Reissner's Hamburg at the Barricades

Appendix: In Memory of Reissner

by Lev Sosnovsky

Today as we remember Larissa Mikhailovna we must be absolutely frank. We have been unfair to her and I am one of those who has been unfair to her. She travelled her whole road among us as if passing through a whole succession of barriers where she was silently checked.

In our party circles which had come through the underground organisation frayed, ragged and unversed in the elementary conventions of civilised life, the figure of a thoroughly beautiful person who was refined from head to foot, in appearance, words and deeds, was alien. We had been so often deceived by those who came over to us that it was hard to risk disappointment yet again. So a silent, endlessly repeated, trial was held on Larissa Reissner that strangely transformed itself. I have all the more reason to speak about this as I had caught myself trying her on numerous occasions.

She passed the first test. That was when, without anyone driving or sending her, she was in those places where the fate of the revolution was really being decided. That was at Sviyazhsk, before Kazan. That was the first test. At that time she wrote little or else we seldom had a chance to read her.

After this when she joined our press and became a proper colleague of ours our second conflict with Larissa Reissner began. We were all workaday and prosaic. In her there was much poetry, much emotion and much of the romantic. It struck us: wasn't there just too much elegance in her writings, weren't there too many images and too much colouring? At times it would strike us who were stumbling around in real life: was the object of her creativity just this continual juggling of colours, images, lines and juxtapositions?

When her sketches about Afghanistan appeared it was the third test. Wasn't this young woman being drawn towards exoticism? Was she turning her face away from our tedious prose and all-Russian greyness? Wasn't there here a private escape into the exoticism of bizarre lands and peoples? This was a new test.

Then there was Hamburg. After Hamburg the question was settled for me personally. Often we wrongly refrain from taking the steps we are in duty bound to take. I am speaking for and about myself. But perhaps I am also conveying the ideas, moods and thoughts of others. It was impossible not to have thoughts about Larissa Reissner because now there was no better journalist among us. Had each of us party journalists who had undergone that great revolutionary, organisational and practical party experience possessed her pen, her sense of colour and her sharp eye we could have done ten times or a hundred times more. If to this were added her education and her European experience - and that did not pass without trace-if all that had been added to our revolutionary Bolshevik temper we could have worked veritable miracles.

Therefore, assuming that I have not been alone in such thoughts and such a constant and strict testing of Larissa Reissner's work and worth, the moment that the test was completed we should have spoken to her about this frankly and fraternally. I don't know whether she would have needed this or whether she sensed a rather muted, very much suppressed and barely perceptible estrangement. Whether she did or not (I wasn't well enough acquainted with Larissa Mikhailovna to establish that) I do think that after Hamburg our duty was to come to terms with Larissa Mikhailovna openly and fraternally. It is harsh that this has to be done when she is no longer here.

After Hamburg I tackled her works quite differently. I saw that this person, in essence so young, had undergone before my very eyes such an enormous evolution. To embrace by the age of thirty such breadth of problems, fields, experiences and to have the courage to take up not just tiny deficiencies of a tiny apparatus but major deficiencies of a major apparatus, to take Krupps and probe it from the peaks of its secret boardrooms to the subterranean depths of its pits - all that was a test for a young intellectual that I doubt whether anyone else has passed.

When I approached her most recent work formally I no longer found that surfeit of images, beautiful forms and comparisons that distinguished her first works. This told me that Larissa Mikhailovna was working on herself very thoughtfully and rigorously. Perhaps even without that frank discussion I spoke about she sensed what our simple austere reader required of her. So she went to meet him.

I have previously mentioned in an article of mine one of her last newspaper sketches 'Milk' published in Gudok. In this sketch there was something quite new. Those who have had the chance to read this sketch will have seen yet another stage in the creative work of Larissa Mikhailovna. Whereas much of her earlier work dealt directly or indirectly with heroic aspects of life here you have a terribly oppressive prose, the life of the lower depths of capitalist society crushed beneath the burden of the Versailles Peace and Its ramifications. Here there was only prose and no heroism. People fading away in poverty. But Larissa Reissner adopted this device. She takes us around with the milkman who goes up the stairs of a tenement at first light and takes us through different grades of poverty of Essen workers. This new, simple clear, bald device showed me that we still do not know even a small part of Larissa Mikhailovna's capabilities. And if there were still any doubts left then her recent fragments of an apparently largescale work being projected on the Decembrists showed us quite new horizons for Larissa Mikhailovna. Her two sketches about the Decembrists published in a newspaper were like an advance put down for something very great to come. Those who are familiar with the attempts at artistic portrayal of real historical events that exist in our literature will know how in the majority of cases these historical fictional chronicles are vulgar, flat and false. In those two little sketches there was no longer a columnist or a newsman. Here was a great artist and a great creator.

