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French and British Female Intellectuals and the Soviet Union. The Journey to the USSR, 1929 – 1942


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1The question of why intellectuals between the wars were fascinated by the USSR has been extensively debated by intellectual historians of both France and Britain. According to Neal Wood, “the ‘ultimate explanation’ of the appeal of communism is forever concealed from rational inquiry in the minds and hearts of many diverse individuals” (9), but rational inquiry can reveal a collective, cultural fascination through analysis of individual textual residues. Paul Hollander argues that pro-Soviet enthusiasm amongst Western intellectuals in the 1930s had its roots not in knowledge about the Soviet Union but in Western intellectuals’ changed – that is, more negative – attitudes towards Western Europe (103-104). Disenchanted with their own society, they were predisposed to find the Soviet regime to their liking and, furthermore, were fearful that if they returned with negative reports they would be labelled reactionaries (104, 109-110). Such “negative” fascination was doubled in both France and Britain by a more longstanding and primarily cultural “Russophilia”, which predated the 1917 revolution and had rather more to do with the faith, grandeur and resignation of the “Russian soul” supposedly depicted by Dostoievsky and Chekov than with the political realities of either Tsarist or Soviet Russia (see Northedge & Wells Britain and Soviet Communism 137-157 and Schor, L’Opinion française et les étrangers 152-161). In France, Russophilia became complicated by the close relationship between the “mode russe” and the community of expatriate anti-Soviet Russian dissident intellectuals resident in Paris after 1917, which made a clear distinction between “authentic” Russian culture in exile and the Soviet “perversion” of Russian traditions (see Livak, How it Was Done in Paris). In Britain, Russophilia was contested by a politically- and economically-based Russophobia as the inter-war landscape shifted, but with the Soviet intervention on the side of the allies in 1941, Russophilia hit an all-time high and “[c]riticism of the USSR became tantamount to treason” (Northedge & Wells,151).

2Narratives composed in the 1930s on the theme of the retour de l’URSS are simultaneously part of this Russophilia/Russophobia and of the broader phenomenon of 1930s travel writing. Charles Burdett and Derek Duncan note that, between the wars, the rise of differing ideologies across Europe motivated “politically curious travellers” to visit a variety of locations (4). Charles Forsdick speaks of “a complete renewal in the field of travel writing in France” in the 1930s because of a constellation of particular factors: the wider availability of travel coincided with the period before the collapse of empires, and a “crisis of European civilization” and a “sudden reconfiguration of relations between Europe and its others” caused intellectuals to travel (29-32). Samuel Hynes argues that the journey is “the most insistent of ’thirties metaphors” and therefore that “the travel books simply act out, in the real world, the basic trope of the generation” (229). Paul Fussell, like Hollander, finds that 1930s travel writing dramatises a rejection of the “modern” and the “Western”:

To the degree that literary travel between the wars constitutes an implicit rejection of industrialism and everything implied by the concept “modern northern Europe”, it is a celebration of a Golden Age, and recalling the Ideal Places of Waugh, Auden, and Priestley, we can locate that Golden Age in the middle of the preceding century. (210)

3In retour de l’URSS narratives, the rejection of “modern northern Europe” is achieved by a dual celebration of both the utopia promised by the new Soviet Russia and of the image of “traditional” Russia on which the myth of the “Russian soul” was based. This dual celebration is of course paradoxical, since it was precisely the “traditional” Russia the Soviet regime sought to demolish. That the “Golden Age” in these narratives is indeed the nineteenth century is indicated by the cultural references through which the writers describe Russia’s difference: the Russian soldiers’ greatcoats remind Elisabeth de Gramont of Gogol’s The Overcoat (135); Ethel Mannin experiences “a sudden feeling of it all being like a scene out of Chekov, with the vague melancholy of evening invading the afternoon” (South to Samarkand 83); frustrated by Russian bureaucracy, Ada Elisabeth Chesterton and her travelling companion “began to feel like Tchekov’s three sisters, who spent their lives trying to get to Moscow and never even started” (My Russian Venture 27). The effect of such references is potentially reassuring – the Soviet Union is certainly different, but it is different in the same way that Russia has always been different. Whilst there may be political rupture, there is cultural continuity.


