The German Revolution aroused in Russia a storm of enthusiasm. We felt like the defenders of a besieged fortress on the approach of a relief column. The World-Revolution had arrived, it was believed soon Soviet-Germany would stand side by side with us. Her industry and organisation, our raw materials and agricultural production would provide a basis on which all problems could be solved in brotherly co-operation. This would break the resistance of the Whites, and soon both peoples would live in peace, liberty and plenty. Convinced by the example the Western peoples would then, one after the other, throw off the yoke of capitalism – the age of Socialism was at hand.
It seemed obvious that delegations had to be sent at once to Germany. Pravda published a report that the Central Committee of the Party had decided that I, together with two others – I think Radek and Zinoviev – were to fly over to Germany. But immediately intrigues commenced behind the scenes, the journey was postponed and finally cancelled. Meanwhile a plan had been conceived to send a “bread train” to Germany. Thirty thousand puds of wheat were loaded into a sealed goods train to which one passenger carriage was attached. In this carriage travelled a delegation of the Moscow Soviet and some German comrades selected by the Party, Irma and three German redarmists. The whole train was adorned with Green garlands and red banners, the engine carried on its front an over-life-size picture of Karl Marx. The Russian population, happy about the German Revolution, heartily welcomed the idea of sending bread to the workers of Berlin notwithstanding their own empty stomachs. The workers all along the route of this train cheered this token of solidarity with the German Revolution. The delegates were asked everywhere to convey greetings and good wishes to the revolutionary workers of Germany. But the rural population often wondered what this adorned train with the huge picture on its engine meant. At times it happened that an old peasant woman piously crossed herself in front of the supposed ikon.
Berlin had been informed of the departure of the bread-train. Everyone expected the train would be met at the line of demarcation and hailed in a brotherly spirit by revolutionary- German soldiers. But that illusion was destined to collapse very soon. The first German military post stopped the train and refused to let it pass. German officers declared they had received orders to prevent the passage of the train. Irma’s appeal to the German soldiers was in vain. It appeared that the officers had told their men that the train was loaded not with wheat but with explosives. They could not even be persuaded to inspect the waggons and find out for themselves. Irma’s argument that at the end of the wide gauge they would have to shift the wheat to German waggons and that any fraud was therefore impossible, also failed to convince them. After many hours of negotiations and another telephone enquiry in Berlin the delegation with the refused gift had regretfully to turn back.
Such an outcome of the well-meant gesture of solidarity was very discouraging. Surely no one in Russia over-estimated Ebert and Scheidemann, yet nobody would have predicted the Noske period and the whole behaviour of the majority-Socialists in the first stage of the German Revolution. In those days a complete misconception of the course of events in Germany was prevalent in Russia. None of us doubted that the German Revolution would develop into a Social Revolution carried by the proletariat, and not a mere political Revolution, a second bourgeois 1848.
In the forest on our side of the line of demarcation the returning bread train came across a peculiar scene. Inhabitants of the occupied territory who had fled from the Germans were streaming back in expectation of an early withdrawal of the German troops, they were camping in the forest, children and all. Branches from trees spread out over the deep snow or stuck into the snow in a half circle as a wind screen gave but little protection to mothers feeding their babes. Children ran along the slow moving train begging firewood from the engine driver. Now that all hope of getting through to Germany had vanished the delegation on the train wired to Moscow for permission to open one of the carriages and supply these refugees with grain.
Meanwhile I too had been requested by Tchitcherin to go to Germany in order to ascertain the real causes of the expulsion of our ambassador Ioffe who was just being turned out of Germany. But when I approached the line of demarcation I encountered a mass of human beings moving onward like a rising tide. The German Revolution had opened the gates of the prison camps to the Russian prisoners of war. The hundreds of thousands of war prisoners had left the camps and, unequipped and badly clothed as they were, had started on a long pilgrimage towards their far-off homes. Weary and ragged, without means or food, they swarmed across the frontier in a thick cloud, elated by joyful expectations and hoping to find in the liberated fatherland a brotherly reception, ready help and loving care.
What they found here was a dilapidated railway, half burned stations, totally unprepared, helpless local authorities, a lack of food, of fuel, even of drinking water. So they were dragging onward weary and disillusioned along the railway track their stomachs empty, their boots torn, their light inadequate clothing damp. Their mood became threatening, but wave after wave of newcomers was pressing them forward. With horror in my heart I grasped what was developing. I recognised the danger for the unfortunate homecoming war prisoners as well as the menace to the Revolution. Germany had suddenly lost its importance to me. My first duty was to help these unfortunate people. From a tiny station l telephoned to the local authorities of every place on the railway line up to Smolensk. I informed them of the approaching; human avalanche and asked them to receive the weary men at least with hot tea and warming camp fires and where possible to bring up field kitchens and provide warm food. “Six thousand dinners during a day is the most we can provide with our utmost exertion,” Smolensk replied. A drop of water on a hot stone! I requested that timber should be cut and camp fires provided along the whole line so that boiled water for tea should be available. Then I addressed the crowd in various places. I explained to them that we had been totally unaware of their coming, therefore unprepared but that everything possible would be done at once to help them in their terrible plight. I promised them that I would take the first opportunity to return to Moscow and move heaven and earth on their behalf. Meanwhile a luxurious special train arrived, coming from Germany – all saloons and first class carriages. Amidst this misery the contrast acted as a provocation. A cry of wrath rose from the multitude. The unfortunate people jumped on the running boards, climbed on the buffers. Men in raging despair threw themselves on the rails. The train stopped. The passengers were the expelled Soviet Ambassador Ioffe from Berlin, his staff and some other dignitaries.
