Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik
I ARRIVED in Kharkov in the summer of 1899, about three months before the examinations were to start. I had to learn the syllabus of the course, prepare myself for the coming exams and register at the university; but to accomplish the latter was not easy. According to the regulations, all those who desired to sit for the examinations had to be permanently domiciled in Kharkov. But in order to get a room on a Jewish passport one had to have a document certifying that one was eligible to enter for the examination. Impossible as this seemed at the first glance, we soon learned that it could be very simply arranged by a "voluntary levy" of ten rubles. When this bribe was passed by certain channels into the depths of the university office, the Gordian knot was promptly cut. Having legitimatized my slay in Kharkov in so illegitimate a manner, I became immediately occupied not so much with preparations for the coming examinations as with finding contacts with the underground movement.
When I was abroad I heard that after the first Party Congress held in the spring of 1898, the Social-Democratic organizations were no longer disconnected unions, groups, or circles, although numerous arrests had taken place in all towns. I knew that the Party had united at the Congress and that it had committees in all parts of the country. I was quite certain that there was a committee in Kharkov and that I only had to find it. Although the committee was a very secret affair, nevertheless I managed very quickly to establish contact with some of its members and join the local organization.
The local organization was a well-knit nucleus of revolutionary workers, although it had not yet assumed definite organizational shape and did not even have a definite name. We carried on propaganda in workers circles, executed all the technical duties of printing leaflets, hiding and distributing literature, obtaining headquarters for secret meetings. We organized illegal gatherings at which reports and lectures on political and economic themes were made. We arranged concerts, plays and other lucrative undertakings from which we obtained the funds to run our organization as well as to support strikers or comrades who had been arrested.
It never occurred to us that we ought to help not only arrested comrades, but also the comrades who were busy all day with organizational affairs and who were literally starving. Many of us, having no definite occupation and receiving no regular help from home, suffered very severely. I can say for myself that in Warsaw and partly in Vienna I had become quite an adept at going short. But trained as I was, what I endured in Kharkov, proved more than I could bear. There were many days when I had nothing but a drink of water. I had no money with which to buy a piece of bread, let alone buy a dinner. All day long I would go about the necessary business; my legs would give way under me, my head would spin. On such days it was particularly distressing to be looking for an apartment for secret meeting purposes or in which to hide illegal literature. I would be obliged to visit "sympathetic" doctors, lawyers, engineers and dentists. These people had such snug little homes. They greeted you so hospitably and offered you a miniature cup of tea with flaky cookies. They could not realize that there was a hungry person before them who should be given a square meal and not be teased with cookies. Once, the pangs of hunger were so strong that, taking the opportunity of my landladys absence, I went to the kitchen, cut myself a big slice of bread, dipped it into a pot of appetizing, fat, cabbage soup, locked myself up in my room and ate it; and I did not tell the landlady about it when she returned. During those times of intense hunger I would be in utter despair. I would rather die than give up Party work and daily intercourse with the comrades; yet if I looked for employment it would mean that I would have to give up my Party work and become occupied with something that I neither knew nor liked. I hated midwifery. In all my future life I never helped a single infant to come into the world.
Sickness rescued me from this systematic starvation. The doctor stated that my illness was due to starvation. This diagnosis startled my comrades. When I recovered, work was immediately found for me in a Zemstvo library. The work was very simple and I was paid by the day--two rubles a day. Besides, I soon found out that the Zemstvo library could be used for revolutionary purposes, so that my spirits completely recovered. I felt that I had come into such affluence that I even sent for my brother. I wanted him to take his examinations at the Kharkov grammar school. My plans were not altogether successful, but the most important thing was done: my brother fell in with our revolutionary crowd and later turned out to be a very active Party worker and Bolshevik.
As our work among the proletariat expanded, the committee began to feel that we Party workers needed more theoretic instruction. Fifteen of the most active members were appointed to attend classes in theory. We took our studies very seriously and learned a great deal. At, the same time each of us took charge of a workers' circle.
I was given two workers' circles. One was composed of some Kharkov railroad workers. There were six young workers and their organizer, Vassily Sheykov. This group met two evenings a week. We read Bogdanovs Political Economy but, truth to tell, we often deviated from the subject. I used to tell the workers (quite unsystematically at times) all that I had heard and seen abroad. My accounts of the life of the Austrian and Swiss workers aroused great interest in the circle. With no less interest did they learn about my meetings with our Russian revolutionaries who lived abroad. These deviations from the subject worried Sheykov and me not a little. Our progress in covering the required number of pages of Political Economy was very slow. I even complained to the committee about my lack of success. The committee tried to soothe me by saying that since the workers willingly listened to my narrations the work was not vain and that I should continue carrying on my circle as I had been doing.
