The Log of the Transport Buford

On Board the U.S.T. Buford.

⁠—We are somewhere near the Azores, already three days at sea. No one seems to know whither we are bound. The captain claims he is sailing under sealed orders. The men are nearly crazy with the uncertainty and worry over the women and children left behind. What if we are to be landed on Denikin territory?⁠ ⁠…

We were kidnapped, literally kidnapped out of bed in the dead of night.

It was late in the evening, December 20, when the prison keepers entered our cell at Ellis Island and ordered us to “get ready at once.” I was just undressing; the others were in their bunks, asleep. We were taken completely by surprise. Some of us expected to be deported, but we had been promised several days’ notice; while a number were to be released on bail, their cases not having been finally passed upon by the courts.

We were led into a large, bare room in the upper part of the building. Helter-skelter the men crowded in, dragging their things with them, badly packed in the haste and confusion. At four in the morning the order was given to start. In silence we filed into the prison yard, led by the guards and flanked on each side by city and Federal detectives. It was dark and cold; the night air chilled me to the bone. Scattered lights in the distance hinted of the huge city asleep.

Like shadows we passed through the yard toward the ferry, stumbling on the uneven ground. We did not speak; the prison keepers also were quiet. But the detectives laughed boisterously, and swore and sneered at the silent line. “Don’t like this country, damn you! Now you’ll get out, ye sons of b⁠⸺.”

At last we reached the steamer. I caught sight of three women, our fellow prisoners, being taken aboard. Stealthily, her sirens dumb, the vessel got under way. Within half an hour we boarded the Buford, awaiting us in the Bay.

At 6 a.m., Sunday, December 21, we started on our journey. Slowly the big city receded, wrapped in a milky veil. The tall skyscrapers, their outlines dimmed, looked like fairy castles lit by winking stars⁠—and then all was swallowed in the distance.

⁠—The Buford is an old boat built in 1885. She was used as a military transport during the Philippine War, and is not seaworthy any more. We ship sea constantly, and it pours through the hatches. Two inches of water cover the floor; our things are wet, and there is no steam heat.

Our three women companions occupy a separate cabin. The men are cooped up in crowded, ill-smelling steerage quarters. We sleep in bunks built three tiers high. The loose wire netting of the one above me bulges so low with the weight of its occupant, it scratches my face whenever the man moves.

We are prisoners. Armed sentinels on deck, in the gangways, and at every door. They are silent and sullen; strict orders not to talk to us. Yesterday I offered one of them an orange⁠—I thought he looked sick. But he refused it.

We caught a radio today about wholesale arrests of the radicals throughout the United States. Probably in connection with protests against our deportation.

There is much resentment among our men at the brutality that accompanied the deportation, and at the suddenness of the proceedings. They were given no time to get their money or clothing. Some of the boys were arrested at their workbenches, placed in jail, and deported without a chance to collect their pay checks. I am sure that the American people, if informed, would not stand for another boatload of deportees being set adrift in the Atlantic without enough clothes to keep them warm. I have faith in the American people, but American officialdom is ruthlessly bureaucratic.

Love of native soil, of home, is manifesting itself. I notice it especially among those who spent only a few years in America. More frequently the men of Southern Russia speak the Ukrainian language. All long to get to Russia quickly, to behold the land they had left in the clutches of Tsarism and which is now the freest on earth.

We have organized a committee to take a census. There are 246 of us, besides the three women. Various types and nationalities: Great Russians from New York and Baltimore; Ukrainian miners from Virginia; Letts, Lithuanians, and one Tartar. The majority are members of the Union of Russian Workers, an Anarchist organization with branches throughout the United States and Canada. About eleven belong to the Socialist Party in the United States, while some are nonpartisan. There are editors, lecturers, and manual workers of every kind among us. Some are bewhiskered, looking typically Russian; others smooth-shaven, American in appearance. Most of the men are of decided Slavic countenance, with broad face and high cheekbones.

“We’ll work like devils for the Revolution,” Big Samuel, the West Virginia miner, announces to the group gathered around him. He talks Russian.

“You bet we will,” comes from a corner bunk in English. It’s the mascot of our cabin, a red-cheeked youth, a six-footer, whom we have christened the “Baby.”

“Me for Baku,” an older man joins in. “I’m an oil driller. They’ll need me all right.”

