Pana´t Istrati 1927

From Paris to Moscow

Source: L'HumanitÚ, November 1, 1927;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2015.

Invited to Moscow for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Istrati left Paris along with the recently removed Romanian-born Soviet ambassador to France, Christian Rakowski – “Rako.” He was lionized in the Communist press and wrote this account of his departure from France and arrival in the USSR for L'HumanitÚ.

This departure for the USSR, one of the most moving of my life, happened in an absolutely unexpected fashion. Here again, as usual, my destiny acted in its own way.

For a year I could hardly carry on. I was languishing. Eleven years in the West had ended up by freezing my heart. There was nothing there of my past life, a life rich in constant enthusiasm, in ardent friendships, and unsatisfied hopes. But I find this all again today in Russia. In the West the sterile struggle for excessive well-being absorbs, devours, and kills men, the best of men. It’s not that there aren’t warm friendships, but they only provide rare moments of private joy. We sacrifice all our impulses, all our passions to the moloch of our every minute: our occupations. We live like shut-ins, the door locked, everything given over to “our task.”

What task?

I asked myself this every day. I looked at what I myself was making: books. Mountains of books are produced over there that no one reads; millions of paintings and sculptures that no one has either the time or the desire to admire, the masses being cast aside thanks to an absurd social organization that crushes them, and the bourgeoisie giving itself over to easy pleasures: dancing, cars, vacations, stuffing their faces. Traffic has become unbearable in Paris. In the nightclubs tables are fought over with thousand franc bills. During the busy season in Deauville a room not on the pension plan costs 200 to 500 francs a day. On gala evenings at the casino in that society spot, a meal – drinks not included – costs 250 francs.

And between those who pay 500 francs for just one night’s sleep and those paid a salary of 500 francs to live on for a month, they and their family, there are men who write, who sculpt, who compose, who make art. Good lord!

Who for? For what public? For the rich? They're dancing.

For the poor? They're digging coal in the mines or are unemployed.

For the middle class? They go to the movies to see how a car drives off a cliff, to be moved by ridiculous dramas.

And from the top to the bottom of the social ladder everyone runs, everyone crushes everyone else to see two imbeciles smash in each other’s face, or some guy coming in first on his bike, or a nut who dances an entire week without stopping, or a hysterical miss who swam the Channel two seconds faster than another hysterical miss.

In this world that is dying in the spasms of an abnormal life, some blasÚ and the others stupefied by suffering, artists create lifeless works, lacking in real joy, just like the life around them.

I feared the moment when, trapped in these fatal gears, I would die miserably.

And that was when, as if awakening from a nightmare, I said to myself: time to get going!

And just then, I received the call.


All day Saturday October 15 and the following night the Soviet embassy in Paris was closely watched. People wondered, “What’s ‘Rako’ up to?”

Rako remained silent. Not completely. Accompanying me as I went shopping, he said to me, his face wickedly jovial:

“Do you know what they consider me? An ‘undesirable.’ Me, undesirable! I, who've always been on good terms with the aristocracy, church higher-ups and the military. And now I'm undesirable. Really, it’s enough to make you want to kill yourself.”


Sunday, at 6:00 on the dot, the doors of the embassy on the rue Grenelle opened: the departure of the “undesirable” ambassador. Not a cat on the street. The car set out in the direction of Frankfurt, where we arrived at 6:00 p.m. And then, via Berlin and Riga, here we are before the red gate of Sebesch.

I'm on Soviet land, where 130,000,000 human beings are molding a new world.

The train makes its first stop in the middle of the countryside. Young soldiers, with their hard faces and piercing gazes, run along both sides of the train and inspect the wagons. But how do they inspect them? Not like indifferent robots, like the poor soldiers of all the bourgeois armies, but like passionate sons who have to protect their sublime mother, still convalescent after her painful childbirth.

Filled with emotion I look at them, and I don’t dare shake one of those valiant hands. What am I to them? A voyager on this train that transports all kinds of people: good ones and scoundrels.

An hour later, in Sebesch, Rakowski is surrounded by some 200 comrades. He speaks to them, sincerely, simply. He tells them of the events behind his recall.[1] I contemplate this spectacle and ask myself; when and where have we seen a bourgeois ambassador get off a train at a small border station and deign to give an account of his mandate to simple workers?


Thursday, 9:00, Moscow. Station painted over with whitewash. The city, the isvostchik included, reminds me of Bucharest before the war and Jassy today. Walking the streets I convince myself of all the lies the West has rained down on you: population in rags, atrocious poverty, social decomposition, human hell.

But it’s simply what one can see in any Romanian city, where there’s been neither revolution nor famine, and where begging, mud on the streets, vagabond children, and poverty are, like here, the legacy of every capitalist society. We saw them under the dear Tsar, who received billions to heal the wounds of his people and used them to better assassinate the revolutionaries. No one said anything about it at the time, and today under the mask of impartiality, they're revealed.

That’s what’s called impartiality?

Russian comrade, you should only receive among you men who are partisan, very partisan. Enough impartiality. Those who come here should dirty their hands, cherish the mud soaked with blood, the walls covered in bullet holes that need repairing, the general suffering that needs to be allayed.

Moscow works feverishly, without always satisfying its hunger. But it was enough for me to see this city push its activity as far as the putting the Great Wall of Chinese back in shape for me to be certain that the Muscovites will soon eat better than people in any capitalist state, and will feed to their fill those who warm themselves around public braziers in Panam [1] and groan at night curled up on the staircases of the Gaumont-Palace theater.

Moscow, October 27, 1927

1. Rakowski was recalled by Stalin for involvement in oppositional activities. He would be killed in 1941 because of them.

2. Slang for Paris.