Volume #17 - 924.|
RELATIONS WITH THE SOVIET UNION AND EASTERN EUROPE
Chargé d'Affaires in Soviet Union|
to Secretary of State for External Affairs
March 29th, 1951|
FINAL IMPRESSIONS OF MOSCOW|
1. On leaving Moscow after approximately two and a half years in the Soviet Union, it might be useful to record a few final impressions. What truth there is in the observation that to write about any country one should have been there either ten days or ten years, however, is peculiarly applicable to a country so vast and varied, so full of inconsistencies and contradictions, as the Soviet Union. A twoyear term spent mainly in the isolated society of the Moscow diplomatic corps is barely enough to scratch the surface. The impressions so acquired are inevitably superficial and often, no doubt, misleading. The Kremlin divulges none of its secrets to the diplomatic corps. Attempts to divine them are less confident in Moscow than in the Western press. A few of the foreign specialists on Soviet affairs in Moscow develop a kind of sixth sense which enables them to extract a good deal from the atmosphere but experience has taught them to be undogmatic in their interprÉtations and cautious in their predictions. One of their most useful functions is to discourage facile speculation. In this despatch-I shall merely note some of the changes I have observed since arriving in the Soviet Union in September, 1948, and record a few more general impressions derived mainly from conversations with Soviet citizens in several widely separated regions of the country.
2. All the more experienced foreign observers in Moscow warned me on my arrival of the futility of comparing conditions in the Soviet Union with conditions in the West. The only valid standard of comparison was with conditions as they had been in Russia itself before and after the Revolution, and during the last World War. Russian soldiers who had served in Germany and other central European countries had been able to compare their own living conditions with those abroad and had been so critical on their return that it had been necessary to put on a propaganda campaign to "correct" the opinions they were disseminating, but the great masses of the people knew almost nothing of life in the West and their only standard of comparison was with what they had experienced in their own country. Hence the actual level on which they were living was much less important than the direction of the curve.
3. During the war the Soviet standard of living had declined sharply from the level it had reached in the Thirties. This was to be expected and was accepted as part of the cost of the war. The changeover from war-time to peace-time production, however, seems to have been more complicated and to have proceeded more slowly than had been anticipated, with the result that in 1947 there was a serious production crisis with widespread discontent. By the middle of 1948 this critical point had been passed and the trend was again upwards. This upward trend has gradually gained momentum and the increase in the amount and variety of consumer goods available in the shops during the last eighteen months has been almost incredible. To the foreign observer it has been most noticeable in the appearance of the people. Two years ago they were all so badly dressed that foreigners were conspicuous wherever they went, merely by their clothes. Now they attract no particular attention even at the theatres, and the task of the militia men guarding foreign embassies has become increasingly difficult: they can no longer distinguish their own citizens by their clothes and are frequently embarrassed to find that they have asked non-Russians about to enter a foreign embassy if they are not perhaps "making a mistake". The rapid increase in production is also apparent in the large number of new shops of all kinds and new restaurants that have opened, in the fleets of new taxis and cars, etc. When it is remembered that heavy industry is always given priority, this increase is still more impressive. It has been easily the most striking phenomenon of the last two years in the Soviet Union.
4. Food rationing had been dropped some time before I arrived, but there were still long queues for all sorts of supplies. Now there only are seasonal shortages -the new lemon crop had just come in when I left, but the hens were staging their annual spring strike - but flour is the only important item of food that is restricted. It is sold only twice a year before festivals which call for a high consumption of griddle-cakes. Nobody supposes that flour is scarce, and the only probable explanation is that the State does not want people to bake their own bread or eat too many blinis. Together with the increase in the supply of consumer goods, there have been three substantial price reductions in the last two years. Food, clothing, shoes, and all sorts of everyday commodities are still fantastically high if the price is translated into dollars at the official rate of the rouble. Many of the prices seem high also in terms of Soviet wage averages as we know them, but it has been very obvious recently that the great majority of the people have money to spend and are spending it. In the lower income groups the explanation seems to be that rents are almost negligible, that all the adult members of the family are gainfully employed, and that there are various supplements to the basic pay, of which we know very little. I was surprised to discover, for instance, that a schoolteacher is paid extra for every paper she marks, that a hotel maid gets a month's holiday at Sochi on the Black Sea with all expenses paid, etc. People in the higher income brackets are buying jewellery and other luxury items, possibly as an investment. There are many big signs admonishing citizens to save their money and put it in the bank, but it is likely that most of the people who got one rouble for ten when the currency was changed in 1947 prefer to spend it.
