Soviet Life

April 1966

PETE SEEGER’S TOUR  (October 1965)

On October 25th at 3:30 PM, a Soviet Life reporter managed to corner Pete on the eve of his departure from the Soviet Union. In spite of the fact that he had been badgered for the whole month of his stay by news reporters, TV and radio commentators and cameramen, he was most cordial and gave our reporter his impressions. Here they are, word for word:

Here I am sitting in the Ukraina Hotel, Moscow, on this October 25, 1965 and hoping that I can form sentences clearly that make sense. I’d like to put down my impression of the USSR after having visited it with my wife for three weeks this year and last year with the whole family for four or five weeks. And I hope, perhaps, these observations will be of interest, because every time you have a juxtaposition of things that aren’t usually juxtaposed, new ideas come from it. That was one of the things that Sergei Eisenstein said: The juxtaposition of two film shots represents a new idea.

So here we are, two Americans from the biggest and richest capitalist country in the world visiting a country still bigger, geographically, still bigger in numbers of people, but far younger in many ways. Well, I’ll give what impressions I can. Of course, you who read this may learn more about me that about the Soviet Union because, naturally, my own prejudices conic into it. So let me tell you who I am first, so you know how many grains of salt to take with whatever I say. I think that’s really the most honest thing. Nobody in this world can be objective, so the most honest thing to do is admit what your prejudices are, and then the listener or reader can discount them.

I’ve all my life felt friendly to the idea basic to this country’s economy, that is, that you could create a society without having to have a class of rich people to run it. On the other band, of course, certain things may seem strange to me because, perhaps, I see them from the viewpoint of an American who lives a relatively comfortable life with plenty of food and money in his pocket to buy anything necessary, living near New York with its multitude of stores chock full of things to buy – if you have the money. These things must be taken into consideration. Also, remember we’ve only been in the Soviet Union for a few weeks, and you couldn’t possibly get more than a glimpse of it in that time. You know the story of the seven blind men and the elephant. The old story is just as true now as it ever was.

The king received a message that a sea captain had larded on the coast with a strange animal called an elephant. So he called his seven wise men and said: ‘Oh seven wise men, go down to the seaport and report to me what manner of beast this elephant is. The seven wise men got into the king’s carriages, clip-clop, clip-chop, clip-clop, and they went to the ship. But they’d been reading books so damn long they were blind as bats. When they got there, one felt the legs of the elephant. He said, “hmmmmmmmm.” Another one felt the side.  He said, “hmmmmmmm.” Another one felt the ear. . .”hmmmmmmmm.” Another one felt the tusk, another one felt the trunk, another one pulled on the tail – bad luck for him. Well, they all got into the carriages and went back to the palace. They bowed low and said, “Your Majesty, this elephant is very much like the trunk of a tree.” Another one said, “Why, you’re very much mistaken. I felt it myself. It’s like the side of a building.” The third started screaming, “Why you’re both crazy! I felt it – it’s like the large leaf of a plant.” The next one said, “No, it’s like a smooth spear!,” another one said, “No, it’s like a huge snake!” Now they were all shouting, and the last one screamed a the top of his lungs, “No, it’s like a rope that hangs down from heaven, and you pull on it and the whole heavens open up.”

The moral, of the story, of course, is that the truth is many sided. And you can’t jump to conclusions. And I often feel like one of the seven blind men when I visit a country for only a few weeks and somebody asks me what it’s like. After all, I know only a few sides of it.

Well, what we did see was very interesting. We saw huge modern cities way out in the middle of Asia – we hadn’t expected to see that. The landscape out there is very much like our Rocky Mountain region. If I’d closed my eyes, blinked a couple of times and looked at the hills, I would have thought I was out in Utah, or Nevada, or parts of California. We were very pleased, both of us, to see Asian and European people living side by side with their own ways of life. Side by side. Their own languages, own ways of dressing, eating and many other customs which, I’m sure, are quite different. We saw children walking the streets hand in hand in totally different costumes, just like their fathers and mothers, with no thought of self-consciousness, and this I think, is wonderful. In my own country I’ve often wished that people did not feel self-conscious about having some way of dressing a little bit different from the European way.

But if the average American Indian were to leave his home say, a Navaho from Arizona, and come to the big city, he’d feel very out of place if be still had on his blanket and his beads and bracelets. People would turn and stare at him and say, “Why doesn’t he put on clothes like a civilized person is supposed to?”

So what I saw in the Asian republics of the USSR was a great satisfaction to me. I think it proves that Kipling was wrong when he said East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” He was wrong, it’s not true, they can meet. And let’s hope that in the world to come they’ll be meeting more and more.

I was surprised by the bright-colored clothing that Soviet people wore. In America I was often told that Russia is a drab country, that everybody dresses in browns and blacks because they’re scared of wearing anything bright. Walking down the average Soviet street, you see the brightest colors you ever saw: reds, yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks, sometimes all on top of each other. We saw a young man in the Frunze airport with a green hat, a purple jacket, and a red suitcase – bright, all of them, bright.

Now it’s perfectly true that the average Soviet citizen can’t, as yet, afford the many luxuries the average American can. The average food on their table is not as fancy. So I was happy to note that even though Russia doesn’t have the stores overflowing with different commodities that American cities have, neither does it have the slums. This is important to me because, while I love my own country, I must confess that there’s not a city I can go to where, in parts of the town, the streets are not littered with trash, the houses are unpainted and dilapidated, and the people live with a sense of demoralization and lack of hope because they think there’s no chance for them ever to get ahead.

