Back From Russia
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Nov 1956, p. 85-98
McEachern, Ronald A., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A travel story. How the speaker came to go to Russia. The open Russian door for the first time since the Second World War. Some facts about the Communist world. A detailed description of the speaker's trip, which included the following topics. Foreign visitors to Russia; tourism; the food; taking photographs; lack of restrictions; hotel building; Moscow's subway system; the streets of Moscow; transportation; the people; Russian stores; an interview with Ivanovich Mikoyan, the deputy premier and minister of trade; new housing; employment; living conditions; the countryside; Leningrad; industry; education; relations between the Americans and the Russians; the vast bureaucracy that is the Soviet Union. Some concluding remarks about the Soviet system and our own.
Date of Original
22 Nov 1956
Language of Item
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Full Text
An Address by RONALD A. McEACHERN, B.A., Ph.D. Editor-in-Chief, The Financial Post, Toronto, Ont.
Thursday, November 22nd, 1956
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. Donald H. Jupp.

MR. JUPP: Distinguished guests and members of the Empire Club of Canada.

We welcome as our speaker today a distinguished Canadian whom we are fortunate to have right in our midst in the City of Toronto. Here is one Canadian educated at the University of Toronto who has decided to make his home in Canada rather than being lured away by opportunities south of the border. I am not suggesting that he is unique in this respect, but he has the ability, experience and background which would be invaluable in Journalism or Economics anywhere in the English-speaking world.

Ronald Alexander McEachern continued his education at the University of Toronto after obtaining his B.A. degree and became a Doctor of Philosophy in 1934. A long interlude which covered most of 1932 must have had a profound effect on his outlook and his tastes because in that period he studied language and music in Munich, Germany. The love of music took practical form during his undergraduate and postgraduate years when he was a Church Organist and Choir Master, and for some years he was Chapel Organist at Knox College. For a period of three years Mr. McEachern was a reporter on the Toronto Star and a radio news commentator, and it is interesting to recall that he was one of the radio people whose name became a household word through round-the-clock reports to listeners direct from the Moose River mine disaster in Nova Scotia.

It was about 1937 that he took two steps which were destined to be decisive in his career. First he married a Toronto girl and then he joined the Financial Post. Next year, Mr. McEachern will have completed 20 years with the Post and of those years he will have spent 15 years as Editor. For our speaker, business journalism is the most personal kind of journalism and it is perhaps due to this that the Financial Post can be read with interest and enjoyment by the housewife just as well as the man of the house.

Mr. McEachern is also the author of a best selling book entitled "Putting Your Dollars to Work", which describes in easily understood language how our economic system works.

Mr. McEachern has chosen as his title today "Back from Russia". Few of us have visited Russia so that virtually all of us rely upon reports of other people's visits to form their opinions and it is, therefore, with much pleasure that I call upon Mr. Ronald Alexander McEachern, Ph.D. to speak to us on the subject "Back from Russia".

MR. McEACHERN: A short visit to a few centres in Russia is obviously no adequate equipment for pontificating about this remarkable land. No secrets of the Kremlin were opened to me. No one who does not speak Russian is going to get very far at penetrating the mind of Soviet officials or of ordinary Soviet citizens.

So here I am going to tell, very modestly, a travel story--an account of what I saw, of what people said, of what I learned. No funny stories. Let's get ahead with the trip.

For years I have, of course been reading much about Russia. But I was nevertheless ill prepared for a visit. I was too often surprised by what I saw. The torrent of propaganda from both the right and of the left has for the most part conveyed a highly inaccurate picture. Russia is not a workers paradise nor a Communist utopia. Neither is it a land made up solely of ridiculous boobs and ignorant stumble-bums, nor are its claims to dramatic progress merely boastful nonsense.

To underestimate the sweep and magnitude of the Soviet development is a dangerous delusion. It will greatly help the cause of human survival on this crowded planet if more people from the west see Russia with their own eyes and if more Russians see our civilization.

