Louis Fischer, the son of a fish peddler, was born in Philadelphia on 29th February, 1896. His parents, David and Shifrah Fischer, were Orthodox Jews who had fled from the Ukrainian village of Shpola near Kiev to escape the pogroms during the reign of Alexander III. According to his biographer, James William Crowl: "Settling in one of Philadelphia's worst ghettos, Fischer's father worked as factory laborer and fish and fruit peddler, while his mother supplemented their income as a laundress... Conditions worsened when his father became an alcoholic and abandoned the family." In his autobiography, Men and Politics (1941), Fischer recalled that the family were so poor they needed to move again and again when there was no money for the rent.
As a young man he read the work of left-wing writers, Henry George and Lincoln Steffens. After studying at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy (1914 to 1916) he became a school teacher. During this period he described himself as a socialist. He was also a Zionist and a supporter of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. In the summer of 1917 he enlisted with the British Army's Jewish Legion. He went to Europe but did not take part in any military actions of the First World War.
On his return to the United States Fischer worked for a news agency in New York. In 1920 Fischer met his future wife, Bertha Markoosha, who had been born in Latvia. Bertha was a supporter of the Bolsheviks in Russia and had an influence on Fischer's political views. In 1921 Markoosha was employed on the European staff of Soviet Foreign Minister George Chicherin. Fischer followed her to Germany with a promise from the editor of the New York Evening Post to consider publishing some articles by him on postwar conditions in Europe.
In the summer of 1922 Fischer moved to Moscow where he became friends with Walter Duranty, who worked for the New York Times. He was joined by Bertha Markoosha and they were married in December. Fischer wrote regular articles for the New York Evening Post but was unhappy with the conservative views of his editor and in 1923 he began working for the more liberal, The Nation. Two of his earliest articles were straightforward appeals for American recognition of the Soviet Union.
During this period his articles reflected his support of Leon Trotsky over Joseph Stalin. According to James William Crowl, the author of Angels in Stalin's Paradise (1982): "Fischer described the Politburo divisions accurately, and he explained that Trotsky had been defeated at the Party Conference in January and at the Thirteenth Party Congress in May. Yet his views were warped by his obvious sympathy for Trotsky. In part this sympathy may have stemmed from the fact that Trotsky was Jewish. Since his arrival in Moscow, Fischer had wanted Russian Jews to be assimilated into the Russian population. Had Trotsky been successful, it would have been a triumph for the integrated Soviet society that Fischer had advocated. It would have been a sign, too, that the Bolshevik pledge to end anti-Semitism in Russia was more than rhetoric."
In 1925 Stalin won his battle with Trotsky. Fischer's now switched his support to the new leader. In an article published in The Nation on 29th December, 1926, he defended Stalin's government. He claimed that if there were dictatorial features to the system, it was only because of the nearness to the revolution. He went on to argue that the "supposedly free governments of the West were more tyrannical" than in the Soviet Union.
Whereas he praised Stalin he criticized his rivals such as Gregory Zinoviev. In June 1925 he wrote in Current History Magazine: "One is at a loss sometimes to explain the ascendancy of a man like Gregory Zinoviev.... His mental powers are mediocre, his personality far from being winning, even to his own party colleagues is often repulsive. With his high, monotonous falsetto voice he could not be an orator even if his speeches excelled in style, incision and depth, and this is not generally the case."
Some readers began to suggest that Fischer had become a paid agent of the Soviet Union. In March 1927 he defended what he had written about the Soviet government in a letter to his editor, Freda Kirchway: "Well, well, anyone who says something good about Soviet Russia is paid by the Bolsheviks to do so. Naturally. How else could one see the favorable side. But anyone who damns the Communists is a decent fellow isn't he? What fools people are. They put on blinders; refusing to see that the Soviet government is doing a good thing and making progress.... You can tell the narrow-minded provincials who suspect me that I am not an agent of the Soviet government, paid or unpaid, and you can suggest that they kick themselves and know that some people do things not from money considerations but out of deep convictions."
In 1928 fifty-five engineers and managers in the North Caucasus town of Shakhty were arrested and accused of conspiring with former owners of coal mines (living abroad and barred from the Soviet Union since the Russian Revolution) to sabotage the Soviet economy. According to James William Crowl, these arrests had been ordered by Joseph Stalin in an effort to undermine the power of Nikolay Bukharin, Alexei Rykov and Mikhail Tomsky. "Mistakes and mismanagement were common throughout Soviet industry at the time, but Stalin saw an opportunity to convert such acts into a political weapon by charging the men with sabotage and conspiracy with foreign governments. Though initially the Politburo right must have acquiesced in bringing the case to trial, it became clear as the trial progressed that Stalin was using it as leverage against his foes. The charges thus enabled him to denounce the reliance on such pre-revolutionary specialists, a policy that Bukharin had defended, and it allowed him to make allegations that Rykov's state apparatus and Tomsky's labor unions had failed to uncover or had concealed widespread economic sabotage."
