How the Soviets Work


For the traveller who reaches Kazan by night a welcome surprise is in store. The city is set on a little hill. One has left behind all the infinite monotony of snow-clad plains: here at last is a landscape which has a personality of its own. In a great bend the Volga, under its thick roofing of ice, sweeps past the town; the lesser Kazanka joins it, and on its farther bank there are forest-crowned hills. One climbs , to the citadel to find, instead of the usual modernity of Russian towns, churches which recall the gay creations of the Kremlin, and a palace in the Moorish style, which was the last habitation of the Tartar princes.

For here long after the tide of Tartar conquest had spent itself and receded, the Moslem intruders, who so nearly reduced all Russia under their yoke, settled and vegetated and allowed their martial fury to abate. Des-tiny overtook them in the middle of the sixteenth century. Russia had recovered herself, and the rising Czardom of Moscow was beginning to unify the country under a native dynasty.

It went hard with the Tartars when Christians in their pride began to plant the cross on the domes of their churches above the conquered crescent. The architect's boast was more than a symbol., The Tartar aristocracy was destroyed. In the rich valleys of the Volga and the Kama solid blocks of Russian colonists were settled. In Kazan itself no Tartar might inhabit the inner city, and to this day you will find their mosques only in the outer suburbs. The people which once had held the richest plains of Russia in subjection were now a degraded race of helots, who lived in poverty and ignorance on the edge of the forests. Such culture as they had begun to acquire vanished from their memory. Of schools, even in the latter days of Czardom, they had none, save, in-deed, the religious school attached to the mosque, based on a tradition common to the whole Mohammedan world -the school were boys learnt to recite the Koran by heart as they swayed to and fro on a mat.

But there was no school in which Tartar (a language of the Turkish stock) was spoken or taught. The printing of Tartar books or newspapers was prohibited, and, in fact, only fifteen books existed in Tartar, all of them dealing with religion. The few schools which Czardom did create for the Tartars ignored their language, and existed only to Russify them and prepare them for baptism. It was thought to be a portent if a Tartar contrived to acquire a modern education. I met the first Tartar who managed to win a degree in medicine-a man in the early forties. This race might as well have lived in the depths of the Mongolian desert, from which it came. It touched the modern world, and grasped at hope, only when the underground Trade Unions and Socialist parties began to organize it, together with the Russian workers, for the desperate struggle against Czar-dom.

The Khans of Tartary have left hardly a memory be-hind them, but where they reigned, the Revolution has created a Tartar Republic. It was born without struggle. It was not a concession to a dangerous agitation. It came into being because the structure of the Soviet Federation and the logic of Socialist thought about the problem of nationality required that it should exist. Its territory is not solidly Tartar: of its inhabitants nearly half are Russians. To raise a depressed race to be rulers of a Republic seems a daring venture, but it is, after all, what the Revolution has done for the whole of Russia. Its problem was to create a ruling class out of workers and peasants; the peculiar ignorance and backwardness of these Tartars was only an aggravation of the usual difficulty. The experiment is on a small scale, but it is one of many. The same daring architects have built from Oriental material as unpromising, or even more primitive, similar autonomous Republics for the Bashkir nomads, the Chuvashes, the Uzbeks, the Kirghiz nomads, and the wild peoples of the Caucasus. All of them enjoy administrative autonomy, save that the army, foreign trade, and communications rank as common affairs for the whole federation. All of them enjoy complete cultural autonomy. The real link between them is, of course, the Communist Party, which every-where enforces the same principles in administrations education, and trade.

My chief concern at Kazan was to discover what the Tartar Republic is doing to raise its ruling class from these despised helots. The Communist view of nationality is simple and trenchant. In politics nationality is an irrelevance, save that it may in practice complicate the essential business of politics-the class struggle. Its positive meaning is a respect for the mother-tongue in which every race must do its intimate thinking. Politically the Soviet Republics are all built on the same pattern. They differ only in using various languages as the vehicle for the same ideas.

The first task in Tartary was to develop its language for modern uses. Its few scholars were set to work to translate textbooks of all kinds-with a preference, I suspect, for politics. The library catalogue showed fifteen titles of Tartar books before the Revolution: it now shows one thousand. An official daily paper sprang into life, and there was soon a weekly for the peasants, with four or five monthly periodicals.

