USSR IN THE BEGINNING OF THE 1930S – FESTIVITIES AND WORKDAYS IN THE YEARS OF GREAT ACHIEVEMENTS
You are welcome to read some pages of the book “Caviar
for breakfast”. It was written by an Australian
writer Betty Roland (real name
Mary Isabel Maclean). In 1933-34 she lived and worked in
Tomorrow would be May Day. Already the city was throbbing with excitement. Flags and banners fluttered everywhere and every building displayed a gigantic picture of some national hero. Particularly common were Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin, with Molotov and Voroshilov running a bad second.
Soldiers marched along the streets, singing as they went, their strong resonant voices echoing against stone walls and granite paving. The footpaths were thronged with happy people, walking arm-in-arm, laughing and excited, and the booths that sold kvass and pivo did a brisk trade. In short, the city was en fete.
Throughout the night we were disturbed
by the sound of marching feet and the rumble of tanks and armoured cars that crossed the bridge below our window,
and when we got up and looked outside, an astonishing spectacle met our eyes.
Whichever way we looked there was a solid mass of armed men who stood shoulder
to shoulder, rank after rank. How many thousands there were was not possible
to estimate. They stood in silence, scarcely moving, waiting for the moment
when they would march through the
We dressed and ate a hurried breakfast,
then went to the foyer, where we found the other members of the English party
and waited to be told what we should do. One of the many marvels of this
£21 tour was the guarantee of a seat in the
After a final count of heads and
a warning not on any account to lose our name-tags or become separated from
the group, we were marshalled into a double file
and led across the
For those who have never seen the Red Square it is difficult to visualise its size, its grandeur, and the beauty of the rose-red bricks of its ancient walls, the white palaces, the towers and gilded cupolas of this most romantic citadel, or St Basil's with its pumpkin domes and onion cupolas, in front of it the execution block where criminals and those who displeased the tsars were put to death in a variety of unpleasant ways.
The square starts at the Moskva River and rises gently past St Basil's, Lenin's
tomb, GUM-the enormous glass-roofed marketplace where there is almost nothing
to buy-and on and on, ending at a rather unattractive red brick building
which is a museum. Guido and I were to discover later that it took a full
ten minutes to walk from one end of the
On this morning,
There was a rustle of excitement
as the hierarchy of the Soviet state came into view. Stalin and his cohorts,
Molotov, Kalinin, Budenny,
Litvinov, and the other members of the presidium
took their places on the plinth in front of Lenin's tomb. At precisely ;n
o'clock the clock in the Sparsky Tower began
to strike, the isive gates swung open and Marshal
Voroshilov, mounted on snow-white horse, rode
out to review his men. Massed bands struck up the stirring notes of the Internationale, the soldiers who |
waited half the night for this moment stiffened to attention, M the great
show commenced. First came the oath of allegiance.
Led by Voroshilov, and answered by a thousand
throats, the resonant words rang out at first in the
Next came the review. A rolling tide of cheers marked the passing of the marshal and his staff as they rode between the ranks of the soldiers massed along the square, then into the side streets where the cheers rolled on like some great choir. Finally, he returned, riding at the head of the first column of men. Stalin raised his hand in a salute, and the great march past began.
First came the infantry, marching with a precision that a regiment of English guardsmen might have envied. Then came the cavalry, relics of a fading, more romantic past. Then the tanks, the armoured cars, the anti-aircraft weapons —wicked-looking guns pointed towards the sky. Searchlights, field kitchens, ambulances, not in hundreds but in thousands, rank after rank of military might that flowed through the square like a flood of lava while the sky above was dense with aircraft, the roar of their engines mingling with the thunder of the mechanised army below. The crowd went wild, shouting and cheering and waving their arms until they were exhausted, but still the mighty spectacle went on.
When the last tank had rumbled out of sight there came the ordinary people, not in sternly disciplined ranks but in a wild, disorderly mass, shouting, singing, dancing, waving flags and banners, carrying effigies of John Bull and Uncle Sam, twin symbols of the hated bourgeoisie. It is significant to note that at this point the foreign diplomats withdrew to avoid having to take offence at this disrespect shown to the symbols of their countries.
Betty and Guido initially came to
14 August. It is not all work and no play at
the Co-op Pub. Theatre parties are arranged by Sergeievna;
we also see an occasional ballet or an opera, all by favour of the beneficent trade union. Last free day we were the guests of the dreaded Political
Police, the OGPU (pronounced O-Gay-Pay-Ou), formerly the Cheka.
They are the state's chief instrument of terror but showed another side of
their character by inviting us to spend the day at a former monastery some
twenty miles down the
The OGPU are universally feared, but at the same time envied. In addition to enjoying immense prestige and almost unlimited power they have the smartest uniforms, the best apartments, the best food ration-and the best women! See a woman dressed up like a tart, with peroxide hair, lipstick and silk stockings and you'll know she is the wife or mistress of a man in the OGPU. Nevertheless, it was the OGPU that came to the rescue of the besprizornye, or rather, collected them off the streets and out of the forests and did what they could to turn them into honest citizens.
