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Moscow Impressions

Letter No. 4

(p. 26)

American Embassy
Moscow, U.S.S.R.
March 11 1938
Dr. Irving Wolff
RCA Mfg. Co., Inc.
Camden, N.J., U.S.A.

Dear Doc:

In honor of having received a real let­ter from you, an occurrence which you must admit is practically unknown, I’ll mention a few items which may interest you as you sit amidst capitalistic luxury 5000 miles from Soviet Moscow, which just now is virtually an armed camp. But first, thanks for the interesting and amusing news con­tained in your letter, and for the photographs. The one showing Bake on a sled, with both Bake and the sled being pulled by a beautiful girl, is especially in demand. The Russians can’t under­stand it. Neither can I.

About the television installation here I’ll not say much because various reports and letters to Engstrom have covered the situation. Suffice it to say that for several months the work proceeded fairly satisfactorily and fast (i.e., 3/4 of American speed). When we encount­ered the final antenna we hit a snag and spent most of thirty-five days on it. Now the instal­lation and test work is finished and the tele­vision picture is all right. We are in the middle of the last and evidently most annoying step, final acceptance. Except for today, when a demon­stration for the returning North Pole expedition interfered, we work night and day. A Russian “Acceptance Commission”, especially when in its native haunts, is adept at straining one’s self control to the breaking point. Delays are just one problem. I’ve complained to everyone includ­ing the Commissar about them.

(p. 27) A few evenings ago, having already observed the reception of the television picture at four or five locations in Moscow, we wanted to see it at a more distant point. For this purpose a receiver had been installed in an engineer’s cottage about 30 kilometers from here. So we drove out there, first on a good road, then on a small country one with snow a foot or so deep. After leaving the car we had to walk through deep snow and beautiful woods for a half mile. Then, in that little cottage in the middle of a Russian forest, we watched by television the excellent reception of one of Russia’s newest and best feature films. It was weird!

The chief transmitter engineer is now back from a secret mission which required his absence right in the middle of things, but we can’t say that his presence is very helpful. The other day when reflections in the trans­mission line were causing a very distinct triple image to appear, and just after the whole thing was explained to him including the measurements which proved the trouble to be in the line, he concluded that we were mis­taken and that the trouble was due solely to the wind in the antenna, the wind causing the antenna to vibrate at “just the right speed” to produce the triple image!

As for the big “trial”, the whole thing interested the Russians no end and kept the embassy and correspondents hard at work. I shall refrain from commenting on the trial except to say that even we who are here, and who have much information not published, find it difficult and baffling to account for some of the confessions.

For exercise, one can always walk, I suppose. To avoid being pushed about by Moscow’s 4,000,000 people, who cause the (p. 28) sidewalks and streets to be incredibly crowded at all hours, walking within the city must be confined to the circuit around the Kremlin. That requires 40 minutes. More enjoyable exercise is the skiing and skating, both of which have been good almost continuously. When skiing I receive plenty of free instruction from the Russian boys and girls. Their interest is due partly to pro­found sympathy for one who skis as I do, and partly to their perpetual amazement and amusement at my highly individualistic manner of speaking Russian.

On February 25 we went to the January 25 performance of the Red Army Ensemble, only to find it postponed until February 28 (get that straight?). Such postponements are typical of theatres here. Sometimes 4000 people are turned away from the doors of the Opera because on that particular evening someone in the Kremlin thinks that it would be nice to have the opera in the Kremlin that evening. Anyway, when we finally saw and heard the Red Army Ensemble, both the singing and dancing were excellent. The Red Army men, when marching, are frequently placed not according to size but according to the pitches of their voices. Sometimes when skiing I’ve encountered Red Army men marching by in the snow, singing without accompaniment but with such technique and harmony that I’m forced to stand and listen until they recede in the distance.

The food prices remain unchanged at their usual fantastic level. Last week, for instance, when we invited for dinner four embassy friends who have been very nice to us, two one evening and two another, the bills were $35.00 and $35.00. Those meals were a bit bigger or better than the average, but nothing to brag about. Speaking of food, it might seem queer to you (nothing seems queer to us anymore) that for the last two months it has been impossible to buy (p. 29) butter in Moscow or anywhere near Moscow. Three or four hotels do have imitation butter, by special permit or something, but for the ordinary person it is a nonexistent food.

The other day, under the illusion that I had finally found a cleaning establishment which would clean a suit or coat in less than the usual 30 days, I rushed there with a very dirty coat, only to be told that it could take “30 days, or only 26 on a rush basis”!

