In Moscow we received a visit from Ernst Reuter who, on our recommendation, had been sent by Stalin to the Volga-Germans. He had been elected chairman of the Executive Committee of the Soviets of the Autonomous Area of the Volga-Germans. Reuter described to us his extremely interesting new sphere of activity and, on behalf of his Executive Committee, invited us to pay a visit to Saratov, be it even for a short time. The Executive-Committee was arranging a three weeks course for all the school teachers of the German area, they were anxious to get Irma and me to give a series of lectures at this course.
This proposal appealed to us; we accepted the invitation without enquiring what the attitude of the Central Committee of the Party would be. Sverdlov had once desired to send me with great powers to the Volga and I had declined out of democratic scruples – now we went to the same Saratov on a lecturing tour, without Party mandate or mission. In the Central Committee they were flabbergasted when they learned this, our latest exploit. However Lenin and Sverdlov thought, as Sverdlov told me when he met me at Saratov, we might succeed in attaining “from below,” though with an excessive expenditure of energy, what they had hitherto failed to achieve “from above” in that area the overcoming of the local particularism detrimental to both State and army.
In accordance with the usual procedure we registered at the Saratov Party committee. There we learned that in the evening there would be an important public meeting on the subject: “State and Church” to which the representatives of the church had been especially invited. When we got to the meeting we found the large hall crowded. I was horrified to hear how inadequately our speakers were able to meet the well-educated dignitaries of the church. I sent in my name to speak and the chairman, seeing me here for the first time, asked me whether I had prepared myself for the subject. Amused I replied in the negative and the chairman gave preference to other speakers. When one of our speakers had succeeded in lulling the whole meeting to sleep I told the chairman emphatically that would now take my turn. Then there was no more sleeping. My first sentences seemed to electrify the audience. Merriment and cheers accompanied my speech when I politely and in good humour pulled to pieces the arguments of the holy ones so that stone did not remain upon stone of their whole building of State fostered christianity. The audience cheered enthusiastically. The discussion was raised to a higher and yet more popular level – at the vote on the separation of church and State taken at the end of the fleeting we gained a signal victory.
The fight against religion and church was then already in full swing. But it was a struggle of ideas which was carried on honestly and with great tact. There were no police reprisals against the religious adversary, no noisy jeering, no hurting of his feelings. We tried to win, to convince, to enlighten, but not to intimidate or to suppress. At that time it was a pleasure to participate in this struggle, while later on, in the Stalin-Yaroslaysky period, one could as an atheist only feel ashamed of the vulgar methods that were used. But of course, at that time we atheists stood invincible on the rampart of our anti-authoritarian philosophy. Nowadays when Lenin is being worshipped as a god and Stalin as a new Mohamed, Soviet atheism has got a hole in its armour and the police baton remains its only weapon.
The teachers’ courses took place at Rovno, a large village lately raised to the dignity of a town and district capital. Over five hundred teachers from all the villages of the German Volga area had gathered there. There were lectures and discussions, reports and exchange of opinions as well as handicraft instruction for the polytechnisation of the school, for the “work school” – basket making, pottery, woodcraft, metalwork, leatherwork and bookbinding. The cultural level of these teachers was appalling. Their general education was totally inadequate; as to pedagogy many of them lacked the most elementary ideas. Then there was the language calamity. These German teachers of children understanding only German were as a rule unable to discuss in the German language anything in the cultural sphere. They had received their training such as it was – in the Russian language. In their daily life they were thinking and speaking German, but as soon as subjects outside village interests were touched upon they would not find German words to express themselves and were gliding into Russian. Lunarcharsky, the People’s Commissar of Education had now by decree “introduced” the “work school” on an all-Russian scale. Unfortunate] he had omitted to enlighten the simple village teacher as to what kind of a thing that might be. Consequently in many places the school attendants who hitherto had been responsible for order and cleanliness were being dismissed, teachers and pupils spent a large part of school hours in swinging broom and brush to clean the class room. Little wonder that parents were complaining about the slow progress of their children in reading and writing. School workshops existed at best on paper; apart from that there was a lack of text books, pencils, pens, ink and writing paper. To help in this emergency all the paper remaining from late commercial firms, banks and offices had been confiscated: paper on which something was written or printed went to the newly established kindergartens, all clean paper was distributed to the schools as a substitute for exercise books. None the less it would happen that a village teacher could find no other means of giving writing lessons than by teaching his pupils to write with pointed sticks in the sand. Enthusiasm surmounts many an obstacle! Everybody here was happy about the introduction of German as the language of the schools; whatever little things were lacking there never was a lack of goodwill and this helped to solve many a problem. Generally speaking it must be admitted that the cultural level of the German rural population was higher than that of their Russian neighbours. Amongst the adults the percentage of illiterates was small, the parents were anxious that their children should learn something, there was nowhere any passive resistance. On the contrary, the school and still more the kindergarten – one of the new achievements of the Revolution – found active support among the peasants.
