Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik
BEFORE going to the Caucasus I wanted to see my sister Rose who was working in the Kostroma organization at that time. But my arrival in Kostroma was not without danger because my sister was then regarded with suspicion by the police, and I could be easily recognized as that notorious Pelageya Davidovna. Therefore, I did not go straight to Kostroma; I met my sister in Zhiroslavka (about thirty versts from the city) at the home of some sympathetic landowners, the Kolodesnikovs. Under their hospitable roof I was later obliged to hide. Once we even temporarily removed our printshop to Zhiroslavka.
I went to Tiflis at a very troubled period. Almost all the members of the Union Council were carefully watched by the police. Vladimir Bobrovsky (who went under the name or Nikolai Golovanov) lived in particularly trying circumstances. When I reached him (he lived at a dirty sort of inn) and before we were even able to exchange greetings, some unknown comrade burst into the room and excitedly exclaimed:
"I have come to warn you that the police are coming to the inn. They are after Golovanov. Follow me immediately through the back entrance, into the yard and down the side-street, if YOU want to be saved!"
We immediately followed our unexpected rescuer. Finding ourselves in an empty side-street we took different directions. Golovanov and the unknown comrade got on to the first droshky they met, while I went quietly to look for other comrades. I had the address of a music teacher whose surname was Adjarova, I believe, but whom we called simply, Nadezhda. That day Nadezhda found me a room in the home of an Armenian acquaintance. In the evening she informed me that Golovanov was safe. His comrades hid him with their own people in a hut on Mount St. David. On the morrow there was to be a meeting of the Union Council. A Georgian, the owner of the hut who kept a barber shop in the city, took us to the mountain. A young woman, the barber's wife, dressed in Oriental clothes, came out to meet us. To my surprised questions as to whether this woman was a sympathizer, my escort, shaking his fist threateningly, said:
"Let her just dare not sympathize!"
We arrived at our friend's hut the entrance to which was through a sort of cave. The appearance of this eastern dwelling was quite extraordinary. I stopped confused, on the threshold. Through clouds of tobacco smoke I discerned the silhouettes of people sitting at a table eating fat mutton. Among them was Golovanov. These wild looking people proved to be comrades, members of the Union Council.
Of all the Union members in Tiflis, I had business mostly with the old man Tskhakaya (Mikha), who was called Gurgen; Stalin, then still very young, and the late Sasha Tsulkukidse, who even then was very sick. We discussed the difficulties facing the organization and the impending raid by the police which we all felt was inevitable. We decided that we must ask for re-enforcements from the centre and that Golovanov be sent to Baku for this purpose. I was to remain in Tiflis as a district organizer. Gurgen (Mikha Tskhakaya) was to connect me with the district, but for a long time he was unable to do this. The police were watching him too closely. When I finally made contact with one or two workers, the spies immediately began to follow me. Hence, nothing came of my work in Tiflis, that is, if one does not count the two or three small workers' meetings which I organized, and my participation in one rather big propagandist meeting.
My precarious position in Tiflis might have ended in arrest any moment. Therefore the comrades thought it wise to send me to Baku. My husband "Golovanov from Tiflis" (Vladimir Bobrovsky) was working successfully on the Baku Committee under the name of Ephrem. Not having a passport he was not registered. His landlord, the bookkeeper Otto Winter, being a sympathizer, did not object to the passportless Ephrem obtaining an equally passportless wife, a certain "Olga Petrovna" (myself). Thus I settled in Baku. The name Olga Petrovna stuck to me and I worked in the organization under it for several years. Even now many old comrades, especially Muscovites, continue to call me by that name. We had plenty of hard work to do in Baku in the autumn of 1904. At the first meeting of the committee to which I was co-opted, plans for a general strike were discussed. The latter soon broke out. Before I had time to look round I was swept off my feet by the great event. Add to this the motley confusion of Caucasian nationalist parties, groups and cliques whose multifarious aims and views I had first to become acquainted with, and it will become, clear that it was very difficult for me to take an active part in the work immediately.
While the multiplicity of nationalities and languages among the workers in the oil industry made Party work very difficult in Baku, it made it easier as far as concealment from the police was concerned. For some mysterious reason the Baku police concentrated all their attention on tracking criminals and completely ignored birds of our feather, and this enabled us to carry on our work almost openly. All of us lived without being registered; we organized big workers' meetings in the engine rooms in various parts of the oil fields and also at the houses of the workers or of sympathetic Armenian and Russian intellectuals. Usually even the janitors at these houses were sympathizers, a fact rarely met with among Russian janitors who were usually in the pay of the police.
