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Title: The Provincial Lady in Russia Author: E M Delafield * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1302151h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2013 Most recent update: May 2013 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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The Provincial Lady in
Published in Harpers Magazine, January 1937
They Also Serve: The Provincial Lady in Leningrad
Published in Harpers Magazine, February 1937
To Speak My Mind About Russia: The Provincial Lady in Odessa
Published in Harpers Magazine, March 1937
Tourists in all the Intourist hotels in all the principal towns of Soviet Russia exchange the same fragments of conversation.
"Have you done Moscow yet?"
"No, I'm going there to-morrow night. I came in by Odessa. I've done Kharkov and Rostov and Kiev."
"Ah, then you're going out by sea from Leningrad. Unless you're flying from Moscow?"
"No, I shall be going by sea. Have you done Odessa and the south?"
"No, I've done the Caucasus. You should do the Caucasus. What is Odessa like?"
"Odessa is delightful. The hotel at Rostov was good except for the cockroaches. The food was bad at Kharkov.'
"Ah, there was a Frenchman here yesterday who had just come from Kharkov, and he said the food wasn't good."
And at this gratifying coincidence everybody looks pleased.
Sometimes it is a little like the survivors of a shipwreck meeting on a fragment of desert island.
"Are you still all right for soap?"
"Yes, I shall just last out till Kiev. What about you?"
"Oh, I'm all right. I brought a great deal. But my ink is pretty low."
"There's an American lady who can let you have ink. She gave me some in Leningrad and she's coming on here. She had safety-pins too."
"How marvelous! Perhaps she'd like some soda-mints or aspirins. I have heaps of those."
"I dare say. Or Keatings. Or perhaps you could lend her a book."
People part at Moscow and meet again, sometimes most unwillingly, at Yalta. They ask one another how they have been getting on, and if they met the French astronomer and the English journalist and the noisy young Finns with the portable gramophone. Those who met at Leningrad, and were in the same train coming from Moscow, and parted gracefully at Tillls only to be once more confronted with one another at Gorki, are bound by some unwritten law to sit at the same table for meals. At first, I often wondered whether they really like to do this, or if they just feel obliged to do it for old sake's sake. Later on I fall under the same spell, and the question is answered.
In Moscow I meet Peter—but not as one meets stray French astronomers and English journalists and gramophone-playing Finns. It is a meeting that was arranged—incredibly, as it now seems—in Bloomsbury, some four months ago. I have had the name of his hotel and the dates when he expects to be there in my diary ever since I left England.
His dates have been altered—so have mine—all knowledge of him is denied at the Metropole Hotel, where he ought to be—and Intourist tells me: (1) That there are no letters for me and no messages, (2) That if there were I couldn't have them because it is a Day of Rest.
It is anything but a Day of Rest for me, whatever it may be for Moscow.
I have traveled all night, and walked about looking for Peter half the day, and I have not yet got used to having my luncheon between three and five o'clock in the afternoon, and the hotel to which I have been sent is on one side of the Red Square—which no trams traverse—and everything else in Moscow is on the other side.
All the same, the Red Square is very beautiful, and they are quite right to allow no trams there. In the evening I walk across it once more, and admire the huge walls and towers of the Kremlin and the long row of fir-trees against the gray stone and the pure, beautiful lines of the Lenin Mausoleum, perfectly placed before the great fort, and the strange, Byzantine domes and whorls and minarets of the ancient Basil Cathedral.
Sentinels with fixed bayonets guard the Mausoleum, and there are long, long queues of people—they must number hundreds—waiting to pass inside. From the top of the Kremlin flutters the red flag, and from somewhere beneath it a light strikes upward, so that the brave scarlet color shows as plainly against the clear evening sky as it did in the morning sunlight.
One walks across the Red Square more safely than anywhere else in Moscow. Not as regards one's feminine virtue (that, I think, would be safe anywhere in Russia, were I a quarter of my present age and as alluring as Venus), but simply as regards life and limb.
Everywhere else the traffic is shattering, and the comrades, running for their lives in every direction—as well they may—are a menace. So are the trams, which bucket along on uneven rails and draw up with a slow jerk which gives a misleading impression altogether. One feels that here are deliberate, rather uncertain trams, that may very likely require a good strong push from somebody before starting at all.
And on the contrary, hardly have they stopped and hardly have hundreds of Comrades fought their way out of them than a bell clangs and they start off again, leaving hundreds more biting and kicking and pushing their way inside, hanging on the step and very often being violently shoved off it again.
The tram-question—one of the less picturesque and endearing characteristics of the new regime—is complicated in Moscow by the reconstructions that are going on everywhere. Whole streets are lying more or less inside-out, caverns yawn in the middle of roads, scaffolding suddenly blocks up pavements, and irrelevant-seeming pyramids of earth and loose stones and rubble rise up in quite unexpected places.
The trams do their gallant best, and often remind me of the story of Jules Verne in which the driver of a passenger-train negotiated a precipice by previously going full steam ahead and causing the train to jump the chasm. The trams too do something like that, but even so they have to make colossal detours, and every few days their route is, without any warning, altered, because the old route has become impassable.
In Leningrad there were hardly any cars. In Moscow there are a great many, and they all go hell-for-leather and make a point of sounding their horns only at the very last minute when the lives of the walking comrades positively hang by a thread.
In Moscow, as in Leningrad, people throng the streets. They keep on walking; they are like Felix the Cat. The Intourist guides, as usual, point out how purposeful they all are, how they walk with an object. One guide, more honest or less well-trained than the others, tells me that the housing shortage is very acute, and so perhaps it is more agreeable to spend one's free time in the street rather than in the home. A kind of Scylla or Charybdis.
These grim impressions dawn upon me little by little as I cross the Red Square, for perhaps the fourth time in twenty-four hours, to make another assault on the Metropole and Peter.
To my own unbounded astonishment, I am successful. There is a note from Peter. It has, I have no doubt, been there all along. It says that he is at the National Hotel. Have I got to cross the Red Square all over again? It is very beautiful, but I don't seem to care about crossing it again just yet.
I haven't got to. The National Hotel is only a few hundred yards from the Metropole.
If Peter and I were in London I should not run, like an excited hare, up four flights of stairs to his bedroom. Old friends as we are, I shouldn't scream aloud with joy at the sight of him, nor he at the sight of me. In Moscow, however, we do all these things. We behave, in a word, almost like two foreigners.
And we talk and we talk and we talk.
Our impressions of Soviet Russia, most fortunately, coincide. We have had identical experiences with fleas, guides, indiscreet indulgence in Russian bread, and the non-arrival of letters from home.
We offer each other soap, biscuits, Bromo, and soda-mints. It is almost like two Eastern potentates exchanging gifts, especially when Peter generously says that I shall have his clothes-brush when he leaves—I forgot to pack mine—and I, in return, gracefully offer to wash his pocket handkerchiefs when I do my own. And I stay and have supper with him—at about eleven p.m.—and at one o'clock in the morning cross the Red Square once more.
My bedroom window overlooks the river. I am pleased about it until I notice that a particularly zealous form of reconstruction is taking place on the bank, and that Comrades in vast numbers are operating a huge drill. They are a night-shift, and a kind of mieux de fa mort overtakes them at two in the morning, when they evolve a special series of noises, indicative of terrific energy. Then it all dies away and the next shift doesn't begin till seven o'clock.
