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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Informal speech and Q&A at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park, New York, Part 1

October 1957


ER discusses her trip to Russia with the teachers at FDR High School.

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Ladies and Gentleman, I asked what you would really like to know about this Russian trip. I think perhaps I ought to tell you how I came to go and what the object of my going was. I uh was asked by the newspapers for whom I write a column, the Syndicate, and particularly by the New York Post if I would go to China, but our own State Department uh does not like to have people to go to China, and so they said I couldn't have a visa to China. And then, the New York Post said, "Well, would you go to Russia?" And I said, "Yes, I would go." And so I applied and it took me some little time to get visas for three-three of us who were going: my secretary, Miss Corr, Dr. Gurewitsch, who speaks Russian whom I wanted there for-to have with me, and uh myself. And it took us oh very nearly uh two to three months to get those visas from the Russian Government, but they came through without any objection. And the papers had asked me if I would go and try to see what the Russia of today was like.

And I had given that considerable thought because as you know um [cough] the Soviet Union set very strict limitations to where people could go, even after they've granted them a visa within the Soviet Union. And our diplomats are particularly restricted and because of this we have restricted their coming into this country in the first place and then where after they can travel after they come into this country, so that our country is if anything, more difficult for them to move about in then um it is even for us in the Soviet Union except where the diplomats and the foreign correspondents are concerned. Well, I had carefully written to the Russian Embassy and said that I was coming as a correspondent that I would come in tourist but that I would want to see the things that which affected the life of the people today. And I thought a good deal about how I was going to do this. I decided that the way to do it was to get in touch with the top people, the ministers, who headed up departments of government which affected the lives of the people.


Well, now what would affect the lives of the people? Agriculture, education, social welfare, health. And so um as soon as I arrived, I went to our embassy and told them what I was going to do and that when I had seen all I felt I could see in and around Moscow within a driving distance, I was going as far away as I could go so as to see whether what they told me in Moscow was actually working in distant parts of this very big country because the Soviet Union is very, very much larger than the United States. And so I had made up my mind where I was going to try to go, and I was really very fortunate in the place I chose. I thought I would like to go to two places that I heard about ever since I was a child and thought were glamorous, Tashkent and Samarkand. Samarkand, you will remember, was the capital of Tamerlane and he is buried there. His tomb is there. And so those places all through history had just--I tucked them away in the back of my head as places I would like to go to. They're right in central Asia and close to the border, uh the northern border of Pakistan. And um I asked, before I left here, if I might uh be allowed to go there.

But I didn't know how long it would take me, nor um how really fortunate I was to have picked on Tashkent because the one jet line they have running is a commercial line within their country is from Moscow to Tashkent. It runs--there is a flight every day, both over and back [coughs]. I didn't know this and it was lucky I didn't because I would probably have thought that I couldn't do it; it took too much time because had I had to go by train it would have taken me eight days and eight nights and if I'd taken an ordinary plane I would have been twelve hours flying. In the jet plane it took me exactly four hours, four hours over and four hours when we came back. [Coughs] Now I-I better tell you, that probably no private company could operate a line like that one, from Moscow to Tashkent, because the plane just eats gas and [laughs] it will probably be highly uneconomic to run it as a regular line. But nevertheless, they run it with great pride, as a government line of course, and they're perfectly delighted to tell you that they are the only country that has a commercial run that runs regularly every day from one point to another and it's always full. There is always a full plane going both ways. Well, when I did reach um Moscow, as I tell you, um the first thing that I did--we got there in the evening so we had dinner and then we drove around the city.


