American Travelers in the USSR, 1927

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1196-1250:

TO MAKE LANDFALL IN EUROPE was a relief for the travelers. Here at least the economic facts did not contradict their reform concepts so profoundly. There were some bumps along the road. In Warsaw they felt a jolt when their guide, Albert Coyle, acknowledged that he had misplaced the trip funds. In Dortmund, Tugwell got bored and skipped a meeting with trade union people at a steel plant to go to an art gallery. But from the time they met Soviet trade union leaders at the Polish-Soviet border, the travelers felt their spirits rise. This would indeed prove the junket of all junkets. It didn’t hurt that their hosts gave them first-class treatment—free transportation, cheap or free hotel service, and so on. And there were to be meetings with leaders—Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, the Russian prime minister, Leon Trotsky, already out of the Kremlin’s inner circle but not yet exiled, and others of high rank. For the travelers, who were at best respectable but not themselves of national rank at home, these introductions in and of themselves made for a high. There is nothing headier than finding one is more recognized abroad than at home. And that was not all: rumor had it there would be meetings at the highest level, perhaps even with Stalin himself.

The travelers’ enthusiasm was only strengthened by what they saw in the first few days. The failures of the economy were not all visible. Indeed, if one squinted, things looked almost reasonable in Soviet Russia. Lenin, before dying, had instituted his New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed the survival of small artisans. The economy had finally begun to regain pre–World War I levels. The brutal collectivization of agriculture and the famines of the 1930s were still to come. The Soviets for their part tried to burnish their own reputation with unfavorable references to America. Everywhere the travelers went, Brophy would later note, they heard about Sacco and Vanzetti, who had been executed while the travelers were in Russia, just as predicted. For days after the execution, the towns the travelers arrived in were draped with banners hung in honor of Sacco and Vanzetti, “victims of ‘American capitalism.’” To the travelers it seemed that Russia understood what the land of Babbitt did not.

Roger Baldwin, who had corresponded with Vanzetti until his death, was deeply impressed with what he saw. Baldwin understood that Stalin’s Russia had a dark side. He didn’t enjoy his time in what he called this “irritating place.” But Russia still seemed somehow farther along than the narrow Massachusetts that could put the anarchist pair to death. Baldwin gave Leo Tolstoy’s son letters he had received from Vanzetti so that Tolstoy might post them for Russians to see at a state bank. As he wrote of Russia, Baldwin’s own conclusions were hopeful. “Everybody is poor together,” he wrote to his mother. “There is much discontent, much regulation of life, but not much terrorism or repression except of the old upper classes.”

For the high-spirited Tugwell, part of the trip was about having a good time. Half a century later, Stuart Chase would write Tugwell, asking whether he recalled when “you, Bart Brebner and I were the ‘Three Musketeers’ in Moscow in 1927.” At one point the group split up, and Tugwell traveled down the Volga on a barge, insisting that his interpreter and captain teach him a folksong about a Russian Robin Hood, “Stenka Rasin.” In exchange Tugwell taught the Russians “Beulah Land.” He rode in private railway cars—“ancient but gaudy” first-class wagons-lits from the days of the Romanovs—through Cossack country. Tugwell kept notes; he dined out. He wondered, as he always did when he was abroad, whether his life was on the correct path: after another preceding period overseas he had taken leave from academia for a year to farm beside his father before deciding the move was a mistake. The more earnest Douglas, himself considerably distracted by his own dying marriage, at one point reproached Tugwell for his lack of gravity.

But when it came to their work, Tugwell, like the other travelers, was serious enough. Committed to researching agriculture reform, he fought off offers to see factories and demanded visits to farms instead. He noted, first of all, that while conditions were still terrible within the Soviet Union, they were probably improving: “The manor houses are gone; only the drab villages remain,” he wrote, concluding that “here is a bit more to eat of a little better quality. There is a radio in the village hall. There is more wood for warmth,” he would later write. New England might be slowly dying; the Soviet Union to his mind represented “a stirring of new life hardly yet come to birth.” He loved the idea of economics being made subservient, itself like a serf, to the good of the rural village: “with us, prices are a result; in Russia they are agents of social purpose.” Tugwell insisted on more visits and was duly granted them.

Tugwell found himself admiring the active role of the Soviet government toward farming. He liked the idea of the agronom, the farm manager or bureaucrat, who oversaw a set of farms or a region. The Russian farmer, he noted, “suffers from price-disadvantage, it is true; but so also do farmers all over the world.” Tugwell pointed out a difference from the United States: in Russia, the farmer’s challenges were the subject of genuine government controversy. “There is a disposition to do something about it. Can this be said of the U.S. government?”

Most of all, however, it was the villages that impressed Tugwell. Many had not yet been collectivized, but they were still relatively cooperative compared to rigidly fenced New England. This cooperation he perceived to be natural, indeed, inevitable—“cooperation is forced in the nature of things.” In his own childhood, there had been similar cooperation. He remembered traveling over New York’s Ellery hills to a friend’s house with his father, only to find the family not at home. The pair had fixed a meal from what they found in the buttery nonetheless, a fact which did not bother their hosts, when they returned, in the slightest. That was the way things were, in the old agricultural community. Under the czars, Tugwell noted, village farmers too had shared—“Russia was communal in this sense long before it was persuaded to Communism in the Marxian sense.”

Tugwell believed that what remained of private arrangements also needed to be ended; it was time for “abandoning the old one-man, one-plow method.” After all, in a big communal field “a tractor can go as far and fast as it is capable of doing without the bother of fence corner turnings. Socially, the village has great advantages if it is not too closely built or too big.” Further rationalization might work if only the stubborn peasant would cooperate. And even though he disliked the Soviet dictatorship from the start, he was struck by the authority of Russian propaganda and its enormous success. Always, the Russians they met up with “told us what our country was like.” This simultaneously horrified the progressive in Tugwell and pleased the efficiency expert in him: “I knew from then on how determined dictators come to manage a people.”


1 Comment

Filed under democracy, economics, travel, U.S., USSR

One response to “American Travelers in the USSR, 1927

  1. I find it very hard to be objective about all those dewy-eyed visitors to the Soviet Union in that heady post-Revolution decade. I know rationally that they could not have known what was to come and that they could not see what they were not shown. Still, their blinders — their determination to see the good side of the worker’s paradise, and their willingness to write off any counternarrative as the yappings of a rightfully deposed ruling class — repel me. Left-wing Russians of impeccable pedigree, from Mensheviks to trade-union types and writers who had excoriated tsarism, had been trying to tell people all along what was going on, and nobody wanted to listen to them. Who can pay attention to a downer like that when the siren song of the radiant future is blaring in one’s ear from just over the horizon?

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