D. J. Stone
Windsor Grammar School Staff)
In September 1959
Mr. Stone went to the Soviet Union with thirty-five other members
of the Oxford University Conservative Club. They travelled in
a 1939 London double-decker bus.
There is a photo of the students' actual bus RT73 here.
Copyright restrictions prevent its inclusion in this article.
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"How much farther?"
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"About twenty kilometres, I think. We should
see some real houses soon.
"That'll make a change."
Again silence fell and the bus rumbled on along the
black strip of tarmac, which lay across the gently undulating
country like a straight ribbon as far as the eye could see.
Another village passed by with nothing to distinguish
it from dozens of villages that had gone before. There were the
same wooden, single-storeyed houses, the same little gardens,
the same darkly-dressed men and women, and the same carts drawn
by small chestnut horses under high-arched wooden yokes. Children
with close-cropped heads looked just the same as the thousands
of others we had seen all the way across Germany and Poland.
Within less than a minute we were beyond the village, and from
the crest of the next rise we saw in the distance the bright
golden domes of a church, which stood on its own little hill
as proudly as it was able, surrounded by the purple shadow of
Minsk, the capital city of Byelo-Russia.
The approach to very few large towns is in any way
attractive or impressive, but at least we now saw two and three-storeyed
houses built of brick and plaster. The road rapidly deteriorated,
and within a short time we were trundling across uneven, cobbled
roads, searching for a garage in order to fill our mercifully
capacious fuel tank and also to replenish a leaking flywheel,
which did not object at all to a syrupy drink of pungent vegetable
After an unintentional tour of the city in search
of the hotel, we were surprised to see the wooden houses which
we had associated with villages, scattered here in an apparently
aimless manner; even quite near to the centre of the town; and
the bumpy road was constantly busy picking its cobbled way through
the dusty and drab confusion.
Our hotel stood on a street corner not far from the
middle of the city and in a district which did not seem quite
so alien. The people did not give us a chance to appreciate our
relatively familiar surroundings. Within seconds of coming to
a halt we were hemmed in by inquisitive men, women and children,
at first gazing in disbelief at a double-decker bus and then
pushing and pummelling to get closer, to touch the bus, to touch
the clothes of its passengers, to look inside and eventually
to ask cautious questions: "Who are you?" "Where
have you come from?" "How long have you been travelling?"
"Where are you going?" "How long will you be in
Minsk?" And after five minutes of such enquiries, the questions
which we had anticipated began to be heard: "Why are the
Americans building rocket bases in Britain?" "Is it
true that you are preparing for war?" "How much does
a British workman earn?" "How much is a loaf of bread
in your country?" Later we were to have succinct answers
to all these questions and many like them, complete with sterling
converted to roubles, the Russian for "deterrent" never
far from the tip of the tongue, and so on. But at this early
stage in our travels the buffeting and scrambling of both young
and old to come close to w almost led to a disorderly assembly,
and so we were relieved to reach the calm of the hotel dining-room,
where we sat down to a meal of vegetable soup with a chunk of
meat lurking on the bottom and a spoonful of sour cream swimming
dejectedly on the top. Such a typically Russian dish was followed
by a very well-done steak with boiled potatoes and cabbage, and
a surprisingly tasty meal was completed by preserved fruit and
a glass of milkless tea. Steak was inevitable at the hotels which
we visited, but it was a concession to Western taste rather than
a part of the Russians' staple diet. The reasoning apparently
was that all Westerners were Americans, Americans ate steak,
and SD all Westerners would have steak.
Unusual sights and experiences were now and then
interrupted by small details which were recognised and considered
normal, meat and two veg. for example, but the events of the
rest of that day in Minsk were quite lacking in anything I could
seize and say: this was what I had expected.
After dinner we were at liberty to go where we pleased,
and since evening was drawing on we wasted no time in leaving
the hotel and dispersing to the four quarters of the town.
A friend and I decided to see the town together,
and set off in the direction of the main street.
The extremely broad thoroughfare with little traffic,
bordered by tall, grey, uniformly square buildings, broad footpaths,
and lighting provided by white electric lamps on heavy cast-iron
posts, was a spectacle with which we were later to become very
familiar. Many people were in the streets, partly because it
was Sunday (the Russians still do not work on Sunday) and partly
because the day had been very hot and the cool of evening was
now very welcome.
We moved among the casually strolling crowd and quite
suddenly found ourselves on a large square which was virtually
deserted. The main street continued along one side and similar
tall grey buildings led down to the left. On the far side the
ground fell away beyond the low wall bordering the square, and
a very large figure of Lenin. perhaps twenty feet tall, stood
out blackly against the evening sky. Ahead of us the fourth side
was almost completely filled by the city hall with its heavily
proportioned, colonnaded: facade in a poor imitation of an Ionic
portico. Lights were on in the doorways and we made our way across
the square to take a closer look. Young people were entering
by ones and twos through one of the doors where an elderly woman
was - as far as we could tell, checking tickets.
We stood and watched for a few minutes and were then
asked by the woman what we wanted. We asked what was going on
inside and learned that it was a dance, Could we go in? We asked.
