In its early December 2007 issue of Economic and Political Weekly, a commentator on Russian and East European Affairs noted that the Russian economy presently is booming, that it has, for the last few years, been maintaining an annual per capita income at about $ 3,500 to $ 4,000 level. At the same time, he noted that Russian foreign exchange reserves have touched an all-time high of $ 434 billion?some four times larger than that of India and that the country'sexternal debt has come down from $ 130 billion in 1999 to $10 billion today. An amazing performance. But things were not all that bright half a century ago.
How were things in what was the Soviet Union under the leadership of Nikita Krushchev, then First Secretary of the country'sCommunist Party? It is well to remember that in 1956 it was just about a decade since the Second World War ended. The Soviet Union was in an economic mess. The country had yet to recover from the destruction caused during one of the most devastating international wars ever fought in the world. The Soviet was not alone to suffer; Germany which started the war, was in just as terrible a condition as its sworn enemy. And it was true also of the United Kingdom. The Marshall Plan saved them. In the Soviet Union recovery had just begun.
Dominique Lapierre who has written about Kolkata (The City of Joy) was in 1956 serving the well-known journal Paris Match and was anxious to learn about the post-war conditions in Russia. But would Moscow let him? It so happened that Kruschchev and Bulganin along with Anastas Mikoyan were receiving former French President Vincent Auriol in Moscow. Lapierre and another French reporter Jean Pierre were covering the event. At a party given to Auriol, the former France President introduced the two reporters to Krushchev, saying that their big ambition was actually to drive through the Soviet countryside with their wives to put together a portrait of post-war Russia. It was a daring thing to say for a moment reports Lapierre, there was silence. And then Krushchev guffawed, saying loudly: ?That'sa very bad idea, comrade President! Our roads are so dreadful, your prot?g?'swives would be wanting a divorce in a fortnight!.? For all that, permission was still given to the two intrepid journalists in their late twenties. Paris Match was delighted. Everything was arranged: passports, visas, identification cards; travel routes; guide. Name it and Moscow was ready to oblige. The route was well-planned.
First, the two reporters and their wives, in a specially designed car crossed Poland into the Soviet territory. Then from Kiev they went to Kharkhov, Moscow, Gorki, Rostov, Kransonda, Sochi on the Black Sea, Tiflis, Poti also on the Black Sea and so on to Yalta? it was a six month long journey covering 13,000 kms through forbidden Soviet roads. Lapierre and his co-travellers had to take a whole lot of things with them like medicine, a tape recorder, kilometers of Kodak film and other things besides. The roads were pathetically bad?as Indian roads now are. In all of Russia there was only one petrol pump selling high octane gasoline and no soviet citizen had even seen an automobile painted in two colours. It was an extraordinary journey considering that no foreign correspondents had ever before been given the privilege to travel through Russian countryside.
From Poland to the mountains of Ural, from the villages of White Russia to the beaches of the Black Sea, from the Kremlin to Stalin'sbirthplace in Georgia, the four French youngsters and a guide besides, drove often wondering whether they would get petrol to fill in their tank. Some of the petrol they got was stinking, and at one point, the engine broke down and there was no place to go to get it repaired, except an Army barrack. But the people were wonderful. The villagers were totally unsophisticated, but seemed very happy.
Wondered Lapierre: ?How has the Soviet regime managed to convince a nation deprived of freedom, that it is the happiest one on earth?? The biggest obsession of the travellers was finding petrol. Another was, visiting Russians in their homes. The guide told them: ?I don'tknow if that will be possible. Society citizens are not used to letting foreigners into their homes.? But they spent the first night in Russia in a home whose occupants had been evicted. It consisted of two rooms. Writes Lapierre: ?The iron beds without mattresses, the communal washbasins in the middle of the landing, the shadows loitering in the corridors, the pestilential smell of the toilets where scraps of newspaper used as toilet paper were not thrown down the bowl but religiously deposited in a bin?? It was just terrible. In Minsk, the French car was such a novelty that literally hundreds would approach it and flatten their faces against the car windows in ?unutterable astonishment?. Curious people would slid under the car to examine the suspension. In due course they learnt that sixty per cent of Russians lived in a single room but Russian hospitality was unbelievable. The two couples were frequently overfed! Even if families shared common bathrooms and toilets, there was hardly any complaint. They took the inconveniences for granted. Women used only a ?touch of the palest lipstick by way of make-up and there was never the slightest trace of powder, cream or blusher on their faces. Wayside motels were dirty in the extreme.
According to Lapierre ?confronted by the dirtiness of the rooms and the washing facilities shared by the whole floor, our wives could not contain a cry of horror!? At a sea-side resort they visited, ?enormous matrons undressed and dressed again in full view of everyone, without apparently offending anyone.?
When Lapierre asked the guide why hotels in Soviet Russia were ?disgustingly filthy?, the reply was: ?Come back in ten years time or may be twenty, but definitely one day my country would have caught up with American living standards.? It is just as well that Lapierre did not travel through rural India. He would probably find things much worse than what he saw in Russia of the fifties. One can be sure that if Lapierre travels now through the same route he travelled in 1956 he would find the situation greatly changed. Still, this short travelogue is an education in itself. Putin'sRussia surely is vastly different from Stalin'sRussia. Nothing ever remains the same.
(Full Circle Publishing, J-40, Jorbagh Lane, New Delhi-110 003.)