Mirrors Of Moscow

by Louise Bryant

Lenin and his subordinates:

Michael Ivanovitch Kalinin and The Peasants


THERE have been two presidents of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic; only recently we have become vaguely aware of one of them. Ever since the Bolshevik coup d' etat America has spoken of the Soviet Government as "the government of Lenin and Trotsky." America was right in so far as these men enjoy immense power, and wrong in so far as she imagined it would have been· possible at any time, and less so now, for either of these men or both of them to have abruptly changed the government's policy from right to left or left to right without first receiving indisputable orders from the masses.

Relatively, Lenin has more power than Lloyd George and Trotsky considerably less; while President Kalinin, who began his office as little more than a figure-head, has been saved from the emptiness of such a position because he is so symbolic of the growing power of the peasants. Already more power has been bestowed upon him through the course of events than perhaps he himself realizes. Surely when he set out in his painted train on his first journey through the provinces three years ago, he could hardly have foreseen his place in history as one of the greatest influences in molding the new state.

Kalinin's growing influence is a true barometer of public opinion or, to be more exact, of the reassertion of public opinion. And it is interesting to note that while many of the stars in the Communist sky are considerably dimmed by the ascendancy of Kalinin, Premier Lenin's position is only made stronger. This is because the new pressure from below is for compromise, and public men go down under retreat much faster than when their banners are flying triumphantly in advance. Lenin is practical enough to understand the advantages of a well-ordered retreat above those of a rout: he will save all he can of the Socialist state instead of abandoning it on the fields of battle.

It was the question of private property which became the vital issue in 1920 inside and outside of Russia. The abolition of private property was made possible by a determined, conscious minority. It was re-established by the pressure of a slow-moving, solid, unconscious majority; that majority was the peasants. I do not mean that the peasants are now actually in control of the state. I merely wish to point out that they already hold the balance of power and that they move towards control with the crushing surety of a glacier. They hold, strategically, the same position that the Bolsheviks did under Kerensky, but they will never pursue the same tactics; they will assume power gradually just because they are the majority; it is only a minority which must act with dramatic haste, counting on brains, daring and psychological moments.

It was logical that the first President should have been a man who represented the city workers and the second President, a peasant; for in such wise did the revolution settle itself.

Most of the Communists did not approve of Kalinin's election. Lenin alone sensed the proper time to place a peasant as nominal head of the Soviets; a peasant who should begin as Master of Ceremonies and who, in his peasant's garb and with his peasant's tongue, should bring Lenin's ideas to the people; a peasant who would never cease being a peasant and who would come back to Lenin and say, "This and this they will have, here they cannot follow and there they will lead." Lenin gazed at Russia through Kalinin's eyes as one gazes in a crystal.

In 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized control of the state, a delicate little man called Jacob Michaelovitch Sverdlov, a chemist by profession and a revolutionist by conviction, was Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Workers and Soldiers Deputies; this meant that he controlled the Red Guards, the conscious workers and the revolting soldiers; it meant he held a position of such tremendous authority that he could not be ignored by anybody. So when the first Council of the People's Commissars was formed, which is really no other than the cabinet of the Russian Government, Sverdlov was the first person taken into consideration by them. And in order to find a place for him they created the office of President. When he accepted that office he gave up his direct control and became but one voice in a group. Nevertheless, all through the barricade days he continued to act as the spokesman in the cabinet for the Petrograd workers who were, for at least the first year, a power above the cabinet. In the winter of 1918 Sverdlov died of typhus and was buried on the Red Square in Moscow.

During the time Sverdlov was president the government was in continual difficulty with the peasants. They resisted the government's requisitioning expeditions, retreated within themselves and almost ignored the central power until the provinces were in a continual state of guerilla warfare. They managed their local Soviets with little or no thought of the Moscow Government. Civil war continued .and, with the aid of France and England, grew apace; hard dark days settled over Russia. Sverdlov looked about for an entering wedge which would somehow pierce the way to an eventual understanding and co-operation with the local and central Soviets. In this search Sverdlov discovered Kalinin. Kalinin was already immensely popular with the peasants; he had been on every Land Committee of importance since the beginning of the first revolution, · under both Miliukov and Kerensky.

