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Lost Utopia

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

Assignment in Utopia. By Eugene Lyons. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.50.

It is impossible to give Eugene Lyons’s “Assignment in Utopia” an ordinary review. It is too important a document for that. I have known the author almost as long as I have had any intimate contact with Soviet Russia. The experiences which Lyons relates were in many cases known to me and constituted the factual basis for my own attitude towards the Soviet Union. Consequently, an attitude of impersonality would be a fiction that I shall not attempt.

One evening in the winter of 1929 I was attending a party in Moscow at which Lyons and a number of other foreign correspondents were present. The telephone rang and our correspondent host answered it. He was informed that an official announcement had just been made of the arrest and execution of a number of generals in the Soviet army who had formerly been officers in the Tsarist army. This was one of the earliest evidences of the revival of the Terror, which had almost disappeared during a considerable period of the New Economic Policy. The charge against the generals was that of conspiring to aid White emigres who were plotting intervention in Russia with certain circles in capitalistic governments.

Almost everyone present expressed skepticism of the charges against the executed generals. But Lyons stood up and remarked ostentatiously, “I would just like all you folks to note that I am for these people” (meaning by “these people” the Soviet government). There was an awkward pause in the conversation, but no one was surprised. We all knew Lyons’s background. He had been closely associated with the radical labor movement in the United States. He had worked strenuously to prevent the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Indeed, as he later told me, he considered himself a Communist, although he did not belong to the Party or recognize its discipline. He had come to Russia in 1928, imbued with enthusiasm for his “assignment in Utopia.” Perhaps that enthusiasm had flagged somewhat by the time I knew him, but we all classified him as friendly to the Soviet government. Such is the atmosphere of suspicion in which one lives in Russia, that few of us at this time, I think, would have confided to him the source of any information unfavorable to the government.

His attitude did not appear to change very greatly during the period of my first visit to Russia, which extended over parts of 1929 and 1930. I stress this point because forcible collectivization of agriculture was then taking place, and the Terror was revived on a wide scale. Lyons tells us in his book of his growing spiritual discomfort as he tried to explain away the evidence of his eyes and ears. Nevertheless, the discomfort was not apparent to one meeting Lyons occasionally and casually during this period.

I returned to Russia for a few days during the winter of 1933. Because of my preoccupation with German affairs, I could not devote sufficient time to a study of the changed conditions in Russia to write about what I saw and heard. Nevertheless, I was appalled by what I did see and hear. I did not dare see any of my former Russian friends, since by so doing I might have brought doom upon them. The evidence of hunger was to be seen everywhere. In the wintry night peasants who had fled from the famine in the Ukraine besought one: “For the love of God, a few kopecks!” I talked with a Ukrainian mechanic who had worked at repairing tractors in collective farms in different parts of Russia. Never have I heard such Dantesque tales of misery and despair. Correspondents who had been in the Ukraine and the Caucasus contributed their stories of horror.

No one, however, impressed me as did Lyons. He seemed a broken man. He despised himself, he said, for remaining on as a correspondent at all, under circumstances which compelled him to conceal the awful truth from the world. “Somehow socialists in all the world must be made to realize that the Soviet government has nothing to do with socialism!” he cried. “The Soviet regime is simply a most terrible and revolting form of Oriental despotism!” He then recounted to me horrible tales of torture that the G. P. U. used to extract valuta from its victims—stories which he now reveals in his present volume. Lyons seemed like a man who was living in a continuous nightmare. He could not give himself the solace of hoping that the horror was untrue. These things had happened to his own personal friends. Since Jews were considered the most likely people to have concealed wealth, they had been tortured more frequently than others, and Lyons was a Jew. So long as terror, pain, and death were impersonal, even though wholesale, they were incapable of turning Lyons into an enemy of the Soviets. Once his friends were touched by the gruesome finger of sadistic Terror, emotion supplemented reason in turning him toward opposition to the regime.

I may have said before that some book was the most important ever written about Soviet Russia. If I have, this volume supersedes the other. No one can read this book and doubt that Lyons was a sincere radical extremist when first he came to Russia. No one can doubt the soul-searching which he went through in coming to the conclusion that the evidence against the Soviet regime was completely damning and that he must give this evidence to the world. If it stood by itself, we might doubt its evidence. I do not know, however, of one sincere, intelligent, and humanitarian radical who has lived in Russia long enough to become thoroughly familiar with Soviet society who has not come to the same conclusions. Chamberlin and Muggeridge were both examples of radical humanitarians who were driven by the shock of what they saw into the position of uncompromising opposition to the whole system.

Lyons’s book covers the whole range of events in Russia from the time of his first arrival in 1928 to very nearly the present time. It is a rich mine of information with regard to almost every aspect of life in Soviet Russia. It is more than a book about Russia, however. It is the autobiography of a radical who came to repudiate the doctrine that a new social order can be created by force, after years of observation of an attempt to do so. It is fascinating reading, and that is fortunate; for a social document of this importance should be read by the largest possible number of people.


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