During our stay in Rovno we lived in the house of a “rich” peasant whose daughters, though themselves politically indifferent, had embroidered a beautiful red banner for the festive reception of the participants in the teachers’ courses. This educated and loyal “kulak” family in whose house we were to stay on several other occasions, has left a most pleasant impression in our minds. They were broadminded and kindly people, cheerful and of an inventive turn of mind. They owned two lovely big dogs of whom they were very fond. When we entered the yard a big house dog rushed up to us. With interest we noticed that there was a rope spanning the length of the yard, on it the dog’s chain roved on a bobbin so that the fine animal enjoyed a certain liberty of movement while being securely on its chain. The peasant came running out fearing the dog might frighten us but his anxiety was soon allayed – the beautiful creature had put both his forepaws on Irma’s shoulders and she reciprocated cheerfully the friendly embrace.
During our first appearance at the teachers’ courses we were the object of a little ovation – members of the deputation that had come to Moscow in spring greeted Irma and me as the initiators of the autonomy of the Volga Germans. What a time of upbuilding and creative work that was! Nobody was afraid to express his opinion, there was still respect for the views of others. Though we had each of us to deliver a dozen historic and scientific lectures and were participating in the other work of the courses this sojourn at Rovno stands out in our memories as a pleasant holiday.
We yielded to the urgent request of our friends and decided to stay a while at Saratov. Saratov at that time was also the administrative centre of the Autonomous Area of the Volga Germans whose Executive Committee of the Soviets enjoyed here a kind of extra-territoriality. It was from Saratov, seat of the Executive Committee which had been elected by the Volga Germans, that new administrative machinery had been created for the German Area which was cut out from the two provinces Saratov and Samara. At the Soviet Congress of the autonomous German area that took place soon after the teachers’ courses, Irma was elected to the Executive Committee; she worked now entirely amongst the Germans helping to strengthen the new administration, while my activities lay mainly in the Russian Saratov.
The Saratov Executive Committee of the Soviets accepted me with open arms. Two groups were warring here – they would combine only when their local interests were at stake or when emissaries of the centre had to be warded off. To both groups I was welcome. But what a different reception would I have got had I arrived with Sverdlov’s mandate – a “mandate, wider than the Volga” as such powers used to be described at that time. Both warring groups at once proposed to co-opt me into the Executive Committee and its Praesidium, but I remained true to my democratic principles and declined, since I held that such posts should be filled only through election.
About that time Trotsky with his famous train appeared at Saratov. We were here very close to the front, or rather to three fronts: against Krassnov, the Czechoslovaks, and Dutov’s Kossack army. Trotsky was faced with a difficult task. Encouraged by Stalin’s intrigues, the particularist tendencies of the peasantry had grown strong in civil administration, as had the partisan tendencies in the army. This was felt even in the Party. “What do we care about Samara,” one could hear, “we are Saratovians.” Every local authority strove for independence trying to hold on to all materials and personnel available in their territory. The two inseparable chieftains of Saratov – Antonov and Vasilev, two lawyers, local pillars of Bolshevism – had not much love for the one-time critic Trotsky; now Stalin was encouraging their opposition from the neighbouring Tsaritsin. Trotsky was received with a great display of “revolutionary” splendour by the Soviet authorities and with sincere enthusiasm by the people. The speeches were festive, but behind the scenes a tenacious resistance to the mobilisation of the Saratov Communists ordered by Trotsky set in. When I met Trotsky he was astonished to find me here.