And I was impressed even driving in from the airport, at the number of cranes. And I was told that every crane meant an apartment house going up. Well, there were hundreds as you drive in from the airport. And even in the dark, you could see them sticking up. And after we'd had dinner, we drove around the city and I saw all this building going on. And I had heard that housing was very bad and that they were having difficulties because not only was there great destruction during the war but they'd had to bring in a great many people from the country for industrial purposes and therefore uh they had to have a lot more housing and they just didn't have it, so they were building very rapidly. And the very next morning, the first thing I did was to go over to the embassy, and the Ambassador greeted me by saying--I-I asked if there was anything he wanted to tell me that I must uh either not say or that he would like me to say if I met anyone and um what did he have to tell me? And he said, "Well, Mrs. Roosevelt there is really nothing except of course, I think I should tell you that your rooms are probably wired at the hotel." And I said, "Oh yes, I suppose they were." [Audience laughs] "I made the discovery as I drove in from the airport last night that I had been allotted a very important interpreter." And he said, "Oh really, who?" And I said, "Well I've got Anna Lavrova, and she was the interpreter who um translated for my husband at Yalta, and so they didn't pick out someone with that amount of background unless they really wanted very careful reports on me." And uh I said, "I-therefore I'm not in the least worried by the fact that my rooms are probably wired. I came to learn, to learn all I could and I don't intend to say things or to talk about things in an antagonistic way. I want to learn."


And the ambassador said, "Well, very well then, but it is well to have it in the back of your mind." And I said, "Thank you sir, I will." [laughs] And then I went back to the hotel to meet the head of In-tourist and I told him that I wanted to see these cabinet officers. He said, "Oh that's something that we never do, we show you the sights, we do everything but we never make appointments, um but of course we will try." And I said, "Well, sir there is no use in my being here, there is not use in my being-using your services unless you can make these appointments because I have come to find out what Russia is like today." So he said he would try. And I got that very afternoon, my first appointment. And I had no trouble at all in seeing anything I wanted after I had met the minister but unless you meet the top person, nobody will show you anything or talk to you about anything because they are all afraid, but once you meet the head and you ask them to notify the places you go to, um you then can uh be told almost anything and see almost anything. There are one or two things that you'll have difficulty with. I never succeeded in doing one thing that I wanted to do very much.

The whole of the Soviet Union is divided into medical districts. And every medical district has its own visiting doctor and several nurses, and the nurses go the rounds into homes, visiting people who are sick or people who've just had babies. And they give a good deal of advice about what-how living conditions can be improved and living conditions are probably the most difficult things in the Soviet Union [coughs]. So I was very anxious to make the rounds with the nurse and Dr. Gurewitsch tried too, we tried twice and they never said no but something always happened so we didn't really have a chance to do it. I mean uh the nurse that day didn't turn up, um which was most unfortunate. But that was the day when she just couldn't make her rounds, or um that was the day when it wasn't quite suitable to send us and we just never did get to make those rounds. Fortunately, I did have one or two leads to people, so I did see some homes, otherwise I would have had a pretty hard time, I think, to get an idea of what life in a home was. Now you have to realize that the whole setup of existence in Russia is different from ours. We have great production and largely through machines. They have a great productive effort going on, but while they are using machines, wherever they can get them, they have to develop a labor supply and because they somehow, the reasons I can't tell you, but we still produce, per man hour, two and a half times as much as they do.


Now whether it is, they are using--they did use almost entirely German and British machinery in every factory of different kinds. Um now they're making great many machines themselves, but whether it is that the machines are not quite as good as ours, or the people have never learned to be quite as skillful, or whether it is that their actual conditions of life make them have less initiative or less, perhaps speed, I don't know. I can't tell you. I tried to find out and I never could. But as yet, they need a tremendous labor supply, so their whole setup of life is to produce a labor supply, men and women must all work, every man and every woman. Now they want healthy children so the labor laws are um quite interesting. A woman has, before the birth of her child, so many days for which she is paid by her industry, or by wherever she's working, in a collective farm or in a state farm, whatever she is working at, she gets paid those days before the baby is born. And then, she has eight days in the hospital, still being paid, um if the birth is a normal birth, she only spends eight days in the hospital, then she goes home. And, free of charge, the doctor visits her in that first month, once. The nurse, the district nurse, visits her three times. And after the first month, she and her baby must appear at what we would call a well-baby clinic, they must appear every month. Now remember that everything in the Soviet Union is compulsory, it isn't your choice. You have to do it whether you like to do it or not, just as you have to go to work, whether you like to go to work or not. Lately, as the need has lessened a little, they're allowing a few women to stay at home as housewives. But they are women who have fairly large families. If you have a family, of course you get, um for every child an allowance. Now if you have a family of five or six children, that allowance becomes quite a little income.


