Arthur Ransome
The Crisis in Russia


I have already suggested that although the small Central Committee of the Communist Party does invariably get its own way, there are essential differences between this Dictatorship and the dictatorship of, for example, a General. The main difference is that whereas the General merely writes an order about which most people hear for the first time only when it is promulgated, the Central Committee prepares the way for its dictation by a most elaborate series of discussions and counter discussions throughout the country, whereby it wins the bulk of the Communist Party to its opinion, after which it proceeds through local and general congresses to do the same with the Trades Unions. This done, a further series of propaganda meetings among the people actually to be affected smooths the way for the introduction of whatever new measure is being carried through at the moment. All this talk, besides lessening the amount of physical force necessary in carrying out a decision, must also avoid, at least in part, the deadening effect that would be caused by mere compulsory obedience to the unexplained orders of a military dictator. Of the reality of the Communist Dictatorship I have no sort of doubt. But its methods are such as tend towards the awakening of a political consciousness which, if and when normal conditions-of feeding and peace, for example-are attained, will make dictatorship of any kind almost impossible.

To illustrate these methods of the Dictatorship, I cannot do better than copy into this book some pages of my diary written in March of this year when I was present at one of the provincial conferences which were held in preparation of the All-Russian Communist Conference at the end of the month.

At seven in the evening Radek called for me and took me to the Jaroslavl station, where we met Larin, whom I had known in 1918. An old Menshevik, he was the originator and most urgent supporter of the decree annulling the foreign debts. He is a very ill man, partially paralyzed, having to use both hands even to get food to his mouth or to turn over the leaves of a book. In spite of this he is one of the hardest workers in Russia, and although his obstinacy, his hatred of compromise, and a sort of mixed originality and perverseness keep him almost permanently at loggerheads with the Central Committee, he retains everybody's respect because of the real heroism with which he conquers physical disabilities which long ago would have overwhelmed a less unbreakable spirit. Both Radek and Larin were going to the Communist Conference at Jaroslavl which was to consider the new theses of the Central Committee of the party with regard to Industrial Conscription. Radek was going to defend the position of the Central Committee, Larin to defend his own. Both are old friends. As Radek said to me, he intended to destroy Larin's position, but not, if he could help it, prevent Larin being nominated among the Jaroslavl delegates to All-Russian Conference which was in preparation. Larin, whose work keeps him continually traveling, has his own car, specially arranged so that his uninterrupted labor shall have as little effect as possible on his dangerously frail body. Radek and I traveled in one of the special cars of the Central Executive Committee, of which he is a member.

The car seemed very clean, but, as an additional precaution, we began by rubbing turpentine on our necks and wrists and angles for the discouragement of lice, now generally known as "Semashki" from the name of Semashko, the Commissar of Public Health, who wages unceasing war for their destruction as the carriers of typhus germs.I rubbed the turpentine so energetically into my neck that it burnt like a collar of fire, and for a long time I was unable to get to sleep.

In the morning Radek, the two conductors who had charge of the wagons and I sat down together to breakfast and had a very merry meal, they providing cheese and bread and I a tin of corned beef providently sent out from home by the Manchester Guardian. We cooked up some coffee on a little spirit stove, which, in a neat basket together with plates, knives, forks, etc. (now almost unobtainable in Russia) had been a parting present from the German Spartacists to Radek when he was released from prison in Berlin and allowed to leave Germany.

The morning was bright and clear, and we had an excellent view of Jaroslavl [aprx. 200 km North of Moscow] when we drove from the station to the town, which is a mile or so off the line of the railway. The sun poured down on the white snow, on the barges still frozen into the Volga River, and on the gilt and painted domes and cupolas of the town. Many of the buildings had been destroyed during the rising artificially provoked in July, 19l8, and its subsequent suppression. More damage was done then than was necessary, because the town was recaptured by troops which had been deserted by most of their officers, and therefore hammered away with artillery without any very definite plan of attack. The more important of the damaged buildings, such as the waterworks and the power station, have been repaired, the tramway was working, and, after Moscow, the town seemed clean, but plenty of ruins remained as memorials of that wanton and unjustifiable piece of folly which, it was supposed, would be the signal for a general rising.

