Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



THE Army and Navy of the Soviet Government, after the November revolution, was directed by a committee of three men--Dubenko, Krylenko and Antonoff. All three had risen from the common soldiery--only one had attended an officers' school. All of them were under thirty, a notable feature of the proletariat revolution so full of youth and of the fiery intensity of youth.

Antonoff, who is at present assisting Trotsky in organising the Red Army, counts for his largest support on the voluntary services of the young men and women of Russia who are surging in like the full tide to save the revolution. As newly appointed Commissar of Petrograd he has charge of the defense against the Germans.

Antonoff looks like a poet. His face is delicate, his hair is long and bushy and he usually wears a bow tie. The bushy hair and the bow tie are by no means a pose. I doubt very much if Antonoff ever thinks about his clothes, or if he cares that his is not the usual costume of a Minister of War. He was a captain in the Russian army before the 1905 revolution. After its dismal failure he had to flee abroad. He has always been an active revolutionist. To military men he is known as an extraordinarily clever strategist.

Some of the most ridiculous things happened to Antonoff just after the Bolsheviki came into power. He had suddenly been elevated to a position of great authority, and everything was in such a chaotic state that he had to go on attending to his customary tasks together with his new duties until other officers could be properly shifted.

One day in November he went to the telephone exchange, which was a point bitterly contested for by both sides. The last he had heard it was safe in the hands of his own men, so naturally, he was surprised to walk in and find himself a captive in the hands of the Junkers. He was entirely unperturbed and sat down in a corner and began to read Dostoievsky ...

The Junkers had taken the telephone exchange by a very clever ruse. All the uniforms were alike, so it was impossible to tell one side from the other. They found out the hour that the Bolsheviki changed guards, and a few minutes before the time to relieve them the Junkers sent their own men around. No one suspected anything, and Antonoff, playing in exceedingly poor luck, happened to come in almost immediately after the Junker guards had taken charge.

As soon as the Bolsheviki found that the Junkers were in possession of the telephone exchange, they surrounded the building, and for a while a rather fierce battle ensued. But the Junkers soon ran out of ammunition, and reinforcements failed to come, so they had to surrender Antonoff as well as themselves after a few hours.

The next day I went to Smolny with Alexander Gomberg, a Russian from America. Antonoff was in the courtyard preparing to go to Pulkova, just outside Petrograd, where the Red Guards were digging trenches to hold a front against the advancing Cossacks.

We asked Antonoff if we could go along. He assented absent-mindedly, but when we were ready to start we found there was not nearly enough room. Two officers and a courier with a folding bicycle, besides the -Minister of War, had to be tucked away in a one-seated car. They consulted a moment and decided that no guests were necessary. Just as the car began to move, Gomberg jumped onto the running board. I didn't have the energy to follow and I have regretted it ever since, because he had an amazing experience. In fact, many of the things that occurred in Russia in those days were so much like Mexico in the time of Villa's triumph around Chihuahua that we found ourselves continually commenting on the fact.

On the outskirts of Petrograd the overloaded automobile broke down. Just what happened to it I do not know, but it was something very vital, because it had to be abandoned. The Minister of War and the officers and the courier were feeling highly discouraged when along came a large car with a soldier at the wheel. He was returning from the front. Antonoff held him up.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I will have to requisition your car--mine seems to be finished."

The soldier had no respect for authority. "You can't take my car," he announced with great finality. "I'm going back to get supplies for the First Machine Gun Regiment. They don't need any more men, they need bullets."

Antonoff looked very serious. "But I am the Minister of War," he objected.

The soldier swore joyfully. "Why, you're the very man I need," he exclaimed. "You are to sign the order for more supplies."

Antonoff felt in his pocket for a pencil. He had none. Gomberg supplied an American fountain pen and a notebook. And the order was signed.

"And now," said Antonoff, "how about the machine?"

"Oh, that's settled," called the soldier, pressing the electric button on his self-starter, and off he went in the direction of Smolny.

