After our resignation from the Party our dismissal from work could be only a question of weeks. On entering employment at the Trading Delegation Irma had signed the usual form stating that she would return to Russia if recalled. Now she received an official communication demanding she should return to Moscow on “the 1 July.” But the letter had been written belatedly and bore the date of the 3 July. She made fun of this anachronism in her reply taunting them that as she had almost a year’s time till the 1 of July so much time was no doubt required to find a room in Moscow, meanwhile she would consider the matter. So far as I was concerned they had never dared to ask me to sign such a form. However, in the meantime a “law” had been promulgated making a refusal to return on recall an offence punishable by loss of citizenship and death. During negotiations with Begge, the new chairman of the Trading Delegation, the secretary of this institution, a tckekist, threatened us with this law. Irma replied with an ancient German saying “Die Nuernberger hangeten keinen, sie haetten ihn denn zuvor” (The Nuremberg authorities never hanged any one unless they had got him). And I said: “So far as I am concerned you have never officially asked me to return. Besides I do not recognise Stalin’s right to decree such a ‘law’. A citizen does not belong to the State like cattle. If they wish to deprive me of Russian citizenship the Government must do that officially in writing. I shall give my reply publicly.” Obviously they were not eager to get a reply in the press – at all events I have received no such official intimation to this day. Our book was nearing completion. Since they had ceased to pay us salary we were free to look for another publisher. But after some negotiations we reached an understanding, with Begge whom we respected as a decent man. According to this agreement we were to finish our book and the Trading Delegation was to publish it. We considered it would take us another four months to finish this work and reached an agreement on the basis of a sum representing four months salary. It appeared however that the difficulties were greater than we had expected and it took us eight months to finish our work whereby our income was considerably reduced. At last the book was ready to be sent to the printers. The Trading Delegation chose a Communist printing firm. We objected since the firm’s equipment was inadequate as they could not cope with our complicated tables. For some time the firm tried in vain to get on with the job, then Begge stepped in, withdrew the order and transferred it to a first class printer.
While the book was still in the press, the American magazine Journal of Commerce issued two big special numbers devoted to Soviet Russia. A leading member of its editorial staff had visited Soviet Russia and established close connections there. He had passed through Berlin and asked the Trading Delegation for material on Russian economic life. Through a flagrant breach of confidence by the administration of the Trading Delegation he was given access to parts of our manuscript. Thus it happened that the Journal of Commerce could print ten tables worked out by Irma and myself, publishing them without any reference to the authors. Amongst these tables was one containing a preliminary figure and calculations on that basis. Before the book was printed we altered this having received new data. This table – our work but never published by us in this form – the Journal of Commerce published as its own without stating that it was copied from our unpublished manuscript. Thus we were able to prove to the Berlin “American Institute” this literary theft of our publishers, the Soviet Trading Delegation. We sent a strong protest to the editor of the Journal of Commerce but since no literary convention between the Soviet Union and the United States existed the “American Institute” could not accord us protection and we had not the money to take legal action in an American court. We discussed the matter with Dr. Paul Levi who was not only a political leader but a brilliant lawyer. “When you have business with the Russian Government,” he said, “you must conclude an agreement which provides for every possibility and places every valve under double lock.” The head of the Trading Delegation, Begge said: “Well, literary property rights – such a thing once existed. Don’t you know that in the Soviet Union they now print on the theatre progamme notes referring to a play as “stolen from this or that author"? So nothing could be done.
At long last the book was set up. Printing started. Suddenly the Trading Delegation demanded some alterations in the text. “Not a comma will be altered,” I exclaimed. I rang up the printers and told them that I would hold them responsible if a single word was altered. Then I telephoned to ambassador Krestinsky, explained the situation to him and put an ultimatum: If within an hour printing was not continued we would withdraw the manuscript, recast it and publish it through a private firm. That proved effective. Printing was continued. The book was ready. After some further difficulties it was at last sent out for reviews, and Die wirtschaftliche Entwickelunlg der Sowjet-Union had an excellent press both in Germany and abroad.
We were now without a home – in every respect. As our passports had not been issued for a definite limited time we had never handed them in to the Embassy for renewal. Thus we remained citizens of revolutionary Russia and the question of our recognition or non-recognition by the post-revolutionary Russia of Stalin was simply left open. That could be borne – it was worse that we were now also politically homeless, for there was no party in which we could have found a spiritual home.
