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A graduate of the College and of the Law School gained some interesting insights and considerable notoriety this past summer when he attended the World Youth Festival in Moscow.
For fifteen straight days George S. Abrams '54, former managing editor of the CRIMSON, and two other American students at the Festival talked to crowds of up to 5,000 in Moscow's Red Square. They addressed interested Russians on the aims and ideals of the West and, in particular, read to them the U.N. report on Hungary which scathingly denounced Russia's actions in putting down the revolution there.
Abrams had been on a tour of Europe when he received a chance to go to Moscow through the Polish delegation as a non-Communist participant in the Festival. He said he was prompted to make the trip by a desire to see the country and the possibility that he could get the Western message across to some Russians. Once in the Soviet capital, he tended to pass up the Festival itself and concentrated on making more immediate contacts with the Russian people.
Since his return he has recorded his observations in several newspaper and magazine articles. The following material was culled largely from a series he did for the New York Mirror under the title "I Balted the Reds in Red Square" and from various newspaper, television and personal interviews.
Thirsting for Knowledge
Abrams was chiefly struck by the fact that the Russian people "are thirsting for information from the free world." They've been living in a vacuum for too long, he said, and are told only what suits the government.
They didn't know, for example, that their erstwhile champion here, Howard Fast, had deserted the Communist cause last February. Abrams suggested that they find out for themselves whether Fast's books could still be purchased in Soviet shops, but the books had disappeared from the book shelves, and dealers informed prospective purchasers that they didn't know when copies would be available.
Abrams then read to his Russian listeners Fast's lengthy statement on why he was turning his back, not on the Russian people, but on their leaders and their form of government. "As I read it," he said, "the crowd hushed. Towards the end, however, when Fast told of his distress that mail from Soviet admirers was no longer reaching him, there was an outburst of indignation. Two young Muscovites said they had sent Fast a fan letter only recently. Obviously, the Soviet people are still writing to Fast, but their letters are being intercepted."
Shortly after the Festival, Russia's Literary Gazette finally disclosed officially that Fast, winner of the 1953 Stalin Peace Prize, had "deserted under fire" and had written "anti-Soviet slanders."
But the Fast case was only one example among many, and Abrams found the Russians unbelievably curious about everything. They even wanted to know about his family and his home life and his years at school, and they seemed to have an uncanny ability to remember everything he told them about his personal life. Many even got to calling him by his first name, and as he strolled around the city Russians who recognized him would rush up to say hello.
"Everything I told them was the direct result of probing questions from the crowd," Abrams reported in his Mirror series. "There were plenty of willing interpreters for those who couldn't understand English. The crowd was starved for information. The things I told them about were what they wanted to know. They liked me and respected me for standing up and talking to them frankly.
"Along about the tenth day of my Red Square oratory, I began to get very hoarse; I was losing my voice. The crowd became alarmed. People came up to offer me pills; my Russian interpreters spent a good deal of time relaying suggested remedies from listeners. They were worried, too, about the fact that I seemed to be losing weight and began to look tired after the first week.
"Once, I remember, I was talking to a very large crowd in front of the big department store in Red Square. Suddenly it began to rain. I could see the crowd wanted me to keep talking. Two Red Army soldiers standing in the crowd were the only ones with raincoats. Someone said something to one of them, and he took off his raincoat and gave it to me. People asked if I would mind talking in the rain.
"How could I refuse? There they were, willing to stand without raincoats and listen eagerly to what I had to tell them about Hungary and the West."
Abrams reported that he often started talking in the afternoon and kept right on through the night until 3 or 4 or even 6 a.m. When either he or the crowd was exhausted, the gathering would break up, and almost every time his Russian listeners would contest for the right to pay his taxi fare back to his hotel. He tried not to let them pay, but on two occasions they succeeded in reaching the driver before he could stop them. "We made you stay so late, we want to thank you by paying your fare," they would tell him.
The Hungarian Revolution
If Abrams was amazed at the Russians' lack of knowledge about the West, he was shocked at how little the Russian people knew about the real facts behind the Hungarian Revolution of late October and early November of last year.
In his Mirror series he reported that almost no one seemed to have heard of the United Nations Report on Hungary, and he stated that when he asked the people if they had read it, he received only blank stares.
"I tried to tell them about it, but they didn't believe me," he said. "'That could not be so,' was the normal retort. 'We know that only criminals, Fascists, and counter-revolutionaries fought, and that the Hungarian government asked our government to come in and help them.'
"Even when I took to reading the United Nations Report to large crowds," Abrams said, "the Russians had a difficult time believing that a whole series of events happened in Hungary which their government had deliberately chosen to hide from them. But they listened with avid interest to every word. And from all the later reports and reactions, I gathered that they passed the word along the grape-vine."
As he continued to address the crowds, Abrams began to realize that some of them, perhaps as many as 25 per cent, knew much more about the Hungarian affair than they dared to admit publicly. Slowly groups of men and women began to draw him aside for private discussions. One of these individuals was a professor at the University of Moscow, who explained the general ignorance by the fact that the Russian newspapers had suppressed all the real news about Hungary.
The professor related that one night, while he was attending a movie, the loudspeaker interrupted the show with the following official announcement: "The government wishes to announce the successful crushing of the counter-revolutionary and Fascist elements in Hungary and the restoration of the People's Government."
