Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



THERE were many little incidents I came across in Russia that while of themselves are of no particular importance, yet gathered together may give the reader more atmosphere than a deliberate attempt at a picture. Now that I am home again and must depend for information largely on the reports sent out by Berlin or Vienna and meant to prejudice us against Russia, or by those of my colleagues who make it a business to write sensational stories, it seems but fair that I should tell of my own experiences and those of my friends in this supposed violent Russia. It is a great pity that all our correspondents are not as well balanced and as intelligent as Mr. Arthur Ransome, whose despatches appear in the London Daily News, New York Times, and the New Republic. Mr. Ransome is an Englishman who has lived in Russia for a number of years and knows his ground well, he writes as an observer and not for or against any party in power, and that seems to me the only reasonable conduct for a reporter. No more clearheaded comment on the political situation in Russia has been publicly made than that which appeared in his "Letter to the American People" in which he said, "Remember any non-Soviet government in Russia would be welcomed by Germany and, reciprocally, could not but regard Germany as its protector. Remember that the revolutionary movement in Eastern Europe, no less than in the American and British navies, is an integral part of the Allied blocade of the Central Empires." If one goes to Russia and finds that the Soviet government is the expression of the people, it is quite necessary to say so, no matter what one may feel personally concerning the Soviet government.

If one expects to find nothing but bloodshed and one finds that there is much else, that one can go about in a fur coat without the least hindrance, that theatres, the ballet, movies and other more or less frivolous institutions still flourish, it may subdue the tone of one's tale, but it is highly necessary to note the fact. It is silly to defend the revolution by claiming there has been no bloodshed and it is just as silly to insist that the streets are running blood. We must use logic in deciding the truth of widely varying statements. There is, for example, that careful, scientific observer, Professor Albert Ross, who travelled 20,000 miles in Russia and "never saw a blow struck" and "instead of agitation and tumult, found habit still the lord of life" in comparison to a prejudiced reporter like Herman Bernstein who somehow managed to see everywhere the wildest confusion, murders and robberies in broad daylight, cars falling off the tracks, the dead unburied and so on ad infinitum. No one can predict what will happen before the problem of a new government is settled in Russia, but up to the present moment the actions of the mass, so long mistreated and suppressed, and now suddenly given liberty has been surprisingly gentle.

If all the things that are supposed to be done are really done, I think some of them would have happened to me. I am a woman, not noticeably old, and I often travelled alone in Russia. I did not have one unpleasant, ugly experience. I was followed by spies, I was in battles, but in the first instance I was treading on dangerous ground and in the second instance it was because I chose to be in the centre of action. A few days ago I read with some amazement about a brave reporter who travelled all the way from Petrograd to Moscow and back to Petrograd again. It was the first til-ne that I realised it was a brave thing. I did it many times, when the train was packed with hungry soldiers. Once I tried to divide my sandwiches with one. He had been standing up in the aisle all night and looked weary and miserable. He refused the food. "Eat it yourself, little comrade," he said, "it will be many hours before we reach the end of the journey." A San Francisco newspaper woman, who was in Russia when I was there and who travelled home with me, often remarked with indignation on the exaggerations of conditions in Russia. She tells an amusing tale about an encounter she had with a Cossack shortly after her arrival at the Astoria Hotel in Petrograd. She had been filled with tales of the brutality of Cossacks and so she was quite naturally alarmed one evening to have a tall, handsome Cossack rap sharply on her door. When she opened it, he stepped into the room, closed the door, made a bow and took from his pocket a green sash. Miss B---- recognised it as her own. She realised at once that she must have dropped the sash going or coming from dinner. She wanted to thank the Cossack, but she did not speak Russian and she did not speak German. It occurred to her that many Russians speak French. She had a smattering of French. "Merci--pour-cette," she murmured, taking the sash and pointing to her waist. The Cossack came closer, touched her dress and smiled. "Ah," he remarked in perfect English. "I understand, you do not wear corset." Then he added politely: "That is very interesting. Good-night, mademoiselle." And making another formal little bow he went out.

