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

XIII. The "Okruzhka"

IN August 1907 a Regional Party Conference was held in Moscow at which reports were heard from representatives from various districts. The sum and substance of all the reports was that there was marked stagnation in all the organizations of the central industrial region. This was the result of the repressive measures of the government which once again compelled our Party to experience the hardships of underground work. It was also the result of the apathy and sense of disappointment among both the Party workers and the working masses owing to the temporary slowing down in the revolutionary process.

One of the items on the agenda of this conference was the question of the trade unions, and it is characteristic that the idea that the trade unions should become illegal Party organizations found support. After a long debate it was agreed by a close majority that the trade unions be built on an illegal basis and under Party control. The fact that such a decision was taken is to be explained by the defeat of the textile strikes and the exaggerated hopes the Party had placed in the trade unions. And because the strike proved too much for these trade unions the conclusion was drawn that the unions must be subjected to the Party to such an extent that they become Party organizations. This idea was advocated by Comrade Lyadov. He spoke at length on this subject at the conference.

After the conference I was sent to work with the Moscow Regional Committee--to the "okruzhka" as it was called in short. The Moscow Regional Committee was elected at the conference and consisted of a group of representatives from the centre and one representative from each locality. Whenever I think of the members of the Regional Committee, the vision of a group of comrades, now dead, appears before my eyes. One of the members of the Regional Committee was Concordia Samoilova. "Natasha" as we called her. She died not long ago. A passionate revolutionary, Natasha one day delivers militant speeches at a mass meeting in the Mitishchi Woods, next she calls an organizational meeting in Golutvino, the day after she sits in conference with the representatives of the Kolomna Works, from there she goes to Shchelkovo, Kuntsevo, Pushkino; everywhere she is expected with impatience, everywhere she rouses dormant thoughts, stirs a wearied will, binds the scattered suburban Moscow proletarian masses who are gradually recovering from the defeat of 1905, with strong organizational ties. Having made her rounds, hungry and tired Natasha returns to Moscow, and her reports at the meetings breathe of the life, of the very heart, of the working masses.

I can recall another comrade who worked with us on the Regional Committee, the responsible organizer of Orekhovo-Zuevo, our biggest district in the "okruzhka," Comrade Valentin. He was the son of a poor peasant and had been a village teacher at Podolsk in the Moscow province. He began his revolutionary activities in the Party in 1903, while he was still a student at the Polivanov teachers' seminary. In 1906 he was arrested for the first time at a Moscow suburban railway station for carrying illegal literature and was sentenced to imprisonment. After serving his term, he began to work illegally. In 1907 he was again arrested: in 1908 he escaped from prison and worked first in our "okruzhka," later in Ivanovo-Voznesensk and then in Baku. In 1909, Comrade Valentin was arrested a third time at a meeting of the Moscow Committee and was one of the accused in the celebrated case of the "thirty-five" started by the Moscow gendarmerie. After two and a half years of preliminary detention, he was sentenced to four years hard labour in the Butirsky prison in Moscow.

He profitably employed those six and a half years of imprisonment in hard study, and when he was released from prison and deported to Irkutsk in 1915, he was not only well up in Marxian theory, but he had also mastered four languages--German, French, English and Italian. He was in Irkutsk in 1917 when the February Revolution broke out and he could once again throw himself body and soul into Party work. In August 1918, when the Soviet government in Chita was surrounded by Czechs and whiteguards on the Irkutsk side, by the Japanese and Kolchak in Vladivostok, and by Semyenov in Manchuria, Comrade Valentin organized a group of five to wind up the soviet without serious loss and to cover the retreat of the Party underground. Having accomplished his object he moved along the River Amur to Khabarovsk. There he lived illegally and settled as a teacher in one of the villages. He established contact with the Central Trade Union Bureau in Khabarovsk which used to issue a legal paper. For this paper he wrote a series of satirical articles under the heading, "A Letter to My Aunt," in which he subjected Admiral Kolchak and Ataman Semyenov to biting ridicule.

The paper, of course, was closed down, but an open challenge had been thrown at the reaction, and was very significant. Later Comrade Valentin proceeded to muster the broken and scattered Party forces of Vladivostok, Blagoveshchensk, Verkhneudinsk and Irkutsk.

