We had been only a few days in Moscow when the general Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party, N. N. Krestinsky, telephoned us:
“The Central Committee desires to delegate you and Irma to Siberia,” he said, “do you consent?”
With pleasure I noticed the unusual polite form of this enquiry of the Central Committee. Krestinsky actually avoided the normally used military phrase “to command you to Siberia” and asked our consent before registering the decision.
“Is that banishment?” I asked.
Krestinsky laughed:- “If you only knew how we are overrun by responsible workers asking to be sent to Siberia,” he said. “But we have established a strict control and are selecting the responsible workers for Siberia in accordance with a specific criterion.”
“We have only just returned from a long stay in the provinces and should like to have a good look round in the centre,” I said hesitatingly. “Perhaps you had better send someone else.”
“The special train of the ‘Sibrevkom’ (Siberian Revolutionary Committee) is due to depart to-morrow,” Krestinsky replied. “We are anxious that you should be there from the outset. Please consider the proposal. Perhaps you would care to discuss the matter with Kamenev. I am sure that after careful consideration you will agree.”
We considered the pros and cons; the proposal had come very unexpectedly. In the morning we went to talk it over with Kamenev.
“I would strongly advise you to accept the proposal,” Kamenev said. “We want by all means to avoid in Siberia a repetition of the Ukrainian happenings. The Siberian peasants have not lived under the yoke of the nobility, they have a much stronger sense of independence and self-respect. If our idiots should behave there as they did in the Ukraine it would lead to a catastrophe. That must be prevented! We therefore desire to send you there, and that independent of the Sibrevkom. Your salary will be paid to you in Siberia on account of the Central Committee of the Party. We consider it essential that in the newly liberated Siberia the events of the Revolution should be explained to the masses from a wide and international point of view. And then it will be necessary to establish there at once big Party – and Soviet – schools for the training of officials for all branches of the administration. I am sure that will be a fascinating sphere of activity for you. Irma will find enough to do amongst the hundreds of thousands of German ex-prisoners of war, and she will like that work. I repeat, what concerns us most is to avoid a repetition of the Ukrainian blunders.”
“Right then,” I said, “I believed the Central Committee wanted to send us into a sort of banishment. However, if things are as you say, we are quite willing to go.”
“Then hurry, pack your things and go to the station at once or the train will be gone.”
While Irma did the packing I telephoned to Krestinsky who was very pleased that we agreed to go.
On our arrival at the station we ran across Frumkin who with Ivan Nikititch Smirnov and Kosariev formed the Siberian Revolutionary Committee. Frumkin who was still suffering from the pains caused him by our resolution in the Volga Area was horrified to see us arrive and made no attempt to hide his feelings.
“We have arranged with the Central Committee that they would not send any responsible workers to Siberia without consulting us,” he exclaimed.
“Do not get it into your mind that we are in any way anxious to go with you to Siberia,” I said. “We have only agreed after much hesitation. Please go at once and telephone to the Central Committee. We shall be very glad to stay here. We will keep our motor car waiting until you have talked the matter over with the Central Committee.”
Within a very short time Frumkin returned from the station telephone meek and humble. With great courtesy he offered us places in the train.
The train of the “Sibrevkom” was a sanitary train left over from the world war; so we were travelling in some comfort. There was even a doctor on the train whom we consulted at once since we had discovered that at the front we had contracted the itch. Unfortunately the doctor had neither sulphur-ointment nor green soap, so he could not help us. On the long journey it was only at irregular intervals that we had an opportunity of washing properly at some well or pond, so the disease became more acute and caused us much suffering.
The train carried the entire personnel for the establishment of a Siberian administration, about three hundred persons – supply commissars, administrators, office personnel. Most of our fellow travellers were practical-minded and experienced and had taken with them a goodly supply of goods for exchange. On the whole way to Tcheliabinsk they could therefore at any railway station buy from the peasants in exchange for their soap, sewing cotton, salt, matches all sorts of delicacies such as roast chickens, bacon, eggs, butter, pastries. The local commissars, fearing that the high Soviet dignitaries in the train might disapprove of the not yet wholly suppressed free trade in their districts, tried on our arrival to drive the trading peasants from the railway stations. All in vain! our “speculating” officials ran after them and struck their bargains behind some hedge.
Our train was the first non-military train en route for Siberia, where Koltchak, pursued by the Red Army, was still on his retreat to the East. His White hordes had ravaged like Vandals and had blown up all bridges behind them. The further we moved the more frequent and prolonged were the interruptions of our journey, for every military train had priority over us in crossing rivers by ferries that could take at most four carriages at a time. Thus our journey from Moscow to Tcheliabinsk took a whole month.
On the shores of the river Bielaya in the province of Ufa we were delayed for several days. Whenever the ferry had taken a few of our carriages a military train would come up and hours would pass, sometimes a whole day, until the ferry would be again at our disposal. We used the time to visit villages in the vicinity curious to learn how the peasants were faring here. After a walk of several hours through a forest showing the golden tinges of autumn we reached the first village. We entered a peasant’s hut and asked whether they could sell us any kind of food. Honey they could give us, said a cheerful peasant woman, but the eggs she required for her redarmists.
“And do they pay?” we enquired.
“O certainly,” was the reply, “we are glad they are here. They are repairing our houses, carts and harness and those who were here before the present lot have helped us in the harvesting.”
On the table a book was lying. Irma had seen it and called us, amazed. It proved to be a Russian translation of Franz Mehring’s History of German Social-democracy.
“Who is reading this book?” I asked the peasant woman.
“Our redarmists have brought it,” She replied, “in the evenings our young people gather here and they read out from it.”
We looked at each other. Who could have dreamt to find in such a “bear’s corner” on the border of Asia in a peasant’s hut Mehring’s Party history. So in spite of broken bridges the Civil War was in a way furthering the cultural development of the people.
In another village the peasants showed us proudly the late landlord’s house which they had turned into a school and fitted with benches by voluntary collective labour. With the aid of the redarmists they had now registered all the children but unfortunately the school did not yet function since the teacher who had not received her salary had gone away. However, just now there was discontent in the village. As soon as the Red Army had taken the village from the Whites the peasants, happy about their liberation, had collected a quantity of grain to send as a present to starving Moscow. Instead of gratitude the supply department at Ufa had sent them a commissar with instructions to collect from them the grain quota arbitrarily fixed at the green table. This quota exceeded – so the peasants swore – the total harvest of the village. I advised them to see that their village Soviet appointed a commission to establish how much grain they could supply after deduction of seeds and local requirements by the fixed norm. I promised that I would speak to the supply authorities at Ufa on their behalf.
