Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV


Investigation or Propaganda?


PEOPLE in Russia appear to be able to live without sleep. At any rate they never go to bed before the small hours of the morning. Very rarely were we allowed to go to our rooms before two o'clock, and it was frequently three o'clock in the morning. On entering Russia we were asked to alter our watches by three hours, making the time so much in advance of English time, and we used to console ourselves that it was "really only midnight" when, almost too weary to stand, we staggered to our rooms at this terribly un-English hour. Soon we became quite used to the sight of little children playing about at eleven and twelve at night, and to the spectacle of a ploughman ploughing his land at an hour when it was difficult to say whether twilight or the dawn lighted his labours. The hour of rising is correspondingly late, and breakfast was seldom served earlier than 9.30 or 10 o'clock.

The first meal at a Russian table was naturally to be a matter of interest to us. At this, the first, and at all subsequent meals, there was an ample supply, though not a riotous abundance, of very simple food. Every nerve had been strained to make the change from profusion to scarcity as easy as possible. It was realised that it takes a long time to get used to black bread after white, thin soup after thick, and imitation tea after the real thing.

Real tea and coffee are well-nigh unprocurable in Russia at present. Yet they procured these for the British guests. These good things came to us, we were informed, because great stores of them had been captured from Judenitch who had received them through the British War Office. For our hosts this fact added a piquancy to their hospitality, which a sufficiently developed sense of humour enabled us to understand.

Our breakfast consisted of a sufficient supply of brown bread, hard but not unpleasant to the taste, butter and thin slices of cheese. On alternate mornings we had smoked fish or slices of ham. There was abundance of tea served in glasses from the samovar, with sugar but no milk. Occasionally there was coffee. We were served by a dignified "tovarisch" (tovarisch is Russian for "comrade") who looked as though he were a typical English butler, and who, I was credibly informed, actually was a relic of the old régime. His was a stolid, grave face, as became the servant of departed princes. What his thoughts were as he moved quietly about the room I would have given many roubles to know.

At the head of the table, our brilliant little hostess in Petrograd, sat Madame Angelica Balabanov. This lady is one of the most wonderful linguists I have ever met. She seems to have all the languages on the tip of her tongue. She is a speaker of enormous power and eloquence, so eloquent indeed, and so fiery, that I am certain, given the right kind of human material to work upon, she could make a revolution by herself. Small wonder the Soviet Government wished to make her their ambassador to Rome. No wonder at all that the Italians were too frightened to have her. She loves Italy passionately. She looks like an Italian with her dark skin, mysterious glowing eyes and twin plaits of long black hair reaching far below her waist when uncoiled; and with this appearance and her magic tongue, she might soon have won the Italians for Bolshevism. She is one of the kindest of women in all normal relationships. But I could well imagine her destroying her best friend for the glory of Bolshevism, should such a sacrifice appear to be necessary.

After that first breakfast the Delegation met in the bedroom of the chairman to discuss our programme and the plans which we saw had been prepared for us, and the methods of investigation we proposed to adopt. There was a division of opinion about the latter, which hinged upon the propriety or otherwise of delivering ourselves into the hands of our hosts.

In numerous speeches, both public and private, we had been assured not only of the warmth of our welcome, but of the intention of the Bolsheviki to let us see everything—good, bad and indifferent. "We have nothing whatever to hide, so why should you not be free to go where you will and see what you wish." This sounded splendid. We heaved a sigh of relief. We had been in mortal terror of being a conducted party.

The theory was, therefore, that we were to go where we pleased and see what we chose and speak to whom we desired to speak; in short, to have perfect freedom. But in practice this freedom was every whit as illusory as the raising of the British blockade. As events transpired, we were everywhere accompanied by representatives of the Authorities, who were sent, it was said, partly to act as interpreters and partly to protect us from counter-revolutionaries and Polish spies who might be lurking about with bombs! The number of such persons who accompanied us on most of our visits, whether to inspect a factory or a workshop or to interview a Commissar, was seldom less than half a dozen and generally was ten or even twenty. Sometimes as many as fifty people by actual count accompanied us round a factory. They got fearfully in the way, and often crowded out members of the Delegation eager to get close to charts and maps and anxious to ask questions. But we were all very good-humoured about this, because we realised that this was the first time for for five years that these people had been permitted to look upon the face of the foreigner, and that a perfectly natural curiosity was entitled to be satisfied.