Inner-Party strife in Russia had reached a new stage. Problems of economic policy focussed general attention. The “New Economic Policy” had brought about a revival both in agriculture and industry. The standard of life of the people was rising. But in town and country class distinctions became more acute. The process of levelling in agriculture that had become evident during the first years of the Revolution from 1922 gave way to a process of differentiation. The “kulaks” (rich peasants) grew stronger and availed themselves of the recently legalised renting of land and employment of wage labour. In the towns the extravagant mode of life of the thin strata of “nepmen” (new bourgeois) caused much irritation.
The Trotskyist opposition raised the alarm. They demanded severe measures against these new bourgeois, collectivisation of agriculture and measures for a more rapid industrialisation of the country. Stalin had nothing positive to oppose to these demands; he had no programme of his own and had but vague ideas on economic problems. Thus he had to rely upon Bukharin, then his court theoretician who had proclaimed to the peasants his famous slogan “enrich yourselves,” and on Rykov and Tomsky. Stalin simply denied the deepening, of class distinctions. As the statistics proved him wrong he reverted to a peculiar trick: he sent Kuibyshev and Groman to the Central Statistical Office that was, now working quite efficiently, to liquidate it. Its functions were transferred to the State-Plan-Commission which was considered capable of reaching more desirable results. The ensuing figure-juggling induced us to conclude the review of agricultural developments in our book a year earlier than that of industrial developments. However, although figures might harmonise in the “cleansed” statistics, in real life things would clash. Russian industry was working badly and expenses were excessive; the inflated trading machinery at home and abroad was swallowing up everything. The peasant would receive for his wheat less than the value of the sack containing it; the State experienced a lack of industrial commodities to offer to the peasant in exchange, consequently the difficulties of obtaining food supplies were again growing. Finally Stalin could see no other way but to borrow the Trotskyist programme of accelerated industrialisation and collectivisation. He proceeded to imprison and exile the Trotskyites while stealing important planks from their platform; but these undigested ideas that had not grown in his own field Stalin carried through in such a clumsy and ruthless manner that Russian economic life could not recover from its affects for a decade. In his report to the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934 Stalin himself admitted that in consequence of the forcible collectivisation the number of horses in the Soviet Union decreased from 34 millions in 1929 to 16.6 millions in 1933, cattle from 68.1 to 39.6 million head during the same period. These developments accentuated the discontent prevailing in wide Party circles as well as amongst the broad masses of the people. As a result political oppression was intensified, oppositional Communists saw themselves compelled to carry on their political activity underground. Yet not one of the various oppositional-Bolshevist groupings went in its evolution so far as to reject the One Party State in principle. And as to the Mensheviks who opposed the October-Revolution as such – no bridge could lead us back to them. So we stood alone.
With the appearance of our book our official relations with the Berlin representatives of the Soviet Union came to an end. We had now to cut our expenses to a minimum for in Germany it was exceedingly difficult to live, on literary work as a free-lance. During the first years our friends in Berlin soviet institutions tried to find for us from time to time more or less well paid little jobs. The Communist publishers who were preparing the publication of Lenin’s works in German could not find a translator sufficiently competent in the agrarian question to translate Lenin’s polemical works. In the end the Russian Embassy recommended Irma who gladly undertook this interesting work. So she had remunerative work for several months and was given other translations in consequence.
During this time feelers were put out by the Embassy, would we not agree to become active in the German Communist movement, “It could easily be arranged.” Our rejection was made in such a sharp form that they never again came with similar proposals.
The representative of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan approached u asking us to advise him on practical problems of the economic development of Uzbekistan. This was an interesting task though rather poorly paid. I wrote a number of memoranda on economic problems of interest to Uzbekistan; and with Irma studied during a whole year the dry fruit industry of the entire world. The result was an extensive work including practical proposals for Uzbekistan. Of course my authorship had to be kept a secret. The representatives of Uzbekistan told us afterwards full of joy that in consequence of our work the income of their Republic had increased by millions of dollars. Yet our income from this source amounted to no more than 1200 marks (£60) which the representative had paid out of his own salary. As a welcome addition to this payment we received all their samples of dried apricots and raisins, big boxes of these. For years after our children could not stand the smell or sight of dried apricots. Later on we got technical or lega1 translations that helped us along. Irma published some of her poems, wrote children’s stories for freethinker children, delivered lantern lectures or helped before holidays in the shop of friends. Thus we managed to make ends meet during these difficult years.
While some of the leading men both of the Trading Delegation and the Embassy were showing us their sympathy by trying to put little jobs our way, the G.P.U., on the other hand, showed an interest in us of a totally different nature. Once while we were working on our book a secretary in the Trading Delegation whose connection with the Tcheka (G.P.U.) was pretty well known, had asked us who was doing our cooking. “A perfectly reliable woman who adores our children,” I replied pointedly. In spite of the reliability of our housekeeper the G.P.U. succeeded in finding a way to our attic: letters and valuable material disappeared never to be traced.
