Having returned to Minsk I was requested by the White Russian Party organisation to stay a while. Some members of the White Russian Bureau of the Communist Party complained to me about the difficult position in which they found themselves. “We have been elected at the Party Conference,” they said, “but the Central Committee in Moscow seems to be annoyed about it. They persistently try to impose commissars upon us. They poke their noses into every little thing. We have to safeguard our local rights.” Of course this was just the right bait to catch me. We decided to stay in Minsk for the time being. I spoke at a number of large meetings at Minsk and other places; the consequence was my election to the approaching Soviet-Congress.
In Moscow a peculiar tendency prevailed at that time. They were striving to cultivate local dialects in various parts of the country and to protect small nationalities against assimilation by their larger neighbours. Lenin had taken up the “principle of nationalities” and our central authorities were developing it ad absurdum. The right of small nationalities to self-determination “up to secession” was a well-worn slogan in the political life of that time. However, it was never meant seriously. Lenin relied upon Party discipline, which he always regarded as his most important means of domination, considering that he would always manage to subdue with its aid local opposition or resistance. This revived “revolutionary principle of small nationalities” Lenin had appropriated from Gladstone who had borrowed it from the “Napoleon le petit,” Louis Bonaparte. It is true, Friedrich Engels had ridiculed this reactionary idea already at that time in the Chartist People’s Paper but that was little known and did not deter Lenin from exploiting this “principle” in a demagogic way – where it suited his purpose. Of course later on in Georgia when a national democratic Republic was to be destroyed and brought under the yoke of the Moscow dictatorship and this principle was replaced by the bayonets of the Red Army.
I was in favour of complete freedom of the cultural development of each nationality or language community. However, when they started to declare a dialect commonly used in colloquial talk as a “language” and to publish manifestoes in that “language” which people could not read, this seemed to me ridiculous and l said so frankly. At the Soviet-Congress the White Russian peasants complained about this new literary language – they declared “we are pracoslavny” (i.e. of the orthodox church.) and they demanded leaflets should be printed in Russian not in White Russian. My sarcastic remarks at the Congress about this “dialect-mania of the Government so far from reducing my popularity amongst them rather enhanced it. I was surprised to find myself elected at the Congress to the Central-Executive-Committee of the White Russian Soviet-Republic and further to its Presidium, consisting of three members only, which formed the highest government authority in White Russia. Thus it happened that I became People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the White Russian Soviet Republic in spite of my expressed view that foreign affairs ought to rest solely in the hands of Central Government in Moscow. I remained in close touch with Tchitcherin and finally succeeded in closing down my superfluous shop and concentrated entirely on the work in the Presidium.
In the city of Minsk the election of the Soviet was to take place. The question was discussed in all seriousness by the White-Russian Bureau of the Party whether the constitution was to be adhered to or not in carrying out this election. “And what do you propose to adopt in its place?” I asked. “If you do not like the Constitution you ought to send in an amendment to the All-Russian Soviet Congress.” The raising of such a question seemed to me simply absurd. But Miasnikian, the chairman of the Presidium as well as of the Party proceeded to explain to me seriously that it would hardly be possible to apply the Constitution because Minsk was a stronghold of the “Bund” – the Menshevik-minded Jewish workers Socialist organisation – so there was a danger that we might not get a majority.
I was disgusted. “If you do not get a majority that means you do not deserve it,” I replied.
“And what remedy do you propose?” he enquired.
“Free elections on the basis of the Constitution after an intensive election campaign, and honest open controversy with all opponents,” was my reply.
“Perhaps with the Right Social Revolutionaries too, or with the Black-hundreds?” asked Miasnikian mockingly.
“Do you really believe that the population of Minsk are going to elect Black-hundred deputies to the Soviet?” I retorted. “If not why should we be afraid of them?”
“Well, but supposing we do get a majority, free elections would certainly bring a Bundist-Menshevist opposition into the Soviet.”
“All the better,” I said “where there is opposition there is life, there the people are kept interested and alert. A Soviet that is not freely elected and does not include any opposition is dead. To me at all events this is a question of principle. If we cannot gain the confidence of the people we might as well pack up.”
“Will you take responsibility for carrying through the election campaign?” asked Miasnikian.