The guard in front of Ioffe’s saloon had difficulty in preventing by friendly admonition the crowd from rushing the door. I had by my action gained the confidence of the returning war prisoners to such an extent that they placed all their hopes on me. I approached and requested: “Let me through, comrades. This train is a godsend. We shall now be able to inform the government in Moscow quickly and organise help for you on a large scale.” So they willingly let me pass. I found the travellers crowding terror-stricken round the table in Ioffe’s saloon. The situation was a complete riddle to them; the threatening attitude of the vast crowd frightened then. Here, too, my appearance relieved the tension. “How can we get out of this terrible position?” all kept asking – this problem seemed to be the sole concern of the highly placed travellers. I was disgusted. In a few words I explained the situation to them. “I'm afraid you'll have to walk to Moscow, that is if the crowd does not tear you to pieces,” I said encouragingly. Then they begged very meekly I should help them out of their plight. “I shall try and I think I shall succeed if you will do as I tell you.” They promised. “All right, but there is one special condition,” I added. “You must promise that after your arrival in Moscow you will put aside all other business, not eat nor rest until our united efforts have succeeded in bringing into motion all authorities and in creating such a panic, that our damned bureaucrats will be forced to take drastic measures to deal with this unforeseen catastrophe.” All agreed though my critical remarks on the ineptitude of the bureaucracy greatly annoyed Angelica Balabanoff who then still worshipped them as gods. I must say that Ioffe at any rate kept his word
I stepped out now and addressed the multitude. “If you let this train pass, comrades, I shall go with it and we shall do all in our power to send help quickly. We shall send trains to fetch you nearer home; we shall provide food for you and see to it that hot tea is prepared for you everywhere. But we must lose no time. Please, pass on what I have said and keep the line clear.” My appeal met with consent. The running boards were freed. I went into the station building to arrange with the railway authorities for the departure of the train. The signal was given. The engine puffed, the train began slowly to move. I came out of the station building but had difficulties in reaching the train through the dense crowd. There was a wild outcry. The only just pacified multitude feared being betrayed; they believed I had been intentionally left behind. “Stop! Stop!” They shouted to the engine driver. Suddenly I felt myself raised above ground – like a ball I was handed along above the heads of the crowd; in a moment I was in the train that could now move on freely while I shouted encouragement to the multitude that suddenly appeared almost gay.
On reaching Moscow I hurried immediately to the telephone. In spite of the late hour I succeeded in reaching the Moscow Committee and the Central Committee of the Party, the Council of People’s Commissars, and the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets and getting them on the move. The following morning a special conference was called to deal with the problem. There I gave a full report on the situation and put forward proposals worked out in detail. The required panic was developing. Together with Irma and a member of the Moscow Party Committee I went to the Kremlin. At 4 p.m. on the same day the Council of People’s Commissars had adopted the necessary decisions, assigning considerable sums, and a special commissar had been appointed and sent to the frontier district – the stone had started rolling. But that did not yet satisfy me. To carry through these measures some machinery was required. Following Sverdlov’s advice we went to the “Centroplenbezh” (central board for prisoners of war and refugees) in order to get Unshlikht, head of this institution, to collaborate. The small, dark, phlegmatic Pole – who later on was to play a part as vice-chairman of the Tcheka, and is now imprisoned by Stalin, was by no means pleased with our demand for quick action. His bureaucratic machine was not prepared for an onslaught en masse; Unshlikht looked like helplessness incarnate. “Of course we can arrange here in Moscow some temporary homes and see to the further transport of the returning war prisoners,” he said. “But at Smolensk we have no organisation how shall we then without notice provide food, clothing, shelter for hundreds of thousands? You demand the impossible: But I do think, you are somewhat exaggerating the danger. If things were really so bad as you describe them I should imagine, we too would have been informed.”
I saw that it would not be possible to ride far on this donkey. “So, you think, all is quiet on the Shipka pass,” I replied mocking. “Very well. I shall inform the Conference which was temporarily adjourned this morning, that the attempt to wake you up has miscarried, then the measures will have to he carried through without the help of your machinery.”
We left him and went to the railway authorities. Here we found a very different attitude, they were glad to help. Zhukov the head of the central railway administration with whom I had been associated through my Trade Union work, at once grasped the situation. He promised to send without delay a number of trains to the frontier district and to spread these over various lines in such a manner that the main stream would not touch starving Moscow.
