Russia As I Saw It
FREDERICK E. ROBSON
Workers holidaying in the Czar’s palace— co-operative farming—shoemaking in Kief —smells in Tiflis—and the author’s reactions
FROM Stalingrad to Rostof is a long train journey through the fertile wheat belt. We were going toward the Caucasus, and so were hundreds of other passengers who travelled on the bumpers. They were beggars and homeless children going to the semitropical latitudes south of the Black Sea. Passengers shared food with them, and there was a general spirit of cordial feeling all round. From Rostof we motored out fifty-three miles to Verblud, the State farm of 422,500 acres which has as its neighbor another State farm of 500,000 acres.
We left Rostof, crossing the Don River on a rickety floating bridge, then proceeded on a winding dirt road over the undulating black wheat lands. En route we stopped to see a dairy farm belonging to the Rostof Co-operative Society. Their cows seemed of average standard, but not properly looked after. They claim to market the milk at fifty-two cents a gallon.
“Don’t you think that individual farmers take better care of their cows, which are known to them by name?” we asked.
“Perhaps so, but individual farms are more or less a thing of the past.”
There are three kinds of collective farms, which now represent fifty-seven per cent of all the farm areas—the commune, the artel, and the co-operative. There are 3,252 State farms.
PVN the commune farm, land, cattle, horses, chickens, everything is held in common. The families so united number from fifty to 500. Food, clothing and all needs are bought in common and distributed according to agreed needs.
The Stalin commune near Saratof comprises 400 families. They work together, eat together and share all advantages together. It is said they are progressively prosperous, owning twenty tractors, 240 horses, ninety-eight camels,
700 sheep, 300 cows and 150 pigs, as well as chickens, ducks, etc. They till and harvest 15,000 acres. Families wishing to join the commune must spend six months on probation. Families or individuals may be
expelled from the commune. It is said that nine per cent of the land is under the commune system.
The artel, or common form of collective farm, represents seventy-three per cent of the land held collectively. The average artel group is seventy families, or about 325 persons, and the average land area for each artel is about 1,000 acres. Families may live separately if they wish. They may, indeed, have small holdings of their own outside the collective farm.
After the harvest has been sold, deductions are made from the general fund for seeds, new machinery, taxes, insurance pensions, reserve, etc., and the balance is divided according to work done. Last April the Government advised the collective farms to allow five per cent profits to be divided as a compensation among individuals who brought cattle to the collective farm.
The co-operative society farms are part of the general co-operative plan of profit sharing, plus a larger financial backing than the artel. The private farmers are constantly harassed to join the collective farms, which are given extra privileges such as credits, machinery or lower taxation. The State farms are operated by the Government for the purpose of example and education in production. Wages are paid in the regular way. Verblud Farm is under the direction of an American. The farm is operated by 450 men, and in addition they teach 600 students how to operate tractors, which wheat is most productive, and how to get the best results. The offices are very businesslike. They contain specimens of various kinds of grain, graphs, charts and photographs, together with plenty of agricultural literature. They have a wide range of machinery, which is tested to find which kind stands the strain of Russian conditions.
The average crop yield on the State farm was said to be nineteen bushels an acre, the cost of harvesting and delivery to the railway fifty-seven cents per bushel. The State farms are highly mechanized and the work is carried on day and night during the harvesting period; the result
being that 500 men are getting the same productive results as 5,000 men under the old Russian system. The question is, will the State and collective farms replace individual farming?
The Hlack Sea Coast
PROM the State farms we journeyed through to ■*Vladikaukaz, the entrance to the Georgian military highway through the Caucasus Mountains to Tiflis. It is here we meet with the stalwart Caucasian mountaineers, wearing fur hats, long coats and picturesque cartridge belts. Then there are Persian traders, Armenians, Kurds and Turkestans. The Caucasus Mountains shelter many strange tribes. There are women who will not let their husbands work, husbands who make their womenfolk sleep with the cows and goats, tribes that still believe in witch doctors We pass strange villages with huts clustered one above another on a hillside, the inmates of which have isolated and insulated themselves against the modern world. Following the bed of the Kura River, we finally roll into the ancient City of Tiflis, whose history stretches back 1,600 years.
Tiflis is semi-tropical and, being only a few hours journey from Persia and Turkey, it combines the habits and customs of both those countries. The maidan (bazaar) is dying out, but you still may photograph strange mountain peasants squatting beside a goatskin filled with the most repulsive cheese you ever saw or smelled. The curious wagon passing along the market square represents a harem on holiday. The heavily clothed Kurd with a rifle over his shoulder looks like the model for a bronze statue. The flies that gather on the ripe berries and overripe cheese make your next meal impossible. Around the comer are the famous steam baths, but. oh ! the sordid people that crowd around. You could'stay in Tiflis for weeks as far as interest is concerned, but secretly one longs to go north again. Tiflis is brilliantly lighted by electric power generated at Zages on the Kura. A hill high above the city is a popular retreat, but tne north is calling.
