Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant


Countess Panina

TWO women have been Ministers of Welfare since the revolution--Countess Panina and plain citizen Alexandra Kollontay.

Both women I know well and respect for widely different reasons. Countess Panina was in Peter and Paul Fortress when I first saw her. She had refused to hand over ninety thousand rubles in State funds that was in her possession when the Bolsheviki came into power. Her trial was one of the most sensational ever held before a revolutionary tribunal.

A young Russian girl and an active worker in the Menshevik party, who sat nest to me during Panina's trial, made an interesting comment.

"Yes," she said, "Panina really does like poor people--she thinks they are almost as good as other people."

This is fundamentally the difference between Panina and Kollontay, and the reason why one is much loved and the other has been swept aside in the public regard after the harsh test of revolution.

And yet there are fine things about Panina. As a liberal she did much for struggling Russia in the time of the Tsar. Her Norodny Dom--People's House--was the only Norodny Dom in Russia where good concerts were cheap enough for the masses to attend. She was never afraid to undertake new and hard tasks. It was she who introduced popular lectures and adult schools. If all the members of her party (Cadets) had been up to her standard, they mould never have fallen into their present disrepute. Lenine in one of his pamphlets calls her "one of the cleverest defenders of the capitalistic system."

In appearance Panina reminds one of Jane Addams. She is middle-aged and wears severe English-looking clothes. But somehow her clothes are not at all consistent with her personality. She is gay and amusing and she loves to tell funny anecdotes about the revolution.

Countess Panina considers Alexandra Kollontay her bitterest political opponent. In July, Kollontay was in Peter and Paul Fortress, and Countess Panina was Minister of Welfare; by October things were reversed.

"I followed her course with great pleasure," said Panina, laughing.

"The Bolsheviki are by no means all proletariat," she once told me. "Now take for example Mme. Sumonsen, who was arrested in July for implication in a Bolshevik plot. She was a rich woman, who was thrilled with the mad adventures proposed by these radicals. While I was in prison I came across the weirdest performances of this creature.

"In my cell I had many books, and when I was given my liberty I began to gather my things together. 'Well, you see,' I said to one of the Bolshevik officers,'that's what you get for imprisoning the bourgeoisie--we immediately begin to collect property.'

"He was not at all impressed.

" 'Why, when Mme. Sumonsen left,' he said,'she had to have a whole truck to carry her belongings--and even that was not enough. It was necessary to make a second trip. Besides, you never had a moon.'

" 'A moon?' I asked, puzzled.

"'Yes,' he explained,'she fitted her cell up with pink satin and wore pink satin robes and had lace covers on her cot. In one corner she had specially arranged a shaded electric light that looked like a stage moon. In the evening she would lie back among the satin cushions and the soldiers and guards would come in and she would discourse cleverly on literature and art--just like a courtesan in the time of the Louis.' "

Only in Russia could such an extraordinary Arabian Nights' tale be a reality.

I asked Panina if she believed in the self-governing of charitable institutions as introduced by Kollontay. Countess Panina flushed with anger and looked at me quizzically.

"Do you mean," she said, "the self-governing of children under six or people over one hundred?"

Then she began to rage against Kollontay.

"I, myself, am frantically democratic!" she exclaimed. "But being democratic and being practical are two different things. All the reforms Madame Kollontay will make now will be at the expense of Russia's unfortunates. The people will pay for these experiments with their lives."

I wanted to remind her that this was true also in her time and in any age, but she was unreasonable on every subject that had to do with Kollontay. Once she even said, "I blame her for the massacre of the officers, and not the poor sailors and soldiers," which was surely a ridiculously unjust statement, for Kollontay would be the last person to think of such a thing.

"This absurd Madame Kollontay," she said, "invites the servants to come and sit in armchairs at her meetings. Such things cannot be! What can they know of social reforms or of technical training? It is putting the feet up and the head down, quite mechanically."

"I cannot understand," I said to Countess Panina, "how you can love Russia so much and still take part in this terrible sabotaging. To me the sabotagers are equal to the invading Germans as enemies of the Russian people."

Panina evaded. "Anyway," she purred, "it has been far from successful. There was nothing very spontaneous about it. The very fact that we were ruining the country, and knew it, made us half-hearted. All of us had to halt somewhere, so there was no thoroughness about it. I, for instance, objected to sabotaging in the schools. As you know, the teachers' strike lasted only three days.

