MY NINE RUSSIANS
Maclean's European correspondent found himself on board an Atlantic liner with a group of Soviet scientists returning behind the Iron Curtain. In genial, informal discussions he got their opinions on Malenkov, Toronto, Lavrenti Beria, Canadian newspapers, Hollywood movies and Montreal hotels. Here's what they told him
THE NINETEENTH International Physiological Conference, held every three years, took place in Montreal late in August. Among the hundreds of doctors who traveled from all parts of the world to attend were nine from the Soviet Union. The nine were accompanied by two interpreters and a secretary.
The party spent four days in Montreal and another twelve days traveling to Ottawa, Quebec, Toronto and Niagara Falls. The return to the Soviet Union was begun in the Canadian Pacific liner, Empress of Australia, which sailed from Montreal Sept. 11 and docked at Liverpool Sept. 19.
I sailed on the same ship. It is most unlikely that any Western correspondent traveling inside Russia could have had the same opportunity for long, frank and unguarded conversation with twelve intelligent Soviet citizens that I enjoyed across the neutral expanse of the North Atlantic. They did not know I was a reporter. There were no interviews; only quiet chats. I don’t claim they provided me with any scoops or special insights but they did supply some observations that seemed to throw light on the mind of the Russian intellectual.
For the first three days they kept pretty much to themselves. This was when the ship was moving down the passage of the St. Lawrence to the Gulf
and the open ocean. The days were filled with sunshine and scenery, and the Russians gathered on a section of the boat deck, rather aloof from the other passengers, to enjoy the gifts of the weather. On those nights they would break into two or three groups and discuss the notes they had taken at the physiological conference in Montreal.
There was no mistaking them. The distinctive mark was the cut of their trousers. Soviet tailors have apparently just discovered the extra wide or balloon type of trousers which had a brief vogue in Canada and the United States about fifteen years ago, and with a certain misplaced zealousness they are cutting them even wider, with the result that the Russians looked like a grove of walking tree trunks whenever they edged into a mild breeze.
I am not being snide about this. An empire as huge as Russia’s has every right to create its own fashions and there may even be some propaganda value in this. The trousers, billowing out like oddshaped spinnakers, certainly advertised an abundance of the fruit of Soviet looms. If it were not for these super-pants the Russians would have had to be painstakingly identified. The nine professors looked like any nine professional men who have attained standing, security and white hair, and the three secretary-interpreters looked exactly as har-
ried as conscientious secretary-interpreters should.
The most striking faces belonged to Professors Konstantine Bykov, of Leningrad; G. D. Smirnov, of Moscow; and V. A. Engelhardt, of Moscow. Bykov, who teaches in Leningrad, is world-famous, almost a legend among medical men. He has the self-sufficient detached look that is associated with genius, and his wide, carelessly-trimmed mustache of pure white fits perfectly into the role. Smirnov is tall, slim and broad-shouldered; his lean, pleasant face and his crew-cut might be right out of Princeton, class of ’20, hut he happens to come from Moscow. Engelhardt is Mr. Chips himself. He has a sweet, sensitive face, melting eyes, hair of finely-spun silver, and the soft voice of a horn baritone. All in all, the nine professors would have made perfect type-casting for a movie about the faculty of Old Siwash. Not a tiny pair of horns in the lot.
Only in their aloofness in those early days on the St. Lawrence did they reflect the conception of Russian tourists popularized by Hearst cartoonists. It seemed difficult to get to them, and I for one didn’t try. When they walked the decks or sat in the lounge they were always in a solid phalanx.
The break came on the third night. The Russians were in their customary Continued on page 79
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tight circle watching the dancing in the ballroom. One of the passengers, a pretty Englishwoman, said, “If they won’t ask me to dance, I’m going over to ask them. It’s dreadful, I know, but perhaps they’re shy.” She walked across the floor and asked Smirnov if he would like to dance. The tall Russian almost floored her by his alacrity. He swept her up and glided to fox-trot tempo with fine éclat. In a moment six more Russians were on the dance floor, and for the rest of the evening no unattached woman, however shyly hidden in a corner, escaped their attentions. They were dancing fools, pure Stakhanovite in their ardor for jazz music.
When I reached the promenade deck the next morning, it was clear the phalanx had been broken. No two Russians were together. They were deck-walking, playing ping-pong, conversing or drinking bouillon with other passengers.