We drove to the Hotel Bristol, now the headquarters of the Jaroslavl Executive Committee, where Rostopchin, the president, discussed with Larin and Radek the programme arranged for the conference. It was then proposed that we should have something to eat, when a very curious state of affairs (and one extremely Russian) was revealed. Rostopchin admitted that the commissariat arrangements of the Soviet and its Executive Committee were very bad. But in the center of the town there is a nunnery which was very badly damaged during the bombardment and is now used as a sort of prison or concentration camp for a Labor Regiment. Peasants from the surrounding country who have refused to give up their proper contribution of corn, or leave otherwise disobeyed the laws, are, for punishment, lodged here, and made to expiate their sins by work. It so happens, Rostopchin explained, that the officer in charge of the prison feeding arrangements is a very energetic fellow, who had served in the old army in a similar capacity, and the meals served out to the prisoners are so much better than those produced in the Soviet headquarters, that the members of the Executive Committee make a practice of walking over to the prison to dine. They invited us to do the same. Larin did not feel up to the walk, so he remained in the Soviet House to eat an inferior meal, while Radek and I, with Rostopchin and three other members of the local committee walked round to the prison. The bell tower of the old nunnery had been half shot away by artillery, and is in such a precarious condition that it is proposed to pull it down. But on passing under it we came into a wide courtyard surrounded by two-story whitewashed buildings that seemed scarcely to have suffered at all. We found the refectory in one of these buildings. It was astonishingly clean. There were wooden tables, of course without cloths, and each man had a wooden spoon and a hunk of bread. A great bowl of really excellent soup was put down in the middle of table, and we fell to hungrily enough. I made more mess on the table than any one else, because it requires considerable practice to convey almost boiling soup from a distant bowl to one's mouth without spilling it in a shallow wooden spoon four inches in diameter, and, having got it to one's mouth, to get any of it in without slopping over on either side. The regular diners there seemed to find no difficulty in it at all. One of the prisoners who mopped up after my disasters said I had better join them for a week, when I should find it quite easy. The soup bowl was followed by a fry of potatoes, quantities of which are grown in the district. For dealing with these I found the wooden spoon quite efficient. After that we had glasses of some sort of substitute for tea.

The Conference was held in the town theatre. There was a hint of comedy in the fact that the orchestra was playing the prelude to some very cheerful opera before the curtain rang up. Radek characteristically remarked that such music should be followed by something more sensational than a conference, proposed to me that we should form a tableau to illustrate the new peaceful policy of England with regard to Russia. As it was a party conference, I had really no right to be there, but Radek had arranged with Rostopchin that I should come in with himself, and be allowed to sit in the wings at the side of the stage. On the stage were Rostopchin, Radek, Larin and various members of the Communist Party Committee in the district. Everything was ready, but the orchestra went on with its jig music on the other side of the curtain. A message was sent to them. The music stopped with a jerk. The curtain rose, disclosing a crowded auditorium. Everbody stood up, both on the stage and in the theater, and sang, accompanied by the orchestra, first the "Internationale" and then the song for those who had died for the revolution. Then except for two or three politically minded musicians , the orchestra vanished away and the Conference began.

Unlike many of the meetings and conferences at which I have been present in Russia, this Jaroslavl Conference seemed to me to include practically none but men and women who either were or had been actual manual workers. I looked over row after row of faces in the theatre, and could only find two faces which I thought might be Jewish, and none that obviously belonged to the "intelligentsia." I found on inquiry that only three of the Communists present, excluding Radek and Larin, were old exiled and imprisoned revolutionaries of the educated class. Of these, two were on the platform. All the rest were from the working class. The great majority of them, of course, had joined the Communists in 1917, but a dozen or so had been in the party as long as the first Russian revolution of 1905.

Radek, who was tremendously cheered (his long imprisonment in Germany, during which time few in Russia thought that they would see him alive again, has made him something of a popular hero) made a long, interesting and pugnacious speech setting out the grounds on which the Central Committee base their ideas about Industrial Conscription. These ideas are embodied in the series of theses issued by the Central Committee in January (see p. 134). Larin, who was very tired after the journey and patently conscious that Radek was a formidable opponent, made a speech setting out his reasons for differing with the Central Committee, and proposed an ingenious resolution, which, while expressing approval of the general position of the Committee, included four supplementary modifications which, as a matter of fact, nullified that position altogether. It was then about ten at night, and the Conference adjourned. We drove round to the prison in sledges, and by way of supper had some more soup and potatoes, and so back to the railway station to sleep in the cars.

