I Saw in Russia—

JAMES H. PRICHARD March 15 1931

I Saw in Russia—

JAMES H. PRICHARD March 15 1931

I Saw in Russia—

A Canadian records his observations of everyday life in the land where Communism wrestles with the famous “Five-Year Plan”


This is the first of two articles by James H. Prichard, of Prince Edward Island, former secretary of the Canadian National Silver Black Fox Breeders’ Association, who recently completed eleven months service under the Soviet Government in connection with the establishment of the fox ranching industry in Siberia. Mr. Prichard’s headquarters were at Cedanka, a village lying twenty miles to the east of Vladivostok, terminus of the Trans-Siberia Railway. In his articles he gives the readers of MacLean’s the benefit of his observations of present-day living conditions in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under the terms and application of the Five Year Plan of Economic Reconstruction.

STRETCHING inland from Vladivostok, along the entrancing Golden Horn Bay for a distance of from ten to thirty miles, are long, wide stretches of sandy beach, broken here and there by clusters of overhanging trees and colonies of moss-covered table rocks, drenched and cooled by breakers that dash endlessly against them.

It is the summer playground for the toiling population of the Siberian metropolis, a gladdening source of relief from the overpowering heat radiated by rough cobblestoned streets and sweltering factories, docks and offices. On any rainless day during the four and a half months of summer, when the mercury registers from eighty-five to one hundred in the shade or even hotter, the “dashe”—local trains—are filled to capacity, and the highways leading from the city dotted with men, women, youths, girls and small children, singly and in groups, in all manner of attire, making their way by the most convenient means available toward their goal.

Most of the latter are on foot—Russians think nothing of a ten-mile walk—a few in horse-drawn vehicles, others speed along through the kindly disposition of a chance motor-truck driver; and they seek out their favorite nooks, stretch themselves on the hospitable sands or join in games or raucous horseplay. Some indulge in the utter indolence of sun-bathing, while many, with a short brisk run, plunge into the surf that roars incessantly against the shore, throwing up showers of spray, glistening against the background of the robin's-egg blue of the Sea of Japan.

Privacy a Luxury

THERE are no elements of commerce at these Vladivostok beaches—nor at any Russian beach, for that matter—no blaring bands, no vendors of novelties

splitting the air with shrill cries, peddling toy balloons or fans, ice-cream cones, candy or hot dogs. But against those problematical advantages there is considerable unrestrained consumption of Russian beer, wine and vodka, which, before the sun has gone down, have done much to enliven the day’s outing Occasionally one comes across a small kiosk dispensing limited supplies of cigarettes and cheap mixed candies on production of ration books, and there are one or two tawdry pavilions where Russian younger folk may dance to really excellent music provided by state musicians. But one can find no dressing rooms, shower baths, easy chairs, mirrors, rugs and other attributes of luxurious privacy like those available at any of our better known Canadian or American watering-places. There are none of these things now. They live only in the memory of prerevolution days when the Vladivostok beaches were as Coney Island. They now have regained their naked pristine grandeur, unstained by any hallmark of con venience or medium of profit.

Luxury and privacy are terms of mythology these days to the standard Russian citizen; to wish for things proscribed and unprocurable is to think in terms of indifference to the great Five Year Plan—Pyatiletka, as it is called in Russian—and as for privacy on a public beach, such a thing is regarded as an outlandish paradox, and there prevails most off-hand disregard of those considerations which to the puritanical Anglo-Saxon spell ordinary propriety. Many women perhaps sigh

for bathing caps for purely utilitarian reasons, but since such an item is classed as a luxury their interest abruptly ends. A few bathers make some concession to our idea of modesty, but the only person who feels any serious qualms is an occasional unsophisticated foreigner.

Scanning the beaches from the elevated ground about the village of Cedanka, a community of about 3,000 people where is located the silver black fox ranch in my instructional charge, one would think every day was some sort of holiday or else there were a great many unemployed in the Far Eastern region of the Soviet domain.

The first speculation would be nearer the mark. Each succeeding twenty-four hours is a period of freedom for a certain proportion of the population and it is fixed by roster. By the new Russian calendar, a week consists only of five days, and there is no equivalent to our Sunday. Every employed person works seven hours daily for four days, and the fifth is his or her own to devote according to desire within the limits of facility and opportunity. Vladivostok has a normal population of about 160,000 and there are no unemployed. So, making a small subtraction for housewives and small children, one may estimate for one's self what proportion each day is seeking means of diversion.