At Ufa we remained several days. Our sufferings from the itch had become almost unbearable, our bodies were covered with boils. A search through all apothecaries’ shops of the town for sulphur-ointment had proved futile. We were directed to a military hospital. Hopeful we entered its department for diseases of the skin, but the picture that presented itself there induced us to a rapid retreat. In the middle of a large hall there stood a big basin full of the coveted ointment. A brush was sticking in the basin and a long row of redarmists suffering from a variety of skin diseases took their turns to anoint themselves with the same brush from the sane basin! In the evening we met a friend from Moscow to whom we related this incident. He too had caught the itch at the front but was now cured and thus could make us happy by presenting us with a supply of sulphur ointment and green soap. Joyfully we went to take a hot steam bath and thereupon liberally applied the biting medicine to the sores. The acute pain made us jump but after several repetitions of this procedure we found relief.
At Ufa there was a Party school for Soviet officials and redarmists. They got hold of me and before we left I had to give them two lectures: on the agrarian question in Russia and on the development of the British working class movement.
Soon we reached the Ural. Our locomotive proved not powerful enough to pull the train over the mountain range. Just before the ridge it rolled back to the valley, fortunately without an accident. A second attempt brought us within a few yards of the ridge when again the engine lost its breath. The commandant of the train gave a sharp whistle. “All out of the train:” he shouted. “Prevent backsliding and push on!” While the engine used its last strength the train grew lighter by the weight of three hundred people, and as many arms got hold of the running boards and pushed forward. In this manner the few yards to the top were covered. Amidst laughter and cheering the train climbed over the steep ridge.
After a few hours of uninterrupted travel we had another stop of several hours. Dusk was almost upon us and we lit fires by the side of the railway line. We boiled tea, fried eggs and roasted potatoes. From afar the wooded mountains of the high Ural were greeting us, aflame with the last rays of the sun shed over their golden autumn robes. In a cheerful mood we were playing about round the fires. When dusk gave way to darkness it was suggested I should address the gathering on our task in Siberia. “All right,” I said, “but first I will tell you how government should not be carried on.” In a humorous strain I thereupon pictured all the administrative sins and bureaucratic follies I had come across in various parts of Russia explaining that our most urgent task was to avoid these. In a more serious manner I then sketched the problems of Siberian administration. While the meeting cheered I noticed in the flickering light of the fire a tall figure beside me, bent forward, with large ears, an energetic chin and a long, yellowish horse-like face. In his eyes I caught the glimmer of the hidden but deep hatred of insulted bureaucracy. This was Spunde, Frumkin’s Lettish oracle, a secret collaborator of the All-Russian Tcheka who throughout the long journey was busy studying each individual official and with Frumkin and Kosariev preparing dossiers. This dark figure, as it stood in the uncertain light of the flickering fire, had something sinister, ominous. It appeared to me as a symbol of dark forces I would have to face in Siberia in an unknown future. Spunde’s report on that meeting must have been coloured accordingly – the Sibrevkom seemed to regard my speech as a challenge. The coolness, which since the “friendly” reception at the Moscow station marked our relations, consequently sank almost to freezing point.
At Tcheliabinsk a number of flats had been prepared the distribution of which was now being discussed. A good house with a number of dwellings was to be reserved for “responsible workers.” A flat was earmarked there for us too. I protested against this method of allocation of living accommodation and insisted that not the “degree of responsibility” was to be taken into account but that families with children should receive preference. Nobody dared to oppose this and the families with children actually got these flats. The other “responsibles” however knew how to look after their own interests. Some managed also to obtain comfortable rooms in this house, others established themselves in a still better place. Irma and I were left without any room. On the first evening after our arrival a large meeting took place at which I was one of the speakers. The audience were full of enthusiasm; the people so recently liberated from the oppression of Koltchak and the victorious redarmists cheered the speakers. After the meeting we did not know where to go for the night. Frumkin declared the Government had offered us a flat but we had rejected it, and generally it was the business of the Party to provide for us since we were not in the Service of the Siberian Government.
“Never mind. We'll go to the railway station and sleep in the waiting room,” Irma said undisturbed.
Then the Party Secretary Gontcharova approached us: “We have at the Party offices a nice warm room where only our safe stands,” she said. “We shall be pleased to place it at your disposal, but unfortunately there is no furniture in it.”
We accepted the offer and established ourselves on the floor. A week later Irma happened to get a severe chill and had high fever. When I telephoned from the Party office to a doctor good furniture suddenly appeared in the room. The Siberian administrators had failed to provoke a quarrel with us on little personal issues, now they feared public opinion.
At TcheliabinSk a Party Conference for the province took place. I had already had time to get some insight into local conditions. At workers’ meetings I had been asked several times when the elections of the Soviets would take place. The Sibrevkom and the Siberian Central Bureau of the Party were scared of all elections. They wished to appoint everywhere “Revolutionary Committees” which were to govern the country for a long time to come. At the Conference I was elected chairman and in my opening address I referred to this question. “It is a grave mistake,” I said, “to postpone the election indefinitely. The Siberian population who have driven out Koltchak have a right to elect their Soviets themselves. But” I said turning to the Sibrevkom, “you have no confidence in the people. You would like to impose upon the people for all eternity ‘revolutionary committees’ consisting of bankrupt bureaucrats appointed by yourselves. When these have mismanaged affairs and the people who would now vote Communist get disillusioned and lose confidence in the Party you will try to force your candidates on them.” This speech of mine made a strong impression on the Siberian delegates – on the Sibrevkom too though in a different sense. The Party secretary Gontcharova approached me requesting me to refrain from putting forward a resolution on this question. She said that the decision to postpone the elections had been carried only by a small majority and that it would be reconsidered. Unfortunately I walked into this trap, but my remarks became known outside the Conference hall and caused some stir in the town. The railwaymen took up the demand, the workers became more and more insistent in their demand for an early election. However, neither the Sibrevkom nor the Siberian Bureau of the Party showed any haste. In reality they did not dream of holding elections.
Some time later a general meeting of Party members of Tcheliabinsk was called. When nominations for the chairman were taken (so much. democracy still prevailed at that time) my name was also put forward by several members. At first I declined, believing I would thus have more scope. However, when I noticed that all responsible workers declined nomination in favour of Spunde I took the next opportunity to accept nomination when my name was again proposed. To the great annoyance of all the bureaucrats I was thereupon elected against Spunde by an overwhelming majority. I took the chair, read the agenda proposed by the committee and remarked acidly that the question of Soviet elections must have been overlooked by mistake. Immediately a proposal was put forward to place this on the agenda as the first point. The fight started. I called upon the speakers in the proper order writing their names into a list honestly as they were sent up in accordance with continental usage. The big noises of the Siberian administration however held that they were so important that they could speak without waiting for their turn. In reply to their whispered request I declared publicly that we were in a Party meeting where all comrades are equal and that I could not allow special privileges on the ground of high rank held in the service of the State. Kosariev tried to speak in defiance of the chair but I called him to order and did not allow him to proceed. The meeting that lasted until the small hours of the morning was carried through on democratic principles in good order. Afterwards Kosariev came up to me.
