Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



I WILL never forget the first time I saw the Red Guards going out to battle. A cruel wind swept the wide streets and hurled the snow against the bleak buildings. It was 25 degrees below zero; I felt ill with cold under my fur coat. And there they came, an amazing, inspired mass in thin, tattered coats and their pinched white faces – thousands and thousands of them! The Cossacks were marching on Petrograd and Petrograd rose to repel them. They came pouring out of the factories in a mighty, spontaneous people's army – men, women and children. I saw boys in that army not over ten years of age.

We were standing on the steps of the City Duma and one of the Duma members, a Cadet, said to me: "Look at the Hooligans. ... They will run like sheep. Do you think such ragamuffins can fight?"

I didn't answer. I was thinking of many things, things way back that made up the deepest impressions of my childhood. For the first time I visualised Washington and his starving, ragged army at Valley Forge. ... I felt suddenly that the revolution must live in spite of temporary military defeat, in spite of internal strife, in spite of everything. It was the Red Guards that made me realise that Germany will never conquer Russia in a hundred thousand years. ...

I wish every one in America could have seen that army as I saw it – all out of step, in odds and ends of clothing, with all sorts of old-fashioned fighting implements – some only armed with spades. If that wish could be granted there would be much more sympathy and much less scorn for the Red army. It took infinite courage, infinite faith to go out untrained and unequipped to meet the traditional bullies of Russia, the professional fighters, the paid enemies of freedom. All of them expected to die. Suddenly they broke into a wailing, melancholy revolutionary song. I threw discretion to the winds and followed. ...

Soldiers in the regular army used to have contempt for the workers in the towns – the soldiers are mostly peasants. They used to say that the people in the towns did all the talking, while they did all the fighting, but that was before the Red Guards came into being.

The city workers are smaller than the peasants; they are stunted and pale, but they fight like demons. Lately they have put up the most desperate resistance to the Germans in Finland and the Ukraine. In this particular battle with the Cossacks they were so unused to warfare that they forgot to fire off their guns. But they did not know the meaning of defeat. When one line was mowed down another took its place. Women ran straight into the fire without any weapons at all. It was terrifying to see them; they were like animals protecting their young.

The Cossacks seemed to be superstitious about it. They began to retreat. The retreat grew into a rout. They abandoned their artillery, their fine horses, they ran back miles. ...

It was a strange procession that came back into Petrograd the next day. A huge crowd went out to meet them with the usual floating red banners, singing the swinging new revolutionary songs. The returning victorious army had been without food for a long time and they were dead weary but they were wild with joy. The tradition of the Cossacks was broken! Never again should they seem invincible to the people!

It is very necessary, if America and Russia are ever going to enjoy the natural friendship that they ought to enjoy that we in America understand what the Red Guards, the Cossacks, the Tcheko-Slovaks and other warring factions continually in the public eye actually stand for.

The Red Guards are simply the rank and file of the working people of the towns and cities. They are not anarchists and they have a very constructive tendency. They believe and fight for the Soviet form of government. They are anti-German.

Most Americans know the history of the Cossacks, but there are interesting points upon which they are not at all informed. One of those points is – that the Cossacks have played very little part in the great war. No matter what opinion we have of Russia's failure in the end, we ought never to forget that she stood the brunt of the first years, that her casualties are the most appalling of any nation, estimated now at seven million. We must bear in mind that that seven million was composed mostly of peasants.

The Cossacks are really the cavalry branch of the army and, owing to the fact that virtually all the fighting is now done in the trenches, the Cossacks have not been called upon for heavy service. They have, consequently, had time and energy to be used in counter-revolutionary attempts. They have been of excellent assistance to the Germans by their co-operation with the rich bourgeoisie, for they have torn Russia with such dreadful internal strife that the revolutionists have had to waste as much precious energy in suppressing them as in repelling the invaders. It is because of such conditions that Soviet troops have been unable to hold a front and have had to sign a disgraceful peace which they must sooner or later break. But they cannot break it until they have rid themselves of such yokes and can re-organise their forces.

