Only with some knowledge of the political environment into which he arrived on 22 June 1934 is it possible to understand Illyés’s Russia. Around the world, narrow, insular circles of far left and Communist intellectuals had been enthusiastic about the October Revolution of 1917 from the beginning, but all classes of wider society viewed it with deep suspicion. During the 1930s, however, interest in the Soviet Union increased markedly, spurred by two factors: the Great Depression and Hitler’s rise to power.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash ruined the livelihoods of millions around the world, and brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse: it took the US economy ten years to recover from the blow. In 1929 there were 25,000 banks operating across the United States, but by 1933 this number had fallen to 14,000. 11,000 had gone bankrupt. Unemployment levels soared to between twelve and fifteen million, meaning that some 25–30 per cent of the workforce could not find employment. The crisis crippled European economies too, but the Soviet Union escaped its impact. Indeed, Soviet industrial production continued to grow rapidly, a fact proudly emphasised by Stalin at the 17th Party Congress of 1934: “While industry in the principal capitalist countries at the end of 1933 shows on the average a reduction of 25 per cent and more in volume of output compared with 1929, industrial output in the USSR has more than doubled during this period, i.e., it has increased more than 100 per cent.” One after another, vast construction projects were undertaken by the state: the Stalingrad tractor factory (1930), the Dnieper hydroelectric station (1932), the White Sea–Baltic Canal (1933), the world’s largest steel factory in the world, the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, and many others.

These world-famous achievements greatly increased the prestige of the Soviet Union, and foreign professionals and skilled workers flocked to the country. The Soviet trade representation in the United States, Amtorg, advertised 6,000 positions for skilled labourers, and over 100,000 applied.

Western economists saw the secret of Soviet economic success in its centralised, planned economy, and in the five-year plan first implemented in 1928. Western intellectuals burned with enthusiasm for this five-year plan, as Arthur Koestler later admitted: “when I have said that I fell in love with the five-year plan, this was hardly an exaggeration”. The reality was rather grimmer within the Soviet Union itself, though, as the news reports made no mention of the price paid for these successes. Of these supposed engineering triumphs, there is only space here to briefly examine one. The White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal was, from inception to completion, constructed entirely by forced labour and prisoners, directed and overseen by the Soviet secret police (OGPU), a precursor to the NKVD and KGB. This 227 km long canal was dug from the harsh Karelian granite using only hand tools, over twenty months and through the harsh northern winter. The working conditions were inconceivably dire. Sources differ on the precise figures, but between 170,000 and half a million workers toiled on this project. Many were peasants forced from their homes in “dekulakisation” drives, and some 25,000 died during the canal’s construction. This figure does not, however, include those who died from diseases caught in the cramped and insalubrious living quarters. The project only cost around a quarter of the original estimate, but it was forbidden to speak of the horrendous human price at which this saving had been achieved. Indeed, 120 writers and artists, led by Maxim Gorky, visited the newly inaugurated canal in August 1933 and, to their everlasting shame, sang hymns of praise to forced labour and the firm hand of the OGPU, as well, of course, as the man whose name was originally given to the canal, Joseph Stalin.

The Soviet Union also proved ever more successful in diplomacy. The United States established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, around a decade after Western European states had done so, and Hungary followed suit in February 1934. In September 1934 the Soviet Union was admitted to the League of Nations.


