[bas relief by Oleh Lesiuk]
The New York Times Magazine. 29 March 1931
THE RUSSIAN LOOKS AT THE WORLD
A Detail of the Five Year Plan – “The Average Russian Thinks First and Foremost About Food and Clothing.”
A Patient Man, He Hates Change, Doubts International Ideals, Thinks Mostly About His Next Meal, Envies the Americans, Distrusts Europe and Is Beginning to Rise in Self-Esteem.
What does the average Russian think? It is a question to which the world is seeking an answer. In previous issues of the Times Magazine Mr Philip Gibbs, Andre Maurois, Emil Ludwig, William Allen White Presented the points of view of the average Englishman, Frenchman German, American and Italian. In the following article the Moscow correspondent of The New York Times analyzes the outlook of the average Russian under Soviet rule.
By WALTER DURANTY.
IN writing of Russia the use of paradox is in order; so I begin my tale of the “average Russian” with the statement hat there is no such person. In comparatively stable, compact small countries like England or France one can readily suppose a typical citizen, perhaps rather more intelligent and well informed about foreign affairs than a true average would allow, but on the whole sufficiently representative of the mass of his fellow-countrymen. In this vast, amorphous, fluid country, whose very name—Union of Socialist Soviet Republics—is deliberatively vague and un-national, all old values were upset by this revolution and the new society has not yet has time to “set.”
There is, to begin with, a deep gulf between those who reached the thinking age before and those who reached it after the revolution. It is a commonplace to speak of the changed outlook upon life of the “post-war generation” at Europe, as compared with its elders. Yet the war did not fundamentally alter the structure of European society, whereas the Bolshevist revolution literally stood the old order of Russia upon its head. Its most cherished ideals—the belief in God, the importance of money and property, the sanctity of family ties, the respect due to rank and birth and authority were shattered wholesale and in many cases replaced by their exact opposites. To the “average’ older Russian this destruction spelled blasphemy. To the “average” youngster of today it means that a lot of obsolete rubbish has been swept onto the dust heap, as I have heard it said with pride.
Sir Philip Gibbs and M. Maurois found their average countryman in what may be called the ruling class, certainly the thinking class, of England and France. The ruling class of the U.S.S.R. is, of course, Communist. But is one justified in proffering as “average” the representative of a class or sect or organisation, call it what you will, that does not number more than 10 per cent of the total population?
I SAY 10 per cent, not 1 per cent, advisedly, because the usual reckoning that Communists number about 1,600,000,000 in a total population approximating 160,000,000 is wrong and misleading. Actually today there eve more than 1,800,000 adult Communists, 3,000,000 members at the Communist League of Youth, 4,000,000 Communist “Young Pioneers,” and an uncounted mass of babies, from the christening age up to Kindergarten, whose parents have registered them more or less formally as “Octabryats,” that is, potential or future Communists. If the total national census is counted “by noses,” irrespective of age or sex, it is only logical to reckon its Communist proportion in the same way, although few people have ever done so.
At that, 10 per cent cannot be called a true “average,” although what the ruling Communists think is what matters most in present Russia, and must not therefore be omitted from any attempt to analyze contemporary Russian thought. Moreover—and this is highly important -there is no marked difference of viewpoint between older Communists and their juniors, such as divides the non-Communist population. Communists of any age are required to think, and try to think, and generally do think, alike.
But what of the -“average peasant”-there are 120,000,000 peasants in the Soviet Union and the manual worker, and the employe, or white-collar worker, and the “Intelligentsia’ (which means what the West would call professional men, including scientists and artists and actors and reporters)? How is their average to be reckoned, and by what measure can their lump sentiment be weighed?
Breaking Virgin Soil- A symbol of the New Russia Silhouetted Against the Sky.
Three or, four years ago it would have been futile to attempt a group analysis of these different sections of the Russian population. Three or four years hence it may be easier. At present it can be tried, with reservations, because, differ as they do, they have certain opinions in common.