“You have again vanished from Moscow,” he said smiling, “what waves and winds have brought you to Saratov?”
I told him of our lecture tour to the Volga Germans.
“As if we were living in deepest peace!” he exclaimed. “However I have been told that you have great influence here, particularly among the railwaymen. That is very opportune. Will you help us to mobilise the Communists and somehow to overcome in a friendly manner the resistance of those parish pump politicians?”
I said I would certainly be glad to assist, and Trotsky at once issued to me a “mandate” according to which all military authorities were to accord me whatever assistance I might require; he also placed a small motor boat at my disposal.
“At Pokrovsk, on the opposite bank of the river the staff the fourth army is stationed,” he said, “I should be very glad if you could help them. The political work is as yet inadequately organised in the fourth army.” “I have already been there,” I replied, “and have held a few meetings for the redarmists.”
“Splendid” said Trotsky, “but I wish you could now devote a large part of your time to the fourth army.”
I communicated with the railwaymen whose co-operation was urgently required. At the Uralsk front a peculiar situation had developed. Several times our forces had advanced in order to occupy a hamlet which was regarded as a point of strategic importance. But each time our troops had been forced to withdraw because the Whites always succeeded in destroying the railway track in our rear. Now I managed to form a special detachment of railway workers which followed in the rear of the advancing army repairing immediately any damage done to the railway line. When I accompanied by a Staff officer of the fourth army, visited the front I was pleased to hear the beat of the hammers. The railwaymen who were only temporarily mobilised and were proud of the allotted task welcomed me wherever we met.
“Look at them,” I said to the accompanying officer, “are these workers or redarmists? There you have in real life the ‘people’s army’ such as we Socialists have been advocating for decades – it fuses into the masses without a sharp line of demarcation as against the civilian population.”
On our tour of inspection we reached a small village in the early morning hours. We stopped at a peasant’s hut and the old peasant woman refreshed us with tea and pancakes.
“Are you living here all by yourself, mother?” I asked, “Or where are the menfolk?”
“Our men have gone with the Red Army,” she replied “and the bourgeois have run away, the petty-bourgeois with them.”
We had to laugh – where, all through the length and breadth of the wide realm of Russia, could one have found only three years earlier a peasant woman who would understand, let alone use with such confidence terms like “bourgeois” or “petty-bourgeois"? “The people learn quickly,” was our comment.
About dinner-time we reached the now fortunately re-occupied hamlet. The thundering of guns was still to be heard in the vicinity, at times a stray shell would burst somewhere but the field kitchens were already steaming. Food was plentiful, the “shtshi” was much better than in Podvoisky’s train not to speak of Moscow. We borrowed mugs and received each a goodly portion.
“Now I should like to know whether our men have occupied the bridge in front,” the staff officer said to me, “we shall have to find that out. Without the bridge in our hands we cannot hope to hold this position when the counter-attack commences.” He explained the situation to me. The commander of the unit occupying the hamlet was called.
“How are things with the bridge?” asked the staff officer.
“We have occupied it,” was the reply.
“With what forces?”
“A post of about two hundred men”
The staff officer frowned. “Is that all?” he said.
“Listen, comrade commander,” I interrupted, I am not here to issue orders. But I want to tell you one thing: Make your arrangements as you think right, but you bear the responsibility for that bridge.”
“Alright,” said the commander, “you may rest assured the bridge will be held. I shall strengthen the post at once. We have only just taken up these positions, now we can easily send reinforcements. But one question – how are things with the railway line?”
“All in perfect order,” said the staff officer with a contented smile, and he told him of our peculiar detachment of railwaymen. The commander beamed: “Now we shall at last be able to hold this damned hamlet,” he said apparently pleased.
