In April 1921 the elections to the Moscow Soviet were to take place. The elections were held not in a single day; they were spread out over a fortnight, from the 15 to the 29 of April. The workers and employees voted in their factories or institutions at works meetings by show of hands.
During the Civil War the workers had been consoled that after the return of the redarmists from the front freer elections would be possible. However in view of the existing mood of the people the Government was worried about every election and considered it advisable to use pressure and all sorts of tricks.
Irma and I went to a meeting of “responsible workers” in the Samoskvntietsky district of Moseow, where the arrangements for carrying through the elections were to be considered. In our incorrigible optimism we had expected that we would discuss how to awaken the interest of the masses in the forthcoming election, and how to make plain to the people during the election campaign the urgent economic and political problems facing the country. But what happened at the meeting was something entirely different. One speaker after the other – be he from the Moscow Committee or from the District Committee, or from any other Party authority – got up and recommended all sorts of tricks and devices as to how, in face of the strong opposition, the Communist list of candidates might be carried through in the various works and in stitutions. “It is advisable to call the meeting of electors at a time when only a small percentage of the voters can appear,” one speaker suggested. The idea was taken up and keenly discussed in technical detail. All other proposals and the entire discussion were on the same level. At the beginning we sat in amazement. For almost two hours we listened in silence, finally Irma’s patience snapped. Addressing the District Committee she called out: “Is this supposed to be a meeting of Communists or have we chanced into a meeting of Tammany Hall?” A silnce ensued. Only some had grasped the full meaning of Irma’s question. Then I got on my feet:
“It seems you have so completely lost all confidence in the ideas which you pretend to champion that you are convinced you will not be able to win the support of the people. Or have you got used to cheating to such an extent that this has become second nature with you? You are playing a dangerous game: With such methods you are discrediting the Party and the institutions created by the Revolution.”
“It seems you are still for democracy, comrade Petroff,” Some of the “Responsibles” sneered angrily.
“For liberty, and for an honest and open election campaign,” I retorted.
“You will achieve much,” my opponents shouted derisively. “Certainly I will,” I said taking up the challenge. “If in the process a few candidates of your type are turned down – all the better. But the counter-revolution which you are fostering by such practices will be averted. At all events we decline to take responsibility for such cheating.”
Both Irma and I left the meeting as a protest. But nobody dared to reproach us for this flagrant “breach of Party discipline.”
During the elections I spoke also at a meeting of the militia (ordinary police). After my speech in which I dealt with the new problems facing the Soviet after the Civil War the chairman declared: “Well, after this speech it must be clear to everyone what he should do. We have to elect two deputies to the Soviet, the Communist nucleus proposes comrades X and Y. Nobody objects. I therefore declare them ....” I jumped up. “Pardon me,” I said, “I am not used to such methods. After my statement I do expect questions and discussion. After that the candidates will be considered in their absence. Only then can the election take place.” A storm of applause greeted my statement. “Please, please”: the audience called joyfully
“As you desire, comrade Petroff,” said the chairman with a gesture as if he wished to rid himself of all responsibility. After numerous questions and a lively discussion we came to the election. When the candidates had left the room the non-party militia men took their courage in both hands and soon such a picture of the two candidates was revealed that the very nucleus lost all desire to vote for them. Against one of them several cases of corruption were quoted. The second was feared and hated by his colleagues as a brutal and treacherous fellow. “Since we now obviously cannot elect these two men, what are we to do?” the chairman asked. “Well, the meeting will have to propose other candidates,” I replied. In the end two honest non-party men were elected amidst general cheering. How clear and fresh sounded the “Internationale” at the conclusion of the meeting!
On my way home I met the old Bolshevik Sk. also coming from an election meeting. He was in a gloomy mood.
“Never again shall I sing the ‘Internationale’,” he exclaimed “What is the matter with the song?” I enquired, amazed by his outburst.
“Just imagine, I was to address an election meeting at the N. regiment. After my serious speech the commissar declares: ‘A discussion is superfluous, we all know what we have got to do. Now let us vote. There are two candidates, I and comrade so-and-so. No objections? No. Then we are elected. We now sing the Internationale’ Never before has our beautiful old fighting song sounded so obnoxious in my ears,” he added wrathfully.
“But why did you allow that?” I asked.
“That seems to be an instruction of the Party committee,” he sighed, “what can I do against that.”
At a meeting of the nucleus of the Moscow Electricity Works the party secretary proposed that Smidovitch be nominated as a candidate. Smidovitch was an old Bolshevik and a member of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets. Hitherto I had regarded him as quite a decent man but just before the elections an incident had occurred for which he bore responsibility and that showed him rather in an unpleasant light. Smidovitch had been appointed “dictator” of the Soviet houses, the two big ex-hotels “National” and Metropole” where the higher Party and Soviet officials were housed. Lately a new tendency was to be observed in the management of the First House of the Soviets where I too was living. As soon as an old Party member passed over from a “higher” post to a post considered to be “lower” in the bureaucratic hierarchy, he was deprived of his room in the First House of the Soviets. A short time before, a member of the collegiate of the People’s Commissariat for State Control had been transferred to other work in accordance with his own wish; the same evening he had been turned out of his room. Returning home late at night from a meeting he found his belongings in the corridor. He went away to spend the night with a friend, but overtired as he was he had slipped in the snow and had been overrun by a motor car. A protest meeting of the inhabitants of the House against Smidovitch had followed. Now this Smidovitch was here put forward as a candidate. I mentioned the incident and opposed his candidature; of course the worker members of the nucleus agreed with me. Angry about my action the Party bureaucracy put forward Smidovitch’s candidature over the heads of the nucleus. The opposition who in this works were acting quite openly, proposed as an opposition candidate a splendid worker, a Menshevik who had given proof of the honesty of his convictions suffering imprisonment under Tsarism. The Moscow Committee sent a motor car to fetch me to the election meeting in the electricity works. I sent the motor car back – I did not wish to appear at the meeting as representing the Moscow Committee and its candidate. With Irma I walked to the meeting. Smidovitch spoke but met with little success from the audience of over two thousand workers. The address of his Menshevik opponent was enthusiastically cheered. I stood not on the platform but among the audience. “Do you wish to speak, comrade Petroff?” the chairman asked hoping I might succeed in diminishing the impression created by the speech of the Menshevik because I was very popular amongst these workers. All eyes turned upon me. “No thank you,” replied amiably. That was a good start for the election: Smidovitch got three hundred votes, his Menshevik opponent almost two thousand. How the Party administration managed in spite of this fiasco to declare their Smidovitch elected in the end, I do not know; since the “Tammany Hall meeting” I was no longer in their confidence in such matters. In the District Committee they were furious. Their secretary was the old Zemliatchka whose elimination from the Moscow Committee with Sverdlov’s aid I had on a former occasion so brusquely declined. Wrathfully she bounced upon me complaining I had prevented the election of Smidovitch. “I thought you wish to thank me that I refrained from speaking against him in public,” I replied cynically and left her. But here again the Party did not dare to take official action against me.
