Impressions of Soviet Russia

by John Dewey | November 20, 1928

I TRIED in my first article to give some account of the total feeling aroused in my by the face of Russian life as I saw it in Leningrad. It ought to be easier (and probably more instructive) to forgo the attempt to convey a single inclusive impression, in order to record, in separate fashion, ideas or emotions aroused by this or that particular fashion, ideas or emotions aroused by this or that particular contact. But the accomplishment of this latter task is made difficult by the fact that without a prolonged stay, wide contacts and a knowledge of the language, accurate information is hard to come by. On gets about as many views as there are persons one converses with, even about things that mght be supposed to be matters of fact; or else one finds questions evaded in an embarrassed way. (For some reason, this latter statement is much truer of experiences in Leningrad than in Moscow. Some things mentioned only in a whisper in the former city were loudly proclaimed in the latter; the atmosphere of avoidance changed to that of welcoming discussion. I do not know why this should have been so, but perhaps the pall of the past with its ruthlessness still hangs over one city, while the energy that looks to the future is centered in the other.)

For example, although one's chief concern is not with economic conditions, one naturally has a certain curiosity about that aspect of affairs, and asks questions. Here are a multitude of shops, selling to customers, to all appearances, for money and a money profit like similar shops in other parts of the world. How are they stoked and managed? How many are government-owned; how many are cooperative undertakings to the State? How many are private enterprises? How is honest public accountability secured? What is the technique for regulating the temptation to profiteer on the side? The questions seem natural and innocent. But it was not easy to find their answers, nor did the answers, when given, agree very well with one another. In part, the explanation is simple enough; I did not apply to persons who were sufficiently interested to be well informed; any traveler knows how easy it is anywhere in the world to amass misinformation. But along with this fact and behind it there was a cause that seems to me of general significance, one that should be known and reckoned with in any attempt at appraisal of Russian affairs. It s nature may be illustrated by an answer that was often give me at first in reply to question about he nature of cooperative stores; namely that they were in effect merely government shops under another name. Late on, though access to more authoritative sources, I learned that the fact of the case was quite to the contrary; not only has the cooperative movement grown eight-fold since its very promising beginnings before the War, but its management is primarily of the autonomous, classic Rochdale type. From a certain point of view, perhaps one more important than that which I entertained during the visit, a report upon the development and prospects of cooperative undertakings in present-day Russia would be more significant than anything I have to say. But I am not an economist, and my purpose in alluding to this matter is not that of giving economic information. What I learned from my experience in this matter (rendered typical by a variety of similar experience) is the necessity of giving an exact dating to every statement made about conditions in Soviet Russia. For there is reason to believe that the misinformation I received about the status of cooperative undertakings in Russia was not only honestly given, but was based on recollection of conditions that obtained several years ago. For there was a time when the whole industrial structure of Russia was so disorganized from the World War, the blockade and civil war, that the government practically took over the management of the cooperatives. (even of this period it is important to know that the latter jealously safeguarded in legal form their autonomy by formally voting, as if they were their own independent decisions, the measures forced upon them by the government.) This state of affairs not longer exists: on the contrary, the free and democratically conducted cooperative movment has assumed a new vitality –subject, of course to control of prices by the State. But ideas and beliefs formed during that period got into circulation and persist. Were I not convinced that the instance is typical so typical that a large part of what passes for knowledge about Soviet Russia is in fact only reminiscence of what was the condition at some time during some phase of affairs, I should not dwell upon it as such length.

