Commentary Magazine


Tourists in Muscovy:
How True Is the New Image of Russia?

In the last five years, Moscow and Leningrad have become favored tourist spots for all sorts of Americans—the curious, well-heeled, or confused; students, businessmen, journalists, balletomanes; innocents and not-so-innocents abroad. They leave Russia with color slides and indigestion, memories of the Bolshoi and female street cleaners, descriptions of shashlik and skyscrapers, accounts of Lenin’s tomb and Soviet plumbing. Some bring home peace plans, and some write books.

Russian travelogues are a time-honored literary form, at least four hundred years old. The latest visitors, jetborne and rolleiflexing, join a heterogeneous group that ranges from envoys of the Holy Roman Empire and the English crown—like Sigmund von Herberstein and Richard Chancellor in the days of Vasili III and Ivan the Terrible—to the condescending Marquis de Custine and the compassionate elder George Kennan in the 19th century. Rarely have foreigners assumed so vital a function as to speak freely for a people that had no audible voice abroad. And rarely has so much misinformation about a country been spread by misguided travelers.

The description of the cranberry bush as a giant tree (la klyukva majestueuse), shading the tea-sipping traveler in Russia, has become the proverbial symbol of distortion. The problem is not uniquely Russian. “The veracity of travelers’ tales is traditionally suspect,” Peter Fleming begins a recent piece in the Listener. “The things he sees he can describe faithfully; but for their causes, their origins, their significance, and for everything beyond the reach of his eyes he depends largely on hearsay.”

This does not make eyewitnesses less reliable than research from incomplete materials, interviews with admittedly unrepresentative refugees, or study at a distance without any sense of the immediacy of the locale. Nevertheless, on several occasions a careful analyst of the Soviet press and literature, sitting in New York or London, would have a fuller picture of events in the USSR than a visitor on the spot. I have rarely felt so out of touch with Soviet policy as when I stood—without the New York Times—on Red Square facing the Kremlin wall.

What does the present crop of travelers—whose published accounts1 form the basis of this essay—tell us about the Soviet Union? Some try to produce a cyclopedic travelogue à la John Gunther. Irving R. Levine’s volume follows this pattern: he is the man for the reader who is interested in the availability of house pets and prostitutes in Moscow, in the number to be dialed to report a fire, in Soviet television schedules and the frequency of Russian mail deliveries—or in some excellent jokes. But, with all his assiduous research and urbane reporting, he does not know Russian and misses some of the flavor which several of the other tourists were able to transmit.

The others all write in the first person. Except for Adlai Stevenson and Walter Lippmann, who report on their interviews with Khrushchev, they talk largely about People. Indeed, they have frightfully little to say about Politics. Sally Belfrage, a bright and observant young girl, confesses that “I was unqualified to judge Russia’s political system, its economic organization, or its institutional complex”; Stevenson grants that his reports “suffer from all the frailties of first impressions, abbreviation, and my limited perception”; and Lippmann says, “I know nothing at firsthand about the internal conditions in the Soviet Union.” Lippmann, indeed, has but a flimsy pretext for making a book out of four newspaper articles on his interview with Khrushchev.

On the whole, the biases of the authors are predictable. Miss Belfrage, reared in a Western “leftist” milieu, attributes “good” features to socialism and “bad” features to the Russian past. By contrast, Zinaida Schakovskoy, who claims “a thousand years of Russia in my blood,” tries hard to rediscover the “true” old Russia underneath the Bolshevik veneer. Lippmann’s view of the German question is the same after talking to Khrushchev as it was before he made his trip.

There are no “revelations” in these books. There are vignettes of Khrushchev, Anastas Mikoyan, and police boss Ivan Serov by those who saw them across a desk or dining table; interesting hints of Zhukov’s impatience with Soviet passivity in the early stage of the Hungarian revolt of 1956 (Schakovskoy); some snatches of an interview with the ballerina Galina Ulanova (by Santha Rama Rau) and other prominent figures; helpful bits about the background of the novelist Vladimir Dudintsev (from Marvin Kalb). Yet these books will not be read for their “hardware” content or for their insights into Soviet politics. Nor will they be read as literary works: most of them range from hackneyed journalism to uninspired diaries.

