This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


The emergence of new people has been noted with growing frequency in recent years by the Soviet press. Editorial writers have tried to analyze their qualities; novelists have attempted to portray them. A Russian author suggested a year ago to the Moscow News a series of half-column novelettes, each containing the snapshot of a life. To the editor’s query how many of these stories he had, he answered casually: “About a thousand.”

“A thousand!” exclaimed our editor.

“That’s not so many,” replied the author, “to describe the great variety of people now appearing in our world.”

Lincoln Steffens told me of meeting one of these new people, a Soviet youth in Hollywood, “so new that he could not understand these United States. . . . He was a unit; he thought and acted together. He was constantly puzzled by the tactics of American capitalists, considered from the standpoint of their own survival.”

Increasingly I also meet new people in the Soviet Union. Not infrequently I have misunderstood them; their approach to life was different from anything I had known. Their respect for my will, their unwillingness to use their personality to convince my intellect, I mistook for aloofness, so accustomed was I to the salesman’s method of putting himself over. On another occasion, traveling on a Siberian train, I made the opposite mistake and took for promiscuous flirtation the expansive joy of a high official whose deft approaches to every person he met drew forth answering flashes of life. Then I saw him evade a kiss from “Little Slant-Eyes,” a Tartar girl with whom for two days he had been joking.

“Kissing is for the beloved one,” he said, smiling. “But the joy of life is to be shared with everybody.”

“Do you know what they have thought of you on this train?” I asked him then.

“What they think affects them, not me. They will also learn if it is in them.”

Never had I seen a more poised personality. Later he remarked, “We Bolsheviks, as Kirov always said, must be the happiest people in the world. But I must be one of the happiest even among Bolsheviks. Our older men are marked by too many years of combat. Our younger men can hardly appreciate the grimness of what they have never known. But I spent my childhood in oppression and my youth fighting for freedom; I am old enough to know the conquered past, yet young enough for a whole new life.”

Is it possible yet to say in what direction this new humanity is developing? Are there any characteristics common to these millions of people who are becoming subtly differentiated from the past? Many attempts are being made to analyze them. When the Turkoman horsemen descended on Moscow after their amazing 4,300 kilometer run across the deserts, Stalin said: “Only clearness of goal, perseverance in attaining the goal, and firmness of character breaking through every hindrance can achieve such a glorious victory.” Pravda elaborated this theme into an editorial on the Soviet ideal of character, declaring it to be the exact opposite of that “unquestioning obedience” which Hitler had previously demanded in an impassioned speech to fascist youth.

“Strong and original individuality,” was claimed by Pravda as the basic quality of a Soviet citizen. Not the “rugged individualism” which capitalism in its early stages glorifies for its upper classes, and which sinks into gangsterism in the fascist decline. Not conforming obedience responding under all conditions to “God and country,” the capitalist ideal which under fascism becomes blinder submission for men whose destiny it is to be bossed. Not that ability to look on both sides of the question which intellectuals under capitalism prize as a sign of high intelligence, but which Pravda disdains as “division of personality and double-mindedness, Hamletism in romantic colors.”

“Not submission and blind faith does the Communist Party implant, but consciousness, daring, decision. It is just from the clear goal, seen by millions, from fighting perseverance and firmness that there grows that remarkable voluntary discipline which bourgeois society cannot even imagine. . . . Clearness of aim, perseverance and firmness won the victory in the civil war, restored our ruined economy and created socialist industry and collective farming. Clearness of aim, perseverance and firmness made way through the ice of the Arctic, lifted our heroes of the air into the stratosphere and brought close to the Communist Party many of the great representatives of science, literature and art. . . . The Communist Party draws out from all the toilers of our great fatherland the quality of strong individuality, inseparably connected with the strong collective of the toilers. . . .”

To many persons in capitalist countries these words will be only partly intelligible. They have been so accustomed to considering that their own life is “free” and Soviet life “regimented” that they cannot at once grasp a viewpoint which holds the exact opposite. Yet even the casual observer of human beings today in the Soviet Union notices that while they have certain characteristics in common they are by no means regimented into uniformity, but show a vivid individuality at least as great as is found anywhere in the world. A business man in Chicago who had never seen Moscow but who was something of an art critic, told me that he was especially impressed in all Soviet photographs, whether of demonstrations in the Red Square or of athletes and factory workers, by the quality of will in the faces. “Utterly different from the sheepish or brutal faces of Nazi pictures,” he added. It is clear to anyone who talks with Soviet workers or the more advanced of the collective farmers that they feel themselves possessed not only of freedom, but of a peculiar type of reinforced and collectively supported freedom which is strong enough to conquer all the obstacles in the world.

Freedom is never absolute; it is concrete and specific. It means different things to different classes and generations of men. The American pioneer faced the wilderness ax in hand with the mood of a free creator, saying: “What shall I build?” His freedom was conditioned by the loans he made or failed to make for his migration, by the railroad that came or failed to come, and by the subtler limitations of his own skill and character, yet with ax in hand, he felt free. His ownership of his primitive means of production was the source and guarantee of his sense of freedom.