During his term of office Sverdlov used Kalinin as a mediator in many difficult situations and Lenin watched his work with interest. A n old Communist explained Kalinin's election in these words: "He was a 'find' of Sverdlov's, but it was Lenin alone who realized that ays might come when he would be invaluable in holding Russia together." Those days have come; they came with the tightening of the blockade and continued with the famine.

Kalinin is a Communist, a brand of Communist differing as much from Zinoviev or Litvinov as Borah differs from Hughes or Hughes differs from Root; yet Hughes and Borah and Root are Republicans steeped to the bone in party discipline, rampaging now and then, but never dreaming of breaking away from the party. Kalinin believes in a kind of Communism, modified enough to suit the peasants, and Zinoviev believes in a kind of Communism that is suited, at any time, only for the advanced and conscious city proletariat.

Kalinin was born in the little village of Volost and still calls it his home, still has his little strip of land there. He was brought up religiously, and understands what the Church means to a devout Russian and never throws aspersions on it. Though not religious himself, he tolerates religion with the grave tolerance which never offends.

His old mother is outspokenly anti-Bolshevik, yet very much likes to have her say in the Volost Soviet. She is angry with the Bolsheviks because they are not religious. She scolds her son and pretends that she is not at all flattered because he is President of Russia and obviously believes that no honor is too great for him. She is always glad to talk to visitors about him and goes on monotonously repeating the same ideas in the manner of the aged: "No, I am not surprised," she will say, "that Michael Ivanovitch has gone so far. He was always studious, sitting up reading by candle-light after everyone else was in bed. And he was always saying to me, 'Don't bother me, mother, I've got lots of work to do.' That's the way he talks to me now when I lecture him about religion. But he's a good son and kind to everybody ... only he certainly ought to think more about God."

I don't believe that Kalinin is ambitious; I think he would like nothing so much as to go back to his farm and live there the simple life of the village. When Lenin convinced him that it was his duty to be the voice of the peasants, he accepted the post in the quiet way of a man who has no thought of personal glory. There is nothing in his record that would prove him to be anything but entirely unselfish, and I have seen him when he was like one inspired. During the Kronstadt revolt he walked into that hostile city might walk into the mouth of a cannon. Yet no one dared or desired to harm him!

Kalinin is an old revolutionist. In his early youth he found himself unable to tolerate, without protest, the tyranny of the Tsar's government which manifested itself in such brutal cruelty towards the peasants. He has always been desperately poor, a real proletarian peasant, hoping to be rid one day of his endless debts and support himself and his family honorably and· decently. He was forced through poverty to go to the city, where he worked in factories in winter; only the summers he spent with his family. These winters in the city, where he was thrown in contact with city workers, gave him an understanding of the psychology and desires of the city workers as well as of the peasants.

He was exiled to Siberia but not to hard labor, and.he spent this enforced and only leisure of his life rounding out his education; mixing the classics with his dreams of freedom for Russia.

Kalinin's wife is an educated, energetic peasant, who has by her own ability become a figure of importance in her village; capable and strong and intelligent, she has managed her tiny farm just a little better than her neighbors and has been elected President of the Volost Soviet. It is a position of which she is immensely proud.

Madame Kalinin is an individualist; a modern feminist of the type of professional woman who, in America, insists on keeping her name and continuing her work after marriage. During the last three years she has been so busy that she has had no time to visit Moscow. Kalinin, on his rare vacations, has had to go to her. If she ever does visit Moscow she will surely wear her kerchief and her sheepskin coat. No doubt supercilious Russians are already saying that "Main Street has arrived in Moscow," just as we have been saying since March, 1921 , that "just folks" are in the White House.

And there is a curious similarity between President Harding and President Kalinin; both were elected to represent the average citizen. In Russia average citizens are peasants-a ninety per cent average. Both presidents go about their home towns slapping fellow citizens on the back. Both were elected·as figureheads for a party and both have already proven themselves a little more forceful and importa,nt than the party reckoned.