After the publication of our book our health had suffered through overwork and through the troubles we had experienced; we allowed ourselves our first short holiday, a walking tour through the Harz mountains. The invigorating mountain air, the cheerful walking, the beauty of the mountains, the camping in the woods, all this strengthened our nerves; happy and full of energy we returned to Berlin.
We desired to move from the rooms we occupied, but in view of the prevailing scarcity of housing accommodation this was a difficult task. We advertised in several suburban local papers but with no result. Three weeks later a lady called at our house offering us a flat in the select forest suburb Zehlendorf West. Pleased with our good luck we went to see the flat. It was a wonderful, elegant furnished flat, bright rooms, two balconies – one could hardly dream of anything better.
“I am afraid that will be far too expensive for us,” Irma remarked.
The price amazed us. Good heavens, that was almost gratuitous.
“There must be a hitch somewhere?” I said.
“I leave the entire flat to you,” said the landlady, “for I have to go away for some considerable time. Family affairs. We will retain only the maid’s room where my husband will sleep. Otherwise he will not be in your way.”
In the background a man was busying himself with a bicycle during the whole time of our visit. He did not come over and kept his face, accidentally as it seemed, in the shade. The unbelievably low price and the mysterious cycle-cleaner made us suspicious, we postponed our reply however much the lady pressed for an immediate decision.
“If only there was no devilry about this,” Irma said when we came out. “We shall certainly never be offered such a marvellous flat again,” I cried, “and so cheap! None the less we will have to reject it. If it isn’t a trap of the G.P.U. then the whole thing is inexplicable.”
“I am of the same opinion,” Irma replied, “only I cannot imagine how it would help the G.P.U. if we should live there.” “There are various possibilities,” I said. “There may be some difficulties with the housing authorities and we might find ourselves in a pickle. It is also possible that all sorts of things may be hidden there to be found by the police if they make a search after a denunciation by the G.P.U. And further who is that man? What is the object of his presence in the flat?”
“Let us not bother about it anymore,” Irma remarked.
A few days later the grocer opposite our house whose telephone we were using informed us that a lady from Zehlendorf had run up enquiring whether we had come to a decision about the flat. She had told him that “for certain reasons” she would wish to have us as tenants. “Isn’t that strange?” Irma said. “Why is the woman running after us? If she advertised she would certainly get two hundred offers at least, the motor cars would stretch as far as the lake.” Our curiosity was now aroused. We decided to look into the matter. We went out to the adjacent suburb of Zehlendorf Mitte to the competent “Wohnungsamt.” There we enquired whether there was anything against our renting this flat. The official replied in the negative, he was amazed about the low price asked, finally he muttered he would not advise us to take the flat. “The matter is becoming ever more mysterious,” I said to Irma. When we strolled back to the Zehlendorf Mitte station the lady of the flat of Zehlendorf West suddenly stood before us.
“I do hope you have now made up your minds to take the flat?” she asked.
“No thank you,” I replied, “we have decided otherwise.” Greatly disappointed the lady burst out: “You will repent your decision! I shall keep my offer open to you another few days.”
We certainly never repented our decision.
The “Tcheka” that had been formed in Germany by the Comintern with the aid of extra-territorial Russian authorities and whose criminal activity had become known to the amazed world through the famous trial in the spring of 1925, carried on cheerfully. The most notorious prisoner in that trial, general, Hellmut alias Skoblevsky alias Gorev been exchanged for three German students who had been arrested in Moscow specially for this purpose. The German Tcheka had learned from its mistake, had improved its methods of organisation, but it certainly had not given up its activity, it had rather extended its operations. In the following years political murders remained unsolved; assaults on persons considered dangerous by the Comintern grew more frequent; and as a new branch of business the Tcheka had taken up kidnapping. The victims would be spirited away to Russia where they were shot. As had been revealed at the Leipzic trial, the political leaders of the German Communist Party were perfectly aware of these exploits. All who were on the black list of the Comintern or of the German Communist Party had to be on their guard.
In spite of the splendid effects of the Harz tour my health began to fail again. Irma got anxious and on her insistence I went to a nursing home at Schlachtensee. I had no treatment apart from sun bathing, yet within a week I had recovered completely. We therefore utilised our change of rooms to a complete reorganisation of our household and the persistent symptoms of illness never recurred.
