HOW FREE IS THE RUSSIAN?
RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES
MOSCOW (By Cable)—A few days ago I went by streetcar from the Hotel Metropole, where correspondents in Moscow live, to the headquarters of the Soviet Society for Cultural Relations with Abroad, known colloquially as VOKS. The crowd packed into the streetcar was so dense that had my shoes not been tied securely or buttons firmly fixed I should have emerged without them.
In the peculiarly nasty genus of Moscow streetcar—narrower than usual and quite long—called in the vernacular “Dushegubka the “Ruiner of Souls” (after the German murder vans), one is completely lost. You leave when everybody leaves. Not before. You are shot out like a champagne cork.
Tightly jammed against me were a portly lady and a typically Russian buxom girl. Unable to move I remarked to a friend that possibly the only comparable crowd I had ever seen was at Toronto’s Yonge and Queen at the rush hour.
The girl, hearing English, looked up. “Vy Amerikantsy?” she enquired. “Are you Americans?”
We admitted to being foreign. Everyone around us became interested.
“How do you like our cans?” the girl asked with a smile.
“Oh, they are not too bad,” I replied, scarcely able to breathe. “We have them too.”
There was a lively exchange of opinions among my neighbors. One man said gravely, “Citizen, that is not right. What is wfong is wrong. Everyone knows these cars are terrible. If we don't complain, they never will be changed.” Everyone agreed.
“Ekh,” another man joined in, “if only the city planners would ride in such cars a while, we’d soon get better ones.”
Such is criticism in Russia. No matter where I spoke during my recent visit to Canada (after more than 10 months stay in the U. S. S. R.), people asked: “Can the Russians criticize? Can they lambaste their government, education,
prices, leaders? Have they personal, individual liberty? Or are they cogs in a huge, merciless, inexorable machine?”
This is not an easy series of questions to answer. The Russian concept of freedom is not ours. Their system is not our system. They believe sincerely, I think, that our democracy is a democracy of the “have” minority, while theirs is a democracy of the majority, all of whom are the haves of Russia. So a common denominator is not easy to discover.
Criticism Is Encouraged
■JVTEVERTHELESS criticism as such is not only 1 1 permitted but encouraged. It provides an outlet valve. It is the Russian’s favorite weapon of struggle for social advancement.
Walk along the Moscow boulevards. You won’t pass half a block before hearing the housewives minding their children gripe about something: their husbands, their house committees, their stores, their food.
Read the newspapers. You won’t find a single issue of the central papers where some complaint is not aired in public. Leaders are not excepted. That is the lower leaders. Communists are not immune. Neither are the People’s Commissars.
Take this newspaper item describing bureaucracy in a provincial Department of Agriculture: “You turn into the first office you see,” the item reads, “a large, but unpleasant and dark room. On the chief’s table a broken figure of a horse, ears gone, one Continued on page 47
Continued on page 47
The Russian can gripe about poor trams, official inefficiency and bureaucratic graft, even as you and I—but Comrade Stalin is still above criticism
How Free is the Russian?
Continued from page 20
leg amputated. What is this, the result of tomfoolery or . . . emblem of management? The latter probably. This unfortunate horse exemplifies quite well the provincial situation in animal husbandry.
“The chief looks as though he has just bitten into a cranberry. He welcomes you as if you were the creditor and he the habitual debtor. Unpleasant discussion probably, he seems to think.
“Outside the sun is shining. The spring is beautiful. One would like to askofthecomradechief: ‘Why, oh why, my dear friend, are you so sad? Is your health poor? Something wrong in your life?’ But you daren’t say a word. You are neither honored by look nor pleasant word. All replies are monosyllabic: ‘Yes,’ ‘No.’
“Let’s get out of this office, as far away as possible from this unfortunate individual.
“Aha, here’s the ‘Southern Section.’ We open the door. We enter. We remove our headgear. We bow. We say, ‘Good day.’
“Alas, no reply. No one cares about us. No one asks us what we wish, from whence we come, and why. Apparently the workers of the provincial Department of Agriculture, having crossed the threshold of their office, abandoned civility in the check room. We visit every office in the department, and in all only five people reply to our greetings.