And while on the subject of speed, here is a typical long distance ‘phone call. At 2:00 PM I ordered a call to Tom Eaton, in Leningrad, the call to be ready at 6:00 PM. Later they said that the Kremlin was using the line but that I could definitely have it at 11:00 PM. At 11:00 PM there was some kind of trouble with the line but they were absolutely certain that everything would be fixed by mid­night. Finally at 1:30 AM I talked to Tom. Then at 3:30 AM the operator called to say that the line was working very well in case I wanted to make any calls. It is a great life if you don’t need any sleep!

One evening we called on His Excellency Abdul Hussein Khan Aziz at the Afghanistan embassy and spent a very interesting evening. Expect to call at the Norwegian and French embassies soon. I’ve spoken with the American Ambassador since his return but he didn’t bring his daughter with him, at least not the right one, and social activities here are about zero.

All foreigners are leaving Moscow and few if any are coming in. There are 33% less Americans here now than one year ago, and. about 90% less than there were six years ago. We repeatedly go to the station to see people off and are anxious to see ourselves off next time. The last person we saw off was (p. 30) Mrs. Williams who was so sick that had to rush the embassy doctor to the station to give her a hypodermic. He had just three minutes in which to do his stuff before the train pulled out. The Russians didn’t know whether a murder was being committed or whether we were just crazy, like most Americans.

I could name quite a number of foreign offices which have been closed; in fact I can’t think of any which are open just now. Those foreigners who remain here are carefully watched and suspected even more than previously. So far as we can tell, the entire complement of American or other foreign engineers in Moscow hotels now consists, in its entirety, of Poch and Jones!

There is practically a state of martial law here. One result, which I’ll mention just to draw your sympathy, is that meeting Russian girls (and men) is as difficult as ever, if not more so. It is downright dangerous for a Russian citizen to be seen with a foreigner ex­cept during business. I know of one girl who was sent to a concentration camp 1000 kilometers from here under conditions I’ll not describe, another who was gathered by the G.P.U. just twelve hours after her foreign friend left, and many others. The G.P.U. girls themselves are safe, so I spend a little time with them. The whole situation is just the opposite of what it was a few years ago.

It would be easy to write about the men I know who have been imprisoned, but I shall not. The two who gave us large and really nice din­ners are among the gathered. One will get about ten years and there is a good chance that the other will be shot. We may never know what the charges against them were.

An interesting sidelight on automobiling is that it is illegal to drive a dirty car. Even a (p. 31) little snow is taboo, especially on the road leading to Stalin’s villa. The other day when I was driving out that road with some snow on the hood, the cops stopped me three times and it was difficult to avoid arrest the third time.

The car has traveled 9,000 miles in Moscow and is still practically intact. Park­ing it right in front of theatres and hotels is as much of a pleasure as ever. In almost nine months of driving here I’ve never yet had to park the car more than a hundred feet from the place I was going to. After Moscow, automobiling in America will seem sort of diffi­cult. The traffic problem is nil. The streets are wide and automobiles are relative­ly scarce anyway. However there are plenty of pedestrians, especially in the streets, and they walk in front of automobiles like the ignorant oafs that they are.

Getting some spark plugs through customs required ten days. It was necessary for me to go there once, for a special expediter from the embassy to go there twice and for my interpreter to go there twice before the plugs were finally released from that center of red tape, bureaucracy, ignorance and suspicion. I tried to arrange to sell the car here. Plenty of Russians with plenty of money want to buy it but not one has succeeded in getting the permission to do so and I’ve about given up hope.

Our interpreter, whom we seldom use now except for running errands, supplied us with a good laugh the other day when he related a long story about “John the Cross”. John being the English for Ivan, he meant “Ivan the Terrible.” Politics and Opinions have been avoided in this letter. They can wait until we meet.

(p. 32) With good luck at completing the work, this let­ter will be my last from here. Life in the more civilized world may actually at first seem dull in contrast to the life which we encounter here on all sides, a life which has such obvious fear, patience, poverty, hope and naivete, and which is very dynamic. Even so, we are for many reasons very anxious to get away as soon as possible.

Wally and I send our regards to our friends in the RCA.

With best wishes,


Loren Jones

Although the above letters are strictly accurate, they depict only rather superficial aspects of life in Moscow. For instance, they do not tell of my many friends who are in Russian prisons.

