Salient. Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 7. Tuesday, June 18, 1963
Soviet Student Leader's NZ Impressions
Soviet Student Leader's NZ Impressions
Alexander Lebedev, member of the 1961 Soviet Student Delegation to New Zealand, recently wrote about his Southern Hemisphere experiences in the Communist bloc magazine. World Student News.
Lebedev's remarks make interesting, sometimes amusing, reading.
After a flying visit to Auckland the Delegation flew to the far south. Describing a Dunedin party, Lebedev wrote:
"At last they've come!" cried one fellow happily before we had so much as entered the room.
The expression on his face suggested that he'd been waiting several hours for us. He wore a loud coloured shirt with a bow tie. Prom under a jockey cap a bright face beamed at us.
"Do you have jazz in the SU?"
"Yes, we do," we answered cheerfully as we looked around. In three small rooms where Austin, a post-graduate student and lecturer of Otago University, lived there were over 30 people.
"Hurrah!" cried the fellow joyfully, "they have Jazz."
"And do you play rugby?"
"Hurrah!" he shouted exultantly.
It was very difficult for us to push through the crowd, to get from one room to the other. Luckily we moved in the right direction. Though a guitar could be heard in the next room, we made our way to the place where hot dogs and beer—standard student refreshments—were being served. To be honest, some took hip bottles out of their pockets now and then and had a gulp or two. Meanwhile, in the corridor, something slightly resembling dancing began; and we, finishing off our hot dogs, were already deep in a discussion on whether the western powers sincerely wanted to solve the problem of disarmament. We noticed that the fellow who had so cheerfully greeted us on our arrival was trying to push through the crowd with a full glass of beer, to ask another question. But by this time we were too far away—in another corner of the room-singing and dancing. After a few hours our hosts discovered that dawn had broken, so everybody went home.
There was also a serious side to the Russians' Dunedin stay:
On the morning before our departure we were taken to New Zealand's best school of dentistry—one of the best in the world, we were told again and again. There we were welcomed by the director, Sir John Welsh, who greeted us heartily, speaking both as Director and as the President of the New Zealand Association for the United Nations.
We made a brief tour of the school, at the end of which we found ourselves at the Medical Faculty where refreshments were to be served in the anatomy theatre. As the door opened a foul smell exhaled from a large adjoining hall. We stood hesitantly at the open door. At last Otari and I poked our noses into the hall, but went no further. Then Elvira (our only girl delegate) bravely stepped over the threshold into its horrors and odours. She was a picture of imperturbility as she approached the dissecting table around which sat medical students in relaxed poses, calmly smoking cigarettes. Her inspection was a success.
Next day a local sheet—named Truth—ran a short article about the visit of our delegation. The newspaper could find nothing more interesting to report about our 3-day stay in Dunedin than a notice that Elvira Astafeva had fainted on entering the anatomy theatre. We were not surprised.
After visiting Christchurch, Lebedev was taken to Lincoln College.
In the evening 350 students and post graduates, along with about 10 lecturers, gathered in the small assembly hall to meet us.
A curious procedure preceded the gathering. Three boys in raincoats and hats sat in the front row. Each hat bore an inscription "Pravda," "Tass" and "The People's Voice." We thought there would be a performance. Before 10 minutes had passed five boys in raincoats with turned up collars and hats over their eyes entered the hall. They approached the three unfortunate Press representatives, tied their hands behind their backs and drove them from the auditorium. In block letters on the back of the leader of the five were the initials FBI, The audience roared.
After the meeting we saw sheep, pigs, and finally some cows as well. Not being agricultural specialists we appreciated the explanation given us:
"Our agricultural production is very high," said a tall, spectacled, intelligent-looking man. "It's well mechanised. Also we're fortunate. Since the climate on our two islands is varied, we are able to grow a great variety of crops. But cattle breeding takes first place."
"Sheep, yes but dairy cattle is most important."
"Our milk, butter and cheese." added a student, "are very cheap." At that moment we were passing a small dairy owned by the college. "That's true." continued our guide, "but the reason is that the dairy industry is subsidised by the government, so dairy prices are below cost. The government is well compensated by export profits. But we don't know what the future will hold. Great Britain plans to enter the Common Market, and most of our export goes there."
"It's not clear yet." added another.
"But if they do decide to join," the tall man continued, "most of our farmers will be ruined."
"Wouldn't it be possible to send some of our wool and dairy products to the Soviet Union?"
"Your government should sign an agreement with ours," we suggested.
"Who? Mr. Holyoake?" the man looked despondent.
Finally the Russians visited Wellington.
The small quaint boat Maori took us through Cook's Gulf to the capital of New Zealand.
Our journey was coming to an end. At Wellington, as it turned out, we still had to do battle with Moral Re-Armament representatives who couldn't resist "honouring" our meeting with Victoria University students by their presence.
Only 300 gathered in the hall, as lectures were on at the time. Most of the people remained silent, but six or seven dispersed among the audience did not even wait to hear the answers to their questions before they shouted others. Tension was relieved when one shy student, after having his hand up for 40 minutes, asked: "What's the price of a pair of shoes in the SU?"
We spent our last two days in Wellington, an impressive city overlooking a harbour—said to be one of the finest, most beautiful harbours in the world. Mr. O'Regan, a well-known doctor and active worker for nuclear disarmament, has a house with a view on to the gulf and the legendary Cook's Estuary. As I looked out I recalled the very many friendly encounters with New Zealand students, staff and members of the NZ-USSR Friendship Society. I also thought of the speech of the venerable "Old Man" of the opposition, Sir Walter Nash, delivered at the last reception given in our honour. Members of the party in office, the National Party, had also been invited: I don't know why they did not attend. Sir Nash spoke of his visit to our country and tried to recollect the surnames of Soviet leaders. At the conclusion he drank a toast to friendship and co-operation.
Next day the rain was so heavy and the wind so strong that it seemed that in a moment all the wooden houses of Wellington would be swept into the ocean. Mr. O'Regan prayed for our safe landing. The radio announced that Britain's ocean liner, the Canberra, had been unable to enter the harbour for two days because of the storm. We felt little hope for our flight, but went to the airport nevertheless. It was raining cats and dogs; despite the weather, the plane was scheduled to leave.
The hour of departure had come. Graham Simpson came over to us and put a small doll into Elvira's pocket: "Remember when you first came I said that in Europe and even in Australia people think us uncivilised and uncultured? Please tell them your opinion."
Dear Graham, the people of Europe and Australia have much to learn from your wonderfully hospitable, pleasant and kind people.