The other circle, also composed of railroad workers, met at Lubotin station. We did not succeed in organizing regular work with this circle. I personally was not able to take up systematic circle work wholeheartedly; I was much more interested in organizational work and it was quite a mistake to have me work as a propagandist. I was more interested in keeping up organizational contact with the Lubotin workers in distributing leaflets, illegal literature and in carrying committee instructions to the workers than in leading a circle. I made frequent visits to Lubotin and my appearances on this deserted station were not without danger: soon it attracted the attention of those who took interest in such things. Besides the Kharkov depot and the Lubotin station circles, I had close contact with a Belgian factory through an old exiled St. Petersburg worker, Onuphry Zhelabin. Zhelabin organizeda strong nucleus of class conscious workers in his Belgian factory. This group with Zhelabin afterwards led a strike there, during which Zhelabin constantly communicated with the committee through me. I used to give him leaflets to spread among the strikers, and money to help their families. This money and the little bridge on which we met to hand over the money afterwards figured in the police enquiry as major evidence against me.
Besides my regular work, I often had to carry out special commissions for the committee. Once the committee ordered me to go to Vilna without delay and get a valise filled with illegal literature which had been especially prepared for the Kharkov organization. I lied shamelessly to my landlady about the reason for my departure; although she was a sympathizer, my landlady was quite a gossip and so I dared not tell her the real reason, for fear she might blurt it out to others, so I told her that I was suddenly called away by my parents on some important family matter. One of the members of the committee brought me a hundred rubles and the necessary address, and that very evening I started on my journey.
Misfortune awaited mk at Vilna. I did not find the comrade at home. All day long I wandered about the strange city. In the evening when I met the comrade, I found out to my chagrin that the literature for Kharkov was in Vitebsk. I immediately left for Vitebsk where I soon found the address I was given. The house belonged to a rich merchant whose son I knew in Kharkov, as it was through him that I kept up connections with the illegal paper, the Yuzhny Rabochi (Southern Worker).
I found him in a very worried state. He sat locked in his room in his father's luxurious mansion, almost buried in piles of illegal literature. He complained to me that the maidservant had been trying to clean up the room for several days. He had made various excuses not to let her in. But this could not continue very much longer. His people would get wind of it sooner or later. Someone had confused the cities in a letter sent to various places and wrote that the literature was in Vilna instead of Vitebsk, so the comrades had not come for it.
Taking the precious valise which had caused so many worries, I returned to Kharkov. The committee was overjoyed at my return, my long absence having caused them to give me up for lost. The literature which I brought was principally that published by the "Emancipation of Labour" group. Only a few of the books were published by the Rabocheye Dyelo (Workers' Cause).
At that time the controversy was raging between the Economist-revisionists and the orthodox Marxists who favoured a widespread political struggie. Lenin, in his famous answer sent from exile, declared war on all the ideas expressed by E. Kuskova in the Credo. In this controversy the majority of the members of the Kharkov organization approved of Lenin's position. Only individual workers, both in the Centre and in the periphery vacillated, and for this reason heated polemics sometimes arose at the meetings of the Kharkov leaders.
Yuli Osipovich Cederbaum (Martov), who then lived in Poltava under the surveillance of the police and who secretly visited us in Kharkov, helped us take a decisive stand in this matter. We could not know at that time that the flaming Cederbaum would later endeavour to dampen the spirit of the Russian revolution, and that he would become the leader of the Mensheviks.
I cannot recall exactly what organizational ties existed between the Kharkov committee and the editorial board of the Southern Worker. I remember, though, that the ties were very close. Many of the members of the Kharkov committee wrote for the Southern Worker. Although it revealed separatist tendencies on organizational questions, Every issue of this militant political paper was a festival for the entire Kharkov organization. At one time I acted as contact with the Southern Worker whose printshop was in Kremenchuk.
Although its work was constantly growing, the Kharkov Committee continued to operate in profound secrecy. Even we, the workers of the periphery who were engaged in very responsible work, were kept at "arm's length" as it were, from the committee. I myself, who carried out various duties requiring great ability in the art of secrecy, and therefore could be trusted, never attended a single committee meeting, although I was on friendly terms with several of the members of the committee. They used to come to my room and I would visit them, not only on business, but also to have a cup of tea and a friendly chat on rare free evenings. This deliberate secrecy of the committee not only wounded the self-esteem of many of the workers, but it had a bad effect on the work of the periphery. We were obliged to carry out the decisions of the committee blindly, since we had not the slightest share in their making. This ultra-conspiratorial state of affairs created serious dissatisfaction in our ranks. The question came up at several meetings of the periphery. At one of them I heatedly objected to it. And when the committee learned about this dissatisfaction, one of its members, Dr, Ivanov, said, "All this is nonsense. We must not give the periphery any privileges; that would not be conspiratorial. It's all the doing of that little Jewess." (This was meant for me.)