The imprisoned friends and acquaintances include several high officials (one or two of whom probably have been, or will be, shot), engineers, girls, secretaries of American news­paper correspondents, an interpreter for an American engineer, chauffeurs, executives in the Radio Trust, an Austrian movie specialist and others. Some of these people I knew very well indeed. It may be assumed that most of the ar­rests were for alleged political crimes. Fre­quently the public is not informed of the alleged reason, sometimes the prisoner isn’t either, Some of my friends, regardless of the accusations, actually were arrested only because they made (p. 33) the mistake of associating sit with foreign­ers. One girl was sentenced to ten years in a lumber camp 1000 kilometers from Moscow. Another’s hands and feet were so badly frozen shortly after her arrest that she is maimed for life. One of the Radio Trust managers, one whom I knew well in America before Moscow, was sentenced to about ten years. And so it goes. The purge is a startlingly real thing. At first it encompassed only the higher-ups. Now it claims all classes.

People often ask me why the Russians stay in Russia. One good reason is that they can’t get out. A few years ago to escape was not so difficult but now to attempt escape is almost certain suicide. The precautions taken at the border include a restricted zone ten miles wide and thousands of miles long, barbed wire, dogs, and plenty of well-armed soldiers. Of course a very few, carefully selected Russians are sent abroad for limited periods for busi­ness reasons. To get a Russian out by marry­ing her is no longer feasible. The Embassy reported that if she were a peasant, there would be about l0% chance of getting her out, but if her past were tainted with too much wealth, intelligence or education, the chances would be about zero.

In general, the restrictions on leaving Russia seem logical. If Stalin permitted wide scale exodus, those who would leave would of course be those most dissatisfied. From out­side of the borders they could and probably would be more dangerous to him than they are from within.

Russia being a land for Russians, it is Interesting to consider what Russians think of it rather than what Americans think. A Rus­sian of the common class (the only class now evident there) doesn’t think quite as we do.

(p. 34) His philosophy and experiences are different. Some of the things which annoy Americans most—the bedbugs, red tape, procrastination and lying, delays, drab appearances, smells, suspicion, etc.—are things to which all Russians except the former privileged classes have been accustomed for hundreds of years. Their Asiatic blood contributes to overlooking such matters, too. Even imprisonment doesn’t carry the onus it does here, especially not the same social isolation. The inconvenience and hardship of prison are serious enough to disrupt family life and business organization, instilling fear in all, but it must not be forgotten that there are many inconveniences and hardships in most Russian homes, too. The difference between home and prison is much greater here than there. All in all, the average Russian of today knows so little about life in other countries and is so accustomed to hardship and regimentation that he is stoic, resigned, not at all revolutionary.

Many persons, especially the younger ones, find themselves reasonably happy. They have no unemployment worries, know that their illnesses and old. age will be cared for, receive more education than common Russians ever before did, enjoy the climate, enjoy the adequacy of the food as compared to a few years ago, appreciate the better clothing, receive long vacations with pay and participate in the pleasures of art. Although most of these things represent an im­provement over a few years ago, they do not necessarily represent an improvement over twenty or even fifteen years ago. But the younger gen­eration doesn’t realize that. Many of the middle aged, and practically all of the elderly people are skeptical (not openly), unhappy (openly), resigned and weary.

(p. 35) Some developments are astonishing and commendable, others are in a state of chaos and retrogression. The government itself is no longer socialistic and communistic, as it nearly was for a short time after the Revolution, but is essentially a dictatorship. Americans like to dogmatically blame all of the Russian people’s suffering on the form of government or on Stalin. Admitting that much of the suffering was entirely unjustified and damnable, wasn’t some of it attributable to the people, to their accumulated backwardness, to their inherited philosophy, to many personal characteristics which made the people unsuited for industrialization? Yet, to live, Russia had to industrialize, modernize, strengthen herself. Peter the Great inaugurated an industrialization program and achieved some success, much trouble. Years later the Revolution killed or caused the escape of the best minds in the land. That was almost a death blow to industrialization. Irrespective of the Revolution’s justifica­tion or otherwise, forgetting water already over the dam, it seems to be an unfortunate fact that the Russian government of today and tomorrow will have to contend, at every step of industrialization, with the unsuitable characteristics of its people. Adding to that problem the problems of confiscation of personal property, purges, super-intensive five-year plans and Stalin, it is evident that a sojourn to Moscow, if you can stand it, will be at least “different.”

Some of the unforgettable impressions of Moscow, for instance the widely publicized political trials, the sports, the impressive reconstruction program, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the G.P.U., have been scarcely mentioned herein, for the sake of brevity. The scope (p. 36) of these letters and comments is not sufficient to justify drawing conclusions, so none are given.

Circulation of any of the derogatory statements contained in this booklet might jeopardize the possibility of my ever returning to the U.S.S.R. Furthermore my company promised the Soviet authorities to avoid all publicity. Therefore this booklet is purely private, its circulation is restricted and its contents should be regarded as confidential.

Loren F. Jones



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