During the few weeks which we spent in Moscow again we became more and more conscious as to how little we concurred with the policy of the Soviet Government in all the principle spheres of political and economic life. We were opposed to the whole tendency that is nowadays termed “War-Communism.” We had lived abroad and had participated in the Socialist and Trade Union Movement of highly developed countries. We had analysed and criticised from a Socialist point of view the economic system of those countries striving to replace the classical capitalist system by the higher Socialist System. Thus in Russia everything seemed to us primitive and antedeluvian; we laughed or were indignant when this red tarnished backwardness was presented to us as “Socialism.”
Instead of systematically nationalising and reorganising in the first place the large-scale industry, in other words instead of doing what was possible efficiently and then building further on a strong basis, they had taken over indiscriminately, without a definite system all that came handy: large, medium and even small enterprises. Small men had been deprived of their livelihood and great plans were put forward for “nationalising” everything “to the last reel of cotton” and for placing everything throughout the vast country under a centralised administration.
Tsarist Russia had left us no proper statistics. It is true, certain Semstvos had done remarkable work in providing agricultural statistics for their own provinces; also certain industries had on private initiative made a good start in collecting and working up statistical data, but the country as a whole was deficient as regards economic statistics. The transport system and the roads, post and telegraph, which had been totally inadequate before the war, were now in a chaotic state. On this precarious basis there were to be established suddenly economic “chief administrations” (“Glavki”) and “central managements” (“Centry”) that were to administer a whole industry from Moscow or to control a certain raw material throughout the country. A number of such institutions had already sprung up and ever new ones were formed – “Glavugol” (coal), “Glavneft” (oil), “Centroless” (timber), “Glavtabak” (tobacco) and many others. On paper and in the beautifully drawn diagrams all this looked very well, but in real life it led to a paralysis of economic activity. The consequences made themselves soon felt. In Siberia the flooded rivers carried away in spring the salt produced during the previous summer while the population of the neighbouring villages had not been able to obtain a pound of salt without a permit from Moscow. Meanwhile tons of fish were rotting at the sea coast while the people were starving. Later on at Baku oil was flowing in torrents into the Caspian Sea while the population were sitting in darkness unable to feed their lamps for lack of oil. I opposed this insane bureaucratisation of our economic administration wherever an opportunity offered itself. Steklov, editor of Izvestia, thereupon invited me to write critical notes for his paper that had just introduced as a new feature a column “Small Defects in the Mechanism.” “I am quite willing to criticise,” I replied, “however, not the small defects in the mechanism but the abominable mechanism as such.” Unfortunately at that time the freedom of the press no longer extended so far.
In agriculture the Revolution had brought about particularly far-reaching changes. Under Tsarism 60,000 great landlords had owned 75 million dessiatins of land; 22 per cent of the entire arable area had been in the hands of great landlords. In 1922 about 98 per cent of the arable area was in the hands of the peasantry. During the first years of the Revolution in the thirty-six European provinces of the R.S.F.S.R. alone 21.4 million dessiatins of land hitherto owned by landlords were transferred to the peasantry without compensation. The demand for a radical agrarian reform had of course been pressed by the awakening peasantry in the early days of the February Revolution, but Miliukov and Kerensky had done their utmost to pacify the peasants by high sounding words and promises. When the peasants’ patience was exhausted and they took matters in their own hands, expropriating the landlords and dividing up the land, Kerensky, following in the footsteps of the tsarist government, had sent punitive expeditions against them. Fortunately these as a rule made common cause with the peasants. In consequence of this direct action of the peasantry rationally working modern estates had been broken up along with parasitic latifundia. Thus the October-Revolution found itself faced by a fait accompli and nothing remained to be done but to sanction it by the “Decree concerning the expropriation of the large Estates” of the 26 October 1917. On the 27 January 1918 there followed the “Law concerning the Socialisation of the Land” – a compromise with the Left Social revolutionaries who were idealising the peasant smallholdings. This law also contributed towards the partitioning of the large and medium estates. This measure which was by no means in accordance with Bolshevist theory, was replaced later on, after the breaking up of the coalition with the Left Social-revolutionaries, by the “Law concerning Socialist Land Utilisation.” In the agricultural development of Soviet-Russia during the first years of the Revolution a process of levelling was to be observed. In land utilisation as well as in stock farming there was noticeable an increase of small and medium peasant estates reducing the number of dwarf-estates as well as the number of large or kulak-estates. This process lasted till 1922.
In 1918 already, a propaganda campaign had been started among the peasants for the formation of collectives. During the year 1918, 912 agricultural “communes” were established. In the following year the number of collective estates exceeded 6000. The communes – about 2000 – took the second place behind the looser form of collectives termed “arteli” numbering 3600. Besides 600 “mateships” (tovarishtchestva) sprang up – a very loose form of collectives.
In Soviet-Russia, as soon as the year of comparative liberty, 1918, had passed, propaganda meant compulsion. The frequent attempts to force the peasants into the communes that were made by many over-zealous local authorities caused considerable dissatisfaction, nay, hatred among the peasantry. The very word commune became a bugbear to frighten children with like the Bogey-Man. I personally regarded the commune as a distasteful caricature of Socialism. From a purely agricultural point of view it proved a failure; its method of production usually stood not above but below the level of the neighbouring individual peasant farms. It is true there were some remarkable exceptions but these were mostly formed not by local peasants but by enthusiastic communists immigrating into the district. Frequently in the peasant communes there would gather all sorts of shirkers, inefficient and lazy fellows. Their machines were allowed to rust, their cattle were neglected, often enough fodder had to be “requisitioned” from the neighbours so that the horses should not starve to death. The “individual peasants” would point their fingers at the “communards,” they hated and feared or they ridiculed them. “When I am resting a moment after my first hours of work,” a peasant declared at a local Soviet congress which I attended, “those in the commune are still fighting unable to decide whose turn it is to go out for field work that day.” What I feared particularly was that the peasants might confuse the idea of Communism with the practical experiences of the next local commune as this might have rather disagreeable political repercussions. Much as I favoured any kind of productive peasant co-operation, every co-operative effort of several peasant families to till the soil by collective labour – the very idea of the commune, that was not only producing collectively but also consuming collectively, was distasteful to me. The “Communism” as practised in the commune was borrowed from the religious-communist sects of the middle ages, or from some of Robert Owen’s colonies of the utopian infancy of the Socialist movement before Marx. What we modern Socialists are striving for is a well organised communism of production as an economic basis for the free development of the creative personality of the citizen enjoying equal rights and equal duties. I was therefore very happy when at the following Party Congress Lenin also deprecated the attempts of forcible collectivisation, particularly as at that period the essential prerequisites thereof was lacking: an adequate supply of tractors and agricultural machinery.
Being sceptical as to the policy of the Soviet Government in the industrial and agricultural spheres I was utterly opposed to our supply policy.
The difficulties facing our supply authorities were certainly tremendous. The spreading of the Civil War, the intervention of the capitalist powers, the blockade of our shores more and more reduced the area from which all food and fodder for our rapidly growing army as well as for the population, all raw materials for our industry, all fuel for our transport system had to be obtained. Apart from that our badly working industry did not produce sufficient commodities which might have been given to the money rejecting peasants as an equivalent for their agricultural produce. The dilapidated transport; the corruption permeating considerable sections of the officials in consequence of dire need prevailing in the towns (a corruption going so far that one Soviet authority could get supplies to which it was entitled from another Soviet authority only by making presents to some of its officials!); the inefficiency, inexperience, and low cultural level of the officials; deliberate sabotage by counter-revolutionary elements in all spheres; fear of responsibility – all this multiplied the difficulties towering in the way of a proper solution of the supply problem. The fact that the Government tried to solve this problem by bureaucratic methods instead of seeking the collaboration of the people; its belief that economic laws could be overridden by police measures and prohibitions, inevitably led to the building up of our entire supply machinery on an unsound basis. The people tried to help themselves, they hoarded and “speculated,” the poor were starving, illicit trading flourished, and prohibitions had little effect. By and by, all works and institutions saw themselves compelled to take the supply of their workers and employees into their own hands in order to keep them at work and prevent them from losing time through frequent bartering expeditions. The “payok” (ration); the payment in kind accorded by the works or institutions assumed growing importance, the monetary wage soon lost its significance. This of course was the end of a comparatively equal distribution of the available food supplies. There were works and institutions that were adequately supplied while others experienced a lack of everything, it all depended on the energy, resourcefulness, and personal contacts of the management. Fluctuation of the workers was the inevitable consequence. The difficulties of distribution grew; the barterers and hoarders became a heavy burden for the railways; many commodities perished through lack of transport. An exodus of the town population to the rural districts began.
