17,000 miles across Soviet Russia

on Thursday, 07 January 2021. Posted in Archives

In the early 1930s, Christopher Fuller (later a director of Jaggards, Corsham) and Duncan Sandys (who would become Winston Churchill’s son-in-law and MP for Norwood) travelled together in what Fuller called ‘a very comprehensive tour of all the more important parts of the entire Soviet Union’. Travelling by foot, plane, train, car and horseback they crossed 17,000 miles of Soviet Russia to explore conditions in the country and the success, or failure, of the Communist experiment.

Map of Fuller and Sandys’ route across Russia (1196/52)

Fuller kept an extensive diary of the trip, which we hold in our extensive collection on Jaggards (1196). Fuller’s diaries (1196/52) are also complemented by around 200 photographs that he took on his journey (1196/53BW) which include images of Leningrad and Moscow, but also of the labour camps that the travellers visited during their trip.

A page from Fuller’s diary showing Russian phrases he tried to learn for the trip (1196/52)

Though the pair visited the major cities, a key aim of their trip was to take in as much of rural Russia as they could, to get a sense for the life of the average Russian ‘peasant’. As such the diaries are not only a fascinating first-hand account of the conditions that ordinary Russians lived in but are also revealing of the extent to which the realities of the heartlands of Russia were almost unknown to the British political class at the time.

Fuller’s descriptions of life in Russia are vivid and evocative, and he didn’t hold back his forthright opinions of what he saw. Visiting Lenin’s tomb, he remarked:

‘The tomb is disappointing inside; going through the entrance, turning left, a staircase leads down into the tomb, an attractive design of black polished marble, but badly lit. Whereas it just missed being a masterpiece it reminds one inside of a public urinal.’

Fuller’s writing also reveals something of the racialised attitude to the ‘East’ that was prevalent in Britain at the time. In a write-up of the trip for the English Review Fuller remarked that ‘the weapon of propaganda has been launched against every enemy, real or imaginary, with all the furtive craft and ingenuity which the Slav and Semitic [Jewish] mind could muster.’

From Russia with love… (1196/52)

The conditions faced by ordinary Russians, especially in the rural areas through which Fuller and Sandys travelled, are also vividly described. One recurring theme throughout the diaries was the difficulty that many Russians faced in finding enough food, let alone luxuries:

‘In all the villages I visited in the heart of the grain-growing country of Siberia, I had the greatest difficulty in procuring even a few pieces of bread. As for eggs and butter I saw neither during my whole tour in Russia, except in Moscow and Leningrad, where I stayed in hotels which catered exclusively for foreigners, sugar is practically unobtainable.’

Fuller was also unsparing in his description of the conditions faced by dissidents and political prisoners during the Soviet regime. In one haunting passage, Fuller describes walking along the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway at midnight, when a train approached from behind:

‘Slowly it approached and, looming up out of the darkness straining at a great weight, the massive engine came slowly by, towering above us. I stood awestruck as, one by one, the long line of trucks rumbled by a few feet from us and blackening the sky above. They were large cattle trucks about 20 feet high. In each top corner was a little unlit window and at each window leaned a man or woman. They were silent as they peered out into the night. For some unaccountable reason I counted each truck and there were 55, and on a balcony on the back of the last I could just make out two soldiers, standing one on each side with rifle and fixed bayonet.’

Greatly affected, Fuller and Sandys stood in silence, watching the train disappear. ‘There was something uncanny about that train’, he wrote, ‘there was something inhuman about those figures. Quietly and with resignation they seemed to look out on a strange world as they passed to a new and dreaded fate, they knew not where. They were ‘Kulaks’, political prisoners, taken from the land to timber camps in the heart of the forests of Siberia.’

There were, however, many positive moments on the trip. A highlight was meeting with Amy Johnson, a pioneering aviator and the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia:

Fuller described the chance meeting, revealing the privations and dangers Johnson faced: ‘4.25 Amy Johnson in Jason II arrived … showing her legs and arms covered with flea bites, we sacrificed a box of Keatings’, a contemporary flea-killer, ‘which she accepted with much embarrassment. She was fearing the journey over Manchuria, owing to two Germans having made a forced landing there two months before and not heard of since’. Johnson had, together with her co-pilot, just become the first people to fly from London to Moscow in one day, setting a time of 21 hours for the 1,760-mile trip. ‘She flew on after refreshments and re-fuelling – halfway between London and Tokyo’; Johnson successfully landed in Japan, setting a record time in the process.

There were also moments of humour and even farce. Fuller describes what felt like an interminable wait at a rural airfield for a plane to fly them onwards to their next destination. After a delay of many hours ‘we had got into the aeroplane and were ready to start, they [the Russian ground crew] remembered that a window was broken and proceeded, to D.’s great annoyance, to cut a piece of wood and fit it to the window frame’, not something that might pass today’s safety standards!

Food may have been in short supply in rural Russia but one thing that was not was, apparently, vodka. Fuller and Sandys appear to have indulged in as much as was offered by the families who hosted them during their trip. On one occasion, after the host produced a bottle ‘the party became merry; with some story of an Englishman who could not drink half a bottle of brandy, the Russians tried to make us drunk … We were still sober after some sixteen glasses’, although, Fuller claimed, ‘the others were by this time half drunk and Frankfurt [a friend] already passed out.’ They left the house at around 10am and made their way back to their accommodation. Without a hint of irony, the next passage in Fuller’s diary reads: ‘we woke up at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Duncan on top of a haystack, myself against the bottom, in pouring rain and soaked through, having slept in complete oblivion for seven hours. I could remember nothing of how I got to the haystack, or of ever having seen it before’!

Tom Plant
Community History Advisor

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