‘You see’ said the old man, ‘I can’t help being happy, because it’s the first time I have ever seen English and American people, and to have you in my house, eating here with me, is wonderful!’ He paused, and for the thirteenth time rose to make a toast. ‘Please, have some more vodka, fill your glasses to the brim, for my toast is important. You see, I have heard so much about England and America, but when I look at you and see how nice you all are, I love you all, and cannot see how there can ever be war between us. And so I give the toast to greater understanding between young people of England, America and the Soviet Union, for the future is in your hands, you, the young people.’
We drank our toasts, and were serious. But then smiling old women, with white scarves around their heads and shoulders, placed more dishes in front of us, bowl of salad, mutton and shish-kebabs, plates of sour cream cheese and golden deep-fried biscuits in the shape of flowers and stars. As I ate I spoke to the young man near me, who worked on this collective farm. He told me of guerrilla fights with German soldiers in the mountains during the war, of hoe the village was building its first time electricity generating plant, of how they were growing new plum trees at the top pf the valley. ‘And you’ he asked, ‘what do you want to be, and do you pay for your University? I am doing a course in machine engineering, by post, but soon I will go to a proper technical institute. Do you love your education?’
Four hours later we were back at our camp. We had left the mountain village of Upper-Balkaria, but from the small plateau on which our camp was built, I could see the blue and jagged Caucasus mountains that surrounded it. I thought of the old man’s toast, and how our meeting had been too short and light-hearted to make more than the most tenuous and ephemeral of contacts. ‘But tomorrow afternoon it will be different’ I thought.
In the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, where I was staying, the mornings are strange. The sun would be cold from four, when it rose, until ten in the morning, when it would suddenly become blazing hot. There were 30 of us in the camp, ten Russians, ten Americans and ten English. At 10 am we would stop digging on the building site and put on our sun hats, and some of the Russian girls would start to wear their strange nose-shades – ‘to keep our noses white’ – and the men would strip to their waists as they dug foundation trenches. For three weeks we worked all morning, helping to build a house for a children’s holiday camp. Children in the houses already built would be running and shouting, and playing the accordian or singing in groups all day.
We used to work and rest, and start again; then sometimes a discussion between three or four people would begin, on why we allowed neo-fascist groups to working England, or why Russian collectivisation had been so inflexibly carried out, or what should be the aims of education. Our Russian foreman was resigned to these breaks. ‘You are talking about serious things, it is important’. And he would sadly fill in the chart he had carefully prepared, which showed that once again we had under-fulfilled our norm!
Discussion was the main feature of the camp. It had been organised by the Quakers of Britain and America – though not all its members were Quakers – and by the Committee of Youth Organisations of the USSR, as part of a 3-year project. Last year the British Friends Service Council was the host to the Russians and Americans, whilst next year it will be the turn of the USA. Unlike most work-camps we had formal discussions every afternoon. We discussed four main topics: ‘The Cultural Values of Youth’, ‘The Aims of Youth in Modern Society’, ‘The Individual and Society’ and ‘Youth and International Contacts’. For three hours each afternoon we would all struggle to explain our individual views on these topics, and to understand why opposing views were held. We did not intend to convert or be converted but just to understand. I had thought that three weeks would be plenty of time to explore these four topics, but each one was so broad that in the end we wished we could have had 3 months rather than three weeks together!
In the evenings and weekends we met many people: local dancers, the women in costume reminiscent of the times when Kabardino-Balkaria was part of the Turkish Empire, or a building brigade which included a girl of my age who learnt building at evening school and loved her work, or students at the huge library at Nalchik, the state capital, who were delighted to met foreigners, and especially the compatriots of Salinger, who is their current favourite author. And all the time we would talk and explain and ask questions.
The fourth week was spent visiting Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where the people are beautiful and friendly – like Italians, then back to Moscow, where people seemed solemn until you spoke to them, when they would smile and help you around the crowded shops. And all the time I felt how sad it was that camps such as ours are so rare, and what a pity it is that work-camps in Eastern European countries are crying out for participants from the West. Many people seem interested in Russian work-camps, whilst camps we can easily visit anyway usually have too many applicants. East European embassies, the United Nations Association and the Friends Work Camps Committee will supply information about work camps in Eastern Europe for next summer. Such camps must be well supported by young people of all nations and beliefs, for only then will the old man’s toast become more than just a hope, and all the contacts our group made in the Soviet Union be based on understanding as well as friendliness.
(Extracted from Girton Review, Cambridge University, Michaelmas Term 1963; reproduced in February 2002)