Historicist: A Toronto Journalist Reports from the USSR in 1932
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Historicist: A Toronto Journalist Reports from the USSR in 1932

Frederick Griffin, the ace reporter of the Star, spends the summer of 1932 touring the USSR.

The Kremlin from the Moscow River, from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930)

The Kremlin from the Moscow River, from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930).

Frederick Griffin was generally impressed with the Soviet Union. For eight weeks in the summer of 1932, the Star‘s ace reporter explored the country, recording his impressions and insights for readers back home in a long series of dispatches. The Soviets had succeeded, he came to believe, in turning theory into action. Sometimes downplaying the negative aspects of the country’s transformation, Griffin hailed advances in education and technology in what, in Czarist times, had been a “land of serfdom, ignorance, [and] squalor.”

“You may wonder, after reading such pictures as this, just how this society works,” Griffin wrote part-way through his trip. “All I can say is that it does. It works tremendously. Under it factory wheels turn, trains run, boats ply on the Volga. There is Soviet discussion but there is also control. Men are in command even in Soviet Russia. Men order and other men obey.”

Fred Griffin (right) with a prospector in Northern Ontario, from Frederick Griffin, Variety Show (Macmillan, 1936)

Fred Griffin (right) with a prospector in Northern Ontario, from Frederick Griffin, Variety Show (Macmillan, 1936).

In his career at the Star, Frederick Griffin rose from library messenger boy and filing clerk—hired in early 1913, less than a year after immigrating from Ireland—to become one of the paper’s star reporters. By the time he travelled to the Soviet Union in 1932, he had covered some of the country’s biggest stories including the Great Fire in Haileybury, the Prince of Wales’ 1919 tour of Canada, and the landing of the Bremen in Labrador after its transatlantic flight in 1928. Moreover, Griffin—or “Griff,” as he was known to colleagues—interviewed Emma Goldman, Winston Churchill, Eamon de Valera, Alexander Kerensky, and no fewer than three Canadian prime ministers.

On the belief that “World news is Canadian news”—as Star editor Harry Hindmarsh once said—the paper emphasized the importance of international news coverage in the 1930s, sending its staff to report from all over the the world. The Great Depression increased awareness of economic and political alternatives, and reader “interest in the Soviet Union quickened and flared,” Griffin recalled in his 1936 autobiography, reaching “fever heat” in 1932. For a number of years, Joseph Atkinson and Hindmarsh—the Star‘s owner and managing editor respectively—had wanted to fulfil this demand for information about the country, and vet the hitherto unverifiable proclamations of local Communists that life was better in the USSR.

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(Left: USSR poster, 1921. From the New York Public Library Digital Collection.)

The Star had received permission a few years earlier, in 1929, for its London correspondent, Henry Somerville, to visit the USSR. It had been a fiasco, with Somerville “determined to see no good, hear no good, and above all, write no good,” as Ross Harkness put it in his history of the newspaper. Atkinson wanted a talented, clear-sighted reporter who would see and hear more than the average traveller, but who would describe exactly what he saw without emotion or bias.

The Star leaned left editorially, but was not the Communist sympathizer its critics sometimes alleged. However, unlike most Canadian papers, which presented Communism as a “monstrous threat”—in Griffin’s words—the Star took a reasonably balanced approach, as typified by Griffin’s coverage of a November 1931 trial when Tim Buck and other Communist leaders were sentenced to five-years’ imprisonment. Editorially, the Star opposed the heavy-handed police harassment of public assemblies that had led to the trial. But in a detailed recreation of this courtroom scene, Griffin faithfully recorded the judge’s condemnation of the Communists’ calls for violent overthrow of government. Griffin had no ideological axes to grind.

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(Right: Star [May 16, 1932].)