4Such examples demonstrate the mediating role of culture in an individual’s access to reality. Gender also functions as a cultural mediator, both in the production and the reception of texts, and in the experience of travel. Charlotte Haldane remarked that women are unlikely to be tempted by seafaring, since “the lure of the sea appeals basically to a certain psychological restlessness in men which is and probably should be rare in women” (Russian Newsreel 197). Mary Morris notes that “[i]t has been said that women don’t have what Baudelaire referred to as the ‘gout du gouffre’, the taste for the abyss” (xvi) and that “for centuries, it was frowned upon for women to travel without escort, chaperon, or husband” (xv). Clearly, travel is not part of the stereotype of conventional femininity, and inter-war women travel writers must have known themselves to be exceptional. However, in the case of the women who travelled to the USSR, this exceptionality was cloaked by class: they were either financially independent intellectuals for whom travel was already a habit, or they were workers delegates whose presence in Soviet Russia was justified by their proletarian identity and communist commitment. Factors other than gender must then be taken into account.

5Bibliographical sources suggest that far fewer women undertook such a trip than men. However, it appears that female intellectuals in the 1930s were not explicitly prevented from travelling to the USSR because of their gender. They travelled in mixed groups which included other single women as well as couples. French newspapers sent female journalists to the USSR in the 1930s: Rachel Mazuy notes that L’Œuvre sent Geneviève Tabouis and Candide sent Odette de Pannetier (240). Naomi Mitchison’s Fabian Society party, briefed in advance by Beatrice Webb, included female members such as Kitty Muggeridge and Christina Foyle (You May Well Ask 187-188). Charlotte Haldane says that she was one of only five British journalists in Russia in the Autumn of 1941, and the only woman, and had to fight gender prejudice to get the job (Russian Newsreel 49; Truth Will Out 191). French journalist Eve Curie (daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie) was in Russia in January 1942, also as a war correspondent, for the Herald Tribune Syndicate, New York and Allied Newspapers, London. With the exception of Curie, who was very aware of her gender, the writers generally report only passing comment as regards their identity as female travellers. They seem not to have been prevented from going where they chose.

6Did women then perhaps see different aspects of the Soviet Union once they arrived? There is no doubt that those female intellectuals who chose to undertake the journey were a self-selecting group of women who had an interest in “the woman question”. British women on the left were likely to have been involved in the suffrage movement and thus to see themselves as “feminists” of one persuasion or another. This is certainly true of Mitchison, Haldane and Mannin. Elisabeth de Gramont’s links with the Paris-Lesbos circle – she had begun a lifelong relationship with Natalie Barnay before the war – indicate her less-than-conservative interest in female identity and emancipation (see Rapazzini and Souhami 72-75). Chesterton devotes a full chapter in both My Russian Venture and Salute the Soviet to the situation of Soviet women. Writers often comment favourably on the progress in female emancipation in the USSR, compared with the situation in France and Britain, even if they admit that absolute equality has not yet been achieved. They describe visits to institutions specifically devoted to the care of women, including the institution where prostitutes are interned and “cured”, children’s theatres, clubs and crèches, and the town hall where marriages are celebrated and divorces concluded. Mannin visited a museum of “mother craft” and birth control, and Mitchison visited an abortion clinic. In her novel We Have Been Warned, Mitchison describes an abortion being performed, which was one of the reasons why she found it difficult to secure a publisher for the work (You May Well Ask 172-180). While women writers clearly do relate such visits to their own experiences and interests, their texts do not suggest that they visited these institutions to the exclusion of others, such as farms, factories, the Moscow Metro, the Dnieper dam, theatres, museums, art galleries, or that men were not also welcome there.

