A Political Travelogue

Impressions of Soviet Russia, 1971


In September 1971 I spent several weeks in the Soviet Union, about equally in European Russia and Asiatic Russia. Flying westward out of Anchorage, Alaska, nine hours by jet over the Bering Sea, the Pacific Ocean, Hokkaido (sweeping far around the forbidden missile-laden coast near Vladivostok), our group deplaned at Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East; then another jet ride (via Aeroflot, the one and only Soviet airline, from this point on) took us two thousand miles westward to a stay of several days at Irkutsk in the heart of the Siberian forest, and Lake Baikal, hardly seen by outsiders in 50 years; then another five hours by jet took us just north of the Afghanistan border, to the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, and several exciting days at Tashkent and Samarkand, steeped in history from Alexander the Great to Tamerlaine and Genghis Khan and still Moslem centers today; then another six jet-hours westward to the Black Sea port of Sochi, with day-long rides to Lake Ritsa high in the Caucasus; then a thousand-mile flight to Moscow for three and a half days there, and still another flight from Moscow to Leningrad for a stay of similar length, before returning via Alaska Airlines from Leningrad over the north pole back to Anchorage.


We were permitted to see only cities staffed by the Intourist guides, and in fact every day of the entire tour was prearranged. But within each city, everyone was free to move as he wished: to walk anywhere, talk with anyone, visit anywhere except in people's homes. Pictures could be taken of anything except airports, roads and railroads, bridges, military installations, and slums; and no pictures were permitted to be taken while in flight. (I took over 600 pictures while in Russia.) Communication was limited, of course, by the fact that most natives speak only Russian while very few of the American tourists do; so most of the interchange occurred through the intermediary of Intourist guides and via those members of the tour who spoke Russian.

To an observer like myself, espousing a libertarian philosophy and expecting perhaps a too-simple exemplification of the consequences of totalitarianism, there were a number of surprises, especially surprises favorable to the Soviet Union.

The land is vast: when we landed at Khabarovsk, we were more than five thousand miles east of Moscow, yet in the same country; it is also varied and beautiful, from the scenic birch forests along Lake Baikal to the semi-desert beauty of Samarkand and its incomparable mosques (finer, I am told, than anywhere else in the Moslem world), to the Caucasus along the Black Sea (the Black Sea is clean and comparatively unpolluted, and the mountainous country alongside it is astonishingly like western Colorado), to the eye-filling splendor of the great eighteenth-century city, Leningrad (a trip through the world's largest and greatest art museum, The Hermitage, is alone worth a trip to Russia). Russians constantly ask visitors with unconcealed pride what they think of their motherland, and it would take an eye dead to beauty to be less than glowing in his account of the unending variety of Russian landscape—just as would be true of the United States, whose topography it so much resembles.


There is virtually no violent crime in the Soviet Union. One can walk alone at any hour of the night in the streets of any Russian city in perfect safety. (Members of our tour group did so in every city.) If one exhibits any surprise at this, one is asked, "Does this mean that the things we are told about American cities are true?" One seldom sees any uniformed policemen either, other than traffic officers; but on one occasion, when a Russian from another province got drunk in the Hotel Tashkent and insulted guests and broke a window, policemen were called in, who first tried to reason with him and then took him to the police station and treated him on the whole much more benevolently than the average American policeman would have done. (The secret police are a different story, of course. But they were nowhere in evidence, at least to tourists.)

Nor is there a drug problem in Soviet Russia: the penalty for possession is very severe (I was told that it averages about twenty years), and the penalty for "drug-pushing" is death. Persons of "hippie-type" appearance are not even permitted to enter.


Though the people are dressed in baggy and ill-fitting clothes (by American standards), they do not suffer in this respect. Doubtless they have fewer clothes, but visitors who were in Russia as little as half a dozen years ago report an enormous change for the better; women who were then dressed in burlap are now clad in tasteful plain and flowered dresses. And the ever-present Russian boots are of better quality than any manufactured in the States. In spite of mass production, clothing is expensive: a man's suit costs about 75 roubles in the shops, (the rouble has about the same value as the dollar), and $75 is about average for a man's suit in the United States; but the average wage is slightly under 100 roubles a month. But when Khrushchev opened the country to consumer goods, there was a great improvement in quantity and quality of clothing available—for which change, along with destalinization, Russians hold Khrushchev in higher regard than any other Soviet leader.