The Western reporters based in the Soviet Union accepted the truth of the confessions. Walter Duranty, of the New York Times, never questioned the validity of the confessions or wrote nothing about its implications for Soviet politics or economic policy. This was also true of Eugene Lyons of United Press International. Fischer wrote nothing about the trial. In his book, Men and Politics (1940), he later recalled: "I did not know how much to believe. I believed part; I wondered about the remainder." He admitted that the witness performed like an "automaton," and "it was obvious to everyone that he had repeated what was rehearsed in the GPU cellar.'' However, at the time he was unwilling to express these doubts to his readers.
Fischer accepted that it was necessary for "the kulak, or rich peasant, is to be wiped out as a class." He admitted that the Five Year Plan had caused considerable suffering. On 19th March, 1930, he stated that " "the cost is very heavy. The population is being deprived of many comforts and even of some necessities in the name of accomplishments yet to come." Fischer claimed that the peasants were learning to appreciate collectivization, and supporters of Leon Trotsky had returned to the Communist Party as Stalin had accomplished "more than they had expected of Trotsky."
While in the Soviet Union Fischer published several books including Oil Imperialism: The International Struggle for Petroleum (1926) and The Soviets in World Affairs (1930). In his book, Machines and Men in Russia (1932) Fischer claimed that the Five Year Plan had been a success: "A walk through Moscow streets would convince even the sceptic that living conditions have improved and that store stocks have been replenished. The situation is very far from satisfactory, but the fact of progress and the universal confidence in the success of the Five Year Plan generate a healthy atmosphere of enthusiasm. Time after time acquaintances who half a year ago rained abuse upon Bolshevik heads come in now and confess that recent achievements have won them over."
A British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, visited the Soviet Union and was with Fischer when the Soviet authorities opened the Dnieper Dam in October 1932. Muggeridge later claimed that Fischer appeared to be under the control of the Soviet authorities. Fischer later admitted in the The God That Failed (1949): "My own attitude began to bother me. Was I not glorifying steel and kilowatts and forgetting the human being? All the shoes, schools, books, tractors, electric light, and subways in the world would not add up to the world of my dreams if the system that produced them was immoral and inhuman."
On 31st March, 1933, The Evening Standard carried a report by Gareth Jones on what he considered to be the consequences of Stalin's economic policies: "The main result of the Five Year Plan has been the tragic ruin of Russian agriculture. This ruin I saw in its grim reality. I tramped through a number of villages in the snow of March. I saw children with swollen bellies. I slept in peasants’ huts, sometimes nine of us in one room. I talked to every peasant I met, and the general conclusion I draw is that the present state of Russian agriculture is already catastrophic but that in a year’s time its condition will have worsened tenfold... The Five-Year Plan has built many fine factories. But it is bread that makes factory wheels go round, and the Five-Year Plan has destroyed the bread-supplier of Russia."
Fischer, Eugene Lyons and Walter Duranty decided to try and undermine these reports by Jones. Lyons told Bassow Whitman, the author of The Moscow Correspondents: Reporting on Russia from the Revolution to Glasnost (1988): "We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damned Jones a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka." Fischer questioned Jones estimate of a million dead: "Who counted them? How could anyone march through a country and count a million people? Of course people are hungry there - desperately hungry. Russia is turning over from agriculture to industrialism. It's like a man going into business on small capital."
James William Crowl, the author of Angels in Stalin's Paradise (1982) attempted to explain why this cover-up took place: "Most of the reporters took shelter behind the censorship and kept quiet about the famine. They wrote about it only when they left Russia, and even then they found that their accounts were met with disbelief. Eugene Lyons, for instance, returned to New York late in 1933 and began to write cautiously about the famine. Soviet sympathizers and liberals treated him as a renegade, he recalls, though his first descriptions of the famine fell far short of the horrible conditions that he knew had existed. A few correspondents, among them Duranty and Fischer, went beyond mere compliance with the censorship. While most of their colleagues passively accepted the famine cover-up, they echoed Soviet denials of the famine and blasted anyone who carried word of conditions to the West. Their distortion of the news, then, went beyond the demands of the censorship and was a vital factor in convincing the West that there was little or no truth to the famine stories. Moreover, by their active role in the cover-up they made it more unlikely that the foreign press in Moscow might force some kind of showdown with the censors or confront the West with the truth about Soviet conditions."
It has been argued the reason that Fischer was unwilling to report the truth about the the policies of Joseph Stalin was that he was involved in the campaign to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to give diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. Fischer returned to the United States in February, 1933 to speak about this to William Borah and Henry L. Stimson. Both men were convinced that Roosevelt would overcome the objections of his foreign policy advisor, Cordell Hull, and normalize relations with Moscow. The Great Depression had also raised doubts in Fischer on the merits of capitalism.