Then, the guerilla war against the Whites and interventionists commenced. Not wishing to leave the partisans without ideological leadership, Comrade Valentin took part in establishing a secret printshop and published leaflets. This work was interrupted by his arrest by the Kolchak secret police on May 8, 1919. Comrades tried to arrange his escape, but they were betrayed and the plan failed. Semyenov sent his men to take Valentin to the torture chamber near Chita. What happened there is unknown. Those who entered that torture chamber never returned. It is not known whether Valentin was shot or slowly tortured to death. Only this much is certain, that when the partisans took Makeyevo they found horrible implements of torture, and the inhabitants of the district relate that it was rarely that anyone was shot, that most of the prisoners were slowly tortured to death.

A third member of the "okruzhka," was Arcady Samoilov, Natashas husband, a responsible propagandist, speaker and editor of our paper, The Struggle. I had known him since 1899, when I met him. in the Kharkov organization. He died in Astrakhan in 1919. He had been sent from St. Petersburg to carry on political work in the backward Astrakhan fishing industries where epidemics of typhus and dysentery raged.

Then there was the very young member of our committee--the organizer of the Kolomna district, Alexander. His surname I never discovered, just as I never learned where he came from nor what was his trade. I only recollect that he was an ardent revolutionary, selflessly devoted to the cause, that he worked without respite, that in the foulest of weather, clad in an old weatherbeaten coat, he would travel on the Moscow railways, not even third class, but by freight car because it was cheaper and less conspicuous. Alexander was rather frail, he often coughed at the committee meetings, and when spring drew near his face became suffused with an unwholesome flush. The doctor who examined him declared that he had tuberculosis and that the Crimea was the only place where he could recover.

I remember the difficulties we had to collect the necessary money for the journey. But on the way, or soon after his arrival, he died of hemorrhage.

Alexander was one of those unknown heroes who gave his life for the revolution even when the revolutionary tide was at low ebb.

And there were many other comrades whose faces stand vividly before me.

As it was impossible for reasons of secrecy to have anything in the nature of a Party apparatus in the country districts, all the district secretaries were located in Moscow. Each secretary had to provide literature for his district, collect and keep account of membership dues, provide living quarters for all his district workers who came to Moscow to attend meetings, regularly inform his district representatives when meetings were to be held, and so on.

As soon as I joined the "okruzhka" I became secretary of the committee. An apparatus in the present sense of the word naturally could not exist either at the centre or in the country districts. Towards the end of 1907 our Party had again gone underground: the entire regional secretariat consisted of myself and three assistants who were ready night or day to risk every danger in order to be of service to the Regional Committee. There were the two Elenas: Big Elena and little Elena and a youth named Faddey Meshkofsky who was later arrested in connection with a secret printshop and exiled to Siberia.

Big Elena's real name was Maria Dracheva, a nurse by profession. Although Maria had been listed among those who had perished in the Presnya District of Moscow in 1905, she was alive and flourishing in 1907 and an excellent assistant into the bargain. Before December 1905 Comrade Dracheva worked in a secret printshop in Presnya which was destroyed by the Semyenov Regiment during the days of uprising. Some of the comrades were killed, but Dracheva had been sent to town on Party business and was not on the premises during these tragic events.

Little Elena was the student, Elena Nomas.

Both Elenas looked extremely respectable, and no one would have dreamed that they were revolutionaries. This was just the kind of people our organization needed. The work was becoming more and more difficult, the reaction increased in intensity and the opportunities for carrying on our work were steadily diminishing. Our improvised "secretariat" was, if one may use the term, extra-territorial--it had no permanent premises for its work. At one time our headquarters were in Ivanov's bookstore near Kudrinsky square. Old Ivanov often came to the assistance of the Regional Committee, for which reason his store was closed down by the police and; he and his family were arrested.

The apartment to which Party members could go and by giving the correct password obtain,the address of headquarters, where the secretary could be seen that day, was more or less permanent; but the place where the secretary could be found was changed every day. Thus we required seven different apartments per week for our headquarters where comrades could meet and discuss the problems that arose in connection with their work. Besides twice a month we needed a safe place in which to hold our committee meetings. In 1907-08 the question of premises was more acute than at any other time. Sympathizers altogether ceased to sympathize, for we were definitely out of fashion. Philosophic and other problems, particularly the sex problem had become the fashion and they had no time for us. Indeed, so acute did the premises question become that not only had we no place to meet in, but we professional revolutionaries had no place to live in.

