Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV

Down the Volga

IT was at the suggestion of one of the Delegates that the Bolsheviki kindly arranged a trip down the Volga, that great central waterway which flows for nearly two thousand miles to the Caspian Sea, and which is fifty miles broad where it empties itself into this great lake. We went in our special train, accompanied by interpreters, agents, secretaries and journalists, a party of thirty to forty people, all anticipating a good time, to the famous city of Nijni-Novgorod. The plan was to take the steamer there and go to Saratov, calling at towns and villages on the way, and returning by train to Moscow. It was estimated the trip would occupy six days.

There is no longer any great Fair at Nijni-Novgorod. Foreign trade has practically stopped, owing to the breakdown of communications. The booths are empty and closed. The streets in this part of the city are neglected and untidy. The coloured domes of the churches glitter and sparkle with the old, quaint loveliness, but the city is the centre of what has been described as "a starving province," and is as sad as the rest of Russia.

The usual Trade Union deputations, with soldiers, banners, bands and speeches met us at the railway station. We were shown over the great Somova iron-works, and made speeches to the hungry-looking workpeople. We were informed that it is difficult to keep down the spirit of rebellion here; but this one would have expected of the population of Nijni-Novgorod, with its history of democratic struggles in the past. Unlike the men at the Putiloff Works, these men complain, not only of hunger, but of the incapable bureaucracy which is keeping back production.

We had a great public meeting in the theatre in the evening, following a dinner given us by the Soviet and Trade Unions, and, after the speeches, we formed into a procession, and followed by numbers of the townspeople as well as the audience, and accompanied by several regiments of soldiers, we marched down to the s.s. Bielinsky which was to take us on our voyage. The procession marched all round the higher part of the town that we might see the finest buildings and the splendid view from the heights above the river, singing revolutionary songs all the way.

The summer days are hot but the nights are bitterly cold on the Upper Volga. One of our number neglected himself, and contracted pleurisy and pneumonia within twenty-four hours of our setting sail, and his illness obliged some of us to go forward to Astrakhan and return the same way to Saratov. The organisation of the steamship, a magnificent vessel, was mystifying to us. First there was the recognised commander. Then there was Sverdloff, the Acting-Commissar for Ways and Communications, who appeared to be the highest authority; then came the Trade Union Delegate who travels with the ship; then the man in charge of our party, who seemed to be armed with authority over the crew as well. There were occasions when orders conflicted, and the result was very funny. After the great bulk of the people left at Saratov the ship's human machinery ran with greater smoothness.

A trip on the Volga was supposed to be one of the great experiences of the rich traveller before the war. It is an experience anyone may be very glad and proud to have had. More of the heart and soul of Russia lies on each bank of this mighty river than can be found in Russia's cosmopolitan cities. The country is low and fertile, except for the desert stretches of the lower reaches. The green of its grass is a bright emerald. Its roads and farm-buildings are a consistent brown, like its sun-tanned, wind-bitten peasant people. Wild horses roam the steppes with the Cossacks and Tartar tribes, some of whom live close to the river, their brown, substantial houses seeming to rise straight out of the water in the estuary of the Volga. The enormous rafts which float slowly down the river, composed of the trunks of great trees bound together, are things of wonder. They are of enormous size. Whole families live on them, and huts have been erected on them for shelter. It takes weeks, even months for these rafts to creep down the river to the places for which they are bound. Often the rafts are built the shape of a boat and so sent floating to their destination.

The friendly people waved us their hand-kerchiefs as we passed. The passion for art of the Russian everywhere showed itself in the decoration with green branches of these rafts, of our own handsome steamer, and of the railway trains in which we travelled.

We called at many little villages or larger towns on the way down the river. The banks of the river and the plains beyond teem with people. It was no lonely prairie that we gazed upon as we floated idly. The millions of dead fish in the river were symbolic of the country's past state and present suffering, and of its fearful fate if left too long without substantial help. Nobody could tell us authentically why those fish had died Could the cholera germ have worked this miracle of death? Or was it Koltchak's poison gas? Their numbers made them remarkable.

Our talks with the peasant men and women revealed the fact that they were not Communists in the Marxian sense, scarcely Communist in any sense. They were content not to quarrel with the Government because it was so much better than the régime of Koltchak, whom they hated; and because of the war. They grumbled at the requisitions of food, and hated the soldiers sent to collect it. But they were amenable to persuasion. One friend of the peasants, a Communist, told me that he was sent by the Government to talk to the peasants, because he was so successful in persuading them to give up their spare produce. He was a man of quiet and gentle manner whom it would be difficult at all times to resist.