In preparation for his long hoped-for trip, Griffin read everything about Russia he could get his hands on over a period of months or longer, and was keen to discover “the real facts” for himself. His difficulty, however, was in getting into the virtually closed country. On five separate occasions Griffin’s request had been denied by Soviet authorities, though it’s not clear why. By the early 1930s, the Soviets had recognized that foreign travellers—even those who weren’t avowed Communists—could help promote the new country’s self-image as “a dynamic, non-radical society which promised a better future for all its citizens,” as historian Sylvia R. Margulies writes in The Pilgrimage to Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 1968). And with the state-run Intourist travel agency, the government had built up a tourism infrastructure to support—and help stage-manage—foreign travellers in the USSR.

After numerous denials, Griffin was finally granted a visa after the intervention of two individuals he had interviewed for the Star Weekly in early 1932: Moscow-based foreign correspondent Maurice Hindus and John Calder, a Canadian engineer involved with some major construction projects of the first Five Year Plan. When, in mid-May, Griffin received notification that travel documents were forthcoming, he was quickly issued instructions: “Write what you see, not what you are told, coloring nothing to suit either Canadian prejudices or Russian propaganda.” Packing his typewriter and toothbrush, within 24 hours, Griffin was aboard the Olympic sailing for Europe from New York.

After arriving in Moscow by train from Berlin, Griffin filed his first story on May 21—though, as with all the stories he mailed home that summer, it didn’t appear in print until nearly a month later. By the time he left in early August, Griffin had filed 49 more stories and from within the USSR—all of which appeared on the Star‘s front page, and later assembled into a book and published, with minimal changes, that October as Soviet Scene (Macmillan, 1932). His prodigious output would be supplemented with seven Star Weekly features as well as numerous follow-up pieces, public lectures, and radio addresses upon his return to Toronto.

Photo of mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, March 2007, by NVO  From Wikimedia Commons

Photo of mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, March 2007, by NVO. From Wikimedia Commons.

One of his first stops was Moscow’s Red Square, home to the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral, and Lenin’s Tomb, where the Bolshevik leader’s embalmed body had laid in state since 1924. Queueing with thousands of factory workers, students, and peasant villagers making a pilgrimage to the severe granite mausoleum, Griffin slowly made his way down a dimly-lit corridor and stairwell to the central chamber where the canonized father of the Russian Revolution lay in a triangular glass case atop a marble slab, guarded at head and foot by Red Army soldiers. “Lenin lies in simple, unaffected state,” Griffin described. “There is no attempt at heroics in the manner of his posing. Rather is this all restrained, severe, soft. The lighting…was invisible and seemed to glow from inside the glass.”

Griffin visited elementary and nursery schools, attended ballet and opera at the Moscow Grand Opera House, toured a prison near the capital, and observed courtroom proceedings. He was impressed by the new factories, and apartment buildings rising throughout the country, and described the humble houses of peasants in the rural districts of Ukraine. He visited a newly-built apartment block in the Maslovka district of Moscow that served as an artists’ colony, and explored Maxim Gorky Park in Rostov-on-Don, one of the many recreational facilities for workers opening wherever factories were built. He visited former churches that had been turned into clubs and schools, and also joined a packed house of worshipers at Dorogomilovo Cathedral—showing that revolutionary ideology aside, Griffin wrote, religion was still alive in the USSR during his visit.

Detail from Intourist map of the U S S R , showing railway connections, 1933  From the University of Toronto Maps Library

Detail from Intourist map of the U.S.S.R., showing railway connections, 1933. From the University of Toronto Maps Library.

Though much of his trip was spent in and around Moscow, Griffin took at least two major excursions beyond the capital. The first was a month-long trip covering thousands of miles. After a cruise down the Volga River from Nizhni-Novgorod (Gorky) to Stalingrad—both home to numerous industrial works Griffin toured—he travelled by train to Rostov-on-Don in the Northern Caucasus grain-producing heartland. Then, from the village of Vladikavkhas, he took a public bus on the famous Georgian Military Highway, through the Caucasus Mountains—whizzing “around turns of the road, with beetling cliffs on one side and precipitous drops on the other, at a speed guaranteed to make your hair curl”—he arrived in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia. The tour ended with a Black Sea cruise to worker resort towns near Yalta, where he visited Livadia Palace, a czarist palace turned sanatorium—and later the site of the Yalta Conference—before returning to Moscow via Ukraine.

