Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII

The Suppression of Liberty

IN December of 1917 there was established in Russia for the protection of the Revolution and "to carry on the merciless struggle against those trying to overthrow the Soviet system; against sabotage, banditage and espionage and speculation" an organisation known as the Extraordinary Commission. It has an Advisory Board of fifteen persons, all members of the Communist party. Its head and chief is a man named Dserzhinsky, a fanatical Communist whose adoration of Lenin is notorious. He is assisted in his work, according to the Vice-President, with whom we had an interview, by a definite staff of four thousand five hundred persons, estimated by others who were present on this occasion at a number enormously greater than that. These assistants consider it their duty to arrest all whose actions appear to them to be inimical to the welfare of the Communist State.

This great army of spies and police agents, largely the same men as served the Czar's régime, arrest for the most trivial offences and on the slightest suspicion. A young man who has saved his money and is buying his sweetheart a few expensive blossoms on her birthday is arrested by the person standing next him in the shop on suspicion of having received the money from some counter-revolutionary organisation. He is kept in prison for several months. A delicate woman is kept three days in prison for having too large a supply of white flour in her house. She got it for a dying father and a sick sister by selling valuable household goods. She was "denounced" by a former servant who occupies a room in the same house though he is not now in their service.

This Extraordinary Commission has its agents everywhere, in every organisation and at every public gathering; and nobody can be sure of his neighbour or even of his friend. It has its own soldiers, who enjoy better rations than the men at the front, its own prisons and its "secret police." It formerly had the power of life and death, and has executed thousands of persons without trial. Though nominally that power has been taken from it and handed over to the Revolutionary Tribunals, it is by no means clear that the power does not actually remain. In any case, the Revolutionary Tribunals work in complete sympathy with the Commission, so there is no real change.

The Extraordinary Commission works independently of the Government and is so strong, thanks to the fear created by the war, that it is regarded as the Government in everything that matters. It was said that there is nobody in Russia who does not go in fear of it except Lenin. I have no means of testing this, of course; but I know that everybody I met in Russia outside the Communist party goes in terror of his liberty or his life. The pervading fear worked terribly on the subconscious selves of some of us, and we lived hourly in a spirit of hot hate of the cruelties and tyrannies which met us at every turn.

The fair young English girl who came to beg us to help her and her baby to her friends in England, told us calmly but pathetically that her husband had been shot in prison.

"I do not know why," she said." He was not political. He never talked politics to me. He translated for the Russians in the army of Judenitch. But he was sent there by the Government."

Poor thing. Her husband was possibly guilty. But he had had no trial. She had lost him by violence. And she herself was threatened with starvation and was refused permission to leave the country.

Two hundred and forty-one anarchists we heard were shot out of hand in Petrograd, the new order against capital punishment being kept back until this had been done.

We were very glad of an opportunity of meeting those who claimed to speak authoritatively for the Commission, for the confession of shooting without trial ten thousand persons admitted in the Government's organ, Isvestia, had been deeply distressing to us.

"Is it true," the chairman was asked, "that the Extraordinary Commission has shot ten thousand people without trial?"

"No, it is not true. The number is exaggerated. Only eight thousand five hundred were shot, and not without trial. They were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunals and examined." This answer was said to be quite untrue by credible persons to whom it was reported. Not only was a much greater number than ten thousand put to death without trial, but many were shot in their cells in circumstances of cruelty, and their relatives were refused information about them. I met one woman whose husband had disappeared from prison in suspicious circumstances and who was afterwards discovered to have been shot for selling something at a profit of a few shillings in English money. This private trading is what is meant by "speculating."

The chairman of the Commission had said in his opening address that there was perfect liberty of speech and action in the country. As I knew that a real terror existed I suggested to him that, in all probability, the arrest of certain persons for imagined or trivial offences was due to the exaggerated zeal of ignorant minor officials working under the Commission. The reply was that this could not be so, since the agents who behaved like this would be punished very severely. I did not consider the answer conclusive, nor an explanation of the terror.

"Why," I asked, "have many people expressed a fear of coming to see us? And when they come, why are they afraid to speak with perfect confidence?"

"Because," said this clever person, sarcastic and evasive, "English people have been here before and have tempted our people into counter-revolutionary activities which have got them into very serious difficulties. They do not want to be caught again."

I ventured to ask one more question. "Does the Extraordinary Commission maintain spies and agents-provacateurs for its work?"

To this an absolute denial was given. "But," he continued, "every good citizen considers himself under an obligation to report to the Commission everything he sees which he considers to be of a counter-revolutionary nature."