As hitherto the peasantry with its inadequate land area and by its hard work had maintained the parasitic aristocracy keeping them in luxury and plenty, so now the peasants to whom the Revolution had restored the land of the aristocracy, had by their strenuous work to keep the entire urban population above water. And the latter was unable to supply the peasants with an equivalent in the form of industrial commodities. Throughout the countryside there was an acute lack of such commodities. There was a deficiency of everything – textiles, nails, buttons, string, axle grease, sewing cotton could not be obtained. Whole villages were suffering the itch for lack of soap. The Soviet Government had not reverted to the form of taxation by which Tsarism had been pressing the last drop of sweat and blood out of the peasantry. Instead of imposing taxes the Soviet Government would simply take over – after deductions for seeds and for the rationed consumption of the peasants themselves – the entire production of the peasants, prohibiting all private trading. Only a small portion of the payment due to the peasants could be made in commodities, and the paper money which the peasants received had the nasty peculiarity that it would melt away in the stocking like snow in front of a fire, as the result of the growing inflation. This “taking over” of agricultural production – termed “prodrazviorstka” – was carried through in such a way that the amount of agricultural produce to be supplied by every village was fixed by the supply authorities. It is easy to imagine to what extent pressure from one side was met by subterfuge on the other; how often the impossible was demanded or the reasonable refused. Driven by dire need the Government reverted to severe measures: it sent armed expeditions of starving urban workers to the borders of the towns where they would intercept the peasants who were taking their produce to the market despite the prohibition, and would confiscate the products by force of arms. Or they sent them to the railways where they would stop the barterers and hoarders by confiscating their provisions. Finally the Government sent armed detachments into the villages to nose out buried stocks of cereals and to take from the peasants by means of propaganda or armed force their hidden produce. Zinoviev, as president of the Petrograd Soviet had issued an “Open Letter to the Peasants” and hundreds of thousands of copies were now distributed by these detachments. It read:
The workers ... have decided to direct to the grain district dozens of detachments ....The enemies are whispering to you that the workers intend a hostile invasion of the villages.
This is not true ...
In every district you can find .... a small group of kulaks .... It is these whom we will fight ....
The workers of Petrograd have been receiving for a number of months only one eighth of a pound of bread per day, and this not regularly. .... The workers are dying of starvation .... Workers are not in a position to pay three hundred roubles per pood of grain.
Yet bread there is ....”
And so on in order to sweeten the bitter pill to the peasants.
However, “sugar” was of no avail here. The peasants felt that they were being robbed and they replied by a limitation of the cultivated area. Of course there can be no reliable figures for 1918 or 1919. In 1918 the cultivated area for all crops had reached a total of 91.7 million dessiatins; but in 1920 it had decreased to 77.5 million dessiatins. This decline continued another two years; only in 1923 when the Civil War was over and the effects of the “NEP,” the “New Economic Policy” became apparent, an improvement began.
Lenin believed that he could master the rapidly deteriorating situation in the countryside by setting the poor peasants against the well-to-do ones, thus developing the class struggle in the village. The “Poor Peasants’ Committees” that had been formed in many villages, were to take the lead in robbing their neighbours. In these Committees, apart from poor peasants loyal to the Soviets, all sorts of idlers and drunkards had gathered – these could be relied upon to show great zeal in plundering, but unfortunately they were less trustworthy as regards delivery of the produce seized. At all events under the auspices of the Soviet authorities and of the Communist Party these Poor Peasants’ Committees developed rapidly. They became a dominating factor in the village and showed a tendency to usurp the prerogatives of the village Soviets. To be denounced by them was rather a serious matter to a rich or middle peasant.
All these measures aroused wide-spread discontent throughout the countryside and drove large sections of the peasantry into opposition to the Soviet Government. Only the still more deeply rooted hatred against the Whites, the peasants’ fear of a restoration of landlordism and of the loss of the land won in the Revolution kept the opposition to the Soviet Government within certain limits. None the less, local risings would occur here and there, bringing in their train atrocious cruelties against supply commissars and other Soviet officials. And this smouldering discontent amongst the peasantry paved the way for the gangs of the counter-revolution and prolonged and embittered the Civil War.
In 1919 the Red Army was already composed in its majority of conscripted sons of peasants. So the mood prevailing among the peasants was reflected in the army. Mass desertions were the consequence. However, at that time the State machinery was already sufficiently organised to make it impossible for deserters to remain at home undisturbed for any length of time. Thus gangs of armed deserters sprang up termed by the people the “Green Army.” In places they were reinforced by deserters from the White armies and by discontented peasants and had the support of the rural population. Thus they grew by and by into a third warring power in addition to the “Whites” and “Reds.” Their guerrilla tactics gave to the Red Army many a hard nut to crack in the following years. When they found a capable leader such as the Anarchist Makhno in the Ukraine these “Green” peasant warriors grew into a serious danger. Warfare against them was difficult indeed. When the Red Army occupied a suspected village they would find peaceful peasants walking behind the plough. As soon as the Red detachment withdrew satisfied that all was in good order, the peaceful peasant would unharness the horse from the plough, fetch saddle and rifle from the forest, and soon a strong “Green” detachment would attack the Red Army in the rear.
We did not feel at all happy in Moscow; we did not desire to help in a responsible position in carrying through this policy. So we decided to go back into the provinces, hoping that there we should be able to do really useful work, and to prove that other methods were possible. Irma’s electoral period as a member of the Executive Committee of the Volga Germans had not yet expired, this decided us to return to Saratov. In the Central Committee of the Party they seemed not particularly pleased with our intention but they did not raise objections. We were given the papers required for travelling by rail, but when Irma received together with these a mandate “for work amongst the Volga Germans” she got angry. Tearing up that document she said to the amazed secretary of the Organisation Bureau: “I do not require your mandate, I have been elected there by the people.”
We arrived at Saratov shortly before Russian Easter. In old Russia, Easter played a much greater part than in any other country, it was a holiday almost more important than Christmas. The feast bore a merry all-reconciling character. This tradition was then still fully alive in the people, and no authority dreamt of interfering. Nevertheless we noticed a depressed mood amongst the town folk: In this centre of the richest agrarian district that was left to us, scarcity prevailed: Since our last visit the food supply of the population had greatly deteriorated. Between bureaucracy and people, governing and governed a rift had burst open – the latter were starving, the former were feasting (though only by the standards of the starving). The bureaucracy had decided upon a general holiday of four days; this meant that all distributive centres would be closed for four whole days. The people who had obtained flour, eggs, meat and butter in totally inadequate quantities, if at all, were not particularly pleased with the prospect of an Easter to be celebrated with dry black bread. Among the redarmists a similar mood prevailed. They knew that considerable quantities of fish were in danger of getting bad, yet neither they nor the people were allowed any of it; their daily cabbage soup got worse and worse. The heads of the Saratov administration hardly dared to embark on the coveted four-day holiday for fear of a possible mutiny of the Red Army. Nature was awakening. From the Volga the bursting of the ice announced itself by a noise sounding like canon shots – spring was in the air. But even the golden rays of the spring sun could not pierce the cloud of gloom hovering over the town.
I appealed to the Party asking that energetic measures be taken. On my suggestion it was decided that while all other institutions were free to take a holiday, the Supply Department and all its distributive organs should remain at work keeping longer hours than normally. Relying on my authority as an old Party member and on my readiness to take full responsibility, the Saratov Party and Soviet authorities found the courage to disregard some ridiculous stipulations of the many Moscow “Glavky” and “Centry” and to supply the people and the army from available stocks instead of allowing these to rot, their further transport not being possible. The bureaucratic machine was brought into motion, and a bit later, on May Day, unexpectedly cheerful, these measures showed their full effect, the First-of-May celebration becoming a popular holiday in the best sense.
