William Henry Chamberlin | Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History
THE most obvious physical feature of the Soviet Union is its size. Spread out over half Europe and a third of Asia, its area of 21,342,872 square kilometres represents between a seventh and a sixth of the surface of the globe. This fact, on which Soviet orators are inclined to dwell at festival occasions, loses something of its impressiveness when one reflects that a substantial part of Russian territory, both in Europe and in Asia, consists of frozen Arctic wastes, sparsely inhabited by primitive tribes and of little apparent value except as a source of furs.
However, even the settled portion of the Soviet Union conveys an impression of vast, almost unlimited extent. From the Polish border to the frontier of Manchuria is a journey of eight days on an express train which makes few and short stops, except for a stay of a few hours in Moscow. One may float for a week down the navigable part of the placid stream of the mighty Volga, which flows to a length of almost twenty-five hundred miles through the very heart of European Russia, until it loses itself in a huge delta and meets the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan, an old stronghold of the Tartar khans which is now an unsavory but rich fish mart, supplying large quantities of the famous Russian caviare.
The impression of Russia's sheer geographical bulk is heightened by the character of the country. The comparatively low ranges of the Ural Mountains lie along the shadowy frontier between Russian Europe and Russian Asia. Far to the south-east, between the Black and Caspian Seas, rise the magnificent peaks of the Caucasus, higher and incomparably wilder than the Alps. Still loftier are the Altai Mountains, on the frontier between Siberia and China, and the ranges in the neighborhood of the high bare Pamir Plateau, where a thin strip of Afghan territory barely separates Russia from India. But most of the European part of the Soviet Union, together with the western half of Siberia, is an enormous plain, seldom broken by even the lowest of hills. So the traveler from Moscow, whether he go north, east, south, or west, has before him for whole days wide vistas of field or forest or uncultivated steppe land, as the case may be, with only the distant horizon as a boundary for the landscape.
Fifty thousand miles of railroad line do something to bring within manageable compass the immense distances of the Soviet Union, and the airplane is becoming an increasingly valuable auxiliary in the field of transport. The air routes now functioning in the Soviet Union cover almost eight thousand miles, and, if ambitious plans for development and extension are carried out, this figure will increase to twenty-eight thousand miles by 1933.
The present Russian air lines are divided into three groups. The two routes which connect Russia with the West, the Moscow-Riga-Konigsberg-Berlin and the Leningrad-Reval-Riga lines, are under the direction of the joint stock company Deruluft, capital investment and profits being shared between the Soviet Government and the German Luft-Hansa Company. A Ukrainian state aviation company operates the longest single air line in the Soviet Union, the two-thousand-mile stretch from Moscow to the Persian port Pehlevi, via Kharkov, Rostov, Mineralni Vodi, and Baku.
The third and largest group of lines, under the management of the Soviet state company, Dobrolet, is located in Central Asia and the Far East. It is in these regions of deserts, steppes, and mountains that the airplane achieves the most striking economies in time. It was and is a long, difficult, and some-times dangerous undertaking to travel by horse or caravan from the Russian frontier to the Afghan capital, Kabul. Now Russian and Afghan diplomats fly across the lofty Hindu Kush range, making the trip from Kabul to Tashkent, the centre of Russian Central Asia, in a few hours.
In the Far East, Irkutsk, on the Trans-Siberia Railroad, is connected by airplane with Yakutsk, capital of a vast and sparsely populated Siberian territory, rich in furs and gold. From Verkhne-Udinsk, on the same railroad, an aviation service is maintained to Ulan Bator, capital of Outer Mongolia, and the Luft-Hansa Company is making tentative efforts to establish an air route across Russia to China and Japan.
Next to size, perhaps the strongest external impression which one obtains from the Soviet Union to-day is that of isolation. Russia's contacts with the outside world are distinctly slight. Except on special occasions, such as the arrival or departure of a delegation, few foreigners travel on the daily trains between Moscow and Riga and Moscow and Warsaw. When I went from Moscow to China on the Trans-Siberian Express, for the last two days of the journey up to the Manchurian frontier I was alone in the car, except for the two provodniks, who share a compartment at the end of each car and combine the functions of conductors, porters, and tea-purveyors.
