Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



AMERICA has shown great sympathy for the children of Belgium, of Serbia, of Poland, of all the little warring countries swept by the fire of war. As a nation we have accomplished splendid relief work for which we will never be forgotten. But in our eagerness to aid the small nations we have almost overlooked great Russia. While the wildest exaggerations fill our daily papers, Russia herself does not consciously advertise her sufferings as other nations do. We have little correct information as to just how pitiful conditions are in that vast land of a hundred and eighty million, so we haven't faced the terrible fact that more children have died in Russia since the war than in all the little countries together.

Ever since the beginning, nearly four years ago, conditions have been unbearable for the children. Transportation, never very efficient, was almost completely upset as soon as mobilisation began and it was never reorganised. Children in the cities have been without proper nourishment for four years because milk and other necessities have not been brought in from the rural districts. At first, the country children were not greatly affected, but as the war went on and disorganisation spread, King Hunger claimed them all. I used to wonder last year how any of them survived. I once asked a doctor who has had experience in caring for children in six warring countries and he said that the only explanation he could offer was that Russian children have more resistance than other children. "I was forced to give them food in my hospital," he said, "that American babies would have died on in a few days. ...

If it is true that Russian children are so strong it only makes the statistics regarding their mortality more tragic. On the retreats in Galicia, out of Volhynia, Riga, and other places, they died at the rate of 800 out Of every 1000. In the charitable institutions, overcrowded, disease ridden, unsanitary, lacking almost every medical necessity, only 15 per cent. survived.

Just to write this down, or to speak of it cannot give a mental picture to any one who has not actually seen such a sweeping scourge of the little people. It begins to sink into you after you have lived in Russia for some time and you begin to wonder where the children have gone. I went along always looking for the happy youngsters to whom the bright toys in the shop windows, now dustcovered, should belong. I came to realise with horror that everybody in Russia is grown up. Those young in years, whom we still called children, had old and sad faces, large, hungry eyes burned forth from pale countenances, wretched, worn-out shoes, sagging, ragged little garments accentuated their so apparent misery.

In Petrograd last winter, Colonel Raymond Robbins, of the American Red Cross, made an attempt to supply the babies of Petrograd with canned milk, but all sorts of delays in shipping occurred, policies toward Russia changed, so that when I left late in January the milk had not yet arrived. To be sure, speculators somehow managed to smuggle in small consignments and 10c cans of popular American brands could be bought at the exorbitant rate of 16 1/2 rubles. I wish I could efface from my memory the old peasant women and the little ragamuffins who stood in the snow outside the grocery windows gazing wistfully at the little red and white cans.

On the retreats confusion and terror swept along with the refugees. Last autumn when they were fleeing down the muddy roads before the advancing Germans, parents had no time to stop to bury their dead children, mothers fell exhausted and died with live babies in their arms. Long cherished bits of household treasures, dragged along with the hope of making another home somewhere, were dropped all along the weary miles; here a chest, there an old hand-wrought kettle, a brass samovar.... Hatless, coatless, hungry, often barefooted and knee-deep in slush the population pushed doggedly along for days.

Even on the more organised retreats where Red Cross doctors had charge, sick children had to be left behind in military hospitals, especially was this true if the children had contagious diseases like scarlet fever. They were hastily placed in separate wards and tags were tied to their clothing, and on the door was pasted a notice addressed to the Germans, giving brief information about the ailment of the child, who its parents were, where they came from, and their destination. There was a desperate hope that the parent and child would one day find each other, but in most cases the hope was vain.

A beautiful camaraderie between the children on these marches existed. The older ones often carried the younger and as they tramped along they sang folk songs, intermingled with all the new revolutionary tunes. Their lovely little high sopranos, sifting through the cold heavy dampness of the dreary Russian autumn and their huddled little figures through the mist gave them the appearance of a phantom army of all the children who have died in this war for the sins of a few diplomats sitting around a gilded table, plotting conquest and spilling the world's blood.

The children showed remarkable courage, standing all sorts of hardships without whimpering. This was especially true of the children who were sent ahead of the parents in order that, even if the parents perished, the children at least might be saved. In the strangeness and turmoil of the new life, individuals asserted themselves. One little boy or girl, often by no means the oldest, might lead a band of twenty or thirty. He would make himself a self-appointed chief, sometimes displaying rank favouritism.

Life was not all serious in these sad little armies. The children found time to play jokes on the doctors, to tease the nurses and to mimic the revolutionary leaders. They formed committees and issued proclamations of defiance, pretending to refuse orders from superiors. This aping of the new life was true in the schools of Petrograd. Little boys laboriously wrote out long documents and pasted them on the walls, "just like Lenine and Trotsky." One of the teachers told me an amusing tale about a committee of youngsters who came to her with the portentous information that thereafter the students in the school would receive no orders "unless countersigned by the committee," the oldest member of the committee being twelve years old.

The only child I ever knew who seemed to enjoy the hazards of war was an amazingly beautiful boy by the name of Vanya, son of a well-to-do peasant from the province of Volhynia. He was lost at one of the stations where he had gotten out to get water for tea. In all the railway stations there are huge tankards of boiling water for those who are traveling and the peasants always carry with them big brass kettles for brewing tea, which they drink almost every hour of the day.

Vanya had persuaded his parents to let him get the water "just once" after the manner of little bogs. Then it seems that he became interested in a large friendly dog and forgot his mission. The train went off and the parents did not discover that he was missing until they were many miles away; and refugees cannot turn back. For hours Vanya stood waiting for the train to return. Toward dusk he was found by a company of Cossacks going toward the front.

His adventures after that were so remarkable that he became a legendary character and was reported to have a charmed life. For weeks he rode at the head of the Cossack regiment on a fiery charger. He became the idol of the camp and the Cossacks loaded him down with all sorts of presents looted along the way. He wore these round his neck in loops like a little savage. Cossacks are gentle with but two living things--children and horses.

Vanya had a genius for being lost. He was lost by the Cossacks and wandered aimlessly through a lonely wood eating wild berries and sleeping under the stars. He was found by a woodcutter and his wife and adopted by them and loved as a son. But they also, in their turn, had to flee from the Germans, and after a long journey reached Petrograd.

Here Vanya was lost again and found by an American and brought to the American Refuge Home, which was established at the beginning of the war by subscriptions raised among the members of the American legation and added to by friends in America. It never grew to much importance, but those who kept up an interest were able to care for about forty children.

The story of how Vanya was at last found by his parents after he had wandered all over Russia for a year and a half is one of the exceptional happy endings to the thousands of sad tales of scattered and broken lives of the people from the invaded districts.

To be of assistance in bringing together lost families was the principal business of the Grand Duchess Tatiana Committee which posted semi-weekly lists of the refugees in the various camps. It was by this means that Vanya's father read Vanya's name on one of the lists. He had walked twenty versts twice a week to the office of the Committee to procure the lists for over a year....

Famine has threatened Russia for months and now it seems inevitable. There is little or no seed for the next planting, lack of horses and farming implements, no means of transportation, while the grain stores in the Ukraine are being seized by the Germans or burned by the peasants to keep them from the enemy's hands; in Siberia the supplies are held up for one reason or another. For so long we have believed every odious, unsympathetic tale that comes out of Russia, tales meant purposely to poison our minds and make us hostile. In other words, we have believed just exactly what the Germans have wanted us to believe. But whatever vast differences of opinion we may hold with the majority of the Russian people, children are the same to us all the world over. Eventually we will have to aid Russian children as generously as children of other countries.