They share, it may as well be admitted from the outset, a general doubt of the new and untried road along which the Kremlin is leading them. (If there is one thing that makes the truly “average” human being, all the world over, it is a dislike, or even fear, of anything novel. Habit has become for humanity a second nature.)
RUSSIANS well know—nearly all of them save an incorrigibly romantic handful of the former ruling class and a larger, but still numerically insignificant section of obtusely conservative peasants — that the clock of life cannot be set backward, and that any attempt to restore the old order would be futile. Moreover—I say it with deep conviction—they do not want the old order restored, with its Czars and Popes and “Black Hundreds” and gendarmes and landlords. One might imagine they had proved that in the days of Denikin, and Kolchak and Yudenich, and Wrangel. They do not want it and they will not have it.
But one may venture to question whether they want, on the other hand, to work so hard so eagerly toe the “five-year plan in four years” as the Soviet press would like us to believe. Or whether they thrill with enthusiasm at the thought of “Socialist construction” and the slogan, “We must equal arid surpass America.” Or whether the suppression of small home craft and peasant production of food and commodities—which played a far greater role in Russia’s economic life than is generally realized, and is the cause of no small part of the present shortage from which they suffer greatly—is not distasteful to them like soap in the mouth instead of butter. Or, finally, whether they really enjoy being herded into collective farms (however more productive than their wretched little individual holdings, and how ever more truly contributing to their ultimate good), or being forced, if they belong to the urban population, to stand in line for hours to buy the necessities of life or secure them on a niggardly ration system through “closed distribution centres” in their factories or offices. The “average Russian” is a meek and long-suffering creature, but it cannot be denied that he is disturbed and distressed by the present violent change of his habits and life-ways.
This violent change of his habits disturbs and distresses the “average Russian” must be understood that I am now speaking of the non-Communist Russian — to such a degree that he cannot voice his ideas, hopes and aspirations with anything like the ease and clarity of his French and English brethren, as relayed by Messrs. Maurois and Gibbs. It may well be that in England and France, those compact, old settled States, there are quite a large number of low-class fellows, perhaps more than enough to form the real “average,” who share with my poor Russian the acute and soul-searching about where the next meal will come from, and the next week’s rent, and the baby’s shoes. In Russia universal preoccupations, so near and urgent as to take men’s minds off the larger problems of foreign or even home politics. The “average Russian” thinks first and most about food and clothing. The commodity shortage is so acute nowadays that what to eat and wear counts more than the fate, of nations.
An American Scene-in Russia-“The Average Russian *** Thinks that America in Marvelous and he sets America Before Him as His Goal and Landmark.”
BUT the Russian curiously enough, is a politically minded creature, much more so than the average American to whom, taking it by and large, politics is a profession like other professions run by (I should not like to say for) a more or less specified type of big-hearted citizen, who has studied to become a politician as others study to become a doctor or musician or movie star. The Russian, however, though in reality more remote from politics, both domestic and foreign, than the average American (because the Communist party takes care of all that for him, as things now go here, and hardly bothers to suggest occasionally that he sign his name, here, on the dotted line) is deeply interested in politics and in easily excited by politicians and is full of ideas—all Russian., even the humblest, are full of Ideas-about politics.
So I am justified in supposing that the average Russian, despite his hard life and worry about food and the baby’s shoes and his own boots and his wife’s winter coat, has got something to say about the League of Nations and the treaty of Versailles, and disarmament, and the United States, and foreign affairs generally. Anyhow, he does say it and is stimulated therefore by the Soviet press, which gives a tot of space to world news as part of the education to which the Russian people is now being submitted by the Communist party.
