“My Visit to Russia”: Clementine Churchill’s Wartime Travelogue

“My Visit to Russia”: Clementine Churchill’s Wartime Travelogue

“My Vis­it to Rus­sia” is excerpt­ed  from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged text includ­ing end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just fill out SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW (at right). Your email address will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

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My VisitMy Vis­it to Rus­sia is the only book by Clemen­tine Churchill, It was pub­lished to sup­port the Aid to Rus­sia Fund, of which Clemen­tine was chair­man (the word was gen­der-neu­tral in those days). Moya Poezd­ka V SSSR, a Russ­ian lim­it­ed edi­tion, was also pub­lished. Unlike the pulpy paper­back, it was print­ed on high qual­i­ty coat­ed paper, but com­prised only 20 pages. The Russ­ian text was abridged from the Eng­lish edition.

Aid to Russia Fund

The Aid to Rus­sia Fund began in 1941 after Hitler’s inva­sion of Rus­sia. It was found­ed by the Joint War Organ­i­sa­tion, under the British Red Cross and Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Its object was to pro­vide Rus­sians with med­ical sup­plies dur­ing Germany’s inva­sion and par­tial occu­pa­tion of the USSR. Quick­ly, £1 mil­lion was raised, and reached £8 mil­lion by war’s end. The fund pro­vid­ed X-ray units and ambu­lances, along with con­tain­ers of blan­kets, clothes and medicine.

Clemen­tine Churchill was award­ed the Order of the Red Ban­ner of Labour and the Dis­tin­guished Red Cross Ser­vice Badge for her efforts. In 1946 she was appoint­ed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) though she nev­er affect­ed the title. Clemen­tine was gen­er­al­ly uncon­scious of such hon­ors. As her hus­band cracked in 1953, when he became a Knight of the Garter (KG): “Now Clem­mie will have to be a lady at last.”

My Visit to Russia

To thank Mrs. Churchill, the Sovi­ets invit­ed her to tour Russ­ian health facil­i­ties which had ben­e­fit­ted from the Fund. She was accom­pa­nied by Red Cross Russ­ian Aid Com­mit­tee sec­re­tary Mabel John­son and her own sec­re­tary, Grace Ham­blin. Fate took her from Winston’s side dur­ing cli­mac­tic events: the stark hor­ror as the Allies found the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps; the deaths of Roo­sevelt, Hitler and Mus­soli­ni; the near-death of Winston’s broth­er Jack; the Ger­man sur­ren­der; VE Day; the loom­ing break-up of the Churchill coali­tion government.

Clemen­tine arrived in Moscow on 2 April 1945, with Sovi­et inten­tions toward East­ern Europe plain­ly threat­en­ing. Her daugh­ter wrote: “Win­ston had had very real qualms about the wis­dom of let­ting Clemen­tine go to Rus­sia. How­ev­er, her vis­it afford­ed a wel­come oppor­tu­ni­ty for smiles, not scowls.” She was met by for­mer Sovi­et Ambas­sador to Britain Ivan and Mrs. Maisky and British Ambas­sador Sir Archibald Clark Kerr. “Love­ly accounts of your speech and recep­tion,” cabled Win­ston. “At the moment you are the one bright spot in Anglo-Russ­ian relations.”

Hugging the bear

Ear­ly in her vis­it, Clemen­tine was received by Stal­in in the Krem­lin. The account in My Vis­it was suit­ably diplo­mat­ic: “The great war­rior leader…was exceed­ing­ly kind and gra­cious in his ref­er­ences to the Aid to Rus­sia Fund.” Stal­in said her help “has been on a con­sid­er­able scale. We are grate­ful for it.”

Clemen­tine pre­sent­ed Stal­in with a gold foun­tain pen, Winston’s gift, a sou­venir of their wartime meet­ings. “My hus­band wish­es me to express the hope that you will write him many friend­ly mes­sages with it,” she said. “The Mar­shal accept­ed it with a genial smile.” She did not include his words, which she relat­ed lat­er to her daugh­ter: “I only write with a pencil.”

Despite Winston’s entreaties, her mes­sages, even in cypher, made few oth­er ref­er­ences to Stal­in. He would write few friend­ly let­ters in future.

