My Disillusionment in Russia
THE Expedition was to proceed to Petrograd the next day, but Louise begged me to remain for the funeral. Sunday, October 23rd, several friends rode with her to the Trade Union House where Reed's body lay in state. I accompanied Louise when the procession started for the Red Square. There were speeches-much cold stereotyped declamation about the value of Jack Reed to the Revolution and to the Communist Party. It all sounded mechanical, far removed from the spirit of the dead man in the fresh grave. One speaker only dwelt on the real Jack Reed-Alexandra Kollontay. She had caught the artist's soul, infinitely greater in its depth and beauty than any dogma. She used the occasion to admonish her comrades."We call ourselves Communists," she said, "but are we really that? Do we not rather draw the life essence from those who come to us, and when they are no longer of use, we let them fall by the wayside, neglected and forgotten? Our Communism and our comradeship are dead letters if we do not give out of ourselves to those who need us. Let us beware of such Communism. It slays the best in our ranks. Jack Reed was among the best."
The sincere words of Kollontay displeased the high Party members. Bukharin knitted his brows, Reinstein fidgeted about, others grumbled. But I was glad of what Kollontay had said. Not only because what she said expressed Jack Reed better than anything else said that day, but also because it brought her nearer to me. In America we had repeatedly tried to meet but never succeeded. When I reached Moscow, in March, 1920, Kollontay was ill. I saw her only for a little while before I returned to Petrograd. We spoke of the things that were troubling me. During the conversation Kollontay remarked: "Yes, we have many dull sides in Russia." "Dull," I queried; "nothing more?" I was unpleasantly affected by what seemed to me a rather superficial view. But I reassured myself that Kollontay's inadequate English caused her to characterize as "dull" what to me was a complete collapse of all idealism.
Among other things Kollontay had then said was that I could find a great field for work among the women as very little had been attempted up to that time to enlighten and broaden them. We parted in a friendly manner, but I did not sense in her the same feeling of warmth and depth that I had found in Angelica Balabanova. Now at the open grave of Reed her words brought her closer to me. She, too, felt deeply, I thought.
Louise Bryant had fallen in a dead faint and was lying face downward on the damp earth. After considerable effort we got her to her feet. Hysterical, she was taken in the waiting auto to her hotel and put to bed. Outside, the sky was clothed in gray and was weeping upon the fresh grave of Jack Reed. And all of Russia seemed a fresh grave.
While in Moscow we found the explanation of the sudden change of tone of the Communist press toward Makhno. The Bolsheviki, hard pressed by Wrangel, sought the aid of the Ukrainian povstantsi army. A politico-military agreement was about to be entered into between the Soviet Government and Nestor Makhno. The latter was to coöperate fully with the Red Army in the campaign against the counterrevolutionary enemy. On their side, the Bolsheviki accepted the following conditions of Makhno:
(1) The immediate liberation and termination of
persecution of all Makhnovtsi and Anarchists, excepting cases of armed
rebellion against the Soviet Government.
(2) Fullest liberty of speech, press and propaganda for Makhnovtsi and Anarchists, without, however, the right of calling for armed uprisings against the Soviet Government, and subject to military censorship.
(3) Free participation in Soviet elections; the right of Makhnovtsi and Anarchists to be candidates, and to hold the fifth All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets.
The agreement also included the right of the Anarchists to call a congress in Kharkov, and preparations were being made to hold it in the month of October. Many Anarchists were getting ready to attend it and were elated over the outlook. But my faith in the Bolsheviki had received too many shocks. Not only did I believe that the Congress would not take place, but I saw in it a Bolshevik ruse to gather all the Anarchists in one place in order to destroy them. Yet the fact was that several Anarchists, among them the well-known writer and lecturer Volin, had already been released and were now free in Moscow.