“With pleasure,” I replied, “but I shall insist on this – no suppression of the opposition whoever they may be.”
The whole Government was horrified but I pressed my point of view. A lively election campaign set in – I am afraid this was about the last honest election campaign in Soviet Russia. As in times gone by, idea stood against idea, argument against argument. With enthusiasm the workers flocked to our banner. The “Bund” had called in some of its prominent leaders, it was a pleasure to cross swords. Their support of the opposition to the Brest Peace now deceased, all their vacillation and hesitation during the last two years were a heavy liability on the Right-Wing Socialists in the eyes of the people. At a railwaymen’s meeting a Right Social revolutionary tried to oppose me. The workers abused him calling him Blackhundredite and shouted him down. It required my whole energy and influence to get him a hearing. The election Campaign lasted about two weeks. My chief concern was to prevent my dear colleagues of the Government from causing a revulsion of feeling in favour of the opposition by some silly act of repression against its leaders. The Tcheka could not easily adapt itself to the unaccustomed role of a “democratic police.” These smart guardians of Communist order were actually hatching a marvellous plan before a meeting of particular importance to arrest in the street “by mistake” the leading lights of the opposition on suspicion of being pickpockets. When the meeting would be over they were to be released with many apologies for the stupidity of a subordinate official. Fortunately I learned of this silly provocation in time to prevent it.
The Soviet was elected. We got a large majority. But together with us a serious virile opposition of Right wing Socialists were elected to the Soviet. Consequently the people took great interest in the proceedings. The Soviet met at the theatre, the galleries were usually crowded. Every problem that cropped up aroused animated debates dealing with the underlying principles, and these debates found an echo among the people encouraging political thought.
White Russia was not a highly industrialised area. There was no large scale industry, only some factories of medium size. The bulk of the – largely Jewish – population of the towns were handicraftsmen, shopkeepers and traders. Nonetheless certain Soviet authorities desired to carry through a Left Communist policy of “nationalisation to the last reel of cotton” even in this area. That have meant closing down all the small shops, restaurants and workshops by which the population gained a living, and destroying the livelihood of all these small people. The Commissariat of Supply did not wish to permit to the population even the possession of ten pounds of wheaten flour per family! Already at this time they wanted to carry through that ruinous supply policy which later on, particularly in the Ukraine, was to bear such evil fruit. In Kharkov for instance, when that town was occupied by the Soviets these officials started “nationalising” the butchers’ shops and sausage factories by sealing their doors – these were opened only when all supplies had gone bad. At Minsk I resolutely opposed such insane methods, and I succeeded in preventing at least extreme measures. Thus it happened that in spite of Soviet rule boots were being sold, suits cleaned and pressed, that the population could sit of an evening in clean little private restaurants, eat roast chicken and “gefillte fish”; in a word life appeared less regimented and more pleasant than elsewhere under the food dictatorship.
Smuggling flourished. From the Polish-Lithuanian border area cigarettes, tea and a thousand and one other commodities were brought to the Minsk market. The Tcheka desired to suppress all this and the supply authorities were moving in the same direction. As regards the latter I could never avoid the impression that the supplying of the population was with them only a secondary consideration. They seemed to regard it as much more important to apply their principle of centralising and regimenting everything, and of taking everything into their own hands. The revelled in prohibitions no matter how senseless these might be. I threw my whole weight against this with some success, to maintain some breathing-space for the population. This policy of mine proved to be useful in many respects. During their advance the Germans had taken large stores of sheepskin furs provided for the tsarist army. These furs could now be purchased at a very low price. The Commissar for War reported that Jewish smugglers were in a position to obtain as a first instalment three thousand such furs at a price of twenty rouble apiece The Red Army urgently required such furs and I at once agreed to sanction this “unlawful” transaction, in the hope we would get in the same manner much larger quantities. My colleagues in the Government wanted to be very smart. They proposed to carry through the deal but thereupon to arrest the merchants and confiscate their money. I was disgusted with the proposed treachery, but such was their mentality. Moral scruples in dealing with “speculators” they would have never understood. But my argument that the Red Army required many more furs and that such deceit would cut off the source of supply, had its effect. So the fraud was prevented and the military authorities could purchase with the assistance of the smugglers more than ten thousand furs.
