Bernhard Reichenbach

Moscow 1921

Meetings in the Kremlin


Published in Survey No. 53, October 1964

Do you remember your visit to Moscow in 1921 clearly? What were your first impressions?

Oh, my impressions are still very vivid. The journey from Berlin to Moscow took me about ten or twelve days. I went by sea at the beginning of March and I had to wait eight days in Reval before I got my Russian visa. In June I was joined by my comrades Alexander Schwab, Meyer, a metal worker from Leipzig and a former sailor called Jan Appel, who had gone the year before to Moscow with Franz Jung for talks with the Russian leaders - his story made a splash in the papers. We were all there for the KAPD, the Communist Workers Party, which was rather persona non grata in the eyes of the KPD.

Weren't you one of the first German leftists to go to Moscow?

Well, no. There were KAPD representatives at the second Comintern congress in 1920. In 1921 I went as a 'sympathiser' without a vote.

But I suppose for most of the delegates it was their first visit to Russia.

Yes, it was. It was my first visit to Bolshevik Russia, but I had been there before the war, when I was an actor. I didn't speak any Russian, but from the moment I crossed the frontier, and all the time I was in Moscow, everybody was very kind and friendly and translated for me - mostly it was Latvians who translated. Of course it was all right at the Comintern Executive—the ECCI—and later at the congress, because German was the official language, and all the top people spoke German fluently.

Where did you stay while you were in Moscow?

I was at the Hotel Lux, along with other foreign delegates to the congress, about a hundred of them. The only other foreigner I saw there sometimes were one or two journalists. I went along and introduced myself to Zinoviev, who was Chairman of the Comintern Executive, and after that I took part in the Executive meetings; they were held two or three times a week. Apart from Zinoviev, the Russians who attended regularly were Bukharin and Radek. Trotsky came once or twice, but never Lenin, although later at the congress itself these two were the chief speakers.

And how did the Executive operate?

Well it very soon became clear to me that this 'International' was dominated by the Russians. And, of course, that was virtually inevitable not only because Russia provided the money, and served as refuge for many revolutionaries who had been persecuted in their own country. What counted really was that it was the first Marxist party to make a reality of the dream of the 1848 Communist Manifesto. I don't mean that differences of opinion in the ECCI were suppressed, or that criticism at the congress was stifled or punished; but anyone who stuck to a position that differed from the Russian one remained pretty isolated.

Didn't the Russians differ among themselves?

Yes, but that usually went on behind the scenes, and when Lenin had had his say, the question was settled. His authority was simply taken for granted by his comrades. I don't mean they just obeyed mechanically or were under any kind of threat. I'll admit even today that his position was the result of his undoubted superiority. In lesser degree that was true of Trotsky also, but much less so. He needed confirmation from Lenin, and he always got it.

How would you compare the two?

They were two utterly different types of the revolutionary leader. They were both unusually talented as speakers, although there was nothing striking about Lenin, nothing impressive. But in discussion—in a small group or on the platform at a monster meeting—he was wonderfully convincing, by the way he argued, by the tone of his voice, by the logical sequence of the statements by which he reached his conclusion. When he was up against hostile opinions, his voice used to take on a note of incomprehension, as though he found it impossible to believe that anyone could fail to understand something so obvious - even when the matter was very far from obvious. Zinoviev used to imitate the intonation, but he didn't spark off the same response. Trotsky would speak with emotion, the attractive pathos of the revolutionary leader—not to say demagogue—from Danton onwards. And of course his position as the founder and organiser of the Red Army, which had just defeated Denikin and Kolchak and Kornilov, earned him the highest regard.

What did you think of the other Russian leaders?

Bukharin was a very pleasant man; he was easy to talk to, and would conduct his arguments in a scholarly and objective way. Radek was a brilliant controversialist, familiar with German conditions and personalities; he had a sparkling wit - you would think that you were listening to a first-rate cabaret turn.

And Stalin?

