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The ‘Glow in the East’: The Journeys of French Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, 1920-1940 Motives, Forms, and Impact of French Intellectual Engagement with Communism

The ‘Glow in the East’: The Journeys of French Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, 1920-1940 Motives, Forms, and Impact of French Intellectual Engagement with Communism

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb. Originally submitted for Dissertation module in History at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr. Stephen Tyre in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb. Originally submitted for Dissertation module in History at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr. Stephen Tyre in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
The ‘Glow in the East’: The Journeys of French Intellectuals to theSoviet Union, 1920-1940
Motives, Forms, and Impact of French Intellectual Engagement with CommunismIntroduction
In August 1939, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact produced acataclysm among supporters of the ‘Soviet experiment’ in the West. The Soviet-led anti-Fascist front was destroyed and, for a majority of Western intellectuals, this marked theend of almost two decades of engagement with communism and the Soviet Union. Thelate 1920s and 1930s had witnessed an international pilgrimage of Western intellectualsto the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Spurred by cultural and scientificcuriosity, as well as a repulsion of European imperialism and fascism, these intellectualseagerly toured their ‘Soviet Mecca,’ with as many as 200 from France alone making the journey in 1935. Visits, in turn, inspired an outpouring of published and unpublishedtravelogues, novels, articles, and diaries documenting the progress of the Sovietexperiment and the triumphs, or lack thereof, of communism in Russia. Whilst manyreturned to their homeland convinced of the superiority of Soviet literature and arts, aswell as of the benevolence of a communist regime, others were left disillusioned, viewingSoviet society as irrevocably corrupt and dictatorial. Intellectuals’ accounts of the USSR were shaped by political turbulence, cultural discourse, and Soviet propaganda, withcountless simply perpetuating the conception of a faultless and fraternal Soviet society.Although Western intellectuals’ enthusiasm and loyalty towards the Soviet Union mayseem beguiling with hindsight, the wealth and diversity of their accounts of Stalinismraise intriguing questions. What made these intellectuals believe that the USSR represented a nation of the future, a benevolent society culturally and politically superior to the West? What social and political dreams did they share? Which aspirations and political visions precipitated journeys to the Soviet Union? In what ways did Westernintellectuals engage with communism in this period? What was the impact of worksinspired by such excursions to the USSR?Given the profusion of intellectuals to have travelled to the Soviet Union between1917 and 1939, this dissertation will focus on the journeys and resultant narratives of 
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French intellectuals. The 1920s and 1930s were certainly years of active personal supportfor the USSR from a multitude of French intellectuals. Their prominence conditionedimages of the USSR in French public opinion. Indeed, intellectuals’ tours of the ‘GreatExperiment,’ which peaked in the mid-1930s, can be regarded as one of the mostconsequential cross-cultural encounters of the twentieth-century. In the space of a fewyears, deeply ingrained Western representations of Russia as a land of despotism werelargely replaced, at least for left-leaning intellectuals, with images revolving around thefuturistic ‘experiment’ of the first socialist society. This dissertation thus aims to explorethe motives, forms, and impact of French intellectuals’ engagement with the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s. With a view towards understanding the impact of intellectuals’ public viewpoints, the work will analyse French reactions to both positiveand damning accounts of the Soviet Union under Stalin. In this light, André Gide’scritical 1936 publication,
 Retour de l’URSS 
, will form the focus of a detailed case study.A former member of 
 Action Française,
Gide’s evolution towards communism andsubsequent disenchantment sheds light on the various factors which influenced Frenchintellectuals’ attraction to the USSR and their successive accounts of Soviet society.[…]
Chapter III – Encounters and Impact
Journeys to the USSR inspired a flood of published and unpublished accounts of the‘Great Experiment.’ The historian Fred Kupferman has catalogued as many 125 French publications from the inter-war period, and notes that no other country solicited as manyimpassioned responses or testimonies.
1
This figure would be higher still if one includedthe testimonies of 
 francophone
visitors with Belgian or Swiss origins.As scepticism and doubts concerning the legitimacy of Bolshevik rule ran amok inthe West, travellers felt a need to document their journeys to the USSR and share their experiences within their homelands. Novels, travelogues, articles, and poetry became
1
Fred Kupferman,
 Au Pays des Soviets: le voyage français en Union Soviétique 1917-1939
(Paris, 1979), p. 151.
2
 
mediums of preaching and persuading others of the existence of a Soviet utopia or, insome cases, Soviet terror. Even romantic literature and pulp fiction, such as ClaudeAnet’s
 L’Amour en Russie
, allowed writers to address their countrymen, bearing witnessto their encounters in the Soviet Union. Some intellectuals also made a speciality of their travel writing in the USSR. French authors Henri Barbusse and Fernand Grenier, for instance, returned to Russia frequently, each visit becoming an occasion for a new publication. As the peak of Western pilgrimage to the USSR was reached in the mid-1930s, with as many as 200 French intellectuals making the journey in 1935, sympatheticaccounts and travelogues prevailed.
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 As the historians Ludmila Stern and Marc Ferro argue, throughout the early 1930s,the West was far more receptive to favourable accounts of the USSR. Ferro has suggestedthat a ‘wall of denial’ was even established towards damaging information: « Durant lesannées trente, au vu des menaces que le nazisme faisait peser sur la démocratie,démocrats et socialistes d’Occident voulurent ignorer jusqu’à l’existence de cette terreur stalinienne. »
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As this comment suggests, prevailing fears of Nazism dominated manyreaders’ reactions to works on the Soviet Union. Wary of Hitler and certain of the needfor an anti-fascist alliance with the USSR, some reviewers chose to extract only the positive remarks from French travelogues, while others launched brutal attacks on anyremotely unflattering report of the Soviet Experiment. Indeed, until about 1936, theinternational climate was receptive to the endorsement of Soviet policies. The peak of this support came in 1935 with three major events: the signing of the Franco-SovietTreaty of Mutual Assistance, the occasion of the
 International Writers' Congress for the Defence of Culture
in Paris, and the development of the Popular Front. As noted by thecontemporary French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir in her autobiographical oeuvre,
 La Force de l’âge
, the Franco-Soviet Treaty ushered in a new era in relations: “the barrier that separated the
 petite bourgeoisie
from the communist and socialist workers suddenlycollapsed. Newspapers of all persuasions began publishing a profusion of benevolentreports of Moscow and the strength of the Red Army.”
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At this time, when Hitler had
2
Stern,
Western Intellectuals,
 p. 17.
3
Marc Ferro,
 L’Occident devant la Révolution Soviétique
(Brussels, 1980), p. 99.
 
4
Simone de Beauvoir,
 La Force de L’Âge
(Paris, 1960), p. 223.
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