We were to some extent satisfied with the results of our day’s work. Only now we remembered that we had not eaten anything since the morning. We went to the head of the domestic department of the Kremlin and asked for cards for a dinner. “I'm afraid it is too late,” he replied.
“We have had something of greater importance on our minds than the dinner,” I retorted, “now we have much hunger and little time. Will it be possible to get some grub or not?”
Suddenly Steklov stood behind us, chief editor of Izvestia who came hungry from a conference and also wanted a dinner.
“What?” he said, “Eat? We? Why? Who and what are we? Agitators, scribes, why should we be fed? Well, if we were bureaucrats, heads of departments, lady secretaries. But we! Come on, let us go to Enukidze,” he cried.
Really we had to go to the secretary of the All-Russian Central Executive-Committee of the Soviets to obtain an order for a dinner. Enukidze said a few sharp words through the telephone and it did not take many minutes until a dinner was served that was truly adequate for four hungry wolves’ stomachs. I used the opportunity to inform Izvestia personally as to the state of affairs in the frontier district and Steklov promised his full support for the creation of the essential panic. Then, refreshed, we went to Larin, a prominent member of the Presidium of the Supreme Economic Council. It was about midnight when we knocked at his door but Larin was quite willing to consider the whole matter in detail. The warm clothing so badly needed was promised and soon the first consignments were on their way. All along the railway line camp fires were now constantly burning, field kitchens were spreading appetising scents, village bath huts were steaming, and transport trains were puffing in all directions. The human wave that had so suddenly come over us as a dark menace we directed into many channels before it could cause a dangerous flood spreading epidemic and death. A few days later the Moscow Committee asked me to speak at a meeting in a transit home for returning war prisoners. Amongst them I found one of these who had helped to push me over the heads of the crowd into the train, thus I had a good welcome and learned at first hand how our timely measures had eased the situation.
At this time Russia was completely cut off from the new German Republic. In Moscow practically nothing was known of the developments in Germany. The Soviet Government received no reports of any kind, not even German newspapers. Tchitcherin spoke to us about this deplorable position. He was of opinion that an attempt should be made to establish contact with the Independent Socialists in the German Government in order to prepare for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. He asked Irma and me if we would like to try to get through to Berlin with a letter to Haase. Of course we were willing. The question arose whether we should go legally or illegally.
“To go illegally will be difficult,” said Irma, “though possible. Following the Minsk railway line I and the three German delegates tried to get through when the bread train was sent back. That proved impossible. Thereupon the three tried to cross into Germany further north; it seems they have got through.”
“I also think it would be better if you do so officially,” Tchitcherin suggested. “Maybe that would be more convenient to Haase and might thus enhance the success of your mission. If you like I shall issue diplomatic passports to you.”
Manuilsky – later one of the leaders of the Comintern – and Menzhinsky – who was to become Dserzhinsky’s successor as Chief of the Tcheka – were about to go in a special carriage to the frontier district to assist in building up the administration wherever the Germans withdrew. Manuilsky invited us to accompany him promising that he would take us to some suitable point where we might cross the frontier. We gladly accepted the invitation though it meant some loss of time. We had a pleasant journey with the cheerful Ukrainian Manuilsky who had a marvellous way of imitation in a slightly mocking manner the dignitaries of Soviet Russia, mimicking their way of speaking, their movements, arguments and tricks when in a joyful or in an angry mood. A complete contrast to the humorous Manuilsky was the lazy but sly a perfidious Menzhinsky, a strange creature who somehow reminded me of a shadow. Usually he was to he found lying full length on the seat of the comfortable carriage, a quiet observer who would but rarely throw in a remark into our lively conversation. But we three – Manuilsky, Irma and I – would indulge in never-ending discussions, considering various tendencies to be noticed in State and Party; we would criticise what we disliked and speak our minds without reservations. It never occurred to us to mince our words for the sake of the observant Menzhinsky. It is true, we felt there was something deliberate in his systematic reticence, but at the time it made us at best laugh. However, once Irma succeeded in forcing him to show his hand. She had just expounded in a most emphatic manner her views on the urgency of the education of the people to the idea of a state where liberties are guaranteed and all arbitrariness excluded, when Menzhinsky stretched like a snake on his bench, supported his hand on one arm said suddenly: “You hold very dangerous views, my dear lady.” The phrase seemed to please him and he repeated it meaningfully. Irma laughed. “That is just what the Kaiser’s police in Germany used to say about me,” she retorted. Thereupon Menzhinsky sank back into his customary silence.
We reached Dvinsk when the Germans were about to evacuate that town. At the station we met a special train in which Radek, Bukharin, Rakovsky and Joffe were travelling. They formed a delegation of the Russian Communist Party to the first German-Soviet Congress that was to be held in Berlin. They invited us to travel with them in comfort but we declined. As we doubted whether they would get through we preferred to forego their comforts. At the refreshment bar of the station evacuated by the Germans only a few hours earlier delicious cake of various kinds was to be had, any amount of it. For us Soviet citizens this was an unaccustomed sight, we fell on the cake like a pack of hungry wolves. “There will soon be an end to this splendour when our supply department commences to work,” I remarked sarcastically. All concurred, and the next few weeks proved my prophecy right.