The next victim was a wealthy speculator. Antonoff extracted his car from him with very little difficulty. Before proceeding, however, he bethought him of the fact that he had taken no food. There was a little grocery store not far away. Antonoff ordered one of his officers to purchase some dried fish or whatever else he could find. The terrible calamity soon became known that neither the War Minister nor the officers nor the courier had any money. Gomberg made the purchases.

Antonoff is not so irresponsible as this story might make him seem. He had been under a particularly heavy strain and had had no sleep for three nights.

Alexander Gomberg, in spite of these services to the new proletarian government, was abandoned along the muddy front, and after walking a, few miles, met a farmer going to Petrograd with a load of hay, who took compassion on him and carried him back to town. He arrived about dawn in a heavy rain, but was quite cheerful.

"It's a funny story," said Gomberg to me, "and if I had ever corked on any part of a paper hilt the advertising department I would write it up myself."


Krylenko was a student officer before 1905, and was a member of the Social Democratic party. He was in prison many times for his revolutionary activities and at last escaped abroad after the dismal failure to overthrow the Tsar in that year.

When the February revolution broke out he returned to Russia and joined the army. It was largely due to his influence that the Russian army turned Bolshevik. Kerensky feared Krylenko, but did not dare to curb him, knowing how much he was adored by the soldiers.

Krylenko's peculiarly daring personality always won instantly the confidence of his men. He is a good fighter, and has enormous powers of persuasion. And oratory will for a long time play a large part in government in Russia, in spite of Lenine's contempt for the "malady of revolutionary phrases."

I once saw Krylenko do a remarkable thing. It was in the first days of the Bolshevik uprising and certain garrisons had almost been persuaded by the City Duma to remain neutral so that when Kerensky and his Cossacks arrived the Soviet forces would not be well backed up. A great deal depended on the way the brunoviki (armoured car division) went. For days Kerensky had sent them out through the city to terrify the opposition. They would come hurtling down a crowded street with their screaming sirens, and the population would run for shelter. On the sides of the cars were still painted in red letters the names given them by the Tsar's government. It was amusing to see the names of all the ancient rulers flash by in a terrible procession. It was as though they had come back from the dead to curse the new order. In spite of the fact that Kerensky ordered the cars out, and they had gone out, no one felt certain that when the fighting began they would be on his side.

One night in early November a meeting was called in the huge Mikhailovsky manège, once the exercising ground for the best-blooded horses in the world, and now used as a barn for armoured cars. The speakers mounted to the top of one of the cars and thousands of soldiers crowded to the very edge of this strange rostrum, listening intently. The great room was blue with cigarette smoke and hazy in the candlelight.

The first two speakers were for Kerensky. They were received for the most part in silence, but as each finished there was applause from the majority. I thought as I watched that Kerensky could count on the brunoviki, and in that case he could hold Petrograd. At any rate, it looked as if they would not go against him, perhaps they would remain neutral.

When the first two speakers had ceased, a stocky little man climbed up the sides of the car. He had short legs and a large head and sharp, squinting little eyes. It was Krylenko. For two nights he had not slept, and he had but a few minutes before arrived on a train from the front. His face was so white and he looked so tired that it seemed foolish to bother about him. His cause seemed hopeless.

Then he began to speak.

Krylenko has the ardour of "Billy" Sunday. As his voice rose over that huddled crowd of soldiers the atmosphere changed rapidly. Men began to move around, to argue with one another; there was no more polite silence, eyes flashed. ...

He talked about fifteen minutes. When he finished there was no applause, but a great roar, "All Power to the Soviets!" Krylenko stepped back smiling and showed his teeth in a tired grin. The chairman came forward and asked for the vote. There were 3,000 soldiers; all but 25 went with Krylenko. One of the twenty-five said to me: "He's a devil, that man Krylenko!" After the decision was reached Krylenko slid down from the evil-looking machine and disappeared into the night.

Military men have told me that he has unusual ability as an officer; besides he is bent, above all things, on stirring up revolution in Germany and Austria-Hungary, He is a violent little person and reminds one of characters from the most vivid pages of the French revolution. He was always saying publicly and privately: "Those who do not work shall not eat!"