I sought out Engelhardt, who, I had discovered the night before, spoke English better than the interpreters. He seemed amused by my suggestion that the Russians had been aloof for three days. The shoe, he thought, was on the other foot. All through their sojourn in Canada he and his colleagues liad been greeted only by penetrating stares.
“One would think,” he said in slow hut precise English, “that we came from another planet—or a nether planet.” He smiled softly at his own wisecrack and then he said, “During the physiological conference, a professor from Marseilles, a most learned man, was invited to speak for the films. When he asked why he had heen selected from among the hundreds of delegates he was told it was because he had been seen talking to the Russians a great deal. This apparently made him an extraordinary person. We all laughed. One would think we Russians were some strange type of animal.”
They were not at all strange animals. During the next five days I walked the decks or had tea or drinks with all of them. With the exception of one, a French interpreter named Gaurilov whose point of view was precise and political, they seemed to have nothing to hide. They were willing, even anxious, to talk frankly and freely. I think I learned a great deal about the Soviet Union in the five days.
What do the Russian people think of Malenkov? Would they change their form of government if they liad the opportunity? Do they really believe Lavrenti Beria plotted with western powers to overthrow Communism in Russia? Do they expect war? What of Korea? And how do they justify their seizure of power in countries like Czechoslovakia?
These questions and scores more came quickly to mind, and I took full advantage of this unusual opportunity to discuss them with twelve intelligent and singularly loyal Soviet citizens, none of them members of the Communist Party. But they are, it should be stated, among the most highly favored Soviet citizens, the arts and professions being by far the most lucrative in the country. The professors draw between ten thousand and twelve thousand rubles a month (twenty-five hundred and three thousand dollars at official exchange rates) and the interpreters about four thousand rubles a month. (The official exchange rate, however, should not be literally interpreted. Gaurilov told me the suit he was wearing cost him eight hundred
rubles, about two hundred dollars in our money.) The average factory worker earns between one thousand and twelve hundred rubles a month.
What do they think of the premier, Georgi Malenkov? I put the question to each of the Russians separately, as opportunity presented itself. The reaction was singularly uniform and in spite of my initial scepticism, I believe it was at least partly spontaneous.
Malenkov, 1 concluded, is as much of a mystery, as much an unknown quantity, to them as he is to us. Each time his name came up, there was a brief shrug, or a thoughtful scratching of the cheek, or a blank look of honest ignorance— and then:
“Malenkov? He seems to be efficient enough. He is gradually raising the level of living comforts.”
“One really hears very little about him. It seems to me he is directing the country in a very good manner.”
“Truthfully I have never seen him. None of my friends has very much knowledge about him personally. But he must be very brilliant to have succeeded Stalin.”
“Malenkov? He has made some changes in the external policies of the country. It is clear he wants to relax the tension externally. But in internal matters, he is carrying out the intention of Stalin. Internally they have created much improvement .”
“Thirty years ago, out of czarist Russia, the leaders started with a dead backward country. Now, despite a war which absolutely devastated the land, things are getting better. Stalin, and now Malenkov—they have accomplished miracles . . .”
They . . . they . . . the leaders, Stalin and Malenkov . . . accomplished miracles ■ . . created improvement . . . gradually raising the level of living comforts . . . directing the country.
Out of the spirit and tenor of their reactions to Malenkov emerged one clear and surprising conclusion: There is, among the people of Russia, no sense of participation in the government, not even the illusion of identification with the national will. It seemed to me, after talking to these men, that the Kremlin is something remote, above and beyond the centre consciousness of the people, an inaccessible shrine containing mystic, supernatural beings who proclaim the laws, fix the national destinies, and need not answer to any man on the manner of succession to the office of the all-highest behind the thick walls of the Kremlin.
Here were twelve men whose intellects would rate high in any country and yet who clearly cannot imagine any other state óf affairs, and so far as I could judge, would make no attempt to change it.
For me at least, the vast surprise in this concept is the failure of the Kremlin to give these men at least the illusion of participation in government. Soviet propaganda sounds much brass on various election days (although only one set of names appears on the ballot) in order to demonstrate that the inevitable ninety-nine percent affirmative vote bespeaks a deep sense of participation in government. But if the twelve Russians are typical, the people feel a deep, almost religious sense of separation from the all-wise in the Kremlin and are happy with it. Let the deities handle the job.