We journeyed back to Batum by rail, with the warning that all windows and doors must be locked as the railway could not be resjxmsible for robberies in that district.
Along the highway at Krasonaya Polyana we saw the tobacco farms, tea and tangerine plantations and plum orchards. By the railway runs the fifteen-inch pipe line that carries oil from Baku to Batum. At Batum we see the minarets of the Mohammedans. The quaint old city
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has lost its vigorous commercial glory. From there we took a modern Soviet ship around the Black Sea, stopping at the famous resorts of Sochi, Gagri, Sukhum and finally Yalta.
The ship was crowded with proletarians on holiday. Over 100,000 workers are constantly in residence in the lovely homes of the former wealthy class. The Czar’s palace, seven miles out of Yalta, shelters 1,400 men and women on a month’s vacation who a few years ago never got away from their own village. The country surrounding Yalta is indeed delightful. Cloudcrowned, imposing mountains have sheltered slopes on which are vineyards and cooperative tobacco plantations. Imported cypress trees stand in stately rows by ruined villages that flourished a hundred years ago. One could spend months in unravelling the shadowed past.
We take the sixteen-hour ship journey to Odessa, that thriving Black Sea port noted for its mud baths, cinema studios, ojerc house, churches, buildings, sanatoriums and rest homes.
ON ALL the cobbled streets we see panades converging toward the main square—4.000 children with banners and flags. They are celebrating the fact that their teachers have been given food cards and an increase in salary by the new Director of Education. One is tempted to linger in Odessa, where the opera is magnificent and food seems better and more
plentiful than in other parts of the Union. Six years ago it took ten days to travel from Odessa to Kief, and then only in sardine fashion in a freight car or perhaps on the roof of the car. Today you may travel in comparative comfort in a sleeping car in ten hours.
Kief is referred to as the mother city of Russia. Leningrad is regarded with respect, Moscow with official interest, and Kief with love. Christianity entered Russia through Kief 1,000 years ago. The Lavra monastery contains some of the most beautiful churches in the country. We enter through a magnificent gateway enriched by famous paintings. Directly ahead we see the golden domes and multispired church. In bygone days this church controlled 52,000 serfs— men and women who were owned body and soul by the church. In the eleventh century the monastery developed catacombs similar to those in Rome. We walked for hours through these underground passages, where saints occupied coffins in secluded niches in the walls. Our guide related that in Czaristic times peasant pilgrimages were made to worship the imperishable bodies of former priests. Under the influence of these mystic surroundings fear was turned to faith and faith to fidelity to the church, so the Soviet endeavors to destroy fear, faith and fidelity by showing tliat there is no mystery.
The said-to-be-imperishable saints have perished. So says Soviet. There are no saints! Apparently great reverence and
faith were attached in the minds of the masses to the imperishability of the body. We recollected the magnificent tomb of Lenin in Moscow and the perfect preservation of his body. Was this a strategic plan to turn the faith of the masses from “perishable religion” to “imperishable revolution?”
We leave the creepy, cramped catacombs and the glorified churches of the dead past, to see the activities of Kief of today. We find ourselves in a shoe factory where they produce 11,000 pairs of shoes every seven hours. Not very good shoes, but shoes nevertheless, to sell at $5 a pair. The foreman said they had produced 1,600,000 pairs of shoes. The factory was of ferroconcrete. It was well lighted, and the machinery was modem.
The 3,000 workers looked much the same as do those in a shoe factory of Leicester or Monti eal despite the fact that 400 of them were communists. The special features of the factory consisted of a crèche for looking after the children of the workers, parity of pay for men and women, the wall newspaper giving records and activities of the workers, the Red Comer or club with records, graphs and instruction on Soviet aims and propaganda.
In this factory the pay runs from sixty to 150 rubles a month, that is, $30 to $75 a month. We said we thought there was a parity in wages.
"Oh, no,” we were told. “Wages vary from sixty to 1,000 rubles a month. The
highest paid service is that of an expert engineer or technician. Supposing you and I worked in the same factory. You are an engineer and get 800 rubles a month, I am a manual worker and get 100 rubles. You would apparently be eight times better off, but that difference is only apparent..”
Suppose we work in Moscow. We may only be able to get our nine square metres of space. If more is available, you will pay eight times as much for it, because your pay is eight times more. In regard to food, we each have a food card and are entitled to the same allowance of exactly the same quality of food. If you want any more, you must buy on the open market at very high prices. For example, butter at the cooperative is thirty-five cents a pound and on the open market anywhere from $4 to $6 a pound. Clothing is very hard to get. and members of the Udamika get first opportunity. So your extra wage is not such an advantage as in other countries.
