We had arranged to meet on the boat and travel together. I was part of an Intourist package to see the November celebrations in Red Square and Desmond was to give a series of lectures in the University of Moscow. We thought that we would somehow wangle for me to stay on. There was a dreamlike quality to the train journey to Tilbury through that flat, forlorn landscape, edged by the backs of warehouses and with masts, funnels and cranes sticking up haphazard out of nowhere. Everything static, nothing quite real, nothing happening. Then suddenly the train drew up at the quay and there was all the fuss and bustle of boarding the ship. I looked around for Desmond but there was no sign of him. I got my luggage stowed in my cabin but still no sign. In consternation I saw that they were pulling up the gangway and then there he was below, wild-haired and shouting to me against the wind. ‘I haven’t got my visa’, he yelled. ‘They haven’t given me my visa. I’ll have to wait. I’ll fly out as soon as I can.’ The hooter brayed and the ship lumbered off. He stood there, waving apologetically, as though it were somehow his fault. It was a first taste of muddled, incompetent
There was a trade-union delegation aboard, excited at the prospect of visiting the workers’ paradise. I remember in particular a little wiry, fiery, red-headed Scot who harangued me about Marxist—Leninism as we paced the deck in a bitter wind. I also made friends with a Soviet engineer, Tolya, who had been attending a course in England. He was a fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked young man with an engaging smile. I liked him very much and was pleased when he promised to look me up in Moscow. I do not remember much about the journey, except that we had large dollops of caviar every morning for breakfast and that one evening there was a party for passengers and crew with some propaganda talk and a great deal of singing and drinking. ‘You see’, said my red-haired acquaintance, with shining eyes, ‘the classless society!’
Peter Kapitza came to greet us at the hotel in Leningrad. Smarting over his own predicament, he was disappointed but not, I think, surprised at Desmond’s non-arrival. ‘He’ll turn up sooner or later,’ he said. He promised to take me out to supper after the opera—Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a new work by Shostakovich—for which we tourists had been given tickets. It proved to be a prolonged and lurid affair, chock-full of horrors and perversions and was soon to be officially denounced as bourgeois and decadent. It was nearly midnight when we arrived at the crowded restaurant, a huge upstairs room in the hotel, with distraught waiters in shabby black jackets darting around and saying ‘sechas, sechas’—at once, at once—which meant a wait of at least half an hour. Peter ordered wine and pancakes with caviar and sour cream and, talking very rapidly out of the side of his mouth, as he always did, told me what had happened to him since he had left England. He had come over to visit his mother and to see some of his scientific colleagues, but when the time arrived for him to return, he was refused an exit visa. He was an important scientist, he was told, and the Soviet Union needed him; the authorities would not even allow him to go back to Cambridge to wind things up there. The government would negotiate with the Cavendish Laboratory to buy his vast and elaborate apparatus and transport it to Moscow. When this transaction was completed, his wife Anya could sell their Cambridge house and dispose of the furniture, after which she and the children would be granted visas to join him. Where was the hardship? He would be given a comfortable flat, a car, a dacha and a first class laboratory to direct. But Peter was furious at this treatment—the lack of trust, the enforced break in his work, the separation from his family and the feeling that he was involuntarily letting his Cambridge colleagues down. He argued and raged: the authorities would not budge. So he sulked. ‘I feel like a woman who has been raped when she would have given herself for love’, he said bitterly. It was a phrase he repeated several times later in Moscow.
Next morning I ran into the red-head in the hotel corridor. ‘Did you go to the opera last night?’, he asked. I nodded. ‘Wasn’t it wonderful?’, he said ecstatically.’ Wasn’t it superb? Just like life!’ I wondered
In the afternoon Peter took me to visit his mother, a charming, finedrawn old lady, the widow of a general, now living in a single room in the large flat that had once been wholly hers. The other rooms were occupied by workers—couples and families. ‘It’s better so’, she told me. ‘What did I want with all that space? I’m busy and I love my work; I teach illiterates. It gives me great satisfaction to know that I can still be useful, that I’m doing something worthwhile. No, this way it is better, much better. And I like my lodgers, they are friends, they are company. I like having life and children around me.’ And she went on to describe the teaching methods she had devised and to tell me what joy it gave her to see the dawn of understanding in her pupils. It occurred to me then that since an elderly, cultured member of the old privileged classes could so readily forego her privileges and give a wholehearted welcome to the new régime, perhaps my Scotch acquaintance was not quite so extravagant in his enthusiasms as I had thought. Perhaps—but then, old Mme Kapitza was a very exceptional person.
Our hotel in Moscow lived up to the reputation given it by earlier tourists—interminably slow meals—sechas, sechas!—overheated rooms, the long ritual needed before one could achieve a bath, delays over this and that and everything, and the surreptitious cadging for forbidden tips by the hotel staff. Our party was put in the charge of an interpreter and guide, a cheerful and brisk young woman called Sonia, pleasant enough but dauntingly serious. She took us firmly in hand and proceeded to put us through our tourist paces. One of our first visits was, of course, to Lenin’s tomb, but we were allowed to crash the long queue of people patiently waiting their turn, as they waited every day, in the shrivelling cold. We climbed the monument and shuffled past the bier: there was no horror to it, only a total unreality. The tiny waxen figure could surely never, never have been a living, breathing human being. It was impossible.
Out in the Red Square again we saw a platoon of young soldiers marching towards the Kremlin with exercise books under their arms. ‘They are having their illiteracy liquidated,’ explained Sonia. Later, she pointed to a small group of workpeople, men and women, wearing padded jackets and carrying picks and shovels. ‘Those are the heroes of the underground’, she said. ‘It will be finished in 1936. It will be the first underground railway in the world.’ ‘But’, said I incautiously, ‘We’ve had an underground railway in London since the end of the last century.’ Sonia gave me a withering look. ‘That is not true’, she said. ‘That is just capitalist propaganda.’ There was no convincing her. It was the same story over nursery schools. Sonia told us about the crêches and nursery schools attached to each factory. ‘They are an innovation of ours, these nursery schools’, she said. ‘In other countries, children don’t go to school until they are seven.’ ‘But look’, I said, ‘the Germans have had their kindergartens for ages and we too, you know, have some nursery schools in England.’ ‘Nonsense!’ retorted Sonia sharply.