Cecilia Bobrovskaya
Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik

IV. I go "Underground"

DURING the long months of solitary confinement, I decided once and for all to become a professional Party worker. So when I returned home I decided not to wait for the sentence as the authorities ordered, but to escape abroad and live illegally.

It was absolutely essential that I go abroad. The constant police raids on our organization not only interfered with our work, but often separated us for long periods. When I came out of Kharkov prison I was absolutely isolated from the comrades. But to go abroad was not so simple a matter. The nearest organization that could help me escape abroad was the Vitebsk organization. But as I was under police surveillance I could not even move about my own province without special permission from the governor.

The two gendarmes in my native town, who had been kicking their heels in idleness during my absence, were extremely gratified at my arrival. They diligently sat by turns on the bench outside my home guarding the "dangerous criminal". Although the simplicity of these two officers was touching, nevertheless it was quite difficult to go about unobserved. Besides, my escape would cause a great deal of grief and worry to my folks whose life was not an easy one as it was. Therefore I decided to escape from Vitebsk and not from my native Velizh. I planned to go to Vitebsk in a legal way.

I sent a petition to the governor asking for permission to go to Vitebsk for medical treatment as there were no competent medical men in my town. I had to wait nearly three months until I received a reply. At last I received the governor's permission to leave for Vitebsk temporarily. As soon as I got there, I immediately began to seek means of escaping abroad. It was necessary to get at least a little money. Besides money troubles, I had a good share of other worries. Any day I might receive the sentence exiling me to some remote part of Russia, from which it would be more difficult to escape than from Vitebsk. After a great many worries and hardships I was finally able to arrange my trip abroad. This was accomplished with the assistance of some Vitebsk Bundists who were to help me get to Byelostok where I was put in contact with smugglers on the frontier.

I travelled to Byelostok via Dvinsk where the Bund had a permanent representative, a certain Kaplinsky. He organized the transport of literature, helped comrades to escape across the frontier and procured all the requirements for printing purposes. This Kaplinsky afterward proved to be a provocateur.

When I reached Dvinsk I learned that it would be impossible for me to go to Byelostok for some time owing to the arrest of the delegates to a conference there. In a few days Kaplinsky gave me a letter of recommendation to the daughter of the director of a factory in Sosnovitsy. She was to arrange my going from Sosnovitsky to Kattovits. My appearance upset the poor girl very much. Although she was unquestionably a sympathizer, still she was too young and inexperienced to be entrusted with such a commission. To make matters worse, the whole town (it was not a very big one) knew her very well, and the only way I could get to Kattovits was to use her passport.

I spent several irksome days in the director's mansion in the awkward position of a tiresome and utterly unwanted friend of the director's daughter. In despair of getting another passport, I decided to use hers, come what may. Two young comrades accompanied me to Kattovits. My escorts returned to Sosnovitsy with the information that everything had turned out all right. The director's daughter then told the police that she had lost her passport. I got to Zurich in the best of spirits and once again installed myself with the Axelrods who were amicably disposed towards me.

In 1902, our Russian Party organization abroad bore an entirely different aspect from what it had in the first year I stayed there. In 1898 and at the beginning of 1899, the most outstanding feature was the disparity between the great ideological influence exercised by the "Emancipation of Labour" group on all our Russian work, and its organizational isolation from this work. True, a part of the Russian students were already grouped about Axelrod In Zurich and Plekhanov in Geneva. Nevertheless, there were no active, organizational ties with Russia. A particularly unpleasant impression was created by the youthful Russian emigrants who came to live abroad. Having been in Russian prisons at some time in their lives, they thought that their mission in connection with Party work in their native land was at an end.

Permanent, active organizational ties between the centre abroad and the work in the locals in Russia were only established in 1900 when the Iskra group was formed. Lenin and Martov were the leaders of this group. It was in the fourth issue of Iskra that Lenin's famous article "Where to begin?" was published. This article dealt with questions of the organizational structure of the Party, and was in fact an introduction to Lenin's book What Is To Be Done? which was published in 1902 and which marked an epoch in Party construction.