How did I come to go to Russia?

A group of American corporation executives had said, in effect, how about a bunch of us going to Russia? That idea set in motion, they said, how about asking some Canadians to join the party? So our purely informal group, representing nobody but ourselves, finally comprised eight Canadians and about 45 Americans.

Why did this happen in 1956 instead of 1955 or 1954? Because, for the first time since the war, Russian doors are open. Ever since the war, Russia has lived in strict isolation. Hardly anybody but a communist or a government official got permission to go there.

Since the death of Stalin, one of the changes is the opening of the doors--even to dirty capitalists. Here's an indication of the change. In 1955, only 12,000 foreigners were given permission to visit Russia--and most of those were Communists from other countries. This year foreign visitors will number about 60,000. For the year 1958 Russia is preparing for 400,000 foreign visitors.

The communist world now covers one quarter of the earth's surface. The Soviet has 200 million people. About 58% of them are Russians, the rest are made up of 50 different nationalities speaking more than 80 different languages. The population of the satellites is around 730 millions.

All in all, about one third of the world's people bow to Moscow.

We flew from New York to Copenhagen, then had another six hours flying time to Riga and Moscow. A Russian navigated our aircraft over Soviet soil to make sure we stayed in the narrow pathway assigned to foreign craft.

All foreign visitors are looked after by Intourist, the government travel corporation. We were supplied with hotel rooms and a book of tickets good for four meals a day at any Moscow's leading hotels. We were supplied with interpreters who were available to us from breakfast until bedtime.

Are the Intourist guides in fact a police force supervising and spying on foreigners. Well, your guide knows where you are most of the time.

However when I wanted to go off on my own and walk or ride around, I had complete liberty to do so. I was never aware of being followed.

I asked one Soviet official about regrets that I would be permitted to see only certain things and to go only certain places.

This was his reply. "Yes" he said "we have some military things you can't see. Such restrictions apply in your country too. But travel elsewhere in the Soviet is determined not by security considerations but where we have suitable facilities for looking after you. Large areas in Russia have no accommodation suitable to westerners. "But we are building hotels in far places and as soon as they are ready we invite you to go. We want tourists. We have a great deal we are proud to show you."

How was the food? Good, but by the standards of a healthy Canadian stomach there was too much of it. Breakfast and noon meals are very large. There is a sturdy meal called tea at five. At ten or eleven at night, the Russian gives himself another big wallop of food which he calls supper.

How about taking photographs? This was formerly very restricted, not just for foreigners but for Russians too. On my travels I was allowed to photograph anything I saw--including the cabinet room inside the Kremlin.

Moscow has its historic roots deep in the past History records a fortress community at this site on the banks of the Moscow River in the early eleven hundreds.

Moscow now has nearly seven million people and tens of thousands a year more are swarming in from the country to take jobs in the factories. The justly famous subway system, opened in 1935 and constantly being extended, now has close to 90 miles of underground tubes and there are currently about 41 different stations. We have all heard that the Moscow underground was spectacular and wonderful. You have to see it to believe just how superb it is. Each station is done in a different style using different types of marble from different parts of the country. The whole underground world is clean, shiny and spotless--far cleaner than Toronto and far, far cleaner than New York. The Moscow subway collects about 21/2 million fares a day.

The visitor's first impression of Moscow is of the incredibly wide streets. About twice the width of University Avenue is typical for main streets.

Modern Moscow is blessed because it once had a disaster. Ancient Moscow grew up a city of wooden structures, sprawling out from the fiat banks of the river, a tangle of narrow twisted streets. In 1812 along came Napoleon. Moscow caught fire and the whole wooden city was destroyed. Only the stone palaces and churches survived.

In its rebuilding, Moscow was able to start anew--to do what all cities would like to do. Hence--Moscow's marvellous system of thoroughfares, its magnificent squares and plazas, and the fact that the buildings lining the main streets look pretty much like 19th century Paris.