This neccessity for exact dating of every statement made about Russian conditions, if one is to have any criterion of its value, is indicative of a fact–or a force–that to my mind is much more significant than most of the “facts”–even when they are really facts–that are most widely diffused. For they indicate the extent to which Russia is in a state of flux, of rapid alterations, even oscillations. If I learned nothing else, I learned to be immensely suspicions of all generalized views about Russia; even if they accord with the state of affairs in 1922 or 1925, they may have little relevancy to 1928, and perhaps be of only antiquarian meaning by 1933. As foreigners resident in the country frequently put it to me, Russia lives in all its internal problems and policies from hand to mouth; only in foreign politics is there consistency and unity. In the mouths of those sympathetic with what is going on in Russia, the formula has a commendatory implication; the flux was a sign that those who are managing affairs have an attitude of realistic adaptation to actual conditions and needs. In the mouths of unsympathetic, the phrase implied incapacity on the part of the rules in that they had no fixed mind of their own, even on important matters. But they fact of change, whether favorably or unfavorably interpreted, remained outstanding and unchallenged. In view of current notions (which I confess I shared before my visit) about the rigidity of affairs in Russia, I am convinced that this fact of change and flux needs all the emphasis that can possibly be given it.

While my preconception as to the rigidity of affairs in Russia was the one which turned out most contrary to facts, It may not be one that is widely shared. But there are other preconceptions–most of which I am happy to say I did not share–which seem after a visit even more absurd. One of them is indicated by the question so often asked both before and after the visit: How did the party dare to go to Russia?– as if life there were rude, disorderly and insecure. One hesitates to speak of this notion to an intelligent public, but I have found it so widely current that I am sure that testimony to the orderly and safe character of life in Russia would be met with incredulity by much more than half of the European as well as the American public. In spite of secret policy, inquisitions, arrests and deportations of Nepmen and Kulaks, crowing of party opponents–including divergent elements in the party–life for the masses goes on with regularity, safety and decorum. If I wished to be invidious, I could mention other countries in Eastern Europe in which it is much more annoying to travel. There is no country in Europe in which the external routine of life is more settled and secure. Even the “wild children” who have formed the staple of so many tales have now disappeared from the streets of large cities.

Another warning that appears humorous in retrospect is that so often given by kindly friends against being fooled by being taken to see show places. It is hard to exercise imagination in one environment about conditions in a remote and strange country; but it now seems as if it would not have required great imagination to realize that the Russians had enough to do on their own account to impress a few hundred–or even thousand–tourists. The places and institutions that were “shown” us–and the Leningrad Society for Cultural relations had prepared a most interesting program of sightseeing–were show-places in the sense that they were well worthy of being shown. I hope they were the best of their kind, so as to be representative of what the new regime is trying to do; there is enough mediocrity everywhere without traveling thousands of miles to see it. But there exist for themselves, either because of historic conditions, like the old palaces and treasure, or because of present urgent needs. Some of the resorts for workers' vacation periods so on the island in the Neva River has a somewhat perfunctory air; the old palatial residence, now used as a workers' summer club-house, seemed to have no special active functions. The much advertised “Wall-newspaper” seemed, when its contents were translated, much like what would elsewhere have been less ambitiously called a bulletin board. But such episodes only brought out by contrast the vitality of other institutions, and the gay spontaneity of the “Wall newspapers” in the children's colonies and homes.

Of the “sights” contained in the official program, the one enduringly impressed in memory is a visit to a children's colony in a former Grand Duke's summer palace in Peterhof–up the Neva from Leningrad. The place marks the nearest approach of the White Armies to Leningrad; the buildings were more or less ruined in the warfare and are not yet wholly restored, since the teachers and children must do the work; there is still need in some quarters for hot water and whitewash. Two-thirds of the children are former “wild children,” orphans, refugees, etc. taken from the streets. There is nothing surprising, not to say unique, int eh existence of orphan asylums. I do not cite the presence of the one as evidence of any special care taken of the young by the Bolshevik government. But taken as evidence of the native capacity of the Russian stock, it was more impressive than my command of words permits me to record. I have never seen anywhere in the world such a large proportion of intelligent, happy and intelligently occupied children. They were not lined up for inspection. We walked about the grounds and found them engaged in their various summer occupations, gardening, bee-keeping, repairing buildings, growing flowers in a conservatory (built and now managed by a group of particularly tough boys who began by destroying everything in sight), making simple tools and agricultural implements, etc. Not what they were doing, but their manner and attitude is, however, what stays with me–I cannot convey it; I lack the necessary literary skill. But the net impression will always remain. If the children had come from the most advantageously situated families, the scene would have been a remarkable one, unprecedented in my experience. When their almost unimaginable earlier history and background were taken into account, the effect was to leave me with the profoundest admiration for the capacities of the people from which it sprang, and an unshakable belief in what they can accomplish. I am aware that there is a marked disproportion between the breadth of my confusion and the narrowness of the experience upon which it rests. But the latter did not remain isolated; though it never recurred in the same fullness, it was renewed in the very institution of children and youth which I visited. And in any case, I feel bound to let the statement stand; its seemingly exaggerated quality will at least testify to the depth of the impression I received of the intrinsic capacity of the Russian people, of the release of the Revolution has effected, of the intelligence and sympathetic art with which the new conditions are being taken advantage of educationally by some of the wisest and most devoted men and women it has ever been my fortune to meet.

