The Socialist Sixth of the World - Hewlett Johnson
1. The Equality of Races
2. The Golden Ukraine
3. Awakened Asia
4. Dawn in the East
(i) Yakutia and the Arctic North
5. Escape from the Ghetto
The entire Orient regards our Union as an experimental field. Either we decide correctly the national question within the framework of this Union; either we establish really fraternal relations within this Union, real collaboration between the peoples within this Union — and then the entire Orient will see that in our federation it possesses a banner of liberation, a vanguard in whose foot-steps it should walk, and this will be the beginning of the collapse of world imperialism. Or we, the entire federation, commit a mistake here, undermine the confidence of the formerly oppressed peoples in the proletariat of Russia, shear the Union of its power to attract the Orient which it now enjoys, in which event imperialism will gain and we shall lose. This constitutes the international significance of the national question.”
Joseph Stalin, the man who uttered these words at the XII Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1923, had known in his own person the sorrows of oppressed peoples. Born at Gori, in Georgia, and trained in a college for young priests, he had chafed alike at the Tsarist efforts to “russify” his people nationally, and at capitalist efforts to enslave them economically.
In January, 1902, he organized the first strike of the Mantashev workers in Batum. In March of the same year he organized great demonstrations of workers. A procession of 6,000 was fired on by the military, and 500 demonstrators were deported. Stalin was sent to Siberia. The iron entered into his soul. From henceforth he devoted his life to the liberation of the common people nationally and economically.
After ten years spent in eluding police spies he was once again in their hands, and on Easter Sunday, 1909, was forced with his companions to “run the gauntlet”. Many collapsed under the ordeal. With head erect and a book in his hand, Stalin defiantly strode between two rows of soldiers while their rifle-butts rained blows on his back and shoulders.
Stalin vanished from Siberia. Whilst the police searched for him, he was playing chess with Lenin across the borders.| Lenin writes to Gorky: “Here, with us, is a wonderful young Georgian. He has collected all the Austrian and other material on the question of nationalities and has settled down to prepare a treatise on the subject.”
This treatise became the foundation of the Soviet national policy, and Stalin naturally became the first Commissar of Nationalities in the Soviet Government. Through his own sufferings, Stalin, the man who had suffered, opened a new door for the nations, and oppressed peoples of all lands see in him their champion.
Every great State and every great empire has minority problems which present apparently insuperable difficulties. Each one attacks the problem in its own way: by frontier revision, by assimilation, by exchange, or, as in Germany, by attempted extermination. None succeeds. Tales of sordid and pitiful struggles, of enslavement of whole peoples, seep across frontier’s to make our blood run cold. No tales were more terrible than the tales of Tsarist suppressions.
The Russian Empire of pre-revolution days has not inaptly been called “the prison of the peoples”. Every species of oppression was practised. National languages were disallowed, education suppressed, industrial development thwarted. Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Bashkiria, Armenia, Georgia, were robbed of their raw materials, grown or extracted in the crudest and most wasteful fashion. Native industries and native working classes were regarded as dangers to Russian autonomy.
Tsarist Russia had many weapons in its armoury; two of outstanding efficiency and popularity with the dominating classes. Tsarism deliberately cultivated the feudal-patriarchal system, and found traitors, such as the Emir of Bukhara, more attached to their class privileges than to national pride, as their ready tools. The people were driven down to a state of feudal ignorance and slavery. Still less scrupulous was the method of sowing national discord and enmity among the peoples themselves by inciting one nationality against another as a means of crippling resistance and diverting attention from the real enemy. To achieve this end more readily, the boundary lines of the artificial provinces were arbitrarily fixed in order to cut national groups into two or more parts. Thus the frontier line divided the Kirghiz into two groups, some of whom found themselves in the Turkestan province and some in the province of the steppes, and both under different governors-general. The Uzbeks were separated in a similar manner, one section thrown into the same province as the Turcomans. Nationalities were purposely divided and purposely joined up with hostile peoples to foment enmity and oppression and inter-tribal strife.
In other areas Progroms, on a wide scale, were organized.
Joseph Stalin swept the whole of this aside and taught new way with minorities. His actions in this respect constitute one of his unique contributions to the new socialist experiment. With Lenin and his fellow-communists he accepted the common economic basis of socialist economic life; the abolition of exploitation, profit-making, and competition. He perceived, however, that it was possible that national cultural ideals can co-exist side by side within a single economic order and within a single political State in which the same economic ideal was held.
There was nothing, to put it concretely, to prevent workmen of Georgia, who accepted the socialist thesis of a non-exploiting, non-profit-making society, from living under the same widespread economic ideal with workmen of Belorussia in the extreme west, Sakhalin island in the extreme cast, or Uzbek in the centre; and yet each of them freely thinking, speaking, and writing in their own language ; and possessed of liberty to develop their own culture and institutions. It is no more necessary to force national minorities to accept the national cultural ideal of the majority within the same economic system than it is necessary for an Indian to divest himself of Indian national culture when he plays cricket with an English team. One thing only is required of an Indian cricketer: he must observe the rules of cricket. And one thing only is required of Georgian, Belorussian, or Uzbek : he must observe the economic law of socialism.
Nationality is a personal attribute; like religion in England it may be enjoyed to the full, but not imposed on others.
The economic interest of those who believe introduction inspired by service and not profit, and live under a Plan which considers the needs of each and all upon an equalitarian basis, is the same whatever the nationality may be. The State is based upon that economic interest and political plan; not upon the nationality of any part predominant in numbers.
Putting it concretely again, European Russia possessed the largest population and was the vital centre of industrial life when the Soviets took control. No other nationality in the old empire approached it in number or industrial importance. Other units were small in population, backward in culture, and primitive in industry. The large Russian unit had its own language, its own customs, its own culture. The smaller units had theirs. But there was no reason, in the nature of things, why Russia should force its language and culture on Ukrainians or Uzbeks, or even on Karelians and other extremely small national groups.
Large units and small units had interests that were common and interests that were not common. The Ukrainian workman had a common interest with workmen of Russia and Belorussia, of Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, or Armenia, to live in freedom from economic exploitation, endowed with all the benefits of an industry planned for the service of all, a common interest in defence from external attack, in the development of the means of transit and postal communication. He had at the same time a peculiar interest in his own language and literature and national customs. It was as unreasonable as it was unjust to rob him of these, and Russia itself would in no wise benefit were it done.
Hence, the new Soviet Union was designed to possess a common economic system, in the benefits of which all could share, and to the conduct of which all could contribute. But each national minority was to be as free to exercise its historic culture, its language, literature, and traditions, its theatre, art, folksong, and folk-dance, as you and I in England arc free to speak with an Oxford accent or in the Cockney dialect, or to practise religion in its Catholic or Protestant form. Within the economic whole, and within the political order which maintained it, every national group was to be nationally free.
Today all this seems as obviously sensible as it is undeniably successful. For already it is yielding its fruit in a rich and varied culture. But in European and Asiatic Russia it meant a complete reversal of the whole Tsarist policy, and serves as a model to the world which has never before seen it carried out in practice.
Stalin brought the matter to a head when in 1918 he urged the granting of federal autonomy to regions marked off by national characteristics. It was done.
The general principle then enunciated has been developed in many directions. Its application involved many problems. Not least was the nature of the representation of the various nationalities upon the General Council of the whole Union. Russia, for example, was overwhelmingly great in numbers and importance. Should Russian representation preponderate? To do so would seem natural. But it would give to the Russian Republic a weight denied to the other members of the Union and endanger the principle of national equality. Hence it was resolved, and rightly resolved, that the basis of the new Constitution should be absolute equality of all nationalities, due representation in the central organs of all national republics and regions; with a reasonably wide administrative, cultural, and economic autonomy to each Republic, whose organs of administration should be recruited locally, and endowed with the right to use their own language.
The central authorities deliberately used their power to establish, not a Russian national supremacy, but a genuinely non-national State. It was a triumph of principle.
The establishment of national liberty is Stalin’s personal achievement, and among his greatest.
* * * * *
Naturally, varying conditions demanded variations in the application of these broad principles of liberty. For example, although every child has the right to be educated in its mother tongue, it is impossible in some cases to observe the right, and for the time being there arc three grades in which this right is exercised.
1. Some scattered tribes arc devoid of the elements of an alphabet. Having no medium for instruction in their own language, this group receives instruction in Russian schools. At present no alternative presents itself.
2. Some tribes, again, though not possessing an alphabet or any national culture, yet live in compact groups, using their native language in their daily life. These receive elementary education in the language of their birth, and secondary and higher education in the Russian tongue.
