Mirrors Of Moscow

by Louise Bryant

Lenin and his subordinates:

Nikolai Lenin


LENIN became an active revolutionist through the spiritual motives that have moved all great reformers — not because he himself was hungry and an outcast, but because he could not stand by unmoved in a world where other men were hungry and outcast. Such characters are predestined internationalists; the very quality that lifts them above materialism places them above borders and points of geography; they strive for the universal good. Lenin believes that the only thing worth living for is the next generation. Communism is his formula for saving the next generation from the injustices and inequalities of the present.

When I think of Lenin and his place in the Russian revolution I am reminded of a statue which, until the late Fall of the year 1918, adorned the busy square before the entrance to the Nikoliavski station in Petrograd. It represented one of the former rulers of Russia astride a huge stallion. One could not fail to be struck by the tremendous strength of the animal and the frailty of the rider. The contrast was intentional; the titled sculptor meant to warn his sovereign of the dangers threatening the throne. Russia was the wild horse, fierce, untamed, powerful, a force as yet unaroused but which might wake up any moment and cast off its royal burden.

When Lenin took the reins of state, he was in exactly the same position as a man riding a runaway horse. The utmost his constituents could have expected was that he would guide Russia away from complete destruction. They could hold him responsible for immediate situations but not for ultimate results. To what goal those vast urges and desires which caused the revolution would carry Russia, was beyond him or any man to command. His heart and his mind wished to direct it toward the crimson portals of socialism. Russia, however, in its stampede seems to have slowed up dangerously near the old, familiar gates of capitalism. Nevertheless, she will never be the same; Lenin is responsible for it that Russia has forever gained the larger fruits of the revolution.

Legends spring up around every famous man, manufactured largely by his enemies, who spread tales of his lavish extravagance, his vices, his affairs with women. It is important to know such facts about a man's life. His personal relationships mean a great deal; if he fails in these, he eventually fails in all ways. The life of the leader of a great world movement must harmonize with his doctrines; his conduct must be as austere or as lax as his doctrines dictate. That is why we have a natural antipathy to dissolute priests and none at all to dissolute poets and Bacchanalians. So it is worthy of note that even the narrowest moralist could not pick a flaw in Lenin's personal conduct. I am convinced that if he had lived in any other way than he has, he could not have maintained his remarkable poise.

Whatever inward storms arose he was impressive because of his outward serenity, because of his calm, majestic as a Chinese Buddha's. Without any fuss he took power, faced world opposition, civil war, disease, defeat and even success. Without fuss he retired for a space, and without fuss he has returned again. His quiet authoritativeness inspired more confidence than could any amount of pomp. I know of no character in history capable, as he was through such distressing days, of such complete, aristocratic composure.

Every normal man is pushed forward or back to some degree by women. It is my theory that Lenin's amazing stability was substantially strengthened by the women who meant most to him. Those women were: his mother, his wife, his sister and his lifelong friend and, in late years, chief secretary, Fotiva.

During all the years since the Bolshevik uprising, Fotiva has been his assistant. On days when he was ill or away in the country she actually had charge of the office. She is a highly efficient woman of forty, tall, dark, healthy and full of enthusiasm. She is quiet, also, and cheerful, and creates a pleasant atmosphere about her.

Lenin's office, with Fotiva managing all the under-secretaries, is an agreeable office to enter. You never feel like an intruder, nor, at the same time, that it is a place to loaf in, which means that she knows how to preserve a happy balance. In all one's dealings with Fotiva, one finds her a woman of her word. She has the very un-Russian quality of always being on time for appointments and never going back on her promises. She is a Communist of old standing and occasionally contributes articles to newspapers and magazines.

As for Madame Lenin, no one could be disturbed in her presence. How different the state of the Soviet Premier's temper might have been on occasions, were his wife the sort of woman who would weep because her apartment in the Kremlin was small, or would quarrel with the other commissars' wives, or would be jealous of Fotiva. The truth is, she admires Fotiva and is entirely glad of her existence.

Madame Lenin, whose real name is Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya Ulianova, acted for many years as Lenin's secretary. Only ill health prevented her from continuing the work.

When Lenin was editor of Iskra in Switzerland, she was the secretary of the whole Iskra organization, which not only had charge of publishing a newspaper but carried on vast party activities. All the correspondence was in her hands. At one time she was in communication with every revolutionist in Russia.

That is one reason why she is so well known from one end of the country to the other and why people still continue to call her by her revolutionary name.