During one of the last days of the elections I met in the street two girl students of the Sverdlov-University.
“Do you know what we are doing these days?” one of them said to me with a bewildered expression in her face, “we are voting! From morning till evening we go to vote. We are sent to some institution, there we are given a paper that we have been accepted for work, then we vote, return the paper and go further. In the next institution the same procedure. To-day I have already voted seven times.”
“But that is scandalous,” I cried. “Are you not ashamed to help in falsifying elections? Is that what they teach you at the Sverdlov-University?”
The two stood crestfallen. “Believe us, we find no pleasure in it. But it is an order of the Party. What can we do?”
It was Riazanov alone who protested against this demoralisation of the youth. With tears in his eyes he came running to the Central Committee. Everybody else accepted this as they accepted many other things – for it all fitted in with the System! With that system which in the fourth year of the Revolution already began to develop ....
With the introduction of the New Economic Policy which had been inaugurated by replacing the compulsory grain delivery by the produce tax, a great feeling of relief stirred the people. The peasant brought his surplus produce unhampered to town; private restaurants and cafes were opened; a number of private small workshops sprang up. The noble guild of the “nepmen,” the new-rich, appeared in the towns; in the country the richer peasant, the “kulak” got his chance. A long string of new decrees were issued to regulate the new conditions. State capitalism fortified itself while it seemed to limit its field of operation. The monetary system regained lost ground. The State had in the economic sphere secured for itself all “commanding positions”: industry (with the exception of small craftsmen’s workshops), the entire transport system, foreign trade and the rapidly extending banking system. The various trusts and their works were reformed and reconstituted on a commercial basis.
Since the raising of the blockade a year earlier the importance of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Trade had been enhanced. Now under the N.E.P. it had important tasks to fulfil. However, it soon became apparent that peculiar personalities had gathered there who did not always deserve the trust placed in them. Their dealings abroad often shunned the light of the sun; their bureaucratic machine was as inefficient as costly; the gold fund melted away; the goods bought at unfavourable prices congested the railways and did not always reach their destination. In our circles the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Trade was regarded as an awful example of bureaucratic inefficiency and corrupt practices. I was therefore pleased when I heard that a revision of this Commissariat had been decided upon to be carried out by a commission under the chairmanship of Shliapnikov.
One day I was sitting with Ginsburg (Turov) who was a member of the Shliaponikov-commission. I had heard a rumour that the Central Committee of the Party had declined to accept a preliminary report of this commission and I asked him straightaway:
“Well, how thrives your revision? shall we have a report one day?”
“That is a real Panama!” Turov sighed. “Just imagine – money has been given out to all sorts of agents, now they cannot account for four hundred millions of paper roubles. But still worse: Gukovsky head of our Trading Delegation in Estonia has admitted that forty-five million gold roubles are simply missing! We cannot get any explanation what has become of that money.”
“And what does Krassin say?” I asked.
“He just shrugs his shoulders and says that is a mysterious case for which no explanation can be found.”
“Then Gukovsky cannot have been acting on his own,” I remarked “He has been People’s Commissar for Finance for some time and we have heard of no scandals. It looks as if he were being used as a tool by a certain clique consisting of very powerful personages, otherwise he would have been called to order quickly and matters would have been cleared up.”
“That’s where the difficulty lies,” Turov said.
“And what are you doing in order to shed light on the matter?” I asked further.
“We are biting on granite everywhere in this affair,” he admitted.
A few days later I received unexpectedly a visit from a member of the collegiate of the People’s Commissariat for State Control Jakubovsky whom I knew as a faithful friend of Stalin.
“Say, comrade Petroff, you have surely heard of the forty-five million gold roubles which Jakubovsky cannot account for. I wished to go to Reval to clear up the matter there. But Litvinov, at present our ambassador in Estonia, declined to get me a visa. What am I to do?”
“If I were you I should speak to Stalin about it,” I replied, “he is sure to get the visa for you quickly.”
When he left us I said to Irma: “What does that man want? Has he come to spy out how much I know? And why this? Perhaps on behalf of the clique that is behind this dark affair?”
Soon Gukovsky appeared in Moscow. The little man with the small reddish beard did not give the impression of a strong personality. During his short period of office as People’s Commissar for Finance he had proved a perfect nonentity, his appointment had cause surprise at the time. Now one could hardly see him. Within a day or two of his arrival he fell ill, nobody knew what his illness was. He was taken to the Kremlin hospital where he died within a few days. The cause of his death was not published. His funeral passed off as quietly and unnoticed as his illness. For Jakubovsky too his acquaintance with this case proved fatal when later on I met his wife in Berlin I learned that he was kept in a lunatic asylum. Turov-Ginsburg played for some time an important part in Berlin as vice-chairman of the Trading Delegation. Having returned to Russia he was one day found in a forest near Moscow “murdered by robbers.”