And a few women, not many, but a few are permitted to stay at home with their families when they have five or six children. But the average woman goes back to work on the fifty-seventh day after her child is born. She gets paid up to that time and on the fifty-seventh day she goes back to work and takes the child to a nursery, which is run according to state regulations. And very well run, and run by people who love children and who take wonderful care of them. These children never suffer from lack of affection because Soviet people love children. And they get very good care from trained people. The head of one of these nurseries is very well trained, and it's under social welfare, but the pattern is the state pattern. And in the Soviet Union, they haven't followed the ideas of Freud. They have followed the ideas of a scientist called Pavlov, very well known in this country. He believed in what might be called the theory of conditioned reflex. If you trained people on that theory, you would have very well-disciplined and uh people would grow accustomed to certain things and they would do them automatically as time went on. I doubt if he ever expected to have quite the effect that he is having on the Soviet Union, but every child in a nursery is trained according to those theories. And a baby, six months old, has already learned to cooperate in his exercises. I happened to be interested in what this theory would produce. And so when I was in Leningrad, which in many ways is a more a freer city than Moscow-- uh it is a little more sophisticated, people are better dressed in the streets. You have your greatest museum, the Hermitage there, with the most beautiful pictures, all of course bought before the Revolution. Very few have been bought since the Revolution.

But Leningrad is a more sophisticated city and in spite of the fact that there was great destruction during the war, you must remember that all the ideas of uh good things for the people that were begun at the time of the Revolution, forty years ago, came to a complete stop in the war. The war just stopped everything. And the people in the Soviet Union suffered so much in the war. I don't think any of us have the faintest idea of what war meant because war for us has never been actually on our own doorstep. And person after person in the Soviet Union remembers having seen his village burned before his eyes with everything that they cared for going up in smoke. And then living in woods and fields, on any berries they could find, any roots they could dig up, just barely keeping alive, cold and hungry, wet. War to these people is something that was very personal because they sent all their young men to the different fronts and they-and many of their young women. And they never had a word because there was no organization for postal service. They never knew until those boys and girls came back whether they were alive or dead. So these people know, what war really can mean when it's right in your home. It's very much more personal to them, then it is to us, and they take out those years of the war as the years when of course no progress was made.


They're just black years in which life was barely an existence. And I think that's something we have to remember because even a dictator has to understand the feel of his people, has to know what are the things that really mean something to the people. Well go back to our talk about Leningrad. In Leningrad, there is probably the best of the medical districts uh because they were very anxious to show it to me. It's exactly, as far as setup goes, the same pattern as every other one, whether it's in Tashkent or in Moscow or anywhere else. But they probably do a little better job and when I asked about statistics, they were the first people who said to me, "Oh yes last year we kept statistics." Well now, you know, statistics are very difficult to really know what they tell you because you have to have a uniform base for them to mean anything. And I discovered very quickly that when they were telling me about the death rate of babies, they did not count any baby as having been born that they knew at birth would not live for the-after the first two or three days. We count any baby that is born alive as having been born therefore we count any baby that dies within the first two or three days as a loss, a death. But even taking into consideration this difference in base, it was rather remarkable to have them tell me that in the past year, their records showed that they took care of 19,000 children in that district and they lost one baby under a year old. And under sixteen years they lost four children.

