Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 9


Off to Moscow

OFF to Moscow at last, the city of our dreams! I have not told one half of our adventures in Petrograd. It is not possible to do so. The tour of the great Putiloff Works was of enormous interest, and may be referred to in a later part of the narrative. Our visit to the gloomy fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul at midnight had a mournful fascination for those who have steeped themselves in the lore of the martyrs of the Revolution. The old keeper of the cells is still there, impassive and unresponsive as a man of such responsibilities might well be, as quietly content to serve the new order as the old, human enough to be pleased that no one occupied his quarters at the time of our visit. We saw the large, damp, gloomy cells, twice as big as the cells of an English prison, whose sole claim to comfort lay in the provision in each cell of running water and a sanitary convenience. These things were not, of course, in the punishment cells, which were entirely dark and partly under water. The high-walled, narrow gully, where prisoners were taken to be shot, from which no sound could penetrate to the outer world, sent thrills of cold horror down our backs. The ingenious methods of torture made us physically sick. Altogether it was a gruesome experience, unrelieved of its sad associations by the humorous writings on the wall of British prisoners temporarily incarcerated on suspicion of promoting counter-revolutionary activity.

Off to Moscow! The city of golden domes and spires! So different from Peter the Great's city of the marshes, new and splendid though that is, with the broad Neva to add to its beauty.

The same comfortable train took us there in thirteen hours. Usually it takes longer; but orders had come through that we must be in Moscow by noon the day following, and we were there to a minute. The crowds which met us in the railway station and lined the approaches to the station beggar description, both for their size and the warmth of their reception. Here was an open-hearted, generous lot of people, to whom we felt drawn from the very first minute. It did not take long to sense a difference between these folk and those we had just left. There was less of strain and torment here, more of human jolliness and kindliness; less of the burning fever of revolution, more of its constructive hope.

The representatives of the Soviets and the Trade Unions met us. The bands played merrily, the flags and banners waved briskly and gleamed brightly. The usual speeches of welcome were made and properly acknowledged. And then we left in the fleet of motor-cars provided for us to the large and commodious Hotel Delavoy Dvor, a whole floor of which had been devoted to our use. Special passes were handed to us at the station which admitted us to all the public buildings of the Government, and we prepared ourselves for a useful and strenuous time.

The hotel in which we were lodged was a modern business men's place taken over by the Government with the rest of Moscow's great public buildings. It stands at the entry to a large square and is within a good stone's throw of the Kremlin. Our quarters were very comfortable, almost luxurious, with substantial furnishings and good beds; but alas for the scriptural injunction: "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness!" A new "Red Army" left its trail of blood along our pillows, one which, after the first night, drove us from our beds to the refuge of the more comfortable sofas. I give my word, there are more crawling things in that Moscow hotel than I had imagined were contained in the whole universe! Not in ones, nor twos, but in battalions, they came, making the night hideous. Soon their slain bodies began to make effective patterns upon the wall-paper; but they had the advantage of numbers and we were compelled to yield to superior forces, and give up the attempt to annihilate them.

Moscow is indeed the real Russian city, semi-oriental in type. The number of its churches is amazing, and their vari-coloured domes and cupolas glittered beautifully in the hot, bright sun. The streets were in fairly good condition, and were much cleaner than we had been led to expect, or than the streets of some other towns which were visited. The people here looked undernourished, as in Petrograd, but there was more spring in their gait, less misery in their mien. Sober, stolid, unemotional, indifferent, they spent little time in looking at us beyond the tops of our boots, which in their shockingly bootless condition were the things which interested them most. Sometimes they frowned at our cars when these scattered dust all over them or threatened to run them down.

The open markets of Moscow present a very interesting spectacle. Private trading has not been abolished. It has only been driven into the streets. Almost all the shops have been closed; all the big ones. The lively appearance of the streets in most big cities is due to the brightly dressed shop-windows, displaying tempting stores of goods of all sorts. All this side of life has vanished. There are the Soviet Stores, the Co-operative Stores and the displays of peasant arts and crafts; but these present no attractive appearance and the goods supplied tend towards standardisation, the thing which robs shopping of half its joys. Besides these there are small shops selling those goods which are not Government monopolies, such small wares as bootlaces, pins; certain fruits and flowers; agricultural products such as eggs, milk, potatoes, carrots, green vegetables and pork. Bread, both black and white, is on sale, the black bread at 400 roubles and the white at 1000 roubles a pound.

I paid a visit to the Moscow markets on several occasions for the purpose of discovering market prices, and actually bought eggs at 150 roubles each, flowers (peonies) at 400 roubles each blossom, sour milk at 130 roubles a tumblerful (half a pint) and small cucumbers at 140 roubles each. In addition I discovered that the price of potatoes in the open market was 130 roubles a pound and horseflesh from 460 to 600 roubles a pound. The average wage of an unskilled labourer in Moscow is about 2000 roubles per month. The average wage of a good skilled worker is not more than 4000 roubles a month. It is true that an addition is made to the value of the wage by the gift of one good meal, and in some special circumstances, of two meals a day. But it is also true that the Government ration is only half what the people require for health and that men and women must perforce buy in the open market or go without necessary food. According to the prices and wages ruling in Moscow at the present time, the money wage of a very well-paid skilled worker, 4000 roubles a month, would buy ten pound loaves of black bread or four pound loaves of white bread; about seven pounds of horse-flesh, twenty-seven fresh eggs or twenty-four pints of milk (at 180 roubles a pint), and so on. Naturally, he must go without these things and do his best to eke out a living on Government supplies.