During the German occupation of White Russia the large estates had been preserved. Among the rural population here too the peasants formed the majority. But there were also considerable numbers of agricultural workers employed on the large estates. The question arose as to whether under these conditions a general partition of the land was advisable. Within the Government there were heated discussions on this subject. I considered that it would be preferable to maintain these large estates as state farms and to turn them into model farms both from an agronomic and social point of view. A partition of the land on stereotyped lines was of course much less troublesome for the authorities concerned. Consequently the People’s Commissar for Agriculture favoured partition. The difference of opinion led to a deadlock, and the question remained in abeyance for a time.
Wherever Soviet power was established a thirst for knowledge was awakened in the people; education made giant strides forward. In the town of Minsk as throughout the whole Republic schools and kindergartens were growing like mushrooms after a summer rain. In this sphere the one time member of the “Bund,” Frumkina was active. She put heart and soul into this work but she was imbued with those peculiar “international-nationalist” notions that in this polyglot area with schools in five-languages the state should take care that every child be sent to a school corresponding to his origin and native language. Amongst certain sections of the population this aroused opposition. Jewish parents in particular objected to being compelled to send their children to Jewish schools with all instruction in the Yiddish language. They preferred Russian schools. In this polyglot district they feared that such linguistic isolation of their children would result in economic loss, since they not be able to get on in life without a thorough knowledge of the Russian language. Thus our school authorities managed to turn the good and progressive principle of cultural liberty and language equality into a Spanish boot that hurt those whom it was to benefit.
Alarming news came from Germany. Since the resignation of the Independent Socialists from the Government the German Revolution was on a downward curve, and the counter-revolutionary officer gangs became more and more impudent. Suddenly the news of the cowardly murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg burst amongst us like a bomb. The people of Minsk having got into closer contact with Germany through the long period of occupation reacted with a spontaneous outcry of indignation. The large square in the centre of the town was filled by mourning crowds – workers, shop keepers, intellectuals, traders, Soviet officials, redarmists, all streamed to the square for an impressive demonstration such as the town had rarely experienced. Speeches were delivered in various languages, and in spite of all differences of nationality, language and even of class this mass of people showed in its mourning of the beloved German leaders that had been murdered a remarkable unanimity of feeling. Both Irma and I were amongst the speakers; I addressed the meeting in Russian, Irma – now secretary of the Minsk Committee of the Communist Party – in German.
Sverdlov, president of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets and general secretary of the Communist Party was expected to visit Minsk. This extremely capable organiser had been Lenin’s right hand all through the Revolution. He had an extensive knowledge of the personnel of the Party and knew the qualifications of almost every “responsible worker” in the movement. He arranged their distribution throughout all spheres of administration all over the country. We personally never had cause of complaint as to his goodwill towards us. However, we regarded Sverdlov as the initiator and personification of a tendency directed towards the transformation of the Communist party into an organ of domination, and towards the rule of the party from above downward thus curtailing democracy in Party and State while slowly eliminating the prerogatives of the Soviets. In spite of his sympathetic personality Sverdlov appeared to us therefore as the standard bearer of a hostile principle and a danger to the Revolution. We hated his methods and frankly expressed this view. In our appraisal of Sverdlov we were by no means alone. In a meeting of “responsible workers” in Moscow there had been a significant clash of the majority with Sverdlov on the question of Soviet-democracy so that Lenin had to be called in to pacify the opposition. Now Sverdlov was expected in White Russia; the Minsk Soviet and the Government of the White Russian Soviet-Republic arranged a special reception meeting in his honour. I saw Sverdlov in the morning before the meeting. He greeted me cordially and said: “We are very pleased that you are here. It is true, you are at present defending these gentry against us, but you will soon see through them. Then you will appreciate that we are right.” I was astonished at this statement the inner meaning of which became fully clear to me only later on. For I saw at that time in his fight against my colleagues in the White Russian Government the same hateful tendency of super-centralisation and government from above. In the afternoon when Sverdlov entered the festive hall of the meeting all present stood up respectfully. Only two remained seated – I on the platform and Irma who was seated with the Minsk Party Committee in a box of the theatre. But Sverdlov did not bear us a grudge even after this public demonstration. On leaving he shook hands with me and said with a smile: “Remain here and keep your eyes open.” Later on we much regretted our demonstration. Had we been able to foresee that this would be our last meeting with Sverdlov, we certainly would have refrained from such action. Sverdlov caught a severe cold on this journey and died of pneumonia soon after his return to Moscow. But before he fell ill he wrote to me from Moscow and the contents of his letter was an eye-opener to me.