Scenery of the Caucasus Mountains in the U.S.S.R., between 1930 and 1940. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USW33- 024261-C).

On a second excursion, Griffin toured the Donetz Basin (Donbas) coal-producing region in Ukraine, a destination not found on the typical tourist itinerary. Travelling south from Kharkov, Griffin became, he said, the first newspaper man in Krasna Luch (meaning Red Light), an anthracite-mining boom town, and, after a six-hour journey to cover 110-kilometres of mud-caked road, visited the regional capital of Stalino (formerly Donetsk).

Greg Clark and Fred Griffin of the Toronto Star    [ca  1936]

(Left: Fred Griffin of the Toronto Star, ca. 1936. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2101B.)

For two months in the USSR, Griffin worked exhausting 18-hour days, typing away in sweltering train cars, and hotel rooms within hours of his encounters and interviews so his impressions would be fresh, and because he feared that notes saved for later would become “an unintelligible mess.” Intending his dispatches to be “objective, descriptive and factual,” as he stated in the introduction to Soviet Scene, Griffin’s goal was to give “flashes of the daily life” in the Soviet Union in 1932. Characterizing himself as “merely an observer, an onlooker from the sidelines,” the newspaperman took pains to admit the limitations of his travelogues, not a political theorist analyzing progress made since 1917, nor an expert examining the economic impacts of the Five Year Plan. “This book is journalism,” Griffin stated plainly in Soviet Scene, “and makes no pretence at being anything else….I did not go out looking for bugaboos or horrors since so many have sought and written about them.”

Visiting reporters who mailed their dispatches home, like Griffin, weren’t subjected to the same formal censorship as the foreign correspondents then resident in Moscow, whose reports were transmitted by wire. But Soviet authorities did monitor the international news and might apply sanctions to overly-critical journalists within their borders. Moreover, Griffin had complete editorial freedom on the home front, with the Star publishing his stories without alteration. (By contrast, Pierre van Paassen, a Globe reporter touring the Soviet Union the same summer, had been ordered to slant his articles to fit that paper’s more conservative editorial stance.)

May Day demonstration passing Lenin's Tomb from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930)

May Day demonstration passing Lenin’s Tomb from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930).

Cultivating the impression that “the government was not afraid of the truth,” Margulies argues Soviet leaders wanted foreign reporters to feel they could go wherever they wanted. But, in fact, a number of subtle methods—not all of which would have been apparent to Griffin at the time—were used to limit foreign reporters’ spontaneity and independence. While, for instance, reporters faced few formal travel restrictions if they were willing to accept discomfort outside the major centres, they needed roubles to cover the costs. And, as Griffin had himself discovered—roubles could not be imported, and were only available to foreigners within the USSR at an exorbitant exchange rate. This pressured even visitors like Griffin, who chose where and when they travelled, to rely on Intourist, which accepted foreign currency, to book transportation and accommodation. Griffin’s month-long excursion closely mirrored a standard “Grand Tour” available through Intourist, and his three-day tour of Donbas was organized by Uglexport, the export wing of the Soviet coal trusts.

Statistical map of coal production in Don Basin, 1921. From the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Moreover, visitors were steered to particular model sites—major construction works, factories, power plants, and farms with fields under cultivation—which showed the progress being made across the country. Authorities in Moscow might relent if a journalist insisted on visiting another site, but on their arrival, local authorities would be ready with seemingly-reasonable excuses why a tour was impossible that day. To his credit, Griffin saw through this façade, acknowledging that the clubs and factories he visited near Moscow were not likely typical of current conditions across the country, but he nevertheless accepted them as representative of Soviet ambitions.

