Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



THE sleepy porter of the Hotel Angleterre I fumbled his keys and finally got the door open. My two soldiers rode away waving their hands cheerfully; I never saw them again. The porter took my passport and put it in the safe without looking at it and shuffled along upstairs ahead of me until we reached a large vault-like suite on the third floor.

It was four o'clock and not for many hours would it be light--Petrograd is very far north to a New Yorker. By December when things had reached such a desperate state that we seldom had artificial light at all, because there was no coal to run the power plants, we seemed to live in perpetual darkness. I have often purchased, in the deserted churches, holy candles which were designated to be burned before the shrines of saints but which were carried home surreptitiously in order to see to write. But in October the lights were still running. When the porter pressed the button I blinked painfully under the dazzling blaze of sparkling old-fashioned crystal candelabra.

I looked around at the great unfriendly room in which I found myself. It was all gold and mahogany with old blue draperies; most of the furniture was still wearing its summer garments. I had a feeling that no one had lived in this room for years--it had a musty, unused smell. Lost in a remote corner of the room adjoining was my bed and beyond that an enormous bath-tub, cut out of solid granite, coldly reflected the light.

For all this elegance? "Thirty rubles," the porter murmured, still half awake.

There was a large sign above my bed forbidding me to speak German--the penalty being fifteen hundred rubles. I had no desire to break the law. It seemed a lot to pay for so small amount of enjoyment, I thought as I slid bravely down between the icy sheets and fell into a dead slumber.

I was awakened by loud knocks on my door. A burly Russian entered and began to bellow about my baggage. I rubbed my eyes and tried to make out what language he was speaking and suddenly I realised--he was speaking German! I pointed to the sign and he shook with laughter.

I found out afterwards that no one pays any attention to signs in Russia. They read the signs and then use their own judgment. Take language, for instance. Few foreigners ever learn to speak Russian; on the other hand, they are very apt to have at least a smattering of French or German. Solution: speak the language you understand. If you tell them German is an enemy language they will tell you that they are not at war with the language. Furthermore, they have found their use of it very valuable in getting over propaganda into Austria and Germany.

Just across from my window, St. Isaac's Cathedral loomed blackly and I watched the bellringers in the ponderous cupolas, bell-ropes tied to elbows, knees, feet and hands, making the maddest music with great and little bells. The people passing looked up also and occasionally one crossed himself.

Out on the streets I wandered aimlessly noting the contents of the little shops now pitifully empty. It is curious the things that remain in a starving and besieged city. There was only food enough to last three days, there were no warm clothes at all and I passed window after window full of flowers, corsets, dog-collars and false hair!

This absurd combination can be accounted for without much scientific investigation. The corsets were of the most expensive, out-of-date, wasp-waist variety and the women who wear them have largely disappeared from the capital.

The reason for the false hair and dog collars was equally plain. About a third of the women of the towns wear their hair short and there is no market for the tons of beautiful hair in the shops, marked down to a few rubles. An enterprising dealer in such goods could make a fortune by exporting the gold, brown and auburn tresses of the shorn and emancipated female population of Russia and selling them in America, France or some other backward country where women still cling to hairpins.

As for the dog collars, just imagine any one being a dog-fancier or even a fondler of dogs to the extent of purchasing a gold-rimmed or a diamond-studded collar while a Revolutionary Tribunal is sitting just around the corner. Whatever class lines there were among dogs fell with the Tsar.

And the masses of flowers. Horticulture had reached a high state of development before the revolution. This was especially true of exotic flowers because of the extravagant tastes of the upper classes. With the change in government the demand for these luxuries abruptly ceased; but there were still the hot-houses, there were still the old gardeners. It is impossible to break off old established things in the twinkling of an eye. Habits of trade are as hard to break as any other habits of life. So the shops continued to be filled with flowers. On the Morskaya where so much bitter street fighting occurred were three flower-shops --in them were displayed always the rarest varieties of orchids. And in those turbulent January days suddenly appeared--white lilacs!

