My Disillusionment in Russia
ON NOVEMBER 28th the Expedition again got under way, this time with three members only: Alexander Berkman, the Secretary, and myself. We travelled by way of Moscow to Archangel, with stops in Vologda and Yaroslavl. Vologda had been the seat of various foreign embassies, unofficially engaged in aiding the enemies of the Revolution. We expected to find historic material there, but we were informed that most of it had been destroyed or otherwise wasted. The Soviet institutions were uninteresting: it was a plodding, sleepy provincial town. In Yaroslavl, where the so-called Savinkov uprising had taken place two years previously, no significant data were found.
We continued to Archangel. The stories we had heard of the frozen North made us rather apprehensive. But, much to our relief, we found that city no colder than Petrograd, and much drier.
The Chairman of the Archangel Ispolkom was pleasant type of Communist, not at all officious or stern. As soon as we had stated our mission he set the telephone going. Every time he reached some official on the wire he would address him as "dear tovarishtch," and inform him that "dear tovarishtchi from the Centre" had arrived and must be given every assistance. He thought that our stay would be profitable because many important documents had remained after the Allies had withdrawn. There were files of old newspapers published by the Tchaikovsky Government and photographs of the brutalities perpetrated upon the Communists by the Whites. The Chairman himself had lost his whole family, including his twelve-year-old sister. As he had to leave the next day to attend the Conference of Soviets in Moscow, he promised to issue an order giving us access to the archives.
Leaving the Ispolkom to begin our rounds, we were surprised by three sleighs waiting for us, thanks to the thoughtfulness of the Chairman. Tucked up under fur covers and with bells tinkling, each member of the Expedition started in a different direction to cover the departments assigned to him. The Archangel Soviet officials appeared to have great respect for the "Centre"; the word acted like magic, opening every door.
The head of the Department of Education was a hospitable and kindly man. After explaining to me in detail the work done in his institution he called to his office a number of employees, informed them of the purpose of the Expedition and asked them to prepare the material they could gather for the Museum. Among those Soviet workers was a nun, a pleasant-faced young woman. What a strange thing, I thought, to find a nun in a Soviet office! The Chairman noticed my surprise. He had quite a number of nuns in his department, he said. When the monasteries had been nationalized the poor women had no place to go. He conceived the idea of giving them a chance to do useful work in the new world. He had found no cause to regret his action: he did not convert the nuns to Communism, but they became very faithful and industrious workers, and the younger ones had even expanded a little. He invited me to visit the little art studio where several nuns were employed.
The studio was a rather unusual place-not so much because of its artistic value as on account of the people who worked there; two old nuns who had spent forty and twenty-five years, respectively, in monasteries; a young White officer, and an elderly workingman. The last two had been arrested as counter-revolutionists and were condemned to death, but the Chairman rescued them in order to put them to useful work. He wanted to give an opportunity to those who through ignorance or accident were the enemies of the Revolution. A revolutionary period, he remarked, necessitated stern measures, even violence; but other methods should be tried first. He had many in his department who had been considered counter-revolutionary, but now they were all doing good work. It was the most extraordinary thing I had heard from a Communist. "Aren't you considered a sentimental bourgeois?" I asked. "Yes, indeed," he replied smilingly, "but that is nothing. The main thing is that I have been able to prove that my sentimentalism works, as you can see for yourself."
The carpenter was the artist of the studio. He had never been taught, but he did beautiful carving and was a master in every kind of wood work. The nuns made colour drawings of flowers and vegetables, which were used for demonstration by lecturers in the villages. They also painted posters, mainly for the children's festivals.