7By contrast, Rachel Mazuy’s research suggests that the Soviet authorities did expect women visitors to experience the USSR in a fashion specific to their sex, indeed, that they attempted to impose such an experience on them, since “[o]n ‘spécialise’ tous les délégués en fonction de leur profession d’origine et de leur sexe” (208). Mazuy cites the experience of Suzanne Cagé, a textile worker who first visited the USSR in 1933, interviewed by Mazuy in 1991:

Pour l’institution soviétique, Suzanne Cagé est ainsi ouvrière du textile et une femme. Elle doit donc jouer un rôle spécifique et devenir le témoin de l’amélioration de la condition féminine en URSS depuis la révolution – naturellement analysée par le prisme de la situation des ouvrières. (207)

8Thus, although she is unmarried, not a mother, and not particularly interested in the condition of women, in her report of the journey, she is made to “parler comme une ouvrière mère de famille” (207). Mazuy interprets this allocation of gendered roles as a means of erasing or modifying the actual experience of the visitor in order to ensure that the requisite message was conveyed:

La reconstruction des impressions passe par l’attribution des rôles, publics comme privés, qui nient le vécu personnel de l’individu. (107)

Elle se plie parfaitement au jeu des visites de crèches, de jardins d’enfants, de foyers de réhabilitation de prostitués, ainsi qu’au travail de propagande à son retour, mais son voyage est aussi une expérience personnelle dont les aspects privés sont totalement occultés par la propagande. (208)

9In the case of intellectuals, any potential imposition of a gendered experience was less visible, because they were probably predisposed towards the “women’s issues” in which the Soviet authorities expected them to be interested. Their ensuing texts were not subject to the requirement that personal impressions should be suppressed in favour of ideology, because they were travelling independently and were not therefore required to write to order on their return. Suzanne Cagé, by contrast, was neither a writer nor a feminist before her departure for the Soviet Union. She was selected by the PCF as a member of a worker’s delegation, and the purpose of her visit was to allow her to fulfil a predefined role as a female party propagandist on her return (7). Thus her personal experience was more susceptible to manipulation than that of the intellectuals, and its manipulation by the Soviet authorities (and of course by the PCF) is more visible.

10Whilst this sort of gendered approach to travel was clearly a feature of the itineraries proposed to visitors by VOKS and Intourist, and did have an effect on the impressions gained by female travellers, the overriding factor was the USSR’s desire to present sex equality as one of the key markers of social and political progress achieved by the regime. The European left, equally, was predisposed to read it as such. Although modern feminist theory has drawn sharp distinctions between “equality” feminism and “difference” feminism, in the interwar period this distinction was much less pertinent: “difference” and “equality” were not seen as binary opposites, and could and did coexist in feminist discourse. Thus to display reforms and institutions focused on female difference was easily legible to the inter-war woman traveller in terms of equality.


11Retour de l’URSS narratives are a historically specific mode of political writing. At this level of generality, genre is defined by subject matter and by the criterion of authenticity as regards the relationship between the writer’s experience and the text. While the conventional criticism of retour de l’URSS narratives is that they are all the same, it seems that they are in fact characterised by generic variety. Writers chose reportage, travel literature or fiction according to the purpose of the visit and, more importantly, the purpose of the resulting narrative.

12Reportage, a book-length eyewitness/I-witness account which recounts contemporary events or phenomena which the writer believes to be of political and/or historical significance, was popular in both France and Britain between the wars. It has been interpreted as a combination of nineteenth-century literary naturalism with twentieth-century investigative journalism (Boucharenc and Deluche Littérature et reportage 7), and can also be seen as a response to the perceived crisis of the novel in inter-war France (see Raimond) which provoked discussion of whether and how to integrate the real and the contemporary into fiction. Inter-war “new reportage”, theorised in Britain by Storm Jameson, amongst others, and famously practised by George Orwell in such texts as The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, questioned the objectivity of conventional documentary recording and stressed instead the militant potential and situated perspective of the eyewitness report (see Williams). In works of reportage on the USSR, a first person narrator discusses the political and social changes brought about by the regime in terms of her personal experience. The texts are chronological, based on notes taken at the time, sometimes partly written during the visit or the journey home, and often amplified later by references to works of history, political analysis or to other works of reportage. They begin with an account of the journey, and mention any specific textual preparation or awareness of Russia on the part of the author. They display a determination to see if “what everyone is saying about Russia” is true, and an awareness that a great deal is indeed being said. There is some explanation of why the author chose to go, and of her political commitments, or absence thereof. They then recount the arrival, things seen and done, and people met; this is punctuated with personal reflections on “the system”, which is often compared to the situation in the home country and is located in the wider context of European politics. The account of the return journey tends to be amplified by a reflection on whether or not the author is glad to leave, and there is usually a conclusion summing up the author’s impressions of Russia. Authors of such narratives followed broadly the same itinerary, defined by Intourist or VOKS – Leningrad, Moscow and surrounding areas, and also sometimes the Ukraine, including Kiev and the Dnieper dam.