It was not so much the number of persons who accompanied us that was the trouble, although this host of followers gave our enterprise a circus-like quality which some of us would have been glad to exchange for a more business-like atmosphere. There is certainly a lack of freedom in the feeling that one is being watched all the time, and one's words and actions and the people with whom one speaks noted by gentlemen who hold positions in Government service, either in connection with the Foreign Office or the Extraordinary Commission, as was the case with several of our closest attendants.

But there were other factors which operated to place a check upon our activities.

In the first place a programme of places to be visited and things to be seen was presented to us which, if carried out only in part, would have absorbed every second of our time and lessened still further the number of hours to be devoted to sleep. The time-tables given to us when we entered Petrograd and Moscow were simply staggering. "Can human beings go through that and live?" we asked one another. We thought we began to see some of the reasons why Russian men and women look ten years older than they are—no sleep, too much tea, and this sort of thing! Needless to say, we edited those programmes with much firmness and vigour. And even so, some of us found it extremely difficult to get as much time to ourselves as was necessary to take a bath or darn a sock.

Another curious fact speedily unfolded itself. The real nature of our mission to Russia appeared not to be understood. It was believed, or the belief was affected, that we had come in the spirit of full agreement with them, whereas we were there to enquire and to inform ourselves. It was frequently suggested, both privately and publicly, that "the representatives of the revolutionary working-class movement in Great Britain had come to bring greetings and assistance to the revolutionary Government of Russia." From this belief, or the affectation of it, sprang the clever notion of using us in every possible way to advance their propaganda. Immense public demonstrations, both indoor and outdoor, at which we were expected to make speeches were already arranged for us when we arrived there. We were never consulted about our desires in the matter. There were enormous military parades and Trade Union marches, which we were made to watch from a high platform, where we became the easy victims of the Government Press photographer and the moving picture operator.

On several occasions members of the Delegation addressed the troops in language eminently satisfying to the Bolshevik Commissars, and those like myself, who declined to do this on the ground that we had not come for such a purpose, became objects of suspicion and of quiet dislike. Dinners and suppers followed each other in quick succession, at which the soon-to-be-familiar revolutionary toasts were made the occasion for more speeches. We were displayed in the box of the late Czar at the Opera to interested spectators numbering several thousands on each occasion both in Petrograd and Moscow. The way in which our clever hosts contrived to place us under a very real and lasting obligation by their generous regard for our physical welfare during the whole period of our visit, and at the same time to extract from us for their own purposes the last ounce of propaganda usefulness excited my warmest admiration.

As propagandists there is surely no race and no class to surpass the Russian Communists. At such work they are simply superb. I am quite convinced from my own observation that they have won their victories on the battlefield far more through their leaflets than their bullets. The propaganda trains they are sending daily to the Polish front are marvels of ingenuity. Inside and outside these trains are covered with vivid pictures portraying side by side the horrors of Capitalism and the glories of Communism in simple intelligible form, the horrid capitalist murdering the poor peasant or standing triumphant over a dying woman and child, whilst Communist fields bursting with grain yield to the sickle of the happy, sun-browned, well-fed harvester. Posters giving simple but effective figures, making glowing promises, or issuing electric appeals to the proletariat to "rise and shake off the hated chains of the bourgeoisie" decorate these railway carriages through the whole of their length. Over the Polish lines burst shrapnel cases filled with leaflets. Or they scatter Russian passports for all the Poles who wish to desert and come over the lines.