I suggested taking the bull by its horns and calling a big meeting of redarmists. I agreed to take charge of the meeting but made it perfectly clear that I would speak with complete frankness and reveal the defects, that I would make no attempt to whitewash anything or anybody. Certain Soviet mandarins felt their hearts in their boots but they tried to hide their feelings of uneasiness for they had the confidence that I would succeed in averting the dangers arising from the discontent of the redarmists.
At the meeting the entire garrison was represented. I appealed to the redarmists as citizens of the Soviet-Republic and called upon them to co-operate in our efforts to combat all the evils arising in the process of recasting the State. My remarks that we had made a Revolution not in order that new masters should trample on our rights and that new-hatched commissars should swagger about like peacocks, called forth a storm of enthusiasm. My mocking description of certain types of administrators and of their bureaucratic methods was greatly appreciated by the redarmists; the inarticulate discontent had found an outlet; I had expressed what was in their minds and made clear what they had dimly felt. So the meeting ended amid much enthusiasm. Like a downpour after a thunderstorm my frank sincere criticism had cleared the air hitherto laden with electricity.
Following upon my success at this meeting the military authorities requested me to help them out of another difficulty. The non-commissioned officers of the tsarist army from among the peasantry of this area had been mobilised by special order. They had been concentrated at Saratov – some five thousand of them – with a view to their distribution among the various units. They were however a pretty discontented element, and it was feared they might prove unreliable and would carry the germ of their own discontent among the redarmists. Speakers who had been sent to address them had never managed to influence them. All the cares and worries of the middle-peasantry were preying on the minds of these men and made them regard their new role as defenders of the Soviet regime without any enthusiasm. Stock propaganda speeches were of no avail. It was essential to go down to bedrock and lay bare the roots of the discontent, to analyse the whole agrarian question, to discuss the various problems of peasant life without any embellishment, fearlessly to criticise the mistakes that had been made, to show new ways and outlooks and thus to win over these no longer young, experienced peasants for the Soviet regime. In a number of large meetings I tackled this problem. I applied my old method that had proved so successful with the Minsk railwaymen. I let them elect a presidium from their own ranks that took up places with a number of secretaries at three tables ready to hear complaints and wishes, to take these down without noting names, to discuss them in detail and try to find solutions. This material with the conclusions arrived at was to be handed on to the respective authorities with definite proposals. These were interesting hours, perhaps more instructive to me than even to the non-commissioned officers. All the problems of peasant life were revealed in a plastic form – land utilisation, the questions of collectivisation, Poor Peasants’ Committees, “prodrasviorstka” and supply policy, arbitrary actions of local commissars, the depressing scarcity of industrial commodities, effects of the Revolution on family life and on the relationship of parents and children – all came up for discussion. At the very beginning a middle-aged man got up and said, in his village the peasants were loyal to the Revolution and to the Bolsheviki, only those damned Communists they could not bear! This statement had the approval of the majority of the meeting, and I understood that in this manner the peasants opposed our past to our present. “The Bolsheviki have liberated us, have driven out the landlords, given us the land and have concluded peace,” it was said. “Now the Communists have come, they want to chase us into the commune, they take away our grain, are idling about in the towns so that we get neither nails nor boots, neither soap nor clothing, neither salt nor axle grease, neither matches not tobacco. Now they gather all the drunkards and idlers in the Poor Peasants’ Committees who want to command in the village, and some commissars are more overbearing and devoid of understanding than the ‘uriadniks’ and ‘pristavs’ (local police officials) of the old regime.” Many peasants just would not believe that the Communists oppressing them to-day were the same Bolsheviki “who had given them land and peace.” A number of important individual cases were taken down, the more general complaints and wishes were classified and formulated to the satisfaction of the meeting insofar as they seemed justified – mere nagging, impossible demands and unrealisable wishes I rejected. At the end of this series of meetings or rather of this many times adjourned meeting that seemed almost like a peasant congress I delivered an address on the aims and objects of the Revolution. I explained that mistakes and excesses were in such times unavoidable but that it was imperative to combat and eliminate these. These meetings helped the non-commissioned officers from the peasantry to gain an idea of the situation and to distinguish between the great objects of the Revolution and occasional mistakes or wrong roads chosen. Finally it was my task to pass on the extremely interesting material and to quarrel with every authority in the province in order to have local wrongs put right.
The preparations for May Day were now in full Swing. One evening on returning home I found Irma knitting her brows and chewing her pen. She told me the district Party committee of the Volga Germans had given her the task of writing a one act play suitable for the May Day celebrations. The play which was to be popular enough for the peasants, and to need as little scenery as possible, was to be written within three days. So she wrote “Mai-Opfer.” The committee to which it was delivered within the time limit duplicated it and sent it round. On May Day it was performed successfully in over a hundred villages.
At Saratov on May Day the whole town was in a festive mood. The children from the kindergartens came out with little red paper flags. Led by their teachers the schools marched out. In a large procession with music and floating banners followed the workers, employees of the Soviet institutions, redarmists. We marched out in bright sunshine on to the hills surrounding the town whence the Volga, now in its spring flood, appeared like a vast silver mirror. On the slopes all settled down; short speeches were made, songs filled the air. The supply authorities showed themselves at their best. Milk and sweets were handed round amongst the children who were thoroughly enjoying themselves, there was plenty for all. At midday field kitchens were brought up and showed that they had their uses in peace time. It was the largest picnic, the most pleasant feat and rally that I have experienced in revolutionary Russia. A festive atmosphere, a last breath of liberty, equality, fraternity inspired the whole gathering. There was no sign of regimentation, no sign of the militaristic parade mania that in later years in Soviet Russia was to transform the May Day celebration – this day of hopeful internationalism – into a patriotic holiday under the whip of hated commissars.
At Rovno in the Autonomous Area of the Volga Germans a Soviet-Congress was held which we attended. We were pleased to find that there was much less discontent amongst the German peasants than amongst their Russian neighbours. Of course there were no Poor Peasants’ Committees here, and the administrative machinery that had been built up by our friends was working more smoothly. The peasants were given more freedom in the management of their own village affairs, and there was less arbitrariness. An observant eye could easily detect that here experienced German Social Democrats were at work not new-hatched Russian Communists. Of course here too the peaceful citizen was not immune from arbitrary interference; against misuse of power by higher commissars “from the centre” that would appear in the district like comets, the local administration was powerless. At Rovno we were to come across such a case. A Lett by the name of Berg had pitched his tent here who, according to his own assertions, was an important commissar, at all events he had close relations to the Moscow Tcheka. This fellow was definitely a sadist. He terrorised the people as well as the local administration, he would hunt domestic ducks, interfere even in the family life of the peasants and generally make all sorts of mischief. In a word he was a plague to the district; all were moaning but no one dared to oppose him. When Irma and I learned about his facts we acted at once. We declared that the type of mischief he was indulging in was proof that poor Berg was suffering from mental disease, he should be sent at once to Moscow to be seen by a specialist. So we sent a nurse with him and a military escort thus liberating the people from this dangerous miniature tyrant. The Moscow Tcheka had to swallow it – they did not venture on a conflict with us in such a matter.
The Executive-Committee of the Volga Germans, of which I was now also a member, decided to transfer its headquarters from Saratov to Marxstadt. The accommodation of the institutions and the sudden influx of officials was a difficult problem for the small town. Taught by experiences we proposed to appoint a housing committee with strict instructions to prevent irregular actions of commissars and to assure a proper distribution of the available dwelling space.
