Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik
MY father was a small, sickly, grey-haired Jew with lively, kindly eyes. I can picture him bending all day long over huge ledgers in which he counted up the profits of his masters, lumber merchants, who were also his distant relatives and "benefactors," for whom he worked as bookkeeper at forty rubles a month. In the evenings and far into the night he would also bend over no less voluminous books, the Talmud, in which he vainly sought the meaning of life, the beginning of all beginnings, the blessings of god and other no less hazy things. Buried in his Talmudic and philosophic researches, without so much as raising his eyes from his monumental book, my father would reply awkwardly to the extremely concrete and extremely pertinent complaints of my mother as to how she was to feed and clothe our family of six on forty rubles a month as well as be burdened with the care of a psychopathic step-daughter, the offspring of my father's first marriage.
My mother was twenty years younger than my father. She was a healthy buxom woman, but illiterate--a true daughter of the soil--interested only in narrow, material, family questions, and her husband's soaring into the clouds often aroused her to the verge of frenzy. The inevitable wrangle usually ended with father taking his "holy" book under his arm and escaping into the next room, slamming the door behind him. The lock clicked, and through the keyhole one could see his shabby figure bent again over the Talmud and hear the scratching of his pen as he wrote Hebraic hieroglyphics--commentaries on the text. Thus he sat, far into the night, often until dawn.
Mother often wept bitterly; I pitied her, but my sympathies were with father, even though I had long ago lost faith in the holiness of the Talmud, and my belief in god had vanished.
Books, which fortunately were brought into our remote little town, Velizh, in the Vitebsk province, some eighty versts from the railroad station, by the neighbouring liberal landlords and the local teachers, who played the part of Kulturtrager, had helped to wipe out the last traces of my belief in god. These were teachers at the elementary schools, there being no high schools in our town.
I had more than enough time for reading, for I had nowhere to go to gain any further school knowledge. There was no urgent need for my learning a trade since there were more tailors and shoemakers in Velizh than there ever could be buyers. Neither was I overburdened with housework. All the household duties my mother voluntarily took upon herself. Thus I had twenty-four hours a day at my disposal, the lion's share of which was spent in reading Pisarev, Shchedrin, Chernyshevsky, Gleb Uspensky, Nekrasov, Dostoyevsky and many others.
Under the influence of books, principally Chernyshevsky's novel, What Is To Be Done, which made a great impression on me, I in my early youth, without education, trade or training and penniless, decided to leave my parental home and go to Warsaw where I dreamed of studying, working and, most important of all, meeting the kind of people Chernyshevsky wrote about.
This happened in the winter of 1894.
I remember that during the first few days in Warsaw I met two of my countrywomen, young girls like myself, semi-workers and semi-intellectuals. They worked in a lace factory and were at that time connected with illegal workers' circles. After some unsuccessful attempts at learning to sew and to cut, I decided to follow my friends' example and go to work in a factory.
The task proved to be far from simple. Unemployment in Warsaw was very great at that time. Near the factory gates there were crowds of other girls willing to work for the most meagre wage. Eventually, after jostling with the crowds of unemployed near the gates of lace, tobacco, cigarette, chocolate and other factories, I had to content myself with work in a small shop. My work was very monotonous: I prepared the pieces from which the more skilful workers made elegant ties.
The work day, which was not regulated by any laws at that time, was very long, and the wages did not exceed eight rubles a month. There were only twenty workers in the shop. Most of the shop girls were obliged to walk the streets in order to earn enough to clothe and feed themselves.
My first attempts at arousing and enlightening my shop-mates came to a lamentable end. I was discharged because, as the mistress of the shop put it, I exercised harmful influence upon the other shop girls. Once more I had to hunt for work. I found a job in another shop where the conditions were even worse than in the first. In general, I had a pretty hard time earning a living. We used to go hungry quite often, even though the cost of living in Warsaw was so low that students we knew who received twenty-five rubles a month from home were regarded by us as bourgeois.