“The assistant chief isn’t any better. We ask to see him. ‘May we enter?’ ‘Come in.’ Imperious gesture to sit down:‘Sit down!’
“We breathe with relief: finally
someone shows signs of good breeding.
“We sit down. We wait a long, long time. Until the assistant chief looks over an endless folder packed with documents. Until he replies to a dozen questions of one of his assistants. Until he signs a score of resolutions. Until he tires of phoning all over town.
“He doesn’t look at us. He is not interested in us. He beháves as though ready to read a court charge against us for some misdemeanor.”
This article, more lengthy than usual, concludes with the chief’s name, the city in which all this has taken place—definite charges.
Here is another example. A newspaper devotes two half-columns to poor work of Communist leaders in a large plant. It describes the following scene:
“Two Communists meet at the entrance to the building. One has just emerged from the Party committees, the other was just going there.
“ ‘Don’t bother,’ said the one coming out. ‘The secretary’s busy. He can’t see anyone.’
“ ‘Busy again,’ the other sighed.
“The chronic occupation of Gorodetsky, secretary of the Party plant committee, has become known to everyone,” the paper writes. “It has come to this that Communists have stopped applying to him on questions of Party life. This naturally doesn’t help his authority. Under his leadership members of the Party committee do not know what their organization is doing, and the Communists in the plant feel this isolation keenly. Here is an interesting fact: Gorodetsky spoke at an electoral meeting of a Party organization and recommended a member for secretaryship. The Communists rejected his suggestion.
“ ‘You don’t know your people,’ they told Gorodetsky straight.
"Add to this lack of civility and impatience—and you will have a more or less complete outline of Gorodetsky’s
style of work. This is a poor, useless style of work.”
It is easy to use Russian papers for the publication of items of sharp criticism. But it had better be right. Consequences of publication of unfounded criticism are almost as serious as libel with us. More serious perhaps.
During the three months after my return to Moscow, the following items of criticism appeared in the Central press alone: An attack on state-owned toy factories for producing goods of poor and unimaginative quality; on the Irkutsk Provincial Government for unbelievably low quality of consumer goods offered for sale; on the Tiflis trade-union leadership for insufficient attention to cultural activities; on the Yaroslavl Province judiciary for inattention and heartless dealing with juvenile delinquents.
There were articles censuring the Commissariat of Light Industry for a soulless attitude to inventors and for bureaucracy; on the Communist Party secretary of a large plant for bureaucracy; on authors and producers of modern plays for lack of taste and poor quality of work; on the Moscow Department of Co-operative Trading for excessive prices of goods; on leaders of a large state farm in Novosibirsk for persecuting critics; on the Novgorod city authorities for neglecting artisan manufactures; on the Minusinsk Communist Party and government organs for ‘‘serious perversion of Soviet laws in collective farms and for corrupt misuse of collective farm funds, products and lands.”
This list was joined by attacks on the Kharkov Province educational authorities for neglecting rural schoolteachers; on graft in Kharkov; on filthy marriage bureau offices in Yaroslavl; on purchases of rare furniture for hundreds of thousands of rubles to furnish the offices of the State Committee on Architecture; on formal, record-seeking and ruinous methods of work at some Donets Basin coal mines; on graft and corruption among store managers in Nizhnii Tagil; on ‘‘soulless and slow bureaucrats who tarry in
doling out decorations to farmers”; on Young Communists in Chapayev for failing to fight local hooligans who disrupt youth activities. Possibly the most outstanding piece of criticism during this period was an attack of the leaders of Leningrad City Council, at the recent session of the Supreme Soviet, against a number of People’s Commissars for neglecting Leningrad needs and adopting a formal attitude toward the reconstruction of that city.
This establishes that criticism, at least this type of criticism, is widely employed. But what happens in these cases? Or are people simply permitted* to complain without effect?
Your correspondent hasn’t at his disposal all the facts concerning most of these complaints. But in the case of the corruption at Minusinsk, the local leadership of the Department of Agriculture, as well as local Communist Party and Government authorities, were brought to court and severely punished.