Next day the Conference opened about noon, when there was a long discussion of the points at issue. Workman after workman came to the platform and gave his view. Some of the speeches were a little naive, as when one soldier said that Comrades Lenin and Trotsky had often before pointed out difficult roads, and that whenever they had been followed they had shown the way to victory, and that therefore, though there was much in the Central Committee's theses that was hard to digest, he was for giving them complete support, confident that, as Comrades Lenin and Trotsky were in favor of them, they were likely to be right this time, as so often heretofore. But for the most part the speeches were directly concerned with the problem under discussion, and showed a political consciousness which would have been almost incredible three years ago. The Red Army served as a text for many, who said that the methods which had produced that army and its victories over the Whites had been proved successful and should be used to produce a Red Army of Labor and similar victories on the bloodless front against economic disaster. Nobody seemed to question the main idea of compulsory labor. The contest that aroused real bitterness was between the methods of individual and collegiate command. The new proposals lead eventually towards individual command, and fears were expressed lest this should mean putting summary powers into the hands of bourgeois specialists, thus nullifying "workers' control". In reply, it was pointed out that individual command had proved necessary in the army and had resulted in victory for the revolution. The question was not between specialists and no specialists. Everybody knew that specialists were necessary. The question was how to get the most out of them. Effective political control had secured that bourgeois specialists, old officers, led to victory the army of the Red Republic. The same result could be secured in the factories in the same way. It was pointed out that in one year they had succeeded in training 32,000 Red Commanders, that is to say, officers from the working class itself, and that it was not Utopian to hope and work for a similar output of workmen specialists, technically trained, and therefore themselves qualified for individual command in the factories. Meanwhile there was nothing against the employment of Political Commissars in the factories as formerly in the regiments, to control in other than technical matters the doings of the specialists. On the other hand, it was said that the appointment of Commissars would tend to make Communists unpopular, since inevitably in many cases they would have to support the specialists against the workmen, and that the collegiate system made the workmen feel that they were actually the masters, and so gave possibilities of enthusiastic work not otherwise obtainable. This last point was hotly challenged. It was said that collegiate control meant little in effect, except waste of time and efficiency, because at worst work was delayed by disputes and at best the workmen members of the college merely countersigned the orders decided upon by the specialists. The enthusiastic work was said to be a fairy story. If it were really to be found then there would be no need for a conference to discover how to get it.

The most serious opposition, or at least the most serious argument put forward, for there was less opposition than actual discussion, came from some of the representatives of the Trade Unionists. A good deal was said about the position of the Trades Unions in a Socialist State. There was general recognition that since the Trade Unions themselves controlled the conditions of labor and wages, the whole of their old work of organizing strikes against capitalists had ceased to have any meaning, since to strike now would be to strike against their own decisions. At the same time, certain tendencies to Syndicalism were still in existence, tendencies which might well lead to conflict between different unions, so that, for example, the match makers or the metal worker, might wish to strike a bargain with the State, as of one country with another, and this might easily lead to a complete collapse of the socialist system.

The one thing on which the speakers were in complete agreement was the absolute need of an effort in industry equal to, if not greater than, the effort made in the army. I thought it significant that in many of the speeches the importance of this effort was urged as the only possible means of retaining the support of the peasants. There was a tacit recognition that the Conference represented town workers only. Larin, who had belonged to the old school which had grown up with its eyes on the industrial countries of the West and believed that revolution could be brought about by the town workers alone, that it was exclusively their affair, and that all else was of minor importance, unguardedly spoke of the peasant as "our neighbor." In Javoslavl, country and town are too near to allow the main problem of the revolution to be thus easily dismissed. It was instantly pointed out that the relation was much more intimate, and that, even if it were only "neighborly," peace could not long be preserved if it were continually necessary for one neighbor to steal the chickens of the other. These town workers of a district for the most part agricultural were very sure that the most urgent of all tasks was to raise industry to the point at which the town would really be able to supply the village with its needs.

Larin and Radek severally summed up and made final attacks on each other's positions, after which Radek's resolution approving the theses of the Central Committee was passed almost unanimously. Larin's four amendments received 1, 3, 7 and 1 vote apiece. This result was received with cheering throughout the theater, and showed the importance of such Conferences in smoothing the way of the Dictatorship, since it had been quite obvious when the discussion began that a very much larger proportion of the delegates than finally voted for his resolution had been more or less in sympathy with Larin in his opposition to the Central Committee.