Irma and I managed to squeeze ourselves into a totally over-crowded passenger train, the last German train to Vilna. Our fellow passengers were most of them market traders and small shopkeepers of all kinds who were running from the approaching Soviet authorities that would deprive them of their livelihood since they were punishing all trading as “speculation.” It was a cheerful crowd. Biting humorous remark were exchanged and we would have liked to have had our responsible supply commissar with us to listen to these people. Soon we reached Vilna which our resplendent delegates were not destined ever to reach, when we tried to book seats in the Berlin express we learned that tickets could be issued only on production of “entlausungsscheins” – certificates that one had been cleansed of lice. So we went to the cleansing station which was closed but where they gladly sold us the required papers for a few “ostmarks” (German emergency money circulating in the occupied territory). Now we could buy tickets, but I was recognised by a controlling German officer who had seen me at the officers’ mess on my journey to Berlin for the ratification of the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Surprised he enquired as to the object of our journey and asked to see our passports. When we produced our diplomatic passports he was still more surprised.
“The diplomatic relations between Germany and Russia have been broken off,” he said.
“That is just why we are going there,” I replied, “or do you think that such relations re-establish themselves automatically?”
He shook his head wondering but would not let us proceed.
“Then we shall appeal to the Soldiers’ Council,” I declared.
In the Soldiers’ Council we met two Independent Socialists with whom we had a long talk. We received permission to travel further and with difficulty we got place in the overcrowded Berlin express. Opposite us an officer of high rank was sitting who had climbed in through the window. In spite of the Revolution everything seemed to function here, however, when this passenger appeared by such an uncommon way. Irma and I looked at each other grinning – just as at home!
On the way, an officer came in to inspect the passengers’ papers. Again our passports caused surprise. But diplomatic passports have a certain psychological effect – the officer did not attempt to create difficulties. We reached Eydkunen at the old German frontier. Here again a strict control was exercised. All had to leave the train, and we two were not allowed to re-enter it. Only our luggage travelled to Berlin never to return. Again we negotiated with the Soldiers’ Council whom we asked to get in touch with Berlin. But in this region General Hoffmann still ruled Supreme, the request was either kept back or intercepted elsewhere. For a long time we sat at the station waiting in vain for a reply. Suddenly an officer appeared, declared that we were under arrest and took us to the guard room of his detachment in the station building. A number of German soldiers gathered and we were discussing with them the whole night. They asked no end of questions on the development of the Russian Revolution, Irma’s replies seemed to please them and we won their wholehearted sympathy.
Discipline in the German army had been shattered although, judging by our standards, the officers had as yet retained far too much control. The powers of the officers and of the revolutionary Soldiers’ councils ran parallel, the one limiting the other to a certain degree that would vary. Our further fate seemed to be an apple of discord between the two – the officers connected with General Hoffmann’s clique took care that we were well guarded, the Soldiers’ Council saw to our safety so that nothing should happen to us. The officers desired to send us to Kovno, then the seat of the front headquarters from whose clutches we were not likely to get out alive, but the Soldiers’ Council refused that point blank. In the morning an officer appeared and we demanded to be permitted to send a wire to Haase. That he refused but he declared his willingness to forward a letter to Haase. We laughed at him, told him that he was not the proper person for this and demanded to know who was responsible for the interruption of our journey and the disregard of our diplomatic passports. Thereupon he assumed a different tune and attempted to scare us.
“You are in our hands,” he said, “if we wish we can take the papers for Haase from you.”
“Try if you dare,” Irma snapped at him, “so long as one of us is alive you will not get these papers.”
“There may yet be some confusion here,” I said coldly, “you may yet have some little power for the time being, but under the protection of the Soldiers’ Council we and our papers are safe enough – I don’t think it would do you much good if anything were to happen to us.”
“In this case we have to decide,” the chairman of the Soldiers Council now intervened.
The officer disappeared.
“We shall have to take you back to Vilna,” a member of the Soldiers’ Council informed us. “There you will be safe. I only wish we had already passed Kovno.”
Hours went by. Without any notice go were suddenly taken to a train. Two ordinary soldiers and two members of the Soldiers’ Council accompanied us, partly to guard us, partly to defend us. The slow journey was pleasant enough. We had much to relate and much to ask and finally gained an idea of the mood of the German troops. When the train stopped at Kovno our guard got very nervous; but we did not take things tragically. Her curiosity aroused, Irma wished to look out of the window, but a member of the Soldiers’ Council requested her not to do so. “When we have got through here, you may do whatever you like,” he said apologising. When the train left the station of Kovno our guard seemed to breathe more freely; they grew, much more joyful and the remainder of the journey passed amid jokes and laughter.