The necessity of such a measure became soon apparent. When we moved, every Soviet institution had offices allocated to them, every official was given a dwelling room. The arrangements seemed quite satisfactory. The inhabitants were not particularly happy to have to let every spare room at a fixed price, but they accepted the ruling of the housing committee. The measures taken seemed justified by circumstances and reasonable, there were no privileges for the higher officials. Of course there were some commissars who were not satisfied with the arrangements and thought they could choose better accommodation for themselves though that might involve the turning out of a few citizens from their houses. A nasty case was reported to the Executive Committee. The head of a department who, as a bachelor had been given a small room, went to seek for himself a more “adequate” dwelling; he called at the housing committee and demanded an order for the eviction of a local family and the handing over of their flat to him. When the committee declined, he drew his revolver and threatened. The housing committee telephoned to the Executive Committee and we ordered the commissar’s immediate arrest and prosecution in the Court. On behalf of the Executive Committee I appeared in court in the role of prosecutor and made a strong speech against arbitrary actions and misuse of power by commissars. I emphasized the necessity to protect the rights of the citizens. Acting on my plea the Court sentenced the accused conditionally to two years imprisonment, binding him over for that period. This case was a sensation for the whole area. The consequent dismissal of the commissar and his expulsion from the Party had the effect that the peasants in our area regarded the area committee of the Communist Party as a rampart against misuse of power by individual commissars. It would happen that peasants, coming up against overbearing behaviour or arbitrariness of commissars, would threaten to complain to the Party for, the peasants would say, they knew that the Party would not condone such behaviour of its members.
On my proposal the Area Committee of the Party decided that the Tcheka must regard as its prime duty the protection of the citizens against arbitrariness, and the safeguarding of the right of the people. To this end the Tcheka must keep strict order in its own house and make sure of the integrity of every one of its officials. This of course was easier said than done. Soon there appeared from Moscow an official of the All-Russian Tcheka “commanded to participate in the work of the Tcheka at Marxstadt.” He tried to introduce here the methods that had become customary in his central institution. Young Schuetz, head of the Tcheka for the Autonomous Area of the Volga Germans, an honest young Communist, reported on this to the Executive Committee. “You act on the decisions of the Party,” I said to him at that meeting with general approval, “and look with a magnifying glass through that fellow from the centre and through all others who may yet be sent by the All-Russian Tcheka. Do not permit any irregularities, for that you are responsible to the Party. If you have proof of arbitrary actions or corruption on his part, arrest him without much ado and send him back to the All-Russian Tcheka on the responsibility of the Area-Committee of the Party. You keep your Tcheka clean, at all costs.” Proof of unlawful actions of this pleasant collaborator was soon at hand; Schuetz acted resolutely, a search revealed the tchekist to have in his possession diamonds and ingot gold the source of which was shrouded in darkness. The Executive Committee thereupon decided to “deport” this official of the All-Russian Tcheka from the territory of the Autonomous Area of the Volga Germans, and he was sent back to Moscow.
Our economic departments had received from the central authorities all sorts of industrial commodities for the whole area valued at several million roubles at fixed prices. However, in spite of repeated requests they were unable to obtain instructions as to the modus of distribution and the retail price that was to be paid by the peasants. Consequently the goods remained in the warehouses while the people were waiting in vain. Of course commissars would get again and again by special order whatever they required. I demanded that the affair be regulated at last. The economic departments had misgivings.
“How can we distribute the goods if we don’t know the prices?” they replied to me.
“That is simple enough,” I said. “The fixed prices are hardly one hundredth part of the prices in the open market if such commodities are to be had at all. The peasants will be only too glad to pay the fixed prices whatever they may be. Let them have the commodities meanwhile against a paper; the money is really not of such importance. The peasants have completely fulfilled their obligations delivering cereals and other agricultural produce; they have therefore a right to those goods.”
While we were still discussing this matter the Vice People’s Commissar of Supply, Frumkin came to our area. As soon as he had learned about the existence of these goods, he ordered that they be used for obtaining additional grain from the rich peasants. That was too much for me I succeeded in getting carried at the Executive Committee a resolution condemning Frumkin’s order as an attempt at cheating the poor for the benefit of the rich. Frumikin’s demand was refused and a strong protest was sent to the Council of People’s Commissars and the Central Committee of the Party. That was effective. Frumkin, who had never dreamt of getting such a rebuke in the provinces but who feared my sharp teeth, retreated at once. He declared his order was not an order but merely a suggestion, and he became very tame. But now at last I had gained my point in the Executive Committee. It was decided to appoint a central distribution committee and local distribution committees in each district. These committees were instructed to take care that the distribution be just and impartial, and that higher commissars be excluded from the distribution. When silk material was offered to the peasant women the eyes of the young girls shone, but they enquired anxiously what the price was. On being assured that the price would be far below the price of cotton on the open market they gladly took it. This distribution of commodities aroused great satisfaction among the peasants – “that indeed is justice” they would say. When I came to a village and made a cigarette out of my “makhorka” (inferior tobacco) the peasants fetched good cigarettes which they had received in the distribution. “Well you see, that is not fair either if you did not get anything yourself” they remarked.
Immediately on our return Irma had been appointed head of the Education Department of the Autonomous Area of the Volga-Germans, A wide field of activity was opened to her absorbing most of her time. In all villages kindergartens were being established for children under eight years of age; kindergarten teachers were being intensively trained in special courses. Schools developed rapidly. In many villages the primary schools embraced hundred per cent of the children between eight and eleven. In the secondary schools for children between twelve and sixteen the number of pupils was constantly increasing. Even in far-off hamlets the Education Department managed to arrange at least a one-class school for all ages. School workshops were being introduced wherever possible; the idea of the “work-school” had taken root in the minds of the teachers and began to assume practical forms. In the villages a cultural awakening began. The teachers grew out of the limits of their school rooms and gradually became cultural pioneers in their villages. Under their guidance the peasant youth formed dramatic circles and singing choirs; every village got its club where, apart from meetings, theatrical performances and musical entertainments, lectures, recitals and evening classes were being held. Sport, too, hitherto unknown even in name, was fostered. Scenery painters, music instructors were travelling from village to village. In the three district-towns courses for adults with artistic inclinations were opened in order to train choir-leaders, orchestra-leaders, and travelling instructors for dramatic circles, if such could not be obtained from outside particularly from the ranks of the ex-prisoners of war. Libraries were also established whenever possible. Out of all the German books taken over in Moscow by the government during the nationalisation of the bookshops one third had been allocated to the Volga Germans – one third by weight: These were now sorted out and after eliminating trash and religious tracts were divided up amongst the new libraries. Children’s books were collected in special children’s libraries – but alas, it soon appeared that many adults, particularly the young conscripts in the Red Army had a craze for reading children’s books – Grimm and Anderson, Karl May and Kipling!
In spite of manifold and strenuous work we nevertheless found in these rural surroundings time and possibilities for recreation. As soon as the morning sun awakened us we would rush down the few yards to the Volga to be refreshed by a swim. Our midday meal we took with a pleasant Marxstadt family. This compelled us to take meals at regular hours; I think this was the only period during the years of the Revolution that we had something in the nature of regular meals. Among the diners at this house there was a late protestant parson who had thrown his religion overboard and had become a teacher. He was an interesting personality of wide literary and philosophic reading and a good observer. Irma once asked him whether the piety of the protestant German peasants was more of an external nature or based on definite religious beliefs. He replied: “Our peasants are firmly convinced that what the parson believes is correct.”
When we felt tired and overworked and desired a little relaxation we would go out to one of the orchards outside Marxstadt and enjoy the sunshine while the owner of the orchard would pick a few pounds of whatever fruit he had for sale. Sometimes we would go together with the other members of the Executive Committee and the party-secretary Klausch for an outing in several carts to a nearby sanatorium to drink “kumiss” (fermented horse milk) and rest a few hours in the green. On such an occasion Klausch and I happened to be in the hindmost cart when returning. The other carts were far in advance; at a crossroad it seemed to us that we had missed our way. Dusk was upon us, we thought we ought to turn to the right but the horse was decidedly of a different opinion. He stopped and would not move. When I threatened him with the whip he took it as an insult, bucked and kicked at the cart so that we almost fell off it. After several thwarted attempts to coax or coerce the obstinate creature to change his mind, we had to give in, curious of where the horse would go. He promptly took the left turning and on we went at a brisk trot. Late at night we passed through a village; it appeared the horse was really going to Marxstadt though on a very roundabout way to which he had been accustomed when with a former owner. At four in the morning we arrived at Marxstadt. In front of my door a figure rose from a wayside bench who had slept there – it was Irma who could not get into the house as I had the key.