I ponder over Russia, a country in revolution, a social revolution which has uprooted the very foundations, political, economical, ethical. There are the Allied invasion, the blockade, and internal counterrevolution. All forces must be bent, first of all, to secure the complete victory of the workers. Bourgeois resistance within must be crushed; interference from without defeated. Everything else will come later. To think that it was given to Russia, enslaved and tyrannized over for centuries, to usher in the New Day! It is almost beyond belief, past comprehension. Yesterday the most backward country; today in the vanguard. Nothing short of a miracle.

Unreservedly shall the remaining years of my life be consecrated to the service of the wonderful Russian people.

⁠—The military force of the Buford is in command of a Colonel of the United States Army, tall and severe-looking, about fifty. In his charge are a number of officers and a very considerable body of soldiers, most of them of the regular army. Direct supervision over the deportees is given to the representative of the Federal Government, Mr. Berkshire, who is here with a number of Secret Service men. The Captain of the Buford takes his orders from the Colonel, who is the supreme authority on board.

The deportees want exercise on deck and free association with our women comrades. As their chosen spokesman I submitted their demands to Berkshire, but he referred me to the Colonel. I refused to apply to the latter, on the ground that we are political, not military, prisoners. Later the Federal man informed me that “the higher authorities” had granted us exercise, but association with the women was refused. Permission, however, would be given me to convince myself that “the ladies are receiving humane treatment.”

Accompanied by Berkshire and one of his assistants, I was allowed to visit Emma Goldman, Dora Lipkin-Perkus, and Ethel Bernstein. I found them on the upper deck, Dora and Ethel bundled up and much the worse for seasickness, the motherly nurse ministering to them. They looked forlorn, those “dangerous enemies” of the United States. The powerful American Government never appeared to me in a more ridiculous light.

The women made no complaints: they are treated well and receive good food. But all three are penned in a small cabin intended for one person only; day and night armed sentinels guard their door.

No trace of Christ appeared anywhere on the ship this Christmas Day. The usual espionage and surveillance, the same discipline and severity. But in the general messroom, at dinner, there was an addition to the regular meal: currant bread and cranberries. More than half of the tables were vacant, however: most of the men are in their bunks, sick.

⁠—Rough sea, and more men “laid out.” The six-foot “Baby” is the sickest of them all. The hatches have been closed to keep the sea out, and it is suffocating below deck. There are forty-nine men in our compartment; the rest are in the two adjoining ones.

The ship physician has asked me to assist him on his daily rounds, as interpreter and nurse. The men suffer mostly from stomach and bowel complaints; but there are also cases of rheumatism, sciatica, and heart-disease. The Boris brothers are in a precarious condition; young John Birk is growing very weak; a number of others are in bad shape.

⁠—The Boston deportee, a former sailor, claims the course of the Buford was changed twice during the night. “Perhaps making for the Portugal Coast,” he said. It is rumored we may be turned over to Denikin. The men are much worried.

Human psychology everywhere has a basic kinship. Even in prison I found the deepest tragedies lit up by a touch of humor. In spite of the great anxiety regarding our destination, there is much laughter and joking in our cabin. Some wit among the boys has christened the Buford the “Mystery Ship.”

In the afternoon Berkshire informed me that the Colonel wished to see me. His cabin, not large, but light and dry, is quite different from our steerage quarters. The Colonel asked me what part of Russia we were “expecting to go to.” The Soviet part, of course, I said. He began a discussion of the Bolsheviki. The Socialists, he insisted, wanted to “take away the hard-earned wealth of the rich, and divide it among the lazy and the shiftless.” Everyone willing to work could succeed in the world, he assured me; at least America⁠—the freest country on earth⁠—gives all an equal opportunity.

I had to explain to him the A.B.C. of social science, pointing out that no wealth can be created except by labor; and that by complex juggling⁠—legal, financial, economic⁠—the producer is robbed of his product. The Colonel admitted defects and imperfections in our system⁠—even in “the best system of the world, the American.” But they are human failings; we need improvement, not revolution, he thought. He listened with unconcealed impatience when I spoke of the crime of punishing men for their opinions and the folly of deporting ideas. He believes “the government must protect its people,” and that “these foreign agitators have no business in America, anyhow.”