Nobody mentioned him. He was never there during our discussions. I don't mean only that he didn't attend the meetings all the six months I was there—the ECCI, the third congress, and the foundation congress of the Red International of Labour Unions—I mean nobody even mentioned him. Of course, he was in the inner circle even then, but I only learnt that much later. But it was possible in 1921 to spend six months in Moscow without knowing of his existence.

How did you get news about what was happening outside Russia?

There was no radio, and one couldn't get foreign newspapers, except sometimes the Rote Fahne - and that came very late. Really we were quite cut off. But the Russians didn't feel that. Of course, there were the Russian papers, and now and again people would translate them for me.

Were the Russians specially interested in Germany? Did the Bolshevik leaders still think it the most important country, or were they already disappointed?

Both perhaps. The KPD was after all the strongest party outside Russia, and relations with Germany were good.

How did they assess the situation in Europe if they had no radio and no newspapers?

Oh, I'm sure that all the officials got the news fairly quickly. By telephone, and the diplomatic bag, and couriers. No, the Russians didn't feel isolated in that way.

Did you meet any Russians apart from the congress people?

Yes. I had introductions from Reval to some Moscow families. They were mostly non-political, but one of them, the Sundelevich family, had taken part in the 1905 revolution. And then of course I was professionally interested in the theatre. I met Stanislavsky, and saw wonderful performances of Gogol's Revisor and Gorky's Lower Depths. Of course they were in Russian, but I knew the German translations by heart—I'd learnt them as an actor—and so I enjoyed them tremendously. I also went several times to the Yiddish theatre.

Who else did you meet in the theatre world?

I got to know the actor Mikhoels. He was quite young then, but already well known; and I met Alexander Granovsky, the producer, who later emigrated to Germany. He wanted to entertain the congress delegates, and so he put on two or three performances of Mysteria Buffa by Mayakovsky, which Granovsky had translated into German; he asked me to help him put this on, and I did. Meyerhold—he was the most famous of the Russian producers at the time—disliked Granovsky's mise-en-scène. The two of them had the most furious arguments, and Granovsky asked me to join them. We sat up the whole night, and got through enormous quantities of tea and cigarettes, but I couldn't understand a word because they were speaking Russian and wouldn't take time off to translate for me. So in the end I asked them to drive me back to the Lux, because I had a meeting in the morning. The theatre in Moscow was very lively at that time, and in my opinion, had a really high standard.

Well, let's get back to politics. Where was your meeting that morning?

As far as I remember, the Executive always met in the Kremlin. I was given a Kremlin pass, and could come and go without any difficulty. On one occasion I had a conversation with Lenin, in his study. If I'd asked for an interview through the official channels, in order to tell him of the views and plans of the KAPD, the KPD would most probably have sabotaged it, and I wanted to avoid that. They were continually putting me off from one day to the next, so I wrote a very angry letter to Lenin. I told him I'd been there four weeks, as representative of the KAPD, and he had not yet bothered to hear what I had to say; if he had no intention of seeing me, it would be better if I went back to Berlin. I handed this letter in Lenin's waiting room - his secretary, the very forceful Madame Fotieva, went quite pale at what she must have thought my cheekiness, and disappeared with the letter. I waited. Nothing happened. Then Radek came in; he clearly had an appointment with Lenin. He seemed astonished to find me there. When I told him what I'd done he laughed. Quarter of an hour later I was given a letter, in Lenin's own writing; he wrote in German, on paper headed—in Russian—RSFSR, Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, Moscow, the Kremlin, 1921. Here it is:

Werter Genosse Reichenbach!

Soeben, 16/5, 1 1/2 Uhr, habe ich Ihren Brief bekommen und gelesen. Ich bedaure in höchsten Masse, dass ich absolut keine Zeit gefunden, um mit Ihnen zu sprechen. Leider war ich während der letzter Wochen so überarbeitet, dass ich fast niemals eine Zusammenkunft arrangieren konnte und dringende Arbeiten, selbst das Lesen der wichtigsten deutschen Dokumente aufschieben musste. Bitte mich zu entschuldigen.