3. Still larger nationalities, like the Ukraine, the White Russian, the Georgian, or the Armenian peoples, who possess cultural and historical traditions of a high order and have proved already their competence to do it, run their own educational system from the primary school to the university. Other national groups, such as Uzbeks and Tajiks and Turcomans, move steadily in the same direction. As they grow in number and importance national education supersedes Russian education in all its stages. That it receives encouragement to do so is witness to the sincerity of Soviet respect for nationality.
“Russification” has been the dread of the Asiatic peoples. It was a reality in Tsarist days. It was a danger in the early days of the Revolution, because Russia predominated in industry, culture, and power to rule. Russia had the great proletarian population. In Russia the Revolution sprang first to life. Through Stalin the danger was avoided, and the threat of “Russification” lessens with every passing year. The fact that it does so is a crowning proof of the genuineness of the communist effort to realize equality in the national sphere as well as in the economic order.
National liberty, then, has become a reality in the Soviet Union. Political liberty in the narrow sense of the right to upset the Plan, or reintroduce exploitation and profit, is non-existent National liberty was possible because it stood in another category. Nationalism and politics have, in the Soviet Union, become dissociated. Practical liberty in the national order is large and grows. In the circle of the Plan all arc free and all arc honoured. It is hard indeed to see how the Soviet Union could have acted with greater wisdom when confronted with its numerous nationalities distinguished by traditions of every kind, slavish to proud, and in enjoyment of a wide range of cherished cultures.
The result of this enlightened policy has been a growing richness of life and intercourse of the peoples. The new national freedom and the new economic order lead inevitably to expansion of industrial and cultural life. Native industries and native cultures alike are welcomed and encouraged. Resources, cultural and material, untapped before are developed now. Railways, waterways, motorways, and airways make transport and transit relatively quick and easy. The national republics arc brought into physical and cultural proximity each with the other, and all with the centre.
Quite obviously this mode of settling the problems of minorities is utterly opposed to all fascist solutions. Quite obviously, also, it is nearer than any solution yet proposed to satisfying Christian ethics. It offers a magnificent example to a troubled world. It is bound, ultimately, to exercise an influence on international relationships at large. It gives the clue, as we shall shortly see, to the Soviet Union’s foreign policy.
No one can wander through the Soviet Union, as I have done, and visit republic after republic, and see the mingling on terms of absolute equality of the peoples of different nationalities, without a deep consciousness that a new thing has entered into the world of human relationships. It may be illustrated in a thousand concrete, cases. To me it is best seen in the case of my friend, Paul Robeson, the great African singer, and his seven-year-old son, Pauli.
Robeson had, in 1934, seen the performance in the children’s theatre which I have described on an earlier page, where the hero was an African boy. During the interval he took a stroll. The children immediately crowded around him, somehow connecting his presence with the boy in the play. A little boy of eight hugged him around the knees, saying, “I’m so glad you’ve come; you will be happy here with us. Don’t go.” For the remainder of the play he sat beside Robeson, holding his hand.
“Everywhere I went [to quote Robeson’s own words] I found the same welcome, the same warm interest, the same expression of sincere comradeship toward me, as a black man, as a member of one of the most oppressed of human groups. I kept thinking how much my shy, sensitive Pauli would enjoy this warm interest, this sincere friendship.”
Visiting Moscow again in I 936, he took part in producing a motion-picture and lived on a collective farm some distance from the city, in a beautiful village of sturdily built houses, a spacious common, meadows, and ponds.
“The children of the village [he proceeds] astonished me. They had learned a good deal about the American negro problem in school. Most of them had just seen the film ‘Circus‘, and were full of praise for Jimmy, the little coloured child of the picture, whose father I knew.
“We went swimming in the lovely clear streams; on the way home we passed the villagers harvesting in the fields; great reaping-machines were swiftly gathering in the yellow grain. Then the leisurely walk back. A healthy meal and then, as the dusk came on, a general gathering on the green. The children sang for me, and I sang negro songs and delighted them with a few Russian melodies.
“We talked about my little boy. They said I must bring him to the Union to be happy with them. I thought: That’s an idea.
“It was a sad day when I had to leave. The truck rumbled away with the children following as far as they could, calling, ‘Come back soon, Pavel Vassilich, come back soon. Bring Pavlik with you, and come back soon.
“All the way home I thought of the children in the Union, so gay, so forthright, so intelligent, so full of real comradeship. How marvellous it would be if Pauli could enjoy this comradeship! If it were only possible. Why not ?”
On his return in 1937 Robeson took Pauli and Pauli’s grandmother with him, and left them both while he sang on his concert tour.
“When we returned to Moscow [he continued] we found him a different child; no longer shy, sensitive, and moody, unconsciously defending himself against rebuff, against being an ‘outsider’. He was one of the children, he was a member of his group, and he revelled in this great experience. He held his head high, his shoulders back; the children, the school have taken him in; he ‘belonged’. We were deeply moved by his eager face, his quick smile.
“In the Soviet Union Pauli has a very bright future: every chance to find out what he wants to do (at present it is 1 : aviation engineer, 2 : physician, 3 : musician) and once he decides he will find complete equality of opportunity. Further, he will meet and know children of various groups and nationalities, and will experience in his daily life the essential oneness of all peoples.
“He will know that the parents and grandparents of these children, through great suffering and sacrifice, have created this new land, that their sons and daughters might have a better and richer life.”
When we speak of the Russian Empire we speak loosely. There is no Russian Empire. The word empire suggests a definite conception entirely contrary to the spirit of the Soviet Union. It suggests dominant control. In the old Russian Empire the Tsarist Government in Moscow dominated the national groups which composed it, treating them as exploitable colonies. The word Soviet Union is designed to conjure up a widely different picture.
The Soviet Union is a confederation of States who accept the fundamental principles of planned production for community consumption and combine their territories under a common scheme to give these principles effect, with common weapons of defence against external attack.
Article 13 of the Constitution tells us that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a federal State, formed on the basis of the voluntary association of the Soviet Socialist Republics with equal rights :—
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
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The powers of the Union are wide. They flow naturally from the operation, maintenance, and defence of the plan, awakening the sense of responsibility, and safeguarding the interests of each co-operating member. All must unite in concluding treaties with foreign States. All must share in defence, and in questions of war and peace. All must share in ensuring that the individual constitutions of the separate Republics shall conform with the Constitution of the U.S.S.R. All must take part when change in boundaries between republic and republic shall be found necessary. All must share in the regulation of foreign trade, which in the U.S.S.R. is a State monopoly. All must share in establishing national economic plans, in framing the budget, in administering bank credit and money, in trading enterprises, transport, loans, education, and health. All must share in establishing basic labour laws, and in formulating criminal and civil codes. All must share in formulating fundamental principles regulating the use of raw materials, forests, and waters.
Apart from these and kindred concerns each Union Republic makes its own Constitution in conformity with the general Constitution of the U.S.S.R.
Most Republics are further subdivided into Territories, Provinces, or Autonomous Regions. The territory of no Union republic may be changed without its consent.
* * * * *
The Republics vary enormously in population, industrial and agricultural development, and culture. The Ukraine, even in the Tsarist regime, was populous and, as far as Russian’ standards went, advanced. The Kazakh, Tajik, Kirghiz, and Uzbek people were still in the dark and primitive ages.
Now, however, all the republics move towards a greater equality of cultural and industrial development; whilst each retains, or indeed increases, its distinctive local colour.
Leaving the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on one side, the Ukraine was the most interesting of the five republics I visited, and Kiev, its capital, the most beautiful town I saw. The Ukraine covers a vast area in the south-west corner of the Union, bordering on Rumania and Poland, and washed on the south by the waters of the black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The density of population is nearly as great as in Denmark; it contains almost a fifth of the population of the Soviet Union.
Hitler covets the Ukraine. And understandably so. The land is surpassingly rich. The Ukraine is a granary to the Soviet Union, producing more than a fifth of Soviet wheat, a third of Soviet barley, a quarter of Soviet maize, and nearly three-quarters of Soviet sugar-beet. I have stood and gazed in wonder at Ukrainian wheat-fields stretching away across the smooth contours of a rolling countryside to the far-away horizons. The rich Black-Earth belt, containing some of the finest wheat-lands in the world, spans the territory from east to west, and modern modes of agriculture combine to increase its natural fertility. With a climate the mildest in the Union, and with a rainfall the amplest, the Ukraine is the farmer’s paradise. Wide rivers —the Dnieper, the Dniester, the Ingul, and the Pripet—water the rich Ukrainian plains ; oaks, limes, and ash flourish in immense Ukrainian forests, and to the south-east stretch away the illimitable Ukrainian steppes.
Not wheat alone attracted Hitler. He coveted the coal of the Donetz basin, 66,000 million tons of it; and the iron ore at Krivoi Rog, 800 million tons; the mercury at Nikatovka, the lead-zinc ores and gold, and the phosphorites and labradorites, marbles, and dolomites.
