John Reed Internet Archive

Soviet Russia Now

First Published: January 1921 in The Liberator
Transcription/Markup: Alphonsos Pangas
Online Version: John Reed Internet Archive ( 2000



(The first of these articles on Russia in 1920 was printed in the December Liberator.)

Even greater than the toil of constructing, organizing, drilling, arming, feeding and transporting the Red Army, is the most gigantic task of all, educating it, as no army has ever been educated.

There are the schools for the Red officers, hundreds of schoo1s, where an emergency course of six months for soldiers, and of one year for civilians, turns out several thousand smart young “commanders” - there is only one officer’s rank in the Red Army, that of Commander, whether it be of a company or an army corps. The bu1k of these officer cadets is made up of workers elected by their organizations, or young peasants chosen by their villages.

Of course many of the technical instructors in these schools are old Tsar officers, professiona1 militarists. At the graduating exercises of the General Staff Academy - all graduates of officers’ schools are members of the General Staff - there occurred an incident which could not happen in any other military school on earth. One of these old professors gave an address on the “Art of War,” in which he glorified militarism, after the manner of Treitschke.

Podvoisky, representative of the Communist Party and of the Commissariat of War, immediately sprang to his feet.

“Comrade students!” he, cried, “I object to the spirit of the last speech. True, it is necessary to learn the art of war, but only in order that war may disappear forever. The Red Army is an army of peace. Our badge, our red star with the plow and hammer, shows what is our purpose - construction, not destruction. We do not make professional soldiers - we do not want them in our Red Army. So soon as we have crushed the counter-revolution - so soon as international revolution bas put an end forever to imperialism, then shall we throw away our guns and swords, then shall frontiers be abolished, and we shall forget the art of war.”

By far the most important part of the Red Army is the political-cultural department. This is composed of Communists, and is under the direction of the Communist Party. The Politica1 Commissars all belong to the Polit-Otdiel, as it is called. Each unit has its Communist Commissar, who must report daily to the Commissar of the unit above him about the morale of the soldiers, the relations between the army and the civilian population, the Communist propaganda work in the ranks, any discontent among the soldiers, add the reasons for it, etc. In each unit, the Communists form a separate group within the company, regiment, or brigade, lead the fighting, strengthen the morale of the soldiers by propaganda and example, and educate the soldiers politically. Besides this work the Polit-Otdiel also conducts classes in reading and writing and elementary technical education and vocational training; this is done right up to the front trenches. The actors and actresses of the Great Theater, the Art Theater, are transported to the front to play for the soldiers the masterpieces of Russian drama. The pictures of the great galleries are taken to the front, and art exhibitions and lectures take place in the soldiers’ clubs. Vast quantities of literature are furnished the soldiers. They are taught games 1ike Rugby. The soldiers are also creating their own drama, and are building and acting their own plays, chiefly about the Revolution, which in time is bound to become a national epos, a sort of vast eternal pageant spread through all the villages of Russia.

The results are remarkable. The bulk of the army is, of course, made up of more or less ignorant peasants. The peasant usually comes into the army unwillingly - unless he lives in a part of the country once occupied by the Whites, or close enough to the front to hear what they are doing, in which cases he volunteers. And so, an unwilling, ignorant 1out, unable to read or write, ignorant of what the war is about, he enters the ranks. Six months later he can usually read and write, knows something of Russian drama, literature and art, understands the reasons for the war, and fights like a fury for the defense of the “Socialist fatherland,” enters captured cities under the red banners, singing - in short, has become a class-conscious revolutionist. More than 40 percent of the Red Army can read and write and all the Red Navy. ...

Besides the regular military conscription, the Communist Party a1so conscripts its own members, who by reason of age or other reasons wou1d be exempt under the regular draft. These Communists are concentrated wherever the Polit-Otdiel, thinks necessary - in units whose fighting morale is weak, where there is a large percentage of illiterates, where there are workers or peasants corrupted by Anarchism or Menshevism. The Trade Unions also mobilize their own members and the Cooperatives.