During the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, Krylenko went along the front and helped get revolutionary literature over the lines. One day the Germans confiscated in their own trenches a hundred thousand copies of "Die Fackel," a paper printed in German by the Russian Foreign Office. There was wild excitement--the German soldiers had already read the paper and it gave most of them their first news of what the revolution in Russia aimed to give to its oppressed people. It told the German soldiers what a revolution in their own country would do for them. There were, for instance, illustrations of workmen in Petrograd prying off the imperial insignia from buildings, and a picture of the old German embassy in Petrograd with the query: "Why don't you send a German workman to represent you to the workmen's and soldiers' government of Russia?" No advance on the French front would have alarmed the German officers to a greater degree.

The nest day the German delegates at Brest threatened to break off all negotiations if this propaganda continued. Krylenko, with a smile, ordered that no more literature should be sent. The soldiers understood the smile and laughed goodnaturedly. "It's beginning to work over there--like yeast," said one. And the Foreign Office also understood. They began to work twenty-four hours a day instead of twelve. Tons of revolutionary pamphlets were smuggled in to the Germans, and Bolshevik speakers sneaked over No Man's Land into the enemy's country. At one time forty of them were in a German insurrection camp and Krylenko and all the officers knew who they were and what they were doing.


Dubenko is only 25 years of age. Through his popularity and his marked ability he was elevated in the spring of 1917 from an ordinary seaman to chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Baltic fleet, and as the whole Russian army and navy is managed by committees, this office is the highest in the fleet.

As the Revolution progressed he became one of the most influential Bolshevik leaders and Cronstadt, which is the home of the Baltic fleet, followed him in his political affiliations and opinions almost en masse. He had a great deal to do with the solid Bolsheviki ranks that grew up in the fleet. After the Bolshevik uprising he was virtually head of the navy on the committee with Antonoff and Krylenko. He was active field commander against Kerensky.

Revolutionary discipline amid all the intensity of that tremendous upheaval which will be known to history as the first proletariat revolution was largely due to the Cronstadt sailors. Through all that intensity they moved splendidly with a fervour that created around them forever a legendary glamour--loved and depended upon by the people --feared and hated by the aristocracy and the counter-revolutionists.

They were true moralists, the sailors; for they cleaned first their own house before they went abroad to sweep up the dirt of others. In Cronstadt they posted notices forbidding all drunkenness, and thieves were punished by death. Their method was picturesque as well as severe. Thieves caught in the act were taken to the edge of a cliff and shot.

Wine produces different effects on different races. On the Russian soldier it does only one thing--it brings out his most bestial tendencies. It was extremely dangerous for the cause of the revolution if the soldiers and sailors or the Red Guards would grow slack in regard to prohibition. There was enough wine in the cellars of the palaces and various warehouses and private houses to keep most of Russia drunk for several years.

Early in January the Cadets hatched a sinister plot. The masses were hungry and cold and in rags. They calculated that it was the psychological moment to open the wine cellars and start a reign of terror, and that by breaking down the revolutionary discipline they could easily take over the power.

I will never forget the night I came up the street and met five roaring, drunken soldiers. They were like animals. I could have sat down in the snow and cried, only I didn't have time. We were near the Winter Palace, and just at that moment a crowd of Cronstadt sailors ran around the corner and, screaming curses on their drunken brothers, they opened fire. One soldier was killed and the rest got themselves somehow out of danger. That night the Cronstadt sailors had to kill thirty soldiers. But they smashed the plot.

For days after that we could hear firing in all parts of Petrograd. A strange performance was going on. Beginning with the Winter Palace the sailors went systematically all over the city and finished the "booze" problem. They poured the wine on the streets or threw it into the canals. Cellars were flooded with it and pumped out with the aid of fire engines. The snow was rose stained and the city reeked with stale alcohol.

Groups of from ten to twenty sailors would come hurtling down the wide streets standing in a great motor-truck, armed and determined. "Another wine pogrom," the passerby would remark. It was a tremendous achievement; it kept the Russian revolution clean from the hideous guillotine days so characteristic of the French Revolution.

It was a miracle almost when one remembers that the sailors were hungry and cold and the wine would have warmed them--when one remembers even that the wine was worth millions of dollars.

