Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik
IN the autumn of 1896 I returned home, where my revolutionary activities were unknown, to get a governors passport to go abroad--to Vienna. And here, on my arrival in my native town, I heard for the first time about the "old man," which was Lenin's political nickname in St. Petersburg. I did not connect him at that time with Tulin (V. I. Lenin) whose articles I had read so avidly in Warsaw. I clearly recall the circumstances in which I first learned of the existence of the "old man." I had a friend, Elena Solomonovna. Her almost pauperized parents lived in a little hut on the outskirts of the town. Elena, like myself, left her native town, but instead of going to Warsaw, she went to St. Petersburg. There she had the fortune to attend nurses' courses. When I learned from my mother that Elena also had come to visit her folks, I rushed to her home to get the latest St. Petersburg revolutionary news.
It was a Friday evening and, as in every respectable Jewish home, at least five tallow candles were shedding their flickering light in the little hut. Elena took some St. Petersburg leaflets out of her stocking and we sat in the dull candle-light, absorbed in our reading. In connection with these leaflets Elena told me that there was in St. Petersburg a certain "old man," who was not really an old man but who went by that nickname. This "old man" was in prison at that time, but he contrived to write leaflets and get them out to his comrades. But the most interesting thing he wrote at the time was his pamphlet What the "Friends of the People" Are and How they Fight the Social-Democrats in which he refutes the utopian theories of the Narodniks, or Populists who predominated in the socialist movement in Russia at that time. To our great disappointment, Elena was unable to procure a copy of this pamphlet.
After three or four months the desired passport arrived from the governor of Vitebsk and I left for Warsaw, going on from there shortly after to Vienna. As I have said, the funds for my journey were supplied by Eugenia Alexandrovna who, with the help of some friends, also managed to arrange a small stipend for me.
Connections with the foreign revolutionary circles were well established, and the first person I met in Vienna was the daughter of Axelrod, one of the founders of the "Emancipation of Labour" group and who in later years became a Menshevik and an open enemy of the Soviet Union. His daughter, Vera Axelrod, was a medical student. This acquaintanceship helped me over the difficulty of my imperfect knowledge of German and enabled me to settle down quickly. Having been educated in Zurich, Vera spoke German fluently; she also knew personally the prominent leaders of the Austrian Social-Democratic Party.
Events in Vienna while I was there--mass meetings, strikes, fierce Party strife in the Reichsrat, street demonstrations against the hated Badeni ministry--all this made an enormous impression on me who had been reared in the traditions of underground-circle work. I attended one huge mass meeting of the Galician peasant navvies. These labourers listened to the various speakers with intense interest, and some of them even got up on to the platform in their aprons and clogs and delivered spirited speeches themselves. They resembled the peasants in our Vitebsk province but, comparing the two mentally, I would have told anyone who suggested to me that some day I should see similar meetings in my native land that they were dreamers. Fervently as I believed in the triumph of the Russian revolution, that triumph then seemed to me unattainably remote.
I not only attended the big meetings at which the more prominent agitators delivered rousing speeches, but also the small gatherings in all the socialist clubs where theoretical lectures and discussions were held. About this time the revisionist tendency was clearly defined in the German Social-Democratic Party. I do not remember whether we read Eduard Bernstein's book or articles in the magazine Die Neue Zeit; but the criticism of Marx and the revision of his theories were the fashion then, and at the club meetings the discussion centred principally around revisionism. Although my personal sympathies were on the side of the orthodox Marxists and not with the critics of Marx, nevertheless, it was very difficult for me to make head or tail of these polemics.
The Russian exiles in Vienna did not make a particularly strong impression on me, but what deeply engraved itself in my memory was the other Vienna--the Vienna that was the centre of the Austrian workers' movement. Life in Vienna was very varied and interesting, but I could not afford to remain there long. My finances were dwindling rapidly notwithstanding the fact that Vera and I lived very modestly. We rented a little room and lived mostly on lentils and potato salad. On rare occasions we permitted ourselves the luxury of a donkey-meat "beefsteak" for which we were teased by our friends who declared that such food would stimulate the growth of our ears. Owing to our lack of funds we tried to see and hear as much as possible in the shortest possible time.