There are rows of shaded booths in the marketplace, with regular salesmen and women in attendance; but most of the trading is done by individuals without stalls, refined and gentle folk, bourgeois many of them, coming in the lowest categories for food, untrained in work for the most part, and keeping soul and body together by selling one by one articles of clothing or pieces of jewellery to whoever will buy. Speculators haunt the place, and buy the most valuable jewels and clothes for a mere song, re-selling to others, sometimes peasants, in exchange for food, sometimes foreign profiteers out for big fortunes As private trading is against the law, in theory at least, the Government sends periodically its emissaries to sweep down upon the offenders, and a poor man or unhappy woman is sent to prison for a term in order to deter the rest. Real criminals are sometimes caught in this fashion, and when their premises are searched are discovered to have hoards of valuable trinkets, costly clothing and precious stones for sale at some future time and at fabulous prices to the "new bourgeoisie," or the rich peasantry, able to buy with their agricultural produce, and frantic to possess the things they had scarcely been allowed to look at before. But very often it is some poor trembling soul who is famished and cold who is pounced upon, and unused to the rough ways of the new world goes to her punishment in fear and trembling, to come out of prison a nervous wreck and shadow of her former self.

Many of these people we saw, and were filled with pity. Surreptitiously one would produce a tiny jewelled watch, a magnificent diamond ring, a costly fur, a beautifully ornamented comb, an exquisite enamel, or a piece of rare china, looking fearfully at us lest after all we were agents provocateurs come to tempt before destroying. I have seen nothing more pitiful in all my life than the struggle of these poor souls to live.

There appear to be no automobiles in Moscow except those owned and worked by the Government. Materials for repairs are greatly needed to keep even these running smoothly. Many times the good cars devoted to our service broke down. Once when we were thirty versts out of Moscow at three o'clock in the morning, our car went wrong. Another came running up alongside. Our driver ran to beg assistance. Instantly he was covered with a revolver. He stood back sharply and the car drove on; but not before we had caught a glimpse in the bright moonlight of one of the occupants. It was Trotsky. Whether he thought we were seeking his life, or whether he was in a vast hurry and did not wish to be detained by a broken-down car we shall never know. But there was more than a slight thrill in the adventure for the man who looked down the muzzle of that revolver!

The trams were running in Moscow, and they were as crowded as the London tube railway-carriages at the evening hour during the war. On every inch where a foothold could be maintained, both inside and out, people stood or clung. We were told that this happened on the railways during the winter, with awful consequences to scores of people who could not be restrained. Under the necessity of travelling, these poor souls froze to death on the tops of carriages, clinging to footboards or riding on buffers, their dead bodies being picked up by railway workers on the line.

The droshky drivers, of whom few are left in Petrograd but many in Moscow, are a picturesque race of old fellows, with their tall, broad-brimmed hats, their thick, ample coats with leather or metal belts, their high boots and profuse whiskers. For a thousand roubles you might drive a mile or so in a very comfortable little carriage out of which it would be almost impossible to fall.

There is perfect order in the city streets. By night or by day one can walk with absolute safety. During the summer months it never really grows dark. People take long leisure hours in the parks and open spaces as in every other great city. Or they go to church. One or two open-air cafés appear to be still in existence patronised in the main by the old and new bourgeoisie, those of the former class who have not quite spent their all, and those of the latter class who are spending in this way for the first time. For one thousand roubles a plate of tolerable ice-cream can be had, or coffee and cakes. There is little of gaiety, none of the old café laughter and play. The general gloom pervades everything.

I have been in both Vienna and Berlin since the overwhelming cataclysm of the war. Berlin and Vienna are both unhappy cities, filled with people who are hungry and despairing. Moscow was at least no worse than these cities, either in appearance or in fact; and in some respects proved to be better than either. It is crowded with people and hotel accommodation is difficult to find. Enquirers from the four corners of the globe are there. Peacemakers from the border states are there. American, Swedish and other traders are there. Admirers of Sovietism and worshippers of Lenin have come to bow the knee to the new lord of the Kremlin.

Moscow is the Government's headquarters. It is the home of the Commissars. It is the seat of one of the most amazing experiments the modern world has seen. It is a place of great interest for the whole of the watching world. It is the pivot upon which earth-shaking events will turn. And it deserves to be treated with respect, and not with the ignorant contempt which stupid people shower upon it.

Mistakes have been made there, cruel things are being done there; but the mistakes are not bigger nor the cruel things more cruel than have recently been made and done in other capital cities by men who, for character and integrity, ability and personality are not fit to tie the shoestrings of the best of the men and women of Moscow.