How the Soviets Work


THROUGH the guarded doors of the Kremlin, deputies and the curious public are drifting to hear a debate of the C.I.K., the Central Soviet which represents the whole population of the Union. One guesses at their many nationalities, as they tramp over the snow, while the dazzling sunlight sets the gay colors of St. Basil's Church dancing. The hall in which the four hundred assemble makes a dull background; it was, in Czarist days, the sitting place of the Supreme Court. The curious public seems to consist chiefly of earnest young men and women who have come to study the system under which they live. An ample and well-frequented stall, at which the literature of the Party is sold, testifies to their serious tastes. The speaking is rendered unattractive by the use of megaphones. But a phrase strikes me, and a distant scene comes before my mind.

The orator is talking of the marshes of White Russia. I had seen those marshes, in 1919, and again in 1920, first from the Polish and then from the Russian side of the frontier which had still to be traced in blood and fire. They gleam like an interminable lake. They must be crossed by causeways which only the experienced hunter knows. For miles beyond the lakes, the water soaks into the useless, soil. I saw, on the borders of these lakes, a town which was literally starved; as one walked through its streets, one was lucky if one did not meet someone who fainted and fell. Wrestling backward and forward, Germans [The Germans, if one may record the truth, did little damage, and here and there some good.] and Russians had laid this region waste, and then, born of the new hopes of the new time, the Polish and Bolshevik armies had repeated the old ways of the old world. I thought of a Jewish village where the survivors of a Polish pogrom sat among the ashes of their village and talked of Zion and New York. I saw the broad strips of land, on which the young fir trees were growing lustily, while the dark forest behind them sheltered them from the wind. The forest, then, was the victor in the world war. It had won back the fields which men had struggled to cultivate since first they broke, in the Bronze Age, into the defenses of darkness and linked boughs. Where were the vanquished? One might guess, as one saw outside a railway station an untidy wooden cross labelled "tomb of refugees." The Grand Duke Nicholas had driven the peasants before him as he retreated. As typhus lightened the burden of his trains, their superfluous loads were dumped into these nameless graves.

I saw another village of that marsh-country, whence the retreating Poles had carried every horse and cow. The peasants sat listless and stricken, smiling bitterly when I reminded them that the land was theirs. The crops were scattering the seed unharvested; of what use was seed, when one could not plough? As the whole civilized world wrangled, year after year, over the indemnities which should restore the ruined fields of France, I had sometimes wondered what had become of the marsh lands of White Russia; which no one re-membered at Versailles.

The marshes are being drained. The orator was the Commissar for Finance of the allied Republic of White Russia, and he was expounding his budget. The special miseries of those years of war are over, and White Russia to-day is grappling with the problem of her age-long poverty. For this country was always backward, distressed, and neglected in Czarist days. The Polish landlords are gone and the land has been divided, but, in the dry spaces between the bogs and the lakes, there is room enough to allow only eleven and a half dessiatines (thirty-three acres) to each peasant family of six persons. The land is poor; the cultivation no better than in the rest of Russia. On this allowance of land the peas-ants cannot live. They used in the old days to pour out of White Russia, as the peasants of Connemara would spread themselves over the English counties, to reap the harvests of richer men. Apart from intensive farming (so the speaker said), there was just one hope of improving their lot: the marshes must be drained. They cover forty-five percent of the territory of White Russia; -it should not be difficult to add another three dessiatines to the average holding. On that the peasant could live. But, for a country without capital or credit, the process of reclamation could not be rapid. Thirty thousand dessiatines had been drained already, enough to bring prosperity to ten thousand families. But fifteen years would elapse before their program was completed.

Nor was this all that this stricken but spirited land was doing to improve its case. Its public revenue had risen from twenty-two million roubles in 1923-4 to seventy-one millions this year. It scraped together 1,350,000 roubles in the former year to build new factories; it was spending nine millions on that purpose this year. On electrification its expenditure had risen from two percent of its Budget in 1924-5 to ten percent this year. There was one mercy in this marsh-land; they had no lack of turf, and that would serve as the fuel of the big new power station which was in course of construction at a cost of seventeen millions.

