‘The reverse side of the picture’: The Soviet city and countryside in the eyes of British travellers
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
My work looks at British travellers in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The decade saw many thousands of foreigners visiting the USSR, drawn by the appeal of seeing socialist society under construction. Some admired what they saw, some deplored it, others left weighing up the costs and benefits, but all were influenced by a discourse of intense debate and conflicting stories about the truth of the Soviet world, and thus sought to see Soviet life ‘for themselves’. Many foreigners published accounts of their experiences.
Examples of foreigners' accounts of Soviet Russia, author's collection
I study these accounts, and associated materials such as diaries. I look at understandings of a ‘real Russia’, located behind a ‘fog’ or ‘smokescreen’ of Soviet cultural diplomacy. Travellers both generally anti-Soviet and pro-Soviet alike wrote in this vein. They considered there to be a divide between city and countryside: a border between two different worlds, that of ‘official’ Russia and ‘unofficial’ Russia, in the words of Archibald Lyall, who visited in 1933. There was seen to be a transition between the city – the downstage of Soviet ambition and cultural diplomacy (tours; guides; interpreters; the idea of the ‘showcase’ site) – and the countryside (beyond the infamous ‘Potemkin village’ at least), which was seen as the backstage: the geographical periphery, where ‘real’ lives were lived rather than performed for foreign appreciation.
As above, author's collection
For most travellers, engagement with the living Soviet world was initiated in Moscow and Leningrad, respectively the usual sites of arrival via rail or sea. Defenders and critics alike could – albeit not uniformly – seek a world beyond these cities. Real and imagined geographies intertwined here: whilst many travellers recognised difference between the various parts of the Soviet Union (Russia to Ukraine; Russia to Siberia) they often used the word ‘Russia’ as a stand-in for ‘Soviet Union’.
This was a desire recorded in numerous travellers’ works. The general secretary of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, Walter Citrine, regretfully noted in 1936 that many peasants lived in ‘districts remote and inaccessible to the ordinary visitor’. The trade unionist John Brown appealed to a sense of geographic diversity: ‘I selected the route that would enable me to cover the most varied expanse of Russian territory – Leningrad-Moscow-Gorki-Kazan-Samara-Saratov-Stalingrad’. Henry Harben, a Fabian barrister, wrote of wanting to see ‘a provincial town off the main line where nothing particular is doing; and we hope there to see something of the reverse side of the picture, if it exists, as the enemies of the regime assure us it does.’ This message was even implied by Soviet advice for foreigners. Ilya Ehrenburg, writing in the Moscow Daily News, implored the ‘Dear Tourist’ to ‘See Our People!’: ‘We have so much more to show you. Besides five hotel directors and fifty motionless figures [i.e. cultural diplomacy] there are 150 million people who work, think and live.’ Whilst Ehrenburg did not directly state that the traveller should venture into the countryside, the implication is clear: the traveller should leave the hotel and go and see the people – where the truth of the Soviet world was to be found.
Map showing trainlines from Moscow and Leningrad
Ehrenburg’s suggestion that cultural diplomacy was only part of the Soviet world was readily argued by many travellers. Going to the countryside could be an attempt to avoid cultural diplomacy. Violet Conolly, what one might call an early Sovietologist, was intensely frustrated by Moscow, which was ‘the chosen city of the Soviet Union’, where foreigners walked about ‘burbling’ at Soviet achievements. She felt stifled there, ‘deeply and artificially sheltered […] from the normal stress and current of Russian life’. The novelist Elizabeth Delafield found tour guides overbearing, and an atmosphere that cowed tourists to ‘submit, without very much fuss’ to constrictions and denials, unpleasant and unhelpful in reaching an ‘impartial’ conclusion. The journalist Gareth Jones wrote that ‘the cities and towns of Soviet Russia are isolated oases in the vast extent of the Russian countryside. Inhabited by a small minority of the population, they are not the real Russia’. He argued foreigners should not simply meet the ‘numerically insignificant’ Communist Party, but should make contact with ‘peasants, miners, nobles, restaurant workers, private traders, priests’. Whilst foreigners could visit certain farms and villages on guided tours, what some travellers sought (and achieved, to varying extents) was a journey into the rural world without any Soviet ‘official’ presence: no guide, no translator.
Cartoon by David Low, 'Intourist' (1932)
The city and countryside thus constituted distinct conceptual spaces for foreign understandings of what was happening in the Soviet Union. In this binary conceptualisation we see the operation of numerous other binaries: ‘rulers’ and ‘ruled’, ‘Soviet’ and ‘Russian’, the aforementioned ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’. The city was the seat of Soviet power, the countryside its periphery: get further from this power, and you would get closer to the truth this power sought to, at best, massage (in the view of the writer Ada Chesterton, who disliked the city’s ‘reverberating propaganda’ but loved visiting collective farms) and at worst, hide (in the view of Gareth Jones). In this view, ‘truth’ would be found in the geographical periphery, so endowing that space with a greater significance than the city, converting the geographical hinterland into a metaphorical centre. Ultimately therefore, the peripheral was anything but.