Under the Tsar, Lenin was twice exiled and Krupskaya always shared his fate. Together they passed hard years in Switzerland, England and especially Paris, where for two years Lenin spent almost his entire time studying in the national library. His only means of existence was by his writings, and he wrote solely for and about the revolution — by no means a remunerative occupation. The entire period of exile extended over ten long years. In that time the Lenins never knew a day of ease or luxury. They had become accustomed to privations long before the revolution, had lived in the meanest quarters of every city they visited, occupying, as a rule, only one room, where they ate, slept, studied and carried on their revolutionary work.

It does not seem mere romance to infer that Krupskaya has had a good deal to do with keeping Lenin's nerves steady.

There were moments when Trotsky lost his head, when the Extraordinary Commission gave way to doubts, when Tchicherin hesitated — but never Lenin. Without doubt the secret of his power is that he is the only man in Russia, of any political group, whose purpose always remained clear and whose hand never trembled.

He made all manner of blunders. That he was able to admit his mistakes emphasizes his quality of mind. It is a scientific mind: a mind so well disciplined that he is able to face every fact, failure as well as success. Moreover, he has a way of grasping a situation almost by instinct; at least he grasps it at a stroke.

Nikolai Lenin strives for two great things — to westernize Russia and to keep alive the fountainhead of the Socialist State.

He told me that he did not want to grant a single foreign concession, whether a factory, a mine or a forest concession, unless he could establish a similar Russian institution alongside of it so that the Russians might continually see before their eyes the superiority of the American or the English way of doing things.

He is more interested in America than in any other country.

I remember one afternoon just before I went up to interview him, an official in the Foreign Office told me that if America did not hurry and start trade negotiations with Russia, Russia would be forced to make a trade alliance with Japan. I mentioned this to Lenin and be said:

"Nonsense! Even if we could trust Japan; which we cannot, what could she give us? We need thousands of tractors, railway engines, cars, things like that. We must get such things from America, we must make friends with America."

I think he feels in closer contact with the United States, too, because of the number of former exiles who once fled to our shores and who returned after the revolution and now hold office under the Soviet Government. He likes the way they have been trained here.

It has given him the idea of working concessions in the manner I have described. He also feels gratitude toward Raymond Robins and always asks about him, considers William C. Bullitt a man of honor, while John Reed was as near to his heart as was ever any Russian.

He is continually reading American papers, books and magazines. When I came home I sent him the "Mirrors of Washington," and I know how he will chuckle over it as he used to chuckle over William Hard's articles in the New Republic.

He admires American energy so much that he comes very near understanding an American reporter's need for on-the-minute news, which no other Soviet official appreciates, except Trotsky.

I will never forget the day during the blackest time of the blockade when I went to Lenin and asked permission to go to the Middle East after the Foreign Office had flatly refused me this permission. He simply looked up from his work and smiled.

"I am glad to see there is someone in Russia," he said, "with enough energy to go exploring. You might get killed down there, but you will have the most remarkable experience of your life; it is worth taking chances for."

In two days I was on my way, with every necessary probsk to ride on any train or stop in any government hotel. I carried a personal letter from Lenin and had two soldiers for escort! Any other official in Russia would have considered me an infernal nuisance even to suggest such an adventure in the middle of a revolution.

Lenin has always stood for allowing political enemies to leave Russia. This shows an unexpected softness in his make-up which only those who know him well comprehend.

Naturally, the Cheka disagrees with him on this point, holding that when these people "succeed in getting out of Russia" they are just as much a part of the war on Russia as the White Army is.

The explanation is that Lenin has by no means a forbidding personality: revenge never occupies his mind. He will flay an opponent in a debate and walk out of the hall arm-in-arm with him. He is extraordinarily human and good-natured and wishes to see everyone happy.

In the beginning of the revolution he imagined that he could maintain a free press, free speech and be liberal toward his enemies. But he found himself faced by a situation where iron discipline was the only method capable of saving the day. [Refering to the Civil War]

There were times when he rather ruthlessly suppressed the Anarchists, but only because they threatened violence at every step. The supreme test of his power to forgive came during the Social Revolutionary trial, which took place in the summer of this year. He was lying ill in the country from the effects of an operation to remove an assassin's bullet from his neck. The people responsible for the bullet were duly sentenced to death after a long and illuminating trial, in which the absolute evidence of their guilt was established. It was through the irrepressible influence of Lenin that their sentences were all commuted.

Lenin never scorns a deep affection or a personal sentiment. At the time of Kropotkin's death, the widow and daughter sent a telegram to Lenin asking, that the Anarchist leaders then imprisoned in Moscow be allowed to attend the funeral. Lenin let them go "on their honor" without guards for three days.

