Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

Talks with Communists and Others

THE peasants form more than three-quarters of the population of Russia, and one of the greatest friends of the peasants, who was also an intimate of Tolstoy's, kindly invited three of us to his home, and came to the hotel to fetch us. His name is Tcherkoff, and for some years he lived in England as head of a tiny Co-operative Colony near Bournemouth. He is extremely interested in Co-operation which, in his view, is the right line of social development, particularly for a country like Russia. It is said there were eighty-eight million members of the Russian Co-operative Societies before the war.

An amusing little episode occurred as we prepared to leave the hotel. A second car was filling with other Delegates, bound to a great propaganda meeting under the auspices of Madame Balabanov. As this car left ours behind, Madame Balabanov waved her hand and shouted for all to hear, pointing at Tcherkoff:

"We are going to life. They are going to death," which I take it was her pleasant way of characterising the anti-government, pacifist philosophy of our friend and host.

Tcherkoff lives with his wife and family in a house on the outskirts of Moscow. Madame Tcherkoff is a great invalid, and apologised for not being able to rise from her chair to receive us. She is a gentle little lady, of very frail and delicate appearance. Her husband is magnificently tall, grey-haired and pale, with beautiful hands. They both looked under-nourished. Being non-workers in the Communist sense they probably come in the lowest category for food. I was told that they must have died of sheer hunger but for the packets of biscuit and other food surreptitiously sent to them by unknown peasant friends. They gave us of their scanty supply of tea, and we had a most delightful talk.

There were, perhaps, ten persons present, all conscientious objectors to war in any and every circumstance. A newspaper rumour that one pacifist member of our Delegation had denied his principles had sincerely disturbed these good men, who, by the way, included Paul Birukoff, the biographer of Tolstoy. It was sought to reassure them on this point, and then we proceeded to ask questions for our own information.

According to their replies we learnt that though the present Government is bad, as from their point of view all governments must be, especially highly centralised ones, this Government was better than the preceding one, and they would do nothing to add to its difficulties till better times came.

At the same time they deplored the restrictions upon liberty, which they declared were more and worse than under the Czars. They spoke with quiet dignity of the killing of conscientious objectors, of whom fifteen, personally known to members of this group, and certified by Tcherkoff's Committee as genuine objectors, had been shot, some of them in their cells. Nobody who has come into personal contact with Tcherkoff would believe for one moment that such a man could lie.

We talked much and long about peace and non-resistance, and our half-frozen minds melted again under the kindly, human tones of the voices of gentle dreamers who to the world would seem mad, but whose way, the way of personal gentleness and kindly toleration, the world will have to take ultimately if it is to be saved. They sent us away with cheers and words of blessing; and I, at least, and I think the others also, felt that we had indeed been blessed.

The Theosophical Society in Petrograd has had its headquarters closed as being a counter-revolutionary organisation; but in Moscow it still meets on occasion for the mutual comfort and help of its members. Some of its people have brought themselves within the law and have paid the penalty. For giving aid to the Government's enemies by sheltering an agent of Koltchak, who was also a personal friend, two members of the society, one an old woman, have been shot. Technically in the wrong, one wonders how much of it was ignorance on the part of these unhappy people, and if the country's interests would not have been better served if a warning had been given (with a term of imprisonment if thought fit) instead of the drastic action that actually was taken.

Amongst those who are not of the Government but are doing nothing to hinder or hamper it we met Emma Goldman, the famous American anarchist deportee. For the life of me I was unable to discover why so mild a little woman should have been sent out of America. Her opinions, compared with those of the average Communist in Russia, appeared to be as water is to strong wine. She reminded me of nobody so much as a typical member of the Women's Co-operative Guild or of a Woman's Social Service Club in the United States. She is certainly not happy where she is, and ought to be allowed to return if she wishes. She complained that very many anarchists, known to her, had been shot in Petrograd for counter-revolutionary activity. She was very bitter about this. It will come as a shock of surprise to many people to learn that violent anarchism is not tolerated by the Bolsheviki; not at any rate when directed against themselves. Anarchism is the negation of the Bolshevik aim and ideal. I do not know what Emma Goldman's exact record is. I only know that to me she seemed a kind, motherly little woman who would as soon think of cutting off her own nose as throwing a bomb at anybody else.

