Mirrors Of Moscow

by Louise Bryant

Lenin and his subordinates:

Tchicherin, Commissar for Foreign Affairs and His Subordinates


MY FIRST interview with Tchicherin was at midnight and my last interview was at five in the morning. This happens to cover a fairly complete rotation of the official hours of the Soviet Foreign Office. One evening at a box party in the Bolshoi Theatre, Enver Pasha remarked: "I have to kill time somehow for three hours after the play. Halil Pasha and I have an appointment with Mr. Tchicherin at two o'clock." In spite of his smiling Oriental inscrutability and a palpable diplomatic duty to conform to everything Russian, one could feel an amused disapproval of such official unconventionality. This eccentric habit of turning night into day, with every floor of the Foreign Office blazing like a lighthouse in a city which by municipal decree is put to bed before midnight in order to save fuel, naturally creates an almost fantastic air of whimsicality. Mr. Tchicherin makes no excuse for this "vice," as one of his secretaries very cleverly phrased it; he simply finds night more harmonious for his tasks than day and with that lack of consideration which dreamers always consciously or unconsciously assume, he forces his whole staff to follow his example. The result is that his clerks make a mad scramble to get transferred into another government department.

Everything about Tchicherin is as consistently contrary to an ordered life as his inversion of working hours. Born an aristocrat, trained under the Tsar for the diplomatic service, delicate, cultured, aloof, with a fine gesture of Quixotic generosity, he has thrown his life and his fortunes in with the cause of the proletariat with all the abandon of religious fervor.

His aloofness is so evident that one can hardly find any concordance about the astounding decision of such an obvious resthete to become an active part of revolution-which is sweat and blood and violence. Perhaps that explains why he wraps his vision round him like a cloak and shuts out the sun in order not to be disturbed and disillusioned by reality. We were all brought up on stories about kings who were gay-fellows-well-met and could outdance and outdrink their soldiers; on nobles who turned out to be Robin Hoods. But, alas, who can imagine Tchicherin rollicking at a workers' picnic or smoking a friendly pipe with a Red soldier?

No simple person will ever feel intimate or at home with his super-class indifference to material surroundings. A scrubwoman is just as uncomfortable in his presence as was the intrepid Mrs. Sheridan, who was able to rub such gay elbows with the other commissars. Mr. Tchicherin's way of arching an eyebrow at life upsets the best brand of poise.

Living alone in a barren room on the top floor of the Foreign Office, he is as far removed socially and physically from the lower as the upper crust. Perhaps only an aristocrat is able to attain this dizzy height of indifference to human contactwith one's fellows. And I can't help feeling that there is something rather splendid about such complete isolation.

Outside of politics, the telephone and the cable, all up-to-dateness offends him. He abhors new clothes, does not like to ride in automobiles, fuses to have modern office paraphernalia about him, does every little task for himself, like sharpening his own pencils and running all over the building on office-boy errands. This attitude produces the same effect as if he distrusted all his subordinates. His secretaries stand helpless and ill at ease while he searches for a lost telegram or answers the telephone.

Last winter they told an amusing story of how Karakhan, who is Commissar of Eastern Affairs, lured Tchicherin into donning a new suit. Tchicherin's one suit was literally in rags when the Turkish treaty and the Afghan treaty and the Persian treaty and all the other Oriental treaties were about to be signed. These affairs had to be arranged with more or less bourgeois pomp, since the Orientals are rather keen on ceremony. So Mr. Karakhan, taking a long chance, went ahead and ordered a new suit for Mr. Tchicherin from a Soviet tailor, then one morning while Tchicherin slept, he changed the suits. In a few minutes he came rushing back again and exclaimed with emotion, "There's a new note from Lord Curzon !" Tchicherin was up in one bound and struggling into the new trousers. Whatever he thought privately of Mr. Karakhan's presumption, they continued in an apparently pleasant relationship.

In appearance Mr. Tchicherin is tall, with the bent shoulders of the man who stoops to go through doors. His eyes, not through any evasiveness, but because of an extreme shyness, continually seek other places than the face of his interviewer. Yet when one meets his quick, occasional glance, one is startled by the intelligence and gentleness of his expresswn.

Diplomacy is an inseparable part of Mr. Tchicherin's existence. He eats, drinks and sleeps with the affairs of state, looks at life as a chess game and is continually checkmating, even in ordinary conversation. Lenin approves of him and feels for him a warm personal affection in spite of the fact that the Premier so dislikes eccentricities. He knows that Tchicherin can be trusted, that he has an invaluable knowledge of international affairs and more important than all that, that he will never make any real decision without consulting Lenin.

Mr. Bullitt told me that during his negotiations he found Tchicherin so brilliant that it was difficult to get anywhere. The Foreign Minister was always quite justified from the Soviet angle but the Soviets were being forced to make hard concessions. Invariably when they came to a deadlock, he telephoned Lenin and Lenin gave in.

