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In 1945, J B Priestley and his wife Jane went to Russia as guests of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS). As well as attending a performance of An Inspector Calls, which had recently premiered in Moscow, they travelled extensively around the USSR.
Priestley wrote about their experiences in a series of articles for the Sunday Express. His writings were republished in 1946 in this pamphlet, Russian Journey.
Priestley noted the freedom with which he and Jane were able to stroll around Moscow, unhindered by ‘interpreters, detectives or dictaphones’ (p. 4). The Muscovites, he said, looked ‘shabby’ and were somewhat ‘dour’ and ‘withdrawn’ (p. 5) – no surprise perhaps, considering food was strictly rationed according to how important their job was to the state. However, with low rents and living costs, Priestley discovered, most ordinary people could afford the occasional treat from the state-run Commission Stores offering ‘more luxury foods, from caviare to chocolate, than are obtainable anywhere in London’ (p. 5).
The Priestleys were in awe of the thriving arts scene they found in post-war Moscow. Observing that the city had some of the best theatres in the world, Priestley wrote of how:
Seats for the theatre, opera, ballet, concerts are relatively cheap, as are books and anything else to do with knowledge and the arts … for less than the price of an ice-cream … you can see theatrical productions of a perfection that not all the money in America can buy. (p. 6)
Impressed by how the Russians took the arts so seriously, Priestley was also taken aback by the enthusiasm with which he was received in Moscow. A lecture by him sold out within hours, prompting a large crowd of young people to charge into the hall and fill the aisles. ‘Something like this could happen at a football match in London … but to see and hear an author?’ commented Priestley, ‘That could only happen in Moscow’ (p. 7).
The Priestleys visited factories, schools, museums and galleries as well as remote and vast collective farms. They saw poverty and the effects of war, but also prosperity and resilience. Warmly welcomed wherever they went, they were wined and dined on huge meals that they could rarely finish. In Abkhazia, they met a peasant who was reputed to be almost 150 years old (p. 20). Although Priestley did not believe for a minute the man was so old, he commented that ‘anybody who can digest that food and survive the terrifying local vodka … is tough enough to live almost for ever’ (p. 18).
In the final article, ‘The Russians and Ourselves’, Priestley calls for greater understanding between Russia and Britain. ‘The Soviet Union’, he says, ‘does not see itself as many of us see it, as a gigantic grim power’ (p. 36). Just as we should be less critical of Russia, he argues, so should Stalin ‘throw the country wide open and take a chance’, because ‘Soviet Russia has far more friends and fewer enemies than she imagines’ (p. 38).