Before the strike began our Baku organization had to wage a bitter struggle against a semi-Pulenshevik, semi-adventurist group which had considerable influence over the workers employed in the Balakhana oil fields. This group was composed of several intellectual professionals, who had come into the district headed by Ilya Shendrikov, a very good agitator but a demagogue. Ilya's fiery speeches before and during the strike breathed hatred of the Bolsheviks in general and of the Baku Committee in particular. He and his friends tried to keep the strike within the limits of a purely economic struggle and tried to keep out everything that was political. Our political struggle was the principal object of Ilya's ridicule at the mass meetings. On such occasions his harangues would be punctuated with sneering Menshevik phrases such as "Bolshevik generals," "Bonapartism," and so forth. But, notwithstanding the fact that they used Menshevik phraseology, the Shendrikov group was more adventurist than Menshevik.
The demagogue Ilya was never tired at mass meetings of discussing minor questions like the provision of aprons, mits, etc., by the employers, without touching upon the real significance of the strike. As a result, the more backward workers left these mass meetings without being enlightened as to the true nature of the struggle and went away determined to fight only for mits and aprons. They would leave the meeting with a hatred towards the Bolsheviks for whom mits and aprons were a minor problem and not the vital question.
The trouble with the Baku Committee was that it adopted a somewhat academic approach to the working masses. Another drawback was that we had no speaker in our ranks to match the eloquent Ilya Shendrikov. I recall quite clearly one mass meeting in Balakhana. Alyosha and Yuri took turns in speaking against Shendrikov. They were often interrupted by uncomplimentary shouts about the Bolsheviks who instead of demanding mits and aprons demanded the overthrow of the autocracy. We left the meeting with heavy hearts, but we were convinced a turn in our favour would take place any day. There were many objective reasons for our thinking so. While Shendrikov was pursuing his demagogic policy in Balakhana without bothering to strengthen his influence organizationally, our committee was strengthening its position in other districts and, most important of all, it was in control of the strike committee.
I vividly recall a nocturnal meeting of the strike committee held in a worker's home, which was situated in the backyard of a weird-looking Tartar house. Several of our armed men stood on guard in the yard. If any of the police had visited us that night, they would have fared badly. At that memorable meeting which in addition to the Baku Committee was attended by a number of active district workers, the final demands of the strikers, political as well as economic, were formulated (the mits and aprons were included). We were all in high spirits. It was good to be in that room, even though the place was so stuffy that one of the comrades, a representative of the tram conductors, began to feel faint. The meeting lasted all night. Early in the morning we left the place in little groups so as not to be too conspicuous. We had to go straight to the districts in order to be on the spot when the strike broke out. I walked to my district, Cherny Gorod, with Red Georgi and a worker named Luka, who represented the railway depot on the strike committee.
Cherny Gorod was situated on the other side of the railway where there were a number of engineering shops. Things began to stir here early in the morning. Everywhere crowds of workers were excitedly discussing the strike. When they saw us, particularly Georgi and Luka, they crowded around, eager to know what demands had been formulated at the last night's meeting. Everyone was in high spirits. Only the women grumbled. They even pointed at me as at some shameless creature who was meddling in affairs which were not a woman's business. I don't recall having met any organized women workers in Baku with the exception of the women artisans in the town and handicraft workers. The women who grumbled at the strike were principally the workers' wives. All they were concerned about was nursing the children and cooking their husbands' meals. They were the most abject and ignorant creatures in the world. That is why I felt no anger towards them despite the sharpness of their tongues. It never occurred to us to carry on work among them; the job seemed such a thankless one. Besides, there was so much other work which we could barely cope with that agitation among the women was left for more favourable times.
During the strike the Baku Committee tried to show the masses of workers the necessity of extended political demands both by oral agitation and by the distribution of leaflets which had been printed in our excellently equipped secret printshop. This agitation proved successful. The Baku workers became more class conscious during the strike, although a demonstration which had been planned on a Sunday was disrupted by Ilya Shendrikov. He deliberately called a meeting in Balakhana on that day and spoke so long that it was too late for the Balakhana workers to walk the ten versts to town where our demonstration was to be held, and without the Balakhana workers the demonstration could not have had the desired effect so we had to abandon it. The general strike of the Baku workers lasted a month and ended in December 1904 in the oil kings, who were organized in the Oil Producers' Federation, granting important concessions.