While the sailors were severe with the thieves in Cronstadt they seemed to feel a certain reserve in dealing with them in Petrograd. If they found anything had been stolen that belonged to the people they would immediately go and reclaim it, administer a good scolding to the offender and depart.

The Alexandrinsky Rinok--Alexander Market --has another name in Petrograd. It is known as "Thieves' Market," because obviously most of the things that are for sale there are stolen goods. It is one of the most interesting places I ever visited. More antique treasures can be bought there than anywhere else except in old markets in Constantinople.

The range of loot is amazing. There are old Bokharas, ikons of wood, brass and iron, amber, carved silver chains, old enamel, cameos, tapestries, brocades, peasant embroideries, jewel-studded silver bracelets, heavy silver earrings and silver rings set with agates, old lusters, Bristol glass, Chinese porcelains, furs and great trays of precious and semi-precious stones. It is situated in a remote corner of Petrograd, and no guide-book ever mentions it. It seems to be entirely overlooked by tourists. I once took the American consul and Somerset Maugham, the playwright, to see it. The consul was shocked at the idea of such an open market for thieves, but like most foreigners, he decided to have no scruples, since it was not his country and was none of his business what peculiar customs alien peoples had. He found a pipe owned by Peter the Great, and Maugham picked up two marvellous bead purses.

After the Bolsheviki turned the Winter Palace into a people's museum they missed cases of table silver that had been stored in the cellar and was used at banquets. One afternoon the Cronstadt sailors surrounded the market and located all the missing articles. They scolded the merchants for their lack of loyalty to the revolution, but did them no violence.

The thieves themselves have peculiar twisted ideas of honour. An American friend of mine, returning from a political meeting at two in the morning, was held up by robbers. He thought for a minute and then said to them in his meagre Russian: "Ya ne ponyemayo pa Russki; ya Americanets," which means: "I cannot understand Russian, I am American." The robbers were surprised. They consulted together and finally decided that it was unsportsman-like to hold up a man who could not speak the language. So one of them said: "Well, go along, old fellow; we will get another one."

I told this story when I first came home, and one of the persons I told it to remarked quite seriously: "Of course, they were Bolshevik robbers." It was as absurd a thing to say as if you should go to Russia and tell a story about a hold-up in America and a Russian would remark: "Of course, they were Democrat or Republican robbers." We are so confused in this country by a mysterious yet effective and systematic discrediting of everything that has to do with the political party known as the Bolsheviki, that we are quite apt to make unintelligent comments of this kind.

When the telephone girls went on strike, at the instigation of the Cadets, after the November revolution, the Bolsheviki offered them higher wages and shorter hours, but, nevertheless, they haughtily refused. For more than a month the Cronstadt sailors took over the principal telephone exchanges and ran them as best they could. They never hesitated at any time to do anything that would aid the revolution. They carried coal to the factories to keep them going and to keep the workers from being out of work. They went on long expeditions into Siberia and brought back large supplies of flour to make bread for the army and feed the starring population. They are fighting to-day in Finland with the Red Guards against the Germans and the White Guards.

I am enough of a feminist to be pleased with the fact that the Cronstadt Soviet has been headed by a middle-aged woman for more than half a year. Her name is Madame Stahl, and she manages her many turbulent sons in a clear-headed and unperturbed manner.

Dubenko for a time fell from grace, as a result of his over-confidence in humanity. As head of the navy he was responsible for the retention of the higher command. Many high officers after a few months of Bolshevik rule, having evidently decided that the new government was going to stick, came back into the service. The common sailors were suspicious of them, but Dubenko believed them to be honest in their desire to aid Russia.

After the Brest-Litovsk negotiations and the subsequent German advance, it was discovered that these same high officers whom he had reinstated had betrayed part of the fleet. For example, they gave up the port of Narva without resistance to the Germans. Further investigation proved that they had held communication with the enemy through the diplomatic pouches. Dubenko was held responsible and was arrested, but was later released and exonerated.

On the opening day of the Third Congress of Soviets in Moscow in January, he married Alexandra Kollontay. This was one of the few romances among the revolutionary leaders.