Stalin had always been quite sure that at some point Germany would seek redress for the losses imposed by its defeat in the First World War, but when Hitler came to power in 1933 he knew at once that despite the unique relationship between the two countries (see for instance the Rapallo Convention) Germany had become the Soviet Union’s principal enemy, and that war was ultimately inevitable. It is a credit to Stalin’s clear-sighted strategic intelligence that he, having previously portrayed all wars as class conflicts, understood that this would be no class war or ideological struggle, but a duel between two nations locked in ancient rivalry. He saw that this would not be a battle between the exploiters and the exploited, or between capitalists and the proletariat, but between peoples and nations. During the 1933–1934 period every effort was made to prepare the nation for war – a fact which André Gide saw clearly, and summarised more lucidly than the historians: “Many of Stalin’s decisions – in recent times almost all of them – have been taken entirely with a view to Germany, and are dictated by fear of her. The progressive restoration of the family, of private property, of inheritance can thus be reasonably explained: the citizen of the Soviet Union must be encouraged to feel that he has some personal possessions to defend.” It was also deemed necessary to familiarise the Soviet man with the feeling that he had a homeland and a past, and that this past did not necessarily have to be erased. Russian history began once more to be taught in schools, though earlier Mikhail Pokrovsky, the high-priest of Marxist historiography, had declared that “the historical concept of Russia” was itself counter-revolutionary. The most glorious chapters of Russian history, once scorned, were now read again, and within a few years a number of excellent films had been made, including Peter the Great (1937) and Alexander Nevsky (1938) to bolster patriotic sentiment.

1934 was the year in which a series of previously unimaginable reforms began, for which Vadim Kozhinov later coined the remarkably apt term “the revolutionary counter-revolution”. Trotsky decried vehemently these reforms in his 1936 book titled The Revolution Betrayed. The most obvious manifestation of this “counter- revolution” was a slow return towards normality. Illyés made reference to this in his short preface to the 1974 edition of Russia: “1934 was a year of growth in the Soviet Union, a great reorganisation laying down the roots of future peace and prosperity. It was not a year of show trials and personality cults, but of hope, and there was the sense of being on the cusp of a new, happier era, with a new constitution.”

This was not merely a case of Illyés seeing the world through rose-tinted spectacles. Mihály Károlyi, the former president of Hungary in 1918–1919, after whose resignation Béla Kun came to power, made a journey through the Soviet Union in 1933–1934 and he too sensed the new mood: he wrote to his wife that “[l]ife here is at least 50 per cent easier than it was in 1931” (the year they had visited the country together). There was plenty of food, and no lack of light industrial products, though these were still expensive and of poor quality. Life was becoming more comfortable.

Central to Stalin’s plans was the need to forge a sense of union and solidarity. He sought a compromise with the social democrats – previously labelled “social fascists” – in order to establish a united left-wing people’s front. One of the consequences of this new alignment was the sidelining of Comintern, and a fundamental change in political direction: Comintern’s primary objective, the fomentation of world revolution, was no longer on the agenda. In this new geopolitical situation, time had to be gained for peaceful development, so that the Soviet Union should be in a fit state, both mentally and militarily, for the moment when war with Germany finally came.

Stalin likewise sought unity in literature. That was why he disbanded the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), with its poisonous diatribes, innate hostility to outside collaboration and ceaseless efforts to subordinate all literary movements to itself, and sought to establish in its place a united writers’ association. In addition, of course, it would be much more straightforward to control and oversee the activities of one writers’ association than many smaller bodies.


After the Communists’ seizure of power in 1917 the Soviet Union was isolated, with many countries cutting off all diplomatic relations. The state tried to ease this isolation through cultural means, establishing in 1925 the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, better known under its Russian acronym VOKS, which aimed to spread and popularise Soviet cultural achievements. It was not merely from this ideological quarantine that the Soviet Union wished to escape, however: it also hoped to increase the number of tourists visiting the country, as this could be a source of foreign currency which was badly needed for the development of heavy industry. In 1929 the number of tourists who visited the Soviet Union was exceedingly low: perhaps around 1,000 in total, but that same year a joint-stock company, Intourist, was established in an effort to increase tourist numbers. These efforts quickly bore fruit, and by 1932 the number of tourists was in excess of 10,000. In 1934 Illyés noted that “Moscow is bustling […] with tourists, and Intourist transports them around the city by the busload”. Intourist was also responsible for organising Illyés’s journey. Naturally, this organisation also had strong secret service links, and it is no coincidence that several of Illyés’s Soviet acquaintances quietly warned him to be careful: “I have heard that foreigners are led this way and that, then finally led astray. I have heard that everyone is being watched”, Illyés wrote, and he had heard the truth. The Soviet propaganda machine had by this stage developed the techniques of deception and misinformation which Paul Hollander would later call “techniques of hospitality”.

