The First Time in History
I HAVE had typhus in Russia. Four months of the first five I spent there were on a sickbed, and the rest in a dirty, sprawling city in the famine area where the world was dying. Yet I loved the country and when my convalescence in England was over, I wanted to go back. Naturally my friends asked, Why? Why do you love Russia?
It was not easy to answer. Was it for fine scenery? There are great mountains and noble forests in Russia, but the scenery I knew was a barren, curving plain, set with draggled, hungry villages.
Was it for comfort of living? In all those first five months I never tasted the freshness of cold water, nothing but dull, boiled water even in illness. I never enjoyed fresh milk, but only boiled milk, or milk from a can. In my trips out to villages, I slept on floors of peasant cottages; during my brief days in Moscow, I carried my water for washing up three flights of stairs to my room.
When I went to file my telegrams at night in the Foreign Office, I took a pocket electric lamp with me, to avoid falling into the holes in the sidewalks and streets. After my lamp wore out, I felt my way carefully, for there were no more lamps to be bought in Russia.
Was it the people I met? In those first months I knew no big people. I knew nurses and doctors and relief workers and peasants and serving maids and minor officials. What was there in these to make me want to go back?
Picture after flashing picture I remember of those first days in Russia. The Red Army soldier standing on the platform at Minsk, barefoot, holding his rifle by a piece of rope. The Polish official in our train sneered at him as we passed, but I remembered that we also in America had had our Valley Forge.
The boy and the girl who entered our train, members of the League of Communist Youth, taking collections for the famine. The boy had no hat and no shoes; under his shirt and trousers of home-made linen it was clear that he wore no underwear. Yet he held himself with dignity, presenting proper credentials from the city. He was asking nothing for himself, for with his ration of black bread it did not occur to him that he needed anything. He was asking for the victims of the famine.
Dunia, the housemaid in the Quaker flat where I lay ill in Moscow. No beauty of face or form was in Dunia; she was squat and shabby, with draggled shoes and tangled hair. Yet she brought joy into monotonous days; even the bringing of a glass of water was a game of friendliness with her. She was too simple in heart to know much of politics; but she sang little songs about speculators to herself in the kitchen, and about how the workers' soviets put them down.
There was the Cheka worker whom I met on the railway, going up and down Russia, hunting out graft and counter-revolution. All his worldly goods were in his knapsack: a loaf of bread, a teapot, and under these a couple of handkerchiefs and a pair of socks. And two hand-embroidered linen towels, brought from home long ago. I admired them and he insisted on giving me one. What did he need of two? he said.
The little East-side Jew whom I met in Samara, the heart of the famine, and who went with me as interpreter to organize village kitchens. Speaking English with a vile accent and physically most unattractive. Then I learned that he was manager of two little factories which had just reopened, making doors and windows for the repairing of Samara. He was a machinist; he was so proud of the two or three machines he had put together, down in a country where even plain nails were not to be had. Proudest of all he was of the wages of his workers, since he had succeeded in getting the government to put them on piece work. Fifteen dollars a month they got, with board and lodging. He himself, as manager, got rations and lodging, but without the fifteen dollars. For he was Communist, on Communist wages, which at that time were a few cents a month, not worth standing in line to collect. His c wife worked also, his children were fed in a government children's home; but he was eager and energetic and happy to be building Russia.
Puriaieff, chairman of the peasant relief committee, in the village of Novo Semekino, is another whom I remember. Is he alive or dead now from the famine? Tail, and thin and keen, with circles under his eyes from hunger, he refused my proffered bread till he knew I had plenty; then he accepted a chunk to put in his pocket,--to divide at home with his sister and sister's children.
There were red army officers I knew, in training in the highest military school of Moscow. They had divided their rations so that every five men were supporting one Volga child. These children were all collected in one children's home in Moscow, and the young officers, who themselves had nothing but clothes and rations, went over in spare moments to play with the youngsters.
