My Disillusionment in Russia
THE terrible story I had been listening to for two weeks broke over me like a storm. Was this the Revolution I had believed in all my life, yearned for, and strove to interest others in, or was it a caricature --a hideous monster that had come to jeer and mock me? The Communists I had met daily during six months --self-sacrificing, hard-working men and women imbued with a high ideal --were such people capable of the treachery and horrors charged against them? Zinoviev, Radek, Zorin, Ravitch, and many others I had learned to know --could they in the name of an ideal lie, defame, torture, kill? But, then --had not Zorin told me that capital punishment had been abolished in Russia? Yet I learned shortly after my arrival that hundreds of people had been shot on the very eve of the day when the new decree went into effect, and that as a matter of fact shooting by the Tcheka had never ceased.
That my friends were not exaggerating when they spoke of tortures by the Tcheka, I also learned from other sources. Complaints about the fearful conditions in Petrograd prisons had become so numerous that Moscow was apprised of the situation. A Tcheka inspector came to investigate. The prisoners being afraid to speak, immunity was promised them. But no sooner had the inspector left than one of the inmates, a young boy, who had been very outspoken about the brutalities practiced by the Tcheka, was dragged out of his cell and cruelly beaten.
Why did Zorin resort to lies? Surely he must have known that I would not remain in the dark very long. And then, was not Lenin also guilty of the same methods? "Anarchists of ideas [ideyni] are not in our prisons," he had assured me. Yet at that very moment numerous Anarchists filled the jails of Moscow and Petrograd and of many other cities in Russia. In May, 1920, scores of them had been arrested in Petrograd, among them two girls of seventeen and nineteen years of age. None of the prisoners were charged with counter-revolutionary activities: they were "Anarchists of ideas," to use Lenin's expression. Several of them had issued a manifesto for the First of May, calling attention to the appalling conditions in the factories of the Socialist Republic. The two young girls who had circulated a handbill against the "labour book," which had then just gone into effect, were also arrested.
The labour book was heralded by the Bolsheviki as one of the great Communist achievements. It would establish equality and abolish parasitism, it was claimed. As a matter of fact, the labour book was somewhat character of the yellow ticket issued to prostitutes under the Tsarist regime. It was a record of every step one made, and without it no step could be made. It bound its holder to his job, to the city he lived in, and to the room he occupied. It recorded one's political faith and party adherence, and the number of times arrested. In short, a yellow ticket. Even some Communists resented the degrading innovation. The Anarchists who protested against it were arrested by the Tcheka. When certain leading Communists were approached in the matter they repeated what Lenin had said: No Anarchists of ideas are in our prisons."
The aureole was falling from the Communists. All of them seemed to believe that the end justified the means. I recalled the statements of Radek at the first anniversary of the Third International, when he related to his audience the "marvellous spread of Communism" in America. "Fifty thousand Communists are in American prisons," he exclaimed. "Molly Stimer, a girl of eighteen, and her male companions, all Communists, had been deported from America for their Communist activities." I thought at the time that Radek was misinformed. Yet it seemed strange that he did not make sure of his facts before making such assertions. They were dishonest and an insult to Molly Stimer and her Anarchist comrades, added to the injustice they had suffered at the hands of the American plutocracy.
During the past several months I had seen and heard enough to become somewhat conversant with the Communist psychology, as well as with the theories and methods of the Bolsheviki. I was no longer surprised at the story of their double-dealing with Makhno, the brutalities practiced by the Tcheka, the lies of Zorin. I had come to realize that the Communists believed implicitly in the Jesuitic formula that the end justifies all means. In fact, they gloried in that formula. Any suggestion of the value of human life, quality of character, the importance of revolutionary integrity as the basis of a new social order, was repudiated as "bourgeois sentimentality," which had no place in the revolutionary scheme of things. For the Bolsheviki the end to be achieved was the Communist State, or the so-called Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Everything which advanced that end was justifiable and revolutionary. The Lenins, Radeks, and Zorins were therefore quite consistent. Obsessed by the infallibility of their creed, giving of themselves to the fullest, they could be both heroic and despicable at the same time. They could work twenty hours a day, live on herring and tea, and order the slaughter of innocent men and women. Occasionally they sought to mask their killings by pretending a "misunderstanding," for doesn't the end justify all means? They could employ torture and deny the inquisition, they could lie and defame, and call themselves idealists. In short, they could make themselves and others believe that everything was legitimate and right from the revolutionary viewpoint; any other policy was weak, sentimental, or a betrayal of the Revolution.
