BACKSTAGE

BACKSTAGE

THROUGH SIBERIA WITH BLAIR FRASER

April 13 1957
BACKSTAGE

BACKSTAGE

THROUGH SIBERIA WITH BLAIR FRASER

April 13 1957

BACKSTAGE

THROUGH SIBERIA WITH BLAIR FRASER

IRKUTSK

MY seat-mate on the flight from Moscow to Peking is a Pole. As we approached this bleak and desolate town near the Outer Mongolian frontier, where sixty below zero is a commonplace winter temperature, he said casually: “My wife’s grandmother and aunt came back from Irkutsk only last year. They were exiled here for nine years.”

Exiled for what offense?

"I don’t think there was any particular offense, none that they knew of, anyway. They were sent here in 1947, and in January 1956 they were allowed to come back. The grandmother is eighty-three and she can no longer see, hear or-walk.”

How a political thaw affects a land of outcasts How Canadian exiles found Communist “security”

Later, talking of something else, he remarked: “My father-in-law worked for the Communist government-inexile, in Lublin, during the war. However, he happened to be in Vilna at a time when the Russians were arresting people on the street. We have had no news of him since then.”

The proof of how much things have changed in Poland, since Gomulka and his "national Communist” government took over, is that this man is now on his way to Indo-China as a Polish delegate to the international truce commission there.

His presence on the commission will be a nice change for the Canadians. Whether the Communist VietMinh will like it so well is another matter.

THEY LIVED AN HOUR BEHIND THE WORLD

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The million-odd citizens of Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, surely deserve to rank among the world’s most patient people. For thirty-eight years until March 1, 1957, the clocks at the east end of Novosibirsk have been one hour faster than the clocks at the west end. The Novosibirskivites have not complained—or if they have, their complaints were inaudible until recently.

The disparity began in 1919 when the commissars of the new regime in Moscow mapped out time zones for their vast and (at that time) virtually empty territory. They took some of the larger rivers, and in other cases simply meridians of longitude, as the boundaries at which standard times would change. The commissars, of course, neither knew nor cared exactly where the new boundaries ran, or what they might happen to divide.

One such time-zone boundary was the River Ob, which runs right through the middle of Novosibirsk. The inconvenience that resulted for the people of the Siberian capital escaped Moscow’s attention until last winter. Now the time boundary has

been shifted, and all of Novosibirsk is on the same time.

I got this information out of the Soviet press before leaving Moscow, not from firsthand inspection of Novosibirsk. Like most Siberian towns it is a forbidden area to the ordinary visitor, and can be visited only with special permission.

At the airport this morning I got an idea why this prohibition is imposed. All the way across tire vacant Siberian plain I wondered why anybody ever goes or stays here of his own free will, on vast lonely collective farms that are sometimes five days by tractor train from the nearest settlement. Now I think I know the answer —nobody does. Not of his own free will.

Chatting with the interpreter during our one-hour stop, I asked him how long he had been in Novosibirsk. Eighteen months, he said. Did he like it?

The young man colored a little, and looked sideways.

“That is a very difficult question, sir,” he answered discreetly. “You see, I come from Leningrad.”

THEY CAME TO RUSSIA FOR A STEADY JOB

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Speaking of exiles, I had lunch on the day I left Moscow with two more young ex-Canadians whose parents had been “repatriated” to their native Russia.

Until then 1 had supposed that all these repatriates fell into one of two categories. There were the dedicated Communists, who had come back to the Socialist fatherland and hadn’t yet lost their illusions. And there were the non-Communists who bitterly, and with anguish, wished they had not come.

These boys belonged to neither

group. They are not Communists, nor were their parents when they were in Canada. The father came back to the Soviet Union not for political but for economic reasons. According to the boys, he doesn’t regret it and neither do they.

They agree, of course, that the standard of living is lower in the Soviet Union than in Canada. Their father makes much less money at his factory in the Donets Basin than he did in Hamilton, Ontario. However, money isn’t everything. Security counis for more with some people, and they say he feels there is more security here.

“He has a job today and he knows he will have it tomorrow too,” one of the sons explained.

The father had gone out to Canada in 1927, married another Ukrainian, and set up housekeeping just in time for the Depression. First in Winnipeg and later in Hamilton he went through the grim ordeal of looking for work when there was no work to be found. During the war, of course, there was plenty of work in artificial and temporary conditions. After the war the plant remained busy for some time.

Then came 1949, the one postwar year when employment in Canada turned really bad. The boys’ father was laid off, and remained jobless for nine rfionths.

When he got a job again he began saving his money for an ocean ticket. In 1951 the whole family went back to the Ukraine where he was born, and where he now works in the pattern shop of a machine factory. He earns only nine hundred roubles a month, which in Canada would be a starvation wage, but he works twelve months a year, every year. He likes it better.

As for the boys, they are neither enthusiastic nor discontented. They

complain about things in the ordinary, unemotional way that is commonplace m Canada but not so commonplace, I would have thought, in the Soviet Union. Housing, they agreed, is terrible in Russia — they admitted the parents might not be so contented in their native land had they not been unusually lucky in getting decent living quarters near the factory where the father works.

In Moscow the boys are studying at the Institute of Foreign Languages. Both are married; their wives are also students. On balance, they don’t feel they are worse off than they would have been if they had stayed in Canada.

They do say, though, that things have vastly improved in the Soviet Union since they arrived five and a half years ago.

“In Stalin’s time it was really rugged,” they said. “Nobody dared to say a word, because you never knew whom you might be talking to. Now it’s different. People say anything they like now, and nobody is afraid any more.”

“NOTHING IN THE RED WORLD IS BOTH BEAUTIFUL AND NEW"

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Russia’s good products, though few, are very good indeed, equal to the best in the world. Their second-best things are not second-rate but fifthrate.

In one field, at least, they appear so far to have produced little but the fifth-rate—that field is the artistic. Apparently there is absolutely nothing in the Communist world both beautiful and new.

Ballet is one thing in which Russians have always led the world, and as performers they still do. I saw a presentation of Giselle in the Bolshoi Theatre last week that was entrancing, utterly delightful.

But I also saw, in Leningrad, the new ballet Spartacus by the Soviet Union’s well-known composer, Aram Khachaturian. Gorgeously costumed and lavishly staged, something after the manner of Cecil B. DeMille, it gives a Hollywood-type version of the gladiators’ revolt in ancient Rome.

In the main it is a sanctimonious bore. There is an interval in the third act when vice has a temporary triumph, and the Russian dancers get a chance to show what they can do, but the rest of it contains very little dancing beyond the capacity of a junior ballet school in Toronto. It is not, in fact, a ballet at all so much as a dramatic pantomime, conceived at the artistic level of a comic book.

Altogether it is a depressing evening, not just because the ballet is poor, but because you feel it has mediocrity imposed upon it. Khachaturian is a talented composer, and there is nothing the Russians don’t know about ballet.

This heavy, humorless, remorselessly literal moralizing, pounding home for four hours the message that slavery is a Bad Thing—this is not Russian, it is Communist. It’s all of a piece with the Moscow statues and the Pravda editorials and “Socialist realism” generally. All originality is blighted.

It will be easier to feel tolerant of communism when the day comes, if it ever does, when someone is allowed by a Communist regime to create one thing of beauty,