Moscow Under the Terror

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In ancient days, whenever I was in Richmond-upon-Thames, I would walk up the hill to the Baldur Bookshop where, if you succeeded in running the gauntlet of its cantankerous owner, John Barton, there was nearly always something that was worth the hike. That said, I can’t imagine why I bought a tourist’s guide to the city of Moscow, published in 1937. Was it because its previous owner was a Mrs C. J. Webb, suggesting some connection with those ‘useful idiots’, Beatrice and Sydney? (‘We are ikons in the Soviet Union,’ boasted Beatrice.) Whatever the reason it certainly wasn’t because I immediately grasped the baleful significance of such a guide to such a place at such a time.

Written by the Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR, the guide describes Moscow as ‘the city of emancipated and joyful labour’. In fact it was a huge building site over which hovered the angel of death. The architect of this apocalyptic landscape was Josef Stalin, who had promised Muscovites that in future life would become ‘merrier’. In 1935 he approved a ten-year plan that would do for Moscow what Haussmann had done for nineteenth- century Paris. But unlike Haussmann, Stalin could knock down any building he liked (conservationists protested at their peril). He could also call upon an inexhaustible supply of forced labour, described in the guide as ‘criminals undergoing rehabilitation’ –thousands of whom had already died in the construction of such projects as the White Sea‒Baltic Canal and the Moscow–Volga Canal.

That Moscow was in need of a makeover was indisputable. In 1934, on his first visit there, Guy Burgess described it as ‘just a Balkan town – you know, pigs in the trams’. The streets teemed with peasants who had been driven off the land by collectivization and ensuing famine. They found jobs – unemployment did not exist in the Soviet Union – but so ramshackle was the infrastructure that for most of the cit

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About the contributor

Michael Barber writes regularly for Slightly Foxed and The Oldie. He has never been to Moscow.

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