These strange left-overs of another time cropped up everywhere making sharp contrasts. There were the men, for instance, who stood outside of the palaces and the big hotels, peacock feathers in their round Chinese-looking caps and wearing green, gold or scarlet sashes. Their duty had been to assist people who alighted from carriages, but now grand personages never arrived, and still they stood there, their sashes bedraggled and faded, their feathers ragged and forlorn. As helpless they were as the old negroes of the South who clung to their slavery after the emancipation.

And in contrast were the waiters bustling about in the restaurants inside of the very buildings where the svetzars stood before the doors like courtiers without a court. They ran their restaurants co-operatively and at every table was a curt little notice.

"Just because a man must make his living by being a waiter do not insult him by offering him a tip."

Petrograd is impressive, vast and solid. New York's high buildings have a sort of tall flimsiness about them that is not sinister; Petrograd looks as if it were built by a giant who had no regard for human life. The rugged strength of Peter the Great is in all the broad streets, the mighty open spaces, the great canals curving through the city, the rows and rows of palaces and the immense facades of government buildings. Even such exquisite bits of architecture as the graceful gold spires of the old Admiralty building and the round blue-green domes of the Turquoise Mosque, cannot break that heaviness....

Built by the cruel wilfulness of an autocrat, over the bodies of thousands of slaves, against the unanimous will of all grades of society, this huge artificial city, by a peculiar irony has become the heart of world revolution; has become Red Petrograd!

There were wonderful tales about the defeat of Korniloff and what they described as a "new kind of fighting." Every one was anxious to tell his version of how the scouts went out and met the army of the counter-revolutionists and fraternised with them and overcame them "with talk" so that they refused to fight and turned against their leaders. There was little variation, in short, the story was this:

The scouts came upon the hostile army encamped for the night and went among them saying: "Why have you come to destroy the revolution?" The hostile army indignantly denied the charge, claiming that they had been sent to "save" the revolution. So the scouts continued to argue. "Do not believe the lies your leaders tell you. We are both fighting for the same thing. Come to Petrograd with us and sit in our councils, learn the truth, and you will abandon this Korniloff who is attempting to betray you."

Accordingly delegates were sent to Petrograd. When they reported to their regiments the two armies joined as brothers.

While all this fraternising was going on and no one was sure of its results, revolutionists in Petrograd worked feverishly. In one place they told me that they had manufactured a whole cannon in thirty hours and the trenches that encircled the city were dug over night.

Ugly tales went round about the fall of Riga. Most Russians, with fairly good reason, believe that it was sold out. It fell just after General Korniloff said in public: "Must we pay with Riga the price of bringing the country to its senses?"

No one ever explained the reason for the vague order given to the retreating Russian army: "Go north and turn to the left!" Bewildered soldiers retreated in confusion for days without officers or further instructions, finally entrenching themselves, forming Soldiers' Committees, beginning to fight again....

Officers returning a week or two afterwards told an amazing story. It was printed in the conservative paper Yetcherneie Vremya and I heard it twice myself from men who were captured, and I believe it to be true. When Riga fell many prisoners were taken. It was towards the end of the week. On Sunday there were services at which the Raiser appeared and made a speech to the Russian soldiers. He called them "dogs" and berated them for killing their officers whom he claimed were brave and admirable gentlemen, commanding his respect. Consistent with Prussian military ideals, he made a practical demonstration by allowing the officers full freedom and issuing orders that the common soldiers should have little food and hard work and in certain cases a flogging. The hundreds of thousands of tubercular Russian prisoners now returning to Russia are evidence of how well the instructions were carried out. In his speech to the soldiers in the church the Raiser said: "Pray for the government of Alexander III., not for your present disgraceful government."

That evening he dined the officers and they came back into Russia and explained that we did not "understand" the Kaiser....