They had much more on which to congratulate themselves. They were learning how to administer cheaply; they had reduced this overhead charge from forty-six to nineteen percent of their Budget. They were training their officials and clerks, in compulsory courses, to use the neglected White Russian language. Before the Revolution there hardly existed one printed book in this language; it now has its big range of publications. In 1914 there were places in school for only forty-four percent of the children; they now had places for seventy percent, and would complete their system by 1934. The Czars had never given their country even the nucleus of a university. These people have founded an agricultural and a veterinary college. They will build their university this year. They now possess two State theatres. And they were grappling with the Czarist legacy of the Jewish problem. They had created schools to teach agriculture to the Jews, and they were getting them onto the land. Others again were being trained as apprentices in the new factories. In the old days their sole resource was petty trade.

Then followed the critics. A Great Russian (Larin) exhorted the White Russians to develop their work for their nationalities much further than they had done. It should serve as model for their unfortunate kinsmen across the border under the Polish yoke. An Ukrainian rather deprecated the policy of forcing specifically Jewish schools on the Jews; many of them do not really desire these favors. Another Ukrainian (Petrovsky, President of the Republic) was rather severe in his comparisons, and seemed to forget that he had black earth, where White Russia had marshes. She was not spending enough on education, nor yet on the expansion of her capital. For that latter purpose the Ukraine had spent sixty million roubles out of a budget of two hundred millions.

The White Russian answer, from Commissar Tcherviakov and President Adamovitch, was a reminder of their country's poverty. Every year, when February came round, one peasant family in three had eaten all its grain and would have no bread till the next harvest. Few of them could wear boots save on holidays. They had 3 5,00o unemployed in their towns (in a population of 4,454,000) and, if one reckoned the peasants who need work but can never hope to find it, it was hardly too much to say that a third of the population was unemployed.

They had, indeed, made great progress. They had restored production, after the ruin of the war, to the level of 1913. In pre-war days no social service of any kind existed. There was not so much as a cooperative society. The Communist Party had changed all that, and was bringing the masses into social life and service. Hope lay in intensive agriculture and in the drainage of the marshes, which would be a second revolution.

It seemed to me a less than adequate debate. I could see the glitter of those flooded marshes as they stretched to the wintry horizon. My nostrils remembered the smell of the burned village. I wished I could have spoken.

The first touch of Spring came to Moscow on the morning which I set aside for a visit to the criminal courts. I entered them reluctantly, for I have my doubts whether any attempt to solve the relation of society to the criminal can be satisfactory, though some attempts may be less painfully inhuman than others. It was the informality of the Soviet trials that struck me first. There was no parade, no thought of . terrifying the accused with the majesty and austerity of the law. The usual artless portrait of Lenin hung on the walls. The Judges' table was draped in red. But for the rest there was little to suggest an official atmosphere. The three judges wore neither robes, nor wigs, nor chains of gold, and one of them was a woman.. That instinctively re-assured me; one supposes, though it may be an illusion, that, in dealings with their fellows, women become automata less readily than men. The accused man stood, neither guarded nor fenced into a dock, and faced the Bench. He was obviously a degenerate, with a head and features that should have warned any woman to avoid him. The woman in the case was not present. But she had been rash, and, because he suspected her of in-fidelity on the eve of their marriage, he had stabbed her, and she had barely escaped with her life. The facts were clear enough; the only doubtful point was whether the man had acted deliberately. The presiding judge, a comparatively young man, with a pleasant and intelligent face, intervened, and in a quiet, kindly, confidential tone, began to talk with the accused, as one man to another, almost as if he had forgotten that the public" was listening. He seemed to put the wretched man at his ease; he asked his questions gently yet skillfully, and in five minutes the man had stated plainly that he went home, after the first angry words, and fetched his knife. The judges retired to consider their sentence.

The next trial was less original. Three men, who collected accounts for the state railways, were charged with embezzling a large sum over a considerable time, and there had been some suspiciously careless bookkeeping. It was a complicated case and professionals were called in, experts to give an opinion on the railway's system of bookkeeping and two advocates to accuse and defend, with a third who held a brief for the railway. Property to a large amount was involved, and property can always hire professional skill. The proceedings had no great interest for me; they differed in no essential from those of other courts.