When we reached Vilna the short December day had faded away and it was already dark. We had not slept for two days and two nights and were very tired. Our protectors desired to give us a chance to snatch a short sleep and wanted to take us to a hotel. But with our terror inspiring armed escort no hotel was anxious to have us – everywhere we were told that all rooms were occupied. As the two halves of our escort did not trust each other it was difficult to find a way out. Finally they agreed to let us take a room alone on our promise that we would stay there. Within an hour one of the guard returned with two members of the Vilna Soldiers’ Council. Both were members of the Independent Socialist Party, one of them the well-known poet Woehrle. An interesting talk and a good dinner helped us over our fatigue. We learned that we were to be taken to Molodietchno, to the line of demarcation, an officer and a member of the Soldiers’ Council would accompany us.
Without further incident we reached Minsk. Now we were both completely exhausted and wished for nothing but to sleep. In the hotel taken over by the Soviet authorities we fell on a bed like two sacks of flour. After a few hours someone made an attempt to wake us up. He told us this was New Year’s night and we were expected at the Party’s New Year celebration. But we only growled the year 1919 night just as well begin without our assistance turned over on the other side and slept till broad daylight.
In Minsk we stayed only a few days. At first we sent by direct wire a report about our unsuccessful journey to Tchitcherin. We suggested that we would now try to pass illegally through General Hoffmann’s barrier, but once in Berlin we would appear openly in order to bring our mission to a successful issue. Tchitcherin gladly agreed to this plan.
As soon as the necessary arrangements were made we set out again for Vilna. With us travelled two red officers who had also business at Vilna. One of them, a White Russian, the other a Lithuanian. Molodietchno was now already in our hands and normal railway traffic had been established up to that point. From Molodietchno a special train brought us to the end of the railway line far out in the wilderness. While our number increased by two further illegal travellers in Soviet service who carried valuable luggage but were bound for a different town. At the end of the line the engine left our carriage and steamed Molodietchno. It was a cold pitch dark night and the six of us believed we were all alone in the wilderness. Suddenly armed figures appeared in the bush suspiciously eyeing our carriage. We saw them moving between the trees but their number could not be guessed. It seemed they did not quite dare to approach us, but the situation was disquieting, particularly our friends with the valuable load got nervous. Suddenly there was an energetic knock on the door.
“Who are you?” asked a sharp voice.
“Who are you?” came our counter question
Nobody desired to answer.
“Not a pleasant position,” said the White Russian, “with our six revolvers we are hardly a match for so many rifles.”
“They don’t know how many we are,” I said "perhaps it would be best to put out the candles.”
We divided into three watches so that both doors could be constantly guarded. Some time passed. In the pale light emanating from the snow we could see a sentry keeping watch on our carriage.
We tried to guess who these men might be. Probably bandits was the prevailing view. Suddenly steps came nearer. A lantern tried to shed light into the dark interior of our carriage. Our revolvers at the ready we took up positions at the windows.
“Don’t you want any tea?” a voice from outside asked in a friendly manner.
But we were not so easily to be trapped; we declined politely. Again the mysterious strangers wanted to know who we were.
“Soviet people of course” we replied. “That should suffice for you.”
Mocking laughter came in reply. “Then why are you sitting in the darkness?” they asked, “Are you afraid to come out and have tea with us?”
“We are tired and want to rest.”
“It looks like it,” those outside laughed, “Well good night.”
“That seems ominous,” said one of our companions.
“We shall have to wait until daylight,” said Irma.
“If we live till then,” one of the officers remarked sarcastically.
“Those who do not keep watch ought to rest,” said the other officer. “We must be fresh in the morning.”
The advice was followed. Contrary to expectations the night passed without incident, though the sentries of both sides were suspiciously guarding each other. When at last dawn broke we noticed nearby a building whose existence had been hidden from us by the darkness of the night.
“Now the whole thing looks silly,” I said. “I am going out to see what it all means.”
Irma insisted on accompanying me. We each took a tea kettle and went to fetch water for tea. On entering the building we noticed that our supposed bandits all wore uniform but no badges. They gladly gave us boiling water but watched suspiciously every movement of ours. When we bought some bread they seemed to be particularly interested in the contents of my purse. This raised my suspicion anew; however they let us return to our carriage unhindered. Hardly had we reached the latter than a far-off rolling announced the arrival of a train. Pleased we stood outside, waiting for what it might bring. Again an engine, appeared with a single carriage attached to it. A commissar of the Red Army with several companions jumped out,
“Hallo, comrade Petroff,” he hailed me “What are you doing here amongst us in the wilderness?"
“Amongst us?” I repeated, “Then these are your people?”
“Our Frontier Guard – didn’t you know that?” he said in amazement.
Now there were roars of laughter. Our fellow travellers had all come out from the carriage and we explained to the redarmists who were crowding, round us, that we had taken them for bandits. They confessed that they had believed we were smugglers. Joyfully we all went to the building and had breakfast together. The redarmists got sledges for us from a nearby village. They warned us to be on our guard as gangs of Polish. Legionaries might be about. Then the four of us bound for Vilna took leave and sped through the wilderness.
