Russian to judgment on Soviet experience

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TEN YEARS on from the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction, signs of a thaw in the Cold War were becoming evident in November 1973. ANDREW LEVETT looks back on one woman’s visit to the Soviet Union in the cause of peace.

BE careful what you wish for.

That was the moral Mail writer Margaret O’Rourke drew from an interview with Elsie Reed 40 years ago this week after the Hartlepool Labour Party agent returned from a ten-day trip to Moscow.

It wasn’t economic or democratic issues with the communist system that led to the warning, her concern was the impact of absolute equality on women.

Elsie reported that in Russia middle-aged women sweep the streets, clear roads of snow, work high up on 14-storey buildings as bricklayers and do the same heavy labour as men in car factories.

Elsie told the Mail: “I wonder if the so called Women’s Lib people would be prepared to accept such a situation.”

She was in Moscow as one of 140 British delegates to the World Congress of Peace Forces, which hosted 3,000 people from 13 countries, with the aim of increasing understanding between nations.

For Elsie, the trip was also a chance to meet Russian people and see their way of life.

“They are a great people for culture, “ she told the Mail. “They are very proud of what they have achieved in the new Russia and have made remarkable progress.”

She was particularly impressed by the standards of cleanliness – “you wouldn’t see so much as a cigarette butt littering the streets” – and also admired the public buildings, which were “great marble palaces beautifully designed and maintained”.

Workers’ houses were all very similar in big high-rise blocks, Elsie observed, but “for all that they were very similar, the people seemed happy and content, although of course we didn’t get much of an opportunity to met the ordinary people”.

Elsie had visited car plants in England “where the assembly lines are so fast they can reduce people to physical wrecks” and was impressed by the slower pace she saw at a Moskvich factory, as well as industrial relations there.

“Because the programme is worked out between managers and workers there is no question of strikes,” she said.

She also admired the education system: “Here the child’s potential is carefully looked at and the child is encouraged in whatever ability it shines in.”

Margaret wondered if the Russians were too good to be true but Elsie replied: “They take pride in their country and actually they have every right to. I was very impressed by what I saw.”

Elsie, who died in 2011 aged 89, was so impressed she planned to take a bus party of people to Russia to see for themselves.

Margaret concluded her report: “I don’t think I would be averse to making such a trip – and I know a few Women’s Lib types I’d like to take along.”

Did the bus trip take place? Did you go to Russia?

Contact Andrew Levett by emailing or write to him at Hartlepool Mail, New Clarence House, Wesley Square, Hartlepool, TS24 8BX.