Russia As I Saw It!

What is life like in Russia? What is the average Russian home like? Here are the answers to these and a score of other absorbing questions concerning the land of the Soviets

FREDERICK E. ROBSON February 15 1932

Russia As I Saw It!

What is life like in Russia? What is the average Russian home like? Here are the answers to these and a score of other absorbing questions concerning the land of the Soviets

FREDERICK E. ROBSON February 15 1932

Russia As I Saw It!


What is life like in Russia? What is the average Russian home like? Here are the answers to these and a score of other absorbing questions concerning the land of the Soviets


ARMED with Soviet passports, English banknotes, American dollars, disinfectants, soap, food supplies, old clothes, cameras, letters of introduction, a Russian dictionary and open minds, my wife and I boarded the Soviet ship Smolny at the London Bridge docks. We were on our way to witness for ourselves the greatest economic revolution in history; to see for ourselves the Russian people, how they live; to find out what they are thinking.

For eight days we were to be aboard the Smolny, named after the institute in Leningrad which was Lenin’s revolutionary' headquarters and where Soviet was organized. Eight days of preliminary tuning in with the tempo of communistic thought.

To begin with, how was a Soviet ship run? This one was better than most cargo boats. Her upper deck had a lounge room with grand piano and gramophone. The dining room

was spick and span, with tables for forty passengers. The cabins contained two beds, a washstand. electric lights, an electric fan and a writing table. The deck below provided accommodation for the second-class passengers, for there are class distinctions, first, second and third, even on a Soviet ship in regard to cabins, but not in regard to food. For breakfast we got cold ham, Russian sprats, cheese, tea in a glass, black and white bread, sometimes eggs or wieners. Dinner: caviare, vegetable or fish soup, poultry' or meat, curd tart or fruit, and tea and bread. Supper: the usual black and white bread and tea. rissoles, meat or fish, fruit or pastry. Four o’clock tea: the inevitable tea in a glass, and biscuits—the food was all right.

What was different from other ships? One noticed* the lack of uniforms. Only the captain and the first officer wear uniforms, and the gold braid only goes halfway around the sleeve. Is that custom or Soviet economy? The thirteen young women who helped make up the total crew of thirtyeight wore simple cotton dresses with handkerchiefs over their heads; the men whatever clothes they possessed.

After a few days travel you realize that you have never heard an order given. Is this because of the social parity of officers and crew, or because of the Soviet (council) of the crew arranging the work among themselves? In the stem of the ship is the Red Comer—two rooms, reserved

for the crew, decorated with pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, red propaganda posters, a wall newspaper, and military instruction sheets which included a rifle with all its parts separately placed and described, and bombs and gases separately placed and explained.

The passengers consisted of English and American economists, professors, engineers, students, trade investigators, reporters and authors, several Germans and a negro from Liberia. Comer conversations consisted of opinions on the Soviet plan. What quantities of food could you take in? Did you need disinfectants? And there was the usual fund of humor, such as the story about the guide claiming 300 per cent increase in production of a Soviet factory, which afterward turned out to be making signs ‘‘Elevator not working.”

Neichevo—No Matter

ON THE evening of the eighth day, having travelled 1,050 miles from London, calling at Hamburg for cargo, we passed Kronstadt and nosed our way into Leningrad. At 10.30 p.m. we were told to prepare to disembark. Lights glimmered along the various shore lines, large steamers were busy loading and unloading, riveting machines kept up a continuous clatter. Somebody said,

“This is Sunday night, isn’t it?” and the reply came. “Yes, but not in Russia.” “They seem to be busy around here, don’t they?” “Yes, very. But remember, it’s the only worthwhile port they’ve got.”

The O. G. P. U. police came aboard, and went to the captain’s cabin. We sat in the smoking room. Midnight passed without inspection; 12.30, 1 o’clock, 1.30, 2 o’clock. T hen the captain came and simply said, “Good night,” and we all turned back to our cabins with our first lesson in Russian casualness learned—a lesson to be repeated many times later—the Asiatic temperament, neichevo.

We were called up at 6.30 a.m. and got ashore at 9.30. At the Customs House, the man in charge was a woman— as an Irish friend remarked. She wore a red handkerchief over her head and smoked a cigarette. Every piece of luggage was examined. Passports were marked with the amount of money each passenger possessed, number of camera, etc. Money was changed at nine rubles thirty kopecks to the pound, or one ruble ninety kopecks for a dollar, and a receipt given. You must not forget the official receipt or you can’t spend the Russian money except in the open market at very high prices.