Peter is under the auspices of an organization which takes an interest in literary tourists and the organization is very kind to him, and gives him theater tickets and special facilities and a guide all to himself. These benefits he shares with me.
I am secretly terrified of the guide, who is youngish and very tough and has a swivel eye. She has lived in the United States and says that she once hiked from Denver, Colorado, to California. It can't have been half as exhausting as hiking from one end of Moscow to the other, which is our daily achievement.
We visit museums and picture galleries and crèches and factories and schools and clinics. We see, at a rough estimate, a hundred thousand busts of Lenin and ninety thousand pictures of Stalin.
The guide has a curious habit of leading us briskly along over the cobbles, round such bits of reconstruction as lie in our way, for some time, and then abruptly stopping while she asks a passer-by the way to wherever she is taking us. This always turns out to be in some quite opposite direction to the one in which we are going. All is à refaire, and we turn round and begin all over again.
The result, not unnaturally, is that we always arrive late for our appointments.
"The Little Monster has no sense of time," says Peter—this being the endearing sobriquet by which he refers to the guide.
"And she evidently hasn't any bump of locality at all. Some people haven't," I say—having the best of reasons for knowing what I'm talking about.
Peter only replies, not unjustifiably, that to have no sense of time and no sense of direction seems to him a poor equipment with which to set up as a guide.
Sometimes we board a tram together. It is invariably bunged to the roof with pale, grimy, heavily built comrades, too tightly jammed together for strap-hanging to be necessary, or even possible. No one sits down. There are people sitting when one gets in, but I think it is because they have got wedged there and can't move.
On one occasion the Little Monster, startlingly and suddenly, says in my ear:
"A pregnant woman may go in the front part of the tram, where there is more room. It is a law."
I wonder whether she thinks I am going to make a fraudulent attempt to take advantage of this concession. But I don't. I remain where I am, leaning heavily on the shoulder of a man in a blouse, with somebody's portfolio digging into the small of my back, and an enormous female Comrade grasping my elbow with one hand and wiping the sweat off her face with the other.
I often think of the Black Hole of Calcutta.
The tram jerks and jolts and stops, and more people get in, and the Little Monster—who isn't more than five feet high—disappears from view altogether. This time I think of the House of Stone, in The Four Feathers and how those who fell down there never got up again. A mind well-stored with literary references is said to be a great comfort to the possessor. I think my references must be of the wrong kind.
Peter, who is a large young man and stands like the Rock of Gibraltar in the tram, is much more of a comfort to me than any number of literary references. He always knows when to get out, which I never do, and the guide seldom.
Getting out of the tram is a very tense and difficult business. Every inch of the way has to be fought for, and there is always a sporting chance that the tram will start again before the people in front of one will let one go through, or the people behind one have ceased to try to push past. I carry a bruise on one ankle for days, where one of the more impetuous Comrades gave me a vigorous kick, in order that I should get out of his way.
I ask Peter if he knew about the pregnant women going in the front of the tram, and he says Yes, but he doesn't see how they're to get there. Neither do I unless they confide their pretty secret to the conductor and he or she passes it on to all the comrades in the tram, and a way is cleared. (Like Charlotte Bronte when she went to a party, and everybody stood up and made way for her.)
"We might ask the Little Monster," Peter suggests. Any delicacy which either of us has ever possessed at home has long since left us. There are no inhibitions in Russia.
It is in a spirit of simple camaraderie that he and I and the Little Monster go together to a clinic for the welfare of mothers and babies—actually a most excellent institution, admirably organized—and are given much full and intelligent physiological information, with Lenin—aged three—looking benevolently down on us from the wall.
As there is practically no wall in Moscow from which I have not seen Lenin looking down—either as an infant or as an elderly man exhorting the workers (there is no intervening stage), I have ceased to notice him consciously; but on this occasion I prefer him to the other pictures with which the walls are covered.
I prefer him to the unwholesome-looking red and blue maps of the human organism. I prefer him to the things in bottles on a shelf. I prefer him, a thousand times, to the masterpiece which the woman doctor who is showing us round, has kept to the last.
"This tumor is one of the largest we have ever..." I say it is interesting—which I suppose it is, if I could bring myself to look at it, which I can't—and Peter says nothing. I think he is stunned. He is looking with a fixed, unnatural intensity at an artificial tomato, carrot, apple, and beetroot in a little case. Necessary items in the diet of infants, says the notice.
I think perhaps if one had seen all this—not the tumor, which can't be essential to anybody's education except a medical student's—but all the maps and photographs and measurements and the instructions—at a much earlier age, before one had grown squeamish and when one's curiosity was young and strong, it might have been a very good thing.
It does give vital information, and it does give it in a scientific, impersonal way, and it does stress the importance of bodily hygiene.
"Are school-children ever brought here to be taught physiological and biological facts?"
"Yes, often. They come in groups."
The last piece of information is superfluous. The Comrades, especially the school-children, go everywhere in groups. They are taught from the very beginning to lead the collective life.
Peter and I agree that the mother-and-babies Welfare Clinic is one of the best things we have seen in the Soviet Union, and that we approve of the visits there of the school-children—with a mental reservation excluding the tumor.
From the Clinic the Little Monster takes us—going first in the wrong direction but afterward recovering herself—to the Court of Marriages and Divorces. It consists of a desk in a little room, with a middle-aged woman in charge, and two plants that look like india-rubber-plants in pots in the doorway, each tied up with a pale, frail bow of papery white ribbon—like the ghosts of dead bridal decorations.
There are, as usual, Comrades sitting about and waiting, and the guide says that they have come either to register their marriage or to get a divorce. They all look to me equally unexhilarated, and nearly all of them are holding small children.
A young Russian is at the desk, and has said something, and it has been written down in a ledger, and he has, in his Russian way, settled down on to a hard-looking stool as if for life.
"He has just got a divorce," says the guide, and she asks him a great many questions about his private affairs and translates his answers. (I am, and always have been, thoroughly aghast at the way in which private individuals in Russia are turned inside-out for the benefit of tourists; but I am bound to say that they never seem to raise any objection.)
It seems that the young Russian is not pleased with his wife. She reproaches him, rather strangely, with spending his money on amusements and on presents for her. It makes her, she complains, into a slave. They quarrel. He has, without telling her anything about it, got a divorce. When she reproaches him this evening because he wishes to take her out to a cinema or a café, he will simply confront her with the fait accompli.
"It is very simple," says the Little Monster, looking unspeakably superior. She knows that in capitalist countries nothing, least of all divorce, is as simple as that.
"Are marriages equally simple?"
"Yes, they are. This couple with the two children have come to register their marriage."
The husband with the divorce smiles at us very amiably and makes way for the couple with the two children. Some people might think that it is a little late in the day for them to come and register their marriage. But the guide, after the usual questions and answers, is able to explain it all.
They have been eight years together. If they should get tired of each other and decide to separate it will be very much simpler to make arrangements for the welfare of the children if the marriage has been registered. So here they are.
The whole thing—barring the questions of the guide and her translations of the replies to us—takes about five minutes. We have witnessed a wedding in Moscow.
I wonder, sentimentally, whether the woman—who is sufficiently middle-aged to remember the old days—gives a thought to a new dress and music and flowers and a wedding party.
I don't suppose she does. I see her grasp one child by the hand, and the husband takes the other, and they depart, without so much as a vestige of Mendelssohn's Wedding March to encourage them.