When the means of production became the factory, the meaning of freedom slowly changed. Freedom became to the owner the right to fix prices and wages, to the worker the right to drift from job to job, seeking an easier boss. Freedom in government became the “right to choose one’s rulers,” not the right to own and rule. Freedom of thought and speech became the right to complain, to voice transient shifts of opinion, not the right to drive one firm consistent thought into life. As capitalism advanced, men became diversified in their work and capacities, but standardized in their instinctive reference to a boss. Soviet workers notice this quality in Americans who come to their factories. “They know how to complain and make suggestions, but not how to desire and will.”

“Desire and will” is the form which freedom takes when men are owners. When they are joint owners, a form of will develops—not unlike that in a family, a partnership or a committee—which determines itself by consultation. “He does not make individual decisions,” is already a compliment in the Soviet Union; it is applied to Stalin. It is as if one said of a scientist that he refuses to base conclusions on a single experiment. Men always have made up what they call their own minds through the influence of other minds as well; but now they grow conscious of these sources of their choice; they organize even these sources. They criticize, but from within, not from aloof isolation. Workers express discontent not by strikes against an alien owner, but by joint fights against bureaucracy to improve the organization of the land. Freedom becomes less a protest and more a steadily burning choice; not a fight, but a seeking. It is seen not as absence of restraint, but as conscious selection of one particular, individual place in a living complex mechanism whereby a thousand similar freedoms are welded into flame and power.

In the latter half of 1935 the Stakhanovites began to shake the country. People compared it to an explosion, an earthquake. The movement appeared simultaneously in a hundred places and a score of industries. Despite the great variety of its people, the fundamental characteristics were the same. Workmen operating new machines began to shatter past standards of production often against the indifference or opposition of engineers and managers but accompanied by the strained attention of their fellow workers. Each of them had to fight his way against old concepts and habits; one or two of them were killed by angry workers, outraged by this sudden burst of speed. But overwhelming public opinion hailed and copied the innovators. Swiftly, in the midst of their local elation, they found themselves acclaimed across the land as heroes.

Within two months every country in the world was forced to take notice, disguising the information as best they could under the name “speed-up.” For this was no mere routine news from Russia. This was a storming of the world frontiers of productivity and science. Miners in the Donbas were doubling Ruhr production. Blacksmiths in Gorky Auto Works broke standards set by Ford. Shoemakers in Leningrad made records 50 per cent higher than the world record held by the Bata factories of Czechoslovakia. Young girl weavers ran far ahead of America’s best achievements. Swedish saw-mill machinery, standardized to cut ninety-six cubic meters of lumber, was impertinently pushed to nearly three hundred by woodsmen in Archangel.

Hundreds of American engineers and workers, who tried five years ago to “teach the Russians,” and who today are scattered in jobs and out of jobs all over the world, must have grumbled glumly when they heard of it: “Why couldn’t they do it when we showed them how?” For the events which have happened are externally obvious. The Soviet Union equipped itself throughout with modern machinery and methods, and drew eleven million greenhorns into industry to operate them. The greenhorns broke machines, wasted material and learned. They could not learn at once when their teachers told them; it had to grow in their nervous systems. But what they have learned is not only the technical skill of America. It is all that skill with the pride of ownership added. Ownership of the whole great mechanized process that makes the modern world.

People who were allowed to attend the first All-Union Congress of Stakhanovites—and everyone in Moscow wanted to go—told of the indescribable enthusiasm, the irrepressible, thundering cheers. The Soviet press grew lyric over “taming the fiery steed of science,” “washing out the barriers between manual and mental labor,” “preparing the way from socialism to communism where each shall receive according to his needs.” Stalin was saying to the assembled delegates: “We leaders of the government have learned much from you. Thanks, comrades, for the lesson, many thanks.” Those men in the Congress believed—and the country believed with them—that the plan made by Marx was coming true. They had established a new economic system. They had painfully equipped it with modern methods. They had slowly learned to manage it jointly, and now the predicted results appeared. Socialism was beating capitalist production, just as capitalism beat feudalism.

What are the characteristics of these Stakhanovites? A joyously dynamic initiative, a pride in mastery of complex technical processes, a conscious co-operation with society, a hunger to learn. Every phrase dropped in their discussions shows exultant power in creation and desire to share the new skill with others. Busygin, the blacksmith who made the crankshaft record in the forge of the Gorky Auto Works, declares, “There’s nothing I dream of so much as studying. I want to be not only a smith but to know how hammers are made and to make them. . . .” Marie Demchenko who made the sugar-beet record asked as a reward a course at an agricultural college—and got it. Stakhanov himself went down in the mines to make his record as the chosen representative of his fellows. “International Youth Day was approaching and I wanted to mark the day with a record in productivity. For some time my comrades and I had been thinking how to break the shackles of the norm, give the miners free play, force the drills to work a full shift.” When Slavnikova wanted to beat the record on a machine she had carefully studied but never yet used, the foreman opposed her. “I'm a fearless parachute jumper; that norm doesn’t scare me; I'll upset it,” she replied. She drove the machine to a fivefold record. She relates the sequel: “At four in the afternoon we had a meeting and they gave us flowers for our good work.”