The food and drink accorded tourists is bountiful indeed. A typical meal consists of an appetizer—caviar, slices of pork and beef, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, and other vegetables, all ripe and delicious; soup—of the many varieties of borscht found throughout Russia, each one seems more delicious than any other, the soup is incomparable; then the main course if one still has room left—meat and cooked vegetables, perhaps spiced beef, or shashlik, or any of a number of native dishes varying with the region; then dessert—the melons are finer and sweeter than any we had found in the United States, and the ice cream is creamy to a degree unexperienced in the United States for at least 15 years; then tea or coffee—the latter was particularly delicious, with a full-bodied toasty flavor as if regular coffee had been combined with Turkish (most of us couldn't endure the American coffee when we boarded Alaska Airlines at Leningrad). Water is not much used at meals in Russia, but the water in every city visited was not only safe but delicious.

At every meal except breakfast there are three glasses: a large one for the national drink, a slightly carbonated combination of pear juice, apple juice, and berry or other juices, which would put Coca-cola out of business if it were sold in America; a slightly smaller glass for wine or champagne (the Russian champagne compares favorably with anything made in the States); and a still smaller glass for vodka, served straight (and it can easily be drunk so, being much smoother than its American counterpart). One gets the impression that everyone is constantly eating and drinking. Though this is not the case, it does appear that most people eat quite well, and this in spite of the fact that the state stores in which they must wait in line for food are to American senses dark, gloomy, smelly, and monotonous. And indeed not all food comes from government-controlled sources: the one major bit of Russian free enterprise is the privately owned agricultural plots which many farmers have, from which almost half the entire Russian agricultural produce is harvested. The Great Market at Samarkand, for example, contains such an alluring variety of fruits and vegetables stretching almost as far as the eye can see, that one would think its contents alone would keep half of Russia fed—and since transportation is very inexpensive in the Soviet Union, many farmers take a plane, with their produce on it, to other parts of Russia and sell it there, still making a profit in spite of the costs of transportation and residence in another city. Most Russians can remember starvation among their families or townspeople, but now they tell visitors with pride, "In countries bordering on us [India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.] people are still dying of hunger in the streets; we have no hunger in Soviet Russia."


Some aspects of Russian technology are also very impressive. We traveled many thousands of miles on Soviet jets and even propellor planes throughout the length of Asiatic and European Russia, and though their planes are not built for comfort to American standards, they are certainly as safe; and according to American pilots I later talked to, they are better built, last longer, and operate at least as safely as American planes; Russia has most of the world's titanium, which is light and strong and much used in Russian planes, and their jet fuel is much better, as Alaska Airlines pilots discovered when they refueled with Soviet fuel. (Pilot safety standards are also high: for example, the Soviet pilot has a physical examination before each flight.) Every Soviet jet is built like a bomber and could be converted to military use in a few minutes. Their heavy-duty machinery, farm equipment, and ships (especially the hydrofoils), guns, cutlery, all compare favorably with ours, both for durability and for ingenuity of design. The Moscow subway is a feat of technology, beauty, and efficiency that is breath-taking, particularly if one has been on subways in New York or London or Paris.

The resources and the technical know-how are there: there are just certain areas into which they (i.e., the bureaucrats in charge) choose not to channel their best efforts. All over Soviet Russia, in every city one finds the same pale beige-colored apartment buildings, endlessly and monotonously repeated—apparently inexpensive to build and perhaps functional (one doesn't know for sure—citizens are seldom permitted to have non-Russians in their homes), but all constructed in an extremely slovenly manner: the builders could take many lessons in stonemasonry, plumbing, and electric wiring. If a tenant is not himself a handyman in these arts, he is often simply out of luck. And for apartments in these buildings one must wait for months or years. We were in the best hotels Russia has to offer, yet the plumbing and heating facilities (except in Moscow and Leningrad) left much to be desired; and in the Hotel Samarkand, nine months completed, two out of six elevators were still working, the masonry was unbelievably badly done, and there were few rooms in which every electrical connection could be made to function.

