Alfred Rosmer

Moscow in Lenin’s Days: 1920–21


Source: New International, Vol. XXI No. 3, Fall 1955, pp. 188–197.
Translated: by James Fenwick.
Transcribed & marked up: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Eastern People’s at the Baku Congress

WITH THE THREE SETBACKS SUFFERED by the interventionists through the destruction of the forces of Kolchak, Yudenich, and Denikin the counter-revolution was defeated. There remained only Wrangel, who was attempting to reorganize the remnants of Denikin’s army, and it was possible to disregard him.

After thorough-going discussions, the Second Congress defined the conceptions which were to serve as the basis for the formation of the world communist parties. The tasks and the role of the International were unambiguously fixed. It placed great emphasis on the national question and on the status of the semi-colonial and colonial peoples. The 1905 revolution had provoked profound repercussions among them in Turkey, Persia, and especially in China. That of 1917 taught them in sharper form the tactics they would have to learn and apply if they were to liberate themselves. Moscow had just showed them how a relatively non-industrialized people, composed in the great majority of peasantry, could overthrow its autocratic regime and victoriously resist the intervention of the imperialist powers.

As a logical consequence of the work of the Second Congress and as a necessary complement to it the Executive Committee decided to call representatives of all the oppressed peoples together in a big conference. The place chosen for this gathering was Baku, where Europe and Asia meet.

Zinoviev, Radek, and Bela Kun were to represent the Communist International and were to be accompanied by delegates from the countries which possessed colonies. The delegates were Tom Quelch, representing the British, Jansen from Holland, John Reed, and myself.

The trip, Zinoviev told us, was not without risk. It was a long one, since the whole country had to be crossed, and though at the moment there was no organized resistance it was possible that we would come across a few bands of soldiers en route. It took five days to reach Baku, since we stayed over a day in Rostov and in several cities in the Caucasus. We were glad to be able to put this unusual trip to maximum use.

The trip was full of interest and without any danger. It enabled us to see at first hand the immensity of the ruins caused by the civil war. Most of the railroad stations had been destroyed, everywhere the sidings were jammed with the remains of half-burned railroad cars. Whenever the Whites had been beaten they had withdrawn creating the maximum possible destruction. Lozovaya, one of the most important stations in the Ukraine, had quite recently been attacked by one of the bands. We saw right before our eyes the damage created by such attacks, which were still frequent in these areas. As a consequence, the extent of the task which confronted the soviet regime could be measured.

On the other hand, in these devastated areas the food was more varied; on the station platforms peasants offered us eggs and even small roasted chickens, both of which were rare or unknown in Moscow. The whole length of the Caucasus there were mountains of mouth-watering fruits: watermelons, grapes, pears, figs, dates, and all kinds of melons. John Reed sat near us in the train; he often came to chat with us. As soon as the train stopped he would run to the peddlers’ baskets and come back with his arms loaded with fruit. After Petrovsk the train ran along the Caspian. Whenever the stop was long enough he would run down to the sea and plunge in. He enjoyed the trip the way a young American can. Once, in his hurry to get dressed again, he tore his pants – a tragic situation since he did not have another pair.

We went from the station to the theater, where a meeting had been called. The train had fallen behind schedule toward the end of the trip and the theater had been jammed for an hour before we got there. The audience was extremely picturesque; all the various Eastern costumes combined to create a picture of an astonishing and rich color. The speeches, which had to be translated into several languages, were frantically applauded; they were listened to with passionate interest. John Reed, who could embellish his English with a few words of Russian, was a real success. He questioned his listeners rhetorically, crying out, “You don’t know how Baku is pronounced in American? It’s pronounced oil!” The serious-faced delegates broke out into sudden laughter.

It was terribly hot, an oppressive, humid heat to which we – Muscovites that we had now become – were not accustomed. While the Congress was going on several demonstrations were held. The most impressive was the burial of twenty-six peoples’ commissars whom the English had seized and carried off to the other side of the Caspian, where they were shot. The coffins were borne by communist militants to the continuous accompaniment of the beautiful and moving Song of the Dead. [1]

The oil wells were in a lamentable state. The revolution did not yet have either the time or the means to repair them, and the rigs which Czarism had left were far from being modern equipment. The workers – Persians for the most part – lived in miserable huts. The road leading to the oil fields was in bad shape and was very dusty. Only a few wells were in operation. Everything contributed to the creation of an unpleasant picture of this extraordinary source of wealth. On the other hand, the extremely picturesque city was very charming. Only rarely did the pitiless rays of the sun penetrate into the narrow streets. Sunlight and shadow were equally intense.