The peasants we saw were a big, blond, stalwart race, with any quantity of shaggy, curly hair and with matted beards. Their features were Slav. They had large mouths, thick lips and broad noses. They wore high boots, much the worse for wear, and smocks with broad belts. Their women were big for the most part, pleasant and round-faced, and their legs were bound in what looked like white canvas which gave them a tubular appearance. They wore canvas or felt shoes, very inadequate for country roads. Their aprons and blouses were amazingly white in one village, which gave one the impression that there they probably made their own soap. The children were attractive replica of their parents. One small boy showed us proudly that he could write his own name in a good hand.

Whenever we left the ship, we did so between two lines of peasants with country produce for sale, eggs, milk and fruit; so there was no lack of food on this river trip.

We talked to the peasants about the land. They were happier than before for they had now more land, and all had some. The big estates had been broken up and divided amongst them. Nominally it was the State's land, but it would have been counter-revolutionary propaganda to have said this aloud. Really there is a system of peasant proprietorship, with the substantial difference that the peasant may not part with his land for money. If he works it well, it remains undisturbed in his possession and usually it goes to the son after the father. The local Soviet settles land disputes, and we were the interested spectators in the adjudication of one quarrel.

One little house we entered was very clean and neat, but the rooms were too dark and too small, and too many people lived in the house. We were told that this specimen was very much above the average. In every room was an ikon, and in every village a church, crowded with worshippers, filled with expensive things. Truly, the Commissars would be well advised to commandeer and not condemn the institution which has so great a grip on the lives and affections of the people.

I am reminded here of a curious and beautiful adventure of ours, a few versts on this side of Astrakhan. It was two in the morning, with a bright round moon in the sky, when the ship stopped and boats were lowered. A violin softly played, and the crooning of their Volga songs by the boatmen added charm to the scene. We took to the boat and landed on the right bank of the river. Millions of crickets chirped in the grass. In the distance a bullfrog croaked himself hoarse. Suddenly there came upon our view the outlines of an Eastern building. Its cupola shone in the moonlight. It was a Buddhist temple.

We marched up to the door and entered, much to the concern of the priest, who feared, doubtless, a revolutionary attack upon his person and the church. He was a quaint old man, round and stout, dressed in a bright red robe, his good-natured, Chinese-looking face adding to the novelty of the scene. He was a Kalmuk, and his ministry extended over a population of ten thousand Kalmuks, living in the little town beyond. It was an amazing thing to discover this little bit of Asia in Europe.

The Kalmuks are an attractive race in appearance, clean, strong and efficient-looking. The women have glossy black hair which they wear neatly in two braids. Their children are chubby and well fed, with slanting brown eyes and olive skins. We left this temple and its people possessed of several tiny brass gods and holy pictures with which the priest appeared not unwilling to part.

At Samara some of us went to inspect a children's colony outside the town. As usual, it was the expropriated dwelling of a former rich citizen. Indeed, several houses were devoted to this good purpose. The woman Communist who kindly conducted us had all the smiling good nature of her race. She was evidently devoted to the children, and proud of what had been accomplished. She was obviously in great need of new clothes. Her legs were bare. One poor sock was falling over her shoe top. The naked toes were peeping out of the other shoe. Her jacket was the last word in shabbiness. Yet she was bright and cheerful as a bird and infinitely pathetic as she asked me, with pride in her voice: "Have you anything like this (meaning the summer school) in England?"

We drove back to the ship impressed with the pluck and cleverness of those heroic people making bricks without straw. A great windstorm caught us. The dust whirled about our heads. The rain began to fall. I hid behind a bank of flowers, which had been given us, to avoid seeing the half-eaten corpse of a dead dromedary as well as to shelter from the rain. We reached the steamship. The whistle hooted, and off we went to the next scene.

Saratov is the finest city we saw on the Volga. It is a great deal cleaner than most, and compares in this very favourably with Tsaritzin. But Tzaritzin has experienced more of the depredations and disorders of the Koltchak bands, so must be excused.

It was at Saratov we discovered the origin of that silly story of the nationalisation of women. Whoever knows the Russian woman would wonder if she had changed to allow herself to be nationalised. I could not imagine those huge women fish-curers and net-makers at Astrakhan tolerating for one second of time any such gross interference with their personal liberty; nor the gentle Kalmuk women, nor the self-respecting peasant wives. There is not one atom of truth in the story, and those who repeat it cover themselves with discredit. The story had its origin in Saratov, where a tiny anarchist sect had for one of their remote objects a state of society in which men and women would dispense with marriage in their relationships with one another. It was unscrupulous propaganda to place this upon the Bolshevik Government.