We, were now again in No Man’s land. After several hours drive we stopped in a half demolished townlet at a Jewish inn. While devouring our pancakes we tried cautiously to make enquiries. Polish legionaries? Oh, there were plenty of them about. A whole detachment had had breakfast there, it was half an hour since they left. We could not suppress a smile, we had been lucky indeed! However, resting at the inn seemed suddenly less attractive; we left.
At dusk we reached a small town. We stopped near a little inn. While the Lithuanian went into the house, reconnoitring we three remained in the sledge. Suddenly a man rushed up to us shrieking like mad; with his left hand he grabbed the reins while firing with his right hand a couple of revolver bullets over our heads. We could not make out what it all meant, but we understood of course that the shots were a signal to call reinforcements. So we jumped from the sledge, got our revolvers ready and took cover behind a projecting wall. Our Lithuanian companion came rushing out followed by people from the house. These called to the “sharpshooter” something in the Polish language, his rage subsided and he put away his revolver. Thereupon he approached us in a friendly manner and introduced himself as a member of the local citizen militia that had undertaken to keep order until the arrival of the Red Army.
“You seem to have peculiar notions of order in this place,” I said laughing, “you were pretty near to getting a taste of our bullets.”
“Practically all who travel now through here are smugglers,” he apologised, “how could I know that you are Soviet people.”
We enquired what dangers might be expected here from bandits, legionaries and other lovable fellow-men and whether it was advisable to stay for the night. As we were assured that we would be comparatively safe here we entered the house where a good supper and comfortable beds made a pleasant change for us. Before dawn we started again on our journey in order to reach the town amidst the crowd of peasants and traders going to mark et.
At Vilna we stopped with the White Russian in the house of a reliable working woman whose address had been given to us at Minsk. Our Lithuanian officer followed his own stars. We knew that in Vilna several Russian Bolsheviks were living in a “conspirative flat.” We were initiated as to its approaches so that in case of imminent danger we might find protection there. However, we requested that there should be no communication with us as the various groups could only endanger each other. But we lost no time in establishing contact with the Soldiers’ Council of the German Tenth Army, through whose assistance we were afterwards enabled to take a room at a hotel. The question of our safety did not worry us at Vilna. The Soldiers’ Council was here master of the situation and with them we were on the best of terms. This gave us ample opportunity of learning about the course of developments in Germany, to discuss events and tendencies with our German friends and to get numbers of German newspapers of every political shade of opinion. Of course the Soldiers’ Council also discussed their own problems with us. The railways now under German administration employed almost exclusively Russian workers. Misunderstandings and difficulties frequently cropped, up, and the German officers were now clearly striving to bring about a clash. They did not feel happy under the control of the Soldiers’ Council and seemed to believe that a little bloodshed in the town might give them a chance of re-establishing their authority. A railway strike seemed almost unavoidable. The Soldiers’ Council wish to meet the railway workers half-way, to obtain concessions for them, but it was regarded by the railway men with suspicion and thus got between two fires. So they requested my intervention. Of course my incognito was thereby to some extent jeopardised. I addressed a large meeting of railway men, explained to them the precarious position of the Soldiers’ Council and stressed the necessity of an understanding with these German comrades in order to frustrate the plans of the common enemy and his Polish retainers. As soon as the workers understood the situation it was easy to reach an agreement on the points at issue. The withdrawal of the German troops and the occupation of Vilna by the Red Army was now only a question of weeks. The safeguarding of the railway, of its equipment and rolling stock was of great importance for Soviet Russia. It was therefore essential that the workers should stand together against all provocation. The interests of the Soviet government and of the German Soldiers’ Council coincided in this matter.
The Soldiers’ Council warned us of another dangerous move. The officers’ clique at Kovno, the adherents of General Hoffmann, had conceived the plan of handing over ten thousand rifles to the Polish nationalist gangs. The Soldiers’ Council did everything in their power to prevent this, but they feared it might nevertheless be done behind their backs. The officers’ camarilla would have liked to hand over the town of Vilna not to the Soviet authorities but to leave it to the Poles. Through our White Russian officer we sent this item of news to our Red Army urging them to expedite their advance.
Meanwhile our plans for finding our way to Berlin had matured. Irma was to travel as a German nurse, the Soldiers’ Council was to get the required papers. I was to undertake the journey as a German soldier on leave who, in consequence of an accident on the way, had his head bandaged. A somewhat quixotic plan but the only one our German friends considered practicable, I had already got my uniform, everything was ready, only Irma’s nurse’s uniform was still needed.
Then the German newspapers brought the news of the resignation of the Independent Socialists from the Government of the German Republic. Haase was no longer a minister. Had our intended journey thereby become purposeless? We had no time to come to a decision. About midnight there was a knock at our door. Two members of the Soldiers’ Council entered excited.
“Comrades, you must leave the town immediately,” they said. “The officers have got on your track, you are in great danger, not a minute should be lost. We have brought a hired sledge, the driver is willing to take you wherever you like. Quick give us the uniform and be off. Every minute is precious.”
“Tell us, are only we personally threatened or is something of a general nature intended?” I asked.