In the morning we bought the Arbeiter Zeitung and turned first to the back page where "meetings, lectures and reports" were announced and according to which we planned our day. We were obliged to cover most of the distances on foot, but we did not mind that, if the meeting proved interesting. Now and then we would be reminded of our "fundamental" work, Vera's university and my midwifery courses; but we tried to give a minimum of our time and attention to this. It was not surprising, therefore, that I failed to pass my examinations and was obliged to remain for another term.
I received an invitation to spend my summer holidays at the home of Vera's parents in Zurich. I had long been thinking of a trip to Switzerland. I always dreamt of actually coming in contact with the "Emancipation of Labour" group. Also I wanted to read more illegal literature and to learn from first-hand sources what was happening in the Russian underground movement.
At the Axelrod home that summer I met Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich as well as Bebel, Kautsky and Bernstein.
I well recall the first time I saw Plekhanov. I was standing in the little garden of the Axelrod home, talking to Sasha, Axelrod's son who had just come up on his bicycle. All of a sudden a well-dressed, middle-aged European, clad in a light-grey suit, brown shoes and kid gloves, bowed to us and, turning to Sasha, said: "Well, how do you like the bicycle? Shall I take a ride on it? Or is it improper for a Tambov squire to ride on a steel horse?"
"Who is this gentleman with the clever eyes"? I thought to myself, and when the "gentleman" went into the house I began to question Sasha. Sasha looked at me in surprise and exclaimed: "Why, didn't you know that he is Georgi Valentinovich?" Naturally, a youth who had grown up in Switzerland could not understand that, according to my conceptions, Plekhanov would more likely have been in tatters than in yellow kid gloves.
But if Plekhanov's outward appearance and habits might have caused some disappointment to a Russian underground worker, the appearance of Vera Zasulich and her whole mode of life made up a hundredfold for the first disillusion.
I met Vera Zasulich very often that summer because she also practically lived at the Axelrod home. She had a room in the neighbouring street, and the Axelrods did all they could to persuade her to leave that den. Vera Zasulich coughed and was indeed very ill, and her room was altogether unsuitable for her. But not wishing to inconvenience the Axelrods she refused their invitations to dine with them, saying that it was quite easy for her "to cook a potful of soup that would last for a whole week". Once she said to Vera Axelrod and to me on the subject of clothes: "It is needless to have a dressmaker make you a blouse. Anybody can cut one out. All you have to do is leave two holes for the sleeves and a third hole for the collar." Indeed, she habitually wore a grey cotton dress that really looked like a sack with holes for sleeves and collar. She felt perfectly comfortable in it though, and once even wore it at the theatre. She regarded Vera Axelrod and me as children and never talked seriously to us.
The discussions that arose among Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich centred principally upon their differences with the Russian Economists and the German revisionists, but they did not break off personal relations with either.
When Eduard Bernstein visited the Axelrods in Zurich both the hosts and the guest carried on a peaceful conversation at tea. Bernstein, the father of German revisionism, impressed me as a homely man in blue glasses. What this man in the blue glasses said at tea I have completely forgotten.
Another time "the Russian Webbs," as Kuskova and Prokopovich were then called, visited the Axelrods, and Plekhanov came from Geneva to meet them. They had a lengthy discussion in Axelrod's study into which we, the youthful guests, were not permitted to enter. When they came out to tea, Plekhanov was in excellent spirits, Kuskova appeared flushed and confused, while Axelrod and Zasulich gazed at Plekhanov with admiring eyes.
It could never occur to me then that Paul Borisovich Axelrod would one day put spokes in the wheel of that very revolution which he discussed with me so many times. Nor could I ever dream that Plekhanov, who was then so near to us, would become so infinitely distant, estranged and hostile.
In the autumn I returned to Vienna where I was obliged to work seriously at the clinic, since upon my finishing the term depended my getting the right to live in any part of Russia--that peculiar right of being without rights which was the lot of the common people in the Russian empire at that time.
After passing the examination and receiving my Austrian diploma, I went home for a short while, certain that I would be able to get a certificate as to my political reliability which I had to present at the university before I could sit for an examination. Up to that time, absolutely no one at home knew about my association with the movement.
After many difficulties I finally obtained the required document from the governor of Vitebsk and decided to go to Kharkov. There I had to pass an examination in anatomy, physiology and nursing in order to exchange my Austrian diploma for a Russian one. The Russian diploma in its turn enabled me to change my old passport which read, "valid only where Jews are permitted to live," for a new one which read: "Jewish midwife, so and so, has the right to live in any part of Russia."