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Chickens To Moscow

July 2024
8min read

Marjorie Daw Johnson, for many years a vocational teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, died in 1975 at the age of ninety-three. Among other mementos, she left this account of her entirely unforeseen experience as a courier to the Soviet Union in the days before the United States recognized that country. It is published here for the first time by permission of Dr. David B. Johnson, her nephew and executor of her estate.

In 1926 I began making plans to travel in Europe the following summer. Articles in some of our biggest newspapers had been devoting so much space to Russia that I thought it must be worth seeing. So, being, like the elephant’s child, “full of satiable curiosity,” I decided to also go there in the summer of 1927.

When I announced my decision to my family and friends, their reply was, “But you can’t. America doesn’t recognize Russia. How do you expect to get in or get out?” I said, “I don’t know. I only know I’m going.” So I began. I wrote to our State Department but drew a blank. I wrote to Canada and Mexico with no better results; they could do nothing for an American citizen. Nothing daunted, I did what I should have done in the first place. I wrote to Russia: “The Foreign Affairs Department, Moscow, Russia. To Whom It May Concern: I am a teacher in a Vocational School. I have read that you are doing some interesting things in adult education. I am coming to Europe this summer and I would like to visit the U.S.S.R. I know the following people who will vouch for me if you so desire. Mrs. Florence Kelley, Miss Lillian WaId, Miss Jane Addams, and Mrs. Raymond Robbins. I have only my summer vacation and do not want to spend it on the border. So, will you please do any investigating you want to do before June? Can I get in? What will it cost, and can I get out?”

Then I waited and waited for an answer that didn’t come. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my plans. My school board was so intrigued that they agreed to give me all of June and September off if I needed it. As month after month went by with no word, my skeptical friends grew more and more skeptical, but I continued to talk about going to Russia, for I felt that somehow I would get there.

Finally, on the first of May, I was called from a class to answer the telephone. That in itself was alarming, for a teacher is never called from a class unless it’s fire, murder, or sudden death. “What’s the matter?” I asked anxiously.

“It’s a cablegram. They say it’s from Moscow, Russia.” It was. It said. “Your visa awaits you in Berlin.” So much for the skeptics!

I planned to leave at the end of May, and booked passage on a small French ship sailing to Italy, where, after visiting some Italian friends, I would take a train up to Berlin.

About the middle of May I was again called from class to answer the phone, and again it was from Moscow. The cablegram read: “Bring eight hens, two roosters. Best standard leghorns urgently needed. Donchakoff, Timiryazev Agricultural Institute.”

“It must be a code,” said the school supervisor.

I shook my head. “I doubt it. I have a sinking feeling that it means chickens.”

“But you can’t take chickens.”

“It looks as if I’ll have to, to get in.”

So I put on my thinking cap and began telephoning. First, American Express. Nothing doing—no one sends anything to Russia. Next I tried the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. No help there. They knew nothing and cared less; they probably thought I was crazy. So did almost everyone else.

I next telephoned the head of the Poultry Department of the University of Wisconsin:

“How do you send chickens to Russia?”

“We don’t.”

“How would you if you did?”

“We wouldn’t.”

“What would you do if you got this cablegram?” and I read it to him.

“Reply, ‘Not coming.’ ”

“Well,” I said, “you aren’t very helpful. Have you got standard leghorns?”

“Oh, yes, but we don’t sell them.”

“Do you know who does?”

“Yes, Howard King has them for sale.”

That was the first break. I had known Howard since he was a small boy, so I went to see him.

“Howard, do you have standard leghorns?”

“I certainly have.”

“Well, what is the difference between an ordinary hen and a standard bird? Surely a leghorn is a leghorn.”

“Yes, a leghorn is a leghorn, but there is a big difference. An ordinary leghorn costs two or three dollars. A standard bird costs ten dollars. You see, a standard bird is tougher and can stand more hardship and colder weather. It has a longer pedigree and the biggest egg-laying capacity of any hen.”


“Hm,” I thought, “nothing small about the Russian desires,” and I have had no reason to change my opinion since.

Then I took a rather unfair advantage of Howard. “Well,” I said, “if I buy eight hens and two roosters, best standard leghorns, and pay you one hundred dollars, isn’t it up to you to deliver them?”

“Sure,” said Howard.

“Well,” I said, “send them to the Timiryazev Agricultural Institute, Moscow, Russia.”

Howard looked dazed. “Russia!” he exclaimed. “But you don’t send things to Russia. We don’t recognize her.”

“Well, they have to go to Russia,” and I showed him the cablegram. Howard pulled himself together and began to look around to see how it could be done. Finally, he said, “You can take them as excess baggage.”

Now, I had lived six years in Europe and had seen peasants traveling third or fourth class with much of the barnyard with them. But I had no desire to join them with two hen coops, nor could I see myself paying for a whole compartment from Naples to Berlin. From Berlin I intended to fly to Moscow. I pictured myself landing in Red Square, putting a cock under either arm and, followed by the hens, walking up the steps of the Kremlin and saying, “Stalin, we are here.” Howard shattered that dream when he said, “You can’t fly with hens. They would all arrive dead.” That was bad enough, but he went on to add that if I had to take them, there were two things I must do. First, find out if the ship I was sailing on would take livestock. Second, find out from the consulates of all the countries I was going through whether they had any quarantine regulations.