5. The appearance of the city of Moscow itself has also improved greatly in the last two years. The street on which our Embassy stands, for instance, has changed almost beyond recognition. The cobblestones have been replaced by asphalt and all the old, tumbledown houses on both sides of the street have been remonted so that they look almost like new buildings. The same is true of many other streets in different parts of the city. There are still many very shabby sections, of course, but no doubt they will all be tackled in turn according to plan. In spite of a great deal of new building, some of it apparently very good and some incredibly bad, the housing situation in Moscow is still unsatisfactory even by Russian standards. The Government is now taking steps to reduce the metropolitan population and it has become very difficult for people living in the. provinces to get permission to move to Moscow. Apartment space is allocated on a rigidly graded scale - at least in theory. A university professor, for instance, is entitled by law to two rooms of specified dimensions. If his wife is also doing scientific work, she is entitled to two additional rooms. The combination is a hypothetical four-room apartment plus kitchen, bath, etc. The only problem that remains is the purely physical one of finding the space. At present it is usually insoluble. At this point private enterprise may rear its ugly head and the professor may succeed in subletting an apartment at six or seven hundred roubles a month instead of the one hundred which the original lessee is paying to the State. It is safe to say that even those people who were fortunate enough to have had a four or five room apartment before the war are now living in unhygienically crowded conditions, for they all seem to be surrounded by a host of poor relations. Lower down in the scale the crowding is still worse, of course, and the resulting congestion is one of the militiamen's most difficult problems, since they are apparently expected to reduce it. "As soon as a family gets a proper apartment", one of them complained, "their relations swarm in like bedbugs and what can we do about it?" It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that this overcrowding is anything like the hardship to a Russian family (or to an Italian or an Icelandic family, for that matter) that it would be to a Canadian. In many cases it is a matter of choice. What the average Russian could not bear to contemplate would be the horror of having to live alone.
6. As long as the standard of living continues to improve, however gradually, there is not likely to be acute discontent with the regime. The Russian people are satisfied with so little that it is hard for us to imagine it. On the political side their demands are still more modest. They have never known political freedom as we understand it, and except for a few intellectuals they have no idea what it means. Their elections and their Supreme Soviet, which to us seem merely an elaborate farce, they take very seriously. Somehow or other the Government has managed to persuade the average citizen that his vote is extremely important. From talking to ordinary people in different parts of the country I feel sure that it is this conviction, more than the pressure from Party officials, which accounts for the large vote even in the far northern regions where it is not easy to get to the polling stations. The fact that they have no choice of parties or even of candidates does not seem in the least strange to them. It is sufficient to know that if they think a certain candidate has not taken his duties seriously enough, they can stroke out his name on the ballot. More intelligent or better informed people can understand that the single-party system strikes westerners as odd and undemocratic, but seem content with the explanation that the Communist Party is doing everything that could be done, or that it is surely more efficient to have a single party than the confusing multiplicity of parties one finds in a country like France, for instance. Some foreign writers have explained that the present system in the Soviet Union is educational and that as people become more experienced in the exercise of the franchise they will be given more choice. There may be some truth in this, but I can see nothing at present to indicate that the Communist Party plans to share its authority with any other.
7. In spite of the lack of opposition parties, however, the Politburo cannot entirely disregard public opinion. There are other ways in which it can make itself felt than in elections. One of them is in declining production, and to this the Politburo is extremely sensitive. Hence the constant propaganda to explain to the masses that what is being done is in their best interests. This is cleverly done and is generally successful. The ordinary citizen seems genuinely convinced that he has a share in all the great State enterprises, and the recent announcement of the vast new irrigation and power projects has obviously fired the popular imagination, as it was intended to do, in all parts of the country. In the case of the collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine in the Thirties, however, the Government did not succeed, as Stalin explained to Churchill, in convincing the farmers that it would ultimately be to their advantage. Those who could not be convinced were starved out or transported to Siberia. But such ruthless methods are dangerous to the regime, and if it had not been for the threat from Germany, it is probable that a more gradual transformation would have been preferred. In Great Russia the Bolsheviks were frequently forced to come to terms with recalcitrant groups and they prefer to avoid a showdown if they can. However badly they may gauge Western psychology in their propaganda efforts, it is generally admitted that they understand the psychol-ogy of their own people, including the non-Russian races, extremely well. A tremendous effort is constantly being made, by both positive and negative means, to mould public opinion. The intensity of the effort illustrates at once the importance of the task and the difficulty of it.
8. The isolation of the Russian people is about as complete as the Kremlin intends it to be. Soviet citizens can apparently travel to any place they wish within the boundaries of the Soviet Union and they are still nomadic enough to take as full advantage of this as their means permit. Indeed, many seem to travel without much means and for no good reason. They would be no less eager to travel abroad but only very few can get exit visas even for the neighbouring satellite countries. The ban on travel abroad, however, is probably much less felt in such an enormous country with such a great variety of climates, landscapes, languages, and cultures than it would be in most European countries. It is about as difficult for foreigners to obtain entry visas to the Soviet Union as for Soviet citizens to obtain exit visas. A good many cultural or peace delegations come for brief visits, but their programmes are always carefully planned and their contacts with the natives must be relatively few. The Soviet press is, of course, completely controlled and prints only what the authorities want the people to read. Occasionally they reproduce speeches, articles, or diplomatic notes from abroad which come as a surprise to foreigners in Moscow and can hardly be less of a surprise to Soviet readers. It is not easy to guess the reasons for these exceptions to the general rule. For the most part, the Soviet press is extremely dull. It gives a ridiculously distorted picture of the West, and it was refreshing to find that a good deal of this nonsense is received with healthy skepticism. Its half-truths are more frequent and insidious than its untruths, and unfortunately the Western press, and especially the American, provides excellent material for the Soviet propaganda machine. Quotations from senators and congressmen are popular and the most outrageous ones are almost invariably exact translations. Foreign radio programmes are so effectively jammed that they cannot be heard at all in Moscow and only with great difficulty in other parts of the country.
