A 1935 trip to the Soviet Union : the June 2015 Slavonic item of the month

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Visa issued to Clinch (‘Klinch Gerbert’) by the Soviet Embassy in London (MS Add.9996/6/7).

Eighty years ago, a group of British trade unionists and co-operative members travelled to the Soviet Union for a 4,000-mile tour around European Russia and Ukraine. The archive of one delegate, Herbert Clinch, a printer from Kent, was presented to the University Library three years ago and is this month’s Slavonic item of the month.

The archive contains photographs, postcards, and notes from the Soviet Union, and additional ephemeral material such as money, cigarettes, and a poster advertising a talk Clinch gave on what he had seen.  Two articles by Clinch are also preserved in the archive: a piece he wrote for the Kent messenger in June 1935, shortly after his return, and one for the August 1935 edition of the Typographical circular.  In these, he expressed sincere admiration of the Soviet Union’s achievements.  His Kent messenger article starts:

It is not easy for me, a worker with my hands, to set down all that I saw in this marvellous country, where they do things on a scale so vast that it staggers the imagination.

The 22 British delegates sailed to Leningrad on a Soviet steamer, a journey lasting 5 days.  They spent their time in Leningrad visiting factories, schools, hospitals, and cultural institutions, before taking the train to Moscow.  There they joined a reported 3.5 million Muscovites to watch the May Day parade on Red Square (some of Clinch’s photos of this day make up the second illustration here).  Clinch also had the chance in Moscow to see some of his own line of work in operation, viewing the printing of 3 million copies of Pravda in 4 hours.

After a trip to Moscow’s Red Army Academy, the delegation headed south, to Stalingrad, where they visited a collective farm.  An inspection of sanatoria in Sochi on the Black Sea coast followed, continued in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus.  The delegation then turned west and visited eastern Ukraine, viewing factories in Kramatorsk and Kharkov, before heading back to Leningrad via Moscow.

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Clinch’s photos of the 1935 May Day parade in Red Square (from MS Add.9996/1).

Clinch was clearly amazed by what he saw in the Soviet Union, commenting favourably on almost all aspects of Soviet life.  In his articles, he discusses the positive attitude of workers towards their work and the care shown by government and management towards workers in turn, praises the integration of women into working life, and even makes positive mention of the penal system. His articles are by no means devoid of criticism, but his admiration takes very much centre stage.

How Clinch felt about what he had seen (and what he had written) in the light of subsequent news about life under Stalin, particularly in terms of the repressions of the later 1930s, are not recorded. While no Communist, Clinch had been genuinely impressed by the Soviet Union, and one can only assume that he must have struggled with the difference between what he himself had seen and what he subsequently heard from others.

Part of the archive contains material pertaining to Clinch’s life after his trip, including a large poster for his campaign in the 1938 Rochester municipal elections as the Labour candidate.  One news clipping announces the appointment of Councillor Clinch to the position of Alderman and refers to his 1935 trip, including the detail otherwise unmentioned in the archive that he met Kalinin during his stay.  Clinch served for 11 years on Rochester City Council and was also a long-standing magistrate.  He died in 1977 in Rochester Cathedral, where he was a sidesman.

The archive came to the University Library through the generosity of a friend of Herbert Clinch’s late son, to complement existing archival, print, and ephemeral material relating to the Soviet Union in our collections.  A full finding aid of the archive, detailing its contents, can be found on the Janus catalogue here.  The archive can be ordered and viewed in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Mel Bach

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