On the other hand my attempts at studying were very successful. There was an excess of teachers in Warsaw at that time. Many Jewish students came to Warsaw, a big university centre within the Pale, in the hope of getting into the university or passing an examination at the gymnasium for four, six or eight classes. Besides the Jewish students, there were many others who had been expelled from secondary schools on political charges in various. Russian cities and who wanted to enter college in Warsaw. These heterogeneous elements flocked to Warsaw because it was easier to enter college there than in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
All these young revolutionary men and women, separated from their native land and unable to participate fully in the surrounding Polish life, owing to their imperfect knowledge of the language, formed a Russian colony in Warsaw. There was a large number of teachers in the colony who were eager for revolutionary work and vainly sought an outlet for their energy.
It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that I had three teachers at once. One of them introduced me to the theories of Darwin, a second prepared me in political economy and a third taught me the history of Russian literature. The fact that there were so many teachers to one worker graphically demonstrates what little basis this colony had in Warsaw.
A vast amount of underground revolutionary work was being done among the Polish and the Polish Jewish proletariat. We knew this work was being carried on, but we were not able to take part in it because the Russification policy of the tsarist officials in Warsaw was at its height and so everything Russian, even the Russian young men and women who found themselves in Warsaw owing to the vicissitudes of revolutionary life, were regarded with suspicion by the Poles. Hence, to us, underground work was a vain dream for the time being. Nevertheless, despite the unfavourable conditions there was no despondency in our colony; on the contrary, we feverishly groped about for underground-circle activity among the workers and at the same time tried to determine our own "world outlook" as we termed it then.
I remember with what avidity we threw ourselves upon all books and magazine articles which dealt with the controversy between the Marxists and Narodniks. In the colony the majority, and I among them, was on the side of the Marxists. Only an insignificant minority was carried away by the articles in the Narodnik magazine Russkoye Bogatstvo. I recollect with what absorbing interest we pored over Struve's book, Critical Remarks, which by the way, we read not at all critically. We read and re-read Beltov's (Plekhanov) book, The Monistic View of History, collectively and individually. We would sit up late at night at each other's rooms discussing it. A copy of a volume of Marxist essays, containing an article by Tulin (Lenin), which had escaped being burned at the order of the censor and had by lucky chance fallen into our hands, caused a veritable sensation. Since only one copy was available for the entire colony, lots were cast as to who should read it first.
Owing to our estrangement from the Polish underground movement, but mainly due to our lack of organization, we had very poor access to the illegal literature that was printed abroad. Occasionally we would receive illegal literature which had been printed in St. Petersburg, but only single copies. Mostly, this literature consisted of leaflets; very rarely we got pamphlets. Getting supplies of illegal literature in an organized way was out of the question so long as our colony remained a motley, amorphous, and, to tell the truth, a garrulous crowd.
The idea of organizing ourselves occurred to us much later. Even then we thought of it in terms of a legal organization, for we thought that the underground and illegal form of organization was only for workers' circles. A small group was formed which set itself the task of organizing our colony. This group organized a dining room which could also serve as a club wherein we could "formulate our world outlook"; it could also be used as the headquarters of illegal workers' circles. We did not disclose these plans to the others, but merely stated that we wished to organize a co-operative dining room because the cheap Polish restaurants served us with bad food dressed with piquant sauces. Our plan was greeted sympathetically. In a few days, fifty members were enrolled, each paying an entrance fee of three rubles.