On 1st December, 1934, Sergey Kirov was assassinated by a young party member, Leonid Nikolayev. Stalin claimed that Nikolayev was part of a larger conspiracy led by Leon Trotsky against the Soviet government. This resulted in the arrest and trial in August, 1936, of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin. As Max Shachtman pointed out: "The official indictment charges a widespread assassination conspiracy, carried on these five years or more, directed against the head of the Communist party and the government, organized with the direct connivance of the Hitler regime, and aimed at the establishment of a Fascist dictatorship in Russia. And who are included in these stupefying charges, either as direct participants or, what would be no less reprehensible, as persons with knowledge of the conspiracy who failed to disclose it?"
Fischer wrote to his editor, Freda Kirchway, on 1st January, 1935, that he was concerned by the round-up of some of Zinoviev's supporters, but he added that "I can't write on it yet because the matter is not clear in my mind.... I am sure of only one thing, the ex-G.P.U. has already suffered and will suffer, its prestige was struck a heavy blow, and this is the organization which would carry out a new terror if there was to be one. For this and other reasons, I am convinced this is a regrettable and serious interruption, in Russia's progress towards greater liberalism."
Fischer also wrote to his old friend Max Lerner about the forthcoming trial of Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev. He rebuked Lerner for claiming that it put a shadow across Russia's future. Fischer argued that Russia was still a blend of terror and dictatorship, on the one hand, and democracy, on the other. Although the old Russia was dying, Fischer explained that "the methods of dictatorship continue out of inertia to operate after the base of the dictatorship has been displaced by a new class alignment which makes democracy inevitable." Fischer argued that: "the shift from dictatorship to democracy is not only unprecedented, it is also difficult and tortuous. It takes time and it does not move in a straight line. One must observe this change with some historical perspective rather than with newspaper impatience."
Fischer did not attend the Show Trials because he decided instead to report on the Spanish Civil War. However, he did publish an article in The Nation on 17th June 1936 claiming that he was convinced that Stalin was moving towards creating a democracy in the Soviet Union: "Though I violently dislike the raucous paeans of praise for Stalin which are repeated in this country with benumbing frequency and monotony. I must add mv voice to the chorus. Democratization is not a whim inspired by a moment or a bit of opportunism provoked by a temporary situation. Stalin apparently thought this out years ago. He has been preparing it ever since 1931. Forward-looking people abroad will hail the change toward democracy."
Fischer was a supporter of the Popular Front government in Spain. He loyally supported the International Brigades that were under the control of Joseph Stalin but denounced other left-wing groups such as the Federacion Anarquista Iberica (FAI) and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). He even supported the Spanish Communist Party demand that political commissars be placed in the army to improve troop morale. Several correspondents, including Carlo Tresca, criticized Fischer for taking his information directly from Communist sources in the Loyalist government.
Eugene Lyons, who worked with Fischer in Moscow, published his autobiography, Assignment in Utopia, in 1937. This included an attack on Fischer, who he accused of "having eulogized the G.P.U. forced labor battalions". He quotes Fischer as saying "The G.P.U. is not merely an intelligence service and a militia. It is a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution." Lyons condemns Fischer for misrepresenting the work of the GPU: "The system of large-scale forced labor, with a hundred thousand concentrated in a single penal camp and scores of such camps festering everywhere in the land, summarized in one precious euphemism!"
In 1938 Fischer returned to the United States and settled in New York. The following year he published Stalin and Hitler (1939). Fischer continued to work for The Nation and wrote his autobiography, Men and Politics (1941). He left the journal in 1945 after a dispute with the editor, Freda Kirchway, over the journal's sympathetic reporting of Joseph Stalin. His disillusionment with Communism, although he was never a member of the American Communist Party, was reflected in his contribution to The God That Failed (1949). Other books by Fischer include The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1950) Stalin (1951), Hitler (1952) and Lenin (1964). Fischer now wrote for anti-Communist liberal magazines such as The Progressive.
Fischer was a member of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. In 1966 the New York Times published an article by Tom Wicker that suggested that the CIA had been funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom. On 10th May the newspaper published a letter from Stephen Spender, Melvin Lasky and Irving Kristol. "We know of no indirect benefactions... we are our own masters and part of nobody's propaganda" and defended the "independent record of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in defending writers and artists in both East and West against misdemeanors of all governments including that of the US." The story of CIA funding of Non-Communist Left journalists and organizations was fully broken in the press by a small-left-wing journal, Rapparts.