If Russia continues in the path where it is now, in fifty years the Kalinins will have become Hardings, at home in silk hats and frock coats, as well as in sheepskins and high boots. But it is hard to predict where Russia is going or where the world is going.

When Kalinin rides through the provinces on his propaganda train carrying stocks of literature, a motion picture apparatus and his official seal, with the outside "done" by some futurist artist in garish colors and depicting a millennium in which Kalinin would not be at home, he is "Comrade" Kalinin to the whole train; he takes his meals with the train crew, the porters and the secretaries; all share alike. But the remarkable thing is that when he gets back to Moscow he makes no effort to shake the dust of the provinces from his boots, he rather makes a point of remaining distinctly a villager. He receives you in his Moscow office wearing the same old mended spectacles, the same threadbare coat and, I am sure, the same heart and mind. He brings the country along with him, invades the city with it, permeates it, overcomes it. . . .

This attitude is characteristic not only of Kalinin, it is characteristic of any peasant. I have often noted the delegates at the Congresses. They are neither shy nor bewildered, they sit solemnly in their places in the great hall, pondering all that Lenin says of trade or reconstruction, approving or disapproving; getting closer every day to the idea that Russia is theirs.

It is generally believed that the line between the city workers and the peasants is wide and irreconcilable, whereas there is actually no line at all. · The city workers are only peasants who have gone to the city just as Kalinin did, when they could not make a living in the villages. Russian peasants never get over being farmers. Last winter I came upon an excellent example: Some three hundred skilled Russian mechanics from Detroit arrived in Moscow; they were sorely needed in the Russian factories. Without a single exception they refused to remain in the city! And when they learned that they might be conscripted and forced tostaytheyfledhurriedlyineverydirection. With one voice they exclaimed, "We came home to the land!"

Naturally, the government was in despair; officials were at a loss as to what measures could be taken to bring pressure and a sense of duty upon the returning Russians. Orators were sent to argue with the next group, but without success. The only solution the government found workable was to organize them before they arrived; to see that they brought tools from America and came with the definite idea of remaining in the cities for a fixed period; for only the country is real to the peasant, the city is forever an artificial, unhealthy invention.

Kalinin's office in Moscow is not in the Kremlin. To get into the Kremlin requires too much red tape. Therefore, while the President eats in the Kremlin dining-room which is just an ordinary Soviet mess-room, and sits in the Councils of the People's Commissars, he receives his army of callers in an ordinary office building in the heart of the city. One needs no pass or credentials to get in; one needs simply to walk up a flight of stairs, open a door and emerge into a large bare reception· room full of noisy peasants; here he inevitably turns up.

I have often thought that Kalinin's office is the most curious place in which I have ever been in · my life; it has the atmosphere of a Russian railway train deep in the heart of the provinces where every passenger talks to every other passenger and where formality is not just overlooked or forgotten but has simply never existed.

All day long he receives the never-ending string of peasants in the manner of a village priest, giving consolation and advice-and something more solid and satisfying than a prayer, for he is obligated to make an immediate decision in each case on hand or a promise that it shall be taken up through his office. Under no circumstances can he appear indifferent or helpless.

I remember arriving early one morning to find about twenty peasants ahead of me. When Kalinin came in everyone got up and there was a sudden general stampede in his direction and a sort of clamor which arises in any Russian household over any sort of argument. Kalinin's voice could be distinctly heard above the others shouting, "Comrades, comrades, I must take you in turn." Then, as he crossed the floor towards his private office, a frail, middle-aged woman sitting near the door burst into tears. I can see him now with his narrow Slav eyes, his broad nose and rumpled hair, his wo-rk-knotted hands and faded blouse, stopping to look through his spectacles at the woman before him, kindly, sympathetic, puzzled. . . .