Ich bin auch jetzt in solcher Lage, daher absolut nicht im Stande, positiv zu versprechen, Zusammenkunft in einigen Tagen. Wenn besonders dringend, warum nicht kurze Vorschläge schriftlich machen?

Nochmals bitte um Entschuldigung und zeichne mit kommunistischem Gruss,


(Dear Comrade Reichenbach,

I have just now—16th May, 1.30 p.m.—received and read your letter. I most deeply regret that I really haven't been able to find the time to talk to you. Unfortunately I've been so overworked these last few weeks that I could practically never arrange an interview, and had to put off urgent work, even the reading of important German documents. Please excuse me.

Even now I'm in the same situation, and therefore really not in a position to make a positive promise to see you in the next few days. If it's particularly urgent, why not put your proposals down briefly in writing?

Again asking you to excuse me I am With communist greetings,


Well, I had to be satisfied with that for the time being, but a few days later a secretary came up to me in the Lux, very excited, and said I must come at once to Lenin. There was a car waiting to take me to the Kremlin.

When I saw him he had not had his first stroke; he seemed perfectly healthy, and very resilient. What people said of him was quite true - he was a good listener. When I'd explained our position to him, he pointed to the map of Russia on the wall, and said Russia itself was so big, he couldn't really find time to know about everything.

After all, it wasn't long after the Kronstadt rising, was it?

Yes, and in addition to that there was the fiasco of the March action in Germany. Both of these events—which really shook the communist world—happened while I was en route from Berlin. The Kronstadt rising had been put down, but politically its effects were still being felt. The leaders of the Workers Opposition—Shliapnikov, who had been Commissar for Labour, Lutovinov, a trade union leader, and Alexandra Kollontai, who had been Commissar for Welfare—all condemned the rising, but attributed it to the expansion of the dictatorial state and economic machine. Well, in comparison with what we got used to from Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, what happened then seems pretty mild now, but the number of arrests went up, and the Workers Opposition were forbidden to undertake any activities.

Did you meet any of these people?

Yes, I did. After I'd been in Moscow a few days, Trotsky took a parade of the troops who'd just returned from their Kronstadt victory. There was a platform at the spot where the Mausoleum now stands, and Trotsky was there in uniform, his hand at the salute. He was surrounded by the party big bosses and the Comintern leaders. I had been asked beforehand—like a lot of others—to say a few words of greeting to the soldiers. I hadn't had much to do up till then with Russian comrades, and knew very little about the background to the revolt, but I was reluctant to accept the official version of sailors misled by white guards. So, fortunately, I refused.

Did the Comintern Executive discuss Kronstadt?

No, not a word, but we did in the Lux. The followers of the Workers Opposition trusted me, and my room became a meeting place. A great many of the Russian comrades spoke German - a good many of the Comintern employees were from the German-speaking Baltic areas. Shliapnikov and Lutovinov avoided me, but I paid many visits to Madame Kollontai. But the Executive spent an enormous amount of time on the March action, which meant a complete break with the policy the KPD had been following. The action had been undertaken partly in response to the urgings of Bela Kun, who'd been sent to Germany by the 'little bureau' of the Executive - it consisted of Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek. Paul Levi—the KPD leader who condemned the action and severely criticised Bela Kun—was expelled, but he had a good many supporters in the German central committee, and they as well as people on the other side came rushing to Moscow. The debate went on in the congress as well. I was sharing a room at the time with Kuusinen, and when we came back at night we still carried on with the argument. I criticised the way people on the Executive changed their position from day to day, and I was particularly angry about the way Zinoviev and Radek put the entire responsibility on the Germans, as though the Russians had had nothing to do with it. Kuusinen gave me a lesson in what he called dialectics - his talk was full of 'on the one hand but on the other hand', of 'contradictions' and their 'resolution', and in the end it seemed that the Executive hadn't changed its mind at all.