Soviet authorities strove to make short-term visitors—particularly intellectuals and opinion leaders—feel comfortable and important by Soviet authorities, historian Paul Hollander argues in Political Pilgrims (Oxford University Press, 1981), in order to make it “psychologically difficult for the visitor to develop and express negative sentiments…toward his hosts.” Griffin was no different. He had a private car and driver to get around Moscow instead of relying on public trolleys, travelled in first class aboard trains and ships, and stayed in nice Intourist hotels catering to foreign travellers. He had access to Torgsin, the store for foreigners that sold everything from milk and caviar to perfume, jewelry, and vodka without worry of the shortages of basic necessities that affected the Soviet public. And Griffin sometimes received privileged treatment as an honored guest, watching horse races at the First Moscow Hippodrome from box seats on one occasion, and being fêted at an “impromptu banquet in his honour” in Stalino, with caviar, champagne, and an orchestra playing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary!”

The assembling plant of the Stalin Motor Car Works, from William Henry Chamberlin, Russia's Iron Age (Little, Brown and Company, 1934)

The assembling plant of the Stalin Motor-Car Works, from William Henry Chamberlin, Russia’s Iron Age (Little, Brown and Company, 1934).

Griffin certainly felt he had freedom to go where he wanted, and to talk to whoever he met—even having a spontaneous conversation along the wall of the Kremlin with an elderly peasant living on the street. But, because he didn’t speak Russian, all his interactions were mediated through an interpreter whose services he secured through Intourist. Of Jewish descent and a native of Odessa, Griffin’s interpreter had returned to his homeland after time in Panama and the United States—where, he claimed, he was wrongfully implicated in a 1920 bombing on Wall Street. Although the interpreter wasn’t a party member, Griffin learned through the pair’s innumerable discussions and debates, he “was irreproachably Communist.”

Griffin developed a close, trusting relationship with his interpreter, who he came to see “as a guide, philosopher, friend, valet and baggage smasher.” The interpreter, who was available on-call in Moscow, and night and day during excursions beyond the city, handled Griffin’s travel arrangements, and acted as bodyguard against pickpockets. “He had almost a newspaper sense of the interesting, and frequently drew my attention to fragments of human interest which, with my locked ears, I might have missed,” Griffin later recalled of his interpreter, who remained nameless for the duration of Griffin’s trip. As far as Griffin was concerned, he translated quickly and accurately. Although Griffin sometimes suspected his interpreter overstated the journalist’s importance to “near-ambassadorial rank” or referred to him as an udarnik (a shock-brigade, or super-productive, worker) to people they encountered, the flattered journalist took it as an endearing quirk.

A group of Communist Youth in a Machine Factory from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930)

A group of Communist Youth in a Machine Factory from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930).

In fact, Soviet interpreters were under orders that their translations were to reflect official party terminology—to the point, Margulies writes, of correcting “through mistranslation any communication that would interfere with the image the authorities hoped to disseminate.” And, as one Ukrainian-Canadian interpreter recalled of working in the USSR in the early 1930s, they had to translate questions and answers in such a way that gave locals the impression that visitors held Communist beliefs, and visitors the impression that locals were healthy and happy. Part of the centrally-trained interpreter’s job was to help frame the visitor’s encounters without ever being seen to be interfering.

When readers and critics in Canada suggested Griffin was being shown only what the Soviets wanted him to see, Star editors vehemently defended their man. Later, Griffin took personal offense at the notion, declaring that “newspapermen are humiliated by the childish notion they are led around Russia by a ring in the nose.” While his self-directed trip certainly didn’t have the same degree of stage-management as that of a large delegation, it was likely Griffin’s dispatches reflected a degree of “the selective presentation of ‘reality'”—using Hollander’s words—experienced by other intellectuals visiting the USSR.

A grade school in Moscow, U.S.S.R., between 1930 and 1940. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USW33- 024253-C).

After seeing all manner of schools during his tour—in Moscow, at industrial outposts, and on remote farms—Griffin felt that “the tidal wave of education that is sweeping the Soviet Union” fostered more egalitarianism and created more opportunities than in North America. Quoting the types of statistics with which Soviet officials were known to bombard foreign journalists, Griffin noted that under the czar, the literacy rate had been 15 per cent; now, in the decade-and-a-half since the revolution, it was between 85 and 90 per cent. From 12,000,000 in 1928, the number of elementary school students had grown to 23,700,000 in 1932. And the universities and technical schools were turning out hundreds of thousands of engineers and agronomists.