Peter, who collects information much more assiduously than I do, asks intelligent questions, and enters the answers in a little book, and the woman at the desk—I suppose she is the Registrar—is very obliging and only breaks off once or twice to divorce or marry a few people who drift in and out.
As I return to my hotel—by way of the Kremlin, the fir trees, the Mausoleum, and the Basil Cathedral—I reflect that Moscow, whether through its fault or my own, has a most depressing effect on me. I think it's partly the number of Comrades who walk the streets and throng the trams and stand in queues outside the shops and the cinemas, all looking rather drab and unwashed and solemn. And one has caught such depressing glimpses, through unshaded windows, of dormitories with beds packed like sardines. Besides, it is never exhilarating to see such quantities of wholesale destruction going on as is necessitated by the Soviet determination to make a completely new city of Moscow.
I quite see that wonders have been achieved in a very short time. I haven't any doubt that the condition of the workers before the Revolution was abominable beyond description. I haven't really any serious doubts that they are working toward a better state of things than they have ever known.
But I have a bourgeois longing to see gaily dressed shop windows, and perhaps gaily dressed people in the streets as well, and to see more individualism and less collectivism—and, in a word, there seems to me to be a total absence of fun in Moscow.
Beauty, there is. In some of the buildings that have survived, in the Ballet, in the Gallery of Western Art, in many of the theater productions. "Romeo and Juliet" was a beautiful production. So was "Eugene Onegin" at the Opera.
Probably I have come to Moscow in quite the wrong spirit. I am making the mistake of comparing its newly begun institutions—of which, God wot, I have seen plenty of examples—with similar institutions in England and in America. Absurd and unreasonable.
The Soviet institutions—clinics, welfare centers, schools, crèches, hospitals—are all working under difficulties and are all hampered by lack of experience and lack of appliances. (They handicap themselves still further by a cast-iron determination to accept no outside criticism whatever and by assuming that perfection has already been achieved, which is far from being the case.)
A recollection—inaccurate, as usual—comes to my mind of some uncivil aphorism of Dr. Johnson's about women writing books or pursuing any other intellectual avocation.
"It is like a dog that walks upon its hind legs, sir. We do not ask whether the thing be well or ill done. The wonder is that it should be done at all." I am sure that I had better remember about Dr. Johnson and the dog when I try to collect my impressions of Soviet Russia.
At eleven o'clock at night an American acquaintance of Peter's appears and suggests taking us to pay a call on a man who writes books—a Russian. He has said that he will be at home between twelve and one.
He isn't, and we all settle down in his kitchen—situated on the staircase, and which he shares with five other families in the same building—and wait for his arrival.
At a quarter to one he comes, bringing three friends—a woman and two men.
We all sit in the bed-sitting room and talk. There ought to be a samovar, but there isn't. Only a wireless. I think my ideas are out of date.
The conversation is about the law concerning abortion (naturally, for it is the most popular topic in Russia), the new Metro, a poet who has annoyed the Government by one of his poems and has been sent as a punishment to work at the construction of a new bridge across the Neva—where he will surely be of no use whatever—and the state of literature in England.
I do not join in this intelligently. For one thing, I am getting sleepy, and for another, nobody in Russia has ever heard of me as a writer—and wouldn't be interested if he had—as none of my works is political or sociological—so nobody refers to me. Just as I am thinking that with any luck nobody will notice it if I do go to sleep, my host abruptly inquires of me which writer of fiction is leading the younger school in England now? Which indeed?
I must think of a name, and I must try to think of one that will convey something to my hearers into the bargain.
I hope to combine a modicum of truth with a certain amount of diplomacy by saying: "Dreiser."
"Theodore Dreiser," I repeat firmly, and I really think I have displayed great presence of mind, considering that I am more than half asleep.
"I meant," says my host, "which of the moderns. Theodore Dreiser is the literature of the grandmothers, yes?"
Not of any of the grandmothers I know, he isn't. But I don't say so. Theodore Dreiser and I retire together into the ranks of the grandmothers and are disinterred no more.
Only just before we go away, at three o'clock, the only other woman present asks me rather sharply if I have any silk stockings, aspirins, lip-sticks, cotton frocks, or nail-scissors to sell.
I suppose she thinks it's all I'm fit for—and I am disposed to agree with her, and make a rendezvous for next day, for her to come to my hotel and inspect my belongings.
Shortly afterward I say good-night to Peter at his door and continue on my way—Red Square, Kremlin, Mausoleum, fir trees, Basil Cathedral, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
The Russian lady keeps her word. She much more than keeps it. She not only comes and buys everything that I want to sell, but swoops down on a large number of things that I don't want to sell, and says she'll take them as well. She opens my wardrobe and takes down my frocks, she lifts up the pillow on my bed by a sort of unerring instinct—like a water-diviner—and discloses my pajamas, and she looks inside my sponge-bag. (What can she possibly suppose that I am hiding inside my sponge-bag?)
"Look, I take this ink-bottle off of you as well, and if you have a fountain-pen I take that, and I take for my husband the blue frame (he will not want the photograph; besides it is your children, you will like to keep it) and for myself I take those things what I have already bought, and the red jumper, the pajamas, the two frocks. Have you any boiled sweets?"
No, I haven't any boiled sweets. And nothing will induce me to part with the safety ink-bottle or the blue frame or my only two frocks.
It takes a long while to convince the Russian lady that I really mean this, and I have eventually to concede the red jumper and the pajamas. She still looks so fixedly at the ink-bottle that I become unnerved, and distract her by an offer of meat-juice tablets—for her husband—and handkerchiefs and safety-pins for herself.
She buys them all and pays me in roubles on the spot. When I put the money away in my bag she says she will buy the bag, and when I hastily thrust the bag into my suitcase she says she will buy the suitcase.
I get her out of the room at last by giving her a lip-stick as a sort of bonus, like a pound of tea for a cash sale.
When, in the passage outside, I refer to our morning's work she says, "Hush Not so loud," and I realize that the whole transaction has been an illicit one and that Comrade Stalin would disapprove. We might perhaps even find ourselves, like the ill-conducted poet, constructing a new bridge across the Neva.
All the same, if I'd known what a shortage there is of pretty, brightly colored odds and ends in the Soviet Republic, I think I should have brought a great many more of them with me—and not only for the sake of turning a doubtfully honest rouble out of them either.
One morning Peter and I go to Kolominsky escorted by the Little Monster. She says it is an ancient monastery, and when we get there it looks like an ancient monastery but she recants and says it was a Palace of Ivan the Terrible. I don't know which she means. Prefer to think of it as a monastery.
Much the most peaceful spot I have seen in Russia—no Comrades, no reconstruction, not even a picture of Lenin with outstretched arm and clenched fist.
Just as I am sitting on a stone wall under the lime trees and looking down at the fields and the river, the guide tells me that on this exact spot Ivan the Terrible used to watch the peasants being flogged.
It is a great pity she cannot let well alone. However, it is to-day that we hear her, for the first and last time, make a joke. On the way back to the tram, passing through a tiny village, we see a little calf lying on the roadside, with a small pig nuzzling affectionately against it, both of them fast asleep in the sunshine.
Even the swivel eye of the Little Monster softens as she gazes down at them and she says:
"Look! In a Socialist state—no prejudice!"
For the moment, as we all three laugh, she seems quite human.
It doesn't last. She becomes as hortatory and tiresome as ever long before the tram has lurched back into Moscow with us, and makes us get off at the wrong stop, so that we have to walk several additional miles to Peter's hotel.
