Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 10


An Interview with Lenin

I AM not so foolish as to think that one brief interview of an hour and a half entitles one to be dogmatic about any individual, much less about the character of Lenin. It is not possible to know anyone in so short a time. I had read much of what Lenin had written, and disagreed very profoundly with most of it; but I knew that he had kept together his Government in circumstances of tremendous difficulty and discouragement for more than two and a half years. One after another he and his tireless colleague, Trotsky, had overcome his country's enemies, both civil and alien. Koltchak, Denikin, Judenitch, Petliura and all the great host of lesser foes I had seen go down before the more terrible hosts of Lenin, and had marvelled, as had the whole world with me. What sort of man was this Lenin, it was questioned? Was he man or devil? Whence came his power over the people? What helped and enabled him to keep all the main forces of his country together and to sweep, one by one, his enemies out of his path?

We visited him in his room in the Kremlin. Every approach to this room was guarded by a sentry. We were required to show our passes several times before we reached the inner sanctum. He received us quietly but graciously. An artist was engaged upon a bust of him whilst we talked.

He is a small man with a bald head, having a fringe of reddish hair at the back and a tiny red beard. His mouth is large and his lips thick; his eyes are red-brown, and possess the merriest twinkle. Do not, gentle visitor, when you meet the great man fall victim to this twinkling eye, and make the mistake of thinking it betokens a tender spirit. I am sure Lenin is the kindest and gentlest of men in private relationships; but when he mentioned his solution of the peasant problem, the merry twinkle had a cruel glint which horrified. "Do you not have a great deal of trouble with the peasants?" he was asked. "Do they not, as in the rest of Europe, object very strongly to the communisation of land?"

"Oh, yes," was the reply, "we have trouble occasionally; but it is with the rich peasants chiefly. But we soon get over that. We send to the village a good Communist, who explains to the poor peasant the position and shows to him how the rich peasant is his enemy, and the poor peasant does the rest. Ha! ha! ha!"

Lenin's method with his visitors is clever. He has a most engaging frankness. He suggests by his manner a more or less confidential exchange of opinions. But when the interview is over, it is found that he has told you far less than you have told him.

He impressed me with his fanaticism. This is surely the source of his driving power. And yet I am told that compared with the really fanatical Communist Lenin is mildness itself and should be classed with the "Right." It was rumoured that he is engaged on a new book to be given the name "The Infant Diseases of Communism," or some such title, which suggests an honest confession of mistakes made in the early days of the Commune. If this be true there is hope of happiness for Russia yet. But I must confess, his firm belief in the necessity of violence for the establishment throughout the world of his ideals makes one doubt miserably.

He showed a surprising lack of knowledge of the British Labour Movement. He gave to conscious and intelligent Communism a far larger place in British politics than can truly be accorded to it, seeing there is as yet no organised Communist party, but only a handful of extremists of the older Socialist movements.

When asked why he considered a certain individual to be of importance in the political world of Great Britain he gave as his reason that the British Government had arrested her! He did not seem to be aware of the fact that the policy of the British Government during the war was, as a rule, to arrest the little people who were without following and let the bigger folk go free. Scores of examples of this could have been supplied to him had it been of importance, which was not the case.

Lenin believes that a very tiny Communist group, working upon a mass of inflammable human beings, suffering from unemployment and hunger, can make the revolution necessary to establish a new order of society. He urges all Communists in Great Britain to get together in one party and work to this end. He appears to think that the British revolution is imminent. He has no use for the pacifist philosophy of life and believes that only the working classes should be armed and the rest disarmed. He looks for a world-revolution in which the toiling masses shall own and control everything. I do not know from personal speech his opinion on the Polish business; but I was credibly informed that he is more or less indifferent to peace and cares little about the raising of the blockade and the resumption of trade with Great Britain. His view is simple. Everything that promotes conditions favourable for a world-revolution is to be approved. The rest matters little.

At the same time, I believe him to be altogether too sane to be ready to throw away when it offers opportunities of really beginning to develop the Communist State.