The battering ram of the new ideas beat mercilessly on the door of harem and mosque. The veil, save in a few remote villages, has disappeared. In some of the mosques women are even seen among the worshippers. In all the schools the old conventions are defied by boys and girls, who sit side by side in the most natural way at their lessons. Before the Revolution no woman would have dared to teach: to-day they outnumber the men students in the normal schools,. and even in the medical faculty. There are actually cases in which a woman has been chosen as president of the village Soviet.

It is only three years since the Tartar Republic came into being, but already its educational system is a living whole. The general principle is that separate schools are provided for Tartars and Russians. In each the mother-tongue is the medium of instruction, but in each the other language is taught as a subject of study, though Tartars are, I imagine, much more anxious to learn Russian than are Russians to learn Tartar. The two tongues enjoy equal rights for all public and official purposes. In the University and in the Higher Schools, Tartar inevitably makes its way but slowly. The number of State schools of all kinds (excluding the old-world mosque schools) has risen from 1,272 before the Revolution to 2,370 today, and in fifty-four percent of them Tartar is the language of instruction.

As the ladder rises, the percentage of Tartar pupils dwindles, as one would expect. There are as many as forty-five percent in the various technical schools, which give a grounding in agriculture, engineering and other trades, but in the Higher Schools of university rank the percentage falls to twelve. I might go on to speak of the 144 public libraries for Tartars which have been stocked since the Revolution, and of the 318 educational club rooms in the villages, which serve as nurseries for the new ideas among the Tartar peasants. The Commissar of Education was justly proud that among the Tartar population under forty years of age (including women) he had managed already to reduce illiteracy from eighty to forty percent-but the women, he added sadly, show as yet no eagerness to learn. These things are the commonplaces of the Soviets' work all over Russia. But these methods gain a touch of romance when one sees them applied to a race which but yesterday ranked among the serf populations of the Dark Ages.

I realized for the first time what the Revolution is doing in these dark territories of the Russian East, when I saw the students of the Tartar "Rabfac" before me. The name, I should explain, is one of the atrocious abbreviations in which Russians rejoice, and means workers' college. These colleges exist in every considerable town throughout Russia. They aim at gathering, on the nomination of Trade Unions and Party branches, the most promising of the younger workers, men and women, and giving them, in a four years' course, a preliminary education which will enable them to enter the University. They come from little country towns and remote villages, knowing barely the first four rules of arithmetic; at the end they pass their Entrance Examination at the University. The idea is that the Soviet Republic dare not leave the professions as a monopoly for the children of the former privileged class, and can-not wait until the children of the workers have slowly climbed the ordinary educational ladder. These colleges, in short, are nurseries for the ruling caste. They are a stimulating sight when the students are Russians, but a view of the faces of these Tartar and Bashkir students made me long for a knowledge of their speech, that I might explore their minds. The heads and faces were remarkable enough as one saw them massed in the class room. The straight black hair, the high cheekbones, the closely set eyes and the wide nostrils proclaimed their Mongolian descent.

But through what mental adventures must they be passing! Conceive the bewilderment of these girls in their early twenties, if anyone had told them, ten years ago, that their destiny is not the veil and subjection in a Tartar laborer's hut, but a share in the learned work of the new rulers of Russia. That dark-skinned, comely girl with the great shock of black hair grew up in a Nomad's tent, the inheritor of a mental world which had neither changed nor expanded for ten centuries. today she sits gazing at charts and pictures which illustrate the Darwinian theory, and dreams of her coming work as a doctor. The lad beside her, who may have hoped to herd horses on the steppe, may take his degree in economics, and live to administer the industries of the Re-public. Within these walls they will make the pilgrimage from Mecca to Moscow, and pass from the world of Mahomet to the world of Marx. Russia is stinting her-self: she lives dangerously and she lives poorly, but it is the ambition for a splendid future which gives her the courage to endure. Within a generation she will have brought, not the picked few, but the broad masses of these neglected Eastern races within the circle of civilization.