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There are cogent reasons why nothing dramatically novel can be garnered from these travelogues. Kalb, Levine, and Belfrage at least spent a number of months in the Soviet Union; the others paid even shorter visits. Most spent their time in Moscow and Leningrad, except for an occasional tour to Kiev or Tashkent. Unguided side trips were very much the exception rather than the rule. Rarely were any of the travelers invited into private homes—and then usually for a courtesy visit. Virtually no one in the group got to see a collective farm, talk to small-town folk, meet a group of industrial workers. Miss Schakovskoy is of Russian background, but while this helped linguistically, it may not have made for unbiased observation. Of the rest, only Kalb knew some Russian and had formally studied anything about the USSR.

Moreover, travelers in the USSR operate under a variety of restrictions. Some are self-imposed; for the sake of future tourists and perhaps for the good of individual Soviet acquaintances, they may not wish to tell all they know. Needless to say, some things which would make novel reading—a closed Communist party meeting, wage statistics, a labor camp, accident rates—are simply not accessible to a stranger in Muscovy. Both the mechanics of government and the subtleties of attitudes are beyond the tourists’ pale. Even the facile generalizations and the persuasive portraits in which these accounts abound are limited almost exclusively to urban intellectuals. Dissidents and fanatics stand out in any society; some seek out foreigners. The masses of average people remain outside the casual visitors’ ken.

Americans would be the first to laugh at foreign tourists who, after analogous underexposure to officials and highbrows in New York and Washington, went home as latter-day de Tocquevilles, hypothesizing about the stability of the American system, the perplexities of the South, and the disproportionate influence of the farm lobby. It is, thus, just as well that the travelers to Russia speak only of what they have seen and heard.

With all the variation in the travelers’ background and experience, there are striking similarities in their reports—which, moreover, confirm the impressions of others, with more specialized training and preparation, who have visited the Soviet Union in recent years.

Certain elements of local color come across vividly: the excellent opera and the puppet theater; the GUM department store, the subways, the red tape, and the circus; the ice-cream vendors and the bookstalls; the drab streets and the noisy loudspeakers; the housing shortage and poor plumbing. The flavor and style of life in the two capitals emerge distinctly from these books; invariably Leningrad turns out to be more cheerful than Moscow, more “Western,” less bureaucratized.

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These and many other details of local color help destroy the stubborn black-and-white images of Russia as either a paradise or a single giant prison. The USSR, to say the obvious, is a civilization in flux. It is full of contrasts—between goals and reality, theory and practice, backwardness and modernity. Almost everyone speaks of the jet planes—and the 1890-style lampshades. “Which is the real Russia,” asks Adlai Stevenson, “the old or the new? Both are, of course, but I think we will do well to think of it in terms of the jet airliner and not the donkeys, the hydrofoil boat and not the crumbling river villages, the engineer sons rather than the peasant fathers.”

The travel reports also force modifications in what for many Americans was a schematic, two-dimensional view of the police state. In the words of Levine, “It’s not uncommon for visitors to Russia to express surprise that ‘it’s better than we expected.’ Part of the reason is that they expected so little. During Stalin’s time the concept grew abroad of Russia as a land of people in chains. . . . To a visitor, the sights and sounds of people hurrying on their errands, a boy and a girl holding hands on a park bench, a mother comforting a crying baby, look and listen like home in an unfamiliar setting.”

Such details of life—which after all could have been observed even in Nazi Germany—came as a shock largely because of the long isolation of the West from actual contact with Russia in the postwar years of Stalin’s iron curtain. During that period, many had accepted a “homogenized” view of totalitarian omnipresence and all-pervasive terror. Forces operating in the West, as well as Stalin’s own harsh policies, were responsible for the misleading stereotypes of the early 50′s. Traditional “Russia-haters” portrayed the Soviet people as Untermenschen, born to slavery and liking it. McCarthyites of various stripes presented an image of Soviet life as uniformly black as the Communist image was white, and equally crude. There was, carried over from the rosy 30′s, an unwitting acceptance of Soviet claims, such as the unity of ruler and ruled (the familiar ein Volk—ein Reich—ein Fuehrer) . Finally, the brilliant George Orwell, especially in a vulgarized magazine “condensation,” had an unfortunate impact by promoting the assumption that the real USSR was already the fictional 1984.