We had settled at the Hotel Europe where we had taken a room with a balcony. This balcony served us as a larder, much to the delight of the hungry birds who would pick holes in the paper cover of our butter dish feasting on its contents. We could not be angry with the little feathered thieves and gave them latitude; they soon became so insolent that they would hop through the small opening in the window and extend their raids to our breakfast table.
Whenever we were at hone anybody was welcome to see us. The people had confidence in us, so we got to hear all sorts of complaints. A dentist came lamenting that the Tcheka had confiscated in his surgery the gold required for filling teeth and ten pieces of soap. A telephone talk with the head of the Tcheka obtained satisfaction for the dentist. Greater difficulties had to be surmounted when furniture or rooms had been commandeered for the personal use of high commissars. It appeared that certain commissars were terrorising the population appropriating anything they fancied. In the streets one could see them gliding along in luxurious sledges drawn by splendid trotters which they had “confiscated” for their own use. Indignant at such high handed action, I raised the question at a Party meeting. I demanded that the invaders be punished and evicted from the invaded flats. Miasnikian and other members of who had themselves offended in similar ways, tried to justify “taking over of flats from the bourgeoisie” and to ridicule our “Spartan way of living.” But the majority of the members agreed with me and I got a decision carried that an appeal be issued to the people to complain fearlessly to the Government in cases of arbitrary actions by individual commissars.
The Party had a virile and comparatively large organisation in a small town remote from the railway; and was anxious to hold a big demonstration. I took this opportunity to get a glimpse at conditions in the provinces and went there accompanied by Irma and the military commissar for the district. A special carriage had been offered us at Minsk but we declined desiring to travel in the ordinary way. We found a place in a crowded goods carriage. My desired incognito could not be maintained for long. I was recognised and the workers and peasants in the carriage greatly appreciated my travelling in this fashion. They spoke frankly to me and this journey helped me to gain an idea of the order or disorder in the provinces. The night after the meeting we spent in the Party house; naturally there was more discussion than rest. In the morning we were driven to the next station only to learn that the first ordinary train to Minsk was due in six hours. We decided to utilise this time to have a good look round. There had lately been many complaints banditry and we wished to get at the truth. We strolled about in the little town seizing every chance of talking to a variety of people. We entered a small Jewish restaurant to have tea. The lady unburdened her heart to us. There were so many bandits about! Just recently quite a group of armed people had come compelling her in the middle of the night to make an elaborate dinner for them, then they left without paying.
“I wish this scum mould turn up while we are here,” said the military commissar.
His wish was soon to be fulfilled. Three men in uniform without badges, rifle in hand strode in taking seats at the next table. We signed to the landlady and waited. In a rough manner they demanded something to eat and when the lady declared that she had no more meat they became threatening. Irma got up and quietly walked past them. She posted herself at the door – revolver in hand; simultaneously the commissar and I put our revolvers on the table.
“Lay down your arms,” ordered the commissar to the three bandits. They obeyed like lambs.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Redarmists do not behave like you. Show your papers.”
They produced obviously false papers. The commissar took these remarking:
“Well, if these papers prove to be genuine you will be punished not only as bandits but also as deserters.”
They became very meek and admitted that they really were not redarmists and that they had not a single live cartridge in their possession.
“So” he said, “that would of course suffice to terrorise here. We will hand you over to the authorities in Minsk.”
He ordered them to walk in front of us and so we marched them to the station where they were handed over to the military guard of the railway. Thereupon the commissar telephoned to a unit of the Red Army stationed somewhere in the neighbourhood and ordered that a small detachment be sent to the town in order to protect the population and clear the town of bandits.