Not that there is any element of special discomfort, still less of danger, in traveling on Russian railroads. Whatever else in Russia may be late in starting (and concerts, meetings, and appointments usually are), the trains depart on scheduled time, without even a moment's leeway, and arrive at their destinations with a very good average of punctuality, if one takes into account the liability of the country to floods in spring and blizzards in winter. The Russian wagon-lits are roomier than those of Europe, because of the wider gauge used on the Russian railroads; the myagki, or "soft" second-class cars, so called in distinction from the "hard" third-class, are somewhat stuffier, but leave no cause for serious complaint on the score of cleanliness or comfort.
The third-class car, made up of compartments for six with upper and upmost berths in the shape of wooden projections, is apt to be rather odorous, crowded, and heavily encumbered with the goods of the passengers, because Russians, for some reason, are much given to traveling by this cheaper conveyance and usually take with them a vast amount of luggage, not in trunks and suitcases, but in sacks and boxes of all sizes and shapes. In liveliness and conversational interest, however, it has a clear advantage over other modes of travel.
The dining car is a Western importation which is usually to be found only on the longest runs of the most important lines; but it is always possible to buy a great variety of provender, ranging from roast pigs to sunflower seeds (Russia's substitute for peanuts and chewing gum), from peasants at the wayside stations. The rush for hot water for tea at each station (from time immemorial the Russian railroad lines have provided taps at every stop of any size) is something that makes all passengers on the Russian train kin.
The chief reasons why so few foreigners are in Russia are that the cost of living is high and the opportunities for occupation are limited. Before the Revolution both Moscow and St. Petersburg had their colonies of foreigners of different nationalities, engaged mostly in some sort of trade or business. At the present time concession enterprises in the Soviet Union are few and insignificant, Russia's trade in general has declined, and the new system of state monopoly of foreign commerce considerably reduces the openings for individual salesman-ship.(1) The number of citizens of American and European countries permanently resident in the Soviet Union probably does not exceed a few hundred. Moscow has no club or other place of entertainment where foreigners may foregather.
So far as casual and temporary visitors are concerned, Russia was always off the beaten track of the tourist; and this is true to-day even more than in pre-war times. Every summer a large party of very capitalistic-looking South Americans interrupts a pleasure cruise in the waters of Northern Europe long enough to spend a few days in Moscow and Leningrad, and small parties of travelers, mostly from America, are beginning to filter into Russia for more extensive trips. However, it seems doubtful whether the Soviet Union ever will catch more than a modest trickle from the vast annual stream of American tourist trade. There is an abundance of wild and picturesque mountain scenery in the Caucasus; the sweep of the southern Crimean coast down to the Black Sea, with its vineyards and cypresses and tropical vegetation and a range of high mountains in the background, is magnificent and has been compared with the Riviera. But the remoteness of the Soviet Union, the legendary tales of its horrors, which are still circulated abroad, and the general inability of Russian hotels to measure up to the somewhat Sybaritic requirements of American tourists are factors which seem likely to prolong the state of isolation, in this field at least.
Of course, Russia has a special attraction for a new type of tourist who may be characterized as a sociological globe-trotter. These people, who usually are endowed with immense energy, which seldom is balanced by equivalent amounts of the gifts of reflection, analysis, and advance knowledge of the subject, bustle into Russia, rush through a round of visits to model institutions, and bustle out again, feeling that the Soviet Union holds no more mysteries for them. However, the sociological globe-trotter, while a very active species, is not a numerous one.
If few foreigners come to Russia, few Russians go abroad. Here the element of financial exigency comes into play. Soviet currency is not exchangeable abroad, except through furtive agencies and at rates of exchange substantially lower than the official one of approximately two rubles to the dollar. With a view to preventing speculation, the Soviet Government forbids the transfer of Russian currency abroad. Therefore, every Soviet citizen who travels in foreign countries is, in a more or less direct way, a charge on the state treasury, since he must either exchange rubles for foreign currency at the State Bank or otherwise procure the necessary foreign money for his journey. Inasmuch as the Soviet financial authorities are extremely reluctant to deplete their limited stocks of foreign currency, or, in general, to see it leave the country, permission to travel abroad is very difficult to obtain for any Soviet citizen who is not employed on some mission of recognized state importance.