I pursued the point, and another surprising conclusion fell into my mind. These men, who certainly represent the educated, professional class in Russia, have in a sense been bribed into accepting a totalitarian regime. The professors earn about ten times the pay of a worker; they are of the wealthy, the car-driving class. They receive every facility to do their research, they
are sent to international conventions, they are handled with respect (Soviet officials from Ottawa saw them off at Montreal, and others from the London embassy greeted them in Liverpool). In a nation of peasants, they are the aristocracy. For reasons of primary self-interest, they are satisfied with the regime.
The hold of the Kremlin on the nation thus becomes more than a physical hold or a spiritual hold. The old aristocracy has been liquidated or banished; the new intelligentsia is effectively bribed into supine acceptance of a very good life without liberty (as we in the west understand it); the uneducated peasantry is leaderless except for the shrine in the Kremlin. The deities are in full control.
On the fifth day of the voyage, a new vein of discussion was opened. The film shown on that afternoon was My Son, John, Paramount’s anti-Communist contribution starring Helen Hayes. It was poor entertainment, one of the
flops of last season, and yet it was singularly interesting when one saw it in company with the Russians.
The film had to do with a good honest middle-class American family. The eldest son, John, is an intellectual; he works for the government in Washington and becomes involved with an espionage ring composed of American fellow-travelers. He is unrelentingly pro-Communist almost to the end, and then his Catholic upbringing asserts itself. He is on bis way to confess all to the FBI when he is killed by the spy ring.
When the picture was over, I joined Engelhardt and Smirnov on the promenade deck. Both Russians seemed mystified.
Smirnov said, “I do not understand this film. What was the man guilty of?”
He was guilty of belonging to a Communist espionage ring.
“This I understand,” Engelhardt said, “but there was no proof offered that he was guilty.”
The film implied his guilt. The accent was placed on the disappointment and suffering of his mother.
“But how,” Engelhardt persisted, “can a film imply a man’s guilt without offering proof of his guilt?”
A door I had been trying to open was thus suddenly swung wide for me. I said, “Your government has announced that Lavrenti Beria will be put on trial. Do you think he will be found innocent, or do you think he will confess to all manner of crimes including secret collaboration with agents of the western powers?”
“If they arrested him,” Engelhardt said quite spontaneously, “they must have sufficient evidence. It seems to me, although I do not know much about it, that he was trying to use the secret police to seize power.”
Then do they assume lie is guilty?
“When the trial begins,” Smirnov said, “they will present all the evidence which will be published everywhere, and then we will know.”
Do the people have any doubts as to the verdict?
“In the Soviet Union,” Engelhardt said, “no man is punished until proof is given of his guilt. We will know when the trial begins.”
They clung tenaciously to this position, and then I brought up the case of
the nine Jewish doctors, who, on cadence, had been found guilty of murder, treason and collaboration with foreign agents. The same doctors, four months later (after Stalin’s death) were released and the verdicts quashed.
“This,” said Engelhardt, “was an error.”
“More than an error,” Smirnov said heatedly, “it was a crime. The doctors were released and the police informers who gave false evidence were arrested and punished. It was admitted before the whole world that an error was made.”
Do the people not recognize the political trials, the purges, for what they are?
The answer was: “When an error is made, they admit it. When a man is guilty, they have full proof.”
They . . . The mystic they . . . The guardians of truth, the makers of justice. At no time did I notice the Russians using we when referring to the Soviet Union.
I was having tea with another group of Russians when the question of war came up.
One of the Russians had been com-
plaining about the United States. He said that the Soviet chessmasters would not go to a forthcoming American tournament because they would be restricted in travel to a twelve-mile zone around the centre of New York, and he thought this was nonsensical.
But the Soviet frontier, he was told, is the most restricted of all.
“When a person is invited to the Soviet Union,” he replied, “he is allowed to travel everywhere except possibly to a few military zones.”
But he is escorted.
“If he is an American—yes. You
cannot blame the government. It is not the Soviet Union that is surrounding the United States with military bases. There are no Soviet airfields in Mexico and Canada, but there are many American airfields all around the Soviet borders. The Americans have placed themselves under suspicion.”
It was pointed out that western preparedness, including American, began only after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.
“Coup? Coup?” The professor seemed mildly incensed. “It was a national uprising of the people. The Soviet Union had nothing to do with it. Not a single Soviet soldier was in Czechoslovakia at the time. It was purely national and democratic.”
And Korea? Was the Soviet Union completely aloof in Korea?
Here the answer was dogmatic. “Korea began purely as an American adventure. The Americans need Korea as a Pacific base. They admit it. We have read it in the speeches of Eisenhower and Mac Arthur.”
And war? Do the Russian people expect war?