There is so much horror I remember, and so much heroism. The young peasant girl of eighteen who acted as nurse to me in Samara. Born in a German colony on the Volga, she had lived in America eight years and learned to speak English. She was secured to tend me, since everyone else spoke Russian. Somewhere down in the south she had left a family, starving; a father, who was a skilled carpenter and farmer, a mother who was a careful housewife, brothers and sisters who were waiting to hear if she found food. But she had found nothing; the trains were too crowded; she could not even get out of Samara; and now winter had come and she had no coat to go outdoors. She could only wait for spring while her family also waited, two hundred miles to the south in a dying village.
We also waited once, in the Quaker flat in Moscow, waited a whole week for a train that did not arrive from the famine. A passenger of our own was on it; it was the fast express from Tashkent, delayed for a week by blizzards. Then one unforgettable midnight I was awakened by voices, and went hurriedly into the next room to hear what had happened.
Behind a wall of snow and blizzard they had waited, unable to move forward or backward, unable for a whole day to go out of the train. Their locomotive went for help and was also blocked in snowdrifts. Their food gave out and they had not even water; there was no wood for melting even the snow. They marched through the night to dig out their locomotive, and two men died from exhaustion.
Typhus appeared and a car was set aside for isolation. Ice-plows came and a train-load of soldiers dug them out. As they left the famine region and drew near home, they began singing, the sick ones from their berths and the well ones stamping up and down the corridors to keep warm. Silly little songs, folk songs, songs of revolution. So they pulled into Moscow, the fast train, the government express, the train that was specially favored, with two dead, and twenty in the typhus isolation car and all the rest of them, sick and well, shouting and singing.
These were the things that drew me back to Russia, which I saw first in its utterly darkest days. The heroism, the sacrifice, the comradeship, and the joy that went with it. The joy of pioneers who, in the midst of hardship, exult to believe that they are creating something new.
I, too, had this sense that something new was being created. Something that had never been before in human history. I wanted to have a share in it, I wanted at least to understand it. Was it only the comradeship and joy of battle that always come to compensate for bitter times of struggle? Was it only the fellowship of suffering? Or was it really something new in the world!
When I went back in the summer of 1922, it was already to a recovering Russia, which week by week changed rapidly under my sight. In the famine year when I entered, I brought food and bedding with me, and prepared for disinfection at the journey's end. Now, on the fast through trains, there was a struggling attempt to furnish blankets to those who had none, though clean sheets were not yet available for all comers. I received a single sheet in my sleeping-car compartment; it appeared to have been washed but not ironed.
By midsummer all the correspondents were taking side-trips from Moscow. The Health Department patrolled the railways well. There were regions where one could not buy a ticket without inoculation against cholera, but week by week these regions were cleaned up and the restrictions removed. You could go down to Nijni Novgorod to see the worldfamous fair, in a good sleeping-car each way, or, if you chose, by airplane. My friends, Russian as well as foreign, were taking vacations to the Crimea and Caucasus. The Siberian Express had been reestablished and was putting on a dining-car.
In the autumn I went on a trip to the Arctic Circle, visiting mines and sawmills. The trains in this far north were slow and crowded and dirty, but they ran on definite schedule and arrived on time. On the main line, from Petrograd to Moscow, one could not ask for better service. I made the trip four times in six weeks, once in a diplomatic car and three times in ordinary "cars with soft seats" reserved for sleeping. In the diplomatic car I had the luxury of private coupe and lavatory, with tea served morning and evening by a most comradely car conveyer, who refused tips but accepted friendly gifts of cigarettes. Even the ordinary cars now furnished clean sheets and good blankets. There were eight or ten such cars on the train, running every night between the two cities.
All over Moscow there was a fury of repairing. Along the streets. I had to turn out on every block for the repaving of sidewalks, or to dodge the splashing paint from the buildings that were being freshened. My days of work in the hotel room went on to the rasping sound of iron on stone, as they tore up and repaired the hotel corridors. In that one first summer, from April to August, Moscow repaired 100,000 square yards of cobblestone pavements and 10,000 square yards of sidewalks; she repaired six broken bridges and let contracts for forty-two others. She doubled the number of street cars and made line extensions.
