Du Malone writes: Russian Vistas: The Record of a Springtime Journey to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Stalingrad, the Black Sea and the Caucasus (Phene Press, 1958) is a curious book.
The Preface tells us:
‘This personal and quite unofficial account of a Springtime visit to Russia stems from a British Town Planning Delegation which went out with the blessing of the British Council, and was officially received in Moscow by Gostroy, the Ministry essentially concerned in planning matters in every region of the Soviet Union. It was a return visit following a tour by Russian planners, architects and engineers in Britain in 1957.’
So it’s one of those works of reportage from the Khrushchev era with a focus on urban planning… In other words, it’s sui generis.
Investigating the background to this book, I’ve discovered, courtesy of an article by Stephen V. Ward — Urban planning visits and Anglo-Soviet communication in the 1930s and 1950s (Russian Journal of Communication Vol. 8, 2016, Issue 3) — that in the mid-twentieth century there were a number of such tours. But they didn’t, so far as I’m aware, lead to the development of a literary sub-genre.
I find it difficult to decide who the book is for. The central theme of planning, with allied fields such as architecture, design, and construction, might lead one to think that the primary audience lies in that world — who else needs to hear the vital statistics of, for example, metro usage in Moscow? — but in truth the treatment of this theme is never very thorough: the author tends rather to bob in and out of the theme.
The content on planning is supplemented by much else — there are mini-essays on, for example, a visit to an art gallery in Moscow and the history of the Cossack leader, Stenka Razin. It’s all a bit of hotch-potch.
This is a book from a technocratic age. The tour the book reports took place in the year of Sputnik and four years before Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the earth. It was, above all, the age of planning.
Edmonds has his disagreements with Soviet planners. His criticisms read like the flipside of the criticisms of the West advanced by J. K. Galbraith in his 1958 book, The Affluent Society (‘private affluence, public squalor’).
Edmonds observes that the resources that the Soviets devoted to making public buildings opulent would have been better spent on worker housing, in particular to improve the quality of finish.
Yet though there are some disagreements on quality of planning, there was, it seems, consensus on the quantity: we need lots of it.
Both Edmonds and his hosts a world away from Jane Jacobs and, would I guess, have found her views unimaginable. For the most part, unplanned development (for example, shanty towns in Stalingrad) features in the book as a negative.
To the Black sea and beyond
I read this book primarily for the chapters set in the south.
‘From Stalino the route lay westwards to Rostov, heart of the Don Cossack country, skirted the Sea of Azov, passed over Krasnodar, and so brought a first sight of the Black Sea, but not at once of the high Caucasian peaks to the eastward which were shrouded by glowering thunder clouds.‘
Down south the prose, though it never soars, becomes a little more lyrical, or at least unbuttoned:
‘The thirty kilometres from Adler to Sochi we travelled by car along the twisting, turning coastal round. through scenery that might almost be described as a blend of leafy English, luxuriant French Riviera, and perhaps West Indian too. the land is intensely green, roses are blooming everywhere, and the air is clear and strong.‘
Along with the direct, quite brisk style, the book is made readily readable by the typography: I can’t remember the last time I encountered a book that I could read with ease, without specs. The black-and-white photographs, though, have little relevance to the main theme and, overall, add very little to the book.