There is a marvelous film called
The Road to Life, which tells the story of one of these youthful thugs
and his rehabilitation by the OGPU. I had seen
We were told to assemble at the Lubianka, the mere name of which sends a chill through Russian blood. There was quite a number of us as there were groups from other organisations as well as the Co-Op Pub, and we entered this grim fortress with something approaching awe. We sat for a while in a vast echoing hall, none of us saying very much, and it was a relief when we were ushered out into the street, where there were sunshine and a band to lead us to the river and a double-decker ferry boat waiting to receive us.
From that time on the mood was one
of gaiety, equally shared by ourselves and the green-capped members of the
OGPU who, for this one day at least, shed their
sinister image and became the smiling peasant lads they once had been and
laughed and joked as heartily as everybody else. There was plenty of weak
beer and kvass and we floated between the low banks of the
Arriving at our destination we were greeted by yet another band, this time composed of inmates of the monastery, and were led through fields of lush green corn, picking wildflowers as we went. The usual meal of cutlets and fried potato was waiting in the great refectory, after which we were led on a tour through the vast stone building, its workshops, stables and its barns. The monastery of Lyuberets is in no sense a prison farm; its heavy gates are never closed and the former besprizornye are free to come and go as they choose. 'A fair number disappear in the spring but we find that most of them come back when the weather starts to get cold,' we were told by one of the supervisors.
The children help to cultivate the
land, and they are also taught to read and write. There are workshops where
they are given skills to enable them to earn a living when they finally return
to the outside world. Some choose to remain and play a responsible role in
teaching the younger inmates. There was one roguish-looking youth with an
irrepressible smile and broad Mongolian cheeks who turned out to be the hero
of the film that I had seen in
It ended with the performance of
a play both acted and written by the boys, following which we returned to
the boat and slowly drifted back to
Betty and Guido settled in a communal house for foreigners.
17 October. Our young friend from
The room was something of a revelation. Small wonder he could take his pick of pretty women. Compared to our mean little hue-infested kennel it was palatial and had probably been reserved for a bishop or some other church dignitary in pre-revolutionary days. There was no luxury, just a few mats on a bare stone floor, long refectory table with a reading lamp and a few uncomfortable chairs, but the proportions were beautiful, with a beamed ceiling and deep embrasures around the windows and the door. In one corner was an immense old-fashioned Russian stove, unlit, of course, as the whole building is warmed by central heating, its sole concession to comfort.
We tossed our vodka down like veterans and answered the carefully chosen questions that our young host plied us with-all about Australia, what had brought us to the USSR, and how long we intended to stay. These questions we had answered many times before and were a little weary of—unaware that this is the accepted practice of the OGPU — ask the same questions over and over again and see if the answers are the same: if they vary suspicions are at once aroused. Evidently we survived the test as, not long afterwards, he appeared at our door and tried to persuade Guido to come out on some sort of lark with him. I wished he had included me but it was to be a men-only affair and I was not required. Guido, however, could not be tempted to desert his dictionaries, pointing out the need to finish his quota for the day. Igor was not impressed and seemed to regard this as a joke, at which Guido got annoyed and sternly rebuked him for trying to divert him from his purpose. Remarking that he would undoubtedly end up as a udarnik (champion worker) the tempter finally withdrew and left him to his task. We rarely saw him after that, which was a pity. He was nice.
Guido and Betty were horrified of the communal bathroom in their house.
There were recommended to try their luck in the “
20 November. Joe, I might say here, was no ordinary hotel clerk but a very superior citizen indeed. He wore smart leather coat ns high black boots that told us he was a member of the elite OGPU, but was a very pleasant fellow for all that. Still highly amused, he soon came back and told us that, for the price of the usual golden English pound, we would have sole occupancy of one of the hotel rooms, bath and everything else included…
28 February. Guido and Betty returned home from work and found that their room had been forced in and all their possessions been stolen. Several days after Betty gor permission to go to
Before the departure to
Betty went to the
I was ushered into the inner room
to be confronted by a cold-eyed man who told me to sit down, examined my
face then compared it with the photo in the passport which, I must admit,
bore very little resemblance to the original. Next, he proceeded to question
me about my reasons for wanting to return to the
Betty explained the reasons for her longer stay in
When Betty visited Pollitt again he gave her a letter to despatch to
And now the first train station on the Soviet soil...
I had barely stepped onto the platform when a man in the familiar uniform
of the OGPU appeared beside me. 'You have something
you have brought from
There was one final incident. Aware that I would now be traveling to Moscow on a Soviet train and that meals were not to be relied upon, I took a cake of chocolate from the trunk and slipped it into the pocket of my coat. Walking back along the platform, I heard footsteps running after me. It was my friend from the OGPU, to whom I had given the envelope. 'Would you show me what you have in your pocket?' He was no longer as friendly as he had been. With my brightest and most obliging smile I produced the cake of chocolate. 'Your pardon, comrade. It was my mistake,' said an embarrassed young man.
A few more hours, then
In July 1934 Guido and Betty set on their way back to