Straw without Bricks: I Visit the Soviets

Date of publication
Published reviews
Cummings, A. J. ‘Life in Soviet Russia’. The Listener, vol. 17, no. 426, 10 Mar. 1937, p. XV; Iles, Francis. ‘Forerunner of the Modern Dictators’. Daily Telegraph, no. 25506, 20 Feb. 1937, p. 8; MacDonell, A. G. ‘Miss Delafield in Russia’. The Observer, 28 Feb. 1937, p. 8; Mavrogordato, E. E. ‘Miss Delafield in Russia’. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1830, 27 Feb. 1937, p. 140; ‘Miss Delafield In Russia’. The Times, no. 47619, 27 Feb. 1937, p. 11; Stocks, Mary. ‘Miss Delafield Looks at Russia’. The Manchester Guardian, 12 Mar. 1937, p. 9.
Delafield, at the suggestion of her US publisher, arranges to visit the USSR. She is initially very unwilling to do this, and tries to think of various reasons why she should not, but succumbs out of curiosity and financial motivations. Her publisher is keen that she should stay on a collective farm, but this seems to be impossible; she is refused a worker’s visa. But once in Moscow, she is put in touch with the Seattle Commune, a farm established by a group of American workers in 1922. She goes to stay at the farm, now mostly staffed by Russians. Her accommodation is extremely simple, there is a general lack of privacy and the toilet arrangements are a communal cess-pit. Meals are taken communally in a dining-hall; the food is monotonous but not unhealthy. Laundry and washing arrangements are also communal: Delafield carries hot water to her own room. The farm is now a large affair with an elected committee to manage it, with its own school and small library. Delafield makes friends with Eva, a multilingual Estonian who, once a nurse, now deals with all medical matters at the Commune; Eva admits the limitations of commune life but is a committed socialist. It is hard for Delafield to undertake any work - she is treated as a guest and the other women think she is too thin and frail to do heavy work - but she does work in the bakery, in the kitchen and with the children. She is constantly concerned about hygiene at the Commune and this only gets worse when it rains and the ground becomes a mass of mud and puddles; her walking boots are useless, but Eva lends her some rubber ones. Delafield is eventually forced to leave because she has toothache. A party is arranged to mark her departure; she gives a short speech and is asked many detailed questions about her views on the USSR and her life in England. The next day, she has a long and uncomfortable journey back to Rostov and her Intourist hotel, which now seems incredibly luxurious. The book then steps back in time to her journey out to Russia, and introduces her to Mrs. Pansy Baker, an American with a great enthusiasm for Communism and Soviet Russia, and Miss Blake and Miss Bolton, two young women who live and travel together. They arrive at Leningrad (St Petersburg) which is shabby, although its streets are thronged with people. Delafield is appalled to find that her Intourist hotel expects her to share with Mrs. Baker. They undertake some sightseeing with an official guide, whose explanations are, unsurprisingly, undiluted Soviet propaganda. They are very proud of their progress in women’s equality in particular, and access to abortion, childcare and employment for women is often mentioned. Delafield finds their attitude to the victims of revolutionary violence heartless in the extreme; she also dislikes the lack of individuality among the people. She comments more humorously on the need for patience in dealing with any matters in the USSR, and the amount of waiting that everyone seems to do. After travelling ‘hard’ class by train to Moscow, Delafield is tired but receptive to the beauty of Red Square. She tries to track down an English friend, Peter, and when she does they are delighted to see each other again. They visit, with another guide (nicknamed the Little Monster), a Mother and Baby Welfare clinic, which they approve of, and the Marriage and Divorce Court, which is baffling. Delafield sells some of her spare possessions to a woman she meets at a drinks party, and has some difficulty in preventing her buying all her possessions. Delafield’s shopping in Moscow is limited to volumes two and three of The Fairchild Family (Mary Martha Sherwood) which she is astonished to find in a bookshop. In Rostov, after her stay on the farm, Delafield meets an English economics lecturer and - trapped in their hotel by rain - the two women discuss their travels. There are things they think good in the USSR - the prison system, at least as far as they have seen it (and for ordinary criminals not political prisoners); some of the health and educational facilities - but the lack of privacy, the cult of Lenin and Stalin and the suppression of other religion concern them. Delafield visits a girls’ school; the girls have high aspirations (to be doctors, architects and so on) but are given no domestic training as communal kitchens and living remove the need for this. Religious education, if any, is only given by parents. She meets a French Savoyard agronome, who is very interested in the price of everything and attaches himself to her. He is suspicious that things are being hidden from the tourists. They visit a state farm, clearly a show-place, and are prevented from visiting a second farm, which enrages him. Delafield manages a short conversation in Russian, and is surprised how much she understands. Familiar fellow-tourists depart, and a rather isolated Delafield travels - ‘soft’ class this time - to Odessa. In Odessa, she is reunited with the Savoyard agronome, whose paranoia has increased, and they view a solar eclipse together. He then learns that he will not be able to exchange his roubles for francs, and is outraged all over again. Delafield attempts to find out how pets are viewed in the USSR but beyond farm dogs, a few stray cats and some sad caged birds, she sees very few - although there is a grey kitten in her hotel that is the especial favourite of one of the hall porters. Back in Rostov, which she likes, Delafield visits an iron foundry, partially staffed by women; despite the guide’s bests efforts, she is not convinced that such heavy work is good for women. She makes another friend, Miss D., but is baffled as to why she has come to Russia; she is distinguished-looking, upper class, rather vague and prone to getting into scrapes, and does not really seem interested in the country. They are taken to visit a hospital together, and are appalled when they are taken into the maternity ward where women are in labour. Afterwards, Miss D. confides that she has - against the rules - tipped her waiter, and her toast has been hot for every meal thereafter. At the beach in Odessa, Delafield sees evidence to counter the frequent assertion that there are no prostitutes in the USSR. As her stay comes to an end, she feels the need to speak her mind about the Soviet system to somebody, She tries this with a Russian doctor, but she counters all of Delafield’s criticisms - about the lack of privacy, the lack of choice and individuality - with statements upholding the Soviet system. At her actual departure, Delafield realises that she will need to hide her notebook somehow, and eventually decides to hide it under her clothes. After a long, tense and hot wait at customs, eventually she makes it onto her ship, regretting that she did not really ever speak her mind.
Sometimes published with the title The Provincial Lady in Russia, although this is not a Provincial Lady book.