This was the last straw. At 5 P.M. the following day I sent a cable to the Institute in Moscow saying: “Seems difficult to bring. Can I ship chickens at your expense?”

Later that evening Moscow replied by cable: “Drink at least couple.” After deciding that this meant “Bring at least a couple,” I thought, “Well, if I have to take two, I might as well take the ten they want. After all, a hen coop is a hen coop.”

The time of my departure was drawing near, and it certainly looked as if I would be traveling with hen coops. Then, just as I had given up hope, we got a break. Howard found that there was something called the Amtorg Trading Company, which shipped things to Russia. By this time it was only two days before I was to leave, and there was no time to write to find out anything. So, I left Madison, Wisconsin, and went to New York City, prepared (if Amtorg failed me) to take any ship that would take chickens to any European port. I was to wire Howard, and he was to send them to New York at once via any route I could manage.

Fortunately for me, Howard knew all about shipping chickens, among other things, and he had the ancestry of each one carefully tabulated, with the number of eggs each hen had laid since she began. The figures really were impressive: the hens averaged 275 eggs a year each. A veterinarian examined them and gave them a clean bill of health. Howard also said he would put in enough food for the trip. All that had to be done was to water them, and any carrier that would take them would do that.

I had no trouble locating Amtorg in New York, but when I asked if they would ship chickens to Russia, they said, “What chickens?”


“The leghorns I wish to send.”

“Who wants them?”

“The U.S.S.R.”

“How do you know?” I brought out the cablegram.

“How do you know they will be accepted?”

By this time I was losing my temper. “Listen,” I said, “I’ve never been nearer to Russia than Germany and I presume you are a Russian, but you are a mighty ignorant one if you don’t know that the country has had two disastrous droughts and that all the crops and livestock of the entire Samara district have been wiped out along with many of the people. How do I know they will be accepted? How do I know a hungry man will eat?”

“It will be expensive.”

“These are expensive chickens.”

“How expensive?”

“Ten dollars.”

“Ten dollars for ten chickens?”

“Not at all. Ten dollars each , or one hundred dollars for the ten.” He began to look impressed.

“Well, we have a ship sailing to Leningrad the middle of June, but you would have to meet the chickens there and arrange to get them to Moscow. Who is paying for them?”

“I am.”

“Well, you will have to sign a statement relieving us of any responsibility.”

“Very well, I don’t seem to be as afraid of your government as you are.” No answer to that.

“It will cost you five dollars apiece to ship the chickens, ten dollars for a hen coop, ten dollars for the man who waters them, ten dollars for the space the coop takes up on the boat, and you must pay in advance.” I paid.

“You must have a certificate of health and good condition for them also.”

I took out the statement from our veterinarian. “I suppose you will take the word of the leading veterinarian of the University of Wisconsin?” He would. “And here,” I said, “are their pedigrees. You seem averse to pedigreed people, but I am pretty sure your rulers won’t be to pedigreed hens. So now everything’s settled.”

“Not quite,” he said.

“Whatever else is there to do?”

“Now you must have their lives insured.”

I gasped. “Who ever heard of insuring chickens’ lives?”

“Who ever heard of sending chickens to Russia?” He had me there.

I walked out and went straight to Lloyds of London. When I asked the clerk, “Do you insure chickens going to Russia?” he replied, without batting an eyelash, “We will. What is their value?”

“Two hundred dollars.”

“Seven dollars a hundred.”

So I paid and wired Howard the good news. I admit that I heaved a sigh of relief to think I wouldn’t hear a “cock-a-doodledoo” all the way across the Atlantic.

In Rome I got word from Howard that the chickens had been shipped and were in fine shape. When I got to Berlin some time later, I became a little anxious and wired the municipal docks at Leningrad, “Have chickens arrived? Answer prepaid. Quakers, Berlin.” The return wire was the only touch of Russian humor I encountered. It said, “Chickens unknown. When, where, why and to whom sent?” I replied, “Sent to me. Water till I come.”


I arrived in Leningrad on Saturday. The chickens arrived on Sunday and we met on Monday. That sounds simple enough, but nothing in Russia is simple. The docks were part of the military, and not even ordinary Russians, much less foreigners, were allowed on them. It was only after all my talking failed that I finally won out by producing the life insurance policy. That stunned them, and I was escorted down to the docks by two tall and well-armed policemen. As we approached the ship, one of my guards said something to the man on the bridge, who replied, “Oh, ze chicken lady is here.”

The voyage had been a quiet one, and no seasickness had been reported among the hens. They had laid eggs all the way over, and the crew was in favor of carrying them every trip. Having just arrived, I wanted to stay on for a week or so to do some sightseeing, but the ship couldn’t keep the chickens, so I said they must be sent to Moscow. An officer in the dock office said he would see about sending them on. “When?” I asked.

“Oh, we’ll get them off in a day or two.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” I replied angrily. “You’ll send them on tonight with a special guard in a special compartment. These are the most valuable chickens you have ever had. Look at this, and this, and this.” I hauled out their pedigrees, health certificate, and life insurance. That clinched it. The coops were put in a single compartment, and a very bored guard was assigned to conduct them to Moscow and the agricultural institute. I know: I went down to the station that evening and saw them off.

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