Young Pioneers in the Village of Pavlovskore, from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930)

Young Pioneers in the Village of Pavlovskore, from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930).

But Griffin also saw how children were indoctrinated with Communist ideology “from the cradle.” In every classroom he met members of the Young Pioneers, a children’s precursor to party membership that Griffin likened to a co-ed scouts movement. With their distinctive red scarves around their necks, the Young Pioneers performed their call-and-response salute—”Bvod-gotov (Be ready)!” “Wsegda-gotov (Always ready)!”—for Griffin. And they peppered him with questions about Canada and its treatment of Communists, his own personal opinion of the ideology, and what it was like to work for a newspaper not owned by the state. (Elsewhere, Griffin recognized the dark undertone that resulted from the way Communist thought permeated all aspects of society and all activities of daily life, acknowledging that one didn’t need to throw bombs or sabotage machinery to be branded a counter-revolutionary, “[o]ne may be counter-revolutionary in utterance, even in thought.”)

Griffin wasn’t granted interviews with political leaders or senior officials, but nor does he seem to have sought them out, being happy to interview mid-level apparatchiks and ordinary citizens who seemed little different than the average North American. He only saw Joseph Stalin and other senior leaders once, when they saluted a big parade from a balcony above Red Square, but the anecdote wasn’t captured in print until his 1936 biography.

Stalin (right) watches parade from Lenin's Tomb in Red Square, Moscow, from Frederick Griffin, Variety Show (Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1936)

Stalin (right) watches parade from Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square, Moscow, from Frederick Griffin, Variety Show (Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1936).

In some regards, Griffin thought Canada could learn from the Soviet example. He commented at length on the status of women, their employment as bricklayers, prison guards, judges, mechanics, and dentists, and the almost clinical way marriage and divorce were treated. “The idea here is perfect equality of work, pay and privileges,” Griffin wrote with admiration. “It is more than a mere matter of giving them a vote, and then expecting them to stay home to rock the cradle and darn the socks.” (On his return to Canada, Griffin gave a talk to the Toronto Women’s Press Club in which he contrasted “the slavery of Canadian women with the freedom of the women of Soviet Russia.”)

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(Left: Men and women workers at combine factory in Rostov-on-Don, U.S.S.R., between 1930 and 1940. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USW33- 024242-C).)

Griffin entered a “bleak-looking” government store and was immediately harangued by angry women upset he’d bypassed the queue. “My interpreter says it is nothing, but it certainly sounds like abuse, if not of me, of the store, the government, something. I get inside and wonder what all the fuss is about. The store is empty.” Rumours that morning that the store had had 900 kilograms of meat had drawn hundreds of people to line up around the block to secure their ration allowance. On a separate occasion, an engineer told Griffin of being woken up every morning before four o’clock as people started lining up for bread near his apartment, then again at eight by the hollering of those left without. “Those lines! The getting up at all hours to get into them, the waiting, the patience, the stamina, the disappointments, the lugging home of supplies on foot or by crowded trolley car,” Griffin summarized the daily travails of common citizens.

Griffin expressed wonderment at the sheer scale of the transformation ushered in by the first Five Year Plan‘s focus on rapid industrialization—a stark contrast to Depression conditions back home. He visited the industrial boom-town of Nizhni-Novgorod (renamed Gorky in 1932), which had grown in four years from a population of 120,000 to 470,000 on the strength of industries erected in the vicinity under the Five Year Plan, including a pulp and paper mill, an automobile plant, where 40 or 50 cars were churned out daily, the Red Sormova complex where 30,000 resident workers built ships, trolleys, locomotives, and diesel motors.

DnieproGES under construction in the U S S R , 1934  From Wikimedia Commons

DnieproGES under construction in the U.S.S.R., 1934. From Wikimedia Commons.