Then, suppose you save money, what can you do with it? There is no opportunity to speculate, to invest in stocks or property, but there is urgent opportunity to give it to the Government and get eight per cent return. There are no brokers, no stock exchanges and no private trading, so you must be patriotic and leave your money with the Government One of the aims of the Soviet is to prevent all private speculation, and no individual may make money on anyone else’s labor.
It would need a large book to record the
details of all the industrial activities and it would be out of date in a very short time, so we will leave the industrial situation with this brief general explanation of affairs and the statement that the Soviet says there is no intention on its part to compete with other nations industrially. True, they have sold and are selling wheat, oil, confectionery, fish, jam and fruit; often at less than cost They say they are selling these things in order to get foreign money to buy machinery to make their country independent of the outside world.
AS WE stood on the deck of the Kooperetzia, bound for Hull, England, and saw Leningrad fade into the mist, we were conscious of a sense of freedom and relief. Life is a terrible strain in Russia, with its monotony of food, drabness of drqss, and incessant, insistent propaganda.
What is our opinion? What is our reaction to Soviet Russia?
Religionists say no country can live without religion. Engineers say the Russians are not mechanical minded. Economists say they are actually doing the impossible. Philosophers say we have much to learn from their experiments. Practical business men say: “Why don’t they prove their case in their own country? Sending out propaganda or agitators to other countries is a mad idea and hurts Soviet itself most of all.” You may be interested in the observations of fellow passengers, who include world renowned economists, writers and professors of philosophy. They say, in effect:
“Perhaps we can learn something to benefit our own country. If so, let us do it. Thousands of our people are out of work, many in urgent need. Our capitalistic system has either overproduced or else failed in proper distribution. We must stop the craze for speculation and the protection of companies which in recent years exploited the public by overinflated public stock issues. We must pay more attention to human standards and less to gold standards. This docs not alter the need for stabilized international exchange, which is imperative if agreements are to be maintained.”
Then come these questions:
Would we want to live in Russia? Certainly not, but ask the same question in fifteen or twenty years time. How would you describe the present form of government in Russia? It is State capitalism and applied socialism. Will it succeed? It is likely to endure, but success is a term qualified by individual opinion. The operation of certain Soviet principles will probably be successful, but in the process of operation so far many patients have died.
Is religion dead? Can it be resurrected? Public expression of religion is nearly dead in Russia. The oncoming generation is definitely anti-religious. History indicates tliat as material needs are secured the natural tendency is toward higher ideals—a
religion of some kind. W'e are too close to the urgent need of material things in Russia to judge the spiritual future.
Can we learn anything from Russia? Yes, if we can eliminate party enmities and make public benefit the sole objective of service and expenditure.
We need a “Five Year Plan” or a period plan of some sort.
Nothing in the Soviet Union is so tremendously impressive as the individual knowledge of State affairs and the flame of enthusiasm for public achievement. Can we create the same interest and enthusiasm for our Government?
One of the difficulties in suggesting a five year plan is that it has in the public mind some sort of association with Russia, and that is enough to damn it. So let’s call it a “prosperity quota.” It is just as logical and helpful to have a quota for a government—the people’s business—as it is to apply this modern development plan to any private or company enterprise. If we have quotas, are they known? How many people have even the foggiest notion of the public services now rendered or their cost, or how such services can be made more useful or cheaper?
We need to utilize the radio to stimulate public understanding of public affairs. We need charts, graphs, photographs and material displays all over the country, in public places, clubs, post-offices, parks, etc. We need objectives presented in a “flesh and blood” manner that will command public interest. There is not the bond of understanding and working unity there should be between government and people, and all because we are not using modem publicity methods as extensively or as efficiently as we should.
Capitalism should establish some central control to eliminate the chaos and criminal waste of overproduction which is so evident in wheat, oil, coffee, rubber, etc. We might reduce hours of labor to absorb unemployment. We should establish new ideals of service to replace greed for gold and craze for power. These new ideals must become part of public education.
General education must include more practical application to life’s activities and new ideals of common welfare benefits.
We should create a formula for greater economic security for the underprivileged and the unfortunates of life, rather than patching up poverty with charity.
I f health is the greatest asset in individual life it is the greatest national asset, and we should therefore extend our public health services.
The consensus of opinion was that we have no need to fear Russia. Our concern and obligation is to set our own affairs in order. Our present problems may give some grave cause for doubts, but not for despair. The best in the British Commonwealth of Nations comes to the top in times of test. We can look forward with inexhaustible faith and hope in the future.