The All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries and French Intellectuals, 1925-29

Article excerpt

The 1920s and 1930s were years of active personal support for the USSR by a number of eminent French intellectuals who assisted in the creation of an image of the USSR in French public opinion. This was largely based on their perceptions of the social, political and cultural achievements in Soviet society. Analysis of the archival, and mainly unpublished, documents of VOKS (the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) illustrate the true nature of an organisation that claimed to have been created in order to promote international cultural relations. The internal correspondence and reports reveal the mechanisms used by VOKS from its inception in order to create, foster, and manipulate relations with numerous members of the French intelligentsia. Also revealed in this paper is the leading role played by VOKS in the creation of the USSR-France "cultural" friendship societies, its policies concerning the selection and treatment of French visitors, and other features of political propaganda that have been commonly considered to belong to the period of the 1930s.

Although the role of left-wing French intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s as vocal supporters of the USSR in France has long been known to Western researchers,(l) that of Soviet organisations, and in particular the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS), has not received similar scrutiny. The visits of foreigners to the USSR were decisive in determining the message that would be related to the French public -- impressions were conveyed of an hospitable and generous reception, of impressive socio-cultural achievements and that Soviet society was a privileged place for art and culture.(2) How could this vision be created in the face of such phenomena as the generally low living standard, the forced collectivisation and disastrous famine, the ideological and cultural repression and, finally, the trials? Only a few researchers questioned the perception of the French visitors,(3) and some directly accused them of selective blindness, deliberate silence and dishonesty.(4) Although statements were made by visitors in their travel diaries, memoirs and historical studies concerning the controlled nature of these early visits,(5) their writings do not explain the exact involvement of Soviet agencies in these trips, and it was felt that the involvement of French and other Western intelligentsia with the USSR in the post-revolutionary years was mainly driven by their revolutionary sympathies. By examining unpublished archival documents of VOKS, in particular during the period of the first visits to the USSR by French authors between 1927 and 1929, this paper sheds light on the previously ignored, but crucial, role that this organisation played in establishing and fostering relations with the French intellectuals -- future USSR supporters -- and promoting through them the desired image of the USSR.(6)

VOKS was created in 1925 by the decree of the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR in order to establish and maintain relations with foreign countries. Headed initially by Olga Kameneva, Trotsky's sister, VOKS operated through a Secretariat and a number of Sectors (the Romance Sector dealt with France). It relied heavily on its referentura (country-specific officers-in-charge). In 1927 a VOKS' representative in Paris, Divilkovsky, was appointed. The VOKS' archives, currently housed in the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) in Moscow, include abundant internal and external correspondence, foreign press reviews and files on individual intellectuals. The 1930s' files include interpreters' reports on their visitors. Although no policy or decision-making documents could be located, the available documents make it possible to reconstruct some of VOKS' activities and its evolution through the 1920s-30s. Unlike Party-run organisations, VOKS denied any political motivation in its contacts with Western intelligentsia, and affirmed that its task was to foster cultural relations and to promote Soviet culture abroad. …