Boris Frankel's memoir of 'Soviet life in the raw'

February 12, 2024
book cover
Background image: Author unknown. Published in Projector, May 1926. Public domain

No Country for Idealists: The Making of a Family of Subversives
By Boris Frankel
Ripponlea: Greenmeadows, 2023
Paperback, $34.99

Boris Frankel has written an intriguing and finely crafted memoir. In June 1956, when the tide of emigration was flowing out of the Soviet Union to the West, Frankel’s parents took their young family in the other direction, to the USSR. Unwillingly uprooted from “the last years of a happy childhood” in the Melbourne bayside suburb of St Kilda, 10-year-old Boris and his two sisters found themselves aboard ship, “departing for paradise”, in his irony-laden words.

At that time, very few Australians apart from Communist Party officials went to the USSR. Tourism was discouraged and vast sections of the country were off-limits to foreigners. It was the height of the Cold War, a period when Australia was a cultural and intellectual desert presided over by the bumptiously right-wing Robert Menzies government.

To obtain permission to emigrate to the USSR, the Frankel family had to negotiate endlessly with astoundingly ignorant and obtuse ASIO operatives. Incredibly, the head of ASIO’s Russia desk knew no Russian. The Frankels left behind a Melbourne that now, almost 70 years in the past, has largely vanished.

Born in Kerch in Tsarist Russian Crimea, Abraham Frankel left to spend time in Palestine before continuing to Australia, where he met Tania, an immigrant from what is today Belarus. Both were enthusiastic Communists for whom the USSR was the workers’ fatherland. Abraham spent much of his free time publicising the Soviet Union’s real and imaginary achievements. The Frankels, like millions of people around the world, were also devout Stalinists who saw the Soviet Union as a beacon of peace, freedom and human solidarity in a dark world.

Tania and the children were not keen on emigrating, but as Boris tells us, his father was no feminist and his mother bowed to his wishes. Abraham firmly believed that they would be raising their children in a society of culture and prosperity far superior to what existed in Australia. He dismissed negative criticism of the USSR as imperialist propaganda. Some of it was of course, and foreign Communists had the “eyewitness” testimony of some eminent non-communists to back them up.

For instance, in 1931, when Stalin’s program of forced collectivisation triggered famine across the USSR’s bread basket, the American journalist Lincoln Steffens remarked, “I have been over into the future and it works”. Seven years later, in the terrible year of 1938, the US Ambassador, Joseph E Davies, attended the rigged Moscow show trial of Old Bolsheviks and wrote, “As a trained lawyer … I arrived at the conclusion that the state had unquestionably proved its case.”

On the other hand, evidence of Stalinist tyranny was not difficult to find for those who cared to look. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were shot, including most of the Old Bolsheviks, and millions of people were deported and enslaved. The madness disarmed the USSR in the face of mounting evidence that the Nazis were planning to invade and annihilate the so-called sub-human population. But, as Aldous Huxley observed, “There are things known and things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” (or perhaps self-deception).

Abraham and Tania perceived a paradise on Earth. Aboard ship from Australia, they were blissfully unaware of the bombshell of Khrushchev’s “secret speech”, with its admissions of Stalin’s monstrous crimes. What difference knowledge of the speech would have made is difficult to say. They ignored a Soviet embassy driver in London who advised them not to go.

An arc welder by trade, Abraham refused offers of a comfortable job and accommodation in a large city. He wanted to live as an ordinary Soviet worker in the region of his birth. Cruel disillusion came swiftly. The Frankels had arrived in a ramshackle state scarcely able to provide the basics of life to the population.

Hence, the black market and corruption thrived. Frankel argues that “The popular image of totalitarian Communism in Western media and literature was of a highly bureaucratised society exercising strict control over every facet of people’s lives. The reality of the USSR we found on arrival in June 1956 was more shambolic than either rigidly controlled or hyper-organised.”

Soon, Abraham’s “long-held devotion to the propaganda image of this ‘society of the future’ was collapsing at a rapid rate”. Antisemitism was rife — puzzling for Jewish Communists who believed such prejudice had perished with Tsarism.