In the tense period of Stalin’s last years, all these combined to produce a popular view of Russia as a country which consisted only of die-hard Communist officials, secret-police spies, and forced laborers. It was a view as false as the fellow-traveling image of the 30′s and 40′s which denied that any of these things existed.

The post-Stalin travel books focus on normal life, but they also include young people’s accounts of how, in “Russia’s darkest days,” parents, friends, relatives were taken away. “I was a small child. I did not know anything of this, and my father would never tell me. . . . But my mother told me many years later. Every day his friends were disappearing. Every day a friend, a man he knew, a comrade. . . . [One of his father's friends returned in 1955, after 17 years in a camp.] He still believes in Communism, you see. Russia is different now. It is better now. We can talk about those things a little.”

The accounts (Kalb’s especially) also make clear the fantastic scope of Stalin’s persecution of the Jews. In a typical story, a student told Miss Rau: “‘I was a child. I only know that [about 1950] my father lost his job at the factory. My mother wanted to cry, but she would not. Many people did not speak to us. I remember that. It was difficult to buy food. We did not like to go out of the house because people in our district knew that we were Jews. My father sat all day in the same chair.’

“Is it better now? Igor smiled sadly. ‘Now, yes, it is better. . . . We live.’”

The fear remains—a constant strain on normal human relations. As one man expresses it, when in need he craves “not a comrade but a friend.” Though life has eased up—to the point where some young people say and do reckless things—doubt lingers whether terror is gone for good. By habit and visceral response, the Soviet citizen assumes that the eyes and ears of the authorities are everywhere. A worker, on beginning a visit, checks the back of a radio or the hole in the ceiling for microphones—“just to be safe.” Another visitor turns up the radio to a deafening intensity. Some Soviet acquaintances will talk only while walking in the open. Sally Belfrage goes out with two Soviet boys, each of whom suspects the other of being an informer. Another student assumes that “naturally” at least one of the women using a collective apartment house kitchen works for the police. Sergei, a general’s son, shows his American guest a piece of cardboard in the telephone and another in the air vent: “What do you think my father did that for? He was general, very good Soviet. But he was afraid, and so am I, and so is everyone else. It’s our way of life!”

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Though some degree of wariness persists, these books substantially agree that (as one Russian told Santha Rama Rau) “the curse of Russia is boredom.” In part, this is the conscious price of discipline, an echo of the official “no-nonsense” approach. Stevenson says Russia’s slogan is “Men at Work.” Levine reports an apocryphal Communist’s objection to chewing gum: “To chew without swallowing is unproductive.”

For the citizen, drabness is a matter of necessity—no money and little opportunity for distraction—as well as protective coloration. The young are particularly sensitive to the lack of frivolity. A student admits relishing a second-rate musical for its gaiety. Is there no gaiety in the Komsomol? Only its kind—“you know—sing together while you help to dig the subway—volunteer work, of course. So you are gay” (Rau). Miss Belfrage describes the son of a Soviet officer whom she had come to know. He had all the money he wanted and nothing to buy with it. He was not much interested in a career. “He never read anything but used up a lot of time speculating over foreign things.” “One of the worst tragedies of his life” was his absence from Moscow in mid-1957, when the Youth Festival brought thousands of foreigners to Russia. What he really desired—as he put it in his quaint English—was, “I want exciting.”

Such apolitical and anti-political attitudes have found easier expression since 1956—the year of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and of the Polish and Hungarian crises. The “thaw,” in fact, is writ large over most of these books, and its effects linger. “Disillusionment of youth is a serious result of de-Stalinization which may have profound consequences in the future,” Levine asserts. “I got the impression,” Stevenson reports, “that student interest in Communist ideology and in the required indoctrination courses is languid at best.” “Marxism seemed to interest them [two young Communists] very little, and the world revolution even less” (Schakovskoy). A Party agitator—member of the select aktiv—“viewed the whole thing with the utmost cynicism” (Belfrage).