The more my general disillusionment grew the more I concentrated on theoretical work and teaching. The economic problems of Soviet Russia continued to occupy my mind; particularly. The underfeeding combined with intensive work had undermined our health. One day the Central Committee of the Party sent a motor car to take Irma and me to one of the newly established rest-houses for two weeks. In the rest-house there were a large number of workers, both men and women. Food was plentiful and by our standards good, but all one could do here was to take walks or go out boating if one found no pleasure in fishing. Of course here too educational work was being carried out, its organisation lay in the hands of Sverdlov’s widow Novorodtseva. While Sverdlov had been President of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, Novgorodtseva had been secretary of the Central Committee of the Party and therefore one of the most influential persons in Russia; at that time we had fought out many a battle with her. Now as a fallen star she had been relegated to that little post, and it was painful to see this undoubtedly capable organiser managing a small library and a bit of educational work amongst the convalescents. She seemed to look at the world from a different angle now, at all events she accepted us in a most friendly manner. Of course I had to deliver at least one lecture. We found this rest-house with its catering en masse little to our liking: in its barrack-room atmosphere it did not correspond to the requirement of brain-workers – after a week we had enough and returned to town.
In Moscow the University for the Eastern Peoples was being established. Both Irma and I were invited to give courses of lectures there. The administration of the university promised us, apart from the salary, a good “payok.” “There will be pork amongst the supplies we get,” said the rector, “our numerous Mahometans don’t eat this, so it will be shared amongst a few of us.” Our mouths watered – we could fancy in our dreams huge lumps of bacon. However, real life was at variance with theory. Instead of the dreamt-of bacon we received week after week large packs of salt-herrings of a most doubtful quality which had been liberally sold to Krassin in Britain – probably because no one else in the whole world would take them. Krassin’s friends could hardly find enough high sounding words to praise him for this smart credit transaction. We however, when we were rushing to the market with our thirty pounds of fragrant commodities trying to exchange then for potatoes, bread or cheese, were imbued with less kindly feelings towards Krassin and his commercial feats.
In June 1921 the Third Congress of the Communist International was to meet in Moscow. At the Hotel Lux where the Comintern used to house their foreign guests there was a great buzz. Kobietsky who because of his Commercial talents had, with Zinoviev’s aid, advanced to the post of Secretary of the Comintern, made elaborate preparation. The Moscow population looked askance at the Comintern; they hated it as one of the most corrupt Soviet institutions, as one of those that knew how to gather in large stocks of all kinds providing its leading caucus with a variety of delicacies and luxuries, and one that became a centre for mysterious speculative deals. By special order issued by Kobietsky and his superiors, delegates and certain parasitic guests could obtain beautiful furs, valuable golden watches, nickel samovars, suits of clothing and whatnot. But not all that the Comintern stored up for such purposes was actually supplied to the delegates – or are we to believe that these the three hundred tooth brushes which the Comintern demanded from the state stores for the delegates to the Third Congress? It is true, amongst the delegates there were some who were not ashamed to carry off from impoverished Russia several new suits to their home country. One of the German Communist leaders returned to Berlin with seven new suits. No wonder therefore that the inhabitants of Hotel Lux were termed “parasites” by the people. At several meetings the workers put pertinent questions to me on this subject. “Is it true that the delegate E. has received seven new suits from the stores of the Comintern?” one who knew asked me. “Why is the Comintern now demanding poods of caviar?” another worker shouted. “And so much Caucasian wine?” a third exclaimed. “The stocks of the Comintern would suffice to feed all the children in the district,” declared a woman worker slightly exaggerating. When such protests grew more frequent I raised the question in the Party. Other speakers reported similar complaints. We declined to defend those parasites at workers’ meetings. After the Congress an investigation was carried through which revealed a big scandal and led to a few dismissals. However, that was after the Congress. Now, during the Congress, that business flourished. In front of the “Lux” rows of motor cars and motor lorries stood for days on end in order to save the delegates ten minutes walk to the Kremlin where the Congress met. At this very time at the goods stations several waggons of medicines and hospital appliances were waiting that could not be unloaded for lack of transport. Who cared that the hospital patients were suffering; it was so much more important to have these heroes of the World Revolution driving about in their smart new suits, thus keeping them in a cheerful mood. The hatred of the Moscow workers was explicable; it could not be expected of them that they should differentiate between chaff and wheat at the “Lux.”
This Third Congress undoubtedly formed the zenith of the international Communist movement. It was as yet not possible to notice from abroad the signs of the inner counter-revolution: developing in Russia. How many people are there who do not wish to realise this even at the present time. Abroad the Communist movement was still everywhere a rising tide, people honestly believed both in Russia and abroad in the imminent World Revolution in spite of the setbacks in Bavaria, Hungary and Central Germany. Socialist parties in France and Italy asked humbly to be admitted to the Comintern; the Polish-Jewish “Bund” and the Poalozionists had sent delegates; those elements tending towards Anarchism, as for instance the Communist Workers’ Party (K.A.P.D.) of Germany had not yet entirely severed their connections with the Communist International. In Asia and Africa Communist influence was growing. The generals holding parade here in Moscow might well have been proud.
Among those attending the Congress 291 were regarded as fully qualified delegates, 210 were allowed to participate in the deliberations without the right to vote, further there were about a hundred guests.
Listening day after day to the endless speeches of these generals of the World Revolution with all their prophecies that were never realised being based on nothing but wishful thinking, one could not help wondering whether one or other of these reports could not have been profitably left cut, whether these had not been devised merely in order to provide this or that “star” with an adequate place in the limelight. Some of these “leaders” visibly enjoyed their “number” – one brave German knight continued to hold his position on the platform even when all those in the audience who understood his language had taken to flight. The discussions with their fine differentiations between Rightists, Leftists, Half- and Three quarter-Centrists (Conciliators and half-Conciliators were not yet invented at the time) reminded me of the moody atmosphere of uprooted refugee-groups abroad whence I used to escape in London into the living though “untheoretical” British Labour movement. Now when there were so many pressing problems demanding solution this chatter struck me as unreal and ridiculous. It annoyed me when our “world leaders” who during their years of exile had little concerned themselves with the real proletarian mass movement now wished to play the part of teachers not alone of the political parties but also of the Trade Unions, Co-operatives and youth organisations of all countries.