The script for the reception and transfer of tourists had been worked out with great care, down to the slightest detail, and a list was made of those objects which would “give foreigners a correct idea of the Soviet Union, including the true scope and value of our victorious construction achievements in all major fields”. Any deviation from the script or journey on a non-prescribed route was strictly forbidden: foreigners were shown Potemkin villages. This was pointed out in the memoirs of no less competent a witness than Boris Bazhanov, former personal secretary to Joseph Stalin, who had defected from the Soviet Union in 1928 and published his memoirs in 1930, but few paid any notice. In Western left-wing intellectual circles it became fashionable during the 1930s to travel to the Soviet Union. This decade was to prove the high point of the Soviet Union’s popularity. The mood and ambience of the era is perfectly encapsulated in a 1936 remark by Lincoln Steffens: “All roads in our day lead to Moscow”. A parade of world- renowned writers, scholars, artists and public figures, including among others Martin Andersen Nexø, Louis Aragon, Henri Barbusse, Lion Feuchtwanger, André Gide, Paul Langevin, André Malraux, Romain Rolland, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells opened doors for one another in Moscow. Moscow was to them what Jerusalem was to Christians, or Mecca to Muslims: a holy city. Many were not tourists so much as pilgrims, journeying to the land of this new, redeeming Communist faith. What is more, the greater part of these travellers arrived in the country of the “Soviet experiment” with such a mass of preconceptions that they did not see what their eyes truly beheld, but what they wanted to see. What they allowed themselves to see. What was appropriate to see. Illyés understood this mindset clearly: “The majority of the travellers who visit Russia already know just what they want to see in it, and do not see, or at least do not mention, anything they encounter which does not conform to their preconceived moral or sociological conceptions. And even if there are some who come in search of ‘the plain truth’ they will all be seized, after seeing this plain truth, by the same passions, hatreds and enthusiasms as everybody else.”

There were, however, a few exceptions, the most famous of which is André Gide, who visited the Soviet Union in 1936, and wrote Return from the USSR – in which he allowed himself some critical remarks – shortly thereafter. He received only invective for his trouble: criticism was not permitted, only adulation and hymns of praise. Illyés himself – and to a much greater extent Lajos Nagy – would also experience this. Both were classed as so-called “fellow travellers”, but neither sank to the moral level of the Western intellectuals, and did not forsake the dignity of independent, critical thinking. Such critical thinking, however, won them no favours either at home or among the Soviet Communists. Lajos Nagy was put under so much pressure by his friends when he returned to Budapest that for the sake of the Holy Cause he abandoned his travel account, which was being serialised in Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky’s newspaper Szabadság (Freedom) and apparently even burned the manuscript.


Like other travellers to the Soviet Union who had not been blinded by propaganda, Illyés spent much of his trip wondering whether what he was seeing was real life, or a stage-set Potemkin village. He saw it as his moral duty to report the truth as he saw it, and indeed every visit to the Soviet Union in the 1930s had a moral dimension. Readers from both the Left and Right have read Russia from this perspective, and are still doing so today. We cannot, as readers, escape the obligation to make note, at each of the major stops on his journey, of what he observed and what he failed to observe.


