Odyssey of a Liberal
By Freda Utley
I traveled with Ivan Maisky from Berlin to Moscow, together with W.J. Brown, Secretary of one of the most militant trade unions in England, the Clerical Association, whose members were office workers in government service.
Two days after our arrival we stood in the Red Square to witness the funeral of Voikov, murdered in Poland. This was the first demonstration I saw in the “socialist fatherland”; and I vividly recall the exaltation and excitement that filled my heart and mind as I stood close to Lenin’s tomb under a blue sky watching the Red Army parade and the thousands upon thousands of demonstrators.
My mind in those days was full of romantic libertarian images. I wrote after the demonstration: “People in the street look well fed enough though poorly clothed, and there seems to be such vitality and purpose among the people one meets …. The soldiers in the demonstration especially looked so splendid-more like the Greeks of Xenophon must have looked than like the usual wooden soldier …”
I was also enchanted by the as yet unspoiled charm of Moscow which, as Bertrand Russell had told me, rivalled Peking among the most beautiful cities of the world. “Moscow is a lovely place,” I wrote to Mother, “I wish you could see the Kremlin across the river and all the domes of the churches. I will bring home some pictures.”
Visitors to the U.S.S.R. in those days were comparatively rare. There was no Intourist, and only invited delegates from trade-unions and Labor parties got the chance to travel over Russia. One was lapped around with kindness, hospitality, and good fellowship. Nor were outward signs of prosperity lacking. The market places of Moscow and other towns were overflowing with vegetables, dairy products, milk, and meat. New apartment houses and office buildings built in the severe but pleasing style introduced after the Revolution were much in evidence. There were no queues for bread and other foods at the state and cooperative shops, and one could buy the most delicious pastries for only five kopeks. There was a shortage of manufactured goods even in the cities, but it was not to be compared to the almost total lack of necessities a few years later after the “gigantic successes on the industrial front.”
One is tempted to imagine what Russia might have become if the New Economic Policy, permitting the peasants to enjoy the fruits of their labor under free enterprise and thus fructify the fertile Russian soil, had been continued. But as early as 1924 the “Scissors Crisis” (the disproportion between the price of manufactured goods and agricultural produce) had split the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks into left and right factions.
Disagreements began over how much to take from the peasants for industrial development, and ended in the bitter controversy over collectivization. With the aid of Bucharin, Tomsky, and others on the right who maintained that any attempt to force the pace of industrialization would destroy the stimulus to labor, Stalin had overcome Trotsky and was soon to exile him and the rest of the left opposition. Once rid of the Trotskyists, Stalin, in 1929, was to wipe out the right opposition and embark upon an ultra-left policy of forced collectivization and intensive industrialization.
The U.S.S.R. was soon to become a country of starved peasants and undernourished workers, cowed and whipped by fierce punishments to toil endlessly for a state which could not provide them even with enough to eat. But, unfortunately for my own future, I first saw Russia during the brief period of prosperity which began in 1924 and ended in 1928.
My 1927 visit to Russia was marred only by my fellow guest, Billy Brown, an oversexed left-winger who imagined that in the Communist world he would be afforded unlimited opportunity for the indulgence of his carnal appetites. He had wanted to make love to me before in London, where we were politically associated, but it was not until we got to Moscow that I had difficulty in holding him off. Although he knew I was in love with Arcadi, he fancied that in the supposedly uninhibited sexual climate of the Soviet Union I would naturally sleep with him. When his expectations remained unfulfilled, and he had also found it difficult to find a Russian mistress, he turned nasty. This may all have had the desirable long range effect of souring him on Communism, but at the time he caused me embarrassment.
There was a whole class of hopeful leftwingers whose attraction to Communism was at least partially inspired by their mistaken belief that the U.S.S.R., if not yet all that might be desired economically, was at least the paradise of free lovers. For them, sex and politics were always mixed.