Now every child, up to the age of sixteen or seventeen when Ten-Year school is over, must go to that same clinic once a month. Soon as he is old enough to go alone it's his or her responsibility, up to that time the mother must come with the child. But once they're able to go alone, then it's their responsibility and they have to go and if you don't go, then you're sent for. Um this is what you must remember that everything that happens to you is compulsory. Your job is compulsory. Sure it means that you get paid so much the end of every week and you have it, but you've got to have it, whether you want to or not. Now you go to the clinic because you have to go, it's good for you to go. It results in the best preventive medicine I've ever seen, but it isn't because you know that this is something you want to do and is the wise thing to do. Therefore, you make the effort to build this up. You have to do it; it's good for you and the government decides it is. And now besides having this clinic in Leningrad, they have a college of medicine. Now there are many colleges of medicine all over, but this particular one is for young students who think on graduation from Ten-Year school, not only that they want to go into medicine, which will mean six years of training, but that they want to be, eventually, pediatricians. Now they will not be a pediatrician when they finish their six years course because then they must give three years to the state and be sent wherever the state wants to send them. They will get general experience. Then if they want still to be a pediatrician, they will come back and study on the specialty for three years at a medical college that is particularly eh experienced in that particular thing. And by the time they've finished those three years, they're as good as anyone is in this country.


They are very well trained but in this college, which takes those that think they want to become pediatricians, they were trying an experiment: can you have a child brought up in an institution, up to three years old, as well developed, as healthy, as normal in every way as a child brought up in a family. And they took thirty-two children, they take them every year, from the lying-in hospital whose parents have decided either to abandon them or who've died. And at the end of three years they are adopted into -- by some couple but during those three years they are in this institution. And I was asked if I'd like to go through it and then I was asked if I would like to see uh a six-month old baby and how he had been trained and the nurse brought in the baby and put him on a blanket on the table. And then she took out two little rings and held them up. And the baby's little hands came up, right away, and he grabbed the rings and held them tight. She raised him up and let him down and after a certain number of times, he just dropped the rings. He knew the exact number. And then he began to move his feet and I said, "What next?" And she said, "Oh he knows, the next is his leg exercises." And she gave him his leg exercises and then he lay perfectly still. And I said ,"What next?" And she said, "Oh he knows, he must keep himself as rigid as possible because now I do his exercises standing on his head."

And she took him by his heels and stood him on his head. And she twisted him round, this way and that, and he had a wonderful time. He had a lovely time, but he knew exactly what he was doing. He cooperated perfectly and then when this was over, this exhibition, she said to me, "Would you like to see our little one and a half to two years olds?" and I said, "Very much!" [Audience laughs] And so four of them came in [ER coughs], it was a room in which they evidently did exercises and so along the wall there were these rows of bars, you know, and underneath a very narrow bench, just wide enough for a little child's knee. They came in, they pulled out the bench out, they sat themselves down, took off their shoes, put their shoes along the wall, came back, lined up and the little ones crawled, knee after knee across-along that bench. The other end, they came back and they walked, little foot after little foot. And then they went back and they crawled underneath, just their little fat shoulders could just get underneath, but they got underneath all right. And then suddenly I saw them climbing up the wall and I thought, "Oh heavens, one of them will fall off", not at all. Nobody fell off. And they were down again and they lined up and they went over to the nurse, who had a towel over her lap. One at a time they climbed up on her lap, took hold of her hands and she led them all the way down one side and all the way down the other, the requisite number of times for each one. And then they went back, and got their shoes and sat in the bench and put them on and put the bench back and marched out again, just the way they'd come. And I thought, "Heavens! This is why they are so disciplined! This is why the children you see in the streets are so disciplined."

The streets of Moscow are the cleanest streets you've ever seen. In the first place, all the new cities they build have these enormous, wide avenues and they're swept by women with brooms, all day long, and at night are they hosed by machines, but you'd occasionally expect to see a piece of paper floating around. Never. Now paper is rationed and it's very precious, but it's allotted by the government for books and newspapers, magazines so forth. But still, now, maybe you'd think that someone with a package would tear a piece off, no, never. And one thing that you see every day, except one day in the week, is a very long line that winds its way slowly up to Lenin's tomb. Now this is a country in which you are supposed only to worship your type of government, but human beings have to have something to worship. And so Lenin, who is the father of the Republic and Stalin lying beside him, are the-really the point of worship. They lie, fully dressed, in this tomb and every single day for twenty years, that line which is a mile-and-a-half long, slowly turns on itself three times in the garden below the Kremlin and then climbs the hill up to the Red Square, and at the top of the Red Square, as you come in, are the pigeons who expect to be fed and an old woman with a big basket and she sells pigeon food in little le-envelopes. And the children break away from the line, they get pretty tired, it's slow work, they break away and they usually buy these little envelopes. And I watched a little--oh I think she was two-three years old; I have a picture of her. She bought a little envelope, she opened it, she spread her food around for the pigeons, who all flew down around her and then I thought like all of our children, she'll throw it down, not at all. She smoothed the envelope out and she took it back to the old woman with the basket and then she went back to the line where her parents were.