Of the humbler folk of the city and of the second rank of Communist leaders I saw much and learnt greatly from them. It is idle to say that there are no class divisions in Communist Russia. The differences may not be so wide, but they are clearly marked. Even the generous use of the word comrade (tovarisch) cannot cover up the fact that class distinctions exist. The comrades who waited upon us at table and who looked after our rooms and drove us about in cars were called tovarisch, but I did not observe that the courtesy due to equals was shown to them. I have never seen servants anywhere treated with less consideration. They began their work early in the morning, at seven or eight, and they were frequently working at one and two o'clock the next morning. People never came at the time they promised to their meals, and put them to any amount of inconvenience. Drivers were left sitting on their cars for interminable hours. I never saw any of them thanked by any Russian in the place. The typists who were sent to serve us were ordered to eat in a little back kitchen until one of the Delegates intervened. The waiters on train and ship appeared to be incessantly on duty. It may of course be the Russian way, and I am bound to say I heard no complaints. But then one does not question the members of the house-hold of one's host about their working conditions. I simply say that the way in which those who did the hard, unpleasant work were treated would have sent British domestics on strike in battalions and left the bourgeois citizens of England servantless.

Two private talks with members of the intelligent rank and file of Socialism in Russia gave me much light on the situation. One was an elderly man of very keen understanding who still refused to believe that human beings would not answer to the reasoned appeal, responding only to the whiplash of politics. He had been a lifelong revolutionary and had served many years in Siberia. He was frankly disappointed in the present Government and deplored many of its tendencies. This no doubt explained the fact that no position of power is held by this man, for on grounds of sheer ability and training as well as of revolutionary ideal he could have been of enormous service. He is a member of the Communist party, but believes in the obligation of trying to keep it pure and wholesome through criticism.

"Why are you disappointed with Soviet Russia?" I enquired, eager to be instructed on the point.

"Chiefly because it is not carrying out Socialism," was his reply. "In theory the land is nationalised, in practice we have a system of peasant proprietorship. In theory classes have been abolished, in practice there is a new bourgeoisie and a new proletariat springing up. In theory it is a 'Peasants and Workers Government,' in practice there is no political equality and no democracy; for the peasants, the biggest part of the population, have only one vote where the townspeople have five. The peasants are making themselves rich by the sale of their produce for goods. These they will store until such a time as they can sell for big prices. They will be the new capitalists."

"But is not all this inevitable, considering the war and the continued existence of Capitalism in other countries," I queried?

"Perhaps. But they must not call it Communism, nor even Socialism. My quarrel with them is that they misname the thing. It is an autocracy, with a fresh group of autocrats. It is a bureaucracy very much like the old one for greed, incompetence and corruption. And if the personnel were reduced by fifty per cent, the work would be done just as well."

I could see he was almost bitter in his disappointment.

"But education will remedy that in time," I said hopefully.

"I doubt it. The nation is being rapidly militarised. The whole thing will harden into a system. The ground is being prepared for a new Czar or a Napoleon. I am full of grave fear for the future." So the old man talked.

"Let us hope you are wrong," I said, and left him to talk to a bright girl who had called for a good pair of boots I was able to spare.

But I must frankly say that this note was very frequently struck. By some it was regarded as the way of deliverance; by others, like my old friend, as the death-knell of all their hopes.

"They ought never to have attempted the experiment," said another distinguished servant of the Republic, speaking of the Bolsheviki, "if they had no more promise of success than this. It was a crime against the nation, for the Allies would not have made war against a National Assembly chosen by the whole people, and the people of Russia would now have been a long way on the road to reconstruction and happiness."