They also planted,--a typically Russian touch,--120,000 Square yards of flower-beds in the city's open squares and boulevards. In and out among these there were children playing, and young men and girls strolling late into the summer evenings. On all the street corners were flowers for sale, and cigarettes and little bread-rolls.
Everyone was rejoicing in having much more to eat. Week by week, through the summer, the standard of living improved. I shared an apartment for three months with people high up in the Government Publishing House. In June, the little gifts of white flour and sugar jam, bought in the American Commissary by virtue of my citizenship, were hailed with shouts of delight and made the occasion for a celebrating party. By August these things were tame additions to the food supply, not worth an extra trip to get. In June my hostess and her sisters were borrowing my old clothes on various occasions; we nearly fought over who should wear a raincoat of ancient pattern. By August they were going on vacations to Berlin and had more clothes than I had, since they had restocked after eight lean years.
All through the northern provinces, under the Arctic Circle, where the cool summer made their own harvest a total failure, they were yet rejoicing in having at last enough to eat. Their timber industry had opened, and the central government had lent them food in return for the promise of timber, which they had already cut and were sawing for the foreign market.
By "enough" they meant that at last they had one good meal a day, about five o'clock, otherwise tea and bread in the morning and late at night. This was still "enough," anywhere in Russia. Only the following spring, when I went south through the Ukraine, did I begin to see such things as eggs for breakfast. "But last year," exulted an Englishwoman married to an official in the far north, "last year we had a piece of bread and one herring as our daily ration. Now I can give my husband a really decent meal."
Last year a ration of three pounds of oats per week kept the workers alive in Karelia; but now they were drawing regular wages of sixteen pounds of flour daily, or its equivalent in bacon, tea and clothes. In the winter they were going on a money wage. This had already been standard in Moscow for some months, which was no longer a besieged fortress sharing its last food, but a city with trade relations and a market. The money wage spread more slowly to distant provinces, where bread was still a more useful commodity than money.
Improvements in individual factories were occurring so fast that summer that in June I met a workman who had left a certain automobile factory because they did not give him enough to eat; and in August I met others from the same factory who had plenty to eat and were blowing in money on summer theatres.
I remember the little seamstress who made for me two coats, a fur coat in the first winter and a linen coat the following summer. In the winter of the famine she charged me with fear and trembling less than four dollars for making and lining a complete fur coat. She was so eager to get the work that she sat up till three in the morning to finish it soon and get her pay. She was pathetically anxious for more work and when I told her she ought to charge more, she misunderstood my Russian and protested that she would not think of overcharging. She was on the edge of starvation.
When I visited her four months later she was a different woman. I asked for a linen coat and she replied cheerfully that she could do it for me in a fortnight at a cost of ten dollars. Her room was full of orders and she did not tremble when she mentioned her price. Work had come back and a chance to make a living, with the return of the reconstructive activities of peace.
So clear was the improvement in everyone's living conditions that in the December elections of that year the Communist Party based their election speeches on it. They told what their plans had been and how they had carried them out, and ended: "Look in your own pay-envelope and decide whether you are better off this year than last." ... The Communists got a larger percentage of the votes than at any time before. The first session of the Moscow Soviet, which is a city and state government at once, showed nobody protesting against their programme, as had been the case a year before.
The Communist Party was more firmly in power than ever before,--but how much of their Communism was left? In all the details of life, Russia has made a great stride towards capitalism. Wages are paid in money instead of rations, industry must support itself without drawing from the government funds, shops of private trade are open everywhere, newspapers are full of advertisements, sables and diamonds of "speculators" appear in theatres and cafes, and the new-rich secure apartments of several rooms, while ordinary folk crowd into small bare quarters.
What was left of the equal sharing of the days of war? Was it all just a dream, a communism of poverty which failed? Old friends of the Revolution came back, were shocked at the high prices and fury of speculation in Moscow, and sighed for the lost idyllic days of revolutionary fervour and common division of food. "There is no communism left," they cried.
Foreign businessmen came in to negotiate for concessions. They declared cheerfully that there was no communism left, nothing but a few temporary hang-overs in the way of government interference with foreign trade. Foreign correspondents and relief workers agreed; Russia was tired of communism, they said; it had failed; she had made the first step towards capitalism and was going back to "normalcy" as fast as possible.
