The Future of Russia
THE Delegation having been divided through the unfortunate sickness of one of their number, we left the country and returned to England in several groups and by different routes. The group of which I was a member took train at Saratov, and was enabled to go all the way through to Reval without a change. The country looked pleasant and peaceful. Large herds of cows were a frequent feature of a prosperous-looking landscape—for it cannot be too often impressed that the country is not lacking in food so much as clothing and other goods, and that if the means of transportation were better the peasants could supply much more to the towns. The green of the fields looked inviting after the brown of the river. The cool winds of the plains blew in on us through the carriage windows and were a grateful relief after the shimmering heat of Astrakhan and the lower reaches of the Volga.
Having little to do but prepare our meals after Moscow was left behind, we discussed with one another our impressions. We speculated upon the possible change of view which might have been effected in some of us by our experiences. What should we say to the people who had sent us out? And what ought we to say to the great working-class public at home anxious to have our report? One thing we were unanimous in hoping: That nothing might be said or done that would make it more difficult for peace with Russia to be concluded speedily. Never for a second was there a shade of difference amongst the Delegates that the war was a crime in its inception and a blunder in its continuance. But on other matters we differed. Some came out of Russia filled with uncritical enthusiasm for the Bolsheviki; others were bitterly disappointed in their expectations; others again were confirmed in former opinions.
As we approached the frontier once more, I put my head out of the window to take a last look at the Red Flag. There it was gaily waving in the wind. A colleague started to whistle a familiar air.
"What is that you are whistling?" I asked, "a last verse of 'The Internationalé'?"
"No," he replied with a wry smile, "a new verse of the Red Flag."
We were curious and he obliged us with the words:
It's not so red as you might think;
We've been to see, and now we know
They've been and changed its colour so"
"So, my irreverent friend, that is how you feel, is it?" I asked, feeling that I understood.
"It is," he replied. "I went out without the slightest bias in the world against what I regarded as a very big thing, the establishment of a great Socialist Republic, and I have come out with a deep feeling of disappointment. There is practically no Socialism in Russia worthy of the name. And the people are utterly wretched."
I could see that his flippant mood covered a very real disappointment, and was silent for a while; then I reminded him that perhaps we had expected too much, and he seemed to agree.
There are many ways of regarding the problem of Russia, each one leading to a different conclusion and generally a faulty one. There is the man who considers it solely from the point of view of present achievement without regard to the special difficulties which have had to be overcome. Such a critic is not reasonable and is bound to be contemptuous, for judging the thing just as it stands, and chiefly by the condition of the people who live under it, Bolshevism is a failure. It was bound to be a failure. No living human being faced by so many and such frightful difficulties could have made it a success. Alien invasion, internal disorder, counter-revolutionary activities, scarcities of necessaries of all sorts, the blockade of Russia—all these things made it quite impossible for the Russian Revolutionary Government with the best brains and the finest intentions in the world to carry out more than a fraction of its programme in a very imperfect manner. The wonder is not that they have failed to establish Socialism, but that they have successfully accomplished so much that is good.
But the person who maintains that so much has been done and done admirably that the other nations should immediately copy is making just as big a mistake in the other direction. Much might advantageously be imitated by countries where the war has created similar problems. Russia has communised her housing accommodation, so that now everybody has shelter and nobody need be overcrowded. This is all to the good. From such things the overcrowded towns and cities of Europe might take a lesson from Moscow; but unless and until the new institutions of Russia, political, industrial, and social, prove themselves to be of more social value than the similar institutions of other lands, the men are doing a disservice to their country who advocate the slavish copying of Russia.
One of the most admirable features of the Russian Administration so far has been its elasticity. In spite of the extremists and because of the pressure of circumstances, the Russian Administration has shown a disposition to scrap its failures and to turn from one experiment to another in a way which well might serve as an example to the hide-bound politicians of other lands.
To some people method does not matter; the end is all in all. Such people do not feel the tyranny which is exercised over the people to be offensive, nor do the cruelties excite their wrath. They regard these things as temporary, and to them the end always justifies the means. To them, no doubt, it appears that the end will be achieved by such means. Nor are they possessed by any fear that what is meant to be temporary will harden into a system and become permanent. With eyes on some splendid future they would tolerate the worst crimes committed under the regime of the Czar if done in the name and for the sake of Communism. It was with this class of supporter of Bolshevism with whom I was in hourly conflict.
For I believe very sincerely that in such a matter as this the good end cannot be achieved by vile means, and that the extremists who use methods of force and violence are preparing the ground for a reaction so complete that it would not be surprising if it ended with a new king on every one of the vacant thrones of Europe.
But the biggest blunder of all is made by those people who start with the assumption that Russia is like the rest of Europe, and that her people are the same as ours. It is the most fatal blunder.
Russia is, in size, not a country, but a continent. It contains one hundred and twenty-five millions of people who speak fifty different languages. The neighbouring federated states take their orders from Moscow in everything except local affairs, and the so-called independent border states will one day discover their economic relationship to Russia and will federate. Such a population, with such resources as Russia possesses, will become a blessing or a menace to the rest of the world.
