Under my byline

Free hand behind the Iron Curtain

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 25 November 2007

Q&A: Dominique Lapierre

In 1956, a Paris Match reporter and photographer, Dominique Lapierre and Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini, undertook a 13,000-km road trip through the Soviet Union. With special permission from Khrushchev himself, these two, their wives and their Russian colleague Slava Petoukhov (of Pravda) were allowed to drive through the European USSR in their Marly, a car that drew admiring crowds wherever they went. Fifty years on, in Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union (Full Circle), Lapierre (author of City of Joy) has set down the story.

Why did the Soviets allow you to travel through the USSR?

I think that after Khrushchev had pronounced his big lecture on de-Stalinisation they wanted to make a gesture to show that something had changed in Soviet Russia.

How did you all fit into one car? What were the most and least useful things you took?

We had to have the springs reinforced! We kept things in the back, on the roof… We had taken with us some food, gifts, films — the Marly was really stuffed up to the top. The most useful was the bunch of small Eiffel Towers which we were able to give along the way. It was the magic key to open all the doors. Because it is the emblem of the Western world, the emblem of freedom. The least useful were boxes of French paté because we were given Russian caviar, which was more tasty.

Who was the most natural traveller?

We all saw different things. [Our wives] were interested in Russian women. Pedrazzini had the eye of a photographer, and I had an eye for everybody. We were prepared to be surprised.

What did you write about the trip?

I wrote a big story which told part of the story with photographs, and then I waited 50 years [to write this book] because one half-century later the whole trip has become history.

Why is this such a slim book? After all, your trip was monumental.

The average reader has so many solicitations from TV and other media. I wanted to bring them the essential fruit of the trip: it was really the first occasion to meet unplanned people. We didn’t want to be given people. Those testimonies are really the first free testimonies given by Soviet people in Soviet Russia.

The people you met don’t seem to have been unhappy with their lives.

This was what I found. People are unhappy when deprived of freedom. But in a time before TV, people did not have so many channels to find out what happened. Somehow the system had managed to ensure their lives. Except for the Armenians and the people in the gulags.

You saw the USSR soon after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. Were people’s lives changing as a result?

I think it was going to take really long to see change. They themselves did not know so much about de-Stalinisation. After all my encounters with Soviet people I never could have thought that in my lifetime I could see this empire falling to pieces. It was in the genes of the Russian people to be governed in such a way. The tsars before had been the same.

Have you been back to Russia since?

[Yes, but] not since the fall of the Wall. I kept contact with Slava — he was very nice, very genuine, very full of truth. For him it must have been a terrible shock that this empire fell.

He was an agent keeping an eye on you. How did you deal with that?

Our techniques as Western journalists were so bright that actually it was the inverse, we showed him his country. He had never travelled throughout Russia. He must have made some reports, but we were careful not to give him enough food for the reports.

What ultimately happened to the Marly?

The car became a sort of exhibition trophy. It was shown throughout France and Europe as a normal car, nothing special, and it had taken this great trip. I’d like to return to Russia now in a Tata Sumo or Indica!

(Read a review of the book here.)

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