13 November 2020

A Clear-eyed Poet in the Land of the Soviets – A Background to Gyula Illyés’s Russia – Part III




In the 1930s, all that the average Hungarian knew about Communist family policy was that if they came to power they would introduce “women’s communes”. There was some basis for this fear, as every socialist or socialist-inspired revolution throughout history has raised again the question of free love. This occurred again after the Russian Revolution of 1917, especially during the first, most revolutionary and most confusing period. “The satisfaction of one’s sexual impulses should be as straightforward as getting a glass of water”, was an infamous phrase ascribed to Alexandra Kollontai, the world’s first female ambassador and a well-known Bolshevik politician, and it quickly became a worldwide symbol of Communist sexual liberation. Illyés had of course heard of the “glass of water theory” himself. “This was the famous ‘Kazan debauchery’, prompted by the cogitations of Mrs Kollontai and Trotsky. It was Lenin who, with one hand, swept the glass of water from the table.” From the memoirs of Clara Zetkin we know that Lenin did indeed sharply criticise this “theory”, though never in public. Illyés did not first hear of all this in Moscow, but knew of it from his days in Paris, where among his circle of left-wing friends he got a taste of such things. His book The Huns in Paris recounts one such incident in novelistic form.

Igor Shafarevich has convincingly shown that throughout history, every revolution of a socialist character has made the annihilation of the family a key objective. Trotsky and his followers likewise did their best to destroy this ancient and “obsolete” institution. As in so many other instances, however, theories proved no match for life and the laws of reality – a fact the truth of which Illyés never doubted. His chapter on love ends with the following words: “So the revolution did not break apart the family or the other foundations of society. In a new form and under new conditions, it lives on.”




It took much more courage to broach the taboo topic of “political undesirables”. The Left consistently denied the existence of work camps, though some – for instance Dzerzhinsky – euphemised them in the politically correct language of their day as “labour schools”. It is no accident that Dzerzhinsky’s name arises in this context, as in 1929 the OGPU began to assume oversight of the camps, removing them from the authority of the civil judiciary. It is impossible to say just how much Illyés knew about these concentration camps, but even though he never writes about them explicitly, he does allude to their existence. Strolling through the Peter and Paul Fortress in Leningrad, which served as a prison during the tsarist period, his musings on the past bring the present to mind: “The enemies of the Soviets are held elsewhere, far to the north, by the icy shores of the Arctic Ocean. Not a great deal of progress there, in other words. I end up arguing with the two Leningrad poets: it seems impossible to make them understand the senselessness and superfluity indeed, the curse – of enforced ideological conformity.” Illyés was no doubt referring to the Solovetsky Islands. During the interwar years, the Hungarian press occasionally carried articles about concentration camps located on islands in the White Sea.

Illyés’s tour, his “pilgrimage”, truly began when he set off south, hoping for a glimpse of the future: “When […] I reached Moscow, not only was the sky a deep and cloudless blue, but the future seemed no less bright. It was harvest time, and there radiated a certain confidence that the years of war and misery were over.” Nor was Illyés alone in thinking and feeling this way. The famous phrase “I have been over into the future, and it works!” was penned by the American journalist Lincoln Steffens after a visit to the Soviet Union, and the sentiment was shared by countless left-wing Western intellectuals.




Visits to factories and workshops were mandatory stops on the itinerary, and Illyés visited a number of workshops in Moscow and Leningrad. There he listened as officials boasted of their (genuinely dizzying) production figures, but he was much more interested in the day-to-day lives of the manual workers. Of the major industrial projects completed during this period, Illyés visited the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, or Dneproges. There he was dumbstruck by the vast scale of the dam, turbines, dynamos and sluices, and saluted the achievement, but not without noting certain details which “rather spoil the picture”. These included many immiserated peasants, and though he refrains from speculation, he clearly suspects them to be displaced kulaks.




The “kolkhoz”, or collective farm, was something of an exotic curiosity for foreign visitors, who were fascinated by this novel concept. Illyés was not so naive as many Western intellectuals, and when it came to the kolkhozes his primary interest was evidently not some imagined utopia of collective labour for a collective harvest, but a thoroughly practical examination of whether such a system could be replicated in Hungary, and whether it would help solve the myriad problems faced by rural peasants. “Kolkhozisation” was embraced by radical left-wing and Trotskyite groups both inside and outside the Soviet Union, and vastly increased Stalin’s prestige. Yuri Tynyanov, a writer, literary historian and distinguished intellectual, perfectly exemplifies this tendency: “I am a historian, and it is the historian in me that admires Stalin. As the author of the kolkhoz, Stalin is, historically speaking, the greatest of geniuses to reshape the world. Even had he accomplished nothing but the kolkhoz, he would deserve to be called the most brilliant man of the age.”