At the next mobilisation of horses the Party, to general regret, had to part with our capricious trotter who in spite of his rebellious character was very popular. About two weeks later the party-secretary Klausch was aroused in the middle of the night by an echoing knocking at the gate. He hurried out revolver in hand and opened the gate – our rebel stormed past him into the yard and established himself in his old place in the stables. He seemed hungry and tired out; since his “desertion” he must have run a considerable distance. He was now renamed “deserter” but the military authorities did not get him back: in this single case the Party recognised the right of conscientious objections to military service.
At that time at Marxstadt no privileges were allowed. Foodstuffs and industrial commodities were properly distributed. The peasants were comparatively well of; there was an inadequate supply of commodities but at least nobody went without food. It is true, these German peasants bitterly complained about the absence of coffee; it had to be replaced by all sorts of substitutes, by roasted barley, lime-blossom or liquorice tea, roasted water melon peels or by an extract made of ground bread crusts burned black in the oven before grinding. This extract we named “coffee” if we had enough of it to make it really black. If it was scarce and had therefore only a light brown colour we would call it “tea.” A difficult problem was the supply of leather, particularly of heavy sole leather. The market price of old boots was decided almost exclusively in accordance with the state of their soles. Our Economic Department managed to establish a tanners’ workshop, but we looked with anxiety to the coming winter as regards the supply of boots. The Executive Committee wished to reserve the available leather as far as possible for the growing children and issued an appeal to the people, requesting all to go barefoot in summer so as to save their boots for the cold season. The members of the Executive Committee had to start the “new fashion,” so on the following morning we all appeared barefoot in our offices hopping through the hot sand like storks. The office personnel followed suite and though the inhabitants were greatly amused at first by the involuntary gambols of their barefooted government they greatly appreciated this in view of our motives.
Every peasant is always imbued with the desire of acquiring more land. Though the Russian villages adjoining the German area were by no means worse off as regards land than their German neighbours, they would occasionally try to annex a couple of fields from the German peasants “who are real bourgeois all the same.” Peasants from a Russian village appeared at seed time, occupied a few German fields and ploughed them. Afterwards a long correspondence would arise between the Agricultural Departments of the German area and the neighbouring province, agreement might not be reached while sowing was yet practicable and might would thus have triumphed over right. A direct local arrangement was generally the better, always the quicker way to a satisfactory settlement. In such a case I would travel to the Russian village, ask the Soviet to call a meeting of the peasants, listen to their arguments and arrange a joint meeting with their German neighbours. It was generally an easy matter by appealing to the peasants’ sense of justice to find a satisfactory solution. On such occasions I noticed that the initiative to such land robbery never came from the poor peasants. It was the kulaks who had many horses that were responsible for such “imperialist” designs as they wished to utilise the working capacity of their horses to the fullest extent.
The Autonomous Area of the Volga Germans enjoyed a good reputation in the adjoining Russian villages by virtue of its just administration and comparative freedom from arbitrary interference. So it happened time and again that a Russian village would send a deputation requesting to be accepted in or rather annexed to the Autonomous Area. The friendly but definite refusal of such requests always caused much regret to those concerned.
In our Area we had, as an experiment, formed an “Economic Council,” an organ combining all economic authorities: the Departments for Agriculture, Industry and Supply, and co-ordinating their activities by regular inter-departmental meetings. I was chairman of this council and could therefore render assistance in all economic problems and protect the economic life of the area against arbitrary interference or demands by our bureaucratic central authorities. Every agricultural district had to deliver to the central government apart from grain all sorts of stock farming and dairy produce – livestock, birds, eggs, butter etc. At Saratov a commissar with wide special powers, I think from the Council of Labour and Defence, with a mandate signed by Lenin himself had arrived already early in summer. This commissar demanded of our Autonomous Area the delivery of pigs of a total weight of tens of thousands of poods – 47,000 poods if I remember rightly. Frightened out of his wits by the threats of the all-powerful commissar, the chief of our Supply Department had promised him the moon. When the matter came up at our Economic Council it naturally called forth loud protests from our Agricultural Department. The chief of this department pointed out that at this time of the year the pigs were not yet in a fattened condition, each one would give only little weight; early delivery meant an enormous increase in the number of animals required; the stock breeding industry of the district would be ruined. “It seems, the laurels of the commissar of Uralsk do not let this dear fellow sleep,” I said indignantly. “At Uralsk they have taken live stock from the peasants without having fodder prepared; then the transport arrangements proved inadequate, the livestock perished, the government had no meat and the peasants had lost their domestic animals. The consequence was a peasant rising.” On my proposal it was decided to decline delivery at this time of the year. But now everyone was afraid to face the omnipotent commissar with this negative decision. Finally agreement was reached that all three departmental chiefs should go together to Saratov to negotiate with the commissar. As they all feared to be arrested I went with them to protect them if needs be. I was curious to see how the commissar would behave.
We found the All-mighty in a well-furnished office that had been placed at his disposal by the Saratov authorities. A well groomed gentleman of medium height, clean shaven like an Englishman, his hair combed back smoothly, his bulging belly hidden under a well tailored suit, he reminded of a governor-general of the old regime and he seemed to feel himself as such. As we had arranged, the three departmental chiefs followed his polite invitation to be seated near his writing desk while I sat down modestly in the back part of the room where he paid no further attention to me.
“Well,” he asked his three visitors in a friendly manner, “when will delivery take place?” Our three representatives fidgeted like eels. They did not venture to burst out at once with the refusal, they started off with explanations as to the difficulties of the situation.
“What do I care about your economic problems,” the commissar cried as soon as he perceived that a refusal was intended, “I demand meat! If you decline to give it I shall have you all three arrested.”
“And if we were really to give you the pigs while you have no fodder for them,” I chimed in, “the pigs might eat you.”
He spun round, amazed by the unexpected interjection.
“So, our economic problems are of no concern to you?” I pursued. “Do you perhaps wish to repeat here the Uralsk affair? I must say, your behaviour is nothing short of counter-revolutionary.”
He jumped up. “What do you want?” he shouted in a rage, “leave the room at once.”
“No my dear,” I replied coldly, “I'm afraid you have come to the wrong address.”
He rang the bell. Picking up his pen and a piece of paper to write out an order he asked his visitors what my name was. “Comrade Petroff?” he repeated as if struck by a thunderbolt. He hurried over to me, grabbed my hand, apologised profusely excusing himself with his overought nerves. He said, he was about to write to me requesting to use my influence at Saratov to further his mission. Lenin himself had drawn his attention to my presence there. And now he had failed to recognise me taking me for a local official, this explained his unpardonable behaviour.
“And towards a local official you consider such behaviour permissable,” I replied sharply.
He embraced me, kissed me and asked my forgiveness. “Since comrade Petroff is now in your area,” he said turning to the three departmental chiefs, “all further negotiations are unnecessary. I leave it to him to fix the date of delivery.”
Thus not only were the chiefs of our economic departments saved but the pigs as well. All Saratov and Marxstadt were laughing about this kissing affair that became known in Soviet circles. Later on I had the pleasure of meeting the dear commissar again, first at Ufa where he was in a similar mission, and afterwards in Berlin where he came on business as head of the cereals department of the State Bank.
A nasty problem throughout the more fertile agrarian districts was the insuppressible home-production of vodka by the peasants. Soviet Russia was “dry” at that time, but the peasants found a way out, producing vodka for their own requirements. All measures adopted against this evil proved futile; threats and punishments were of no avail. Everywhere the vodka-makers filled the prisons. At a sitting of the Executive-Committee the chief of the Department of Justice moved that a certain sum be assigned for building a new prison as the old existing prison was full to overflowing. I was indignant. “What,” I exclaimed, “were there not sufficient prisons in Russia? Did we require a Revolution to build new prisons?” I moved that a committee of three be appointed forthwith to investigate and empty out the prisons and that this committee be given full powers to order the immediate release of any prisoner. I was elected chairman of this committee and we set to work that very day. We went to the prison, called all the prisoners before us one by one, questioned them and made the head of the Tcheka produce his charges. Thereupon we sent the prisoners home whenever possible. Only in really serious cases we refrained from ordering immediate release, but we insisted that these cases should be brought to Court without further delay, making it incumbent upon the Tcheka to present a report to the committee within a fixed time. It appeared that we had laid bare a stinking swamp.