Frances Stonor Saunders, the author of Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War? (1999) has argued: "During the height of the Cold War, the US government committed vast resources to a secret programme of cultural propaganda in western Europe. A central feature of this programme was to advance the claim that it did not exist. It was managed, in great secrecy, by America's espionage arm, the Central Intelligence Agency. The centrepiece of this covert campaign was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, run by CIA agent Michael Josselson... At its peak, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in thirty-five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. Its mission was to nudge the intelligentsia of western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism... Membership of this consortium included an assorted group of former radicals and leftist intellectuals whose faith in Marxism and Communism had been shattered by evidence of Stalinist totalitarianism." Saunders also claims that Fischer was aware that the Congress for Cultural Freedom was being funded by the CIA.
We assume that he is charging The Nation with a bias in favor of Russia and of communism. We suppose he considers that to be our "line." We suppose he is charging us with ignoring, out of "expediency," the bad behavior of the Soviet Union; of failing out of policy to denounce the Soviet power for suppressing "small, weak states". We can only answer quite flatly that he is wrong. We say what we believe. What we believe is very different from what Mr. Fischer believes. We believe Russian policy is primarily a security policy, not an imperialist one; it can become dangerous to the world, therefore, only if Russia decides that the other major powers are plotting against it. It would be dishonest to pretend that we think Russia's foreign policy is as great a threat to the basic purpose of destroying fascism and its political and economic roots as is the foreign policy of Britain and the United States.
Louis Fischer, who wrote for The Nation and the Baltimore Sun, began as a fellow traveller, sticking to his version of the truth until well after the purges. He consistently reported the more favorable side of the Soviet experiment, generally staying out of the venomous exchanges among his colleagues. After Fischer's change of heart, Duranty always referred to him as "the rat who left the sinking ship that didn't sink. But there seemed to be nothing particularly complicated about Fischer's character; no underlying currents of envy or of hate.
According to Fischer's own account, he developed a disregard for personal comforts and later on suffered little from the privations of a reporter's life. This did not, however, alter his feelings of kinship for those who were poor or his antagonism for the rich. Thus his humanitarian instincts were firmly rooted while he was young. In particular, he was concerned for the coal miners of Pennsylvania, who were involved in a bitter struggle with the mine owners while Fischer was a boy. Later he compared the greed of the mine owners to the capitalists in tsarist Russia. While he changed many of his opinions from time to time during his life, Fischer never wavered from the belief that society has an obligation to help the poor.
If poverty was the foremost concern of Fischer's youth, he was no stranger to anti-Semitism. While in his later writings he never complained about being discriminated against in those years, Fischer must have felt that at least in part the barriers around his ghetto neighborhood were racial.In addition, his parents told him again and again about the pogroms they had experienced in Russia, and such accounts seem to have made him even more sensitive to the plight of Jews. His enthusiasm for Zionism during World War I and some of his early interest in Bolshevism with its preachments about racial harmony appear to have stemmed from his early concern over anti-Semitism.
In his high school years, Fischer's concern over the injustices of ghetto life led him to the views of the muckrakers of the Progressive Era. Henry George's Progress and Poverty and the works of Lincoln Steffens absorbed him in particular, and they seem to have persuaded him that democratic socialism would prove to be a panacea. In this respect, however, Fischer's political awareness trailed that of some other young Jews who were turning to more radical theories. Eugene Lyons and Joseph Freeman, future colleagues of Fischer, plunged into the work of the "Socialist Sunday School" and the "Young People's Socialist League" in New York's lower east side. It would be several years before Fischer showed a similar inclination toward Marxism.
Put if he trailed these contemporaries in his political awareness, Fischer shared their craving to escape the ghetto. His son, George Fischer, argues that this upwardly mobile determination had a powerful hold over many young Jews. He suggests too that such concern over his career may have been responsible for the opportunism that was a part of his father's loyalty to the Soviets during the seventeen years he was in Russia. It may explain, he adds, why his father was drawn toward Soviet political leaders.
Another indication of his yearning for success was the record that Fischer built at Philadelphia's Southern High School. When he graduated in 1914, he had been a consistent honor student, a member of the Yearbook staff, one of the school's best public speakers, and vice-president of his class for three years. Afterward he combined his studios with odd jobs and completed the two year teacher training course at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy. He received his diploma in 1916 and then taught English and journalism in a local high school, but quit after one year. The World War and the British promise of a homeland for the Jews interested him in Zionism. Though short-lived, his identification with this movement was intense at the start, and led him to enlist with the British Army's Jewish Legion in the summer of 1917. The November Revolution in Russia occurred while he was undergoing training in Canada and made no impression on him. In the next three years, as the Civil War raged in Russia, Fischer was shipped about from Canada to Europe to Palestine, and finally back to America in 1920, without seeing action in any theater of the war. The experience only embittered him against his haughty British officers and disenchanted him with Zionism. In the years afterwards, Fischer maintained his interest in the welfare of Jews, but he was convinced that their happiness could come only through assimilation with surrounding peoples. He never again gave his support to Zionist efforts to create a Palestinian homeland...
