Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 6


The Artistic Life of Russia

ALMOST everybody in Russia is hungry and cold, and many surface critics in Russia blame the Government for conditions for which they cannot be held in any great degree responsible. It is perfectly true that in the beginning, Committee management of an industry sometimes brought that industry to a full stop. Kameneff is reported by Arthur Ransome to have explained the non-working of certain excellent soap factories on the double ground of lack of material and "because some crazy fool imagined that to take an inventory you must bring everything to a standstill." "Establish a Commission," he had previously said, "and soap instantly disappears. But put in one man to see that soap is forthcoming, and somehow or other we get it." The greater part of the blame for the hunger and privation must be placed upon those who made the wars which have afflicted Russia so long.

Nobody can criticise the Government on one point, and that their protection and encouragement of Art. The most grudging in his praise must perforce admit that the Bolsheviki have shown their wisdom in leaving undamaged up to the present the artistic side of Russian life; whilst the just will give them credit for fostering Art by taking special care of the artists and by bringing it within the reach of the poorest classes in the community, hitherto totally shut out from the best and finest which Art can give.

The concert halls and theatres of Petrograd and Moscow are crowded every night. The British Delegation were taken several times to the most wonderful performances of plays and operas it has been the lot of most of them to see. I have myself seen operatic performances in several European capitals, London and New York. It is true that the orchestra in Vienna is finer. "Die Götterdämmerung" as performed in Berlin excites the greatest admiration. Chaliapine himself has thrilled immense audiences in Covent Garden. The singing and orchestration in the two great Russian cities were very fine indeed, perhaps not so fine as special performances in the other European capitals in happier circumstances. But in the mere technique of production I have seen nothing to equal the Russian performances. Not a detail had been neglected, not a dress, nor a colour, nor a pose unstudied. The lighting effects were astonishing. Here, a moon gave a moon's light, and a daybreak came as gently and softly as in Nature, and not with the suddenness of breaking china.

In Petrograd we saw two performances, one Gluck's "Orpheus" and the other Bizet's "Carmen." In addition we had an hour at the ballet on our way to the railway train and Moscow. The ballet is known in London for the exquisite thing it is. A special interest for us in Petrograd was the inclusion in the caste of gifted proletarian children, whose dancing did nothing to lower the standard in these things to which Russia has accustomed the rest of Europe for so long. It was a very lovely rendering of the dream of a hopeless lover of his princess-bride, who dies of grief and shock when the vision fades and he is left with nothing but her veil of gauze.

Of "Carmen" I have seen a better performance from the point of view of chorus singing and orchestral accompaniment. There was a disturbing failure to keep together of chorus and orchestra which marred an otherwise wonderful presentation of this well-known and favourite opera. But again, the way in which it was staged was marvellous beyond all words. And similarly with "Orpheus." This wonderful work, rendered with exquisite art, developed in one a mood of exaltation, and left one with the feeling that here in the world of mystery and imagination, of passionate and pure aspiration are the things which matter most, and that the sordid battles of political theorists for intellectual victories and argumentative triumphs are of very secondary importance.

One or two of the Delegates went to the green room between the scenes to discover how far the new order of Society was satisfying to the artists. One of the chief of these was asked if he experienced as much sympathy and appreciation from the new type of audience as the old, and whether he liked singing to the new as well as to the old. He replied that to him the social position of the members of his audience did not matter; that the mere appendages of the old-time theatre, the dresses, the fans, the flowers and other fripperies meant nothing at all; that understanding and sympathy were everything to the singer, and that in these things, there was no difference between the old and the new.

The audiences were certainly very attentive and most appreciative. They were composed in the main of quiet working folk and professional men and women. There were very few good clothes, but everybody was neat and tidy except about the feet. The only thing I noticed which seemed to indicate that many in the audience were new to the music was the applause when the curtain descended and before the orchestra finished. The "clappers" were reproved by the more instructed part of the audience, and will probably learn in time to respect the music till the end. And anyhow, I have seen in London theatres exhibitions of bad manners from people who fussed with their hats and cloaks during the last moments of the play or concert, infinitely harder to endure than the premature enthusiasm of the new opera-goers in Petrograd.

Certain nights at the Opera and theatre are reserved for soldiers and sailors, certain others for Trade Unionists and other workers, and the remainder are for the general public. The public pay for their places, the workers go in free. The tickets are distributed to them in turn through their organisations. So great is the demand for tickets that many people are able to sell theirs at double the price, which they frequently do, preferring the extra money to the music; whilst cunning speculators buy up quantities of tickets and make a profitable deal with them.

But the outstanding fact remains: That Opera and the best music and plays are accessible to all, free to most, and that Art is tenderly nurtured under the Soviet administration.

Artists are able to command big salaries in roubles, which, however, are not really big salaries when compared with those offered by foreign syndicates. Chaliapine, we were told by a Commissar, is able to earn two hundred thousand roubles in one night. But when it is borne in mind that ten thousand roubles can be bought for an English pound and that £20 is the nightly sum commanded by one of the greatest singers who ever lived, it is not so outrageous a reward as the little Commissar appeared to think. It is, of course, very large when compared with the two thousand to eight thousand roubles which (in round figures) is the salary scale per month of the Trade Unions of Russia. Sometimes the artists are paid in kind. The men and women who sang and danced for our entertainment at the dinner in Petrograd were paid in white flour, a much valued commodity; and were paid well.