13It will be clear from this overview that the texts are quite formulaic. For historians, this has tended to call into question their historiographical value, as Brigitte Studer points out. However, as she goes on to say, more recent critics have focused instead on their cultural value, that is, they have asked why certain authors undertook the journey, what was the interest of their personal experience, and what possibilities were open to them as regards the making-into-discourse of their experiences and the reception of their texts (5-6). As Studer says – and as we have already seen as regards the gendering of the travel experience – intellectuals had more room for manoeuvre to use their own “outils intellectuels pour s’opposer aux schèmes explicatifs proposés” (6) than did worker delegates or party representatives.

14Writers of reportage make explicit their awareness of Soviet attempts to create specific perceptual filters as a means of controlling travellers’ experiences of the USSR – what Sylvia Margulies and Paul Hollander call “techniques of hospitality”. Louise Bosserdet notes that she was advised to “tenter d’y voir autre chose que ce qu’Intourist m’aura prepare” (6). Magdeleine Lauret suggests that the “techniques of hospitality” are largely ineffectual: “Que leur sert-il d’encadrer étroitement les voyageurs avec des guides dressés dans des écoles spéciales à montrer la Russie sous des aspects flatteurs, quand tout est étalé de façon assez visible pour des yeux avertis?” (157). One might speculate on the extent to which “averti” in fact means predisposed towards a particular point of view. Ada Elisabeth Chesterton says that “[t]he stereotyped tour to Moscow and Leningrad, personally conducted, neatly shepherded and painfully supervised, did not attract me” (My Russian Venture 10). Ethel Mannin was repeatedly asked on her return whether “it was true that You Only Saw What They Wanted You To See” (South to Samarkand 27). The capital letters indicate that the “techniques of hospitality” had become a cliché by the mid-1930s. An awareness of “techniques of hospitality” obviously does not prove that such techniques had no effect on these travellers’ perceptions. However, the writers do problematise the veracity of their own narrative, and in so doing, illustrate the debates around the “new reportage”. On the one hand, they assert the value of their own active curiosity, which is presented as a route to truth. Bosserdet compares herself favourably to inactive tourists who just take in what is presented to them and do not go looking for things, remarking that “je préfère passer à leurs yeux pour une éffrontée curieuse” (94), and Lauret, who has come “pour s’éclairer” (15), remarks that her only goal is “la vérité” (14). On the other hand, the writers acknowledge the provisional and superficial nature of their own conclusions. Lauret says that it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions (12), Haldane remarks at the outset that “I did not see and learn enough, in a mere two months, to bring back anything but a superficial report”, (Russian Newsreel 14), Curie “was aware that a lone traveller could only catch a glimpse of the general picture of the conflict” (1) and Bosserdet concludes that “ce n’est ni en un mois, ni deux, qu’on peut se faire ‘une opinion’” (132-134).

15Works of reportage suggest that intellectuals were not only fascinated by the USSR, but were also fascinated by their own fascination, and that of their home culture, and wanted to interrogate this fascination with a phenomenon as well as that phenomenon itself. Though in one sense they are formulaic, these works of reportage are also very clearly – and self-reflexively – about the traveller herself and about her culture.

