Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



NOBODY believed that our train would ever really reach Petrograd. In case it was stopped I had made up my mind to walk, so I was extremely grateful for every mile that we covered. It was a ridiculous journey, more like something out of an extravagant play than anything in real life.

Next to my compartment was a General, super-refined, painfully neat, with waxed moustachios. There were several monarchists, a diplomatic courier, three aviators of uncertain political opinion and, further along, a number of political exiles who had been held up in Sweden for a month and were the last to return at the expense of the new government. Rough, almost ragged soldiers climbed aboard continually, looked us over and departed. Often they hesitated before the General's door and regarded him suspiciously, never at any time did they honour him with the slightest military courtesy. He sat rigid in his seat and stared back at them coldly. Every one was too agitated to be silent or even discreet. At every station we all dashed out to enquire the news and buy papers.

At one place we were informed that the Cossacks were all with Korniloff as well as the artillery; the people were helpless. At this alarming news the monarchists began to assert themselves. They confided to me in just what manner they thought the revolutionary leaders ought to be publicly tortured and finally given death sentences.

The next rumour had it that Kerensky had been murdered and all Russia was in a panic; in Petrograd the streets were running blood. The returning exiles looked pale and wretched. So this was their joyful home-coming! They sighed but they were exceedingly brave. "Ah, well, we will fight it all over again!" they said with marvellous determination. I made no comments. I was conscious of an odd sense of loneliness; I was an alien in a strange land.

At all the stations soldiers were gathered in little knots of six and seven; talking, arguing, gesticulating. Once a big, bewhiskered mujik thrust his head in at a car window, pointed menacingly at a well-dressed passenger and bellowed interrogatively, "Burzhouee" (Bourgeoise). He looked very comical, yet no one laughed. ...

We had become so excited we could scarcely keep our seats. We crowded into the narrow corridor, peering out at the desolate country, reading our papers and conjecturing ...

All this confusion seemed to whet our appetites. At Helsingfors we saw heaping dishes of food in the railway restaurant. A boy at the door explained the procedure: first we must buy little tickets and then we could eat as much as we pleased. To our astonishment the cashier refused the Russian money which we had so carefully obtained before leaving Sweden.

"But this is ridiculous!" I told the cashier. "Finland is part of Russia! Why shouldn't you take this money?"

Flames shot up in her eyes. "It will not long be a part of Russia!" she snapped. "Finland shall be a republic!" Here was a brand new situation. How fast they came now, these complications.

Feeling utterly at a loss, we strolled up and down, complaining bitterly. Once we found we could not buy food, our hunger grew alarmingly. We were saved by a passenger from another car who had plenty of Finnish marks and was willing to take our rubles.

At Wiborg we felt the tension was deep and ominous. We were suddenly afraid to enquire the news of the crowds on the platform. There were literally hundreds of soldiers, their faces haggard, in the half light of late afternoon. The scraps of conversation we caught sent shivers over us.

"All the generals ought to be killed!" "We must rid ourselves of the bourgeoisie!" "No, that is not right." "I am not in favour of that!" "All killing is wrong...."

A pale, slight youth, standing close beside me, unexpectedly blurted out in a sort of stage whisper, "It was terrible. ... I heard them screaming!"

I questioned him anxiously. "Heard who? Heard who?"

"The officers! The bright, pretty officers! They stamped on their faces with heavy boots, dragged them through the mud... threw them in the canal." He looked up and down fearfully, his words coming in jerks. "They have just finished it now," he said, still whispering, "they have killed fifty, and I hare heard them screaming."

Once the train moved again we pieced together our fragments of news and made out the following story:

Early the day before had arrived messages from Kerensky, ordering the troops to Petrograd to defend the city. The officers had received the messages but remained silent and gave no orders. The soldiers had grown suspicious. They mumbled together and their mumblings had become a roar. At some one's suggestion, they marched in a body and searched for the messages. The messages were found. Their worst suspicions were confirmed. Rage and revenge swept them away. They did not stop to separate innocent from guilty. The officers were sympathisers of Korniloff, they were aristocrats, they were enemies of the revolution! In quick, wild anger they dealt out terrible punishment.