"Education has always been my work. To close the schools was punishing the people for wilfulness by administering darkness. I felt that they needed light more than anything else. I found myself going around arguing that the schools were not a point in question. So that when you come right down to it I am not very much of a sabotager."

"On what points do you disagree with the Bolsheviki?" I asked.

"I disagree with them on every point," she cried, "and I think that their leaders are disgusting."

"But you think that they are honest?"

"I know several that are honest," she admitted reluctantly.

"And they treated you well while you were in prison?"

"Yes, they treated me exceptionally well, but the decision of the Revolutionary Tribunal was not the decision of educated persons; it was absurd from a judicial point of view."

"What will your party do to overthrow the present regime?"

"What can we do?" said Countess Panina helplessly. "At present the Bolsheviki have the army and most of the workers and peasants. We must be silent and wait."

"I shouldn't think you would want to do anything if the Soviet Government is really then the expression of the majority of the Russian people."

We were sitting on a couch in Countess Panina's library. She reached over impulsively and took hold of my arm. "Listen," she said, "you are just naturally a Bolshevik. All Americans are! I can never understand why."

Alexandra Kollontay

Kollontay had written many books on mothers and children and on sociology in general before she was appointed Minister of Welfare.

Although Panina has had all the advantages of an aristocratic training with the best schools and teachers, besides having a natural thirst for knowledge, Kollontay is the more cultured of the two. Panina owns one of the best libraries in Russia, has been a member of the City Duma of Petrograd, a nominee for the Constituent Assembly, and for years took part in public life. She speaks six languages.

Kollontay is more or less self-taught, although she has studied much abroad. She speaks thirteen languages fluently. This is really a comment on the comparative value of every phase of thought or accomplishment of these two women. Kollontay is doubly as thorough as Panina. As Ministers of Welfare these two women held one of the highest political positions of any country.

Unlike most intellectuals, Kollontay instead of deserting the revolution when it became an ugly class struggle and every one else was running, chose that particular time to give her most valuable assistance. That is one of the traits I admire most about Kollontay.

Never an extremist, she believed that in a struggle where the masses are fighting for their freedom against the reactionaries she preferred to stay with the people.

She often disagrees with Lenine and Trotsky, but she told me herself that she would never desert the ranks of the proletariat, "if they made every mistake on the calendar."

When I went to Russia, Kollontay was in prison. She had been exiled because of her views against the Tsar's government. She was shut up again for disagreeing with the Provisional Government. She was known to be a Bolshevik and for that "crime" was arrested at the Russian frontier on the outrageous charge of being a German spy. She was let out again because they could not bring her to trial without any evidence whatsoever. She was re-arrested and imprisoned by Kerensky after the July uprising for having openly said that the Soviet government was the only form for Russia, which was the belief of all the Julyists.

Kollontay was seriously ill during her last imprisonment. Two ancient secret service men of the Tsar's regime were set to guard her, by the Kerensky government. She told me herself that for a month she could not even bathe without the solemn scrutiny of these individuals.

Finally she was released just before the Democratic Congress. It would have been embarrassing to have kept her in prison, since she was one of the leading delegates. It was at the democratic congress that I met Kollontay, and as I watched her work in the months that followed I came to admire her more than any other woman in Russia, except Spirodonova.

She is a slim little person, whose age is hard to determine; sometimes she looks twenty and again much, older. She works untiringly and, through persistence born of flaming intensity, she accomplishes a tremendous amount. She is one of the best women orators I ever heard. She is always asked to interpret the speeches of the foreign delegates that come to Petrograd. Kollontay dresses very well, which is exceedingly unusual in Russia among women interested in revolutionary ideas.

When Kollontay took over her department she found a terrific chaos, and millions of lives depended on her sanity in dealing with the situation and pulling herself out of a carefully planned political intrigue.

Countess Panina, who had been in charge of the department before Kollontay, true to the principles of the bourgeoisie, had persuaded the higher employees to go on strike.

It is amazing how quickly the bourgeoisie of Russia learned from the working class how to sabotage. The employees hid the keys of the safes and secreted the books and resorted to all manner of underhand acts.

Kollontay called them together and quite calmly ordered them to be locked up. As a matter of fact it was only her long practice in self-control that made it possible for Kollontay to appear so calm. She was really deeply disturbed, and told me afterward that she had a terrific struggle with herself before she was able to give the command for the arrests.

