The great northern seaports of Archangel and Murmansk have been during the war the only uncurtained windows into ordinary life inside Soviet Russia.
A Catholic journalist recently returned from these ports was awed by the hold of the secret police, the ignorance of the Soviet citizen of world affairs, and the elaborate propaganda organisation directed at the British and American seaman.
From a Special Correspondent
Since the Allied convoys to Arctic Russia ended with victory in Europe, few travellers have visited the northern U.S.S.R. I have just returned from a voyage to Archangel and Murmansk, in the first British vessel to bring cargo to these ports since hostilities ceased.
Here in these northern towns I found the rule of the Secret Police severe, and living conditions gradually recovering from a wartime state not much better than that of the Occupied Countries. Religion appeared a matter of complete indifference, and entirely in the background. Prostitution had increased greatly. Despite the war the local educational standard had remained high, and an elaborate system for spreading propaganda among British and other foreign seamen had continued throughout.
While the Arctic seaports are hardly typical—with their timber-built towns cut off by huge wastes of marsh and forest-land—they are especially interesting as having been one of Russia's main channels of contact with Western Etirope during four years of war.
The city of Archangel, with its surrounding villages, is reputed to have a population of seine 300,000. A main centre of monastic life in old Russia (an Archangel Testament of the eleventh century is one of the treasures of the Lenin Library in Moscow), the town, still a provincial capital, now has only two churches remaining open. In Murmansk there is none.
By the Soviet Constitution of 1936, religious education is. not forbidden provided it is given outside schbol hours. I made enquiries as to the present situation in this matter. through Intourist, the Government agency to which every traveller and fournahst is referred for information. There a charming young lady had -difficulty in grasping what I wanted. Finally she told ow that, so far as she knew. there was no religious activity of this kind locally. though in any case such matters would come under a committee of the provincial government.
It appeared that the general attitude towards religion was simply complete lack of interest. Everyone with whom one spoke, however, was at extraordinary pains to repeat that " persecution wet non-existent," while explaining at the same time that the Government could and did make use of its freedom to spread materialist propaganda through schools, press and radio! To many of my questions as to religious activity in the Soviet Union. the answer was given—perhaps with some truth— that the number of "believers': was now so small that there was no " demand " for further concessions.
It was striking that in these import. ant gateways to Communist Russia, where the Soviet authorities endeavour to give a good impression even to such transient visitors as merchant seamen, almost every activity was dominated by the Secret Police. Though most Allied seamen arrive with a feeling of friendly admiration for the part played by the Russians during the war. intercourse between Russians and foreigners is in
general discouraged, and every visitor is kept under vigilance.
The possibility of obtaining any detailed information as to prevailing conditions. except through official channels, is in practice rendered extremely difficult. It appears that the Government arc finding some difficulty in reconciling the returning men of the Red Army to the necessarily low Soviet standard of living, and this no doubt is an additional cause for political police activity, HIGH LEVEL OF EDUCATION In both Archangel and Murmansk, many of the peasant class have reached a high level of education under the Soviet system. and the proportion of university students is remarkable. In them, ports, a haven of refuge for so long to the gallant seamen of the Arctic convoys, the people are actually more than normally curious about British affairs. I was asked many questions as to the new Labour Governntent. but I found that Russia's own policy, such as the recent demands of M. Molotov for concessions in the Mediterranean area, were often quite unknown to my questioners.
Even during the worst days of the war, when the port of Murmansk itself came near to capture by the Germans, Allied seamen found a warm welcome at the seamen's clubs run by V.O.K.S. (the Soviet organization for " cultural relations with foreign countries "). It has not been so generally realized, however, that these clubs have been an ideal channel for Communist propaganda, a fact which the Russians had in mind from the beginning.
Books are distributed, and lectures given in English by trained workers. Perhaps the most ingenious, if crude method is that of the " reading contest." The seamen taking part are given selected passages of Soviet literature to read aloud to their assembled comrades. one of whom is appointed judge. Marks are awarded for clarity, expression, etc., but since every competitor may receive a honk prize, and all have had to listen for an hour or so to Soviet propaganda, everyone leaves satisfied !
For the first time for four years, no Allied ships will visit the White Sea ports all this winter, The Russian Government will employ no icebreakers. The British and American Naval missions have returned home, both from here and from the ice-free port of Murmansk.
Local people deplore the loss of even this slight contact with Western Europe, and it is possible that conditions in northern Russia have been affected more than the Soviet authorities would care to admit through the necessary co-operation and association in these seaports during the war.