When he arrived in Europe, Fischer had expected to find suffering and destruction, but he had assumed that there would be cause for optimism as well - men with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. He had found none of these. At the same time, however, he heard reports that the Soviets were stressing brotherhood instead of nationalism, and that they were giving ''the common man . . . land, bread, peace, a job, a house, security, education, health, art, and happiness." In the summer of 1922 he took a train for Moscow.
Louis Fischer left Russia in the summer of 1923 and stayed in the West until the following spring... For more than two months he vacationed with his wife, their new son and a maid at a Baltic resort, taking advantage of the German inflation. If Fischer was appalled by conditions in the West, he was not unwilling to take advantage of them and remain there even while evidence of a political struggle in Russia began to accumulate. Between swimming and tennis, Fischer wrote five long and sympathetic pieces on Russia and returned to New York in search of a publisher. His relationship with the conservative New York Evening Post had been deteriorating, and he hoped to interest a more liberal journal. With an introduction from Henry G. Alsberg, a well-known freelance reporter in Russia, Fischer sold several of his pieces to The Nation, and at the end of the year Fischer became a staff correspondent for that publication. It was no mean promotion, for while The Nation trailed The New Republic in readers and in the quality of its editorial staff, it was nevertheless a prestigious liberal journal. It had, moreover, a growing circulation. By the close of the decade it would overtake The Now Republic with a circulation of 35,000 and become the most widely read journal of its kind in America.
Two of Fischer's earliest articles for The Nation were straightforward appeals for American recognition of the Soviet Union. The third concerned the structure of the Russian Communist Party, and it was equally bland. Yet Fischer wrote nothing about Soviet politics here on the eve of Lenin's death. Even the events of January 1924 brought no response from him, though there was a reason for his silence in this case. The Nation had anticipated Lenin's death for months - and had secured the articles it wanted for his eulogy. There was no need to press Fischer for a contribution. Moreover, Fischer was about to return to Moscow, and Lenin's death caught him as he was making his final preparations. Thus the man who nearly forty years later would become a biographer of Lenin was silent about his death.
If Duranty largely ignored the political struggle, Fischer wrote about it soon after returning to Moscow in the early summer of 1924. His article was much more informative than anything that Duranty had written on the subject to date. Fischer described the Politburo divisions accurately, and he explained that Trotsky had been defeated at the Party Conference in January and at the Thirteenth Party Congress in May. Yet his views were warped by his obvious sympathy for Trotsky. In part this sympathy may have stemmed from the fact that Trotsky was Jewish. Since his arrival in Moscow, Fischer had wanted Russian Jews to be assimilated into the Russian population. Had Trotsky been successful, it would have been a triumph for the integrated Soviet society that Fischer had advocated. It would have been a sign, too, that the Bolshevik pledge to end anti-Semitism in Russia was more than rhetoric.
In assessing Trotsky's political strength, Fischer claimed that Trotsky had been the choice of the army, the university students, the Moscow Party organization, industrial workers, and the Party's powerful left wing. The setbacks in January and May had been caused by Trotsky's poor health alone, according to Fischer, and he predicted that he would win back his influence once his health improved. This was, of course, a vastly inflated and misleading evaluation of Trotsky's support. Fischer seemed as unable as Duranty to grasp the importance of Stalin's hold over the Party in deciding the power struggle. At the same time, his high regard for Trotsky caused him to overlook the weaknesses in Trotsky's personality and their importance in his defeat. Fischer, however, was unwilling to admit that Trotsky had such flaws or that his defeat was final.
One is at a loss sometimes to explain the ascendancy of a man like Gregory Zinoviev.... His mental powers are mediocre, his personality far from being winning, even to his own party colleagues is often repulsive. With his high, monotonous falsetto voice he could not be an orator even if his speeches excelled in style, incision and depth, and this is not generally the case.
Well, well, anyone who says something good about Soviet Russia is paid by the Bolsheviks to do so. Naturally. How else could one see the favorable side. But anyone who damns the Communists is a decent fellow isn't he?
What fools people are. They put on blinders; refusing to see that the Soviet government is doing a good thing and making progress. Then if anyone disturbs this ostrich-like ignorance, they yell, "He's not sincere. He gets paid to do it."
You can tell the narrow-minded provincials who suspect me that I am not an agent of the Soviet government, paid or unpaid, and you can suggest that they kick themselves and know that some people do things not from money considerations but out of deep convictions.