Among the railwaymen of Minsk considerable discontent had arisen. The Government feared great difficulties, they requested me therefore to go into the lion’s den and address a large meeting at the railway workshops. They had not informed me as to the real cause of the discontent not had they mentioned that they had taken any special measures. Accompanied by Irma I went to the meeting. We were amazed to find in the square in front of the railway workshops a detachment of Tcheka-troops who had brought out machine guns.
“What is the matter?” I asked not guessing at once the connection. “Against whom this array?”
“For any possible emergency in view of the unrest among the railwaymen,” replied the Tcheka commander as if this was the most natural thing in the world.
“That is the limit,” I exclaimed. “I have come to speak to the workers and you are going to threaten them with machine guns! Go and telephone your superiors and tell them I demand the immediate withdrawal of his detachment. I shall never permit that workers be threatened by armed force, and when I speak to workers I do not require any protection.”
I entered the hall and found it seething with excitement.
I know,” I said to the excited workers who crowded round me, “it is scandalous. But I have ordered the immediate withdrawal of the armed force. We shall investigate how such a thing could happen.”
From all sides complaints came pouring down on me. All shouted in turmoil. I tried to get a hearing. “We cannot go on in this way” I said. “I ask the chairman now to open the meeting. I will give a short address, the Commissar for State Control will be called with his stenographers. Then we shall take down all your complaints.
The atmosphere was at once eased. During the opening remarks of the chairman the excitement subsided, I was called upon to speak. I dealt with the political and economic situation, with the hard struggles that lay behind, and the manifold difficulties we were faced with. “The Government alone cannot successfully overcome these difficulties,” I declared, “that is work for the people itself, you all have to co-operate.” Interjections started, they all had something special on their minds. “Wait a little while,” I pacified them, we shall come to this. Every one of you will get his chance to make his complaints. First let us understand the general situation from which all our difficulties arise, only then shall we be able to find ways and means to clear them out of the way.”
Meanwhile the People’s Commissar for State Control had arrived. He sat down beside me and his shorthand writers got ready. The meeting had become very quiet, orderly and attentive. I concluded my speech and asked, that the complaints be now taken urging that the statements be truthful and without exaggeration. It appeared that wages had not been paid for two months and that the department was working badly. All the rest were smaller matters causing friction such as may arise at times in every works. The People’s Commissar for State Control listened attentively to all complaints, had them taken down by his secretaries and at times would ask further questions himself. Within about two hours the position had become clear, the two chief causes of unrest had crystallised. I thereupon suggested leaving the further investigation of various smaller matters and technical points to the State Control which was to report to another meeting. As to the two chief points I promised to bring them without delay before the Government, and for the payment of wage arrears on the next day. I further stated that I would take up the matter with the People’s Commissariat of Supply and would try to arrange an increase of rations and generally an improvement in the supply of the railwaymen. There was much cheering and the “unrest” was liquidated. The meeting rose and sang the “Internationale.”
The Government received my report about the meeting with a feeling of relief and advanced the sums required for the payment of wage arrears which were to be refunded later on by the railway administration. The People’s Commissar of Supply, Kalmanovitch, did his best to fulfil my other promise.
It became evident that this outbreak of discontent among the railwaymen was not an isolated case. At a number of other meetings I noticed that there was a wide-spread undercurrent of unrest among the people. Amongst the questions put to me at meetings there were on several occasions complaints about unjustified demands of taxation. All over Russia a special levy of – I believe – ten milliards paper roubles had been imposed, a tax to be collected from over the bourgeoisie. This sum had been spread over the various autonomous republics and provinces; White Russia too had to pay its quota. The collecting of this levy that is to say the fixing of the sum to be paid by every individual bourgeois was the duty of our People’s Commissariat of Finance. The People’s Commissar was I. I. Reingold. At several meetings workers complained that they had received demands for payment of considerable sums of this “bourgeois-levy.” I would tell them in such cases that there must have been some misunderstanding, I would take the papers and speak to Reingold who confirmed that mistakes had occurred. However, when I learned that gold had disappeared from the State treasury of the Mogilev province forming part of the White Russian Republic and that the People’s Commissariat of Finance hushed up this matter I had my suspicions roused, and I proposed at a sitting of the Presidium to ask the People’s Commissar of Finance for a report. My proposal was accepted but its realisation put off again and again under various pretexts.