We found a middle-aged Polish cook who was willing to take over the management of our dining room. We rented an apartment of two rooms and a kitchen in the back of a block on Panskaya Street, bought all the necessary provisions, and began to feed our members with fresh cabbage soup and excellent, buttered buckwheat "kasha" free of all deceiving sauces. Our members were delighted. We waited on our customers ourselves, each one taking his or her turn each day. The person on duty had to report to the cook at seven o'clock in the morning so as to help her with the shopping, and also had to wash the dishes, help prepare the meal and finally, serve it. Notwithstanding the innocence of our enterprise the police looked askance at it; they even did us the honour of sending one of their representatives to visit us. But our cook's husband was quite an adept in getting rid of those unwelcome visitors. He would quietly slip a "three-spot" or even a "fiver" into the expectant palm of the policeman, and the latter left the place perfectly satisfied. At that time the police did not display particular interest in our activities. They had their hands full with the Poles. They began to pay us close attention only after we had organized a large number of study circles among the Jewish artisans.
Soon, people who sincerely desired to turn from mere revolutionary phraseology to real revolutionary activity began to group themselves around our dining room. Even though occasional visits of the police reminded us that a watchful eye was being kept on us, nevertheless our dining room served as a meeting place for political and economic discussions. It was also used as a rendezvous for Jewish workers who spoke Russian.
Toward the end of the 'eighties Alexander III ordered the expulsion of Jews from Moscow and many of them settled in Warsaw. There were many tradesmen among these Jews, but the majority were artisans who crowded round the workshops, seeking employment. These Moscow emigrants were treated with enmity both by the Poles and by the Polish Jews. The Poles hated them because they were Jews and spoke Russian, the Polish Jews were hostile because the newcomers did not speak the Polish-Yiddish dialect but their Lithuanian dialect and because, despite their banishment, the Russian Jews were drawn toward everything Russian, whereas the Polish Jews, though despised by the Poles, gravitated towards things Polish. But in reality both the Poles and the Polish Jews hated the newcomers because they regarded the latter as competitors in their respective trades.
Those Moscow Jewish artisans, called "Litvaks" because they originally came from, the Lithuanian provinces, furnished the material for our underground-circle work. I distinctly remember the first carpenters' circle organized by Feodor Lubimsky, for which purpose Feodor moved into the house of an old Jewish carpenter where he rented a corner of a room for three rubles a month.
Feodor Lubimsky's personality has cut so deeply into my memory, that I find it hard not to write about him. He came from an environment completely alien to ours. Son of a St. Petersburg colonel of noble birth he began his revolutionary career while still at school. He was expelled from various schools on political charges, until at last he found himself in the Warsaw Veterinary Institute. He had about as much inclination for veterinary science as for Chinese grammar. All his strivings were directed towards one goal--revolutionary work. A well defined Social-Democrat, a sound Marxist and a fervent believer in the victory of the working class even in backward Russia, Feodor constantly sought means to penetrate into the midst of the working masses not merely as a casual propagandist, but in order to take part in their daily life as one of them. His joy was boundless when he received an invitation to attend a wedding or other family celebration at the home of some Jewish artisan. Feodor was especially drawn to poor Jews. His comrades would sometimes declare jocularly, "The chap has become a complete Israelite." His sensitive approach to the rank and file worker enabled him to penetrate into the Polish underground movement. But he was very hurt when they delicately hinted that though they had no objections to Feodor they had no desire to establish connections with his Jewish comrades.
Feodor was morally so much above us, that we unanimously recognized his authority and believed that everything he did was right. Even when he got drunk we suffered for him, but could not bring ourselves to censure him.
Among our shabby, half-starved crowd, Feodor was the hungriest and shabbiest. He tried to eke out a livelihood by giving private lessons, but he would forget to keep his appointments with his pupils and so lost his clientele. On the rare occasions that he received a little money from his mother, he would immediately give it away to some starving family or to the first old beggar he chanced to meet in the street. Even his visits to our dining room were irregular. It was often difficult to get hold of him to feed him. In the evenings after work I occasionally attended his circle in the carpenter's shop. This circle served me as a preparatory school before I dared to take upon myself the responsibilities of independent propagandist work. About ten or twelve carpenters came to the circle. There were only two or three youths among them, the rest being bearded, middle-aged Jews. Feodor read Dickstein's pamphlet, How We Get Our Living to his circle. It was not a reading in the strict sense of the word, but more like a discussion into which all present were unconsciously drawn. At times these discussions became heated theological disputes between Feodor and the Talmudistic Jews. Besides the names of Marx and Engels there also figured the names of Christ, Jehovah and Palestine.
