exude warmth. With the sole exception of the security police at the Kremlin, as ugly a set of men as 1 ever laid eyes on. 1 haven’t met a single Russian who wasn't likeable, cordial, helpful, a kind of personal host on his country's behalf. I don't think anyone could visit the Soviet
Union without developing a feeling of affection, admiration and pity for these strong, good-natured folk.
But we of the West have more reasons than mere altruism for hoping that the Russians will begin, at last, to get a decent living from their Soviet state.
Phis is a powerful, competent nation well able to do anything it really wants to do. anything it thinks important. If the rulers in the Kremlin decide it is good policy to do so, they could give their people a better life in a very short time.
But they can't do everything at once. They would have to divert some of the energy that now goes into international Communist empire-building. Despite the cruel setback in Hungary, despite the new freeze-up that succeeded last year’s "thaw'' in the Soviet Union itself, it is still possible that they may do so. It is even conceivable that they might do what they say they want to do: launch upon a great world-wide competition with the West in the advancement of human welfare, a race in which nobody could lose. ★