Through Sverdlov’s letter I had got to know that several White Russians designated by the Central Committee of the Party at Moscow as candidates for the White Russian Government whom Miasnikian and his group had pushed aside, were supposed to have been secretly arrested. I at once raised this matter at a sitting of the Presidium. They tried to pacify me by telling me that the White Russians (one of whom was Tchertiakov) had turned out to be nationalist counter-revolutionaries. But now it was no longer so easy to mislead me. “Surely, the Central Committee of the Party would not uphold counter-revolutionaries,” I said drily, demand the immediate release of these comrades.” I saw to it that the order for their release be issued in my presence. Thereupon I thought the matter was closed. For how could I have dreamt that these candidates of the Central Committee of the Party would thereupon be kept in their houses under domiciliary arrest! That Miasnikian’s crowd would dare to intercept their reports to the Central Committee! Yet the whole affair had made me very suspicious. In the evening I discussed the matter with Irma.
“How is that possible,” she asked amazed, “as a rule nobody dares to breathe a word when the Central Committee gives an order.”
“That is just the riddle,” I replied. “If they acted on their own they would never dare that. There must be infinitely stronger forces behind them.”
“But who do you think can that be?”
“Miasnikian is an Armenian,” I said, “little known in the Party. None of the others has any past worth mentioning.”
“Who then would dare to support these gentry against the Central Committee?” Irma said dubiously. “Why does not Sverdlov throw a thunderbolt into this crowd?”
“Isn’t Stalin behind it?” I wondered.
“Stalin?” Irma looked amazed.
“Yes, Stalin. No one else would do that. Bear in mind we have to deal here with an extremely dangerous gang. We shall have to keep our eyes and ears open. I'm afraid we know very little of what is going on around us.”
One morning I sat in the office of the Presidium working when in one of the anterooms a noise became audible. We had made it known to the people that anybody could come with complaints directly to a member of the Presidium at certain fixed hours. To-day it was my turn to accept visitors but so far nobody had called. When I came out to enquire what the commotion was about, the secretary tried to minimise the incident. Getting suspicious I rushed out to see for myself. A deputation of women who had come to see me stood on the stairs crying while some officials roughly ordered them out. I sent those officials about their business and invited the ladies to my office. When their excitement had subsided they handed me a petition and related that they had been elected by the wives of citizens who had been arrested and were now in prison because they could not pay the bourgeois-levy.
“My poor husband is to pay fifty thousand roubles” one lady said choking with tears, “though he is unemployed half a year.”
“What is his trade?” I enquired.
“He is a metalworker,” my visitor sobbed.
“What? A worker is to pay this levy?” I asked in astonishment, “and fifty thousand roubles at that?”
Then the women reported many similar cases. I was enraged. I apologised to the deputation for the difficulties they had encountered in coming to me. I thanked them for the information and documentary evidence they had given me and promised that I would investigate the matter and take measures to release the innocent prisoners. Then I accompanied them to the door, said a few encouraging words and took leave.
I rang up Irma asking her to come over at once, and telephoned to the railway station where the Lenin-train that had arrived the day before was standing. This was one of those propaganda and control trains that were being sent to various parts of the country to hold meetings, distribute literature, take complaints and exercise some control over local administration. In this train headed by Sosnovsky there was also a member of the collegiate of the All-Russian Yurovsky. I asked Yurovsky to come with me at once to Minsk prison in order to unearth a big scandal. Within half an hour Yurovsky, Irma and I sat in a motor-car on our way to the prison, and I told the flabbergasted Yurovsky about the women’s delegation.
In the prison we found not a single bourgeois but eighty-five workers and some twenty poor women who were imprisoned for failing to pay large sums of the levy that was to be paid exclusively by the bourgeoisie. Our indignation grew with every new case that came before us and, disregarding all formalities I ordered the prisoners be released immediately.