The Congress adopted a number of resolutions, lengthy and contradictory, full of platitudes. A few lines from the resolution on tactics will give an idea of the illusions current at the time:
“What may be expected is not the waning of the star of the world revolution, not the ebb of its waves, but on the contrary the aggravation of social antagonism and social struggles, and the transition to open civil war ....
The Communist Parties have no minimum programme for the strengthening of the reeling world structure within the system of capitalism. The destruction of this system is the chief aim and immediate task of the parties. But to achieve this .... the Communist parties must put forward demands and .... fight together with the masses for their fulfilment
What interested us most at the whole Congress were the debates on the German March-putsch.
Before the Congress Irma and I had been trying in vain to gain a clear idea of these events and their background. In view of this general mystery-mongering as to this affair it was obvious that the “general staff of the world revolution” had a great deal to hide. Now after the arrival of the German delegates the mist began to clear away. It is true, even these did not know all the circumstances. Only later on when Bela Kun’s mission became known and the “Vorwaerts” burst out with its revelations that brought about a severe crisis in the German Communist Party, the picture became complete.
This putsch of Easter 1921 was probably one of the most senseless crimes with which the Comintern has burdened its elastic conscience. The Comintern had sent the precious Bela Kun to Germany apparently with the order to prove at all costs that the world revolution was still on the march. Obedient to orders received, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany did all in its power to bring the working masses, then in a state of indifference, into motion. In various parts of Germany dynamite explosions were enacted that – supposed to have been committed by the enemy – were meant to exasperate the workers. The Communist “Zersetzungsleiter” (director of disruption) Eberlein travelled all through the Reich to organise such acts. On the 23 March he appeared at Halle. He demanded that “an attempt be made to incite the workers by terrorist acts to such a degree that they will be induced to fight” (Report of the Communist functionary Lamek to the Central Committee, dated the 8 April 1921) Eberlein demanded that the Communist Workers’ Club be blown up as the best means of provoking the workers. This was refused by the local Communists, but they decided to dynamite a munition dump and a new building of the Co-operative Society. That this enterprise failed was certainly not the fault of the Communist leaders.
In the district Halle-Merseburg, where poverty was widespread and the influence of the Communists considerable and where tens of thousands of workers were engaged in a defensive strike, a man who seemed predestined as a putsch-chief came forward to lead the armed Communists. It was the railway pointsman Max Hoelz a member of the Communist Workers’ Party. This brave and brutal muddle-headed man succeeded in scaring all philistines: he “conquered” a number of undefended small towns and made such a noise with his imposition of “contributions,” his “confiscations,” taking of hostages and shootings as to provide the sensational press of the whole world with the gruesome story of a Communist revolution in Germany. It is true, the police reinforced by one battery of the Reichswehr soon put an end to the whole affair, but the senseless cruelties of the police could not justify the senseless cruelties of the putschists in the eyes of the thinking, workers. The “movement” remained localised within the central German industrial district. All the thunder of the Reichswehr guns and of the Communist bombs could not arouse the workers from their lethargy. While the struggle was in progress some of the best brains amongst the Communists had opposed this mad putsch, Dr. Paul Levi came out with a pamphlet against it that roused the wrath of the Comintern and led to his expulsion from the German Communist Party. Daeumig categorically declared to the Central Committee that his conscience forbade him to have anything to do with this “March-action.” Now at the Congress of the Comintern the German delegate Malzahn definitely dissociated himself from the March putsch, and later on, after the revelations in the “Vorwaerts” 128 functionaries of the German Communist Party sent an ultimatum to their Central Committee demanding the resignation of the discredited members from the Central Committee – of course without success.
This was the question on which the Third. Congress of the Comintern had to give its verdict. The debate was heated and stormy (although little of this is reflected in the official report), but all participants spoke in a curious ambiguous manner, trying to express to each other what was on their minds but to hide their reasons from the uninitiated listener. The debate did not bring about a bridging of the gulf; not one opponent of the putsch became convinced of its usefulness. But the Congress of the Comintern threw in its entire authority on the side of the putschists who might have erred in details but were considered justified in their action as a whole:
“The March action was forced upon the Communist Party of Germany ...” (quite right, it had been forced upon it by Moscow, but of course this is not meant here! P.)
“The Congress of the Comintern considers the March action of the Communist Party of Germany as a step forward. The March action was a heroic fight of hundreds and thousands of proletarians against the bourgeoisie. And the Communist Party by placing itself courageously at the head of the defence of the workers of Central Germany has shown itself to be the Party of the revolutionary proletariat of Germany
Clara Zetkin had been also opposed to the March putsch, but the sly strategists of the Comintern soon perceived that this fortress could be taken. As one of the oldest pioneers of the Social-democratic women Clara Zetkin was known and respected throughout Germany. Such popular names trusted by the workers at home were highly valued in Moscow. They were required not as experienced advisers but as Communist ikons in front of whom the masses would kneel reverently. Clara’s weak spot: her queer vanity was generally known; an attack on this point was bound to be successful. Unfortunately for her, her sixty-fifth birthday fell during the Congress. When she entered the Congress hall on that day her place was covered with flowers, the entire hall was festively decorated. Photographers with their cameras were waiting to photograph “the aged pioneer cheered by the representatives of the world proletariat,” A festive atmosphere pervaded the meeting; Eckert, smartly dressed up, came up as the official congratulator. Touched to tears, her backbone broken by loving embrace, this pillar of the German Communist opposition sank into the open arms of the caucus of the Comintern.
But among the guests of the Congress there were two wicked persons who did not share the general enthusiasm nor pretended to do so. With a malevolent smile Irma and I looked both at the smirking augurs and their naive believers.