16The titles of Ella Maillart’s Des monts Célestes aux sables rouges and Ethel Mannin’s South to Samarkand already indicate a change in focus compared with works of reportage. Neither mentions “Russia”, “the USSR” or the word “Soviet”; exotic naming gives the titles an expressive quality lacking in the titles of works of reportage. Maillart’s book was published in English as Turkestan Solo in 1934, and Mannin read it during her journey. Mannin takes up Maillart’s references to James Elroy Flecker’s poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand” – Maillart cites the Pilgrim’s verse in full (216-217), whilst Mannin adopts the famous couplet as an epigram: “For lust of knowing what should not be known / We take the Golden Road to Samarkand”. She later likens herself to the “Pilgrims who must go, always a little further” (287). Both women had been to Russia before, and both travel to Samarkand out of a desire to go further. For both women, this trip is worthwhile because, in Mannin’s words, it has been “for centuries, one of the world’s forbidden journeys” (15). In these texts then, the journey is not primarily to Soviet Russia – although both do see and comment on the functioning of the regime in the larger urban centres. The intrinsic interest of this journey is eternal and not only to do with current ideological change. Mannin and Maillart go to see a country – its geography, its history and its traditions – rather than a regime.

17According to Andrew Thacker, “[t]he otherness of the foreign country is [...] something that travel writing must strive to render” (24). Both Mannin and Maillart strive to render the otherness of Eastern, or Asian, Russia by delighting in its radical difference from the West, and indeed from Moscow and its environs. Maillart is an adventurer: her book is about mountains, deserts, and rivers, about a hostile natural environment which small populations have learned to inhabit. She thrives on physical danger, and is happy spending seven hours of solitary exploration on top of a glacier, on skis (107-117). She is profoundly attracted by the Oriental nomadic lifestyle (14). By the end of her journey, she has virtually transformed herself into the other: “plus rien ne me distingue d’un vrai Kazak” (342). Mannin is much less attracted by geographical otherness and hostile landscapes, but rather is fascinated by radical cultural otherness. Her interest in the Orient focuses on the golden domes of Samarkand, on the blue tiles of the Registan, on the turbans and the bazars. Mannin exhibits a distinctly modernist taste for the primitive over the civilised: “I find myself recalling that Gaugin abandoned the civilised life of Paris for uncivilised content in the South Seas” (290). Mannin however will never resemble a Kazak. She tends to domesticate otherness, likening the Eastern rural villages to Irish ones. The different responses of these two writers to otherness is perhaps best encapsulated in their opposite responses to a situation which both experience: exhausted and nearing the end of their journey, faced with the inevitable queue at the station and risking not being able to acquire tickets in comfortable, “soft” compartments, Mannin uses her status as a foreigner to jump the queue (321) whilst Maillart refuses this option, misses two trains and eventually travels in a cattle wagon with the locals (177-180). Whilst Maillart’s narrative ends with her first glimpse of “civilisation” – the end of the “real” journey – Mannin narrates her return to “civilised” Moscow with some relief. Here she can embrace normality by going to the ballet and throwing a dinner party (345)! Mannin is a Western middle class intellectual stimulated by her contact with the East, but she concludes, echoing Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven, “Never more” (348). Maillart, we feel, really is a nomad who will never cease to travel; her openness to the other is an altogether more modern perspective, which is probably why her books, unlike Mannin’s, are still in print.

18The enormous geographical and cultural scope of Mannin’s and Maillart’s texts has an important political implication. Writers who travelled less extensively certainly do also represent Russia as not-Europe and as both Asian and Oriental. However, the journeys undertaken by Mannin and Maillart take them right into Asia, to the places where Soviet control is weakest. Haldane argues in Truth Will Out that to associate the USSR with Marxism, a philosophy derived from the experience of European industrial revolutions, is to Westernise Russia and to deny her Asian identity. Mannin’s and Maillart’s texts resist the mythical homogenisation of 1930s Russia as a worker’s state by illustrating its regional diversity. Both texts depict the relationship of the Soviet power to the Asian regions as one of coloniser to colonised. The result is that Soviet otherness appears as much less radically different from the West than the less Sovietised parts of the country. These texts thus implicitly question the whole Soviet project from quite a different perspective. Instead of asking whether the Soviet regime is acceptable in theory or working in practice, they suggest that the sheer diversity and size of the country might be the deciding factor. Their interrogation of the Soviet project is cultural and geographical, rather than ideological, though it is still clearly political.