I was sorry that it was now too late to visit the adjoining positions occupied by Tchapaiev. I should have very much liked to meet this interesting partisan leader, this modern Stenka Razin, about whom legends were already current among the peasants whose hero he was. His free corps was remarkable for its outstanding bravery but, I am afraid also for its brutality – woe to the enemy, the unfortunate white officer who fell into their hands. Deserters from the enemy Tchapaiev welcomed, but he declined to take prisoners. Generally in the early stages of the Civil War it was a life or death struggle; on both sides prisoners were shot. Only after the introduction of conscription the custom grew up to send peasant prisoners back to their villages, while, for a long time yet, on the one side Communists, on the other side officers that had been taken prisoner were being shot. No matter how much the Tchapaiev free corps resembled in some respects a robber band, an iron discipline was maintained in their ranks. Tchapaiev, a non-commissioned officer in the tsarist army who revealed an exceptional military aptitude, did not consider it below his dignity even now that he was commanding a brigade give to a disobedient partisan a thorough thrashing with his own fists.
We spent the night at the camp fire. It was a dark right. The peasant-redarmists had lit a number of fires and roasted potatoes therein, awakening in my mind happy reminiscences of my childhood.
“Let us hope we won’t fare to-day like last time,” remarked a tall redarmist, “here at this very spot we were encamped, had lit fires, the potatoes were not yet ready when the white dogs attacked and spoilt the broth. We had to retire.”
“Our artillery could not be brought up because the accursed Whites had destroyed the rail,” an older radarmist added by way of explanation.
“This time their trick won’t work,” I reassured him, “for our Saratoy railwaymen have come to help us.” I told them of the new troop.
“That’s good,” said the elderly redarmist very pleased, “then we shall at last chase the Whites out of Uralsk.”
The conversation turned to other topics.
“Have you seen how much land they have here, how full their barns are, and these wonderful cattle!” said a redarmist who still completely felt himself a peasant. “They have not had the time to evacuate anything we came over them like lightning.”
I should have liked to listen further to their talk but a group that had gathered round a neighbouring fire called me. Here a heated discussion on the land question had arisen and they wished me to give some explanations. So the time passed in lively conversation until all were tired. Then we wrapped ourselves into our greatcoats stretching on the bare earth in the pleasant warmth of the fire. Some redarmists took turns in keeping up the fire. Before daylight all were up again. We had breakfast with the redarmists and returned by motor car. “See you at Uralsk,” the redarmrists called out to us cheerfully when we left.
During the following weeks I kept moving to and fro between Saratov and Pokrovsk. These two towns are separated by the Volga which is pretty wide here. There was no bridge, the traffic was kept up by a ferry; my fast little motor boat made me now independent of its time-table. On my return from the Uralsk front I had informed Alexander Petrovitch Smirnov what large stores of grain and cattle were available in the area into which our troops were now advancing. Smirnov, then a member of the Collegiate of the People’s Commissariat for supply was delegated to Saratov by his Commissariat in order to obtain supplies of foodstuffs for the starving capitals. He was very happy. “When the rich granaries on the Samara side are opened to us we need no longer squeeze the Saratovians to such an extent,” he said joyfully. Alexander Smirnov knew the life of the peasantry well; he was a capable organiser and later on became one of the best People’s Commissars for Agriculture the Soviet Union has ever had. But in later years he was expelled by Stalin from the Party for “deviations to the Right,” and to-day he is somewhere in banishment or in a concentration camp.
My influence on both groups in the Saratov Executive Committee of the Soviets and on the Party facilitated the mobilisation of Communists. In a Saratov Party meeting I succeeded after a long discussion in convincing all who had hitherto offered resistance for the necessity of the measure. It was resolved to place the required number of Communists at the disposal of the Red Army. As soon as this decision had been taken it was a simple matter to carry it through – age and sex played no part in the selection of those to be mobilised, qualifications for work at the front and the possibility of being replaced in civil employment were the chief considerations. The question of willingness on the part of the mobilised members hardly ever arose; the Party would have shown little inclination to consider personal desires. The mobilised Communists were equipped by the Party – they received boots, greatcoats, uniforms, food rations and literature, and each was furnished with a mandate giving some his hints as to his or her special qualifications and experiences.
So equipped they reported at the political department of the fourth army. A shower of complaints followed.
“There you are, comrade Petroff, with your wonderful mobilisation,” the Saratov Party Secretary said to me reproachfully, “we have taken irreplaceable workers from responsible positions, and what are they doing with them? They let them sit about uselessly at the staff offices, employ them on simple clerical work or send them to the front as ordinary redarmists where they are performing duties such as guarding a bridge."