He thinks—the average Russian thinks, or is being taught to think—that the League of Nations is a lot of high-sounding guff oaf nonsense, and soft jobs for ‘slick guys and that it has just about as much influence on the course of events in Europe as a lot of old ladies at a sowing-bee, and that its practical purpose, If any, is to preserve the status quo in Europe for the benefit of the war victors and finally that the Americans were mighty smart to keep out of it and its “entangling alliances.” (The Soviet Union, if I may say so, is a large country, and seems to share George Washington’s lack of esteem for picayune European dickering.)
The Russian thinks the treaty of Versailles is a kind of messy patchwork that is already fraying at the edges, and he is a little worried-- the average Russian, not the Communist Russian—lest its Imperfections involve him personally in some new great effort to make “Europe safe for democracy” or “fit for heroes to live in.” In other words, a bigger and better war.
He thinks disarmament is a lot of hypercritical hokum. He thinks the United States is a. sort of combination of the Kingdom of Midas and the millennium, where people can pick up gold just anyhow and live happy and well fed and comfortable. He does not give a hang for Count Keyserling’s suggestion that America has gained the whole world and lost its own soul. He has never heard of Count Keyserling and would not think much of him if he had. In fact, he would think Count Keyserling was crazy, because he, the average Russian, has learned by harsh experience that the welfare of the stomach comes before the welfare of the soul. He thinks, in short, that America is marvelous, and he sets America before him as his goal and landmark.
INSTEAD of hyperbolical phrases about “lands for heroes to live in,” the Russian thinks of making a country like America where a poor man can own his automobile and readily enjoy a private bath. The average (non-Communist) Russian immensely admires America and Americans, likes America and Americans, envies America and Americans, and hopes, with a great and, in the present circumstances, a rather pathetic hope, that one fine day he will be able to live in the way he believes the average American lives now.
Such at least are the opinions— not only about America, but about the League of Nations and disarmament and the treaty of Versailles— of the Russian workers, employes and intelligentsia. Just what the peasants think, if at all, of these remote matters is obscure, though one cannot say that their thoughts have no importance. Whatever they think, if they do think it, has importance by sheer weight of numbers. Bur for practical purposes one may surmise that they think much the same, on these points, as the workers, employes and intelligentsia, who are closer in Soviet Russia to the peasants in life and thought than In any Western country.
Of Europe the Russian is doubt-
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THE RUSSIAN LOOKS AT THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Interested Chiefly in Food and Clothing, He Distrusts Change, Doubts International Idealism and Is Rising in Self-Esteem
-ful. Germans, he thinks, are friendly, but he rather dislikes them. Poles, Finns, Rumanians and the inhabitants of the Baltic States he despises and distrusts. Of Italians he knows little, but be feels for them a certain age-old respect. Italian architects designed the Kremlin, and the name of Italy has s always in Russia been synonymous with brain power and artistic skill. About the French he is muddled. He feels vaguely that they are fine people and ought to be friendly, although for some reason they are not. He does not like to think badly of them, and does so with regret, like an old friend who has been alienated by some stupid misunderstanding which should some how be explained and corrected.
He does not like the Turks or Persians or Chinese or Afghans, and cannot quite understand why the government of Russia should worry about, or even be polite to, such inferior and barbarous folk. He has never forgiven the Japanese for the war of 1904, which he still regards as an unwarranted impertinence, repeated and exaggerated by their occupation of Valdivostok [Sic] and the coast region in 1918-21. They were forced to withdraw, he remembers with satisfaction, but that did not condone their insolence. This almost universal feeling about Japan is one of the more striking survivals from pre-revolution days.
A Woman Factory Worker.
Britain is still his traditional enemy, the stumbling-block in all his paths. .Every setback or “narrow place” (meaning awkwardness or difficulty) in foreign affairs, from the flight of Borodin from China to the failure of the United States to recognise the Soviet Republic, is ascribed to British machinations. The British are a strong and crafty people, the Russian admits, and for that he respects them, but they are foes, he knows instinctively, most to be distrusted when they smile and speak smoothly. There may be a truce, but no friendship, between the Lion and the Bear. It is rather significant that recent attempts by the Kremlin and the Soviet press to substitute France for Britain as the devil of popular Russian imagination have met with little success, and Britain retains her place as the enemy of (Russian) mankind.