John Reed had found stores where magnificent pieces of silk were being sold.

You ought to buy some – they have some unique samples here.

But we don’t have any money.

Ask Zinoviev for a few rubles. As a member of the Executive Committee you ought to be able to get them from him.

WHAT WERE THE RESULTS of the congress, incontestably the first of its type, which had brought together representatives of all the countries, races, and peoples of the Orient? In the immediate sense nothing which was hoped for actually occurred. In the months that followed, no uprisings took place which were serious enough to worry and preoccupy the imperialist powers. The stimulating effect was profound, but it did not make itself felt until later. Time was necessary for the discussions and the resolutions to bear fruit, and for recruiting class-conscious forces big enough to be mobilized against their heretofore all-powerful masters.

Contrary to what the anti-soviet newspapers asserted, Enver Pasha did not participate in the congress. At his own request he was authorized simply to make a statement in which he limited himself to an expression of sympathy for the initiative taken by Moscow. But his game was soon revealed. In the last days of the congress a parade was held, one in which the delegates and the local and regional organizations participated. Enver thought of turning it to his own account by presenting himself as the hero of the demonstration. Mounted on horseback on a little rise in the ground at the corner of the square where the parade turned, he was saluted and even acclaimed. His maneuver was obvious, he was asked to leave. From that time on he openly opposed the soviet republic and tried to carve out a Moslem state for himself in Turkestan, where he died in August 1922. The news of his death was sometimes met with disbelief but an eyewitness wrote in Pravda of October 11th that “its correctness could not be doubted.” And he gave the following details:

“On August 4th, eight miles from the city of Balzhuan, superior red army forces surrounded a small contingent of basmatch (Moslem insurgents) among whom were Enver Pasha and his collaborator, the Moslem leader Davyet-Min Bey. After a sharp engagement the basmatch were defeated. The body of a man wearing English clothes and a fez was picked up off the battlefield. In his pockets were found two personal seals belonging to Enver, his correspondence with his wife, a letter from his son mailed from Berlin, a packet of English papers published in India, and dispatches in code. The people of the area recognized the body as that of Enver. The basmatch prisoners confirmed this identification.” (Correspondence Internationale, October 30, 1922)

On the way back there was an alert. Early one morning as we were going through the Caucasus we were suddenly awakened. An attack had been made on the railroad line. The rails had been torn up, causing the derailment of a locomotive which had been preceding us. The nearby station, that of Naurskaya, had been attacked simultaneously. We were stuck. But the group which had organized the attack did not have the means to fully exploit the situation created by the derailment, otherwise the situation would have been a rather critical one for us. The engine of our train had been uncoupled so that the extent of the damage could be assessed on the spot. When it returned, bringing back the men who had gone to investigate, no one was surprised to find John Reed among them. It had been an unrivaled opportunity for him.

Just before reaching Rostov we were surprised to run into Blumkin, the social-revolutionary who had participated in the assassination of Count Mirbach, the German ambassador to Moscow. The assassination had cre ated serious difficulties for the soviet government at that time. Apologies had to be presented to the British government, which was threatening to increase the severity of the draconian conditions it had laid down at Brest-Litovsk. Blumkin later joined the Bolsheviks. When we met him he was returning from a mission which the government had entrusted to him. He had lived for a while in Paris and spoke a little French. He asked me about the socialist movement in France and about its leaders, some of whom he had known – Jean Longuet, in particular, whom he insisted should be sent to the guillotine. Several times he interrupted himself suddenly, saying, “Longuette,” and then bringing down his hand (like the blade of that sinister machine) upon the neck of Karl Marx’s unfortunate grandson (who certainly did not deserve such punishment) he would break out into loud laughter. He was the typical embodiment, I think, of that combination of heroism and puerility which was common among social-revolutionaries. This time we stopped at Rostov only to participate in a demonstration which was to close with a meeting. The crowd filled a vast square, where speaking platforms had been set up. Blumkin came with me to the one I was to speak from, and he insisted on translating the speech. I refrained from speaking of Longuet, but I have always entertained the suspicion that he made me demand that more than one head roll.