One day when we were in town we met accidentally near Halesches Tor an acquaintance from the Trading Delegation, the German-Russian, G. whom we knew from the Volga area. He was very pleased to see us and invited us to a cup of coffee. Cheerfully talking we entered a near-by café – unaware of course that this high-class café was Communist from top to toe. This was not the first time that we went for a cup of coffee with G.; we rather liked him and were always glad to hear news from the Volga. But this day his entire behaviour was peculiar. The cafe was almost empty at this hour; only one table was occupied by two men against whom I felt an instinctive aversion though for the life of me, I could not have explained why. Irma seemed to have a similar feeling and she at once turned to the other end of the room, but to our regret G. who apparently had not noticed this ushered us to the table next to the strangers. He ordered coffee and began excitedly to talk politics in a peculiar strain. We had had political talks with him often enough and knew his views. What he was now shouting out in a loud voice was in direct contradiction to the views he expressed normally. He did not criticise, did not joke, but deliberately played the part of a Whiteguardist. This seemed to me unnatural, and I took him to task.
“What is the matter with you to-day?” I asked him. “What does this WhiteGuardist rubbish mean? Have you gone crazy all of a sudden? One might think you had come from general Wrangel’s army.”
Meanwhile the coffee had been brought in and Irma had at once a sip or two. When I raised the cup Irma got hold of my hand and brought it down again,
“You leave that,” she said in English, “that coffee is too strong for you.”
G. became uneasy. He tried to continue conversation but nothing came of it. As soon as possible we parted. When we were alone, Irma said.
“I feel quite giddy. What kind of café was that?”
“I really do not know what to think about the whole business.”
I replied, “G’s behaviour to-day was more than strange.”
“I am glad you did not touch the coffee!” She said, “Give me your hand everything is getting black before my eyes.”
“Irma, we know. G. long enough – surely you don’t think him capable of such a thing?” I said indignantly.
With an effort we reached home. Irma had trouble all through the night. The following morning we called at G.’s lodgings to demand an explanation. He was gone and had disappeared from Berlin. Neither the Trading Delegation nor the Embassy could tell us what had become of him. But we took the incident as a timely warning.
The feeling of being politically homeless affected us very much, and we sought refuge in educational activity. We joined the “Gemeinschaft Proletarischer Freidenker” (society of proletarian freethinkers) which in Berlin maintained an evening-school. This school, managed by Paul and Maria K. reminded me in some ways of John Maclean’s “Economic Class” in Glasgow, and both Irma and I gave plenty of time to this endeavour. Endowed with a “capital” of 150 marks (£7.10) this school was doing good work indeed. Lectures and discussions on problems of philosophy, natural science, history and sociology were held. The number of students grew from year to year and finally reached some three hundred. This “Freidenker-Hochschule” developed into a cultural centre. It attracted those intellectually active elements from all spheres of the working class movement who as Social Democrats, Anarchists or Communists desired to maintain their right to independent thought and did not wish to be obliterated in the party groove. Consequently the executives of both Social Democrats and Communists looked askance at this school of heretics. The discussions at this school maintained a high level and were free from the narrow party-hatreds so characteristic of German political life of that period. However, when the school embarked on an analysis of the history of the last decade in Russia and Germany, organised pressure from the Communist Party became so strong that the manager of the school – which after all had no “Saalschutz” (organised guard for defence of the hall) got frightened and, one fine evening, closed the school for good in spite of the ever growing number of students, long before the curriculum had been finished.
“Hard times are in store for us,” Irma said to me one day, “we ought to build a good trench where we can persevere during the economic war of position which we shall have to face.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
She pointed to some advertisements in the newspaper.
“Let us buy a piece of land somewhere outside the town and erect a little house where the children can grow up free, healthy, and closer to nature and where they require no special attention,” she replied.
The nomad in me revolted. Yet after careful consideration I nevertheless consented. We bought an allotment on the edge of the woods between the suburbs Karlshorst and Koeperick. We obtained the required building materials and on a Sunday morning a group of our freethinker friends arrived by the first train. In the bright sunshine there commenced a sawing and hammering that made the woods resound. Meanwhile Irma, assisted by a helpful neighbour, was cooking the dinner on an open fire between four bricks round which she had cautiously dug a ditch which led to our cooking-place being nicknamed “Isle of Fireland.” Socialist songs were sung, the work progressed rapidly. When the sun set, walls and roof were standing, door and windows were fixed in and the “manager of the building operations,” a highly intelligent young worker who could always see the humorous side of things was extremely practical and full of push and who had organised the whole expedition, ceremoniously handed Irma the key of the house. Three days later when a professional carpenter had given a finishing touch to the building we moved in. But the “Isle of Fireland” had to serve as a cooking place for many a week yet, until a chimney could be built in and a cooking hearth erected. The children clapped their little hands full of joy when they saw from the house how mother out in the rain turned the pancake on Fireland while I held the umbrella over the frying pan. Later on the little wooden house was fortified by an outer brickwall, a large glazed verandah was attached, a telephone and electric light was laid.
