Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Visiting Stalin’s Utopia

During the 1920’s and 30’s the revolutionary events in the Soviet Union held a particular fascination for Western left-wing progressives. After the chaos of the post-revolutionary civil war it became increasingly clear that the old Czarist autocracy had been completely swept away and that the Bolsheviks had managed to overcome both the interference of foreign powers and the internal opposition to their rule. In other words it appeared that the Revolution, against all the odds, had triumphed. By 1930 the Bolshevik government was well advanced on an ambitious socialist programme. Many of the more radical measures that were initiated in the later '20’s were now fully under way, and Western intellectuals, particularly those on the left, followed these developments from afar with great interest. For the first time an entire society was being radically remodelled according to scientific, Marxist principles and many progressive thinkers, particularly those in western Europe and the U.S.A., came to idealise these achievements. Not a few of these were drawn to the Soviet Union to experience for themselves the creation of this new, egalitarian society - for their part the Soviet authorities welcomed the opportunity to show off their achievements to these sympathetic foreign visitors.

Of those who made the trip (and there were a great many in the 30’s) practically all were enthusiastic about what they saw. The USSR seemed to fulfil so many of their hopes and expectations; for almost all of them this was a society that offered new values and meaning. Above all they felt that a just and rational society was being created, one that contrasted sharply with the economic and spiritual chaos that they were familiar with in the Depression-ridden West. Their guides (for all of the visitors toured in organized groups) showed them every aspect of the new socialist reality. They made reverential tours of factories, collective farms and hydroelectric schemes. They got to see bridges and hospitals and penal institutions, and were particularly impressed with the latter, by the new, humane methods with which the Soviets dealt with offenders. While each of these projects was impressive in itself, it was the fact of their being just a part of a new, cohesive socialist reality that most impressed the visitors.

And it was not just the material transformation of the USSR that they admired. They were equally impressed by the general spirit of enthusiasm that they encountered, and the pervasive feeling of social and political freedom that derived, as they saw it, from the abolition of class distinctions. Over all, their expectations of a vigorous, renewed society were abundantly confirmed. The Soviet authorities were remarkably successful in projecting an impression of the USSR as a Workers Paradise.

The visitors reported back enthusiastically about their experiences of Soviet society. They produced countless books and magazine articles detailing their impressions, each tending to confirm the others favourable view of the Soviet regime. Their reports were overwhelmingly positive, and there were enough of them to overcome the most hard-bitten foreign sceptic. The picture they painted was that of a state that had overcome its past, one that was inspired by a general sense of moral purpose. Some, like George Bernard Shaw, seemed reluctant to leave - 'Tomorrow I leave this land of hope and return to our Western countries of despair'. Even those of a more sceptical nature came away converted. H.G.Wells, who had feared that Stalin might be a despot, was granted an interview with the leader and was completely charmed by his frankness and openness. Wells came away full of admiration for Stalin’s determination to press ahead, come what may, with a planned, science-based programme of social renewal.

Among other influential visitors perhaps none were as fulsome in their praise of Soviet achievements as the Webb’s, Sydney and Beatrice, the doyennes of theoretical socialism in Britain at that time. They, like other visitors, were shown the schools, the factories and the humane prisons, but for them the real marvel of Soviet society was its 'inspiration by a collective ideal, a single moral purpose'. The Soviet leaders, Beatrice found, 'have done more for the soul than for the body'. The Soviet administration made a mass of information available to the Webbs, on the basis of which they were able, in the mid-30’s, to publish their detailed examination of Soviet Communism. This exhaustive study was subtitled 'A New Civilisation?'. In later editions, so confident were they of the progress of Soviet reforms, the question mark was removed.

But the realities of Soviet life were very, very different from the impression that the western intellectuals had received. Indeed these encounters remain as one of the most shockingly incongruous in modern history, for at the very time when the Soviet Union was the object of adulation by the Left its subjects were experiencing the most savage repression, the most desperate material shortages and social dislocation and degradation on an almost inconceivable scale.

The 1930’s were the era of Stalin’s brutal consolidation of power. This was the period when he began in earnest to eliminate any opposition to his dictatorial rule. The situation developed whereby the slightest criticism of any aspect of his Party's direction was seen as an obstacle to be removed. It was the time when half of the Communist Party membership itself was arrested, no less than a million of whom were either executed or later perished in prison camps. It was the period when some 15 million 'kulaks' (peasants) were uprooted from their homes and deported to uninhabited, inhospitable Arctic regions or to appalling industrial projects, or worse, suffered the fate of the estimated million souls who were sent to barbaric labour camps. It was a time when, as a result of Stalin’s bungled policies of forced collectivisation, the entire countryside was on the edge of famine - when famine was itself used as a method of subjugating the perceived intransigence of the peasantry. In 1932-3 at least 7 million are thought to have starved to death in the Ukraine alone.