The busses and street-cars are of excellent quality, again durable, functional, very solidly made. So are the cars, though very few citizens can afford to have them. It is one way of keeping the citizen dependent on government: a car would give him a measure of independence and privacy, so cars are priced virtually out of range. Busses and street-cars by contrast are cheap, sometimes free, and almost everyone is consigned by virtue of his economic status to using them. But along with the high degree of technology is a slovenly system of distribution. One Siberian car-owner told me that repair facilities are few and far between and that new parts have to be ordered from Moscow, more than two thousand miles away, and often take several months to arrive, then one often finds that the wrong part has been sent and one must wait several more months for the right one to arrive. Apparently the Soviet bureaucracy is not particularly interested in whether car-owners are given prompt and efficient service.


Medical service on the whole is excellent (and free to the patient) by the testimony of American physicians I have talked with and of American tourists on the trip who landed in the hospital with dysentery. Soviet doctors, most of whom are women, are very solicitous for one's welfare and want one to be hospitalized even for complaints which in America would be considered too trivial. There was nothing but praise for the cleanliness of the hospitals and for the personal care given the tourist. By all reports, Soviet dental service is far from excellent; still, most people have fillings rather than cavities, but the fillings are made of stainless steel, which is inoffensive when the teeth are not visible, but give a (to say the least) peculiar appearance to such teeth as are visible when the person opens his mouth.


But it was not the food or the technology but the people themselves that was most impressive. Russia has much of the flavor of a pioneer society—in many respects like the America of a century or more ago. Its people are on the whole hardy, healthy, ruddy-faced, and free of cant or ultra-sophistication; its virtues are those of the frontier. The friendliness is genuine, the warmth infectious, the curiosity and the wish to please both seemingly boundless. There is a kind of moral integrity about the people one meets there which seems largely to have disappeared from American society but can be remembered as characterizing one's parents or grandparents. (The combination of this strain of puritanism with State-inculcated atheism is a curious one, but the two coexist throughout Russia.)

One has the feeling, with many Russians one meets, that one could entrust one's life to them without fear of being betrayed, so strongly is the basic warmth and vitality of the people communicated to one. Loss or theft of articles in a suitcase is virtually unknown. A curious pride accompanies the sense of honor: one tourist offered a Russian an American cigaret; the Russian accepted, offering the American a Russian cigaret in return; the American, having tasted Russian cigarets before and found them too strong, declined; whereupon the Russian took the American cigaret and trampled it under foot.

Another interesting item is that no tipping is expected (no matter what the amount of service) in Russia; not only is it not expected, it is refused if offered. A small gift, say a ball-point pen, may be accepted with thanks, but nothing more.

A strong streak of puritanism is certainly present. One member of the tour group had a copy of PLAYBOY in his suitcase; it was confiscated by the Russian customs authorities as pornography. "No pornography in Russia," was the curt but not unfriendly announcement. Even in the 100° heat in Tashkent, if any tourist, male or female, wears walking shorts on the street (Russians never do), he is castigated by members of the local citizenry whose Russian may not be understood but whose gestures and indignant manner certainly are. Love stories on the stage and in the movies are invariably "proper," more or less like those in American movies until about 10 years ago. Sexual relations outside of marriage are frowned upon, and the friendliness toward foreigners is sometimes mixed with the very genuine fear that one might be "morally corrupted" by them. A lady in our group took care to leave a copy of a magazine of the BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS variety in every hotel room she left, so that the chambermaid could see what luxury Americans were accustomed to; but it is possible that the chambermaid was less impressed by the luxury exhibited than by the moral "looseness" depicted in the actions and facial expressions of the people.