And I thought, "Heavens, the discipline. Heavens, now I begin to understand." You never see a s-person in the streets of Moscow throw a cigarette stub down, throw a match down. Light cigarettes and you put the match back in the box. I don't know what you do with the stub. [Audience Laughs] What-[ER and audience laugh] I never saw it on the sidewalk. And the streets are immaculate; the subway is immaculate, very beautiful, marble and crystal chandeliers, and beautiful carvings, but immaculate and yet hundreds of thousands of people go through there every day. And in just as much hurry as they are here at home. And that's another interesting thing; every one of them, as soon as they are on the subway, takes a book out of their pocket and I looked with interest to see what they were reading. Never a comic. Never a uh uh funny page out of a newspaper, never. Always something that was really a classic of some kind. And I looked because just now we're being told that we're way behind in science in this country and we are to a certain extent, but we mustn't think that because the Russians have done more in science and in mathematics than we have, that they have neglected everything else.

I went through some papers in literature which were the graduation papers of a high school, Ten-Year graduate in 19-in um '55, and to do those papers would have required thorough knowledge of Shakespeare's Hamlet, a knowledge of the first book of Goethe's Faust and a very good knowledge of Dante's Inferno. Now how many of our high school children could pass a comprehensive examination which covered those three classics? I think that uh what we really have to face is the fact that most of these young people, up to forty years ago, only ten percent of the people of the Soviet Union could read and write and gradually more and more have been allowed to have an education. And so today when almost everyone can have an education; they are avid to learn. And they work much harder, much harder. And they know that education, real education, means that you finish having a disciplined mind. That's the real purpose of education because you never can learn all that there is to learn, but you are creating a tool, in the years that you are being educated and if you take courses that are so easy that you get by in them, then you will not have a disciplined mind, you won't have the kind of an instrument that can take a difficult thing and see it through. And that's not what the Soviets have allowed. Now they use their education politically and we might as well face this fact. We've never thought of doing that but they have to, and therefore they do it. But education is actually doing, uh I-I have a fear, I have one fear about this, that there is, perhaps, too much discipline and too little real-doing a great deal because you understand that this is a need and a necessity.


And that's the trouble with compulsion and of course, education there is under compulsion, just the way everything else is. But we are looking at the results and we can't turn our noses up at the results of compulsion because this is a system where up to this year, a child of seven had finished nursery school and kindergarten. He went to school at the age of seven. He came through at the age of seventeen. Now all along the line, he took examinations for ability. And the minute he did not show the ability to do the work, he was out. He went into the labor force. But just as long as he had the ability and could prove it in his exams, then he could go right on. Now there's one other thing we have to remember: that right along with that ability test, every Soviet child takes a Marxist test. So he knows his Marxism very well by the time he's a Ten-Year graduate. And he's a pretty disciplined person. Now, I'm not saying that this is entirely good. I'm still wondering whether under the Pavlov system, you are going to hurt initiative. But this is what's happened so far and this is how the Soviet Union at present wants it to be because they are using their people, their students, for political purposes.