Lenin, like all the Communists, conveys the impression of awful sureness of himself, of an immovable and overpowering self-confidence. It is not the smiling self-complacency, the shallow cocksureness of that very common individual amongst us who is sure that wisdom will die with him. It is the deadly certainty that he is right and everybody who differs from him is wrong, of the scholar and fanatic who would sacrifice his own head as readily as he would sacrifice yours in the believed interests of the thing he loves. The war has proved the danger of entrusting the world's training and the affairs of State to professors. And Lenin is a Love all things the keen-brained, dogmatic professor in politics.

Radek is a different kind of personality. His speech and his movements are quick. In appearance he is a thin, ascetic-looking man, with side-whiskers and curly hair, and looks not unlike a picture of an early Victorian squire. He has long, thin, nervous hands, very eloquent in gesture. Conversation with him is a monologue, in which he runs on endlessly from one subject to another, and from one point to another, anticipating your questions. He deals much in irony, but his large, pleasant eyes covered with horned spectacles gleam not unkindly whilst he scorches you with his words. He shows an infinite knowledge of the Socialist movements of the world, connecting personalities therein with events in a most marvellous fashion. Like most fanatics he is intolerant of the opinions of others and uses strong and even abusive language in dealing with those from whom he differs. He is a shrewd judge of men and events; but I am convinced that his is the fanaticism which would run the ship of State upon the rocks if not controlled by more temperate men.

His great interest is the Third International, an organisation of Communists who have adopted the dictatorship of the proletariat, government on the Soviet plan, and revolution by violence as the three main points in their platform. This International is the rival to the Second International held at Berne in 1919, three months after the armistice. Their principal quarrel with the Second International is the inclusion in it of those Socialists who supported the war and joined bourgeois governments. These men, they say, deny Socialism, if not in words, by the implication of their actions, and they can have nothing to do with such. The Second International also maintains an old-fashioned belief in political democracy which they declare has been tested and found wanting.

Communists in Moscow themselves told me that there is little to be hoped from the Third International as at present constituted; that it was formed irregularly by a few forceful and domineering men, who thrust a programme upon it, which they made it accept; that the representatives of foreign countries who were present at the initial gathering were not accredited, but were the returned exiles who happened to be on the spot; and that the insistence of a rigid discipline within the organisation, whilst it might exclude weak and wavering societies who would be a weakness and not a strength, would so restrict its numbers and eventually weary its members that it could not become effective as it is. These men were themselves in favour of the world social revolution, so that their criticism is important.

The document sent to this country by the Executive Committee of the Third International in reply to questions addressed to it by some of the British visitors will definitely exclude all but the bitterest and extremest of British Socialists, who for their intellectual sport play with vast explosive human forces very much as a little child plays with fire. Since this document is immediately to be published in a separate volume, and so made available for all who care to read it, it is unnecessary to quote it at length. Sufficient to say, it follows the lines already indicated as the plan of action proposed for the proletarians of the whole world by the Third International sitting in its Second Conference in Moscow as I write these words.

Dr. Semasco, the People's Commissar of Public Health is one of the most admirable and devoted men it has been my lot to meet. Against the most appalling sanitary conditions left by war, poverty, pestilence and famine, this heroic doctor is putting up a magnificent fight. He and his band of gallant helpers have few means with which to work. They are almost entirely lacking soap and disinfectants, as the needs of the army must be first supplied and production in these things is almost at a standstill; but in spite of this, he is doing marvellous things and rapidly stamping out some of the epidemic diseases which have raged all over the country. As every town and village in Russia has been, in a more or less degree, affected by one or another of the plagues of typhus, small-pox, dysentery, cholera and recurrent fever, the first line of attack on these things has been through the strict control of the means of communication. Every train carries its medical staff, and includes in its make-up a carriage to which discovered cases of actual or incipient disease can be at once removed and attended to. Control stations have been placed at fixed points on the lines, and here people have to undergo compulsory examination, bathing and disinfecting as far as means will permit.