It is admitted on all sides; there is no communism in Russia. But the Communists go farther. They say there never was any communism. They say they are farther on the road towards it than ever before; that they are going towards it step by step through the decades. They say that the equal sharing and sacrifice that marked the dark days of war and famine was not communism at all, but merely the necessary war tactics of a besieged city.
They say it is only now, with the coming of peace and the chance to reconstruct, that they are beginning to build communism. They are building according to plans discussed widely and known throughout Russia. It will take years and decades and even generations;but they expect to hold power in Russia for all that time--to build it. No other governing party in the world expects to keep power more than one or two terms of office. But the Communists of Russia, with elections held yearly, expect to carry through plans over a generation.
There will be many mistakes, and graft, and inefficiency. These things everyone knows; they are not hid in Russia. Some mistakes will be due to the backwardness of Russia, the old habits of bribery and laziness in office. Mistakes will also be due to the greatness of the job they have undertaken. For what they are building is something new in history.
That is the claim they make. As a foreigner goes through the streets of Moscow, or down through the great plains of Russia, he sees, at first, little to prove this claim. One marks no outer difference between Moscow and other cities, except the glittering domes of gold and the exquisite domes of blue that cut the heavens, and that tell that Europe is left behind and Asia approaches. The crowds in the streets are more Asian in appearance, with costumes from the Caucasus and from Turkestan. There are swarthy Tartar faces mingled with Russian; there are crooked, cobblestone streets; there is the glory of the Red Square and the Kremlin.
In these things Moscow is, as always, different from Europe. But in other things,--the streets are full of shops with bread and cotton cloth and jewels; the markets are crowded with peasants selling produce; there are great banks with men and women going in to cash checks and draw money. If you read the papers you notice perhaps that the Sugar Trust has been profiteering. You are quite certain that your hotel is profiteering; you know that by the price it charges for meagre accommodation.
State trusts, private traders, peasants,--everyone is out to make money. So life is everywhere, so is it here. It is especially so in the life that is seen by the foreigner; his life is held in a narrow round of cafes, hotels and business places. He sees chiefly two classes of people: government officials, frequently bureaucratic and tangled in red tape; private profit-makers seeking special privilege and concessions, making money in legitimate and illegitimate ways. He hears rumours of graft and sometimes runs across it. Russia, he concludes, is still a backward, semi-Oriental land, lazy, ready to be corrupted.
Yes, Russia is all that. But as you live longer in Russia, and begin to meet workers and students and managers of industry, you notice other things. Not so obvious, but very important.
I went from Moscow to Petrograd. I looked out of my car window on the way and saw a train of cars, newly painted, shining cars in olive green. On the side of those cars, in addition to the usual number, was a design and a motto, with words about the First of May.
Those cars were made by the car-builders, not in their ordinary working-time, but on Sundays and evenings and holidays. They were made as a free gift by Russian workers for the needs of Russian Railroads. They were presented to the government at a May-Day festival. As long as they last they will go up and down the land, carrying passengers, and shouting aloud to everyone who sees them that the railroad workers cared enough about transport to make these cars for nothing, as a present in a celebration.
Is there any other land in the world where that could happen? As I go through the streets of Moscow I see also occasional street-cars, decorated with gorgeous paint and many mottoes. "Red October" is the name of one of these cars; "Lenin" is another. These also were free gifts from the street-car workers to the city of Moscow.
Another unusual incident happens. A group of weavers from a textile factory suddenly decide to make a call on Trotsky, the head of the army. They present him with a banner. They say to him:
"To our dear comrade Trotsky: You with your bayonet guard the gains of the revolution, while we with our shuttles weave the shining web of socialism." ... Then they give him a pay-book and pay-number with the remark: "The workers of this factory enter you up, Comrade Trotsky, as a red weaver, and bring you your pay-book and pay-number." Trotsky embraces and kisses the delegates. Thereafter he is Honorary Red Weaver of that factory; his shift of work is done by glad volunteers in turn, and his wage envelope is turned over to the children's home in which the factory is interested.