For F,xport Only

FACTORIES, workshops and offices hum with activity in the city and outlying communities during the prescribed hours throughout the Russian week, each individual a small cog in the great machine that is working out the plan of reconstruction evolved by the Solons of Moscow. To understand the whys and wherefores of the present intolerable living conditions in Russia and Siberia, it is necessary to have at least an elementary idea of what this economic campaign involves and an appreciation of the object in view.

If any Russian citizen were to sidle up to a shop counter any shop, anywhere in the land of the sickle and hammer -throw down a few roubles and nonchalantly ask for a can of salmon he would draw, allowing for varying dispositions, either a shout of ironic laughter or a sour scowl. In neither case would he obtain his can of salmon. In lieu, if his ration books were not overdrawn for the day, he might be offered a small measure of red caviar, a square of black bread, a little brick, two by four inches, of compressed tea which looks like a plug of old-fashioned black chewing tobacco and perhaps, with luck, a handful of candies. But canned salmon! Under the Five Year Plan such an item is an exceedingly choice luxury.

An equivalent proposition would be roast turkey and applesauce at one of the soup kitchens for unemployed in New York. It makes no difference who the customer may be; the regional superintendent of the TransSiberia Railway would fare no better than a train hand or any other humble worker. If any Russian had roubles and darin-; enough to try to obtain any banned article by process of bribery he would likely draw bullets instead, for bribery is a capital offense. Any shop clerk could quite easily be affiliated with Ogpu—secret police. i

It isn’t because there is no canned salmon in Russia or Siberia. Indeed it is produced in great quantities. Last year the output from the Kamchatka Peninsula, north of Vladivostok, alone was in excess of one million cases. But not a can of it found its way to a Russian shop shelf or family larder. Every ounce of it went abroad to compete with and, because of the communistic method, drastically undersell our own Canadian product.

What is true of canned salmon is the same with every other similar line; every commodity indeed that this vast organization of 150,000,000 people can produce. Everything is coming out into the channels of world commerce and nothing going in except machinery and gold, the former to intensify, double, and yet treble the already staggering

output, and the latter to pay for still more machinery and remunerate the host of technicians, advisers, machinists and instructors brought in from all the countries of the world to assist in the gigantic scheme. An array of

figures could be cited, but at best they would be only speculative. There are few items of human need and usefulness of which Russian energy and ingenuity are not placing a counterpart on all foreign markets.

Cotton fabrics, even, are coming out of the Russian state of Georgia in embarrassing competition with

One of the blast furnaces at the great Stalin steel plant, one of the mainstays of the Five-Year Plan. In circle: The lighter side of life in communistic Russia. A May-day scene in Moscow.

the spinners of Lancashire. But only the barest quantity of bare essentials is retained for Russian consumption.

Everything is for export; there is absolute prohibition of imports. An individual may not write abroad for a packet of pins with any prospect of getting it.

The Five Year Plan—now two years in operation—

One reason for the decline in wheat prices. Russian wheat ready for shipment from the interior to the seaboard. Russia has few elevators, hence the handling of wheat in sacks as shown in the above photo.

has created conditions of extreme restraint in a land of plenitude. Every article of use is sparingly rationed, and the only virtue is that all share alike, saving the distinction between a manual worker and an individual

in what we call “white collar” employ. If Russia were in a state of siege on every front by hostile armies and navies, the disciplining of the people to endure hardships could not be more thorough. On the contrary, if we are to use the analogy of warfare, the Russian people are mobilized in army corps of industrial and working battalions for a stupendous “push” with the entire consuming world as a battlefielda fight to a finish in which the ammunition is not bullets and shells but manufactured articles, finished products, cereals, minerals, fuel and food stuffs at rock-bottom prices. In a country where everyone labors for one employer—the state, which owns the vast resources of raw materials and the facilities of transport, the factories, tools, machinery, and where the wages paid go back to that single employer—there is a minimum of overhead.

The biggest item of overhead is represented by the wages paid out by the state—barely sufficient for the essentials of life that the state itself sets apart for consumption during the operation of the Plan and which are distributed at a slight margip above cost. There is little left to the employee for other purposes .such as amusement and diversion, or for the purchase of such elements that escape the ration books. If an individual can manage to save a few roubles here and there, he is at liberty to hoard them in a stocking or deposit them in the state bank, which allows the liberal interest of ten per cent, or, as another alternative, invest in the occasional government loans. To encourage the latter the government sometimes attaches a lottery with the highest prize at 50,000 roubles.