Tales of violence of the most dastardly character were spread everywhere in Petrograd and produced, for a while, a mild hysteria in the foreign colonies. Hysteria always produces ludicrous situations. An Englishman managed to get aboard a crowded car one evening and was obliged to stand on the back platform. He was very nervous and imagined that one neatly dressed little man avoided his eyes. Reaching down for his watch, he found it missing. Just after that the little man got off the car. The Englishman followed quickly and the little man began to run. The Englishman finally caught him in a yard hiding behind a pile of wood. He said in a commanding voice: "Watch! watch!" The little man promptly handed over a watch.

Safe at home the Englishman found his own watch on his dresser where he had carelessly left it in the morning and a strange watch in his pocket. Very much upset by what he had done, he advertised in the papers and in due time the little man appeared. The Englishman began an elaborate apology; but the little man shut him off. "It's quite all right," he said, "what worried me that night was that I was carrying 3000 rubles and I was afraid you would demand those."

The Soviet government tried to do away with many outworn or difficult customs. They paused in the midst of civil war to change the calendar which up until February 7 was thirteen days behind the corresponding dates in all other countries.

And they abolished classes of society, planned people's theatres, reformed the marriage laws and even the spelling.

The old caste system enforced in Russia since the time of Peter the Great, in the middle of the 18th century, was never formally annulled until November 25, 1917. The decree reads as follows:

"All classes of society existing up to the present time in Russia and all divisions of citizens, all class distinctions and privileges, class organisations and institutions and also all civil grades are abolished.

"All ranks--nobleman, merchant, peasant; all titles--prince, count, etc., and denominations of civil grades (private, state and other councillors) are abolished and the only denomination established for all the people of Russia is that of citizens of the Russian republic."

Lunarcharsky, Minister of Education, is one of the most picturesque figures in Russia, and for years has been known as the Poet of the Revolution. He is an extremely cultured man and could very possibly have held the same office under any regime. He does not believe in mixing art and politics. It was his idea to turn the old palaces into people's museums, just as they are in France. It was his idea to organise the Union of Russian Artists. These artists, made up of all classes, rich and poor, have charge of the precious art treasures of the nation. They have decreed that no art objects over twenty-five years of age shall be taken out of the country.

Lunarcharsky is a fervid Bolshevik, but when he heard that the Kremlin was razed to the ground he took to his bed and resigned his position. He appeared at his post a few days later when he found that it was a false report.

Right in the middle of the fiercest fighting he got out a decree simplifying the spelling, dropping the superfluous letters out of the alphabet. And he established the School of Proletarian Drama. Like mushrooms, overnight almost, dozens of theatres came into being. Plays were given in factories, in barracks. And they chose good plays by the best authors--Gogol, Tolstoi, Shakespeare.... There is 90 much romance in this whole proletarian movement, such magnificent and simple gestures, it is not surprising that it caught the imagination of an impressionable man Like Lunarcharsky. Lunarcharsky and Professor Pokrovsky, who holds the chair of history in the University of Moscow, and is another ardent Bolshevik, are both true types of the old intelligentsia who have thrown their lot with the Soviets.

As for the new marriage laws so widely discussed abroad and misunderstood by various indignant and righteous public characters; instance, Mrs. Pankhurst's latest outburst against certain elements in Russia, in which she claimed that women over eighteen have been made public property and proved it by a decree published in a French newspaper. I was present at the meeting when the decree of the Soviets regarding marriage was passed and have the correct data. The decree which fell into the hands of Mrs. Pankhurst was gotten out by persons of absolutely no authority, a little remote group of Anarchists in Odessa. There was no reason at all to get excited about it. Groups of Anarchists all over the world have held strange and outlandish opinions--there are some in America that do, but that doesn't prove theirs is the will of the American people.