This same financial situation further contributes to the isolation of the country by imposing considerable restrictions on the importation of foreign books and the bringing of foreign artists into the country. Russia is a music-loving country, and even a second-rate foreign pianist or violinist can usually count on a large audience in Moscow. But fees paid in Soviet currency are valueless outside of Russia; and the supply of foreign currency allotted for the payment of foreign artists is stringently rationed.
The sense of Russia's isolation is further strengthened when one finds it impossible to buy a thermometer in Moscow. Such articles as fountain pens and typewriters, while obtainable under great stress, command extremely high prices, and there is no surer target for the attentions of the street waifs and other pickpockets of Moscow than a fountain pen worn in an outside coat pocket.
Isolation in some cases breeds hatred of the foreigner and his ways, and one might anticipate some manifestations of this spirit in Russia, especially in view of the fact that "war preparations against the Soviet Union" and "imperialistic plots" are among the stock headlines of the Soviet press. But as a matter of fact the popular attitude toward the foreigner is probably friendlier in Russia than in any other country in the world. I have traveled many thousands of miles in the Soviet Union without encountering any instance of discourtesy, to say nothing of hostility, directed against me as a foreigner; and I think this testimony would be confirmed by most travelers in Russia. Even the Moscow policeman, ruthlessly insistent on collecting a ruble fine from any Russian whom he catches jumping on or off a moving tramcar in defiance of traffic regulations, is quickly mollified if the offender displays the linguistic incapacity that marks the foreigner. The crowds which formerly marched in orderly organized fashion to demonstrate in the vicinity of the British and Polish Missions, when the British Government had dispatched a hostile note or when a Polish court passed a severe sentence on a Communist or a mild sentence on a Russian emigre who had attacked a Soviet diplomat, never threatened the security of individual Englishmen or Poles.
There probably are several reasons for the almost complete absence in Russia of the unpleasant form of nationalism that finds expression in hatred for people of other countries. In the first place, the same newspapers which constantly report the machinations of the capitalist governments against the Soviet Union consistently represent these governments as being faced with more or less formidable movements of their own insurgent proletariats. However incorrect this representation may be, it is at least calculated to discourage chauvinism by concentrating the wrath of the aroused reader on the government rather than on the people of the country concerned. Then the Russian has not the same provocation to antiforeignism as the German or the Frenchman who at certain periods saw his country overrun by foreign visitors, taking advantage of the inflation to buy up everything in sight at bargain prices, or as the Chinese who sees colonies of Europeans living in a state of comfort that stands in contrast to his own poverty. The foreigners in Moscow, or in Russia generally, are too few to make any particular impression, and, far from attempting to "buy up" Russia, they make every effort to purchase their clothes and articles of personal use in countries where prices are lower and standards of quality are higher.
One cannot live long in Russia without feeling that it is a Eurasian country. It is not merely that most of the territory of the Soviet Union is in Asia or that a substantial minority of its population is made up of Asiatic peoples. There is a deep strain of Asiatic influence in the Russian historical heritage. Apart from the effect of the long period of Tartar overlord-ship, the landlocked Muscovite state of the Middle Ages was at least as accessible from the Near and Middle East as from Europe. The Moscow merchant of the sixteenth century, dressed in his magnificently colored long flowing robe, resembled his fellow dealer from Persia or Turkey rather than the con-temporary merchants of England or Holland.
Even to-day there are certain features of Russian dress which suggest Asia as much as Europe. The rubashka, or Russian shirt, which is worn outside the trousers and tightened about the waist with a belt, is something of a cross between the oriental robe and the European shirt. The high cone-shaped Astrakhan wool hat which many Muscovites wear during the winter would excite more surprise in London or Berlin than in Kabul or Teheran. If the Western element clearly predominates in the Russian cities, the villages of the country, with their primitive implements and methods of farming, their general illiteracy, and their roads that are streaks of dust in summer and morasses of mud in autumn and spring, still belong in many respects to Asia, in spite of the ambitious projects which are on foot to introduce electricity and tractors and other appurtenances of modern life.
Nowhere is the Eurasian quality of Russia more in evidence than in Moscow itself. The crowning glory of the city, the massive enclosure of the Kremlin, with its squat watchtowers, crenelated battlements, and thick walls, designed to resist the raids of Tartar horsemen and Polish lancers, strongly suggests the fortress-residence of an oriental khan. Equally Asiatic is the so-called Chinese Wall, pierced with arched gateways through which the humdrum traffic of present-day Moscow passes. And one never thinks of any place west of Byzantium when contemplating the Church of St. Basil, with its intricate and twisted design of cupolas shaped in the image of pears and pineapples and other fruits and its riotous rich coloring.