Smiles amid devastation

Clemen­tine cov­ered vast ter­ri­to­ry, from Leningrad to Stal­in­grad, Ros­tov-on-Don to Odessa. My Vis­it is replete with mov­ing descrip­tions of war’s effects on the coun­try. She did regard Leningrad as “the most beau­ti­ful city I have ever seen,”7 but Leningrad had avoid­ed occu­pa­tion. En route to Stal­in­grad she wrote:

What an appalling scene of destruc­tion met our eyes. My first thought was, how like the cen­tre of Coven­try or the dev­as­ta­tion around St. Paul’s, except that here the hav­oc and oblit­er­a­tion seems to spread out end­less­ly…. The Nazis spread death on all sides. It was a pol­i­cy of delib­er­ate anni­hi­la­tion. But Rus­sia lives!—And the mar­velous ten­der­ness and atten­tion giv­en to the tiny babies struck me as a sym­bol of the Life Force repair­ing the rav­ages of war.

My Vis­it sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly describes the brave Russ­ian chil­dren who had sur­vived to smile up at her with soft brown eyes, or share a small toy. Russ­ian chil­dren were “attrac­tive and charm­ing to look at,” she wrote, and here was a nod to pre-Sovi­et Russia:

There is some qual­i­ty in their upbring­ing that seems to instill obe­di­ence and good man­ners with­out fear—at least until the age of sev­en or eight. I believe that no child is ever beat­en in Rus­sia. That was true in the old pre-rev­o­lu­tion days as well as in Sovi­et times.

The rush of events

Far­ther west, events piled up. Win­ston was now seri­ous­ly wor­ried about Roo­sevelt. “My poor friend is very much alone,” he wrote Clementine,

and bereft of much of his vigour. Most of the telegrams I get from him are clear­ly the works of oth­ers around him. How­ev­er yes­ter­day he came through [with] a flash of his old fire, and is about the hottest thing I have seen so far in diplo­mat­ic inter­course…. [M]uch of this stuff is dynamite….Well  you know how great our dif­fi­cul­ties are about Poland, Ruma­nia, and this oth­er row about alleged nego­ti­a­tions. I intend still to per­se­vere, but it is very difficult.

These frank exchanges ceased after Clemen­tine left Moscow. With­out the ben­e­fit of the cypher code through the British Embassy, their let­ters were nec­es­sar­i­ly cir­cum­spect. She did pass through Moscow on 13 April, en route to Stal­in­grad, where she learned of Roosevelt’s death the day before. There she had a brief tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with her hus­band. His note the next day gives the lie to asser­tions that he delib­er­ate­ly snubbed FDR’s funer­al: “At the last moment I decid­ed not to fly to Roosevelt’s funer­al on account of much that was going on here.”

 M. Herriot on VE-Day, 8 May 1945

My Visit
Édouard Marie Her­riot in 1946 (Key­stone France, pub­lic domain)

At the British Embassy with Clemen­tine to hear Winston’s VE-Day address was Édouard Her­riot, recent­ly freed from a Ger­man prison. A French rad­i­cal, Her­riot had been prime min­is­ter, and had been Pres­i­dent of the Cham­ber of Deputies in 1940. As such he had been present at Churchill’s last 1940 vis­it to France, when WSC tried to ral­ly the despair­ing government.

Adamant­ly opposed to Vichy, Her­riot was arrest­ed and impris­oned in Ger­many. As they lis­tened to Winston’s broad­cast he said to Clementine:

I am afraid you may think it unman­ly of me to weep. But I have just heard Mr. Churchill’s voice. The last time I had heard his voice was on that day in Tours in 1940 when he implored the French Gov­ern­ment to hold firm and con­tin­ue the strug­gle. His noble words of lead­er­ship that day were unavail­ing. When we heard the French Government’s answer, and knew they meant to give up the fight, tears streamed down Mr. Churchill’s face. So you will under­stand that if I weep today, I do not feel unmanned.

A souvenir of sterner days

Despite its mod­est appear­ance, My Vis­it to Rus­sia is worth seek­ing out. Clemen­tine Churchill’s dra­mat­ic word-pic­tures of Russia’s dev­as­ta­tion remind us of Winston’s words to her about war: “I feel more deeply every year—and can mea­sure the feel­ing here in the midst of arms—what vile and wicked fol­ly and bar­barism it all is.”

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