On a certain occasion, when I passed criticism on the brutal way delicate women were driven into the streets to shovel snow, insisting that even if they had belonged to the bourgeoisie they were human, and that physical fitness should be taken into consideration, a Communist said to me: "You should be ashamed of yourself; you, an old revolutionist, and yet so sentimental." It was the same attitude that some Communists assumed toward Angelica Balabanova, because she was always solicitous and eager to help wherever possible. In short, I had come to see that the Bolsheviki were social puritans who sincerely believed that they alone were ordained to save mankind. My relations with the Bolsheviki became more strained, my attitude toward the Revolution as I found it more critical.
One thing grew quite clear to me: I could not affiliate myself with the Soviet Government; I could not accept any work which would place me under the control of the Communist machine. The Commissariat of Education was so thoroughly dominated by that machine that it was hopeless to expect anything but routine work. In fact, unless one was a Communist one could accomplish almost nothing. I had been eager to join Lunacharsky, whom I considered one of the most cultivated and least dogmatic of the Communists in high position. But I became convinced that Lunacharsky himself was a helpless cog in the machine, his best efforts constantly curtailed and checked. I had also learned a great deal about the system of favourtism and graft that prevailed in the management of the schools and the treatment of children. Some schools were in splendid condition, the children well fed and well clad, enjoying concerts, theatricals, dances, and other amusements. But the majority of the school children's homes were squalid, dirty, and neglected. Those in charge of the "preferred" schools had little difficulty in procuring thing needed for their changes, often having an over-supply. But the caretakers of the common schools would waste their time and energies by the week going about from one department to another, discouraged and faint with endless waiting before they could obtain the merest necessities.
At first I ascribed this condition of affairs to the scarcity of food and materials. I heard it said often enough that the blockade and intervention were responsible. To a large extent that was true. Had Russia not been so starved, mismanagement and graft would not have had such fatal results. But added to the prevalent scarcity of things was the dominant notion of Communist propaganda. Even the children had to serve that end. The well-kept schools were for show, for the foreign missions and delegates who were visiting Russia. Everything was lavished on these show schools at the cost of the others.
I remembered how everybody was startled in Petrograd by an article in the Petrograd Pravda of May, disclosing appalling conditions in the schools. A committee of the Young Communist organizations investigated some of the institutions. They found the children dirty, full of vermin, sleeping on filthy mattresses, fed on miserable food, punished by being locked in dark rooms for the night, forced to go without their suppers, and even beaten. The number of officials and employees in the schools was nothing less than criminal. In one school, for instance, there were 138 of them to 125 children. In another, 40 to 25 children. All these parasites were taking the bread from the very mouths of the unfortunate children.
The Zorins had spoken to me repeatedly of Lillina, the woman in charge of the Petrograd Educational Department. She was a wonderful worker, they said, devoted and able. I had heard her speak on several occasions, but was not impressed: she looked prim and self-satisfied, a typical Puritan schoolma'am. But I would not form an opinion until I had talked with her. At the publication of the school disclosures I decided to see Lillina. We conversed over an hour about the schools in her charge, about education in general, the problem of defective children and their treatment. She made light of the abuses in her schools, claiming that "the young comrades had exaggerated the defects." At any rate, she added, the guilty had already been removed from the schools.
Similarly to many other responsible Communists Lillina was consecrated to her work and gave all her time and energies to it. Naturally, she could not personally oversee everything; the show schools being the most important in her estimation, she devoted most of her time to them. The other schools were left in the care of her numerous assistants, whose fitness for the work was judged largely according to their political usefulness. Our talk strengthened my conviction that I could have no part in the work of the Bolshevik Board of Education.
The Board of Health offered as little opportunity for real service --service that should not discriminate in favour of show hospitals or the political views of the patients. This principle of discrimination prevailed, unfortunately, even in the sick rooms. Like all Communist institutions, the Board of Health was headed by a political Commissar, Doctor Pervukhin. He was anxious to secure my assistance, proposing to put me in charge of factory, dispensary, or district nursing --a very flattering and tempting offer, and one that appealed to me strongly. I had several conferences with Doctor Pervukhin, but they led to no practical result.
Whenever I visited his department I found groups of men and women waiting, endlessly waiting. They were doctors and nurses, members of the intelligentsia --none of them Communists --who were employed in various medical branches, but their time and energies were being wasted in the waiting rooms of Doctor Pervukhin, the political Commissar. They were a sorry lot, dispirited and dejected, those men and women, once the flower of Russia. Was I to join this tragic procession, submit to the political yoke? Not until I should become convinced that the yoke was indispensable to the revolutionary process would I consent to it. I felt that I must first secure work of a non-partisan character, work that would enable me to study conditions in Russia and get into direct touch with the people, the workers and peasants. Only then should I be able to find my way out of the chaos of doubt and mental anguish that I had fallen prey to.
Chapter 13: Joining the Museum of the Revolution