For the Ukraine has enormous natural wealth. Long before it tempted Hitler, it had attracted other industrial powers lying farther to the west. Stalin, in 1918, wrote :
“Prior to the Revolution, the Ukraine was exploited by the imperialists of the west surreptitiously. Having established tremendous enterprises (coal, metal and so on) in the Ukraine, and having secured the majority of the shares, the imperialists of France, Belgium and Britain drained the blood of the Ukrainian people in a legal, in a ‘lawful’ manner quietly.”
Though the Ukraine was the most industrially developed part of the former Russian Empire, it remained backward in comparison with the more advanced industrial lands, and to the Soviet citizen the invasion from the West was a crime.
On a wider view, however, the Soviet Union may owe more to the industrial enterprise of the West than it is willing to recognize. For it was industrial workers that engineered the Revolution, and the Ukraine itself produced Voroshilov, the railway worker who wrested the Ukraine from the Germans. Today he rules the Soviet Army as its Commander-in-Chief, and legends already grow around him.
Two Voroshilov legends are typical, and probably in essence true. At a crucial moment in the war of intervention, Tsaritsyn, a key city for the Soviets, was besieged by White Cossacks and seemed destined to fall. The old Soviet generals wiped it from the map and prepared the retreat. Stalin ordered the young Voroshilov to meet him in the military train and handed the defence to him. Voroshilov learned at the same time that Lenin, who had been shot by an assassin, lay at the brink of death. Lenin was spitting blood. Tidings of victory might revive him. But the war goes awry in every field. Departing silently and hurriedly Voroshilov turns retreat into attack. Flinging his Red Army, with himself at its head, like a hurricane upon the Cossacks, he drove them into and beyond the Don. Stalin sent an immediate dispatch to Lenin. The tide of war had turned. The leader’s life was spared for another further spell.
Another legend tells that, hard pressed in battle and starving for lack of food, Voroshilov, with some women and quick-witted lads, snatched a food-wagon from the very hands of the enemy on a dark and stormy night, and with their help hauled it to his camp. As they toiled along the road, a woman breathed heavily and stopped. To his horror, he found that she was pregnant. He insisted that she should ride, whilst he and the others pulled the added load. At dawn, and in their camp, the babe was born.
Later, when on a retreat, he learned from a straggler that the wagon had been blown to pieces by a shell, and abandoned within sight of the White’s camp. The father and mother were both killed.
“And the child ?” he inquired.
“It lay unhurt beneath the cart,” he was told.
Without a word he mounted his horse and, followed by two railwaymen from Lugansk, galloped straight back towards the astonished Whites. Seizing the child before a shot could 1 each him, he galloped back and handed it to the women with orders that they must procure a goat to provide it with milk.
They called the girl Gul-Gul, the name he give her, and she grew up at the front.
* * * * *
The Ukraine advances with mighty strides. It still holds its lead as the coal, iron, and steel base of the U.S.S.R. Figures of production leap ahead, and in coal the Ukraine by itself outstrips Poland, France, and Japan : in iron ore it outstrips Germany, England, Sweden, and Spain. The Kirov Iron and Steel Works in Makeyevka alone produce as much pig iron as Poland and Italy together.
Machinery pours forth; tractors to turn up as much Black Earth soil in an hour as a horse ploughs in a day; steam turbo-generators to light cottages, cook meals, and iron clothes; locomotives for new railways, and harvester combines for the wheat-fields of the Steppes.
The Soviet Ukraine no longer asks for foreign engineers or foremen. The sons and daughters of her own peasants and workers serve her now, trained in her own schools, colleges, and technical institutes.
Ukrainians are proud — proud of their traditions and proud of their national tongue. The Ukraine has her bards and her writers. The 125th anniversary of the birth of Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet of freedom, is being celebrated this year. Shevchenko was a people’s poet in the true sense of the word. He rose from the common people, lived with them, suffered with them, and was bound to them by all the circumstances of his life. With difficulty he had obtained his freedom: his brother and sister, to his bitter grief, had remained serfs. His passion for poetry and painting enabled him to excel in both arts. But his plea for a society in which there would be no masters and no slaves proved abhorrent to the authorities, and he was sent into exile in the capacity of a common soldier. Affixed to his sentence, and in the Tsar’s own handwriting, was an order prohibiting him from writing or painting.
Shevchenko’s diary is a fascinating volume. I cull this little abbreviated record at random :
“Skobelev was a countryman of mine. I chiefly remember him for his singing of Ukrainian songs. He had a soft tenor voice, and there was a peculiar expressiveness in the way he sang:
A little river running
Through a cherry orchard sweet.
“When he sang, I forgot that it was in a barrack room that I was listening to this lovely air. It wafted me back to the banks of the Dnieper, to liberty, to my dear homeland. Never shall I forget that poor half-naked, dark skinned fellow, sitting mending his shirt and bearing me so far away from the stuffy barracks with his artless singing.
“Skobelev discovered by accident that Lieutenant Obryadin, whom he served faithfully as orderly, had .waylaid a letter addressed to him and had stolen the ten rubles in silver which it contained. Skobelev took the empty envelope with its tell tale seals straight to Obryadin and demanded the money. His commander dealt him a slap in the face. Skobelev replied with a sound box on the ear. There were witnesses and Skobelev was arrested. An enquiry was held and Lieutenant Obryadin was ordered to resign his commission. Hut Skobelev was sentenced to run a gauntlet of two hundred blows and was then sent to serve in a convict company in Omsk for seven years.
“Poor, unhappy Skobelev! Honestly and nobly you returned that gentleman robber blow for blow, and for this honest deed you had to run the gauntlet and be sent in irons to the banks of the lonely Irtish and Om. In your new captivity will you ever meet, I wonder, as attentive and grateful a listener as I was of your sweet and mournful songs ?”
Shevelenko’s words sank deep into the hearts of his people. What Pushkin did for the Russians, Shevchenko did for the Ukrainians. He gave utterance to their longings for freedom and the brotherly life. He unfolded the wealth of folk dialect and gave proof of the melodiousness of the Ukrainian tongue. His grave, overlooking the Dnieper, has become a place of pilgrimage.
Now the Ukrainian tongue is free and Ukrainian culture welcomed. Ukrainian children are taught in their mother tongue. Russian is an additional tongue. Soviet children, throughout the whole Union, learn to speak at least two languages. Most English children learn but one. The volumes printed in Ukrainian were a hundred times as numerous in 1936 as in 1914; and where one Ukrainian newspaper was published prior to the Revolution, 1,400 are issued today.
The Ukraine grows rich and strong — so strong that the capital returns from Kharkov to Kiev, its old and vulnerable home near the western frontier. No fear of conquest now. There is less talk of the march to the Ukraine. There was plausibility for hopes of conquest during the years of famine, when the richer Ukrainian peasants had burnt their grain and slaughtered their cattle rather than yield them to the central Government, or exchange their individualistic agriculture for life on collective farms. It was a tragic time. The peasants were stubborn and failed to understand. The State was in deadly peril. A bad harvest, food shortage, conditions approaching civil war, and, as the recent trials proved, groups in high places fostering revolt had created grave difficulties for the Soviet Union.
The storm was weathered, and Hitler would find no “Fifth Column” within the Ukraine today, even if he could muster a tiny force from the half million Ruthenian Ukrainians to march against upwards of 30 million who now bear the Ukrainian name in the Soviet Union.
* * * * *
Kiev, the capital, is an interesting city: its million inhabitants more interesting still. I never wearied of the promenade up its noble central street, on pavements incredibly wide — 30 or even 40 feet wide here and at Rostov, and crowded on summer nights with an endless stream of genial promenaders. Lines of young men, and other lines of young women, linked arm in arm and six or eight abreast, kept up a merry chatter as they walked, and looked as healthy and happy as young people ought to look. Not once did I see a sign of horse-play or hooliganism or what in Lancashire is described as “barging”.
The shops were full, the main provision shops large, brilliantly lit, scrupulously clean and as scientifically modern, as any I know in London or Manchester. Intriguing, too, with food ready prepared for cooking; glass-protected, refrigerated by hoar-frosted pipes, and yet all immediately beneath the eye and the pointing finger of the purchasers, and assembled in an infinite variety of forms. Chops and cutlets, fish, flesh, and fowl, dipped in batter and sprinkled with breadcrumbs, all ready for the ovens, reducing the housewife’s work to a minimum.
A large bookshop contained a special room for children with leather-upholstered easy-chairs of children’s size, where children sat and read and examined the books they contemplated buying, and where skilled assistants from time to time gave talks on books as guides to appropriate purchasers.