It is true, the noon no longer shone so pleasantly through the cracks of the wooden walls, but we could face the cold winter with confidence. However, when the cold became too intense the well would get frozen in spite of its thick straw covering and then it had to be thawed up every morning by the application of hot water and inexhaustible patience. Our large garden was left uncultivated with the exception of a few beds. Weeds grew splendidly and it seemed that the birds on far-off northern isles were telling each other about this rich growth of seeds for, when our native starlings had long departed, swarms of feathered travellers on transit would rest in our garden. That gave great joy to our children who, when spring came round again, would look on with shining eyes holding their breath, while the returned starlings were plundering our small cherry trees carrying off the cherries by their stems. But they would angrily scold our neighbour a scare-crow when they saw her chase the birds from her well-kept orchard. In this wilderness our two little girls could romp about safely under the protection of a faithful friend, our clever dog Karo. They would harness him to their sledge in winter, to their “harvest cart” in autumn when they gathered in the dry long forest grass to protect the well against frost. He would fetch them home of an evening; if they stayed out in the woods too long. Irma and I could work here quietly surrounded by the books of our valuable library. Six years later the Nazis came and put an end to this idyllic life.
During the abnormally cold winter 1928/29 we had been particularly hard up. We were therefore very pleased when a commission of the Soviet Supreme Economic Council arrived in Germany and engaged Irma as secretary with a high salary for the weeks they were to stay in Berlin. This commission, headed by Kharitonenko comprising some of the most prominent experts of Russia’s non-ferrous metal industry, visited Europe and the United States in order to study the metallurgical industry, place orders, obtain expert opinions, and engage some prominent specialists for soviet industry. In the Soviet Union they were about to open up the enormous mineral wealth of the Kusnetsk basin. The erection of a huge, thoroughly up-to-date zinc foundry, the selection of the process to be employed there, the appointment of a first-class German expert as its director were the first tasks of this commission. When the commission left Berlin for the United States the newly appointed director of the future zinc foundry remained in Berlin to work out the project and obtain the opinion of various prominent experts on a number of problems connected with this project. The translation of these into Russian gave me also a chance of earning a little.
This zinc foundry project was only one among many similar projects. Everywhere in the Soviet Union now under the Five-Year Plan, new works were being erected or at all events projected. Technical engineers of all countries began to look upon the Soviet Union as a country of great possibilities. As soon, as the first advertisements were inserted in the press, hundreds of applications began to pour in. Young beginners and despairing unemployed applied, but also a considerable number of prominent men with uncommon special experience. Even stars of the first order who could freely choose amongst all the five continents applied. In the Berlin Trading Delegation in the department representing the Supreme Economic Council this material lay pell mell like hidden treasures in a fairy tale. And on the neighbouring shelves file was piling upon file bulging with urgent demands from all branches of Russian industry. While in the Soviet Union most important industrial works were held up in erection or while most costly mistakes made because of the lack of technical engineers with a special knowledge of the work required, dozens of applications from suitable experts were lying about in disorder in Berlin. When a trust’s patience finally snapped and it sent representatives to Berlin to engage experts, these representatives encountered the greatest difficulty in selecting what they might require after days of wading through heaps of unordered material in a foreign language. In the end not the most suitable, capable and experienced engineer was accepted but the one whose application was most clearly framed and, more important still, was typewritten. Months would elapse while the applicants were vainly hoping for a reply or even an acknowledgement and the Soviet trusts fared no better. The chaos grew. One day the Berlin representative of the Supreme Economic Council within the Trading Delegation proposed to me to undertake the job of putting this important matter on proper lines. However, as they did not dare to employ me officially they suggested I should work for them “temporarily” so to say, on daily payment. The proposed payment of 25 marks per day was of course no proper remuneration for such qualified work, but I was in urgent need of money and the work as such attracted me greatly.
When I entered upon my day-labourer’s job and fathomed this chaos I threw up my hands in horror: “These are hundreds, nay thousands of living human beings anxiously awaiting a reply by every post,” I cried, “they are kept here in the files like so much waste paper! And there on the other shelves Russia’s economic development is being retarded!”
“The difficulty is that we don’t know how to bring the two parts together,” said one of the paid officials, himself a technician. “How am I, a bridge building engineer, to know what is required in a foundry or in the coke industry?”