Writing Mother from Moscow in July, 1928, I told her:
They are sending me to a place in the Caucasus for two weeks and then home by way of Tiflis and Baku which will take a week or 10 days. The original arrangement has been broken up because Brown has had a nervous breakdown. The last few days have been very trying. Billy gradually became impossible and has been very rude and unpleasant to me. It is too long a story to tell you in a letter and how much is due to Billy’s nerves and how much to sex, etc., I don’t know. Anyway, we have definitely split and are following our different programs. Billy has behaved just like a spoilt child. Everything in Russia has annoyed him especially the unpunctuality – and the food upset him – he was in bed for two days.
But the occasion of things going wrong was his accusation that I monopolized people: the fact is that people have been awfully nice to me and as I speak German and am a woman, I do perhaps get more attention. But the whole business has been childish I think it is his nerves which are wrong; in fact two doctors say he has a bad nervous breakdown. Also there has been this sex business. In Berlin already he was telling everyone he wanted to find a girl and he went off to find a prostitute and came to tell next morning. Also, he had asked me, more or less casually, the first night, if I would sleep with him, and I passed it off as a joke. Then he said quite calmly: “How will you manage so long away from your lover?”
Billy Brown, as I say, was only one among several left-wingers who visited the Soviet Union with false expectations. Years later, when living with my husband in Moscow, I witnessed with considerable amusement the frustrations of an American from Georgia, who came to Russia on a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship, confidently expecting to be able to indulge his sexual appetites without bourgeois restraints. Unable, to his dismay, to find any girl to sleep with him in spite of the soap, coffee, and other luxuries he had to offer, he married a nice Canadian girl in Paris after six months of sexual abstinence. Admittedly, X, as I shall call him (since he was a nice person and is today not unknown in America), did not know how to go about it. There were plenty of women in the hungry 30’s in Russia who were ready to give themselves for “three pairs of silk stockings,” to quote the title of a novel at that time, or even for one lipstick, as my husband phrased it. But X made the mistake of imagining that he could find a mistress among the Communist elite who traveled de luxe like himself and had no reason to fall for a trifle.
I drove to Tiflis from Vladikafkaz along the fabulous Georgian Military Road built by the Tsars during their conquest of the Caucasus. A road which skirts high mountains rising almost perpendicularly from the river beds, torrent gorges and narrow valleys of the land known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis. How easy to imagine that Prometheus was chained by Zeus to a high peak in this majestic territory to have his heart devoured by a vulture for his defiance of the gods by setting man on the road to progress by teaching him to make fire. Here Jason had come in search of the Golden Fleece. And here, today, there may still remain, in inaccessible mountain Fastnesses, remnants of the many races which have passed through this land bridge from Europe to Asia, still unconquered even by the all reaching Soviet power.
I have forgotten more than I remember about my first visit to Russia when I was seeing everything in rose, or through the spectrum of my romantic imagination which enabled me, incongruously, to regard Bolsheviks and ancient Greeks equally striving to emancipate mankind from what Swinburne called “the shambles of faith and of fear.” But I can still conjure up in my mind’s eye my first view of the Caucasus Mountains purple dark in the early dawn as dimly seen from the railway carnage on arrival at Vladikafkaz from Moscow. And of the drive along the Georgian Military Road to Tiflis when my heart stood still with dread and wonder as we sped round bends thousands of feet above the river beds below in this majestic and untamed land “half as old as time.”
In view of all the legends and stories about “Circassian beauties” captured or sold to become slaves or harem concubines by Persians, Greeks, Arabs and Turks, I was surprised to find in Tiflis that it was Georgian men, not women, who were strikingly handsome. The women of the Caucasus seemed to me less beautiful than Italians and generally far too fat – a defect doubtless remedied soon afterwards by Stalin’s economic policies which condemned all but the Communist elite to near starvation. In 1927 I remembered Elroy Flecker’s poem. The Road to Samarkand in which he expressed the oriental love for women whose hips are “as broad as watermelons in the season of watermelons.”
No doubt today the gay talented, courageous and handsome peoples of the Caucasus, among whom the Georgians take pride of place, have been reduced to the same drab uniformity or conformity as all the other races and peoples subjected to Communist tyranny. But I saw Tiflis before Moscow’s heavy hand had extinguished the enjoyment of life and love, laughter and beauty which distinguish the peoples of the Mediterranean world and which tyrants from time immemorial have found hard to drown.
