Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 8


Education and Religion

THE Communists have placed at the head of their Education Commissariat a man of remarkable character and great ability. Before we went to Russia reports concerning Lunacharsky had encouraged us to the belief that in him we should meet a genuine benefactor of his country. As a matter of fact I did not meet him at all, as he was not in Moscow at the time of our visit, but travelling in the south on business connected with his department.

Friends of his in Moscow discussed him with us and spoke of the incessant, obvious turmoil of a mind wrestling with two ideals, the one leading him back to the imaginative, romantic, anarchist system of a world of the past, with its leisured class and intellectual aristocracy; the other compelling him to the necessity of bringing organisation and discipline to bear in order to carry out a programme of general communisation in education and educational ideal. That he does not allow himself to be completely subdued by the dominating Communist passion for disciplined classification and routine, is shown in the fact that he is said to be an advocate in education of what might be described as "Luciferism"—his own word; by which he means the habit of challenging authority, wherever it shows itself.

Moreover, the Communist Government has thought fit to encourage the artistic proclivities of the Russian people, and Art is by nature explosive and rebellious.

In Russia the theatre, the concert, dancing, drawing and the rest of it come under the control of the Minister of Education, as one department of his branch of work. Almost every school or children's colony of any size has its theatre. Self-expression through the body is in every way encouraged.

In Petrograd, education is in charge of a lady whose name is Lilina. She is the wife of Zinoviev, the founder, with Balabanov, of what is known as the Third International, and, I believe, its present secretary. She is a brisk little woman, of medium height, with a rather hard face but capable manner. She spoke French with great fluency, but no English. We spent an interesting half-hour in her room in the great Education Office before proceeding to inspect some of the schools.

It was stated that in Russia education is free and compulsory for all children up to the age of seventeen, and that food, clothing and school materials are supplied gratis. University education is open to all, and maintenance allowances are granted to workmen and others who may wish to take the University course but whose means are limited. They must show capacity and be prepared to serve the State—two perfectly reasonable conditions.

But a single drive through the city taught us that these regulations are not universally complied with. On one occasion, I believe it was during the drive to the Putiloff Works on the extreme edge of the city, I observed considerable numbers of young children between the ages of five and fifteen playing in the streets or in the doorways of houses. I asked Madame Balabanov, who was with us, if she could explain this.

"I thought education in Russia was compulsory, and yet I see innumerable children everywhere during school hours. Can you explain it?" was my query.

"Oh, yes," was the quick reply, "on account of your blockade we are without the necessary materials. We are short of desks, of pens and pencils, of books, even of school buildings. Until trade is resumed with other countries we cannot accommodate all our children with the things they need."

"Do the parents appear to be anxious to have their children educated?" I asked, specially interested in everything that concerned education. "Have you any difficulty with them?"

"Yes, we have. Many of them do not yet understand the value of education nor the wisdom of compulsion in the matter. We are slowly educating the parents to keep the law. When there are enough schools for the children we shall bring great pressure to bear on the parents."

The schools we visited in Petrograd were three, and included one said to be the best in the city. Considering the limited resources of the authorities it was certainly very good. There was a fine school-house, fairly well equipped, in which the children took their meals. We sat down to a typical lunch. We had a large plate of vegetable soup, followed by a herring and brown bread, with a rather dry and hard piece of cake and thin coffee to follow. The children are not given coffee, but the rest of the food we were assured was their customary diet. It was much better than most meals eaten by the people of Petrograd.

The children slept in a separate building, the boys in one part and the girls in another. The little beds had a very attractive look, ranged in their white rows; but a close look here and there revealed a pathetic improvisation, with such inadequate materials as they had, to meet the needs of the little pupils.

The children themselves were with their teachers in the large garden, and very happy and brown they looked. They were utterly fearless of us, and wound their arms round our waists and kissed us on the cheek with the freedom and confidence of people who have learnt to expect nothing but kindness from their fellow-mortals.

It was in this school I saw M. Kerensky's small son, and it was a great pleasure to be able to report to his father that the little fellow looked well and happy.

The second school was not nearly so good. Here the children had a very ill and underfed appearance. But nothing was seen to indicate that the very best possible was not being done for them. This also was a school in the country environs of Petrograd. The third place was for the special treatment of defective children. A clinic was shown us with a certain just pride, where skilled scientists devote themselves to the study and treatment of the imbecile, making an attempt to follow the splendid lead of certain of the United States physicians in their treatment of the morally defective as sick and not wicked people.

A very charming feature of the Russian educational system is the establishment in all parts of the country of boarding-schools for proletarian children, which they describe as "school colonies." The expropriated houses of wealthy persons are being used for this purpose. The house-buildings have been altered and furnished appropriately, and the large grounds and parklands frequently attached serve for the fresh-air culture of the children, or are turned into farm lands for the provision of milk and other suitable produce. Although the regulations on account of the scarcity forbid milk to children in towns who have passed the infant years, the rule is most happily broken in the country where it is possible to break it; but sometimes even in the country milk is very, very scarce, and I visited one children's colony in Samara where the despairing teachers confessed that the children got practically no milk at all.

At some of these children's colonies we had most entertaining times with the children. One little fellow, the musical genius of the place, gave us one of his original compositions on the piano. I have already written of the little chap who rattled off his father's or his teacher's pet Communist speech, probably without understanding a word of it. But at one place, a particularly bright boy of twelve or thirteen put us to shame by demanding to know why the English workers were fighting the Russian workers, and why we were trying to starve Russian children with our blockade. This same lad ringingly demanded that we should "go home and tell the British workmen to turn their rich people into the streets."