Moscow certainly has no traffic jams. By our standards, Moscow streets have little motor traffic. But don't think that Russia is a land of no motor cars. There are a lot of them--many more than I had been led to expect. The cars are Russian built last year total automobile and truck production was 445,000. The U.S. figure was about 18 times that. There is a small car that looks like a 1940 Ford. There's a medium car like a 1948 Buick and a third car available to officials only, which is expensive, luxurious and looks like a 1948 Packard. These are called the Zis. For Zis there are no stop signs. As these cars approach intersections, traffic policemen always give them the Go sign. This is just one of the many evidences in Russia of class or caste. With power and position goes much privilege.

To our eyes the Muscovites are not a good looking race of people. They are squat, square, chunky.

It is astonishing how dangerous and sinister almost all Russian men look, wearing a heavy black overcoat with enormously exaggerated shoulder padding and a black hat pulled down over their eyes. Almost every Russian man looks like the Hollywood idea of a dangerous secret policeman.

It is quite astonishing too how unpleasant the Russian women look with their dumpy shapes and their poor hair and their chubby faces. Put the wretched Russian clothes on these women and you have a simply awful mess.

By our standards Russian stores are drab, inconvenient and the merchandise is unattractive in appearance. The Russian store is not a mechanism for whetting desire and stimulating wants. It is merely a commissary for the supplying of minimum needs.

The typical Russian store is full of line-ups--line-ups to get to the one or two clerks selling stockings or overcoats, shoes, or something else. There is little opportunity to examine the merchandise and little choice. I watched a couple of people buy men's winter overcoats. After a long wait in the line-up a woman finally got to the salesgirl. The shape and size of the husband was described. The salesgirl came back with two types of coat. She put them on and pirouetted around like a model. The coat was bought. The same thing happened to a man next in line. He didn't get a chance to try on the coat. He just took a guess that it might do. Buying shoes, however, you do get a chance to try on a few pairs.

Shopping in Russia then is merely the getting of something you must have in much the same way as a soldier goes to quartermaster stores for a new uniform or a pair of shoes.

I was into the heart of the Kremlin--the chief cabinet room--for an interview with Ivanovich Mikoyan, the deputy premier and minister of trade. He has been one of the top dogs of the Soviet government for a quarter of a century. He's a short graying Armenian with real charm and warmth.

Mikoyan told about the present Russian emphasis on the expansion of heavy industry, the development of great, new cities, the opening up of new raw material sources, the harnessing of hydropower. Then he said, "Our people all get enough to eat. They get enough to wear. They aren't dressed up French or American fashion but they are adequately and warmly clothed. Nobody needs to be cold or ragged. The only thing they are really short of is housing and that we are trying to fix." This gibes with what I saw.

Everywhere we saw an orgy of home building and this is abundantly confirmed by Russian statistics on the matter.

Gigantic apartment houses are the typical setup. Moscow is bulging out into the suburbs in every direction with these 7 and 9 storey apartment buildings. New subway lines are following the growth into the outskirts.

Figures which the Russians publish about the rate of new housing which is being developed are indeed impressive by any standards.

Yes, the Moscow area has slums--shack areas of wooden huts and outdoor privies and a pump on the corner as the only source of water. But Moscow isn't nearly such a slummy place as I had been led to expect.

The man in one of these shacks may be a factory worker, the man in the next an important singer at the opera. Where you live depends on where you stand on the list of apartment applicants at the housing centre in your area. As Mikoyan emphasized, slums and terrific overcrowding and the vast migration of country people to the cities are the main current problems.

You can own your own home. A few people own their own homes in the country. In a big city like Moscow they may own their own apartment in a co-operative apartment building. If you save up a 30% down payment you can borrow the rest of the money at 3% from one of the banks. When you die you can leave the house or the apartment you own to your son or to whoever you name in your will. But the vast majority of Russian people live in state-owned apartments. Factory workers usually live in apartments built near to and operated by the factory in which they work.