Some of these youths become completely preoccupied with their studies or work. Others engage in public baiting of instructors and lecturers, as at the time of the Hungarian revolt, or in a subdued demand for an unfettered art. “We are all—me and my friends—sick and tired of politics in art. We want art again,” says a Soviet student quoted by Kalb. Still others simply want to live—if possible, live well: “Shura told me [Miss Rau relates] that scientists and artists (preferably performing artists) are the most enviable dates for a girl. They are, for the most part, untouched by politics and can often get unusual privileges in living quarters, holidays, and permission to travel. Army officers come a poor third.”

There is a widespread eagerness to see, touch, and hear the outside world—in the form of fashions, music, literature, or tourists. In much of this, there is a blind aping of the West—highlighted by the surreptitious use of X-ray plates for making jazz recordings (what Levine calls Frank Sinatra on a broken shinbone). The stilyagi (teddy-boys) are often pro-American for reasons many of us would find insubstantial—jazz, girls, clothes. Miss Rau describes an engineering student whose image of the good life is money, restaurants (black caviar and sturgeon), top grade vodka, and Italian clothes. In his lingo Gorki Street is Brodvei and shady transactions are beezness. He knows what he wants to do—“but to do all that, one would have to be a government minister’s son, or at least be connected with a high party official.”

Others, who are equally friendly to foreigners, disapprove of the Soviet teddy-boys. “We are not very proud of their sort. Their parents have worked hard and done well, so they can give their children advantages. But the children—they have forgotten the sacrifice of their parents for the sake of the Revolution. Pleasure is too important for them.”

While some young people would escape from dogma to pleasure, others, to the contrary, would return to the “true” path and seek “pure” communism.

Kalb quotes the son of an engineer: “Here we have a society which is based on fine, humanitarian principles, but which functions on base, narrow principles. The entire administration stinks with bureaucracy. Fat bureaucrats with fat mugs and fatter rears . . . They are interested only in themselves . . . I still believe in the principles which I feel sure Lenin believed in. I want to see our people happy.”

There are others, besides “fat bureaucrats,” who anger young idealists by their concern with status and worldly goods. A prominent Soviet writer has not only a comfortable home, nylons and high heels, but a dacha at which she serves homemade jams and French cognac, and relentlessly talks shop (Rau). Miss Schakovskoy attended a Kremlin reception where, after dinner, the cream of Soviet political society made inquiries about the families of potential sons-in-law or chatted about the virtues of reading and studying. “In the heart of the Soviet world,” she recalls, “I found myself listening to the most bourgeois of conversations.”

This note of bourgeois Victorianism occurs again and again. The wearing of slacks in public evokes the stricture of “stilyaga” (Rau); blue jeans elicit shouts of “prostitute” on a Moscow street (Belfrage); Levine finds prudery on Soviet television. Miss Rau’s lines will ring familiar to all visitors at Soviet hotels: “I looked around at the solid respectability of mahogany furniture, of plush table-cloths and curtains, of the plethora of meaningless bits of handmade lace—antimacassars, lace covers for the pillows on the beds, lace doilies on the dress table, under the brass lamp stands, the marble inkpot, the mysterious marble-and-silver ornament on the desk; at all the cut glass, open trays, pin trays, ash trays, decanters, glasses, bottles, carafes, chandeliers. It was a thoroughly Victorian atmosphere. There was only one word that captured the look and feeling of these rooms—bourgeois.”

Was it George F. Kennan who called the Soviets the Babbitts of the mid-century?

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To what extent are the Soviet people wedded to the Communist system? “Some of the Russians I knew were as passionately opposed to their government as others were passionately in favor,” Miss Belfrage recalls—and this corresponds to the others’ experience. Many travelers in Russia have been bewildered when, after a passionate discussion with a determined dissident or disillusioned intellectual, they witnessed a parade or a holiday outing, with thousands apparently overcome with enthusiasm for the regime. Sometimes the same man’s feelings fluctuate. Petya, the son of a regional official, was in fact leading a double life—a loyal and devoted member of the Komsomol aktiv, and a disgruntled stilyaga with a yen for the distant.

Miss Schakovskoy went out of her way to find people who vigorously opposed the system—and found them. Others encountered men and women released from jail. One had been convicted for a mildly political poem. “I fooled them, you see,” he said, “because even prison is not bad for someone like me. They couldn’t take away what mattered—thoughts cannot be in prison, and I had many years to think” (Belfrage).