It is true that marriage laws have been altered. Marriage is very cheap now, since only a State ceremony is needed. Divorce is very easy, but equal for all classes and both sexes. The children are the first concern of the State, and illegitimate children are not penalised. But there is nothing relative to marriage in Russia which is not true of some Western state; and it is believed that with the reorganisation of life on a sound economic basis, prostitution will entirely disappear, as it has certainly been considerably reduced. The women of Russia are not very happy, but their misery is not due to any sex-tyranny or Government brutality. It is due to the lack of food and clothing for themselves and their families, and to the bitter cold which makes their work in the home so hard.

For during last winter almost everybody lived in his house in a temperature of five degrees of frost. Tender children and old people died like flies, of simple cold. Frost-bitten hands and feet and the consequent loss of fingers and toes was a common occurrence. Pipes were frozen, and when the thaw came, broke, everything in the house being destroyed. There were no materials for repairs. Waiting in the long queues their turn at the baker's shop, trying to keep children and home clean without soap, having to go long distances for water, without coal and wood to cook and clean, with children crying for milk or food, little bodies frozen for lack of blankets—these are the real griefs of women in Russia, and not the ludicrous stories of imaginary wrongs.

We called at Kazan on our way down the river, and here we had a curiously funny experience. At Kazan, and increasingly as we descended the river, we were plagued with flies. They were so numerous, these tiny little beasts, that they made a misty curtain round us, and filled eyes and mouths and ears in a most irritating fashion.

We walked from the boat for about a quarter of a mile, ploughing our way through deep sand, to the place which had been appointed for our reception. We walked between lines of soldiers and sailors standing strictly to attention. The local Commissars were late, so the lesser officials thought it wise to begin, as the flies were troublesome and the English guests were not used to them.

A ramshackle droshky, with an old Chinese driver, was commandeered for a platform. One of our speakers mounted, and, standing on the seat, commenced his oration. The horse showed a tendency to bolt at every sentence, whether because of the flies or the unknown language it is not quite certain. The sentences came explosively, as every movement of the animal jerked the orator off his balance. The old Chinaman seized a large twig branch from a man who was fanning himself and tried to keep the horse quiet by driving away the flies. Round about our heads surged and hummed masses of flies. We shook ourselves, we smoked, we did a great many things besides; but the flies remained, and the speeches, one after another, went on with interminable eloquence. For a solid two hours we stood there suffering and grinning at the Chinaman, the flies, the absurd seriousness of everybody, the familiar phrases: "Long live the Proletarian Revolution." "Long live the Soviet Republic." "Long live Lenin and Trotsky."

At last we were released, to learn that a great demonstration of eighty thousand troops had been arranged for the following day. We could not stay, however, and bade our friends a warm good-bye; the flies also, but for a different reason.

Seriously, though, the insect life of that part of Russia is incredible. It is no exaggeration to say that at Astrakhan, when the meal was finished, the big black flies on the table were so many that it looked as though we had dined off a black instead of a white tablecloth. The mosquitoes are so vicious and poisonous that they often give one malaria, and the lice are inveterate conveyers of typhus.

Astrakhan is the dirtiest city it has been my lot to visit. Cesspools and stagnant water pollute the streets. Piles of human excrement lie about everywhere. The water-supply is thoroughly poisoned. The market-places are abodes of filth. And it appears to be nobody's business to alter this state of affairs. Astrakhan and cities like it should come under the supervision of an international Board of Health if their governments are powerless to alter things, for they are a menace to the well-being of the whole world. Cholera coming up the river from Astrakhan could poison all Europe in time, and may yet do so unless something drastic be done.

But Astrakhan is becoming busy again. Its shipping is very active. We saw the loading of rice arid fish, the curing of herrings, the preparation of caviare, the making of nets, the ferry-boats loaded with passengers, a general air of liveliness which contrasted so favourably with the deadness of Petrograd. Persian carpets are to be bought for a mere song in Astrakhan, and antique treasures of all kinds for the equivalent in English of a few shillings or pounds.

The temperature at Astrakhan was 122 degrees in the shade when we were there, and we simply wilted under the blazing sun. We talked of Siberian snows and American ice cream to try to make ourselves feel cool, when to our pleased surprise, the magician, Sverdloff, contrived to conjure ice cream out of the kitchen and so saved our lives for another day's work.

Those last days on the Volga were very happy, in spite of heat and flies and the anxiety we felt for our sick friend. The tumultuous crowd had left us at Saratov; the atmosphere of politics disappeared; our talk was of more interesting things; we sang our folk-songs and read our books. In the hot evenings on the way back, we sat at the front of the ship facing the glorious red sunset, and thought of home and of dear old England, and of the kindly spirit which rules where peace and plenty abound.