I saw the futility of discussing with a person of such infantile mentality, and closed the argument by inquiring the exact point of our destination. “Sailing under sealed orders,” was all the information the Colonel would vouchsafe.

⁠—We are getting friendly with the soldiers. They are selling us their extra clothing, shoes, and everything else they can lay their hands on. Our boys are discussing war, government, and Anarchism with the sentinels. Some of the latter are much interested, and they are noting down addresses in New York where they can get our literature. One of the soldiers⁠—Long Sam, they call him⁠—is especially outspoken against his superiors. He is “sore as hell,” he says. He was to be married on Christmas, but he got orders to report for duty on the Buford. “I’m no damn tin soldier like them Nationals” (National Guard), he says; “I’m sev’n years a reg’lar, an’ them’s the thanks I get. ’Stead of bein’ with me goil I’m in this floatin’ dump, between Hell an’ nowhere.”

We have organized a committee to assess every “possessing” member of our group for the benefit of the deportees that lack warm clothing. The men from Pittsburgh, Erie, and Madison had been shipped to Ellis Island in their working clothes. Many others had also been given no time to take their trunks along.

A large pile of the collected apparel⁠—suits, hats, shoes, winter underwear, hosiery, etc.⁠—lies in the center of our cabin, and the committee is distributing the things. There is much shouting, laughing, and joking. It’s our first attempt at practical communism. The crowd surrounding the committee passes upon the claims of each applicant and immediately acts upon its verdict. A vital sense of social justice is manifested.

⁠—In Bisay Bay. Rolling badly. The sailors say last night’s storm threw us out of our course. Some ship, apparently Japanese, was signaling for help. We ourselves were in such a plight that we could not aid.

At noon the Captain sent for me. The Buford is not a modern ship⁠—he spoke guardedly⁠—and we are in difficult waters. Bad time of the year, too; storm season. No particular danger, but it is always well to be prepared. He would assign twelve lifeboats in my charge, and I should instruct the men what to do should the contingency arise.

I have divided the 246 male deportees into a number of groups, putting at the head of each one of the older comrades. (The three women are assigned to the sailors’ boat.) We are to have several trial alarms to teach the men how to handle the life belts, take their place in line, and get without confusion to their respective boats. The first test, this afternoon, was a bit lame. Another trial, by surprise, is to take place soon.

⁠—Rumors that we are bound for Danzig. It is certain now we are making for the English Channel and expect to reach it tomorrow. We feel greatly relieved.

⁠—No channel. No land. Very bad night. The old tub has been dancing up and down like a rubber shoe thrown into the ocean by vacationists at Coney Island. Been busy all night with the sick.

Everyone except Bianki and myself is keeping to his bunk. Some are seriously ill. Bianki’s nephew, the young schoolboy, has lost his hearing. John Birk is very low. Novikov, former editor of the New York Anarchist weekly, Golos Truda, hasn’t touched food for days. In Ellis Island he spent most of his time in the hospital. He refused to accept bail as long as the others arrested with him remained in prison. He consented only when almost at the point of death, and then he was dragged to the boat to be deported.

It is hard to be torn out of the soil one has rooted in for over thirty years, and to leave the labors of a lifetime behind. Yet I am glad: I face the future, not the past. Already in 1917, at the outbreak of the Revolution, I longed to go to Russia. Shatov, my close friend and comrade, was about to leave, and I hoped to join him. But the Mooney case and the needs of the antiwar movement kept me in the United States. Then came my arrest for opposing the world slaughter, and my two years’ imprisonment in Atlanta.

But soon I shall be in Russia. What joy to behold the Revolution with my own eyes, to become part of it, to aid the great people that are transforming the world!

⁠—Pilot boat! Great rejoicing! Sent wire to our friends in New York to allay the anxiety they must feel because of our mysterious disappearance.

⁠—We’re in the North Sea. Clear, quiet, cool. In the afternoon a bit rolling.

The singing of the boys reaches me from the deck. I hear the strong baritone of Alyosha, the zapevalo, who begins every stanza, the whole crowd joining in the chorus. Old Russian folk songs with their mournful refrain, dripping quiet resignation and the suffering of centuries. Songs palpitating with the frank hatred of the bourzhooi and the militancy of impending struggle. Church hymns with their crescendo recitative, paraphrased by revolutionary words. The soldiers and sailors stand about wrapt in the weird, heart-gripping melodies. Yesterday I heard our guard absentmindedly humming “Stenka Razin.”