SAD NEWS AWAITED US at Moscow. John Reed, who had come back ahead of us, was in the hospital with typhus. No effort was spared to save him but it was all in vain; he died several days later. His body lay in state in the great hall of the House of Trade Unions. On the day of the burial winter had already arrived, snow was beginning to fall. We were overwhelmed with sadness. The trip to Baku had permitted us to get to know him well. Before I had met him I had read and translated the articles which he had sent from Petrograd during the Kerensky regime to the excellent American magazine Masses, of which Max Eastman was the editor. They were exceptionally informative, really first-rate – shrewd, perceptive, and colorful. He had already been in Russia and Europe during the imperialist war, in company with the artist Boardman Robinson. For a free lance journalist like him these excursions were adventures which on several occasions wound up in jail, notably in Poland and then in Petrograd. He therefore had a great deal to relate to us. He went over with us the material which he had published in London in 1916 under the title The War in Eastern Europe. But he talked with us even more about the October days, those “ten days that shook the world,” of which he had been the enthusiastic witness. Later he was to be the faithful narrator of those days in the book that he wrote on his return to New York in 1919. His friend Max Eastman once told me that it had hardly taken more than ten days for the book to be written. He had protected himself from all visitors by moving into a room in Greenwich Village. He assembled a mass of important reference material there and went out only to eat a hasty meal. During the trip we had seen him full of fire and youth – and sudden spells of sadness, too – and it was he who was to create the first gap in our ranks. His frank, sometimes even rude, speeches at the congress had made him popular with everybody ... A place was found for him in the section of the Kremlin wall reserved for the heroes who had fallen in the revolutionary struggle. The words of farewell were spoken by Bukharin for the central committee of the Russian communist party, by Kollontai, and by his comrades on the executive committee. Louise Bryant, who had arrived only to see him die, was there, crushed by grief. It was all of an infinite sadness. [2]

OUR RETURN TO MOSCOW was marked by death and sorrow. The congress had already begun when three Frenchmen arrived, each one of them known for his seriousness and courage. Raymond Lefebvre, a talented newspaperman and writer, had been won over to communism; Vergeat, a machinist, was a syndicalist; Lepetit of the common laborers’ union, was an anarchist. The choice was an excellent one. The delegation, though small in number, was very representative of the current tendencies in the French working-class movement. Raymond Lefebvre was the most enthusiastic. He participated with youthful Ere in the discussions among the delegates, asking questions and learning. “Everything that we did up to now will have to be done over,” he told me on one occasion. It was the conclusion which he had drawn from what he had seen and learned during his stay. Because of his personality, and because of the fact that he was outside the party, Vergeat was more reserved. He was a solid militant who did not make decisions without thinking. He was one of those syndicalists who was completely devoted to the Russian Revolution but who still had to get together with others so that they could examine among themselves the serious problems which joining a political party posed. Of the three, Lepetit was by nature the most critical. Nevertheless, his letters, written from Moscow and published in Le Libertaire, showed that though his criticisms were sharp they did not negate his basic sympathy for the new regime.

When I went to Baku I left them in Moscow confident that when I came back I would find them still there and would be able to have the long talks with them which the work of the congress had not permitted. But all three of them were impatient to return to France in order to resume their activity as militants. At this time the trip back was made via Murmansk, from where boats left for the various ports of the West. When they arrived at Murmansk a storm was raging, the sea was very rough. Nevertheless, a boat was ready to leave and they left on it. After that we had been without news of them. What caused the most anxiety was that delegates who had left before them had already arrived in Paris. We clung to the hope that they would be found. Searches were made for them everywhere, but it was all in vain. We were forced to resign ourselves to their disappearance. The revolution had levied a heavy tribute on the French working-class movement.