The Cheka objected, the Foreign Office objected and the Moscow Soviet objected, but Lenin's will, as usual, prevailed. This generosity toward his enemies costs Lenin nothing and helps him to maintain his astonishing equilibrium.

Every man in Lenin's cabinet, with the exception of Trotsky and Tchicherin, has been working with him for over twenty years; they really are his disciples. He knows their characteristics as well as if they were his own children. He knows just how much brains and ability each one has.

Once he was asked why he keeps a certain man, who is so obviously inferior to the others. He smiled and said, "Isn't it always necessary to have at least one fool in every cabinet?"

Lenin makes an interesting contrast to Woodrow Wilson. Lenin picks the strongest minds he can get and complains that he cannot find enough brains. He feels a particular lack of brains in the diplomatic service. The small corps around Tchicherin will be highly inadequate to spread over the earth when the time comes for sending ambassadors and consuls to every country in the world. Russia will be as slip-shoddily represented as America. It is only the English who realize the value of a school for diplomats.

Lenin has never been known to dismiss a man after he has worked with him only half a year. And no man has ever deserted him no matter how Lenin may have ridden down his opposition.

Politically, Lenin has a hard, cold, calculating brain and uses all men to his own ends. They forgive him because he does it openly and for no personal gain.

The Soviet Premier is by no means a vain man. He rarely autographs pictures of himself, and the diary the American editors always request us to ask him about will never be written. He says he is too tired to write down notes after the day's mass of work has been done. Lack of vanity and conceit is an equal reason.

He hates to be flattered or to have his portrait painted. He was in real distress because he consented to allow Claire Sheridan to do his bust. Angelica Balabonova was spending an evening with the Lenins in their apartment that same week and she said, reprovingly:

"Revolutionaries have something else to do beside spend their time in such a way."

Lenin answered:

"I agree with you and I felt unhappy about it, but when Comrade Litvinov asked me to sit, it seemed such a small matter that I didn't like to be disagreeable."

As a matter of fact, he only gave Mrs. Sheridan a few hours and, from her own account, worked all the time he was posing.

In private conversation, no subject is too small for his attention. I remember one time some foreign delegates were talking about the Russian theatre and particularly about the lack of costumes and stage property.

Someone said that Gellser, the great ballerina, complained that she had no silk stockings. The delegates were of the opinion that this was a slight matter. Not so Lenin.

He frowned and said he would see to it that Gellser had everything she needed immediately. Calling his stenographer, he dictated a letter to Lunacharsky about it. Yet Lenin had never seen Gellser dance and took no further interest in the affair.

On the one occasion, in three years, that he found time to attend the theatre, he chose Shakespeare. Telephoning to Lunacharsky he announced, "I want to see the best performance at the Art Theatre."

Lunacharsky was in doubt but mentioned Helena Soochachova's superb performance in "Twelfth Night." Lenin interrupted, "I 'll see that." And once in the theatre he forgot his million worries and enjoyed himself with the abandon of a child. Hunting and horseback riding he goes in for with the same enthusiasm.

I have often been asked just what was back of Lenin and his colleagues; what moved them to attempt to establish Socialism at such a moment and against such odds.

Most of us agree that it was partly a revolt against an age of commercialism. But fundamentally it was a demonstration.

Radek told Arthur Ransome that the Bolshevik leaders did not expect to hold power two months when they seized the reins of government.

Half a year after Lenin became Premier, he wrote:

"If they crush us now, they can never efface the fact that we have been. The idea will go on."

It is ridiculous to contend that Lenin has "repented" because he has found it necessary to go back to a modified capitalism. One need not repent because one has failed. If Lenin is forced to abandon every vestige of Communism, it will not mean that he no longer believes in Marx.

It will more likely mean that, finding circumstances too much for him, he is retreating to a position as strategic as he can find. That he remains master of the retreat indicates that he will move backward only as far as he is pushed.

It is hard now to realize on what a fine thread many important situations during the last years have hung, situations that would have completely changed future history. It is hard to realize, for example, that the Germans almost reached Paris or that the White forces almost took Petrograd.

Perhaps Lenin was the only man in Russia who fully realized how near the Soviets came to being overthrown. There was one moment when the morale of the Red Army was exceedingly low and when even the trusted Lettish sharpshooters guarding the Kremlin grew discouraged and sampled the wine in the Kremlin cellars to make life more interesting. A Lett who went through these days told me an amazing story.

"One night the Old Man himself came down to the barracks, called the officers out, felt in our pockets and, finding one or two flasks of vodka, smashed them on the cobblestones and went away without saying a word.. He only had to come once; we were deeply ashamed."