In Tiflis I became friendly with a woman who was a Menshevik but who defended the Soviet regime and convinced me that there was no terror anymore. The time was as yet far off when I was to learn that Communist terror is so all pervading that it forces all its victims to pretend that it does not exist. Perhaps this woman of Tiflis believed what she said to me because she had convinced herself that now, thanks to the New Economic policy, incentives had supplanted brutal compulsions as the dynamic of socialist construction. I was at this time as gullible or ignorant as the rest of my liberal contemporaries in the West who, a decade later, came to exert such direful influence on Western policy during the Roosevelt era. But my brief belief in the Communist Party was before Stalin won absolute power and plunged Russia into the hell of forced collectivization.
My first impressions of the U.S.S.R. were obtained during the all-too-brief period of the NEP policy when the Russian “toiling masses” were substantially better off than they had ever been before or were to be again in our time. (Even if today some few of them have refrigerators and T.V. sets, most would still seem to have less to eat than when I first visited Russia forty years ago.)
Returning from the Caucasus to Moscow I had the thrill of travelling in an airplane for the first time in my life. It was supposed to fly to Moscow from Kharkov but came down with engine trouble in a field half-way. The only other passenger was an amiable Italian businessman, and together with the pilot we made our way on foot to the nearest village, and thence by a horsedrawn cart to a railroad station. The Italian, who was middle-aged and corpulent, made heavy weather of our mishap, but nothing could then daunt my spirits or my enthusiasm about Russia.
From Moscow, referring to Temple’s plea that I should pause and reflect before joining the Communist Party, I wrote to Mother:
“I am sorry Temple is worried about me. I shall come home, dear, but I hope I shall be able to join Arcadi here next year. I have been making inquiries about the cost of living in Moscow and think we could manage and me send you £ 2 a month.”
In a postscript I wrote that it was difficult to write without writing a great deal about Russia, and that I was too busy making notes for articles to write more in a letter. “I do feel that things worthwhile are being accomplished in Russia,” I added. “I like the spirit of the people and the look of them. Everyone is simply or poorly clad, but everyone looks well fed. Clothes are just made of anything and one can go out in any sort of dress without exciting comment.” How welcome this must have seemed to me who had never had enough money to dress well during my adult life.
I returned to England full of enthusiasm and prepared to tell the world about the wonders of socialist construction in the U.S.S.R. Rejecting an offer to stand for Parliament as a Labor Party candidate in the Rusholme division of Manchester, I publicly proclaimed my adherence to the Communist Party, and addressed meetings all over England.
Archie Henderson, one of the National Secretaries of the Transport Workers Union, told our friends: “Freda always belligerently rolls up her sleeves when she starts to talk about Russia.”
I admitted that the standard of life in the U.S.S.R. was far lower than in the Western capitalist countries, but went on to explain that this was because Russia needed to accumulate capital for industrialization. I assured my audiences, that since there was no exploiting capitalist class in the Soviet Union, the burden of saving and investment was being borne equally by all, so that there was no such acute misery in Russia as in the era of the British Industrial Revolution.
“Bliss was in that dawn to be alive,” as Wordsworth had thought at the time of the French Revolution. To me it seemed that Russia had unlocked the gates of Paradise to mankind, and that I must help to convince the workers of my own country to enter in by overthrowing capitalism and joining up with the U.S.S.R.
Looking back to that distant time, I now ask myself, did I really believe it? Was I, who had studied history, really so naive? I must have been, else I should never have thrown up my career and encouraged my husband to abandon his comfortable life in the “capitalist world,” to go off with me to take part, as we imagined, in the construction of Socialist Society in Russia.
On my return to London from Russia I learned that Arcadi was being expelled from England by order of the Home Office. His expulsion may have been due to the indiscreet letters I had sent him from Russia expressing my complete conversion to Communism. But it is more likely to have been the result of his having been assigned by the Chairman of the Russian Trade Delegation to be one of the small number of Soviet employees permitted to remain on the premises when the British Home Secretary, Joynson-Hicks, raided the Arcos offices in June, 1927.