Bobilev, the steel smelter, wants you to know that he is a scientist: “We are no sportsmen. We tested out our open hearth; we repaired her and asked how much she could give. She told us 11.33 tons.” Vasiliev, the blacksmith who holds the record for forging connecting-rods, uses the words “boiled up” and “exploded” to describe his feelings about his forge. When his 1934 record was beaten by Andrianov, he “boiled up” and went back to the works with four days left of his vacation. I beat Sam Andrianov but I saw in a newspaper that a Kharkov smith had made more than a thousand. Then I exploded! I made 945 in one shift. The smith Stadnik also exploded and made 975. I consulted my gang how to organize our work-place; we got 1,036. We talked it over with the foreman and told him how to change the furnace; with true Stakhanov zeal he gave us in four days a furnace that could heat 1,500 in a shift. What stops us now? We talked it over and placed the metal in such order that it would be easier to take up. On October 27 I made an all-Union record 1,101 in a single shift. Comrades, I haven’t yet got out of that hammer all she’ll give, but I'm going to get it out to the very bottom.”

Characteristic of the Stakhanovites is their disdain for overtime work as a confession of inefficiency; their insistence that a rhythm shall be found which shall not be physically exhausting—“if the work is done right you feel better and stronger”; and their zeal in teaching the new skill to their fellows. The locomotive engineer Omelianov, demands the “worst engineer” as a pupil, and makes him also a beater of records. Slavnikova is asked by an inefficient woman: “You’re a Young Communist; why don’t you teach me?” She gives time to instruct the older woman, who also begins to improve.

Life in the new factories is by no means ease and harmony. It is more like an explosion or a battle. An engineer of my acquaintance finds the Stakhanovites frankly terrifying. “They put up signals over their lathes when out of material. These signals pop up everywhere and I have to keep them satisfied, or they’ll say I sabotage. You can lose your reputation. You can be cleaned out of the Party. I'm sitting up nights to plan the flow of work.” The demands of these new men are breaking the old technical processes. For “every worker knows,” says the weaver Lisakova, “that over-fulfillment of the norm will not only improve labor conditions in the factory, but also the kindergartens, nurseries, dining-rooms. All this depends on the efficiency of organization, the spirit of solidarity, the fulfillment of the plan.”

It no longer even occurs to these joint owners that a rise in productivity might throw men out of work. Shifts of workers there will be from one job to another; but industry bears the expense of retraining workers. Conflicts there will be, harsh problems and many, but they feel quite sure that they can plan and achieve. They have won through civil war, pestilence, famine; they tightened their belts to build the first Five-Year Plan. They are driving rapidly through a second, which increases food, clothing, housing visibly each year. They haven’t the faintest doubt that as owners of their country they will always have worthwhile things to do.

“Ten years hence,” said a Stakhanovite to me, “farming and industry may cease to be our main occupations. But there are other occupations when once we produce all the goods we need. Human development, exploration, science—to these there are no limits!”

Whatever kind of world will be made by these new builders, one thing is certain: it will be built on conscious planning and will. Not regimentation but choice will make it, a choice that develops its own social guidance. If more people want geology, there will be more geology; if more want medicine, there will be more medicine. More comforts or more leisure, more music or more exploration of the Arctic? Our new world will be what we choose to make it. And if excess of choice in one direction leaves any fields unfilled, the social ways of influencing choice are clear and conscious. A combination of material rewards with social recognition, is already the method of attracting volunteers. The announcement in January, 1933, that agriculture was the most important front, brought hosts of recruits from the ablest people of the country. Calls for help through the League of Communist Youth supplied the driving personnel for Stalingrad Tractor Plant and the Moscow subway. Increased wages and shortened hours have supplemented statements of public need to attract more people into fields as diverse as medicine and mining.

Are there any bounds whatever to man’s advance? These new men recognize none. “If in so short a time and with so backward folk we owners of one-sixth of earth have done so much, what shall we men not do when we own the resources of our planet, unhindered by the fear of wars? If the earth grows old, shall we not remake it to suit us? If the solar system runs down, shall we not find ways to give heat to our sun? Need we fix any limit to attainment, when the earth is our jointly owned workshop and home?”

Such is their confident philosophy. So they answer, when they take time to discuss at all. A new religion? No, that is a word disdained. A widening science, they would say. Their approach to ultimate reality is not one of faith and submission, on which all religions have been based. It is one of defiance and conquest through intellect and will. When the conflicts between slave and master, serf and baron, worker and capitalist are ended, and the classless society is attained, there begins the titanic conflict of conscious men with unconscious nature. Not by faith but by analysis, not by submission but by defiance shall we rise in that unending battle. Unending? Relatively only, not absolutely. But that end is beyond our present power even to imagine.

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