My Disillusionment in Russia
THE Museum of the Revolution is housed in the Winter Palace, in the suite once used as the nursery of the Tsar's children. The entrance to that part of the palace is known as detsky podyezd. From the windows of the palace the Tsar must have often looked across the Neva at the Peter-and-Paul Fortress, the living tomb of his political enemies. How different things were now! The thought of it kindled my imagination. I was full of the wonder and the magic of the great change when I paid my first visit to the Museum.
I found groups of men and women at work in the various rooms, huddled up in their wraps and shivering with cold. Their faces were bloated and bluish, their hands frost-bitten, their whole appearance shadow-like. What must be the devotion of these people, I thought, when they can continue to work under such conditions. The secretary of the Museum, M. B. Kaplan, received me very cordially and expressed "the hope that I would join in the work of the Museum." He and another member of the staff spent considerable time with me on several occasions, explaining the plans and purposes of the Museum. They asked me to join the expedition which the Museum was then organizing, and which was to go south to the Ukraina and the Caucasus. Valuable material of the revolutionary period was to be gathered there, they explained. The idea attracted me. Aside from my general interest in the Museum and its efforts, it meant non-partisan work, free from Commissars, and an exceptional opportunity to see and study Russia.
In the course of our acquaintance I learned that neither Mr. Kaplan nor his friend was a Communist. But while Mr. Kaplan was strongly pro-Bolshevik and tried to defend and explain away everything, the other man was critical though by no means antagonistic. During my stay in Petrograd I saw much of both men, and I learned from them a great deal about the Revolution and the methods of the Bolsheviki. Kaplan's friend, whose name for obvious reasons I cannot mention, often spoke of the utter impossibility of doing creative work within the Communist machine. "The Bolsheviki," he would say, "always complain about lack of able help, yet no one--unless a Communist--has much of a chance." The Museum was among the least interfered with institutions, and work there had been progressing well. Then a group of twenty youths were sent over, young and inexperienced boys unfamiliar with the work. Being Communists they were placed in positions of authority, and friction and confusion resulted. Everyone felt himself watched and spied upon. "The Bolsheviki care not about merit," he said "their chief concern is a membership card." He was not enthusiastic about the future of the Museum, yet believed that the cooperation of the "Americans" would aid its proper development.
Finally I decided on the Museum as offering the most suitable work for me, mainly because that institution was non-partisan. I had hoped for a more vital share in Russia's life than the collecting of historical material; still I considered it valuable and necessary work. When I had definitely consented to become a member of the expedition, I visited the Museum daily to help with the preparations for the long journey. There was much work. It was no easy matter to obtain a car, equip it for the arduous trip, and secure the documents which would give us access to the material we set out to collect.
While I was busy aiding in these preparations Angelica Balabanova arrived in Petrograd to meet the Italian Mission. She seemed transformed. She had longed for her Italian comrades: they would bring her a breath of her beloved Italy, of her former life and work there. Though Russian by birth, training, and revolutionary traditions, Angelica had become rooted in the soil of Italy. Well I understood her and her sense of strangeness in the country, the hard soil of which was to bear a new and radiant life. Angelica would not admit even to herself that the much hoped-for life was stillborn. But knowing her as I did, it was not difficult for me to understand how bitter was her grief over the hapless and formless thing that had come to Russia. But now her beloved Italians were coming! They would bring with them the warmth and colour of Italy.
The Italians came and with them new festivities, demonstrations, meetings, and speeches. How different it all appeared to me from my memorable first days on Belo-Ostrov. No doubt the Italians now felt as awed as I did then, as inspired by the seeming wonder of Russia. Six months and the close proximity with the reality of things quite changed the picture for me. The spontaneity, the enthusiasm, the vitality had all gone out of it. Only a pale shadow remained, a grinning phantom that clutched at my heart.
On the Uritski Square the masses were growing weary with long waiting. They had been kept there for hours before the Italian Mission arrived from the Tauride Palace. The ceremonies were just beginning when a woman leaning against the platform, wan and pale, began to weep. I stood close by. "It is easy for them to talk," she moaned, "but we've had no food all day. We received orders to march directly from our work on pain of losing our bread rations. Since five this morning I am on my feet. We were not permitted to go home after work to our bit of dinner. We had to come here. Seventeen hours on a piece of bread and some kipyatok [boiled water]. Do the visitors know anything about us?" The speeches went on, the "Internationale" was being repeated for the tenth time, the sailors performed their fancy exercises and the claqueurs on the reviewing stand were shouting hurrahs. I rushed away. I, too, was weeping, though my eyes remained dry.
The Italian, like the English, Mission was quartered in the Narishkin Palace. One day, on visiting Angelica there, I found her in a perturbed state of mind. Through one of the servants she had learned that the ex-princess Narishkin, former owner of the palace, had come to beg for the silver ikon which had been in the family for generations. "Just that ikon," she had implored. But the ikon was now state property, and Balabanova could do nothing about it. "Just think," Angelica said, "Narishkin, old and desolate, now stands on the street corner begging, and I live in this palace. How dreadful is life! I am no good for it; I must get away."
But Angelica was bound by party discipline; she stayed on in the palace until she returned to Moscow. I know she did not feel much happier than the ragged and starving ex-princess begging on the street corner.
Balabanova, anxious that I should find suitable work, informed me one day that Petrovsky, known in America as Doctor Goldfarb, had arrived in Petrograd. He was Chief of the Central Military Education Department, which included Nurses' Training Schools. I had never met the man in the States, but I had heard of him as the labour editor of the New York Forward, the Jewish Socialist daily. He offered me the position of head instructress in the military Nurses' Training School, with a view to introducing American methods of nursing, or to send me with a medical train to the Polish front. I had proffered my services at the first news of the Polish attack on Russia: I felt the Revolution in danger, and I hastened to Zorin to ask to be assigned as a nurse. He promised to bring the matter before the proper authorities, but I heard nothing further about it. I was, therefore, somewhat surprised at the proposition of Petrovsky. However, it came too late. What I had since learned about the situation in the Ukraina, the Bolshevik methods toward Makhno and the povstantsi movement, the persecution of Anarchists, and the Tcheka activities, had completely shaken my faith in the Bolsheviki as revolutionists. The offer came too late. But Moscow perhaps thought it unwise to let me see behind the scenes at the front; Petrovsky failed to inform me of the Moscow decision. I felt relieved.
At last we received the glad tidings that the greatest difficulty had been overcome: a car for the Museum Expedition had been secured. It consisted of six compartments and was newly painted and cleaned. Now began the work of equipment. Ordinarily it would have taken another two months, but we had the cooperation of the man at the head of the Museum, Chairman Yatmanov, a Communist. He was also in charge of all the properties of the Winter Palace where the Museum is housed. The largest part of the linen, silver, and glassware from the Tsar's storerooms had been removed, but there was still much left. Supplied with an order of the chairman I was shown over what was once guarded as sacred precincts by Romanov flunkeys. I found rooms stacked to the ceiling with rare and beautiful china and compartments filled with the finest linen. The basement, running the whole length of the Winter Palace, was stocked with kitchen utensils of every size and variety. Tin plates and pots would have been more appropriate for the Expedition, but owing to the ruling that no institution may draw upon another for anything it has in its own possession, there was nothing to do but to choose the simplest obtainable at the Winter Palace. I went home reflecting upon the strangeness of life: revolutionists eating out of the crested service of the Romanovs. But I felt no elation over it.
Chapter 14: Petropavlovsk and Schlüsselburg