While we were here furiously emptying out the prison, Miasnikian called a panic-stricken meeting of the Government (or was it the Party Bureau for White Russia. Both were almost identical) who decided to appoint a commission of investigation under my chairmanship. However, my investigation had already gone very far, the background had become clear. It was established that the father of Reingold – of the People’s Commissar of Finance who was responsible for fixing the sums to be collected from each rich bourgeois who came within the scope of the tax – had been receiving in his house these bourgeois and had struck them off the list on payment of an adequate bribe. Thus the levy could not be collected. In order to prove to the central authorities in Moscow who insisted on quick collection of the levy, that the Minsk Finance Commissariat was not lacking in energy, they sent preposterous demands to arbitrarily picked out poor people. As no payment was forthcoming they had these poor devils arrested. Had we not unveiled this scandal in time, who knows but the unfortunate people might have been shot so as to cover up the traces. I demanded the immediate dismissal of Reingold, but was told that this was opposed by the People’s Commissariat of Finance in Moscow to whom he was also subordinate. The matter was dragged out.
The misdeeds of Reingold and some other commissars who happened to be Jews had strengthened anti-semitic tendencies leading up even to a certain pogrom feeling among a section of the population. One day, after a sitting when we were talking about the possibility of unrest, the People’s Commissar of Supply, Kalmonovitch, asked quite seriously, whether it would it not be advisable to shoot a few Jews in order to stop the pogrom-feeling. I replied to this Jewish anti-semite that it would be more expedient to send him to a lunatic asylum.
“Well, the shooting of a few Jewish bourgeois would not be a great loss, would it?” he tried to get out of the unpleasant situation in a half-jocular manner, when he noticed what impression his words made on me.
“If we cleanse the administration from corrupt elements and carry on a little enlightening propaganda, anti-semitism will soon be wiped out,” I replied.
I held a number of meetings at which I dealt with the fallacy of anti-semitism.
One day two young Party members working in the Tcheka came to Irma at the Party committee. They declared that they could no longer serve in the Tcheka begging that the Party send them to some other work. When Irma enquired what bad caused their sudden change of mind they related with tears in their eyes what had happened. A tchekist had been instructed to ask a young Jewish boy whether he could change for him a certain sum of foreign money. The boy said his uncle might be able to change it. But when the boy crossed the street with the money in his pocket he had been arrested by another tchekist; on the following morning the boy was shot for speculation. He had been a very poor boy from a Bundist family. His sister had called afterwards at the Tcheka; she requested the first tchekist she came across to hand a piece of bread and sausage to her brother stating she had bought it out of money she had earned on the previous day. It so happened that the tchekist addressed by her request had been the same who had shot her brother that very morning. With a hysteric cry he had collapsed; he knew by now that the boy had been innocent, that it had been all provocation. Then the two had run off to the Party requesting to be transferred to other work.
This was the last drop that made the barrel overflow. It was perfectly clear to us that this whole government of the White Russian Soviet Republic together with its White Russian Bureau of the Party was nothing more than a gang of robbers and murderers. Unless one wished to take revolutionary measures, call out the Red Army, put the whole gang up against a wall and shoot them then and there, there was nothing to be done locally. We decided therefore to lose no further time but go to Moscow in order to get the Central Committee of the Party to take quick and decisive action. We packed our things and booked places for next morning’s Moscow train. I did not feel called upon to offer any explanations to my present colleagues. Early in the morning a messenger appeared. The Lenin-train had returned, he informed us, it had stopped at the goods station, they had room and invited us in case we wished to travel with them. We laughed and I said with marked sarcasm we were going to consider this interesting proposal.
“And who has sent you here?” I asked.
“Comrade Miasnikian. They have telephoned from the train to the government.”
Meanwhile Irma continued her packing. She took a big revolver and buckled it on ostentatiously. Before the messenger left us she handed me some reserve ammunition. We took an open cab and drove to the station, of course not to the goods station or this story would have never been written.
The news that we were about to leave had quickly spread amongst the population of the town. Our drive to the station was accompanied by a kind of ovation. Windows were thrown open, people stepped out of their doors waving us farewell. Irma could not keep her tears back. “These poor people we are now leaving to the tender mercies of these beasts,” she said. “Moscow must act quickly.”