There followed elections to the Party Conference in Moscow. Rostopchin, the president, read a list which had been submitted by the various ouyezds in the Jaroslavl Government. They were to send to Moscow fifteen delegates with the right to vote, together with another fifteen with the right to speak but not to vote. Larin, who had done much work in the district, was mentioned as one of the fifteen voting delegates, but he stood up and said that as the Conference had so clearly expressed its disagreement with his views, he thought it better to withdraw his candidature. Rostopchin put it to the Conference that although they disagreed with Larin, yet it would be as well that he should have the opportunity of stating his views at the All-Russian Conference, so that discussion there should be as final and as many-sided as possible. The Conference expressed its agreement with this. Larin withdrew his withdrawal, and was presently elected. The main object of these conferences in unifying opinion and in arming Communists with argument for the defence of this unified opinion a mong the masses was again illustrated when the Conference, in leaving it to the ouyezds to choose for themselves the non-voting delegates urged them to select wherever possible people who would have the widest opportunities of explaining on their return to the district whatever results might be reached in Moscow.

It was now pretty late in the evening, and after another very satisfactory visit to the prison we drove back to the station. Larin, who was very disheartened, realizing that he had lost much support in the course of the discussion, settled down to work, and buried himself in a mass of statistics. I prepared to go to bed, but we had hardly got into the car when there was a tap at the door and a couple of railwaymen came in. They explained that a few hundred yards away along the line a concert and entertainment arranged by the Jaroslavl railwaymen was going on, and that their committee, hearing that Radek was at the station, had sent them to ask him to come over and say a few words to them if he were not too tired.

"Come along," said Radek, and we walked in the dark along the railway lines to a big one-story wooden shanty, where an electric lamp lit a great placard, "Railwaymen's Reading Room." We went into a packed hall. Every seat was occupied by railway workers and their wives and children. The gangways on either side were full of those who had not found room on the benches. We wriggled and pushed our way through this crowd, who were watching a play staged and acted by the railwaymen themselves, to a side door, through which we climbed up into the wings, and slid across the stage behind the scenery into a tiny dressing-room. Here Radek was laid hold of by the Master of the Ceremonies, who, it seemed, was also part editor of a railwaymen's newspaper, and made to give a long account of the present situation of Soviet Russia's Foreign Affairs. The little box of a room filled to a solid mass as policemen, generals and ladies of the old regime threw off their costumes, and, in their working clothes, plain signalmen and engine-drivers, pressed round to listen. When the act ended, one of the railwaymen went to the front of the stage and announced that Radek, who had lately come back after imprisonment in Germany for the cause of revolution, was going to talk to them about the general state of affairs. I saw Radek grin atthis forecast of his speech. I understood why, when he began to speak. He led off by a direct and furious onslaught on the railway workers in general, demanding work, work and more work, telling them that as the Red Army had been the vanguard of the revolution hitherto, and had starved and fought and given lives to save those at home from Denikin and Kolchak, so now it was the turn of the railway workers on whose efforts not only the Red Army but also the whole future of Russia depended. He addressed himself to the women, telling them in very bad Russian that unless their men worked superhumanly they would see their babies die from starvation next winter. I saw women nudge their husbands as they listened. Instead of giving them a pleasant, interesting sketch of the international position, which, no doubt, was what they had expected, he took the opportunity to tell them exactly how things stood at home. And the amazing thing was that they seemed to be pleased. They listened with extreme attention, wanted to turn out some one who had a sneezing fit at the far end of the hall, and nearly lifted the roof off with cheering when Radek had done. I wondered what sort of reception a man would have who in another country interrupted a play to hammer home truths about the need of work into an audience of working men who had gathered solely for the purpose of legitimate recreation. It was not as if he sugared the medicine he gave them. His speech was nothing but demands for discipline and work, coupled with prophecy of disaster in case work and discipline failed. It was delivered like all his speeches, with a strong Polish accent and a steady succession of mistakes in grammar.

As we walked home along the railway lines, half a dozen of the railwaymen pressed around Radek, and almost fought with each other as to who should walk next to him. And Radek entirely happy, delighted at his success in giving them a bombshell instead of a bouquet, with one stout fellow on one arm, another on the other, two or three more listening in front and behind, continued rubbing it into them until we reached our wagon, when, after a general handshaking, they disappeared into the night.