On Soviet Soil (1957)
Eleanor Roosevelt believed that if the US and the USSR "ever hope to correct certain wrong impressions, we can do it only by contact with each other." Nevertheless, it took years for her trip to the Soviet Union to materialize. She first intended to go in 1954, but decided against it on the very day of the planned trip because the Soviet Union refused to issue a travel visa to either her translator or to the other journalist with whom she planned to travel. She explained the cancelation in My Day, complaining that "the Soviet Union's government seems to be afraid" of more interchange with the outside world.
ER had a second opportunity to travel to the USSR in 1957, when New York Post editor Dorothy Schiff asked her to travel to communist China. ER embraced the plan, but when the State Department refused to grant her a travel visa for that country she and Schiff decided that the USSR would make an excellent substitute. ER spent most of September 1957 traveling through the Soviet Union, visiting Moscow, Leningrad, Zagorsk, Tashkent, Samarkand, Sochi, and Yalta. She brought along her friend and doctor, David Gurewitsch , and her secretary, Maureen Corr. They saw the famous Moscow circus and the ballet, and though her usual attempt to see the everyday life of the people was less successful in the USSR than it had been elsewhere, she was able to tour schools, hospitals, factories, and a state farm. In all of these locations, however, she complained that what she was able to see was tightly controlled by Soviet officials.
ER's coincided with the closing of the apparent window of opportunity for improved relations between the US and the USSR. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had spent much of 1955 and early 1956 improving relations with non-aligned nations and introducing some liberating measures in the USSR, offering hope that the Soviet Union might relax its hold on both its citizens and its satellites in the wake of Stalin's death. In November 1956, however, Soviet tanks attacked Budapest and prevented Hungary's newly-installed prime minister, Imre Nagy, from liberalizing the government, introducing multi-party rule, and negotiating a looser relationship with the Soviet Union. ER's visit, especially her conversation with Khrushchev, was marked by the renewed chill that followed.
"ER's columns, however, clearly attempt to show her American readers the humanity of the average Soviet citizen. She wrote extensively about the individuals she met, the churches and mosques she visited, and the food urged on her by all of her hosts. ER noted that the Soviets seemed to be taking real pains to make her comfortable during her trip. They appointed Anna Lavrova, who had met FDR at the Yalta conference, to be both guide and translate for ER throughout the trip (David Gurewitsch also spoke fluent Russian). At the same time, ER noted the inconsistencies she saw between Soviet ideology and the lives of its people, the long lines at groceries, and the signs of poverty she witnessed.. After returning to New York, she summed up her impressions, declaring the Soviet Union to be a "mass of contradictions."
While in the USSR, ER reported on what she saw and experienced, from factory tours to the clothing Russian women wore when out shopping. She told her readers about waiting in "a long queue making its way slowly toward the tomb of Lenin and Stalin." She noted that Moscow was scrupulously clean, and attributed it in part to the local militia, but also to the "element of pride" the people clearly took in their city. She also toured Lenin’s apartment, and remarked that it showed him to be a "highly intelligent and cultured man."
The highlight of ER’s tour was her two and a half hour interview with Khrushchev which she ran in her column after she returned to the US. Obtaining the interview had been difficult and time consuming and ER did not know until the very last minute that the Soviet premier had consented to see her. Finally, just before she left, ER was informed that she would be flown to Yalta to meet with him. Though she submitted her questions before even arriving in the Soviet Union, she said his answers appeared to be spontaneous, and the two sparred over foreign policy and communist ideology. After finishing the interview and turning off her tape recorder, Khrushchev asked if he could tell his papers that they had had a friendly conversation. "You can say," she replied, "that we have had a friendly conversation but that we differ." He laughed, adding: "At least we didn't shoot each other!"
ER's return to the US coincided with the news that the Soviet satellite Sputnik had been successfully launched. American interest in her visit, likely heightened by this launch, led newspapers to give her columns extra room and even space on their front pages. Through the account of her trip, she hoped " for the sake of our country and our people. . . I can make you see the reasons why our misunderstandings are so great, and some of the things we must do if war and extermination are not to be the answer for both the people of the U.S. and the people of the Soviet Union." In the wake of her trip, she actively sought to increase travel between the Soviet Union and the US, having promised the Committee of Soviet Women that she would work with the State Department to get them visas. Though it is not clear if she was successful, she herself returned to the Soviet Union in September almost exactly a year after her first visit, and again toured Moscow and Leningrad. Khrushchev also visited her, twice, in the United States.
This mini-edition includes ER's interview with Khrushchev, the previously unpublished notes she took while traveling, and segments of her autobiography. These documents show what she saw, how she reported it back to her American readers, and why she came away from the USSR believing that the relationship between the US and the USSR called for "understanding on our part, respect for these achievements [of Soviet rule], but a firmer belief in the possibilities of our own system."
ER's account of this trip
ER's account of this trip
ER's notes on a Leningrad medical school
Tony Judt. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 1995); Joseph Lash. Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: Smithmark, 1972); ER, "My Day," 2 July 1954, September 7-October 19 1957.