In cities of western Russia it is typical for two or three or four people to live and sleep in one room plus a kitchen-dining room. Inside their apartment they will have a wash basin. They will likely share a toilet down the hall with other people in the apartment building. When they want to bath they go to a central bath house.

But by our standards rents are very low. At one big factory I visited, workers were assigned apartments according to the size of their families and their rent was only 4% of their wages.

There is no good way of precisely measuring differences in the standard of living between our country and Russia. Certainly by Canadian standards that of the average Russian worker is low. But I advise you not to leap to conclusions that it is a great deal lower than the standard of living prevalent in other great areas of the world. For instance, both in Japan and in parts of South America I have personally seen more evidence of human misery of a physical kind than I did in Russia.

In Russia there is work for everybody. Social services look after people when they get sick and give them pensions when they get old. There is lavish provision for recreational activity in assorted clubs for educational, artistic, handicraft or sporting activity.

Ask Mikoyan about such things and he gives a reply like this.

"Our people can't help see the enormous improvement in their standard of living. Since 1948 the general level of consumer prices--of what people need to buy--has been cut in half, so that in a sense this means that their real wages have been doubled. In addition most people have had almost annual actual wage increases. Just inaugurated is the old age pension scheme which gives people about 70% of the income they had in their last job."

Mikoyan added: "Our people remember what they had under the Czar. They remember the terrible time they had during and after the war. What we have now is remarkable improvement by any measurement. We're not as rich as the Americans, but we're improving fast. It is good for both of us that we should improve."

I am not giving you figures on wages and prices because they are meaningless if not dwelt upon at length and if not related to the overall picture of taxation, social security benefits and so on.

Airplane is a poor way to see a country so I travelled from Moscow to Leningrad by train--about nine hours. Russia has various categories of train accommodation.

But the train by which I travelled is excellent in any country--by any standards--beautiful equipment, magnificently polished and cleaned. Car attendants were mostly women and on one Diesel locomotive I noticed, one of the engineers was a woman.

The countryside I travelled looks rather like parts of northern Ontario, (the same kind of trees) and the villages didn't look much different to thousands of North American villages. They're generally messy in both countries. But the Russians are even lazier about house painting than our people, and in the villages I saw no paved sidewalks, no paved streets, no motor cars.

Leningrad, the old capital and now a city of around 31/z millions, is to the westerner a much more attractive city than Moscow. It has an elegant appearance. It has much of great historic interest including the Hermitage which is one of the top three or four art galleries in the world.

Moscow is a Slavic city and as the capital of the Communist world it is constantly thronged with outlandish and sometimes very primitive people from the far reaches of Asia-Uzbekistans, Tibetans, Chinese, Kirghiz, Azerbaijani and scores of others.

But Leningrad looks and acts much more like a western city. Its people look much more familiar, more like we do--more like Scandinavians.

There aren't many pet dogs in Leningrad now. Too many people, during the siege of Leningrad, ate pet dogs and now a lot of people don't like dogs. The siege lasted a terrible 900 days. Much of the population was evacuated but those who did not escape experienced the epic tribulation of the whole war. One girl told me of the one slice of bread per day that was her total food for months on end. The so-called bread was one-fifth flour made out of grain, the rest was a filler made out of grass. She took the leather binding off books and boiled it to make a warm brown liquid that looked like tea. For warmth she burned furniture and books. For drinking water she dipped it in pails out of the Neva river which runs through the heart of the city.

Thousands starved to death. For weeks dead lay in the streets. Some went mad and turned cannibal. As this woman put it, "Often I had to run in the streets because somebody was chasing me to get a few bites."