On the other hand the greater part of Moscow resembles a drab and dingy European city, grown up without any benefit of plan. Whereas Leningrad reflects the care lavished on it by generations of sovereigns in its wide straight streets and many handsome public buildings, Moscow is an architectural jumble, without even a main thoroughfare to give it some degree of unity.
By general testimony Moscow has not changed very much externally since the Revolution. There has, of course, been some new building, but not enough to alter the general character. A few new public buildings, such as a new post office, and new large apartment houses, are built along severe and simple lines. There is a large number of mushroom one- and two-story houses, set up by private builders with limited capital and occupying much potentially valuable space. The atheistic and utilitarian Moscow Soviet has removed a number of churches which were so situated as to constitute obstructions to traffic.
In general, however, the changes are in the new uses of old buildings, rather than in the erection of new ones. The former Hall of the Nobles, for instance, has been transformed into the headquarters of the Moscow Trade-Unions. The great ball-room with its huge crystal chandeliers is now a hall for meetings and popular concerts. The osobniaks, or little mansions which the old Moscow merchants and manufacturers built for them-selves and decorated profusely with mural paintings and gilded ornaments, have mostly been turned over to government institutions and workers' clubs.
One of the strongest impressions that one almost inevitably gets in Moscow is that of endless and ever-moving crowds. In the central part of the city, where the largest stores and chief government business and administrative offices are located, it is sometimes difficult to pick one's way through the streams of people who crowd and block up the narrow sidewalks. This impression of crowding is usually intensified enormously if one rides on the tramcars which are the city's chief means of public conveyance. There are also some autobuses, purchased in England and Germany, and there are always the traditional droshkies, small conveyances with scant seating room for two, equipped with wheels in summer and sleigh runners in winter. Taxicabs in Moscow are few and difficult to get, except at a few central stations.
The surging, pushing crowds in the streets and on the tram-cars are fully duplicated in the Moscow houses. What with the inevitable gravitation of people toward the political and economic centre of the country, and the natural increase of the population, Moscow's population has swelled from 1,600,000 before the War to well over two million, and it goes on increasing from year to year at a rate which seems to defy all efforts to provide an adequate amount of new housing. The result is that the Soviet capital is by far the most crowded of the large European cities. A room is difficult enough to obtain, while an apartment (and anything above had only after the payment as an apartment) is usually to be of a premium of several thousand rubles, with the additional harassing possibility that the title of the seller may be open to question, in which event one is likely to become involved in the infinite complexities of a Soviet housing suit.
As a result of these constricted housing conditions, the life which many Russians lead in Moscow rather suggests a process of camping out. A five-room apartment which formerly served the needs of a single family is now usually divided up among three or four or five. The hallway usually resembles a baggage office; it is filled with trunks and furniture which the owners cannot place in their small quarters and do not wish to discard. An individual kitchen is a rare luxury. The Russian family either does its cooking over a primus, a small, sputtering oil stove, or shares a general kitchen with several families. The private landlord has very largely disappeared under Soviet conditions, and most large houses are managed by committees, elected by the tenants and responsible to the housing department of the municipality for the upkeep of the houses.
Rents are regulated, in municipally owned houses, by the "class principle" which is supposed to permeate every field of Soviet life. Manual workers pay a very low, almost a nominal rent, and employees who are registered trade-union members pay somewhat more, but also a small amount. The rates rise for "members of free professions," doctors, lawyers, writers, etc., and become very high for Nepmen, or private traders. These observations apply to the older houses, which were taken over from their former owners without compensation by the municipal authorities. In the case of new houses, where the high cost of building materials makes it necessary, as a rule, to exact much higher rents, it is not always posible to give the workers the full benefit of the class principle; and complaints are not infrequent that some new houses are almost monopolized by the more highly paid employees, to the disadvantage of the workers.