Besides these measures, a house-cleaning campaign, for which women have been largely employed, is undertaken at frequent intervals, when people are made thoroughly to clean the insides and outsides of their dwellings and their furniture. Stern treatment follows neglect of this order and the result shows great improvement.

The figures for typhus cases for all Russia for some of the months of the present year reveal the excellent progress being made.

February .. 369,859 (civilians)
FebruaryMarch .. 369,859313,624 (civilians)
FebruaryApril .. 369,859158,308 (civilians)
FebruaryJanuary .. 369,85966,113 (army)
FebruaryFebruary .. 369,85975,978 (army)
FebruaryMarch .. 369,85957,251 (army)
FebruaryApril .. 369,85916,505 (army)

Dr. Semasco is a short, spare man, dark in appearance, energetic in action. He is a stern foe of all alcoholic drinks and is, besides, an opponent of the smoking habit, both on purely health grounds. He neither drinks nor smokes himself. He is one of the very few doctors who are Communists, and has served a term in prison under the old régime for some inoffensive piece of Socialist activity. It is impossible properly to judge Russia, after all, without taking into account its revolutionary history and its inheritance from the past. The slightest thing was regarded as an offence against the Government by the stupid Autocracy which has gone, and punished with abominable severity; such things, for instance, as the teaching of the peasants to read and write. If there is much to be condemned in the present suppression of freedom, in common fairness it must be remembered where the present rulers learnt their lessons in tyranny.

One of the very ablest of the People's Commissars is the Acting-Commissar for Ways and Communications, Sverdloff. We travelled in his company from Nijni-Novgorod to Astrakhan. He it was who kindly put at our disposal the train de luxe which carried our sick friend from Saratov to Reval, and whose considerate kindness on the ship enabled us to save his life.

He is in appearance slight and pale, of Jewish birth, with dark expressive eyes and rather autocratic manner. He has been many times in prison for his political faith, although his revolutionary record appears to have been less lurid than that of his brother who recently died of the pestilence. He was in exile in America and England for some years, and studied with acute intelligence American business methods, particularly American business discipline. He has brought this knowledge and training to bear upon Russia's greatest internal problem—the restoration of her lines of communication. He realises that these can be fully and quickly restored only by the hardest work and severest discipline. His colleagues and subordinates he works eighteen hours a day. When they are disobedient or neglectful in the slightest degree the punishment is severe. But the work is done, and the men adore him. An officer of high rank who was five minutes late to the ship was given twenty-four hours in prison, to be worked off in his leisure and not in his labour time. Rebellious workmen, loading a ship with fish in the hot sun at Astrakhan, who struck for a rest were driven back to their work by Communist sailors with loaded rifles. These two things I know to be true, for I saw them.

But the importance of his work cannot be exaggerated, and Sverdloff's impatience with Soviet interference in industry can be well understood. People dying for lack of food and medicines cannot wait for the debates of Committees to decide this or that point in the organisation of train or steamship communication. Managerial responsibility is the only way.

Through Sverdloff’s able organisation the whole of the railways and bridges destroyed by the Koltchak bands have been restored. Communication with Siberia has been re-established. Fleets of oil-ships are bringing from Baku millions of poods of oil, so necessary for railway engines and workshop machinery. And when the economic life of Russia is fully restored, no small part of the credit must be given to this extraordinarily able and commanding personality.

There are others of the Communists who might with interest be described, men like Serada, the Commissar for Agriculture, of blameless life and lofty idealism; Tchicherine, Commissar for Foreign Affairs, gentle by nature, artistic by temperament, uncomfortable in the whirlpool of politics as it seemed to me, and shrinking, sad-eyed, into nothing with the burden of the office unto which he was not born, turned tyrant through suffering, the instrument of less admirable men than himself. Of the able Communist women Madame Colontai was reported in Kharkoff. Madame Lenin was too seriously ill to be seen. Madame Trotsky never came to see us, though she was said to be in the Opera House when her husband made his sudden and dramatic appearance. Madame Kameneff, who has charge of one department of educational work, is a charming little lady who gives the impression of great ability joined to an amiable manner. Of the humbler men and women Communists talked with I shall have something to say in later chapters.