Bolshevik Activities

⁠—The first All-Russian Conference of Cossacks is in session at the Labor Temple. Some interesting faces and picturesque uniforms are there, Caucasian dress is much in evidence; camelhair capes reaching to the ground, cartridges across the chest, heavy sheepskin caps, red-topped. Several women are among the delegates.

A mixture of uncertain origin, half wild and warlike, these Cossacks of the Don, Ural, and Kuban were used by the Tsars as a military police force, and were kept loyal by special privileges. More Asiatic than Russian, almost untouched by civilization, they had nothing in common with the people and their interests. Stanch supporters of the autocracy, they were the scourge of labor strikes and revolutionary demonstrations, with fiendish brutality suppressing every popular uprising. Unspeakably cruel they were in the days of the Revolution of 1905.

Now these traditional enemies of the workers and peasants side with the Bolsheviki. What great change has taken place in their psychology?

The delegates I conversed with seemed awed by their new role; the unfamiliar environment made them timid. The splendid Temple, formerly the sacred precinct of the nobility, the grand hall of marble columns, the crimson banners and flaming posters, the portraits of Lenin and Trotsky looming large on the platform, the huge candelabras brilliantly illuminated, all tremendously impressed the children of the wild steppes. The presence of the many notables obviously cowed them. The bright lights, the color and movement of the large gathering were to them the symbols of the great power of the Bolsheviki, convincing, imposing.

Kamenev was Chairman, and he apparently transacted all the business himself, the Cossacks taking almost no part in the proceedings. They kept very quiet, not even conversing among themselves, as is customary in Russia at such gatherings. Too well-behaved, I thought. Now and then a delegate would leave the hall to light a cigarette in the corridor. None dared to smoke in his seat, till someone on the platform lit a cigarette. It was the Chairman himself. A few of the bolder ones presently followed his example, and soon the whole assembly was smoking.

Kalinin, President of the R.S.F.S.R., greeted the Conference in the name of the Soviet Republic. He characterized the occasion as a great historic event, and prophesied that the Cossacks, having made common cause with the proletariat and the peasantry, would speed the triumph of the Revolution. Unimpressive in appearance and lacking personality, he failed to arouse a response. The applause was perfunctory.

Kamenev was more effective. He dwelt on the historic bravery of the Cossacks and their fighting spirit, reminded them of their glorious past services in defense of the country against foreign enemies, and expressed the assurance that with such champions the Revolution was safe.

Lenin was expected to attend the opening, but he failed to come, and there was much disappointment at his absence. Communists from various parts of the country⁠—from Turkestan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Far Eastern Republic⁠—and several foreign delegates addressed the Cossacks, and sought to impress upon them the mighty spread of Bolshevism throughout the world and the great power of the Communist Party in all the Soviet Republics. All spoke confidently of the approaching world revolution, and “The Internationale” was struck up by the Red Band after every important speaker.

Finally a Cossack delegate was called to the platform. He delivered the greetings of his people and their solemn assurances to “do their duty by the Communist Party.” It was a set speech, pale and spiritless. Other delegates followed with eulogies of Lenin that sounded like the traditional addresses presented to the Tsar of All the Russias by his most loyal subjects. The Communist notables on the rostrum led the applause.

⁠—At the first session of the newly elected Moscow Soviet, Kamenev was in the chair. He reported on the critical food and fuel situation, denounced the Mensheviki and Social Revolutionists as the counterrevolutionary aids of the Allies, and closed by voicing his conviction about the near outbreak of the social revolution abroad.

A Menshevik deputy ascended the rostrum and attempted to refute the charges brought against his party, but the other Soviet members interrupted and hissed so violently he could not proceed. Communist speakers followed, in essence repeating the words of Kamenev. The exhibition of intolerance, so unworthy of a revolutionary assembly, depressed me. I felt that it grossly offended against the spirit and purpose of the august body, the Moscow Soviet, whose work should express the best thought and ideas of its members and crystallize them in effective and wise action.