My girl friend was a Manchester lass who was working in a Soviet office. I asked her if she was happy, and she looked wistful and said she was hungry a good deal and that she could "do very well with some stockings and underclothes," but that she liked her work, which was translating, and had no complaints on that score.

"But," I said, "why don't you go home? Are you being kept here against your will?"

"Oh no," she replied very quickly, "I could go home if I wanted to, but—" and here a deep, red blush spread over her pretty face and told me her story without further words. She will not leave until her lover can come too. As a productive worker he cannot be spared at present. So the two stay and work and love and hope together.

I find these complications not uncommon. There is an English colony in Petrograd, suffering greatly from lack of means, and anxious to have the British Government send out a Commissioner to help them in various ways. They have full leave from the Russian Government to repatriate their members. But domestic tangles lie in the way. A mother has two daughters, one British and the other (perhaps by marriage) Russian. She cannot bear to go away and leave one child behind, and the Russian child is not at present acceptable to the British Government. Or a lover is involved as in the case of Miss W——. Or a dead husband has left his wife bound in the chain of his Russian nationality. One Government or the other refuses to give the necessary papers.

What the sufferings of the citizens of Petrograd and Moscow must have been in the early days of the Revolution, and during the whole of the period of the first Revolution, chiefly from the general disorganisation and the advantage taken of it by disorderly bands of soldiers and ordinary thieves and criminals it is impossible properly to imagine.

One young Communist told me something of the experiences of himself and his wife. He told the story quietly, in the passive Russian fashion, as if it were the kind of tale one tells at the nursery fire to a sleepy child. This fatalism is the most amazing quality of the Russian character.

"We had our little house in Petrograd, my wife and I. We expected our first baby very soon. We were very happy in each other, but cold and hungry all the time. That didn't matter. We were happy." Here he stopped and gave a despairing look.

"I blame myself bitterly," he said. "My wife is an English girl. We were married in England the year before the War. I brought her to Russia. Russia was England's ally then. How could I foresee the war that very few wiser people foresaw? How could I know that revolution would come when it did, and that it would make so many differences?" There was a long pause." Poor girl, she was not used to such sufferings. And I brought them on her." He showed me a photograph. "Look," he said, "and please take this. I have put the address of her brother and sister in England on the back. I have sent her and the little baby to Helsingfors. She is very ill. Her spine is packed in plaster of Paris. I sold everything that was left and gave her fourteen pounds, all I could raise. I sent her to England to her family. I hope she will arrive safely."

I looked incredulous at the courage and, I must confess, what looked like the folly of it. "Has she a British passport?" I asked. "She is now a Russian, you know, since her marriage with you, and she may have difficulties in getting into England. They are frightened of Bolsheviks in England." "No, she has no passport," he said, "but I am sure the British Consul will be kind and help her home. I am sure of it. She too has absolute confidence in her country's Government, and would be utterly amazed to receive any unkindness from it."

With my own experience of passport difficulties in mind I marvelled at such faith. I have since learnt that it has been amazingly justified, and that the poor girl is safe at home. Her husband also learnt it before we left him. "But go back to your story of Petrograd," I said, very interested.

"Well, we lived happily in our little house, selling first one thing and then another for food. One night, a gang of men forced their way in, showed Soviet passports, and took a great many of our valuable things. We were glad our lives were spared. Three times this thing happened, and we had very little left. One night, when my brother was with us, there came another intruder in the name of the Government. He tried to kill my brother. I shot him in the legs. He crawled to my feet and begged for his life. My brother and I left to hide. We were in hiding four months. The man I shot in the legs really was a Commissar. All the others were thieves with forged warrants. My wife was tormented every day to make her tell where I was. She did not know. She nearly died of suffering. And the little baby came." He looked dreamily away.

"If she had stayed in Petrograd for the coming winter she would have died. It was the only way."

"She shall come to me in England if she needs a home," I said. And with this promise, that any human being would have given, he was greatly comforted.