The Crisis in Russia
Alexei Rykov, the President of the Supreme Council of Public Economy, is one of the hardest worked men in Russia, and the only time I was able to have a long talk with him (although more than once he snatched moments to answer particular questions) was on a holiday, when the old Siberian Hotel, now the offices of the Council, was deserted, and I walked through empty corridors until I found the President and his secretary at work as usual.
After telling of the building of the new railway from Alexandrovsk Gai to the Emba, the prospects of developing the oil industry in that district, the relative values of those deposits and of those at Baku, and the possible decreasing significance of Baku in Russian industry generally, we passed to broader perspectives. I asked him what he thought of the relations between agriculture and industry in Russia, and supposed that he did not imagine that Russia would ever become a great industrial country. His answer was characteristic of the tremendous hopes that nerve these people in their almost impossible task, and I set it down as nearly as I can in his own words. For him, of course, the economic problem was the first, and he spoke of it as the director of a huge trust might have spoken. But, as he passed on to talk of what he thought would result from the Communist method of tackling that problem, and spoke of the eventual disappearance of political parties, I felt I was trying to read a kind of palimpsest of the Economist and News from Nowhere, or listening to a strange compound of William Morris and, for example, Sir Eric Geddes. He said: "We may have to wait a long time before the inevitable arrives and there is a Supreme Economic Council dealing with Europe as with a single economic whole. If that should come about we should, of course, from the very nature of our country, be called upon in the first place to provide food for Europe, and we should hope enormously to improve our agriculture, working on a larger and larger scale, using mechanical plows and tractors, which would be supplied us by the West. But in the meantime we have to face the fact that events may cause us to be, for all practical purposes, in a state of blockade for perhaps a score of years, and, so far as we can, we must be ready to depend on ourselves alone. For example, we want mechanical plows which could be procured abroad. We have had to start making them ourselves. The first electric plow made in Russia and used in Russia started work last year, and this year we shall have a number of such plows made in our country, not because it is economic so to make them, but because we could get them in no other way. In so far as is possible, we shall have to make ourselves self-supporting, so as somehow or other to get along even if the blockade, formal or perhaps willy-nilly (imposed by the inability of the West to supply us), compels us to postpone cooperation with the rest of Europe. Every day of such postponement is one in which the resources of Europe are not being used in the most efficient manner to supply the needs not only of our own country but of all."
I referred to what he had told me last year about the intended electrification of Moscow by a station using turf fuel.
"That," he said, "is one of the plans which, in spite of the war, has gone a very long way towards completion. We have built the station in the Ryezan Government, on the Shadul peat mosses, about 110 versts from Moscow. Before the end of May that station should be actually at work. (It was completed, opened and partially destroyed by a gigantic fire.) Another station at Kashira in the Tula Government (on the Oka), using the small coal produced in the Moscow coalfields, will be at work before the autumn. This year similar stations are being built at Ivano-Voznesensk and at Nijni-Novgorod. Also, with a view to making the most economic use of what we already possess, we have finished both in Petrograd and in Moscow a general unification of all the private power-stations, which now supply their current to a single main cable. Similar unification is nearly finished at Tula and at Kostroma. The big water-power station on the rapids of the Volkhov is finished in so far as land construction goes, but we can proceed no further until we have obtained the turbines, which we hope to get from abroad. As you know, we are basing our plans in general on the assumption that in course of time we shall supply the whole of Russian industry with electricity, of which we also hope to make great use in agriculture. That, of course, will take a great number of years."
[Nothing could have been much more artificial than the industrial geography of old Russia. The caprice of history had planted great industrial centers literally at the greatest possible distance from the sources of their raw materials. There was Moscow bringing its coal from Donetz, and Petrograd, still further away, having to eke out a living by importing coal from England. The difficulty of transport alone must have forced the Russians to consider how they could do away with such anomalies. Their main idea is that the transport of coal in a modern State is an almost inexcusable barbarism. They have set themselves, these ragged engineers, working in rooms which they can hardly keep above freezing-point and walking home through the snow in boots without soles, no less a task than the electrification of the whole of Russia. There is a State Committee presided over by an extraordinary optimist called Krzhizhanovsky, entrusted by the Supreme Council of Public Economy and Commissariat of Agriculture with the working out of a general plan. This Committee includes, besides a number of well-known practical engineers, Professors Latsinsky, Klassen, Dreier, Alexandrov, Tcharnovsky, Dend and Pavlov. They are investigating the water power available in different districts in Russia, the possibilities of using turf, and a dozen similar questions including, perhaps not the least important, investigation to discover where they can do most with least dependence on help from abroad.]