Other mandatory stops on the planned itinerary for foreign visitors included the twin darlings of Soviet agriculture, Gigant and Verblyud – two vast sovkhozes or state farms constructed near Rostov-on-Don, partly inspired by the mechanised agriculture of the American Midwest. That Illyés visited these can only be deduced from his diary, and from the travel writings of Lajos Nagy – the names of these sovkhozes do not appear on the pages of Russia. Though officially Zernograd – roughly “seed-corn city” – it was universally known as Verblyud, or “The Camel”. Employing 7,000 workers to farm an area of 110,000 hectares, this state farm truly was what its official name suggested: a small city. For the most part, Illyés merely notes the statistical data he is given. His mind is clearly on the topic which chiefly interests him, the fate of the peasantry.




On the day of his arrival in Moscow, on the back of the very first postcard he sent his wife, Illyés felt it necessary to write that “I see no hunger anywhere, though it’s true that the people’s clothing is not the best.” This sentence reveals that rumours of a great famine had already reached his ears. The question of whether they were true or false was to be his greatest preoccupation during his time in the Soviet Union.

The year 1929 was a watershed, not only in the West but also in the Soviet Union. In an article published in the 7 November issue of Pravda, Stalin declared it the year of the Great Turn – the collectivisation of agriculture. Although this article is generally taken to mark the starting point in agricultural collectivisation, it had long been on the agenda. Lenin and Trotsky had both envisioned it. There were very few issues on which Trotsky saw eye-to-eye with his mortal enemy, Stalin, but collectivisation was one of them. It was the successor to the revolution and the civil war, and would bring the villages and the rural peasantry to their knees. It also precipitated a large-scale famine, the second since 1921–1922. The difference between the 1921–1922 “Lenin” famine and the 1932–1933 “Stalin” famine, however, lay not only in the number of victims, but also in the fact that in 1921 – compelled by the most atrocious conditions – Lenin did at last permit foreign aid to enter the country. In the 1930s, by contrast, not only did the state make no effort to relieve the famine, it was itself the cause. While millions starved to death, the Soviet Union continued to export grain: 48.3 million tonnes in 1930, 51.8 million in 1931, and 18.1 million in 1932.

Famine was the Communists’ weapon in their civil war against the peasants. It was not merely the wealthier peasants, the so-called kulaks, whom they wished to “liquidate”, as official propaganda so relentlessly insisted, but the peasantry itself, both as a social class and a political force. Peasants were religious, self-employed, often functionally self-sufficient – meaning they had little need to rely upon the state – and felt fierce national pride. For Communists bent upon total domination, this state of affairs was utterly unacceptable.

Historians and statisticians estimate the total number of victims at somewhere between six and fifteen million, but anyone who spoke about famine in the Soviet Union of the 1930s risked arrest for crimes against the state. The existence of any famine within the country was categorically denied by the government. To cloud the truth and deceive the world, Stalin launched an enormous propaganda campaign, part of which involved inviting sympathetic and influential Western politicians and intellectuals to visit the Soviet Union. They, in turn, obediently did what they could to bury any talk of genocide. Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw celebrated his 75th birthday in Moscow, and Stalin personally received him at the Kremlin. Upon his return home, Shaw was asked whether the reports of a terrible famine were true. Shaw gave a characteristically witty reply: While in the Soviet Union, he said, he had “eaten the most slashing dinner of [his] life”. Other Western “humanists” who fretted over the fate of mankind were silent when it came to the famine, and the West collectively averted its gaze. In September 1934, just as collectivisation was nearing completion, the Soviet Union was admitted to the League of Nations.

A great stir was caused by the motion passed by the League of Nations Council in September 1933, authorising an investigative committee to visit the regions of Ukraine rumoured to be suffering from famine. The council had been receiving reports which directly contradicted the reassuring picture painted by Édouard Herriot. Herriot had served three terms as Prime Minister of France, and in 1933 he made a private trip to Ukraine, at a time when the famine was claiming up to ten thousand victims a day. Upon his return, he vehemently denied the claims of “rumour-mongers”, and insisted that in Ukraine he had seen only “cheerful women and rosy-cheeked children”. The reception of Herriot’s account in Hungarian newspapers was split, as elsewhere, along political lines: the Right reacted with scepticism, the Left – as, for instance, in the Canadian-Hungarian Worker – with triumphant adulation.

Illyés and Nagy set off on 17 July on a journey which would take them south across Ukraine, and the territory rumoured to be worst afflicted by famine. Illyés, whose conscience would not let him rest, was anxious to learn whether it could possibly be true that millions were starving to death.

