WHEN the counter-revolution, headed by General Korniloff, was at its height and Russia, bewildered by internal and external enemies, rushed frantically this way and that and in her confusion allowed the fall of Riga, the Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets demanded the holding of a Democratic Congress, which was to be a fore-runner of the Constituent Assembly and was to make further counter-revolution impossible.
Accordingly about a month later 1600 delegates from all parts of Russia answered the summons. It was a cold mid-September evening, and the rain glistened on the pavements and splashed down from the great statue of Catherine in the leafy little square before the entrance of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, as the delegates filed past the long lines of soldiers, solemnly presented their cards and disappeared into the brilliantly lighted interior of the immense building.
Our little army of reporters, of which about six spoke English, went around to the stage door at the back, climbed up many dark stairs, down many more, tip-toed behind the wings and finally emerged into the orchestra pit, where places were arranged for us.
On the stage sat the presidium at long tables, behind them the entire Petrograd Soviet and in the main theatre and galleries sat the delegates. Almost every revolutionary leader was present, and there were representatives from the All-Russian Soviets of Soldiers and Workmen, the All-Russian Soviets of Peasants, Provisional Delegates of the Soldiers and Workmen's Soviets, Delegates of the Peasants' Regional Soviets, Labor Unions, Army Committees at the Front, Workmen's and Peasants' Co-operatives, Railroad Employees, Postal and Telegraph Employees, Commercial Employees, Liberal Professions (doctors, lawyers, etc.), Zemstvos, Cossacks, Press, and Nationalist Organisations, including Ukranians, Poles, Jews, Letts, Lithuanians, etc. No body just like it had ever met in Russia before.
The boxes which were formerly retained exclusively for members of the Tsar's family, were filled with foreign diplomats and other distinguished visitors. Hanging from these boxes were flaming revolutionary banners. The royal arms and other imperial insignia had been torn from the walls, leaving startling grey patches in the rich gold, ivory and crimson colour scheme. We scarcely had time to glance about before the Congress was formally opened by President Tcheidze, and Kerensky came forward to make his address. All day rumours had been flying about Petrograd that he would not be present and that he disapproved of the Congress. One felt all over the house the suppressed excitement created by his appearance.
Only persons of great intensity can make an audience hold its breath in just the way Kerensky did as he walked quickly across the stage. He was clad in a plain brown soldier's suit without so much as a brass button or an epaulette to mark him Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army and Navy and Minister-President of the Russian Republic. Somehow all this unpretentiousness accentuated the dignity of his position. It was characteristic that he should ignore the speakers' rostrum and proceed to the runway leading from the main floor to the stage. It produced an effect of unusual intimacy between the speaker and his audience.
"At the Moscow Conference," he began, "I was in an official capacity and my scope was limited, but here I am Tavarish--comrade. There are people here who connect me with that terrible affair .. ." (referring to the Korniloff counter-revolution).
He was interrupted by shouts of "Yes, there are people here who do!"
Kerensky stepped back as if struck, and all the enthusiasm went out of his face. One was shocked by the extreme sensitiveness of the man after so many years of revolutionary struggle. Deeply conscious of the coldness, the hostility even of his audience, he played on it skilfully--with oratory, with pleading, with a strange unabated inward energy. His face and his voice and his words became tragic and desolate, changed slowly and became fire-lit, radiating, triumphant; before the magnificent range of his emotion all opposition was at last swept away.
"After all, it doesn't matter what you think about me--all that matters is the revolution. We are here for other business than to heap personal recriminations upon one another!"
Yes, that was true and everybody in the audience felt it for the time he was speaking. When he finished they rose in a tremendous ovation.
Dramatically he stepped from the stage, traversed the long aisle in the centre of the theatre, mounted the Tsar's own box and raising his right hand as if to drink a toast, spoke again: "Long live the Democratic Republic and the Revolutionary Army!" And the crowd shouted back: "Long live Kerensky!"