“For heaven’s sake, comrade Petroff,” he said, “do you not see what a dangerous game you are playing? We all are like yourself old experienced revolutionaries. But the members here are new and inexperienced and you are inciting them against the Government.”
“I cannot accept this division of the Party membership into castes,” I replied. “Many of the local members have been doing illegal work under Koltchak and gained revolutionary experiences. But as to the Soviet elections, on this question I am ready to fight to the knife. Here I will accept no compromise.”
“Comrade Petroff cares very little about us,” Kosariev said afterwards sadly to his colleagues of the Sibrevkom, he thinks he can do just as he phases for he has Lenin behind him.”
At Tcheliabinsk a terrible typhus epidemic was raging; almost half the population was ill. All hospitals were overcrowded, but there was a lack of doctors as Koltchak had forced all doctors within reach to follow him eastward. Only seven doctors had been left; they had hidden in the woods when Koltchak’s forces retreated. These doctors worked to exhaustion; the hospitals lay far apart, but since the doctors were not Party members but mere “bourgeois” nobody bothered to give them transport facilities or generally to cater for their welfare. On hearing that one of them, a very capable German doctor, ex-prisoner of war, could not even get a horse, I went to the Party committee and made a row. In front of the Party premises there stood for many hours every day a splendid trotter harnessed to a sledge waiting in case the secretary should desire to go to the Soviet restaurant for her dinner. I said the comrade might as well walk and demanded that the horse be placed at the disposal of the doctor. Of course I carried this through but my popularity amongst the bureaucrats was not increased thereby.
My main activity was now devoted to the Party schools and all sorts of courses for Soviet and Party functionaries. One of these schools was held at Troitsk: for three weeks some eighty students had gathered there for intensive work. These men and women were mostly young, full of enthusiasm and thirsting for knowledge. They were drawn from a wide area; besides Russians some Kirgisians and Tartars were to be found among the students, even a young Kirgisian woman coming from the far-off steppes. When the course ended we had an intimate parting feast and my pupils presented me with an address containing a poem and drawing in a beautiful binding, all their own work. The address was signed by all the students.
My presence at Troitsk was useful in another respect as well. The Party committee of Troitsk was completely terrorised by the military collegiate of the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Fifth Army whose members were oppressing the population. They celebrated real orgies, and once in a state of drunkenness created all sorts of mischief in the town. The secretary of the Troitsk Party committee, a splendid railway worker, happened to come across them and remonstrated with them. He was arrested off-hand by the prosecutor of the military court, the Lett Ulrich who had participated in the orgies. Of course I intervened. I called Ulrich before the Party committee, ordered him to release the Secretary, brought him before a Party Court and had him expelled from the Party. This made it impossible for Ulrich to continue as a prosecutor at the military court at least for a time until his influential friends in Moscow, who included Stalin, had pulled sufficient wires to get him re-instated. Then this hero felt himself again in the saddle and he tried to lodge a complaint against me with the Fifth Army. However, when I thereupon related the incident to Ivan Nikititch Smirnov, chairman of the military council of that army, the little Lett got into hot water again. And to-day? To-day Ulrich has risen high by the grace of Stalin – he is a supreme judge worthy of his great master. No wonder that Ivan Nikititch Smirnov, the liberator of Siberia, was one of the first victims to be sentenced to death in the witchcraft trials together with Zinoviev, Kamenev and other-old Bolsheviks.
A terrible impression was left on my memory by a short visit to Kustanai. In that district the Whites had ravaged like wild beasts, shedding torrents of blood, killing thousands of innocent men and women. In the Kustanai district alone the number of persons killed was estimated at fourteen thousand, but I think the figure is somewhat exaggerated. The Whites were not satisfied with murdering these peasants who were loyal to the Soviets, they photographed the corpses and published the picture in the lying anti-revolutionary press of Europe with the inscription: “Peasants killed by the Bolsheviks.” These horrors had imbued the whole population with such a wrath that the people were screaming for arms in order to fight against the Whites – old and young, men and women inflamed by a wild thirst of revenge wished to enrol as volunteers. “Frightfulness” often proves a boomerang that hits back on him who wields it, particularly in civil war.
Having returned to Tcheliabinsk we were living with a Lithuanian apothecary, an extremely intelligent and amicable person. During the occupation of Siberia by the Whites he had been hiding in the Taiga like many other revolutionaries. There he and his pregnant wife had been living for many weeks on venison and wild berries. Dangers and difficulties had not subdued the courage or the humorous strain of these two splendid people. Their little child was now already a year old. In this family we found a congenial atmosphere.
While in the Volga region we both had been elected delegates to the All-Russian Soviet Congress which was due to meet in Moscow. So we prepared to go. Suddenly the news came that Omsk had been liberated from the Whites by the Red Army that was now driving the enemy towards the East with ever increasing speed. So the Siberian Government could transfer its headquarters from Tcheliabinsk to Omsk, and the Party requested us to go with them for it was now essential to establish a basis for the administration of vast Siberia. We no longer overestimated the value of Soviet-Congresses; we believed that our work at Omsk might be of greater importance and therefore agreed to go.
A comfortable train of second class carriages was formed to travel to Omsk as the first civilian train. Winter had long since arrived; terrific cold had set in, deep snow covered the fields, the rivers had gone to sleep under a thick cover of ice. Again the Whites had blown up all bridges, but nature had provided new ones – at river crossings the rails had been laid simply on the ice, and the locomotive took two to four carriages at a time moving across slowly and carefully. We shared a four-seated compartment with a cheerful elderly Lettish couple, the chief of the Siberian Finance Department who had just arrived from Moscow and his wife. Our friend the apothecary had presented us with a huge bottle of disinfectant, very effective but evil smelling stuff. As in this typhus ridden region a long journey by rail was considered the surest means of contracting spotted typhus we, with the consent of our Lettish fellow travellers, started at once to disinfect thoroughly our compartment. We wished to disinfect the entire carriage but the other passengers objected to the stench and laughed at us. However, it appeared later on that out of all the passengers in this soft carriage we four were the only ones who were not laid up with typhus after arrival at Omsk. It first, though, it seemed that our disinfectant did not prove a deterrent to illness: soon after the departure of the train I fell ill with high fever which kept me down during the whole of our seven days’ journey.
