American Travelers Meet Stalin, 1927

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007),
Kindle Loc. 1305-60:

The appointment hour, 1:00 p.m., came without further vacillation by the Kremlin. Robert Dunn, John Brophy, and Paul Douglas all went for the interview. So did Louis Fischer, an American who was writing pro-Soviet articles for left-wing American periodicals out of Moscow at the time. So, as it turned out, did a journalist who was visiting Moscow for the New York Times, Anne O’Hare McCormick.

Those who did attend kept notes. Douglas: “Recalling the deeds of terror that had been committed there throughout its history, I shivered as we entered Red Square and then went through the gates of the Kremlin.” A small pockmarked man met them in a cloakroom; Douglas assumed it was an attendant. But the man took the head place at the table. It was Stalin. “His low brow was clear under a square-ish brush of black hair that made his head look oddly cubist,” wrote Anne O’Hare McCormick. “He looked like any of a million Soviet workingmen,” commented Fischer. “Deep pockmarks over his face,” read Fischer’s notes; “low forehead”; “ugly, short, black and gold teeth when smiles.” Whereas Trotsky had worn white, Stalin wore khaki. Douglas thought he saw a private’s uniform, Fischer a civilian suit. The pants legs he stuck into high black boots. Fischer sought to capture the moment in every medium possible. In his notebook, next to the words, he made pencil sketches of the leader’s head.

The group expected an hour with the leader. They got six and a quarter. One thing struck them even before the meeting started: Stalin’s charm. He was not dashing like Trotsky, but he seemed in a way more genuine. What came through was that Stalin had done his homework and touched on the issues that interested them—workers’ insurance, for example, Douglas’s pet research area since the days of the loggers. Stalin knew all about La Follette’s strong 1924 showing. A questioner asked how Stalin knew that the Russian people were behind him. He answered that the Bolsheviks would never have come to power if they were not popular; today heads of unions were all Communists, again a fact that reflected grassroots support.

Stalin also took time to emphasize that his government was an ethnically diverse one, with a Ukrainian, a Byelorussian, an Azerbaijani, and an Uzbek in the central executive committee of the Soviets. There were also, Fischer would later write, questions about religion: must a Communist be an atheist? Yes, Stalin answered, and even as he answered, church bells across the street rang. The guests laughed, and Stalin smiled—as if to signal the tolerance he could not articulate officially.

Stalin also rejected the notion that U.S. Communists worked “under orders” from Moscow as “absolutely false”—itself a lie. As the group drank lemon tea from a samovar, Stalin made his case: the Soviet Union and the United States might trade together even if they had different systems—the new doctrine of Socialism in One Country.

Fischer reported that no one but a serving woman entered the room during the course of the meeting; she brought cheese, sausage, and caviar sandwiches. (Brophy reported tea and cookies.) There must have been an interpreter and stenographer present. After several hours the guests made an attempt to go; Stalin would not permit it. Instead he turned the tables and asked questions of the delegates. The transcript of these questions, published within a week in Pravda, give as clear a snapshot as any document of the tactical and strategic goals of Soviet foreign policy. Stalin wanted to make the point that he had a genuine labor following in the United States, and he wanted to sideline those organizations that had sidelined him—with the aid of his interlocutors. He had already skewered the anti-Communist American Federation of Labor. Now he set about doing so again: “How do you explain the fact that on the question of recognizing the USSR, the leaders of the American Federation of Labor are more reactionary than many bourgeois?”

Brophy allowed that the AFL had a “peculiar philosophy.” Dunn took time to point out that the AFL was too close to capitalists—especially Matthew Woll, AFL vice president. Brophy was the one who spoke the last formal words of the visitors to Stalin before they departed. In Stalin’s official transcript, the travelers gave the Soviet leader what he sought, a form of U.S. blessing: “The presence of the American delegation in the USSR is the best reply and is evidence of the sympathy of a section of the American workers to the workers of the Soviet Union.” As the group left, Douglas spied a bust of Karl Marx, with full beard, in the corner. Contemplating it, he was startled to feel a heavy hand on his shoulder. It was Stalin. They joked about whether Marx had worn a necktie.

Several of the travelers sensed that they had been used to an extent they had not foreseen: “we realized that in his speeches he was talking over our heads to the newspapers, in answer to Trotsky,” Brophy would write. Anne O’Hare McCormick, confused, retreated to racialist imagery for her report: Stalin, she said, was a hybrid of east and west, almost “Occidorient in person.”

The vessel that returned the group home to America was not the President Roosevelt this time but the Leviathan. The irony of that name may not have escaped some of them. On shipboard, Silas Axtell, the lawyer, bitterly objected that some of the other labor people on the trip were producing a report far too positive. As he later recalled, “The whole report was written with such a solicitous and affectionate regard for the welfare of the dominating group in Russia, whose guests we had been, and the impression from reading the report was so different from the one I had received, I could not possibly subscribe to it.” Douglas likewise quarreled with Robert Dunn over the content of their joint essay. Dunn was painting the picture too rosily, Douglas maintained. Later, he discovered that Coyle had diluted his discussion of civil rights in the published report.

Axtell and Douglas may have been thinking of another intellectual pilgrim who had met Stalin before them: Emma Goldman. Goldman had had every reason to accept what she saw in Russia; the United States of Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge was unlikely to welcome her back. Yet when she learned that Stalin was imprisoning her beloved fellow anarchists, she had grown skeptical. And when the Bolsheviks—led by the same Trotsky of the white suit—bloodily put down their fellow Communists in Kronstadt in 1921, she had turned against the Soviet Union entirely. “I found reality in Russia grotesque, totally unlike the great ideal that had borne me upon the crest of high hope to the land of promise,” Goldman wrote. Though she really had nowhere to go, she left Communist Russia and shortly published a monograph on the false freedoms of the Soviet Union, My Disillusionment with Russia.

A decade after Emma Goldman’s experience, and five years after the 1927 delegation, Arthur Koestler, a young Communist, would also be repulsed. He found that the Soviet Union had developed a neat trick for bribing young intellectuals. Through its State Publishing Trusts it would buy the rights to a book or article—with a different payment for an edition in each one of the Soviet Union’s multiple languages. Koestler reported selling the same short story to as many as ten different literary magazines, from Armenian to Ukrainian. The place really was, he would note ironically, “the writer’s paradise.”

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