I found shelter in a room behind the stove with the family of a porter who worked in the German Club. The man was a terrible drunkard, but his wife and two daughters were our own people. They knew I was working illegally and that my name was not Olga Petrovna but concealed this from the neighbours and from the drunken father who made a row every night and gave no one any rest. Natasha was literally homeless for a considerable time and had to go in search of a place to sleep every night. And sometimes she had absolutely nowhere to go. As a measure of safety Natasha and I arranged to keep away from each other although this was not easy for we were the most intimate friends until she died.

At twelve o'clock one night, however, she came to my lodgings and said that she was forced to break our agreement, because, having visited the homes of three sympathizers to ask to be allowed to stay she had met with a polite refusal at all of them and found herself on the street. That night both of us slept very little, but we jested a great deal at the expense of the sympathizers and at our own expense. There was nothing else to do, for it was impossible for both of us to sleep on that narrow broken cot.

I had three apartments which I could use for our daily work and for meeting purposes whenever it was expedient from the point of view of secrecy, and the tenants of these apartments never objected to our using them. The first of these was that of Sophia Bobrovskaya, the second that of the lawyer Vladimir Trudchinsky and the third, that of the late Sergey Veidrikh who lived with his mother Alissa Veidrikh, who was also a sympathizer. But all these apartments had been known to the police since 1905, and for that reason we had to be very cautious when using them.

The widely scattered districts of the "okruzhka" demanded many Party workers but all we had could be counted off on the fingers of one hand, so to speak. The drop in our Party membership was beginning to assume threatening dimensions. At almost every Party meeting the insoluble problem of how we were to serve the districts would arise. How were we, a mere handful of workers, to cover all the big and small enterprises in our region? Oral propaganda and agitation on a big scale were out of question. The only possible form of agitation and propaganda left to us was the printed word. That is why the Regional Committee, which was considerably weaker than the Moscow Committee had its own paper, while the latter did not.

When I began to work as secretary of the "okruzhka," my first problem was to re-establish the secret printshop which had met with misfortune shortly before I came, after having printed five issues of The Struggle. By what miracle the comrades who worked in the printshop escaped arrest and imprisonment remains a mystery to me, but the machine and the type were lost. Comrades Tsirul was the head "technician" as we called the comrade who arranged the technical part of the business. There was also an old and tried comrade, Nikolai Kudriashev, who worked in the printshop. Tsirul lived on Zatsepka, but I cannot say whether the printshop was also located there.

In September the sixth issue of The Struggle appeared containing the following editorial:

"Comrades, the servants of the tsar raided our printshop while the sixth issue was being produced. They gloated over the fact that this hated newspaper ceased to exist. General Reinbot was overjoyed and well rewarded his faithful spies, detectives and provocateurs. The comrades who worked in the printshop managed to escape, but the machine and the type which we had procured with the hard-earned money contributed by the workers fell into the hands of our enemies. Nevertheless, we succeeded in establishing another printshop, once more we are issuing The Struggle, once again the free voice of the workers' Party finds expression in its pages." In September we managed to publish two issues--the sixth and the seventh.

We ran this printshop on a large scale. We were obliged to employ six or eight professionals including the responsible technician. We paid a high rent for a special apartment, besides spending large sums on paper for our printing.

Of course, we received a considerable amount of money that was collected among the workers, but this did not suffice. Then the finance committee came to our rescue, and there were a number of cranky intellectuals who, although they had ceased to believe in the revolution after the events of 1905, nevertheless, continued to donate funds for the upkeep of our paper. The finance committee consisted largely of the wives of engineers, lawyers, doctors, and there was even the wife of a rubber manufacturer on this committee. There were only three of our people on the committee, Anna, Armond and Claudia. Being the daughter of a manufacturer and the widow of an engineer Anna had money and contributed to the Party funds on many occasions, besides helping in other ways. Claudia joined the Party before 1905. At first she worked on the finance committee of the Moscow "okruzhka," but later became a more active worker in the Party organization. Being a teacher, Claudia took full advantage of her legal position, and often placed her little apartment at the Filaretovsky Divinity School in Moscow at the disposal of illegal comrades who not only were given shelter but the most solicitous attention. When the secret printshop was threatened the only safe place to hide the huge basket containing the machine, type, paper, etc., was the little apartment in the Filaretovsky School. At such moments the extremely modest, almost shy Claudia would display great self-control, daring and resourcefulness. With her Filaretov mien (as the comrades would say in jest), Claudia was indispensable for carrying packages of leaflets to some dangerous place, for warning active workers that arrest was threatened, for getting in contact with prisoners who had the necessary addresses for re-establishing the organization when it was broken up by the police, etc.