The crowds of Moscow quickly form into lines. For economic reasons, which are explained more fully elsewhere, there is a constant shortage of certain kinds of manufactured goods and a more or less sporadic shortage of certain food products. The problem of food supply increased in sharpness during 1928 and 1929 partly as a result of the attempted elimination of the kulak, or prosperous individual peasant, and partly because of the steady growth in the population of the cities. By the autumn of 1929 most important food products were rationed in Moscow. The list includes bread, meat, eggs, butter, sugar, tea, rice, and macaroni, while milk was so scarce that it was impossible even to organize a regular supply of it. Holders of trade-union cards (and, as is explained later, almost all persons engaged in labor which is considered socially productive are members of trade-unions) and members of their families are entitled to buy specified amounts of the rationed products at the comparatively moderate prices which prevail in state and cooperative stores. Moreover in Moscow it is possible to buy, in the private market, quantities over and above one's allotted ration, though at extremely high prices.
The size of the ration in Moscow varies from an adequate allowance of two pounds of bread a day for manual workers to such clearly meagre allotments as fifteen eggs a month and a quarter of a pound of butter a week. As a rule this system of distributing food is applied primarily to the city population, although some effort is made to provide the poorer peasants in regions which do not produce a grain surplus with grain at lower prices than those which prevail on the open market. The hardships of the Russian disfranchised-the ministers of religion, former landlords and factory-owners, merchants and traders, etc. under this system are greatly aggravated since they can only buy food at greatly increased prices. One week a line, mostly made up of patient-faced women with market baskets, will form for butter; the next week tea will be the article most in demand; while supply always seems to fall short of demand with textile and woolen goods and many other manufactured products. The longest lines are usually to be found before the stores which dispense vodka, the fiery liquor with 40 per cent alcoholic content which constitutes the chief delight of the Russian toper.
The handling of the manufacture and sale of vodka is one of the most controversial questions in Russia, since there is much division of opinion on this question in the ranks of the ruling Communist Party itself, some Communists dwelling on the financial and economic advantages which the sale of vodka brings to the state, while others emphasize the admittedly bad effects of drunkenness on public order and labor discipline and the obstacles which excessive drinking creates for the realization of the ideal of a more educated and cultured working class.
The sale of vodka was one of the most profitable items in the pre-war Russian budget, yielding about a quarter of the total revenue. The Tsar, by a single decree, completely stopped the state sale of vodka after the outbreak of the War. Vodka remained forbidden during the first period of revolution and civil war, but began to come back, at first in diminished alcoholic content, after the adoption of the New Economic Policy. On October 1, 1925, vodka of the full 40 per cent strength was restored; and the citizens of Moscow celebrated with a drinking orgy which lasted over several days. Since that time drunkenness has been visibly on the increase in the cities, although the amount of vodka manufactured and sold by the state is still less than half of the huge pre-war figure. On the other hand, there is a large undefined consumption of samogon, or illicit vodka, made in peasant stills in the country districts. Samogon is a raw liquor, brewed out of wheat flour and terrifying to the uninitiated; but the peasant's palate is far from delicate, and since samogon usually contains an even higher percentage of alcohol than the state vodka and is cheaper in price, he gulps it down whenever it is obtainable, despite the fact that its manufacture is punishable with fine and imprisonment.
The annual drink bill of the Soviet Union is estimated at 1,200,000,000 rubles, a sum lower than is spent in some countries with a smaller population, such as Germany and England. But the drinking habits of the average Russian are of a violent and intemperate character. Instead of drinking more or less moderately day by day, the Russian worker or peasant is more apt to reserve all his energies for a large-scale alcoholic debauch, preferably on some big religious holiday. These debauches sometimes end in sanguinary fights, and at best leave the participants unfit for work over a period of several days.
The most recent tendency of Soviet policy in the drink question has been to apply measures of partial restriction and regulation in the larger cities. So saloons and liquor shops in the immediate vicinity of factories may be closed, if the workers vote in favor of such action; the sale of vodka on holidays is forbidden; there is a movement to stop the sale of vodka in cooperative stores, restricting it entirely to the state liquor trust stores. Furthermore, the amount of vodka sold in the cities is being somewhat reduced, while larger quantities are being sent into the country districts, where, it is argued, the state sale of vodka serves the double purpose of pushing out samogon and giving the peasants some inducement to part with their hoarded grain.
