Review of ‘A Russian Journey’ by Paul Hogarth and Alaric Jacob…
The artist Paul Hogarth produced a number of wonderful collaborations with writers from Graham Greene to Malcolm Muggeridge, Peter Mayall, Robert Graves ,Lawrence Durrell and Brendan Behan and this, A Russian Journey stands amongst his best.
First published in 1969 by Cassell, A Russian Journey sees Hogarth teaming up with the writer Alaric Jacob (1909-1995) A Reuters correspondent in Washington during the 1930s which saw the emergence of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, he also covered the Second World War beginning in France in 1940 followed by two years with the 8th Army in the western dessert and following the battle of Alamein he accompanied the renowned Wingate’s Chindits into Burma before moving to Russia in 1943.
Hogarth and Jacob were two peas from the same pod, both highly intelligent, witty, well travelled and in possession of that quintessential Englishness which made their work so charming. Both enjoyed fine wine and food and sought out accommodation matching their tastes wherever they could.
During the early part of 1967 the pair travelled to Russia, it was Jacob’s first visit since 1947 after his tenure there as correspondent for the Daily Express. Hogarth had not returned since his two visits in 1954 and 1958, the first of which had been heavily supervised by the authorities. This unique trip was unsponsored and without the constraints of previous visits allowing them to meet fellow artists and writers as well as men and women from varying rungs of the social ladder. But it was a year in waiting for Hogarth to obtain a visa who was on the USSSR blacklist and had to rely on Jacob’s connections to finally make the trip.
The book begins with their outward journey on an Aeroflot jet which the pair had largely to themselves. Jacob writes how the three hostesses showed no interest in them and served lunch when it suited: “The menu provided a little caviar, cold ham and a mayonnaise salad, roast chicken, Danish potato balls and the inevitable frozen peas, Australian butter and some very British processed cheese and even more British pastry for which we could not blame the Russians but rather the catering people at London Airport. We had some excellent red wine from Georgia free of charge and some good strong coffee. The tablecloth and napkins were of fine linen” It sets the tone quite wonderfully for what is to follow as they landed at Sheremeteyvo airport in the winter sun where they were met by a frontier guard in a green cap and an Aeroflot girl.
They began their journey in Moscow, they visited the GOUM department store where Hogarth fell in love with the restaurant and the Victorian French décor which he sketched whilst waiting for his food, a Chicken à la Kiev which shot garlic butter in his eye and beard as soon as he cut into it! Food and drink anecdotes feature throughout Hogarth’s books and really add to the sense of time and place, they also make one nostalgic for dishes long lost on restaurant menus such as a proper ‘beef stroganov’ which Jacob ordered for eight shillings and pronounced very good value for money.
There are many similarities with Hogarth’s foray into post war China in the 1950s, weather proved an initial setback as did basic communications through a lack of telephone lines to meet the demand of a growing infrastructure. Jacob tells how offices with telephones on every desk still had to share one outside line to carry all of the calls. This was typical of a Soviet system which showcased its military might to the word yet fundamentally let its people down with the commodities those in the west took for granted.
Dissatisfaction with the regime became apparent to the two men from the start with a particularly insightful conversation with the son of an “ultra communist” who was also a colonel in the Soviet army whom he hated. The young man asked the pair to take him to America or England declaring he would rather fight for a year in Vietnam than spend three years in the compulsory Soviet military service. Jacob told the Russian “Sons despise their Father’s in England too”
The journey was far-reaching, Hogarth had a month in which to produce at least seventy paintings and the book covers their excursions to Kiev, Suzdal, Lenningrad, Bukhara and Samarkand. The Russian railway service leaves much to be desired as they try in vain for a morning trip to Suzdal where they are told there is but one train a day despite being on the main line to Gorki, a city of a million inhabitants. They were clearly being lied to and the men vented their spleen accordingly.
A two thousand mile flight from Moscow brought the pair to Samarkand and the beginning of their journey into Soviet Asia. This brings to light the sheer size of the country and how varied the landscape and peoples are. The influence of the Arabs is particularly evident in Bukhara and Hogarth captures the magnificence of the architecture quite brilliantly. In the close company of what they believed might have been a German spy they devoured a hearty dinner in Samarkand: “…a clear soup with meatballs, shashlik, salad and delicious unleavened bread. We drank vodka and two bottles of Uzbek rosé. The bill came to £1 5s each”
There is an interesting piece on their visit to Georgia and the topic of Stalin’s birthplace arises and a discussion with a young schoolteacher about his place in history. The schoolteacher questions Stalin’s greatness and suggests his ‘serious mistakes’ should be treated as crimes. He told Jacob that he did not believe in great men, Jacob’s reply is an interesting one: “I think you are talking with the benefit of hindsight, I said. ‘You must be too young to remember the building of socialism. Do you think it could have been done by Kosygin and Brezhnev and the sort of committee government you have now? I don’t believe it could have been done at all in a backward country like Russia was in the ‘twenties without great leadership and this Stalin provided-no matter how heinous were his crimes later on. I am one who believes-not in heroes or human giants-but in the value and rarity of exceptional men”
Hogarth was a lifelong socialist, having joined the Communist Party in 1936 he would go on to see for himself the effects of the Soviet-led system in Eastern bloc countries on its people and for many artists and writers like Hogarth from that era the reality of life for the average man and woman must have been hard to digest. But he was no Stalinist and later admitted to heated arguments with Jacob who believed in the core of Stalinism as a just society despite the mass murders, torture and slave labour camps. Hogarth loved to paint people from all walks of life, they fascinated him and this is evident throughout the book such as this sketch of a Georgian peasant. Hogarth sought out characters wherever he went, they added much to his landscapes as well as singular portraits and were often deceptively simple looking.
In closing I cannot help but refer to Jacob’s friendship with Ian Fleming which he mentions when meeting ‘Grigoriev’ at the Moscow Journalists Club on the final leg of their journey. Grigoriev proves to be an interesting character, less gracious about Khrushchev than Stalin. Jacob attempts to meet the British spy and traitor Kim Philby but Grigoriev is more interested in books and despite never having heard of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley he had read all of the James Bond novels in English and had been fascinated to learn that Jacob had been a friend of Ian Fleming as a teenager whom he described as “a solitary but affectionate friend”. The Russian thought the novels were an ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘fascist’ or ‘reactionary’ and once again the subject of Stalin and those who followed arises, Grigoriev believed that great statesmen were few and far between and the Soviet Union would not allow another Stalin to flourish which gives this book much of its historical interest. Through the likes of Hogarth and Jacob we can see how public opinion was over fifty years ago and how it compares to today and the book makes for a fascinating insight into the mindset of everyday Russians.
In his 1997 autobiography Hogarth describes how he was instructed to show his drawings to the authorities before being allowed to leave; Why? he was asked, were his paintings not being made available for Russian publication? Hogarth explained how the Atlantic editors of Life Magazine had secured global rights but on his return to the West the artist found the magazine had folded and Life never published his work. Describing this book as ‘handsome‘ Hogarth admitted it was not even a modest bestseller. A real pity in my view.
Paul Hogarth’s Bibliography and more information about the artist and many of his books reviewed can be found here
Images by Paul Hogarth:
The Cathedral of St. Basil in Moscow
Paul Hogarth (left) Alaric Jacob (right)
Stalin’s birthplace in Gori
Rozhdestvensky Cathedral in Suzdal
Georgian farmer, Signachi
Uzbek farmers drinking tea, Samarkand
The Admiralty, Leningrad
Art Nouveau apartment house, Moscow
Categories: The Reading Room