Wonderful people, and a lousy political-economic system—that is the paradox of Russia that strikes the observer coming from the outside. And it is the domination of every human life by government that most hits one between the eyes as he surveys the facts of day-to-day Russian life. It strikes the outside observer, of course, more than the Russian citizen who has never known anything else; but even these, particularly the young, are restless and often anxious to rid themselves of the yoke. A male tourist who knew Russian met a female Russian who took him to her apartment ("unspeakably awful," he later said, describing the apartment, which she said was one of the better ones). "The walls have ears," she told him, "one never knows which of your neighbors is employed by the secret police to spy on you. Please, as we leave, don't speak any English or give away your nationality, or I'll be in trouble." She had never known anything other than a totalitarian nation filled with spies, but she longed for something else, as many of the youth of Russia do. I should add that the signs of government control were much greater in European than in Asiatic Russia, where people would blithely say "we don't take the party line so seriously out here" and "we're too far away from the center of things for them to bother much about." But the system is still with them: even in Irkutsk, no one may own his own shop or hire his own employees.

"In America, if many people wanted coffee at 6 o'clock in the morning, they would get it," I said to the Intourist guide in Irkutsk, as we waited early in the morning at the hotel for the busses to take us to breakfast at the airport.

"What if no one wanted to get up at that time?" said the Intourist guide.

"Then no one would get coffee. But to make money, someone would get up and prepare it. And if the owner of the coffee shop didn't want to do it himself, he would hire someone else to do it."

"But that would be exploitation—one person using the services of another. And exploitation does not exist in Soviet Russia!"

"How is it exploitation," I countered, "if the employee willingly takes on the job? Maybe he'd like to make some extra money—at any rate, if he's willing and the employer is willing to give the wage, why not? It's voluntary exchange on both sides."

But the talk about voluntary exchange made no impression at all; perhaps it was not even understood. "A person may use things in nature, but not the labor of other human beings," she said. "If he does, that is exploitation."

"Does it make no difference if he uses them willingly? If one man wants the work in exchange for the money and the other man wants the money in exchange for the work? Why do you call such a thing exploitation?" But it was hopeless; one could not penetrate the veil of words. I thought of the insanity of a system in which a man is prohibited from hiring anyone else to do a job, while the government is not prohibited from moving whoever it wants anywhere it wants for whatever purposes it wants. Only when the government does it, is it not called "exploitation."


In truth, the principal fact about Soviet Russia which stands out for any observer who looks even a little behind the appearances is the omnipresence, and the omnipotence, of government. The State is the sole owner of land (except the private garden plots); no one may buy land, one can only rent it from the State. The State is the sole owner of houses: in fact, no houses for individual families have been built in Russia for years; there are only apartments, in the badly constructed apartment buildings already described. And if a family (not an individual—individuals must live with their parents) wants to live in one, they put their names on a waiting list until an apartment is assigned them by the government. No one may hire anyone else for a job: the State is the sole employer; even the taxicab driver is paid a monthly wage by the State, and the entire amount of the fares which he picks up must be returned to the State. (Which explains why there is a considerable black market in taxicabs). The State determines all wages in all categories (strikes for higher wages are illegal); the pay for plumbers is the same throughout Russia, and the same for physicians, engineers, street sweepers, hotel chambermaids, etc.; except pay is 20% higher in the Soviet Far East, presumably in atonement for the distance from Moscow. Though one may be placed by his government supervisory committee in a higher pay bracket for zeal in his work, he can never escape from his sole employer: if he wants to be a concert violinist, he must receive government approval (he may not chance it on his own); if they don't want to pay him to practice, he must hold down another job, whatever job they assign him; and even in old age he cannot escape the government; he is not permitted sufficient income during his work years to save enough to make him independent, since the government dictates what pay workers in his classification shall receive it is always low by American standards; and no matter how enterprising one is, no rags-to-riches story can come true in Soviet Russia.

A product is not available unless the government decides to manufacture it: ball-point pens and chewing gum are not produced in the Soviet Union, and are in constant demand from tourists—I took a plentiful supply of both with me. And its consumption can be controlled by a simple government decree changing its price: in order to decrease the consumption of alcohol, the Soviet government last year doubled its price to consumers (though not to tourists), thus in effect prohibiting many people from using it at all. And even among products that are available, they can be sold only through State stores, which on the whole are quite horrible: in these stores you take what you can get, if the supply is not exhausted before you get there, and since no one profits by your purchase (which would be "profiteering"), there is no one who cares whether or not you get what you want or are satisfied with your purchase. You stand in line and wait (much as Americans do in the Department of Motor Vehicles), hoping that those paid by the government to serve you will do so and will not have run out of their supply before you are at the head of the line.