During our first talk, when we discussed the campaign of lies about Russia which has so long flooded English, French and American papers, I said that I thought it was partly due to the fact that no reporters were permitted at that time to go in and investigate actual conditions. It was characteristic of Tchicherin to interrupt very suddenly and ask, "Will you tell me why American reporters come over here and claim they are impartial observers, even profess friendliness towards us, and then go home and write such astounding lies?"

I thought it wasn't fair to generalize. The most unfair stories have always been manufactured at Riga and Reval or at Paris by interested political groups or by disappointed reporters who never got inside. As for the reporters who actually witnessed the revolution, certainly the majority remained fair and sympathetic, in spite of the fact that it grew particularly difficult, especially in America, even to maintain one's equilibrium about Russia after Brest-Litovsk. To my mind came back unhappy recollections of Overman and Lusk investigations, raids, deportations and general war-hysteria. Perhaps some such thought came also to Tchicherin because he said, "Yes, yes, I suppose in the main, you are right, but how do you account for a man like--?"

Tchicherin is full of old-fashioned honor. The idea that foreign papers sanctioned false reports in order to justify intervention or the blockade seemed so outrageous to him that he could never realize that this sort of propaganda has become as much a part of modern warfare as liquid fire or submarines.

Very late one night I saw Tchicherin running up the stairs to his office in a high state of excitement because a New York evening newspaper carried on its front page a fake interview with Lenin in which he discussed everything from the Irish situation to the Russian Ballet. Tchicherin saw no humor in this. His comment was, "How can a reputable American paper allow such a thing? After all, Comrade Lenin is the Premier of a great country."

Men who give themselves completely to an ideal quite naturally become supersensitive and unreasonable. At least that is the rule, and Tchicherin is no exception. The deliberate misinterpretation abroad, during long hard years, of every effort of the Soviet Government at peace or or defense or negotiations, has got under his skin. So while he insisted on the strictest adherence to the truth in all reports sent over the government wire, at the same time he permitted himself a mild dissipation in extravagant adjectives by way of retaliation, in his too long and too complicated "notes." He allowed even more unrestrained language in Vestnik. Vestnik is the official bulletin of the Soviet Government-very much like the bulletin issued by the Bureau of Public Information during the war. The young man who edited this sheet was a talented and educated Russian but his idea of an unemotional government report was very much like that of our own George Creel. I used to tease him about his passion for such words as "scurrilous" in reference to capitalists or White Guards. But it never made any impression. He confessed that he found my cables flat and uninteresting.

Besides my radios to American papers, which were transmitted by way of Berlin, and the government bulletin which was sent out to the whole world and rarely used by anybody, there was also a wire to London for the Daily Hera/d. Every one of these telegrams had to be read and corrected by Tchicherin himself and I shared the unhappy fate of sitting around all night until he found time to do it. So many nights my telegrams went in the waste-basket because they contained too much American "punch" or a little "news value" or "human interest" which Tchicherin considered gossip, that for a while I regarded Tchicherin as just a fussy old man, and I almost forgot the Herculean tasks he performed in his various interlacing Eastern treaties. Or again, if one reads his correspondence with the old and settled governments of Europe, one will be startled to see how he has outclassed his adversaries. No Foreign Minister ever inherited a more difficult post and, everything considered, no Foreign Minister ever stuck to his post with more dignity and honor. It was characteristic of Tchicherin, as it is of most Russians, not to be able to strike a balance; when he did let the bars down, he let them down completely. A few months ago, we were having battles over adjectives; now reporters are given a free hand; even in Washington they do not dare criticize the government so openly. It is amusing to note that the more freedom they have the fewer harsh criticisms they find it necessary to make.

Mr. Tchicherin is a bachelor; women manifestly have no place in his dreams of a millennium. How this came to be is a secret which perhaps will never out. I am not presuming that there never was any rĀ·omance in Mr. Tchicherin's life. Just to illustrate how wrong I should be if I did, I recall an incident which occurred in a fashionable Berlin cafe. Some Americans were discussing Tchicherin. One remarked that she often regretted that there is no room for chivalry in a Socialist State; that equality does not recognize gallantry. Another claimed that while Lenin seems to have a way of treating women no better and no worse than men, Tchicherin simply overlooks the whole feminine sex; if he is conscious of women at all, it is only through a slight annoyance.

Now, when the company had finally arrived at these conclusions, they suddenly became aware of a very aristocratic and beautiful old lady at the next table who was regarding them disdainfully through a gold lorgnette. Pre5ently she exclaimed in Russian, "How absurd you are1 Mr. Tchicherin was an old sweetheart of mine." So saying, she arose and swept grandly away, rustling in her lavender silks, as delicate as a Dresden china doll. So life repeats itself; there is always an Elaine for every Launcelot. And Launcelot inevitably deserts his lady for some vague "Light" beyond the stars.

