My Disillusionment in Russia
THE proudest claims of the Bolsheviki are education, art, and culture. Communist propaganda literature and Bolshevik agents at home and abroad constantly sing the praises of these great achievements.
To the casual observer it may indeed appear that the Bolsheviki have accomplished wonders in this field. They have organized more schools than existed under the Tsar, and they have made them accessible to the masses. This is true of the larger cities. But in the provinces the existing schools met the opposition of the local Bolsheviki, who closed most of them on the alleged ground of counter-revolutionary activities, or because of lack of Communist teachers. While, then, in the large centres the percentage of children attending schools and the number of higher educational institutions is greater than in the past, the same does not apply to the rest of Russia. Still, so far as quantity is concerned,the Bolsheviki deserve credit for their educational work and the general diffusion of education.
In the case of the theatres no reservations have been made. All were permitted to continue their performances when factories were shut down for want of fuel. The opera, ballet, and Lunacharsky's plays were elaborately staged, and the Proletcult--organized to advance proletarian culture-was generously subsidized even when the famine was at its height. It is also true that the Government printing presses were kept busy day and night manufacturing propaganda literature and issuing the old classics. At the same time the imagists and futurists gathered unmolested in Café Domino and other places. The palaces and museums were kept up in admirable condition. In any other starved, blockaded, and attacked country all this would have been a very commendable showing.
In Russia, however, two revolutions had taken place. To be sure, the February Revolution was not far-reaching. Still, it brought about political changes without which there might not have been an October. It also released great cultural forces from the prisons and Siberia--a valuable element without which the educational work of the Bolsheviki could not have been undertaken.
It was the October Revolution which struck deepest into the vitals of Russia. It uprooted the old values and cleared the ground for new conceptions and forms of life. Inasmuch as the Bolsheviki became the sole medium of articulating and interpreting the promise of the Revolution, the earnest student will not be content merely with the increase of schools, the continuation of the ballet, or the good condition of the museums. He will want to know whether education, culture, and art in Bolshevik Russia symbolize the spirit of the Revolution, whether they serve to quicken the imagination and broaden the horizon; above all, whether they have released and helped to apply the latent qualities of the masses.
Critical inquiry in Russia is a dangerous thing. No wonder so many newcomers avoided looking beneath the surface. To them it was enough that the Montessori system, the educational ideas of Professor Dewey, and dancing by the Dalcroze method have been "adopted" by Russia. I do not contend against these innovations. But I insist that they have no bearing whatever on the Revolution; they do not prove that the Bolshevik educational experiment is superior to similar efforts in other countries, where they have been achieved without a revolution and the terrible price it involves.
State monopoly of thought is everywhere interpreting education to suit its own purpose. Similarly the Bolsheviki, to whom the State is supreme, use education to further their own ends. But while the monopoly of thought in other countries has not succeeded in entirely checking the spirit of free inquiry and critical analysis, the "proletarian dictatorship" has completely paralysed every attempt at independent investigation. The Communist criterion is dominant. The least divergence from official dogma and opinion on the part of teachers, educators, or pupils exposes them to the general charge of counter-revolution, resulting in discharge and expulsion, if nothing more drastic.
In a previous chapter I have mentioned the case of the Moscow University students expelled and exiled for protesting against Tcheka violence toward the political prisoners in the Butyrki. But it was not only such "political" offences that were punished. Offences of a purely academic nature were treated in the same manner. Thus the objection of some professors to Communist interference in the methods of instruction was sternly suppressed. Teachers and students who supported the professors were severely punished. I know a professor of sociology and literature, a brilliant scholar and a Revolutionist, who was discharged from the Moscow University because, as an Anarchist, he encouraged the critical faculty of his pupils. He is but one instance of the numerous cases of non-Communist intellectuals who, under one pretext or another, are systematically hounded and finally eliminated from Bolshevik institutions. The Communist "cells" in control of every classroom have created an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion in which real education cannot thrive.
It is true that the Bolsheviki have striven to carry education and culture into the Red Army and the villages. But here again the same conditions prevail. Communism is the State religion and, like all religions, it discourages the critical attitude and frowns upon independent inquiry. Yet without the capacity for parallelism and opportunity for verification education is valueless.
The Proletcult is the pet child of the Bolsheviki. Like most parents, they claim for their offspring extraordinary talents. They hold it up as the great genius who is destined to enrich the world with new values. Henceforth the masses shall no longer drink from the poisonous well of bourgeois culture. Out of their own creative impulse and through their own efforts the proletariat shall bring forth great treasures in literature, art, and music. But like most child prodigies, the Proletcult did not live up to its early promise. Before long it proved itself below the average, incapable of innovation, lacking originality, and without sustaining power. Already in 1920 I was told by two of the foremost foster-fathers of the Proletcult, Gorki and Lunacharsky, that it was a failure.