Again and again he returned to the theme: “In the car we spoke about Russian agriculture and the lives of peasants. This is something I still have no clear idea about, though it’s always my first question to everyone we meet on our travels.” He dedicated a separate chapter of his book (The Peasants’ Destiny) to this issue, and wrote in uncompromising language: “Monstrous injustices have occurred. […] Hunger stalks more than one rural district.” In Kharkov, in the middle of the area rumoured to be affected by famine, Illyés turned to the engineer who was leading them around a factory and, without any preamble, asked him directly: “What do you know about the famine in Ukraine?” The engineer cannot have anticipated such a question from a supposed “fellow traveller”. Neither, it seems, had he prepared some false or evasive answer to a question which, had he answered it truthfully, would surely have got him into very serious trouble. Instead he simply “gazed in stupefaction” at the Hungarian writer.




Much changed when Stalin realised the necessity of a broader popular front and social unity, and everyday life became easier, but one thing remained unchanged: the persecution of religion. From the moment Lenin seized power in 1917, the Communist government had persecuted religion and the churches, especially the Russian Orthodox Church.

Lenin exploited the famine of 1921 to undermine the church, seizing its holy relics and claiming that the money from their sale would be used to help the needy. Church organisations were legally declared “counter-revolutionary institutions” which would endanger agricultural collectivisation, reduce the competitiveness of socialist labour and weaken the nation’s defence capacity. A frontal assault began on religion and the churches. A vast programme of atheist propaganda was launched, complete with atheist exhibitions, journals, newspapers and museums. The League of Militant Atheists founded chapters in factories, workshops and villages, which continued the “enlightened” campaigns against religion.

Clergy and their families were denied their rights as Soviet citizens. As “outlaws” (лишенцы) they were not entitled to food rations or medical care. Most were forced from their homes, and denied permission to live in most larger cities. The children of the Orthodox clergy were not only forbidden to study at universities, but could not even be registered as pupils at state schools. If they wished to attend, they could do so only after publicly disowning their fathers. Churches and religious monuments such as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow were looted and destroyed. The legal category of “outlaw” was only finally abolished in Stalin’s Constitution of 1936.

In spite of this persecution, religion survived, particularly among peasants in rural areas. It was precisely for this reason that kolkhozisation was linked with the struggle to exterminate religion. The peasant class would be demolished, not merely materially but also spiritually, which explains why a new wave of anti-religious persecution was launched in 1929, to coincide with the announcement of collectivisation. This was also why the second Congress of the Godless – where they inserted the word “militant” into their official name – was held in Moscow in 1929. Nor was this some small gathering of cranks; the congress itself had 1,200 attendees, and the organisation boasted five million members organised in 60,000 chapters. In May 1932, an anti-religious five-year plan was announced.

Illyés got a good taste of this anti-religious propaganda: strolling near the Kremlin, he saw a huge, anti-religious banner strung across the entrance to an atheist museum, in what had once been a monastery. Although Illyés was not himself a practicing believer, he was sensitive to these attacks on religious freedom, and noted the destruction of churches with bitterness. The sight of a half-demolished church was often remarked upon in Russia, and more frequently still in his travel diary: “Another Cossack village. They have just finished demolishing the roadside church. Nothing left there now.” Nor did he forego mention of those churches which had been “converted” to other uses: one was now a cinema, another a car mechanic’s workshop, etc. Illyés did at last manage to attend a service at a functioning church, and the experience was to prove one of the “most shocking sights” of his entire stay in the Soviet Union. He was moved by the lament-like singing of the choir, the tears of the faithful, and most of all by the way they threw themselves to the ground in grief. The service also refuted the claims of Soviet propaganda: the church was crowded with worshippers, and “not merely the old, but – as I witnessed with my own eyes – many young people also”. His naive, jotted notes are also telling: “No tolling of bells in Moscow. The 20,000 towers of the 1,500 churches of Moscow have been silent these fifteen years.” Nor had they merely fallen silent, for on the pretext that the iron industry needed the raw material, and that the tolling “disturbed the workers”, all the bells had been taken away.




Illyés had to return to Hungary before the beginning of the congress, which took place in the spirit of Stalin’s new “popular front” approach. Mikhail Koltsov, a star journalist, academician(!), confidant of Stalin, NKVD agent and influential foreign reporter – he would become better known by the outside world two years later, during the Spanish Civil War – effectively brought an end to the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) era by declaring that its slogan, “with us or against us!”, was detrimental and even dangerous, now that every available means had to be marshalled to oppose fascism. This meant winning over fellow travellers too. He went still further: “Anyone who opposes fascism and war is an ally of ours. We see all such people as standing on our side, as members of our camp.” It is unfortunate that Illyés was not there to hear those words, since he had advocated it in 1930, long before it became the party line. He had sent a letter to the 1930 congress of the International Association of Revolutionary Writers (MORP) in Kharkov, and Antal Hidas, without mentioning him by name, read it aloud: “It is wrong to reject the best representatives of the petit-bourgeois intellectual class. Instead, we should bring them with us […]. I believe that revolutionary literature will achieve its purpose if, in addition to the majority of the working class, it can also win over the majority of left-wing, petit-bourgeois intellectuals, who are now suffering a serious crisis. We must win them over with our works.”