At the Children’s Palace I was fortunate in alighting on an exhibition of children’s work. The six- and eight-year-olds had drawn and painted imaginative scenes from Pushkin’s stories: thrilling little pictures in gayest colours, of arks on stormy waters with fiery, lowering skies, or islands in sunny seas with waving palms. The older children had drawn Pushkin himself, his home and incidents in his life and death; and a hundred other themes besides. There was talent in abundance here and a mastery of line and colour that stands comparison with our best. The Ukraine has an innate sense of beauty; it is the land of the embroidered shirt and blouse. The Ukraine excels in many forms of art, music in particular: a famous musical academy in Odessa produces an abundance of prize-winning children, some of them victors in world competitions.
Kiev is proud of its magnificent old monastery, the Lavra, and of Vladimir, the Christian prince, who “opened the doors to Western culture” through the old and magnificent cathedral of St. Sophia. The monastery is beautifully preserved, as is every ancient monument in the city, especially the mosaics in the old cathedral: the Soviets arc almost as idolatrous as Americans over ancient buildings, and know how to appreciate ancient works of art.
The Lavra is used for propaganda purposes; an anti-God museum they call it. They will show you the trapdoor behind the altar and the cord with which the priest made the image bow graciously to the astonished and superstitious peasants if the gift they had bought was worthy of a miracle. To this and many other tricks I merely said with a smile : “We got rid of this sort of thing in England two hundred years ago: religion with us stands for other and better things.”
Perhaps what embittered them most was the comparison between this sumptuous wealth and the richness of the gifts from great landed gentry and the poverty and ignorance of the peasant worshippers. It seemed to them heartless and cruel as well as superstitious.
The inhabitants of Kiev seemed especially incensed at tales of their immorality told and believed by the Western world against the Soviet system. It would be hard to find a city or a land, as far as one could see, more moral than Kiev and the Soviet Ukraine.
Swift electric trams carry you from Kiev to the country, through streets half paved as yet, and past dwellings in the making. I was struck with the number of detached houses which vie now with the large blocks of tenements. Many Russians, like most English, prefer a house surrounded by its plot of garden.
Away from the town lie the great pine-forests, in one of which stands a sanatorium for tuberculous children: a lovely homely place of large sunny buildings, fine broad walks and flower-beds, and with a diminutive enthusiastic doctor at its head, whom my companion, a Scottish specialist in tubercular disease, questioned long and closely. The children greeted us with flowers and entertained us with songs, speeches, and dances. They were entirely natural and unconstrained. They remain at the sanatorium until a cure is reached, and continue their education precisely as at home, with resident and visiting teachers. No pains are spared to make life normal for them.
* * * * *
In the south-cast of the Ukraine, around Odessa, stretch the endless steppes, now under cultivation by collective farms. I arrived at one by accident on reckoning day, when wheat and wine and cash were in process of division. The season had been good and distribution was high. The standards of pay were curious and, from an English point of view, somewhat topsy-turvy. For example, the man who drove the tractor, or the skilled girl who managed the piggery, received more than the manager. They were technicians.
In the farm new sheds had sprung up around the central buildings. A percentage of profits every year is treated as capital and dug back into the enterprise and serves to increase wages at a later date. The roads were still rough and the place lacked the trim neatness of a Dutch or Danish farm. But there was evidence everywhere of vitality and mighty promise of more to come.
The pig-shed, filled with mothers and sucklings of all ages, surpassed anything I have seen here or elsewhere. It was scrupulously clean, and I, and all who entered, were requested to wipe; our feet carefully in the medicated sawdust which lay before the threshold, lest we should carry dangerous germs upon our boots.
Vineyards had been a new adventure on this farm and had proved an unqualified success. A large storage-barn housed barrels of excellent wine, which I was compelled to taste and try. The farm was in constant communication with the agricultural college at Odessa, where advice is given to all who seek it.
We wandered through the village, a sprawling collection of wooden houses, spaced well apart for fear of fire spreading. Each house possessed its own strip of land where individual cattle and hens are kept.
In the crèche a score of babies were sleeping in neat cots, swathed in the Russian fashion and guarded with care and cleanliness by an elderly motherly soul.
The radio, the gramophone, and the bicycle invade the village now, and though the standard is not yet as high as ours, it is more evenly distributed, and rises with increasing rapidity.
Twenty-seven thousand such collective farms stretch out across the steppes and the Black-Earth belt. No change in Russia is greater than the change upon the land.
* * * * *
The Black Sea steamer which carried me from Georgia to the Crimea, and later from the Crimea to Odessa, was a large and handsome boat, with excellent cabins, saloons, and meals. The decks were free to every class of passenger, and the more primitive peasants travelling from the Caucasus to the Ukraine sat huddled in family groups in all sorts of nooks and corners. The night was hot, too hot to sleep in cabins, and I wandered from time to time amongst the sleeping groups on decks. Here a woman, surrounded by several small children, hugged her baby to her breast, and there a man hugged his balalaika; for a peasant loves his music. Clothes for the most part were the old peasant clothes. Clothes arc no criterion of prosperity in the Soviet Union as yet, and many ill-dressed peasants arc really well-to-do. The tendency to dress well increases, however, and several of the young men and women on vacation were dressed in the smart sports clothes of Alpine climbers, with mountaineering boots and zip pullovers.
I must confess to a lapse of good manners one afternoon in the smoking-saloon, with its handsome panelling and low coffee-tables of inlaid wood. Tired out with walking, I had rested my leg along a low table whilst talking to my friends, carefully avoiding, however, touching it with my boot. After awhile the gold-braided captain approached me and politely, and with a friendly smile, requested me not to do it. Seeing I was a foreigner, he said apologetically : “it is not the custom in our country.” What he really meant was that the new standards of culture were being violated. To rest one’s leg on a table is not “cultured”. It might damage the common property.
If the Ukraine was one of the most populous and progressive of the larger units in the Soviet Union, Ujbekistan was one of the most backward.
Prior to the Revolution the Uzbek peoples were ruled by a Tsarist Governor-General, working in conjunction with the Lrnir of Bukhara and the Khan of Khiva, as vassals of the Tsar. Russian capitalists and local upper classes exploited the common people shamelessly. Peasants were pitifully poor and lamentably ignorant. Toiling on the land, they turned fragments of desert into oases by hand-dug canals to the increase of their landlord’s riches, not their own.
Ignorance was fostered. Only two in every hundred could read, and these were mainly the mullahs, or Mohammedan priests.
Bukhara and Samarkand, as the land of the Uzbeks was formerly called, are names of romance. They recall Jenghis Khan and Tamerlane. Travellers thrill us with tales of a land rich in incense-bearing trees, vineyards, pomegranates, cotton plantations, bazaars, rugs, silks, and gleaming towers of mosques where turbaned mullahs recite sacred verses from the Koran.
The beauty of apparel, the quaintness of the village, and the mystery of veiled women may charm romantic travellers; they shock the modern cultured Central Asian as symbols of backwardness, ignorance, oppression, and mute misery. A fair cloak with festering disease behind it.
The new world in Central Asia has no use for these relics of servility; that which had some beauty for the few had much squalor and terror and barbarism for the many. Clubs, cars, cinemas, factories, and electric light have better values. Industrialism has no terrors for the Central Asian, as it had for us, who grew up in its evil days. Industrialism there is controlled and beneficial. It sets man free, and sets the bards singing of the glory of a healthier and more exhilarating order.
News spreads like a prairie fire in the East. What was happening in Moscow travelled fast through the plains of Russia, over the Ural Mountains, and across the Kazak desert Steppes to the land of Samarkand, at first as incredible fairy tales, and then as wonderful realities. And when the tractors themselves came to plough the lands, and cotton-mills sprang up to weave the cloth, and power-stations to flood factory and hut with electric light, the news spread over the southern frontiers to Persia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, India, and China.
When tractors ploughed the fields in remote Khokanyor there were other spectators besides the fanners and local villagers. Silently day and night sat Afghans from across the border watching them at work. What the Soviets do acts as leaven in the East.
Not at once did the old order change. In Bukhara the Mohammedan mullahs were supreme; education, justice, and family control were in their hands, and they were eager to keep them there. No modern learning gained a foothold in Bukhara. Science, mathematics, and modern languages were banned. Nothing was done to improve agriculture, nothing for health or culture, nothing for bridges, roads, or sanitation. Irrigation was immature and primitive. Industry was strangled at birth. On the grounds that Uzbekistan must not compete with Moscow the Governor-General of the Turkomans refused the request to build a cotton-mill in Tashkent. There was another and a more sinister reason too. Peasants were docile. As mill operatives, they became proletarians and dangerous.
Behind the high, windowless walls life flowed on as it had done for centuries, the man an absolute monarch in his house, with polygamy and forced marriage fostered by local Mohammedan traditions. High above the town rose, as the grim emblem of a city, where violence reigned above and lawlessness flourished beneath, the Tower of Death, where girls were condemned to terrible infamy and men impaled.
