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Reports on Russia

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

Report on the Russians. By W. L. White. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. The Spirit of Russian Economics. By J. F. Normano. The John Day Company. $2.00. The Ukraine: A Submerged Nation. By William Henry Chamberltn. The Macmillan Company. $1.75.

A quarter of a century ago H. G. Wells described Russia as “the dark crystal.” Somewhat later Winston Churchill referred to the same country as “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma.” Since then books and pamphlets on the Soviet Union have grown in number. Yet it is more than doubtful whether “one sixth of the world” has received the kind of treatment to which it is entitled. Most of the literature that has come to the reviewer’s notice has been inspired by a strange mixture of half-truth, uncertainty, misunderstanding, and obscurity. It would take more than a short note to trace this lack of objectivity to its roots. At best, Russia is too vast, too old, and at the same time too novel, to escape the innocently superficial generalizations or distortions caused by ignorance which are so common with many contemporary writers. At worst, the failure of doing justice to Russia’s people and institutions derives from the predisposition of her critics to distrust or even vilify rather than dispassionately observe and learn. There can be little doubt that this is not the right way in which to know a powerful ally in war and a companion in the peace to follow.

W. L. White’s “Report on the Russians” is no exception. The author has earned for himself a respectable place in contemporary literature with such laudable works as “Journey for Margaret,” “They Were Expendable,” and “Queens Die Proudly.” The fourteen chapters of his report from Russia are no less readable, attractive, and thought-provoking. They are as fresh and vigorous as anything that has come from his easy pen. The weakness of the narrative does not lie in the manner in which it is recounted, but in what it says. Only a few American reporters have ever enjoyed the opportunity of being able to see so many things and to talk to so many people in every walk of life within the short period of six weeks. Accompanying Eric Johnston of the United States Chamber of Commerce in the summer of 1944, the author covered a good part of European Russia and Siberia. He met the Russian people working in factories, collective farms, and government offices, fighting on the battlefields, and spending their leisure in theatres. What an opportunity for an open mind and for an unprejudiced judgment! However, the resulting dialogues are somewhat meagre in substance and offhandish in form. The achievements and the failures of the people are not related to their past and many of the conclusions reached tend toward a rather shallow impressionism. To be true, Mr. White is not without sympathy for his hosts. Occasionally he finds a warm word for their spirit of self-sacrifice and a passage of recognition for their war efforts. On the whole, however, he is too much absorbed in his own likes and dislikes and these prevent him from offering a picture of the Russians as they really are.

J. F. Normano’s “The Spirit of Russian Economics” is a little book of an entirely different quality. Limited to the single purpose of unravelling the skein of Russian economic thought, it is full of understanding and scholarly erudition. It betrays an honest effort to go under the surface and to explain the present phenomena by reference to their antecedents. No other approach seems to be more just and successful. What is the spirit of Russian economics? Mr, Normano develops the thesis that it means one hundred years of quest for transformation. Having disentangled themselves from the transitional influences of the West and having produced the most radical economic revolution in history, the Russians have become the staunchest supporters of conservation: conservation of the revolution, its creative work, and its industrialized and to-be-industrialized territories. The Soviet conception is that the country has solved the problem of social organization, the problem of relations between men in the economic process, and that its citizens have to work only on the conquest of nature. “The constant lag in Russian history between economic development and social structure, between industrial and military power, disappeared.” Herein lies, in the author’s interpretation, the present distinction between Western civilization and the Soviet Union. For the sake of national interests and unhindered development of their natural resources #nd productive forces, the Russians had to adopt the principle of conservation. They believe that they have reached the stage of solution by having achieved the transformation from the status quo which continues to persist in the West. Come what may, the Russians “will preserve their pathos of creation and their romanticism of realism, romanticism of a system which in Lenin’s definition consists of Soviets, electricity, and accounting.”

The title of William Henry Chamberlin’s essay on the Ukraine as one of the “submerged peoples” of Europe is ambiguous. It is especially so in view of the innate trends in the Soviet Union toward the recognition of the individual character of each of the component nationalities of the federal structure. Apart from its both open and implied anti-Soviet bias, the book might represent a contribution to the general knowledge of the Ukrainian people, their land and history. However, the over-emphasis laid upon the periodical outbursts of Ukrainian separatism and the minimization of the active and constructive role of the Ukrainians themselves in the transformation of Tsarist Russia into the Soviet Union weaken the author’s argument and inevitably invites a note of caution.


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