Of all this titanic cultural work I can but give glimpses. Its inspiration would not be Russian if it neglected the. arts; I shall not soon forget the rare spectacle of a play in the Bashkir language. The stage was the interior of a Nomad tent, and in verse that had a pleasant cadence, with the grave manners and courteous usages of the untamed steppe; a native caste in gorgeous costumes performed a romantic drama by one of the many poets to whom the Revolution has brought opportunity. My ears are still haunted by the Tartar folk-songs which the pupils of the School of Music sang for me, and I left Kazan regretting that I had just missed the performance of the first Tartar opera.

What the Soviet Union has done on a small scale for backward races like the Tartars and the Bashkirs may one day have immense significance for the cultural and political future of Central Asia. But the bigger and more immediate consequence of its broad-minded policy towards the non-Russian races of the former Czarist Empire was that the great and economically valuable areas inhabited by the Ukrainians and the peoples of the Caucasus were retained within its borders. The Ukrainians (otherwise known as Little Russians and Ruthenians) inhabit the rich black earth zone, which also contains iron and coal fields. It was one of the chief sources of Russia's exportable wheat, and it includes the big cities of Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa. Cut off from it, Russia's economic recovery would have been hampered and delayed. This gifted race speaks a language which does not differ widely from Great Russian, which, in-deed, its writers (notably Gogol) had always used. It had independence thrust upon it by the Germans; it adhered in the early days of the Revolution to the Constituent Assembly and the Social Revolutionary Party, rather than to the Soviets. Overrun, first by Denikin and later, in part, by the Poles, afflicted by the organized brigandage of the anarchist Makhno and the nationalist and semi-socialist but pro-Polish movement of Petlioura, who, like Denikin, permitted the massacre of its big Jewish population, it had passed through the stormiest and most cruel experience in the annals of modern Russia. It could hardly stand alone; it had to link up (after the defeat of Germany) with either Poland or Russia. Its peasants had no instinctive inclination to Communism; its townsmen and miners were not satisfied with any of the alternatives. Neither trusted the Poles. In the end, after "Whites" and "Pinks" had both made themselves impossible, the "Reds" were able to consolidate their military victory by the concession of administrative and cultural autonomy. Its peasant tongue is now its official language, and if one has a criticism, it is that this recognition of Ukrainian nationality has been rather too generous than too niggardly. For the language of the educated class and of the towns is Great Russian, and some awkward consequences have followed from the abrupt change-thousands of teachers, for example, who do not know the homely, picturesque speech of the peasants, have been thrown out of employment.

The same policy has been followed, further to the North, in the poor and much less vehemently nationalistic country of the White Russians. Each of these Re-publics has its minorities, and for them too the same cultural liberty obtains. There are little areas in which Polish or Yiddish is the recognized language, and out-side of these there are schools for these races. This policy is so consistently applied, that at Minsk (the White Russian capital) notices and signboards are printed in Yiddish (with Hebrew letters) as well as in White Russian. Here, again, it is rather doubtful whether the Jews as a whole desire to stand so markedly apart. Further to the South, the tiny Moldavian Republic has been created, and it faces the unhappy and rebellious province of Bessarabia, which the Rumanians have' annexed, by way of reminding its inhabitants of the autonomy which they would enjoy within the Soviet Union.

A full and honest treatment of the tangled politics of the Caucasus would demand a separate chapter. The din of the endless controversy over Georgia is always in our ears, and, on the liberal reading of the idea of nationality, the Georgians who stand for independence have right on their side.(1) But there is much that may be said, honestly and whole-heartedly, for the Soviet solution of a desperate problem. This confused corner of the earth with its high mountains and deep valleys, inhabited not only by Georgians, Armenians, and Turco-Tartars, but also by Russians, German colonists, and several lesser native races, was cursed, up to its re-union under the Soviets, with endless local wars and interminable feuds and massacres, between Georgians and Armenians on the one hand and Christians Moslems on the other. It now enjoys peace and harmony. The federal idea enables its little Republics to reconcile autonomy with peace. Their cultural claims have been met to the full, and the Soviets have actually done more for the Georgian language and for the resuscitation of its neglected literature than the former nationalist government. Whether, on a free vote, the Georgians would prefer to recover their full independence at the risk of returning to the old condition of economic isolation and internecine warfare, and of falling eventually under the "protection" of some Western Powers, I cannot say; it is possible. But this one may fairly point out; the Communist Government in Georgia is a native Georgian administration, and Georgians en-joy, thanks to the strong personality of Stalin, an influence in the Soviet Union out of all proportion to their numbers. As for the Armenians, where Europe has talked, Russia has acted, and provided them with a national home in which a remnant of their persecuted race thrives and preserves its ancient culture. In Baku; as in Kazan, the Turco-Tartan race is creating its own promising civilization. It is a creditable record.