In Petrograd, Moscow, and throughout my travels I had occasion to study the efforts of the Proletcult. Whether expressed in printed form, on the stage, in clay or colour, they were barren of ideas or vision, and showed not a trace of the inner urge which impels creative art. They were hopelessly commonplace. I do not doubt that the masses will some day create a new culture, new art values, new forms of beauty. But these will come to life from the inner necessity of the people themselves, and not through an arbitrary will imposed upon them.
The mechanistic approach to art and culture and the idée fixe that nothing must express itself outside of the channels of the State have stultified the cultural and artistic expression of the Russian people. In poetry and literature, in drama, painting, and music not a single epic of the Revolution has been produced during five years. This is the more remarkable when one bears in mind how rich Russia was in works of art and how close her writers and poets were to the soul of the Russian people. Yet in the greatest upheaval in the world's history no one has come forward with pen or brush or lyre to give artistic expression to the miracle or to set to music the storm that carried the Russian people forward. Works of art, like new-born man, come in pain and travail. Verily the five years of Revolution should have proved very rich spiritually and creatively. For in those years the soul of Russia has gone through a thousand crucifixions. Yet in this regard Russia was never before so poor and desolate.
The Bolsheviki claim that a revolutionary period is not conducive to creative art. That contention is not borne out by the French Revolution. To mention only the Marseillaise, the great music of which lives and will live. The French Revolution was rich in spiritual effort, in poetry, painting, science, and in its great literature and letters. But, then, the French Revolution was never so completely in the bondage of one dogmatic idea as has been the case with Russia. The Jacobins indeed strove hard to fetter the spirit of the French Revolution and they paid dearly for it. The Bolsheviki have been copying the destructive phases of the French Revolution. But they have done nothing that can compare with the constructive achievements of that period.
I have said that nothing outstanding has been created in Russia. To be exact, I must except the great revolutionary poem, "Twelve," by Alexander Blok. But even that gifted genius, deeply inspired by the Revolution, and imbued with the fire that had come to purify all life, soon ceased to create. His experience with the Tcheka (he was arrested in 1919), the terrorism all about him, the senseless waste of life and energy, the suffering and hopelessness of it all depressed his spirit and broke his health. Soon Alexander Blok was no more.
Even a Blok could not create with an iron band compressing his brain-the iron band of Bolshevik distrust, persecution, and censorship. How far-reaching the latter was I realized from a document the Museum Expedition had discovered in Vologda. It was a "very confidential, secret" order issued in 1920 and signed by Ulyanova, the sister of Lenin and chief of the Central Educational Department. It directed the libraries throughout Russia to "eliminate all non-Communist literature, except the Bible, the Koran, and the classics including even Communistic writings dealing with problems which were being "solved in a different way" by the existing régime. The condemned literature was to be sent to paper mills "because of the scarcity of paper."
Such edicts and the State monopoly of all material, printing machinery, and mediums of circulation exclude every possibility of the birth of creative work. The editor of a little coöperative paper published a brilliant poem, unsigned. It was the cry of a tortured poet's soul in protest against the continued terror. The editor was promptly arrested and his little shop closed. The author would probably have been shot had his whereabouts been known. No doubt there are many agonized cries in Russia, but they are muffled cries. No one may hear them or interpret their meaning. The future alone has the key to the cultural and artistic treasures now hidden from the Argus eyes of the Department of Education and the numerous other censorial institutions.
Russia is now the dumping ground for mediocrities in art and culture. They fit into the narrow groove, they dance attendance on the all-powerful political commissars. They live in the Kremlin and skim the cream of life, while the real poets--like Blok and others--die of want and despair.
The void in literature, poetry, and art is felt most in the theatres, the State theatres especially. I once sat through five hours of acting in the Alexandrovsky Theatre in Petrograd when "Othello" was staged, with Andreyeva, Gorki's wife, as Desdemona. It is hard to imagine a play more atrociously presented. I saw most of the other plays in the State theatre and not one of them gave any hint of the earthquake that had shaken Russia. There was no new note in interpretation, scenery, or method. It was all commonplace and inadequate, innocent even of the advancement made in dramatic art in bourgeois countries, and utterly inconsequential in the light of the Revolution.