The Soviets started with the bold ambition of revolutionizing the entire judicial system. They regarded the existing system as one of the chief defenses of the propertied class, and they proposed that their own courts, also, should be organs of the class struggle. Their first thought was to banish the professional altogether. The average worker, using his socialist conscience and applying to each case his own revolutionary views of society and morals, was the proper person to judge his fellows when circumstances had led them astray. And so the old professional caste of judges disappeared. Again, they were scornful of the boast of older systems of justice that politics must be banished from the court. In every trial, a society which has its own conceptions of morality, property, punishment, and the relations of man to man, is applying its principles to the case. The Socialist State has also its own conceptions of these things; its judges must judge as Socialists. What has to be defended in Court, moreover, is not merely society, but the Revolution. The Soviets therefore decided that their appointments should be frankly political. The presiding judge is nominated for a year by the Executive Committee of the County, though he may be reappointed or transferred to another district. The two assessors are chosen in rotation from the lists of the local Soviet, and serve only for a week at a time; one might consider them a substitute for the jury, but they have greater powers, since they are jointly responsible for the sentence.

It is a fundamental principle of Soviet justice that all three judges must be workers. It has thus reversed the practise of "bourgeois" states. But experience has shown that justice, even in a Socialist State, requires some intellectual preparation and cannot be left altogether to the light of Nature. The judges go through a rapid course of instruction before they take up their duties, and even the temporary assessors prepare them-selves by attending evening classes. In the higher courts of appeal, higher qualifications, "both political and technical" (as Bucharin puts it), are expected from the judges. In the Revolutionary Tribunals, which, in the stable conditions that now prevail, are coming to be of much less importance than in the early years of civil war and conspiracy, the judges are all nominated by the Executive Committee.

But the legal profession has, after all, survived. A Union of Advocates exists, which includes many pleaders of the former regime, and it appoints a defending counsel, whose services every prisoner receives without payment. But a prisoner with means may still engage his own counsel. The faculty of social sciences in the Universities has its legal section, with a four years' course, and an elaborate Code of Soviet justice has been compiled. Nature is not the only thing in the world which "will come back, though you expel her with a fork."

None the less, much of the revolutionary impulse has survived. The procedure is more human, more expeditious, and less costly than of old. There are fewer appeals. And the old conception of punitive justice has vanished. The courts try to apply the rule that, where the crime is one which the prisoner is not likely to re-peat, public censure may suffice in place of any penalty. For the habitual offender, the attempt is made to turn the prisons, which must restrain and isolate him, into institutions for his moral reeducation. He is taught a trade, or works at his own trade, and is credited on his release with what remains of his Trade Union wage, after his family has been provided for. In some prisons a self-governing system has been adopted and is said to work well.

The third case to which I listened had a bearing on the prison system. The accused was an instructor employed to teach prisoners a trade. He had more than once struck and bullied his pupils; his offense was regarded as a serious crime. That in itself was interesting, but no less interesting was the method of the judge. He was trying, from all the evidence before him (which he supplemented with questions), to form his idea of the character and habits of the accused man. Apparently he drank, and when in drink was brutal. The method reversed English traditions. Our judges deal with the offense as an isolated, abstract happening; this Soviet Judge dealt with the entire man before him. Russians, one may add, are always curious about our English indifference to physical insults. Larin, in a speech in the C.I.K. on Chinese policy, referred to the survival of flogging in English- public schools. A Russian friend, when I mentioned this case to him, described an incident which he had witnessed that morning. A boy, ten or twelve years of age, had annoyed the conductor of a tram car, who ended by boxing his ears. The boy was so sure of his rights, that he challenged the conductor to come with him on the spot to the police station to answer for his assault. And such is public feeling in Russia that the bystanders gathered round and compelled the conductor to go. The Revolution has its code of humanity.

Among many pleasant experiences in Russia I recall a visit to the barracks of the Red Army at Kazan. I was at first but mildly interested. The barracks were spacious and clean. The men were well-clad, and the food was both appetizing and ample-several hundred calories more, as the officers told me, than is prescribed in the Polish army. The social life provided for the men left no excuse for boredom, for every evening, according to a chart on the wall, some theatre, cinema, or concert was open to them. The usual political atmosphere was furnished in a "Lenin corner" of the reading-room. In one room an amateur theatrical group was rehearsing, and I had the first sharp impression of the peculiar social atmosphere of the Red Army, when I realized that, while the male actors were mostly privates, the women were all officers' wives. But I must apologize for using that forbidden word; officers vanished with the old regime. A red "commander" is simply a trained and experienced soldier with more technical knowledge than his juniors; he has no higher social status. One addresses the "Colonel" (again a forbidden word) as "Comrade Battalion Commander." His uniform is of the same cloth and the same cut as that of his men; nothing but an in-conspicuous metal badge on his collar shows his rank. The men salute to receive an order, but they do not salute off duty. Discipline is confined to working hours.