“Why are you here?” I asked one of the prisoners.
“Because I declined to deliver grain above my quota,” was the reply.
“And how long are you in prison?”
“Who is meanwhile doing the work at home?”
“My wife and my 13 year old boy.”
“What is your charge against this citizen?” I asked the chief of the Tcheka.
“The Supply Department complained to us that he was agitating in his village against delivery of additional grain.”
“Is this perhaps sufficient reason to keep a man in prison for two months without any further investigation?” I said. “Have you more such cases?”
The tchekist replied in the affirmative.
I turned to the prisoner. “You have been wrongfully imprisoned,”
I said, “I am sorry. Go home, I hope you will yet be able to catch up with your work.”
When we had finished with it, the prison was almost empty. Vodka-makers, grain delivery dodgers, and harmless people who had sometime uttered a word of criticism, or who had the misfortune to have been well-to-do and to be suspect of “counter-revolutionary” notions, had all been released. In many cases the tcheka tried to raise objections, but if they could not produce definite proof of actual crimes we did not heed them.
The whole affair had made me very sceptical. “There we were, believing in our area existed something akin to order and democratic liberty,” I said to Irma in the evening. “Now this proposal in the Executive Committee has accidentally revealed such a swamp. Decent peasants have been kept in prison for two or three months, nobody knows why: I am afraid many other things are happening here of which we have no idea.”
When harvest time came, mass desertions from the Red Army commenced. The harvest of the year 1919 in the Volga region was an exceptionally good one. A hundred to hundred and fifty poods of wheat per dessiatina were being harvested in a district where forty to sixty poods would be considered satisfactory. The waving corn fields aroused mighty instincts in the peasant boys serving in the Red Army drawing them home like a magnet. They fretted, fearing that those at home might prove unequal to the task of bringing in the rich crops. To the “normal” problem of the individual deserter was added the new mass-problem of the “harvest deserter.” The military authorities did not realise the nature of this phenomenon; they reverted to severe measures up to shootings. Village Soviets and Poor Peasants’ Committees were made personally responsible for the presence of deserters in their villages. Consequently hundreds of such harvest-deserters were captured and handed over to the military authorities. At Marxstadt already early in the harvest some three hundred deserters had been brought in. Our local military authorities well aware that I would never permit excessive severity still less mass shootings, communicated with me eager to back out of responsibility. On entering the grounds of the military commissariat I found three hundred deserters lined up under heavy guard awaiting a decision of their fate. I looked through the reports and grasped the situation.
“These are peasants,” I said, “who are worried as to what will become of their harvest at home. Any punishment would be wrong. I propose to release them and let them go back to their barracks.”
“But what of our instructions?” the military commissar asked anxiously. “The order is that all deserters be severely punished. In many places deserters are being shot. And you wish simply to release them! Should they run off again Trotsky will get hold of us.”
“To hell with your silly instructions,” I cried. “Don’t you see that we have here quite a different problem to deal with? That these men never intended to dodge military service? They were simply beset with the idea of gathering in their harvest. I are utterly opposed to any punishment being inflicted upon them.”
“Are you willing to accept the responsibility?” asked the commanding officer.
“With great pleasure, Write out the order, I shall sign it.”
Happy to be rid of such responsibility the commissar handed me the paper. I signed and we went together out into the yard. The deserters stood up in formation and I addressed them. I informed them that, although they had committed a serious offence and had laid themselves open to severe punishment, we had decided to liberate them, confident that they would at once return voluntarily to their units. “Will you promise me that?” I asked. Their faces lit up and they eagerly responded. “You are anxious about your harvest,” I said, “I fully understand that. But we shall in the Executive Committee take measures to provide for the gathering in of your harvest. They expressed their feeling of relief in loud cheers. The guards were withdrawn and the deserters, free men again, started off for their various barracks chattering gaily.
Our Executive Committee issued an order imposing on every village Soviet the responsibility for taking measures for the harvesting of the fields of families of men serving in the Red Army. In case of non-compliance by a Soviet these families were to be entitled to receive the average yield for whatever land they had tilled out of the harvest of the village as a whole. The Marxstadt regiment was permitted to send delegates to the various districts to ascertain that the order had been carried through. This put a stop to all desertions in our district. But I shudder when I think how differently this same problem has been dealt with in other parts of the country.
The next Soviet Congress for the Autonomous Area of the Volga Germans met at Marxstadt. It really was a freely elected Congress; the delegates – mostly non-party peasants with a sprinkling of village teachers – were men and women who had the confidence of the people whom they represented. I opened the Congress with a short address in which I said: “Before you there stands now the Executive Committee which you have elected at the last Congress. It is for you to judge its work, to criticise its mistakes, to decide whom you wish and whom you do not wish to re-elect.” The Congress sat four days. Every head of a department gave a detailed report on the work of his department which was followed by a discussion in which nobody was afraid to speak his mind. Committees were appointed to consider various problems in detail and report to the Congress. To the Agrarian Committee upon which every district desired to be represented I was elected as the only non-peasant. Here every aspect of the agrarian question had to be considered both from a theoretical and practical point of view. Generally a spirit of confident cooperation animated the Congress; neither petty grumbling nor timid reserve hampered its work. During the debate on the agrarian question a peasant delegate expressed his gratitude to the Executive Committee for the compulsion exercised the previous autumn for autumn ploughing and for cultivating hundred per cent of the land. “Admittedly we were very angry with you at the time,” he said, “but now that we have this wonderful harvest we say to you: thank you.”
At the re-election of the Executive Committee we, i.e. the Area Committee of the Party, put forward a list of candidates which was carefully prepared as every candidate, if elected, had to be capable of taking charge of a department. The peasants picked out the most popular of our candidates adding the names of peasant delegates from their districts; finally there were seven lists. Every candidate was discussed in his absence. When Irma’s turn came to leave the hall, the peasants shouted: “She can stay, we'll elect her unanimously anyway.” Our names appeared on all seven lists, but we declared we would stand only on the Party list. However, the vote was not taken by lists but for each candidate separately – one of the candidates put up by the Party was almost unanimously rejected by the peasants. Amongst these elected was the technical engineer Schaufler of Marxstadt who distinguished himself during the Civil War by bravery and organising abilities as a military commissar, and the engineer Dotz who later on was to play an important part in the administration of the Russian oil industry. Further there were several teachers, one of whom was sent later to the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities in Moscow where he made a career as a loyal servant of Stalin. This peasant congress freely electing its Area Executive Committee was then already a rare phenomenon in Russia. Elsewhere the system of “electing unanimously” the entire list of candidates proposed by the Communist Party was already firmly established. The congresses, up to the All-Russian Soviet Congress, had sunk to the level of propaganda meetings.
In our Area there were a number of small textile factories most of which were working. Now the Supreme Economic Council in Moscow had decided to combine the textile industry of the whole country into groups of factories, termed “koosty.” On paper the schematic grouping of factories supplementing each other looked very attractive. However, in working out the scheme the manifold local conditions had not been taken into consideration. As usual, castles had been built in the air. An attempt to put this scheme into operation would have meant for our area the closing down of all our small factories and the transfer of their raw materials to a large factory somewhere in the Volga region that was standing idle for lack of fuel. The late owner of that factory was sitting on the staff of the Supreme Economic Council, he had learned very well to repeat Communist slogans and he was now in this way making his preparations for “the imminent victory of the Whites.” Of course we opposed the plan and declined to carry through the scheme. Meanwhile the President of the Supreme Economic Council, Rykov came down the Volga in a luxurious steamer at the head of a large commission. The whole Executive Committee went on board for a conference. There was quite a duel over the textile question between Rykov and me; I criticised his whole scheme out of existence.
“Well, finally the question will have to be formulated in this way,” Rykov exclaimed after a heated controversy, “either the Government must arrest me and carry through your ideas, or they must arrest you and carry through my scheme.”