In Moscow we had a peculiar experience. The direct telephone line from the First House of the Soviets to the Kremlin was supposed to be “engaged” all day long. It was simply impossible to reach Lenin. On the following morning a Sunday – we appeared in the office of the People’s Commissars at the Kremlin. I went to secretary, Fotieva, and asked: “What kind of a Chinese wall have you established here that it has become impossible to reach Vladimir Ilitch by telephone? Please connect me at once I must speak to him on an urgent matter.”
Lenin received us immediately and I gave him a short and sharp report on the situation in White Russia. “Even under Sultan Abdul Hamid such a scandal would not have been tolerated,” I concluded.
“This gang must be driven out,” said Lenin.
“But they are not being driven out, that is the crux of the question,” I exclaimed.
“Let me see, I will call Stalin,” Lenin replied, taking up the receiver.
Stalin appeared. His foxy face was impenetrable. As was his habit he twisted his moustache with his left hand. “Yes, they are bandits” he admitted.
“So you are informed,” I remarked.
“Why then do you permit this gang to continue” Irma cried angrily.
“Let me have your material in writing and I shall put it before the Organisation-Bureau (of the Central Committee of the Party),” Stalin replied.
“You shall have that to-day.” Irma said.
“We shall take measures immediately,” Stalin promised.
It was clear that Stalin wished to know to what extent we had succeeded, in penetrating the mysteries of Minsk.
On leaving we met Dserzhinsky. He was already informed. “Well the Central Committee could not foresee what sort of a Bureau they would elect in Minsk,” he said. “We cannot possibly know everything that is going on in the provinces.”
“What then is the use of your All-Russian Tcheka?” I asked pointedly.
“You may rely upon my supporting your demand in the Central Committee that these gentry be recalled,” Dserzhinsky said when we parted. However I had my doubts as to whether he would go against Stalin.
They were recalled. Soon we had the pleasure of seeing the whole crowd running about in Moscow. There was no question of any punishment for their crimes of course. Their further utilisation was a difficult problem for the Central Committee of the Party. An attempt to impose the honourable Miasnikian on the transport workers as their Trade Union secretary failed dismally. They had heard rumours and came to us to enquire. Then they raced to the Central Committee and protested violently. How did the Central Committee come to offer them such an individual for the position of general secretary! So long as we stayed in Moscow the Minsk crowd remained “unemployed.” But we were to see more of them.
A year later, when we returned from Siberia we found the notorious Miasnikian secretary of the Moscow Committee of the Party that was entrusted with the political supervision of the entire Moscow administration. Consequently we declined to register at the Moscow Committee or to speak at meetings on its behalf. A big clash ensued. Irma went to the Central Committee banged her fist on the table and threatened to go to all the large factories and tell the workers of Miasnikian’s misdeeds at Minsk if he were not chucked out of the Moscow Committee at once. She really went to the Bauman District, and now the matter came before the Conflict Commission at the Central Committee. There I declared: “Ring up Stalin. He knows the Minsk affair as well as I do.” It appeared, however, that Stalin when called to the telephone, could not recollect anything. I took the receiver from the secretary. “Listen, comrade Stalin,” I said, “if you believe that those documents I gave you were the originals you are greatly mistaken. Those were copies. The originals are still in my possession.” That had its effect. Stalin’s short memory was immediately revived. With a few days Miasnikian had disappeared from the Moscow Committee.
However when I went to the Polish front with the British Labour delegation in 1920, who should come to greet us at Smolensk as a high military commissar but – Miasnikian! I turned him out without much ado and informed Smilga, a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, who happened to be present of the reasons. Then Smilga would not have him either and demanded his recall. Only after we had left Russia, Miasnikian’s sun was rising. His true friend Stalin did not drop him. Miasnikian became President Council of People’s Commissars of the Armenian Soviet Republic, until he, together with the tchekist Mogilevsky, met his death in a plane crash.
Reingold, too, rose rapidly. He became a member of the Collegiate of the People’s Commissariat of Finance of the Soviet Union. He was sent to France for financial negotiations with the French Government. Subsequently in the Zinoviev trial, in which he played a very dubious part, he was sentenced to death and has supposedly been shot.
Kalmanovitch also climbed up the ladder. He became People’s Commissar for Stock Farming and a member of the Council for Labour and Defence.