Pierre Pascal had been especially close to two of them, Vergeat and Lepetit. During their stay in Russia he had helped and guided them. They profited from his knowledge of men, the regime, and the country. He wrote from Moscow:

“Vergeat and Lepetit left the country very much changed. They learned a fundamental truth here which they had not appreciated in France. Formerly they had more or less consciously thought that one day or another the new classless and non-exploitive society would be set up complete immediately following the revolution. They learned in Russia that, on the contrary, this society would have to be painfully hammered out in years of effort ... In addition, their education had been completed by Lenin himself, both in person and through his writings. They read the French translation of his work State and Revolution. It was a real revelation for them ... Their death was due to their devotion to duty. They died victims of their eagerness to bring back to France the glad tidings of communism.” (Bulletin Communiste, February 17, 1921.)

The Russian Trade Unions

WE HAD HARDLY SETTLED DOWN AGAIN in our rooms at Dyelovoy Dvor when we were informed of our impending transfer to the Hotel Lux. Dyelovoy Dvor served its purpose so well that the thought of leaving it was unpleasant. It was all the more so after we visited our new residence. The hotel was on one of the swarming and noisy streets of the city, the Tverskaya. It was a huge building, every aspect of which was in bad taste – the exterior, the furniture, and the remnants of that “luxury” which had given its name to the hotel. There were drawing rooms which were utilizable only during periods in which congresses were being held, when beds had to be set up everywhere. When Amédée Dunois stayed over briefly in Moscow I found him put up in one of these heavily gilded and ornamented salons. As he had come in a rather critical frame of mind such accommodations could only serve to accentuate his reservations. “Where is the Communist International?” he asked. “When Zinoviev went to Petrograd it would seem that he took it with him.”

I remained at the Lux for a whole year, until October 1921, and afterwards I spent shorter periods there whenever I was called to Moscow. I always found it rather disagreeable, but it in no way resembled what it became later, after the Stalinist police had established a permanent regime of suspicion and informing. There was nothing which could be compared to the picture Margarete Buber-Neumann drew of it in her testimony at the Kravchenko trial and which is also found in her book Under Two Dictators. But if the setting had changed, our life remained the same: meetings, discussions, the preparation of reports, reading. Newspapers began to arrive, though irregularly.

I went every day to the offices of the Russian federation of trade unions, where rooms were set aside for the provisional international council of the red trade unions. Here there was neither luxury nor even a trace of luxury of any sort, just extreme poverty and a bare minimum of what was necessary in order to work. There was little or no heat, and above all there was a terrible smell of fish chowder which permeated the whole building. It seemed to be the sole item on the canteen’s menu.

When all was said and done, the unions were poor relations, but not because importance was not attached to them (they were soon to be the subject of the most serious discussions within the central committee and the party). On the contrary, huge tasks in the building of the communist society had been reserved for them. But the emphasis was nevertheless upon the party. It was the party which received the lion’s share of the resources of the republic in manpower and material aid. The overwhelming fact was that qualified men were lacking. The ranks of the best people had been ravaged by the war, and those who were left, despite an exhausting workday, were not sufficient to get everything done. A choice had to be made, and the unions came after the party. (It should be remembered, however, that for the Russian communists the distinction which was sometimes made between union and party, or even the opposition which was drawn between them, was unknown.)

At the end of a day spent in these freezing offices a person became a little dull. You were glad to get into the bracing air outside, even if the thermometer was fifteen below zero. I liked to prolong my coming back by walking along the boulevards to the statue of Pushkin. The sum, which was setting behind the black trees, still gave out a little of its pleasant warmth.

By chance I met one of the typists in the office, a young Polish girl who had studied in Paris and knew several of my friends. She offered to do translations of any material which I might find useful, adding immediately, “But I have to tell you that I am a Menshevik.” I said, “If you promise to work honestly that won’t make any difference to me.” With her around I did not have to fear being unaware of the bad side of the picture. She never failed to stress the inadequacies and the weak points of the regime. When she translated material in which the mensheviks were roughly dealt with, she would break out into denunciations, shouting, “It’s false. They’re lying!”