How much truth there is in this story I do not know, but it sounds so exactly like Lenin that I am inclined to give it full credence.

From this low ebb he built his power solidly, never forgetting to reckon on the peasants. Now face to face at last with Mr. Lloyd George, Lenin is backed by a strong Red Army and a loyal staff.

From the moment he took office Lenin never had a serious political rival. And the blockade bestowed on him a peculiar legendary significance which will remain with him as long as he does not leave Russia.

Nikolai Lenin has been a conscious revolutionist since he was sixteen, but he has never been a "terrorist." A terrorist, in revolutionary vernacular, is one who believes in individual acts of violence. His mind is too ordered and his plans too wide for such incoherent emotionalism.

His father was a small landed (hereditary) noble, holding the office of State Councillor, having an estate in Simbirsk. Vladimir Illyitch Ulianov, which is Lenin's real name, was born there on April 10 [all dates according to the Julian calender (Add twelve days for Gregorian calender date)], 1870. There were in all five children, three boys and two girls.

It was a closely-knit family. One of Lenin's best friends and advisers even now is his sister Anna. She spends most of her time in Moscow. He has a brother living in the provinces, who comes to see him occasionally, a quiet, studious man, not interested in politics, and, perhaps, even a little repelled by the strenuousness of them, especially in Russia.

There is no doubt that Lenin's determination to fight the Tsar's government crystallized at the time of his brother's death. His eldest brother, Alexander, was away at the University of Petrograd. All that they heard from him at home was about the winning of gold medals and honors of all sorts until one day came the terrible news that he had been arrested for a plot against the Czar.

Lenin's mother, Maria Alexandrovna, rushed away to Petrograd. When she reached her son's side he burst into tears and immediately confessed everything to her. He begged her to forgive him for bringing sorrow to his beloved family. At the trial he made no defense and asked no mercy. He was executed in the courtyard of Schlusselberg fortress on May 20, 1886.

And back home in the little preparatory school called the "gymnasium" were two youths profoundly touched by this tragedy. One was the present Premier and the other was Alexander Kerensky, whose father was master of the school; evolution works in strange ways.

The Lenins have no children. They have devoted their lives to the revolution. Madame Lenin is a pale, scholarly woman, usually in very poor health. It was she who devised the new scheme for adult education in Russia which Lunacharsky told me has proved highly efficient.

Lenin adores his wife and speaks of her with enthusiasm. The first time I told him that I wanted to meet her, he said:

"Yes, you must do that because you will like her, she is so intelligent."

I found her both intelligent and sympathetic.

She invited me to take tea with her in her apartment and I was very glad to go, since I wanted to see for myself how the Lenins lived.

They have two small rooms, which is the regulation in overcrowded Moscow. Everything was spotlessly clean, though, as she explained, she had no servant. There were quantities of books, plants in the windows, a few chairs, a table, beds and no pictures on the walls.

I found her to have the same charm which Lenin has and the same way of focusing all her attention on what her visitor is saying.

When you go to Lenin's office he always jumps up and comes forward smiling, shakes hands warmly and pushes forward a comfortable chair. When you are seated be draws up another chair, leans forward and begins to talk as if there was nothing else to do in the world but visit.

He likes harmless gossip and will laugh mightily over some story about how Mr. Vanderlip fought with a Hungarian over a few sticks of wood on a cold day, or an incident which occurred on a train, or in the street. He himself loves to tell stories, and tells them very well. But no conversation runs on lightly for long with Lenin. He will stop suddenly in his laughter and say:

"What sort of a man is Mr. Harding, and what is his background?"

It does not matter how determined one is to ply him with questions, one always goes away astonished because one has talked so much and answered so many questions instead of asking them. He has an extraordinary way of drawing one out and of putting one in an expansive mood.

This capacity for personal contact must be a big influence with the men with whom he comes constantly in touch.

No wonder he dominates his Cabinet! When he narrows his small Tartar eyes, looks at one with such understanding and intimacy, one feels he is the best friend in the world; it would be impossible to oppose him.

We are wont to think of Lenin as a destroyer, but he is more of a builder.

When he could not build a Communist State he did not throw up his hands. He built the best State he could in its place and now he is saying that Russia is the safest country in Europe; that it has reached its lowest level and is climbing up, while other countries in Europe are still declining.

It is just possible that he is right!

Written: Between 1921 - 1923
Source: "Mirrors of Moscow", New York by Thomas Seltzer, 1923
First Published: 1923
Online Version: marxists.org 1999
Transcription/Markup: Alf Pangas