"All around me," the professor said, "people were applauding and cheering. A young girl sitting beside me clapped her hands and shouted, 'Oh, good, the Fascists have been destroyed!' But as for me, I started to cry. A few of us knew."
In the absence of any reliable news from official sources, these few had only gotten a glimpse of the truth, and that by rather haphazard means. A man and woman from Leningrad told Abrams that rumors concerning the real situation in Hungary had spread through the city after bottles were found along the railroad tracks, containing scribbled messages pleading for help from Hungarian youths being deported to Siberia.
This couple also told him of student unrest in Russian universities, but Abrams expressed difficulty in assessing the exact extent of such discontent. "I heard conflicting stories," he told the Mirror. "Some students from Leningrad told me there had been a protest meeting at Leningrad University. When it was over, 45 students were expelled and were seen no more. They just disappeared. Other students denied these stories.
"I was told by one of the heads of the Young Communist League that there were a number of resignations from the League in protest over the Soviet action in Hungary. 'But we then held a series of meetings and explained what happened in Hungary,' he said blandly, 'and there was not much trouble after that."
Abrams heard from other sources, however, that there actually was some trouble at these "explanation" meetings. He said one Moscow University student told him of a mass walk-out when the speaker kept avoiding direct answers to embarrassing questions. And this same student related that another meeting was abruptly called off when the students started asking pointed questions.
Another student told Abrams of the appearance of hand-printed wall-newspapers at many of the leading Russian universities. They would mysteriously materialize, tacked up on bulletin boards, demanding the truth and asking embarrassing questions. One student told Abrams that some of them had been seen only a month before the Festival, and another related how authorities had labored to track down and expel the students responsible.
The Hungarian Delegation
Occasionally, some of the Russians would doubt Abrams and would repeat the line they had heard on the revolution from the Hungarian delegates to the Youth Festival. To counter this, Abrams generally asked the people whether they really thought any supporter of the revolution would have been allowed among the Youth Festival delegates.
He told the Mirror that he took three afternoons off from talking to the crowds in Red Square to meet with the Hungarians, and that he was not much surprised to find that the whole delegation was made up of Russian and Kadar puppet-government "plants."
Unlike most of the delegates, Abrams observed that the Hungarian "youths" were generally in their late thirties. "And from the contacts I had with them," he said, "I'd conclude most were members of the Hungarian secret police and all were trusted Communists."
Two of the delegates were identified as Somogyi Berta and Jozsef Farkas. Their pictures had appeared in Lifemagazine's series on the revolution. They were depicted being shot down by rebels.
The Hungarian delegates all spread the same line concerning the revolt. They claimed that Hungary had been a land of peace and happiness before the revolt, but that spies were sent in from the West as instigators and that "weapons of murder" were shipped in by balloons."
They also passed out numerous propaganda pamphlets in several different languages. Abrams said that some of these pamphlets claimed only Fascists and criminals took part in the fighting. One claimed Hungarian youths who fled to the West are now being held prisoners; another attacked the Voice of America as the real instigator of the trouble; and still another told how "wonderful" things are now in Hungary under the Kadar puppet government.
While he found it hard to measure just how effective this propaganda was, Abrams felt that the Russians may have laid it on too thick by painting Hungary in colors so favorable to themselves. Indeed, he felt that the purpose of the whole Festival had failed for much the same reason.
Abrams believes that the Russians had a three-fold aim in staging the Festival. First, they were trying to convince the 30,000 delegates from all over the world that Russia is a land of peace and prosperity; second, they sought to placate signs of discord among the youth of the country by distracting them with the show of the century; and third, they were making a grandstand play for favorable world-wide publicity.
But he told the Mirror that he doubted that the Reds succeeded in any of these objectives. "For one thing," he said, "they made their gimmicks too obvious. They could not keep secrets. It was obvious that all the wooden buildings of Moscow had just been given fresh paint jobs. And everywhere the youth roamed in the city, the Russians were eager to brag about it. They were proud that their town was spic-and-span for the first time in 20 years.
"There was another gimmick that was just as clear: somehow, there were almost no Red soldiers in all of Moscow during the festival. During my 19 days I saw only two guns, and only a handful of men in uniform. It became common scuttlebutt among the young delegates that all soldiers had been shipped out of town for the length of our stay.
"There were no drunks visible in Moscow during the festival. That made a good impression--but it became common knowledge that the government had passed a series of new laws to prevent heavy drinking just before the visitors arrived.
"All in all, most of the independent visitors were aware they weren't seeing the real Moscow, but rather a glossed-over, cleaned-up version. So the effort to paint Russia as the land of milk-and-honey was a failure."
Abrams also felt that the effort to placate the unrest of the young Russians had failed. He noted that the long exchanges of ideas appeared to have created greater problems for the Russian government than existed before, and that the Russian girls had been very impressed with the pretty clothes of the female delegates. He predicted a good deal of pressure, as a result of this, to have the government turn out more consumer goods and less heavy machinery and weapons.
On favorable world publicity, too, Abrams felt the Russians had failed. He noted that many foreign newspapers expressed surprise at the ignorance of the Russian people concerning the U.N. Report on Hungary. "But it takes more than this sort of festival to cover up the tragedy of Hungary," Abrams said in the Mirror. "People aren't going to forget that for a long time. And because of the Youth Festival, more of the Russians know about it now, as well as other things their own papers won't give them."
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