* * *
We left for Petrograd to deliver to the Museum the carload of precious material we had gathered in the South. More valuable still was the experience the members of the Expedition had been enriched with through personal contact with people of various shades of opinion, or of no opinion, and the impressions of the social panorama as it was being unrolled day by day. That was a treasure of far greater worth than any paper documents. But better insight into the situation intensified my inner struggle. I longed to close my eyes and ears-not to see the accusing hand which pointed to the blind errors and conscious crimes that were stifling the Revolution. I wanted not to hear the compelling voice of facts, which no personal attachments could silence any longer. I knew that the Revolution and the Bolsheviki, proclaimed as one and the same, were opposites, antagonistic in aim and purpose. The Revolution had its roots deep down in the life of the people. The Communist State was based on a scheme forcibly applied by a political party. In the contest the Revolution was being slain, but the slayer also was gasping for breath. I had known in America that the Interventionists, the blockade and the conspiracy of the Imperialists were wrecking the Revolution. But what I had not known then was the part the Bolsheviki were playing in the process. Now I realized that they were the grave-diggers.
I was oppressively conscious of the great debt I owed to the workers of Europe and America: I should tell them the truth about Russia. But how could I speak out when the country was still besieged on several fronts? It would mean working into the hands of Poland and Wrangel. For the first time in my life I refrained from exposing grave social evils. I felt as if I were betraying the trust of the masses, particularly of the American workers, whose faith I dearly cherished.
Arrived in Petrograd, I went to live temporarily in the Hôtel International. I intended to find a room somewhere else, determined to accept no privileges at the hands of the Government. The International was filled with foreign visitors. Many had no idea of why or wherefore they had come. They had simply flocked to the land they believed to be the paradise of the workers. I remember my experience with a certain I. W. W. chap. He had brought to Russia a small supply of provisions, needles, thread, and other similar necessities. He insisted that I let him share with me. "But you will need every bit of it yourself," I told him. Of course, he knew there was great scarcity in Russia. But the proletariat was in control and as a worker he would receive everything he needed. Or he would "get a piece of land and build a homestead. He had been fifteen years in the Wobbly movement and he "didn't mind settling down." What was there to say to such an innocent? I had not the courage to disillusion him. I knew he would learn soon enough. It was pathetic, though, to see such people flood starving Russia. Yet they could not do her the harm the other kind was doing-creatures from the four corners of the earth to whom the Revolution represented a gold mine. There were many of them in the International. They all came with legends of the wonderful growth of Communism in America, Ireland, China, Palestine. Such stories were balm to the hungry souls of the men in power. They welcomed them as an old maid welcomes the flattery of her first suitor. They sent these impostors back home well provided financially and equipped to sing the praises of the Workers' and Peasants' Republic. It was both tragic and comic to observe the breed all inflated with "important conspiratory missions."
I received many visitors in my room, among them my little neighbour from the Astoria with her two children, a Communist from the French Section, and several of the foreigners. My neighbour looked sick and worn since I had seen her last in June, 1920. "Are you ill?" I inquired on one occasion. "Not exactly," she said; "I am hungry most of the time and exhausted. The summer has been hard: as inspectress of children's homes I have to do much walking. I return home completely exhausted. My nineyear-old girl goes to a children's colony, but I would not risk sending my baby boy there because of his experience last year, when he was so neglected that he nearly died. I had to keep him in the city all summer, which made it doubly hard for me. Still, it would not have been so bad had it not been for the subotniki and voskresniki (Communist Saturday and Sunday voluntary work-days). They drain my energies completely. You know how they began-like a picnic, with trumpets and singing, marching and festivities. We all felt inspired, especially when we saw our leading comrades take pick and shovel and pitch in. But that is all a matter of the past. The subotniki have become gray and spiritless, beneath an obligation imposed without regard to inclination, physical fitness, or the amount of other work one has to do. Nothing ever succeeds in our poor Russia. If I could only get out to Sweden, Germany, anywhere, far away from it all." Poor little woman, she was not the only one who wanted to forsake the country. It was their love for Russia and their bitter disappointment which made most people anxious to run away.
Several other Communists I knew in Petrograd were even more embittered. Whenever they called on me they would repeat their determination to get out of the Party. They were suffocating--they said--in the atmosphere of intrigue, blind hatred, and senseless persecution. But it requires considerable will power to leave the Party which absolutely controls the destiny of more than a hundred million people, and my Communist visitors lacked the strength. But that did not lessen their misery, which affected even their physical condition, although they received the best rations and they had their meals at the exclusive Smolny dining room. I remember my surprise on first finding that there were two separate restaurants in Smolny, one where wholesome and sufficient food was served to the important members of the Petrograd Soviet and of the Third International, while the other was for the ordinary employees of the Party. At one time there had even been three restaurants. Somehow the Kronstadt sailors learned of it. They came down in a body and closed two of the eating places. "We made the Revolution that all should share alike," they said. Only one restaurant functioned for a time but later the second was opened. But even in the latter the meals were far superior to the Sovietsky dining rooms for the "common people."