In the conflict between the Kharkov Committee and its periphery the latter did not accuse the former of bureauracy and excessive privileges. Both the eentre and the periphery had but one privilege--that of being caught by the tsarist police, if not today, then tomorrow. The conflict was not due either to the evil intentions of the committee members, the unreasonable demands of the periphery or to the obstinacy of any one of its members, but simply to the fact that the workers' movement was growing apace in Kharkov while we still groped for the organizational channels through which our work was to be carried on.
I will try to give a more detailed description of the entire structure of the Kharkov organization from top to bottom. There were no definite forms of organization in Kharkov or anywhere in Russia, for that matter. Sometimes local committees were elected and sometimes appointed by the centre, and later supplemented by co-opted members. More often than not these committees were formed by some active revolutionary (or group of revolutionaries) in the city, who would establish strong contacts with the masses. He (or the group) would select a few capable comrades and these would declare themselves a committee. The Kharkov Committee, to my knowledge, was neither elected nor appointed, but organized in the above-mentioned fashion.
After the committee (the directing body) came the periphery (the executive body) which consisted of several score of comrades. There was no proper idivision of functions either in the committee or the periphery. Thus, for example, the committee had no secretary. There were no distinct departments for organizational, propaganda or agitation work. Nobody was even appointed to look after the literary functions. The only division between the committee and the periphery was that the first performed directing duties and the second, executive. But each one of us had to be a propagandist, organizer, printer and distributer at the same time.
The principal support of the Kharkov Committee among the purely proletarian masses were the workers in the railroad workshops. These shops had their own organizations which were composed of a number of circles at whose head was the central circle. The latter in its turn was led by two outstanding workers, members of the Kharkov Committee. Voyeikov and Matrossov, but principally Voyeikov, who played an important part in the Kharkov May First demonstration of 1900 and such a disgraceful one afterwards at the time of our arrest. Another support were the circles of the locomotive works whose leader was the worker Simonov, also a member of the Kharkov Committee, Then there were uninterrupted connections with the Belgian factory, the Lubotin railroad shops and innumerable circles. Contacts also existed with individual workers in every large Kharkov factory. Contact was also maintained with the artisans in the city, but here things iyere not so well. There was opposition on the part of the group led by Makhov, a worker from Ivanovo-Voznesensk. This group represented a kind of "Workers' Opposition". Makhov seemed to hate intellectuals more than anyone else, and he was also strongly opposed to politics, arguing that the workers should only carry on the economic struggle. The Kharkov organization had a big membership at that time (big for an underground organization). But it was quite impossible to keep a proper register of them, None of us had Party membership cards; the mandate which entitled us to the high calling of Party member was deep within our breasts. It can safely be said that about the time of the First of May demonstration in 1900 the organization undervalued its own strength; it did not realize that its influence was so strong. Thus the First of May demonstration came as a great surprise both for the committee and the periphery. The First of May leaflets which had been printed in the printshop of the Southern Worker, and which we had distributed in the factories, called for a general strike and demonstration. But that which came to pass on the First of May surpassed our wildest expectations.
In the morning the railroad workers came out into the streets and held a meeting at the Levada. They unfolded a red banner, and a member of the committee, Voyeikov, made a speech. The Governor, on learning about the demonstration, hurried to the Levada. He was met by Voyeikov, surrounded by a dense crowd of comrades. After a talk with Voyeikov, the governor was obliged to withdraw. The workers of the locomotive works attempted to march through the city and join the railroad workers' demonstration. But the cossacks prevented them from joining forces by barring the roadway. During the clash between the workers of the locomotive works and the cossacks some of the bolder workers disarmed a few cossacks and waved their lances as trophies of victory.
The First of May general strike in Kharkov created a big stir. After that, our work went at a more feverish pace. But if this strike taught us a great deal it also taught a lesson to the Kharkov police. The whole force was mobilized to hunt us down.