"It still seems odd to be lunching at four o'clock."
"Yes, doesn't it? Shall you have Bortsch again to-day?"
"Yes, I like it."
"How fortunate you are. But their fish is better than their meat, and the ice cream is good."
"Excellent. Much, much better than the compote."
"Oh, the compote!"
We do not describe the compote to each other. It is not necessary, as we have met it, both here and in Leningrad, at every meal. We know all about the rather tough, acid little fruits in the top of the glass dish and the sliced apple below and the two rather consoling little bits of tinned apricot at the very bottom. Curious, how very much one seems to think and talk about one's food in Moscow.
Also one's drink. The mineral water is good but expensive. The ordinary, plain water—what, in any other country, would be the drinking-water—arrives on the table boiled. And very well-advised too. But either the boiling or its own natural properties have turned it pale yellow and given it a strange smell and a very peculiar taste. The remaining alternative, since neither of us drinks wine, and the beer—which is excellent—is a ruinous price—is tea in a glass.
Meals, it is scarcely necessary to say, take a very long time in Russia. Hours elapse between the moment of sitting down, and detaching from its book the coupon that represents food, and the moment when the waiter comes to take one's order. Hours more between each course. (The coupon entitles one to three courses. I have never tried to ask for a second helping, but I don't think the coupon would run to it.)
The tea comes at the very end, and is always much too hot to drink, and so necessitates another long wait.
Sometimes Peter and I talk like the thoughtful and intelligent people we really are, and discuss Socialism, and Communism, and tell each other that we really ought to have seen Russia before the Revolution in order to judge of the vast improvement effected. (When Peter says this to me it is very reasonable. When I say it to him it is simply idiotic, as before the Revolution he was an infant in the nursery.)
Sometimes we discuss our neighbors.
"I saw that man over there when I was in Batum. He speaks Dutch."
"Does he? Yes, he looks as though he might. There are some Germans at my hotel. They've made friends with Mrs. Pansy Baker and she went with them to see an abortion clinic—and a boot-factory."
"What fun. Have you seen a single pretty woman yet in Russia?"
"No. Have you?"
Once, when a blonde with black eyelashes and a tightly fitting white frock comes in and sits down all by herself at the table next to ours, Peter hisses at me through his teeth:
"If ever there was one, I'll take my oath that's one of what we know there aren't any of in Russia!"
I understand him perfectly.
In Russia now, we have repeatedly been told, there are no prostitutes.
They have all been collected and placed in a sort of Home of Rest, like aged horses in England.
It is, I believe, possible to go and visit them. I suppose if we ever do, they will be expected to answer any indiscreet question that any of us may, through the guide, elect to ask them.
I think, on the whole, I won't visit the prostitutes.
Sometimes Peter and I just talk about England, and Hartland Quay, and the Fourth of June at Eaton, and people we both know in London or Devonshire. It feels like looking back into another life, and on those occasions—which are generally in the small hours of the morning after a gruelling day of trams, comrades, museums, clinics, and factories—I go past the Kremlin, the fir trees, and the Mausoleum without so much as noticing them. I go on down the hill, and past the reconstruction on the river-bank, where the drill is hard at it, and into my hotel.
The dining room is brightly lit and full of people, and a little orchestra is playing "Sous les Toits de Paris"—as it does nightly.
I look in as I go by.
Mrs. Pansy Baker, the American communist, it at a table with her Germans, talking to them very earnestly. She is saying: "I have had a sad life."
I think this must be the beginning of a reference to Mr. Baker. Very likely he too has had a sad life.
In my bedroom is one cockroach. I don't like it at all. But it is headed toward the door, which I civilly hold open for it, and out it goes. A lull in the reconstruction work has set in, and I think what a good moment this will be in which to go to sleep.
The orchestra, now playing something very odd that I keep on thinking I know but can't identify, is nothing. Sometimes I win this nightly race with the reconstruction, sometimes I don't.
To-night it has only reculé pour mieux sauter, And they have got quite a new tool to work with—something like a hammer, dropping slowly down a flight of steps, over and over again, one step at a time. At last it drops once too often, and they don't pick it up again.
We are back once more at "Sous les Toits de Paris." Sur les lits de Moscou...
There is no unemployment in the Soviet Union: everybody can, and indeed must, work; and so far as I know, everybody does. As a kind of offset to this universal activity, everybody—when not working—sits about and waits.
At the Leningrad Hotel I also sit about and wait. I wait for the Intourist Bureau to telephone the people to whom I have brought letters of introduction. I wait for the lift, which has just taken three Comrades upstairs, to come down again—which it never does. I wait for my ten o'clock supper—ordered at nine, and brought—with any luck—at about eleven. I sit in the hall and wait, for nothing in particular. I am becoming Russianized.
A very old man comes in, wearing a fur cap and a coat. (Ancien régime, like a picture in an old nurserybook.) He sits down on a fraction of a bench which is already occupied by two French ladies, a girl in a blouse and skirt, and a Comrade smoking a cigarette.
There are never enough seats to go round in the hotel. Most of the people who come in and wait have to wait on their feet, leaning against walls. They do it fatalistically, obviously inured. The enormous shabby portfolios they all carry—like degraded music-cases—lie at their feet.
What, I wonder, are all these cases? They can't all be carrying important secret documents for the Government. Yet all the Comrades have portfolios, except the very old man who has a newspaper parcel instead, from which protrudes the tail of a fish. Perhaps the Comrades who are less ancien régime carry their fish in portfolios? The old man, I am sorry to say, spits.
I turn my attention elsewhere. An English tourist has come into the office, and I know by the brisk and businesslike way in which he begins that he is newly arrived and has no experience of Russian methods—unlike me. (At this I feel elderly and superior, and think of Julia Mills amid the Desert of Sahara.)
"There's a man I want to get hold of as soon as possible," says the Englishman blithely. "I haven't got his address, but you'll find him in the telephone book. Harrison, the name is."
"You do not know where he lives?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Not in which street is his apartment?"
"No. But he'll be in the telephone book."
"Perhaps you know where is his office?"
"Not in which street is his office?"
"I only know that his name is Harrison, and he's in Leningrad, and you'll find him in the telephone book."
"Ah, But you have not his address."
"It'll be in the telephone book."
There is a long silence. At this stage—for I have heard this dialogue before, and have often taken part in it myself—some English tourists, and most American ones, look round for the telephone book and swoop down upon it. This Englishman, however, is of inferior mettle. Or perhaps he has Russian blood in him.
Presently Intourist utters once more:
"He has a telephone number?"
"Yes. He'll be in the book."
"Ah, It is at his house or at his office, the telephone?"
"His office, I think."
"And the name it is Harrison?"
Faint demonstrations of searching for the book.
"The book it is not here. I will send."
A young blonde, who has, to my certain knowledge, been standing waiting for the better part of an hour, is sent to fetch the book. Perhaps it is for that and nothing else that she has been waiting? Intourist waits, the Englishman waits, we all wait.
The French ladies on the bench have begun to mutter to one another, low and venomously.
"Mais voilè—elle n'a pas de cceur. Tout simplement. Elle manque de coeur."
"Ça, par exemple—non!"
"Moi, je vous dis que si."
"Moi, je vous dis que non."