The report on the policy of the Russian Communist Party was given by Lenin. It seemed that he desired to use the authority of the Comintern as a support against the opponents of the New Economic Policy. In order to create the delusion of an opposition of such a harmless nature as did not exist in reality Alexandra Kollontai had been invited to give a performance. This talented lady, glistening like a butterfly, had been flirting for a while with the Workers’ Opposition. So she was now detailed to appear as an opponent of the N.E.P. To play such a part at the World Congress flattered her vanity, and the wirepullers behind the scenes thought with Shtshedrin – opposition is harmless when it does no harm. “The capitalist system in all countries is living its last days,” Kollontai recited pathetically with her sonorous voice, “and the social revolution is inevitable. For this reason we ask: Is not the change of policy a return to the capitalist system?”
“Come let us go and have tea,” I said to the Austrian delegate, Steinhardt (Gruber), “if I wish to see a comedy I prefer to go to a theatre.” We sat down at one of the large tables in the tea room.
Steinhard who had spent a year in Russia and who at times had his eyes open said angrily: “Why don’t they let the real opposition speak? Why don’t you open your mouth?”
I looked at him in surprise. Why, was the fellow blind? Didn’t he know that this room was bristling with tchekists? Did he not notice how Menzhinsky, who was sitting opposite was pricking up his ears? And at the next table there sat of all people Mogilevsky, the head of the foreign department of the Tcheka. “But what do you want?” I said. “Kollontai is offering opposition, and I certainly am not opposing the New Economic Policy. Your naivety is really amusing. Now hurry up with your tea or you will miss the translation of the speech.”
I do not know whether he understood my warning, anyhow he followed my advice. “Funny creatures you Russians are!” he growled. “What is really going on here the devil alone knows.”
On our way back to the hall I took him to task. “Are you living on the moon, Steinhardt?” I said. “You certainly have found the right place for such a talk, in between Mogilevsky and Menzhinsky!”
“And because of these fellows an old revolutionary like you can no longer speak his mind freely in a private conversation?”
“It all depends,” I laughed. “You know my views. My opposition is not on the surface like that of Trotsky in the Trade Union discussion or like that of Shliapnikov – to expound this in front of the police my hour has not yet come. We are no longer in 1918.”
Later on the Swede Hoeglund buttonholed me. He was one of the few to whom one could speak openly without fear of being misunderstood or betrayed. With the Norwegian Fries I had had a year before rather unpleasant, experiences in this respect; however I had perfect confidence in the intelligent and earnest Hoeglund. We want to a quiet corner.
“What do you think of the whole affair?” he asked me in a whisper.
“Do you mean the Kollontai comedy?”
“No, everything, what have you attained here?”
“Dictatorship of the proletariat – so ‘Pravda’ tells us every day,” I replied.
“Seriously,” be asked impatiently, “what is the state of affairs?”
“Economically – state capitalism. Politically – barbarian Asiatic police dictatorship in red slogan sauce,” I burst out. We continued our talk for quite a time and I understood this would be Hoeglund’s last Communist Congress. Finally we parted not to attract attention. But Hoeglund never gave me away.
John Maclean had instructed the Scottish Socialist Clunie to attend the Congress and to enquire of me as to the situation in Russia. We spent several hours together and I tried to give him a comprehensive idea of the developments in Russia. Other delegates also came to me to learn about the economic problems of the country. From the point of view of the Party caucus it was a serious crime that Irma and I committed by honestly replying to delegates’ questions, but we knew how far we could go. I openly stated that our economic position as a whole was rather difficult and that at the moment there was a grave danger of famine since it was becoming more and more evident, that our harvest in the chief agricultural districts would be a complete failure. How terrible that famine was to become I could of course not yet foresee. During, the debate on the Russian question some delegates came out with their newly acquired wisdom, Lenin was asked whether it was not time to start organising international help. To my horror Lenin had the audacity to brazenly declare that all was in the best order, things did not look so black. I could hardly believe my ears and. Irma looked at me baffled.
“Have you heard that?” she asked.
“Precisely as under Tsarism during the horrid famine in the ‘nineties,” I replied, “at first the fact was denied, then difficulties were put in the way of those who came to help.”
“Have we already reached such a stage that the Government for reasons of prestige permits peasants to starve to death?” Irma asked.
“Surely Lenin cannot be less informed about the position on the Volga than we are,” I meditated.
“Six poods per desiatina is expected where we obtained one hundred and more in 1919,” growled Irma.
I drew her away. “Come home. I shall burst here,” I said.
“What does it all mean?” Irma asked bewildered when we were outside. “Why all this lying? I can’t see any tangible reason for that.”
“Lenin has some reason for that,” I explained. “Who is responsible for the plundering of the peasantry and for the ruination of agriculture through the mad supply policy. But can anyone play in such a manner with the lives of hundreds of thousands?”
“After all the chief culprit is not the Government but the Whites,” Irma said, “who had cut off Siberia and the Ukraine so that no other way was left to the Government but the plundering of the Volga districts.”
“I am afraid the N.E.P. has come too late,” I said sadly. For a while we were each following our thoughts in silence.
“Irma, I have enough of all this swinishness,” I said finally, “I can no longer accept any share in the responsibility.”
“You are right,” she responded, “we must get busy to carry out our plan to go abroad.”
“At all costs!” I replied decidedly.
“I am so glad that you are in earnest at last,” she said grasping my hand, “we must go.”
I nodded. “This silent acquiescence is becoming a crime.”
“Then we must act cleverly now,” Irma remarked, “otherwise they won’t let us out like poor Balabanova. She has been waiting almost a year for her passport. So remember – Vorsicht ist die Mutter der Porzellankiste.” (Caution is the mother of wisdom as paraphrased by Berlin wit.)
