Friday, May 3, 2024

Uncensored News and Views on Russia (1946)

Book Review from the May 1946 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Report on Russia (Cresset Press, 6s.), by Mr. Paul Winterton, long known as an advocate of British-Russian friendship, is an interesting and useful book, but one that will be of most use to the reader who approaches it with an alert and critical mind and remembers its limitations. Mr. Winterton first visited Russia in 1928, when he lived with a Russian family for nearly a year. He speaks Russian, has made many subsequent visits, and from 1942 to 1945 was there as correspondent for a London newspaper, the News Chronicle. As, during those three years, he “wrote or broadcast something like a million words about Russia" it might be supposed that he had said all he wanted to say—but that would be to leave out of account the heavy hand of the Russian censors. “Because of the censorship,” he writes, “I was allowed to say only nice things. Criticism was impossible.” Now he seeks to even things up by saying the things the censor barred. His complaint is not about the military or "security” censorship, which he accepted as a wartime necessity, but about the political censorship. "Broadly speaking, throughout the whole period of the war it was impossible for any foreign correspondent in Moscow to write anything which was in the slightest degree critical of anything in the Soviet Union, or which implied any disagreement with any aspect of Russian policy” (p. 52). He and the rest of the foreign correspondents were, willy-nilly, a chorus of “yes-men”—"on all controversial subjects, you either said 'yes,' or you said nothing.”

He describes in detail how the correspondents who were supposed to be reporting the war were never allowed anywhere near the fighting, so, being restricted to carefully conducted tours of selected spots long after the battle had moved on, the correspondents had to seek information of the Official Press Department and in the Russian newspapers. From the former they received only obstruction, since its function was obviously not to inform or to assist, but to censor. The latter were equally inadequate, for “Russian newspapers do not set out to be very informative about events. Indeed, their prime function is not to give facts, but to steer and organise the Russian people in the way that the government wants them to go.” Of Russian journalists he writes that, in the main, they "eschew facts and keep their writings vague. They know that they are on safe ground if they say something in slightly different words which has been said before by someone in authority. They seek security in vagueness, and (because they are paid at so many roubles a line) prosperity in length ” (p. 41).

It is not surprising that the foreign correspondents frequently obtained their first news of important events in Russia as a result of listening to the B.B.C. from London (p. 39).

The Russian censors not only cut, but also altered the reports that they let go through. They frequently "not only took sentences out, but wrote their own sentences in” (p. 52). In chapter IV many examples are given of the statements the censors would not allow to be made. They would not let the correspondents report that the Russians were purposely kept in ignorance about the extent and nature of American lend-lease supplies. They would not let Mr. Winterton report that Esthonians had told him that they objected to the incorporation. of Esthonia into Russia. Of course, be was not allowed to report the fact that Russians are nervous about mixing with foreign visitors. One critical report the Russians did let through,, but that was only because they failed to recognise it for what it was. The Russian Government was whipping up demonstrations by Persians in the part of Persia under Russian occupation, in order to make it seem that the Russian demand for oil concessions was being enthusiastically supported by the Persian population. Winterton reported this in a message which referred ironically to "spontaneous” demonstrations; but irony is a dangerous instrument to use, for the London editor likewise failed to recognise it!

Finding that they were not allowed to report the war in any direct way, the correspondents "tried to see and write about other things in Russia,” but this was likewise obstructed. They would apply to the Press Department for facilities, "but it took the Press Department weeks, and sometimes months, to arrange for a correspondent to visit even a kindergarten” (p.37). The Anglo-American correspondents many times protested to various authorities, but their letters and verbal protests were systematically ignored. Even when they got anything to report they still had to pass the censor, and Mr. Winterton’s verdict is that it was quite impossible to give an accurate and objective picture of Russian life because the censors cut out "almost every word or sentence which showed Russia in less than a perfect light” (p. 56).

It is Mr. Winterton's considered view that the difficulties placed in the way of correspondents are deliberate and are part of a settled policy of the Russian Government aimed at preventing information about Russia freely reaching the outside world and at preventing the Russians from knowing about conditions in the outside world. The censorship may, perhaps, be abolished (so far it is still going strong), but that will not necessarily mean that "thereafter the reporting of news from Russia would be fair and full,” for the Russian Government will still be able to keep tight control by withholding entry visas from correspondents who are disliked, or by withdrawing them from correspondents who are too independent (P. 57).

Mr. Winterton gives a two-fold explanation of the suppressive policy of the Russian Government. Remembering the aggression of the other Powers in the past against Russia, the government of the latter country regards all foreigners as potential spies. That is understandable enough, but the Russian Government is likewise afraid to let its own citizens know of conditions in other countries. Mr. Winterton writes (p. 63) : —
"There is no doubt whatever that for a generation the Russian people have been hoodwinked. The facts, if known to the Russians, would make the textbooks and the teachers look ridiculous. How, then, can the Soviet authorities look with any favour upon any large-scale mixing of their people with the foreigner? How can they permit their citizens to travel freely between the Soviet Union and the outside world ? ”
For twenty years the Russian workers have been told by their government that their country is happier, more fortunate and, generally, speaking, better off than the people of other countries, whereas, says Mr. Winterton, “from the purely material point of view practically everything outside Russia is better than the corresponding thing inside Russia. This is true of towns, streets, houses, parks, plumbing, shops and cinemas . . . . ” (p. 64).