The, Russian Umpire had seized the three Central Asian Khanates and expropriated the semi-nomad tribes of Kirghiz, Turkoman, and Uzbek. Their lands were robbed of raw materials. Russian capitalists opened banks, bought up cotton, sold Russian manufactured products, and changed the economic and social status of the land, with pauperization of the masses as its result. Extremes of wealth and poverty appeared in the village, and as cotton growth needs capital, the peasants passed under the control of the Russian capitalists who provided it.
Cotton-growing in these conditions proved disastrous to the lower strata of economic life and produced a homeless population wandering for a job. Peasants had lost their land, and with the prohibition of industry they lacked factory jobs such as in England or the U.S.A. had acted as compensation. Many, as in China, took to lawless ways and practised brigandage from mountain fastnesses.
The nomad agricultural peoples of Kirghizia, Kazakstan, and Turkmenistan were crowded off their lands by colonists from overcrowded areas in other parts of the old Russian Empire. Their plight was still more pitiful. Like North American Indians they became a people in process of extinction.
* * * * *
Into this ploughed-up soil of human misery the seed of communism fell. It found firm root, and a desperate struggle began, and lasted for a dozen years, until full victory was won.
The growth of communism in Central Asia was deemed a serious menace to lands south of the Central Asian borders. The millions of Mohammedans, Mongols, Jews, and Armenians in what had been the Russian Empire were bound by a thousand ties of religion, nationality, and trade to the lands across the Russian border. England especially feared the menace and endeavoured to form a counterrevolution. Critical American writers like Joshua Kunitz, in his valuable “Dawn over Samarkand”, even suggest that British imperialism had grandiose schemes to sweep the whole of this vast area of fertile valleys, large spaces, and mountains rich in minerals of Central Asia and the Caucasus into the lap of British Imperialism. At any rate their armies held the Caucasus and their fleets the Black and Caspian Seas.
The infant Soviet growth was never in greater peril than in Central Asia. But, to the astonishment of the world, the central citadel at least held out. The White Russian emigré Potekhin writes in 1921 :—
“It is sufficient to point out the incredible fact of the existence in 1918-1919 of the Turkestan Soviet Republic. Completely cut off from Moscow, surrounded on all sides by Dutov’s, Kolchak’s, Annenkov’s, Denikin’s, and the English armies, deprived of transport, fuel, grain, the Turkestan Bolshevists managed to hold their own even in those most difficult years.”
The fight in Bukhara was more prolonged and more severe. The Emir of Bukhara used all his wealth and prestige to stay the Soviet growth. The Mohammedan priesthood aided him. And Britain lent her help indirectly through the Caspian and the Caucasus, and directly wherever else she could. At length, to the bitter grief of the Emir, and through troubles in Afghanistan, Britain withdrew. Colonel Etherton reluctantly relinquished his designs to capture the vast stores of Central Asian cotton, which might have paralysed the textile mills of industrial Russia 1,000 miles away and thus help to break the Soviet rule in Moscow. At length the Emir fled across the border, and though the fight struggled on for some years, with Enver Pasha and the Basmachi, the mountain brigands, as the tools, at length resistance collapsed in Central Asia. Kolchak’s Siberian armies disappeared, Denikin was driven from Southern Russia, and the Red Armies seized the Caucasus.
Bukhara and the large and artificial Central Asian stales were broken up into smaller groupings on the sounder basis of ethnographical, cultural, and national affinities.
The new Republics thrust themselves into the roots of the great mountains which form the northern wall of India. The Tadjik Soviet Socialist Republic, which includes the Gormo-Badakhan Autonomous Republic, lies nearest of all to the walls of the British Empire — a short flight over the mountains and you are in Kashmir. North to Tadjikistan, and running from Chinese Sinkiang eastwards to the Caspian Sea, lie Kirghizia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. North of that again, and running along the northern border of each of these, ranges the vast Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
Full-blown socialism came slowly amongst these peoples. First the land was recovered for peasant proprietorship, as had been the case in Russia proper. The long-continued abuses, greed, and indolence of the governing classes made them vulnerable, and they fell.
The next stage was won by the tractor. It had been hard for the peasant, having got possession of land, to relinquish it again and join in collective farming on a larger grouping, and there was danger that individual peasants might grow rich and, by adding land to land, recreate the evils from which they had escaped. The tractor saved them from themselves. The spring of 1930 was the critical moment. Spring-tide was late. Time for sowing was brief. The peasants struggled to scratch the earth with their wooden ploughs. And there across the line dividing his narrow fields from the State farms and the collective farms, the great steel horse tore up the hard earth at a furious pace. In vain the mullahs warned the farmers that “fields .ploughed with tractors yield no harvests”. The marvel was wrought before their astonished eyes. The tractor had won. Peasants joined the collectives. Planned economy had arrived for the cotton industry of Central Asia.
* * * * *
The Uzbeks, having been established as a Union Republic in 1924, have been in fifteen years, transformed from a backward Tsarist colony into one of the most flourishing republics of the Soviet East. In 1928 the first Uzbek cotton-mills were built, and then construction of a huge textile-works was started, called by Stalin the new base for the Soviet textile industry. These mills arc to produce 150 million metres of fabric annually.
Cotton-fields need fertilizers. The hydro-electric stations on the Chirchik River, near Tashkent, the capital, provide the power for depositing nitrogen from the air. More power stations arise and new industries spring up: silk, food, leather, clothing. Uzbek becomes rich and more nearly self-contained. Twenty thousand tractors plough its fields. One million tons of cotton left the fields in 1935. The plan was carried out ahead of time.
Uzbekistan is now the largest cotton base in the Union. It furnishes two-thirds of the cotton grown in the U.S.S.R. The hoard Colonel Etherton coveted for England twenty years ago was a mere trifle in comparison with the yearly output of socialist Uzbekistan. The farmers thrive; many families in collectives earn more than 10,000 rubles annually, and more than a hundred collectives have moved into what is called the “millionaire” class, where the total farm income exceeds 1 million rubles annually.
Culture follows in the train of output and efficiency. All children attend school. Nearly 25,000 students attend higher educational institutions: Uzbekistan trains its own agronomists, engineers, doctors, and teachers.
Uzbek women, as we have seen, have passed from mediaeval servility to equality of status with men. Uzbek art revives and thrives. Uzbek painters hang their pictures on the line in international exhibitions. And in a land where in Tsarist days the very word "theatre” was unknown, a crowded house now hears “ Hamlet” spoken in their native tongue. Uzbeks, who might not sit in the presence of Tsarist officials, and whose women might never show their face in public, now give a ten-day festival of art, singing, dancing, and acting, in Moscow; the women singing, acting, and dancing side by side with men. Sarah Ishanturayera enchants Moscow with her lyric voice.
From Bukhara the communist movement spread on to Tadjikistan, whose borders, as we have seen, ran along the frontier of Afghanistan and up to the Pamir Mountains beyond which India lay.
Tadjikstan was established as the seventh Soviet Socialist Republic in December, 1929. The impoverished peasants who survived the long and bloody warfare in which they gained their freedom found themselves in a land of ruins. Out of these ashes new cities now rise. The land of the Koran, the whip, and cruel injustice, enters a new life and builds a new order. Stalinabad, the youngest city of one of the youngest States in the world, becomes a familiar name. Lying in a gap betwixt snow-covered mountains, yesterday it was a collection of mud huts and narrow streets; today it is a busy city where factories roar and a new, cleanly, and orderly beauty replaces the squalor of the past.
Lacking skilled workers and building materials, but daunted by no obstacles, the new-fledged communists, led by Russian missionary workers, wrought wonders. Stalinabad arose, and from it culture, industrialization and socialism spread over the entire country, penetrating to remote villages, inaccessible mountains, and impassable deserts. Road-building gangs carry new highways across the mountains; carts, auto-buses, and tractors become familiar sights.
The swift torrents of the Vakhsh River, which runs through Tadjikstan, is harnessed to a gigantic agro-industrial works and then spreads out through a vast irrigation network over upwards of 41,000 acres of land, where grows some of the best cotton in the world: the channels placed end to end would nearly circle the earth at the equator.
In the Bukhara Khanate there were 8,000 witch-doctors, and only one doctor, who attended the Emir, his harem, and his Court; today medical students arc studying in scores of anatomical auditoriums. Malaria is now tackled by scientists rather than by men who administer paper pills of the Koran to be swallowed as a certain cure.
National minorities — Uzbeks, Turks, Afghans, Jews, and a dozen more live amicably side by side in Tadjikstan now. Under the Emir each tribe was bitterly hostile to the rest.
