South to Samarkand

by Ethel Mannin

Rating: ★★★★

An interesting travel book cut from the genre of `left-wing intellectual who supports the USSR actually goes there and is disillusioned'. Mannin herself fights a little bit against this classification -- she still thinks there are important signs of progress under Communism, and much they are criticised for is still an improvement from conditions under the Tsars -- but nonetheless this is clearly a category carrying some truth, as the censure she received for her account demonstrates. Throughout, Mannin deplores not only the material conditions that might be explained as inherited, but also the entire Communist attitude, with its pervasive Stalinist cult, mania for mindless labour, and robotic conversation:

"Tell me, please," says the voice of the young woman at my side, "you have read, of course, Shokolov's book, Quiet flows the Don?" "Yes." I found the book hard-going and I do not want to be launched upon a discussion of it, for I am apparently the only person of all the thousands who read it who found it difficult. "He is a great writer, you think?" "Yes." For civility's sake I feel constrained to throw in the information that I met him once in London, at the Soviet Embassy. It is a tactical error, for lying on her back and staring at the sky she drones at me, "Tell me, please, what are the conditions of the workers in England." No, my heart cries, No, no, I won't answer. I've had enough of this sort of thing. Everywhere we go. And afterwards you will ask me if I believe in God, if I am married, and if I am a member of the Communist Party, and then you will talk of love. Oh yes you will. If I give you the chance. Why can't we have a rest from capitalism, marriage, God, sex. Why can't we just lie here and look at the sky, and contemplate the shadows of clouds, and let the great wind go over us? We can't because you're a modern Russian, and your social conscience is so trained that it dominates your life, and you can't chain the damn thing even lying on the edge of a vineyard in the sunshine, with infinity spread out at your feet... I pick a yellow flower and rolling over on to my side lean over her and hold the delicate shining thing beneath her chin. "In England we say it means you like butter, if there's a golden shadow on your chin," I tell her. "Butter has been very expensive here," she informs me, "but it is cheaper now. Altogether the cost of living is lower these last months. Tell me please, how is it in England?..."

Mannin was a pleasant surprise. The thin biographical sketches I had of her before reading were that she was a committed radical, and I steeled myself for a tiresome assault of ideology -- hoping it would perhaps be at least blunted on the Russian reality. Instead, I find that at heart Mannin is a romantic. As demonstrated above, she would much rather see the world than discuss society, rather walk unmonitored than listen to guides, and seethes beautifully in the face of petty bureaucrats. Her entire project is born out of an unreasonable desire (the only kind worth having) to go where she is not allowed and see something strange and unknown.

She is also a catty critic and a little bit of a snob. Her early negative notes on Leningrad and Moscow sniff at the dress-sense of Russian women, the behaviour of workers in the ballet audience, the uncomfortably brash American style of the new workers' apartment blocs. This, plus her occasional more specific cruelty about annoying children and intrusive officials, helped endear her to me. The clincher came with the more serious stuff, though. The Ukrainian family she was introduced to, four of them living in a filthy one-room hovel (itself not the worst she would see on the trip), but introduced to her by a commisar's wife, whose family of the same size are assigned both a Moscow apartment and a luxurious country home, complete with servant. This obvious inequality from a nation preaching radical Communist ideology clearly set Mannin's blood boiling, and her refusal to be taken in by the vague excuses given is probably her most commendable trait -- she has a nose for bullshit, and whatever difference in our political inclinations, I respect that.

Despite what might be expected, Mannin is not a radical feminist, and her perspective on the women she meets is interesting. She multiple times through the book expresses sympathy for traditional gender roles, preferring the idea of keeping a home than being alienated from it to tend a machine like many Soviet women do. She rarely coos over children, and a few times I wondered if she might privately be a lesbian, given the way she seemed so often to describe the attractiveness (or not) of the local female population. On reflection, this might just be a scan of the competition -- she admits in a passage on a nude beach to being somewhat uplifted by the fact that her and her companion were clearly the most shapely figures in sight. This was a weapon also used to effect -- Mannin mentions unashamedly their plans to bat eyelids at guards that might be too closely inspecting their visas.

Of course, the surprise underlying the author is just that in 1935 two women, unaccompanied (insofar as they could arrange it), travelled across a sizeable stretch of the USSR, finding some underreported locations, and even at one point travelling through regions they had no permission to see, hiding from the authorities and their official guided tours. While often exhausted, sore and frustrated, they never seemed in any danger, and neither did they worry about such more than fleetingly. The whole project was brave and adventurous, and it's a little sad that the political result seems to have been to forge a rift between Ethel and Donia, given how glowingly Mannin writes of her friend's general behaviour on the trip.

Unexpectedly funny, and oddly gripping, this book is long out of copyright, and available more readily online than as a physical copy. While I read out of interest specifically in the events in the USSR in this period, the general impression I get of Mannin as a travel writer is highly positive, and I could see myself pursuing one of her other adventures in the future.