And yet from these different elements arose a systematized discussion about wages, the working day, surplus value, etc. Feodor had several circles of this kind in various parts of the city to all of which he went on foot for a twofold reason: first because he did not have enough money for fares, and second, it was safer to go on foot--he could see whether he was being shadowed.
Feodor worked until he was ready to drop from exhaustion; at times he became melancholy, and drank. During these spells he would hide from his comrades and all efforts to find him would be futile. His attacks occurred every three or four months. After them he would be particularly ashamed to face his more intimate friends. Fatiguing work, hunger, his inherited drinking habits, rapidly shattered Feodor's health. When he was arrested and thrown into a damp cell in the Citadel, as the prison in Warsaw was called, he developed galloping consumption. After ten months the gendarmes, thoroughly convinced that he was no longer dangerous, handed him over to his mother who took him to the Crimea; but he died on the way. Such is the short, sad story of that striking personality in our group--Feodor Lubimsky.
To gain experience I attended another circle on Delnaya Street. It was a galloon-makers' circle led by Sasha, an eighth-term gymnasium student. I think Sasha was reading the illegal pamphlet by Svidersky, Labour and Capital, to his circle. I participated in the discussions that followed the reading. Sasha used to bring leaflets to his members, which he himself had translated from Polish into Russian. He had managed to obtain these leaflets from the Polish underground movement. Although Sasha was a "Litvak" who had migrated from Moscow to Warsaw, he had been brought up in Warsaw, spoke Polish fluently and had many Polish gymnasium friends. Besides the galloon-makers' circle, he had many contacts among tailors, bristle-makers, drapers, etc. He always strove towards mass work, stimulated strikes, had schemes for organizing mass demonstrations and did everything to draw me into the path of revolt. He neglected his gymnasium just as Feodor had neglected his Veterinary Institute for which conduct he got into hot water with both the gymnasium authorities and his relatives with whom he continued to live.
Ironically enough, the Jew Sasha was drawn towards purely Russian workers, just as the pure bred Russian Feodor had been drawn towards Jewish workers. Sasha was always yearning to get away from Warsaw and go to the "real" Russian regions where there was no "cursed" national question, and I partly sympathized with him. He enabled me to be present for the first time in my life at a secret printing of leaflets, and the few hours I spent there were to me nothing but heavenly bliss.
It happened in this way: I lived on Mironov Street, in a tiny cage of a room which I rented from an old surgeon's assistant, who was usually away from home. One day Sasha said to me: "Be home all day tomorrow. We want to come to your room to do some printing." My joy knew no bounds. I had never seen how secret leaflets were printed. On the morrow, with beating heart, I let Sasha and another comrade, heretofore unknown to me, into the room. The latter carried a bundle under his arm. When the bundle was unwrapped it disclosed a hectograph, ink and a quantity of writing paper.
Sasha worked skilfully. Leaflet after leaflet was taken off the hectograph, while the other comrade and I helped Sasha. Towards evening, before my landlord returned, our work was finished. The first to leave the house was Sasha. He seemed to have grown considerably stouter, for half the leaflets that were printed were hidden under his coat. A little while later the second comrade left. I was told to hide the hectograph until a third comrade called for it. He came soon, took the hectograph, and warned me to burn all the remaining scraps of paper. I did as I was told with deep regret, for I wanted very much to keep those scraps as mementoes of the great event.
I confess that I was more interested in the printing of the leaflet than in its contents. I cannot even recollect for what purpose this leaflet was issued, or who signed it. Only such fragments of phrases have remained in my memory, as "Comrades, organize, close your ranks!" and "Workers of the World, Unite!" which was written across the top of the leaflet.