According to the marriage laws passed early in January, nothing but civil marriages are recognised. Civil marriages do not mean common law marriages, but those that have been legalised by process of law. All the contracting parties have to do is to go before the Department of Marriage and Divorce and register. No ceremony is necessary. Divorce is equally easy. Either or both of the parties can swear they find it impossible to live together any more, and they are legally free. If there are children the affair is a little more complicated and the one who has the most money, either the man or the woman, must give the most financial aid. The same decree declared all divorces pending in the churches to be null and void.

Declarations of marriage are not accepted from persons of close relationship or those in direct line. No bigamy is allowed. The age at which marriages are legalised in Great Russia is eighteen for the males and sixteen for the females. In the Trans-Caucasian countries the ages are lowered to sixteen and thirteen respectively.

Just before the vote was taken on this decree one soldier arose and said that he thought the government should limit the divorces to three. Another soldier got up and denounced him, saying: "Why should we, who believe in freedom, tell any man how many times he should wed?" So the discussion was dropped. It is interesting to note that with marriage and divorce as easy to get as a cup of tea there has been no great rush to the bureau. With the removal of all kinds of suppression immorality notably lessens. Russia with all these lax laws can boast of less immorality than any country in the world.

One of the most puritanical acts of the Bolsheviki was to raid all the gambling houses, to confiscate the money and turn it over to the army and the poor. They went even further and posted notices giving the names of all persons who frequented these places.

Women's magazines are not popular in Russia, equality of the sexes is too settled a thing. The only interesting woman's magazine I came across was edited by Madame Samoilova and was contributed to solely by factory women. It has a circulation of twenty-five thousand. Children's magazines have reached a high stage of development. They publish one called Our Magazine. All the illustrations and stories and poems are the work of small children, most of the great Russian artists are interested in it and some fascinating numbers have been produced. Civil war and the last German invasions, of course, have temporarily stopped all this delightful spirit of play.

Russians are not very happy away from their own country. Many of the rich Russians, no longer comfortable at home, now seek our shores or go to Sweden or Norway, France or England. But they are not content, they are not at all like the old exiles who fled away from the tyranny of the Tsar. Russia has a strong hold on all of her children. Eventually they will have to go back and work it all out together, as we did in our Civil War, as they did in France. ...

Pogroms among the Jews have almost ceased. This anti-Semitic feeling, Like all race hatred, is artificial and has to be artificially stimulated. With the fall of the monarchy and the discrediting of the reactionaries, the Jews ceased to be segregated according to religion and became Russian citizens. Many of them did excellent work in reorganising. This was especially true of those exiles who had lived a long time in America and had become acquainted with American efficiency. William Shatoff became a member of the famous Military Revolutionary Committee, organiser of the Printers' Union and a member of the Executive Committee of the Factory Shop Committees. He has lately been reported to be governor of Karkov. Voskoff became head of the Factory Shop Committees at Sestroretz, and was one of the chief inventors of that ingenious institution. Under the old regime one of the chief causes for pogroms was the crowding together of Jews in the Pale so that they were forced in self-defence to combine against the Gentiles. Now there is absolutely no occasion for these hideous performances and none can occur, except those invited by the Black Hundred who are working to put back a Tsar on the throne. The high place and the respect accorded Trotsky give evidence of the real feeling of the people.

Owing to the terrific scarcity of paper in Russia, ordinary postage stamps were used for kopecks, minus the glue. The one ruble notes were pasted together again and again until finally they became very rare. And there was absolutely no metal money. We had to use forty and one hundred ruble notes, and as the merchants had no change we had to establish credits. In the restaurants where we ate most frequently we either gave them the money in advance or they trusted us.

When I read absurd stories of Russia I always am reminded of the experience of the Evening Post's correspondent who was down the Volga, last summer, absorbing atmosphere. Ne said one afternoon he sat in a one-roomed peasant's hut jotting down impressions. He wrote: "Rough wooden table and benches--large bowl in the centre of the table from which the whole family eats--woman and dirty baby. .. ." But just then he was interrupted, the baby put his feet on the table and the mother scolded it sharply. "Remember you are not in America," she said.