"I kept saying to myself:'Is this you, Alexandra Kollontay, ordering arrests?' Afterwards I used to lie awake nights and wonder how I did it."

Nevertheless the strikers must have been unaware of her struggle, for they returned the keys and the books early the next morning. The entire strike was broken in three days.

Kollontay called another meeting, which even the lowest servants were asked to attend. She was very frank with them at this meeting. Russia, she explained, was bankrupt; there were little funds to carry on charitable work; no one was to receive even a "good" salary; she herself was to get $50 a month, which is the salary of every commissar.

This came as a great blow to the professional social workers, who up to this time had received as much as 25,000 rubles a year. Kollontay shocked them even more by announcing that thereafter all employees should continue to be present at meetings, which would be held frequently, and that the same consideration would be given to suggestions from scrubwomen as from professional philanthropists. Every one was to have an equal chance of promotion.

I used to go up to Kollontay's office on the Kazanskaya and she explained many of her problems to me. She was very much touched by the way some of her lower employees had responded to her appeal in this crisis. It really was astonishing how much many of these simple and uneducated old servants understood about the work. And when they once realised that they were a part of the larger plan they gladly worked for sixteen hours a day to help Kollontay, whom they all called "Little Comrade."

The work of her department covered a vast field, touching all Russia. "One of my greatest tasks," said Kollontay, "is to change the whole system which takes care of the two and a half million maimed soldiers, who are absolutely destitute. If they could feel that they are in some way helping to support themselves, it would add so much to their general happiness. As it is, they don't receive enough money to exist decently; they live in filth and beg for crusts. When I took over the department the highest pension paid to these dependents was thirty rubles a year (about $15 in normal times).

"By cutting down salaries and stopping all kinds of leakage," she continued, "I managed to bring it up to 216 rubles. But even that does not touch what it should be. I believe that the minimum for entirely incapacitated soldiers should be at least 2,900 rubles a year. To do that would require a budget of 4,000,000,000 rubles.

"This two million and a half maimed does not include the sick and wounded, of which there are 7,000,000. And there are 350,000 war orphans in homes alone, and 200,000 deaf, dumb and blind, besides all the insane and the delinquents." One way by which Kollontay secured money for immediate needs was by placing an exorbitant tax on playing cards, which had to be purchased through her department. Playing cards in Russia, as in most continental countries, have always been a government monopoly, and the profits go to charity. Kollontay increased the price from thirty rubles for a dozen decks to 360 rubles.

One of her dearest ambitions for years has been to establish a home for convalescent mothers known as the Palace of Motherhood. This work is actually being carried out, and what few physicians remain in Petrograd are keenly interested, in it.

On Kollontay's suggestion, the Bolshevik Government passed a measure providing free care for sixteen weeks for women before, during and after confinement. When they leave the home they can go back if they are not well, and they are required to work only four hours a day in the factories for the first month after returning. This applies to all women, whether married or single. The Bolsheviki believe that this care of mothers is one of the first debts to the State.

The foundling homes are a terrible problem. Russia has long been famous for the slaughter of her infants, mostly through starvation or neglect. Kollontay arranged a plan whereby children are taken care of by peasant women in their own homes, where they are treated as members of the family.

Every child in Russia now attends public school. All private institutions are officially abolished. Not only the children in prisons, in reform schools and in orphan asylums now must go to public schools, but also the children of the aristocracy must attend these same schools.

"In free Russia," said Kollontay, "there will be neither segregation nor aristocracy in children's education."

One day when I went to see Kollontay a long line of sweet-faced old people were standing outside her door. They had come as a delegation from one of the old people's homes. Kollontay explained their presence.

"I have removed the people who used to be over them and turned their institutions into little republics. They come in every day now and express their gratitude. They elect their own officers and have their own political fights; choose their own menus--"

I interrupted her. "What would that consist of in the present day?" I asked.

Kollontay burst out laughing. "Surely," she said, "you must understand that there is a great deal of moral satisfaction in deciding whether you want thick cabbage soup or thin cabbage soup!"

And this was the whole secret of Kollontay's success, that she allowed other people to make their own decisions.

Kollontay spoke to me about American assistance only two days before I left Russia. She hoped, she said, that trained people interested in her work would come to her aid. There is such a pitiful lack of everything in Russia to-day. Surgical dressings, for example, have to be used over and over again, and good doctors are almost impossible to find.