Like lightning I shot across the Volga and made a violent scene at the headquarters of the fourth army. Within a few days we succeeded in organising the rational utilisation of the mobilised Communists in a manner that satisfied all concerned including, the Saratov Party organisation.
Saratov was important in many respects. It formed the centre and the gate of the most important granary which had to feed the industrial districts of Russia almost alone since Siberia and the Ukraine were cut off by the Civil War. The natural channel of traffic was the Volga, the railways playing a secondary part. But now this channel had been stopped up for a considerable time. Samara was still in the hands of the Czechoslovaks co-operating with Koltchak, and up till the beginning of September even Kasan and Simbirsk had been occupied by the Whites. Thus in the Saratov area manifold supplies had accumulated – grain from the area itself, oil from Baku, salt and fish products from Astrakhan. It was now essential to forward these supplies by land transport. Under normal circumstances the available railways would have been inadequate but now the whole railway system was in a state of disorganisation. The tracks were in urgent need of repair, rails and sleepers were worn out, and there was a deficiency in engines, waggons and tanks. To find a solution for these intricate problems an evacuation-commission had been sent to Saratov. That commission was staying with us at the Hotel Europe, racking their brains as to what should be done but appeared to be entirely helpless.
One day the chairman of this commission unburdened his heart to me. “We are sitting here doing nothing” he said, “the local authorities are not over-willing to help us, and from the centre they have given us an instruction which binds us hand and foot.”
“Don’t bother about that scrap of paper,” I said when I had read through the instruction, better get on with your task. As to the co-operation of the local authorities and the railways I shall gladly assist you.”
He was greatly encouraged but feared to assume the responsibility of disobeying the bureaucratic instruction.
“Well, I have a broad back,” I said laughing, “I am quite prepared to shoulder the responsibility. I shall tell Vladimirsky, (then People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs) what I think of his senseless instruction. You may rest assured he'll be happy if you solve your problem somehow, with or without the instruction.”
In this manner the deadlock was overcome, the wheels moved, the Commission that had been inactive hitherto set to work. The accumulated stores came into motion. In Moscow they were very glad and no cock was crowing about the discarded instruction. But the bureaucratisation of the State machine had commenced everywhere and this soon acted as a brake on all initiative, particularly in the economic field.
In Saratov there was no lack of food; life was quieter and more pleasant than in hungry Moscow. In exchange for commodities one could obtain anything from the peasants, only money represented a problem. The inflation at that time had reached only the forty rouble line. Forty-Rouble notes had been issued already in the Kerensky period and then had therefore come to be known as “kerenkies.” These kerenkies were printed in large sheets like postage stamps. If one had to pay for something one would tear or cut the required number of kerenkies from the sheet. Unfortunately the peasants became more and more reluctant to sell good agricultural produce for bad money – they demanded soap, salt, sewing cotton, axle-grease, sugar, textiles or other goods in exchange. However, the Government was paying in money for the grain delivery imposed as a levy, and the peasants regarded this as sheer highway robbery. Markets were held freely and openly in spite of all degrees and prohibitions, but here too the barter deals greatly exceeded money deals.
Irma and I personally seldom had to buy food products. Like most commissars living temporarily at Saratov we were staying at Hotel Europe where we received a good breakfast: tea and a buttered roll, sometimes even an egg. Our dinner we had at the “Nemkom,” the so-to-say exterritorial central authority of the Volga Germans, who were supplied by their rich district with meat, flour, eggs, butter, grits and vegetables and this could provide a better “Shtshi” than the Russian institutions. Yet whenever we happened to visit the market we would observe with interest the lively proceedings. Apart from agricultural produce one could find there all possible goods; mainly second-hand – furniture and silver, clothing and underclothing, old shoes and cups that had seen many years’ service, buttons torn from old trousers – everything would find an eager buyer. I noticed that sugar played a special part in barter deals, it had assumed the role of money and would change hands several times, not always particularly clean hands, so that it reached the ultimate consumer a somewhat darker colour than its original one.
