This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


A leading Russian Communist said to me a year ago “The mind of our people is changing so fast under the conditions of socialism that it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to speak to the rest of the world. We find it harder to understand them, and they us.”

We who go back and forth between the Soviet world and the world of capitalism—not only in space from New York to Moscow but also in spirit from intimate life with Soviet people to intimate life in America—feel keenly this difficulty. Important words like freedom, democracy, dictatorship have different meanings on different sides of the border. The Soviet world is sharply conscious of planning its future; the capitalist world is always arriving where it hadn’t intended. And Soviet officials are not always helpful in making their acts intelligible; they often assume that only deliberate malice can doubt them and that the only needed explanation is the appropriate citation from Marx.

To explain the swiftly growing Soviet world to that other world out of which it was born is a task that becomes steadily more complex. For if its outer achievements are every year more able to speak for themselves, its inner life more and diverges from that of capitalism in a hundred subtle ways.

In the Berlin station a giant sign greets me with three-foot letters: “Think of your hair!” My mind flashes back to the world I have left. What are Soviet people thinking of? The Stakhanov drive, the Moscow city plan, Marie and her sugar beets, the conquest of the north. And hair and perfume, O yes, of course. Everyone knows of the rising standard of living and firmly believes in a cultural life—more bath-tubs, radios, books and dramatic clubs and doubtless more hair. But their individuality is expressed not by possessions and polish but by the various ways in which men create. Dynamic is the word; their civilization is dynamic.

The regimentation of life by property is my next shock in the capitalist world. The obscene phrases “damages for alienation of affections” or “a $50,000 man” or the remark: “I do it only for the money that is in it”—what degradation they imply of human life and work! I see able engineers spending creative power on little models in a government relief job just to keep alive. I see a journal of high standard, the life-work of an able editor submerged by a new owner’s wish for quick profit. Lives are conditioned in the Soviet world also, by trends and sages of organization, but not by the profits of a boss.

The difference appears in the use of pronouns. People under capitalism are contrasting “I” and “they.” “Too bad it couldn’t have been on my land,” a man remarks of a California oil-strike. Soviet folk would be hailing “our new oil-wells”; to them the idea of a private oil-well is already as quaint as a private postal system. I note a remark about American unemployment: “If it gets any worse, they’ll have to do something.” Who is this ultimate, uncontrollable “they”? The term betrays the class society of which the speakers are unconscious; they are waiting for some boss to act. To hear a debate: “Is America going fascist?” and think how much less passively Soviet folk would word it. “Shall we go fascist? No. Then exactly how shall we prevent it?” Soviet folk say “we” of one-sixth of the earth’s surface. Uzbek cotton-pickers, toiling under the sun of Central Asia, say: “We are conquering the Arctic; we rescued the Chelyuskinites.” Ukrainian farmers who never went up in an airplane talk of “our stratosphere records” and “the loss of our Maxim Gorky airplane” as they take up collections to build ten new ones. But even Mrs. Roosevelt asks me: “Are Russian peasants getting more reconciled to accepting direction?” I feel the hopelessness of language as I answer: “No, they are learning better to organize and direct themselves.”

Americans often ask me whether Russians are not naturally more altruistic than Americans, more fit for communism, they imply. No, it is something quite different. Russians at the time of Revolution were more medieval than Americans, which means “naturally” more petty, unreliable, inefficient, given to bargaining and cheating. Traits of the Asiatic market-place were widespread and: occasionally still annoy the visitor. But these traits are disappearing under the fact of joint ownership, which brings identity of individual with community good.

Joint possession of the country’s resources and productive mechanism is the economic reality which unifies Soviet life and makes it dynamic. It is this that washes out the antagonism between personal and public good, that makes men say “we.” It is this that makes men conscious planners of the future; for owners plan but non-owners can only fight or drift. “The chief quality of Soviet civilization is the sense that the world is “ours,” to seize, understand and make over.

This Soviet world is my theme; I give scant space to those fast disintegrating forces that fought it. I tell not the “whole truth,” for truth is never “whole”; there are always at least two truths in conflict: the truth that is dying and the truth that is coming into existence. American Tories who intrigued for King George had their truth also, but it remains only as piquant sauce to romance; the truth of the Continental armies remained to build the modern republic. They themselves recalled the frozen feet of Valley Forge less as suffering than as heroism; their raids on hungry farms passed into memory not as banditry but as necessity and daring. History’s greatest gift to victors is that not only they, but their truth survives.

Yet I do no injustice to those many lives which in greater or less degree were wrenched or broken by the coming of the new Soviet order. Even for them the new years obliterate the past. They also change to seek their new future in the new system; Lives broken in terms of property are being remade in terms of work. Saboteurs reform and win posts of honor; kulaks come back from exile to factories and farms; children have an equal start now regardless of fathers. For this war differs from other battles in that all men, even the conquered foes, are absorbed into the ranks of the conquerors—joint heirs to all the fruits of victory.

A. L. S.

Table of contents

previous page start next page