First a group of eighteen railroad workers, including Matrossov and Voyeikov, were arrested and exiled to the Vyatka province on the charge of instigating the First of May demonstrations. Many of us were carefully shadowed by spies. This led to the arrest of the entire organization and most of the circles. The police spying in Kharkov was not so crude as in Warsaw. At one time, for example, I was utterly unaware that I was being shadowed. Later I discovered that the police had been follow.ing me all the summer. But a month before the general arrests, the spies ceased to disguise their activities; they watched my house and persistently dogged my steps quite openly. When I had to attend to some urgent business, I would have to start out early in the morning and pretend to go shopping. Sometimes I would go into various shops, go into a dressmaker's shop and try on a number of dresses. This, of course, would takes long time; the spy would get tired of waiting and go away.
Once it was imperative for me to deliver a package of leaflets and talk things over with two Lubotin workers. I started off for the station that morning looking cautiously about me. When I got into the train I noticed a suspicious-looking man with a flat nose get into the next car. When I alighted at Lubotin station, he also got off. I looked about the platform--my workers were waiting for me. I passed them by, demonstratively ignoring them. They immediately understood that something was wrong and made no sign of recognition. I went over to the buffet and ordered a cup of tea. I sat at one of the tables drinking tea and thinking what to do tlext. At another table not far away my friends sat drinking beer. And at a third table sat the flat-nosed man, also drinking tea. I almost laughed aloud, so ridiculous did the whole situation seem. I sat thus until the next Kharkov train pulled in.
I got into the train with the packages of leaflets still safe in my stockings and bosom.
When I returned to the city the flat-nosed man was not to be seen. I walked about the city until I was ready to drop with fatigue. Then I decided to go to a friend of mine, a nurse, who lived in the Medical Society hospital on Pushkin Street. There I had a bite and a cup of tea. I hid the leaflets in her room and, when I was sufficiently rested, I went home.
But my day's adventures were not destined to end so happily. That night I was awakened by the police. Among them was the flat-nosed man. This fact upset me so much that I thought it all a part of a nightmare, But I soon came to myself and understood that it was grim reality. My turn had come to go to prison. I had had an unusually long run of luck. I had worked in Warsaw, travelled abroad, I had carried on very important and danger ous work in Kharkov for a whole year, and now the time had come to pay the price. Nevertheless, these philosophic contemplations could not soothe that awful feeling that overwhelmed me at the prospect of losing my liberty. All those who pass through this experience for the first time feel the same thing. And to aggravate the situation, the police officer proved to be of a most irritatingly cheerful disposition. While my room was being searched he tried to be witty and asked: "Are you very disheartened? I suppose you thought this would all come about as in a French novel: a splendid young officer would arise before you and say, 'Madam, though it breaks my heart to do it, I arrest you in the name of law.'" Then he began to rummage among the books on my desk. He toyed with the volumes of Marx's Capital and Political Economy and said, "You've got a lot of 'capital,' but only sixty kopeks in your purse."
I had to spend the rest of the night at the police station where a drunken prostitute shouted at the top of her voice until the first streaks of dawn brought their sobering effect. Before my very eyes she stole a towel from the policeman on duty. A man with carefully tended red whiskers, dressed in a well-cut frockcoat, paced to and fro all night long. In respectful whispers the policemen related to one another that this man was arrested on the charge of embezzling government funds.
Early in the morning I was taken to a well-known Kharkov prison. The governor of the prison at that time was Lieutenant-Colonel Dikhov, whose side whiskers, cross eyes and murderous expression reminded me of the turnkeys so aptly described by Melshin. Dikhov had two favourite soldiers, Stadnik and Melnik. They took turns on duty in the secret corridor. This narrow, dark corridor, with cells on either side, could truly be called secret--not a sound could penetrate from outside.
Melnik and Stanik were surprisingly well trained--they would sooner have burned at the stake than answer questions. After months of confinment one suddenly felt a burning desire to hear one's own voice. And so I tried to start a conversation with Melnik or Stadnik--but they remained dumb.
My plank bed and mattress used to be raised and fastened to the wall at six o'clock in the morning. The bench and the table were likewise fastened to the wall. Being of short stature it was difficult for me to raise myself to the high window sill to get a glimpse of the patch of blue sky. I could not lie down during the day as the bed was lowered only at six o'clock in the evening. Our daily walk in an isolated corner of the yard lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes. At one end of the yard stood the watchman's booth. Behind me marched another watchman who doggedly refused to utter a sound.
Despite all appearances to the contrary, we lived a social life in the secret corrider. Feverish tapping in our secret code continued all day long. We would leave notes for one another in the public lavatory. By means of taps we gave each other nicknames. For example, notes for me were addressed to the "magpie". And every time the guard led me to the toilet, I searched among the water pipes for letters addressed to the "magpie".