I visited the studio several times alone so that I might speak freely to the carpenter and the nuns. They had little understanding of the elemental facts that had pulled them out of their moorings. The carpenter lamented that times were hard because he was not permitted to sell his handiwork. "I used to earn a good bit of money, but now I hardly get enough to eat," he would say. The sisters did not complain; they accepted their fate as the will of God. Yet there was a change even in them. Instead of being shut away in a nunnery they were brought in touch with real life, and they had become more human. Their expression was less forbidding, their work showed signs of kinship with the world around them. I noticed it particularly in their drawings of children and children's games. There was a tenderness about them that spoke of the long-suppressed mother instinct struggling for expression. The former White officer was the most intelligent of the four-he had gone through Life's crucible. He had learned the folly and crime of intervention, he said, and would never lend his aid to it again. What had convinced him? The interventionists themselves. They had been in Archangel and they carried on as if they owned the city. The Allies had promised much, but they had done nothing except enrich a few persons who speculated in the supplies intended to benefit the population. Everyone gradually turned against the interventionists. I wondered how many of the countless ones shot as counter-revolutionists would have been won over to the new régime and would now be doing useful work if somebody had saved their lives.
I had seen so many show schools that I decided to say nothing about visiting educational institutions until some unexpected moment when one could take them by surprise. For our first Saturday in Archangel a special performance of Leonid Andreyev's play, "Savva," had been arranged. For a provincial theatre, considering also the lack of preparation, the drama was fairly well done.
After the performance I told the Chairman of the Department, X---, that I would like to visit his schools early next morning. Without hesitation he consented and even offered to call for the other members of the Expedition. We visited several schools and in point of cleanliness, comfort, and general cheerfulness, I found them a revelation. It was also beautiful to see the fond relationship that existed between the children and X---. Their joy was spontaneous and frank at the sight of him. The moment he appeared they would throw themselves upon him, shouting with delight; they climbed on him and clung to his neck. And he? Never once did I see such a picture in any school in Petrograd or Moscow. He threw himself on the floor, the children about him, and played and frolicked with them as if they were his own. He was one of them; they knew it, and they felt at home with him.
Similar beautiful relationships I found in every school and children's home we visited. The children were radiant when X--- appeared. They were the first happy children I had seen in Russia. It strengthened my conviction of the significance of personality and the importance of mutual confidence and love between teacher and pupil. We visited a number of schools that day. Nowhere did I find any discrimination; everywhere the children had spacious dormitories, spotlessly clean rooms and beds, good food and clothes. The atmosphere of the schools was warm and intimate.
We found in Archangel many historic documents, including the correspondence between Tchaikovsky, of the Provisional Government, and General Miller, the representative of the Allies. It was pathetic to read the pleading, almost cringing words of the old pioneer of the revolutionary movement in Russia, the founder of the Tchaikovsky circles, the man I had known for years, by whom I had been inspired. The letters exposed the weakness of the Tchaikovsky régime and the arbitrary rule of the Allied troops. Particularly significant was the farewell message of a sailor about to be executed by the Whites. He described his arrest and cross-examination and the fiendish third degree applied by an English army officer at the point of a gun. Among the material collected by us were also copies of various revolutionary and Anarchist publications issued sub rosa. From the Department of Education we received many interesting posters and drawings, as well as pamphlets and books, and a collection of specimens of the children's work. Among them was a velvet table cover painted by the nuns and portraying Archangel children in gay colours, presented as their greeting to the children of America.
The schools and the splendid man at their head were not the only noteworthy features of Archangel. The other Soviet institutions also proved efficient. There was no sabotage, the various bureaus worked in good order, and the general spirit was sincere and progressive.
The food distribution was especially well organized. Unlike most other places, there was no loss of time or waste of energy connected with procuring one's rations. Yet Archangel was not particularly well supplied with provisions. One could not help thinking of the great contrast in this regard between that city and Moscow. Archangel probably learned a lesson in organization from contact with Americans--the last thing the Allies intended.
The Archangel visit was so interesting and profitable that the Expedition delayed its departure, and we remained much longer than originally planned. Before leaving, I called on X---. If anything could be sent him from "the Centre," what would he like most, I asked. "Paints and canvas for our little studio," he replied. "See Lunacharsky and get him to send us some." Splendid, gracious personality!