We had heard and read so much of the beauties of the Siberian forests that we felt very disappointed at the sad landscape gliding past our windows. Dull grey, bare like brooms, the trunks of the birch trees were rising from the snow. No speck of green greeted the eye, no pine wood as in White Russia, no evergreen shrubs. A white monotony. For hours, for days, birch trees, nothing but birch trees stripped of all leaves.
Koltchak’s hordes had created more destruction here by the railway line even than to the west of Tcheliabinsk. Not a single waterworks was in order, all stores of sawn wood had been destroyed. Throughout the whole journey we were thrown on our own resources. Whenever the wood supply of our wood consuming locomotive was exhausted we stopped in the forest, all passengers not prevented through illness like myself came out and helped to saw up the trunks of trees lying about in the forest and carried the logs on their shoulders to the locomotive. When the locomotive’s water supply was almost consumed the train stopped near a lake or pond. The passengers formed a double chain reaching from hand to hand all available vessels – buckets, cans, saucepans, tea kettles – handing them down empty and returning them filled with water up to the locomotive. This went on until the insatiable engine was filled after hours of toil. Then Irma and the two Letts would come in blowing their hands with the intense cold, the tea kettle would be filled with clean snow and hot tea would refresh us.
When we approached Omsk the train stopped outside the town in front of the river Irtysh. The long bridge had been partly blown up, the locomotive could take the carriages only later on over the ice to the railway station which was situated just across the river. Few passengers were waiting for that. Motor cars and sledges appeared and fetched most of the travellers to the town that same evening. As I had not yet recovered from my illness we decided to spend the night in the train. In the night appeared the commandant of the train – one of those notorious “Ukrainian churls” whom the Moscow authorities had taken great pains to debar from getting through to Siberia but who had succeeded in slipping through by using his connections with the military authorities to get himself appointed as commandant of the train. Irma and I were alone in the carriage and he told us that he was going to transfer several people suffering from typhus into our carriage. Irma opposed this.
“That cannot be done,” she said emphatically, “the train is almost empty, put your ill people into one of the empty carriages. My husband has been very ill all the way, he is still weak and would be sure to catch the infection.”
“This carriage just suits me,” the commandant replied rather impolitely, “here the ill persons will be quartered.”
“You can be assured that nobody will come in here,” Irma replied sharply seizing her revolver. “Leave this carriage at once. The first who attempts to enter this carriage I shall shoot down.”
The commandant vanished and Irma took up a position on the upper sleeping berth taking both our huge German “parabellum” revolvers and a sufficient supply of munitions to last her through a siege. Soon the commandant returned with a platoon of Tcheka soldiers He wished to be very clever – he had gone to fetch not Russians but Internationalists to help him. Irma challenged them ordering them to halt. “Who approaches nearer gets a bullet,” she said. But noticing that this was a group of Internationalists she addressed them in German introducing herself as one time chairman of the prisoners of war committee and editor of the Weltrevolution. That was enough. The redarmists took up a threatening attitude towards the commandant who disappeared in a hurry. We could now be sure that there would be no further interference. On the following morning we met at the railway station the commissar of the Red Army Stark (who was later on Ambassador in one of the Baltic States and subsequently shot by Stalin). He came up to greet me. He had already heard of the incident and expressed his regret that he had not been on the spot. “Had I been there I would have had this marvellous commandant put up against a wall,” he declared, “but the matter will be investigated.” Of course this investigation led nowhere – higher powers protected their man. But that incident was a lesson to us, it taught us to be on our guard in Siberia. We made it a rule never to go about unarmed.
The staff of the Fifth Army was at that time quartered at Omsk and we met here Ivan Nikititch Smirnov the president of the Sibrevkom who was also chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Fifth Army. Smirnov expressed his regret regarding the unpleasant incident that had occurred to me in the train. He was anxious to get from me a first-hand account of the occurrence. Smirnov was striving to bring about a better understanding between me and the Sibrevkom. However, his military duties kept him frequently away from Omsk. The treacherous Frumkin for whom the kindly but weak Kosariev was certainly not a match, meanwhile enforced his own methods of government in the Sibrevkom crossing the policy of the capable organiser Smirnov who was a man of vision and understanding. The calm, friendly and just Smirnov was very popular with the people as well as with the army whose soul he was. He was surrounded by a staff of able collaborators loyal to the Revolution, amongst them the still young gifted officer Tukhachevsky later on Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, and also our old friend Holzman. The latter was an old Polish-Russian revolutionary who had been living in England where he had been delegated by the Capmakers’ Union to the London Trades Council as one of the few Russian refugees who took an active part in the British Labour movement. In Siberia Holzman created a virile organisation in the rear of the enemy which was of the utmost value to our advancing army. Frumkin on the other hand gathered round himself a clique of inefficient bureaucrats who followed him through thick and thin and who have done a lot of harm in Siberia.
Irma and I had at first taken a room in the house of an Omsk lawyer. But that house was so cold that we were soon compelled to look for warmer quarters. Meanwhile the Party had taken over a large building which had formerly housed the headquarters of Koltchak’s “government.” There, beside the library, a small but warm room stood empty and it was offered to us. All the inhabitants of this house were free to use the large kitchen on the ground floor – at all events in the day time, for at night all the rats of the neighbourhood seemed to congregate there. Nowhere have I ever seen such huge rats and so many of them as in Omsk: A dog and a powerful cat tried in vain to keep these pests under control. Two splendid fat ducks which I had brought home one evening hanging them up high on the wall had disappeared by morning apart from a poor remnant. One day one of the neighbours brought a couple of living white Italian dwarf fowls, cock and hen, for whom he built a little cage in the kitchen. We all laughed teasing him that he had bought rat-fodder, but he was an optimist trusting in the protection of the cat. In the night we heard a loud crash followed by crowing and noise – “now they eat roast fowl at the rats’ feast” Irma said to me sleepily. But on coming down in the morning we were amazed to find the fowls alive and kicking: the little cock with his loud voice and his wild wing-beating had apparently frightened the rats who rushing away in a panic had overturned all sorts of utensils that fell on the floor amid a great hubbub. That is at any rate how we tried to explain this phenomenon for, peculiarly enough, with the entry of the fowls the rat plague subsided. The little cock was the hero of the day, the pride of the whole house.