“There was no indication of action on a larger scale,” they replied, “we have heard only of the danger threatening you. You know what is happening in Berlin. The officers are already raising their heads. If they get hold of you now, you will certainly be shot. We have no longer the power to protect you. Hurry!”
The White Russian was in the hotel, within a few minutes the three of us were ready. With a hearty handshake we took leave of the two German comrades. Without hindrance we left sleeping Vilna.
It was a dark night. In the severe frost the snow was crackling under the horses’ hoofs. We had the address of a reliable Lithuanian peasant who lived in an out-of-the-way hamlet, there they would help us further. Our driver had some slight knowledge of the neighbourhood, but on the roads lit only by the faint gleam of the deep snow that made them unrecognisable it was difficult to find one’s bearings, and the hamlet which consisted only of a few houses was unknown to him. After almost three hours travelling he said it would now soon be time to leave the highway, but by the road branching off to the left somewhere hereabouts was not to be found. The Germans, so long in occupation of this territory, had put up many fingerposts stating distances in kilometers. When we at last found such a post its arm was thickly covered with frozen snow. We used up almost our whole supply of matches to thaw it off. But now the driver knew where he was. The hamlet could not be far off, but it was a job to find it. After another twenty minutes we heard voices. On the right side of the road a little hovel, that at one time might have served some agricultural purposes, came into view. I got out of the sledge and went in the direction of the voices to ask the way. To my horror l noticed that I had Polish legionaries in front of me. To go back would have aroused suspicion, no I went over to then and asked them for some tobacco. This they kindly gave me and took no further interest in me or my sledge. After all, so many families were on the road returning to their villages that had been partly destroyed during the war. With all their belongings packed on sledges they were moving through the countryside. So our sledge was no uncommon sight even at such a late hour. We turned to the left, trusting in our luck. By instinct the driver had done the right thing. It is true, our sledge turned over several times when the horses sank into deep snow-filled ditches but after a short while houses came in sight – the wanted hamlet: By the description given to us we found the house and were very kindly received. First of all the horses were seen to, then we were given hot tea and something to eat. A broad burning torch of pinewood spread a dazzling light through the pleasant warm room. The peasant showed great political interest; he roused his friends from their sleep and we had a cheerful little gathering. In the weird light of the burning chip the peasants sat round the table and put amazingly intelligent questions trying to understand the political situation. They wished to gain an idea of the possible further development of both the Russian and the German Revolution. The peasant offered us the only bed but we all would have preferred to continue talking so we gladly sacrificed a bit of sleep. As soon as the horses had had their fodder the friendly driver took his leave, but we went on talking till shortly before dawn. While we enjoyed a hearty breakfast our host’s son-in-law appeared with a sledge drawn by two strong horses. After a friendly farewell we parted from these magnificent people and drove off before the hamlet awoke. For some considerable time we avoided the highway. In the forest suddenly the horses stopped short. The young peasant pointed with his whip at the snow “Look, a fresh wolf’s trail” he explained to us. It took some urging to get the horses to move further. About noon we reached a little town in No Man’s Land where we stopped at an inn. It would be easy here to get horses to take us to the railway station on Soviet territory the young peasant told us.
In the large parlour of the inn we took seats by the window and ordered dinner. Suddenly Irma remarked: “Look at that man out there in uniform without a badge who is sauntering down the street with such a show of indifference, I bet that he is a reconnoitring redarmist.” I went out to talk to the man but failed to gain his confidence so far that a frank talk was possible. From a few hints dropped by him I gathered however, in what direction I might look out for an advance post of the Red Army. I hired a sledge to take us to the railway station but tried on the way to get into contact with the Red Army. Within a short time we came across a patrol whom we could convince of our identity so that they directed us to the regimental headquarters. Our White Russian officer who had made a good study of the position in the Vilna district gave them a short outline of it. Pleased with the information they received, they sent at once a detachment to occupy the little town where we had dined. They directed us to the headquarters for the sector which was not far off. From there it was easy to reach the railway station, but there was no passenger traffic as yet. The station master gave us an engine and we soon reached Molodietchno. Here we went to the railway telegraph and got into communication with Tchitcherin. In this manner we gave him a preliminary report on the situation in Vilna, the latest developments in Germany and their effect on the occupied territories. He sat personally at the telegraph and we had to answer at once a number of questions. Then we returned to Minsk whence we could send him by special messenger all the material we had gathered.
In Minsk sad news reached us. On that very night when our German friends had succeeded in warning us the nick of time, the Poles who had been treacherously armed by the German officers, had made an attempt to establish themselves as the rulers of Vilna. Eight of our Russian comrades in the “conspirative flat” had been seized and shot.
Unexpectedly we met Manuilsky at Minsk. We told him about our adventures and as we were free at the moment he asked us to go with him to Gomel. He thought our experiences in co-operating with the German Soldiers’ Council might prove very useful there since the German soldiery returning from the Ukraine would soon withdraw from that important area. Shatov, whose task it was to form everywhere in the liberated territory “Revolutionary Committees” which were to administer local affairs until Soviets had been elected, came with us.
