Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



IT is impossible to compare the French Revolutionary Tribunal with the Russian Revolutionary Tribunal without being struck at once by the complete dissimilarity of the two institutions. No institution could be a more definite expression of revolutionary thought or a more faithful indicator of the character of a people than a revolutionary tribunal. The principal business of the French court was to sentence suspected persons to death by the guillotine. During the whole time I was in Russia and watched this extraordinary body at work, not one person was sentenced to death.

I think of two characteristic cases.

The first was the case of Countess Panina. When the Bolsheviki came into power Panina had in her possession ninety thousand rubles belonging to the government. She refused to turn it over to the new authorities because she wanted to hold it until the Constituent Assembly; she refused to recognise the claims of the Soviet government. So she was arrested and held in Peter and Paul Fortress.

When her trial came up it made a notable stir. The courtroom was packed with a motley crowd, workers, reformers, monarchists. Most of the sessions were held in the new palace of Nicholai Nicholaiovitch. It was a circular, dead-white room with red hangings and looked curiously like a stiff modern stage set. At a long mahogany table with a red and gold cover sat the seven judges. Jukoff, a workman, was the president. Two of the judges wore the uniforms of private soldiers. The first day they looked a little embarrassed, but on all occasions maintained a surprising poise and dignity.

The first person to speak in the defence of Countess Panina was an old workman who was grateful to her for various reasons. He arose and said that she had brought light into a life which once knew only darkness. "She has given me the possibility to think," he said. "I could not read and she taught me to read. Then she was strong and we were weak. Now she is weak and we (the masses) are strong. We must give her her liberty. The world must not hear that we are ungrateful and that we imprison the weak." As he spoke he grew more and more emotional until he finally emitted a weird, hysterical shriek. "I cannot bear to see her sitting here a prisoner!" he cried and, weeping loudly, he left the room.

Paid lawyers did not make a particular impression at these trials; technical points mattered not in the least. Countess Panina's smart lawyer bored his audience frightfully. The last speaker was a fiery young boy from one of the Petrograd factories. He could not have been more than eighteen years of age. He said in effect:

"Let us not be sentimental. Panina is not a countess here, she is a plain citizen, and she has taken the people's money. We do not want to harm her – to do her any injustice. All we ask is that she return the money.

"The old man is grateful that she taught him to read. We live in a new age now. We do not depend on charity for 'light.' We believe that every man has the right to an education. With money such as Panina is keeping from the people we shall found schools, where every one shall learn. As revolutionists we do not believe in charity, we are not grateful for chance crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich."

Following his plea the court adjourned, and after a few minutes came back with this decision: Countess Panina shall remain in Peter and Paul Fortress until she returns the people's money. At the moment she complies with this demand she will be given her full liberty and she shall be turned over to the contempt of the people.

Panina decided at once to relinquish the funds. In almost any other country in such tense times they would have killed Panina, especially since she was one of the chief sabotagers against the new regime. With her experience she could have been of great assistance, but she did everything possible to wreck the proletarian government.

Another trial held in the Wiborg quarter of Petrograd and presided over by two men and one woman illustrates the treatment of petty cases. This time the court was packed with working people. The case concerned a poor man who had stolen money from a woman news vendor. The court questioned the man, and he rose up to defend himself.

"I was feeling very sad," he said. "I was tired of walking around the dark, cold streets. I thought if I could only go into a warm place where there were lights and people laughing I would be happy. I thought of Norodny Dom and I thought I would like to go there and hear Tchaliapin."

"Why did you decide to steal from this particular woman?" asked the court.

"I thought a long time," explained the man. "I was standing on the corner of a street watching her sell her papers. She sold to many rich people – enemies of the poor – and I decided that in a way she herself was a monarchist and a capitalist. Did she not handle their papers as well as ours? So I took her money. And for three days she did not find me."

The court meditated for some minutes and finally one of the judges asked very solemnly, "Did you feel better after you had been to the theatre?"

Russians are truly marvellous. Not one person in the court laughed at that question. The thief replied that he did feel better. He said that it was impossible not to be lifted up by such fine singing.

The news vendor made a plea for herself. She maintained that she was not by any means a capitalist, but a person of real service to the community. She was a revolutionist, she believed in free speech and therefore she thought it only just that she give out all the news from all sides.

The court adjourned. When they came back they announced that they believed the argument of the woman to be fair and just. The argument of the man to be unjust, therefore the man should in some way reimburse the woman for what he had taken from her. They told the audience that it could decide what the man should give after explaining that the man had no money.

Everybody consulted in excited little groups and after an hour reached this decision: The man should give his goloshes (rubbers) to the woman. They were worth approximately the same amount as the money he had taken. The woman was entirely satisfied, as she said she was without goloshes and it was necessary for her to stand on the wet streets all day. The man was entirely satisfied because he said that it relieved his conscience. He shook hands with the woman and they were friends. Every one went home smiling.

It sounds like a funny story unless one thinks about it, then it gives one quite another feeling. Justice, if it is justice at all, has to be simple. In the complicated laws of highly civilised countries we have pretty well forgotten about real justice; we depend on tricks, alibis, technicalities, evasions of all sorts. The Russian laws were particularly bad. The Soviet government decided to re-build the whole business and in the meantime they established the revolutionary tribunal. It was never the intention of any of the parties in power to continue indefinitely this crude justice.

In Petrograd I knew a number of women lawyers. One was the young sister of Evreimov, the playwright. Natalie Evreimov was the first woman secretary to a Convention of Justices, which in Russia was a regular formal court of three judges to consider small cases. She had worked a year before the courts were abolished and she was furious with the Soviets. This group of women lawyers were all liberals, but they were impatient to be practising and had great contempt for the simple justice being dealt out by the tribunal.

One evening I went to an entertainment at the house of one of them. My hostess had on a ring that reminded me of America. It was a plain gold band with enameled English letters. When I enquired about it, my hostess blushed and told me a story. "It was given to me by an American business man," she said. "He was then my fiancé. I was seventeen and he was forty. He could not stand the frivolity of a young Russian girl. I was continually teasing him and making his life a burden, so he returned to America and I never heard of him again. The ring is very mysterious. For years I have pondered on the meaning of the letters. I once asked him to explain the meaning, but he said he was bound not to tell."

She slipped the ring from her finger and I read in astonishment, "I.O. O. F." And I didn't have the heart to disillusion her.