At the other extreme, all the visitors found some “aggressively” pro-Communist people. One interpreter fitted this description: a bureaucratic Lenin-quoter who defensively accepted the official creed, disapproved of women’s smoking and wearing lipstick, and (this is the novel twist) looked down on manual labor. Mr. Kalb vividly describes another nudnik who, throughout a night that they shared a sleeper compartment, bent his ears with the party-line version of American atrocities and degeneracy.

Probably more numerous than either of these extremes were the various intermediate hues. There are in these books a number of thumbnail sketches of young people whose parents perished in the purges of the 1930′s or in the siege of Leningrad, young people aware of the man-made shortages and the political restraints on art and thought—and still loyal. “The main thing to remember is that five years ago things were far worse” and they must get better. “What am I to do?” a critical Communist tells Miss Rau. “I am Russian and I love my country. I cannot hate it because there are faults. I must work within the party and outside to make my country better and to keep it better.”

Perhaps even more representative is the confused type—not so sophisticated, semi-indoctrinated malgré soi. Miss Belfrage got to know one such woman: “She resents all of ‘them,’ the top people, and is determined not to believe anything ‘they’ tell her, yet it is obvious that propaganda has effect if it is repeated often enough. For instance, she believes that all the people in the capitalist countries are exploited. But she knows that their lives are better, from what she has seen. I have argued with her about this, but she cannot see any contradictions.”

Much American thinking in recent years has assumed that sooner or later the Soviet state will simply collapse of its own weight—because it was conceived in sin or because it “just can’t work.” The evidence here is unanimously to the contrary. Even Miss Schakovskoy—the most conservative of the writers—believes that “one can only hope for a gradual change.” A critical student tells Miss Rau: “We do not want a revolution, a change of government, more fighting—no. Just some better things in our life.” Levine concurs: “The pressures seem to be in the direction of bringing about changes within the system rather than in overthrowing the system.” Miss Belfrage testifies similarly: “I didn’t feel that most people . . . want to overthrow anything. But some definitely want to change things.” And Stevenson asserts that “the reasonable hope is not that [the Soviet Union] will disintegrate but that it may evolve.”

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Stability, of course, does not mean static permanence. The Soviet system inevitably generates new tensions, new conflicts, new malcontents. The very improvements of recent years have fed the desire for more. They have also made some people realize the fragility of their blessings. “The main thing,” one Soviet intellectual told Miss Belfrage, “is that there are so few guarantees that what freedom we have will remain.”

Some are resigned to their impotence: “When I was younger, I liked to sit for hours and talk about freedom and art and politics. Now I’ve had enough talking. We talk about art but there is no art, we talk about freedom but there is no freedom. No one can do anything, there is never any action . . . Only talk.”

Most of the younger people do not seem to share this view. There is a sense of (perhaps exaggerated) power among them, a conviction—garnered from official propaganda—that there are new worlds to conquer. Some ask for a “private sector” of the mind and heart. Freedom of communication and travel; freedom to rest and to enjoy oneself as one chooses; freedom to err with impunity—time and again these emerge as the inarticulate “program” of the day. On this score, there seems to be little difference between Communist party members and non-Communists. When Stevenson took leave of a group of Russians by saying, “Well, come to see us in America,” several people in the crowd wistfully asked, “How?”

All this is worth reading again; yet virtually none of it is new. It hardly justifies the rosier hopes of those addicts of exchange-manship who expect to “bridge the gap” and solve the ills of the universe by bigger and better tourism between the United States and the USSR. Indeed, as Henry L. Roberts wrote last year in the Columbia University Forum, “There is some danger that the multiplication of opportunities for travel and ‘communication’ may, if not balanced by real self-discipline—and occasional visits to libraries—have a negative rather than positive effect upon our scholarship.”

