Free Thoughts, Free Words
|The UN flag flies next to the Russian tricolor flag in postwar 1960. Illustration by Bern Hill in Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, p. 40|
In this story, historian Allan Nevins writes about the United Nations reeducation campaign in postwar Russia along with the efforts rid all remnants of the Soviet regime, drawing parallels to the Allied occupation of Germany in 1945.
From Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, pp. 40, 88-89:
Free Thoughts, Free WordsBy Allen Nevins
"Where do we go from here?" demanded the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University bitterly two months ago, as he and a dozen other educators—Russian, American, French, German and Scandinavian—stood in the Kremlin Gardens, looking across at the ruins of the university, amid all the other twisted litter of central Moscow. "How can we ever start the machinery again?"
He and other members of UNRUSCEP (United Nations-Russian Committee on Educational Policy) would have been less discouraged had they known what I have heard since leaving Moscow. Three pieces of good news have reached me in the last few days. First, the three great American foundations. Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie, have finally agreed to pool their available resources in a gigantic effort to rehabilitate Russian scientific and technical institutions. Second, some of the chief Asian, American and European faculties that have been training men in Russian studies are already combing their lists of graduates, trying to mobilize a force to help restart education in the Soviet Union. And third, Pakistan's Parliament has made a special appropriation, the equivalent of $4,500,000, for the relief of needy Russian scientists and 40 teachers—a right gallant gesture that larger countries can well imitate.
Denis Brogan of Cambridge would have been still less discouraged if he could have heard the talk I have just had here in Kiev with Nikolai Antonov. The very fact that this eminent educator and geneticist is here to be talked with is pregnant with drama. It is almost as if a great Western scientist rose from the dead. Antonov, a follower of the martyred geneticist Vavilov, who died long ago in the Saratov concentration camp, was himself one of the first to suffer in the wholesale purge of Russian geneticists which followed the sudden rise of that notorious prophet of Marxian pseudo science, Trofim Lysenko. As the Politburo made Lysenko absolute, Antonov was sent to a labor camp; then he was released, and rearrested; and finally he disappeared so completely that everybody thought him dead. But lo! at the close of the late revolution he suddenly reappeared.
Now Antonov has been named to UNRUSCEP. I came to Kiev specially to talk over its plans with him.
"We take it for granted that a basic element in our education is Americanism," I remarked. "You will take it for granted that a basic element in your educational system must be Russianism—the true Russian spirit, so long distorted and stunted by the Communist dictatorship. Where will you find a means for reclaiming it?"
"The Russian spirit!" exclaimed the white-haired Antonov, his form bent, his face seamed, but his eyes still full of fire. "For that we must go back to the old Russia: to the great truth seekers of former times—to our immortal writers like Tolstoi and Turgenev, our mighty poets like Pushkin and Lermontov, our historians like Klyuchevsky,"
Here in Kiev, the Mother of Russia's Cities, the Canterbury of Holy Russia, for many centuries the religious capital of the land and for a century and a half one of its main intellectual centers, it should be easy to take long views into the past and future. The main city, like so many others in Europe, lies in ashes and shards. But St. Vladimir's University has been transferred to the military school. It is hard by the ancient Kiev-Petchersky Lavra, dedicated in the eleventh century to Our Lady as a semianchorite monastery. Located outside the ruins of the Golden Gate, it overlooks the sandy-banked Dnieper. The long barracks where subalterns once studied have been turned into classrooms and laboratories.
The archimandrite, who rules the monastery in the name of the Metropolitan of Kiev, accustomed like almost countless predecessors to give hospitality to thousands of pilgrims, has offered shelter to many teachers and students. Others have established themselves in half-wrecked villas of the Petchersky quarter. We held our talk almost within a stone's throw of the ancient tomb of Nestor the Chronicler, born more than nine hundred years ago. With the memory of so many holy, patient, ascetic men hallowing the monastery walls, men here should be able to command philosophy.