19The choice of fiction as a textual response to a visit to the Soviet Union presented further possibilities for textual recreations of the USSR. Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned combines a utopian and a dystopian discourse in order to give an account of the author’s hopes and her fears regarding Russia and the possibilities for socialism in her own country. To do this, Mitchison goes beyond the confines of realism. The novel describes the life story of Dione and her husband, Tom, and their extended family, their involvement in Labour politics in the fictional Midlands towns of Sallington and Marshbrook Bridge, their life at the family home in Scotland, and their life in Oxford where Tom is a don. Much of the novel is based on Mitchison’s real life experience. The novel’s dominant realist mode is punctuated with a fantasy discourse, introduced in the opening pages where the reader meets Dione reading the legend of Green Jean, a Scottish mother murdered as a witch in the seventeenth century. Fantasy is used throughout the text to explore female identity, as stream-of-consciousness sections concretise female characters’ fears as elephants, as “kelpies” and as the threatening “Campbell Women”.

20The retour de l’URSS narrative occupies roughly one fifth of the novel, some 100 pages. Elizabeth Maslen has described this as “a highly romantic view of idyllic existence in the Soviet Union” (200). The utopianism of this textual interlude derives largely from the representation of Oksana, a Russian woman the couple befriends, with whom Tom enjoys a sexual liaison in the idyllic rural setting of the Crimea. The USSR thus represents not only political progress, but also the sexual freedom which underpins a progressive marriage free from bourgeois norms of fidelity. For Tom, the USSR is a sexual and a political utopia:

God, I like this place. Socialism in action – I’m so sick of theory. It makes me feel that what I’ve been after all these years isn’t just dead and academic as it sometimes seems to be – specifically at the end of term – but something alive that’s quite likely to be really going to happen soon. (304)

If only he could be happy and innocent like this always, stripped and new-born. (323)

21Sex becomes politics as Oksana interprets the relationship for Tom as a microcosm of international socialism:

We shall not let this – personal thing – disturb us afterwards. We will be working together for the same thing, I in my country, you in yours. We will always be together in that way. (332)

22Donald MacLean, a Scottish riveter, exiled in secret to the USSR with Dione’s help after he has murdered one of Sallington’s more prominent capitalists, is also a vehicle for the representation of the USSR as utopia. He too resolves his sexual hang-ups in Russia and finds a Russian worker to marry. His letters to Dione present an idealised view of collectivised industry in Kharkov which contrasts sharply with his experiences of unemployment at home (363-365; 373-376).

23Dione is not uncritical of the USSR. Whilst she views Tom’s affair with Oksana as theoretically ideal, in practice she finds it an emotional strain. In Russia, this socialist finds herself “assailed by all kinds of Liberalism”, unable to tolerate the constant streams of propaganda and worried by Soviet orthodoxy; she does not demur from Lady Nancy Ellis’s worries about the true position of women. “One way and another”, she remarks, “all kinds of serpents erected their heads in Paradise” (295-296). Dione is acutely aware of her conflictual identity as a wealthy and culturally privileged middle-class socialist who desires social justice but cannot relish the loss of material comfort this would entail for her personally and, more importantly, for her children. She knows that she is therefore “a secret heretic” (67), she knows that if bloody revolution does comes to England, she is one of those who would not die for her beliefs but would “be found safe in North Oxford when it was all over” (125).

24The final chapters of the novel are a dystopian fantasy in which Dione sees a violent counter-revolution in England through a hollow stone presented to her by the ghost of Green Jean. Dione imagines that her sons have been victims of counter-revolutionary reprisals, and that she is led off to witness the executions of Tom and other Sallington Labour friends. These chapters strikingly dramatise Dione’s fear of the consequences of a real socialist revolution, which she has expressed at various points throughout the text. This fantasised ending problematises the whole notion of the desirability of a socialist revolution of any sort in England, which has been the main political theme of the novel. Such a reading is in line with Nattie Golubov’s reading of English “ethical socialist” writers such as Mitchison who were “cautious about the possibility, desirability and extent of any radical change” and whose “political writing was issued as a warning” (36). This is obvious from the title of Mitchison’s novel, derived from the book’s last lines when Dione wakens from her dream and remarks to Tom, “We have been warned” (553).