Besprizorniki, Bolshevo

Revolutions and civil war had left the country in ruins, tearing it apart and mutilating families. Widespread fighting and displacement, as well as the terrible famine in the Volga region in 1921–1922, had left millions of children orphaned. Office figures indicate that some seven million orphaned children wandered the roads of the Soviet Union in 1922. It was during these years that a new word entered international popular consciousness: besprizornye. Literally meaning “unattended” it was used to refer to the motherless, fatherless, homeless street urchins who thronged the streets of every city, and survived on a combination of begging and thievery. The violent collectivisation drives of 1929–1933 caused the number of besprizorniki to rise still further. Wherever he went, even at the first stop across the border, Illyés came across them. He never averted his gaze nor lost his sympathy towards them, and always sought to alleviate their misery with whatever he could. “Unbelievable figures are being circulated in Europe. ‘Eight million orphaned children!’ In 1927, Luc Durtain assumed that the true figure could be no higher than two hundred to three hundred thousand. My Moscow acquaintances insist that even in the worst case there can be no more than ten thousand. Ten thousand abandoned children! Ten thousand burning, open wounds! Ten thousand marks of collective shame! […] Where is the fellow-feeling, the compassion, that natural impulse to help the helpless?” Later, however, putting the words in others’ mouths, he offered an explanation for the phenomenon: they were the children of kulaks.

It was matter which gave him no rest, however, and he returned to it incessantly, even when describing nights in the city: “Every night two or three children aged between ten and twelve sleep on the bridge in front of my apartment.” His sincere sympathy was not typical. The Left simply denied the existence of this phenomenon. In 1933, the doctrinaire newspaper of the Hungarian Communist Party, Társadalmi Szemle (Social Review) quoted an article by the Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, Walter Duranty, in which he claimed that there were now no besprizorniki in the Soviet capital. “In the whole city there is hardly to be found one ragged or inadequately clothed child, and the homeless little urchins, which were such an affecting sight during the days of the NEP, have entirely disappeared. If there are still some who dwell in Moscow, they either drift further south during the winter months, or else are placed in the city’s orphanages. There are none at all in the streets.”

The question of besprizorniki was at once a social issue and a law-and-order problem, which explains why in 1924 Dzerzhinsky, the director of the OGPU, gave orders for the establishment of an experimental education and correction centre at Bolshevo, just north of Moscow. This institute, overseen by the OGPU, originally housed 18 children, but by the time Illyés visited this figure had grown to 3,100. The centre developed into a town, with factories, workshops, libraries, clubs and schools. Only juvenile criminal delinquents were sent here: thieves, fraudsters, murderers. The centre had its own governing council, and was self-sufficient. Its inhabitants had to make a living from their own work, as work was the central pillar of the Communist education. Bolshevo was built to exemplify that tenet of Communist thought, whereby the criminal was a victim of society, and his crime was an act of rebellion against the old social order. Once the perfect Communist society had been established, crime would naturally cease. Such beliefs meant that in the early days of the Soviet Union, criminals were afforded more respect and consideration than law-abiding members of the “exploitative classes”.

Just before Illyés’s arrival in the Soviet Union, however, a change had taken place, but so recently that its effects had not yet been felt. A law promulgated on 8 June 1934 rehabilitated the word “punishment”, which had not been in official use since 1924. “Henceforth, the state would not seek to ‘re-educate’ lawbreakers, but to punish criminals. In 1934 it also transpired that it was not society which was responsible for criminality, but rather the individuals who committed them, as they had proved unable to overcome ‘the leftover stains of capitalism’ and ‘the remnants of the past’.”1

Bolshevo and the besprizorniki were also given special attention because, according to Communist pedagogy, orphaned children were the most suitable material from which to forge the new homo sovieticus, as they had not been corrupted by family. The Communists saw the family as a “reactionary” institution left over from the old order, and did everything in their power to destroy it. According to one of the authors of the Soviet family code, “the family must be replaced by the Communist Party”. It was for precisely this reason that Bolshevo was developed into a showcase institution, which was intended to demonstrate the practical results of the Soviet Union’s superior educational principles. Most distinguished foreign visitors were brought here, from Bernard Shaw to André Gide, and it seldom failed to impress. When it came to Bolshevo, even the otherwise sceptical Gide gushed: “Nothing could be more edifying, more reassuring and encouraging than this visit. It leads one to think that all crimes are imputable not to the man himself who commits them, but to the society which drives him to commit them.” The “magic” of Bolshevo was further enhanced when it became the subject of a feature film entitled Road to Life2 which won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1932.