Suppose, for instance, you go on showing ability and you finish Ten-Year school. You've been in school ten months out of every year, you've taken your two-month holiday in camp under the school, not under your family. [Clears throat] You have, from your first year, done one hour of homework and in your last years you've done four hours of homework every day. You have done probably four years of physics and four years of chemistry by the time you finish Ten-Year school. You have, um you have done a lot of um of exercise and outdoor sports because they love it and they think it is valuable. You have done a great deal under supervision. And one of the things that you um have great difficulty in finding out about in the Soviet Union is any trouble with mental health or juvenile delinquency. They look at you and they say, "Mental health oh um--they're really backward in psychiatry." "But uh, mental health? Oh uh a little good hard work on a collective farm, an-and most people would be alright, even if they are chisel-brained. We have to wait and see." But you talk about juvenile delinquency, and I'm sure they must have some disturbed children who need mental adjustment, mental care. But they will not acknowledge it, and they tell you, "Oh! No, no, we have no trouble." And finally, I began to wonder whether part of the reason was that you had so little time, you were so constantly under supervision, that perhaps you really didn't have much time for juvenile delinquency. It might just well be that there are so many organizations, there's pioneer youth, there's in every factory um all kinds of clubs which take in young and old, and possibly there was no time --wasn't sure. And I'm not sure now.


And whatever it is, I can only tell you that they--I said to one psychiatrist, "Well now look what would you do if a boy uh attacked an older person with a knife?" And they looked at me in horror. They said, "But no boy would do that!" And I said, "Well, it has happened." "Oh! Why It would never happen. It could not happen." Well, it's hard to believe, of course, except under the theory that actually you have no time when you're not under supervision and that you are kept so very busy because you know if you fail, you go right into the labor supply. But if you are college material at the end of Ten-Year school, you don't have the luxury of four years if you want to choose it, of Liberal Arts College. Oh no, you have to choose what you're going to be, right then and there, at the age of seventeen. And sometimes, it's not such a happy choice. I had a boy tell me, "I'm an engineer, but I hate it." And that must lead to frustrations. But whatever you choose, you have five years of training and your living expenses are paid by the government, as well as your tuition. And if, because they want engineers and scientists, if you choose engineering or science, you get a little better living expenses, living allowance, than you would otherwise. So your compulsion is sugar-coated. You'd probably be made to do it anyway if they thought you were good enough. But they graduate, in this way, a tremendous number of young people as scientists and engineers.

And now, one reason why they're so successful with their scientific work, is that the government believes in research just for itself, pure research. And it will finance any number of research institutes. They have in the Soviet Union, in forestry alone, twelve research institutes, great big ones, just in forestry. So the government believes in this, in every field. So you have quite an open choice for a youngster coming out of um his course in science. It gives the scientist the chance to have a great big pool of brilliant, young minds, fresh young minds. They can choose the most brilliant and use them from then on. That's a great thing for a scientific group of people engaged in research. Secondly, if you are a scientist, you can think freely because anything you discover is good for the Soviet idea, for the communist idea. If you're a writer or a painter or an architect, Mr. Khrushchev can say to you one day, "What you wrote yesterday, that was not good for the Communist idea. You apologize tomorrow morning." And you apologize, alright, because you don't know what would happen to you if you didn't. But a scientist, whatever he discovers is of value to the communist idea. So here is the one field in which you may think freely.

You can't get a scientist to answer a political question. I tried over and over again and immediately your answer is, "Oh, I'm no politician. I know nothing about politics." But as long as he sticks to his science, it's the one field in which he can think absolutely freely. And that's why they've gone ahead so fast. There're three reasons, and those are the reasons. And the other way, of course, that the government uses, politically, education, is that they don't need in their industries as yet, off of their scientific research, all of the young people who graduate in science. So the government will say, "We need so many people who're going to serve patriotically, for the next two or three years in some country. They will go as engineers and scientists. Uh we've chosen you, Mr. Jones, to go to Burma. You will go to the language institute," and every big city in the Soviet Union has a language institute, "You will go to the language institute and learn every dialect, every Burmese dialect. Uh you, Mr. Smith, you're going to Brazil. You learn Portuguese and you'll perhaps go into the Spanish speaking countries, so you learn Spanish, too."


Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962

About this document

Informal speech and Q&A at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park, New York, Part 1

October 1957


Eleanor Roosevelt

Project Editors
  • National Endowment for the Humanities

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches is a project and publication of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, Academic Building, Post Hall, Room 312, 2100 Foxhall Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007

Transcript Editors

Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27

Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library