Thursday, November 29, 2007

On the road in the USSR

Dominique Lapierre’s Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union, an account of a historic road trip across the USSR in 1956, has just been published in India by Full Circle Books. This isn’t an in-depth travelogue or a sociological study of the unimaginably vast enigma that was the former Soviet Union: that much should be clear from the size of the book (it’s less than 200 pages of text in the double-space format, which makes it more like 120 regular pages). But it’s a friendly starting point if you want a flavour of Russian life in the 1950s and aren’t yet ready for something of the scale of, say, Ryszard Kapuscinski's Imperium.

The story of this amazing road trip began in early 1956 when the seed of a crazy idea entered the minds of two young French journalists, Lapierre and Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini, reporter and photographer respectively for the newsmagazine Paris Match: what if they obtained permission for a motorcar trip across the Soviet Union, to observe the world within the Iron Curtain in a way no citizen of a capitalist country had yet done? Given the political divide between the USSR and the western world at the time, this seemed about as achievable a task as hitchhiking to the moon – and yet, through a combination of enterprise and good fortune (and much to their own astonishment), they got the go-ahead from none other than Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party. (Khrushchev had recently denounced the crimes of the Stalin regime in a famous speech that caused an uproar in the USSR; the young Frenchmen get a sense of the shock-waves left behind by this speech at various points during their journey.)

What followed was a 13,000-kilometre road trip for Lapierre and Pedrazzini in the company of their wives and a young Russian journalist named Slava. Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union is about some of the highlights of this long journey. The first thing to note is that it’s written in a very breezy style. The predominant tone here is that of the wonder of discovery; of young people who have taken individual freedoms for granted trying to grasp the workings of a very unfamiliar way of life. The joy of the experience comes across in much of the writing – there are descriptions (and photos) of people gaping at the colourful French car on their roads (“we were being scrutinized like exotic fish at the bottom of an aquarium”) and a running joke about how difficult it was for them to obtain high-quality fuel (he calls it “Muscovite elixir”) for the pampered vehicle.

A more melancholic note is struck by anecdotes about an elderly lady begging them to let down a tyre so she “could breathe the air of Paris” and about an Armenian refugee unable to return home. There are also pen-portraits of a railway worker from Minsk, a sales assistant from Moscow, a factory worker in Gorki, a Ukrainian peasant and a Tiflis surgeon, whom the young journalists hold up as examples of the Soviet Everyman. Lapierre also conveys something of the confusion and despair that followed de-Stalinisation, reflected in a popular (and very downbeat!) lullaby that asked, "Was Stalin good?", answered "Bad, little girl...very bad" and then continued:
Is Khrushchev good?
We shall know when he is dead, so sleep, little girl, sleep.
(What a stoical, resigned group of people!)

Despite his claim that “these pages are an entirely objective account of the lives of Soviet citizens who spontaneously welcomed and opened their doors to us”, Lapierre doesn’t refrain from voicing his views about the subtle brainwashing, “the lack of any spirit of criticism” that was integral to the working of the socialist system; the hand-to-mouth existence of people not permitted to own land or start private businesses; and the belief, sustained by deep-rooted idealism, that the Soviet Union would last forever. This is most noticeable in his good-natured arguments with Slava, who is a member of the Communist Party.
“Slava, how is it that the hotels in the USSR are generally so disgustingly filthy?” I asked him one day point-blank.

“When they are dirty it is the fault of the person in charge,” he replied in a similar sharp vein.

“But why does the person in charge not set his heart on making sure their establishment is clean?”

“Because they are bad at being in charge!”

“But why? Because the person put in charge of a hotel or a roadside petrol station is never going to work quite like someone who owns his own business. By suppressing private ownership your system has killed individual initiative and the competitive spirit...Why should the hotel manager in Sukhumi put himself out when the hotel is the only one in town approved by Intourist, it’s always full and he has no reason to increase his clientele? It isn’t so much a question of mistakes or problems but of the system, isn’t it?”

