KATHERINE BRESHKOVSKY! What richness of romance that name recalls. What tales of a young enthusiast who dared to express herself under the menacing tyranny of a Russian Tsar. An aristocrat who gave up everything for her people; a Jeanne d'Arc who led the masses to freedom by education instead of bayonets; hunted, imprisoned, tortured, almost half a century exiled in the darkness of Siberia, brought back under the flaming banners of revolution, honoured as no other woman of modern times has been honoured, misunderstanding and misunderstood, deposed again, broken... Katherine Breshkovsky's life was one of sorrow, of disappointment, of disillusionment, but it was a full life. And when the quarrels of the hour are swept aside her page in history will be one of honour and she will be known to all posterity by that most beautiful name on the long records of aspiring mankind--known always as "Babushka," the Grandmother of the Revolution.
For many years Katherine Breshkovsky has been well known in America; it was to sympathetic America that she always came for assistance. Even in prison she kept in touch with her numerous admirers and champions in this country. I felt a sort of vague connection with her because she knew friends of mine at home, so she was one of the first persons I sought out when I reached Petrograd. Cheap tales, gathered by unsympathetic persons and scattered broadcast abroad, told of her triumphant entrance into Petrograd and Moscow, her brilliant installation on the throne of the Tsar in the Winter Palace, which was rumoured to be draped all in red, how she sat there enjoying the drunken revels of the Anarchists that constantly surrounded her.
I had all this in mind the morning I first went there. Crossing under the famous Red Arch I came out upon the beautiful Winter Palace Square, which is one of the most impressive squares in the world. The immense red buildings stretch away endlessly, giving one the idea of deliberate lavishness on the part of the builder, as if he wanted to demonstrate to an astonished world that there was no limit to his magnificence and his power.
I stopped at the main entrance and asked for Babushka. "Babushka?" repeated the guard. "Go round to the side gate." At the side gate I found other guards who directed me through a little garden and I finally entered the palace by a sort of back door.
The svetzars here told me to climb the stairs to the top floor, and Babushka's room was the last door along the corridor. The Tsar's private elevator, which he had built in recent years, did not work any more and the stairway wound round and round the elevator shaft.
I was ushered right into her room, which was very small--about the size of an ordinary hotel bedroom. There was a desk in one corner, a table and a long couch, several chairs and a bed. It was the kind of room you would pay two or three dollars a night for in an American hotel. Babushka came forward and shook hands with me.
"You look like an American," she said. "Now, did you come all the way from America to see what we're doing with our revolution?"
We sat down on the couch and Babushka went on talking about America, of which she seemed particularly fond. She mentioned many well-known writers here, and called them "her children." I said, "How does it seem to be here in the palace ?"
"Why," she answered artlessly and without hesitation, "I don't like it at all. There is something about palaces that makes me think of prison. Whenever I go out in the corridor--did you notice the corridor?--l have a feeling that I must be back in prison--it's so gloomy and forbidding and dark. Personally, I'd love to have a little house somewhere, with plants in the window and as much sun coming in as possible. I'd like to rest. ... But I stay here because 'this man' wants me to." "This man" was Kerensky.
There was a touching friendship between Babushka and Kerensky. In the swift whirl of events the old grandmother was in danger of being forgotten, after people got over celebrating the downfall of the Romanoffs. But Kerensky did not forget. He made her think that she was very necessary to the new government of Russia. He asked her advice on all sorts of things, but whether he ever took it or not is very doubtful. He paid her public homage on many occasions and she loved him like a son.
I saw Babushka a good many times after that and found why she lived in this back room on the top floor of the Winter Palace. First, it was because she chose to live there. They had offered her the choice of the beautiful apartments and she had refused anything but this simple room. She insisted on having her bed and all her belongings crammed into the tiny place, and ate all her meals there. I don't know whether it was her long years in prison that made her assume this peculiar attitude, or if it was just because she was a simple woman and very close to the people. She wrote a little biography of herself on the way back from Siberia in which she said:
"When I think back upon my past life I, first of all, see myself as a tiny five-year-old girl, who was suffering all the time, whose heart was breaking for some one else; now for the driver, then again for the chamber-maid, or the labourer or the oppressed peasant--for at that time there was still serfdom in Russia. The impression of the grief of the people had entered so deeply into my child's soul that it did not leave me during the whole of my life."