“But the place here is swarming with engineers of a great variety of qualifications whose advice may be sought,” I remarked. “Certainly,” was the reply, “but they do not consider themselves obliged to help us. Of course in view of your influence things will be different.”
And it was different. I got two typists allotted to me and called Irma in to help. She had a half-day job in the inventions department. Within a fortnight we succeeded in cleaning up the Augean stables, sifting the material and getting rid of unsuitable applications after Irma had rationalised the work by drafting a series of formal letters for frequently recurring cases, so that the typist required only to be told the form number. In this manner it was possible to quickly get rid of the ballast and then to start to classify the suitable applications and study them. It is true, to fulfil this task we could not keep to the official seven-hour-day. It would happen that the night watchman with his Great Dane would find Irma and myself on his eleven o'clock round still in the office working.
After that I could start to work in earnest. There was not a single technical engineer in the entire Trading Delegation who would not be willing to advise and assist whenever I asked him. From Russia, too, my enquiries and proposals met with immediate response – which had not always been the case hitherto. One day the chairman of the Soviet Trade Union of Building workers came to me: “God be thanked that you are here now, comrade Petroff,” be greeted me, “you will soon put an end to this scandal.” He related how Barsky, chairman of the Building Committee of the Supreme Economic Council had come to Germany in order to engage technical engineers for the Soviet Union. In selecting these he had called in the Hungarian professor Kelen as an adviser. Sixty building engineers had later arrived in Russia, proving incapable and useless one and all. Kelen had visited Russia on several occasions, he had established all sorts of connections and had denounced capable, honest Russian engineers as saboteurs. Consequently he had become a great man held in awe by everybody up to the representative of the Supreme Economic Council and the Chairman of the Trading Delegation themselves. I soon found the truth of that story confirmed. If a proposal of the feared one, even a most ridiculous proposal had to be rejected nobody would take the responsibility – even the very highest quarters would gladly leave that to me, they would laugh up their sleeves and wait to see what would be the outcome. I declined Kelen’s proposals after due consideration mercilessly in almost every case and vetoed the agreements he concluded. His complaints in Moscow remained without result. “Petroff is not an easy customer to deal with,” the representative of the Supreme Economic Council told him when he complained again, “he recognises no discipline, but in Russia his word prevails. The best thing you can do is to talk to him yourself. Perhaps you can convince him, he is not at all obstinate.” Smiling he related to me this conversation himself. “Let us see what will happen,” he added. Finally Kelen came to me. A very self-conscious, ceremonious gentleman. He greeted me with excessive courtesy obviously intent on making a good impression. I took up a heap of files quite prepared to discuss with him each one of the cases in dispute.
“Why do you send such young fellows to Russia?” I asked opening a file. “Do you think we have not got there people with similar experiences and ten times more capable? Can you not visualise what is required?”
“Oh, these Russian engineers ....” Kelen exclaimed derisively.
“They are quite efficient,” I retorted sharply, “though they may unfortunately lack the dexterity to defend themselves against foreign denunciators.”
Keleh did not feel at ease in his chair.
I pointed to another file. “Here you are proposing a young chap, a “Communist” who, though he is hardly more than a “beginner is to receive twice as much salary as our best men.”
“The man has been well recommended to me by professor Todt whose pupil he has been,” Kelen replied with an air of importance.
“We have had him here” I replied, “and I have myself witnessed how our engineers cornered him with their questions. If your professor recommends this boy so warmly we shall have to put in future less reliance on his recommendations which are too easily obtainable as it would seem.”
“This young man is a Communist and devoted to the Soviet Union,” Kelen defended himself.
“We have plenty of Communists in Russia. What we require is experienced specialists,” I said.
So Kelen had to convince himself that I was really not an easy customer to deal with. Such a defeat he had never before experienced. His complaints in Moscow were of no avail – they were sent to me for my observations and these were always frank and emphatic. “The affair Kelen should one day be elucidated by a sharp stream of light,” I concluded my remarks, “though not with the light of our electric department headed by another Kelen.”
Encouraged by the remarkable example of its Building Committee, the Supreme Economic Council as such had acquired a similar adviser. This was a German technical engineer Dr. Achenbach, a very capable man well connected with German industry and the “Verein Deutscher Ingenieure” (Society of German Technical Engineers). A Consultation agreement had been concluded with him, he was given access to Russian requirements, frequently it was left to him to insert advertisements and to give his conclusions on the applications received. When I got on the trail of these proceedings I was disgusted. It is true, at that time the relations of Soviet Russia to German reaction, heavy industry, and Reichswehr were more than friendly. But I was of opinion Russia should safeguard her industri.al independence and should avoid becoming dependent on one particular foreign country through almost exclusive employment of the industry and technique of that country, or, still worse, of definite firms. I was horrified to learn that even requirements of our military industry had been handed over without any control to this capable and farseeing German. I raised the alarm.