This was the last ovation Kerensky ever got. If the Russians had the temperament of the Italians or of the French, I think they would have worshipped Kerensky; but Russians are never convinced by phrases and they are not hero worshippers. They were disappointed in Kerensky's speech. He was charming, but he had not told them anything. There were many details about the Korniloff affair which they wished straightened up in their minds, they also wanted desperately to know what had been done about a conference of the Allies to discuss war aims, and he had not mentioned it. An hour after his departure his influence was gone, and they threw themselves into the struggle of deciding the issues for which they had come.
For nine days the Democratic Congress continued. Hundreds of delegates spoke in that time. They had much to say, for how long they had endured silence! At first, the Chairman tried to limit their speeches, but the audience raised a loud clamour: "Let them say everything they have come here to say!"
It was amazing how they could do it. I recall the words of their countryman, Tshaadaev: "Great things have always come from the wilderness." Often a peasant, who had never made a speech in his life, would give a long sustained talk of an hour's duration and keep the close attention of his audience. Not one speaker had stage fright. Few used notes and every man was a poet. They said the most beautiful and simple things; they knew in their innermost hearts what they wanted and how they wanted it. The gigantic problem was to weave a general satisfactory programme from their widely divergent desires. Whenever the chairman announced recess, we would all rush out into the corridors and eat sandwiches and drink tea. The sessions often lasted until 4 in the morning, but the hunger for truth and the liquefaction of difficulties never lessened. There was the same earnest groping for solutions in the grey dawn as in the flaring sunset....
Some events and some personalities stand out sharply from that long fortnight of oratory, when the representatives of over fifty races and 180 million of people spoke all that was in their hearts. I remember a tall, handsome Cossack, who stood before the assembly and, blushing with shame, cried out: "The Cossacks are tired of being policemen! Why must we forever settle the quarrels of others ?"
I remember the dark, striking Georgian who rebuked the speaker who preceded him because he desired national independence from Russia for his small nationality. "We seek no separate independence," he said, "when Russia is free, Georgia will also be free!"
There was a gentle-looking peasant-soldier who gave solemn warning: "Mark this down well, the peasants will never lay down their arms until they receive their land!"
And the nurse who came to describe conditions at the front, how she broke down and could only sob: "Oh, my poor soldiers!"
There was a stern little delegate who arose and said: "I am from Lettgallia ..." and who was interrupted by serious interrogations of "Where is that?" and "Is that in Russia?"
They had a slow, ridiculous way of counting votes; it wasted hours. I spoke to one of my neighbours about it, saying we had quite simple methods of doing these things in America. "Oh, time is roubles here," he said, referring to the low exchange, and the correspondents roared with laughter.
As the Congress progressed one had time to note some of the visitors. Mrs. Kerensky was one. She sat in the first gallery, dressed always in black, pale and wistful. Only once did she make audible comment. It was when a Bolshevik was severely criticising the Provisional Government. Almost involuntarily she exclaimed: "Da volna!--enough!"
In one of the boxes sat Madame Lebedev, Prince Kropotkin's daughter. She had been so long a part of London society that she appears more English than Russian. She frankly protested against all radical measures and she possessed the only lorgnette in the Democratic Congress; it was the subject of much conversation and not a little resentment among the peasant delegates.
There were a number of Americans in the diplomatic box, including members of the Red Cross Mission. Colonel Thompson and Colonel Raymond Robbins were present at nearly every session and took a lively interest. Robbins often came down to the reporters' quarters and discussed the situation with us.
Among the strong personalities of the delegates were the three sick men--Tcheidze, Tseretelli, Martoff, all suffering from, and in dangerous stages of, tuberculosis. Tcheidze is a Georgian, eagle-eyed, past middle age--a remarkable chairman whose ready wit always was able to subdue the sudden uproars that continually threatened the life of the Congress. It was noticeable that on the only night he was too ill to attend the serious split with the Bolsheviki occurred. Tcheidze is a Menshevik and was at one time a University professor.
Tseretelli is also a Georgian and a Menshevik, and next to Kerensky, at that time, was undoubtedly the most powerful man in Russia. Tseretelli's manner and his whole appearance are so Asiatic that he looks almost absurd in a trim, business suit; it is impossible not to picture him in long flowing robes. He was a member of the Third Duma and his health was broken by seven years of hard labour in Siberia.