And here is my sole, real quarrel with the sincere and devoted educationists of Russia. The great outstanding purpose of their ordinary education is to teach Communism. They declare this in their manifestos. The education system has its truly beautiful artistic side, and so long as that is not stultified the soul of Russia is safe; but, for the most part, the Russian system is utilitarian, with, I repeat, Communism as its ultimate purpose, the making of Communists its goal. I could quote extensively from Communist sources to prove this, as to prove other matters; and there are those Socialists who would justify it. But I have been interested in education all my life, and I feel very strongly that it is a wrong to a child to bend its mind towards any special theories, Communist or other. To teach a child to read and write; to think and observe; to sift and weigh evidence; to create in it a love of beauty and a passion for truth; to develop in it gracious manners and a consideration for others—this it seems to me is the whole of the law and the prophets so far as educational ideal is concerned.

It may be taken as a general rule, however, that in Bolshevist Russia the children are given very serious consideration. After the needs of the army have been served come those of the children. The army very naturally gets 100 per cent of its needs in food satisfied. Then come the children, who are better fed than the adults, which means in fact that a very large part of the adult population of the towns gets not more than 25 per cent of its needs in food unless it can supplement the ordinary Government rations. A modification of this appalling state of things lies in the fact that part of a man's wage is paid in kind, and that in addition to his roubles he gets food. Otherwise, the extravagant nonsense of prejudiced newsmongers might come true, and corpses be found lying about the streets of Moscow and Petrograd.

A noteworthy and admirable feature of the educational system is the school for Adult Education. These schools are springing up everywhere. It is realised that the greater part of the Russian people are illiterate, and the defect is sought to be remedied by giving the older folk opportunities of attending all sorts of evening classes. We visited one of these adult evening schools, and saw grown men and women with young people and children join together in singing, dancing and dramatic performances; saw their sewing and their painting, their sculpture and their design; and without being a Communist one could heartily congratulate those who were responsible for bringing so much light and happiness into the lives of men and women for whom these good things had been unattainable in the past.

The perfect pleasure of this occasion was once more marred by one of those incidents, become painfully numerous by this time. I was asked by a young Communist if I would take a letter to his relative in Berlin: "But please," he said, "I will not hand it to you openly or it would be necessary to explain and there might be trouble." How I got the letter, I shall not disclose; but I handed it to its owner in the hotel in Berlin, who rejoiced with mingled tears and smiles to learn that her loved one was alive and well.

The education of village children is at present, even in design, more modest and less complete than that of town children. It is carried on during the winter months only, as the children are required for field work in the summer; and it is given to children between the ages of eight and thirteen only. Some day it is hoped to educate everybody, but the official estimate of the number of children actually in receipt of education is about 25 per cent of the whole. This is probably a very generous estimate, as is the estimate that two million children are being housed and fed at the expense of the State in children's boarding schools and colonies. If the statement which was made to us is even approximately true, that one child in three in Russia is without either one parent or both, it is a sad reflection on modern civilisation, and should be an added spur to the resolve to make peace as soon as possible so that no more children may be orphaned.

The State has taken religious teaching out of the schools, which, to men and women in England who have seen in the quarrels of sectarians a real barrier to progress in education, may have some merit in it. But the Communists have gone further. The use of the word God is forbidden to the teachers. Holy pictures and ikons are not supposed to be used, but actually are used, and the authorities do not think it wise to interfere. At the head of almost every little bed in the children's dormitories was a picture of Jesus or of the Holy Mother; in the Putiloff Works large ikons stood, some covered up it is true, but others undraped. The view of the Communist leaders on this matter is well-expressed in their manifestos. They declare that "religion was one of the means by which the bourgeoisie maintained their tyranny over the working masses; that the Russian Communist party must be guided by the conviction that only the realisation of class-conscious and systematic social and economic activity of the masses will lead to the disappearance of religious prejudices." They declare that "the aim of the party is finally to destroy the ties between the exploiting classes and organisations for religious propaganda, at the same time helping the working class actually to liberate its mind from religious superstitions, and organising on a wide scale secular and anti-theological propaganda. It is, however, necessary to avoid offending religious susceptibilities of believers which leads only to the strengthening of religious fanaticism." The last phrase explains, doubtless, why there is no interference with attendence at church; and it is certainly to be noted that the churches are crowded to the doors and, apparently, most of the time. Some hope and believe that the separation of State and Church and the obligation placed upon believers to maintain their own churches out of their own pockets will have this good effect at least: that the quality of religious preaching will improve and the standard of the ministry be raised. If the poor duped populace can be successfully delivered from the brigandage and trickery of unscrupulous and avaricious priests, of whom there has been a great host in the past, it will be a benefit not only to the suffering people but to the cause of true religion itself. And what I describe as "true religion," the living spirit of goodness in the hearts and minds of men, is growing in the very land where God is regarded as counter-revolutionary and banished, officially, as a traitor to mankind. Not by the decrees of Lenin nor of any other person will that which is rooted in the nature and needs of men be cast out—the need of worship and the aspiration after the ideal.

The Communists realise that "Logicians may reason about abstractions but the great mass of men must have images," to this extent, at least, that they have placed in every school and public building portraits and busts of Karl Marx and Lenin. The only time some of us saw Lenin he was sitting for the sculptor, who was busy preparing his new graven image! And whether they realise it or not, it remains the fact that the Communists have not destroyed religion. They have simply changed the creed. And for the Inquisition, with its thumb-screws and its flaming faggots, the Extraordinary Commission supplies an adequate substitute!