One of the industrial plants I visited makes roller bearings, one of the most complex and difficult of all industrial processes. This factory employees about 12,000 people. About half of them are women. If they wish to have a baby they get 77 days off. When they return to work they park their child in the plant nursery and they get time off--when the times comes--to go over and feed it. About 85% of the workers live near the factory in apartments owned by the factory. In this industrial community--this town within a city--they have theatres, club houses, sport fields and stores. They get enormous doses of organized recreation and instruction of various kinds. The instruction may be in sports or engineering, drama or literature. Many of the ordinary workers are taking technical classes so that they can pass examinations and qualify for engineering and higher paid jobs in the plant. Some will be taking other university extension courses leading to degrees.

The plant community is a great hive not just of production activity but of social activity. When holiday time comes the good workers who have been agreeable, and well behaved, will be rewarded with a trip to a holiday camp, most of them down in the warm country around the Black Sea. There they will pay 30% of the cost of their holiday. The other 70% of the cost of their holiday

comes out of a special plant fund. The overall size of this special holiday fund depends on efficiency in the plant. There is a still further incentive for workers and managers to do good work and meet the quota set. Gains beyond the quota and savings made in production cost, help provide for a kind of profit sharing plan.

The boss of this plant said his personal income this year would be a salary and bonus equal to about 21,000 our dollars. Average pay of ordinary workers in the plant is about $2,500.

Now I say something about Russian education.

In Canada and North America there is a great deal of boredom and very little fiery inspiration in the word education. On our continent, culture, with many people, is a word of reproach.

The situation in Russia seems to be different.

Russia is a seething mass of children, young people and adults studying--studying full time in schools, technical and specialist schools or in universities or taking part-time educational instruction. About one quarter of the total Soviet population last year was taking some formal education. That is a fact of profound importance.

The Soviet has 19.6 persons per thousand of its population in universities and technical colleges. The figure for Canada is 4.9. What is the quality of Soviet education? Well, universities are hard to get into. Secondly, a Soviet university graduate has about 50% more formal hours of instruction behind him than a Canadian graduate.

There are two reasons for intense educational activity. First--there is an extremely intense propaganda barrage constantly thundering at the Russian people that education is a good thing: that it is pleasant, interesting, exciting and the normal activity of a sensible healthy citizen; that it is a continuing process through life - not something you stop at school or university graduation.

Second - university students get paid subsistence allowance. As they advance from one year to another, and if they do well in their grades, their pay goes--up.

Third--education is the only way a Russian can get a more pleasant job, can improve his standard of living or win respect in his community.

From his first days in school, a remarkably comprehensive file is built up on the student's mind and personality. Is he showing special aptitude for mathematics or for art, for languages or soccer, for physics or for the track team? The aim of the educational machinery is to keep steering the child and the adolescent down the educational, sporting or cultural pathway for which he is best fitted, to give him special incentives and opportunities and special coaching so he will most fully realize his potentialities.

Ahead of the child who does not have brains and self discipline and who does not keep on passing examinations there is nothing but a very drab existence indeed. (Tell about girl interpreter and street repair girl).

The accepted facts and figures on Russia's armed might and on the extraordinary pace of industrial development make it quite plain that right now Russia is an extremely powerful adversary. By 1960 there will be further substantial gains. There is tremendous energy and drive in the decision-making part of the community. There is great discipline over the Soviet masses. There is the tremendous worship of education. In another decade and in another generation Russia's gains will be quite startling. What I have said is most certainly not in praise of Russia. It is an urgent warning to ourselves for to know the adversary and to comprehend the danger is elementary wisdom.

So a very relevant question is this: How good and how worthwhile are the dynamics and objectives of our people? Are our personal objectives more than a Cadillac and a long winter vacation in Florida? Have we the will and the guts to make our free society expand and flourish and prosper, and have we the imagination and fire of spirit to evoke in our society a real sense of worthwhileness?

