American Humorist Will Rogers' unique take on 1926 Russia.
Recently I found myself in need of some upbeat Russian themed inspiration. I had been invited to speak about the current state of Russia-U.S. relations but I wanted a more lighthearted approach compared to those in the current market — it's flooded with a lot of alarmist rhetoric.
Diving through some old books, I found my copy of Will Rogers’ There’s Not A Bathing Suit In Russia & Other Bare Facts. I hadn't read it in easily a decade.
Though the book was first printed in 1927, there are parts that still hold up well. This is how his Introduction begins:
“Now there has been more said and written about Russia than there has been about Honesty in Politics and Farmers’ Relief, and there has been just as little done about it as about either of those two.
I should have written earlier about Russia, but everybody was writing, and I thought I would wait till they all got through; but they are not going to get through. They just keep on writing about Russia. It looks like anyone is an amateur in Literature if they haven’t exhibited Russia’s horoscope to a picture-reading public.
More people break into Sunday Editions with an article on Russia than do by murdering their husbands or swimming the Channel. If you can’t get into the papers, never did get in, and are about losing hope of having anything get in, why — here is the greatest tip to ambitious amateur literary careers — write something on Russia and you will replace some regular writer that day.”
Still decent advice.
It really is a fascinating read. That’s why I was shocked when I found out my colleagues and friends with experience in Russia-U.S. politics had NEVER heard of the book. Some were unaware of Will Rogers altogether— understandable that my non-American friends have never heard of Rogers, he is quintessential Americana. So this is for them.
In May of 1926, just two years after the Kremlin seized the means of production, Will Rogers was sent to Europe by the Saturday Evening Post as an unofficial U.S. Ambassador.
Two months later, Rogers flew into Russia from there he complied his experiences in a three-part series for the Saturday Evening Post. His publisher further collected his New York Times blurbs with his Saturday Evening Post series into what would become There’s Not A Bathing Suit In Russia.
Rogers was a seasoned world traveler by this point in his life and he identified things that might not be noticed by anyone who didn’t have his unique background. The book offers a commentary on Russia from a cowboy humorist — it is full of brief comical, yet informative, notes relating to the Czar, communism, and the regional makeup. My knowledge of this time period in Russian history is lacking, so I am not the person to proclaim Rogers' words are 100% accurate.
If you're interested in reading it, here's a full e-flipbook version for your enjoyment/judgement. For those who are unfamiliar with his work I have a quick bio on Rogers at the end of this post. I should warn you, it's 1926 and he is from Oklahoma, there is an abundance of stereotyping that might be a little touchy for today. I don't wish to upset anyone. Another warning, this is one of those rare occasions where an audiobook would be preferable on account of Rogers’ prose, he writes like he speaks, a cartoonish take on an Okie accent. It is a short read, the paperback edition is only 65 pages.
Some of my favorite quotes
“If I wanted to start an insane asylum that would be 100 percent cuckoo, I would just admit applicants that thought they knew something about Russia.”
“While I didn’t see all of the country, ‘I got to see all of some Russians’.”
“What they need in their government is more of a sense of humor, and less of a sense of revenge.”
“Russia is a country that is burying their troubles. Your criticism is your epitaph. You simply say your say and then you are through.”
“There is no income tax in Russia. But there’s no income."
“There are two main worlds in Russia. One is Bourgeois and the other is Proletariat. Now Proletariat means the poor people, or what would be known in America as the Democrats; and the other word Bourgeois means the rich people, which in America would be known as Republicans; or if they are very rich, the Conservative Republican Party.”
Cartoonist Herb Roth & H.T. Webster There's Not A Bathing Suit In Russia
But the important part of the book is on the last page. Will Rogers solves all the issues facing the Russian people.
Rogers did return to Russia after his first visit in 1926. He had a short trip in '31 and a more proper trip in '34. If you are interested, there are more Rogers' quotes on Russia besides just this book.
Will Rogers was by far the leading political wit of the Progressive Era, but he has proved easily forgotten outside of some popular quotes. My affection for Rogers was my environment. I grew up miles from Claremore, Oklahoma, the hometown of “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son.” Growing up here meant if you won an award in writing, it was called “The Will Rogers’ Award for [Insert Style Here] Writing.”
Will Rogers was a Cherokee, Cowboy, Raconteur, Vaudevillian, Political Humorist, Radio Pundit, and Philosopher. He was also the top-paid Hollywood movie star of the day. He was in 71 films — 50 silent and 21 talkies. He also hosted The 6th Annual Academy Awards, had a popular radio show and was a prolific newspaper columnist with more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns — the first to do so for The New York Times.
Rogers authored short pieces to debunk the idiocracy of government without rancor or use of excessive rhetoric. Pointed, but never barbed; humor was his tool.
A couple jokes from Rogers on during his U.S. speaking events
Popularity didn't change Rogers' persona, he was that kind hearted cowboy philosopher. Of course he did have his flaws. His most popular quote was a double edge sword:
"I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like."
Rogers did build a kinship with people like Leon Trotsky but he was also a vocal supporter of Benito Mussolini and Italy's Fascist Party. That one does sting a bit.
Will Rogers died attempting to connect the U.S. and Russia
Rogers was a pilot and passionate about the future of air travel. In 1935, Rogers took his friend Wiley Post in search of a safe polar route for passenger and mail planes from the United States to Russia. Their plane crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska killing both men. They had too much weight on the plane. Rogers' life abruptly ended in the middle of that short window between the Great Depression and World War II. I often wonder if his legacy would have faded just a little slower if he was there to help guide Americans through World War II.
Rogers' is an important figure in this time period, his reach in the early 20th century had never been seen before. With his newspaper column, books, radio and movies, he could arguably be America's first multimedia superstar.