It was denied that any conscientious objector had been shot. It was denied that anybody had been shot without trial. It was denied that any great tyranny was exercised. It was declared that the object of the Extraordinary Commission was to protect perfect liberty of speech outside of those who were fomenting armed opposition to the Republic.

The independent translator who was with us on this occasion said before leaving the room, her eyes swimming with tears: "It is hard for me to hear these replies and be able to say nothing."

I left the room cold with horror and dislike, for I knew without the implication of the interpreter's words that much of what had been said to us was absolutely untrue.

There had been held a few days before this a meeting of Mensheviki, or moderate Socialists, the members of the old Social Democratic party. The meeting was held under the auspices of the Printers' Union, a body numbering seventy thousand members in Russia. This meeting was attended by some thousands of persons, including (as I was informed) about three hundred Communists, a noisy little group in the heart of the gathering.

I was not myself present, but I give the story as I had it from one of the members of the British Delegation, not himself in sympathy with the Mensheviki.

The Communists had telegraphed to England that the British Delegates had attended a public meeting at which they heard in perfect freedom the great Menshevik, Tchernoff, make a speech. The facts of the case are these.

An unknown man made a passionately eloquent speech which was greatly applauded by the vast body of the meeting and frequently interrupted by the Communists present. At the end of his speech the audience loudly demanded his name. He hesitated. He was strongly pressed not to give it. He then stepped forward, and in ringing tones announced: "My name is Tchernoff." Instantaneously the vast audience broke into tumultuous applause, during which Tchernoff made his escape. The leading Communist present fumed, and declared loudly he would have Tchernoff arrested. He had come to the meeting with his pocket full of warrants!

But Tchernoff had gone. And the circumstances of his coming and going were interesting in view of the claim of free speech. For fifteen minutes before his speech nobody was allowed to enter the hall. For fifteen minutes after he got away, nobody was allowed to go out. The telephone wires had been disconnected so that no communication with the police could be made.

Tchernoff's wife and children were arrested as hostages, but afterwards released. He himself lives in a garret in Moscow, and was seen by one of the Delegates in a condition of starvation.

After the British Delegates left Russia several of those who organised and addressed these meetings were arrested. And so it is everywhere and all the time. The people are afraid of the police and spies, the spies are afraid of one another. All dwell in an atmosphere of suspicion, and the Red Terror is a terrible reality. And it is no consolation to me to learn, as I did, that the White Terror was even worse. I am absolutely satisfied on the evidence I have seen, that where the Red Terror has slain its thousands the White Terror has destroyed its tens of thousands.

Evidence which will shortly be published in great detail will establish beyond doubt the enormous atrocities committed by Koltchak and Denikin in their cruel marches across the country, especially against the Jews. Men, women and children in hundreds in every district in their respective areas were hanged, shot or tortured on the mere suspicion of belonging to or aiding with food and clothing a member of the Red Army or the Communist party. Innocent persons whose beliefs and activities were never even enquired into were murdered to discourage the population. The peasants were everywhere robbed with violence. The neglected troops of Koltchak, themselves decimated by disease and filth, spread typhus and small-pox amongst the unhappy people. Instead of burning or burying the corpses, the bodies were packed into warehouses, or left lying about; and in one district, in less than a dozen versts, ten thousand corpses were picked up by the Red Army when it drove back the rebels.

One more story only let me tell. It concerns the sister of one of the People's Commissars and that sister's husband. She lived in a little town in the Volga basin. During the march of Koltchak her home was invaded, and she and her husband, with twenty others, were thrown into prison. After a while, they were taken out into the bitterly cold night and, without trial, shot. The White soldiers bayoneted them to be sure the work was done, and retired.

By the most marvellous accident, the husband was not killed. His hand had been shot away, and the bayonet had entered his side, but he was living. He waited till all was dark and quiet. He bent over his wife, but she was quite dead. Then he crawled softly away, and very weak, reached his home. He found his little daughter of five sleeping, but safe. He dared not stay longer than to have his bleeding hand bound, for they would come at dawn and count the bodies, and his would be missing. So he went to the mayor, and the mayor contrived his escape. And the man is now in Moscow, as one may well imagine, a stern supporter of the Government, and not unready for reprisals.

I am inclined to believe that much of the support of the Bolsheviki is due to the fear that their overthrow would mean the coming of a great White Terror that would be infinitely worse than the thing they are enduring. The fiery threats of exiled Russians, the distressing activities in Russia of British agents, and, I am afraid, the wicked suggestions to certain European Governments, that a "Jewish pogrom in Russia would bring the Bolshevik Government to the ground," give some justification for the fear. Not till one side or the other declines to take revenge will the awful see-saw of horrors be discontinued, and a normal government by consent be substituted for the systems based on power and domination.