25This novel uses a non-realist narrative form to dramatise a thorny question posed in general terms for European intellectuals by revolutionary politics and, more specifically, by the existence of the USSR: whether or not revolutionary violence is justifiable. By sidestepping realism, Mitchison is able to articulate a radical contradiction within her own political thought, to which she simply has no answer, not even a provisional one – even though she fully realises that in the contemporary political environment, an answer must be found. For the novel’s utopian Soviet interlude and its fantasised dystopian conclusion do not cancel each other out, but coexist, making it impossible to decide whether the text is for or against revolution. This sort of radical political agnosticism, which verges on political despair, had no place in inter-war reportage or in travel literature. It could only find expression in fiction.

The Genre of Conversion

26Emmanuel Bouju has defined engagement etymologically in the following terms:

Car si l’engagement désigne, dans une première approximation, le geste par lequel un sujet promet et se risque dans cette promesse, entreprend et met en gage quelque chose de lui-même dans l’entreprise, ce geste, entre caution et pari, semble devoir déterminer des choix d’écriture, contraindre des modes de lecture. (11)

27Such a definition suggests that all political writing must have an autobiographical element – the author herself stands as a surety for the text’s message as she positions herself, via the text, in a particular relationship to a specific cause. This is not to propose any straightforward relationship between “authorial intention” and “textual meaning”, but rather to affirm that the author is – and desires to be – responsible for her discourse, even though, ultimately, its meaning exceeds her control. Retour de l’URSS narratives bring this relationship between text and author into particularly sharp focus, because they rely on the assertion of authenticity which underpins any literature of témoignage: the pact between writer and reader is based on the experience of the writer and her ability to make that experience into writing. As Mazuy points out, this was exactly the pact on which the Communist Party relied in order to transform the journey into propaganda: the récit de voyage was “authentique par essence” and its purpose was both to transmit and to create “une croyance fondée sur le témoignage” (206). Communist propagandists did not of course take account of textual excess, preferring to deny the possibility that aspects of committed discourse might get out of the Party’s interpretative control.

28Particular “choix d’écriture” can reveal a particular relationship to engagement. There appears to be a close relationship between the willingness, or ability, of an author to express doubt about their personal commitment, and their willingness, or ability, to write fiction. It is not a question of a positive choice in favour of a particular genre, but rather a negative choice against fiction on the part of an intellectual who was previously a writer of fiction. Such writers tend to portray this choice against fiction as beyond their conscious control, as an inability to write fiction, and as a process by which politics takes over from fiction at a particular period in their lives. Writing in 1949 in Truth Will Out, Charlotte Haldane said:

It was interesting to note, as I now looked back on it all, that during the entire eight years of my anti-Fascist activities, my creative impulse had been anaesthetised, sublimated in the excitements into which I had plunged – political battles, constant changes of scene, travel, meetings, speeches, and encounters with hundreds of strange new human beings. (270)

29This is an experience she shared with Gide, the most famous of all authors of retour de l’URSS narratives, whose fellow-travelling years are generally seen as a fallow period in terms of his literary creativity, and who remarked in 1935: “Depuis quatre ans que les questions sociales me préoccupent, je n’écris plus” (André Gide et notre temps 57; see DeDomenico 183). Haldane and Gide’s public relationships to communism were not dissimilar: Gide, the grand old man of communist-inspired cultural antifascism in France, and Haldane, communist journalist and wife of the scientist J. B. S. Haldane, leading light of British intellectual communism. Since both had a significant public role as intellectual friends of communism in their national context, neither was in a position to express doubt without risking a complete renunciation of this role. The radical doubt about the USSR expressed in Mitchison’s novel throws Haldane and Gide’s literary-political careers into relief: might their avoidance of fiction during their period of closest association with communism be explained as a fear of the power of fiction to explore and express doubt on the part of two writers who were already aware of just what fiction could achieve? Did they fear an inevitable link between fiction and polysemy that might betray their protestations of certainty in other contexts? Did they fear the tendency of fiction to escape interpretive control?