By eleven o’clock we were through inspection and then we stepped out into Russia, wide-eyed and expectant. Russia—the country of communistic ideals and proletariat propaganda, where anti-religious and contra-capitalistic feelings are fanned into revolutionary fervor, where ignorance and ideals play hide-and-seek, where vodka oblivion is the only escaj>e from regulated state existence, where there are no blue Mondays or any other days in the week— simply a procession of time with a holiday every fifth day, where marriage and divorce are easier and take less time than changing a tire on a motor car, where there is a parity between men and women, where Marx, Lenin and Stalin have replaced the ten commandments with a worship of dialectic materialism.

In setting forth any observations concerning the Russia of today, it is essential constantly to bear in mind the following;

We are dealing with a country covering one-sixth of the world’s total land area, varying from the Arctic zone to semitropical latitudes.

A country of 182 different nationalities who were, until a few years ago, seventy-three per cent illiterate.

A country which is geographically, ethnologically and culturally the meeting ground of East and West, whose neighbors are Finns, Esthonians, Latvians, Poles, Roumanians, Bulgarians, Bessarabians, Turks, Persians, Afghanistans, Tibetans, Turkestans, Mongolians and Chinese.

A country where riches and elegant culture were the heritage of the few, and pitiable poverty and dark ignorance the common lot of the millions.

A country where religion and state had a joint control of the people that developed an utter corruption and the consequent repeated revolutions that culminated in the Red October of 1917.

Couple with these conditions the introduction of an entirely new and hitherto untried social reform which has to all intents and purposes practically:

Eliminated private enterprise.

Eliminated commercial competition.

Eliminated class distinction excepting for the class war against intelligentsia, independent farmers, clergy and. until recently, teachers.

Eliminated the days of the week, particularly Sundays, also Christmas and Easter.

Instituted a campaign which has practically effaced religion.

Eliminated wedding ceremonies, divorce difficulties,

trials by jury, etc., etc.

The new order of 2,000,000 communists, backed by its Red Army and 34,000,000 supporters, has conscripted the rest of the country of approximately 124,000,000 people. They are all working feverishly for the new socialism and world revolution.

In the building up of New Russia, or the Social Union, there are kaleidoscopic changes, new plans and contradictions in values that seem to necessitate continuous qualifications. This is well illustrated in learning the Russian language. In English, a table is a table or tables, but in Russian there are three genders, two numbers and six cases, thus necessitating the spelling of “table” in eleven different ways and the varying spelling of adjectives referring to the table. There seems to be about twelve ways of viewing everything concerning Russia.

I shall try to present a word picture of the places and things we actually saw, together with the comments of the people, and leave it to the reader to form his or her own conclusion. Figures and statements have been checked as far as possible, but must be regarded with such qualifications as would be applied to a country which has only recently emerged from revolution and is still in an intense atmosphere of war propaganda.


AN ENTOURIST motor whirls us along to the Europa Hotel. We are not fully prepared to find real roads and shops in this land of seeming unrealities, but there they areempty, straight cobblestone roads. What are all the large banners, white letters on red backgrounds? The guide translates: “Mobilize for action in the interest of Socialism,” “Shock Brigaders—forward to Communistic Victory,”

“Fight the battle of Communism,” “War against Capitalists.” Note the military spirit and phraseology.

A lorry-load of flour goes by, guarded by four soldiers.

The flour and the soldiers are owned by the State.

The four-story warehouses and shops still show evidence of the revolution. Windows are broken, doors are off their hinges, brickwork is crumbling. We have passed the Admiralty Building, the Technical School, Uritsky Square, and this is where the revolution centred around the Winter Palace, the home of the Czar, whose rooms are as he left them. Over yonder is where the peasants were shot down when they came to present a petition to the Czar. We pass the Red Army Arch leading to the Newsky Prospect, now called the 25th of October, and in a few minutes more we are at the Europa, for years the leading hotel in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad. We are shown to our room. It is large and airy, but the beds are iron. There are no pictures on the walls, no soap at the washstand, no towels. Towels will be brought later; they are liable to be stolen. There is no writing paper, and you must bring your own soap. The food in the restaurant includes eggs, white bread, cold chicken and fruit.

