The first book by the creator of the magical nanny Mary Poppins was not a fairy-tale but a travelogue, an account of her trip to the Soviet Union in 1932. “Moscow Excursion” by Pamela Lyndon Travers was published months before “Mary Poppins” in 1934, panned by the press and largely ignored by the reading public.
Born in Australia, Helen Lyndon Goff emigrated to England in 1924 where she began writing under the pen name P. L. Travers. Her surprising decision to journey to Soviet Russia was for “pure enjoyment” and not based upon ideology – although she admitted that “in a world rocking madly between fascism and communism” she preferred the latter.
Having booked a place with the London tour operator Intourist – all travel to the USSR had to be with an official tour group – Travers sailed to Leningrad, made her way to Moscow, then returned to Leningrad. The tour stops were predictable: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Hermitage, St. Basil’s, the Tretyakov Gallery. And the Soviet venues left the author flabbergasted. “Factories, crèches, prisons – doesn’t it sound to you the most lunatic kind of nightmare? Not one of us would put a foot inside such places in the West… and yet here we are, solemnly trooping about looking at boots, babies and criminals as though they were bits of the True Cross.”
Travers warns her readers in the preface to “Moscow Excursion” that those seeking a serious exposition of the Soviet state are doomed to disappointment. Her tourist status, lack of the language and omnipresent state guides prevent her from properly getting to know the country, she writes. However, she does manage to deviate from the officially sanctioned route: conversing with people on the street; visiting private homes, a theater, and a film studio; and meeting with well-known journalists, stage directors, a playwright, and a cameraman. Such fraternization was against the rules and Travers refers to these characters in generalities, often using false initials to protect their identity.
Ultimately, Traver’s travelogue is a poignant account of the USSR on the cusp of Stalin’s Great Purge. The author may share in the Soviet audience’s delight at the Bolshoi Theater’s ballet, but she doesn’t shy away from writing about the foreboding shadow of communal threat: “Oh, it’s clever, it’s diabolically clever. Lenin discovered that bears dance naturally and Stalin knew well how to put rings in their noses and lead them through the streets. But somewhere, behind all the cunning exploitation, is there not the bear’s own desire to be so led? Haven’t the people themselves chosen the tyranny that flatters their deepest instincts and relieves them of the necessity of thinking for themselves?”
Translated by Olga Mäeots and published by Limbus Press, “Moscow Excursion” is now available in Russian.