This backsliding into primitive conditions, curiously enough, gave rise to great illusions in the heads of many Communist commissars. Antonov the chairman of the provincial Executive Committee of the Soviets (later on a member of the Small Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union) lectured at a big meeting of members of the Communist Party on the achievements of the Revolution. He emphasised the decreasing importance of money in the economic life of the country describing this as an important symptom of our approach to our Socialist goal. “Money to-day is only of psychological value,” he proudly declared. In the discussion I poured some cold water into the flames of his enthusiasm. I explained to the audience that, precisely as thousands of year ago long before minted money was heard of, cattle and slaves had played the part of money in the steppes of Asia, so to-day in the Saratov market, the black lump of sugar had assumed this role. However, this was not a symptom of our rising to Socialism, it rather signified a sinking back into primitive conditions. I quoted Marx Poverty of Philosophy wherein he denounces similar illusions of the Anarchist Proudhon. “And if, as you assert comrade Antonov, money to-day is only of psychological value,” I continued, “why then are you paying the peasants just twenty roubles per pud of wheat, why not pay two-hundred roubles? To you that should be of no consequence, but the peasants would certainly prefer it.” The audience laughed and Antonov could find no convincing reply.
Meanwhile Irma had undertaken a propaganda and inspection tour together with another member of the Executive Committee and the Austrian publicist Teubler, afterwards editor of the Wiener Arbeiterzeitung. On hard peasant carts without springs the commission had set out; they travelled from village to village, visited the Soviets, inspected their work, heard complaints and suggestions of the population, held many meetings, and after two strenuous weeks returned exhausted to Saratov. They had acquired experiences and had gained a clearer insight into the life of the German villages, their economic and cultural problems. On the very first evening of this journey they had reached a village where a detachment of the Red Army was stationed. They found them in great excitement. Horses were saddled, a heavy machine gun was being made ready. On enquiring the commission learned that in the neighbouring village, Stahl, an “insurrection” was on the point of breaking out as the young men did not wish to comply with the mobilisation order.
“And you find no better means than sending a machine run against then?” Irma exclaimed indignantly, “If you shoot down the peasants of Stahl you will certainly not mobilise then. A few speakers will do more than your armed force.”
She proposed to go there at once and call a meeting of the village. The others concurred and the little expedition set out for Stahl without armed force. The excited villagers who would most certainly have met approaching soldiery with pitchforks, garden guns and stones, willingly followed the call to a meeting. A variety of misunderstandings were cleared up and the day of mobilisation postponed. The peasants quietened down, and the recruits promised to appear on the new appointed day. Thus the “insurrection” was liquidated without bloodshed – but what a different turn things might have taken if the brutal use of armed force had not been prevented at the last moment.
One of the villages visited by the commission grew tobacco as its main crop. Every autumn when the harvest had been gathered merchants would appear and pay an advance on the tobacco before it was ready for delivery so that the peasants could live through the weeks taken up by further processes. This year the government was to take over the entire harvest for the first time. Therefore the merchants with the big wallet did not come and the peasants got into low water. The Commissariat of Supply that was to take over the tobacco had made no arrangements. When the Commission heard the peasants’ complaints it had to find a solution. They ascertained the sum that would be required to help the peasants over the critical weeks. It was not a very large sum. The commission called ten of the richest peasants, pointed out to them the difficult position and asked them if they would advance the money which was to be repaid under guarantee of the Executive Committee when the tobacco was taken over. The ten rich peasants accepted the proposal; they brought the money immediately and it was in their presence distributed among the tobacco growers. The Supply department of the Executive Committee whose business it was to deal with this had, it is true, considerable credits allotted to them. However from the granting of credits to the transfer of the money a long time would elapse. If a deadlock was to be avoided the local authorities had to revert to such financial manipulations.
One evening the commission arrived at a late hour in a village. They did not wish to wake the Soviet but called at a peasant’s hut asking him to put them up for the night, as was customary in the countryside. Aroused from his sleep the peasant asked who the strangers might be. On learning that two of them were members of the Executive Committee, he replied: “Of course I will put you up, you are our government.” So few old blankets were spread out on the floor and the “government” slept until the aromatic scent of fresh coffee aroused them in the morning.