There is nothing new that citizens should pay tribute to a popular military leader. But that they should think they honour him by making him a "Weaver," that seems like something new. That they should promise to weave with their shuttles the web of socialism,--that indicates that they think they are doing something. Something besides just making cotton goods in a factory. Something that other workers, elsewhere in the world, don't think they are weaving.
Another incident. The biggest newspaper in Moscow holds a contest, running for many weeks, to determine who are the best managers of industry in Russia. Imagine that for a moment in New York, and you will see how strange it is. A newspaper contest to see whether Rockefeller or Gary or some small factory-manager in Pennsylvania is the "best director." The letters come in from workers under these managers. Other workers answer back, and discuss for and against the efficiency of their boss.
In the end there are twelve who are chosen. A banquet in Moscow is given in their honour. They receive the "Red Banner of Toil" from the government, because they have done so much to help build Communism. The workers' letters also reveal a few especially bad managers; these are investigated and two of them are fired.
This is something new in industry; but equally striking are the standards used by the workers in judging their directors. It shows what is demanded of factory managers in Russia.
"Our factory was only working part-time," writes one worker. "Once it stopped for eleven months altogether; after that it produced only half of prewar. Then Archangelsk,--he came. The workers say of him: 'He runs forth like the wind, blowing away disorganisation.' With just words he enthused and united us. He introduced order. He rapidly brought production to 120 per cent. pre-war.
"Comrade Archangelsk does not spare his physical or mental energy for his factory workers. For ten months we see that every day our life becomes better. He repaired housing and the bedrooms of the workers. He repaired the bath-house. He repaired and painted the roofs of the factory and the workers' houses. He improved the co-operative stock-farm. He has arranged courses of general instructions for the factory youth, and himself lectures on technical questions."
Here is another prize-winner, manager of a mine in the Donetz. His workers write of him: "He received the mines in bad condition, condemned to destruction. He brought electricity four miles through frozen earth and operated the machines by it; he replaced the horses by an electric railway. Thanks to him we averted destruction and even increased output, and thus started the gas and coke ovens and chemical mills." ... Is there any other land in the world where they talk so poetically of mining?
Uhanof, manager of the great Dynamo works in Moscow, was another prize-winner. His workers wrote: "When Comrade Uhanof says it, the workers know it will happen. He creates an atmosphere not of slave-like drive, but a critical, businesslike attitude of brotherly responsibility. When the new economic policy was started, he said: 'Not a single spider will get into Simonovka.' He organised with us a co-operative tea-room and dining-room and bakery and grocery. None of these private profiteers can flourish out our way."
Workers who write thus about their bosses are something new. The fact that they write at all is new; the standards they apply are new. These standards indicate that the workers and the directors are working together to accomplish something which all of them want, something not primarily concerned with wages or hours or the usual matters of conflict in industries outside Russia. What is this goal they strive for together? It is clear from the comments. A rebuilt industry; increasing production; order and organisation and efficiency; based on these, a good life and education for the workers. Yes, and something more. The crowding out of all the private business men, through co-operative groceries, bakeries, tea-rooms.
The workers and these bosses are evidently leagued together to build up state-owned industry and co-operative industry and to compete out of existence private business. They are trying to do it by work. It is the same thing that the weavers meant when they promised to weave with their shuttles the shining web of socialism.
Who were the bad bosses? The ones who got fired on account of conditions exposed by their workers? One of them was manager of a railway yard. His workers wrote: "For ten months of his management 2,500 more tons of oil were used than needful; healthy locomotives decreased twenty-five per cent.; accidents increased threefold. Workers began to fear him, saying: 'The union seems unable to protect us from this man.' ... Nothing was done by him to increase production; nothing was repaired. He gave his attention to the whims of the specialists; he talked of taking the children's home and the day nursery to enlarge the size of their private apartments. ... He took no interest in education. For two years and a half he did nothing to improve the life of the workers."