Only in 1926 and 1927 did he give politics at least occasionally careful thought. His picture of Stalin as a pragmatic political boss in an Asiatic mold was over-simplified, but it gave his readers a reasonably accurate idea of how Stalin had come to power. In 1927 he seems to have tried to deal objectively with the revival of the Opposition, although at times he wrote so approvingly about first one side and then the other as to make it appear that he was a clumsy opportunist.
Fischer, on the other hand, showed a better understanding of the power struggle. His articles on politics were few but they were straightforward and reasonably accurate. Fischer revealed his bias from the start, indicating his lack of confidence in the triumvirs - especially Zinoviev - and encouraging the Party to realize Trotsky's potential as a leader. When Trotsky proved an inept contender, Fischer reluctantly accepted the fact that Stalin was assuming power, and that a Stalinist Kremlin, though it would lack Trotsky's socialist vision, would hold Russia about where it had been under Lenin. While Fischer was impatient with at least many aspects of N.E.P. Russia, he seemed resigned to interesting himself in Soviet foreign policy until the country could move forward again.
(Opening of the Dnieper Dam October 1932) Oumansky climbed on to a little knoll and took off his cloth cap; he looked very Napoleonic standing there, and I almost expected him to tuck his hand into his overcoat in Napoleon's favorite gesture... "Who," he concluded, "dare talk now of an interesting experiment?" Louis Fischer also took his cap off; it seemed the right thing to do, and he hoped the rest of us would follow his example. Actually none of us did!... Fischer made up for our lack of response by a short formal speech: "Mr. Oumansky, we, representatives of many nations and many newspapers, would like you to know"... Accompanying us there was a retired American colonel with several tremulous chins and a southern accent, who had directed some of the construction. He, too, was uplifted. "It looks great," he murmured. "Great!" Louis Fischer warmly agreed, going on to ask: "How have you found working here, Colonel?" "That's been great, too," the other answered, adding, half to himself: "No labour trouble!" Everyone knew what he meant; prisoners or forced labour had been available as and when required. Fischer hurriedly changed the subject, moving on to the safer territory of how many kilowatts were being generated.
My own attitude began to bother me. Was I not glorifying steel and kilowatts and forgetting the human being? All the shoes, schools, books, tractors, electric light, and subways in the world would not add up to the world of my dreams if the system that produced them was immoral and inhuman.
A walk through Moscow streets would convince even the sceptic that living conditions have improved and that store stocks have been replenished. The situation is very far from satisfactory, but the fact of progress and the universal confidence in the success of the Five Year Plan generate a healthy atmosphere of enthusiasm. Time after time acquaintances who half a year ago rained abuse upon Bolshevik heads come in now and confess that recent achievements have won them over.
Go to a village on Sunday, and the girls sport patent leather slippers, sometimes with silk stockings. French heels at the barn dance are not unusual today... In peasant huts one can now find gramophones, even pianos, silverware, factory-made furniture, silk dresses, city millinery for women to replace the renown headkerchief, china plates, metal kitchen utensils, canned food and cheap decorative bric-a-brac. The peasant maiden of the new generation uses face powder, lipstick and perfumes. Her
brother may drive a Ford or a Stalingrad tractor, her father has a more modern plough, and she may be thinking of taking courses in the city or of entering a factory.
I can't write on it yet because the matter is not clear in my mind.... I am sure of only one thing, the ex-G.P.U. has already suffered and will suffer, its prestige was struck a heavy blow, and this is the organization which would carry out a new terror if there was to be one. For this and other reasons, I am convinced this is a regrettable and serious interruption, in Russia's progress towards greater liberalism.
One reason for Fischer's optimism was his belief that the decline of internal opposition had created a new political climate in Russia. Reasoning in Marxian terms, he was convinced that after years of class struggle, Russia was ready for democracy. Fischer seemed to congratulate himself on having not given up on the Soviets during those years of oppression, as some of his colleagues had done.
The first indication of the new era, according to Fischer, was the G.P.U.'s decline. As early as mid-1933, he had applauded Stalin's choice of Ivan Akulov as procurator-general, supposedly with control over the secret police. Fischer thought Akulov an old Bolshevik with a"penchant for reform," who had been unsuccessful in an earlier effort to curb the G.P.U. He explained that Akulov had been given a high post in the secret police in 1931, only to be forced out by those opposed to reform. Fischer interpreted his new appointment as proof that Stalin was determined to go ahead with that reform, and he labeled it one of the year's most promising developments. When the Party's Seventeenth Congress early in 1934 ordered that the G.P.U. be reorganized as the Commissariat of Internal Affairs or N.K.V.D., Fischer was convinced it had been stripped of power. He told his readers flatly that a secret police like the C.P.U. was no longer needed....