"What do you think is the outlook?" I inquired of Antonov.
"I begin to hope!" he declared. "We must recapture the best elements of the Russian past, as you suggest. But our central aim must be more important than that. Our central achievement will be the establishment, for the first time in all Russian history, of the fundamental freedoms of thought, speech, publication and organization—freedoms on which all reforms in education, and all advances in science, letters, and art, must rest. Do you remember the words of the Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah?—'A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land. The prophets prophesy falsely . . . and my people love to have it so.' With freedom of thought, freedom of speech and writing, we can banish the false prophets."
"The goal is easy to set," I commented. "But with a whole generation hopelessly miseducated, to realize it will be difficult. Have we even begun well?"
"Yes!" stoutly responded Antonov. "The United Nations has made a perfect beginning. It has decided that after helping free the Russian people from bondage, it will not force them back into chains and cells."
He pointed to the United Nations banner flying in the distance side by side with the newly adopted Russian tricolor, the old-time merchant marine flag.
"Your crucial decision to entrust re-education to mixed bodies of Russian and Western experts," he said, "is going to save us from the worst errors committed by the Great Powers in Germany and Japan after the second World War. Do you remember? At the Potsdam Conference the victorious Powers agreed that they would begin the systematic re-education of the whole German people, for Nazism represented not merely the triumph of physical force, but the ideological and spiritual coercion and enslavement of the German people. At the same time, they agreed by implication on a similar re-education of the Japanese. Good enough. But then this vital work of re-education was kept exclusively in the hands of the victors. A new system of thought was imposed upon the people—rammed down their throats as part of the settlement with the vanquished. Of course they gagged over it. It didn't work. Now you have learned better."
"We have," I assented. "The people of the West and the people of Russia are not victors and vanquished. We are partners."
• • •
The most striking proof that we are partners lies in the work of the International Atomic Commission. Dr. Ralph Bunche, head of that body, made a flying visit to Kiev the other day, accompanied by the venerable Albert Schweitzer, one of his advisers. Schweitzer, who is now eighty-five, is mentally as vigorous as ever. Dr. Bunche could hardly have a more brilliant assistant than this world-renowned humanitarian, doctor and theologist. Both refused to talk to reporters. But to a physicist at the university, Schweitzer was eloquent; eloquent over the possibilities now that we can move from experiments in atomic-powered submarines and airplanes, from atom bombs and rockets, to a free development of the peaceful potential of atomic energy.
"Our engineers turn my head today with their talk of what the world can now do with atomic energy," he said. "If we could leave this war-torn earth now, in this year of 1960, and not return until the year 2000, we would be astounded at the progress made. They tell me that we would hardly believe the fantastic additions to the wealth, comfort and general well-being of mankind made in the 40 years of our absence."
Among these engineers, Canadians and Australians are specially prominent. The three first uses planned for atomic energy here are the reconstruction of the cities—think of the saving now that steel mills can be run without coal; the supply of energy and heat to the settlements near and within the Arctic Circle, a subject on which the Ottawa experts have special competence; and the use of such energy to irrigate arid and semiarid regions in Central Asia, a kind of problem on which Australian technicians can speak with authority. The International Atomic Commission thinks that the Arctic zone and subarctic belt right around the world, through Siberia, Greenland and Alaska, can now be treated as a unit—and we are already learning a good deal from the Russians on the possibilities of developing it.
• • •
Physicists here say that the great atomic plants of the Red regime cost well over $10,000,000,000. The Soviet effort to make the plutonium bomb, which fortunately failed, cost billions more. Great as the recent destruction was, much of the Soviet installations still survive. Dr. Bunche states that scores of German engineers who had been literally compelled to work for the Soviet Union since World War II are overjoyed that they are now free men, able to join in a free world effort.