But why conscription? Russia is not an industrial country; it is a land of peasants. The vast majority of the soldiers therefore, must be peasants. But it is the industrial workers who made, and who now lead and direct the Revolution. The peasant, infinitely backward in comparison with the city worker, followed the latter until he received the land. The peasant, as a general rule, wants to own his land, to have free markets for his products - this is his petty bourgeois psychology. He usually does not understand Communism, or the ultimate aims of the Revolution. The villages are far removed from the burning life of the great towns, and the peasant, being as a rule unable to read or write, and living far away from the front, usually knows very little of the causes of the war.

If it were not for the incessant attacks on Soviet Russia and the terrible condition of the economic life, necessitating the straining of all resources of the conscious industrial workers, it would be possible to agitate and explain these things to the peasant; as it is, an enormous amount of education is carried on; but not enough. And in the meanwhile the peasant must be made to fight, so that the Revolution, and his own future happiness, may not be lost.

But, on the other hand, the peasant does already understand well enough not to resist mobilization. You can’t conscript a thoroughly unwilling people, especially immediately after that same people has overthrown all governmental authority. The draft has proceeded, each time, without a hitch, and the peasant in the Red Army will return to his village a revolutionist and a propagandist.

* * *

The collapse of Denikin, the conclusion of peace with Esthonia, seemed to mark the end of the civil war. It seemed that the breathing space so ardently longed for had come, the opportunity for Soviet Russia to throw all its forces into the work of economic reconstruction.

In January I had a talk with Trotzky, who outlined to me his plans for the future military policy of Russia.

“When peace comes we shall demobilize. Out of one hundred divisions, ten will be left on guard at our most menaced frontier. The rest of the army will be sent into industry. Of the other divisions only the cadres - the frames - will be left.

“Russia is now being redistricted. The new districts shall be ordered according to their economic character, as economic units. Each district will be an industrial center, with the villages and land about it, containing in itself, if possible, labor, food and the machinery of exchange; the effort being to make all the population worker-peasants.

“Each of these districts will be the headquarters of a division cadre, whose task is to mobilize the population not only for the army but for work.

“The army divisions on the frontiers are to be constantly renewed. Each will remain on duty for three or four months, and then sent home to work. In this way the whole male population will be trained to arms, each knowing his place in his regiment, and also his proper work.

“In each district will be an officers’ school, through which will pass the elite of the working class. These ‘schools’ will doubtless become combined military, industrial and cultural schools, fitting workers to be leaders of new life.

“Russia is an industrially undeveloped country; skilled workers are few; and our economic apparatus is ruined by six years of war and revolution. We must be able to concentrate labor upon certain emergency tasks where it is most necessary. For example, the Ural mining district needs 50,000 skilled workers, 200,000 semi-skilled and 200,000 laborers. We want to be able to send these workers to the place where they are most needed; of course this would be done only after consultation with the Unions, the Shop Committees, etc.”

I asked if the workers would want to go.

“Well, in the first place, we have in the army already tens of thousands of sincere and disciplined Communists - and we are getting more all the time - who are ready to go where the Party sends them. As always, the Communists must lead the working class in this new direction.

“Under capitalism, the worker must go where there is a job, whether he likes it or not; but he works for a capitalist, and not for the working-class, as he does here. We make it especially attractive and pleasant for workers who are ordered to distant places, to distasteful work, etc. - special rations, short hours, their families should be particularly well cared for, like the families of our Red Army soldiers. Add to this unlimited schools for technical and every kind of training, open to all, and you can see the opportunities.

“Registration is now going on in the Army. Every man is carefully examined as to what sort of work he can do, so that at the time of demobilization the men can be sent where they are needed most.”

The desperate situation of the industries upon the close of the war with Denikin, however - and especially the transportation system - made it necessary to adopt an emergency plan - the creation of the Labor Armies.