Stalin was dead and Soviet society had entered the comparatively liberal period of The Thaw, but meeting former innocent inmates of the Gulag was a further blow to Abraham’s certainties. The empty shops and the disgusting food did not impress. There were beggars too, some of them limbless veterans of the Great Patriotic War. Water and power were rationed, but vodka flowed freely with appalling social consequences. Collective farm workers lived in abysmal poverty. The railway system was sclerotic and housing conditions were appalling.

One of the book’s most disturbing passages is Frankel’s shocking description of his encounter with the shit-spattered open stalls of the public toilets at the Moscow railway station. Toilet paper was not provided; rather towels were hung up on hooks for all and sundry to wipe themselves with. The Party heavies, of course, had soap, clean towels, and lavatory paper.

Reading of such horror, one wonders how an allegedly “socialist” state could treat its citizens worse than dogs. Admittedly — although Frankel does not mention it — the country was still recovering from colossal war damage and the loss of 20 million people, but this cannot excuse the scandalous neglect of the people’s health and welfare.

Matters did not improve when the family settled in the small Crimean industrial town of Arshintsevo, although they did score a small apartment with its own kitchen. The town was no Potemkin village, Frankel tells us. Rather, it was “Soviet life in the raw”. Working conditions in the factory where Abraham found employment as a welder would have shocked even the most moderate Australian trade unionist.

Utterly depressed, Tania soon refused to engage with what she had come to regard as a travesty of socialism. Boris followed suit, refusing to attend school, which saw him branded as a hooligan. The family began to dream of returning to Australia. But if seeking an exit from Australia was an excruciating process, negotiating with both Soviet and Australian bureaucracy for a return was much worse.

Abraham was only permitted to return three years after his wife and children. Upon his arrival back in Melbourne, he retreated into private life, “emotionally drained”, contemptuous of the myopia of the Stalinist left and of the politics of the anti-communist right. Like millions of other zealous Communists, Abraham and Tania had been cynically used and abused.

Taking a different tack to Frankel, in spite of the dead hand of Stalinism and the Communist Party of Australia’s blind allegiance to a flawed state, party members were a progressive force to be reckoned with. Many were exemplary trade unionists who selflessly stood up for the working class. Others were prominent campaigners for peace and a variety of social justice issues. From its inception, the party stood firmly in solidarity with Aboriginal people and against the White Australia Policy.

This was in stark contrast to the Australian Labor Party, which actively promoted the White Australia Policy, presided over the disgrace of the Stolen Generations, and persecuted striking Aboriginal stockmen. Eventually the party broke with Stalinism and in the process initiated the astounding Green Bans, the world’s first and arguably most radical working-class environmental movement.

What conclusions does Frankel draw from his experiences? Quite rightly, he eschews dogma, writing that: “My lived experiences in the Soviet Union made me suspicious of blind ideological positions and allegiances and of any type of groupthink whatever its political colour.”

It is difficult to argue with this, given the shipwreck of the Soviet Union. No doubt, too, the ghost of Karl Marx would agree. After all, Marx’s motto was De omnibus dubitandum: doubt everything; the polar opposite of deadening Stalinist conformity.

One must, however, take issue with Frankel’s pessimistic view that while “Nearly all Left radicals today proclaim their anti-Stalinism … only a minority are sensitive to the complex problem of developing an environmentally sustainable and democratic political economy.”

That was indubitably true of former generations who perhaps had the Progress Publishers’ edition of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature gathering dust unopened on their bookshelves, and certainly true of the likes of Gerry Healy who claimed that “dictatorship of the proletariat means dictatorship”.

I like to think, however, that many young left radicals today identify as eco-socialists — fully aware of the need to save the planet and human society from environmental catastrophe — and that Rosa Luxemburg’s sage reminder will strike a chord: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” And as Mike Davis, the author of Planet of Slums and other classics insisted shortly before his death, “despair is not an option”.

[Correction: Since publication, Boris Frankel has contacted the reviewer to point out that he does mention the horrendous scale of destruction of the USSR in WW2 on pages 32 and 219 of his book.]

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