At the time of which I write (1902) the Iskra group not only had the paper Iskra which was regularly published abroad and widely distributed in Russia, but also a strong organizational apparatus. In accordance with Lenin's plan there were, first of all, cadres of well-trained, responsible comrades, the so-called Iskra agents, who were sent by the Editorial Board of Iskra to work in the locals, in Russia, or were sent from place to place as necessity required. By means of systematic correspondence in secret code and personal visits they kept the centre abroad constantly informed about their own work and the general state of the work in Russia. Besides these highly qualified agents who were successfully carrying out the principles and tatics of Iskra, there were professional revolutionaries, who were occupied only with such technical duties as transporting literature and conveying comrades across the frontier, procuring passports and other tasks of a similar character.

The news about Iskra (that vital Party centre) reached even the remotest parts of Siberia. Towards the end of the summer of 1902 a large number of comrades managed to make their escape from Siberia. These exiles fled from prison and journeyed to Switzerland or to London which was the headquarters of Iskra and of Lenin at that time. In addition, many comrades fresh from Party work in Russia also arrived abroad. We all became very friendly, we read together, discussed matters, shared impressions and experiences of our past work. We talked about what we had endured in prison, about the police cross-examinations. But most of all we talked about the prospects of the Russian revolution.

Once, the entire group went for a walk in the woods. On our way back we went into a restaurant situated on a hill to drink coffee. The evening was unusually lovely and the surroundings delightful. One of our comrades became sentimental and compared the happy lives of the Swiss who lived so peacefully in their lovely, free country with the hard lot of the workers and peasants in Russia. To this, another comrade answered, "Wait, wait, comrades. When we overthrow the autocracy in Russia, the new revolutionary government will send us for a rest to Zurich, to this very hill, and to this very pension; and we, toothless dotards by that time, will be fed on milk puddings." We all laughed at this, but not one of us realized that such talk was the product of our complete misunderstanding of the future. We did not understand that after the overthrow of the autocracy our work would only begin, that there would be no time for resting. Nor could we foresee that the freedom that we would win would be such as "free" Switzerland had never dreamed of and she would therefore not want to welcome old revolutionaries. The Russian revolutionary government would not have to look for rest-homes in Switzerland, because there were plenty of wonderful places in Russia which would be completely at the disposal of the workers and peasants. The only correct thing in our prophecy was that most of us did lose our teeth during the fifteen years from 1902 to 1917.

In August 1902 our close circle was unexpectedly enlarged by the arrival of a group of comrades who had fled from Kiev prison. This flight had been organized by Iskra. Comrades had been sent to Kiev specially for this purpose. At that time the notorious Kiev general of gendarmes, Novitsky, had been planning to organize a great state trial for this group and get a heavy sentence passed on them as a warning to others. But to his deep chagrin and damage to his subsequent career, his plans were foiled. This must have caused great confusion and embarrassment in official circles, as the following excerpt from General Novitsky's own report, "Dossier" No 169 of the Kiev gendarmerie, shows:

"...At the end of the yard not far from the watchman's post, a hand-made ladder hung from the prison wall. The ladder was made from strips of prison bed sheets. It had thirteen rungs and was attached to the prison wall about twelve feet above ground by an iron grapnel. The rungs were made not only from the sheets, but also from the back of a bentwood chair and pieces of wood. Near the ladder hung a knotted rope which served as a support...

"Then I went back to the prison office to find out who had escaped, but on my way I met the governor and we both went to make an inspection of the grounds.

"I turned to the prison inspector Luchinsky... No one knew exactly how many had escaped. I ordered a roll call of all the political prisoners, and of the sixty-four persons (fifty-one men and thirteen women) only fifty-two were checked up on August 18; all the rest, i.e., Joseph Basovsky, Nikolai Bauman, Joseph Blumenfeld, Vladimir Bobrovsky, Max Vallakh (Litvinov), Marian Gursky, Victor Krokhmal, Boris Maltsman, Levik Halperin, Bomelev, Plesky. Joseph Tarshis (Pyatnitsky), escaped."

The arrival of the Kiev fugitives in Zurich not only caused rejoicing in our circle, but created a sensation among the Swiss. The papers described it as the "tremendously bold flight of the Russian revolutionaries from the tsarist prison". Reporters not only dogged the Kievites, but even dogged us, inopportunely begging for more intimate details of the flight.