From the last German village this “government” desired to return to Pokrovsk. The peasant who provided horses and cart did not consider it necessary to drive himself, though the long road was rather difficult. He left the horses in the care of his son, a mere boy. And it was certainly not that boy’s fault that horses and passengers arrived at all at Pokrovsk. Russian roads were generally a sad story. Just as God had created them, horses had trodden them out, wheels had ground them, these roads crossed the countryside passing over steep hills, cutting through hollow gorges, turning at a sharp angle in front of deep abysses. But this road to Pokrovsk, of which I was too soon to get a taste, was certainly one of the worst. That when the commission was driving along the road the horses, urged on by the inexperienced boy, suddenly stopped resolutely. In the sparse moonlight the travellers to their horror saw about fifty yards below the horses heads, the glimmer of the Volga! The old nags did not even shy – they stopped in perfect composure at the top of the precipice until the passengers got out and the boy led then sideways to seek the continuation of the road.
At Pokrovsk a state of siege had been proclaimed. A patrol stopped the belated travellers asking the watchword. As they did not know it one of the redarmists took the reins and led the whole company, horses and all to the Tcheka. There the arrested “government” was recognised and liberated. As there was no ferry in the night they could not cross the Volga, so they were given an order for a hotel. Irma made a vain attempt to wake me up in Saratov by telephone, but I slept like a log, all ringing was of no avail. The travellers went to the hotel and asked for rooms. Empty rooms there were enough, these were actually furnished with bedsteads (though without blankets), one had only to find one’s bed. There was no light of any kind not even a single match, Tired and half frozen the commission returned to Saratov by the first ferry but each carried proudly a couple of water melons in his rucksack.
The Saratov Party organisation had asked me to organise a Party school for the Saratov province for the benefit of Party and Soviet officials. Some sixty to eighty students were under my tuition going through a day course of study lasting a fortnight for which purpose they had been relieved from their work. I encouraged them to independent work and at times asked them to prepare lectures on definite questions. The history of the revolutionary movement of course formed a considerable item on the curriculum. We discussed the programmes and ideas of the various revolutionary parties, and I suggested in conclusion arranging a debate in which some of the students would play the part of Right or Left Social-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks or Anarchists. This suggestion was taken up with glee and all worked hard to prepare themselves. When the day of the debate had arrived it was carried through with great zeal though we were disturbed by repair work on an electric installation in the hall. When one of our “counter-revolutionaries” developed in well-framed logical speech the point of view of the Right Social-Revolutionaries, the door was suddenly thrown open and a detachment of armed tchekists marched into the hall, occupying all entrances.
“What is going on here?” the commander of the tchekists asked sternly.
“A discussion,” I replied.
He recognised me and looked at me flabbergasted, “But comrade Petroff, what are “Social-Revolutionaries doing here?”
“They are defending the views of their party,” I replied seriously. The students at once played the game. “Long live the Social-revolutionary Party!” exclaimed one member of this faction. The tchekist did not know what to think
“The Social-revolutionary Party is banned,” he said amazed. “Not amongst us,” I replied merrily. “Do you know where you have landed? This is the Party school of the province of Saratov!”
Now the hitherto restrained laughter broke loose and the tchekists joined in.
“Who is the joker who has sent you here?” I asked.
“I do not think it was a joke,” the tchekist replied amid laughter. “One of the workers telephoned stating he had been repairing the electric installation here and had noticed a counter-revolutionary meeting was in progress.”
That caused a new outburst of merriment and on the following day all Saratov was laughing about the counter-revolutionary Party school that had almost been arrested.
At the beginning of November 1918 the Sixth All-Russian Soviet Congress was to take place in Moscow. Irma was one of the delegates of the Volga Germans, so we set out for Moscow in the first days of November.
This Congress bore already the superficial character meeting typical of the One-Party-State. Among the 680 delegates having the right to vote there were 665 Communists, Left Social-Revolutionaries, 1 Maximalist, 5 Anarchists and 6 “revolutionary Communists.” The latter were late Left Social-Revolutionaries loyal to the Communists who, before merging into the Communist Party, for a short existed as a separate group.