The very old man has now, I think, fallen into a coma. What an abominable thing it is to keep him waiting all this time! He is a hard-working peasant, and his haughty employer, the Grand Duke, is upstairs drinking champagne—
What am I thinking of? The poor Grand Duke is, if fortunate, giving dancing lessons somewhere on the Riviera. The old man is a worker, a Comrade—he is quite all right.
Still I don't think they need keep him waiting such a very long while.
Presently the blonde returns with the telephone book, and Intourist begins to turn over the leaves, and to say once more:
"Ah, Harrison," Along pause.
"No. He is not here,"
"But I think he must be. I say, would you mind if I had a look?"
The Englishman has a look, and runs Harrison to ground in a moment.
"Here he is! A. M. Harrison—that's the man."
"Ah? He is in the book?"
Intourist is only mildly surprised, and not in the least interested. The blonde, in a thoughtful way, says into space:
The voices of the French ladies surge upward once more.
"Ah! son mari! Comme je le plains!"
"Et moi, non. Au contraire."
I should like to know more of the ménage under discussion—they can't both be right—but they shrug their shoulders simultaneously, glare, and say nothing more.
The Harrison quest goes on. I say to myself, we are progressing slowly, ma'am. If I knew as many quotations from Shakespeare or Plato, or even Karl Marx, as I do from Dickens, I should hold a very different, and much more splendid, place in the ranks of the literary.
"You want that I should telephone to him, yes?"
"Please. If you will."
But not at once.
"It is his apartment or his office?"
"Well, I don't really know—but whichever number is in the book will find him, I expect."
"I will try," says Intourist pessimistically.
They know, and I know, that their pessimism is justified. The Englishman, as yet, does not know.
He waits—I suppose hopefully—and the telephone is brought into action.
It is customary—necessary, for all I know to the contrary—to shriek, rather than speak into it, and the first fifteen "Allo's" meet with no acknowledgment. Then something happens. The Exchange has replied.
The two French ladies, tired of looking angrily at each other, turn their heads; the blonde lifts hers from its apathetic angle; only the old man is unmoved. (Disgraceful, that he should have been ignored so long. I believe no one has so much as asked him what he wants. Hotel servants the same all the world over, Comrades or no Comrades.)
"Shall I—?" says the Englishman, ready to leap at the receiver.
"The number is bee-zy,"
"It is bee-zy, If you will wait a little I will try once more."
We all settle down again.
A woman with a baby—and a portfolio—comes into the hotel with a businesslike air, and goes up and speaks to the porter in Russian.
Like Jove, I think, and ought to be pleased to find that I am moving a step away from Dickens and toward the classics; but on the other hand I like Dickens, and I don't even know the classics.
The woman with the baby sits down, in the absence of any unoccupied chair, on a marble step leading to the barber's shop, and waits.
I wonder what amount of information Jove can have conveyed to her in that single nod, for her to know—as she presumably does—that it is going to be worth her while to sit down and wait.
Presently the French ladies get up. They both say "Eh bien!" and the one who didn't pity the husband adds: "A quelque chose, malheur est bon" in a philosophical way.
They move toward the lift, their mysterious allusions for ever unexplained.
Not that they leave us immediately. Far from it. They have to wait for the lift. Then they have to wait because the lift can take only four people, and there are already three inside it and they decline—fiercely—to go separately.
"Mais passez donc—"
"Non, non, non. Allez, je vous en prie."
"Mais non, mais non. Allez, vous—"
A solitary Ukranian, who has been waiting—probably for the lift—for hours, is encouraged by the liftman to take advantage of this indecision and fill the vacant place.
He does so, and the French ladies are left, shrugging their shoulders again. One of them says that it is "fantastique."
The bench on which the old man of the ancien régime is sitting has now two vacant places, which are at once filled by four people. They take advantage of the old man's state of suspended animation to shove him and his fish to the extremest edge of the seat. I think that presently he will fall off.
The Englishman is still seeking his Harrison.
"I should think you might give them another ring now."
"I will try."
The effort is made.
"There is no reply from that number."
"No. I think it is his office. It does not answer,"
"But there must be somebody there."
"There is nobody there. To-day it is the day of rest. The offices are all shut."
The Englishman is staggered. I can positively see the thoughts flying through his mind.
Tuesday, the day of rest? By Jove, yes! there are no Sundays in Russia now, but they have a holiday every sixth day. Then why on earth couldn't they say so sooner? Of course the offices would be shut. Good God, what a country!
"I suppose I'd better try again to-morrow morning," he says angrily. "Unless you could ask the Exchange if they know the number of his private house?"
"You want to ask the telephone number of his house?"
"If they can give it to you."
"Ah. I can ask them, if you wish,"
He does wish.
A little boy with a shaven head and bare feet and carrying a small attaché-case, comes in and adds to the congestion.
The lift returns and the two French ladies, after a few passes as to which of them shall enter it first, get inside. Then they wait again while the lift-man looks for a singleton passenger. He may not take more than four people at a time, but is determined not to take less.
The Englishman is now leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Russia is growing on him, I can see it plainly.
"They ring his apartment," says Intourist. "They say there is no reply."
"He must be away."
"He is bee-zy, Or perhaps he is seek."
These are the favorite alternatives of Intourist when a telephone connection is unobtainable. They do not say that the number is engaged or the telephone out of order. They make the less impersonal suggestion that the owner of the required number is either busy—too busy presumably to answer his telephone calls—or that he is ill.
The Englishman says that he supposes he must wait till to-morrow. Already he seems to me to be wilting slightly.
As he moves away from the Intourist Bureau he stops and reads a notice informing him that excursions will start punctually at ten o'clock each morning and tourists must on no account be late. I wonder if he believes it?
Perhaps I have been here long enough, and ought to give up my chair to one of the numerous Comrades who are standing about doing nothing. I am not really waiting for anything in particular—only just waiting. But I should like to see somebody pay a little attention to the ancient in the fur cap. He has been waiting longer than anybody else and has probably got rooted to his minute fragment of the bench by this time.
Comrades come and Comrades go, the blonde in the office folds her arms on a table and lays her head upon them, the Englishman buys a copy of the Moscow Daily News and reads about abortion—at least I suppose he does, as the papers devote much more space to that than to any other subject—and the Comrade with the cigarette gets up and is followed by the Comrade in the blouse and skirt, who has been sitting next him all the time but with whom he has never exchanged word or look. But they go away arm-in-arm and are, no doubt, husband and wife in the sight of Stalin.
Other people drift in, and take their places, and wait. The old man comes out of his coma. He is going to demand attention, to insist upon doing whatever it is that he has come to do, and for which he has waited so interminably. Not at all. He picks up his fish, rises very slowly to his feet, and walks out again into the street. He came, apparently, for the express purpose of sitting and waiting, and for nothing else. How little he knows that he has supplied me with the title for this article.
As my Russian visit draws to an end, I feel that the time has come for me to speak my mind about the Soviet Republic.
But to whom? My fellow-travelers all have opinions of their own which they regard, rightly or wrongly, as being of more value than mine. Most of them are pessimistic and declare that they don't ever want to come back again, and that the Crimea was lovely but the plugs in the hotels wouldn't pull, and Moscow was interesting but very depressing.
Some, on the other hand—like Mrs. Pansy Baker, the American communist—are wholly enthusiastic. (There is no juste milieu where the Soviet is concerned.) How splendid it all is, they cry, and how fine to see everybody busy, happy, and cared for. As for the institutions—the crèches, the schools, the public parks, and the prisons—all, without any qualification whatsoever, are perfect. Russia has nothing left to learn.
