John Reed Internet Archive


A Visit to the Russian Army

First Published: The Liberator Vol. 1, No. 2 April, 1918 pp.19-23
Transcription/Markup: Brian Bagsen and Damon Maxwell
Online Version: John Reed Internet Archive ( 2009


“THE bearer of this, Johan Reed, known to the Cultural-Publicity office of the Political Department of the Ministry of War as a member of the American Socialist Party, is authorized to proceed to the active army to gather information for the North American Press…

Observation: To the Commissar belongs the right to recall agitators and propagandists.”

Surely never stranger passport carried correspondent to the front, opened all doors, made the commandant of the Baltic station set aside a separate first-class compartment for the “American Mission,” as he called us. An Orthodox priest, hound on volunteer priestly duty to the trenches, humbly begged the honor of travelling in our company. He was a big, healthy man, with a wide, simple Russian face, a gentle smile, an enormous reddish beard, and an insatiable desire for conversation.

Eta Vienna! It’s true!” he said, with the suspicion of a sigh. “The revolution has weakened the hold of the church on the masses of the people. Some say that we served the old regime – that we ‘blessed the gallows’ of the revolutionary martyrs. But I remember in 1905, when thirteen sappers were executed for mutiny, no priest would administer the last rites. How could we speak consoling words to a man about to be murdered?

“Some have lost all faith, but the great masses are still very religious – even though extreme revolutionaries. On the caps of the reserves used to be a cross and the words, ‘Zaverau, tsaria, i otechestvo’ – ‘For faith, tsar, and fatherland.’ Well, they scratched out the ‘faith’ along with the rest. ...” He shook his head. “In the old text of the church prayers God was referred to as ‘Tsar of Heaven,’ and the Virgin as ‘Tsarina.’ We’ve had to leave that out – the people wouldn’t have God insulted, they say. ...”

We went on to speak of his work in the armies, and his face grew infinitely tender.

“During regimental prayer the priest prays for peace to all nations. Whereupon the soldiers cry out, ‘Add “without annexations or indemnities!”’ Then we pray for all those who are travelling, for the sick and the suffering; and the soldiers cry, ‘Pray also for the deserters!’ Simple-minded children! They think that God must grant anything if it is included in a regular prayer by a regularly ordained priest. Woe to the priest who refuses to pray the soldiers’ prayer!” He mused for a moment.

“But the soldiers are not pious when they are not in danger. It is only before an attack that they come crowding to me to confess themselves, often weeping, who beg me to pray the good God for their souls. We Russians have a proverb – ‘The Russian man won’t cross himself until it thunders.’”

We talked of the great Church Congress at Moscow, the first since Peter the Great, with its convocation of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Athens, Alexandria and Jerusalem, the Metropolitans of the Russian cities, the Arch-bishops from Japan, Persia, Roumania, Turkestan, all in a ferment of democratic revolt; and of the innumerable Russian sects –Doukhobors, Molochani Baptists, Diendicki or a “Holers,” who must have a hole in the roof of their tabernacle for the Holy Ghost to descend through. Williams, my American companion, told of a Volga peasant, who attributed the ills of Russia to the sinful practise of crossing oneself with three fingers – he being an Old Believer, and using only two. . . . And the priest explained to us how the rites of the Orthodox Church were designed to symbolize different stages in the life and passion of Christ, and how no woman, even a girl-child being baptized, was permitted at the altar.

At every station the train made a long halt to allow the passengers time for many glasses of tea and a great gulping of food, in the cheerful, steamy clatter of crowded waiting rooms. In between times utter strangers, officers and civilians, drifted in, and our converse was of curious matters.

The evening papers announced that Martov and the Mensheviki-Internationalists had formally broken with the Tseretelli-Lieber-Dan group, because of their “hesitating policy of compromise.”

“Tseretelli, Dan, Lieber, Gotz, and Tcheidze are the Girondins of our time,” said one young captain who spoke French. “And they will share the fate of the Gironde. I am with them,” he added.

The priest lived in Tashkent, in the Trans-Caspia, where he had a wife and five children. He told about the singular institution of the Thieves’ Bureau, where persons who had been robbed could go and recover their property by paying its value, less 20 per cent. discount for cash. A thin little school-teacher described the Thieves’ Convention held in Rostov-on-Don this summer with delegates from all over Russia, which dispatched a formal protest to the Government against the rapacity and venality of the police. And a fat polkovnik spoke of the Convention of German and Austrian Prisoners of War, in Moscow, which demanded the eight-hour workday – and got it!