She was the daughter of a baker of consecrated bread and in fact was brought up in this very Filaretovsky School. Hence she was intimately acquainted with the life of the clergy and hated everything that was clerical with all her heart; but she continued to work in the school with the sole object of using the place for Party purposes because nobody would ever suspect such a holy place of being a hotbed of sedition.

The finance committee would often arrange functions such as social evenings, concerts, lotteries, etc. for raising funds. But these affairs always resulted in a deficit. These circumstances did not embarrass our patronesses one bit. They not only covered the deficit out of their own pockets, but would often add a bit more, for they thought it would look awkward, if after having made so much noise about their affairs they did not contribute anything to the organization. I can recall a rich manufacturer's wife who paid sixty rubles a month for the upkeep of the printshop, and on special occasions she would give more. One of the conditions for obtaining this money, was that I had to go for it personally. This duty was a very trying one for me because the lady lived in an extremely expensive apartment. At the door stood a pompous footman, upstairs was a starched maid who squeamishly removed my shabby, weatherbeaten coat. Then I had to walk across the softly carpeted floor into a luxurious drawing room, In a few minutes the rustling of silk skirts would announce the mistress who would begin to question me about Party affairs in general and our "okruzhka" in particular. Every time she put these questions to me I wanted to ask, "What business is it of yours?" But I restrained myself, for I could not deprive the organization of such a good source of financial support. However, one fine day, in 1908, I believe, my rubber manufacturess announced to me that she was disappointed in our organization, that she was occupied with the study of philosophy, that she no longer believed in historical materialism but had taken up empiriocriticism or something of the sort, and considering all things she could no longer support our bolshevik printshop. This finally convinced me that we had gone completely out of fashion, that we must now rely on our own resources as far as funds were concerned.

Just then I keenly felt the lack of the sixty rubles she used to contribute to meet the expenses of our printshop. I had to obtain money at all cost. Luckily Vladimir Bobrovsky, who by a trick had obtained work as a veterinary in the city slaughter house, received a hundred rubles for his work which I immediately "borrowed" and got out of my fix.

Towards the end of 1907 the Central Committee of our Party called an All-Russian Conference in Helsingfors, Finland, to discuss our tactics in the forthcoming elections for the Third State Duma. The opinion of many of the comrades in Moscow and in the "okruzhka" was that we ought to boycott the Third State Duma, and the central bodies of the Party had to exert a great deal of effort to convince them of the necessity of participating in the elections. But while this boycotting mood prevailed our local comrades showed little interest in the Conference. When the "okruzhka" had to elect delegates to this conference, none of us wanted to go. At the general meeting of the Regional Committee comrade after comrade was nominated as a delegate but each refused in turn. At last only two of us remained on the list--either Natasha or I must go. As Natasha refused absolutely, it fell to my lot to go.

A whole group of delegates from the Moscow Region left for Helsingfors. A delegate from the Urals, Comrade Nazar, accompanied us. This redhaired, plump little comrade, with his sharp wit, made us laugh all the way from Moscow. In St. Petersburg we obtained the required addresses and went through Belo-ostrov to Teriyokki. In Koukala, near Teriyokki, lived Lenin and all the overseas members of our Central Committee. When I met Lenin and Nadezhda Constantinovna, it seemed to me they had not changed in the least, especially Nadezhda Constantinovna. She wore, as it seemed to me, the same grey blouse she had worn in Geneva in 1903. But we all had the impression that Lenin was weighed down by some anxiety which he apparently was loth to disclose to the district workers.

If I remember rightly, the secretary of the Central Committee at that time was Teodorovich, who lived in St. Petersburg. The technical apparatus of the Central Committee was in Teriyokki. Our central organ Proletary was also printed there; it was taken to Russia by two comrades, "The Bee" and "Misha with the umbrella"--comrade Weinstein.

