London Letter

Britain’s cautious affair with Moscow

BEVERLEY BAXTER September 14 1957
London Letter

Britain’s cautious affair with Moscow

BEVERLEY BAXTER September 14 1957

Britain’s cautious affair with Moscow

London Letter


There are times when something that seems unimportant will throw a light on dark spaces. Such was the case a short time ago when I saw an announcement that a theatrical company from Moscow was to play six weeks in London. The nature of the performance would be what you in Canada would call vaudeville and what we in Britain would describe as music hall.

Surprisingly, the announcement informed us that the opening week would be in the vast suburban music hall of Streatham, and that the season would consist ftf similar appearances in other suburbs. In other words, the Russians were to play in the outskirts of London and would not penetrate the theatre-land of the West End. Thus the noble army of London’s dramatic critics had to travel on the opening night into terra incognita. However, with a nice sense of occasion they left their dinner jackets at home and turned up in day dress, like the rest of us. Incidentally, there was not a vacant seat in the house, for Russia is an enigma that all of us want to understand.

The young women on the stage were lovely to look upon, modest and graceful with nothing more revealing than an ankle peeping from beneath a long skirt. There were to female baritones blaring about love way down South, or shrieking about someone being their man. The jugglers

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“The musicians spoke no English/’ said the conductor. “I spoke no Russian. We got on famously”

bowed to us like diplomats and then did tricks that were out of date twenty-five years ago. As for the dancing, it was like Dolly Varden waltzing with the squire’s son.

We were back to the 1890s when

young bloods used to drink champagne from the slippers of actresses in the smart restaurants—although it must have been rather unpleasant for the actresses who had to put their feet in the slippers after the ceremony was over. The whole per-

formance created such a nostalgia that we would not have been surprised if a horse and cab were waiting outside to take us home.

Now let us leave suburbia, and come with me to the Carlton Club where Sir

Royalty isn’t forgotten

Malcolm Sargent, England's most popular orchestral conductor, has come to lunch with your London correspondent. Sir Malcolm, like Dorian Gray, grows no older with the years. In his sixties, his hair is black, his figure is slim and his zest for life is that of a young man with everything before him. Incidentally, during the Blitz, when theatres and concert halls were closed in the evenings, he took his orchestra around the country and gave concerts to the accompaniment of “noises off” supplied by Herr Hitler.

Sir Malcolm was coming to lunch to tell me about his visit to Russia, which had just come to an end. He had been invited by the Soviet to conduct a series of concerts with Russian orchestras in Moscow and Leningrad. Perhaps he would be able to throw some light on that unknown country which has been cut off from the world for more than forty years.

“My first concert,” he said, “was in Moscow where a factory had taken a concert hall for its workers. The place was packed, and really they were a wonderful audience. At the end the orchestra and the audience stood up and applauded for a full five minutes. They seemed so grateful and so pleased. It was great fun rehearsing them because they spoke no English and I spoke no Russian but we got along famously.”

Then he told me about his visit to Leningrad, once St. Petersburg and the home of the czars. “It is curious," he said, “but they have kept the royal palace in all its glory, with the crown jewels and all the trappings of czardom. Instead of trying to bury the past, they have kept it alive—at any rate in memory.”

"What about the women in Moscow?”

I asked, for the debonair Sir Malcolm has always been profoundly interested in the other sex. He raised his hands as if to demand a pianissimo from the strings. “They are dressed.” he said, “like women mill workers in Lancashire during the Depression. They seem to have no sense of clothes or perhaps there is nothing they can buy.”

Then we recalled the stupid incident last year when a team of Russian athletes was contesting with the British at the White City Stadium in London. One of the team was a young woman named Nina who was a discus thrower, but by no means unattractive to the eye. One day while strolling along Oxford Street she saw a lot of women’s hats displayed in one of the large stores. They were not expensive hats but, if you will forgive the expression, they went to her head. In a mad impulse she grabbed a half dozen and started to walk away with them.

Unfortunately, the store detective saw her, she was arrested, and in due course came up before the magistrate at the police court where she was fined and duly cautioned. Seldom in the whole history of bumbledom has there been anything so stupid. If we had a minister of psychology he would have declared that Nina could keep the hats and the whole world would have paid tribute to British chivalry. And what an advertisement for our hats!

This may seem trivial but let us reverse the coin and imagine how furious

we would have been if a female British discus thrower at the Moscow games was arrested on a similar charge.

But let us go back to Sir Malcolm before we turn to the politicians. The picture he painted of Russia is that of a people who literally have been cut off from the outside world since the outbreak of war in 1914. They have made no contact with people in any other country, save the few foreigners who have been able to visit Russia. Hence the old-fashioned vaudeville performance at Streatham, hence the mad impulse of Nina in taking the hats. As for freedom of the press, it is best expressed by the ironic story of the Russian who said, “Pravda is the best newspaper in the world. I always use it for rolling my cigarettes because it is so stiff."

Now let us move to the high political level. The other day the Russian ambassador to London delivered to Prime Minister Macmillan a very long and very weighty letter from Marshal Bulganin, which could have rolled quite a number of cigarettes if it had been used for that purpose. In the opening paragraph it contains the sensible statement that the serious differences between Russia and Britain on a number of questions should not prevent us from taking measures to establish a more sensible relationship between our countries and from trying to make a joint contribution to the easing of the international tension.

Then the marshal lets Hood some five thousand words to the effect that Britain and Russia should end the mad race in armaments, both nuclear and conventional. “As is well known," he declared, “the Soviet government proposes immediate ending of atomic and hydrogen weapons.”

But then there comes a slight discord in the sweet harmony of the marshal's song. In other w'ords. he sees no reason why this nuclear business should be linked up with other disarmament measures. Of course not. Russia has an immense army and lots and lots of traditional weapons.

Nevertheless this is a serious and important letter even if it goes on and on to an interminable length. After much burning of midnight oil I have extracted these items, which are worth scrutiny, consideration and an occasional smile:

1. All Russia wants in the Middle East is that peace and tranquility should prevail.

2. If there were no trade restrictions, the Soviet Union could in the next five years increase its annual purchases in Britain to somewhere between eight hundred million and a billion pounds.

3. If the government of the United Kingdom and other Western powers do not show concern for a settlement of the problems confronting them there remains little hope.

4. Needless to say, the Soviet government sees the difficulties that lie in the way of achieving agreement both on international problems and on a number of questions directly concerning British-Soviet relations. But w'e believe that, given good will on both sides, these difficulties could be

surmounted gradually by personal contacts between the statesmen of our countries.

!f in combining Nina’s hats with Sir Malcolm's visit and Marshal Bulganin’s letter I seem to have made the mixture too thick, I have done so deliberately because we must remember that, if civilization is to survive, the Russian people must some day emerge from their walled prison and mingle with the outside world. I still recall what Kerensky said to me when he escaped from Russia after

overthrowing the czar, and, in turn, had been overthrown by Lenin and Trotsky.

"I gave Russia five months of freedom." he said, “and a people who have known even five months' freedom will never rest until they have it again.”

Perhaps it is true, although modern weapons make it impossible for the people to rebel with sticks and stones as did the French when they attacked the Bastille.

Such is the paradox of history that this hideous thing known as the hydrogen bomb may have rendered Russia impo-

tent as a conquering military power. Therefore Britain is right in sending her actors and orchestral conductors to Moscow. for the people of Russia are warmed by the same sun and chilled by the same winter as ourselves. When a child is born in Russia the mother dreams of a future that will bring happiness, peace and liberty in its train.

And the British prime minister is right lo combine firmness with good will when dealing with political leaders who rule their people without having secured a mandate from the people, if