The general technique of dealing with complaints brought out in the newspapers is approximately this: When the article appears the editorial board of the paper or magazine refers it to the appropriate body for action. They ask for a reply. In nearly all cases the Communist Party unit involved meets, takes up the charges, investigates, and acts.
Following this the local government, trade-union or judiciary organs step in and base their judgment on whatever laws exist dealing with the specific case.
Stalin Not Criticized
In cases not involving the well-being and security of the State, punishment may consist of a strict warning to the official. Where financial wrongdoing is involved, or flagrant breach of laws, court action is taken. Where charges of bureaucratism are proved against Communist officials they are removed.
People have often asked if Russians can and do criticize Stalin. Possibly they can, but I have never heard any-
BERTIE THE BEAVER
one do so. Stalin himself criticizes publicly the policies of the Government, which after all were adopted with his direct participation and under his leadership. Thus at the reception to the Soviet Marshals Stalin spoke of the Soviet Government having made mistakes.
Individual liberty to the average Canadian involves liberty to “own” things. Can Russians “own” things? Yes, they can. But not all things. First of all, and most important perhaps, they can not own land individually. The, land belongs to the nation as a whole. Land is given in fee simple to its users, forever in some cases, for as long as the user or his heirs are alive.
The city dweller owns his summer house. He can sell the house. The land goes with it. But it remains the land of the state. The citizen may own his city residence. In fact today the Soviet Government is laying great stress on privately owned houses.
A citizen may obtain ten thousand rubles in credit at low interest rates for seven years and build his own home. By law he is entitled to receive aid from his place of work and union, in trucks, building materials, and so on. Under existing conditions he must participate in building his own place also with his own labor.
In 1945 state funds have been allotted for housing loans for more than 40,000 homes. In addition, many use their own savings or funds loaned by factories, co-operatives, collective farms.
In the countryside “ownership” is more extensive. The collective farmer “owns” his collective farm together with others. The land has been given the farmer by the State for as long as the farm, which is a co-operative organization, lasts. The land may not be sold. It may not be offered as collateral for loans. It may, indeed must, be used. But no one can take it away.
Each member of the collective farm “owns” his home, and in addition also from one to three acres of land around his home. This is his “yard,” his “castle.” Here he has his own pigs, cows, chickens, vegetables. These he can sell on the collective farm market in the city or town for any price he can get.
Every citizen in Russia is encouraged to own two other types of accumulation of wealth: savings accounts and war and national construction bonds. Savings banks advertise in subways, in newspapers, in magazines. People are also encouraged to own life and accident insurance, although they already are insured under the social security scheme which covers every citizen in the U. S. S. R., and in fact also all foreigners working in Soviet industry.
Russians own their furniture, books, rugs, dishes. They have bicycles and motorcycles. They can own cars. Some do. But there are not enough cars to satisfy state needs, not to speak of private individuals. As the number of cars increases, they will be made available for sale on the basis of strict priorities: first to those who need them, then to outstanding workers, officials, scientists, military men, after that to others. It will be some years yet before Russia produces enough cars for private use. And finally, of course, Russians cannot own factories, mines, railways, banks. These are nationalized.
Many have asked if the Russians can read what they want, or is censorship severe. This is a difficult question, because how can one determine what the Russians want to read? What there is they read. What there is not is not only not available for reading, but is
not known. You cannot “want to read” something of which you do not know.
All materials published or imported into Russia for circulation are subject to precensorship by an organization known as Glavlit, which stands for “Chief Literature” inspection department. Delegates of the Glavlit work in all publishing institutions, all newspapers, all magazines.
What is available and what is not available for readership in the U. S. S. R.? All foreign fiction of Glavlit-approved literary value, books on politics and economics which do not , malign the Soviet Union (as viewed by Glavlit), books of artistic merit which do not border on the pornographic. No material judged by Glavlit to be of Fascist, pro-Fascist or anti-Soviet character is available. No pornographic material can be printed or distributed. No “true romances,” “true detective,” “love adventures” and other types of similar lurid fiction are available.
On the other hand frank erotica is on sale in bookshops, but of ancient vintage. Nothing like that is printed now. Speeches by leaders of democratic countries are available. Churchill’s speeches are on sale in newsstands.