When Moscow faced the problem of reuniting the territories of the former Empire which it had reconquered in the Civil War, only one thing can have saved it from despair-the faith of the Communist Party in itself. For the Civil War was a struggle not only of class against class; it was a war in which the center slowly won back the immense periphery. The Communists were strong in Moscow, Petrograd, and the central semi-industrial region; elsewhere the Social Revolutionaries, with their strong peasant contingent, were in the ascend-ant. Moscow owed its victory partly to its central position, but chiefly to the uniform folly of the White Generals who turned the peasants against their cause. The immense area of the old Empire is inhabited by peoples which have in common neither race nor religion. They live on the most various levels of culture. The means of communication are primitive. The whole territory was a complex of hatreds and resentments, some inherited from distant history and others a relic of the class war. In an Empire or Federation one must have some bond of unity, whether it be the prestige of an Imperial autocrat, the superiority of a ruling race, or at least a common history and an identity in culture and trading interests. The new Moscow could appeal to none of these principles. What, in fact, it has taken in their place, is the capacity of the Communist Party to create, in all its territories, a ruling caste on the Muscovite model. The dogmatic basis of the Party was firm enough, its discipline rigid enough, its temperament sufficiently infectious, to fuse into a single governing organization not merely Great and Little and White Russians, who are on the same level of culture, but also the primitive Turcomans, Tartars and Chuvashes, and the intensely nationalistic Georgians and Armenians. Without the Party the feat would have been impossible. Its class basis has abolished the political meaning of nationality, while preserving the intimate associations which belong to language and culture.

A realistic study of the Constitution of the Soviet Union would begin with an account of the Communist Party, its tenets, its history, its discipline. A lawyer who set out to expound it without this preface would soon find himself silent from bewilderment. For the paper Constitution is the briefest and vaguest of documents. One cannot call it more than an outline of guiding principles. If this scrap of paper were the real foundation of the Union, it must long ago have broken up under the strain of the endless disputes of jurisdiction and interpretation to which it must have given rise. Such disputes are, in fact, of frequent occurrence; the spirit of nationalism has been known to pay a fleeting visit to the minds even of veteran Communists, and territories so large and so various inevitably develop a local view on questions of industry and finance. These disputes have never become a real peril. The explanation is that while a man, in his capacity as Commissar for some department of the Ukraine, may hold strong local views, in his capacity as member of the Party he is bound to yield, after stating his case, to the authority of its central direction. The constitution does not mention the "Politburo" (political bureau of the Communist Party), but that institution is actually the sovereign body of the Union. I do not suggest that minor conflicts come be-fore it. But on any large issue, it (subject to the decision of the Party Congress) lays down policy. When the big Congress of the whole Union meets, the fifteen hundred deputies who fill the stalls of the Opera House are not a mere collection of Russians, Great, Little, and White, nor of Christians, Moslems, and Jews, nor even of all the dwellers in the Caucasus, Siberia, and "Central Asia; they are a disciplined legion of Communists. Their vow of obedience is really the central article of the Constitution.

When once this basic fact has been stated, we may proceed to a brief analysis of the Constitution of "The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics" which was adopted, after the passing of resolutions in the various federal Republics which then composed it (Transcaucasia, Ukraine, White Russia, and the Russian Federation or R.S.F.S.R.) at a Union Congress held in Moscow on December 30, 1922. [ Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have since adhered.]

It opens with a stirring preamble. The world, we are told, is divided into two camps. "In the Capitalist camp reign national hostility and inequality, colonial slavery, chauvinism, national suppression, pogroms, and imperialist brutality." But in the Socialist camp prevail "mutual confidence and peace, national freedom and equality, and the tranquil community and fraternal cooperation of peoples. . . . The Capitalist world has failed to solve the problem of nationalities by the joint methods of the free development of peoples and the exploitation of man by man."

