This week’s Object tells the story of a trip to the Soviet Union in 1932. The visit was organised by the Independent Labour Party and included “doctors, economists, technicians. French professor – a Bolton mill girl – an army officer and his wife and an MP”. They travelled out on the Cooperitza, “one of the six ships of the Five Year Plan”: their packed itinerary covered Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow and incorporated visits to museums, a prison, a workers’ club, a pioneer camp and factories.
The trip is brought to life for us thanks to a notebook put together by one of the party. It contains jottings, photographs, press cuttings and postcards. Here we see the ship and life on board.
The writer is fascinated both by the communist regime and by the region’s history, experiencing for example Catherine the Great’s palace, where they see the famous Amber Room, “One room was all amber – priceless walls, floors, ornaments – casecaskets – all amber – like a huge jewelled casket turned inside out … I have never seen such wealth”.
The writer frequently compares old and new uses of buildings, as here with the Smolny, boarding school turned government building.
Much of the notebook is concerned with the practicalities of travel (“Bugs!”) and food e.g. on the train to Kiev, “Our supplies of food went with us. We were told to drink no water on the way & were given 28 bottles of soda water, 14 long loaves of black bread, 14 tins fish, 14 tins meat – no butter”. The author carefully records details of the new Soviet systems e.g. the prison regime, or how marriages and divorces worked. They also note problems such as poverty, their guide’s fear of photography and the danger of bandits on the Kiev train.
The notebook’s creator acknowledges that “One cannot presume to tell the truth about Russia after seeing 3 of its great cities and from long train journeys across its flat surfaces”. However, “I can record certain things which I saw and tell the story of my trip to Russia”: the notebook with its rich detail and visual appeal certainly does that very effectively.
Tantalisingly, we do not know the identity of the writer. The notebook was given to the University long ago by Bradford Libraries (who had it from someone who had it from someone who was a friend of the author, but the letter we have does not include that crucial detail). Parts of the text read formally as if intended for public consumption and there is evidence of editing; others are purely notes. It would be a fascinating task for a researcher to try to work out the writer’s identity and to find out more about the journey. Please contact Special Collections if you already have ideas about the writer’s identity or are interested in exploring this further.