Generally speaking, Glavlit attempts to maintain “the purity of Soviet thought” — aesthetically, politically, socially. Books attacking the Soviet system are taboo for general distribution, but are available for students. The Lenin Library has everything, however. An interesting new feature is the return to the adventure and detective story for which there is apparently substantial demand. Just the other day I saw a girl assiduously reading a well-worn copy of—“Nick Carter,” which she obtained in the Library for Foreign Literature!
What about just chewing the rag, talking, beefing? Can Ivan Ivanovich discuss the future world, rib the Allies, talk about women?
Yes, he can. At a little bar on a nearby street opposite the publishing offices of Britansky Soyouznik (British Ally), a bar we dubbed Kuznetsky Most Arms, people can be heard at any time of day discussing and arguing. The future world is a popular topic. The people react quickly and on the whole intelligently.
Churchill’s remarks against socialism, reported in the press, are discussed at length in bars, on park benches, in trams. Molotov’s statements often are subjects of a great deal of discussion among people. Roosevelt’s death was a subject of discussion for days.
Russians do talk about women, and Russian girls do talk about clothes. But the discussion of women is not quite on the same level as with us. Somehow the vicissitudes of war, the joint participation of hundreds of thousands of women and millions of men in the war have created a spirit of comradeship which is not always present with us.
They Love Meetings
Just as they’re great joiners, Russians are also great lovers of meetings and speeches. Almost any event brings about thousands of meetings held right at work or at clubs and parks. They meet to discuss politics and economics, the manner in which the water pipas work in their houses, even problems of planting greenery in the streets and yards.
One may ask whether under existing conditions Russians may be said to have freedom of assembly. They have such freedom in discussing the pros or cons of affairs within the framework of the Soviet social system and world conceptions, but freedom of assembly doesn’t exist for purposes hostile to the
Soviet State as interpreted by government and party.
Could one meet to plan a strike for example? Possibly, “Yes.” But strikes, though legally possible, haven’t occurred in Russia for many, many years. Why? To understand this one must understand the powerful role which the trade-unions with their 27,000,000 members play in Russian life. They are omnipresent and omniscient. Industry can’t move without their participation. Long before a dispute reaches the trouble stage the union steps in and negotiates. If its views are not taken into consideration a union has the right to appeal to the courts and sometimes does. Many a manager has been fired for refusing to agree with the union’s viewpoint. Under such conditions strikes are not likely.
Freedom to change a job whenever it is desired to do so didn’t exist in Russia in wartime, and a worker had to obtain permission to transfer from plant to plant. On the other hand, the unions stand on guard for the worker’s interests so as to make certain that he advances from lower to higher categories in his plant. This makes his position more certain and removes one incentive for changing places of work. The manager of one large plant told me that no power on earth can really make a worker stay at a job he doesn’t like.
There is freedom of travel. Vacations are paid, and the unions and factories as well as offices and schools send their people on holidays. The resorts usually are far removed from the place of work. Railway fares and airplane transportation are cheap as compared both with ours and with wages paid here. At this time, however, people know that priorities are in order.
A different situation prevails in respect to foreign travel. No Russian may go abroad on his own without government permission. This is an obvious measure of state security, but it also has an element of control of foreign exchange which is needed by the State. Nevertheless, one can now envisage a great increase in Soviet tourism to the Balkans, Poland, Czechoslovakia and possibly France.
Relatively few “tourists” will go to America, but students will come and engineers, businessmen and others. In this there will be a great relaxation of the rules of the past.
Such are some elements of Russian freedom. The Russians themselves feel they are free. Fear of punishment seems to affect only those who have done or are doing something for which they might be punished. The so-called “fear of the GPU,” a popular subject for writers in America, does not exist, although a healthy respect for the NKVD, which took the place of the GPU, does. Some credit the NKVD with having contributed more than any other agency to victory by exposing and taking timely measures against the fifth column.
It is clear from all the foregoing that the Russian way of exercising freedom is not our way. Whatever the reasons, much time will pass in years and space before our paths of freedom concept meet.
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