The value of propaganda on a big scale for the prosecution of its aims was discovered by the Government in Great Britain during the war. Large sums of public money were spent upon it. Against this use of the taxes British Socialists protested with warmth and unanimity as a violation of personal rights. But not so would the Communists have acted. The Government of Russia conducts such operations on an incredible scale. Whole buildings of great size are stuffed from floor to ceiling with pamphlets and leaflets printed in every well-used language in the world, and a tireless and powerful propaganda in the principles of Communism is carried on at the expense of the Russian State in every country in the world to which Bolshevist agents have access. Here is the last sentence in the section devoted to Education in the Communist Manifesto of 1919:

"To develop the propaganda of Communist ideas on a wide scale, and for that purpose, of taking advantage of the State means and apparatus."

Our first public reception in Petrograd was at a dinner given to us by the Petrograd Soviet. It was held in a great room which had formerly been a stable but had been converted into the hall of a very fine public assembly-room. All along the walls were banners specially prepared for our coming, on some of which were sentences in English, tendering us good advice on the lines of "Go thou and do likewise." Some of the thoughts so advertised were very fine, and one I cannot refrain from mentioning, representing as it does all that is best and finest in the Communist idea: "We are working for the children, for the future, for humanity." This is a much bigger conception than the "dictatorship of the proletariat," which is a very big and very important section, but only a section of "humanity."

As we entered the long passage which led to this dining-hall we heard in the distance the strains of "The Internationalé." Alas, I thought, we are guilty of the rudeness of being late. Not at all! This was simply the orchestra getting itself into form. As we entered, it burst forth again with joyful hilarity. We stood by our seats till the end, and then proceeded to talk to our neighbours. For the third time the band broke into the strain. Some members of our party had strolled in late. It was essential that they should have a royal reception also. We settled down once more. Suddenly everybody started to his feet again. It was "The Internationalé" for the fifth time, sung to welcome the President of the Soviet to his chair. Then came the food, and, at intervals, the speeches. After each speech came "The Internationalé," and whatever we were doing, eating or speaking, it had to cease until the National Anthem of the world-proletariat, if I may so describe it, had been sung. And a curiously amusing feature of this singing was, that it indicated the degree of approval conferred upon the speech. If the speech were a blood-red revolutionary speech in the recognised style, the whole of the three verses was sung. If the speech were of a quieter pattern, two verses followed. If, as happened in one case, the speech kept close to the facts of the situation and lacked vim, one verse only was its reward. All this may have happened without design, but it happened so. And anyhow, we learnt the tune of "The Internationalé" unforgettably that night, for it was sung whole or in part, exactly seventeen times!

"Are you not afraid," I asked, of a Communist who was near me, "that the people will get tired of that song if you sing it so often? I can imagine nothing more tiresome to the ears of our king than the public prayer for his salvation put up for him every time he pays a public call."

"Why, yes," he replied, "the people are a little tired of it; but it is necessary to supersede the old National Anthem and such songs as are associated with the old order, and instil into them revolutionary melodies. It is good propaganda."

Shades of the departed! Will the music of the country also be sacrificed to the insatiable spirit of Karl Marx?

THE INTERNATIONALÉ


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  A -- rise, ye starve -- lings, from your slum -- bers,
  A -- rise, ye crim -- i -- nals of want,
  For rea -- son in re -- volt now thun -- ders,
  And at last ends the age of cant.
  Now a -- way with all su -- per -- sti -- tions,
  Ser -- vile mass -- es, a -- rise! a -- rise!
  We'll change forth with the old con -- di -- tions,
  And spurn the dust to win the prize.
  Then, com -- rades, come ral -- ly, the last fight let us face,
  The In -- ter -- na -- tion -- al -- é,
  U -- nites the hu -- man race,
  Then, com -- rades, come ral -- ly,
  The last fight let us face,
  The In -- ter -- na -- tion -- al -- é,
  U -- nites the hu -- man race. }
2. These kings defile us with their powder,

We want no war within the land;

Let soldiers strike: for peace call louder,

Lay down arms and join hand in hand.

Should these vile monsters still determine,

Heroes to make us in despite;

They'll know full soon the kind of vermin

Our bullets hit in this last fight!

  Chorus: Then comrades, etc.