According to the rate of exchange set by the Soviet Government, a Canadian dollar is worth one rouble, ninety-five kopeks. For one month’s labor, an ordinary manual toiler, the pick-andshovel man, is paid the minimum wage of sixty roubles, or $30. The scale works up to the maximum of 250 roubles a month, or $125. This amount would be the princely emolument of, say, the head of the TiansSiberia Railway—a startling contrast, to say the least, with the $8,250 a month received by the president of the

of the Trans-Siberia also draws $125 a month, so does a divisional head, or any chief of a Russian department, office or factory. The foreman of the Cadenka fox ranch is in the same category.

Here it might be pertinent to observe that any of these positions are open to women. In the communistic scheme of things there is absolutely no distinction between the sexes in the economical and political senses. In my particular bailiwick there were six young women studying the fox ranching industry, and I have found others in most unusual occupations, such as officers on ships and as skilled mechanics in factories.

Although Pyatiletka entails enforced sacrifices of the direst kind by the individual Russian and his family, to say that it calls for total abnegation would be wide of the mark. It would be wrong to say that every Russian is a labor conscript. He is no more compelled to work than is any Canadian; nor is he in theory obliged to work at all if he

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I Saw in Russia

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doesn’t choose to. But if he doesn’t work he doesn’t eat, and that is axiomatic everywhere. Further, there is nothing to prevent Alexis or Nicolai, or whatever his name may be—or Anna, for that matter—changing the means of livelihood as often as he or she desires. And that liberty is freely exercised. Again, there is no restraint of movement, with the exception that Moscow might close any given area for a period for some special reason. Within the latter limitation, a Russian may travel the entire length and breadth of the country or shift the scene of daily toil at will. It is merely a question of the size of his bankroll. But the Russian with any surplus cash for such indulgence is a rarity, and most of the travelling is done at the expense of the state in connection with the shifting of labor.

In the last analysis, the choice of an occupation by a Russian youth of either sex narrows down to personal tendencies and predilections. Alexis must find all the reward that is coming to him in the mere satisfaction of achievement; certainly there is no prospect of material compensation. If he has any ambition — as we gauge that quality — he might as well forget it. Reaching adolescence and looking about for a suitable career, Alexis is confronted with the inexorable fact that all his talents, all his acumen, energy and enterprise, must be placed at the service of the state in one form or another until old age gains him a pension or until he dies and inherits an atheistic grave. No matter what he does or accomplishes he cannot look forward to a better standard of life, more comforts and luxuries than the next lad. If he be chosen to manage the local branch of the state bank he will be no better off -than his duller friend, Nicolai, who may reach the dizzy pinnacle of head man in the neighboring liquor shop. Should he develop into a great scientist or physician, having burned the midnight oil to achieve such status, he will receive no better food to eat, no better or more stylish clothes to wear, nor a more comfortable bed to sleep in than the foreman of a broom factory. His ration books will get him even less, for the foreman is a worker and Alexis suffers the disadvantage of being an intellectual. Whether the rationing system will end at the conclusion of the Five Year period is problematical. It will depend, no doubt, on the measure of success.

Spirit Willing, Larder Weak

"ROOD and other rationed commodities,

which, with one or two striking exemptions, constitute everything a Russian at present has any right or hope to acquire, are distributed through a system of government co-operative stores, and a citizen may make his purchases only at the store on which his ration books are drawn. There is one book for bread alone, and a second, covering all other necessities, including clothing. If a holder should move to another locality there is a method of transfer, fairly expeditious. The only privileges I enjoyed as an imported servant of the Soviet Government were that my ration books were honored at any store I cared to patronize and that they called for a slightly superior apportionment. Throughout my entire eleven months residence under the chaperonage of the Moscow regime I was treated with every courtesy by the officials with whom I came in contact.

Russians, I was quick to discover, have a pronounced gregarious nature. They delight in companionship, and the present rationing of food is in violent conflict with their inherent tendencies. It has made visiting in the homes of friends a matter of much delicacy. Visiting implies hospitality, and there are no people to my knowledge so much inclined that way. But if the spirit is willing the larder is

weak. I have been in many homes and have lounged before many hearths. At Cedanka I had particularly intimate friends, a household where I heard feeble attempts at English. After much persuasion I was able to convince them that my occasional appearance did not necessarily call for an immediate production of all the eatables and drinkables in the house, and the relationship thus became much more comfortable.