Nevertheless such experiences are, at the very least, an excellent education for their participants; there is no substitute for a firsthand sight-and-smell expedition. In most of the books, too, there is good advice to be culled by those who plan to go to Russia. And yet, there is not a book in the bunch that does not have some boners. Levine’s Moskvich automobile is not “little Moscow” but a Muscovite; Miss Rau’s Orthodox formula, Gospodi po milo (literally, Lord on soap) should read Gospodi pomilui (May the Lord have mercy on us). Miss Schakovskoy speaks of the GKP when she means the KGB—the present secret police. Kostya is not the diminutive of Alexander (as Kalb tells us) but of Constantin. The Orthodox church and the Soviet state did not reach an accommodation in the 30′s (as Stevenson says) but during the war. Miss Rau erroneously speaks of “the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum.” Some stories reappear in several books with enough variation to make one wonder whether they ever happened at all. On other points (say, the percentage pocketed by commission stores), the books offer contradictory facts. If these are petty points, they make one wonder what other errors may lie deeper.

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One gross misconception is, I fear, inherent in the genre. The reader is apt to come away with the impression that the Soviet Union is a fascinating country, mildly and quaintly odd; and he may miss completely all appreciation of the USSR as a unique and formidable political system. Take any standard headings on Soviet government: the Party and the State; the upper and lower echelons of administration; the factory “triangle” of manager, party organization, and trade union; the bureaucrat and the specialist; the Party and the bespartiinyi; economic “construction” on a mass scale; agriculture as an Achilles’ heel of the system; the new professional or managerial elite. To none of these questions will the reader find helpful answers in these pages. Take the current concern over the quality of Soviet education, the permanence of the Soviet empire, and the social mobility outside the Party ladder. No useful insights on these matters can be gleaned from the travelers’ accounts. The Party dictatorship itself is barely discernible to the naked eye.

Except for Stevenson’s and Lippmann’s prescriptions for America, there is almost nothing in these books about Soviet intentions and motives; perhaps there cannot be. Only in the Stevenson and Lippmann interviews with Khrushchev does the challenge of Leninist ideology come across. Khrushchev’s own peculiar combination of commitment to Communist dogma with flexible realism requires study and invites reflection—above and beyond mere reporting of widespread cynicism in Soviet society. To see Russia evolving without the Leninist creed—which operates as a prop, a goal, an inspiration, and a rationale—may be to miss the forest for the trees.

While there is need to “humanize” our image of Soviet reality (and these books help to do so), we must beware of substituting a hands-across-the-sea sentimentality for a hard-headed analysis of Soviet conduct and intent. The travelogues must be used as part of the growing record, in order to understand the USSR, but it would be silly to draw conclusions from travelogues alone. If nothing else, the whole issue of totalitarianism would remain obscured. One is tempted to recall George F. Kennan’s comment in 1951, in his “America and the Russian Future”: “We have not succeeded very well, as a nation, in understanding the position of the man who lives under the yoke of modern despotism. Totalitarianism is not a national phenomenon; it is a disease to which all humanity is in some degree vulnerable. . . . The relationship between citizen and political authority under totalitarianism is inevitably complicated: it is never pat and simple. Who does not understand these things cannot understand what is at stake in our relations with the people of such countries. These relations leave no room for our favored conviction that the people of a totalitarian state can be neatly divided into collaborators and martyrs and that there will be none left over.”

Kennan’s advice, too, remains pertinent, after eight years of “unforeseeable” changes in both Soviet reality and our own view of it. He urged us to—and perhaps we may yet—rise above “easy and childish reactions and consent to view the tragedy of Russia as partly our own tragedy, and the people of Russia as our comrades in the long hard battle for a happier system of man’s coexistence with himself and with nature on this troubled planet.”

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Footnotes

1 A Room in Moscow, by Sally Belfrage; Reynal, 186 pp., $3.50. Eastern Exposure, by Marvin L. Kalb; Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 322 pp., $4.50. Main Street U.S.S.R., by Irving R. Levine; Doubleday, 480 pp., $4.50. The Communist World and Ours, by Walter Lippmann; Little, Brown, 58 pp., $2.00. My Russian Journey, by Santha Rama Rau; Harper, 300 pp., $4.50. The Privilege Was Mine, by Zinaida Schakovskoy; Putnam, 318 pp., $4.00. Friends and Enemies, by Adlai E. Stevenson; Harper, 102 pp., $2.95.

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