It would be idle to argue with them. For the matter of that, it is almost always idle to argue with anybody.
In Russia it is not only idle but practically impossible. One had thought of Russia, in one's out-of-date bourgeois way, as a country of tremendous discussions—of long evenings spent in splendid talk round the samovar—of abstract questions thrashed out between earnest thinkers. All that must have gone out with the Grand Dukes, the beautiful women, the borzois, the sables, and the diamonds.
The Comrades do not discuss; they assert. They contradict. They admit of no criticism whatever.
Nothing could be more difficult or, probably, more unprofitable, than to speak one's mind in Russia concerning one's impressions of Russia. But all the same, I shall try. After all, it's my turn. For weeks and weeks I have followed meekly in the wake of pert and rather aggressive young women, who have told me how vastly superior everything in the U.S.S.R. is to everything in my own Capitalistic country (where they have never set foot).
And although several of the guides have been neither pert nor aggressive, but very obliging and friendly, even they have smiled rather pityingly at any comment other than one of unqualified approval.
In fact, the U.S.S.R., like the Pope, is infallible, and whereas the Pope's claim has at least the dignity of some two thousand years of experience behind it, that of the U.S.S.R. has not.
I shall speak my mind before I leave the country. I am resolved upon it. And I shall have to do it fairly soon too. Odessa is my last stopping-place. A Russian boat is to take me to Constantinople in a week's time.
There is a very intelligent Russian in the hotel. He is a doctor and has lived for several years in the United States. I shall speak my mind to the Russian doctor.
We often sit at the same table for breakfast. Surely he would welcome an impartial discussion of the state of his country from an intelligent visitor?
"I shall be leaving next week, I am going to Turkey and then back to England. Everything I have seen in Russia has been most interesting."
This is not perhaps literally true—but then, so very few statements ever are. After the first fifty, for instance, none of the pictures of Lenin and Stalin was in the least interesting. But it will do, I think, to start the impartial discussion.
"You find Soviet Russia interesting? Yes, that is what everybody says,"
Well, it wasn't a very original opening. I see that now, and wish that I had thought of something new and brilliant instead.
"But," says the Russian doctor, "it is quite impossible for you to form any correct opinion of the country unless you knew it before the Revolution."
Then I've been wasting the whole of my time?
"No one can judge of the New Russia who did not know intimately, over a period of many years and from the inside, the Old Russia."
The only reply I can think of to this is Good God! and I do not make it aloud. But really, if I left home and children and country and spent months of discomfort in places I haven't liked, only to learn at the end of it all that none of my collected impressions are of any value whatever, it does seem rather discouraging. The Russian doctor is either unaware of or indifferent to the blow that he has dealt.
"Many people make that mistake," he remarks somberly. "They think that because they have visited with an interpreter a few museums, schools, hospitals they know something about this country. They do not. They know nothing."
In that case I ought to get a refund from Intourist. They sent me out here on entirely false pretenses.
"Another thing," continues the doctor, evidently warming to his work, "not only is it impossible to know anything about Soviet Russia without a profound knowledge of Russia under the Tzars; it is also absolutely impossible to judge of it in any way correctly at the present date. For that you would have to come again, say in twenty years' time."
How unreasonable he is. If I come to Russia again in twenty years—which God forbid—it will be in a bath-chair.
"So it would really take a whole lifetime," I dejectedly suggest, "to understand exactly what is happening in the Soviet?"
"More than a lifetime. Two or three generations."
I give up, altogether, the idea of speaking my mind about the U.S.S.R. to the Russian doctor. I must find somebody else.
I am inspired to choose one of the Odessa Intourist guides. She has a more pliable outlook than most of them and is married to an Austrian husband. She has been abroad, to France and Austria and America.
"Did you like America?"
"Yeah, America was fine."
"Perhaps some day you will go back there. Would you like to go back?"
"Perhaps. But it is not a free country,"
"Not a free country?"
"The workers there are slaves. The women are slaves," says the guide firmly.
"I really don't think they are. American women always seem to me to have a great deal of liberty."
"No. They have no liberty. They cannot do the work that the men do."
"But I don't think they want to."
"In the Socialist state a woman is the equal of a man in every way. She can become a mechanic, an engineer, a bricklayer, a mason. If she is expecting a child she does no work for two months before and one month after it is born, and she gets her money just the same while she is nursing the child—"
I know all this. I have heard it, and more than once, from every guide in every town that I have visited. The treatment of the expectant mother is the cheval-de-bataille of the whole Soviet system—and a very respectable cheval, too—but it cannot, surely, be the answer to every question, the triumphant last word in every discussion?
"I think the care that the Government takes of mothers and children in Russia is most excellent—but on the other hand, there is not very much individual freedom for women in the upbringing of their children. It is all really in the hands of the State."
"The children are very happy. You have seen the crèches, the little beds for them to sleep on in the daytime, yes? Each child has its own toothbrush."
"I know. But the mothers don't see very much of them, do they, if they only have them home at night?"
"In the daytime they are at work. They have the right to work."
"Supposing they didn't want to work, and would look after their children at home?"
"Some of the women become Stakhanovite workers. Then they have privileges given to them—an extra room or a wireless or perhaps a car. We have many like that."
Yes, I know that too. In every factory there is a board bearing photographs of the Stakhanovite workers—who are usually distinguished for their capability rather than for their looks.
I cannot help feeling that the guide is not keeping to the point of the discussion—or even trying to do so.
"The experiment that is being tried over here is most interesting, but it seems to me to allow very little scope for individuality. Isn't that one of the drawbacks to the Communist system?"
"There are no drawbacks to the Communist system."
One looks at her in mingled admiration and despair. Admiration because she has been drilled into such blind and stubborn loyalty to her employers, and despair because it is so obviously impossible to conduct any discussion on such a basis.
I make one more effort.
"But surely there must be a few drawbacks to every system, to begin with, until it has been perfected. For instance, the complete lack of privacy must be trying, such a number of people all living in one or two rooms. Even in the hospitals. I suppose there's no such thing as a private ward."
"Here in Odessa, on the way to the sea, the houses that used to belong to rich people have all been converted into sanatoria for the workers. Those who need it are sent out here for a month, two months, as they require, by their trades unions."
"I know. I've seen them."
"There are beautiful gardens to those houses. They can sit there. And they can go and bathe in the sea."
"That's splendid. Do the workers who need a holiday choose where they go or is it settled for them?"
"They are told by the Government where to go for their holidays."
"That's what I meant. There isn't a great deal of freedom. Don't some of them feel they'd rather decide those things for themselves?"
"Sometimes the doctor orders special treatment. We have near here very celebrated mud-baths that cure all kinds of rheumatism."
It is like a conversation from an old-fashioned travel book:
"'Where is the band-box containing hats of which I asked you to take care, you good-for-nothing fellow?'
"'Sir, if you and your lady will rest awhile at the Inn, there is a fine view of Mont Blanc to be obtained from the parlor window.'"
Nothing is to be gained by going on talking with the guide. I shall have to speak my mind elsewhere.
But how difficult it is! Russians do not want one to speak one's mind. It is true that they like to talk, but they do not in the least like to listen. Least of all, do they like to listen to criticism of any kind. Well, perhaps they have their reasons for that. Only once do I go so far as to ask the lady who shows us round a Palace of the Pioneers in Rostov whether she would not like to visit some similar institutions in England or in America.