At other times, under other roofs, I was not able to assert any such condition for my presence. Often it was somebody’s birthday—an elder person to whom memories and traditions still are sacred—and the way was cleared for communistic whoopee. It seems to be a point of honor when these Russians are entertaining, especially when there is a foreign guest, to pool everything in the shape of viands and liquids the cupboards can produce and dish up the nearest possible approach to a feast. They don’t seem appalled by the spectre of famine on the morrow.

A casual glance at the rationing list will give some idea of just how heavily laden the supper table would look at the best of parties. A worker is entitled to twentyfour ounces of bread daily at an equivalent of one and a half cents a pound, and on every second day he can purchase three ounces of meat. It may be beef or mutton and an occasional portion of poultry. Two pounds a month is the limit for sugar, and when there is a shortage the store, in lieu, offers a supply of mixed candies to serve the purpose, and the candies are used in their tea in the same way we use loaf sugar. If the flavor of the candies should be wintergreen, then they serve wintergreen tea, and so on. One-quarter of a pound a month is the individual ration of tea. procurable in the compressed form or sometimes in a package.

Other essential items of food are dispensed in the same proportions, but there is a noticeable absence of many ordinary foodstuffs that we regard as staple groceries. A Russian may dream of pies, cakes, fruit, etc., if it will give him any satisfaction; that is the only time he ever sees such things. Raw herring is an inevitable dish, served in small pieces as a sort of hors d'oeuvre, and occasionally the table boasts some smoked salmon. As for milk, a family is permitted to keep a cow if they can get one, and provided they sell the surplus milk to their co-operative store. Otherwise the unfortunate animal won’t get any feed. Potatoes are rationed according to the current supply. Each individual is entitled to purchase twentyfive cigarettes a day, but I have never seen cigars, and during the last three months of my stay there was, to my knowledge, no tobacco.

The twenty-four ounce bread ration was specifically cited as a worker’s share, but if the head of the house should be, say, a professor at one of the universities, he may draw only ten ounces of bread a day and he is “penalized” in varying degrees right down the list. And diverting a moment to the subject of clothing, unless Alexis toils with his hands for his bread, he is not entitled to the worker’s privilege to draw free from the government store every six months a pair of heavy top boots—a felt-lined pair in winter—and a heavy goatskin-lined overcoat every two years.

Liquor Not Rationed

rT'HE only things I can recall of any importance that are not rationed “for the duration” are cosmetics and liquor; the former concession, which includes perfumes, being one of the few points of acknowledgment that there actually is another sex with different shibboleths, preferences and sensibilities; and the latter a tacit admission that prohibition

or undue restraint would create a bootlegging problem that the authorities could not begin to cope with.

There are three kinds of liquor in which the Russians mostly indulge—native wine, brandy and vodka. The government shops in Vladivostok and surrounding communities open at nine a.m., and long before that hour a queue forms, composed largely of people just beginning their day’s vacation. The scene, with the exception of the motleyness of the crowd —there are Chinese and Koreans in the line-up—is not unlike that witnessed frequently in Toronto or other Canadian cities. About three hundred usually are waiting to be served when the doors open for business, and trade is brisk throughout the day until closing time at four p.m. During the period when the new military drafts are being called for training the liquor stores are closed for two weeks. There is no limit on the extent of purchase, and for the best wine, a threequarter litre bottle costs the equivalent in roubles of about $3.50, brandy runs to about $3.00, while for a three-litre bottle of vodka—-the favorite beverage and also the cheapest—the price is $3.50.

Russian hospitality, if it falls short of their own ideal in the matter of gorging food, makes up the deficiency by liberality in the matter of liquid refreshment. Teetotalers are few and far between. The birthday parties I have witnessed or attended as a guest usually became quite lively before the evening was far gone, and more than once I have seen the host or hostess taking the lead in the old Russian custom of smashing the crockery and glasses—despite the fact that Pyatilelka makes replacement either impossible, or at any rate very expensive. Russians become very exuberant or deeply emotional under the influence of vodka.