(i) kutia and the Arctic North
Away from the industrial centre, and northwards of the Trans-Siberian railway, from ocean to ocean there extends a vast and formerly illiterate continent, a land of hunters, shepherds, and beggars, robbed by travelling merchants, worn down by poverty, and living under a feudal or patriarchal rule. The Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, occupying the largest of these areas, is equal in size to the whole of Europe, an untouched land of boundless forests, vast mineral wealth, and rivers making it potentially the centre of the world’s water power. Cold crystal lakes peer up towards where rugged, snow-covered mountains rear themselves until they touch the clouds. A wall of silence separates the taiga of Yakutia from the world of noise, traffic, and human events.
The new high-sounding name of this republic speaks of the future, rather than the past or even, save in magnificent suggestion, of the present.
In the past, in Tsarist days, Yakutia was a prison for political prisoners, Bolsheviks, and progressive intellectuals. Its vast snow-clad tundra and jungle-like taiga made it secure against escape without the use of bolt or bar. To venture on the tundra without a food supply was to court death from starvation.
The common people of Yakutia were pillaged by the Russian autocracy, pillaged by their own nobility, pillaged by their native priests or Shamans, and pillaged by travelling adventurers. For a packet of needles they were cajoled to exchange a reindeer, for a bottle of vodka a sable, and fox-skins for cheap tobacco.
Their food was mean and scanty — bad milk and rotten fish — and for housing they shared a room with the cattle. Disease was rampant, tuberculosis especially, and trachoma. It seems almost incredible to read Dr. I. Popov’s estimate “ that of five to ten persons who lived in one yurta (a nomad’s tent) only one could see; all the rest had to feel their way about “.
A Yakut woman was a mere slave, forced to grind the corn, tend the cattle, and perform the household tasks. Lake cattle, she was bought and sold. Child mortality was high; women gave birth to children on a bed of moss strewn on the cold clay floor. Whole tribes became extinct. The race was in decay. The Yakut language was suppressed. In such schools as existed it was a forbidden tongue. In Tsarist days only 2 per cent, could read or write. There was no Yakut alphabet.
And now the Soviet missionaries have visited Yakutia, and the land has changed completely in a score of years. Aeroplanes fly over its impenetrable recesses, where the foot of man has never trodden, drawing maps and studying the contours from above. The new Lena line connects the Siberian Railway with the Lena River. The new Amur-Yakut motor road, 869 kilometres in length, runs from the railway through the depths of Yakutian territory, which never before saw a road.
Great efforts are made to turn the Northern Sea Route into a normally operating water-way. The flashing lighthouse appears in northern waters, with ice-breaking ships and aeroplanes to guide and protect the merchant-vessels. With the solution of the problems of the Northern Sea Route the conquest of the Far North will be complete.
Food problems are a matter of paramount importance in the Far North. And the Soviets confront them with success. Vitaminous vegetables and fresh milk are a vital need: “The anti-scorbutic vitamin ‘C’ is the basis of the cultivation of the Arctic lands.” It was found impracticable to convey these weighty vegetable products through distances so vast. And needless too. The northern lands themselves develop an agriculture of their own. Thirty thousand agricultural machines work on the fields of Yakutia, and in a land where mercury freezes in thermometers in winter time, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, and water-melons flourish side by side with heavy crops of wheat and rye. At Srednekolimsk, in Yakutia, the cultivation of a kilogram of potatoes would cost 17 kopecks: the transport of a kilogram from the south would cost 77 kopecks.
The north develops its own food basis now, and meets food needs with appropriate food supplies.
Industry expands. Gold is mined in the Aldan gold-fields and elsewhere. Silver, lead, tin, copper, zinc, and tungsten add to the wealth of the peoples. Coal deposits are discovered and operated, oil-wells drilled, timber felled, sawn, and dispatched, and the trade in fish, fur, and leather is extensively developed. Poverty recedes.
Illiteracy too. All children attend school. Seventeen newspapers, nine in the Yakut language, are in regular circulation.
Yakutsk, once a wretched village, has become a fine city of 25,000 souls. The National Library contains 200,000 volumes, and by it are an art gallery, a broadcasting station, and cinemas.
Folklore, which was dying with the people, is now fostered and encouraged. It forms the seed-bed of the new art of Yakutia, and flourishes with the improved material conditions, developed intensively by Yakut playwrights and actors. Twenty-four Yakuts lately received diplomas at the Lunacharsky Theatrical School in Moscow, and the plays “Long Live Man” by the Yakut playwright, Mordinov, and “Brothers” by Yefremov, strike new chords in the hearts and minds of the Yakut people.
* * * * *
Educational pioneers, opening the doors to a new life for the untutored and victimized common people of the northern lands, will occupy an honoured place in Soviet histories of the future.
“The School in the Far North” is the title of a book published recently in Leningrad by A. Bazanov and N. Kazansky. It unfolds the romance of Soviet educationalists in their work in the founding of schools and training of scholars in Arctic regions. “The more I read, the more 1 begin to wonder whether it would not be possible for me to become a writer like Alexander Pushkin. Who can say that this might not happen ?” writes a pupil in a school for the Ulchi, a small nationality in the Far North, in his composition on the theme “What I Wish to Become”, and expresses the new zest for learning and the new ambitions and enthusiasms which begin to fire Arctic youth.
The struggle to kindle that fire called forth the same qualities of love and devotion that led Anne Sullivan Macy, the undaunted teacher of Helen Killer, to her world-renowned successes.
Whilst geologists, engineers, agronomists, airmen, and seamen strove to bridge distance, build industry, and probe the earth for its riches, educators probed the minds of simple northern children and discovered human and spiritual values which will enrich the world’s art and intelligence. Arctic youth may yet realize the dream of the small Ulchi essayist.
Peculiar difficulties beset the establishment of schools in these northern regions. No buildings were available. No teachers to speak the native tongues. No text-books in native speech. Not even a settled population in many localities, for many northern peoples live a roving life. Nomad schools were needed for a nomad people.
Gradually, however, schools have been built and teachers taught. There has been a wide demand for boarding-schools. Already by 1934-5, 80.8 per cent, of the children in the Nenets national area were attending school, 83.9 per cent, in the Khatanga area, 97 per cent. in the Narym area.
Long and perilous journeys lay before the new teachers, and a host of problems confronted them daily as they built up their schools. Practical difficulties arose. For the children were gathered from different tribes, each with their own customs and rooted prejudices. The Komi children, for example, at Lobozersk, enjoyed farina porridge; the Saami children hated it. Some could eat pork soup at dinner; some could not. One dinner at a boarding-school at St. Lawrence met disaster because the Chukchis children refuse salt entirely.
Hair-cutting and bathing, again, presented another set of problems. Modern teachers naturally like trimmed hair and cleanly bodies in their boarding-school. The children violently dissented to the bath-tub and the scissors: “ Every Esquimo has a different style of haircut : it is thought that if all the children were to cut their hair in the same way, they may fall ill.”
Great tact was needed in the bath-house: “A ritual law exists amongst the Esquimos and several other tribes under which washing is prohibited. After a month or two, however, the children get accustomed to the new regime and even teach their parents this innovation.”
The children feared beds, from which they might fall: “It often happened that on coming into the dormitory, one would find the beds empty and the bedding in disorder, and the children sleeping on the floor covered with their winter clothes.”
Skill was needed in the teaching also. Methods of thought differ widely, and in some respects the Northern peoples lack the simplicity of southern lands. For example, some tribes possess no general numeration, but have more than twenty categories; persons, for example, are counted in one set of numerals and teeth in another. There are many odd superstitions and poetic fancies. Winter ice, for example, is dead, floating spring-time ice is live. But quick as lightning these children can judge the value of a fox-pelt by the animals’ tracks in the snow, and can predict weather with an amazing accuracy by changes in the form and colour of the clouds.
A new yearning for knowledge appears and a new ability. The world’s intelligence and art may become the richer by the Northern people’s gifts, and the Arctic boys may yet realize the dream of the little Ulchi essayist and rival Pushkin.
“Sakhalin” had a sinister sound in Russian ears. “ Exiled to Sakhalin “ was akin to sentence of death.
How different the face of Nature may be when put to different purposes is never better seen than in the case of Sakhalin. Here is Sakhalin to a Tsarist bourgeois writer:
“Nature created this island in a moment of wrath, with the intention of making a prison of all things. Here the sea is a traitor and the shore is not a friend. Both sea and shore are to be feared.”
Here again is Sakhalin to a modern Soviet writer :
“We took a short cut’ through a footpath and walked near a young wood in high thick grass which reached to our waists. We found ourselves on a little hill. Unlike the gloomy entrance to the valley, near the sea, nature here was mild and pleasant; a blue sky, bright, warm sunlight, lots of vegetation which was very thick and knew no dust. On the horizon an undulating line of hills which merged into mountains. The hillside was covered with tree stumps; then a stretch of untouched forest. On that background a silvery spring wound in a fresh ribbon forming toy waterfalls and tiny little pools. The picture held a peculiar softness of line and colour.”