Three purposes are next outlined: (1) the revival of the economic life of the country; (2) the creation of a common front by the Soviet Republics against capitalist encirclement; and finally (3) the union of the workers of all countries into a world-wide Socialist Soviet Republic. This last purpose is heavily stressed. The Union, we are told, is a "voluntary association of equal peoples"; entry into it is "open to all Socialist Soviet Republics," which will form "one Socialist family."

The Treaty of Union which follows this preamble, opens with a rapid and summary enumeration of the matters which fall within the competence of the legislative and administrative organs of the Union. One may divide these matters into three classes:

First come matters mainly touching international relations and internal communications, which must belong to the central organs of the Union under any federal constitution. These matters are enumerated as: (1) diplomatic representation, (2) alteration of the frontiers of the Union, (3) admission of new republics, (4) declaration of war and peace, (5) floating of foreign loans, and (6) ratification of international treaties.

The organization of the armed forces of the Union (10) belongs logically also to this section.

Almost equally indispensable in any federal constitution is (7) the right to regulate internal and external trade, but it is not further defined. In fact, all external trade is the monopoly of the State, or of institutions created by it for the purpose. Then comes, no less inevitably (9) the regulation of transport, posts, and telegraphs. Finally (11) the Union budget is included, together with taxation and the establishment of systems of currency and credit.

There is little, so far, to distinguish this Soviet document from other federal constitutions. But, even here, on the threshold, two originalities should be noted. The inclusion of trade and transport means much more than interstate trading and communications. It means all trade and transport within the Union. Again, for all practical purposes, taxation is a function of the Union. The individual Republics and even the counties ("governments") have the right to levy supplementary taxes, and they exercise it, though seldom to any considerable extent. For the greater part of their revenue from taxation they rely on what used to be called in Germany the "matricular" contributions from the Union. The chief taxes, those on agriculture, trade, incomes, and, of course, customs, are all of them federal taxes, of which the yield is divided between the federal administration and the republics.

We now come to the most original feature of this Constitution. There is in some other federal constitutions an attempt to define certain general principles which shall give some moral unity to the whole structure. That is true of the Weimar Constitution which governs the German Reich. Of the American Constitution we may say that it is a charter of individualism, as the late eighteenth century conceived it. This Constitution contains, significantly, no definition whatever of individual rights or civil liberties; the subject is not mentioned. But it does invest the Union with the right to lay down the general principles which should govern all the chief departments of public life. This is conveyed in the fewest possible words, in the following enumeration of matters within the competence of the Union:

(8) The establishment of the general plan, the regulation of the national economy of the Union, and the conclusion of agreements for concessions.
(12) The establishment of the general principles of land distribution and exploitation, and of the exploitation of the mineral wealth, forests, and waterways throughout the whole territory of the Union.
(14) The establishment of the principles governing the creation of courts of justice and their procedure, and also civil and criminal legislation for the Union.
(15) Fundamental labor legislation.
(16) The establishment of the general principles of national education.
(17) The adoption of general measures for the protection of the national health.

All this would be meaningless without some historical interpretation. The various Republics did not chance to resemble each other, thanks to a preestablished harmony. Each was the creation of the Communist Party; each followed from the start the model evolved during the early years of the Revolution in Central Russia. Each was based on an identical reading of Socialist principles as to land, industry, and the rest, modified by the experience of the first period of experiment. What the constitution does, in this summary enumeration is, in reality, to conserve an existing pattern against any wide variation in the future. The "general principles" which the Union has the right to lay down, were already recognized and in operation. The Constitution provides, then, in effect, that in fundamentals there shall be no departure from these principles, save by the decision of the whole Union.

The effect of this arrangement is surprising and far-reaching. In externals these Republics look like sovereign States which have come together, as the preamble put it, for mutual protection and economic benefits. Their sovereignty, indeed, is recognized in a clause which, bluntly and without reservations or conditions of any kind, grants the right of any constituent Republic to secede from the Union. When one comes to examine the Constitution, this impression vanishes. For there is not one department of public life in which, either expressly or silently, the absolute autonomy of the Republics is recognized. Over all of them spread the "general principles" of the common model. The Soviet Union is plainly the most centralized federation in existence.

The remaining articles of this part of the Constitution are of less importance. They empower the Union to deal with migration and settlement, weights and measures, statistics, legislation defining the civil rights of foreigners, and general amnesties. There is nothing unusual here, save, perhaps, the curious importance attached to amnesties. But the last "matter" is of the first importance. The Union has the right to veto any decisions of Congresses, Executive Committees, or Councils of Commissars of the Republics, which infringe the Treaty of Union.