FINALLY, which is interesting, the Russian is beginning to lose his traditional respect for, the Western foreigner as a superior being, compared to whom he himself is a “dark” and backward creature. This is particularly noticeable among younger Russians who are being taught by the Communists a self-respect and self-confidence that their fathers never knew.
It is somewhat surprising that although internationalism is one of the basic dogmas of the Bolshevist religion, the Soviet régime has thus far fostered the growth of Russian Nationalism to no small extent. It is probably neither the Bolshevist fault nor desire, but the inevitable consequence of the “outlaw” position in which this country was placed by foreign hostility. To a primitive people the subtleties of international brotherhood of the “workers and peasants of the world” are apt to be lost in a simple human dislike of enemies, who wish to bring back their hated masters or steal their land and make them a foreign “colony” like India or an “exploited nation” like China.
CIRCUMSTANCES—civil war and foreign intervention and the Polish war—tended to create a strong nationalist idea among the Russian masses, and the Bolsheviki, for their own purposes and in their perpetual dread at a fresh onslaught by the capitalist world, aided its development by defense-week campaigns and the Osaviakhim movement and the most strenuous boosting of the Red Army, and other forms of propaganda. Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that the average Russian, although still friendly and on the whole respectful toward the Western stranger within his gates, is becoming en masse more and more xenophobic and nationally arrogant. Which may have dire consequences in the future and already cannot be viewed without disquiet.
These opinions of the outer world held by the average non-Communist are for the most part, as might be expected a reflection of the views of the dominant Communist party. In part they era deliberately inspired by the Communists; in part, especially as regards America and Japan, they are based on memories of the past and a kind of folklore or word of mouth legend of the present. The Communists own views, of course, are colored if not primarily determined by the “Marxist ideology,” which presupposes that all capitalis [sic] systems are wrong and hateful and doomed to destruction.
The Communist is ready to take the American capitalist system and material achievement as a model for the Russian people to “equal and surpass.” as one of the popular slogans here puts it. But he is loath to admit that any good thing can come out of the capitalist Nazareth and is forced by Ironclad Marxism faith to disapprove and disavow capitalism and all its works. The Communist’s views are singularly hard-boiled and free from sentiment when it comes to the immediate practical consideration of any particular case. They should therefore be fairly correct on the whole, but the Communist has certain fundamental prejudices which warp his judgment. He is hampered by two convictions—first, that the rest of the world hates and fears and wishes to destroy the Communist regime in Russia; second, that the rest of the world for that reason is watching him like a hawk, eager to pounce, and is intensely interested in all his doings. Both these thoughts are in a sense unction to the Communist’s soul, but they keep him awake at night and frequently mislead him in the daytime.
© The New York Times. 1931. N.B. The executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller, told The Washington Post on October 23 2003, that the newspaper would have no objection if the Pulitzer Prize Board wanted to revoke Mr. Duranty's award. Mr. Keller called Mr. Duranty's work "pretty dreadful. ... It was a parroting of propaganda." It will be taken as read that no royalties are due on this un-authorised reproduction of this article As such they are also perceived, as having no truthful value whatsoever, are only reproduced for academic and educational purposes, not intended to defraud The New York Times of any morally legitimate royalty revenue and are published without financial gain. In any event, the copyright for the above may well only reside, 70 years after its publication with the heirs of Walter Duranty, and with whom we have no personal animosity whatsoever. Nevertheless, any contention of copyright violation may by taken up under the jurisdiction of English Law. My service address for any legal correspondence is: Nigel Linsan Colley, 1, Crown Street, Newark, Nottinghamshire, England, NG24 4UY. Any prosecution will, you can be assured, be defended in the public domain.
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