For some weeks we had already been playing with the idea of going abroad. For this purpose we had in May officially registered our hitherto free marriage, having Tom Quelch for our “best man.” For we wished to avoid possible difficulties abroad. Now we seriously took up our preparations for the journey. Irma managed to smuggle in a roundabout manner a letter to the President of the German Reichstag Paul Loebe, an old friend of hers from the time of her German activity in the Social-democratic Party at Breslau. She requested him to get for both of us the German visa as after the perturbations and privations of the last years we wished for a time to live quietly in Germany. “If this letter reaches him we shall get the visa. Loebe is a man on whom one can rely.” Irma said with conviction. Meanwhile we made all preparations to travel illegally if necessary. At this juncture a few transports of late Austrian civilian prisoners of war were going home travelling through Stettin and Berlin. We could easily get into such a party – to obtain the necessary papers was not difficult. In order to avoid being recognised by the passport photo we sought out the worst street photographer in all Moscow. Really the pictures corresponded to our desire – it would be hard enough to recognise us. When all this had been arranged we went to the Central Committee of the Party. We spoke to Molotov, one of the three secretaries.
“We should like to go abroad for some time,” we told him, “to Germany."
“I can quite understand that,” Molotov said amiably, “you are of course tired after all you have gone through. However, it will be difficult to go to Germany. Would you care to take on some mission?”
“No,” I said, “we desire to travel just as private citizens.”
“Then you will hardly get a visa,” Molotov replied. “Rykov is really ill; he is lying in Latvia and the Germans decline to let him in. What about your going to Latvia? We have a good sanatorium there where you might have a rest and good food for a while. We shall gladly provide the necessary money.”
“No, thank you,” I replied, “we wish to go to Germany. We shall get the visa.”
“I greatly doubt that,” Molotov said, “I will ask the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. Call again within a few days.”
We understood that Molotov who, though secretary of the Central Committee was but on the other end of the telephone of the general secretary Stalin, wished to gain time to ask the opinion of the Kremlin. We took leave.
Thereupon we went to see Tchitcherin. He understood us without any explanations. When we described our plan he shook his head. “If only it was as simple as you think,” he said. “You are of course persona grata in Berlin after the ratification of the peace treaty, but Irma – I hardly believe that the Germans will admit Irma, she stepped on their corns too much in 1918. Of course I shall gladly do all in my power to help you.”
Irma told him about the smuggled letter to Loebe.
“Reichstagspraesident,” Tchitcherin said contemplatively, “that looks official. Then I can send a wire for you through to him. Were he a private person I could not do that.”
We mentioned our illegal arrangements.
“That looks like the pair of you,” he smiled, “but I'm afraid you may get into trouble. Try first all legal possibilities. And may I give you a word of advice. It is true that we issue foreign passports, but now they have to be endorsed by the Tcheka. It happens that some of them get lost, as did Riazanov’s the other day. Don’t let your passports out of your hands, go everywhere personally and wait for them, never let the passports be sent to you.”
We were very grateful for this hint and took it to heart.
When we came again to see Molotov he said: “On my enquiry the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs replied that it is out of the question that you will get the German visa.”
“And what ass has written that?” I asked.
“Looks like him,” Irma remarked, “after all I suppose I know Germany better than he does and I tell you we shall get the visa and that without Litvinov.”
“All right, you can of course speak to Tchitcherin,” Molotov replied. “What about accepting a mission from the Comintern?”
“From them? Pooh!” Irma burst out.
“Well, well, I shall think what can be done to provide you with foreign currency. And the question of a mission may be left in abeyance for the time being.”
“We shall go in any case, this way or that,” I said. “If nothing can be arranged we go illegally. We have made arrangements for that too. In Germany we can somehow legalise ourselves.”
This was intended to show him that our decision was unshakable, that no tricks would help, and that a big scandal might be the outcome.
“Please come again as soon as you have the visa. I hope you will succeed,” Molotov said when we left. He was convinced that we would not get it.
On coming out we met Krestinsky who had just been appointed ambassador to Germany.
“What are you doing at present?” he asked us.
“We wish to be in Berlin earlier than you,” I replied cheerfully.
“And what about the visa?
“We shall get it,” Irma exclaimed.
“Quite possibly,” Krestinsky replied more polite than convinced,” “as one time special envoy the Germans may perhaps admit you.”
“See you in Berlin!” We parted.
On the 3 August we went, to the passport department of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and asked that passports be issued to us. The head of the department happened to be a former pupil of mine. In consequence of my educational activity I usually met pupils in most institutions.
“With pleasure,” he said when he heard our request, “when shall I send you the passports?”
“Better get them ready at once,” I replied, “we shall wait here and get Litvinov’s signature ourselves.”
“As you please. And which People’s Commissariat are you travelling on behalf of?”
“Simply as private citizens.”
He looked at me slyly. “Oh, I understand.”
“There is nothing to be understood. We really are travelling as private citizens.”
“All right,” he said with a cunning smile. When he handed us the passports he shook hands and wished us good luck. “But don’t be caught,” he whispered confidentially.
“You are really on the wrong track,” Irma said.
“Of course, you are private citizens. Best success!”
The good fellow could not possibly believe that we were really travelling as private persons. Thus he imagined an extremely important strictly confidential mission. And we were to find that many a Soviet and foreign authority thought likewise.
We then went straight to Litvinov. His secretary told us, Litvinov had instructed her that he would not receive anyone that day and that she should not disturb him. “We have no desire to see him” I said, “tell him so. Let him only sign these two Passports. We are waiting. She went in. In tears she returned – Litvinov had harshly reprimanded her. But he had signed the passports. We comforted the poor girl and went further.
We directed our steps to the Tcheka. We asked to see Mogilevsky. He received us with great courtesy and finally enquired what he could do for us. Meanwhile a secretary had brought in some passports which Mogilevsky signed while talking to us.
“We have come on the same matter,” I said smiling pointing to these signed passports and took out ours. “Please sign them as well.”
“Certainly with pleasure,” he said somewhat confused and signed them immediately. “But for such a little matter there was no need for you.to take the trouble of coming yourselves. Surely, we could have sent them to you.”