“Better let them arrest you,” I replied laughing, “you will be amazed how our industry will revive.”
In the ensuing general merriment we reached a compromise: our small factories remained intact.
Then the much more urgent question of grain delivery came up for consideration. Rykov was entrusted with the task of getting grain out of the Volga region by hook or by crook. He had hit upon the plan of taking hostages from the peasants in order to attain this object.
“Such methods will take you nowhere,” I said indignantly. “Look here: large parts of the rich province of Samara have supplied only five per cent of their grain quota. Our area has given hundred per cent. The reason is, that the peasants have confidence in us. Let us see what you will get in Samara even if you resurrect the whole of the middle-ages. We shall not stoop to such methods. But give us a motor car so that we can get about without using peasant horses. If you will transfer the required sums in time we shall go and request our peasants to give us grain for the starving towns – we shall soon see who will get more, you or we.”
Well, with all exertions, pressure, hostages and shootings Rykov and his commission succeeded in getting a mere thirty thousand poods of grain from the large Samara province. Meanwhile our motor car was bumping through our much smaller area. We explained the position to the peasants. “This hunger must be allayed,” our peasants would say full of sympathy, and hundreds of carts were carrying wheat down to the shores of the Volga – within a short time we could place at the disposal of the People’s Comnissariat of Supply two hundred thousand poods of grain on account of the new harvest.
At a large mill considerable stocks of the previous year’s grain had accumulated causing congestion. Working to capacity that mill would have required months to turn this grain into flour. The peasants willingly agreed to our request to loan from them wheat to be sent as a present to the children of Moscow. This consignment amounting to sixty-three thousand poods was to be sent directly to Moscow organisations; I went to Saratov to get a barge and arrange for its tugging. At Saratov I met the spiteful little Krilenko who later on, as chief public prosecutor of the Soviet Union, developed into one of the most feared bloodhounds of the Stalin regime. With him was Zhukov, the representative of the all-Russian Tcheka. I requested the latter to provide a guard for our barge so that it should not be plundered during the transport. Zhukov readily agreed – later on I heard that these two Soviet dignitaries rushed at once to wire to Moscow that they had “found” sixty-three thousand poods of wheat which they were sending. That is how people made good careers in Russia. However, not a single Moscow child profited by this grain present of our loyal German peasants. As I was to establish much later to my great disgust, the All-Russian Tcheka had kept for their own purposes the whole of this consignment of wheat entrusted to their protection.
Our small Marxstadt factory of agricultural machinery had by and by produced three thousand threshing machines. According to orders these machines were to be distributed throughout several provinces on the Volga. However, in spite of repeated requests our economic organs could not move the central authorities to take over and distribute these machines. The shed was full to overflowing, part of the machines were standing in the open air exposed to the weather and to the envious looks of the peasants, an asset to counter-revolutionary propaganda. Denikin’s hosts were advancing, the front moved nearer. A small part of our district, Goly-Karamysh, on the Saratov side of the Volga, fell under White occupation. There was a danger that these machines night ultimately fall into the hands of the Whites. At the next meeting of the Economic Council I proposed to inform Moscow in so many words that unless the machines were taken over and removed within a given time we would simply distribute the lot amongst our own villages. This had its effect – the People’s Commissariat of Supply sent a representative to settle the matter. This commissar seemed to enjoy our wheaten bread, he was in no hurry. After the lapse of a few days I called him and enquired how he was getting on with his job.
“I got no definite instructions,” he said, “and I have to get into communication with Moscow and the interested provinces. That may take some considerable tine. Apart from that there are transport difficulties.”
“The transport on the Volga I can easily arrange for you,” I said, “when will the first consignment be ready for dispatch?”
“That won’t be so soon,” he replied, “I will have to await the answer to my report before I can get any further.”
“That’s not the way we work here,” I said sternly, “I give you a week, not a day longer.”
He trotted off, but at our Supply Department he remarked mockingly: “What comrade Petroff imagines! A week months may pass before we take over these machines.”
That was reported to me and I telephoned to the Department of Justice: “Should this fellow go on sabotaging and not show any progress when the week is over, take proceedings for sabotage against him in court.”
That of course was communicated to him too – before the week was over he beat a hurried retreat to Moscow. Now we simply gave away these machines to the peasants who were bringing up grain for their respective villages without asking any payment. In Moscow they had such a bad conscience that the People’s Commissariat for Supply did not venture even to protest.
The front was drawing nearer and nearer. Our military authorities had to increase their vigilance. Our Marxstadt regiment had departed for the front; we had left only a battery of light artillery and a small detachment of cavalry. One night the military commissar fetched the members of the Executive Committee out of their beds.
“Something untoward must have happened at the front,” he said, “I am afraid the Whites have broken through our lines. Downstream the telegraph seems to be cut, the telephone as well, we cannot establish any contact either way with the next military post.”
“While you send cavalry patrols to reconnoitre we had better mobilise the Communists for all eventualities,” I suggested. “If things are really bad we can arm those Marxstadt citizens who in summer passed through a course of military training and all others who are both reliable and capable of bearing arms.”
Since a local group of the Communist Party was also a military unit “for special purposes,” they were easily mobilised. Here, so near to the front, we had taken the precaution of forming groups of ten: each leader of such a group knew exactly where his nine men were sleeping and could arouse them in a trice. Without frightening the population by alarm signals we had the Communists mobilised and under arms within half an hour. The staff of the garrison and what troops there were also gathered and there we were awaiting reports from our patrols and scouts. After a while these began to trickle in. It appeared that a small detachment of enemy cavalry had penetrated deep into the rear of our positions. They had cut a number of telegraph and telephone wires but had now been liquidated by our redarmists. Thus our night alarm, though not unfounded, had become unnecessary. Before the inhabitants arose we were all peacefully back in our beds.
About that time I received a communication from the Central Committee of the Party calling upon me to join Molotov on board the well-equipped propaganda steamer Red Star that – sailing from Nizhni-Novgorod – was to proceed throughout the Volga and Kama regions. One day in Moscow in a talk with Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife) I had, as a dream for a far-off peaceful future, drawn a picture of such a Volga steamer that, equipped with library and cinema was to glide down the Volga on a cultural mission. This dream had now taken shape at a rather inopportune time – perhaps Krupskaya had remembered this talk, perhaps the opportunity was to be used to get me away from the “unimportant” work in the small Marxstadt, anyhow I was called upon to participate in this pleasant propaganda tour. From the green table in Moscow all that might have appeared very attractive, here in a front district it seemed revolting. These feelings of mine I expressed to Kalinin who touched Marxstadt on a propaganda tour.
“Please tell Stassova” (then secretary of the Central Committee of the Party) that I have put her telegram where it belongs – into the waste paper basket,” I said. “This is not a time for joy rides.”
Kalinin smiled. “Well, in Moscow they do not quite appreciate how things are out here,” he replied. “I think you are quite right.”
On the following day I got a more important telegram, this time from Saratov: “Situation extremely critical. Evacuation perhaps necessary. Come at once.” In a small steamer I hurried to Saratov accompanied by Irma. Night was upon us before we reached Saratov. A considerable part of the Volga fleet had been concentrated near that town; the river had not been adequately dredged during the last two seasons, thus the navigation channel had become rather narrow. Our captain was unfamiliar with that part of the river, suddenly we grounded on a sand bank. We called out to a passing steamer which took us over in mid-stream like a couple of post bags. Thus we reached Saratov.
We found the Saratov administration in a turmoil. Ever more alarming news came from the front. It was said that our army, totally demoralised, had been routed and was in disorderly retreat. The Soviet authorities seemed to have lost their heads; they had carried a resolution to evacuate the Communists.
“Evacuate the Communists?” I asked in amazement, “I should think Communists ought to fight and not be the first to run away. If Saratov falls into the clutches of the Whites it would suffice for them to sink a single ship near the sand bank where we got stranded to-day and the whole of our Volga fleet sits in a mouse-trap. It seems to me what is required is to mobilise immediately all who can carry a rifle and organise the defence. Of course, Saratov is to be defended not here but downstream, somewhere near the present front line, it is there that reinforcements are urgently needed. The most vital task is to take proper measures for the supply of the Red Army.”