The owner of those fowls, the worker Tikhov, had been living illegally under Koltchak, hiding in a half ruined hut deep in the Taiga. Thus his little boy, now barely two years old, had grown up a true child of the wilderness. The little fellow, astoundingly independent, handled hammer and nails, served himself with boiling hot tea from the huge samovar and devoured all sorts of food waste from out of the coal bucket without any apparent harm resulting to him. When Irma, horrified, drew his mother’s attention to her baby’s feeding she replied with great pride: “Oh my Arkadi! He is just like a rat, he devours whatever he finds and he thrives on it.” When Arkadi at last had managed to contract a severe chill and had a high fever so that the whole little body was aglow his mother carried him about next to naked through the icy corridor. “That does him no harm,” she reassured us, “he'll get over it.” And really within a few days Arkadi was perfectly well. Russia at that time had an appalling infantile death rate. It really was the selection of the fittest. What remained alive under these conditions was endowed with an uncommon power of resistance.
In Omsk, too, typhus was raging slaying large numbers of people. Yet nobody was prepared to take the least precaution to avoid infection. The Communist youth, it is true, believed no longer in God but they had as yet not learned to believe in the existence of bacteria. So Irma tried in vain to persuade the young people who during a youth meeting queued up at the water tub in the kitchen, to wash rinse the mug before drinking. They just laughed at her remonstrances. Finally she stood herself in the queue and when she had thus got hold of the mug she washed it carefully for every following water drinker no matter how much these grumbled at the “silly loss of time.”
During the first days of our stay at Omsk we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw at the market and in the numerous little shops the variety of foodstuffs offered for sale. In Moscow one was happy if one managed to get hold of a pound of beans whereas here the shop windows were full of commodities one had hardly dared to dream of – coffee, dried apricots, semolina and other delicacies. Meat, flour, butter could be bought cheaply in any quantity desired.
All who in Moscow had saved up their paper money for months because our thousand rouble notes could hardly purchase so much as a piece of cheese, were suddenly in a position to obtain for it undreamt of luxuries. On the very first day we saw in a shop window real unroasted coffee berries. We took our courage in both hands and enquired as to the price. How gladly we should have paid a thousand roubles for a pound of it in Moscow had there been any for sale. Intimate friendship with a diplomatic courier was there the only possible way of obtaining once in a blue moon a tiny packet of coffee.
“Thirty roubles a pound,” replied the shop keeper to our enquiry.
We looked at each other in amazement. “And what quantity could we get?” we asked bashfully.
“As much as you like,” he said.
Irma who for months had felt a vain longing for a cup of coffee became insolent. “Could you let us have ten pounds?” she asked. “With pleasure.”
We walked home with our treasure as happy as if we had come into a fortune.
While Siberia had been under White rule it had been free from the blockade. From. America and Japan many commodities had been imported which one would seek in vain in the rest of Russia. And Siberia itself is an extremely rich region possessing great stocks of grain and other agricultural produce as well as considerable reserves of industrial raw materials. However as soon as our Supply Commissariat headed by Frumkin had started to function the prices rose and the commodities gradually disappeared from the market. This was not caused by the export of the plentiful supplies of food stuffs to starving Central Russia. That was impossible in view of the state of our bridgeless ways of communication and the lack of means of transport. According to our calculation it would, for instance, not have been possible to send before the ice broke up more than half a million poods of meat to Central Russia – a small percentage of the available supplies. None he less the Siberian Government, following the established routine, limited the amount of meat to be given out to the population to two pounds per person per week: And this in Siberia whose climate requires a high consumption of meat and whose population was accustomed to take home half a lamb for a rouble. Soon the prices rose at such a pace that the people could not buy enough food and were starving. I tried my best to combat this senseless supply policy. The Government wanted to reduce the prices by severe police measures – by arbitrarily fixing maximum prices, by punishment of “speculators,” confiscation of goods. At Party meetings and meetings of responsible workers I attacked this policy and at last obtained from the supply authorities at Omsk the issue of thirty pounds of flour per person per month on ration cards at a nominal price. This immediately brought the prices down. Meanwhile the peasants were suffering from an acute lack of industrial commodities whose import from abroad ceased while little was to be obtained from European Russia. Particularly disagreeable was the lack of matches. It is true, at Troitsk there was a big match factory well stocked with raw materials, but our economic authorities were so far producing nothing but plans, and industry was practically at a standstill. In a number of villages the peasants had resorted to the method of taking turns in guarding the fire throughout the night so that the other families could come in the morning to kindle their own fires from it. Consequently at the market anything could be obtained for matches. When Irma fell ill confined to bed for a long time I would go in the morning to the market place where the peasants assembled; for two boxes of matches I might get a fat goose or two ducks. Then I would buy a huge portion of milk which was being sold in a frozen state, chopped by the axe and packed in paper. So the food question for the day was solved.
At Omsk we had established a big Party and Soviet school. Four hundred students sent by the Party, the Trade Unions, the Red Army and various Soviet institutions gathered here for a full time course lasting three months to be trained for their future work in the service of the Party and the State. When all was ready for the reception of the students a severe fight started as to the curriculum of the school. Professor Goichbark, head of the Department of Justice, who later on became known for his brilliant conduct of the trial of Koltchak, but who was not at all competent in historic, social and economic questions, wanted to interfere in drafting the curriculum. In this he could rely on the ready support of Frumkin, Spunde and the Party secretary Khotimsky who had only recently come over from the Social-revolutionary Party. The conflict developed and threatened to torpedo the entire scheme, when Smirnov appeared at Omsk and saved the Marxist programme of the school. This school where I delivered more than a hundred lectures and carried through a number of seminars chiefly on economics, history and sociology, gave me much satisfaction. Among the students there were splendid young men and women full of enthusiasm and zeal. Thirsty like the sands of a desert they drank in all knowledge within reach. Many of them later on attained considerable achievements in various spheres of public activity. Among other subjects we studied the history of the older revolutionary movements and of the Labour movements of Europe. It was interesting to note what prejudices my pupils had already managed to pick up from Soviet literature. Once when I recommended them to read one of Karl Kautsky’s historic works, one of the students exclaimed in amazement:
“Do you know who Kautsky is?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied, “a renegade.”
“And from where have you got this wisdom?” I enquired.
“Over the road in the window of the Soviet bookstalls there is exhibited a booklet by Lenin The renegade Kautsky,” was the reply
“And what else do you know about Kautsky?”
He confessed that this was all he knew.
This little incident seems to me typical of the mentality of the Communist youth – by no means in Russia alone.