Shortly afterwards Sasha left Warsaw. I found out later that he had Entered the Kiev University and carried on responsible work in the Party organization. He was arrested in Kiev and sat a long time in prison awaiting sentence. Then he was exiled to Siberia where he died shortly afterwards. One version of his death was that he was killed by a stray bullet while hunting, but another, and more likely one to my mind, was that he shot himself in a fit of melancholy owing to his isolation from revolutionary activity.
After observing the propagandist work of Feodor and Sasha, I myself ventured to undertake to lead two circles. One was a women's circle which consisted of seven young seamstresses who, despite their youth, took the circle work seriously. But the meetings were much too noisy to be secret, and for this reason it was necessary to restrain the ardour of the young members. The figures of pretty, fidgety Rachel, and gloomy, sedate Esther, who were the organizers of this group, remain in my memory with particular vividness. My second circle was that of a group of tailors who worked for a big ready-made clothes store. The organizer of this circle was not a tailor but a paper-hanger, Grisha Zharov, who had close connections with our colony and often visited our dining room. Grisha was very active in organizing circles as well as uniting the Lithuanian artisans in mutual benefit societies, the embryos of the trade unions. These societies were organized in each trade. The funds were made up of contributions of a certain percentage of the meagre wages of the members and were used for the assistance of workers on strike, and also for arrested or exiled comrades, and even for the purchase of literature.
Things did not go quite so smoothly in the tailors circle as in the women's circle. In both circles we read Sviderski's pamphlet, Labour and Capital, but the tailors would insist on turning the discussion to abstract things; much as I tried, I could not get them down to reality, particularly one of them, Zalman, who would at every opportunity return to the "root of all things," to god, the creation of the world, etc. He even wrote a philosophic treatise on the "four elements' upon which the world was supposed to be founded, Zalman tortured me with these "elements" even outside the circle, coming to my home every Sunday to explain his philosophic views.
I lived with my sister, Rose Zelikson (Stavskaya), who came to Warsaw at about this time. We arranged to take turn about listening to Zalman's harangues, I giving ear to one part of it and she to the remainder. No one person could have sufficient fortitude to listen to all his rigmarole, but we did not want to offend him. Since I had no inclination whatsoever toward philosophic studies, and as I knew very little about that subject, work in this circle became quite difficult. I gave it up at the first opportunity.
The tremendous growth of the mass workers' movement in the 'nineties, which was so vividly expressed by the famous St. Petersburg strikes in the summer of 1896, clearly revealed to the Russian Social-Democrats the urgent necessity for passing from narrow circle work to broad mass work. Owing to the circumstances in which we carried on our work in Warsaw, another very important question arose: in what language were we to carry on our agitation, Russian or Jewish? When we worked among a limited number of Jewish workers, we used the Russian language. But when the work began to embrace the broad masses of Jewish workers, the majority of whom did not know Russian, it became clear that we must carry on our work in Jewish. We were in a dilemma, for many of our comrades were not Jews and did not know Jewish. Even though I could read and write Jewish a little, my knowledge was insufficient to serve the purpose. I knew a few "household" words, but when it came to leading a circle or making a speech, I was completely lost.
When we began to issue leaflets, to participate in strikes and spread illegal literature which we received from abroad, the police took more notice of us and spied on us, but in a very primitive fashion. Some suspicious looking individual would post himself at the gate and stand there for hours at a time until another no less interesting character came to relieve him. If one went anywhere, he followed; one crossed the street and he was already there. At times the spy would become annoying and one of us would take it upon himself to lead him away. The decoy would go to the Saxony Gardens for a stroll, the spy vigilantly following. So, while the spy shadowed our decoy, all the necessary work was being done unmolested at home, the comrades went in and out of the house, while the spy strolled in the Saxony Gardens.