In Ukraine, he visited the the Dnieprestroy hydroelectric facility, one of the largest power plants in the world and capable, after coming online, of producing 650 megawatts—enough to power the region’s coal extraction, steel production, and manufacturing industries. “Dnieprestroy is more than a Soviet achievement. It is a monument to Communist dreams come true,” Griffin lauded, noting that few thought Lenin’s early pledge to bring electricity to the countryside to be achievable. Although clearly awed, Griffin briefly acknowledged the environmental and social cost of the massive dam—which had required the submergence of 20 peasant villages along the banks of the Dnieper River under a 100-square-mile lake—at a time when few, East or West, paid much attention to such side-effects of technological advancement.

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(Right: Pouring molten steel in the U.S.S.R., between 1930 and 1940. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USW33- 024257-C).)

Touring a tractor factory (tractorzavod) in Stalingrad, Griffin heard how workers out-performed quotas as a result of “the intense Soviet tempo [and] inspired workers producing on a basis of socialist competition.” Peasants who had never seen, let alone operated, a complex machine had been transformed into udarniks or elite workers—he was informed—just as the barren sand dunes had been transformed into a great factory producing 70 per cent of the tractors then being built in the USSR.

He heard about employer-employee relations from Svenstune, the director of another massive tractor factory in Kharkov (Kharkiv). An Old Bolshevik, Svenstune had little formal education but had been rewarded for his suffering under czarist rule with an important position, symbolizing for Griffin how the revolution had brought opportunities to the underdogs.

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(Left: Artwork by Vladimir Vasil’evich Lebedev, 1925. From the New York Public Library Digital Collection.)

“They’re secure. Their lives are assured,” Svenstune explained thoughtfully of the factory’s employees, contrasting with the perceived oppression and unemployment in North America. “They’re the boss. We’re all the boss. These factories, these machines are ours. The government takes care of the worker, his wife, his children, if unemployed, sick, disabled. That’s the difference. We have security that your workers have not. We have no economic fear.”

“We have not a paradise yet,” Schersun, the factory’s assistant director, joined the conversation. “This is not yet Palestine. Houses are damp. Sometimes there is tightening of the belt and it is necessary to keep a stiff upper lip. But the workers know what they are doing. They know what we aim at. They know they are working for themselves and not for somebody’s profit. So far as management is concerned, believe me, there is no turmoil.”

Steamboat and rail connection on Volga River at Kineshma, 1900  From Wikimedia Commons

Steamboat and rail connection on Volga River at Kineshma, 1900. From Wikimedia Commons.

Aboard a passenger steamer headed 1,500 miles down the Volga River—east from Nizhni to the principal Tatar city of Kazan, then south to the major port of Saratov, and on to Stalingrad—Griffin passed time in conversation with a young peasant turned pilot for the Red Army. “Only the birds had wings,” he laughed, recounting the words of fellow villagers who thought him crazy to leave. For Griffin, the young man symbolized the ideology- and technology-enabled social mobility of new Russia compared to the time of the Czar. “He, whose youth had been without knowledge of machines, was now a flier,” the journalist thought to himself, “He soared. A village lad, he had been picked for his brightness and sent to Moscow to be educated and trained.”

“Nowhere was there such a clear-cut picture of class under the Soviets,” Griffin argued, than aboard a Volga steamer. Travelling in first-class, with a comfortable cabin to himself, Griffin moved among the clean, well-dressed people on the upper deck, dining room, and lounge reserved for first- and second-class passengers that included technical workers, specialists, and government officials. Meanwhile, the “lower deck bowels bulged with hundreds of [peasants] cramped in a seething, stinking kind of nether world.” Griffin didn’t always seem particularly sympathetic towards peasants when he described them as a “swarming along the banks of the Volga like human ants” or “squatting and sprawling about the platforms, spread with their bundles all over the waiting rooms.” But the steamer gave him an opportunity to watch them “singing their ancient Volga songs and dancing, gaily, youthfully, happily under the stars,” at the stern of the boat, Griffin concluded: “People who look so unhappy in the mass [were] not so sad as individuals.”