Rumor had it that the armies at the front would leave the trenches and go home for the feast of Pakrov, the first of October – then only four days off. Each one was concerned about this immense threat of dissolution. . . . The priest had been present at two meetings of regimental Soviets, where bitter. resolutions had been passed. Some one had the official newspaper of the Eighth Army soldiers’ committees, with an obscure account of military riots at Gomel. The Lettish troops were also stirred up. What if the millions of Russian soldiers were simply to stop fighting and start for the cities, for the capital, for their villages? The old polkovnik muttered, “We are lost. Russia is defeated. And besides, life is so uncomfortable now that it is not worth living. Why not finish everything?” With whom the French-speaking officer, revolutionists by theory, debated hotly but courteously. The priest told a very simple Rabelaisian story about a soldier who seduced a peasant girl by promising that her child would be a general...

It grew late, the lights were dim and intermittent, and there was no heat in the car. The priest shivered. “Well,” he said finally, his teeth chattering, “it is too cold to stay awake!” And with that he lay down just as he was, without any covering but his long skirts, and immediately fell to snoring. ...

Very early in the morning we awoke, stiff and numb. The sun sparkled through the frosty windows. A small boy came through with tea – chocolate candy in place of sugar. The train was poking down across rich Estland, through white birch forests glorious with yellow autumn foliage like bright flame; sometimes clumps of sombre pines, with the birch leaves breaking through as if the whole woods were on fire; long, gently-rolling waves of opulent farmland, yellow wheat stubble, emerald green grass still, and the pale blue-green of miles of cabbages; and immense farm-houses set in the midst of barns, the whole covered with one great thatched roof, on which thick moss was growing. On the slow rises of country, huge gray-stone windmills, weathered and mossy, whirled their agitated sails. Along the track marched a new road-bed, with the ties in place at many points, and piles of rails.

Before the revolution no effort had been made to construct this badly-needed track – since March, however, the Russians had completed twenty-six versts of it; but the Germans, in the one month since the fall of Riga, had built more than thirty miles.

Soldiers began to thicken, at all stations, in barns and farm-houses far seen; gigantic bearded men in dun coats, boots, peaked caps or shaggy shapkis, almost always with a touch of red somewhere about them. Patrols of Cossacks rode along the roads deep in black mud. Military trains, all box-cars with masses of men on top and inside, clanked past with broken echoes of mass-singing. The Red Cross flag made its appearance. At Valk an excited sub-officer said we must go up into the town and get passes before proceeding further. The conductor announced that the train would leave in three minutes.

“You will be arrested! You will be arrested!” cried the sub-officer, shaking his finger at me. But we sat still, and no one ever again spoke of passes.

At Venden, beyond which no trains go, we disembarked in a swirling mob of soldiers going home. A sentry at the door was tired of examining passes and just motioned us wearily through. No one seemed to know where the Staff headquarters was; finally an officer, after some thought, said he thought the Staff had retired to Valk. “But you don’t want the Staff,” he added, “the Iskosol is in charge of things here.” And he pointed to the town’s chief building, formerly the Convention of Justices of the Peace, where sat the “Iskosol,” or Central Executive Committee of the Soldiers’ Deputies.

In a large bare room on the second floor, amid the clack of busy stenographers and the come-and-go of couriers, deputations, functioned the nerve-center of the Twelfth Army, the spontaneous democratic organization created by the soldiers at the outbreak of the Revolution. A handsome young lieutenant, with Jewish features, stood behind a table, running his hand through his gray-streaked hair worriedly, while a torrent of agitated complaint beat upon him. Four delegations from the regiments in the trenches, mostly soldiers, with a couple of officers mixed in, were appealing to the Iskosol all at once; one regiment was almost without boots – the Iskosol had promised six hundred pairs and had only delivered sixty; a very ragged private spokesman for another committee, complained that the artillery had been given their winter fur coats, but the cavalry was still in summer uniform. . . . One sub-officer, a mere boy, kept shouting angrily that the Iskosol buzzed around a good deal, but nothing seemed to be accomplished. . . .