Quite clearly the future of our world depends chiefly on relations between the Americans and the Russians. These two people are amazingly alike. They are boisterous, extremely self-confident, careless to the feelings of other people. They are extremely anxious to be admired and both very much want to be loved. Both are supremely doctrinaire and convinced of the total rightness of their way of life and both believe that all would be well in the world if only they could impose their system on the other.

But the most terrible chapters in history are those where one people has tried to impose by force its ideas on another people.

For some years it has appeared that peace served Russia's interest more than war. Peace was giving Russia time for vast internal development. The Soviet was making gains in Asia by economic and propaganda penetration.

The explosions in the middle East, in Poland, in Hungary--perhaps with further explosions in other satellites to come--open up a new period of great hazard.

Seeing the Kremlin gang in trouble may be giving some of us enjoyment. But here is a very dangerous situation for all mankind.

George Kerman was once America's ambassador to Russia. He has been specializing on Russia for most of a lifetime. He is now a professor at the Princeton School for Advanced Study. Over the years he has proved himself to be the wisest of commentators on Soviet affairs. He says: "I think the recent developments in Poland and Hungary are bound, sooner or later, to mark the end of Moscow's abnormal power and domination throughout all of Eastern Europe. The same fundamental forces are plainly at work throughout the whole area."

But I think it would be most unwise to predict any mass uprising within the Soviet itself. I say nothing about what may happen to K. or B. in talking about the system as a whole. For several reasons.

The heartland of Communism is a ferociously disciplined society. The masters in the Kremlin have their tens of thousands of uniformed and secret police to suppress trouble and to ferret out potential troublemakers.

Behind the policemen stand a further defence for the regime the highly disciplined and dedicated multitude of seven million Communist party members.

Here's still another safety factor for the men in the Kremlin. In any society--and this applies in our own as well as elsewhere--only a few people are interested in public affairs. The great mass is by instinct pretty docile.

In the past decade or two in the Soviet, Stalin did one of history's greatest mass murder jobs on the politically energetic and vocal.

Having lost most of this generation of the politically active--call them the potential troublemakers--it will take the Soviet some time to breed up a new crop of potential dissenters and nonconformists.

Still another safety factor for the Kremlin is this:

After every revolution a new vested interest is created--a new group of people who have good jobs, a pleasant way of life, and a sense of superiority over the people.

In the vast bureaucracy that is the Soviet union, millions of people are happy at having power and superiority over somebody else. They have a lot of security and a great deal of incentive to be good and agreeable workers and to get ahead in their jobs. Both for them and for the mass of the Russian people there are evidences everywhere right before their eyes of the very real progress that is being made--progress for their nation of which they can be proud, progress for their own standard of living and sense of self-realization.

So I repeat: To underestimate the sweep and magnitude of what is happening inside the Soviet is just dangerous folly.

But again I quote Kennan with complete approval. "The fact (is)" he says "that the Soviet communist system is deeply wrong--wrong about human nature, wrong about how the world really works, wrong about the importance of moral forces, wrong in its whole outlook."

Some of us may take comfort in believing that the Soviet system has within it the cancer for its own destruction.

But for us the only course of safety and of wisdom is to look at our own society and to help make sure that in this world struggle we have the intellectual force and the spiritual health to merit and to assure victory.

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Mr. H. T. Jamieson, Honorary Auditor of the Club.

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Back From Russia

A travel story. How the speaker came to go to Russia. The open Russian door for the first time since the Second World War. Some facts about the Communist world. A detailed description of the speaker's trip, which included the following topics. Foreign visitors to Russia; tourism; the food; taking photographs; lack of restrictions; hotel building; Moscow's subway system; the streets of Moscow; transportation; the people; Russian stores; an interview with Ivanovich Mikoyan, the deputy premier and minister of trade; new housing; employment; living conditions; the countryside; Leningrad; industry; education; relations between the Americans and the Russians; the vast bureaucracy that is the Soviet Union. Some concluding remarks about the Soviet system and our own.