After the close of the Soviet session began the first anniversary meeting of the Third International, in the Bolshoi Theater. It was attended by practically the same audience, and Kamenev was again Chairman. It was a most significant event to me, this gathering of the proletariat of all countries, in the persons of its delegates, in the capital of the great Revolution. I saw in it the symbol of the coming daybreak. But the entire absence of enthusiasm saddened me. The audience was official and stiff, as if on parade; the proceedings mechanical, lacking all spontaneity. Kamenev, Radek, and other Communists spoke. Radek thundered against the scoundrelism of the world bourgeoisie, vilified the social patriots of all countries, and enlarged upon the coming revolutions. His long and tedious speech tired me.

Many lectures take place in the city, all of them well attended. The classes of Lunacharsky are especially popular. I admired the simplicity of his manner and the clarity with which he treated such subjects as the origin and development of religion, of social institutions, art, and music. His large audiences of soldiers and workers seem to feel at home with him, discussing at ease and asking questions. Lunacharsky answers in a patient, kindly way, with appreciative understanding of the honest thirst for knowledge which prompts even the often ludicrous queries.

Later I visited Lunacharsky at his offices in the Kremlin. He spoke enthusiastically of his success in eradicating illiteracy, and explained to me the system of education made accessible to the great proletarian masses. In the villages also much work is being done, he said; but the lack of able and dependable teachers greatly hampers his efforts. Formerly the majority of the intelligentsia were bitterly opposed to the new regime, and sabotaged the work. They hoped the Communists would not last long. Now they are gradually returning to their professions, but even in the educational institutions political commissars had to be introduced, as in all other Soviet organizations. They have to guard against sabotage and counterrevolutionary tendencies.

The new schools and universities are training Communist teachers to take the place of the old pedagogues. Most of the latter are not in sympathy with the Bolshevik regime and cling to the former methods of education. Lunacharsky is waging a severe struggle against the clique that favors the reactionary system and the punishment of backward children.

He introduced me to Mme. Lunacharskaya, and I passed the greater part of a day with her, visiting the schools and colonies in her charge. On the bright side of middle age, she is energetic, loves her work, and holds modern ideas on education. “The children must be allowed opportunity for free development,” she emphasized, “and of course we give them the best we have.”

The several schools, we visited were, clean and warm, though I found very few children in them, mostly boys and girls under twelve years of age. They danced and sang for us, and showed their pen and ink sketches, some of them very creditable. The children were warmly dressed and looked clean and well fed.

“Our main handicap is lack of the right teachers,” Mme. Lunacharskaya said. “There is also great scarcity of paper, pencils, and other school necessaries. The blockade prevents our getting books and materials from abroad.”

In one school we found a dozen children at dinner, and we were invited to partake of the meal. It consisted of very palatable kasha and chicken.

“It is much worse in some other schools,” Mme. Lunacharskaya remarked, noticing my surprise at seeing fowl served. “They lack fuel and food. Our school is better off in this regard. But much depends on the management. There is bad economy and even stealing in some institutions.”

“I have seen children begging and peddling,” I observed.

“A very unfortunate situation, and a difficult one. Many youngsters refuse to go to school or run away from it.”

“I can’t imagine any child running away from your school to go begging in this cold,” I said.

“Of course not,” she smiled, “but all schools are not like mine. Besides, the Russian children of today are different from others. They are not quite normal⁠—the products, of long years of war, revolution, and hunger. The fact is, we have many defectives and much juvenile prostitution. Our terrible heritage,” she added sadly.

The boys and girls crowded about Mme. Lunacharskaya, and seemed happy to be petted by her. Bending over to kiss one of them, she noticed on the child’s neck a tiny silver chain to which was attached a cross. “What is it you wear? Let me see it, dear,” she said kindly. The girl grew shamefaced and hid the cross. Mine. Lunacharskaya did not insist.