Don't the people mind this extreme regimentation? Some do, and speak openly about it, incurring great risk of being forcibly stopped by their government. Others do, and say nothing, fearing these very consequences. But still others—and these seem to constitute the majority—do not mind it at all that much; they have never lived under any other system; and they know no other—even those who remember the days of the Czars can remember no time (for there was none) when Russia had any kind of participatory democracy. They readily admit some defects in their system: for example, they know very well that from time to time someone disappears and is never heard from again and that when this happens they had better not inquire too deeply what happened to him. They know that there is a secret police, but their principal feeling about it seems to be more one of relief that it is much less in evidence than in the days of Stalin rather than discomfort because there is such a thing at all (indeed, they seem to believe that some of its activities are necessary). They seem convinced that what they have, in spite of its defects, is ever so much better than what Russia had before, and that they should support it, not only because they have to, but because they have a good thing going and don't want to see it fail. In fact, Russian citizens who are acclaimed as heroes in the United States, such as the writer Solzhenitsyn, for having the courage to rebel against the system, are not viewed in that light by the ordinary Soviet citizen. The Russians who mentioned these "rebels" to us (and no one did without first being asked) expressed the view, whose sincerity one had no reason to doubt, that these men may be well-intentioned but that they were after all enemies of Russia, for they were doing and saying things against the State, and that the State was their only chance for such continued improvement as they have had since Stalin and especially through Khrushchev, whom they all admired (and who died while I was in Russia).


Russians have all kinds of misconceptions (and a few correct conceptions) of life in the United States. They believe, reflecting propaganda they have been taught, that the United States is a vicious totalitarian state, where people may be materially prosperous but are not permitted to express themselves, and particularly not any friendly feelings toward Russia. They are told, and believe, that United States is a center of cruel economic exploitation, with some people fabulously rich and others starving in the streets. Their misconceptions of capitalism are endless.

They note their own achievements with pride. "Did you see the dam and power plant at Bratsk?" they ask when they find one has been to Siberia, "the largest in the world, bigger than any of yours." And: "Do you know that all medical and dental help is free in Russia? and hospitals too? They are really very good."


But the thing that overshadows the lives of Soviet citizens more than anything else, and justifies the present regime in their eyes in spite of defects that are apparent to them, is the war—the invasion by Hitler's troops in 1941, the soldiers who devastated the countryside and were at the outskirts of Moscow before they were repelled. The scorched-earth policy that was practiced left not a building standing or a living thing alive; it would be as if the United States were invaded from the East Coast to the Mississippi River, with nothing left standing—and they have rebuilt it all, the houses, the trees and farms, the dams and power stations, at a terrible cost to themselves. They invariably point with pride to this enormous achievement. But the scars remain; 20 million Russians lost their lives in the Nazi holocaust, and those who are still alive who participated in it, and those who grew up as children during this era, are absolutely determined that nothing like this horror shall ever overtake them again.


Those to whom I could speak frankly were acutely frightened about the peril of China: they spoke of the five thousand miles of common border with China, with Siberian Russia underpopulated and China vastly overpopulated and with a yen to expand. Some of them had heard bad things about Americans, though they showed no trace of hostility once they talked with us, and they tended to attribute some of the bad reports to propaganda. But they did not in the same way dismiss the Chinese—this situation was as real to them as the facts of geography; and they were frankly scared stiff. I vividly recall the first afternoon on Soviet soil, when after a fantastic noon dinner in Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East, we were taken for a long boat ride on the Amur River. We had been already shown the city of Khabarovsk, of half a million people, entirely rebuilt after the civil war of 1921 (between the White and Red armies), and now, when a member of the tourgroup asked why we did not go further down the river, a Russian officer replied, pointing, "There are the hills of China." The tone of his voice spoke volumes about the direction of his fears. If I were a Russian citizen today, I might well think it reasonable to favor a preventive strike against the Chinese atomic arsenal; failing this, many believe that ultimate conflict between them is inevitable.