We left Archangel for Murmansk, but we had not gone far when we were overtaken by a heavy snowstorm. We were informed that we could not reach Murmansk in less than a fortnight, a journey which under normal conditions required three days. There was also danger of not being able to return to Petrograd on time, the snow often blocking the roads for weeks. We therefore decided to turn back to Petrograd. When we came within seventy-five versts [about fifty miles] of that city we ran into a blizzard. It would take days before the track would be cleared sufficiently to enable us to proceed. Not cheerful news, but fortunately we were supplied with fuel and enough provisions for some time.
It was the end of December, and we celebrated Christmas Eve in our car. The night was glorious, the sky brilliant with stars, the earth clad in white. A small pine tree, artfully decorated by the Secretary and enthroned in our diner, graced the occasion. The glow of the little wax candles lent a touch of romance to the scene. Gifts for our fellow travellers came all the way from America; they had been given us by friends in December, 1919, when we were on Ellis Island awaiting deportation. A year had passed since then, an excruciating year.
Arriving in Petrograd we found the city agitated by the heated discussion of the role of the trade unions. Conditions in the latter had resulted in so much discontent among the rank and file that the Communist Party was at last forced to take up the issue. Already in October the trade union question had been brought up at the sessions of the Communist Party. The discussions continued all through November and December, reaching their climax at the Eighth All-Russian Congress of the Soviets. All the leading Communists participated in the great verbal contest which was to decide the fate of the labour organizations. The theses discussed disclosed four different views. First, that of the Lenin-Zinoviev faction, which held that the main "function of the trade unions under the proletarian dictatorship is to serve as schools of Communism." Second, the group represented by the old Communist Ryasanov, which insisted that the trade unions must function as the forum of the workers and their economic protector. Trotsky led the third faction. He believed that the trade unions would in the course of time become the managers and controllers of the industries, but for the present the unions must be subject to strict military discipline and be made entirely subservient to the needs of the State. The fourth and most important tendency was that of the Labour Opposition, headed by Madame Kollontay and Schliapnikov, who expressed the sentiment of the workers themselves and had their support. This opposition argued that the governmental attitude toward the trade unions had destroyed the interest of the toilers in economic reconstruction of the country and paralysed their productive capacity. They emphasized that the October Revolution had been fought to put the proletariat in control of the industrial life of the country. They demanded the liberation of the masses from the yoke of the bureaucratic State and its corrupt officialdom and opportunity for the exercise of the creative energies of the workers. The Labour Opposition voiced the discontent and aspirations of the rank and file.
It was a battle royal, with Trotsky and Zinoviev chasing each other over the country in separate special trains, to disprove each other's contentions. In Petrograd, for instance, Zinoviev`s influence was so powerful that it required a big struggle before Trotsky received permission to address the Communist Local on his views in the controversy. The latter engendered intense feeling and for a time threatened to disrupt the Party.
At the Congress, Lenin denounced the Labour Opposition as "anarcho-syndicalist, middle-class ideology" and advocated its entire suppression. Schliapnikov, one of the most influential leaders of the Opposition, was referred to by Lenin as a "peeved Commissar" and was subsequently silenced by being made a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Madame Kollontay was told to hold her tongue or get out of the Party; her pamphlet setting forth the views of the Opposition was suppressed. Some of the lesser lights of the Labour Opposition were given a vacation in the Tcheka, and even Ryasanov, an old and tried Communist, was suppressed for six months from all union activities.
Soon after our arrival in Petrograd we were informed by the Secretary of the Museum that a new institution known as the Ispart had been formed in Moscow to collect material about the history of the Communist Party. This organization also proposed to supervise all future expeditions of the Museum of the Revolution and to place them under the direction of a political Commissar. It became necessary to go to Moscow to ascertain the facts in the case. We had seen too many evils resulting from the dictatorship of the political Commissar, the ever-present espionage and curtailment of independent effort. We could not consent to the change which was about to be made in the character of our expedition.
Chapter 26: Death and Funeral of Peter Kropotkin