The details of the massacre were exceedingly ugly, but no description of mine is necessary. Every Russian writer who has ever written about mob violence has described the swift terribleness of these scenes with amazing frankness. Realising that the most serious of all dissolution and revolt is military mutiny, our hearts fluttered at the unutterable possibilities....

We were interrupted in our reflections by a wail from the Russian courier who found himself in a curious dilemma. "What shall I do?" he asked of us dismally. "I have been nearly a month at sea and God knows what has happened to my unfortunate country in that time. God knows what is happening now. If I deliver my papers to the wrong faction it will be fatal!"

It was past midnight when we stopped at Beeloostrov. It was the last station. We were so certain all along that we would never get to Petrograd that we were not surprised now when soldiers came on board and ordered us all out. We soon found, however, that it was just another tiresome examination. Crowded into a great bare room, we stood shivering nervously while our baggage was hurled pell-mell into another. As our names were called we submitted our passports, answered questions, wrote down our nationality, our religion, our purpose in Russia, and hurried to unlock our trunks for the impatient soldiers.

The officers startled us by beginning to confiscate all sorts of ordinary things. We protested as much as we dared. In explanation they replied that a new order had just come in prohibiting medicines, cosmetics and what-not.

Next to me in line was an indignant princess whose luggage contained many precious "aids to beauty," all of which had already been passed hurriedly by bashful censors and custom officials many times before. But that unreasonable new order upset everything; rouge-sticks followed rare perfumes, French powder, brilliantine, hair-dye--all were thrown roughly into a great unpainted box, a box whose contents grew rapidly higher and higher, a box that had the magic power to change what was art in one's hand-bag into rubbish in its insatiable maw.

The princess pleaded with the soldiers, used feminine wiles, burst into hysterical weeping. Poor, unhappy princess, forty, with a flirtatious husband, handsome and twenty-three! The situation was far too subtle for these crude defenders of the revolution! Only an old monarchist dared to be sympathetic, but I noted that he took care to be sympathetic in English, a language few of his countrymen understand.

"Madame," he remarked testily, "there is a strong hint of stupid morality in all this. You must remember that to the uncultured all implements of refinement are considered immoral!"

The husband offered tardy consolation. "Be calm, my darling, you shall have all these things again." Unfortunately he would never be able to make good his promise, for in these rough days of the new order cosmetics are not considered important and Russian ladies are forced to go "au natural."

We arrived in Petrograd at three in the morning prepared for anything but the apparent order and the deep enveloping stillness that comes before dawn. My friends of the train soon scattered and were lost in the night, and I stood there in the great station confused, with what was left of my baggage.

Presently a young soldier came running. "Aftmobile?" he enquired in a honeyed voice. "Aftmobile?" I nodded assent, not knowing what else to do and in a moment we were outside before a big grey car. In the car was another soldier, also young and pleasant. I gave them the name of a hotel some one had told me about--the Angleterre.

So we were off whirling through the deserted streets. Here and there we encountered sentries who called out sharply, received the proper word, and allowed us to pass. I was consumed with curiosity. These soldiers wore neither arm-bands nor bits of ribbon. I had no way of knowing who or what they were...One of them wanted to be entertaining, so he began to tell me about the first days of the revolution and how wonderful it was.

"The crowd raised a man on their shoulders," he said, "when they saw the Cossacks coming. And the man shouted,'If you have come to destroy the revolution, shoot me first,' and the Cossacks replied, 'We do not shoot our brothers.' Some of the old people who remembered how long the Cossacks had been our enemies almost went mad with joy."

He ceased speaking. Mysteriously out of the darkness the bells in all the churches began to boom over the sleeping city, a sort of wild barbaric tango of bells, like nothing else I had ever heard. ...