During the first weeks of our activity at Omsk Irma and I were working in close contact with the Red Army. If at the Denikin front in the Volga area we had seen the lowest depth to which a demoralised army of the people can sink even in civil war, we experienced here the antithesis – a really Red army such as it ought to be. The Political Department of this army was doing splendid work. It really cared for the political education. of the redarmists (and at that time this did not yet mean to teach them slogans but to encourage them to political thinking). The Political Department published well edited newspapers, even a weekly paper in the German language for the purpose of recruiting among the ex-prisoners of war; it catered for the cultural uplifting and intellectual entertainment of the redarmists. For this purpose the army had a well-equipped theatre which played classical dramas as well as plays written here at the front by some of the redarmists themselves dealing with problems of the revolutionary period. A collection of these plays might have been of great value for the future historian, but I am not aware whether anyone has undertaken this task. By all these means the “politotdiel” raised the redarmists to a higher cultural level. On their long advance through all Siberia these redarmists acted as bearers of a higher culture. Along with the torch of war they were carrying the torch of enlightenment, wielding spiritual weapons as efficiently as the weapons of war. The morale of this army was splendid, its relations with the population most cordial; the people regarded them not only as liberators from the loathsome yoke of the Whites but also as friendly helpers in the various little difficulties of life. For every unit of this army had a record of the skill of the redarmists: whenever they stayed for some time in a village they would give the population systematic assistance – carpenters and tilers would repair the roofs, cabinetmakers would see to windows and furniture; wheelwrights, locksmiths, harness-makers, cobblers and tailors would also find ample opportunity of helping the peasants.
In Siberia large stocks of all kinds of goods supplied to Koltchak by the capitalist governments of Europe had fallen into the hands of the Soviet authorities. Out of a large stock of woollen materials pretty fur-lined coats were manufactured for the schoolchildren. The question arose whether in distributing these those children were to be included whose fathers were fighting against us in the ranks of the whites. The general feeling was for the exclusion of these children, but with a group of friends I succeeded in getting a resolution carried to the effect that no distinction be made between children on grounds of their origin or the political adherence of their parents. The joy of the many cossacks’ wives affected by this decision was great indeed – soon one could see the little ones proudly playing about in their pretty new coats. It was only under the Stalin regime that this policy was reversed: for many years gifted and loyal students were then barred from high schools and universities or even removed from these when it became known that the father had been a kulak, the mother a trader, or that the parents had been intellectuals! At that time, in Siberia our humane attitude to these families bore unexpected fruit in the civil war. Many wives of white warriors whose children had been treated fairly, whose houses the “enemies” had repaired asked for permission to cross the front line in order to visit their husbands. They had no difficulty in convincing these that “the Reds were not so bad” and the number of White deserters surrendering to our troops grew rapidly. Generally it may be said that Koltchak was defeated from the moment when he began to forcibly mobilise peasants in large numbers for his army. These unwilling recruits accepted the arms he gave them and soon were found fighting in our ranks in their thousands.
In a large cossack village a technical school was being established and I went there to the opening of the school. For the village this celebration was a great event. The enthusiasm of the audience reacted on the speaker, I certainly did not regret that I had consented to go out a hundred versts by sledge in order to speak at this ceremony. The largest room of the school building was so densely crowded that no snowball could have fallen to the floor; in spite of the intense cold all the windows had to be opened in order that those who had failed to gain admittance could hear. For, from all neighbouring villages the cossacks had come to take part in the celebration, and in Siberia “neighbouring” is a loose term indeed. During my speech the subject of which was “the Whites are destroying – we are building the people’s future” an old cossack called out: “That’s right! You are speaking in a way we can understand.”
During the world war the tsarist Government had sent the bulk of the German and Austrian prisoners to Siberia. Up to the peace of Versailles only few Germans and certainly no Austrians showed any inclination to return home and place themselves as cannon fodder at the disposal of the capitalists of their native country. Even when peace had been concluded in the West most of them were in no hurry to return home, then they were cut off again through the Civil War. When we came to Siberia towards the end of 1919 tens of thousands, nay, hundreds of thousands of ex-prisoners of war were living there spread all over the vast country. The numerous Social Democrats amongst them had combined together wherever possible, a number of them had joined the Russian Communist Party, and they had taken to holding regular meetings as they had been used to at home. Irma had of course established contact with them and it was interesting for her to observe how the ideology of the pre-war Socialist movement had been preserved in the minds of these people and was now brought to the surface as if taken from cold storage. When for instance at one of the big German meetings at Omsk a Viennese orator was speaking the Austrian towns-people amongst the audience reacted exactly like a Vienna audience of 1914. When a Silesian spoke the Silesians would respond in a similar manner. References to events of pre-war public life at home were always taken up by the audience calling forth the old interjections. Any mention of the “Handabhacker” of Breslau (a policeman who during the franchise demonstrations of 1906 cut off the hand of a worker with his sabre) caused an outburst of indignation as though it was a burning question of the day for these Silesian Siberians. Any reference to the Austrian Member of Parliament Schumeier called forth loud condemnations of his murderer. (1910) One had the feeling that these men expected on returning home to take up their work in the movement in their old Party-districts and Union branches just where they had left off in 1914. How great must have been their disappointment when they got home and found everything completely changed!
The people of Siberia who had accepted the Moscow commissars in a friendly, spirit and perhaps with exaggerated hopes began to show signs of discontent. This discontent grew and became more and more widespread. At factory meetings the workers complained to me about non-payment of wages. Communist workers who had been in hiding during the Koltchak regime, suffering persecution and privations complained that our social welfare institutions declined to supply them with boots and clothing while large stocks somehow came into the hands of speculators. Cases were reported such as that of two railwaymen one of whom was on night duty who were sharing one suit of clothing so that the one of them who was off duty could not attend the meeting. From each meeting I returned with my pockets full of complaints concerning every branch of the administration. I had to examine these and to hand them on to the authorities concerned with a demand that things should be put right. As soon as this activity of mine became known numerous citizens who had grievances would not wait for a meeting but would come to me with their complaints. Thus the library next door got an influx of new readers who were waiting there for an opportunity to catch hold of me. A busy doctor complained that the authorities wished to take away his reception room or transfer him to a smaller flat. A representative of the Jewish Community asked my intervention against an arbitrary order of a local commissar (himself a Jew) prohibiting the slaughtering in accordance with Jewish rites on the grounds that “this only served superstition.” When I had managed to put this right there came new complaints. A building erected by an American Jewish welfare society that was being used by the Jewish Community for welfare purposes was to be requisitioned by the authorities to serve as offices. Pointing out the bad impression that such action would create abroad I succeeded in saving that house. A mad affair was the recall of workers employed in rebuilding the bridge over the river Irtysh in order that they might participate in a “subotnik.” These subotniks – voluntary unpaid labour performed on Sundays in which a large part of the population participated with songs and music – were then a new institution. In itself quite a good idea, but here it had been applied in a stereotyped manner. I personally had assisted in mobilising workers for the urgent work of rebuilding the bridge over the rapid river Irtysh. This bridge was of the greatest importance for the transport of grain to European Russia. The strong ice covering the river had been made use of as a support: should the bridge not have been ready before the bursting of the ice in spring the whole structure would have collapsed and all the work would have been in vain. Yet these workers toiling day and night, Sundays and weekdays in the intense cold to complete the bridge had been called upon by the wise Party-Committee to participate in a subotnik to clear away the snow from some street: however all these complaints seemed trivial by comparison with the innumerable grievances caused by encroachments and misdeeds of the Tcheka: arbitrary arrests, acts of oppression against the people, misappropriation of confiscated objects, nay, direct robbery.