During the big interval in the first opera in Moscow, a performance of "Prince Igor," an interesting thing happened: Trotsky came into the anteroom to see the Delegates. We all crowded round him eager to have the latest news from the Polish front from which he had just come and to which he was immediately returning. He had to tell of great victories over the Poles, and spoke with magnificent confidence of overwhelming success to the Red armies.

Trotsky made his name and fame in Europe as the greatest of pacifists and anti-militarists; but not in the garb of St. Francis did he enter our midst!

Physically he is a remarkably fine-looking man; a Jew, dark and keen, with penetrating eyes, and a quiet manner suggestive of enormous reserves of strength. He was in an officer's uniform, which fitted him extremely well. When one of the Delegates was presented to him as a conscientious objector who had served a term in prison for his faith, he turned quickly and said, though not unkindly: "We can have nobody here who preaches peace and wants to stop the war."

The bell rang, and with Trotsky in our midst we re-entered the box, the late Czar's place in the vast theatre. Trotsky took his place in the middle of the front row. I occupied the seat next to him on his right, and so was in a position to see everything that happened. As soon as the great audience caught a glimpse of Trotsky it rose like one man, and with wild enthusiasm applauded its hero again and again. Naturally we rose with the rest to pay our respects to the man who was leading in his country's battles and winning all the time. The cheers doubled and trebled. People shouted themselves hoarse. It was the most spontaneous thing I have ever seen. It was wonderful! And then a great burly sailor in the first gallery sprang to the front and led both orchestra and audience in the singing of "The Internationalé." It was the one great occasion on which we joined in the singing of this overworked ditty with real and undiluted pleasure. This was because it was a natural bursting into song of a great gathering standing to welcome its conquering hero. It was a fine occasion.

Trotsky speaks only a very little English, but his French is fluent and he was well understood. I should think he is very fond of music, for he gave the closest and most serious attention to the performance.

At one point in the performance there came a tender love-scene.

"There," said Trotsky turning to me and speaking in English for the first time, "is the great international language."

"Yes," I replied, "you are right. But there is also another—Art. These two great international languages of Love and Art will unite the world in peace and happiness at last."

I should think Trotsky is a man of throbbing vitality and of strong feeling; once of splendid vision. The banner of international peace and good-will on the basis of those principles afterwards adopted by President Wilson, raised by Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk and since trampled upon by the militarists of the world, marked him then a man of superb ideals. He failed at Brest-Litovsk as Wilson failed at Paris. Only when the nations dream them can such dreams as these come true.

The Art Theatre in Moscow is supposed to stand alone in lofty pre-eminence amongst the world temples of Art. Men and women have come from the four corners of the world to see how the work there is done. We saw an old Russian drama enacted here, "Czar Feodor." It was done in the Russian language, but so perfect was the acting that the story unfolded itself easily before our eyes; and, so far as an understanding of the characters was concerned, we did not need the few notes in English courteously supplied to us by the management.

It is a small theatre, without ornamentation of any kind. The audience suggested a meeting of the Fabian Society in type, the middle-class intellectual predominating. From beginning to end there was no applause. It is the custom. Such fine art neither needs nor desires noisy approval. So exacting is the service of Art here that the Czar himself would not have been admitted before the interval had he been so discourteous as to come late.

There is another little theatre in Moscow some of us visited, which is developing along new lines, and which is leading a revolt against the old, dramatic forms. Here we saw a perfect riot of extravagant colour and design on Futurist lines. It was a mad story, madly told. Not to this place would the weary worker come after a day's hard toil, unless the orgy of colour, the almost savage tilting at everything normal and conventional in stage-life and stage-production could contribute to the stimulation of tired nerve and body. The first impression was of a madhouse. On second thoughts we rather liked it. Finally, we rejoiced to know that the amiable Director is bringing his company to London as soon as matters can be satisfactorily arranged.

It was eleven o'clock when we left this theatre, but still fresh and fit we drove to a large house in a distant part of Moscow which was the home of a Russian countess, but at present is called the Palace of Arts, a club for intellectuals of the front rank. The countess is graciously permitted the use of two or three rooms in the building, but the rest is open to the members of the club and their guests. We "happened in" on a very pleasant occasion, the birthday celebration of one of Russia's most distinguished living poets, Belmont. A gentle little man, with grey hair and a pleasant smile, he extended to us the hand of friendship and bade us welcome in a warm speech. One of us replied suitably, and we then settled down to listen to the greetings in their own verse or song of the poet's brothers and sisters in the craft. All had something to give him besides their words, a kiss on the hand or the cheek, or a nosegay of flowers. It was very touching. It showed us the old Art life of Russia still living in spite of the awful conditions.

But as we went out I caught sight of a man whose poor knee pushed its way through his torn garment, a poet whose fine eyes in a sunken face were full of pain. And in the lobby in front of me as I prepared to descend the grand old staircase was a woman in sables, though the night was hot, whose feet were bound in slippers of felt.

We drove home in the early morning, the last light of sunset contending with the first streaks of dawn. And I could not help wishing that the Communists would ask the lady of the house to step out of her rooms in the basement and consent to act as gentle hostess to these young and enthusiastic worshippers of Art who assembled nightly in her house.

The next day I discussed with a young, curly-headed Communist whose English was better than my own the wonders of art in Moscow.

"Yes, yes," he said, "We were never able to have anything like that in London. It cost too much. And the cheap seats were always full. It is very fine indeed. But let me whisper something," and here he gave a half-rueful, mischievous smile, "it would be good to see and hear dear old George Robey again!"