Although I was flattered to think that I was regarded as a dangerous revolutionary by the British Home Office, it was a great blow to have Arcadi expelled. The Soviet authorities assigned him temporarily to Berlin where I visited him during the Christmas vacation, but he was so busy that we were unable to go off and enjoy ourselves as we had done the previous year in the Black Forest.
Whereas Arcadi had been working so hard on Soviet Government business in Berlin that we had all too little time together, I took my political work so seriously that when, in February, 1928 he was allowed to come to London for ten days to represent Arcos in a lawsuit, I was so busy campaigning as the Communist Party’s candidate in the London County Council elections, speaking either to indoor meetings or at street corners mornings, afternoons and evenings, that I did not give up a single evening to him. This was the first election in which the Communist Party came out in opposition to the Labor Party, thus helping the Conservatives to win. Although I had no hope of winning the election, I made a fair showing, gaining a considerable number of votes against both my Labor and Tory opponents.
Two incidents stand out in my memory of my first and last political campaign. One is the remark made to me by a respectable working class wife and mother. “I’m for you and what you say the Communist Party stands for,” she said, “but I and many others like me cannot abide those loose-living, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed young men and women of the upper classes who call themselves Communist and support you.”
The other is my own behavior on election night when at London’s City Hall, after the votes had been counted, the winning Conservative candidate came up to shake hands with me. My upbringing in the traditions of British good sportsmanship warred within me against my belief in the Class War. For a moment I had difficulty in repressing my natural impulse to smile and take his outstretched hand. But ideology triumphed over good manners and I firmly placed both my hands behind my back, albeit with a feeling of acute shame and embarrassment.
Even after I joined the Communist Party I could have continued my successful academic career had I remained in England. Although being a Communist in those days was a handicap, my scholastic record and the tolerant attitude of British Universities toward “heretics” of one kind or another provided that they are “brainy,” speak with an educated accent and have tolerably good manners, ensured me a University appointment following the termination of my Fellowship at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
In the 20’s, the distinction between a Socialist and a Communist was not clearly demarcated. Most Labor Party and Trade Union leaders had already learned enough through experience to hate and distrust all Communists, but in intellectual left-wing circles they were generally regarded simply as people who wanted to achieve Socialism faster than others, if necessary by revolutionary means. Revolution was only a word to them as to me in those days when like most of my contemporaries I had no conception of what violence meant, or of the horrible “means” or methods which were soon to become standard operating procedure in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
We all laughed and enjoyed the musical skit about my Soviet tour, written and stage managed by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole at a special meeting of the University Labor Federation called to hear my report on Russia at Oxford in the fall of 1927. I remember some lines from some of the songs sung to popular tunes by our members, making fun of my glowing account of the state of Russia. One was called Come to Prison in Georgia, where life was just wonderful, and one could meet either:
Burglar Bill who, flushed with wine
Murdered his registered concubine.
Commissar Trotsky, in for life
Fraction work with Lenin’s wife.
The performance ended with myself appointed as Soviet Commissar of Education, while the other members of a U.L.F. delegation to Russia were strung up one by one on lamp posts to the refrain:
Red, white or pink, no difference can we see,
So perish all the British bourgeoisie.
There was also a song with a refrain: “Stick to Marx, my hearty, Damn the Labor Party, Keep the hell fires burning for the bourgeoisie.”
It could be that Margaret Cole was to be responsible for my husband’s arrest some nine years after she and her husband had made fun of my conversion to Communism. For on my return to England in 1936 I learned that she had betrayed the confidence I had reposed in her during her visit to Moscow not long before when I had told her in strict secrecy my real views. She had, I heard, been going around telling people that “Freda was very soured on Russia” – her term for my profound disillusionment. This was surely not because she was malicious or wished to jeopardize my husband’s life, but simply because she had remained as ignorant or innocent as I had once been. She simply had not believed me when I told her in Moscow how dangerous it is to speak the truth under a Communist dictatorship.
Still today in the West there are all too many liberal innocents who cannot or will not understand what terror means.
by kind permission of FredaUtley.com