“I demand the immediate dismissal of this German adviser,” I declared after explaining the situation, “not because there is anything to be said against him personally, but because such an agreement should have never been concluded. Whatever sum he is entitled to from this agreement should be paid to him to the last penny, for his actions have always been strictly correct.” The leading officials appreciated my point of view and agreed. All the materials still in the possession of Dr. Achenbach were sent for at once; he received a substantial sum and the agreement was annulled. Had I not been so persistent at that time, the Nazis would now be in possession of the most important technical details of the Soviet war industry!
When already more than a hundred first-class specialists had been sent out to the Soviet Union and all was working, smoothly, Cr. arrived in Berlin. He belonged to the Old Guard of the Party and was a member of the collegiate of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Trade to which the Trading Delegation was subordinated. He came to see me, expressed great appreciation of the manner in which I had liquidated the chaos and had brought the machine into motion. Then he said: “They have tried to give you a small job unofficially. But one cannot hide a worker of your abilities in a small office any more than one could hide a bodkin in a sack. You are simply outgrowing the dimensions of this work. It is a shame to try and limit your activities to such a small field. Think it over once again whether you cannot see your way to come back into the Party? I can state officially it will be made as easy for you as possible. Just a few lines from you that you are withdrawing your letter of resignation will suffice. Then you would be able to participate in a leading capacity in this work of industrialisation which seems to be so near to your heart. We quite appreciate that you are discontented with many features of our internal development, and we can sympathise with you in that. Come back into our ranks and help us to overcome those tendencies.” I was convinced that this proposal was made in good faith for I respected the man. We had a long serious, discussion and I explained my disagreement in principle with the entire political system that had sprung up in Soviet-Russia. He very much regretted my refusal to return to the Party, and on leaving he expressed the hope that I might seriously reconsider the matter.
Soon after this I had another political interview with one of the departmental heads of the Trading Delegation, Visniak who wished to speak to me officially on behalf both of the Party and the Government. He said, the small task which I had taken up with so much energy could hardly satisfy me now that I had overcome the difficulties and things were running smoothly. And this poverty-stricken life in the forest occupied with purely theoretical work and cut off from the pulsating political life of the time was fit neither for me nor for Irma. They wished me to understand that one single word of mine would open every avenue for us. Should. I desire to collaborate in the economic reconstruction of the country in a leading position they would be glad to meet my wishes. Should I prefer to take over, say, the management of the State Publishing Office I could have it. But should I insist on living abroad, would I then perhaps like, to have the post of Soviet ambassador in England? There my friendly relations with the British Labour movement could be of great value to the Soviet Union. The only condition was my return to the Party.
I laughed straight in his face. “You are a marvellous crowd,” I said. “First your Tcheka persecutes us in every possible way. The send “lovers” to our nursery maids, bribe our neighbours to get denunciations against us, buy a judge to get a decision against us in flagrant contradiction to both law and justice, they create all sorts of difficulties for us and involve us in eight hundred marks legal costs then you ask us to sink into the arms of a Party and a Government that had used such methods against us! Don’t you think that means asking too much?”
Vishniak became embarrassed. After all, he was himself secretly in the service of the G.P.U. from whose record of sins I had quoted a small extract. To my surprise he did not even attempt to deny my accusations.
“Well,” he said, “if our people have acted foolishly we are now sorry for it. Make out a bill of all the expenditure in court and otherwise that has been caused to you and we shall refund it.”
“Thanks, very kind indeed,” I laughed, “but I don’t want any commercial dealings with the G.P.U.”
On the same day a Bolshevik of the Old Guard, S., whom I knew well since my early days of exile and who now held a high post in Moscow, came to me accompanied by N., a member of the Council of the Trading Delegation. The two repeated officially the proposal made by Viskniak. When I replied with an unqualified NO the two negotiators declared they would not accept my refusal at this juncture.
“We have been fighting with you for our ideals,” said S., “first in 1905, then in exile, later in the Civil War. Now we are fighting against the profanation of our ideals by the brainless newcomers, against the bureaucratisation of the State, and against all the evil consequences thereof. In this struggle your place is by our side – instead you are hiding in the Koepenick forest!”
“All that I have carefully pondered upon,” I replied.