As per the carefully planned and well-trodden itinerary, Illyés too visited Bolshevo. His travelling companions included Alexander Fadeyev, one of RAPP’s best known writers until its dissolution, who would go on in later years to chair the Union of Soviet Writers. There were also several French friends and acquaintances of Illyés, including Paul Nizan, André Malraux and their wives. Illyés did not present Bolshevo in the simplistic, one-sided, doctrinaire terms that Gide had used. Starting from everyday experiences, he began by inquiring into practical problems: How did the locals feel about the institute and its inmates being placed in their midst? What was the rate of reoffending? Did the director believe that criminality was a hereditary characteristic? He sketches a masterful portrait of Bolshevo in lively, colourful prose that leaves Gide’s leaden account far behind.


Illyés spent almost a whole day in a courthouse, seeking some insight into the Soviet system of justice. Having come to the country without many idées fixes, he quickly noticed a striking paradox: the court did not strive towards the truth in any objective sense, but rather “class truth”: “… the term ‘truth’ brings to the lips of today’s revolutionaries only a superior, condescending smile. They recognise only class truth, and their courts dispense proletarian truth.” This meant that from birth – a circumstance over which all are powerless – a citizen of noble or bourgeois origin was treated differently to a proletarian. In other words, in the “land of equality” equality before the law had been abolished.

The heaviest blow of the sword of justice – the death penalty – was something that Illyés was unable to accept under any circumstances, and he was particularly outraged by the “liquidation” – a term preferred by the Soviet press over execution – of political opponents. It is not known if or when Illyés learned that the situation became even worse a year after his visit. From that point on, children as young as twelve could be sentenced to the full range of court judgements, including the death penalty!

Illyés refers to the Soviet judicial system as “revolutionary” and while he only explicitly condemns the death penalty, one senses his discomfort at the methods employed: “They are not ashamed to employ terror, for they wish to clear a path towards a better future.” Nor indeed were they ashamed: a host of extrajudicial enforcement bodies regularly employed terror on a monumental scale. The first Soviet secret police organisation was the Cheka, the initials of which stood in Russian for All-Russian Extraordinary Commission. The word “extraordinary” meant that its actions were not subject to the rule of law. Likewise, its successor organisations, the GPU and later OGPU, were not obliged to prosecute suspects through lengthy judicial hearings: from October 1922 on they were empowered to pass and carry out death sentences on the spot.


This eye-catching sentence can be read only in the 1934 edition of Russia. It was omitted from the 1974 reprint, presumably having been judged a little tasteless by the vigilant censors of Kádár-era Hungary. Only the second half of the sentence remains in both versions: “… continually asking at every step after that dream which is as old as humanity itself”.

Even in the very first sentence of his book, Illyés shows his capacity for illusion- shattering honesty as he describes his initial impressions of Moscow, the sacred capital of the new faith: “What I beheld stopped me in my tracks. No, there was no trace of Potemkin’s spirit here. The first impression was of merciless simplicity and crude realism; alive and rather intimidating. Every wound exposed. Not at all what I had expected from the capital of socialism.”

He is equally frank in his descriptions of everyday existence – for “it is daily life which I intend to observe” – and here too he shows the unpleasant side: the public toilets in the (otherwise agreeable) public park, the rough and unpainted houses (there is no time for aesthetic considerations), the almost unbearably crowded trams, the lack of a plug in the luxury hotel bathtub, the drunks tottering in the street, the bureaucracy… The list could go on!

Translation by Thomas Sneddon


1 Heller, Mihail–Nyekrics, Alexandr: A Szovjetunió története. Osiris Kiadó–2000, Budapest, 1996. 214.

2 Road to Life, 1931, written and directed by Nikolai Ekk.

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