"Have you such things in England and America?"
"Yes, certainly. They are not called Palaces of the Pioneers, but we have technical schools and kindergartens and clubs for children and young people."
(The Palace of the Pioneers partakes of the nature of all these institutions, and has a really excellent marionette-show in a special little theater, into the bargain.)
"If you visited some of these places in other countries you could compare them with your own. It would be very interesting."
"No," says the Comrade, employing the simple form of flat contradiction favored by so many of the Comrades. "No, it would not be interesting. We do not wish to see how things are done in capitalist countries. When the foundation is wrong the building cannot be right. We know that our way is better."
I should like to tell her the story of the two Army chaplains, of whom the Church of England padre said to his Roman Catholic colleague:
"After all, you and I are both serving the same God," and met with the reply:
"Yes, indeed. You in your way, and I in His."
But if I did tell her she wouldn't think it funny, nor would she see its application to the official attitude of the U.S.S.R.
One can only congratulate the Government on the thoroughness with which it has seen to it that everyone coming into contact with foreign visitors upholds the theory that Soviet Russia has attained to earthly perfection within the past twenty years and has no longer anything to learn.
I wish one could talk to the old people or the people living in remote villages or the few remaining White Russians who still stay on and contrive somehow to live.
Stories filter through, from time to time...of people who try to get away and can't, of people who live hunted lives, in cellars, of people who are serving long terms of forced labor, as prisoners...Nobody really knows the truth.
It is evident that enormous progress is being made all over the country in civilization, and that the coming generation is to have a fair chance of acquiring health, and education and a limited amount of culture. (Limited, because everything is forbidden that is not directly in sympathy with Communist ideals, and because no society from which individualism is excluded can ever hope to produce creative artists.)
Perhaps it is inevitable that a country which has fought its way from centuries of tyranny and ignorance through bloody civil war, into the throes of a colossal rebirth should meet criticism with this blind, aggressive self-assertion. All the same, it is very far from prejudicing one in favor of the Soviet system to find so many of its exponents without humor, without manners, and without imagination.
I am leaving Russia. I sail from Odessa for Istanbul to-night. I have still not spoken my mind.
In defiance of repeated instructions from Intourist—and also from many of my fellow-travelers—to the effect that "tips are neither expected nor required in the Soviet Union," I have tipped several of the hotel servants, and they have accepted my offerings without the slightest demur.
I have said good-by to Intourist, and they to me, without very much abandon on either side.
I have packed. I have spent hours and hours debating within myself the best means of taking out of Russia a thirty-thousand-word manuscript containing my impressions of my travels. Sometimes I think that the general atmosphere of intrigue and mystery, so characteristic of the country, has quite gone to my head, and that there is in reality no reason at all why I shouldn't pack the manuscript in the ordinary way, among spongebags and pajamas. At other times—mostly in the middle of the night, when judgments always tend to become melodramatic—I see the Customs officials seizing the manuscript, and the police seizing me, and each of us being taken away in different directions. And I wonder how I shall be able to explain the position to my publishers.
I have asked advice twice—which is a grave mistake because each adviser says something quite different. Both, however, are agreed that the Customs officials are a great deal more interested in books, papers, manuscripts, and films than in any other form of contraband. This interest is manifested not only when one enters the country but, even more actively, when one leaves it.
Finally, I am decided by the frightful story of an American journalist in the Odessa Hotel who tells me that he once wrote half a novel while he was in Russia and put it in his suitcase to take to America, only to have to part with it at the Customs.
"They said they'd have to look through it," he disconsolately remarks. "That was eighteen months ago, and I guess they're still looking."
"Was it about Russia?"
"No. It was about night life in New York."
"Did you tell them that?"
"Sure I did. But they couldn't any of them read English, so they took it away to find someone who could."
I think of my own manuscript, entirely written in pencil, and feel that it may well take a very long while indeed before any persons are found who can read it. And when they do, they almost certainly won't like it.
"If you've written anything at all that you want to take home with you," says the American journalist significantly, "just carry it under your coat or somewhere. You'll find it saves a very great deal of time."
I think he is right.
He is less right when he adds: "It's only for a few minutes after all."
In my experience of Russia nothing is ever done there in the space of a few minutes.
With an agreeable feeling that I am being like someone in a novel all about international gangs, I lock the door of my bedroom and proceed to wedge the manuscript against my spine, under my elastic belt.
It is agony. I shall never endure it for five minutes, let alone five hours. I remove the hard cover of the manuscript, find quite another part of my spine, and try again. Bad, but endurable.
If I put on my loose coat now I shall be much too hot, but I defy anybody to notice anything abnormal in my back view.
Besides, I shall face them all the time, and look them straight in the eyes with that directness of gaze which is well known to be the outward sign of utter rectitude of spirit.
The least agreeable of the guides has been given the task of seeing off the departing tourists. There are only six of us: two Swedish astronomers, who came to see the eclipse of the sun, an elderly English couple, a young American college boy, and myself.
We drive down to the docks. I see the last of the beautiful crescent of houses above the sea-front, the last of the two-hundred steps down to the Black Sea, the last of Karl Marx preening himself on the pedestal originally occupied by the (probably better-looking) statue of the Empress Catherine, the last of the town that I have liked best of all those I have visited in the U.S.S.R.
I have no regrets. If I had any I shouldn't be in a position to indulge in them, partly because I am preoccupied by the displeasing thought that if I get much hotter most of my manuscript will probably become blurred and undecipherable, and partly because I feel ill.
Either the black bread, the salad-grown in a drain?—or the drinking-water has chosen this inconvenient moment for taking its toll of me.
If I faint—and I feel as though, between the heat, my coat, and my indisposition, I certainly shall—someone will have the brilliant idea of loosening my clothes, and the manuscript will fall out, and I shall come to under a strong police guard...
I do not faint. Instead, I get out of the car with everybody else, and we all go into a shed on the docks and the inevitable wait begins, and goes on, and goes on, and goes on.
A great number of rather dégommés-looking Comrades are scattered about the long shed, all engaged in their usual occupation of waiting. Their luggage includes bedding, little hand-carts, bundles of wraps (one of which startles me by suddenly turning out to be an old woman), bags, boxes, and the customary mysterious portfolios.
Some of the Comrades eat dried fish. Some of them sleep. Almost all of them cough and spit.
"I wonder what we're waiting for," says the elderly Englishwoman.
She can't have been very long in Russia.
But the guide—as usual—has her answer.
"They are not yet ready," she says.
"The Customs officers?"
"They are busy."
As there are none of them in sight, the guide can't possibly know if they're busy or not. She just says it automatically. I admire the spirit of the elderly Englishwoman who replies at once that they ought to be busy over our luggage, not over anything else.
The guide, for once, has nothing to say, and we all continue to await the pleasure of the Customs officials.
(By this time most of my penciled records must have come off on my back.)
A little baby, swaddled to the eyebrows in shawls, screams and howls from behind its mullings—as well it may. Nobody unwraps it or takes much notice.
Nobody seems to be taking much notice of anything. We are all sunk in fatalistic apathy. It is an atmosphere that seems very characteristic of a Russian gathering. Even when the officials at last crawl in, one at a time, from an inner office, nobody is in the least excited.
One or two of the people nearest the counter heave their luggage on to it and then turn aside in a dejected way, as though knowing that nothing is really going to happen yet, and ashamed of their own misguided impetuosity.