The only exception was the Moscow Art Theatre. Its performance of Gorki's "Night's Lodging" was especially powerful. Real art was also presented in the Stanislavsky Studio. These were the only oases in the art desert of Russia. But even the Art Theatre showed no trace of the great revolutionary events Russia was living through. The repertoire which had made the Art Theatre famous a quarter of a century before still continued night after night. There were no new Ibsens, Tolstois, or Tchekovs to thunder their protest against the new evils, and if there had been no theatre could have staged them. It was safer to interpret the past than to voice the present. Yet, though the Art Theatre kept strictly within the past, Stanislavsky was often in difficulties with the authorities. He had suffered arrest and was once evicted from his studio. He had just moved into a new place when I visited him with Louise Bryant who had asked me to act as her interpreter. Stanislavsky looked forlorn and discouraged among his still unpacked boxes of stage property. I saw him also on several other occasions and found him almost hopeless about the future of the theatre in Russia. "The theatre can grow only through inspiration from new works of art," he would say; "without it the interpretive artist must stagnate and the theatre deteriorate." But Stanislavsky himself was too much the creative artist to stagnate. He sought other forms of interpretation. His newest venture was an attempt to bring singing and dramatic acting into coöperative harmony. I attended a dress rehearsal of such a performance and found it very impressive. The effect of the voice was greatly enhanced by the realistic finesse which Stanislavsky achieved in dramatic art. But these efforts were entirely the work of himself and his little circle of art students; they had nothing to do with the Bolsheviki of the Proletcult.
There are some other innovations, begun long before the advent of the Bolsheviki and permitted by them to continue because they have no bearing on the Russian actuality. The Kamerney Theatre registers its revolt against the imposition of the play upon the acting, against the limitation of expression involved in the orthodox interpretation of dramatic art. It achieves noteworthy results by the new mode of acting, complemented by original scenery and music, but mostly in plays of a lighter genre.
Another unique attempt is essayed by the Semperante Theatre. It is based on the conception that the written drama checks the growth and diversity of the interpretive artist. Plays should therefore be improvised, thereby affording greater scope to spontaneity, inspiration, and mood of the artist. It is a novel experiment, but as the improvised plays must also keep within the limits of the State censorship, the work of the Semperantists suffers from a lack of ideas.
The most interesting cultural endeavour I met in Kiev was the work of the Jewish Kulturliga. Its nucleus was organized in 1918 to minister to the needs of pogrom victims. They had to be provided for, sheltered, fed, and clothed. Young Jewish literary men and an able organizer brought the Kulturliga to life. They did not content themselves with ministering only to the physical needs of the unfortunates. They organized children's homes, public schools, high schools, evening classes; later a seminary and art school were added. When we visited Kiev the Kulturliga owned a printing plant and a studio, besides its other educational institutions, and had succeeded in organizing 230 branches in the Ukraina. At a literary evening and a special performance arranged in honour of the Expedition we were able to witness the extraordinary achievements of the Kulturliga.
At the literary evening Perez's poem "The Four Seasons" was rendered by recitative group singing. The effect was striking. Nature at the birth of spring, birds sending forth their joyous song of love, the mystery and romance of mating, the ecstasy of renewing and becoming, the rumbling of the approaching storm, the crash of the mighty giants struck by lightning, rain softly falling, the leaves fluttering to earth, the somberness and pathos of autumn, the last desperate resistance of Nature against death, the trees shrouded in white-all were made vivid and alive by the new form of collective recitative. Every nuance of Nature was brought out by the group of artists on the improvised little stage of the Kulturliga.
The next day we visited the art school. The children's classes were the more interesting. There was no discipline, no rigid rules, no mechanistic control of their art impulses. The children did drawing, painting, and modelling -mostly Jewish motifs: a pogromed city, by a boy of fourteen; a devout Jew in his tales praying in the synagogue, mortal fear of the pogrom savages written in his every feature; an old Jewish woman, the tragic remnant of a whole family slaughtered; and similar scenes from the life of the Russian Jew. The efforts were often crude, but there was about them nothing of the stilted manner characteristic of the Proletcult. There was no attempt to impose a definite formula on art expression.
Later we attended the studio. In a bare room, without scenery, lighting, costumes, or make-up, the artists of the Kulturliga gave several one-act plays and presented also an unpublished work found among the effects of a playwright. The performance had an artistic touch and finish I had rarely seen before. The play is called "The End of the World." The wrath of God rolls like thunder across the world, commanding man to prepare for the end. Yet man heeds not. Then all the elements are let loose, pursuing one another in wild fury; the storm rages and shrieks, and man's groans are drowned in the terrific hour of judgment. The world goes under, and all is dead.