Our train brought us as near to Gomel as Soviet rule extended. There we met a detachment of our partisans that was co-operating with a secret Bolshevik organisation among the workers of Gomel. The chief of this detachment, a giant from the Caucasus dressed in a large black cloak and riding a big grey horse was an outstanding picturesque figure. He would often go into the town bothering little about the Germans. Through him two rooms had been rented for us with reliable people in Gomel. In the night we entered the town on a peasant cart also accompanied by our friend on his grey horse. Official negotiations with the Germans having started, our friends informed them of our arrival and we each received from the German military authorities a paper: “Soviet-commissar is in Gomel for negotiations and is under the protection of the German authorities.”
The workers of Gomel who had expected us called a large meeting at the railway repair shop where Manuilshy and I addressed them. Terrific enthusiasm filled these masses who had been suffering so long under enemy occupation. They had been cut off from developments in Russia and were looking forward to the time when the gates of the revolutionary fatherland would be opened to them. There were scores of questions to be answered, the meeting lasted many hours and became an event for the whole town.
Meanwhile the German Soldiers’ Council had called a soldiers’ meeting in the theatre where Irma was to speak on the Russian Revolution. The meeting had been announced for 8 p.m. at 6. p.m. they sent for Irma as the large hall of the theatre was already overcrowded. Irma had a splendid reception and had to answer questions till late into the night. The German officers here were very weak. They made not the slightest attempt to interfere with the revolutionary propaganda or to oppose it in any way. Among these troops returning from the Ukraine the officers’ corps seemed no less war-weary and disrupted than the ranks.
The Red Army had sent military experts to Gomel to buy arms and war material from the German troops. The negotiations developed successfully and meanwhile we kept up close contact with the German Soldiers’ Council whose confidence we required to facilitate the purchase of arms. These negotiations were greatly influenced by the situation in Vilna. By arming the Poles against us general Hoffmann had created great difficulties for the German units returning from the Ukraine. All through the territory a state of insecurity prevailed and the Polish gangs did not mind attacking German transports if they thought the booty would be worth the effort. Under these circumstances a friendly understanding with us was of importance for the Germans, and they were quite willing to co-operate with the Red Army for the protection of roads and railways. We on our part were greatly interested in their early evacuation. In this situation Irma’s and my knowledge of the position in the frontier district and our influence on both sides greatly facilitated a peaceful settlement of the intricate problem to the satisfaction of all concerned. The wealth in armaments of the German troops was amazing. They would have never managed to evacuate all their stores while we could make good use of these guns, machine guns, mine throwers, flame throwers, rifles and ammunitions at our Southern front. Also 75,000 puds of sugar which they had seized in the Ukraine we could get back from then now for some little payment. In these negotiations all depended on mutual confidence. Our sailors that had been smuggled by Shatov into the town were little suited for arousing such confidence. As fervent Communists they too wanted to indulge in “propaganda” – in the cafes they would demand of the orchestra to play the “International” again and again insisted that all present should rise from their seats. The Germans soon got tired of this and only our intervention prevented a conflict that might easily have ended in bloodshed.
In the first period of the Revolution these sailors’ detachments played a peculiar part. Their outstanding bravery and revolutionary fervour had in the early days decided many an unequal struggle in our favour. But after victory was won their excessive zeal often aroused the resistance of the population so that the fruits of the victory failed to mature. To a higher degree than all other partisan units these sailors’ detachments responded to disrupting influences – their overbearing manner, their contempt of peaceful citizens, and their lust for plundering easily made then sink into banditry. Here at Gomel they became an actual political danger and I energetically demanded of Shatov that they be withdrawn.
Amongst the arms which the Red Army bought from the Germans there were tens of thousands of rifles. Curiously enough the German soldiers had allowed themselves to be persuaded that our redarmists would turn those rifles immediately against them. They wished therefore to hand over the rifles at Gomel but the locks thereof later on at another railway station. In long wearisome negotiations Irma tried to overcome their misgivings; she succeeded only when we had attained the withdrawal of the sailors.
Looking back to-day I am inclined to think that whatever success we then attained in the frontier districts were due to our method of approach. We were always striving to solve human problems in the interest of all. National narrow-mindedness was totally alien to us; we never thought of avenging the misdeeds resulting from the policy of the leaders of Germany on the German soldiers. Thus both the local Russian population and the German soldiers regarded us as friends eager to help in an unselfish manner. The confidence of both sides emanating therefrom made it possible for us to help effectively.
1. “Wide gauge.” The Russian railways were deliberately given a different wider gauge to the rest of Europe so that supplying an attacking enemy would be more difficult.
2. “All quiet on the Shipka pass” Scene of a ferocious battle in the Russo Turkish war of 1877 in Bulgaria. Clearly now a kind of proverb like “Steady the Buffs.”
3. Whether this the Gregorian calendar as in the west or the Julian as in Russia, it is not clear.
4. “Polish legionaries.” The Right wing Polish nationalists who had backed the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 14-18 war had raised a “Polish Legion” to fight the Tsarist Empire.