— Why “The Great Deception” book. Can “Foreigners in the Land of the Bolsheviks” be of interest to the modern reader? Are there moments in it that are relevant to today’s realities?
– Looking back at Soviet times, we can understand how supporters of this or that system gathered in general – both then and to some extent now. In the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet ideologues took advantage of the “leftism” of sympathetic Europeans and Americans, lured by propaganda of communist thought. On the contrary, today’s ideologists are right-wing conservatives. In the USSR, there was now talk of the economic collapse of the West – spirituality. Then there was a reckoning for all those who “fawn” in front of the workers, the poor, and now the minorities, political correctness in the offices and tolerant in the schools.
— Why do some countries create an artificially positive image of themselves without bringing the real quality of life of their citizens to the level shown?
— Every country needs a positive image. It should be shown to them as well. And when it comes to “pull”, those are different things. Establishing a high standard of living is a much more difficult task that takes time.
– Why did so many foreigners come to the USSR in the 20-30s of the last century? What were they looking for?
– In less than two decades, the Soviet government has accomplished the unbelievable – it has managed to convince many people on the planet that it is building the most advanced, just society in history. Anyone who sympathized with the idea of building socialism and was willing to take part in it personally yearned for the Soviet Union. With the onset of the Great Depression, they were joined by thousands of unemployed – plus those suffering from racial and national discrimination, dreaming of getting an education and providing conditions for scientific activity in the USSR.
“Yes, there was a cult. But there was a personality! This expression, attributed to Mikhail Sholokhov, became famous after the emergence of the personality cult of Stalin in the middle of the last century. We did this not to glorify this person, but in the Soviet Union there are many beautiful things that guests cannot fail to love. They are fed up with capitalism with their crisis, and here for the first time in human history justice seems to have won: the poor are given shelter, free treatment and education.
For what professions did people come to the USSR?
– Already in the 1920s, a unique system for receiving foreign guests was created in the USSR. In the first place – those on whom the formation of the desired image of the Country of Soviets abroad depends in the first place. These were Western intellectuals – writers, scientists, politicians, leading journalists. The second – the workers’ delegations called upon the proletarians of all countries to tell the “truth about the Soviet Union” after their return. Third – the purpose of attracting the usual “foreign tourists”, which is not so much currency as their indoctrination. Each of these categories is explained in the book.
– How was the entry control of tourists from other countries into the USSR organized?
– Ordinary tourists from abroad could only go to Soviet Russia as part of a tourist group. Prior to this, anyone who wanted had to pass a “biased test” at the overseas branch of “Intourist”. And only those who passed the test could buy tickets for the “ferry, which had turned into a rigid regime institution.” That is why, in her book “Trip to Moscow”, the future author of “Mary Poppins” Pamela Travers describes her impressions of the 1932 trip from England to the USSR.
– Who accompanied the guests in their movements along the street?
– Guides who cooperate with the authorities were appointed. Experts described all their observations about foreigners in reports.
“Until morning [Лион] Feuchtwanger gave endless speeches about the hardships of life in the Soviet Union, – says Dora Karavkina, VOKS (All-Union Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries), a guide-translator assigned to her in a report dated December 16, 1936. reports. “The hotel complained of service, poor mail delivery, and a host of other issues.”
Since we are talking about such ordinary things, let us remind those who forgot or did not know that the first toilet paper appeared in the USSR only at the end of the 60s and there was a terrible famine: there were kilometers of queues behind it, it was hung on a rope in rolls, from which the lucky ones left.
— How was the training of the guides?
– Guide-translator courses were held in Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi. They were taught to accompany foreign tourists, communicate with them, and provide detailed reports every day about their stay, mood, and guests’ explanations. Traveling around the country in 1934, German journalist Walter Allerhand said, “Everywhere between you and Russia, Intourist stands.
— Did the guests interact with ordinary Soviet people?