What was Lenin's opinion about this?

I was told that at first he had approved Bela Kun's mission, but after the event he changed his mind, mainly under the influence of Klara Zetkin; she had been a friend of Lenin's since the Zimmerwald conference in 1916. Later I had a long conversation with him. I told him that the KPD had been forced to use a revolutionary situation for a putsch, because up till then they'd been proceeding on the old reformist lines, putting a brake on revolutionary developments. And then that sudden volte face - trying to use the unions as instruments of proletarian revolution. Lenin listened quietly, then said it was impossible to move without the unions. This time too he turned to the map on the wall, and said smiling "Of course, I can't be informed about everything that goes on even in my own country. The last document about the German situation which I studied was Radek's open letter to the German workers, in January. Have you spoken to Trotsky about this?" I said I had. "And what did Trotsky say?" "He wouldn't accept my arguments." "Well. I expect he was right." I said we understood perfectly that he—Lenin—didn't have time to examine every question himself, but if he relied on whoever was advising him at the time, and allowed his name to be used as cover for the decisions of others, people would think the decisions were his, and in this case that would only do harm among the communist workers.

So that, about the labour movement in Europe, Lenin relied on Trotsky and Radek?

Yes, on Radek particularly for Germany. Not long after that conversation, Alexandra Kollontai came to see me and Alexander Schwab, she said she was going to oppose Lenin at the congress, where he was to give a report on the NEP. For her, the NEP was treachery to the revolution. She thought she might be arrested, and so she gave us a manuscript - it was her account of the programme of the Workers Opposition. Would we keep it safe? We said we would, and as we had a messenger going to Berlin a day or two later, we gave him the manuscript.

Lenin gave his report on 5 July. The applause was tremendous, and although Zinoviev as chairman called for speakers, nobody wanted to say anything. We KAP people—we hadn't a vote anyhow—wanted others to speak first, but as nobody did, Schwab got up to speak. He acknowledged the difficulties facing the Soviet Government, which forced it to make certain concessions, internal and external, and then he went on to warn the meeting against the Soviet claim to be the dominating centre of the world revolution. That was bound to mean, he said, that the movement would become an instrument of Russia's immediate national interests, while the interests of the proletariat in the industrialised countries of Europe would be forced into the background. He referred to an interview that Krasin, the Commissar for Foreign Trade, had given in Berlin, in which he had said that a strike which was being contemplated at that time would interfere with deliveries to Russia. If workers in capitalist countries were told not to strike because Russia needed the machines they were making the labour movement in those countries would be crippled.

And what was the reaction to that?

Well, Schwab got a little applause - from our KAP delegates, from the opposition in the Dutch party, and from some IWW syndicalists, who were there as guests. But Radek spoke and got the audience laughing and cheering. Then Kollontai got up to speak. It was pretty dramatic. She was obviously very moved. Behind her sat Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenev, Rykov, Radek. (And just think what happened to them!) Lenin was taking notes. Trotsky sat unmoving, the others were whispering to each other and smiling behind her back - but we could see. She spoke in German—well, I don't have to tell you about her speech, it's in the record—and then she herself translated it, first into French, then into Russian - perhaps she didn't trust the interpreter.

And nothing happened to her, although she appealed for an opposition group in the party?

No, nothing. Trotsky took her in hand and she gave in and submitted to party discipline - but that all happened behind the scenes. A day or two later she asked me to return her manuscript. I said I'd done what she'd asked - it was quite safe in Berlin. When I got back to Berlin in August I was given a pamphlet: Alexandra Kollontai, The Workers' Opposition in Russia. The KAPD, when they heard of her retraction, had the manuscript translated into German and published it.

And what did you do?

When our delegation made its report, the KAPD withdrew from the Communist International.


Last updated on: 12.7.2010