The editor of the Vedomosti, the newspaper that sprang up in Kiev a few months ago, is an emaciated, cynical, and highly intellectual man of middle age, brought up on liberal writers like Granovsky, Stankevich and Milyukov rather than on Marx and Kautsky. Long before the war, he was sent from Lubianka Prison to a detention camp near Tiflis. Now he assured me that Soviet education should be swept away almost completely, for it was a huge sham.
"Sham and lies," he said, "like nearly everything else in Communism. Just remember a few facts. Remember that the Stalin Constitution with all its guaranties of civil liberties was adopted in 1936 at the very time the merciless purges were being made. Just remember that the Supreme Soviet, the sham parliament, in which the Stalin Constitution vested the highest power, was a rubber stamp and nothing more. Why, that Supreme Soviet sat during World War II for only four brief sessions! So it was in Soviet education. It looked democratic; actually it was a system of lies to bolster up the dictatorship. What did your Thomas Carlyle say of the French Revolution?—it was 'truth clad in hell-fire.' We have had the hell-fire to burn away the accumulated shams and falsehoods, and now we must have the truth to rebuild."
No one who has not made the study of Soviet education that UNRUSCEP is making can realize the force of this angry statement. The editor's words reawakened an old echo. "The school apart from life, apart from politics, is a lie and a hypocrisy," Lenin had written. And then Leninist politics made the school itself full of lies and hypocrisy. "Education is a weapon whose effect depends on who holds it and against whom it is aimed," Stalin had told H. G. Wells. And Stalin, especially after the historic resolutions of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1946 on ideological activity, did far more than Lenin to pervert the schools.
Even in the kindergarten, the teachers used games and catchwords which indoctrinated the tots with unthinking admiration for the Soviet army, reverence for the Communist party, and worship of the portraits of Lenin ("Holiest of all Holinesses") and Stalin. From the first year to the tenth—for Soviet primary-secondary education had only a 10-year program as against the American and British 12-year plan—youngsters were taught that life must be shaped to the Communist pattern. Even in the first grades, they learned the old Iberian Gate inscription in Red Square, posted by the Soviet regime: "Religion is the opiate of the people." They learned to hate Western life and culture.
The children were drilled in a love of warfare. Their textbook taught addition by a picture of a tank reinforcement fighting capitalist enemies. They were filled with a distorted view of the free democracies. Thus, they learned that the United States was in the hands of arrogant billionaires, each heading a greedy trust of copper, steel, oil or meat-packing interests, and lording it over millions of impoverished wage slaves living in noisome slums. They were told that Englishmen habitually blew innocent natives from the mouths of cannon. In the higher schools they were given economics courses to prove that the United States and other powers had been brought to their knees by the Great Depression after 1930—"the world crisis of capitalist economy"—and that, ere long, a yet more fearful crisis would bring the West to destruction.
Now, as Antonov said, hope of a better day has awakened. In Petrograd (the very revival of the old names is a contribution to re-education) the university has been re-established as vigorously as in Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa. In Kazan, the university, with its valuable library and laboratories, was unharmed. Teachers and students in dozens of technical schools have flocked back to work. The lectures that T. S. Eliot is giving in Moscow on the spirit of modern American and British literature are being hugely attended, and are accurately reported in scores of newspapers. We feared that our scientists, and especially those who helped develop the atomic bomb, would be regarded with strong prejudice. It is therefore especially good news that next spring Niels Bohr's projected seminars in mathematical physics will draw to Moscow many of the best young scientists of the country.
• • •
Prejudice remains—prejudice against "decadent bourgeois ideas," against a "proto-Fascist" view of history, against "reactionary economics," and against what the old Soviet Minister of Education, Kalashnikov, called "rightist opportunism." Even with the aid of all the educated refugees who are returning home, it will take a generation to complete the reorientation. But Western books are being imported in great quantities for the millions of Russians who read English, French or German—in addition to the vast numbers of Russian translations, which also are being circulated. In the revolution-ravaged town of Romny near here, a schoolmistress proudly exhibited to me the first of the new texts.