Tractors ready for a State Farm, from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930)

Tractors ready for a State Farm, from William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia—A Living Record and a History (Little, Brown and Company, 1930).

At Verblud, an expansive state farm (sovkhoz) in the North Caucasus—40 miles from Rostov-on-Don—Griffin visited the rough clay-and-straw homes of a few of the nearly 1,000 agricultural workers employed there, finding “them as comfortable as most of the modest farm homes of Western Canada.” He chatted with George G. McDowell, one of the many North American radicals living in the Soviet Union out of political principle. McDowell had arrived nine years earlier to work as a carpenter and had since been awarded the Order of Lenin, the country’s highest distinction. “People have more opportunity here than anywhere in the world,” the native of Kansas tried to convince Griffin. “The worker here has 500 per cent more freedom and 1,000 per cent more security than in any country on earth….I can quit this job any time I please and go to another.” He denied that forced labour existed in any form when questioned by Griffin.

Tractors at work on a collective farm, from William Henry Chamberlin, Russia's Iron Age (Little, Brown and Company, 1934)

Tractors at work on a collective farm, from William Henry Chamberlin, Russia’s Iron Age (Little, Brown and Company, 1934).

Griffin also visited a collective farm (kolkhoz) about 20 miles from Kharkov. Formed in 1930, under the Soviet policy of collectivization, which aimed to modernize agriculture by consolidating small, individually-held plots into larger farms on which scientific methods and mechanized equipment would, the theory went, increase production. The collective farm operated as a cooperative, notionally owned by the 600 families who lived there, with the earnings from the crops of market vegetables—like cabbage, turnips, and cucumbers—redistributed in proportion to a worker’s labour (as opposed to state farms, where the workers were paid wages).

Recognizing a building on the collective farm as being a former house, Griffin asked Koperulin, his host and chairman of the farm, the fate of the previous owner, a kulak. “He was sent away for agitating against the collectivization of this village,” the Russian responded without emotion. Thinking to himself, Griffin imagined the land being expropriated, and “this better farmer and his family uprooted from [their] holdings and possessions…and cast forth as a capitalist enemy.” Kulaks, peasants of relative affluence—though over time the definition proved fluid enough to include not only land-holding farmers but also those who merely owned livestock or machinery—faced deportation, incarceration, or murder under Stalin’s forced collectivization.

Sowing on a collective farm on the steppes of the Ukraine, U.S.S.R., between 1930 and 1940. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USW33- 024212-C).

“I heard he’s doing well, living very well,” Koperulin added, though he didn’t elaborate further and Griffin shied from pressing for specifics. Instead, he asked about the family’s possessions. “Everything but his clothes and personal belongings became the possession of the kolkhos,” Koperulin said flatly. “His wagons, cows and horses were turned in….They belong to the kolkhos now.”

The exchange was typical of Griffin’s accounts: he matter-of-factly described an aspect of Soviet society—whether favourable or unsavoury—and left readers to form their own judgments. In his articles and subsequent lectures, Griffin acknowledged the brutality of the Soviet methods: the forced collectivization, the grain seizures, and the liquidation of the kulak. But, in the name of journalistic balance, he downplayed their inhumanity, which he perceived as no different than that seen in the French Revolution. “Weigh the terrors of the dictatorship of Stalin,” he asserted in his Canadian Club speech, “against the terrors of czarism and they won’t even begin to tip the pressed down scales.”

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(Left: Map showing areas of most disastrous 1933 famine in U.S.S.R. marked with black. From Wikimedia Commons.)

It is intriguing to ponder what Griffin—who had sat in on court proceedings when a white-bearded kulak appealed his conviction for not sowing his quota of seed—might have uncovered had he fully explored “the peasant problem,” as he dubbed it. Joining a collective farm was by no means voluntary, and freedom of movement for the farm workers was limited. Among peasants, resistance to forced collectivization eventually took the form, in some cases, of burning crops and slaughtering livestock rather than selling to the state at low, fixed prices. But, because all food was state property, mere possession of the crop you’d sown could lead to conviction of a crime.