Despite his apparent confidence in Russia's direction, Fischer spent less and less time there. In 1935 he was in Russia from May until September, just long enough to complete his second "Open Road" tour. His interest had shifted to European problems and the unrest in Spain, and he wrote only a few articles about Russia in 1935. There is no evidence that he was uneasy about political uncertainties in Russia, however, and when he returned in May of 1936, his enthusiasm seemed as great as at any time since the start of the five year plans. The "Stalin Constitution" with its promises of democracy and republican government was apparently the reason for his feelings.
Years afterwards, in The God That Failed, Fischer conceded that, from the start, he had seen "deficiencies" in the constitution. Nevertheless, according to him, "I clutched at it. I wanted to believe. I did not want to forswear a cause in which I had made such a large spiritual investment." In Men and Politics, published in 1941, Fischer claimed that his doubts concerning the constitution had deepened in August 1936, when the first of the show-trials of the great purge began. He had been in Kiev, he remembered, and rather than return to Moscow for the trial of Zinoviev, Kamenev and others, he had left for Spain. His articles and letters from 1936, however, give a different impression. In an article dated August 1, Fischer was as enthusiastic as before about the constitution, calling it a "remarkable" document and describing what he claimed were built-in checks and balances to protect civil liberties. "The reign of law," he declared, is "now definitely established in the U.S.S.R." He concluded that the ''world has seen a number of parliamentary regimes converted into dictatorships. The Bolshevik dictatorship is the first to resign in favor of democracy."
Though I violently dislike the raucous paeans of praise for Stalin which are repeated in this country with benumbing frequency and monotony. I must add mv voice to the chorus. Democratization is not a whim inspired by a moment or a bit of opportunism provoked by a temporary situation. Stalin apparently thought this out years ago. He has been preparing it ever since 1931. Forward-looking people abroad will hail the change toward democracy.
A few days later Fischer left for Spain, where the Civil War was both a diversion and a new commitment. He had visited Spain each year since 1933 and believed deeply in the Loyalist government. During 1936 and 1937, Fischer wrote more than two dozen articles calling for the West to support the Loyalists. At the same time, he waited for news that Russia was moving toward democracy again. Word of increasing repression disappointed him, but, since Russia was supporting the Loyalists while the West seemed paralyzed, Fischer clung to the hope that Stalin had only postponed democracy for Russia.
There was a second reason why Fischer did not break with the Soviets before the end of the Spanish Civil War. As was often the case with him, idealism blended with realism. Reporting the Civil War was an outstanding opportunity for him, but his success as a journalist there depended upon his sources of information in the Loyalist government.
Had he broken with the Soviets, Fischer would have lost those contacts, and, indeed, he seemed inordinately sensitive to the Kremlin line in Spain. For example, he denounced the anarchist F.A.I. and P.O.U.M. organizations, despite their efforts for the Loyalists, and, in April 1938, he even supported the Communist demand that political commissars be placed in the army to improve troop morale. Several correspondents covering the Loyalists, including Anita Brenner, Max Nomad and Carlo Tresca, criticized Fischer for taking his information directly from Communist sources in the Loyalist government.
Having some acquaintance both with the authors and their subject matter, I have found that literature fascinating, a little like watching jugglers and conjurors at work. An intelligent and talented American woman long resident in Russia, for instance, used to visit us frequently and often bared her aching doubts; her Puritan conscience was wounded by the sight of useless brutalities, her mind lacerated by organized suppression of thought. But I studied her books and found in them no trace of her wounds and doubts, and I marvel at the mental and emotional sleight-of-hand that pulls such pretty rabbits out of the Soviet hat. A freelance American journalist vehemently denied the stories of valuta tortures; then I learned that he was trying to rescue his own Russian relatives from the torture chambers!
Charitably, I had preferred to believe that these people were lying for the cause, sacrificing the lesser truths for those they considered greater. But ever so often I was confronted with a statement so cynical that I could not bring myself to believe its piety, an insult to the readers' sanity so pointed that charitable interpretation could not compass it.
A book by Louis Fischer, having eulogized the G.P.U. forced labor battalions as a "cure by labor," and having indicated casually that this "cure" has been "administered to untold myriads in all parts of the country," said: "The G.P.U. is not merely an intelligence service and a militia. It is a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution." Thus virtual slavery for "untold myriads in all parts of the country" is disposed of in one sentence. The system of large-scale forced labor, with a hundred thousand concentrated in a single penal camp and scores of such camps festering everywhere in the land, summarized in one precious euphemism!
A visit to Bolshevo, a boys' reformatory run by the G.P.U. near Moscow, was Fischer's immediate occasion for the extraordinary generalization. Boishevo is one of the standard tourist showplaces, and deservedly that: an enlightened colony for criminals in line with modern prison reform ideas. It is no more typical of the G.P.U. concentration camps than a model prison in New York is of chain-gangs in the South. For every thief or rowdy in places like Bolshevo, there were a thousand political offenders, "recalcitrant" peasants, non-conforming professors and engineers, deviating communists, living and working and dying like flies inn forced-labor camps. The myriads to whom Fischer refers were filling swamplands, chopping timber, mining metals and chemicals, cutting canals, building railroads under police lash, in conditions so vile that the few straight-forward accounts which have been written (in books like the Tchernavins' and George Kitchin's) make Dante's Inferno look like a vacation resort. For every model prison, there were dozens of foul holes brimming with horror; for every Bolshevo, half a hundred Butirkas.