In Teriyokki a preliminary meeting of the Bolshevik delegation was held at which Lenin was present. Besides Teodorovich, there were Poletayev and Michael Tomsky from St. Petersburg, Tyszko, Warski and Dzerzhinsky from Poland and Danishevsky from Latvia. There were also present M. N. Pokrovsky, A. A. Bogdanov and Professor Rozhkov who was a Bolshevik then, Comrade Goldenburg and Comrade Knunyanis, who had just escaped from exile. He was sentenced to exile for his connection with the first St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies in 1905. The principal item for discussion at the meeting was the relationship between the Duma fraction and the Central Committee of the a Party. The Mensheviks argued that the Social-Democratic deputies in the Duma ought to act independently of the Central Committee of the Party. We stood firmly on the ground that the Duma fraction had to submit to the instructions of the Central Committee. Hence, we had to mobilize all our forces to get our point of view adopted at the Conference.

On the morrow we left for Helsingfors in small groups. The beautiful granite city with its streets made a very pleasant impression on me, but this lovely city did not welcome us at all hospitably. We were obliged to live almost illegally, and our conference was held in premises that were so damp and dark that they completely harmonized with the dullness of the conference itself. It seemed to me that only the Menshevik and Bund leaders (Martov, Dan, Lieber and company) could find any inspiration in this conference. Chkheidze delivered particularly fiery speeches. All their arguments seemed to amount to this: "No matter how many resolutions you pass about Central Committee instructions, about its leadership of the fraction, we, the Duma fraction, are our own masters.... This is our time, the time for gradual, parliamentary action, and not for your revolution."

During the entire conference Lenin was visibly bored. And we simple, district workers were not sorry when the conference ended. We were very anxious to get back to our local work which, though not remarkably colourful at that particular time, was, nevertheless, less tedious than the conference.

During the intermission between sessions, our crowd gathered in an obscure corner and carried on a merry conversation. I was ill at that time and had a bad cough. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin came over to me and remarked, "You have a bad cough, you should go abroad to get rid of it." And when I answered that there was such a dreadful shortage of workers in Moscow that it would be impossible for me to leave, Lenin answered in jest, "You will die like a bird on a twig in the wintertime."

Besides the question of the tactics of the Duma fraction the conference also discussed whether Social-Democrats should write for the bourgeois press. A liberal resolution was passed to the effect that while it was not permissible to write for bourgeois newspapers, it was permissible to write for bourgeois magazines, or something like that.

The conference lasted several days during which time we found shelter with a Finnish Social-Democrat whose apartment and occupation were far from proletarian. This Finn kept a wine shop, a circumstance which shocked us beyond conception.

We returned from the conference with great caution singly but we all passed safely over the border.

I was able to make my report on this conference only at the general meeting of the Regional Committee. Our first plan that I should go from district to district to give the report did not materialize.

The last months of 1907 and up to the spring of 1908, work in the "okruzhka" was harder than anywhere else. There was stagnation in the districts; work in Orekhovo-Zuevo, Kolomna and Pushkino barely crawled along, and Serpukhov was a lost hope. There the police were extremely active; as soon as any of our comrades went there, they were immediately arrested. During this time it was very difficult to prevent the districts from going to pieces. Things brightened up a bit with the coming of the warm weather when we could hold meetings in the woods.

In June 1908 we planned a Regional Conference at which we were to re-elect the Regional Committee. We were to hold the conference in the woods not far from Obiralovka, on the Nizhnenovgorod railway. This station had unpleasant associations for me--I had been arrested there in the summer of 1905 and I was destined to meet with another unpleasant experience at that ill-omened spot. We gathered early in the morning and towards four o'clock had almost finished with our agenda. Sitting on a hillock, I was making careful notes of the speeches and decisions, when suddenly the alarm was given by our patrol--somebody shouted "Cossacks." Everybody scattered in all directions. During the confusion I fell into a puddle and turned up at one of the Moscow suburban railroad stations on this bright June day in my light dress up to my knees in mud. Although I knew my appearance would attract attention at the station, I could not make up my mind to remain in the woods until evening. I was afraid that what had happened in Ivanovo would be repeated. I preferred to be arrested at the station to being beaten up in the woods. But I was not arrested at this suburban station. The police had their eye on me it seems, and allowed me to get to Moscow, and there I was arrested. When I was taken to the police headquarters, I found seven of our comrades already there. We pretended not to know each other. Of the forty who attended our conference only eight were caught. We were the least nimble ones--the more long-legged and fleeter comrades managed to get away.

Thus my work in the "okruzhka" in the summer of 1908 ended as usual--in arrest.