Other People

⁠—Winter has released its icy grip, and the sun shines brightly. In the parks the benches are filling with people.

Our Buford mascot, the “Baby,” passed me and I hailed him. The color has faded from his face, and he looks yellow and weary.

“No, most of our boys are not working yet,” he said, “and we’re sick of the red tape. They always tell you they need workers, but nobody really wants us. Of course, the Communists of our group have all gotten good berths. Have you heard about Bianki? You remember how he roasted them at that meeting in Beloostrov? How he joined the Party and got a responsible job? The Boston sailor, remember him? Well, I met him walking on the street the other day, all dressed up in a leather suit, with a gun as big as your arm. In the Cheka. His old business. Did you know he was a detective in Boston?”

“I thought he was a sailor.”

“Years back. Later he served in a private sleuth agency.

“Several of our boys worked for a while in the Petrotop,”25 the “Baby” continued. “The Cheka thought there were too many Anarchists there and they kicked us out. Dzerzhinsky26 says the Petrotop is an Anarchist nest; but everyone knows the city would have frozen to death last winter if it wasn’t for Kolobushkin. He is an Anarchist and the whole brains of that place, but they talk of arresting him. An old Schlüsselburg man at that; spent ten years in the dungeons there.”

With primitive unconcern of those about her, an old peasant woman has bared the back of a young girl at her side and is closely scrutinizing her garments. With deliberate movement her thumb and forefinger come together, she withdraws her hand, straightens herself, and releases her captive on the ground. Her neighbor draws nervously aside. “Be careful, good woman,” he chides her, “I have enough of my own.”

“Tell me, my dear,” the old woman inquires, “is it true what people are saying about new wars?”


“With whom, then?”

“With the Poles.”

“Oh, God be merciful! And why must they always be fighting, Little Uncle?”

The man is silent. The girl lifts her face from the woman’s lap. “It’s chilly, aunt. Are you done now?”

“You’re full of ’em, child.”

On the corner two militiamen are directing a group of street cleaners, oldish men and boys from the concentration camp, and women arrested without documents on trains. Some have high felt boots on, the loose soles flapping noisily in the liquid dung. Others are barefoot. They work apathetically, carrying the filth from the yards to the street and loading it upon carts. The stench is nauseating.

A husky militsioner leisurely saunters up to one of the women. She is young and good-looking, though extremely pale and gaunt.

“What’s your dreaming! Work, you wench,” he says, playfully poking her in the ribs.

“Have a heart,” she pleads. “I’m so weak; just out of the hospital when they nabbed me.”

“Serves you right for riding without a pass.”

“Couldn’t help it, little pigeon,” she says good humoredly. “They told me my husband is in Peter,27 back from the front, and he away from me five years. So I goes to the office; three days in line and then they refuse me a pass. I thought I’d come some way, but they took me off the train, and I’m so weak and sick and they give me no pyock. How am I to find my man now?”

“Get yourself another,” the militiaman laughs. “You won’t see him again.”

“Why won’t I?” she demands angrily.

“Cause he’s likely been sent against the Poles.”

“Oh, my misfortune!” the woman wails. “Is there to be no end to war?”

“You’re a woman and naturally stupid. Can’t expect you to understand such things!”

In the Dom Outchonikh (Home of the Learned) I met literary men, scientists, and intellectuals of various political camps, all looking the mere shadows of humans. They sat about listlessly, some nibbling pieces of black bread.

In a corner a group was discussing the rumors of war.

“It is a great blow to the hope of industrial revival,” B⁠⸺, the well-known political economist, said. “And we had begun to dream of more freedom to breathe.”

“The worst of it is,” Z⁠⸺, the ethnologist, remarked: “we shall not be able to receive the book donations promised us from abroad.”

“I’m so out of touch with scientific progress, I feel downright ignorant,” said Prof. L⁠⸺, the bacteriologist.

“Poland is on the eve of Revolution,” F⁠⸺, the Communist asserted. “The Red Army will go straight to Warsaw and we’ll help the Polish proletariat drive out the masters and establish a Soviet Republic.”

“Like our own,” B⁠⸺ retorted ironically. “They are to be congratulated.”