I instinctively recall Masefield’s “The Everlasting Mercy”, where the sodden ploughman, after a life of debauchery reaching its climax in a wild, disgusting night at the village inn, experiences a sudden conversion and passes out in the early morning into the fields, to find them aglow with a radiance and a colour he had never seen before. The change was in the ploughman, not in Nature; and the change is not in Sakhalin, but in the men who used it.
For in Tsarist days Sakhalin, the island in the Pacific, lying off the coasts of the Maritime Province and Kamchatka, the extreme north-eastern point of Asia, and shared in its southern half by Japan, was used as a convict station. As such it had a monstrous reputation.
Chekhov, the famous Russian dramatist, who visited the island in 1890, records its gruesome story in his book “ Sakhalin “. Here, for example, is a typical passage:
“In every part of Sakhalin men executioners stripped the women prisoners and whipped them in the presence of wardens and curious officials. A pregnant woman was whipped in Korsakovka. In Alexandrovsk a political prisoner was whipped ; he hanged himself next day.
“Convict Prohorov is brought to the prison office. He does not yet know that he is to get ninety strokes of the whip.
“The doctor, a young German, auscults his heart to determine the number of blows the prisoner can stand. He settles this question in the space of a minute.
“ ‘Oh, you poor man,’ sneers the doctor, ‘aren’t those chains heavy for you? Why don’t you ask the warden — he’ll have them taken off.’ “The pale Prohorov remains silent, his lips trembling.
“ ‘You’re innocent, of course,’ continues the doctor, ‘you’re all innocent. How very distrustful people are in Russia ! Oh, you poor man !’
“The prisoner feels that he cannot stand the uncertainty any longer.
“‘What did you dream of last night ?’ asks the warden.
“ ‘I’ve forgotten, your honour.’
“ ‘Listen, then: you are sentenced to ninety strokes of the whip. You must get them today.’
“A sloping bench, with openings for tying the hands and feet, stands in the middle of the warden’s office. The executioner, Tolstik, a sturdy man built like an athlete, nods his head at Prohorov; the latter lies down without a word. The executioner pulls Prohorov’s trousers down to the knees, silently and without undue hurry; then he proceeds slowly to tie him to the bench.
“Prohorov is fixed at last. The executioner takes a whip with three leather tails and slowly sets it straight.
“ ‘Don’t give way, now!’ he says in a low voice and strikes the first blow without swinging his whip, as if he were adjusting his stroke.
“ ‘One,’ says the warden in a monotonous voice.
“For a moment Prohorov is silent and even the expression of his face does not change. Hut suddenly a spasm of pain runs through his body and he emits not a scream, but a squeal. “ ‘Two, shouts the warden.
“The executioner stands at the side and strikes so that the whip falls across the body. After every five strokes he goes slowly round to the other side and gives the victim half a minute’s rest. Prohorov’s hair sticks to his clammy forehead, his neck swells; after the first five strokes his body, which is covered with scars from previous whippings, becomes purple; the skin breaks at every blow.
“ ‘Your honour! ‘ he cries between his agonized screamings: ‘ Have pity, your honour!’ “After twenty or thirty strokes Prohorov mutters as if he were drunk or delirious:
“ ‘I’m a miserable man ... a finished man. What am I punished for? . . . Oh . . . Ah!’
“After that come sounds as if he were vomiting and Prohorov utters not a word more: only groans and a rattle in his throat. It seems as if an eternity had passed since the punishment began, but the warden shouts only forty-two, forty-three, forty-four. ...
“Ninety comes at last. Prohorov’s body is purple from weals which bleed. His teeth chatter, his face is yellow, his eyes are wandering. . . .”
Concubinage was taken for granted and practised openly. Instead of curing crime, new crimes — we have the authority of high prison officials for it — were invented, some of the most loathsome description.
On this island rich in coal, oil, lumber, and fish, for years life was marked with the clank of fetters, the hiss of whips, and the screams of people under torture. Despair, lawlessness, all its rich resources left untouched, all its grand features turned to shuddering horror, it became a very devil’s island, and well might have been written of Tsarist Sakhalin the familiar words of Dante: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
When the Soviets came to Sakhalin in 1925, the gloom departed, with the whips and warders and screams and convicts’ manacles. Youth arrived and a new order with them. Chekhov wrote in his note-book of the crowd as he first saw it in old Sakhalin: “It consisted of men and women of working age, there were some old men and children, but youth was totally absent.”
Young communists were sent to Sakhalin to organize its development and fire it with zest for a new life. Twelve hundred arrived in the first batch, 500 in the next, armed with axes for levelling forests, picks for digging mines, and drills to tap the hidden stores of oil. The story of the early struggles of the Soviet Youth and their unquenchable enthusiasm is not incredible to those who have worked with pioneers in pitching summer camps for Lancashire lads in the vilest of British weather.
A storm had separated one of the early party from its baggage, compelling the steamer which took the passengers to land them far away from their destination. They chose to go on foot through the forest to the site of their future “collective”; and not until three months after their arrival did the goods or the food for man or beast arrive.
“Heavy frost set in and snow lay deep on the ground. We had no warm clothes and no fodder. There was shortage of food. Some panicky people in town, and even in the combine, began to talk of closing the combine. Then the young communist organization showed its true spirit. In light shoes wrapped around in rags, in summer caps and torn clothes, standing waist deep in snow, wood cutters felled timber for export and carters transported it with the aid of exhausted horses which could hardly stand; and even at that, not only fulfilling but exceeding normal speed . . . the young communists’ working party, including girls, loaded . . . two thousand four hundred tons of export goods in four days (without port facilities).”
Sakhalin is rich in coal, oil, and fish. Coal lies in the mountain in layers slanting upwards. Horizontal shafts are driven through the mountain-side in successive stories, and the coal is pushed with the foot down the slanting shelf into conduits which shoot it to bunkers in the lower levels and then into the wailing trucks. Coal has exceptional value in the Pacific waters, and is worth more than ordinary pains in the getting.
The fishing industry and agriculture arc born or reborn. At Shirokaya Pad fish were formerly caught near shore with primitive drag-nets. Little did the local fishermen know that the densest shoals passed them by, deep beneath the waters, far from the shore. The Pacific Institute of Fisheries, armed by scientific research, taught the “secret” to the State fisheries and the fishermen’s collectives, and now deep-sea boats carry on the deep-sea fishing far from the shore and with abundant results. And the fish when caught are canned by the million and sent to the mainland as food. Formerly they were turned, in great cauldrons, into land-fertilizers.
Oil-derricks rise in thick clusters on the eastern coast. Oil-workers from Grosny and Baku, who volunteered to come, have taught new workers and trained new cadres. In two or three years the Soviet Oil Trusts reached an output which had taken Japan ten years to attain. The forest retreats before a thicket of derricks and a belt of vegetable gardens and dwelling-houses. Within seven years the oil-town of Okha had grown up with 25,000 inhabitants.
Industry gets firm footing in Sakhalin. And slowly the living conditions improve too. Solid cottages appear in the mining areas, with print curtains, geraniums, and song-birds in cages.
Stakhalin has its native population. Under Tsarist rule it was slowly dying out. But not so now. The Soviets have a special care for native people. They fostered them as they fostered seeds native to the soil, and then developed them. Nor was their task an easy one. Guilyak native villages stood low in the cultural scale. The winter huts lie dug to half their height in the ground, with smoke floating everywhere within them. Wretched dogs tied to posts make a melancholy howl and dead fish a dreadful stench. Filthy children devour living fish, which still quiver in their hands.
Women were bought and sold like cattle — a girl, for example, may cost as much as a team of dogs by the Guilyaks, and the custom dies slowly. Parents buy girls of four or five years old and marry them forthwith to their sons.
Gradually these things change under the missionary impact of the Soviets. Witch-doctors give place to scientifically trained medical practitioners. Education comes. The smoke-fouled hut passes. The new wooden house takes its place equipped with sewing-machines, samovars, and modern furniture. Horses and cows appear on Guilyak farms. Agricultural science and complex agricultural machinery help the farmer to increase the yield of his field. Idleness is shunned and pilloried. Vast moral changes take place.
Of the 50,000 inhabitants of Sakhalin, hardly 5,000 have been born on the island. The rest have come in groups from many regions in the U.S.S.R.: fishermen from Astrakhan, sailors from the Black Sea, peasants from the Trans-Baikal, farmers from the Ukraine, and oil-sinkers from the Caucasus.
In 1933 Maxim Gorki received a letter from the Soviet children in Sakhalin:
“Your letter” [he wrote in reply] “is a gift I treasure as I would an Order. I have received letters from the children of Europeans. Their letters gave me great pleasure, of course, but they did not move me as deeply as the letter you, the children of Guilyaks, Tunguses and Orochans, sent me.
