Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 1




A Starving People

IN every country in the world oceans of eloquence and torrents of passion are being poured out in the attempt to prove that Bolshevist Russia is a heaven or a hell. The friendships of a lifetime are being broken in fruitless efforts to prove either the faultlessness or the folly of the theory of Communism. The doctrines of Karl Marx and the philosophy of Bakounin are the twin rocks upon which the Labour movement in every land threatens to split. Without in the remotest degree intending or desiring it, Lenin has drawn to his head a halo of some magnificence, and an odour of sanctity, notwithstanding the inscription upon its walls, envelops that part of the Kremlin where the little, great man sits and issues his decrees.

All this discussion of the attempt of a handful of sincere and brilliant men and women to build upon the ruins of war, famine and pestilence a new and better social system in one gigantic effort is inevitable; and in common fairness it must be said that the experiment in Russia might have been of the greatest possible value to the rest of the world had its purity not been sullied by civil wars and unpardonable alien aggression. As it is, much may be learnt from the mistakes which the Bolsheviki have made and which they themselves admit. It is not the frank critic of Bolshevism who is doing harm to the Bolshevik cause. It is those supporters of Lenin in this, and other countries, who maintain that no compromise with the old has been made by the new in Russia, and who, if they could be made to admit that their Russian comrades had modified their decrees to meet the necessities of the hour, would regard this conduct as traitorous, and would denounce with equal extravagance of language the men they had before incontinently adored.

But through all the noise of argument and heat of propaganda about the dictatorship of the proletariat, the revolution by violence and the programme of the Third International, comes the low wailing of the suffering and the dying, an appeal for help to the pitying heart of mankind which should take precedence of the claim on the world's attention of all political and economic theories, however promising those may be.

For this reason the members of the British Labour Delegation took speedy and unanimous action towards bringing to an end the war between Russia and Poland, and with equal unanimity protested to their own Government against the blockade, which is supposed to be abolished in theory but which is as effective in practice as ever. The cruel effects of the blockade upon Russia's hapless people became obvious through the evidence of our own eyes in the first twenty-four hours of our investigation. So unmistakable was that evidence that a telegram was despatched to Great Britain, urging the folly of helping the war and maintaining in effect the blockade, and requesting that the British people might no longer continue to be implicated in either.

The number of Russian people is variously estimated at one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and eighty millions. In a country where the fortunes of war add twenty millions of inhabitants to the country's population in one lucky day or take fifty millions away as the result of a disastrous encounter with the enemy, this statistical looseness has a reasonable explanation.

But to take the lower number, one hundred and twenty-five millions. Leaving out of account the army, which is very well fed, and the majority of the children, who undoubtedly receive special care and attention, most of the people are either terribly ill-clad or hungry, probably both. Most of them are suffering from dirt and disease; many of them are actually ill or dying. Millions have already died. Many millions more are foredoomed to death from cold this coming winter unless help of the right kind and in sufficient quantities comes speedily. Of what immediate concern to these unfortunate masses of unhappy people is the materialist conception of history, the proletarian dictatorship, or even the Third International? Eighty-five per cent of the population is composed of peasants, most of whom I am convinced never heard of such things. To these, Lenin is no more than a name, a devil to the rich peasant, a name with which to conjure out of both rich and poor peasant the stocks of food they are believed to be hiding. Of such a sort was the late Czar to these poor, ignorant folk. But the old Czar was their "little father" and crept closer and more warmly to their imagination than the new ruler.

Poor, unhappy, lovable people of Russia! The hardening, educating, organising process which is going on in your midst may one day prove a boon to you, though it adds unspeakably to your present misery. The discipline of the West, if taken with its civilisation, may add to the fullness of your future life. But what you want at the moment is very much less and very much simpler than the ardent theorists have conceived you need, and that you ought to want and must be made to have.

The people of Russia want peace and bread, peace that will last and bread that they can eat. I am convinced without the shadow of a doubt, that they are everywhere sick to the very soul of bloodshed. They dislike even the talk about war and revolutions. They sing "The Internationale" whenever the orchestra strikes up, but it is with the mechanical tones of a musical-box or a street-organ. They long for rest and quiet. They want to marry and have children and be able to feed and house them properly. The peasants want to till their farms undisturbed, and in the quiet evenings to sing their quaint and mournful songs to one another or in happy chorus in the village club. The town workers want to do their day's work in the factory or the shop and to spend glad, talkative hours in the cafes as in those days before the misery of war came upon them.

Petrograd has all the appearance of a dying city. Before the war it was reputed to have a population of two and a half millions; now it numbers between eight and nine hundred thousand souls. Where have all these people gone? I asked a Communist the question.

A relatively tiny number of the rich are in exile. Many have died in the war. Some have fled to the country, where living is more abundant. But hundreds of thousands have died of hunger and disease. Besides the lack of food there is an almost entire lack of medicines, anaesthetics, linen for bandages, disinfectants and soap. These things have been kept out by the blockade. Disease has been epidemic and carried off hosts of people in face of the heroic but helpless doctors and nurses, very many of whom gave their own lives in a noble attempt to succour and save. A striking feature in Petrograd was the enormous number of short-haired girls and women.