When I read her sketch about Trubetskoi I personally thought Larissa Reissner was really a guest writer in a newspaper. For it was only her revolutionary fighting temperament that linked her with the newspaper. Even in her previous fragments about Ullstein and others you felt as though she was being drawn towards a larger scale. And that foretaste of something great also showed us that she was all the more a visitor - this is meant only in the finest sense of the word - to the newspaper and she had to give the country and the world something greater (whether she would have left newspapers or not I don't know) because if she could depict to us the full stature of a man who is separated from us by a hundred years what images could she have given of our era, the people she saw, felt and understood down to the last wrinkle. And here is the true cause of our grief and our great sorrow: it is that Russian and world literature has lost Larissa Reissner.

I mean world literature. Here there is no exaggeration. Today there should be no reason or need to say this. Many people think, and this is partly correct, that the ephemeral newspaper and the labours of the newspaperman represent something supremely transient and lightweight that disperses into the air like smoke. Yes, that is true. But only with regard to eras that are in themselves trivial, grey, pale and monotonous. But newspapermen who live and describe great eras, those newspapermen do not die so quickly. So that if they can learn faithfully and sincerely how to imprint just a small piece of their great era then they will conserve the breath of that era from decay and it will live on for many years.

In my quest for a model for the newspaper sketch, I once stumbled upon a book, a collection of sketches, by a certain Spanish journalist who lived in the 1830s. In liberal circles in Russia there were people who gathered together this Spanish writer's sketches which were so useful for inculcating the civic spirit in pre-revolutionary Russia and re-issued them. I read them over in an effort to understand what in his day was so powerful about this writer who commanded such popularity. Apart from boredom I could get nothing from them for the events he described were a miserable ripple on the surface of some puddle compared with the storms Larissa Mikhailovna lived through.

Our era needs to establish some harmony in the souls of its journalists with the whole key of the era. Perhaps that is an unhappy choice of words but I think that what identified and typified Larissa Mikhailovna can be defined by a crude combination of words: a wild passion for life. A genuine indomitable passion for life, an unquenchable thirst to be in Hamburg and in Essen and in the Urals and in the Donbass and in Afghanistan and in the Caucasus. And precisely because there was in this person such a temperament and such a wide range of interest in life, every line of hers irrespective of how we treated her, stirs people. In many years' time, if people then wish to feel something of the breath of the revolution and the breath of the great year of 1918 they will gain much from the works of Reissner. Think to yourselves: do you find very much vivid imaginative literature about 1918 that can be compared with Larissa Reissner's sketches? However hard I try to recall anything similar I can think of nothing. A true estimate and a true test cannot be expressed in our words but in the words of those who will think of the great era of our revolution with awe and will commune not with dry facts and chronologies but with the soul of that era. It will be such people who will give a true, impartial authoritative appreciation.

Larissa Mikhailovna Reissner's work on newspapers and her presence on the newspaper staff made us - newspaper labourers as compared with that great craftsman in style - somehow more wary and tense. How can you treat style and form with disdain when sketches like Reissner's are printed alongside your own? Even someone who never thinks especially much about form starts to reflect. For my part let me say that none of the seekings of the Formalists (i.e. the advocates of formalism in literature) have made any impression on me. But the last articles of Larissa Mikhailovna Reissner made me learn a thing or two. I believe too that more than one generation of pupil-trainees at the State Institute of Journalism will learn the model of a good revolutionary style from her sketches.

The main thing I want to say now is that we should help other comrades and friends to ponder the fact that for several years, too many years, we have been rather unfair towards her. Can this be put right by such a belated admission? Of course not. But it will perhaps help us to be more just and create a better atmosphere in future for those other workers as uniquely skilled as Larissa Mikhailovna Reissner.