It was also a time when these matters could not be spoken of, for fear of arrest. Even in those areas where great numbers were dying of starvation it became a capital offence to refer to the matter. Total submission to the Party had become the rule. The mere suggestion of dissidence or 'disloyalty to the state' would be sure to attract the attention of OGPU, the secret police - and of the offender’s subsequent disappearance from society. As the terror ratcheted up it was enough to have vaguely known, or be remotely related to such a person, to be arrested and given a long prison sentence. Ten years was the normal minimum. As a result ordinary social exchanges, the basis of normal life, had become became more and more difficult. Nobody knew who might denounce them at any time. The most trivial remarks could be falsely interpreted. The whole atmosphere of the time was tense and characterised by arbitrary arrests on the charge of 'counter-revolutionary' activity - initiated, as often as not, by a denunciation from some score-settling informer. Everyone knew of somebody that had received the 'early morning call'. The penalties were severe, and the conditions in the many prisons and prison camps were brutal in the extreme.

It seems incredible now that the Western visitors of the time registered none of this. What happened, of course, was that their willingness to accept all that they were told made the business of deceiving them a relatively easy one; they were, however, subjected to a deliberate and consistent campaign of deception. The visitor’s view of the Soviet penal system, for instance, came from their trips to showcase prisons (such as those of Bolshevo and Sokolniki), where conditions bordered on the idyllic. Here they saw prisoners 'talking and laughing as they worked' and met kindly guards who evidently felt a bond of comradeship with their charges. The Westerners were allowed to attend music concerts given by and for the prisoners, and there was a steady stream of admirers passing through the carefully maintained gardens. They learned that the inmates received fair wages for their work, and that they were granted unaccompanied holidays at home. Not surprisingly, given these conditions, they met any number of prisoners who assured them that they did not feel that they were incarcerated at all.

All of this was duly noted and reported by the visitors. George Bernard Shaw told of conditions that were so easy going that prisoners were reluctant to leave. Others made the same observation, some telling stories of those who had applied to join the institution. Alexander Wicksteed, an English author was convinced that 'The whole idea of punishment has been frankly dropped and the aim of reformation alone pursued.' The Webb’s, as ever, took a strongly positive view, finding in the USSR 'a greater progress towards the ideal treatment of offenders than anywhere else in the world. Another commentator, the writer Maurice Hindus, declared that 'vindictiveness, punishment, torture, humiliation etc. have no place in this system'. Yet another declared that 'the need for labour-camps was diminishing'. And so it went on. These 'model' prisons were very much on the visitors Guided Tour and they were thoroughly convincing to the many hundreds of western intellectuals who filed through them. Their encounter with these humane institutions generated a mass of 'evidence' that countered the rather less idyllic accounts of the Soviet penal system coming from those few prisoners that had managed to escape it. It was, naturally, the former whose reports were believed by the mass of true Marxist believers.

Soviet prison life, for the majority of those caught up in it, was unspeakably brutal and degrading. Stalin's Terror had led to unprecedented numbers of arrests and the conditions in the many prisons and camps throughout the USSR (other than those maintained for the benefit of Western visitors) were characterised by hideous overcrowding, harsh work regimes and a starvation diet. Visitors were kept as ignorant of these horrors as they were of the many other less appealing aspects of Soviet society. It was noted by many that Russians didn't complain about day-to-day inconveniences, such as food shortages, but they completely failed to understand the real reasons for this. Coming from the Western democracies (as most of them did) they were could not conceive the limits to which a totalitarian state would go to conceal unpalatable truths. It was almost impossible for them to believe that what they were seeing was an elaborate charade. They were unaware of the extent to which falsehood and terror had become a way of life in the Soviet Union and, understandably, few were prepared to enlighten them. Moreover they desperately wanted to believe the lies that they were offered. They wanted confirmation of their committed Marxist beliefs. As a result the faith of these progressive intellectuals, the greater proportion of whom were respected academics or writers, was unshakeable, their enthusiasm for what they saw almost unlimited. But they were dupes, and in allowing themselves to be duped they betrayed both their own principles and the millions of victims of the Soviet system.