I was amazed at the number of bookstores everywhere. My gosh, it sure is a book-reading country. I was startled by the huge editions that are printed. John Cheever, whose novels in the states have probably sold no more than around 100,000 copies, was translated into Russian — the minimum edition, 100,000 copies. Yes, it’s a book-reading country, and I hope it stays that way, because no matter how fine TV, radio and movies are, books are such a flexible medium of communication. You can read a book slowly or fast, you can come to a page you want to stay on, you can read it over and over again, or, if you’re bored, you can skip a few pages. That’s just not possible with movies or TV. Of course, you can overdo book reading, too, but that’s another question.

Well, I hear somebody saying “Hey, so far you’ve been telling us what you like about the country. What don’t you like?”

It’s true, there are dark sides as well as bright ones. My guess is, though, that whatever the dark sides I see, they’re probably the same the Russians see. For instance, the lack, as yet, of enough money to do all the things one wants to do. Perhaps the lack of freedom to travel abroad one would like to have — many things that are obvious to most people without my naming them. Let me instead describe how my wife and I built our own house 16 years ago and the problems that we tried to solve — perhaps in some way this may be parallel to the problems Russians have in their own huge country, problems that they too have faced and tried to solve.

Sixteen years ago my wife and I were very broke. But we wanted to move out of New York City. We both had been born and raised in the country, and we wanted our children to be born in the country. I was a musician, I didn’t have an eight-hour day job, so I really didn’t have to be right in the city. I could live where I could drive in once every few days, once every week or two, but I didn’t have to live in the city. So we looked around, but every time we saw a house that was up for sale, we’d find it was too expensive: 5,000 dollars, 10,000 dollars or more, even for an old house. Once we found an old barn, it was a wreck — but 3,000 dollars. . . . We didn’t have it.

We borrowed some money from relatives and bought a little land. Just a bunch of trees and rocks on the side of a hill. I was young and strong, and I chopped down the trees and built a cabin, a log cabin very similar to what Russian log cabins are, although not as pretty, not with those lovely little designs over the windows. It was one big room, and we and our children squeezed into it. There was our kitchen, living room, dining room, our desks with books, our beds — one thing on top of the other — closets, chairs, everything. But we squeezed in and, because we built it ourselves, didn’t owe anybody. You see, both of us knew friends who had wanted a house of their own, and they had borrowed money from the bank for it. And somehow they’ve never gotten out of debt. They seem to pay all their lives — 20, 30, 40 years later they’re still paying, paying, paying, paying, paying the bank because they borrowed in the beginning. And we did not want to do that.

So, though the house was very small and crowded, at least we weren’t paying for it. We’re grateful for that, glad we did it that way – on our own, not depending on anybody. Of course, because I wasn’t very expert, to say the least, at building a house, the corners weren’t square, the floors weren’t level, and the roof leaked. Whenever it rained, I was going around with pails under different places — drip, drip, drip, drip through the roof. Nevertheless, it was a house, and we were in it. We didn’t have enough money to put paving stones outside, so every time we walked into the house we tracked mud all over the place. Mud, mud. Every spring and every fall. But that wasn’t the biggest mistake we made. This was a normal mistake to make — building a house where the corners weren’t square and the floors weren’t level.

But a few years later we got some money and we thought, ”Now let’s fix up our house. We want it to be a little more stylish.” We looked in the magazines and we saw that just the thing, just the stylish thing, was these new aluminum windows — you turn the crank and they open up. They looked so fancy we thought, “That’s just what we’re going to get.” So we bought one, tore out the old window and put the new one in. And for a year we were very proud of it. We thought we were real stylish. But, you know, that was one of the biggest mistakes we made. Oscar Wilde was the person who said there’s nothing so ugly as fashion. He said fashion is a form of ugliness that has to be changed once every few months because it’s so unbearable. No, we had not made our house any more beautiful with that aluminum window. We just tried to make it more fashionable, and instead it was kind of silly, it didn’t fit in. That aluminum didn’t fit in with our nice log cabin. Yes, it was a mistake. Some of the furniture also didn’t fit in.

Now, years later, I think we’ve learned a little bit better, and we realize that some of our old American traditions of building with wood are still about as beautiful as anything can be. So when we added a new room to make the house a little bigger, we added it in such a way that it harmonized. And now we have enough money for paving stones, and don’t track mud in on the floor all the time. We’ve got a little more room, we’re not living all on top of each other.

I don’t know if this parallel really means very much in describing the darker side of the Soviet Union — a house is no way near as complicated as a country. But maybe it does have some parallels.

Probably the best things I’ve seen in the Soviet Union are the things that have truly been developed on their own. Some of the less good things are, I think, imitations. Like, say, the design of cars. The same thing probably goes for other parts of the country’s life.

Well, I’ll close this little attempted discourse with something that I talked about with a young lady interpreter the other day. I’ve been giving concerts here with the help of a film projector to flash the words on a screen while I’m singing so the audience can understand a little more of the meaning of the songs without having to pause for a translation. Now, the projector was an idea I worked up myself, but there are some details that didn’t work out quite right. The lens did not stay quite in focus, the picture wasn’t bright enough. I said to this young lady, “The basic principles of the machine are good, but there are still some bugs in it.” She said “Bugs? What do you mean?” I said: “Well, that’s an American term we use. Whenever you invent a machine, there are a lot of little details that may not work quite right. The basic principles of the machine are good, but little parts don’t fit together. All the little details have to be worked out. Supposing you have a new car model that comes out. When it’s just off the assembly line, it’s liable to have lots of bugs in it. You better iron out the bugs – the doors may not close right, something may fall off.”

She said, “Could this be true of a social system, as well as of a machine?”

I said, “Yea, yea, you’re right.”