“It is not surprising that European children can read and write; what is surprising, and sad, is that some of them are still illiterate. You, however, are the children of tribes which had no written language; your fathers were beaten and plundered by Russian and Japanese merchants; two-legged beasts deceived your fathers and kept them in ignorance. . . .
“And now you arc learning. In a few years you yourselves will be teachers and leaders of your tribes; you will open before them the broad radiant path to the universal brotherhood of the working people of the whole world. There is great joy both for you and me in that.”
Jews present a problem in every land. Disliked, persecuted, or oppressed to extermination in other lands, in the Soviet Union they entered a new life when, on August 8th, 1918, an early decree of the Soviet Power dealt its first blow at anti-Semitism and opened the door to a political and economic equality which bears its fruit now in social dignity. The Jews’ gifts for humanity arc incalculable.
Tsarist Russia dealt ruthlessly with all national minorities. The Jews were no exception. In my parish, years ago, there lived a Jewish lady, mother of a distinguished British architect. As a young girl, she alone survived a Russian pogrom in which all her family were killed. The horror of that day lingered all her life. Victims of bloody pogroms and legal disabilities, barred from factory and driven from the fields, 6 million Jews in old Russia lived in terror of life and property.
Jews had no schools where Yiddish was taught. A small fraction only of total university places were allotted to Jews. However clever the Jewish lad, once the quota was filled, that lad and others remained outside: be he as brilliant as Einstein, his chance of entering a Russian University yesterday would be as slender as the chance of Jesus of Nazareth entering Germany today. Jews were forced to live in “the Pale”, a small and miserable locality allotted to those of Jewish nationality. Only a handful of wealthy and professional Jews were permitted in Moscow.
To wander outside the “Pale” was to be an outlaw. W. P. Coates, in “From Tsardom to the Stalin Constitution”, quotes Schneiderman, a former blacksmith, thus :
“I worked as a blacksmith for forty-eight years, and nearly the whole of my life has been spent in Zhvanitz. Once I was summoned by the landlord to repair the carts for him. I worked a whole day and I earned two rubles. . . . On my way home I was met by a peasant. ‘Where are you coining from, Jew?’ he asked me. I told him.
“ ‘Jew come to the constable. Don’t you know that Jews are not allowed to roam the villages? ‘ I begged him to let me go. There -were only three kilometres left to Zhvanitz. But he was adamant. I gave him the money I had carried, for if he had taken me to the constable I should have had to give my earnings away anyhow, and should have stayed overnight in a cell into the bargain.
“I walked on and within ten minutes the same story was repeated. I had to part with my last ruble. I had so dreamed of spending a good and comfortable Sabbath with ample food for my family. Things turned out differently, and what is more, on the road I was beaten up by drunkards and barely managed to reach my house at dawn. We were not considered human in those days.”
Lenin’s attitude was clear from the first. Writing in 1913 on a measure put forward in the Duma by the Bolshevik group of Deputies, with the object of removing the Jewish disabilities, he said :—
“The school, the press, the Parliamentary Tribune — everything and anything is being utilized in order to sow ignorant, evil and savage hatred against the Jews. In this blackguardly business there engage not only the scum of the Black Hundreds, but also reactionary professors, scientists, journalists, deputies, etc. Millions, even milliards of rubles are spent in order to poison the mind of the people.”
Stalin’s attitude was equally unmistakable : “Communists,” he writes, “as consistent internationalists, cannot fail to be irreconcilable and sworn enemies of anti-Semitism.”
Jews are the world’s standing problem. The Soviet Union has found its best solution.
In the Soviet Union no racial or national discrimination is made against the Jews. Economic, social, and political equalities have been granted to Jews. Among the Soviets Jews are free to live where they choose, free to enter universities, free to work in factories, free to work on the land.
In the Crimea and in Southern Ukraine my travelling companions for awhile were three young and cultivated Jews from New York City. One object of their journey was to study the state of the Jews, in Odessa especially, one-third of whose population is of Jewish nationality. The gaiety of these American Jews in a land where colour bar and racial bar have gone for ever was eloquent beyond any words they spoke.
Jewish workers in factories and on the land in the Ukraine, in the Crimea, in Moscow, in Georgia, in Baku, and in Siberia have proved their fitness and capacity. It is now clear that Jews can, given time and opportunity, master industrial and agricultural tasks as readily as men and women of other nationalities.
The question of land settlements had been raised from the earliest days of the revolution. Jewish colonies had been formed in that most lovely place, the southern shore of the Crimean Peninsula, a spot famed for its health resorts; also in the Ukraine. The 2,000,000 Jews who had been drawn into agriculture had already effectually exploded the old lie that Jews were by nature unsuited to the land or the factory. They arc only as unsuited as a child might be described as unsuited to swim who had never been permitted to enter the water.
Given a fair field, the Jew can excel in most things, as other people excel. Here is an instance. In the Azov-Black Sea Territory a meeting took place between the collective farmers of the Novo-Zlatopolsk District of the Dniepropetsk Province, who were Jews, and the Cossacks of the Tsimiyansk District. After the conference came a horse display and a competition given as an entertainment by 300 Cossacks, world famed for horsemanship. Berdishev, a representative of the Jewish district, ventured to join in. Setting his horse at the hardest jumps, he took them with such consummate ease that the Cossacks, once the sworn enemies of the Jews and noted for their anti-Semitic brutality, cried out, “A real Cossack, a real Cossack”, in their spontaneous admiration.
In order to assist them to develop their own language and national culture, the Soviet Government have given to the Jews the District of Birobijan in the Far East, where the Amur River joins the Ussuri, some 250 miles from the Pacific Ocean, an area twice the size of Palestine, a land as large as Holland and Belgium put together. In Birobijan the Jews begin to build up the first and only Jewish autonomous territory in the world, with Yiddish as the official language in schools and public, life.
Of course they make mistakes. Nor could every Jew who made the experiment readily undergo the hardships of colonial life, especially in the earlier stages. Birobijan, though potentially rich, was as yet an untouched, untamed land, though the fact that it had its difficulties was an advantage in several ways. For Birobijan was a gift which displaced no former inhabitants. It was a gift which gave ample scope for a willing and determined people. It was also a gift which challenged the character. Nature never surrenders her wild spots to men without a struggle. The grit of the pioneer was bound to be tested. Raw marshes awaited conquest. Men and horses floundered in bog and mire, tormented by myriads of midgets and assailed by the stabbing stilettos of poisonous mosquitos. Many, after making the experiment for awhile, gave up the struggle, as little fitted for rough tasks as the shoe-makers, tailors, or small shopkeepers of England would be to tame the wilds of Canada. They lost heart and returned.
The majority, however, remained, and won the victory in the conflict with Nature, and now the face of Birobijan changes. Saw-mills hum and scream. Roads pierce the forest. The quartz rocks yield their gold, the mines their coal, the quarries their marbles. Within ten years an electric power-station has been erected, and a standard-house building works, a furniture factory, a saw-mill, and a lime-works. The 42,000 acres under cultivation in 1929 reached 100,000 acres in 1939.
You will not find the shrinking, downtrodden Jews of the Ghettos in Birobijan. Jewish settlers have proved in Birobijan as well as elsewhere their ability to till the soil as skilfully as Gentiles. Jewish collective farms arc profitable and flourishing. The little artisans, petty shopkeepers, and small middlemen who remained and fought the battle through have become proficient farmers: scores of collective farms, admirably managed and fully mechanized, have increased the wealth, output, and stability of the Republic. Many collective farmers will now earn ten rubles a day in cash besides their divisible share of grain and vegetables. Yesterday, they struggled along on a ruble and a half a day. Scores of witnesses speak of these successes. Take this for one: Grigory Kostel, a Ukrainian railway worker, writes in the Birobijan Star :
“I confess that I myself once considered the Jews to be mostly artisans. I believed that it would be exceptionally difficult for them to learn new professions. But from the very first I found that I had been mistaken. The Jews plunged into the struggle with the taiga and learned how to build and farm. I myself taught my own profession to more than ten Jews, and I can vouch for them all as splendid railway men.”
Cultural activity keeps pace with material advance. One hundred and four Jewish schools and four Jewish technical colleges have been opened. The State allotments for the construction of public, municipal, and cultural institutions have increased from 300,000 rubles to 11,500,000 rubles.
A new theatre, a new children’s music and ballet school, a new park of rest and culture, standing where yesterday marsh-birds flew and wild beasts roamed, are the pride of the city of Birobijan.
Nationalities mingle and dwell as freely in Birobijan as in any land on earth, for Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, and Cossacks no longer shun the Jew, nor he them.