“Come back in ten years’ time, Dominique,” he said with conviction. “In 10, 15, maybe 20 years’ time, my country will have caught up with America’s living standards!”
I was struck by the bond that develops between Slava and Lapierre despite their seemingly irreconcilable clash of ideologies and despite the things that happened after the trip ended. In February 1957, when the Paris Match published Lapierre’s long report of the journey along with Pedrazzini’s photos, Slava was taken to task by Soviet authorities who had expected him to keep a stern eye on the foreigners and were unhappy about the amount of information leaked out. Slava responded by writing a fiercely critical article about Lapierre in a Russian paper, also publishing a photograph he had surreptitiously taken (and which is included in this book) of Lapierre scaling the gates of the Livadia Palace during off-hours. Despite this attempt at redemption, Slava was exiled to Siberia for three years, and yet, Lapierre relates that when the two men met again in 1962, “we hugged each other with a joy that showed we had both buried our grievances”.

All that remained, in other words, was the memory of the fine time they had had together during the journey, the shared conversations and adventures. It’s reflective of how people manage to sustain close personal relationships despite strong differences in beliefs or backgrounds, and it reminded me of some of the points Amartya Sen made in Identity and Violence. (Another example of this is a touching little episode about a forest-keeper near Brest-Litovsk who hosts Lapierre and Pedrazzini and then, at farewell time, asks them to pass on his greetings to “all the forest wardens in France”.)

[Did a shorter version of this for Outlook Traveller]


  1. Seems like a nice read. Reminded me a lot of the Motorcycle diaries, albeit minus the clash of ideologies and the results of the discovery.

  2. In a way with all the walls down- the world is less exciting.

  3. Unconnected to this post, but still want to know...

    Do you think any less of Kapuscinski despite the surge of criticism about him in recent times?

    i remember reading Imperium while on a long road trip and somehow it completely shook me up. it put some ideas in my head which i find difficult to shake off even now...

    for a while i was pissed that the book which i thought was all factual now has a question mark on it especially as regards the facts. because that they were facts was a very important aspect of its influence on me.

    took me a while to come to the current conclusion that why should influences be only real? this ( defence not withstanding the idea of literary license in non fiction writing is still unpalatable. guess i have to blame my sketchy journalistic background for that.

    anyway, been a while since i have been around these parts. congratulations on your wedding and nice to see more of your articles in MSM.

  4. theidiot: welcome back - good to see you here again! And thanks for the wishes.

    About Kapuscinski and those two Slate articles (neither of which I had read before incidentally) you might guess from my own bias towards good fiction over good non-fiction, I'm more interested in poetic truths than in literal fact. And so, predictably, I find myself nodding in agreement much more while reading the O'Rourke piece than the Shafer one. Shafer writes, If Kapuściński regularly mashes up the observed (journalism) with the imagined (fiction), how certain can we be of our abilities to separate the two while reading? The thing is, I'm not sure that any of us can ever really have that ability anyway - it reeks too much of a convenient "this DID happen, therefore it's true; that DIDN'T happen, therefore it's false" way of thinking, and I'm not comfortable with that. Because beyond a point these things just aren't verifiable and you have to reach instead for the things that are genuine possibilities (and which therefore illumniate something about a certain place or time period) rather than the things that can be set in stone as definitely having taken place. Of course, it's a judgement call, so there are always bound to be ambiguities...

    Incidentally I also don't get the naiveté that allows some people to think of an autobiography or biography (even the ones that are written honestly) as "factual" in some overarching sense, when they necessarily reflect the sensibilities, perspectives and biases of the authors.

    All this said, I can understand your disillusionment about reading the Kapuscinski, feeling very strongly about it as a completely factual, journalistic account and then finding out about the made-up stuff. The reaction must vary from reader to reader, I suppose.

  5. Great piece, and ur comment touches upon why i like ur blog so much-the sensitivity to poetic rather than literal truth:)