Even the women ceased to nag their husbands. They realized that the struggle had been worth while. The struggle had been a hard one, but the workers secured a shortened working day and an increase in wages. But most important of all, the workers began to be recognized as a power with which it was necessary to reckon.
This consciousness of their own strength could not but communicate itself even to the most backward workers, and even to the workers' wives.
After the strain of the past months, there came a breathing spell for all the Committee members and active workers, and we made up for the sleepless nights spent during the strike.
Shortly afterwards news reached us about the January events in St. Petersburg. The breath of the 1905 Revolution was in the air.
We Bolsheviks soon began to bestir ourselves again. But the guardians of autocracy, particularly the Governor of Baku, Nakashidze, were wide awake, too. To disperse the clouds of revolution that hung threateningly in the air, he resorted to the favourite method used so widely by the authorities in tsarist Russia--the stirring up of race hatred. As an instrument for this murderous task, Nakashidze chose representatives of the most backward nationality in the Caucasus--the Tartars. Gangs of these men were provided by the police with guns and knives, and a special day was fixed for a massacre of the Armenians. I shall never forget those horrible days. All day long I tried every way to get to the districts. But all roads were completely cut off. We could not reach the districts in which the forces with which we could fight the hideous pogrom incited by the governor were concentrated. Our disarmed workers seethed with indignation, but they were powerless.
No one had the least doubt, not even the inhabitants of the city, that the pogrom had been organized by the governor (Nakashidze was later assassinated by a bomb thrown at him by an Armenian revolutionary). I personally saw Nakashidze riding about giving orders to the police. I had been trying to get to Stopani, the secretary of our committee, when I met the propagandist Arsen, an Armenian. He took me by the arm in the hope that the hooligans would not attack him. Women were not attacked in the streets, and I was still safe because I was not an Armenian. Armenian women were killed in their homes if they attempted to defend their fathers, husbands, or sons. Near Stopani's house we ran into a group of young armed Tartars. One of them grasped his revolver, but another stopped him, saying in the Tartar language (translated to me afterwards), "Don't touch him" (Arsen), "he is walking with a Russian woman. There may be trouble afterwards."
For three days Nakashidze's Tartar gangs pillaged and plundered the city. On the fourth day, having had his fill of blood and fearing the growing indignation of the workers in the districts, Nakashidze gave the signal for the pogrom to cease. To crown it all he arranged a peace farce--a procession of the united Tartar and Armenian clergy. After this the Tartar gangs were disbanded and order was once again restored.
When the pogrom ceased, the indignation of the whole population found expression in the form of huge meetings in the city and in all the oil fields and factories. Again the wave of revolution began steadily to rise and swept in, not only the workers, but almost the entire population. At this time our organization obtained the assistance of a brilliant agitator, Mikhail Vassiliev, who, under the name of Yuzhin, afterwards played a prominent part in the armed uprising in Moscow in December 1905. There were days in Baku when power slipped entirely out of the hands of the governor. Nakashidze lost his head at first, but he quickly recovered and declared the city under martial law, sentries were stationed at all the city gates and no one was permitted to leave his house after seven o'clock in the evening. We began to prepare for an armed demonstration. Measures were taken immediately to arm the workers with guns smuggled in from Persia and similar sources. In spite of our efforts, however, we only managed to get a dozen or so revolvers. I obtained a few Browning pistols for the Cherny Gored district, which I had to deliver to my workers. But at each city gate there were armed soldiers. In order to carry the guns past the soldiers I bought a basketful of carrots, cabbages and beets, placed the revolvers at the bottom of the basket and covered them with the vegetables. I put on a white apron, threw a cotton kerchief over my head and safely passed the soldiers, who took me for a cook coming from the market.
I worked in Cherny Gorod until the beginning of March 1905. Then I was appointed secretary of the Baku Committee. Here I had to rearrange our secret printshop. It was excellently equipped with type, cases and parts of machinery. It was quite easy to organize two printshops with the equipment of this one, and have one in reserve in case the other was discovered. It was not good policy to have things on such a large scale. So we transferred some of the unnecessary parts to a safe place so as to be able to start a small printshop in another part of the city. But I was not destined to accomplish all this, as soon after, I was obliged to leave for Moscow.