Only the elderly English couple, stalwart and determined, march up with their solid, respectable-looking suitcases and take up their stand in front of the counter. The guards at Waterloo probably looked like that, only with better effect; for the French are more impressionable than the Soviet Comrades, by a very long way.
The college boy is consulting the guide about his films and his photographs. He has been consulting everybody about them throughout the last two days. His predicament is very far from being peculiar to himself.
He has been in Russia four weeks and has taken a great many snapshots. Belatedly, he has discovered that no undeveloped films will be allowed to leave the country. Very well—he will have them developed and printed in Moscow. He does and is asked to pay a sum in roubles that would handsomely buy up films, photographs, camera, and all, twice over. We have all heard of this outrage and we have all assured him, with varying degrees of sympathy, that the same thing has happened to other tourists in the U.S.S.R. before now.
He seems unable to believe it. I watch him walking agitatedly to and fro, until a new wave of nausea comes over me and I clutch the sides of my bench and pass into a brief, unpleasant coma.
When I emerge, wet through and with the manuscript surely in worse case than ever, the college boy and his films are being dealt with by the officials. Strip after strip of negatives is being unrolled, held up to the light, and scrutinized. The inspection requires the full attention of all the Customs officials—not one is left to attend to anybody else.
The Comrades, seeming neither surprised nor resentful, continue to cough, spit, sleep, or eat fish. The crying baby, still muffled, is being carried up and down by a young man with a beard, who holds a book in one hand and reads as he walks. (Culture)
The tourists mutter a little among themselves at the new delay, but are, I think, supported by the hope of some dramatic discovery, such as that the films include a snapshot of the interior of the Kremlin (where nobody, except officials is now allowed to set foot) or a complete set of naval and military plans of the utmost importance.
Nothing of the kind happens.
However, the last roll of all, which the American youth has not had the sense to slip into his pocket, has not been developed. It is, says the young man, nothing. Just some pictures of the scenery in the Crimea.
Officials of any other nation might be expected to take one of two courses: either to accept this statement and pass the films or to reject it and confiscate them.
In Russia, the situation apparently calls for the formation of a kind of minor parliament. The original officials send for more and higher officials, who come out of the main office one by one, mostly in shirtsleeves, and gather solemnly round the little red cylinder lying on the counter.
The Intourist guide hovers about, talking a great deal and looking anxious.
"If you like, they will keep and have develop' and send after you."
"That'll be very expensive, won't it?"
The guide shrugs her shoulders. We all know that it will be very expensive—and very uncertain into the bargain.
"Better let them go," advises the Englishwoman.
Her husband supports her, though he adds sternly that the principle of the thing is all wrong from start to finish.
The college boy, muttering that it's disgraceful, decides to let the films go. Twelve views of the Crimea scenery are lost for ever to the United States of America.
Nobody else's luggage yields anything sensational.
Mine is the last to be examined, owing to the qualms of sickness which keep on breaking over me and preventing me from moving.
Perhaps I am, after all, starting one of the illnesses against which I was solemnly inoculated before leaving England. I suppose inoculations wear off after a time?
If it's smallpox they won't let me leave the country.
Say nothing about it.
I would rather die at sea than in Russia.
"What is this?"
"It is a book you got in Russia?"
Obviously, it is a book I got in Russia. It is a large album with Russian text, containing some beautiful reproductions of the pictures in the gallery of Western Art at Moscow.
As it is large and heavy I have packed it in the bottom of my suitcase, and from thence it is extracted—with a bad effect on all the layers of things above it.
The conscientious Customs official looks through every single page of it. I do not know what he expects to find hidden between them. Perhaps he just likes pictures.
My other books get off lightly—so do my clothes. My letter-case is turned inside out, my very small diary severely scrutinized, upside down.
I am asked to open my hand-bag.
What shall I do if they suggest searching me?
They do not.
They repack my suitcase, quite obligingly, and shut it up again—the heavy Russian album is now on the top of my clothes instead of underneath them—and I have passed the Customs.
"Can I go through to the boat now?"
"You must wait a little," says the guide kindly. "You are tired, yes?"
I am, in my own opinion, at the point of death—but I do not say so.
"It's rather hot in here."
"There are many people."
The Comrades certainly do look numerous as they crowd round the long, dirty wooden counter on which their belongings are now being opened and examined.
The guide keeps on looking at me—no doubt I am pale green by now—and I feel I ought to distract her attention.
Would this be a good opportunity for speaking my mind, for the first and last time, in the Soviet Republic? It must be now or never.
Quite suddenly a crisis supervenes between the Customs officials and a middle-aged and rather battered-looking Comrade. He shouts, and they shout, he tries to get out at the far door that leads to where the boat is lying, and is prevented.
"What is the matter?"
"His passport is not in order. He cannot leave."
"He is upset because his family, they will have to go."
"He cannot go. His passport is not in order."
"But they'll stay behind with him, won't they?"
"No, they will have to go. It is all arranged."
How very dreadful this is...The unfortunate Comrade with the defective passport is now in tears on our side of the counter and his family on the other—two women, a little boy, a baby, and the grandmother whom I mistook for a bundle.
They say good-by, in a very spectacular way, across the counter, though I think there is really no reason why they should not all be on the same side.
"When will he be able to join them?"
"I cannot say."
"I think it would be far better if they all waited together till his papers have been put in order."
"No," says the guide. "They cannot. They have given up their room. There is nowhere for them to be now except the ship."
And I realize that what she says is quite true.
The Swedish astronomers look disturbed, and say "Poor things!" and the college boy gives it as his considered opinion that Russia is not a free country, no, sir, it is not.
The unfortunate family are saying good-by again, and the baby is being handed to and fro across the counter repeatedly. It makes me, if possible, feel dizzier than before and I can watch them no longer.
The far door has been opened. I go out—manuscript and all—along the dock and up the gangway and onto the waiting boat.
I am off the soil of Soviet Russia.
In the very next berth to ours lies the Jan Rudzutak, in which I sailed from London Docks to Leningrad months and months ago.
Time and the hour, I think sententiously, ride through the roughest day. And on the whole, I have found it a fairly rough day.
But it ends on a note of unforeseen brightness.
The Comrade whom I left in such trouble among the officials is, at the eleventh hour, after all allowed to sail. He is hustled up the gangway and into the steerage and all his family receive him with cries and screams, and the baby is again bandied about from hand to hand.
"But how did he get through if his passport wasn't in order?"
"Definitely, by bribery," says the English traveler.
He brings forward no particular evidence to support this statement, and I shall never know whether it is really true or not. But I think that most probably it is.
So I go down to my dirty little cabin and retrieve my manuscript and find it less damaged than I expected, and ask a steward if I can have a little brandy to restore me (but none comes), and have every intention of going on deck to see the last of Soviet Russia, but find, after all, that I can't stir and must remain, ignominiously prone, until I feel better.
The ship has begun to move. The journey away from Russia has started.
In a few minutes I think I shall be asleep, although a Russian loud-speaker is blaring jazz somewhere on deck, and a group of Comrades, apparently exactly outside the porthole, is discussing the Government's new suggestion of making abortion illegal—just as it is in capitalist countries.
I wish I had spoken my mind, just once, in the U.S.S.R. Even though I know that nobody would have paid any attention to it, and even though it occurs to me to wonder whether I am absolutely certain of what my mind really is, concerning the new Russia.
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