Since I am dealing only with impressions received at first hand and not with information proceeding from systematic inquires, I shall conclude with selecting two other impressions,each of which happened to arise apart from any official guidance. The hours of several days of leisure time before the arrival of the party of fellow Americana educators in Leningrad were spent in the Hermitage. Of this museum as a treasure house of European painting it is unnecessary to speak. Nor so of the human visitors, groups of peasants, working mean, grown men and women much more than youth, who came on bands of from thirty to fifty, each with a leader eager and alert. Every day we met these bands, twenty or thirty difference ones. The like of it is not to be seen any where else in the world. And this experience was no isolated. It was repeated in every museum, artistic, scientific, historical, we visited. The wondering questions that arose in me the first day, whether there was not a phase of the Revolution, and a most important one, which had not before dawned upon me, became as time went on , almost an obsession. Perhaps the most significant thing in Russia, after all, is not the effort at economic transformation, but the will to sue economic change as the means of developing a population cultivation, especially an esthetic one, such as the world has never known.

I can easily imagine the incredulity such a statement arouses in the minds of those fed only accounts of destructive Bolshevik activities. But I am bound in honesty to record the bouleversment of the popular foreign impression which took place in my own case. This new educative struggle may not succeed; it has to face enormous obstacles; it has been to much infected with propagandist tendencies. But in my opinion the latter will gradually die of inanition in the degree in which Soviet Russia feels free and secure in working out its own destiny. The main effort is nobly heroic, evincing a faith in human nature which is democratic beyond the ambitions of the democracies of the past. The other impression I would record came from a non-official visit to a House of Popular Culture. Here was a fine new building in the factory quarter, surrounded by recreation grounds, provided with one large theater, four smalled assembly halls, fifty rooms for club-meetings, recreation and games headquarters for trade unions, costing two million dollars, frequented daily–or rather, nightly–by five thousand persons as a daily average. Built and controlled, perhaps, by the government? No, but by the voluntary efforts fo the trade unions, who tax themselves 2 percent of their wages to afford their collective life these facilities. The House is staffed and managed by its own elected officers. The contrast with the comparative inactivity of our own working men and with the quasi-philanthropic quality of similar enterprises in my own country left a painful impression. It is true that this House–there is already another similar one in Leningrad– has no intrinsic and necessary connection with communistic theory and practice. The of it might exist in any large modern industrial center. But there is the fact large modern industrial centers. There it is in Leningrad, as it is not there in Chicago or New York; and there it is in a society supposedly rigidly managed by the State on the basis of dogmatic theory, as an evidence of the vitality of organized voluntary initiative and cooperative effort. What does this mean? If I knew the answer, perhaps I should have the beginning of an understanding of what is really going on in Soviet Russia.

This was the second in a series of articles by Dr. Dewey telling what he saw and learned during the visit to Soviet Russia from which he has just returned. It appeared in the December 21, 1928 issue of the magazine.


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