30The relationships between doubt and genre bring us to the question of political conversion, or rather, to the textual expression of political conversion. For whilst Russian Newsreel does not express conversion, Haldane later constructed her experience of the USSR as a negative conversion story. As we have seen, for a British communist writer to write against the Soviet Union in 1941 would not have been straightforward. But in 1949, in Truth Will Out, Haldane stated repeatedly and clearly that she was convinced by communism when she set off for the USSR, and had decided to leave the party by the time she came home. She describes her communism at the time of the trip as fanatical but sincere (261), and her decision as a “change of front” (264) and as a “defection” (204). In one sense, Haldane’s experience gives the lie to Mazuy’s argument that there are no negative conversion stories as a result of a visit to the USSR, though in another, it proves Mazuy’s point, since Haldane did not express her conversion in Russian Newsreel. According to Mazuy, all apparent positive conversions were in fact prepared in advance and were the result of a deliberate mythologisation of visit-as-conversion for propaganda purposes, whilst all negative conversions resulted from pre-existing doubts. This, for Mazuy, was Gide’s case:

Gide part pour l’URSS avec plus de doutes que de certitudes et sans véritable enthousiasme. Le voyage ne va faire que cristalliser et extérioriser un processus de rupture amorcé plusieurs mois auparavant. (157)

31The question of Gide’s opinions about the USSR before his departure is arguably less clear-cut than Mazuy here implies. Whilst Marshall has identified “prefigurations of his break with the U.S.S.R in 1936 in his writings on religion, orthodoxy and the artist” and suggests that “his disillusion was not totally unprepared or unexpected” (43, 44), Hollander speaks of “his drastic change of attitude” (Gide and Soviet Communism 164). In contrast, Haldane’s reconstruction of events in 1949 denies any possibility of doubt before her visit. Nonetheless, both writers mythologised their visits as negative conversions, and both avoided fiction until they had publicly distanced themselves from their earlier commitment. Both writers depicted the absence of freedom as detrimental to creativity in their conversion narratives:

Du moment que la révolution triomphe, et s’instaure, et s’établit, l’art court un terrible danger, un danger presque aussi grand que celui que lui font courir les pires oppressions des fascismes: celui d’une orthodoxie. L’art qui se soumet à une orthodoxie, fût-elle celle de la plus saine des doctrines, est perdu. (Gide Retour de l’U.R.S.S. 89)

32Any active or deliberate attempt to discipline [the artist], however, to confine his talent, modest or great, within a social or political or religious straightjacket, must inevitably cramp his style, literally as well as figuratively; dampen his fires, and turn him sooner or later into a cliché-monger and a hack [...] (Haldane Truth Will Out 311-312)

33Neither Haldane nor Gide found a means of combining politics with literature that was guaranteed to avoid both the expression of doubt and the descent into hack work.

34We cannot know whether Gide “really” had serious doubts before he left, or whether Haldane “really” was completely certain: this, in Neal Wood’s words, is forever concealed in their minds and hearts. But we can ask textual questions: what were the conditions of possibility for expressing a conversion in a text? How did those conditions of possibility – or impossibility – condition genre choices made by writers? Haldane judged 1941 to be an impossible moment to create a high-profile negative conversion story, while Gide believed 1936 to be an appropriate moment to express his doubts, despite advice to the contrary, given the political situation in Spain (Sheridan 506-508). And until the moment was deemed to be ripe for doubt, for both writers, fiction was impossible.

35At the beginning of his study of Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander offers the following definition of the Western intellectual:

Intellectuals in Western societies at once articulate, occasionally attempt to solve, and sometimes themselves create certain social problems and conflicts. Their self-images too are often ambiguous, replete with paradox as they combine self-doubt with a sense of entitlement to influence, assertions of powerlessness with claims on power, humility with self-righteousness. (4)

36Women’s retour de l’URSS narratives provide a means to analyse the ways in which British and French women between the wars articulated, solved and created social problems and experienced and expressed both their doubt and their certainty.

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Angela KERSHAW, « French and British Female Intellectuals and the Soviet Union. The Journey to the USSR, 1929 – 1942 »E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 7, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 01 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Aston University
Angela Kershaw lectures in French at Aston University, where she teaches modern French and European culture, French language and translation studies. Her main research interest is in inter-war French literature and politics, on which she is about to publish two new books: Forgotten Engagements: Women, Literature and the Left in 1930s France, and Women in Europe between the Wars: Politics, Culture and Society (co-ed. with Angela Kimyongur). She is currently working on the novels of Irène Némirovsky.

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