I think that he knew even before he began to question her that hers was one of those unavoidable, personal tragedies that are part of change and war and revolution. She had owned a big country house, but the peasants had taken it when they divided the land and they had allotted her but two rooms to live in. She was humiliated, discouraged and resentful. She cried out, forgetting that Kalinin was also a peasant, "I can't bear to see those creatures using my pretty things, walking with great muddy boots in my house. My soul is in that house!"

Kalinin shook his head. He seemed willing and even anxious to help her but he seemed more like a doctor in that moment than an executive. Very gently he asked her to remember that two rooms were more than most people had now in Russia, that these were difficult times; even so they would go over the case together if she would wait her turn. But no sooner had he closed the door than every peasant in the room began addressing the bewildered woman. They said that she should be ashamed of such petty complaints and accused her of asking for "special privileges." The widest range of arguments were put forward, from the man who had lost a cow and considered the government responsible to the woman whose two sons had been killed at the front.

I was not so much interested in the arguments as in the remarkably true reflection which the scene presented of what had happened all over Russia. I had never realized before how completely submerged the upper classes had become; how ruthless and inevitable was the vast upward surge of the peasantry. Here was this woman, one time barishna (lady), crushed and defeated in her own village, finding the same thought in Moscow as in Nizhni-Novgorod or Kazan or Baku.

When Kalinin called her she went forward but one could see that she had already given up hope and would not fight any further; perhaps for the first time the real significance of the revolution had become clear to her.

It is hard for Americans, where a peasant population has never existed, to realize the position of the peasants in a revolution. They are the rock in the whirlpool. They are the great levellers, the great destroyers as well as the great destroyers as well as the great builders. In Russia they pulled down everything about them and they were not always gentle in their wrath. Often they ruined wilfully and needlessly. In the cities, practically no buildings were destroyed and no treasures looted, but in the provinces men often remembered the knout with red flames of fire and even with death.

Because the peasants' desires are simple, the world is apt to give them credit for a deep, political wisdom which they do not possess and while there is no doubt about their taking the business of government seriously, their inexperience often leads them into grave blunders. It was the peasants, and not the Communists, who most stubbornly opposed recognition of the foreign debts. It was the peasants who demanded from every government since the Tsar's, schools, hospitals and protection from invasion, but who always resented the most ordinary and reasonable tax put upon them by the central authorities. Until Kalinin had educated them they were wont to ask like children, "Aren't we free now? Can't we be left alone?"

The great irony about the rising of the peasants is that they were the first to abandon the very equality they fought for. The equalization of property in the provinces was brought about through the workings of peasant proletariat organizations known as Committees of the Poor, which not only divided the estates of the rich landlords but broke the power of the kulaks (rich peasants). When the whole country was reduced to the same status, the peasants were faced with the necessity of a great decision. There were no longer rich peasants or proletarian peasants but only what is known in Russia as the "middle" farmers. The question of how to maintain such an equality now arose. The Communists urged them to abandon the idea of private property and work the land in communes, pointing out that any other course must inevitably lead to the re-establishment of all the old values and a new bourgeoisie. But the peasants were afraid of this new and untried road of Socialism. Their demands for trade, silver money, the opening of markets and stores, are ample evidence that they have turned back on to the old familiar road of capitalism. If Russia had been an industrial instead of an agricultural country, the decision of the masses might have been quite otherwise.

Even our own presidents know the value of a lecture tour in a national crisis. In our immediate political past, 'we have the memory of presidents who took "issues" to the people, but it is hard to conceive of a Chief Executive lecturing almost steadily for over two years. Yet that is even a short estimate of the time actually spent by Kalinin in going from one end of Russia to the other, shuttling in and out of Moscow.

His meetings were more like tribunals, people's courts, than ordinary political assemblies. The peasants gathered at the railway stations, in the village squares or even in the fields. They heard what he had to say and then he heard them. They argued, complained, demanded, compromised. Always some sort of understanding was arrived at. This was partly due to Kalinin's wonderful tact, his almost divine reasonableness which never allowed an argument to develop into a quarrel. And partly because he knows the peasant mind which is easily touched by stories of suffering, by flattery or tears, but impossible to move by threats. ·But fundamentally, the secret of Kalinin's success is due to the fact that he himself is a peasant and no walls of caste can exist between him and the people. I can illustrate this feeling of complete contact best by the story of an actual occurrence in a remote province. It happened in what are now known as the worst of the "requisitioning days" when the Soviets were holding hundreds of miles of battle front and the peasants were taxed almost beyond endurance.