We’ve gotten so friendly with our guards now that we do as we please below deck. It has become the established rule for soldiers and deportees never to appeal to the officers in the case of dispute. All such matters are referred to me, and my judgment is respected. Berkshire has repeatedly hinted his displeasure at the influence I have gained. He feels himself entirely ignored.

The sameness of the food is disgusting. The bread is stale and doughy. We have made several protests, and at last the chief steward agreed to my proposition to put two men of our group in charge of the bakery.

⁠—At anchor in the Kiel Canal. Leaks in the boiler⁠—repairs begun. The men are chafing⁠—the accident may cause much delay. We’re sick of the journey. Eighteen days at sea already.

Most of the deportees left their money and effects in the United States. Many have bank deposits which they could not draw because of the suddenness of their arrest and deportation. I have prepared a list of the funds and things owned by our group. The total amounts to over $45,000. I turned the list over to Berkshire today, who promised to “attend to the matter in Washington.” But few of the boys have any hope of ever receiving their clothes or money.

⁠—Much excitement. For two days we’ve had no fresh air. Orders are not to permit us on deck as long as we remain in German waters. They are afraid we might communicate with the outside or “jump overboard,” as Berkshire jocosely said. I told him the only place we want to jump off at is Soviet Russia.

I sent word to the Colonel that the men demand daily exercise. The atmosphere in the steerage is beastly: the hatches are shut, and we are almost suffocating. Berkshire resented the manner in which I addressed “the Chief.”

“The Colonel is the highest authority on the Buford,” he shouted.

The group of deportees about me grinned in his face. “Berkman is the only ‘Colonel’ we recognize,” they laughed.

I told Berkshire to repeat our message to the Colonel: we insist on fresh air; in case of refusal we will go on deck by force. The men are prepared to carry out their threat.

In the afternoon the hatches were opened, and we were permitted on deck. We noticed that the destroyer Ballard, U.S.S. 267, is alongside of us.

⁠—We are in the Bay, opposite the City of Kiel. On either side of us stretches of land with beautiful villas and clean-looking farmhouses, the stillness of death over all. Five years of carnage have left their indelible mark. The blood has been washed away, but the hand of destruction is still visible.

The German Quartermaster came on board. “You are surprised at the stillness?” he said. “We are being starved to death by the kindly powers that set out to make the world safe for democracy. We are not yet dead, but we are so faint we cannot cry out.”

⁠—We got in touch with the German sailors of the Wasserversorger, which brought us fresh water. Our bakers gave them food. Through the portholes we fired bread balls, oranges, and potatoes onto the boat. Her crew picked up the things, and read the notes hidden in them. One of the messages was a “Greeting of the American Political Deportees to the Proletariat of Germany.”

⁠—Most of the convoy and several officers are drunk. The sailors got schnapps from the Germans and have been selling it on board. “Long Sam” went “gunning” for his first lieutenant. Several soldiers called me for a secret confab and proposed that I take charge of the ship. They would arrest their officers, turn the boat over to me, and come with us to Russia. “Damn the United States Army, we’re with the Bolsheviks!” they shouted.

⁠—At noon Berkshire called me to the Colonel. Both looked nervous and worried. The Colonel regarded me with distrust and hatred. He had been informed that I was “inciting mutiny” among his men. “You’ve been fraternizing with the soldiers and weakening the discipline,” he said. He declared that guns, ammunition, and officers’ apparel were missing, and instructed Berkshire to have the effects of the deportees searched. I protested: the men would not submit to such an indignity.

Returning below deck I learned that several soldiers were under arrest for insubordination and drunkenness. The guards have been doubled at our door, and the convoy officers are much in evidence.

We passed the day in anxious suspense, but no attempt to search us was made.

⁠—We got under way again at 1:40 p.m. Making for the Baltic. I wonder how this leaky boat will navigate the North Sea and fight the ice there. The boys, including the soldiers, are very nervous: we are on a dangerous road, full of war mines.

Two of the ship’s crew are in the “cooler” for having overstayed their shore-leave. I withdrew our men from the bakery in protest against the arrest of the sailors and soldiers.

