Brave new world derides old Utopia

Street Life: SAMOTECHNY LANE, MOSCOW
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The Independent Online
WHEN I was cleaning out my cupboards last week, I came upon some old magazines called Sovietland, published in English in the 1930s to persuade foreigners that Stalin had built a brave new world.

Since the rouble crash has brought much talk of Russia going "back to the future", I was in a mood to refresh my memory of the Communist era. No sooner had I blown off the dust and started reading the magazines than I became gripped. They were fascinating. I could not put them down.

Printed on thick paper (no expense spared for the foreigners), Sovietland glossed over the labour camps and mass starvation that were Stalin's real gifts to his people and extolled the achievements of hero workers living in a land of milk, honey and ethnic harmony. Many readers of the day, more concerned about the rise of Hitler than the atrocities of Stalin, were inclined to believe this propaganda. Alone among foreign correspondents in Moscow then, Malcolm Muggeridge sent accurate reports home to the Manchester Guardian.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to laugh at Sovietland with its crude attempts to hoodwink the naive and idealistic. "Crime is out of date," reads one reassuring headline. "The weaker sex comes into its own," trumpets another. "Life is joyous among the many nationalities."

The language is never anything but uplifting. The Jews who were sent off to the back of beyond to found the republic of Birobidjan in the Far East are described as a "regenerated people, enjoying a better life thanks to their pioneering and selfless work". The accompanying pictures show smiling Jewish women carrying overflowing baskets of grapes.

Another article headlined "Toilers at Rest" tells how former aristocrats' palaces on the shores of the Black Sea have been converted into sanatoriums for the workers. "Boating is tremendously popular and rowing and yachting are winning ever new free-time adherents. The kiddies rest in deck chairs."

For the hours of fun I have had with these illustrated magazines, I should thank Stas, a failed artist and boozer who died a few years ago. Stas never threw anything away, not even bus tickets. The printed word was sacred to him. "It's all history," he used to say.

Although the single room he had on the edge of Moscow was so stuffed with books and papers that there was no space for him and he slept curled up in the kitchenette, he went on acquiring more. He used to visit the makulatura or waste paper recycling station, where most Russians were glad to trade in their old newspapers for a few roubles.

The Sovietland magazines turned up at the makulatura during the Gorbachev era. The man in charge was all for shredding them. Indeed, much from Communist times has been lost. Nowhere today can you lay your hands on the hilarious records of Leonid Brezhnev's speeches, which used to line the shelves of every Soviet bookshop.

But Stas, a fervent anti-Communist, resisted putting the writings of his ideological opponents down the memory hole, as they had done when they wiped out the evidence of the Tsarist period. "Without history, there is no future," he said and made what was for him a big sacrifice, giving the makulatura man a crate of vodka to save the magazines.

When he died of cirrhosis of the liver, it turned out that Stas had left them to me in his will in the hope that I would make good use of them.

Last week, I did. I invited some Russian teenagers who are studying English to come and look at them. They had never heard of the Donbass coal miner, Alexei Stakhanov, who was said to have hewn a superhuman amount of coal, a standard to which poor workers were held for ever afterwards. And they were intrigued to read a distorted report of the 1938 show trial against "Bukharin, Krestinsky, Yagoda and other ferocious enemies of the Soviet people".

We tittered at the Ukrainian rug weavers "reflecting the pulsating of the collective farm and the stormy development of industry" in their work, and for good measure sang a Stalin-era song about "wide fields" and "freely breathing citizens".

The healthy cynicism of the youngsters reassured me that, although Russia has just taken a hard knock on the path to reform and may now be unsure how to proceed, it has come a long way from that terrible Utopia.

Helen Womack

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