In the evening I visited my friend Pyotr, a nonpartisan worker in the Trubotchny mill. “We have received war orders in the shop,” he was saying to his wife. “How are we to conquer the razrukha, our terrible economic ruin, when everything works for war again?”

A middle-aged man, stout and coarse looking, came in.

“Well, Pyotr Vassilitch,” he addressed the host cheerily, “it’s war with Poland and we’ll teach those pani a lesson.”

“It’s easy for you to talk, Ivan Nikolaievitch,” Pyotr replied; “you don’t have to live on your pyock. He supplies lumber to the government,” he explained, turning to me, “and he don’t starve, he don’t.”

“We must defend our country against the Poles,” the contractor replied sententiously.

“Will they take Vanya?” the housewife asked tearfully; “he is not seventeen yet.”

“I don’t mind going to the front,” came from the boy lying on the stove. “They get a good pyock in the Army, and I may advance to Kommandir like cousin Vaska did.”

He rose, drew a herring and a hunk of bread from his polushubka, and began to eat. His father watched him hungrily. “Give mother a bite,” he urged after a while; “she’s had nothing since yesterday.”

“I’m not hungry,” the mother said apologetically.

“Yes, my friends,” the contractor spoke again as if remembering an unfinished thought, “the Poles must be taught a lesson, and we must all defend the Revolution.”

“What are we to defend?” Pyotr demanded bitterly. “The fat Commissars and the Cheka with its shooting, that’s what we defend. We haven’t got anything else.”

“You talk like a counterrevolutionist,” Vanya shouted, jumping off the stove.

“We haven’t even our children,” his father continued. “That boy has become a hoodlum since he joined the Komsomol.28 He learns there to hate his parents.”

Vanya pushed his fur cap over his ears and stepped toward the door. “Take care I don’t tell on you,” he said, slamming it behind him.

The Italian Socialist Mission, headed by Seratti, is in the city, and the occasion is celebrated with the usual military parades, demonstrations, and meetings. But the show has lost interest for me. I have looked back of the curtain. The performances lack sincerity; political intrigue is the mainspring of the spectacles. The workers have no part in them except for mechanical obedience to orders; hypocrisy conducts the delegates through the factories; false information deceives them regarding the actual state of affairs; surveillance prevents their getting in touch with the people and learning the truth of the situation. The delegates are dined, fêted, and influenced to bring their organizations into the fold of the Third International, under the leadership of Moscow.

How far it all is from my conception of revolutionary probity and purpose!

The Communist leaders have become involved in schemes of political recognition and are wasting the energies of the Revolution to create an appearance of military strength and industrial health. They have lost sight of the real values underlying the great change. The people sense the false tendencies of the new regime and helplessly see it return to old practices. The proletariat is growing disillusioned; it sees its revolutionary conquests sacrificed one by one, the former champions of liberty become hard rulers, defenders of the existing regime, and the revolutionary slogans and hopes turn to dying embers.

An atmosphere of embittered helplessness pervades the circles of the intelligentsia, a paralyzing sense of their lack of cohesion and energizing purpose. They are exhausted by years of starvation; their mental bases are weakened, the spiritual bonds with the people severed.

The revolutionists of the Left are disorganized, broken by persecution and internal disunion. The stress and storm period has shattered old moorings and set accepted values adrift. Little of constructive character is manifest in the general confusion. The ruthless hand of life in the making, more than Bolshevik fiat, has destroyed old forms, creating a chaos of things physical and spiritual. Institutions and ideas, thrown into a common heap, rage in primitive passion and wildly seek to disentangle themselves, desperately clutching at each other in the attempt to rise to the surface. And above the shouts and din of the struggling mass, drowning all other cries, sounds the desperate, ceaseless plea: Bread! Bread!

Moscow is eaten with bureaucracy, Petrograd is a dying city. Not here is the Revolution. Out in the country, among the common people, one must see new Russia and live its life in the making.

I have been requested to join the expedition planned by the Museum of the Revolution. Its purpose is to collect historic material of the revolutionary movement since its inception, almost a hundred years ago. I had hoped to participate in more constructive labors, but circumstances and the growing coldness of the Communist attitude exclude me from more vital work. The mission of the expedition is nonpolitical, and I have decided to accept the offer.