Our whole company together with the Kievites grouped itself around the Axelrods. Vera Zasulich already lived in London and worked on the Editorial Board of Iskra. Plekhanov, whose permanent residence was in Geneva, often visited Zurich for the sole purpose of seeing and conversing with the Russian "practical workers" as we were called in distinction from the comrades who lived abroad. He questioned us about every detail of the work in Russia. For example, in a talk with me he asked how we distributed leaflets. Did it never occur to us to use the public baths for this purpose? Could we not go to the baths on Saturdays and quietly place a leaflet in the clothing of each of the bathers? This method of spreading leaflets did not appeal to me as being particularly wise. For, if anyone noticed us fussing about their clothes, we would be taken for thieves and arrested. But the thing that struck me was that such a big man as Plekhanov, who was constantly occupied with the problems of the Party as a whole, should have the time to think about the little technical details of our daily Party work.

Towards the end of the summer, our Zurich crowd gradually began to break up. The first to leave was Boris (Noskov). He, as a member of the organizational committee for the rallying of the Second Party Congress, was called to the editorial office of Iskra. We all envied our comrade who was going to London and would meet Lenin personally. Many in our group, including myself, could only dream of one day meeting Lenin. But we were glad for Boris' sake that he was going to make "Party history" as we expressed it then. He was going to take part in the preparations for the Congress which was to liquidate all opportunistic vacillations like that of the Workers' Cause in our ranks and create an orthodox Marxist party according to the Iskra plan.

We did not doubt for a moment that the Iskra movement would be victorious at the Congress because it had already won over practically all the organizations in the important industrial centres of Russia. Only a few organizations gravitated toward the Economists and the Workers' Cause. One of these supporters of the Workers' Cause and the Economists was the Voronezh Committee. It was whispered that this Committee consisted of a single member, a young girl, a sister of Akimov-Makhnov, the leader of the Workers' Cause movement. At that time we did not dream that the Iskra party itself would split up into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks (the M's and the B's as we called them then). Although rumours did reach us about things running not so smoothly in the Iskra office, and that Lenin and Plekhanov sometimes clashed, we never paid much attention to them, particularly since we often heard the Axelrods say, "Georgi (Plekhanov) is becoming capricious due to his poor health, and Petrov (V. I. Lenin) is a difficult man to get on with."

After Boris left, I and a comrade named Vera Kozhevnikova decided to go away. She was determined to go to Moscow, and I to materialize the hopes of Boris and "Uncle"--to re-establish connections with Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Ivanovo-Voznesensk. We both began to make preparations for these journeys. Both Vera and I had our notebooks full of addresses and passwords, which had to be memorized. We could not take a single document with us that might compromise any of our comrades if we were caught.

I shall never forget how we paced the room like a pair of school girls, earnestly memorizing: "Kostroma, Nizhnaya Debrya, Filitov's house, Maria Stelpanova"; password--"We are the swallows of the coming spring." Or, "Moscow, Zhivoderka, Vladimiro-Dolgorukovskaya, pharmacy, pharmacist, Laytman:" Password--"I have been sent to you by the singing birds." Answer--"You are welcome." All this had to be learned by heart, so that we would not look for Nizhnaya Debrya in Yaroslavl instead of Kostroma.

Besides this "theoretical" work, we took it into our heads to dye our hair. This last undertaking did not prove at all successful. Vera dyed her flaxen hair a jet black, but as the rest of her face remained that of a marked blonde, she was obliged to wash out the dye. After that I decided not to dye my hair.

To cross the frontier I was given the passport of a certain Austrian actress, Hedwig Navotni. It was necessary to buy a fashionable autumn coat, a hat and a silk umbrella, so as to look like a real "lady". Into the hem of my coat I sewed a piece of linen upon which I had rewritten a leaflet sent to me from the Iskra office. This leaflet, which was said to have been written by Lenin himself, had to be printed in St. Petersburg, and sent to all parts of Russia. I regret that I cannot recall the contents of this leaflet although I rewrote it myself on the piece of linen before leaving Zurich.

I did not cross the frontier without adventure. For some reason or another, the frontier police decided to search the Austrian actress Hedwig Navotni. I was asked to go into the police office where a woman, who was to search me, awaited me. I was very much disturbed because my fashionable coat was not as innocent as it looked. The policewoman asked me to strip completely--even to let down my hair, to see whether I had anything concealed there; but she paid no attention to my coat which was hanging over the back of a chair. Of course she found nothing and informed the customs officials to this effect.

I was so overjoyed that I forgot my beautiful foreign-made umbrella, which I thought gave the finishing touch to my fashionable outfit. The loss of it distressed me and I even thought of returning to the police office. But I did not have the courage to go there again, knowing the extent of my "guilt". Sorrowfully I abandoned to them that crowning item of my stylish costume.