The Russian people are the most illiterate in Europe. Their civilisation is generations behind Western civilisation and is of a different sort. They have a tradition of tyranny that sets them in a different category from the people of Anglo-Saxondom. They are a silent, passive people for the most part, sentimental and idealistic. They are composed, in the main, of peasants whose chief absorbing interest is the land which they love with intense passion.
Such a people are in huge contrast to the teeming industrial populations of Great Britain and America. In these countries the workers have long enjoyed a measure of political and social freedom unknown to the people of Russia. They have organised themselves politically and industrially on a big scale, and the standard of comfort they have been able to exact for themselves and their families from the employing classes and from Parliament is very considerably higher in average than the best the Russian workman has known.
Most of the organised workers of Great Britain (and probably of America also) possess a little property, if it is only the dividend they draw from the Co-operative Stores. The illiterate man or woman is practically unknown amongst them. Their children enjoy free education. Their cities are organised and comparatively healthy. With the power of the franchise and the industrial power of their trade organisation they can achieve any reform they may desire. They possess a tradition of freedom of conscience, of speech, of Press, of general living which no tyrant in office would dare long and without good cause to defy.
They are moving slowly but surely towards the achievement of that economic freedom without which they cannot hope to make secure the rest. And this they are doing without the bloodshed and suffering to themselves and innocent people that violent change would inevitably produce. Why, then, should they copy Russia, whose condition is so different and to whom it might have appeared there was no other way out? I feel myself so strongly the value of liberty that I would not jeopardise it, even for a hypothetical Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
I do not think the British workman is in danger of committing this folly. He sees much too far for that. By temperament he is slow but sure. He is not easy to move along unaccustomed paths, but he jogs steadily along the old high road. He is often charged with loving comfort and his glass of beer too fondly; but the ruling passion as I have seen it in him is his love of home and wife and children. He will not readily risk their happiness in pursuit of a chimerical Garden of Eden which might rob him of his present content. He knows there are even greater things in the world than bread and meat, important though these things be. If the alternative were placed before him of security without freedom, or the liberty to live his own life in his own way with as much risk of losing his livelihood as he suffers under the present system, he would choose liberty.
And he would do this because instinctively he would feel that tyranny was an evil, and that kindliness and toleration are worth more than the most perfect system in the world without these things. And he would be right.
The choice is not an inevitable one. The tyranny in Russia is due to the domination of a minority, to the seizing of power by violence, and the necessity of holding it by force. It is not inherent in the Socialist system if that be achieved gradually and in harmony with the people's desires and developing intelligence.
My great hope for the future of Russia lies in the possibilities of peace. If outside aggression really ceases Russia can begin at once to amend herself. If the blockade be really broken down, contact with the world will soften many of the acerbities of the Communist rulers and ameliorate the condition of the people; but it must be a real breakdown. The people of England must see that they are not deceived by misleading replies to Parliamentary questions. There are more ways than one of blockading a country. Postal, telegraph and commercial relations should be at once established; there should be no Customs rules and regulations to block the way to full free trade; the people of the two countries should be given liberty freely to travel from one land to the other, and the Governments of Europe should recognise diplomatically the established Government of Russia, and treat it with all the courtesies usually accorded by one nation to another when there is peace between them.
When fear is removed from their hearts, the fountains of internal criticism will once more begin to play upon the Russian Government. Its rough edges will be smoothed, its corners rubbed off. It will be obliged by facts and circumstances to move still further along the path of honourable compromise with the outside world. There will be much more personal freedom, less hunger, more happiness; at least, so I hope and believe.
For the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. The alternative is either a renewal of civil strife on the part of those whom the continuation of an extreme policy would continue to deprive of their freedom; or the development in the Communist party and the Russian people of a kind of Imperialist Communism, which would regard it as a duty to direct the country's organisation towards the establishment of world-Communism.
But even if this latter idea should ultimately dominate it will not be made manifest at once. Russia's material needs are too great. From the very beginning I have maintained that nothing would menace the worst features of Bolshevism so greatly as a return to the people of a measure of prosperity; for it is upon masses of hungry and unhappy people and not upon the prosperous and well-fed that the eloquent tyrant with land and plenty to offer them is able to work his malignant will.
Let us intervene, then, in Russian affairs with the only intervention that was ever justified—with food and clothing and medicines; with raw materials, agricultural machinery and sanitary supplies; with doctors and nurses and sanitary experts; with railway workers, plumbers and engineers. Let us do all in our power to help the Russians quickly to re-establish their economic life. Then, perhaps, the past may come to be forgotten and forgiven, and Russia become what she was destined from before the foundations of the world to become—a great leader in the humanitarian movements of the world.
For the Russians are amongst the world's most tender dreamers. Humanity sorely needs their vision in this hour. At a time when the fatal folly and weakness of a few has flung mankind into the pit of materialism, it would be of incalculable value to Europe and the world to restore to it the idealism of a hundred millions of dreamers.