Then something begins to move again. Black shadows symbolizing half beast, half man, with distorted faces and hesitating movements, crouch out of their caves. In awe and fear they stretch their trembling hands toward one another. Haltingly at first, then with growing confidence, man attempts in common effort with his follows to lift himself out of the black void. Light begins to break. Again a thunderous voice rolls over the earth. It is the voice of fulfilment.
It was a stirring artistic achievement.
When the Liga was first organized the Bolsheviki subsidized its work. Later, when they returned to Kiev after its evacuation by Denikin, they gave very scanty support to the educational institutions of the Kulturliga. This unfriendly attitude was due to the Yevkom, the Jewish Communist Section, which intrigues against every independent Jewish cultural endeavour. When we left Kiev the ardent workers of the Liga were much worried about the future of the organization. I am not in a position to say at this writing whether the Liga was able to continue its work or was closed altogether. However, laudable as were the innovations of the Kulturliga and the attempts of the Kamerney and Semperante at new modes of expression, they could not be considered as having any bearing on the Revolution.
State support to so-called art is given mostly to Lunacharsky's dramatic ventures and other Communist interpretations of culture. When I first met Lunacharsky I thought him much less the politician than the artist. I heard him lecture at the Sverdlov University before a large audience of workingmen and women, popularizing the origin and development of art. It was done splendidly. When I met him again he was so thoroughly in the meshes of Party discipline and so completely shorn of his power that every effort of his was frustrated. Then he began to write plays. That was his undoing. He could not employ the material of the actual reality, and the February Revolution, Kerensky, and the Constituent Assembly had already been caricatured to a thread. Lunacharsky turned to the German Revolution. He wrote "The Smith and the Councillor," a sort of burlesque. The play is so amateurish and commonplace that no theatre outside of Russia would have cared to present it. But Lunacharsky was in control of the theatres-why not exploit them for his own works? The play was staged at great cost, at a time when millions on the Volga were starving. But even that could have been forgiven if the play had any meaning or contained anything suggestive of the tragedy of Russia. Instead, it lacked all life and was rich only in vulgar scenes portraying Ludendorff, the renegade Social Democratic President, a degenerate aristocrat, and a princess of the demimonde. The drunken men frantically scramble for the possession of the woman, literally tearing her clothing off her back. A revolting scene, yet in the whole audience of teachers and members of the Department of Education not a single protest was voiced against the affront to the taste and intelligence of revolutionary Russia. On the contrary, they applauded the playwright, for those sycophants depended on Lunacharsky for their rations. They could not afford to be critical.
Vanity and power break the strongest character, and Lunacharsky is not strong. It is his lack of will which makes him submit, against his better judgment, to the galling discipline and espionage placed over him. Perhaps he avenges himself by forcing upon the public at large and the actors under his charge his dramatic works.
After a careful analysis of the educational and cultural efforts of the Bolsheviki the earnest student will come to the following conclusions: first, there is quantity rather than substance in the education of Russia to-day; secondly, the theatres, the ballet, and the museums receive generous support from the Government, but the reason for it is not so much love of art as the necessity of finding some outlet for the checked and stifled aspirations of the people.
The political dictatorship of the Bolsheviki with one stroke suppressed the social phase of life in Russia. There was no forum even for the most inoffensive social intercourse, no clubs, no meeting places, no restaurants, not even a dance hall. I remember the shocked expression of Zorin when I asked him if the young people could not occasionally meet for a dance free from Communist supervision. "Dance halls are gathering places for counter-revolutionists; we closed them," he informed me. The emotional and human needs of the people were considered dangerous to the régime.
On the other hand, the dreadful existence--hunger, cold, and darkness--was sapping the life of the people. Gloom and despair by day, congestion, lack of light and heat at night, and no escape from it all. There was, of course, the political life of the Communist Party-a life stern and forbidding, a life without colour or warmth. The masses had no contact with or interest in that life, and they were not permitted to have anything of their own. A people bottled up is a menace. Some outlet had to be provided, some relief from the black despair. The theatre, the opera, and the museum were that relief. What if the theatres gave nothing new? What if the opera had bad singing? And the ballet continued to move in the old toe circles? The places were warm; they had light. They furnished the opportunity for human association and one could forget the misery and loneliness--one might even forget the Tcheka. The theatre, the opera, the ballet, and the museum became the safety valve of the Bolshevik régime. And as the theatres gave nothing of protest, nothing new or vital, they were permitted to continue. They solved a great and difficult problem and furnished excellent copy for foreign propaganda.
Chapter 31: Exploiting the Famine