Like other Federations, the Soviet Union has found that allied States are not content that their common affairs should be decided solely by the weight of numbers and population. The fiction that sovereign states are equal, makes its appearance in the composition of one important organ of the Union, the Council of Nationalities. On this Council the allied and autonomous Republics have each five representatives and no more, while each of the autonomous territories has one member. This provision is a safeguard against the swamping of the Union by the Russian Soviet Federation, which includes seventy-four percent of the population of the Union. Little Tartary on this Council counts for as much as Great Russia. This Council has 131 members who are nominated by the sovereign body of each Republic. On the other hand, the Union Council,, with its 400 members, represents the populations of the Union in proportion to their numbers. It is the body to which I have referred elsewhere in speaking of the C.I.K. (Central Executive Committee) though, properly, this Central body is a two-chambered assembly. The two Councils have equal rights, and the assent of both is necessary for the adoption of Union Legislation.

But the main concern of the Council of Nationalities is to safeguard the national rights of the many races of the Union. Like so much else in the Constitution, this two-chamber arrangement might prove unworkable were it not that, in effect, a single, disciplined Communist Party chooses both of these Councils.

The rest of the Constitution deals with the mechanism of the Union-its Congress, its Executive Committee, and its Council of Commissars. It sets up a supreme Court. It also contains the remarkable provision that, while each of the constituent Republics shall have its own Budget, these "shall form an integral part of the General Union Budget, and shall be approved by the Union Central Executive Committee." In practice, so far as I can gather, the approval is not much more than a formality, but each budget is discussed.

What, then, remains of autonomy to the Republics? Mainly the field of administration. They may, indeed, legislate within the framework of the "general principles." But in all large matters, legislation is the function of the Union. Over the details of expenditure, over a wide range of industrial and trading concerns, over the whole range of the activities of the Civil Service, they enjoy self-government. The limits of Union and republican jurisdiction are floating, and very difficult to define. But one clear line is drawn by the distinction that while the constituent Republics have no Commissars for Foreign Affairs, War, Foreign Trade, Trans-port, and Posts, they have each their own Commissars for every other department. Again, as the reader will recollect, there are eight administrative departments (Agriculture, Home Affairs, Justice, Education, Health, and Social Welfare) which have no counterpart in the Union structure. Complete cultural autonomy, wide latitude in the field of administration, but a narrow range for individuality in legislation-such is the position of the Republics. To the Union belongs the real initiative in domestic policy and the sole control of foreign affairs.

Perhaps the most original feature of this Union is its anonymity. It is not the United States of Russia. It deliberately erased the word Russia from its title. It is, as the preamble to the Constitution plainly hints, the conscious nucleus of a world-wide federation, which is to be built on the Soviet model. The hope of its creators was that as the world revolution proceeded, State after State, as its workers won their victory in the class war, would adopt the pattern standardized in Russia and adhere to the Union. What happened in Georgia might happen in Poland or the Baltic Republics, or even, in the fullness of time, in China. The Soviet Union, in short, is rather a League of Nations than a Federation. Whether this highly centralized Constitution is well adapted for that purpose, one need not discuss. A plan which has proved workable in the former Czarist Empire, which possessed scarcely a vestige of local autonomy, might encounter unforeseen difficulties if it could spread beyond the old limits. But it is the ambition rather than the mechanism which is significant. In this Constitution Moscow saw a working model of the framework which should one day include humanity.

Next: Chapter 8: The Communist Party

(1) The overrunning of Georgia, after its independence had been recognized from Moscow, by Russian armies which supported a local "Red" insurrection, is the blot on this record. It may, of course, be pleaded (1) that the independent Georgian Government persecuted native Communists savagely, and (2) that the Western Powers used the Caucasus as a base for intervention in Russia. At one time, as documents show, the Allies assigned Georgia to Italy, as one of her many spheres of interest. The Communists excuse their apparent violation of the right of self-determination by limiting its application to the working part of any population., The Georgian workers, they say, called them in; they refuse, abroad as at home, to consider the rights of the bourgeois section of the population. This, at least, is consistent.