All entries for Tuesday 28 April 2020

April 28, 2020

Dazed and Confused in the Cold War

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/papers/there_was_a_front_ver_6.pdf

For a few months in the 1970s I was a graduate student in Moscow. Capitalism and communism were fighting the Cold War. What was it like? I was dazed and confused. Now I've written a short memoir of that time. It covers cultural exchange, learning Russian, travelling to Russia, making wonderful friends, learning about informers and surveillance, feeling my way through Soviet academia and economic thought, being misunderstood, trust and mistrust, and travelling for work and for leisure, including my epic visit to a collective farm near Voronezh. I include a few photos from the time. Also, I reflect on what we know now about the Soviet system that I didn’t know then.

My memoir is called: “There was a front, but damned if we knew where.” To explain why, here is an excerpt from towards the end, a section that describes my homecoming. If you want to read more, the full version is here.

It was time to leave. I booked a train ticket on the direct service from Moscow to London, three days and two nights via Warsaw and East Berlin, including a Channel crossing by boat from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. Out of interest, I added on a 24-hour layover in Warsaw – my only visit to another East European country under communism.

I was sad to leave but I was also tired and ready. It was a long journey and I would sit the whole way in a shared compartment. There was some small talk in the carriage, but the countryside was flat and monotonous, and the hours of daylight were few.

At the Soviet border, the whole train was raised off the track while the broad-gauge bogeys were removed and replaced by standard-gauge for the remainder of the journey. While this was done the carriages were inspected inside and out, under and over, by the Soviet border troops, looking for contraband manuscripts and Soviet citizens who for any reason did not want to live out the rest of their lives in the socialist paradise.

In Warsaw, I wandered around the old city, meticulously restored after the war. The only language I had in common with most Poles was Russian, which did little for friendship.

Berlin was shocking. The train rolled through the divided city in the middle of the night. I blinked at the sudden passage from the darkened East to the bright lights of West Berlin. We did not stop, and the lights went out again after a few minutes because West Berlin was an island, and the train rolled back over into the Eastern zone.

As with the journey out, it was better to travel than to arrive. Adjusting to home life was hard. It was hard for me and I’m sure I did not make it easy for others. Time had not stood still while I was away. My friends and loved ones had as much stored up to tell me as I had to tell them. The Britain to which I returned was not the normal country of the anecdote; it was preoccupied with its own class struggle. Many of my friends were warriors for social justice, and I aspired to be one too. To some the Soviet Union was a distraction; to others, it was “my enemy’s enemy” and therefore perhaps a friend. Their appetite for my stories was limited.

For weeks I dreamed about Moscow night after night. In my dreams Moscow was dark, confusing, and utterly strange; I was lost in it and could not find my way back. I saved myself by pouring everything into finishing my dissertation. Looking back, I am reminded of the words that Joan Littlewood put in the mouths of the soldiers returning from the Great War:

And when they ask us,
How dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some café,
And fought wild women night and day,
’Twas the cushiest job
We ever had.

And when they ask us,
And they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win
The Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them
There was a front,
But damned if we knew where.

The Cold War was not the Great War, and we were not soldiers. In Moscow no rockets flew nor bullets winged. The hazards we faced were only moral. Still, I had been to the other side, and I had returned, and I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It changed my life. I spent the decades from then to now trying to understand where I had been and to come to terms with it. I am still trying. The only ones to whom I had nothing to explain were the former comrades-in-arms who had been there too, whose lives were also changed, just as surely as mine. So, I was not alone.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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