On my demand the Party decided that the heads of departments of the Siberian Government were to report to Party meetings on the activities of their departments, where they would have to reply to questions and listen to complaints. The first victim was the head of the Social Welfare Department who gave a report at a meeting of the first Party district. In the discussion I mercilessly criticised the work of that Department. Encouraged by this the general discontent burst the dykes. Finally a vote of “no confidence” against the commissar was carried almost unanimously. As a result a real panic ensued amongst the commissars. Frumkin bitterly complained to me. He said I had introduced a parliamentary system in order to overthrow the government.
“I? But it was the Party district that adopted the resolution,” I replied.
“The Party district indeed,” Frumkin retorted cynically, “of course that is your work.”
“Well, I suppose I too am a member of my Party district.”
“But you are a responsible worker,” he growled. “As such you ought to have come to us with your criticism instead of inciting the mass of the membership.”
“What kind of an animal is a ‘responsible worker'?” I said smiling.
“You have been delegated to Siberia by the Central Committee,” he explained.
I laughed. “Well, let us formulate the point at issue: I maintain that the bureaucrats are responsible for their activities to the Party and to the people. You hold that the Party is responsible to the bureaucrats. Go and ask the Central Committee which of these two thesis it will support.”
Then he too had to laugh – on such an issue he was not prepared to accept battle.
The complaints against the Siberia Tcheka did not subside. In the inner circles of the Party we discussed the matter. “The Tcheka is committing crimes against the people thus creating counter-revolutionary feeling throughout Siberia. If the Siberian Party organisation desires to take responsibility for the misdeeds of the Tcheka I decline to speak any longer old its behalf,” I declared. “Moscow is far and heaven is high, something will have to be done here at Omsk.” The idea took root. One day the Party-Bureau communicated to me a decision to appoint a commission of three under my chairmanship to carry out an investigation of the affairs of the Tcheka.
We lost no time. On the following morning I went with my two colleagues to the headquarters of the Tcheka. We asked to see the chairman or the secretary of the Collegiate of the Tcheka. We were ushered in; only then I informed the secretary of the collegiate of the Party’s decision. I told him we had come to investigate the affairs of the Tcheka. The secretary looked at me flabbergasted. Had I told him that the far-off Baikal lake had flooded Omsk he had sooner believed that to be possible.
“Let us arrange what we are going to see first,” said a member of our trio.
“What,” exclaimed the secretary now awakening from the stunning effect of my communication and turning upon the two members of commission who were “younger” by “Party age,” “you, you want to control us? Take care: It seems you do not quite realise where you are.”
“Listen, citizen,” I replied sternly, “these two comrades are here by order of the Party. I would advise you to assume a different tune. However, in view of this attitude of yours we shall have to forego your services in carrying through our control. I must request you not to leave this room meanwhile. Please ring up the chairman Uralov and ask him to come here. Should you desire to protest to the Party committee by telephone you are of course free to do so,”
He became very tame. “Does that mean that I am under arrest'?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “not so far. Please give now to my two colleagues exact information as to your store rooms, prisons and on monetary matters while I am telephoning.”
I rang up the Department of State Control and asked them to send at once some experienced accountants and warehousemen with seals to assist in controlling accounts and stores. While we were awaiting their arrival the secretary had to answer many questions.
Uralov arrived. He greeted us cordially and made no attempt to hamper us in our work. Only when I instructed the officials of the State Control to seal up the safes of the Finance Department of the Tcheka in order that they might systematically check the documents and accountancy he protested:
“But you are bringing our whole machinery to a standstill!”
“That is not my intention,” I said, “you can meanwhile get out any sum of money you desire against receipt.”
We went to the store rooms and had them sealed too.
“Well, now get your lists and dossiers and let us go to the prisoners,” I said.
Uralov had expected we would be satisfied to look through documents and records. “Will you be able to spare the time to see the prisoners personally and look into the individual cases?” he asked surprised.
“To liberate prisoners I shall always find time,” I replied smiling.
“As you please,” he said politely.
We went to the prison. “Is this the only place where you are keeping prisoners?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” he replied.
However we had taken care to put this same question to the Secretary when he was panic stricken and he had admitted the existence of a second prison. Taken to task Uralov “recalled to mind” that in view of overcrowding a few prisoners had been taken to a temporary place of confinement. His amazement grew when I called the prisoners not simply in the order of his list but produced a list of my own which contained just those names which he would have been most anxious to conceal.
The first whom I wanted to see to Uralov’s great disappointment was a well-to-do Tartar baker, a sincere supporter of the Revolution. Under the Koltchak regime this man had helped the persecuted Communists in every way. He had supplied them with bread and money, had given them employment so that they might get some identity papers, in a word he had risked his own head many a time to protect our comrades. Out of gratitude the victorious Soviet power had not only confiscated his property but was keeping him in prison for months as a “class enemy.” Uralov had no idea and could not establish from his documents why this kindly and generally respected man had been arrested. But just because that was not known they would not release him! His liberation was our first action. I expressed to the baker in the name of the Party our regret and thanked him for his kind assistance to those persecuted by Koltchak. Amongst the prisoners we found also a few German and Hungarian Socialists, good people who had settled in Siberia and married. Their crimes consisted in Social-democratic criticism of the mismanagement of some Soviet authority. In all these cases Uralov at once agreed to order the immediate release. Then a Hungarian redarmist was brought in with shabby untidy clothing. “You have come here, comrade Petroff,” he exclaimed with noticeable relief. Tears ran over his cheeks. Uralov was embarrassed, but the Hungarian had courage. Disregarding the presence of Uralov he told.me in German how he had blundered upon some scandals of the Tcheka, consequently he was now here and not he alone. I noted down the names of the others and insisted on immediate release. So it went on.