The Party organisation adopted my proposals. Irma and I declared that we would go straightaway to the front to see what was to be done. The front line was at the moment near our Volga-German district town Goly-Karamysh. There the harvest was in full swing and anxiety for the fate of the wheat in this rich granary was at the back of our minds.
A member of the war council for this front sector with whom we discussed our intended journey to the front, Shook his head.
“We certainly advice you not to attempt it,” he said, “it is too dangerous. Better wait a few days until the situation is cleared up. Down there gangs of marauding soldiers ravage.”
“If that is so, we must go without delay to protect our peasants,” Irma declared.
“As you like.” The officer shrugged his shoulders. “All we can do is to give you a motor boat that will wait at the Volga shore for you if you really want to attempt to get as far inland as Goly-Karamysh.”
That same night we landed in a Russian Volga village not far from Goly-Karamysh. We knocked at the door of a house, requesting to put us up. Nothing stirred. We knocked harder. Only when we had explained who we were the door opened. The people told us hair-raising stories of armed bandits who robbed the peasants. In the morning we ascertained that Goly-Karamysh was still in our hands. The “yamshtchik” (coachman) had refused during the last days to take anybody there. When we requested him to drive us, he promptly agreed. “I'm not afraid of taking you,” he said. He was confident that we would protect his horses from being commandeered.
We took a roundabout road and met on our way Red Army detachments in complete disorder.
“Where are you coming from, comrades?” we asked them.
“From the front.”
“Are you not ashamed to run away like that?” I took them to task.
“Our officers also ran away,” the men excused themselves wearily.
“To hell with the officers; But you are Redarmists, peasants’ sons. Do you want the landlords to return? Come back to the front.” They stood undecided. A motor car overtook us.
“Has any one of you met officers? Can you tell us where to find tine Staff of this division?” we were asked.
“No,” I said, “but it must be a precious staff.”
The redarmists laughed.
“Should you come across any of them, arrest him,” said one of the men in the motor car. “We are of the Special Department of the Red Army (military police) and we are trying to trail these scoundrels. It seems they have run over to the enemy. Never mind. We shall soon get reinforcements.”
That decided the wavering redarmists. They turned and went back towards the front turning back others that came behind them.
We reached Goly-Karamysh. In the Soviet building we met a military commissar. All were very pleased about our arrival.
“How are things at the front?” was our first question.
“Bad indeed,” replied the commissar. “Don’t let your horses be unharnessed. Our foremost line is barely seven verst from here. I have a telephonist here and a field telephone. Should the Whites break through he will warn us, then we must hurry down to the Volga as fast as the horses can go. We have no other protection here.”
“All right,” I said. “At present the chief thing is to prevent a panic; to encourage the demoralised troops and make them return to the front. Then we must see that the peasants continue harvesting.”
“Sit down at the table outside the house,” a member of the Soviet suggested. “We shall bring tea out for you. If the people see you there having tea peacefully that will help more to encourage them than any amount of speeches.”
So we had our tea apparently unconcerned while in the shed behind us the harnessed horses were pawing impatiently. It worked wonders. The citizens who had hitherto sat behind closed doors in anguish ventured to come out, life gradually assumed its normal aspect. Soon some people came up to us with various complaints, their number grew. It appeared that Budyonny’s red cavalry had ravaged here worse than an enemy. In the co-operative stores they had, by order of their leaders, requisitioned commodities such as cigarettes, soap, cotton; they would enter the peasants’ houses robbing food; at times they would take the family’s dinner off the table together with the unreplaceable pans and dishes; they would unharness horses from the peasants’ carts and generally behave as if they were in conquered enemy territory. While we were talking, two of Budyonny’s men appeared presenting a written order addressed to the chairman of the Soviet demanding various commodities. The chairman handed me the note. “What am I to do?” he asked. I took the note, scolded the two redarmists, told them this was mere banditism and that whoever had signed the order would be court-martialled, and sent them back empty-handed. With the peasants who were gathering around us we then considered measures for bringing in the harvest. Millions of poods of wheat were still left out in the fields. Suddenly the military commissar came rushing up to us beaming. He had been informed by telephone that the reinforcements so eagerly awaited had at long last arrived. The command felt sure now that they would not only be able to keep their positions but that they would soon throw back the enemy. As became, clear later this was the turning point in the struggle against Denikin. As he had hitherto driven our troops in front of him, so he was now rolling back. Within a few days our district Goly-Karamysh was liberated from the invading enemy – from our own troops as well. The entire harvest was saved. It is true that day we did not even dare to dream of such a possibility. We considered measures of protecting the villages while the peasants would be out in the fields.
Late at night we returned to the shore of the Volga. Our motor boat could not be traced. Near the shore we found an enormous pile of straw, a convenient resting place. When we had just dug ourselves in, we got company – a small detachment of cavalry established themselves here, having tied up their horses nearby. On a barge in the river the families of Communists from the district were accommodated with their goats and fowls so as to be able to escape from the Whites who were murdering all wives and children of Communists that fell into their hands. It was warm and cosy in the straw, we soon fell asleep. Irma woke up suddenly feeling cold. Her merry laughter awakened me. A horse that had got lose stood before us cheerfully munching away at the straw that served us as a cover. In the morning when the favourable turn at the front was confirmed as decisive we returned to Saratov and thence to Marxstadt. That we had contracted apart from the inevitable lice also the itch in this splendid straw heap we did not notice at the time.
We now considered that it was time for us to return to Moscow. Although the accidental coincidence of the great turn at the front with our presence it Goly-Karamysh had greatly enhanced our prestige in the whole region, we decided the time had come for us to take up other work. Our “democratic experiment” on the Volga had taught us many a lesson, and we still cherished the illusion that these experiences might be applied on a larger scale after the end of the Civil War.
We took leave from our friends and drove down to the Volga shore to await the next steamer of the very irregular traffic. Klausch accompanied us with his wife and child. Germany had concluded peace in the West, so he wanted to return to his homeland. We had to wait several hours till at last a steamer arrived. While we were sitting on the shore waiting patiently, strains of music became audible. The news of our departure had spread in the town. The people (including the Soviet employees) had formed a procession and came out to say goodbye. This simple demonstration showed us that the people appreciated our efforts, we were greatly moved.
As soon as we had left, the evil element whom we had kept down but who were supported by Stalin’s protegés, got the upper hand. Severe struggles ensued, the most honest and capable of our collaborators sought a more congenial field of activity elsewhere. From Moscow peculiar commissars arrived whose mismanagement and oppressive measures caused discontent and insurrections. The wellbeing of the German Volga area, now an Autonomous Republic, rapidly deteriorated until the famine of 1921 decimated the population. We wanted to show that even a backward, purely agrarian region can be administered in accordance with democratic principles without use of force if there is honesty and understanding. Conditions were stronger than we – in a despotic One-Party-State no oasis of liberty can exist for any length of time.
The steamer crept slowly up-stream. Like all other means of transport at that time it was overcrowded. Peasants and workers, women and children lay or crowded about on deck and below, one could hardly move without stepping on somebody. A grey mass of people! At every stop bread and water melons could be purchased in spite of all decrees. We remember this journey as a most pleasant holiday – of course people with such “bourgeois” demands as a daily warm meal or a bed to sleep in might have considered the journey less enjoyable.
From Nizhni-Novgorod we had to go to Moscow by rail. Some international commission had just arrived at Nizhni, in their honour a meeting was held at the large Sormovo-works. So my appearance was very welcome, I had to speak. Before me spoke Zaslavsky of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party whose remarks impressed themselves on my memory as very characteristic. “In the Second International,” he said, “there were great intellectuals who wrote books like Kautsky and Plekhanov. To-day, in the Third International, we no longer require all that, we require proletarians.” I could not resist the temptation to disturb this harmony. Ignorance is not a proletarian virtue, nothing to be proud or – this was the main idea on which I built up my speech, and the Sormovo workers heartily agreed. Now, however, I must admit that Zaslavsky had already then grasped the spirit of the Third International better than I.