We go out and walk about the streets. The shops are dirty. The windows are cracked. The goods are grimy and faded, lights are dim. Everything repels rather than attracts. There are no advertisements because there is no competition. There is a shortage of goods. It is a privilege to be allowed to buy. Ninety per cent of all shop trading is in the hands of the Government Co-operative Association. Workers must buy from their own Co-operative. Tourists, or foreigners, must buy from Torgsin—a contraction of three words meaning trade with foreigners, controlled, of course, by Government. Torgsin shops are much the most attractive. You can only buy there if you show your receipt proving that you have changed your foreign money

into rubles at the bank rate of nine rubles thirty kopecks to the pound, and each purchase is recorded on your receipt and deducted from the amount you have left to spend. There are many opportunities of getting thirty, forty or fifty rubles for a pound from illegal traders, but you cannot spend the money in Torgsin because you wall not have any Government exchange receipt, which they demand. You could, of course, spend illegally exchanged money for a few items such as fruit sold on the street, postage stamps, etc., but use of such money is limited and no self-respecting tourist would break the law.

The streets are crowded with drably dressed workmen and women who stare at us. Despite the fact that we put on our oldest clothes, we are bourgeois, and we walk with a jaunty step. The Russian masses are stolid, curious, resigned and slow moving. If you want to collect a crowd, stop and read a letter. Soon you will have dozens about you trying to read the letter, too. Are they just curious, or does the community interest extend to personal letters? Almost everyone wore shoes and stockings even though they were often worn out, wrong size, or patched up.

Police—pardon, comrade militiamen—are on all important corners^ They all carry loaded revolvers, and have the right to impose and collect fines immediately. If you cross the road at the wrong place or throw papers or rubbish on the street, you pay. Along the 25th of October Street you sec the modem red, green and white light traffic control signals, although there is very little traffic to control.

Official Prices

'Y\7rE PASS many food queues, and our conversations *^ with the people indicate that there is an acute shortage of what we call everyday needs but what they may call luxuries—lard, sometimes tea, coffee, coal, clothing,

pins and needles, tape, elastic, etc. The food that you can buy easily consists of black bread, vegetables, and sometimes meat, eggs and butter. People will tell you they work far harder shopping than at their regular jobs.

Official rations, supplied as and when available, were in October:




Bread per day ......... 1.76 lbs.

Barley per month ...... 2.64 "

Meat per day ......... .44 “

Butter per month......44 to .88 lbs.

Vegetable oils per month .88 I« 2.2 11».

Eggs per month ....... 10

Sugar per month....... 8.3 lbs.

Ten per month......... .33 “

Light Manual Workers .88 lbs.

2.2 "

.22 "

.44 “

.4-1 to .55 lbs.

8.3 iiw.

.24 “


.88 lbs. 2.2 “






Official Brices at Co-operative Shops

White bread Rye ........

Rye flour ... Meat .......

Butter .....

Salt .......

Ten ........

Sugar .....

Potatoes . .. Milk ......

$0.08} per lb. .01} “ •* .04 " “

.02} “ “ .22} " ** .66 “ ** .57 “ “

1.43 ** “

.15 “ "

.01} “ “ .12 per litre

Open-market prices, which are paid if you are not a member of the Co-operative or if there is a shortage at the Co-operative:

Butter, 18 shillings a pound.

As and when available:

Bonds costing 10c. in Canuda would cost 87 in Moscow. Thin-soled boots, from $4.50 to $6 a pair.

Cotton suits, from $4 to $75.

Typewriter, secondhand, priced at $2,125.

Continued on page 30

Russia As I Saw It!

Continued from page 9

Street cars are terribly overcrowded. People are crushed on the cars in football scrimmage fashion. It is necessary to enter by the rear door and leave by the front door. The conductress stands by the rear door. Tickets cost 10 kopecks, 2f4d or five cents, any distance. If you are crushed past the conductress before you can buy a ticket, the practice is to pass your money back to the conductress from person to person or else ride free. It doesn’t matter much which you do. If a burly peasant crushes the wind out of you and you complain, someone will repeat the old, old joke: “Well, you know they haven’t got a private compartment for you yet. Wait till the Five Year Plan is completed.”

Everywhere, women are taking their places with men in manual labor—digging roads, plastering walls, loading carts, carrying heavy loads—and everywhere there are soldiers with fixed bayonets guarding property or standing in doorways.

At odd intervals there are beggars, usually bewhiskered old men making the sign of the cross. Gypsies seem to have lost their distinction, so many others are ragged. In side streets private barter takes place, in apples, melons, cigarettes and odd articles of nondescript character. Occasionally one sees a vodka drunkard lying in the gutter.

The general impression of street life is drabness, mass movement with a listless sort *of purpose; soldiers, more soldiers, limited traffic and crowded trams; book shops, broken windows and queues of people waiting patiently. We are permitted to go where we please unattended, and there is always some volunteer to answer questions.