When we went out for dinner I requested Uralov to get the minutes of the Collegiate of the Siberian Tcheka for our inspection in the afternoon. At dinner we met Frumkin.
“Have you already managed to clear up the affair of the three million roubles in gold confiscated at a monastery that have disappeared?” he asked me.
“We have not yet got so far,” I replied, “but everything is sealed up, we are working thoroughly.”
Be laughed cynically. On his face his thought was clearly to be read – they will diddle you all right and we will silence you then at long last. Wait and see, I thought. Meanwhile the news “Petroff is investigating the affairs of the Tcheka” was spreading in the town like wildfire.
We returned to our work. We found Uralov much less conciliatory, obviously some one had stiffened his back. The minutes were not there. We spent most of the afternoon in the prison. My two colleagues felt the change of atmosphere and were much less daring. I had to put up a fight for every single release and this not always with success. Towards evening when I insisted on seeing the minutes Uralov declined to produce them without a direct order of the Party and the Sibrevkom. Meanwhile intense wirepulling was going on behind the scenes. The Siberian Party Bureau had a joint sitting with the Sibrevkom without inviting us. On the question of the minutes of the Collegiate the decision went against us. Their reference to our commission had never been meant to go so far, they told us, they had desired only a more general investigation. If we were to work so thoroughly the investigation might last a month and for that there was no time.
“So you desired only to play a farce?” I exclaimed indignantly “The dirty business shall go on and I am to cover it with my good name and help you to throw sand into the eyes of the people! To play such a role you better find someone else. I certainly decline to act a part in your farce.”
This was the end of the investigation of the affairs of the Siberian Tcheka. I called a meeting of my Party district and gave a report on the investigation and its untimely end. “In the town people say that I have investigated the Tcheka,” I said. “I wish it to be known that this investigation has been stopped almost before it started. I decline any responsibility.” Omsk was amazed....
However, it was clear to us that things could not continue in that manner. Irma and I contemplated returning to Moscow. At his next visit to Omsk I. N. Stirnov persuaded me to remain in Siberia until the end of the course of the Party and Soviet School.
One evening a group of redarmists of the Tcheka guard who were known to me appeared in our little room. “May we speak to you frankly, comrade Petroff?” they asked, “it is a matter of importance about which we want to see you.”
“Please do so, I said, “if I can help you with some advice I shall be glad.”
“Comrade Petroff, you know well how things are here,” one of them commenced. “This cannot go on any longer. We are revolutionaries not mercenaries, we are not prepared to support such a State of affairs. Our friends have decided to surround the Tcheka and the Sibrevkom and to shoot the whole crowd. But we have faith in you, we desire to hear your opinion before we take action.”
A short talk with them convinced me that this was not an attempt at provocation. I felt that I had before me honest people brought to a state of desperation. I made no attempt to minimise the evils yet I tried to pacify them and to make it clear to them that such an insurrection would only play into the hands of the enemy, would endanger the front and do harm to the Revolution.
“You must look at things not from an Omsk point of view but from an All-Russian point of view,” I said, “then you will immediately see how dangerous and senseless such a revolt would be.”
It was late in the night when they left but we had succeeded in convincing them to drop their plan.
Approximately at the same time I was approached by some members of my Party district organisation who had been working underground during Koltchak’s regime. They complained bitterly about developments in Siberia.
“It is almost time for a second October Revolution,” they said. “we honest Communists are preparing for it. We have resurrected our old illegal organisation that has been working so well under the Koltchak regime. We have come to invite you and your wife to join us.”
I must confess that I had full sympathy with the feelings of these honest people, it was almost painful to disappoint them. However I explained that against the growing power of the Soviet bureaucracy it was not possible to adopt the same tactics as against Tsarism.
“Supposing you overthrow the Sibrevkom, what changes would it bring?” I asked. “Let us better try to act loyally through the Party as a whole and the central Government who do not approve of the abuses and corruption we see here. At present our best people are at the front like Smirnov but the Civil War is coming to an end, when they return home and make a spring-cleaning in the administration many things will become better. Within a few days the Party and Soviet School will close. Irma and I shall not wait for the Siberian Party Conference, we do not care for a mandate to the Party Congress. We shall rather go to Moscow immediately and urge the recall of these gentry.” This promise pacified the “illegals” and they refrained from drastic action.
A day or two before we left Omsk a members’ meeting took place in our Party district. All knew that we were going to put the grievances of the people of Omsk before the Moscow authorities and the meeting turned into a touching farewell demonstration. “Our dear son is going from us,” on old worker said sadly in a sincere heartfelt farewell speech addressed to me. Less cordial was my leave taking from the Sibrevkom and the Siberian Party Bureau. Irma and I had not deemed it necessary to inform then officially of our decision to return to Moscow. When they had at last succeeded in ascertaining what our plans were they adopted an ambiguous resolution wherein they expressed their appreciation of our work in Siberia but regretted our returning without arranging matters with them.
We took the thirty pounds of flour to which we were entitled and while waiting at the railway station received from a representative of the Supply Department a huge Siberian fish about six feet long. We gladly accepted the gift and shared it afterwards with our friends in Moscow who had been starving all through the winter. The train in which we travelled was a special train of the People’s Commissariat of Transport which had arrived here very opportunely for us. Thus we required for our return journey to Moscow only eight days – one fifth of the time we had spent on the outward bound journey. The Omsk authorities had attached to this train two waggons containing frozen geese and ducks for the privileged who were supplied by the strictly private food depot at the Kremlin. It was explained to us that no supply commissar in the provinces could retain his post without such little courtesies to the ruling caucus.
At the Central Committee of the Party our early return from Siberia was not exactly welcomed. “Well they have nevertheless stuck it six months,” said the general Secretary Krestinsky in a conciliatory manner, “that is something.” However when we gave them an elaborate report on the real situation in Siberia, on the growing discontent of the people and its causes, on the ravages of the Tcheka, the clamouring of the Communists for a “second October,” when we hinted at the resurrection of illegal organisations of disillusioned Communists and drew attention to the danger of an insurrection that might occur any day, then the Central Committee approved of our hurried return to Moscow. “Do you want to lose Siberia a second time?” I asked. “If so let your Sibrevkom continue.” Our warning was heeded. Frumkin, this impossible supply commissar, and some of his intimates were recalled. In another place, at the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Trade Frumkin proved more successful.
However, the changes in the Siberian administration obviously did not go far enough. The discontent smouldered on and finally exploded in an insurrection whose occurrence and bloody suppression could not be fully hushed up.