Da, da!” responded the officer vaguely, “Yes, yes. S chass, s chass. I will write immediately to the Commissariat. . . .”

On a little table were piled heaps of pamphlets and newspapers, among which I noticed ‘Elisee Reclus’ “Anarchy and the Church.” A soldier sat in a broken chair nearby, reading aloud the Isvestia – official organ of the Petrograd Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets – about the formation of the new government; and as he declaimed the names of the Cadet ministers, the listeners gave vent to laughter and ironical “hoorah’s.” Near the window stood Voitinsky, assistant Commissar of the Twelfth Army, with his semi-military coat buttoned up to his chin – a little man whose blue eyes snapped behind thick glasses, with bristling red hair and beard; he who was a famous exile in Siberia, and the author of “Snsertsiiki,” a book more terrible than “Seven Who Were Hanged. . . .”

These Commissars are civilians, suggested by the revolutionary Commissars of the French revolutionary government in 1793; chief representatives of the Provisional Government at the front, appointed by the Government with the approval of the Soviets.

In precise, short sentences Voitinsky explained that military operations were not his province, unless he was consulted; but he had just that day come to Venden at the request of a general to decide a question of tactics.

“My job,” he said, “is to build a military machine which will retake Riga. But conditions here are desperate. The army lacks everything – food, clothes, boots, munitions. The roads are awful, and it has been raining steadily for two weeks. The horses of the transport are underfed and worn out, and it is all they can do to haul enough bread to keep us from starving. But the most serious lack at the front, more serious than the lack of food and clothes, is the lack of boots, pamphlets and newspapers. You see, since the revolution the army has absorbed tons of literature, propaganda, and has a gnawing hunger; and now all that is cut off. We not only permit, but encourage the importation of all kinds of literature in the army – it is necessary in order to keep up the spirits of the troops. Since the Kornilov affair, and especially since the Democratic Congress, the soldiers have been very uneasy. Yes, many have simply laid down their arms and gone home. The Russian army is sick of war. . . .”

Voitinsky had had no sleep for thirty-six hours. Yet he fairly radiated quick energy as he saluted and ran down the steps to his mud-covered automobile-bound on a forty-mile ride through the deep mud, in the shadow of the coming rainstorm, to judge a dispute between officers and soldiers. …

Growling and grumbling the regimental delegations went their way, and the Jewish subaltern, whose name was Tumarkin, led us into another room and passed around cigarettes, while he recounted the history of the Iskosol.

It was the first revolutionary organization of soldiers in active service.

“You see,” said Tumarkin, “the row in Petrograd took us by surprise. Of course we knew that sooner or later . . . but it came all of a sudden, as such things do. There were a crowd of us revolutionists in the army – I myself was a political exile in France when the war broke out.

“Well, in the revolution of 1905 there was established a Soviet of Workmen in Petrograd, and we tried to make one in the army, at various places. But the masses of the soldiers were ignorant of Socialist ideas, and indifferent – so we failed then. Afterward we realized our mistake, and began to work on the army; but in February, 1917, when. things broke loose in Peter, we were scared. We thought they might send us to suppress the revolution. So we hastily met, about a dozen of us, and started to win over the army. . . .

“News from Petrograd was rare and contradictory. Our own staff officers were hostile. We didn’t know if the revolution was winning or not. ... For a week we hurried from place to place, holding soldiers’ meetings, explaining, arguing; and at every meeting we made the men pass a resolution swearing that they would face death for the revolution.

“On March 9, just eleven days after the outbreak in the capital, we got together a Soviet of the army in Riga – one delegate from each company, battery and squadron – three thousand in all. They elected an Executive Committee of sixty men, which began to establish communications with other revolutionary military organizations. Most of the time we didn’t know even if there were any other bodies like ours, but simply telegraphed to ‘Revolutionary Soldiers, Fourth Army’ – like that. And for signature we made a codeword of the first three syllables of our organization’s name – ‘Is-ko-sol.’ All the other Executive Committees call themselves ‘Armikom.’

“Three days after organizing we began to publish our paper, Russki Front. What a job it was, to educate, to organize! The officers didn’t understand the revolution – they had been trained to a caste apart; hut there was no killing of officers in this army. Only expulsions. . . . Before we left Riga the Russki Front had a circulation of 25,000 among the soldiers, and 5,000 in the city; to support it we proclaimed a Contribution Day for the Soldiers’ Press, and raised 58,000 roubles. . . .”

