Daily Archives: 8 February 2005

Studying the Soviet Union in the 1960s

Siberian Light has dawned upon a blog by longtime Russian translator David McDuff entitled A Step at a Time, which describes itself as “Reflections on the world post 9/11, by a writer and translator who engaged for many years in the debates of the Cold War, and who tends to see the world’s present troubles as a continuation of the old common struggle with tyranny and oppression.” Here‘s his Normblog profile.

McDuff was an exchange student in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and has written a fascinating, serialized essay entitled “Going Back” about his experiences during those years. I’d like to excerpt a paragraph or two from each installment–except the introduction, which I’ll quote in its entirety. (Perhaps it will incite me to set down a few of my memories of life in Ceausescu’s Romania.) So here goes:

Going Back

In writing the entries about “Dissidents” [link added], I’ve begun to realize that for me the issues in this subject go back a long way – probably to the beginning of my involvement with Russian studies in the early 1960s. In those days, such an involvement also inevitably entailed a prolonged encounter with the Soviet Union. Since for someone from a Western democracy it’s almost impossible to understand cognitively the reality of the fabric of life in a totalitarian state, a Westerner’s memories of contact with that fabric are almost always bound to be selective, personal and subjective to an extent that may make them irrelevant in terms of historical truth. Yet I believe that since part of the legacy of the Cold War has been a consciousness of the old divide between East and West, and the barriers it created between human beings on either side of it, it’s perhaps important for those in the West who did have first-hand experience – however partial and “cushioned” – of life in the Soviet reality, to talk about it and discuss it. For it was a world that was not merely physical and geographic, but also extended far into realms of thought, morality, political awareness, aesthetics, and other regions, while at the same time functioning as a kind of reversing mirror of Western social and intellectual norms.

“A man cannot bear the thought of being crushed by a physical compulsion; therefore he deifies the force that rules over him, investing it with superhuman traits, with omniscient reason, with a special mission; and in this way he saves a bit of his own dignity. The Russian writer Belinsky, for instance, made use of Hegel during a certain phase of his life, to deify czardom.” This is how, towards the end of his autobiographical work Captive Realm, the great Polish-Lithuanian author Czeslaw Milosz illustrates the choice between “madness” (the refusal to recognize necessity) and “servility” (the acknowledgment of one’s complete powerlessness), which he saw as a defining characteristic of life in a totalitarian society. I think it was a dawning consciousness of this choice – or rather, of the fact that in certain conditions of social and political development such a choice might have to be made – that eventually made clear to me, somewhere around the end of the second year of my studies in Russian literature and history, the essential difference between Russian culture and the culture of the West, and made me want to understand it further.

In future postings under this heading, I’ll try to describe how that process of discovery and understanding developed for me.

Going Back II

I’d grown up in Edinburgh, Scotland, far away from the complexities of East European politics, but had had at least some small experience of “physical compulsion” at the school I attended, which in itself in those distant days of the 1950s was probably not unlike a totalitarian entity of some kind, with its cult of obedience, its prefects, its canings and beatings, and its assertion of a monolithic, corporate identity….

Occasionally the Russian department received visits from Soviet writers and public figures, but these were nearly all rather obscure – no one had ever heard of the “poet” who arrived one day, accompanied by two “minders”, with a slim volume of verse in written in the most austere and conventional social realist style. He was an engaging man, who had taken part in the defence of Moscow in 1941, and had later fought in tank battles – he told us that all the skin had been burnt from his body, and had had to be re-grown. As a military man, he was interested in the technical problem of how best to scale the rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands, and I remember that we students spent a long time discussing the logistical details of this with him, as it was good practice for our knowledge of Russian.

Going Back III

I visited the Soviet Union for the first time in the summer of 1966, travelling with my girlfriend in a white Morris Minor convertible which we took aboard the Soviet ship Mariya Ulyanova (named after Lenin’s sister) from London’s Tilbury Docks, via Copenhagen and Helsinki, to Leningrad….