As the Congress opened on the 6 November the celebration of the anniversary of the October-Revolution formed an important item. The seemingly endless procession, the huge masses of people streaming on the 7 November to the Red Square and their, at that time, still sincere enthusiasm, must have left a lasting impression on the minds of delegates from small provincial places. Lenin’s confident words: “Imperialism is dead and the Socialist World-Revolution will be victorious in spite of all obstacles!” found an echo in their hearts.
But when this was over the festive mood did not give way to serious work. Everything was all too well managed from above – little room was left for the initiative of the delegates. And then, three days after the October celebrations we had another unexpected celebration – the news of the outbreak of the German Revolution came, and of course this caused tremendous jubilation at the Congress. For the international character of a Socialist Revolution was as yet constantly emphasised. Every Communist still regarded the Russian Revolution as the beginning of the imminent World-Revolution. Even this Congress – a kind of State Parliament – had elected an international honorary Presidium including, apart from Lenin, Karl Liebknecht, Friedrich Adler, John Maclean, and Eugen Debs.
When the Congress finally settled down to its proper work, the consideration of internal Russian problems, President Sverdlov was anxious to stifle the discussion. In this respect the most important item on the agenda was the question of the Poor Peasants’ Committees. In his report on “Building-up of the Soviet Power” Zinoviev had dealt with this ticklish question, but Sverdlov did not wish to allow any discussion. “A discussion of this subject is not required,” he declared and the Congress, kept under strictest party discipline, immediately registered the adoption of a long, deliberately vague and contradictory resolution proposed “from above.”
These Poor Peasants’ Committees had been established with much ado by a Decree of the 11 July 1918. The avowed object was “to stop the speculation of the kulaks and to arouse into activity those strata of the village population who are capable of furthering the objects of the proletarian Socialist Revolution.” In a number of places these Poor Peasants’ Committees, who were by no means always composed of the cleanest elements, had deplorably misused the powers so lavishly bestowed upon them and had usurped the rights of the Soviets. Such an open abolition of the village-Soviets was undesirable to the Government, they wished to re-establish the Soviets in name bringing them under the thumb of these terroristic Poor Peasants’ Committees. In his report Zinoviev had declared:
“You all know as well as I do how these Poor Peasants’ Committees have been formed ..., that they have not really been elected, .... that the Poor Peasants’ Committees have been appointed by visiting officials of the Executive Committee or Party organisations.” The resolution now stipulated: “In the villages a special, organisation is to be created which combines the poor peasants directly with the urban proletariat. The existing rural Soviets have not been organs of revolutionary struggle against the rural bourgeoisie. On the contrary, in a number of places the bourgeoisie itself was represented upon them. The Socialist proletariat, at present in the throes of a severe food crisis, in order to overcome this crisis has to combine and organise the proletarian elements in the villages so as to break in collaboration with these the resistance of the kulaks.”
Here it was at least clearly admitted that the Poor Peasants’ Committees who had done so much mischief had been created for the avowed purpose of assisting in plundering the grain producing peasantry. “These Committees were bound to overstep the powers defined in the Decree of 11 July...” the resolution states further. Indeed, a very polite way of describing the arbitrary usurpation of the State power! “However, the strengthening of the power of the workers and peasants is not possible without the uniform organisation of the Soviets throughout the whole territory of the RSFSR,” the resolution continues, “... The Poor Peasants’ Committees which in reality combine the poorest peasants must take an active part in the transformation of the village Soviets into real organs of the Soviet power and of Communist reconstruction. ... The provincial and district Soviets must at once proceed with the re-election of the village-Soviets. These elections are to be carried through by the Poor Peasants’ Committees.” No wonder that “a discussion of that subject was not required.”
In dealing with this point the delegates had still kept up a strict discipline, but during the election of the new Central-Executive-Committee there arose at last a mild opposition. However, this opposition found expression only at the private faction meeting. For, ridiculous though that may seem, at this Congress where 665 Communists stood against 15 from other denominations, the Communists actually held faction meetings! These were required in order to smother behind closed doors any possible attempts at opposition. At the official meeting of the Congress the election of this supreme central authority was carried through by the simple formula: “The lists of the factions are hereby confirmed.”