ON the morning of January 9th I sat at breakfast in the grand dining room of the Astoria Hotel. Tired soldiers slouched in and out looking strangely out of place in a magnificent setting that was built as a background for gay ladies and flashing officers. There had been neither lights nor water for two days and the Tartar waiter had just informed us that the bread had run out, but we could still have chi--tea. A soldier at the next table offered me part of a can of fish and another leaned over and said: "Well, Comrade, they are here." He was speaking of the German and Austrian delegates. For a long time we had been expecting them--ever since the negotiations had begun at Brest-Litovsk.
As Americans we were not permitted to get interviews, but there was no law against "looking" at one's enemy. As soon as we could we located them and after that all the correspondents spent a good deal of time watching the delegates stow away their rabchick. Rabchick is a little Russian wild bird, that and cabbage were virtually all we had to eat in those days. There were high officers with their aides and stenographers-altogether numbering about forty. They sat at long tables chattering volubly. Above the tables were the same old signs: "Don't speak German!"
There were two delegations--one stopped at the Hotel Bristol on the Moika and was headed by Rear-Admiral Count Kaiserling and Count von Mirbach who has since been assassinated in Moscow. His committee was known as the Naval Delegation and their mission was to discuss means of stopping the naval war in accordance with the armistice treaty. The second delegation was headed by Count Berchtold, German Red Cross representative, and met to consider the exchange of war prisoners. They established themselves at the Grand and the Angleterre. British and French officers were stopping at both these places, which was obviously embarrassing. Almost all the delegates had in some way been connected with the German and Austrian embassies before the war, and several had had property in Russia and two were big German merchants.
It was the business of Dr. Zalkind, Trotsky's assistant, to call at their hotels to see if they had secured enough rooms.
At exactly the right number of hours and wearing the proper attire for such occasions, von Mirbach returned Zalkind's visit at the Foreign Office as if it had been an official call. The svetzar brought in the card. Zalkind was busy, but he pushed back the papers on his desk, got up and walked into the hallway.
"Hello!" he said, "what are you doing here?"
The count was abashed. "Why, I am just returning your call," he said stiffly.
Zalkind was amused. "Excuse me, Count," he said, "we are revolutionists and we don't recognise ceremony. You might have saved yourself the trouble if you had remembered that you are in New Russia." He thought a minute. "But you can come in," he added, "and have a glass of tea."
Von Mirbach did not accept the invitation. He looked down at Zalkind's rough clothes, his rumpled grey hair and his inspired face. Very awkwardly he got himself out of the alien atmosphere of the Foreign Office.
Trotsky ordered the Red Guard to mount guard over the hotels where the delegates were staying. Almost immediately a clamour went up. Count Kaiserling and all the rest of them maintained that they were "men of honour" and that such suspicion on the part of the Bolsheviki was ridiculous and an insult. So the guards were withdrawn, but the confidence of the Bolsheviki in the word of the German delegates was not strong enough to prevent them from retaining the Secret Service.
A week passed.
In the Hotel Europe wild speculation was going on. Rich Russian business men were falling over each other to get in touch with the delegates. And the Germans were evidently in a frenzy to enter into big contracts with them. The Bolsheviki took note of all this. From every part of Russia hidden supplies suddenly came to light. As far East as Siberia cars were mysteriously loaded with rubber and wheat. As far South as the Caucasus food was packed ready for shipping. And these were the same "upper classes" who had shut their ears and their hearts to the pitiful appeals of the starving and desperate soldiers. In Finland the bourgeoisie were more active than usual. ...
I remember a large and pompous German speculator, a member of the delegation, who appeared at this time. He used to stroll up and down the crowded a.nd battered Nevsky Prospect about eleven o'clock every morning. He wore a high silk hat, and he did not deign to glance at the miserable and curious population. He was so altogether smug that I used to wish his ears would freeze or some other misfortune would befall him, but nothing ever happened. He was immune to everything Russian --even the weather.
Taking it all in all, there is little difference between speculators in one country or another. And in every country they wax fat in wartime--like ghouls.
One day when all this had gone far enough, the Bolsheviki put back the guard--doubled! The men of honour understood and said not a word. Many persons connected with the affair were arrested. But the poor people of Russia, used for centuries to being sold out by the bourgeoisie, when they learned the truth through the soldiers' papers, were not even surprised.
Kaiserling, during his visit in Petrograd, gave an interview to a reporter on the Dien. In answer to the query of whether or not he thought Bolshevism would cross the frontier into Germany, he said ironically: "If Bolshevism is a danger to us, why is it not a danger for France or for England?"
The Russian ruffled him considerably by his next remark. "Yes, but you cannot deny that Germany is our nearest neighbour, so don't you think that the Russian Revolution will naturally have more influence on the masses in Germany than in distant countries? And you will not deny that there has been serious mutiny in the German fleet."
Haiserling hedged. "There were troubles on certain boats," he confessed, "but they were quickly suppressed and the guilty were properly punished. In general your insinuations are vain. At home all goes better and better. We have full constitutional liberty. And in this regard treacherous England herself is the most abominable state in the universe. Even the United States can envy us."
Reporter--Have you had the pleasure of seeing Trotsky, chief of our external affairs?
Kaiserling--No, I have not had this pleasure. I have tried on five occasions to shake his hand cordially, but up to the present time he has been too busy to see me.
Most of the time the Count answered questions about his government with phrases like this: "We are entirely tranquil." "Russian anarchy cannot affect Germany." He asked the reporter what the demonstration that the Bolsheviki were arranging for the following day was meant to signify.
The demonstration he spoke of was held on January 21. It was one of the largest demonstrations that has taken place since the first revolution. About a quarter of a million people took part in it, and it lasted all day. There were Red Guards, Cronstadt sailors, women and children--all working people. We had heard that it was a peace demonstration and wondered if it could be possible that they expected a decent peace to be signed at Brest. However, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Everybody in the parade was armed! It was a solemn and menacing procession and yet most of the banners bore the one word, "Peace."
I am sure the Germans never understood what the Russians meant by that great parade. They felt only that they were somehow insulted, and that was all. But there was a much deeper significance. The people who marched through the snow-covered streets knew that they had to have peace--that they were, for the hour, at the end of things. At the same time it was a forced peace which left every man and woman and child with future wars to fight; it was an armed peace. And this was only their peculiar Russian way of expressing what they felt. Before every marcher was a vision of a day when the German militarists who now stood gloating over them should no longer hold in terror a tired and aching world. Almost every demonstration in Russia has a certain symbolic meaning.