My visit was nearly over when, in a big lecture room of the Air Force, the "Colonel" (forgive the word) came up to me to say that the men were very curious to ask me some questions; would I submit? They fetched a chair for me, and presently some scores of them were gathered round me, in a big family group, officers and men together, their arms on each others' shoulders. The questions came mainly from the men, and very shrewd some of them were. They seemed to know in outline all about the General Strike in England, but some points they wanted to clear up. What had Mr. Macdonald really meant by this, or Mr. Thomas by that? And what, after the collapse of their resistance, was the present plight of the miners? Was there a reaction against A. J. Cook? Then they turned to China, and tried to discover whether from my English sources I could add to their surprisingly full and accurate knowledge of the inner politics of the Kuo-min-tang and the strategy of Chang-Kai-Shek. I gather that I came through the ordeal without too much discredit, for, as a reward, they would have it that I should try their rifle, with a red army great coat to cover my bourgeois clothes.

One could not imagine such a scene in any other army. But it was typical of the whole spirit and system of this revolutionary force. Other armies banish politics, but this army is founded on the belief that a good soldier must be conscious of the purpose for which he serves. He is not merely the defender of a national territory; he is the servant of an international idea. The army has its manual of political instruction, and every conscript is expected to master it, as he masters his rifle. In simple language it gives an outline of Communist doctrine, and then it turns to the various capitalist States and describes the present position and the future prospects of the working class in each of them. It enlarges on the sufferings of the various victims of Imperialism, including, of course, the Indians and the Chinese. The exhortation to duty is based on the claim that "the Red Army is the defender of the workers of all the world." Very skillfully the defensive is blended with the crusading motive. Russia is surrounded by hostile capitalist governments which blockaded her, and for six years refused to recognize her government. She has often proposed disarmament, but these Powers have always refused her offer. Clearly she must be prepared. Then the claims of the Communist Party are advocated. Half its members fought in the Red Army through the Civil War, solidified it by their blood, and led it to victory. It has its "nucleus" in every company, and its bigger unit in every regiment. Every devoted soldier may join. The organization and discipline of the army are then explained. It has its one decoration of reward for distinguished conduct, the Order of the Red Flag, the same for all ranks. Betrayal of the people's cause in any form is punishable by death.

But the degrading physical punishments of the Czar's army have been abolished, especially the dreaded ordeal of standing for hours with the rifle at the salute, with a sack of sand upon one's back. There is nothing worse, I gathered, in the Red Army than simple imprisonment. Each battalion has its elected Council, which corresponds to the Works Council of the factory, and has the right to discuss grievances with the Commanders. In addition to the general education and the political schooling which are part of the regular instruction of a red soldier, there are compulsory courses in scientific agriculture which are invaluable to the young peasants, and a nursery for the future leaders of the village.

The active army is a small force of 560,000 men, one third of the old Czarist strength, in which each man serves for two years, though aviators volunteer for four years. There is a rigid selection which takes family burdens into account, as well as fitness, and last year men were also chosen by lot. The provision of officers is no longer a difficulty; men are promoted from the ranks and passed through the military colleges. The device adopted in the early years of the Civil War, of guaranteeing the political reliability of a commander on the old French plan, by placing a political commissioner at his side, is now almost obsolete. As one of the generals of the staff put it, rather neatly, "Few of our officers are now politically illiterate."

In addition to the active Red Army, there is also a much larger Territorial Army in which service is for four years, but the men are as a rule called up only for one month in each year. This is the defensive reserve, while the active army, in reality troupes de cadres, is mainly stationed on the frontiers. In the regiments of each nationality the national language is officially used, though Russian is (in the technical sense) the language of command.

The Red Army is, I believe, one of the indisputable successes of the Revolution. It has won the affection of the masses. It is as bold a departure from tradition as the French revolutionary army was in an earlier century. "To carry arms," as the military manual puts it, "is the honorable privilege of the workers"; they only may serve in it; the "exploiters" pay a tax of exemption, like the Christians in the old days in Turkey.

The Red Army is regarded as a weapon in the class struggle, and every conscious soldier within it feels him-self the knight of an idea. As I revise these pages, the Red Army is assembled on May Day for its annual parade, and every man repeats the oath of allegiance to the cause: "I, son of the toilers of Russia, give my red oath to protect the interests of the workers and peasants of our Socialist Republic, and also the rights and interests of the workers of the world, whenever this help may be required of me."

Next: Chapter 7: The Nationalities and the Union