If the Cossacks were really as patriotic as they pretend it only seems reasonable that their course of action would have been quite different than it was. They would themselves have been so busy fighting the Germans that they would not have had time to add to the chaos in Russia. When we consider the Cossacks we have to face the fact that they have always been paid fighters; that they have shot down the Russian people at the command of the worst tyrants, without flinching. They are born and bred fighters and men of that sort do not usually die for revolution, but quite naturally oppose it. They are more comfortable under a militaristic regime; they would fit better under Prussian rule than under the democracy of the Soviet. With the death of militarism and the practical working out of the revolution they would have to seek other work.

But since the November Revolution the rank and file of the Cossacks have also revolted against their landlords and exploiters, and now have delegates in the Soviets, and are at least passive supporters of the Revolution.

Writing of civil war makes me think of a little incident that illustrates pretty well the attitude of many middle-class Russians at the present time. It was some time in December and the rich people were beginning to fear that the Soviet government was going to stick and were getting worried about it.

I had been invited to dinner at the home of a well-to-do Russian family. The hostess explained to me when I arrived that she was desolate because her cook had left. She gave her a salary of twenty rubles a month and at the present exchange that amounted to two dollars. The girl complained that, because she had to stand long hours in the bread-lines every day, she wore out her shoes. The cheapest shoes at the time cost one hundred and fifty rubles. If she saved every cent of her salary she could only buy one pair of shoes about every eight months, and rubbers were out of the question.

My hostess thought the girl was extremely unreasonable. "She ought to be beaten with a knout," she said.

At the table the talk drifted to politics. Every one began to malign the Bolsheviki. They said it would be wonderful if the Germans would only come in and take possession. There would be gendarmes on every corner and "dogs of peasants" running for their lives.

I said I had a great deal of sympathy for the Bolsheviki because they seemed to be the only party with backbone enough to try to give the people what they wanted. My hostess sat up straight in her chair. "Why, my dear," she said, sincerely shocked, "you don't know at all what you are talking about. Why, my servants are Bolsheviki !"

They all expressed sorrow that the Cossacks seemed to be losing power.

"Anyway," remarked one woman, "you wouldn't be so stupid in America as to have a civil war."

I drew myself up with some pride. "Madam," I replied, "we had the Civil War."

So I was asked to explain. It was an odd experience. I thought the whole world knew. I told how many years it went on, how many were killed, what it was all about. When I began to talk about slavery and the position of the negroes my hostess began to beam with understanding. Suddenly she burst out: "Oh, yes, now I remember, and it is quite right that you should be nice to the negroes – they have such pretty songs!"

I was amused and at the same time depressed. This story is so typical. The middle class in Russia seem to know nothing of our Civil War, of their civil war or of the relations of such events. And they are extremely selfish. They will tell you that they want the Germans, or they want "law and order." What they really want is comfort at the cost of democracy and ideals.

Since the days of the November revolution the Red Guards have become steadily stronger and more efficient and the Cossacks have grown weaker. This was partly due to good politics on the part of the Bolsheviki. When they began to divide the land they said expressly in their decree – this does not apply to Cossacks. Now, there are great land owners in the Cossack regions as well as anywhere in Russia. There are rich and poor. An agitation for land began and it grew and grew until finally a delegation of Don Cossacks representing many thousands went to General Kaledin, Hetman of the Don Cossacks, and demanded that their land be divided after the manner of the Soviet government distribution. General Kaledin replied, "That will only happen over my dead body." Almost immediately his ranks deserted him, joining the Soviet. Kaledin, realising the hopelessness of his mistake, blew out his brains.

General Semionov was only recently chased out of Siberia, his men killing their officers and going over to the Bolsheviki. The backbone of the Cossack movement seems to be broken.