In the short term, the disruptions resulting from forced collectivization decreased grain and livestock output, and contributed to millions of deaths in what has been characterized as a widespread “man-made famine,” which reached its apogee in the winter of 1932-1933. That Griffin didn’t discuss the famine in 1932 is perhaps understandable because the state actively suppressed information about conditions and few knew about the famine—beyond a few apologists in the foreign press resident in Moscow—until Eugene Lyons broke the news internationally in early 1933.

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(Right: Globe [October 24, 1932].)

Griffin’s articles proved overwhelmingly popular and, if letters to the editor are to be believed, prompted the equivalent of watercooler talk across Ontario. For the most part, the readers praised Griffin’s accounts as “absorbing and highly educational” and the writer’s “sincere effort to give us both sides of the picture.” That he neither praised nor condemned Communism in his dispatches allowed the public to read into his articles what they wanted to see. Some, feeling vindicated in their pro-Soviet beliefs, thought Griffin had proven “that the Russian people have solved the problem of life.” Others hailed Griffin’s series “as an antidote to the malicious campaign of lies, distortion of facts and calumny” by many Canadian newspapers predisposed to report only the negative aspects of the USSR.

A few letter-writers unfairly accused him of being a Communist partisan. One argued he’d over-stated the backwardness of Czarist Russia to emphasize the progress being made. Finally, a few readers identified blindspots to his writing, like forced labour, or the treatment of Jews. In an unsigned review of Soviet Scene, a Globe writer questioned Griffin’s self-imposed limitation to “not go looking for bugaboos or horrors” because these features were so well-covered by other sources: “One cannot imagine Mr. Griffin ignoring such angles of a big newspaper story in Canada for such reasons.” Griffin was further criticized in the review for focusing too much on “the mechanics of the Frankenstein monster” of large-scale, rapid industrial transformation, not on “the devilish nature of the spirit that animates the creature.”

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(Left: Star [October 24, 1932].)

Speaking to the Canadian Club in late October, Griffin felt that the Western world, by focusing “only its disciplines and terrorisms, only its dragoonings and horrors,” was obscuring “the benevolences and achievements, the aims, ideals and hopes of the present regime in Russia.” Ruthless as Stalin was in the pursuit of building the USSR into a powerful, industrial state—Griffin said with apparent admiration for the Soviet leader’s resolve—”from the stand-point of world-revolution, we have very little to fear from him.”

“The capitalist system may not need to fear the belligerent or revolutionary aspects of communism, or the petty Reds whom we throw in jail,” Griffin continued. “What it does need to fear…is the success of the Communist experiment in the Soviet Union.” He concluded, as a summation everything he’d learned that summer: “My views don’t matter; your views don’t matter. Your views or my views will not change the facts of Soviet Russia one iota or alter the course of the Communists there by a hair’s breadth. Your fear or my fear, your hatred or my hatred, should not blind us to the facts. I have sought to speak not as a visionary or a theorist, but as a dealer in facts. What is happening over there in Russia is not fable, but history.”

Sources consulted: Handbook of the Soviet Union (American-Russian Chamber of Commerce, 1936); Marco Carynnyk’s contribution to Lubomyr Luciuk and Stella Hryniuk, eds., Canada’s Ukrainians: Negotiating an Identity (University of Toronto Press, 1991); Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani, Distorted Mirrors: Americans and their Relations with Russia and China in the Twentieth Century (University of Missouri Press, 2009); Michael Ellman, “Stalin and the Soviety Famine of 1932-33 Revisited,” Europe-Asia Studies Vol. 59, No. 4 (June 2007) [PDF]; Frederick Griffin, Soviet Scene: A Newspaperman’s Close-ups of New Russia (Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1932); Frederick Griffin, Variety Show (Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1936); Ross Harkness, J.E. Atkinson of the Star (University of Toronto Press, 1963); The Maple Leaf (