No tourist parties were taken to visit those places. The few foreign correspondents who attempted to visit them were always prevented. A Canadian newspaperwoman who succeeded by wile in entering a concentration camp and dared to write about it was quickly expelled from the country. Though even an accredited Kremlin press agent occasionally refers to "myriads" taking the forcible "cure by labor," the government concealed the extent of forced labor. However, from the isolated official admissions by the government (at least 200,000 prisoners engaged on the Baltic-White Sea Canal, several hundred thousand in double-tracking the Trans-Siberian Railroad, etc. ) a conservative estimate of the total at the time when Fischer's "vast industrial organization" was at its vastest would be two millions. If we add the exiled peasants transported to areas under G.P.U. supervision-technically free but as helplessly the creatures of the G.P.U. as any prisoner-the total would at least be tripled.
Those who shouted hallelujahs to the Five Year Plan either were ignorant or pretended ignorance of the fact that the most extensive and most effective taskmaster and employer of labor was the police apparatus of the government. Its concentration camp near Moscow alone - one of several along the trek of the Moskva-Volga Canal under construction - contained more prisoners than all of Hitler's concentration camps put together. It contributed large contingents of forced labor to Magnitostroi, Dnieprostroi, and other of the proudest items in the Plan. William Stoneman of the Chicago Daily News at one time obtained from over-communicative local officials exact figures showing that prisoners outnumbered free laborers on the construction end of Magnitostroi and a series of other projects. William Henry Chamberlin of the Christian Science Monitor, who traveled widely through newly industrialized areas, wrote: "I could testify from personal observation that tens of thousands of such prisoners, mostly exiled peasants who had been guilty of no criminal offense, were employed at compulsory labor at such places as Magnitogorsk, Cheliabinsk, and Berezniki." Indeed, whatever differences there may have been in our estimates of the number in G.P.U. peonage, the existence of such peonage was accepted in Moscow as normal, matter-of-course, and indisputable.
The blossoming of the G.P.U. into a "vast industrial organization" began with the liquidation of the kulaks in 1930. The police suddenly found themselves in charge of enormous masses of raw labor-herded deliberately into harsh sections of the country where free labor could not be lured. Subsequent mass arrests in city and country alike expanded this labor force, and the influx of engineers and specialists by the tens of thousands gave the G.P.U. a terrorized technical personnel as well. Specific industrial jobs were therefore assigned to this "educational institution," particularly in the Far North, the Central Asiatic wilderness, and the more inhospitable sectors of Siberia. When the civilian economic authorities could not cope with a particularly difficult industrial task - certain chemical enterprises in the sub-Arctic territory, for instance - it was taken over by the G.P.U. and administered with compulsory labor by "educational" methods which included brutal beatings, a diet of garbage, a fearsome mortality rate, a regime that shriveled the spirit and withered the body of the victims and degraded the masters no less than the slaves.
During the height of the Cold War, the US government committed vast resources to a secret programme of cultural propaganda in western Europe. A central feature of this programme was to advance the claim that it did not exist. It was managed, in great secrecy, by America's espionage arm, the Central Intelligence Agency. The centrepiece of this covert campaign was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, run by CIA agent Michael Josselson from 1950 till 1967. Its achievements - not least its duration - were considerable. At its peak, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in thirty-five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. Its mission was to nudge the intelligentsia of western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism towards a view more accommodating of "the American way"...
"Who didn't know, I'd like to know? it was a pretty open secret," said Lawrence de Neufville. The list of those who knew - or thought they knew - is long enough: Stuart Hampshire, Arthur Schlesinger, Edward Shils (who confessed to Natasha Spender that he had known since 1955), Denis de Rougemont, Daniel Bell, Louis Fischer, George Kennan, Arthur Koestler, Junkie Fleischmann, Francois Bondy, James Burnham, Willy Brandt, Sidney Hook, Melvin Lasky, Jason Epstein, Mary McCarthy, pierre Emmanuel, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, Sol Levitas, Robert Oppenheimer, Sol Stein, Dwight McDonald. Not all of them were "witting" in the sense that they were active participants in the deception. But they all knew, and had known for some time. And if they didn't, they were, said their critics, cultivatedly, and culpably, ignorant... John Hunt claimed, "They knew, and they knew as much as they wanted to know, and if they knew any more, they knew they would have had to get out, so they refused to know."