To walk through the streets of Moscow at night is almost to feel one's self in a Puritan city. The shine and glitter of the night life of a typical large city have been completely knocked off by the Revolution. There is very little nocturnal illumination, beyond what is needed to light the streets. There are no lines of parked motor-cars and taxicabs to indicate the entrances to the State Opera House and the principal theatres. There are no artistically attractive cabarets in Moscow, and very few of any kind. There is practically no public dancing. The sole gambling casino in Moscow recently closed its doors, and the only public opportunities which Muscovites enjoy for gambling are provided by the horse races and by the state loans, which, instead of a regular interest rate, pay a series of lottery cash prizes. It is, perhaps, a significant commentary on the Russian national character that these lottery loans, in which one most probably receives nothing except the principal, but enjoys the alluring possibility of winning a prize to the value of ten, twenty-five, or a hundred thousand rubles, are vastly more popular than the more conventional bond issues which pay an assured interest rate of 9 or 10 or 12 per cent.
I should not wish to imply that Moscow has reached the state of puritanical grace which even England could not achieve, despite Milton's eloquence and Cromwell's sword. Heavy drinking and irregular sex relations are far from uncommon in the Soviet capital. But there is no external gilding for these things; the vast, pleasure-seeking, organized "night life" of Berlin or Paris, New York or London, simply has no parallel in Moscow.
No one can live very long in Russia without gaining an impression of leveling in the everyday life of the people. Not that absolute material equality, or anything like it, has been achieved. There are marked variations in the standards of living, not only among the people as a whole, but among the members of the Communist Party. But, whereas in other countries there is a tendency to display wealth, in Russia there is every impulse to hide it. The Communist or Soviet official who is observed to spend more freely than his modest salary would seem to permit is likely to be called on for an explanation, either by some Party tribunal or, in especially serious cases, by the secret police. Flaunting of wealth by the harassed private trader is likely to invite new visitations by the tax-collecting authorities.
Under these conditions, dress, which in almost every age and country has served as a badge of social distinction, has almost ceased to fulfill that function in Russia. The instinct for personal adornment has not disappeared in Russia. Women, with the exception of the occasional mannish girl student or office employee who affects a cap and leather coat, probably devote as much attention to their apparel as ever; and, despite the prohibitive duties on silk and other luxury articles, they often achieve quite successful results in their costumes, with the aid of French and German fashion magazines, which somehow find their way into the country. The foreign embassies represent a limited centre of social life where the conventional rules of dress and social formality are carefully observed.
But this is a small island in a large ocean. The arbiter elegantiarum for Soviet officialdom is not the foreign embassy, but the Control Committee of the Communist Party, which is composed of the most austere veteran Party members and is en-trusted, among other things, with the charge of detecting and punishing any comrades who succumb to disintegrating "bourgeois" influences. On one occasion the Secretary of this Committee, Jaroslavsky, warned Communists resident abroad against luxurious modes of living which would invite the gibes of hostile newspapers, and especially cautioned them against "struggling into frock coats which suit them as well as a saddle does a cow." It may readily be imagined that Communists in Russia (and practically all high Soviet officials are Communists) are under even stronger pressure.
Dress, in fact, has ceased to be a reliable indicator of social status; the man in a collarless Russian shirt on the ground floor at the opera or the theatre may be a bona fide proletarian taking advantage of his opportunity to purchase tickets at the reduced trade-union rate, a newly enriched trader anxious to hide his prosperity, or a high state official setting an example in democratic dress. Moscow is perhaps the only capital in the world where one may wear practically anything at any time in any place without attracting special attention, still less running any risk of incurring social reprobation.
There is only one conspicuous exception to this statement which I can recall; and that is humorous and paradoxical enough to prove the general truth of the rule. One positively must not appear at the entertainment which the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs gives annually in celebration of the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution except in the full regalia of evening dress.
Moscow was and is a city of many beggars. One finds them everywhere, outside the many churches and shrines, in the neighborhood of the larger theatres, in the more secluded side streets. Contrary, perhaps, to a general impression abroad, these beggars do not, in the overwhelming majority of cases, belong to the former aristocracy and wealthy classes. There are, of course, many cases of pitiful destitution among people who formerly were well-to-do; occasionally one may perhaps see an old landowner or merchant soliciting alms near his former mansion, or notice a French book in the hands of the woman who is selling cigarettes at some little stand.
But most of the beggars come from the vast hinterland of the Russian village. Some of them are professionals, organized in collective groups, and divide up their receipts at regular intervals. Others really justify their descriptions of them-selves as poor peasants who are stranded in the city without food or work.