– There are almost no conversations with Soviet people in the stories of foreigners visiting the USSR. If it was in the 20s, then later – no. Foreigners stood out in the Soviet crowd, people looked at his boots and plaid jacket with suspicion – and suddenly he was a spy. Recall Bulgakov’s famous novel and Bezdomny’s whisper pulling Berlioz aside: “Not a foreign tourist, but a spy. Ask him for documents or he’ll go.
— Are there events that happened to foreigners in the USSR described in your book?
– Yes. For example, in September 1936, the board of Intourist discussed the incident in Baku. Due to the carelessness of the guide during the tour, the leader of the American tourist group Louis Fisher took the initiative in his own hands, stopped the car with the tourists and began to ask the first-comers about their living conditions, and even forced a citizen to take the tourists to his house.
– On what principle did Stalin allow those who came to personal communication? Were there many?
“Stalin only allowed the most famous Western thought leaders into his office. Here is the list of “admitted ones” – Bernard Shaw and Emile Ludwig (1931), H.G. Wells (1934), Henri Barbusse (1932 and 1934), Romain Rolland (1935) and Lion Feuchtwanger (1937). There are outright celebrities, Nobel laureates, or in extreme cases, those who simply cannot be authors of “genre literature”.
– How did a foreigner write a biography of Stalin, the French writer Henri Barbusse?
— The idea to write a popular biography of Stalin arose in the Propaganda Department (Kultprop) of the Bolsheviks All-Union Communist Party Central Committee in the early 1930s. At first he was supposed to entrust it to the German writer Emil Ludwig, then the idea was abandoned, then to Maxim Gorky, but he never agreed. There were other candidates as well. They chose Henri Barbusse. It was decided to entrust the preview of Barbusse’s work to Deputy Secretary General Ivan Tovstukha. He and other propagandists assisted Barbusse in his work. The main idea of the book is “Stalin is Lenin today”. As Isaac Mints, an academic on party history reminds, “the owner” came up with this slogan himself and was subsequently handed over to Barbusse.
First, briefly mention some of the most compelling stories from the book that you recommend reading.
– Each episode has stories for almost every taste. Perhaps I was most impressed by the love story of the American engineer Zara Witkin, who came to the USSR. The book tells how he fell in love with the Soviet actress Emma Tsesarskaya, how he found her in Moscow, and what happened to them later. It also tells little-known pages about “black Russians” – African Americans who took refuge in the USSR and then suffered from the Soviet regime.
— Did the visitors notice the disadvantages of the Soviet system?
– Many of them turned a blind eye to the disadvantages of the new system, they did not want to question and defame the good. On the contrary, I wanted to justify the violence that accompanied the construction of the new world – they say, it applies only to the “exploiting classes”. That is, to those in their homeland whom they resented for their impudent behavior. Nothing can be done, hatred has accumulated in the oppressed. And understandably, this is the price of a revolution – any, not only Russian, but also English, French, American.
Have foreign tourists found out that they were shown a fake picture?
– Throughout the entire trip, the French writer Andre Gide acted more than fidelity, noticing that NKVD agents were following us almost everywhere. And on his return, he wrote a book containing a critical assessment of what was going on in the USSR. Stakhanov called his move “a great invention to wake people up from hibernation” and also made some mockery of it:
“In one of the factories they introduce me to a Stakhanovite with a huge portrait hanging on the wall. As I was told, he managed to do the work of eight days in five hours (or maybe vice versa: in eight hours – a five-day norm, I do not remember now). I dare ask if this means that eight days were originally planned for five hours of work. But my question was met with caution, they chose not to answer. Then I told how a group of French miners traveling around the USSR comradely displaced a Soviet miner’s brigade in one of the mines and fulfilled the Stakhanov norm without tension or even suspicion.
Gide’s case is rare, but not unique. In 1926, Austrian writer and author of the famous novel The Radetzky March, Josef Roth, made a long trip to the USSR, which included the obligatory Crimea and the Caucasus. And although he was considered in the first category, he admitted to the German philosopher Walter Benjamin that “a (almost) convinced Bolshevik came to Russia and left him a royalist.”