Of the standard of living be writes: —
"Twenty years of peace would find the Russian people enjoying a standard of life which —though still very low by Western levels—would nevertheless be far in advance of anything they had known before ” (p. 117).
He writes that “Moscow’s slums are os bad as any in the world ” (p. 129).

Mr. Winterton contrasts the life of the rich and the poor. “The privileged—Red Army generals, police chiefs, commissars and assistant commissars, Party bosses, inventors, factory managers, highly-skilled engineers, ballerinas, writers, artists—these can command all the luxuries available in Moscow. They can have good food and wine, nice clothes and furs for their wives and sweethearts, pleasant and spacious apartments, the use of a motor car, a chauffeur, a domestic servant, and a house in the country. The poorest people have the barest necessities of life, and live in what can only be described as squalor. People are not directly exploited by each other, as happens under capitalism, but some people are certainly exploited by the State for the benefit of other people, and it amounts to much the same thing in the end . . . You can still see a poor person in Moscow from time to time searching a street dustbin for a scrap of food . . . .  just as in most other cities in the world” (P. 131).

Mr. Winterton wants an end to the humbug of pretending that Russia is a democracy: "As near as makes no odds, Russia is a totalitarian state. It is ruled in practice by a small inner ring of Communist Party leaders with Stalin at their head. Insofar as the voice of the people finds any effective expression at all, it is heard only inside the Party, where majority decisions bind the minority to public acquiescence. In reality, even the ordinary rank and file members of the Communist Party have little say in policy these days, and are hardly more than the propaganda instruments for popularising the decisions taken at the top" (p. 119).

Among many other interesting observations on Russian life, Mr. Winterton writes on the militarisation of education, the farcical "discussion" at the Supreme Soviet (Parliament), and the functions of the trade unions. On the latter he writes: "The workers in Russian factories cannot organise collective agitation for shorter hours or higher wages unless the Party approves. Their trade unions have little authority or influence and largely confine their activities to social and cultural work. Their members cannot strike" (P. 123).

The declared object of Mr. Winterton4s book is to provide real information about Russian conditions and, above all, of the Russian Government’s policies. He thinks that another war will only be avoided if America and the British Empire can avoid a direct clash with Russia. This may be achieved by cynically dividing the world into two spheres of interest, but even that, he considers, will require greater knowledge and understanding of the real Russia than exists at present

The Socialist who reads “Report on Russia" cannot fail to notice its and the author’s limitations. His (undeclared) standpoint appears to be that of a Liberal democrat who accepts capitalism and with it the inevitable international rivalry between the big Powers. His information and his criticisms of Russian policy may be accurate enough, but always there is the implication that if only Russia were like Britain and U.S.A. there would be no problems and all would be well. Yet this is manifestly untrue both of internal conditions and of international affairs.

Are there slums in Moscow? So there are in London and New York. All three countries, in common with the rest of the capitalist world, have riches and poverty side by side and the exploitation of the working class for the benefit of the privileged few. In all three countries the working class have yet to achieve the ending of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism. There is no indication that Mr. Winterton wants this or that he realises that without it the search for permanent peace is bound to fail. If Russia were democratic like Britain and U.S.A. that would not mean the end of rivalry between the Powers. The capitalist scramble for markets and raw materials, etc., would still be on.

It is important that in Britain and U.S.A. the workers are able to form their own trade unions and political parties and can publish their views and hold meetings, etc., but the contrast with Russia could be presented in a more balanced way by recalling that if in Russia dictatorship has been used by the ruling group to keep the masses poor, the capitalists in Britain and America have so far been able to achieve the same result through democracy. In all three countries the privileged group have the same end in view though their methods differ.

On one point we must strongly doubt Mr. Winterton’s conclusion. He is not hopeful about the Russian workers challenging the restrictions imposed on them. "The Soviet Union," he writes, "is solidly united under its regime, for all opposition was long ago crushed and the Russians are accustomed to obedience: nor is there much desire to criticise ” (p. 117).

Again he tells us that the existing totalitarian system "seems to work quite well with the Russians, who have never experienced political democracy in our sense, who do not particularly want it, and who would certainly have great difficulty in working it" (p. 121).

These seem to be very rash statements to make. The Russians, he says, are "accustomed to obedience.” That, of course, is what the Czars' governments used to think, but 1905 and 1917 should surely make one doubt it as a guide to Russian workers' behaviour. Of what slave-system, what autocracy and what colonial possession has it not been said that the subjects are accustomed to obedience and therefore will not rouse themselves? Yet all of the seemingly apathetic populations have sometime come to life and astounded their rulers.

As a correspondent in Russia, Mr. Winterton, for reasons he gives himself, is not in the least likely to be a good judge of the amount of opposition there may be with the Stalin regime. Oppositionists under a dictatorship do not lightly run the risk of approaching foreign correspondents and thus drawing attention to themselves.

Another point presents itself. If the Russian workers, though exploited, are satisfied and docile and do not want democratic rights, why does the Russian Government go to such trouble, including the maintenance of the secret police system, to prevent them from asserting themselves? It is just as if you went to a zoo and found a heavily barred cage, under armed guard, containing some blinkered, muzzled and shackled animals, and were told by the keeper that they were happy, contented and docile sheep. You would think that the keeper was mad or that perhaps the animals weren’t sheep after all.
Edgar Hardcastle

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

Original spelling retained.

That's the May 1946 issue of the Socialist Standard done and dusted.