The new political environment had no need for Hungarian RAPP members, nor indeed for RAPP itself. The coup de grâce was delivered by Ilya Ehrenburg, who had travelled from Paris to Moscow for the conference. In September 1934 he wrote to Stalin, arguing that MORP – which continued unchanged in the style of RAPP, directing some third-rate Hungarian, Polish and German literati (not writers!) – had become the greatest barrier to increased openness. Unlike Ehrenburg himself, they deliberately cut themselves off from Western life. This sectarian literati failed to appreciate how vital it was, now that fascists had seized power, to develop ties in certain Western intellectual circles. Instead, they simply attacked them all indiscriminately. Stalin forwarded this letter to Kaganovich, along with a note saying that Ehrenburg was right – the “traditions of RAPP in MORP must be eliminated”. The fate of MORP and its RAPPist Hungarian members was sealed: the association was dissolved in late 1935.

This left Illyés in a difficult situation: the Hungarian members of MORP and RAPP were his friends and acquaintances, but at the same time it was quite plain to him that their literary perspective had led them into a lifeless, formalistic dead end. Eighteen months later a selection of short stories by Soviet writers was published under the title A Modern Russian Decameron, and Illyés used his foreword to confront the worldview of the Hungarian RAPP members: “Outside forces may subjugate or compel individual writers, but never literature itself; at most they may obliterate it. Those Russian writers who believed in the new system with their, shall we say, human selves, strove mightily to serve it also with their writerly selves. They only made trouble for themselves, and for literature, and for the system too. Literature cannot ‘serve’. The instant it begins to function according to criteria other than its own social contract, it ceases to be literature. Let us not fear to speak commonplaces: the essence of this social contract is that it should serve only the truth.”




It is impossible to escape the question of whether and to what degree Illyés served the truth with Russia. Forty years later, preparing for the publication of the third edition, he admits in his diary that he “grimaced” on reading the text, but later saw the book’s “individual truth”: “I wanted to lend a hand to the suffering, to a suffering people. All that reached the Soviet Union from Hungary in those days were slurs and insults. The situation being as it was, my painting too black a picture would have seemed insincere, and would not have pleased me either, since I was equally unable to describe the good I found there as I would have liked to. In the end, I had to leave out as many positives as negatives. In terms of simple truth, the task seemed impossible, and led me to an almost surrealist defiance. I would write it differently today.”

Russia is a masterpiece of Illyés’s particular intelligence: clearheaded, and inclined to seek a middle ground. In the end, though he did in fact write much that was critical of the Soviet Union, he did not receive much opprobrium from the Left.

Immediately upon his return, Illyés set about writing an account of his travels. He was spurred both by promises he had made and by a down payment: Lajos Zilahy,1

the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Magyarország (Hungary), had paid for his travels in exchange for a serialised account of his journey. Otherwise, the expenses involved would have made the trip impossible for someone of his means. Russia had an enormous impact when it was published, and was also a commercial success: a first print run of 25,000 copies soon sold out. Zilahy’s gamble had paid off. Hungarian officialdom and law enforcement, however, took a rather dimmer view, and Illyés was summoned to no fewer than five interviews at the Prime Minister’s Press Office, where he was told that a more critical tone towards the Soviet Union was expected of him. Zilahy ultimately smoothed the matter out.

Surprisingly, it seems that while Russia provoked government ire, the right-wing press were largely silent. The mainstream Left, by contrast, received his Seen in Russia series in Magyarország with enthusiasm, and it was praised by such outstanding writers, poets and critics as Antal Szerb2 and Miklós Radnóti.3 Antal Szerb captured the essential point: “this book was not written by a journalist”. In his lyrical prose, Illyés had “written the first serialised report in the Hungarian language of true literary value”. A bold statement, but its sequel pointed at something yet more fundamental: “This book has introduced us to a prose writer of enormous talent.” Until 1934 Illyés had been known as a poet, but with the publication of Russia he exploded into the world of Hungarian prose. He was to remain at its forefront, because Russia was immediately followed by another masterpiece: while he was in Russia, Válasz4

(Answer) published the first part of People of the Plains.


Translation by Thomas Sneddon



1 Lajos Zilahy (1891–1974): writer, editor. Secretary General of the Hungarian–Soviet Cultural Association from 1945. Fled to the USA in 1947.

2 Antal Szerb (1901–1945): writer and literary historian. Best known in Hungary for his History of Hungarian Literature.

3 Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944): poet and literary translator. A canonical figure in 20th-century Hungarian poetry.

4 Válasz (1934–1938; 1946–1949): literary and politico-sociological journal. The “official” paper of the folk writing movement. 

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