“When I am doing a thing I don’t like delays. I prefer to do everything myself” I replied quite seriously.
“The stamp is in Yagoda’s room, his signature is also required. I shall send down the passports immediately.”
“Thanks we shall go to him ourselves,” I replied.
“Of course, if you wish to see him. My secretary will take you there.”
Yagoda had been working in the Supreme Military Inspection and I knew him well. He received me cordially and was at once prepared to sign the passports. But alas, it appeared that a colleague of his had gone out keeping in his pocket the key of the drawer in which the stamp was kept; it would be necessary to await his return. Yagoda suggested he would send us the passports.
“No, that won’t do,” I said, “I want to see the matter arranged. Can you not find another key that fits?”
“Unfortunately that is not possible. This is a very intricate lock.”
“Well, if so we shall have to wait for your colleague,” I said resigned. “Let us hope he will soon appear.”
“Unfortunately this is quite uncertain,” Yagoda regretted. “Then we must have patience,” Irma remarked.
“Will you wait here then please,” Yagoda invited showing us into another room.
In the waiting room there were journals which we looked through. Hours passed. Meanwhile we were shown round. A nice young secretary from Lenin’s office came across. This friendly intelligent looking young man with his dark moustache and delicate white hands we could hardly have expected to meet in this place.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
“I am often here on business,” he replied with an embarrassed smile. “I have helped here to dispatch more than one Whiteguardist to another world.”
“You? Really?” I asked doubtingly, “and here? Where?”
“Would you like to see?” he asked obviously glad that I accepted his statement in such a matter-of-fact manner, “come with me.”
We wandered through endless corridors and descended flights of stairs. Thus we reached a narrow yard with a bloodstained wall dotted with impressions from revolver bullets.
“Here then?” I asked.
“Yes. But not always here.”
I managed to suppress my abhorrence. So this amiable, apparently intelligent young man from Lenin’s immediate surroundings had such a spare time occupation? My heart turned to ice. To kill an enemy in armed combat is one thing – I am certainly not a pacifist. However that this young fellow with his gentle features and dark eyes willingly accepted the part of the executioner I could not believe. And this tiny yard where four years after the Civil War was at an end luckless human beings were still being shot down without any trial made a horrid impression on me. Irma did not utter a word, she gulped down her rage. We returned to our waiting room strengthened in our determination to see through our passport affair. Yagoda had meanwhile been called to the Kremlin, but our patience was inexhaustible. Eight hours had passed since our arrival when Yagoda entered the room again. Now the key had been recovered and with profuse apologies he stamped and signed our passports. With a sigh of relief we left the marvellous institution.
“I wonder what has transpired in the Kremlin during these hours ...” I said to Irma.
“Do you think they sent that fellow from the Kremlin in the hope we should get nervous and run off?” she asked.
“Quite likely. If so their calculation miscarried.”
“Accursed executioners!” Irma hissed.
“If they could understand in what way this affects us they might have refrained from such a silly trick,” I said. “If we had lost our nerve, we might wait for our passports till doomsday.”
“Till the twilight of the gods,” Irma remarked meaningfully.
“Yes. But in view of the determination we have shown to-day they had to capitulate or risk a big scandal.”
Thus the first obstacle was overcome. But there was no German visa as yet. The next day, when we showed our passports to Tchitcherin, he congratulated us.
“A passport with all the stamps and signatures required – in one day” he exclaimed, “really, no one but you has ever managed that.”
A few days later, returning home, we met on the corridor of the First House of the Soviets the tchekist Belov with whom I had got acquainted in winter in the sanatorium. He was looking for a chance to telephone and asked permission to telephone from our room “Certainly,” I said. Irma and I exchanged a quick glance. The “urgent” call appeared to be mere prattle with the Tcheka. “Do you know where I am speaking from?” he asked in the course of his conversation, “from the room of comrade Petroff.” The rejoinder I could not hear of course. But further he said pretending to have changed the subject: “No, Nicolai Ivanovitch thinks he is a good fellow but he has a nasty tail.” The tchekist could not imagine how much he had betrayed to us by these words. Nicolai Ivanovitch Bukharin had recently met us in the street together with a prominent scientist who was a great friend of ours though he still remained loyal to his Menshevist creed. In passing we had exchanged greetings with Bukharin; he had stopped and followed us with his eyes in amazement. On his face was clearly imprinted how much he deprecated our “hostile associations.” Now it was easy enough to put two and two together. It was obvious that on the day when we were waiting in the Tcheka, the question of our going abroad had been discussed in the Kremlin at a meeting of the Politbureau or by way of telephonic intercourse between its members. We had no doubt that Lenin would consent and Stalin oppose. Now we understood that the amiable little Bukharin had opposed our plan referring to this incident just as on a previous occasion when he had considered me dangerous as “I too was upset by their evil doings.” I had a strong desire to seize the impudent telephone talker by his collar and throw him out of the room but Irma whispered in a warning voice: “Porzellankiste.” This was a reminder of her often repeated German jocular expression: “Vorsicht ist die Mutter der Porzellankiste.” I heeded her and remained polite. When the tchekist was gone I exclaimed wrathfully:
“Such impudence! Had it not been better to smack his face?”
“Are you so sure that he is an enemy?” Irma said with a twinkle in her eyes. “You have friends and pupils even in the Tcheka. Perhaps he had orders to pay a visit to this room in our absence and he did not like it? Apart from that he has, probably unconsciously, betrayed to us where the enemy stands.”
“I can no longer breathe in this atmosphere,” I exclaimed.
“Then we must all the more control our nerves in order to get away soon,” Irma replied earnestly, “let us hope Loebe will act quickly. For I too can’t stand it much longer, otherwise I shall one day put a bullet through my own head or shoot down one of those dogs.”