Then we began to receive literature from abroad more regularly and with less trouble, particularly after the arrival of Vera, a Zurich student connected with the "Emancipation of Labour" group, who was a sister of Eugenia Alexandrovna Tushinskaya, one of our closest friends. Vera used to carry literature not only to Warsaw, but also to St. Petersburg.
Eugenia Alexandrovna was more than a sympathizer. Although she did not take part in organizing workers' circles, she risked so much for our group that we regarded her as one of ourselves, even though her husband, who visited her on rare occasions, was a big landlord who had squandered his fortune. He had been a liberal, but by that time he had degenerated into an official of the Polish frontier police. Eugenia was ashamed of her husband and distressed by these visits, but she could not bring herself to break all ties with him. However, his visits were very rare and short. As soon as he left we would be told immediately that the house was once more at our disposal. Eugenia Alexandrovna's house was above suspicion, hence our reason for using it as much as possible. There we hid our literature, printed our leaflets, met strikers and hid comrades who were being hunted by the police. Sometimes these comrades had to stay in the house for several days at a time and Eugenia Alexandrovna would feed them.
Witty, cheerful, gentle Eugenia Alexandrovna had a special gift of soothing a tired, nervous person. Not a few of us were half-starved and exhausted at the time. She lived on a modest income gained by giving French lessons. Despite her limited funds she managed to help the most needy in our group. She fed me for a long time when I had no resources.
The fact that my sister and I and many other comrades did not die of hunger in Warsaw was the result of the comradely mutual help, the truly brotherly relations in our colony, and especially of the efforts of Eugenia Alexandrovna. It was through her assistance that I was able to go abroad sometime afterward. She died in a hospital somewhere in the south, away from all of us, because our hazardous underground life made the luxury of caring for those near and dear to us impossible.
As to the conditions under which our work was done, I cannot recall that we were united in any kind of centralized group which took definite measures or passed definite decisions. Perhaps such a group did exist with Feodor as its leader, but I, as a rank and file worker, knew nothing of it. I can only recollect that we lived as a commune, discussed all kinds of questions, studied in circles, constantly consulted one another. Someone would write a manifesto and the comrades who happened to be near at hand would read and discuss it. Anyone who had some technical skill would undertake to print and distribute it. There was no proper distribution of functions among us. Generally, our work was of a somewhat restricted character, i.e., our conditions were to a certain extent artificial. Knowing only Russian we were necessarily confined in our work to the Lithuanian artisans, who were of infinitesimal value both in quantity and quality compared with the masses of Polish and Polish-Jewish workers. The Lithuanians were only artisans and naturally could not play an important part in such a large industrial centre as Warsaw with its huge proletarian masses. Small wonder that the more active members of our group endeavoured to get away from Warsaw to participate in the activities of Russian groups.
For me, personally, the possibility of doing work in Russian industrial centres could be realized only if I received a permit to live outside the Jewish ghettos. This meant that I must take up some profession. For one who had chosen the profession of underground revolutionary worker this was not easy. Nevertheless, I decided to go to Vienna where I would take a six months' midwifery course. After getting my Vienna diploma I should have to pass an examination in a Russian university; The midwifery diploma that I would get if I succeeded at the examinations would give me the right to live in any part of Russia and the possibility of carrying on revolutionary underground work.
1 "Carriers of Culture"--those who concentrated on peaceful educational work in contradistinction to revolutionary work--Ed.
2 "The first law regulating the work day (reducing it to eleven and a half hours) appeared only three years later, in 1897, as the result of the big strike movement which swept all the large industrial centres of Russia. But this law pertained only to the larger mills and factories and not to small shops.--C. B.
3 The Pale of Settlement, or Ghetto-the districts outside of which the Jews were not allowed to reside under the tsar. --Ed.
5 "Russian Wealth."--Ed.
6 Three rubles or five rubles.--Ed.