Such episodes in any one Russian ménage are infrequent for the most obvious reasons. Probably one a year, as things are, is about all any family budget could stand, unless one of its members scores in a government lottery. As for myself, one glass of vodka a year is ample. About fifty per cent overproof, it has an immediate and fearful reaction. The Russian home may brighten up and life take on a more roseate hue while such a merry evening lasts; the drab, grey dawn seems far away. As a race they are inherently artistic and musical after their own bizarre fashion, and in their singing and dancing their emotions carry them away into almost an orgy of abandon. When the leopard is able to divest himself of its spots, then, and then only, will communism be able to change the Russian nature.

Living on Promises

r“PHE background and scenery of these

occasional frolics, the shoddy, timeracked dwellings, hutments and sometimes near-hovels are kept scrupulously clean and tidy, according to the Russian standard. Considering that the monthly allowance of laundry soap for each individual is only one bar, it is really a marvel they are able to keep their homes at all fit for habitation. But no amount of scrubbing could hide the dismal and seedy condition of the interiors, lacking as they do either repair or replenishment since the revolution. The furniture invariably is rickety and not without hazard, the walls cracked and worn, tableware in varying stages of dissolution, pots and pans bearing up under old age and constant use, and the floor coverings, if any, curtains and bedding in tattered decay. One has to look in the poorest quarters of any of our larger Canadian cities for counterparts of the average home in Russia.

But the inmates, as a general rule, strive to keep up appearances to the highest possible notch, and with the rationing system carried to the length of limiting housing space to six meters square per person, it struck me that each individual was bent on doing his or her propor-

tionate share in keeping the family flag flying. For the accommodation allowed, the maximum rent payable to the government is about seven dollars monthly.

In point of personal cleanliness, I found the Russians, as a general proposition, equally circumspect. Domestic facilities are very primitive, the best available in Vladivostok being nothing to boast about, and in the country communities often totally lacking. But every district has its public washing house, where Alexis and Anna can always find a supply of hot and cold running water, and may even, at some places, enjoy a Turkish bath. The majority of men now are clean shaven; the long, unkempt, ferocious-looking beards of pictorial tradition survive only in the limited instances where orthodoxy still is defiant, or in cases where advanced age makes the use of a razor a dangerous or difficult operation.

A razor, indeed, is a prized possession, carefully guarded and cautiously honed. Rarely is there more than one to a family, and sometimes it is shared by a half-dozen men. Its loss or impairment would be a neighborhood calamity. Once, having occasion to seek out one of the ranch students, I found him at the cottage at which he was billeted making a fairly good job of removing an accumulation of hirsute adornment with the blade of a carpenter’s plane. He explained ruefully that one of the youths of the house, called up for military service, had carried the only razor in the vicinity off to the cantonment, forty miles away. There are thousands upon thousands of razors, open blade as well as the safety variety, made in Russia—but try to buy one.

My student friend was very sparing with whatever he was using to create the necessary lather. Toilet articles are as difficult to obtain in Russia as anything else, and although toothpaste was procurable when I first arrived in the country, the sight of a tube now would create a near riot. In lieu, a sort of chalk powder is available.

The people I have in mind are representative of the middle class, to whom we would refer in Canada as the backbone of the country, the pillars of our own social and economic system, not the squalid, illiterate type, products of the Mongolian or Korean dives, or the half-bred dregs of humanity many people associate with Russia and Siberia. These I am thinking of are average Russians, professional or artisan, everyday humans with everyday sensibilities, hopes and yearnings, highly intelligent, discerning, proud but tolerant. I saw little in their family life to distinguish—other things being equal—from the ordinary household in Ontario or Saskatchewan. A striking revelation was the paternal Russian’s fondness for his children and anxiety for their welfare. Eleven months spent among them on terms of the closest intimacy that a very faltering command of the language would permit has given me some insight into their deeper thoughts and their reactions to the hardships the great Plan has imposed.

The great majority, I believe, are impressed with the prophecies of Moscow that Pyatiletka will triumph and with the declarations that it has already more than half-achieved its goal. Victory and success, the teeming millions are told, will mean the end of privation, the vindication of Communism and the beginning of an era of comfort and plenty.

But one does not have to be a psychist or mind-reader to perceive that during the process stolid endurance and brave fronts veil deep resentment and perpetual heartburning. It is only your zealous devotee of Communism as a religion, who, in my opinion, accepts things as they are as a glorious concession to the doctrines of Lenin and Marx.

Editor's Note.—This is the first of two articles by Mr. Prichard on life in Communistic Russia. The second will appear in an early issue.