She lived at Dyelovoy Dvor, our former living quarters having been turned over to the trade union officials and secretaries. Needing a translation quickly one evening, I went there. A painful sight met my eyes: everything had gone to rack and ruin. The building, which we remembered being so neat and attractive, was unrecognizable. An incapable or careless building superintendent was all that it took to bring about such a disaster. The floor was broken through in several places, the walls were stained, the plumbing was stopped up, light bulbs were missing. This was no longer Europe but the Orient, where the daily maintenance routine is generally skipped. This oriental slovenliness was one of the negative aspects of the Russian character – which is otherwise so attractive.

I had worked with this secretary for several months when one morning she informed me through one of her girl friends that she had just been arrested by the GPU. I immediately went to Lozovsky to find out what was going on. It was only a matter of an investigation, he told me; they had several questions they wanted to ask her. She was freed the next day and came to tell me her story. She had got together several times with members of the Polish Bund (a Jewish socialist organization) who could not be said to be friends of the soviet republic. Their meetings had taken on a secret, quasi-conspiratorial character. The GPU, which had some reason to put these Poles under surveillance, had then proceeded to arrest several of them, including her. The more than normal calmness of tone, and the fact that she spoke of her arrest without anger, indicated that in her own eyes the intervention of the GPU was not without justification.

THE DUTCH REPRESENTATIVE on the executive committee was named Jansen. He was a close friend and admirer of Gorter, that enthusiastic defender of the conceptions of the German Communist Workers Party (KAPD). I had met Jansen in Berlin, where we were both looking for a way to get to Moscow. He had maintained contact between Amsterdam and Berlin and after the war. He knew the German working-class movement well, including its leaders, with whom he was not very sympathetic. He severely criticized them. He was often correct, but never completely so. His evaluations were partially distorted by a touch of Germanophobia. We got together, discussing and exchanging observations, during walks we took together at night in Moscow.

One day we decided to visit a factory. A young communist who had worked for a while in Belgium went with us. We took a streetcar well into the suburbs, but a sizable stretch of road still had to be covered on foot. The sky was clouded over, but there was no wind and we were warmly dressed; it was pleasant walking. We saw a line of wagons pulled up before a tavern. We decided to go in, hoping to get a glass of tea. In any case, we thought it would be interesting to look the place and the people over. There were still several cafés in the city, including that of the imagists. We never went there. Slightly tinted hot water was brought us. The teapot and glasses were chipped, but at least we could warm ourselves up. It was not the first time that what was referred to as tea turned out to be boiling water.

Needless to say, our coming in provoked general curiosity among the patrons; they couldn’t wait to question us: Who were we? Where were we going? Our young comrade got into conversation with his neighbor, and the unfortunate idea came to him of revealing our important positions as members of the executive committee of the Communist International.

“Then they’re Jews,” replied the man who was questioning him, in a tone of complete contempt.

“No, they’re not Jews!”

He was surprised at first, and stared at us, but in the end it was impossible to get him to let go of the idea. Neither he nor those who were with him came to our rescue – all the soviet leaders were Jews. They were not at all backward in criticizing the regime, even in the coarsest terms. It was very revealing. Incidents of this type were precious insights into the popular mind; the revolution had a big job ahead of it in counteracting the effect of the poison with which Czarism had infected these crude mentalities.

For entirely different reasons the visit to the factory left us with a similar impression as to the extent of the task, but here it was not a matter of people; the workers and the leaders were very understanding. Completely devoted to the regime, they soberly voiced their complaints and told us about the troubles which they were running into. The work was well organized but the available equipment was inadequate. Indispensable items were lacking and it was impossible to procure them.

We were too tired to walk the whole way back and the idea of returning by sleigh attracted us. And in fact it was very pleasant at first, with the cold air cutting our faces – but not for long. We were well covered up but not sufficiently so for this sort of ride. We quickly decided to let our sleigh riding experiences ride with this first one.