Martoff is grey and worn, his voice always husky from throat trouble. He is much beloved by his constituents and is known everywhere as a brilliant writer. Exiled in France for many years, he became one of the principal figures in the labour movement there. He is a Menshevik Internationalist by politics.
Flashing out of that remarkable gathering was the striking personality of Leon Trotsky, like a Marat; vehement, serpent-like, he swayed the assembly as a strong wind stirs the long grass. No other man creates such an uproar, such hatred at the slightest utterance, uses such stinging words and yet underneath it all carries such a cool head. In striking contrast was another Bolshevik leader, Kameneff, who reminded me of Lincoln Steffens. His way of expressing his opinions was as mild as Trotsky's was violent, sharp and inflammatory.
There was the young War Minister, Verkovsky, known as the only man in Russia who ever was on time at an appointment. He is one of the most honest and sincere persons I ever met. It was he who first had the idea of democratising the army; it was he who insisted that the Allies be informed of the alarming morale of the Russian army; he was a better fighter than a talker. For his frankness he was dismissed from office by the Provisional Government.
Not by any means to be overlooked were the twenty-three regularly elected women-delegates, notable among them Marie Spirodonova, the most politically powerful woman in Russia or in the world, and the only woman the soldiers and peasants are sentimental about.
The one thing that the Congress completely agreed upon and instructed the Preparliament which was to follow it to do, was to issue an appeal to the peoples of the world reaffirming the Soviets' formula of last spring for peace "without annexations and indemnities" on the basis of self determination of peoples.
A particularly noticeable sore point in all the speeches was the subject of capital punishment in the army; it was always causing an unpleasant stir. The sentiment of the gathering was firmly against the re-establishment, but it was never actually put to a vote.
The quarrel over coalition wrecked the assembly and almost broke Russia.
A resolution put up by Trotsky and reading: We are in favour of coalition of all democratic elements--except the Cadets carried overwhelmingly and showed the real feeling of the country. Every one knows now that it was the most tragic thing in the world that that decision was not left.
Unfortunately just after the resolution was passed word was brought that Kerensky was about to announce his new cabinet containing representatives of the Cadet party and several Moscow business men known to be particularly out of harmony with socialistic aims. Tseretelli hurried to the Winter Palace and told Kerensky that he dare not ignore the will of the Congress; that without the sanction of the Democratic Congress, the formation of such a cabinet would lead directly to civil war.
The next morning Kerensky appeared before the Presidium, and threatening to resign, painted such a tragic picture of the condition of the country, that the Presidium returned to the Congress with a resolution to immediately constitute the Preparliament with full power to authorise the constitution of it coalition government, if it thought, absolutely necessary, and to admit into its own ranks representatives of the bourgeoisie proportional to their representatives in the cabinet.
Tseretelli, Dan, Lieber, Gotz and other politicians upholding the Provisional Government, spoke again and again for the measure. Lunarcharsky and Kameneff spoke against the wording, claiming that Tseretelli had not read the same motion which had been agreed upon at the meeting of the Presidium. Whereupon Tseretelli's usual self-control deserted him and he cried: "The next time I deal with Bolsheviki I will insist on having a notary and two secretaries!"
The Bolshevik Nagine shouted back that he would give Tseretelli five minutes to retract his words, and Tseretelli remaining stubbornly silent, the Bolsheviki used this as an excuse for bolting the assembly. They left the hall amid the most tremendous uproar. Men ran into the hallways, screaming, pleading, weeping.
This split over coalition marked the beginning and the end of many things, and was a real blow to the democratic forces brought together for self-protection during the Korniloff attempt. When the measure was finally voted on the delegates were not allowed a secret ballot and those who voted for coalition sacrificed their political careers. Just over night a terrific change came over that once peaceful gathering. When Spirodonova got up and told her peasants that this measure cheated them out of their land, a sullen, ominous roar followed her words. As I watched that change it came to me what the passage of the measure really meant. It meant civil war, it meant a great swinging of the masses to the banners of the Bolsheviki, it meant new leaders pushed to the surface who would do the bidding of the people and old leaders hurled into oblivion, it meant the beginning of class struggle and the end of political revolution.
The next evening coalition passed by a small majority and the delegates filed out into the rain singing, after having arraigned the elections of the Preparliament.