Community Kitchens

COMMUNITY KITCHENS are operated to produce meals at a minimum cost— which they can obviously do—and to free women of their home ties to enable them to work in industry. We visited one of the five big community kitchens of Leningrad, each one serving 20,000 meals a day. In addition to these are many factory kitchens and apartment-house kitchens. We visited community and factory kitchens in many cities, but they are all very similar. Half an hour’s motor ride from the centre of the city, out in the factory district, where the cobbled roads were unkept and rough, we came to a modem cement structure with plenty of windows—-the community kitchen. Inside the entrance was a bookshop, for communists believe in plenty of food for the mind. But in this kitchen there was plenty to eat, even if it was only vegetable soup, black bread and occasionally meat or fish, tea and a sweet. The cost of the meal was forty-five kopecks (about twenty-five cents) to manual workers.

While they eat, they are forced to see the large red banner, “Work for the proletariat cause. War against the Capitalist.”

What about the kitchens—could we see j them? Certainly. We went into the room j where the vegetables were prepared. Auto| matic machines were peeling potatoes and j washing them. The attendant explained ; that they saved the peelings to make starch.

! Power sheers were cutting carrots, groups of j women sorting tomatoes. Then we went : into the butcher’s shop, (it being a meat day). The meat was neatly cut by twenty sturdy girls, wearing uniforms. In another room black bread was being sliced on an automatic sheer. Dish-washing was done by a power machine. In this department some of the girls were stockingless. The floors were wet, but as sculleries go this was a good one. With pride we were shown the laboratory where supplies are tested. The kitchen works twenty-four hours a day ; perpetual motion throughout the year.

There are hundreds of kitchens in other parts of the world that are finer, but this j one was tremendously impressive in a land so recently emerging from starvation. These kitchens are unique in providing care for the babies and children while parents eat,

and in the arrangements for sending out hot meals to apartments. Maybe thousands eat only one big meal a day, but the vegetable soup seems to keep them healthy. Here is a brief list of Russian food:

Khleb chorney Shchee

Kasha Bohr shell


Rye or black bread. Cabbage soup with other vegetables.

Boiled grain.

Vegetable soup with beetroot, served with sour cream.

Cold soup made of vegetables, fish, and Kvass.

Potato flour boiled in Kvass.

Looks like beer and is made from rye, sometimes from rye bread. Tea; usually served in a glass, when possible with a slice of lemon.

Another communal innovation that proved interesting was the rest home. Tens of thousands of homes of wealthy people have been taken over by the State in order to provide a place for workers to go for two or four weeks vacation or rest at the expense of the State, supplemented by the Trade Union Insurance Fund.

Our first visit to a rest home was to a palatial residence formerly owned by a rubber merchant in Leningrad. As we stepped inside the door we were surprised to see the carved hall seat, the mirrors and hat stand just as they must have been left by the wealthy owner. Priceless paintings adorned the inner hall. We were ushered into the gorgeous drawing-room, where one would ordinarily expect to meet a joyous reception, but instead of that there was a strange hush as if someone was dead. Sixty workers in drab dresses sat in silence. The men were wearing their cloth caps and were smoking cigarettes. They have a curious fashion of rolling up a piece of newspaper like a small pipe and filling the end with tobacco.

The huge, magnificent mahogany table was laid with heavy soup plates and hunks of black bread. The parquet floor was covered with the dust of honest toil from alien feet. The clock in the hall—which must have cost more money than all the sixty inmates earned in a year—still measured out the moments of fleeting life. The sixty souls, who have no doubt laughed at misfortune, seemed strangely afraid to move lest they should wake up and find that after all it was only a dream. They seemed overpowered by the luxury of their surroundings.

This ill ease may have been more apparent than real, however, for the two weeks sojourn in such palatial quarters is a sort of glorified episode about which the workers brag to their fellows back at the factory. This is particularly true of those fortunate enough to be sent to the Czar’s palace on the shores of the Black Sea, which now accommodates 1,400 workers each month.

Admittance to the homes is by way of a public clinic. These are attended by medical specialists and are to be found in all the larger cities. Any worker may go and have his or her ailments diagnosed free of charge. Whatever prescription is ordered by the examining doctors is made up free at the dispensary. If an individual is given a certificate by the doctor stating that he or she should be sent to a rest home or sanatorium, then that is arranged through their union. Workers are also sent to rest homes by their union on a vacation. The doctors, of course, are servants of the State, but they may conduct a private practice after they have completed their public duties.

Editor’s Note: This is the first article of a series on Soviet Russia by Mr. Robson. In his second article he will discuss children and schools, the system of marriage and divorce, trains and travel and the City of Moscow.