Volunteer Anna Tomkinson has been cataloguing the remarkable diaries of Margaret Collin, who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and experienced first-hand the deprivations and cruelty of Stalin’s regime. Anna writes:
Margaret Collin née Richards (1907-1999) was an astute young woman who, after leaving school between the ages of 14 or 15, educated herself through the Woman’s Cooperative Guild. Her natural intelligence ensured that she won the Mary MacArthur Scholarship in June 1930. The award was named after a pioneer of the women’s Trade Union movement, who wanted to help working-class women study in the areas of either economics or social sciences. Margaret fitted the criteria for the award: she came from a working-class background in Lincoln and went on to study economics at Ruskin College, Oxford University, with the intention of becoming a union organiser, like MacArthur, or a lecturer. Part of the scholarship also permitted her to spend time travelling on the continent.
The Library holds three slim volumes of Collin’s diaries that chronicle her travels in the Soviet Union in 1937, along with a small amount of official papers, three photographs of group portraits and four news-cuttings regarding the MacArthur scholarship. The material was generously donated to the Library some years ago by her daughter, Professor Marcia Pointon.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin exploited his role as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to manipulate the party structure to his advantage, and he eventually precipitated Trotsky’s expulsion from the party in 1927. After consolidating power, Stalin created a blueprint for what the Soviet Union would look like under his leadership. He wanted to industrialise the USSR and to bring it into the twentieth century, claiming that they must make the progress of one hundred years within fifty years. As a result, much of the industrialisation process was rushed, and the eventual results shoddy and unsafe. For example, housing was problematic, with only 6% of houses in Moscow having more than one room. Even high-ranking professionals such as doctors lived in such conditions, as Collin is able to attest after speaking with a wife and son of a Moscow doctor who shared one room between them. Meanwhile many flats were also built without electric sockets, and projects such as the White Sea Canal were in reality failures, despite the fanfare that was made of them.
Stalin’s Russia was an intensely paranoid society where the secret police encouraged citizens to inform on their neighbours, workmates and family. Talented people within Soviet society were murdered during the Purges of the 1930s, particularly artists who thought independently from the Stalinist ideology. Meanwhile, a personality cult developed around Stalin, with artists painting pictures that glorified him, depicting him in a white suit to make him stand out from the crowd, and referring to him paternally as ‘Uncle Joe’, and poets writing poetry that extolled his virtues. This sycophantic praise of Stalin via art was called Socialist Realism, and it drove some artists to commit suicide rather than conform to the rigid restrictions that the state tried to impose on their work.
Collin’s diaries are crucial in enabling us to see past the fanfare that many primary sources were forced to make of industrialisation, and the cult of personality that surrounded Stalin. On August 7th Collin eloquently remarks that she has ‘never been in a land where the horizon seems so far off’, and this sense of intrigue, curiosity and astute ability to see beyond what is in front of her are what make her diaries stand out as a perceptive counter-narrative to Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Instead, her descriptions focus on the horror of the physical malnourishment of the peasants, and the intrusive intellectual constraints that prevented anyone from thinking beyond the possibilities of Stalinism. On August 5th, Collin recollects the appearances of the Russians she sees at a train station:
The peasants at these stations look dreadfully poor and some beg. The children look old before they are in their teens. In fact, the babies in their mother’s arms have expressions as on grown up faces.
Her short sentences convey her shock and loss of words, creating a harsh, condemning tone of a regime that offsets the adoring propaganda of the era, making Collin’s observations all the more insightful and important. Meanwhile, the mental suppression of Soviets is revealed to equal that of the physical poverty that many languished in. On August 5th, Collin writes of how she asked a man about the past and present of Russia, to which he would not commit himself to making a comment, while on August 18th, she spoke with a teacher who was able to find ‘no reason at all why the [show] trials took place’.
Collin is not taken in by the culture of fear around her, but as an outsider is able to shed new light on the regime from a much more enlightened perspective, which leads her to wonder whether ‘any real freedom of speech in politics exists at present’. She sees Socialist Realism not as utopic, but questions its democratic value. Upon witnessing someone offering a prayer to ‘Brother Stalin’, she recalls how she ‘sat with her toes curled up.’ Furthermore, rather than glorifying all aspects of Soviet culture, and revering it as progressive, Collin frequently makes reference to the fact that Soviet shops and cinemas frequently ‘fall short of our own standards’.
The diaries re-create the world of Stalin’s USSR in a vivid and honest manner, told through the eyes of an outsider who is both a tourist and critical observer. This creates a complex narrative that simultaneously allows us to be swept away on the journey with her, whilst also confronting the barbaric realities of a bygone dictatorship.
Postscript, September 2018 : Anna’s catalogue of the Margaret Collin Papers is now available online at https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/manchesteruniversity/data/gb133-mec.