By Patricia de Trafford
THE writer of this article has just come back from a trip to Russia.
She says: "For the first time I genuinely believe that R ussia could be converted, and that this might even happen in my lifetime. Praying for the conversion of the Russians comes easily after my experiences In their country ..."
OUR small party arrived with an almost James Bond feeling of excitement at being in Moscow and behind the Iron Curtain. Half jokingly, we looked for microphones under the bed and behind the telephone. A lot of cobwebs and misapprehensions were to be swept away in. the first few days. I had imagined the Russians as a disciplined monolithic mass, but found young girls looking gay and pretty in their summer dresses, wearing nylons and stiletto heels, and quite often the fashionable beehive hairdo. I don't know how they did it as the shops are very bare and a pair of shoes costs 425. Our department stores would be Paradise for Russian women.
The Moscow traffic is on a level with that of Rome for lack of discipline and disregard for pedestrians. As a tourist, one has much more freedom than might be imagined, and can wander out for meals, or just sit in the sun and watch people go by. One leaves with a strong impression of the warmth and friendliness of the average Russian. They have a strong sense of humour and fun.
We were fortunate in that the fourth member of our party was brought up in Russia, and so could translate any remarks from chance acquaintances.
There was the waiter who looked just like Brendan Behan, with Celtic wit to match. As we waited hungrily to be served, he philosophised: "He who takes longest to harness the horses arrives first in the end." He regarded our empty vodka bottle sadly, explaining that he hoped there might have been a drop left in it for him, Then the night porter at the hotel gloomily surveying the dull-looking newspaper: "Emptiness, emptiness, nothing but emptiness." All we could get was a copy of the Daily Worker.
Intourist is the official State travel bureau. and deals with every detail of one's trip. They provided an interpreter. Ours was called Maya, and when we discovered that we had little girls who were almost twins, the ice melted. We discussed the lack of creches in Russia for working mothers. exchanged recipes, and just gossiped, ending up firm friends. I do hope that one day I shall see Maya again.
We went to look at a typical Russian boarding school, besides the usual round of sightseeing,
The ages ranged from seven to 17. The school was completely co-educational, and the children very polite'and well disciplined. In the machine-tool shop, the older boys were producing parts for a contract with a factory, and the money earned would go to take the entire school to the Black Sea in the hot summer months,
They do not have "streaming" and the 11-plus as we do, and if anything the boy skilled at the lathe is more highly regarded than the "clever" boy.
The whole school learns Chinese as the foreign language, and all notices were in Chinese script.
Moscow is not an attractive city, and there would be little left to show the tourist if the relics of a Christian past were removed.
Our hotel was palatial but
fusty. it is quite an experience to have four marble columns in one's bedroom, even if the bed was hard. For those who like caviare and smoked sturgeon. the food is delicious but there isn't much variety.
There are no houses, and everyone lives in vast utilitarian blocks of flats. The churches and monasteries stand out with their gilded onion domes glistening in the sun.
The famous Kremlin contains no less than ten churches, all now museums filled with sightseers. The Russians are great museum-goers, and I could not help feeling that their great love and pride in their country must one day overflow to embrace their Christian heritage.
Leningrad is much more
beautiful architecturally, as for many years it war the seat of the Russian Court. When we asked to he taken round the museum against religion. our guide enquired if we were believers, saying: "We are warned to tell you that you may he embarrassed by what you see." However, the propaganda was almost disappointingly crude. One copy of Search contains far more inflammable material. There were models of sputniks and a statue of the astronauts complete with thunderbolts reaching up into space (the Soviet equivalent of our plaster saints).
The guide explained that the sputniks were to show that man did not meet anyone in space.
"Who were they expecting to meet—an old man with a beard?" I asked; shades of the Bishop of Woolwich. I pointed out that this exhibition was obviously aimed at the uneducated and ignorant, Now that more and more Russians were getting a first-class education. it would he interesting to see the type of anti-religious propaganda aimed at them.
"All educated people are atheistic materialists in Russia," came the reply.
"Oh dear! Pasternak, Yevtushshenko," I murmured.
"Pasternak is beneath contempt," came the reply.
As by now our guide was the one who was getting embarrassed, we changed rapidly back to neutral ground—statistics and Jigures on output, productivity, and so on.
Of course, every visitor to Russia has to visit the ballet, and we succeeded in going no less than three times. At the Kirov, we were to see a modern ballet. danced to the music of Shostakovich's "Leningrad Symphony". My heart sank slightly when the synopsis outlined that the ballet aimed to illustrate the futility of war, and the need for friendship between nations. More propaganda! But we found the ballet intensely moving. And by one of those strange coincidences, in the interval a badly scarred man, simply dressed, wearing battle medals, came over and started talking earnestly to us in Russian.
He explained that he had heard us talking, and realised that we were foreigners; that he was so deeply stirred during the ballet that he had cried, and he felt that he had to come and tell us how important it was that there should never he a war again, and that all nations should be friends. He had been in Leningrad right through the Siege. and seen the most terrible suffering. Of the population of three million, half a million had died, many of these of starvation
It was impossible to doubt the sincerity of this Russian. or indeed to ignore all the other evidences of a genuine hatred of war in ordinary people.
Th9 average young Russian is well read and serious minded. so that Marxist Leninism, with its jumble of ideas, must be an unsatisfactory diet. One hopes that those in authority will encourage priests and nuns who feel drawn towards the Russian mission to equip themselves by studying the language, literature, philosophy and customs of Russia.
The Russians have travelled a a long way since Stalin. This is the root of the bitter struggle with the Chinese who feel that Moscow is polluting the pure dogma of Communism.
The Park of Economic Progress is a permanent exhibition and makes a favourite Sunday outing for the Muscovites. It covers several square miles and is dotted with pavilions, one for each state. We went there by the famous Metro, with its marble halls and chandeliers.
It was uncanny to hear Gounod's Ave Maria, the hittune of the moment, blared through the loudspeakers so it was hard to remember one was behind the Iron Curtain, as family groups strolled by looking typically English.
Praying for the conversion of the Russians comes easily after an experience like this.
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