Begging is not, one suspects, an unpopular occupation in Russia; it affords an outlet for the histrionic faculty with which most Russians are endowed to a greater or less degree, and, despite their poverty, the Russians are more generous toward beggars than the people of most other countries. The widespread unemployment to-day provides an economic back-ground for mendicancy. But it is quite possible that in the future Communist Utopia, should it ever be achieved, where there is work for everyone and full insurance for all who cannot work, there will still be a few free spirits who will prefer to live by begging, and a somewhat larger number who will give them alms.
Three or four years ago every visitor was struck by the numbers of byezprizorni, or shelterless children, homeless waifs of all ages and sizes, who thronged the railroad stations and markets and all other places where there was a good chance to beg or steal. These were genuine wolf-children, hardened and criminal beyond their ages, quick to use the ugly long "Finnish knife" which is the favorite weapon of the Russian gangster or criminal, adepts in drug peddling, victims of sexual perversion. Traveling as stowaways in the most unlikely parts of trains, the byezprizorni spread all over the Soviet Union, migrating with the seasons from south to north and back again.
Most of these waifs were orphans whose parents perished in civil war and famine or who were somehow torn off from their families. As recently as 1925 their number was estimated as high as 300,000, although no reliable census could ever have been taken, in view of their constantly shifting nomadic street life. It is a noteworthy social achievement of the Soviet authorities that these waifs, formerly so pitiful and terrible a spectacle, have now almost disappeared, as a result of a strenuous campaign to place them in children's homes, working communes, and other institutions.
When I first visited the bustling city of Rostov-on-the-Don, several years ago, it was a huge rendezvous of the byezprizorni. They surrounded the station in a veritable cordon; the traveler had to keep his hand on his pocket every minute to forestall the attentions of these precocious young pickpockets. Revisiting Rostov in 1928, I was impressed by the absence of the waifs on the streets. To the natural question, "What has become of them ?" I received a partial answer when I visited the "Workshop Commune," a working school for former waifs established in the city itself.
Approaching the entrance to the colony, one found on guard an erect young man in uniform. "Who is the soldier at the gate ?" I asked the manager of the colony. "Soldier ?" he laughed. "That 's one of our own boys, of the special detachment which we created to guard the commune and its property. Our eight hundred boys are working under strict discipline, but it 's discipline of their own making. They organize their own institutions, elect their own officers. We have instructors for manual training, but no outside guards or overseers."
In the workshops there was no sign of sullenness or malingering. Whether wielding hammers or saws or digging earth for a dyke or laying out a sports ground, the boys were not only working hard, but gave every sign of being satisfied with what they were doing. The work was intelligently planned and organized. Most of the waifs at some time had been employed on odd jobs, and after being admitted to the colony they were carefully sorted out and assigned to tasks for which they possessed some training and aptitude. With a little instruction some of these former street children proved capable of setting up a simple system of electric lights. The colony was proud of its little library and of its newspaper, filled with poems, stories, and sketches of daily life, here and there illustrated with a drawing or a caricature.
Self-government was broadly developed, and pressure of public opinion enforced decisions which mere outward authority might have required the application of physical force to carry through. The institution had its "prison," a cellar, where refractory rule-breakers were confined by sentence of their fellows. The manager interviewed the solitary prisoner, who had been sentenced for starting a fight, gave homely lecture on the advantages of settling disputes peace-fully, and passed on.
Much of the success of this Rostov colony seemed to be due to the personality of the manager, a former worker with a vast amount of energy and good natural executive ability, who conveyed the impression of liking his work and of being able both to handle promptly any difficult disciplinary situation and to win the liking and confidence of his charges. Not all the Russian children's homes are well directed, and the reclaimed waif, with his taste for roving life and his frequent drug habits, is not an easy pupil. Still, the fact that the streets have been cleared of the bands of waifs which were such a familiar sight a few years ago is an indication that the whole problem is not so impossible as formerly seemed to be the case.
Russia always has been and still is, to some extent, a country which takes a leisurely attitude toward life and work, which regards time as something decidedly less valuable than money. The visitor from more pushful and mechanized lands may be delighted, amused, or horrified, according to his temperament, at finding that in Russia appointments are made to be broken, few ceremonies except the departure of trains and the opening of theatrical performances begin on time, the procuring of some simple required official letter or stamp may quite easily involve hours of waiting, and the carrying out of some trivial repair takes what seems to be a disproportionate amount of time and human energy.