One day a Lettish officer, who was also a Commissar in some Red Army division, arrived in a remote village and rang the church bell to summon the people. He read a list of the goods to be requisitioned. This village had been taxed only a short time before and there were murmurs of dissatisfaction in the crowd, murmurs which grew into roars. Then happened one of those savage, elemental tragedies which even we in America have never been able to eliminate from our national life. Threats against the Commissar were followed by sudden violence; he was literally trampled to death.

The Lettish officer had been accompanied by a young peasant soldier, who had been a sort of orderly to him for nearly a year. In the struggle the boy escaped. All night he lay weeping and thinking of his dead comrade. The officer had taken an interest in him, had taught him to read and write and imbued him with the ideals of the Red Army. The peasant boy had been an orphan, lonely and unhappy and a victim of brutality. He thought now of the dead man as he thought ofa saint, and by the time morning came he had resolved on a curiously brave act. Creeping into the church he rang the bell; the crowd gathered, and he mounted the platform and began to tell them of the dead man and the Red Army. It was not hard for him to explain that unless the Red Army was supported, the White forces would very soon take away by main force the very food they now refused to their brothers. It did not take very long to convince the crowd of peasants, and not only to convince them but to reduce them to tears. They gave all that the peasant boy asked, and more than that, they went solemnly in a procession to the fresh grave of the man they had murdered, laid wreaths upon it, and paid homage, saying: "Brother, forgive us, we could not see your heart."

This feeling accounts for the lack of resentment towards Kalinin when he goes into the famine area. He walks among the starving peasants, saying, "Who lies down, dies. I know, I have hungered, I am one of you."

In prosperous districts he uses the same tactics in overcoming opposition to collections for the famine. Whenever he finds local Soviet officials unwilling to part with their last surplus grain, he mournfully exclaims, "Ah, well, I am sorry to hear this! Last week I saw with my own eyes thousands dying of hunger. They were peasants like ourselves and they were calling to us to help. Will you send me back now with empty hands?" The peasants can never resist his appeal; it comes too close to them, it is like refusing one's father.

While the peasants were not able to bring themselves to renounce their title to the land, they have otherwise quite whole-heartedly accepted many broad formulas of the Socialists. They unanimously approved of revolutionary Russia's offer to the world in 1917 to build a peace on the basis of "no annexations, no indemnities and the right of self-determination." It is a curious and sad reality that the richer nations become and the more cultured, the less they find it possible to comprehend such a simple recipe for justice and brotherly love. The world was too educated or too selfish or too frightened to accept Russia's magnanimous offer. And how much agony and bloodshed it might have saved!

The Russian peasants, who for so many centuries have struggled and sacrificed to possess the land, are strangely lacking in national pride, as we know it. They are not envious of other countries. They could not conceive of an aggressive policy. If you say to them that America is far richer and more progressive than Russia, they will tell you they are very glad to hear it and are glad you are happy. They ask of the foreigner only to be let alone and not to send any more White generals against them; they ask to be allowed to develop their own p.olitical institutions. Obviously our only duty is to help them through their terrible struggle against the great famine which has come upon them like a curse through no sins of their own.

It is no miracle that President Kalinin can go freely about Russia, for no one is thinking of assassinating him. What would it profit enemies of Soviet Russia to kill a peasant like Kalinin? Are there not a million Kalinins? To sweep the Kalinins out of Russian political life would be like sweeping back the sea. To destroy the Soviets would be to destroy Russia. Even Sir Paul Dukes, of the British Secret Service, agrees that Soviets are the natural offspring of the revolution, conC€ived years ago under the Tsardom. Michael Ivanovitch Kalinin reflects the new Russia more faithfully than any other Government official.