⁠—The 25th day at sea. We all feel worn out, tired of the long journey. In constant fear lest we strike some mine.

Our course has been changed again. Berkshire hinted this morning that conditions at Libau will not permit our going there. I gathered from his talk that the United States Government has so far failed to make arrangements for our landing in any country.

Sailors have overheard the Colonel, the Captain, and Berkshire discussing our going to Finland. The scheme is to send me, in company with Berkshire, with a white flag, 70 miles inland, to come to some understanding with the authorities about our landing. If we are successful, I am to remain there, while Berkshire is to return to our people.

The deportees are opposed to the plan. Finland is dangerous for us⁠—the Mannheimer reaction is slaughtering the Finnish revolutionists. The men refuse to let me go. “We’ll all go together, or no one shall,” they declare.

⁠—This afternoon two American press correspondents boarded us, near Hango, and the Colonel gave them permission to interview me. American Consul from Helsingfors is also on board with his secretary. He is trying to get power of attorney from the deportees to collect their money in the United States. Many of the boys are transferring their bank accounts to relatives.

⁠—4:25 p.m. Reached Hango, Finland. Helsingfors inaccessible, they say.

⁠—Landed, 2 p.m. Sent radios to Chicherin (Moscow) and Shatov (Petrograd) notifying them of the arrival of the first group of political deportees from America.

We are to travel in sealed cars through Finland to the Russian border. The Captain of the Buford allowed us three days’ rations for the journey.

The leave-taking of the crew and soldiers touched me deeply. Many of them have become attached to us, and they have “treated us white,” to use their own expression. They made us promise to write them from Russia.

⁠—Crossing snow-clad country. Cars cold, unheated. The compartments are locked, with Finnish guards on every platform. Even within are the White soldiers, at every door. Silent, forbidding looking. They refuse to enter into conversation.

⁠—In Viborg. We are practically without food. The Finnish soldiers have stolen most of the products given us by the Buford.

Through our car windows we noticed a Finnish worker standing on the platform and surreptitiously signaling us with a miniature red flag. We waved recognition. Half an hour later the doors of our car were unlocked, and the workman entered to “fix the lights,” as he announced. “Fearful reaction here,” he whispered; “White terror against the workers. We need the help of revolutionary Russia.”

Wired again today to Chicherin and Shatov, urging haste in sending a committee to meet the deportees on the Russian border.

⁠—In Teryoki, near the border. No reply from Russia yet. The Finnish military authorities demand we should cross the frontier at once. We have refused because the Russian border guard, not informed of our identity, might regard us as invading Finns and shoot, thus giving Finland a pretext for war. A sort of armed truce exists now between the two countries, and feeling is very tense.

⁠—The Finns are worried about our continued presence. We refuse to leave the train.

Representatives of the Finnish Foreign Office agreed to permit a Committee of the Deportees to go to the Russian frontier to explain the situation to the Soviet outpost. Our party selected three persons, but the Finnish military would consent only to one.

In company with a Finnish Officer, soldier, and interpreter, and trailed by several correspondents (among them, needless to say, an American press man) I advanced to the border, walking in deep snow through the sparse forest west of the destroyed frontier railroad bridge. Not without trepidation did we trudge through those white woods, fearing possible attack from the one side or the other.

After a quarter of an hour we reached the border. Opposite us were drawn up the Bolshevik guards⁠—tall, strapping fellows in strange fur attire, with a black-bearded officer in charge.

Tovarish!” I shouted in Russian across the frozen creek, “permit speech with you.”

The officer motioned me to step nearer, his soldiers standing back as I approached. In a few words I explained the situation to him and our predicament at Chicherin’s failure to reply to our repeated radios. He listened imperturbably, then said: “The Soviet Committee has just arrived.”

It was happy news. The Finnish authorities consented to permit the Russian Committee to come on Finnish soil as far as the train, to meet the deportees. Zorin and Feinberg, representing the Soviet Government, and Mme. Andreyeva, Gorky’s wife, who came with them unofficially, accompanied us to the railroad station.

“Kolchak has been arrested and his White Army broken up,” Zorin announced, and the deportees greeted the news with enthusiastic shouts and hurrahs. Presently arrangements were completed to transport the men and their luggage to the other side, and at last we crossed the border of revolutionary Russia.