In Petrograd one of the things that strike coldness to one's heart are the long lines of scantily clad people standing in the bitter cold waiting to buy bread, milk, sugar or tobacco. From four o'clock in the morning they begin to stand there, while it is still black night. Often after standing in line for hours the supplies run out. Most of the time only one-fourth pound of bread for two days was allowed; and the soggy black peasant's bread is the staff of life in Russia--it is not a "trimming" like our American bread. Cabbage is also a staple diet.

On my second night in Petrograd I met a Russian from New York. We strolled up and down the Nevsky Prospect. All Russia promenades the Nevsky; it is one of the great streets of the world. My friend wanted to be hospitable as all Russians are, but he was very poor. We passed a little booth and spied a few bars of American chocolate--5c bars. He enquired the price--seven rubles! With true Russian recklessness he paid out his last kopeck and said: "Come, let us walk up and down once again, it is only a mile. .. ."

Petrograd with food for three days was not tragic or sad. Russians accept hardships uncomplainingly. When I first went there I was inclined to put it down to servility, but now I believe it to be because they have unconquerable spirit. Weeks at a stretch the street cars would not run. People walked great distances without a murmur and the life of the city went on as usual. It would have upset New York completely, especially if it happened as it did in Petrograd that while the street cars were stopped, lights and water also were turned off and it was almost impossible to get fuel to keep warm.

The most remarkable thing about Russians is this wonderful persistence. Theatres somehow managed to run two or three times a week. The Nevsky after midnight was as amusing and interesting as Fifth Avenue in the afternoon. The cafes had nothing to serve but weak tea and sandwiches but they were always full. A wide range of costumes made the picture infinitely more interesting. There is practically no "fashion" in Russia. Men and women wear what they please. At one table would be sitting a soldier with his fur hat pulled over one ear, across from him a Red Guard in rag-tags, next a Cossack in a gold and black uniform, earrings in his ears, silver chains around his neck, or a man from the Wild Division, recruited from one of the most savage tribes of the Caucasus, wearing his sombre, flowing cape....

And the girls that frequented these places were by no means all prostitutes, although they talked to everybody. Prostitution as an institution has not been recognised since the first revolution. The degrading "Yellow Tickets" were destroyed and many of the women became nurses and went to the front or sought other legal employment. Russian women are peculiar in regard to dress. If they are interested in revolution, they almost invariably refuse to think of dress at all and go about looking noticeably shabby--if they are not interested they care exceedingly for clothes and manage to array themselves in the most fantastic "inspirations."

I shall always remember Karsavina, the most beautiful dancer in the world, in those meagre days, dancing to a packed house. It was a marvellous audience; an audience in rags; an audience that had gone without bread to buy the cheap little tickets. I think Karsavina must have wondered what it would be like to dance before that tired, undernourished crowd instead of her once glittering and exclusive little band of nobles.

When she came on it was as hushed as death. And how she danced and how they followed her! Russians know dancing as the Italians know their operas; every little beautiful trick they appreciate to the utmost. "Bravo! Bravo!" roared ten-thousand throats. And when she had finished they could not let her go--again and again and again she had to come back until she was wilted like a tired butterfly. Twenty, thirty times she returned, bowing, smiling, pirouetting, until we lost count. ... Then the people filed out into the damp winter night, pulling their thin cloaks about them.

In Petrograd were flags--all red. Even the statue of Catherine the Greet in the little square before the Alexandrinsky Theatre did not escape. There stood Catherine with all her favourite courtiers sitting at her feet and on Catherine's sceptre waved a red flag! These little visible signs of the revolution were everywhere. Great blotches marked the places where imperial insignia had been torn from the buildings. Mild mannered guards patrolled the principal corners, trying not to offend anybody. And over it all stalked King Hunger while a chill autumn rain soaked into the half-fed shivering throngs that hurried along, lifting their faces and beholding a vision of world democracy. ...