9. All observers in Moscow agree that the Soviet people in all parts of the country in which we have had any contact with them want peace. They suffered horribly in the last war and in the devastated regions particularly are still suffering from its effects. Their losses were enormous and almost everybody one meets has lost one or more close relatives. In a defensive war they would undoubtedly fight and fight well, but unlike the Germans they are not a bellicose people. As Toynbee points out, they have been more aggressed against than aggressing in their history, and many of them have experienced two German invasions and the war of intervention in their own lifetime. If their rulers wanted war, of course, all the vast propaganda machine would be brought into operation to convince them that their country was not the aggressor and that their cause was just, but they are not stupid or uncritical and the Government would have to choose its ground very carefully. A threat from Germany would rally them more quickly around their Government than a threat from any other quarter.
10. Most observers here agree that the Soviet Government does not want to risk war at the present time. Whatever they can get by other methods or by local wars in which they need not become involved, they will, of course, take. They know quite well that they could occupy Western Europe in a comparatively short time but they also know that this would inevitably bring them into conflict with the United States and that their productive capacity is and will remain for a long time much below that of the United States. They know, too, that the industrial progress they have made and the great industrial projects they have planned would be set back for years if they were involved in a World War, and the people as a whole know this just as well as the Kremlin does. It has been argued that if they have decided that war is inevitable it would be much more to their advantage to have it now than later, when Western Europe has built up its defences. This seems logical, but there are no indications at present that they would be willing to take the risk. As far as can be seen in the parts of the country open to us, it appears that just now they have reached a low point, for them, in the number of men they have under arms. They seem to have released a large proportion of their older classes without calling in an equivalent number - perhaps because of the demands on manpower made by the new industrial projects announced last year. It is probable that the deficiency will soon be made up, but if they had expected to be involved in war very soon, it is unlikely that they would have released so many. It is also interesting to note that so far as we can discover no attempt is being made to provide bomb shelters in large cities like Moscow and Leningrad.
11. The peace campaign, as seemed probable from the beginning, is being pressed to the limit. Until recently the propaganda has been reassuring: the broad masses of the people everywhere are opposed to war and will not permit the instigators of war to plunge the world into misery again. Stalin's Pravda interview was less reassuring. Although he said that war was not inevitable, he was not so certain that the people might not be deceived and led into it by the instigators of war. The more intelligent part of the population seems to have taken this as a warning and the recent increase in the military budget must have confirmed it, nor could Stalin's statement that their present military forces were only about half those of their potential enemies have made them feel any more secure. In spite of this, however, the peace campaign continues at full blast in the press and, however insincere it may be, it is not the best preparation for a war mentality and would certainly have to be changed if war in the near future were contemplated. For this reason it is important to watch closely for changes in the propaganda line.
12. The feeling of confidence so obvious last year when the Chinese Nationalists were defeated seems to have ebbed somewhat, partly, no doubt, as a result of the Korean war and partly, perhaps, because the Russians still do not feel very sure of China. From various small pointers observed by Western diplomats here, it seems clear that China is not regarded and does not regard itself as a satellite in the sense that Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the rest are satellites. The Russians are still being elaborately careful in how they handle the Chinese and must be secretly grateful for the circumstances which have prevented any closer relationships between the Chinese and the West. Whether they are really afraid of Mao-Tse-Tung turning out to be another Tito, I should not venture to guess, but at least they have not forgotten their great disappointment in Chiang Kai Shek in 1927. It has been suggested, too, that the Russians are by no means averse to having the Chinese wear themselves down a little more on fighting the United Nations in Korea. If having convinced ourselves that Tito, although a Communist, is not such a bad fellow after all, it would not strain our principles too much to discover a few ingratiating traits in Mao-Tse-Tung, (once the Korean business is settled, of course) it would, I believe, worry the Kremlin as much as anything else we could do. At a public lecture recently the speaker asked sarcastically what the West was offering the Asian countries, and answered it as follows:
"The return of the feudal system and the bankers, and such discredited figures as Chiang Kai Shek, Syngman Rhee and Bao Dai, but these offers do not tempt the nationalist populations of Asia."
It costs the Russians nothing to play up nationalism in Asia just as energetically as they crush it in Eastern Europe, but perhaps this game could be made less easy for them.
13. Social conditions in the Far East facilitate the Soviet propaganda effort and so, I fear, do social conditions in the Middle East. It may be that as the Communist patties in Western Europe continue to lose ground, the Soviet Union will decide to concentrate more on Asia. It is clear that unless it becomes involved in war the Soviet Union will make vast progress in industrialization in the next few years. Looked at from Asia the progress of the Soviet Union in the last thirty years is already sufficiently impressive, and if it continues at the present speed it is bound to influence Asian opinion more and more, unless the West can assist the Asian countries to meet their difficult problems more rapidly and effectively than it has been able to do so far.