The Iskosol is only one typical manifestation of the immense fertility of representative organization, a thousand times duplicated, which pervades Russian military and civil life now. It is primarily the organ by which the soldiers of the Twelfth Army take part in the furious new political life of the country; but in the chaos left by the breakdown of the old regime, it has been forced to assume extraordinary functions. For example: The Iskosol fulfills the duties of commissariat department ; it attempts to reconcile differences between officers and men; conducts primary and secondary schools among all bodies of troops in repose or reserve; and in certain cases, like the retreat from Riga, where the commanding staff was utterly demoralized, takes actual command of the troops. Its members are scattered throughout the army, sent from place to place during engagements, encouraging, inspiring, leading. . . .

Beneath it is an intricate system of committees – in each company, regiment, brigade, division, corps – half political, half military, and all elected by the soldiers, with representatives in each higher committee – the whole finally culminating in the Little Soviet of Soldiers’ Deputies, one delegate from each regiment, which meets about once a month-and the Big Soviet, five from each regiment, whose sessions are less frequent, and whose Executive Committee, elected every three months, forms the Iskosol. The Iskosol has three delegates in the Central Committee of the All-Russian Soviets at Petrograd, and one man attached to the Army Staff.

But that is not all. The passion for democratic expression and the swiftness of revolutionary events has given birth to other organizations. Three months ago, when the Iskosol was elected, there was very little Bolshevik sentiment in the Twelfth Army; but since the Kornilov affair the masses of soldiers are largely Bolshevik. Now the Iskosol has no Bolshevik members, and the Iskosol is predominantly abaronetz – in favor of continuing the war to victory. So forty-three regiments have formed a new central body of Bolshevik delegates, called the Left Bloc, which also has representatives in Petrograd.

And then there are the Letts. There are nine Lettish regiments in the army, the most desperate fighters – since they are fighting for their own homes, and the great majority of these are revolutionary social democrats. Although represented in the Iskosol, they have their own central body also, the “Iskolostreel,” or Central Committee of the Lettish “Streelniki” – Sharp-shooters. Over the Iskolostreel is still a higher body, the “Iskolat” – Central Committee of the Lettish Soviet of Soldiers, Workers, and Landless Farm-workers. As all over Russia this district or province Soviet is fed by innumerable small Soviets in every village, town and city, and has its delegates in the All-Russian Central body at Petrograd. The landless farm-laborers, however, who are a real agricultural proletariat, in Estland replace the peasants of the other Russian provinces; and the Russian Soviet of the district is composed only of soldiers, as there are neither Russian workmen nor Russian peasants in Livonia.

There is still another organization, called the Nationalist Bloc, composed of Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Finns and various others of the fifty-seven peoples of Russia whose purpose is to agitate for separation of various degrees. . . .

And it is a characteristic of this extraordinary complex, multiple system of elective organizations, working feverishly and often at cross-purposes, that it throws off among its other forms of expression a prodigious amount of literature. The Iskosol publishes Russki Front, the Soviet another paper called Bulletin of the Soldiers’ Delegates; from the Left Bloc comes Golos XII Armia; the Nationalist Bloc has its own organ; the Iskolostreel runs the daily Latwfu Strehlneeks; and before the fall of Riga there were besides three papers of as many Social Democrat factions, one of the Socialist Revolutionists, and a fifth of the Populist party-besides all the regular pre-revolutionary journals of Riga; and most of these have again sprung up in the little Lettish towns among the gun positions. Added to all these are the Petrograd papers, especially Gorky’s Novaia Zhizn and the Bolshevik Soldat and Rabotchi Root, and all the others whose endless names escape me, which are poured into the army zone by the hundreds of millions.

And all this terrible eagerness for self-government and for self-expression is working as much in all the Russian armies, everywhere along a thousand miles of front, among twelve million men suddenly free from tyranny. . . .

Tumarkin was telling us how the Iskosol sent its own delegates to Baku for oil, to the Volga to buy or commandeer wheat, up into Archangelsk Government for timber, and how it ordered guns and ammunition from the big munitions works in Petrograd. Just then the door opened and a frowzled head peeked in, followed by a dirty, bearded face. “I am lost!” groaned Tumarkin. Immediately the room seemed full of sullen-looking soldiers; spokesmen of delegations began.