Considering the question of the import of machinery from abroad, I asked him whether in existing conditions of transport Russia was actually in a position to export the raw materials with which alone the Russians could hope to buy what they want. He said:
"Actually we have in hand about two million poods (a pood is a little over thirty-six English pounds) of flax, and any quantity of light leather (goat, etc.), but the main districts where we have raw material for ourselves or for export are far away. Hides, for example, we have in great quantities in Siberia, in the districts of Orenburg and the Ural River and in Tashkent. I have myself made the suggestion that we should offer to sell this stuff where it is, that is to say not delivered at a seaport, and that the buyers should provide their own trains, which we should eventually buy from them with the raw material itself, so that after a certain number of journeys the trains should become ours. In the same districts we have any quantity of wool, and in some of these districts corn. We cannot, in the present condition of our transport, even get this corn for ourselves. In the same way we have great quantities of rice in Turkestan, and actually are being offered rice from Sweden, because we cannot transport our own. Then we have over a million poods of copper, ready for export on the same conditions. But it is clear that if the Western countries are unable to help in the transport, they cannot expect to get raw materials from us."
I asked about platinum. He laughed.
"That is a different matter. In platinum we have a world monopoly, and can consequently afford to wait. Diamonds and gold, they can have as much as they want of such rubbish; but platinum is different, and we are in no hurry to part with it. But diamonds and gold ornaments, the jewelry of the Tsars, we are ready to give to any king in Europe who fancies them, if he can give us some less ornamental but more useful locomotives instead."
I asked if Kolchak had damaged the platinum mines. He replied, "Not at all. On the contrary, he was promising platinum to everybody who wanted it, and he set the mines going, so we arrived to find them in good condition, with a considerable yield of platinum ready for use."
(I am inclined to think that in spite of Rykov's rather intransigent attitude on the question, the Russians would none the less be willing to export platinum, if only on account of the fact in comparison with its great value it requires little transport, and so would make possible for them an immediate bargain with some of the machinery they most urgently need.)
Finally we talked of the growing importance of the Council of Public Economy. Rykov was of opinion that it would eventually become the centre of the whole State organism, "it and Trades Unions organizing the actual producers in each branch."
"Then you think that as your further plans develop, with the creation of more and more industrial centres, with special productive populations concentrated round them, the Councils of the Trades Unions will tend to become identical with the Soviets elected in the same districts by the same industrial units?"
"Precisely," said Rykov, "and in that way the Soviets, useful during the period of transition as an instrument of struggle and dictatorship, will be merged with the Unions." (One important factor, as Lenin pointed out when considering the same question, is here left out of count, namely the political development of the enormous agricultural as opposed to industrial population.)
"But if this merging of political Soviets with productive Unions occurs, the questions that concern people will cease to be political questions, but will be purely questions of economics."
"Certainly. And we shall see the disappearance of political parties. That process is already apparent. In the present huge Trade Union Conference there are only sixty Mensheviks. The Communists are swallowing one party after another. Those who were not drawn over to us during the period of struggle are now joining us during the process of construction, and we find that our differences now are not political at all, but concerned only with the practical details of construction." He illustrated this by pointing out the present constitution of the Supreme Council of Public Economy. There are under it fifty-three Departments or Centres (Textile, Soap, Wool, Timber, Flax, etc.), each controlled by a "College" of three or more persons. There are 232 members of these Colleges or Boards in all, and of them 83 are workmen, 79 are engineers, 1 was an ex-director, 50 were from the clerical staff, and 19 unclassified. Politically 115 were Communists, 105 were "non-party," and 12 were of non-Communist parties. He continued, "Further, in swallowing the other parties, the Communists themselves will cease to exist as a political party. Think only that youths coming to their manhood during this year in Russia and in the future will not be able to confirm from their own experience the reasoning of Karl Marx, because they will have had no experience of a capitalist country. What can they make of the class struggle? The class struggle here is already over, and the distinctions of class have already gone altogether. In the old days, members of our party were men who had read, or tried to read, Marx's "Capital," who knew the "Communist Manifesto" by heart, and were occupied in continual criticism of the basis of capitalist society. Look at the new members of our party. Marx is quite unnecessary to them. They join us, not for struggle in the interests of an oppressed class, but simply because they understand our aims in constructive work. And, as this process continues, we old social democrats shall disappear, and our places will be filled by people of entirely different character grown up under entirely new conditions."
Chapter 11: NON-PARTYISM