“The government of the Soviet Union is creating the conditions for peace. How can the government of the Soviet Union wish for war when the country is just now beginning to recover from the last war? There will be war only if the Americans start a war. Malenkov is working for peace. This is obvious to everyone in the Soviet Union. It is not a point that is open to argument. It is too obvious. You must see for yourself what Malenkov is doing every day to create the conditions of peace.”
The same theme ran through every discussion. The government, Malenkov, and creation.
There were other comments of interest:
“Montreal is quite a nice city, but not impressive.” . . . “We have finer hotels in Moscow.” . . . “Toronto we found noisy and confusing. The city of Quebec is by far the most interesting city we visited. It is beautiful. We were very warmly greeted there by the faculty of the university, although most of the instructors were priests. It is surprising for scientists to believe in the religious theory as they do.” . . . “It seemed to me that the emancipation of women in Canada is not yet complete. There are so few women at the medical schools. In the Soviet Union we have ninety medical schools and at least fifty percent of the students are women. During the war, the enrollment of women went as high as eighty percent. Many of our best surgeons are women. If I had to be operated on I would prefer to be operated by Smirnov’s wife who is one of the most brilliant surgeons in the Soviet Union.”
“We found Canadian and American newspapers in quite bad taste. It is a crime to allow such slandering of the Soviet Union to be published. In our newspapers we do not allow such slandering, even about the United States.”
. . . “It is not allowed in our newspapers to attack the Soviet regime, and this is correct. But we read all the important news. When Eisenhower or Churchill makes a speech, it is printed in full in our newspapers. I prefer our newspapers to yours which inflame the people.”
On the western standard of living:
“What we saw of the living standard in Canada was, of course, very high. But we saw only the hotels, the universities, and the tourist places. The standard is very high, but artistically not very good. I remember, for example, the library building they have con-
strutted on the grounds of McGill University. This is modern architecture which looks bizarre among the fine old buildings of the university. How could the architects be so insensitive? I was greatly surprised.
‘As I say, the living standard is high but only in so far as what we saw. Unfortunately we did not have time to visit the living quarters of the working people where the living standard is wretched. How do I know? The Soviet newspapers give us truthful descriptions.”
Here, it seemed to me, was the best evidence of the intellectual, as well as political, captivity of the professors. Having lived most of their adult lives under the Soviet system they have come to believe automatically and thoroughly in the truth as it is handed down to them in Pravda. Even having visited Canada, they came away unconvinced about our standard of living. They didn’t see the “wretched condition” of the working classes, but thirty years of brain-washing by Pravda has convinced them it exists.
By the last day of the voyage, the Russians had become so friendly that an embarrassing question seemed in order.
In the party of twelve, was there a political guardian among them to make sure none strayed from the Communist path, or conceivably remained behind to claim political asylum?
Engelhardt looked at Smirnov, and Smirnov translated for Bykov, and then all three began to laugh and shake their heads.
“There is no question of that,” Engelhardt said. “Why would we want to stay behind? Our only regret is that we have missed the opening of the university year. Our classes begin on September 1 in the Soviet Union. 1 assure you there is no one to watch us.”
Still Proved Vulnerable
Engelhardt may have spoken these words in purest honesty, but it seemed to me that I. I. Gaurilov, a thirty-fiveyear-old French interpreter from Moscow, a government economist by profession, had been selected to accompany the party by no sheer accident. He had a professional touch.
The first time I spoke to him, he asked me where I was traveling in Europe.
He asked, “Do Canadians need a visa to visit these countries?”
1 fell into the trap neatly. Canadians, I informed him, needed no visa in any country of western Europe.
“Do the people of these countries require a visa to visit Canada? he enquired.
I had to admit that most western Europeans needed a visa.
He smiled adroitly. “You think this is fair? Are you Canadians superior people that you do not reciprocate a courtesy?”
He came to a dance the last night in his eight-hundred-ruble suit, a magnificent creation of dark blue. I expressed admiration of his appearance, and then he revealed a strangely bourgeois characteristic which, I suspect, will some day get him into trouble.
“You like this suit?” he said. “So you should. It cost me eight hundred rubles.”
Eight hundred rubles! Can a worker get a suit like that?
“Naturally not,” he said. “Remember, it cost eight hundred rubles. And it was not purchased in an ordinary tailor store. I go to a special custom tailor in Moscow. He charges a lot of money but he makes nice suits, don’t you think?”
It didn’t seem to me quite the proper proletarian attitude. ★