“I represent,” said he of the face, “the cooks of the 26th Division. We haven’t any more wood – the soldiers want us to tear down the farmhouses to make fires for cooking their meals.”

The next soldier elbowed his way to the front, spurs clinking. The horses of the cavalry were dying of hunger. No hay. . . . Tears welled up in his eyes; he had seen his own horse fall down in the road. . . .

“Here!” cried the unhappy Tumarkin, holding out a paper to us. “This is a proclamation we printed in the Soldiers’ Press the day Riga fell. The shells were bursting around the office while we set type. Volunteers pasted it up on the walls and posts all over the city–” And he was swallowed up.

The proclamation was in German.

“The Executive Committee of the Russian Soviet of Soldiers’ Deputies of the Twelfth Army to the German Soldiers.

“German Soldiers!

“The Russian soldiers of the Twelfth Army draw your attention to the fact that you are carrying on a war for autocracy against revolution, freedom and justice. The victory of Wilhelm will be death to democracy and freedom. We withdraw from Riga, but we know that the forces of the revolution will ultimately prove themselves more powerful than the force of cannons. We know that in the long run your conscience will overcome everything, and that the German soldiers, with the Russian revolutionary army, will march to the victory of freedom. You are at present stronger than we are, but yours is only the victory of the brute force. The moral force is on our side. History will tell that the German proletarians went against their revolutionary brothers, and they forgot the international working-class solidarity. This crime you can expiate only by one means. You must understand your own and at the same time the universal interests, and strain all your immense power against imperialism, and go hand in hand with us – toward life and freedom!”

Outside it was raining, and the mud of the streets had been tracked on the sidewalks by thousands of boots until it was difficult to walk. The city was darkened against hostile aeroplanes; only chinks of light gleamed from shutters, and blinds glowed dull red. The narrow street made unexpected turns. In the dark we hurtled incessant passing soldiers, spangled with cigarette-lights. Close by passed a series of great trucks, some army-transport, rushing down in the black gloom with a noise like thunder, and a fan-like spray of ooze. Right before me someone scratched a match, and I saw a soldier pasting a white paper on a wall. Our guide, one of the Iskosol, gave an exclamation and ran up, flashing an electric torch. We read:

“Comrade soldiers!

“The Venden Soviet of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies has arranged for Thursday, September 28, at 4 o’clock in the park, a MEETING. Tavaristch Peters, of the Central Committee of the Lettish Social Democratic party, will speak on:

“‘The Democratic Congress and the Crisis of Power.’”

The Iskosol man was sputtering. “That meeting is forbidden,” he cried. “The commandant has forbidden it!” The other man spat. “The commandant is a damn bourgeois,” he remarked. “This Peters is Bolshevik,” argued our friend. “Meetings are not allowed in the zone of war. That is the rule. The Iskosol has forbidden this meeting.” But the soldier only grinned maliciously. “The Iskosol too is bourgeois,” he answered, and turned away. “We want to hear about this democratic Congress.”

At the little hotel the proprietor, half hostile, half greedy-frightened, said that there were no rooms.

“How about that room?” asked our friend, pointing.

“That is the commandants room,” he replied, gruffly.

“The Iskosol takes it,” said the other. We got it.

It was an old Lettish peasant woman who brought us tea, and peered at us out of her bleary eyes, rubbing her hand and babbling German. “You are foreigners,” she said, “glory to God. These Russians are dirty folk, and they do not pay.” She leaned down and hoarsely whispered: “Oh, if the Germans would only hurry. We respectable folk all want the Germans to come here!”

And through the shut wooden blinds, as we settled down to sleep, we could hear the far-off thud-booming of the German cannon hammering on the thin, ill-clad, underfed-Russian lines, torn by doubts, fears, distrust, dying and rotting out there in the rain because they were told that the Revolution would be saved thereby. . . .

[NOTE. – The second part of this article, which will appear next month, carries on the story of this eager and spontaneous self-government, showing it at work in the rank-and-file of the army. We see those “thin, ill-clad, underfed Russian lines,” striving to understand their situation, and trying, in the face of many impossibilities, to save the Revolution.]