The police had their hands full with our case in connection with which they had arrested almost two hundred people. The majority were released after three or four months; only the more "dangerous" were detained. We were also subjected to an infinite number of examinations, in which Captain Nornberg, the cheerful officer who arrested me, took a prominent part. He resorted to every possible trick to trip me up.
Once during the examination he suddenly said to me: "You cannot deny that contact with the Southern Worker was maintained through you. I can even remind you of an evening when, on returning home late, you found a girl in your room who had come from Ekaterinoslav with a basketful of the Southern Worker. To your question, 'How are you all getting on there? she answered, 'We're making a noise, brothers, making a noise'."
These details simply petrified me. All this had actually taken place, and the only one who could have told about it was Zhelabin who had been present during the conversation.
Enjoying the effect he had created by these particulars, Nornberg went on to inform me that Zhelabin had already been released inasmuch as he had made a clean breast of everything. Whether Zhelabin actually betrayed us or whether it was the clever guess of Nornberg, I could not determine at that moment. Onuphry Zhelabin vanished from the prison and we never saw him again. In March 1924, during a short stay in Leningrad, I was able to find among the materials of the former police department records of the Kharkov case and to see with my own eyes "the honest confession of Onuphry Zhelabin".
Although we had been spied upon throughout the whole summer of 1900, and although the entire organization had been uprooted, the examinations showed that the police were in a dilemma as to how to separate us into groups and bring concrete charges against us. They had spies' evidence that we were all rebels. But what crimes each of us had committed, they were at a loss to know, and they would never have found out had not some chicken-hearted person in the group told everything. Thus, for three or four months after our arrest the police did not know which one of us was a member of the committee. But the matter was suddenly cleared up for them.
One of the arrested young workers had blurted out during examination that the railroad workers Voyeikov and Matrossov, who had been exiled after the First of May demonstration to the Vyatka province, were the leaders. The police immediately had them brought back and placed in the Kharkov prison. And then Voyeikov confessed. The fact that someone had betrayed him and the sufferings he had endured on the way to and from Vyatka had such an influence on him that he himself began ignominiously to help the police solve their problem in our case. Voyeikov's betrayal had a depressing effect on us all. The police, on the other hand, were delighted. The happiest of them was Captain Nornberg. After his confession Voyeikov was set free. When he got out he began to drink heavily and soon drank himself to death.
Having obtained all the facts they wanted, the police released some of our comrades, after keeping them three or four months. Nevertheless, a good number of us were still kept in prison. For a long time I could not understand why the police kept me in jail longer than the members of the committee. I knew that they had obtained all the particulars about our organization. I was not a member of the committee. But at one of the examinations I was soon enlightened upon the matter. I was brought into the prison office, and after a pleasant greeting, Nornberg said, "The investigation into the Kharkov Committee case is finished. All the participants including the members of the committee have been released but are being kept under surveillance until the trial. We have decided to detain you for some time, however. Kharchenko, the editor of the Southern Worker has been arrested. According to the evidence you had close connection with him." To my question, "Then what is the use of detaining me? You know that you won't learn anything from me anyway," Nornberg answered, rolling out every word, "Kharchenko is a strong man, arrested recently. You are a woman, your health has been undermined in prison, your nerves are unstrung. That is why you are more likely to talk before Kharchenko talks".
It is difficult to describe my indignation at this insolent candour. I felt a burning desire to prove to him that I was not broken in spirit, that I still had the strength to protest. My only means of protesting was to declare a hunger strike. I decided to go on strike alone, without involving new comrades with whom I was personally unacquainted and who had been arrested recently. The cells of the prison were never empty, and we would often say in jest: "The prison, like nature, cannot stand a vacuum."
At that time the prison administration, the Public Prosecutor and the police were still very much afraid of hunger strikes. And so all the prison officials became extremely agitated when they learned that I had refused to take food. During my strike, touching scenes could be witnessed in my cell as when Captain Nornberg or Lieutenant-Colonel Dikhov begged me to "eat a spoonful of this broth," or "drink half a cup of milk".
This touching anxiety about my welfare was due to the fact that they feared that the other comrades would get wind of it and join me in the strike and the whole affair would become extremely serious. I kept the strike up for three days. On the fourth day I almost collapsed and the turnkeys, seeing my condition, did not put up my bed as usual. Soon I was called into the office where I was informed that I would be released and that I must leave for my native town immediately under the strict surveillance of the police and remain there until the trial.
Exercising all my will power to prevent myself from collapsing from weakness and joy, I returned to my cell. After drinking a cup of strong tea--the first refreshment since my fast--I found sufficient strength to pack my few belongings and go to the station.
Thus I paid for a full year's work in Kharkov with less than a full year's imprisonment, which was considered a very cheap price at that time.