These are the tests that damn or commend a man in Russia. They are sane tests of a world that is building; beside them the tests passed in the rest of the world seem utterly insane. Where else but in Russia would the greatest daily in the country give columns of space for months, where else would discussion go on hotly across thousands of miles of cities and mines and factories, not about sensational sins and crimes in high life, but about men of whom it is said: "They are bringing order out of chaos. They are making life better for the workers round them. They are capable of organising their fellows for the conquest of the world."
Week after week, as you mix with the common people of Russia, you find other ways in which life is different. The workers in mine and factory are criticising not only bosses, but the methods of industry and its relation to government. As you go into their meetings, you discover that they have the sense of being able to change this, and that they are taking an interest in it. The men who sit in government come to the weekly meetings of the factory that elected them (for election in Russia is by working groups, not localities), and explain to their constituents what they are doing. Any time in the year they may be recalled, if the meeting does not like their actions. A new man is chosen and sent in their place any time in the year. This is one of the ways of keeping government close to the actual will of the workers.
Peasants also I saw, thousands of them coming up to Moscow to visit the great Agricultural Exposition. They came free of charge on the government railroads and municipal street-cars; they were housed and fed free of charge in the co-operative houses of groups of city workers. They went to the Peasants' House and found there reading rooms, baths, agricultural information and a legal aid department to connect them with the government. This also is something unknown outside Russia.
Every city factory and government department adopts some country village to which it acts as big brother, sending down lecturers and teachers and books and information. A group of students of my acquaintance adopted a certain township, and in summer went to live and teach throughout its villages, sharing with the peasants the knowledge they had gained.
The students of Russia are a chapter by themselves. The universities are jammed with young men and women, not those who can afford leisure and a college course, but those who are chosen by unions and government departments as especially capable and needing special knowledge. They come for training for jobs already known and go back to use their knowledge for purposes desired by their fellow-workers.
In the summer the students go out on vacation trips which cost nothing and which are planned for the good of the country. They visit coal mines, and the coal miners go to Moscow to visit the students. They make surveys of villages and escort trains of peasants to the Exposition. They go as guests to little Republics in the heart of Asia. The little Republics give them horses and food, and they give in return the first maps and geographies ever known in those uncharted regions.
All these things are incidents, seeming at first disconnected. But after a time you see that they are all part of a vast organised Life that is coming slowly into being. It is a life which has nothing to do with the profiteers; it scorns utterly their life and standards. It is bringing up a new generation to scorn these things also.
I talked to a wealthy woman in a summer resort near Moscow. A new-rich, bejewelled creature, who displayed, towards the end of her talk, a real pathos. She began by damning the government that taxed her highly. She ended almost in tears. "The worst is," she said, "the way our children leave us. My daughter has joined the Communists. It took her three years to do it. They made it very hard for her, as she was the daughter of a bourgeois and they doubted her sincerity. But she stuck to it and joined, and now she will not live with me any more. She has no use for all our ways of living."
There is a lot of "mess" in Russia. Ordinary discomforts of life, the rotten inefficiency of the heating system in winter, offices tangled in red tape, crudities of every kind. There are plenty of things to shock,--profiteers and gambling dens and bootleg whiskey and every rotten thing there is anywhere in the world.
But it is the only place in the world where I get a feeling of hope and a plan. With hundreds of thousands of people living for that plan and dying for it and going hungry for it, and wasting themselves in inefficient work for it, and finally bringing a little order out of chaos for it. America seems cheerful and inconsequential after it. Europe,--the insane nightmare of Europe,--seems impossible to endure.
What goes on now in Russia is much more stupendous than anything which went on under the name Of Revolution in those hectic days when Russia was the land of everything good or bad according to Your point of view. In Russia when they speak of the Revolution, they don't mean one grand and horrible upheaval; that was merely the "October Overturn," the taking of power. Now comes the using of power to create a new world through the decades.
There have been many revolutions in history, each with its tragic dignity, its cruelties, its power released. But never has there been a great organisation, in control of the economic as well as of the political resources of a nation, planning steadily through the prose of daily life a future embracing many lands and decades, learning from mistakes, changing methods but not aims, controlling press and education and law and industry as tools to its purpose.... This is Common Consciousness in action, crude, half-organised and inefficient, but the first time in History.