Had we tickets? No, we were students from England. At this the
woman scuttled away and returned soon with a middle-aged man
who approached us with hand outstretched and a beaming smile,
but nevertheless asked us just the same questions as the woman
had done. He went on to explain that the local Comsomol branch
was holding its weekly dance inside and he would be pleased to
let us watch. Being cynical about this, the first Party member
we had come into direct contact with, we were quick to note that
his smile was switched on for no longer than necessary, but we
followed him into a large hall, where perhaps three hundred young
people were dancing a foxtrot to the music of a strange band
which was assembled in the balcony at the far end. The group
consisted of two saxophones, two cornets and a tuba, and the
music which it produced had the insistent rhythm which one expected,
but also a heavy martial quality which did not contribute much
joviality to the crowd on the floor below. The dancers were nevertheless
apparently enjoying themselves, and very few were standing along
the walls. Everyone was tidily dressed but no more, and there
was clearly no competition among the girls to appear prettier
than each other. Indeed, there was no evidence that any of them
was intent on appearing attractive. Any lack of colour, however,
did not seem to affect their enjoyment.
The music stopped and a man with the smile, evidently
a master of ceremonies, raised a hand and called for silence.
Guessing what was about to happen we considered beating a retreat,
only to find that everyone was already looking at us.
"Comrades, we are very honoured that we have
with us this evening two guests from the West who wish to see
how we in the Soviet Union live, and particularly to observe
the activities of the Communist Youth Movement in its endeavours
to bring the teaching of our dear Lenin to all young people throughout
the Socialist countries." We had in fact spun some such
story in order to get into the hall, although we no longer considered
ourselves quite as artful as at first we had thought.
At the end of the little speech the smile switched
on for just long enough to start a ripple of applause. For an
instant everyone stood and gazed, making us feel even more sheepish;
but as if on a signal the crowd surged towards and round us,
talking and calling out and causing such a babble and crush that
we were unable to answer more than a handful of the many questions.
The enquiries were much the same as those we had been bombarded
with earlier in the day. "What work do you do when you are
not studying?" (Most Russian students work as labourers
when they are not at technical school or university.) "Do
you belong to a youth movement in England?" "Do many
people belong to any youth movement?"
The smile flashed its silent message once again and
two pleasant-looking well-built girls made their way through
the crowd, and the band struck up again. For a second time we
contemplated flight, but the way was blocked even more effectively
now, and in next to no time two couples found themselves in awful
isolation in the centre of the floor, with two Englishmen feeling
very English and trying vainly to follow the steps of their partners
in the Soviet version of yet another foxtrot. Whether it was
out of sympathy for us or whether the electric smile telegraphed
another message, after a few agonising minutes of shuffling before
many critical eyes we were joined by the other couples. Any relief
I felt was speedily banished since my partner's considerable
confidence only increased, and I was now very hard pressed, not
just to master the thankfully sluggish steps of the dance, but
now also to make small talk. I cannot pretend to have had much
success in either direction.
It was almost ten-thirty now, and after an announcement
concerning the following Sunday's merrymaking the dance was over
and there was a general move for the doors. Some half dozen young
men, mainly workers in an engineering factory, attached themselves
to us as we made our way out on to the square and began the walk
to our hotel. We were now able to deal with all the questions,
and even to ask some ourselves. The young men were very friendly
and anxious not to offend. One or two comments were clearly intended
as jibes, but the originators of them were instantly reproached
for their lack of manners. "What kind of factory does your
father work for?" "What! he works for himself! Does
he pay his employees, then?" "How much?" "What
do they think of working for a capitalist?" "Do they
belong to a trade union?" Any assurances that they seemed
quite contented with their lot only produced an incredulous silence.
But never for long. The questions kept coming, and both of us
were kept in a continual state of furious concentration by our
efforts to satisfy their apparently insatiable curiosities.
When we reached the main street it was almost deserted,
the shop windows were dark, and there was for us an impression
of bareness, even desolation, which served to make our excited
chatter sound more noisy than necessary.
At last we reached our turning, and shook hands warmly
with each of our new friends. The party broke up and the two
of us walked quietly along the dark street, breaking the silence
now and then by reminding ourselves of the small, easily-forgotten
details of the evening's happenings.
Guests in Russian hotels are obliged to make up their
own beds; an unexpected duty which on this occasion was made
to seem even more unusual by the substantial, leather armchairs
in my room, the brightly coloured carpet and, above all, the
large, heavy writing-desk, with pens, ink, headed stationery
and-a telephone. The strange mixture of city sophistication and
rural simplicity was further emphasised a moment later. As I
unfolded the single, thick, dark-green blanket the air was filled
with a white powder. But one soon becomes tolerant of, if not
actually adapted to, one's surroundings, and in a short time,
with the faint clinical smell of insecticide still in my nostrils,
I fell into a peaceful sleep, still wondering how Sunday-night
hops in Minsk would fare without the laboured, thumping rhythm
of the decadent, bourgeois foxtrot.
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