THE CONTROVERSY OVER WHAT WAS TO BE the program of the German Communist Workers Party, the KAPD – a party of the masses, not one of leaders, which was opposed to parliamentarism and trade unions – seemed to have been exhausted. The epilogue had taken place at the second congress of the Communist International. However, Hermann Gorter, the Dutch communist who was the theoretician of this tendency, having addressed An Open Letter to Comrade Lenin in which he reopened the question, the leadership of the Communist International had decided to invite Gorter to Moscow for a new discussion. A special session of the executive committee was called. Gorter was a poet, even a great poet, and with him the discussion inevitably took a literary turn. This is the way that the summary closing his open letter went:

In conclusion, in order to get my analyses, in as brief and organized form as possible, before the workers who have acquired a clear conception of the tactics involved, I will sum them up in several points:

  1. The tactics of the revolution in the West must be entirely different from those of the Russian revolution;
  2. For in the West the proletariat stands alone;
  3. The proletariat must therefore make the revolution against all other classes by itself;
  4. The importance of the proletarian masses is therefore relatively greater, and that of the leaders smaller, than in Russia;
  5. The proletariat must have only the best weapons in order to make the revolution;
  6. Since trade unions are defective weapons they have to be abolished or radically transformed and replaced by factory organizations united in a central body;
  7. Since the proletariat must make the revolution by itself without any outside help whatsoever, it must raise itself to a high level of consciousness and courage. It is best to avoid parliamentarism in making the revolution.

What was laid down in this manner was obviously the complete platform of the KAPD. Gorter’s principal interest, however, was the trade union question. When we met he put it to me almost point-blank: “I hope that you are going to revise your trade union resolution.” He seemed surprised to learn that the syndicalists were in agreement with the resolution of the Communist International and not at all with his, which had been made even worse by this statement against strikes: “We have remained small in number; our KAPD forces are so reduced that we must concentrate them on the revolution, not waste them in strikes.”

The session took place on November 24. Gorter made a long speech. The previous discussions had been so full that it was impossible to advance new arguments; everything had been said on both sides. But in regard to Gorter there was a new element: the form of his presentation itself. It was remarkable, but its foundation was not a solid one. This was very obvious at the time; when from the vantage point of today you reread the summary of his open letter which we previously quoted you cannot help being struck by its naiveté. Trotsky – it was he who had been chosen to make the rebuttal – refuted Gorter’s statements and stressed the contradictions, the most flagrant of which dealt precisely with “the masses.” Reference to the masses often appeared in Gorter’s statement; he opposed them to the leaders and at the same time he accused the Communist International of “chasing after the masses.” That the revolution in the West would develop differently than in Russia nobody would have thought of denying. Lenin had said it repeatedly. But there was no necessity to go so far as to divide Europe into two entirely different worlds, as Gorter had done. There were, at the same time, many points in common between Russia and the West

Hélène Brion was then in Moscow, where she stayed briefly. An active militant in the teachers’ union she had participated in the minorityite syndicalist movement in France; her activity during the war had caused her to be arrested and sentenced to jail. She followed the discussions with sharp interest and at their conclusion expressed her satisfaction at having been present at discussions conducted on such a high level.

* * *


1. In a review of a book on the execution of the commissars, Sosnovsky wrote:

“A. Chaikin, a former member of the Constituent Assembly and of the central committee of the Social-Revolutionary party, has just published a highly interesting book, l’Execution des 26 commisaires de Bakou. It is a serious study of the policy of English imperialism in the Caspian region at the beginning of the civil war ... When the Georgian mensheviks granted the Turkish army the right to pass through their territory in order to occupy Baku, the government heads of that city (who were in any case pliant tools of the English) called on the English for help. The leaders of the soviet movement were immediately arrested and taken to Kislovodsk, where the English headquarters was located. On September 19th the twenty-six red militants were removed from prison ‘to be taken to India via Persia’ and ‘kept as hostages.’ This was the official version. The truth is that these twenty-six militants were all taken to an isolated spot and beheaded.” (L. Sosnovsky, Correspondence Internationale, Marell 18, 1922)

2. In a letter sent to Max Eastman, Louise Bryant wrote:

“Before he took sick we had spent only a week together. We were terribly happy to be with each other again. I found him older looking, saddened, full of gentleness, and extraordinarily handsome. His clothes were in rags. He had been so affected by the suffering which surrounded him that he had forgotten all about himself. I was deeply troubled by this. I felt myself incapable of attaining such a degree of enthusiasm. We visited Lenin, Trotsky, and Kamenev together; we went to the theater and saw the ballet and Prince Igor. He was burning to return to America.”

Last updated on: 26 October 2019