Instead of demobilizing, the armies were transformed, all their organization intact, into Labor Armies, and set to work.

One Labor Army was set to repair the bridges destroyed by Kolchak, and rebuild the railway lines eastward; another tackled the transportation lines ruined by Yudenitch; a third was set cutting and transporting wood in the forests of the North; another turned its attention to the Ural industrial district; still another was sent to help the peasants along the Volga get the ground ready for the spring planting.

This policy was not adopted without some opposition. It was discussed for weeks in the local Soviets everywhere, in the Union branches and Party committees, and in the press.

At first there was considerable hostility to the plan. The soldiers were worn out by two years’ continual fighting - they wanted to go home; the Unions had remnants of sentiments against compulsory-militarized labor. It needed Lenin’s own clear explanation - that this was not a question of the possible exploitation of the workers by private interests, but simply a plan by which the maximum labor force might be concentrated to save the life of the Russian people, to save the Soviets, the Revolution. And at the same time to keep intact the organizations of the Red Army, in order to guard against a possible treacherous attack - which, in fact, was launched soon afterward by the Poles. So finally the plan was everywhere indorsed, even in the army itself. The Third Army, in the Urals, issued a proclamation to the workers and peasants, declaring that its military task was completed, and that it turned itself toward the “labor front,” and claimed the honor of being called the First Red Labor Army - electing Trotsky as its president. Others followed. The most popular men in Russia were placed at the head of these armies. Every meeting, every paper, was full of the doings of the Labor Armies. The press published daily “communiques from the bloodless front,” showing the work done.

In a talk I had with Lenin, he admitted that the Labor Armies were an experiment, and that if they proved unpopular they would be abandoned - for it was impossible to make men do efficient work if they didn’t want to.

“But where we have the advantage over the rest of the world,” he said, “is that we can experiment, we can try any schemes we please, and if they don’t work, we can change our minds and try something else. The workers know that at least the Communist Party, which controls the Soviets, is a revolutionary working-class party, that it is fighting capitalist exploitation for their benefit; they trust us.”

The Labor Armies accomplished a colossal amount of work. In six weeks they rebuilt the great steel bridge over the Kam River, blown up by Kolchak, and thus restored the direct route to Siberia - a task which it is calculated would have taken a bourgeois contractor three or four months at least. They worked singing, a great military band playing on the bank, with an indescribable enthusiasm. They restored the railway to Yamburg. They cut millions of feet of firewood for the cities. To the rebuilding of the transportation they brought such energy that the repairing of locomotives, which for more than a year had been steadily more and more falling behind the number damaged, passed the “dead” point and began to climb.

The cities would have been provisioned and provided with wood for the winter, the transport situation would have been better than ever before, the harvest would have filled the granaries of Russia to bursting - if only the Poles and Wrangel, backed by the Allies, had not suddenly hurled their armies once more against Russia, necessitating the cessation of all rebuilding of economic life - the abandoning of the work on the transport, the leaving of the cities half provisioned, half unprovided with wood, the concentration once again of all the forces of the exhausted country upon the front.

No one can conceive the horrors that will be in Russia this winter, because the nations of the Entente loosed their mercenaries on Russia this summer.

But it will be the last difficult winter; for the Poles are smashed, the Tcheko-Slovaks are almost offensively neutral, the Rumanians are most conciliatory, and the Allies are bankrupt. And in spite of all that has happened, the Revolution lives, burns with a steady flame, licks at the dry, inflammable framework of European capitalist society.

* * *

In the dead of winter - the worst period of the year, the hardest winter Soviet Russia has known, I went out into the country to see the provincial towns and the peasant villages.

There, comparatively far from the metropolis, I found that the Soviet order had bitten deep into the life of the people, that the new society was already an old-established and accustomed thing.

Take, for example, the little town of Klin, capital of Klin uyezd, or country, seat of the Uyezd Soviet. ...

(This article as we received it stops short at this point.)