It should be noted that many travellers also encountered a diverse range of experiences in Moscow and Leningrad, some of which were far from being ‘showcases’ of Soviet achievement and progress – and so the metaphorical periphery could also be found in the geographical centre. Jones himself had numerous conversations with Soviet citizens in Leningrad and Moscow about their struggles. Numerous travellers spent time in kommunalka, restaurants, theatres and other urban spaces, conversing and discussing with Soviet people anything from repression to culture to news of foreign affairs to exchanging goods and skills, such as in the case of the assistant master of Harrow, Herbert Marchant, and his Russian-English exchange with ‘Varka’ in Moscow in 1936. Nevertheless, the countryside was pre-eminent in the minds of many travellers, and thus they visited it. Ada Chesterton visited the ‘Sparta’ commune in Ukraine in 1930 and wrote ‘I never knew a place where such a rich and ripe contentment of body and soul seemed to abide’; Gareth Jones found starving peasants on farms in Ukraine in Spring 1933.
The view these travellers had about the significance of the countryside has a curious symmetry with the Soviet state’s view, which was also about centres of power and extensive hinterlands. The state’s ambitions in the countryside were pursued via collectivisation, which sought to bring mechanical efficiency to the production of food, state power to the village, cultural reform to the peasants. Broadly, collectivisation meant peasant farms were consolidated into larger enterprises where all labour and output were pooled. It developed in ebbs and flows from 1930 onwards and was a seismic shock to peasant culture, not least as it saw many peasants exiled for being kulaks, that is, peasants who in the Party’s eyes had been exploiting the poorer peasantry.
Image from the book Kolkhozy v fotografiiakh (Knigosoiuz: Moscow, 1930)
Again, what becomes clear is that what was geographically peripheral was in fact central to Soviet affairs in a wider sense. For the traveller it was the location of a – the – ‘truth’. For the Soviet state it was the location of a fundamentally significant struggle for political, economic and cultural control. In a sense these two understandings of Soviet life overlap: it was the countryside where something key to the meaning – and the trajectory – of the Soviet state was happening. The geographical ‘periphery’ in this context therefore became a metaphorical space in which some foreign travellers sought to find something fundamental about the Soviet Union. They saw the countryside as the location for this truth, ostensibly opposed to what they thought of as the Soviet state’s own conceptualisation, i.e., that the city was paramount over the village. Yet in doing so these travellers necessarily made the ‘peripheral’ key, mirroring the Soviet state’s own conceptualisation: that in the struggle for control of the countryside, that which was geographically peripheral to the city was of in no sense peripheral to understanding what the Soviet Union was in the 1930s, or what it was intended to become by its rulers.
Nicholas Hall is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. He works on inter-war British-Soviet engagement in the Soviet Union, between 1928 and 1939. Taking a cue from numerous British travel accounts that discuss the idea of an ‘unofficial Russia’, he looks at how British travellers perceived their time in the Soviet Union, and sought the truth/s of that place and system. He is particularly interested in how travellers engaged with Soviet citizens, and how encounters between the two had significance in terms of sincerity: how they showcase deceit, storytelling, self-representation, ideology, and concerns with authenticity, be they Soviet or British.
 Walter Citrine, I Search for Truth in Russia (London: George Routledge, 1936) viii & 126.  John Brown, I Saw for Myself (London: Selwyn & Blount), 172.  Henry Harben, Diary written during a visit to Russia in September and October 1930 (Privately published, 1930), 43.  Ilya Ehrenburg, ‘Dear Tourist’, Moscow Daily News, 11 August 1934, 4 & 6, at 4a.  Violet Conolly, Soviet Tempo (London: Sheed & Ward, 1937), 19, 28.  Elizabeth Delafield, Straw Without Bricks (London: MacMillan, 1937), 184–5 & 199.  Gareth Jones, letter 1 May 1933, printed New York Times, 13 May 1933, 12h; ‘The Peasant on the Farm’, The Times, 14 October 1931, 13f.  Gareth Jones, ‘Rulers and Ruled’, The Times, October 13, 1930, 13f. Ada Chesterton, My Russian Venture (London: George Harrap, 1931), 234 & 257–9. Herbert Marchant, Scratch a Russian (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1937), 40–62. Chesterton, My Russian Venture, 199.