New texts!—for just as in Germany after Hitler's downfall the occupation forces hastily adopted pre-Nazi textbooks, revising them down to date, so here our Russian subcommittee has simply adopted the best pre-Soviet texts, and has rapidly but skillfully revised them to suit the world of 1960. Moreover, despite all the ignorance, misinformation and mental distortion, we find a surprising supply of teachers.
"We were not so badly fooled as you think," said the aged head of the Romny secondary school when we discussed the screening of teachers. We were sitting on the battered wooden steps of what the Soviet authorities had boastfully called an "institute," and he pointed to a shabby one-armed associate going down the catalpa-shaded walk. "He was in Siberia—do you think he was fooled?" He touched a medal on his left breast. "I served in Germany and Czechoslovakia after the second World War. After what I saw there, do you think I was fooled? We had books, and the Voice." His jaw set.
"Do you think we didn't resent it—silently—when we saw Ivan Maisky, who had published our standard work on Outer Mongolia, forced to rewrite it in order to eliminate his 'racialist' and 'colonialist' errors? And go before the Pacific Institute of the Moscow Academy of Sciences, into the bargain, and grovel over his 'deviations,' and promise to write always in the spirit of 'Stalinite truth'?
"Do you think we didn't resent it when Eugene Tarle was compelled to rewrite his classic history of Napoleon's invasion of Russia to give less credit for its defeat to the czar, the generals and the nobles, and more credit to the workers and peasants?"
The veteran schoolmaster threw back his head and shook his fist.
"You may say that people like myself are exceptional. But I tell you that there are countless peasant women, teaching their children at the knee, who were not fooled. The Russian people were honest. They wanted to think honestly, to feel sincerely, to act straightforwardly. Multitudes were fooled. But many were not. And you cannot realize the joy of these many in being once more treated like honest, adult, decent human beings—by leaders who appeal to our better natures, and our highest instincts, not our worst."
• • •
With the aid of Russians like Antonov, like the editor of Vedomosti, and like the old high-school preceptor, UNRUSCEP is carrying forward the regeneration of Russian education. Books and periodicals are being provided which furnish an accurate view of the world. Teachers, students and parents are being encouraged to discuss controversial subjects with the one aim of reaching objective truth. Education is being healthfully decentralized, for one defect of Soviet education was that all decisions—even to installing a school bus or buying laboratory apparatus—were made at the top. The trade schools that were often but another name for forced-labor schools, with youngsters alternating four hours of study with four hours of factory toil, are being reformed. In higher education tens of thousands of free scholarships will be established. Few outsiders realize how largely Soviet universities and polytechnic schools offered a caste education. Tuition fees weighted the attendance heavily in favor of the families of Communist party members—that is, the ruling class.
Above all, we are emphasizing freedom: freedom of speech, of press, of radio, of the pulpit; freedom of research, teaching and publication; freedom even to indulge in error. In no long time, so greatly do we value freedom, we hope to turn the system entirely over to the Russians. Nor do we fail to comprehend that Russian education must be different from ours, fitting Russian traditions, habits and environment.
The spirit of our work is an international spirit. Symbolic of its character is the scene which took place three weeks ago at Kharkov, when the bones of the great scientist Ilya Metchnikov, which had been rudely disentombed in the recent troubles, were reburied at his birthplace.
Metchnikov, who died in 1916, was one of Russia's greatest biologists and pathologists. He worked under Pasteur in Paris and eventually became a professor at the Pasteur Institute. Representatives of 20 nations came to attend the ceremony. The head of the Pathological Institute in Berlin, first directed by Rudolf Virchow, presided, for some of Metchnikov's most important discoveries were published in Virchow's Archiv. The director of the Pasteur Institute gave the principal address, and a representative of the Rockefeller Institute in New York also spoke.
Then the mayor of Kharkov closed the occasion. "Metchnikov," he said, "showed us the true way to conquer men's minds—through science and education. We must follow in his footsteps; we must apply his spirit to the great work before us." — THE END