Some of the Communists objected to the discrimination. They saw the blunders, the intrigues, the destruction of life practised in the name of Communism, but they had not the strength and courage to protest or to disassociate themselves from the Party responsible for the injustice and brutality. They would often unburden themselves to me of the matters they dared not discuss in their own circles. Thus I came to know many things about the inner workings of the Party and the Third International that were carefully hidden from the outside world. Among them was the story of the alleged Finnish White conspiracy, which resulted in the killing in Petrograd of seven leading Finnish Communists. I had read about it in the Soviet papers while I was in the Ukraina. I remember my feeling of renewed impatience with myself that I should be critical of the Bolshevik régime at a time when counter-revolutionary conspiracies were still so active. But from my Communist visitors I learned that the published report was false from beginning to end. It was no White conspiracy but a fight between two groups of Bolsheviki: the moderate Finnish Communists in control of the propaganda carried on from Petrograd, and the Left Wing working in Finland. The Moderates were Zinoviev adherents and had been put in charge of the work by him. The Lefts had repeatedly complained to the Third International about the conservatism and compromises of their comrades in Petrograd and the harm they were doing to the movement in Finland. They asked that these men be removed. They were ignored. On the 31st of August, 1920, the Lefts came to Petrograd and proceeded to the headquarters of the Moderates. At the session of the latter they demanded that the Executive Committee resign and turn over all books and accounts to them. Their demand refused, the young Finnish Communists opened fire, killing seven of their comrades. The affair was heralded to the world asa counter-revolutionary conspiracy of White Finns.
The third anniversary of the October Revolution was celebrated November 7th (October 25th old style), on the Uritsky Square. I had seen so many official demonstrations that they had lost interest for me. Still I went to the Square hoping that a new note might be sounded. It proved a rehash of the thing--I had heard over and over again. The pageant especially was a demonstration of Communist poverty in ideas. Kerensky and his cabinet, Tchernov and the Constituent Assembly, and the storming of the Winter Palace again served as puppets to bring out in strong relief the rôle of the Bolsheviki as "saviours of the Revolution." It was badly played and poorly staged, and fell flat. To me the celebration was more like the funeral than the birth of the Revolution.
There was much excitement in Petrograd all through the month of November. Numerous rumours were afloat about strikes, arrests, and dashes between workers and soldiery. It was difficult to get at the facts. But the extraordinary session called by the Party in the First House of the Soviet indicated a serious situation. In the early part of the afternoon the whole square in front of the Astoria was lined with autos of the influential Communists who had been summoned to attend the special conference. The following morning we learned that in obedience to the Moscow decree the Petrograd session had decided to mobilize a number of important Bolshevik workers for the factories and shops. Three hundred Party members, some of them high government officials and others holding responsible positions in the Petro-Soviet, were immediately ordered to work, to prove to the proletariat that Russia was indeed a Workers' Government. The plan was expected to allay the growing discontent of the proletarians and to counteract the influence of the other political parties among them. Zorin was one of the three hundred.
However, the toilers would not be deceived by this move. They knew that most of the mobilized men continued to live in the Astoria and came to work in their autos. They saw them warmly dressed and well shod, while they themselves were almost naked and living in squalid quarters without light or heat. The workers resented the pretense. The matter became a subject of discussion in the shops, and many unpleasant scenes followed. One woman, a prominent Communist, was so tormented in the factory that she went into hysterics and had to be taken away. Some of the mobilized Bolsheviki, among them Zorin and others, were sincere enough, but they had grown away from the toilers and could not stand the hardships of factory life. After a few weeks Zorin collapsed and had to be removed to a place of rest. Though he was generally liked, his collapse was interpreted by the workers as a ruse to get away from the misery of the proletarian's existence. The breach between the masses and the new Bolshevik bureaucracy had grown too wide. It could not be bridged.
Chapter 25: Archangel and Return