But New Russia is also a land of stress and strain. If the old Muscovite is apt to be a personage who takes his ease behind a huge samovar, the Muscovite of the present generation, should he belong to the vast army of Soviet state employees, is apt to wear a haggard and harassed look as he dashes from one zasedanie, or official conference, to another with a bulging portfolio of papers under his arm.
Two opposed forces are at work in the soul of the present-day Russian; on the one hand is the influence of centuries of semi-Asiatic passivity and deliberation; on the other is Lenin's injunction that Russia must catch up with and outstrip the technical achievements of the leading capitalist countries. Whether Russia ever will acquire the mechanical efficiency of America and Western Europe is a question for the future. In the meantime the rush and roar of modern industrial life seems to recede and subside as one travels from Berlin or some other European capital to Moscow, where there are only a few score taxicabs.
A trip through the provinces is calculated to strengthen rather than change the external impressions which one derives in Moscow. The centralized Soviet political and economic system tends to place a stamp of uniformity on the country. Everywhere the same products of the same state trusts and syndicates; everywhere the same articles in newspapers which differ chiefly in their titles; everywhere the same "weeks" to promote cooperation, health, national defense, or some other object.
Of course, historical, racial, and architectural differences cannot be obliterated overnight. The various cities of the Soviet Union have their distinctive traits, although the element of differentiation is probably less than in the older towns of Europe.
The capital founded by Peter the Great, now renamed Leningrad, which was prematurely consigned to extinction by some hasty observers during the period of civil war, is reviving as a port and industrial centre, even though it has lost its status as the capital of the country. Its palaces have experienced various vicissitudes of fortune. The Winter Palace, where the Kerensky Government made its feeble last stand against the onrushing Bolshevik Revolution, is gradually being turned into a huge art museum, a sort of Russian Louvre, as the collections in the adjoining Hermitage museum overflow into the rooms of the palace. The yellow building of the Tauride Palace, presented by Catherine the Great to Potemkin, and in more recent times the meeting place of the Imperial Duma, is a Communist University. The palaces in the neighborhood of Leningrad, in Gatchina and Tsarskoe Syelo (now renamed Dyetskoe Syelo, or Children's Village), are magnets for thou-sands of proletarian excursionists.
Novosibirsk (formerly Novo-Nikolaevsk), the capital of Siberia, has grown up very much, as compared with pre-war times, and is proudly described by its inhabitants as the Chicago of Russia's undeveloped Far East. One finds a touch of south-ern warmth and gayety in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, while Baku, the greatest oil centre in the Soviet Union, shows the effects of planting a modern industry in the midst of a primitive Mohammedan population.
The feeling of general leveling is perhaps even stronger in the provinces than in Moscow, because the relatively small classes of private merchants and well-paid specialists tend to concentrate in the capital. Moreover, even if one were as rich as Crcesus, it would be impossible to live very luxuriously in the bleak provincial hotels or to dine in very epicurean fashion in the standardized cooperative establishments which practically monopolize the restaurant field. In most provincial towns the housing situation is less strained than in Moscow, although there are some rapidly growing industrial centres in the Donetz Basin and the Urals where the congestion is even greater.
A country of contrasts and paradoxes, a country which has begun to span its distances with airplanes before it has provided them with roads, which thinks in terms of the latest technical discoveries in industry and electrification while its peasants still often till the soil with tools and methods more suggestive of Asia than of Europe. A country where the worker who could never dream of owning a Ford automobile may find himself to-morrow the governor of a province or the head of an industrial enterprise worth tens of millions of rubles, where the peasant who has scarcely heard of a telephone may be sent off, at state expense, to loll at ease in the former Tsarist palace of Livadia amid the cypress groves of the Crimean coast. A country with a strange, Eurasian historical and cultural heritage, pointed toward a future that seems destined to be neither typically European nor typically Asiatic. A nation of enormous natural vitality, which, after the shattering blows of World War and civil war, famine and pestilence, and industrial prostration, is increasing in numbers every year by an amount greater than the whole population of Denmark. Such is the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics; such is the new face of the age-old Russian land.
(1)For a fuller treatment of this question of Russia's commercial contacts with the outside world see Chapter XVI.