Very pathetic, indeed, was her description of what it was like to be free. This feeling she never knew until the news of the revolution was brought to her. "The longer the war lasted," she wrote, "the more terrible were its consequences, the brighter were the basenesses of the Russian Government. The cleaner was the unavoidableness of the democracies of all countries getting conscious, the nearer was also our Revolution.
"I was waiting for the ringing of the bells announcing freedom, and I was wondering why the bells made me wait. And yet, when in November last, bursts of indignation took place, when angry shouts were being transmitted from one group of the population to another, I was standing already with one foot in the Siberian sledge and was sorry that the winter road was fast getting spoiled.
"On the 4th of March a wire reached me in Menusinsk announcing my liberty. The same day I was already on my way to Achinsk, the nearest railway station. From Achinsk began my uninterrupted contact with soldiers, peasants, workmen, railway employees, students and numbers of women--all so dear to me."
Babushka believed that the Constituent Assembly would meet and form a government, and Kerensky ought to be the first President. She intended to tour Russia in a sort of presidential campaign. Of course I wanted to go along. There were always a lot of people around Babushka, so she told me to come down early in the morning and we would have a private talk together.
We walked up and down the corridor. I remember a significant thing that she said to me. "If anything terrible happens to my country it will not be the fault of the working people, but of the reactionaries." She said she was afraid of a serious counter-revolution, but she didn't seem to know how or when it would break.
I told her I had come for two reasons: First, I wanted to tour the country with her, and second, I wanted to meet Kerensky. She stopped short and looked at me.
"You're very naive," she said.
"So were you," I answered, "when you smuggled bombs across the country." Babushka stopped again and laughed merrily.
"That's right," she admitted. "Well, we'll see what we can do. Now, about the tour. I won't have room in my wagon. Will you get another wagon?"
Then she began to depict the hardships of the trip which I believed, with some logic, I could stand as well as Babushka, for she was very frail and much older than her years. At the end of our talk she gave me a note and sent a girl down with me to Kerensky.
Babushka is an old lady and is very forgetful. Often she did not remember in the afternoon what she had said in the morning. I once spent a most amusing day in the Winter Palace, accomplishing none of the things I set out to accomplish. I had had an appointment with Babushka at ten o'clock. At ten she was asleep. At eleven-thirty I went in and we began to talk. Five minutes later three French officers came to pay their respects. Babushka said they would stay but a moment. They stayed two hours. All this time I waited in the adjoining room with a young Caucasian officer, three girls, two old women and several miscellaneous officials. We discussed everything from psychoanalysis to the reason why American writers don't produce better literature. The Caucasian officer gave me letters to his people in the South, and with true Russian hospitality--not knowing anything about me--invited me down there to stay for an indefinite period.
At three o'clock Babushka appeared and was amazed to see me. We went back to her room and had tea and black bread. I am sorry that some of the people who wrote those extravagant stories could not have seen her as I saw her then with her short grey hair and her peasant costume; everything about her so simple and unassuming.
She had a plan for educational work which had the approval of President Wilson, and a large fund donated by American philanthropists, but somehow the soldiers and workers did not understand it they accused her of using the funds for political purposes that were reactionary and against the Soviets. A sad misunderstanding ensued which probably led to all the rumours about Babushka's imprisonment by the Bolsheviki. Nothing of the kind ever occurred. I do not think any one in Russia ever thought of harming Babushka, although she must have been misled into believing this because for a while after the fall of the Provisional Government she was in hiding. But later she lived quietly in Moscow.
There is nothing strange in the fact that Babushka took no part in the November revolution. History almost invariably proves that those who give wholly of themselves in their youth to some large idea cannot in their old age comprehend the very revolutionary spirit which they themselves began; they are not only unsympathetic to it, but usually they offer real opposition. And thus it was that Babushka, who stood so long for political revolution, balked at the logical next step, which is class struggle. It is a matter of age. If Julia Ward Howe were alive--an old woman of eighty--one could hardly expect her to picket for woman's suffrage in front of the White House, although in her youth she wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.