"Is this a Russian custom?" I asked. "Not more than in any other country," was the reply. "In all probability all these women and girls have had typhus quite recently and lost their hair through it."

Those who have never seen the hunger-look in human eyes cannot even faintly imagine the pain of walking about the streets of a Russian town. I had experienced it first in Vienna, that once supremely gay and still very beautiful city. The knowledge of what the privations of the unhappy Austrians were (and still are) first came to me in a cheap restaurant, where I had gone to dine simply because the expensive meals at the hotel were so disgusting in their extravagance. I raised my eyes from my plate for a second. At least a dozen pairs of eyes were glued hungrily to the simple food I was eating, and as hastily withdrawn when detected in the act. I found it almost impossible to eat in public after that, except when some hungry Austrian would consent to share the meal.

I have seen in Vienna old and young officers in uniform creep into hotels after dusk in the hope of getting scraps of food for their hungry children. I have seen a woman of refinement, with three small children clinging to her skirts, drop the red roses she was trying to sell as she reeled with fatigue against a wall. I have tasted the coloured water and imitation coffee in the cafes of the Ringstrasse. I have seen the skeleton babes and consumptive wives of the Austrian workmen and soldiers in their own homes. And because I had seen these things in Vienna I knew, without asking any questions in Petrograd, that the two cities share with most of the cities of Eastern and Central Europe the bonds of a common suffering.

This much must be said for the Communist Government: It is doing its best to secure an equal distribution amongst all sections of the working community of the very limited supplies of everything. The passport to food and clothing is work. St. Paul's dictum is taken literally in Russia. If the workers go short it is probably because the food is not to be had. Either it is not procurable, because non-existent; or transport difficulties prevent it reaching the people.

Of course the speculator enters into the question, the adventurous private trader who, defiant of the law and at the risk of his life, buys from the peasant at a much higher price than the Government fixed price, and sells to the people privately or even in the open market. The Extraordinary Commission has a special department to deal with this man, and is very hard on him when caught; but he flourishes all the same, and will continue to do so just as long as it continues to be impossible for the citizen to live on the Government ration.

The loathsome black bread which is the people's daily diet is four hundred roubles[1] a pound when bought in the open market. White bread, which is really a light brown, is one thousand roubles a pound. Only children and sick persons are permitted white bread. Black bread can be bought more cheaply at the Soviet stores, but is often not procurable there for the last comers. Long queues of tired women are everywhere to be seen waiting their turn outside the Government bread shops.

And then the clothing! From Petrograd to Astrakhan I am quite sure that not a hundred people were seen in clothing that was not shabby and worn to a degree. Most of the British delegates wore their oldest clothes, garments which had been cast off and suddenly restored to use in contemplation of the trip to Russia. But those dear Russian people thought we were attired like princes. They turned us round to admire us. They patted and stroked our dresses and over-coats. They turned longing eyes upon our boots, and took great pleasure in handling the soft leather. One plutocrat offered fifty thousand roubles for a very ordinary pair of British shoes. Eighty thousand roubles was the price placed upon my own stout walking boots. When, out of gratitude to her for repeated little acts of kindness, I gave the girl who looked after my room a warm woollen jacket she fell on her knees and covered my hands with kisses. When, by way of thanks, I gave a dress and coat to the good woman who helped to nurse a sick friend, she sobbed on my shoulder from sheer overwhelming gratitude!

University professors came to see us, dressed like English tramps! A great singer sang to us with the toes sticking through his boots! Women of gentle birth and upbringing walked the hard pavement with their feet bound in strips of felt. Many had naked feet. Poor women were seen frequently who, judging by their outlines, had no shred of underclothing under their thin, cotton dresses. Socks for big girls and grown women were a common sight and excited the curiosity of one Delegate who enquired if that were the latest fashion amongst the women in Russia.

"No" came the quick reply in the perfect English to which we were becoming accustomed, "it is not the latest fashion but the last economy. Socks use up less wool than stockings. It is considered good fortune to have either socks or stockings. Most people have neither." This form of economy, welcome during the hot summer weather, is frightful to contemplate for the hard Russian winter.

When one thinks of the passionate joy excited by the gift of a pair of stockings to each of a few gentle, self-respecting Russian girls; of what a reel of thread meant to the mother of a young family; of how much comfort an old flannel nightdress gave to a sick woman, since dead of debility due to lack of nourishment; of the amount of happiness a present of a tablet of soap conferred, the wrangling of political theorists, particularly in those countries where such sufferings have not been dreamt of, much less experienced, appear monstrous and cruel to the extent that these divert the public mind from the immediate problem of succour and relief.

  1. The pre-war value of the rouble was about 2s.