Every political party that comes into power becomes corrupted. Its ranks are filled not only by followers of the idea it is striving for but also by all sorts of job-hunters, crafty individuals without principles who desire to climb up on the backs of the fighters for an idea. This applies with greater force to a small, hitherto persecuted, revolutionary party suddenly called upon to take over the administration of a vast realm without any public control. It will inevitably attract a variety of adventurers and humbugs as honey attracts flies. And such unlimited power tends to demoralise also the old tried fighters for the idea.
The Party itself recognised this fact and it was Lenin’s Plan to submit the entire membership without exception to a periodical examination by the new Control-Commission, and in this manner to cleanse the Party of morally corrupted elements. Nobody could then foresee what use this double-edged weapon could be turned to when, in Stalin’s hands, it was hung as a Damocles sword over the heads of any new trend or opposition. I too, failed to realise this danger and welcomed the new institution, I was only afraid that a different yard-stick might be applied on the top and at the bottom. “Whether or not I can regard this new institution as a step in the right direction I can say only when the cleansing will be over,” I said to Dr. Helfer and Zalutsky who belonged to the Central Moscow Control Commissions. “First I must see how your Commissions work and whether the tape measure which they apply is not made of elastic. The need for the cleansing of the Augean stable called the Party is great indeed.” Every member of the Party who had joined after the Revolution required two recommendations of old revolutionaries. I was frequently asked for such recommendations by late pupils who had attended one of my courses. As I was known to demand a high standard political morals of Party members my recommendations were regarded as particularly valuable.
The harvest turned out worse than the most pessimistic calculations. In the Volga district the catastrophe reached enormous dimensions. There were no stocks left over from past years, already in the harvest month hunger commenced. The news spread horror everywhere; it became clear that without assistance from abroad millions of people would die of famine. Now the Government began to move. But the inadequate transport facilities, the inefficient cumbersome state machinery, the complete absence of stocks within easy reach made the catastrophe more acute. Tremendous purchases of grain abroad were essential, the import of foodstuffs jumped up in 1921/22 to almost 95 million roubles, five times its normal level. Now it became evident that the sordid State of affairs in the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Trade meant for the people. Unconcerned about the approaching catastrophe this Commissariat had made arrangements for the export of grain and had really succeeded in exporting grain to the amount of 2.6 million roubles – in this year of the most terrible famine known in modern Russian history that involved five million deaths from famine and caused the mass problem of waifs and strays!
The more the catastrophe revealed itself, the clearer the features of the picture stood out, the more uncertain we became in our decision to leave the country.
“Is it possible to get away now?” I said to Irma. “Should the Party wish to send us to the famine district we will give up our plan.”
“Certainly if there were any chance to help,” Irma replied. “But we would have to fight against windmills. And our indignation has reached a stage that makes difficult for us to collaborate in any sphere whatsoever.”
“When we shall have carefully reconsidered and thought over all these problems outside in a free atmosphere and come to the conclusion that we may yet be able to help we shall return,” I said.
“Agreed,” Irma exclaimed, “we shall not burn any bridges. But on one thing you must make up your mind: should we now remain here we must either surrender our principles or play a double game.
“One alternative would be as unworthy as the other,” I said, “we go!”
At the German Embassy in Moscow a friend of Loebe had arrived who brought us the news that the granting of the visa had been decided in principle and that we might expect to get it within a few days.
As we wished as far as possible to pay our own expenses, Irma went to the market and sold there with a great show of insolence in contravention of the anti-speculation laws our fur coats and everything else we could possibly do without. With the realised sum we went to Radek, then General Secretary of the Comintern, asking him to change our roubles into German marks since the rouble was not stabilised and the purchase of foreign currency was prohibited. The result was meagre indeed, the German visa for our two passports alone cost 120 marks, then there was the Lettish transit visa and the tickets. Consequently we were not in a position to refuse the offered grant from the Central Committee of the Party, but we asked for only five thousand roubles for both of us while the usual grant to Party members sent to the Riga sanatorium where they would be provided free with everything, was ten thousand roubles per head. They laughed about our modesty, but we received our five thousand roubles and got them changed at the official rate of exchange.
Day in, day out we now trotted to the German Consulate. But every time the official told us that our visa had not yet arrived. We were in despair when on one occasion we met on the corridor the German representative Herr Hilger himself.
“Why don’t you come to get your visa?” he asked, “it has been here for a week.”
“A whole week?” Irma exclaimed in amazement, “we have been here every single day to enquire and just this moment your official has told us that it had not come.”
Hilger was greatly surprised. “Well, come into my room and your passports will be visaed at once.”
This was on the 8 September. Thus the German visa had been received before the visa of the Tcheka on our passports had expired on the 3 September. However, that had been prolonged this time without any difficulties.
Now at long last everything was ready. At the last moment we went to the Central Committee where we had to part from two dear old friends since we could not take them with us – we gave our two large parabellum revolvers to Xenophontov the director of the office against, receipt to be kept “until our return.”
Late in the night we went to Tchitcherin to say goodbye. In his waiting room there were comfortable easy chairs quite in keeping with the reception hour: 3 a.m. Together with us there waited for a few minutes a gentleman of nordic appearance, this was Fritjof Nansen the noble humanitarian, who had come to organise help for the famine districts.
Our leave taking from Tchitcherin was very pathetic. Our old friend knew how our hearts ached, but he approved of our action. “Europe meanwhile has also undertone great changes,” he said, “take a good look round at the changed world and only then draw your conclusions. In your position one is easily tempted to idealise the far-off.”
Soon our train steamed towards the border. At the frontier control we had a surprise. One of the representatives of the Tcheka appeared to be a former pupil of mine from Siberia who had once come to me with his friend to inform me about the shooting of an innocent person. His friend, undoubtedly an honest Communist, had got into trouble and was now in a concentration camp. We discussed what could be done to attain his release.
The train moved on – the frontier lay behind us. With tears in her eyes Irma waved towards the Russian plains. “Matushka Rossia, when shall we see you again?”
“When Liberty returns!” I said in a steady voice.