“While you are trying to convince yourself that you are fighting these evils you are in reality lending your support to a system whose inevitable attributes are these very evils. I have recognised this and I also have the courage to admit it to myself and to accept the consequences. If I am now sitting inactive in the forest, as you put it, that is because I cannot agree with any of the opposition groupings – for none of these is fighting the system, only the symptoms. I go further. I am not a “Leninist,” I demand self-determination for the entire working people. That is the ideal for which I have been fighting and suffering since 1901, to this ideal I have remained faithful and shall remain faithful – you all have betrayed it, only you have not the courage to own up before your own consciences.”
“No,” exclaimed S., “in that way we get nowhere. We must discuss all this calmly as a practical problem. And I should think this concerns Irma just as much.”
We arranged to meet on the following night.
The next evening found the four of us in a pleasant restaurant where we could talk undisturbed. After a long theoretical discussion on the course of developments in the Soviet Union S. cried:
“Let us put the question this way: Is the Soviet Government to-day already counter-revolutionary or not? If it is, then your refusal is justified. Then one can’t work for them either and one is bound to fight it.”
“It is already counter-revolutionary,” I replied. “I would therefore not accept any responsibility for its policy. As you know I am only a day-labourer. But what is your position?”
“That I shall tell you,” S. replied. “I believe in the necessity of a strict Party discipline. Wherever the Party places me there I work. What the Central Committee orders me to do I shall do. If they make mistakes I shall criticise but I shall obey.”
“And if tomfooleries of the Party Executive destroy all that you have built up?” I asked.
“Should the Central Committee now take me away from the responsible post I have held for years and put in my Place an inexperienced greenhorn I would ask them to give me a chance to break him in,” S. declared, “but if they refused my request and told me to mind my own business I would have to abide by that.”
I laughed. “So, cadaver-discipline is more important than the Cause! Poor slave! How deep you must all have sunk.”
They saw that in this manner no agreement could be reached. They turned to Irma:
“What do you say to this, Irma Vasilievna? It is impossible to leave you both in such subordinate jobs. You know our proposals. Would this not be better than to sit with your children there out in the woods? Nothing else is demanded of you than that you withdraw your letter of resignation. We shall respect your critical attitude.”
Irma laughed. “Let us stop this playacting,” she said, “let us speak frankly. The Central Committee wishes to buy us. They have bought many people, some with big names amongst them. Some for cash, others for jobs, still others by publishing and booming their silly books, or for similar favours. And in Russia they believe there is no one left in Europe who could not be bought. Very well. Everybody has his own price. I shall tell you what our price is – for that price and for that price alone you can have us, body and soul: Give to the Russian people freedom of speech, of press and of meeting; free elections, freedom of organisation. Tell those who have sent you, for this we have always been fighting and that is our price. If that is not acceptable to you, I am sorry. Let Stalin learn for once that there still are human beings who are not to be had for personal gain.”
“Are you going again to put an ultimatum to the Party?” cried S.
“One day the Russian proletariat will do that,” Irma replied. “Let us hope it may be soon.”
My day-labourer’s job came to an end. “We are living here in a civilised country where the workers under Socialist leadership through hard struggle have attained certain rights,” I said when I got the sack.” According to the labour laws of the German Republic I can already demand payment for the legal period of notice since I have been employed for more than three months.”
“Surely, you won’t invoke bourgeois German laws against the Soviet Government?” the departmental chief exclaimed indignantly.
“With the greatest pleasure I shall do that,” I replied. “It is high time that the Soviet Government should be taught to respect laws for the protection of labour.”
I received what was due to me and the small sum came in handy enough.
My relations with the Soviet Government and its institutions were now broken off for good. War was declared, and we were under no illusions what was in store for us. We understood that an omni-present international machine, having at its command enormous sums, and being completely free from all scruples as to the means it employs will, so long as we live, regard it as one of its many objects to destroy both us and our children economically, politically and physically. But we refused to be scared.
When we came to say goodbye to the chairman of the Trading Delegation, Begge, who had always been very correct, he thanked me for the work I had done and expressed his sincere regret about my decision.
“You see, comrade Petroff, you are making one grave mistake. You recognise very clearly what requires to be altered, but you insist on altering it from below. Should you take up a high post and then try to carry through your reforms from above, you would attain some results.”
“And what do you attain?” I asked. “You are both a sincere and a capable man – yet in your Trading Delegation is everything as you would wish of to be? Don’t they deprive you of capable officials and compel you to give important positions to inept and corrupt individuals? No, comrade Begge, the fault lies in the system itself; Old Bakunin was right: You cannot dry up a swamp by jumping into it.”