Tchicherin is a many-sided character. When one sees him on the street of an afternoon blinking and confused, with an old umbrella under his arm, rain or shine, he appears pitiful and frail and incapable. . . . But if one sees him also, as I once saw him, in an ancient, resurrected dress-suit, at the head of a long conference table in a gold and white hall, under glittering candelabra, speaking in :flowery and perfect French to the suave Turkish delegates, one gets quite another idea; he appears fine, selfless, determined. And it is like him to admire Secretary of State Hughes, and call him a "fine, high-minded man" without realizing that Hughes' high-mindedness is that of a stern, religious brother who refuses to admit again into the family of nations the erring and prodigal Soviet Republic; that it was Hughes who stood out alone against the Genoa conference until he stampeded other members of the Cabinet and even overpowered the President. Hughes regards Communism as immoral as Tchicherin regards capitalism. Both.men possess that unbending, cold objectiveness, that unattractive righteousness of attitude towards those who disagree with them, which we know in America as Puritanism. Both would have made excellent bishops.

One evening last spring I happened to be present when Tchicherin was nearly assassinated. A man flourishing a revolver appeared in the reception room and called out for the Foreign Minister. This roused a Red soldier half asleep in a comfortable chair near the door leading to Tchich0rin's private office. A scuffle ensued and the soldier succeeded in getting the pistol before any harm was done. Tchicherin refused to discuss the incident and remained obviously tranquil. H e was annoyed when the Cheka tried to put extra guards at his door and absolutely balked at the suggestion that the Foreign Office be made a place difficult to enter. He simply asked every one to forget the whole incident. I always believed that he secretly dislikes the Cheka. I remember the night that Santieri Nuorteva was arrested. It happened at midnight and was rather spectacular. Tchicherin liked Nuorteva. He was visibly upset and for a whole week he would not talk to a soul.

The confusion of the Foreign Minister's desk is a national scandal. In midwinter I have seen his summer hat still lying there, crushed under a pile of papers. I have seen papers piled high on all the chairs and sofa and gray with the dust of months. He has a fearful habit of misplacing important telegrams and then sending out a search call. Those are terrible moments in the Foreign Office. All other work stops. After everything is turned upside down some subordinate gets the courage to ask, "Comrade Tchicherin, perhaps it is on your own desk." And there it invariably is, almost on his nose, like grandmother's proverbial spectacles.

It was his habit to give a short talk about once a month to the personnel of the Foreign Office. We would meet about eight o'clock in the Foreign Office Club. Tchicherin was persistendy la'te, sometimes one, sometimes two or even three hours. From time to time someone would whisper, "He has lost another telegramI" There would be suppressed laughter running around the room. Then suddenly the Foreign Minister would appear glancing shyly about him, clear his throat and before he began his address would explain in his high plaintive voice how sorry he was to be tardy but he had somehow misplaced a telegram. . . .

People at home have often said to me that they could not comprehend the "fascination" of the Russian revolution for an American; they have pointed out that they would find anything possible to endure except such unpleasant facts as lice and filth and lack of soap. Most of us, quite correctly, imagine ourselves capable of the lfrger tragedies of life and entirely lacking in the courage to face the million little miseries of an economic break-down. It is true that any man with delicate sensibilities who has stood the test of the Russian revolution has stood the test of fire. I have always believed that we are too sentimental about theĀ· romances of the Middle Ages. My opinion is that not much really that happened then was fine or good or beautiful; certainly over it all hovered no scent of the attar of roses. King Arthur's knights probably never marched away with any more noble visions before them than did those little awkward peasant boys of the Red Army. The Communists are undoubtedly the knights errant of the twentieth century and their slogan of "internationalism" is but a revival of that old, old banner of "Brotherhood." It is not altogether curious that such a whirlwind has swept into its heart a few men like Tchicherin.

In 1917, when Trotsky was Foreign Minister, I well remember a strike of his entire diplomatic corps. How it paralyzed that arm of the stateI At that particular moment Tchicherin was under arrest in London. Workers with muddy boots tramped in and out of the Foreign Office with a desire to help. They were loyal to Trotsky but they were ill at ease; entirely incomprehensible to them was this intricate business of diplomacy. It is well for those same workers and peasants and soldiers that a quiet, aloof person by the name of George Tchicherin presently arrived to arrange all this business for them.

But what a paradoxI Here is Mr. Tchicherin, member of one of the oldest and most aristocratic families in Russia, for four years now guiding with such delicate hands and careful brain the affairs of state, in order that all that once was, which gave his family their wealth and power, might never be again.