That summer we didn’t stay in hotels, but slept in a tent we’d taken with us, striking camp at official State campsites whose locations were entered on our visas, together with the obligatory time of arrival at each site. We started with a week in Leningrad, then drove to Novgorod and Kalinin, followed by a week in Moscow, then to Kharkov and Kiev, and finally out of the USSR via Vinnitsa and Chernovitsy, into Romania – four weeks in the Soviet Union in all. In general, at first we were surprised at how “normal” everything seemed – the weather was warm and sunny, the streets and thoroughfares of Leningrad looked much like those of any European city, and it was only when we got out of the car and gazed at the actual texture of the place – the strangely rough, unmodernized surfaces of the roads and buildings, the dust that blew everywhere, the absence of commercial advertising, the old-fashioned look of people’s clothes – that we realized we were in another world from the one we were used to. Even so, during those first days I think we were so pleased to have reached our destination that we didn’t really notice much of this – my memories are mainly of visits to the Hermitage and other museums, to the Petergof Palace and park, of walks along the Neva embankment, and so on. For us, it was almost like being back in Vienna or Copenhagen – or even Edinburgh….

Engaging as some of these encounters were, we were, I think, glad to leave Soviet territory. At Chernovitsy, after the car had been searched for nearly 2 hours by Soviet border guards, who extracted every single piece of paper from it, we crossed into Romania, where we underwent the ritual of having the car sprayed against foot-and-mouth disease, and washing our hands in disinfectant by the roadside. We were then told by the Romanian personnel that we could pitch our tent “wherever we liked”, as long as it wasn’t in a forestry zone. The year before, Nicolae Ceausescu had been chosen first secretary of the central committee of the Romanian Communist party.

Going Back IV

The drive through northern Romania, Hungary and Austria, back through West Germany to Ostend and the United Kingdom, was fairly uneventful. We didn’t go down to Bucharest, but stayed in the foothills of the Carpathians, where we were treated almost like royalty by the staff of the local tourist office in Suceava, the first town over the border, which didn’t appear to have seen many British tourists in a long while. We tried on local national costumes, let the tourist office director’s twelve year-old cowherd son drive our right-hand drive Morris Minor round a field, much to the boy’s delight, experimented with speaking Romanian, had our photographs taken, drank fruit cordial, had our palms read by the local gypsies, ate in a really nice restaurant, and in general had a pleasant time. It all seemed light years away from the Soviet Union – more like being in France or Italy. Moving on westward the landscape soon become rather more industrial and sombre, and when we entered Hungary there was something of the Soviet ‘feel’ again, especially along the shore of Lake Balaton, with its organized groups of vacationers and their mostly Soviet-made cars. In Budapest I remember the blackness of the uncleaned buildings, and the bullet scars from 1956, which still lay everywhere on the street facades and masonry. Also the incredibly dense and tall barbed-wire fortifications on the Hungarian-Austrian border, just after Sopron….

In January, I had an interview in London with the British Council, in connection with the Moscow visit I was planning to make. The British Council’s offices on Davies Street seemed quite unassuming, and very British, with cups of tea and copies of the Times. One was therefore slightly unprepared for the rather East European nature of the interviewing panel, which consisted of a row of dark-suited personnel, some academic but others very definitely from the Foreign Office, who fired questions at one about one’s plans, intentions and reasons for visiting the Soviet Union. Some weeks later, I received a letter telling me that I’d been accepted as a postgraduate exchange student. Later, there was a briefing session, where all the accepted candidates were gathered together in a room at Davies Street. We were given demonstrations of bugging devices that had been found in university, diplomatic and business premises in the Soviet Union, and then received an illustrated lecture on the workings of two-way mirrors, with a real “live” two-way mirror. We were sworn to secrecy, and told that we must not on any account divulge anything of what we’d seen and heard to the press, or in writing of any kind. Somewhat taken aback, and slightly amused, at the end of the session we emerged on to the street, wondering if this had been a rehearsal for some spy drama.

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