There were two things I missed most during my stay in Soviet Russia, though it was some time after I was there before I realized that they were the things I missed the most. One of them was the absence of news: for two and a half weeks I knew nothing of what was going on in the world. The news in PRAVDA is of course highly filtered and slanted, and few Americans can read Russian. The only English-language newspaper available in Russia is a Communist rag printed in London and flown in, containing very little news of any kind. And then it occurred to me that this is one way, perhaps the chief way, in which the Soviet government brainwashes or conditions its citizens: not through the omnipresence of police as much as through the isolation of its citizens. They are never permitted to receive uncensored news of the outside world; day after day, year after year, their impressions of what goes on in the world are filtered through the Soviet government. This would have a deadly effect in the course of time, even on those who try to guard carefully against this very effect.

The other thing, and this I confess I missed even more, was bright lights (and all that the absence of bright lights signified). It was some time before I realized what was so sorely missing in Russian cities; but when I flew into Moscow at night, and in all that vast city the one thing most conspicuous from the air was the large red star in Red Square, it came home to me that there were no bright lights anywhere in Russia. Street lights, yes; occasional apartments where people were up late; very little more. Were there no amusements at all? Yes, there were some; every city has its circus (the circus is very popular in Russia): every city has movie theaters, not much illuminated from the outside (they don't need to advertise—the government operates them all and there is no competition), just a few bulbs and the sign "Kyno" indicating that the theater is there, and sometimes a few still pictures from the current movie; and for the rest—not a deathly silence (though there is little noise in the streets), but a deathly darkness where in America there would have been oceans of light. There are no billboards, except those with Lenin's face pictured on them (and these are everywhere); no advertising—after all, no need for it, no profit can be made from it—you get only what the government store carries, and the government store carries only what the government factory produces, and if you want consumer goods at all you have to take these things whether they are of good quality or not, whether they are the style or size you want or not. When I came to realize what billboards and bright lights signified—economic freedom—I came to miss these things more than anything else, for their absence symbolized more than any other single thing what was wrong with Soviet Russia. A great land, tremendous resources, wonderful people—but no freedom of occupation, no freedom of residence, no freedom to rise in life; no, not even freedom of amusement, nothing to make life the least bit novel and exciting and dramatic. A tremendous beehive, with everyone working, and because of the immense labor, tremendous accomplishments in spite of the insane economic system; but the quality of life—drab, workaday: not in one's wildest dreams would one describe Russia as a "fun" place. It is the drabness of life that stands out in the impression of Americans at the spectacle of life in Russia.


The work ethic is indeed dominant in Russia, more even than in Germany or any European nation, for the work is unrelieved by any chance for escape. And the work required, even after the ravages of war have been repaired, is still tremendous, because of the unimaginable waste involved in their economic system. The streets and parks are clean, because thousands of old people each morning sweep the streets and sidewalks by hand with janitors' brooms—"busy work" for those who would be paid a pittance by the state whether they worked or not, so "let them work." It would surely have been cheaper to use automation. In every hotel, women are employed around the clock to dispense and collect keys, three for every floor in the building (three eight-hour shifts)—immense amounts of man-hours used and largely wasted, which must necessarily pull down the standard of living of everyone, since they all have to pay in taxes for the activities of these countless bits of busy-work. The amount of work going on in Russia is heroic and staggering. As a consequence the material aspect of life is bearable where it was not before. But aside from helping to achieve some material comforts, what is it all for? Toward what end do the bees cooperate in the beehive? Do they labor and sacrifice in order to bring into being another generation of laborers and sacrificial creatures like themselves? What do they get out of life as individuals? It is such questions as these that concern the libertarian observer as he ponders the quality of life in the Soviet Union in 1971.

As to the state of mind and intentions of the men who are at the head of the Soviet government, no amount of traveling in the country and talking with the people provides the slightest clue; those in charge keep their plans a secret even from their own people. Whether their intentions are peaceful or aggressive, whether he will be a cog in peace or a pawn in war, is something that the Soviet citizen, to whom his government is not responsible, does not know and over which he has nothing to say. In this respect Russia is, as Winston Churchill said, a mystery wrapped inside an enigma.