En Route to the Ukraine

⁠—Turbulent mobs besiege our train at every station. Soldiers and workers, peasants, women, and children, loaded with heavy bags, frantically fight for admission. Yelling and cursing, they force their way toward the cars. They climb through the broken windows, board the bumpers, and crowd upon the steps, recklessly clinging to door handles and clutching at each other for support. Like maddened ants they cover every inch of space, in momentary danger of limb and life. It is a dense, surging human sea moved by the one passion of securing a foothold on the already moving train. Even the roofs are crowded, the women and children lying flat, the men kneeling or standing up. Frequently at night, the train passing under a bridge or trestle, scores of them are swept to their death.

At the stations the railroad militia await us. They surround a car, drive the passengers off roof and steps, and proceed to another coach. But the next instant there is a rush and struggle, and the cleared car is again covered with the human swarm. Often the militsioneri resort to arms, firing salvos over the train. But the people are desperate: they had spent days, even weeks, in procuring “traveling papers”⁠—they are in search of food or returning with filled bags to their hungry families. Death from a bullet is no more terrible to them than starvation.

With sickening regularity these scenes repeat themselves at every stopping place. It is becoming a torture to travel in comparative comfort in our conspicuous-looking car, recently renovated and painted a bright red, and bearing the inscription, “Extraordinary Commission of the Museum of the Revolution.”

The Expedition consists of six persons, comprising the secretary, Miss A. Shakol; the treasurer, Emma Goldman; the historical “expert” Yakovlev, and his wife; a young Communist, a student of the Petrograd University; and myself as chairman. Our party also includes the official provodnik (porter) and Henry Alsberg, the American correspondent, whose friendly attitude to Russia had secured for him Zinoviev’s permission to accompany us. Our coach is divided into several coupés, an office, dining room, and a kitchen furnished with the linen and silverware of the Winter Palace, now the headquarters of the Museum.

In the daytime the people remain at a respectful distance, the inscription on our car evidently creating the impression that it is occupied by the Cheka, the most dreaded institution in Russia. But at night, the stations in semidarkness, we are besieged by throngs clamoring for accommodation. It is contrary to our instructions to admit anyone, because of the danger of having our material stolen, as well as for fear of disease. The people are vermin-infected; almost everyone traveling in the Ukraine is afflicted with sipnyak, a form of typhus that often results fatally. Our historian lives in mortal dread of it, and vehemently protests against receiving outsiders. We compromise by permitting several old women and cripples to ride on the platform, and stealthily we feed them from the supplies of our “commune.”

The population of the districts we are passing through is in a state of disquiet and alarm. At every station we are warned not to proceed further: the Whites, robber bands, Makhno, and Wrangel are within gunshot, we are assured. The atmosphere thickens with fear⁠—inspiring rumors as we advance southward.

A cauldron of seething emotions, life in the South constrasts strikingly with that of the North. By comparison Moscow and Petrograd appear quiet and orderly. Here all is unformed, grotesque, chaotic. Frequent changes of government, with their accompaniment of civil war and destruction, have produced a mental and physical condition unknown in other parts of the country. They have created an atmosphere of uncertainty, of life lacking roots, of constant anxiety. Some parts of the Ukraine have experienced fourteen different regimes within the period of 1917⁠–⁠1920, each involving violent disturbance of normal existence, disorganizing and tearing life from its foundations.

The whole gamut of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary passions has been played on this territory. Here the nationalistic Rada had fought the local organs of the Kerensky government till the Brest Treaty opened Southern Russia to German occupation. Prussian bayonets dissolved the Rada, and Hetman Skoropadsky, by grace of the Kaiser, lorded it over the country in the name of an “independent and self-determining” people. Disaster on the Western Front and revolution in their own country compelled the Germans to withdraw, the new state of affairs giving Petlura victory over the Hetman. Kaleidoscopically changed the governments. Dictator Petlura and his Directorium were driven out by the rebel peasantry and the Red Army, the latter in turn giving way to Denikin. Subsequently the Bolsheviki became the masters of the Ukraine, soon to be forced back by the Poles, and then again the Communists took possession.

The long-continued military and civil struggles have deranged the entire life of the South. Social classes have been destroyed, old customs and traditions abolished, cultural barriers broken down, without the people having been able to adjust themselves to the new conditions, which are in constant flux. There has been neither time nor opportunity to reconstruct one’s mental and physical mode of life, to orient oneself within the constantly changing environment.

The instincts of hunger and fear have become the sole leitmotif of thought, feeling, and action. Uncertainty is all-pervading and persistent: it is the only definite, actual reality. The question of bread, the danger of attack, are the exclusive topics of interest. You hear stories of armed forces sacking the environs of the city, and fanciful speculation about the character of the marauders, whom some claim as Whites, others as Greens,29 or pogrom bandits. The legendary figures of Makhno, Marusya, and Stchooss loom large in the atmosphere of panic created by the horrors lived through and the still more fearful apprehension of the unknown.

Alarm and dread punctuate the life and thought of the people. They permeate the entire consciousness of being. Characteristic of it, as of the general chaos of the situation, is the reply one receives on inquiring the time of day. It is indicative of the degree of the informant’s Bolshevik or opposition sentiments when one is told: “three o’clock by the old,” “five by the new,” or “six by the latest,” the Communists having recently ordered, for the third time, the “saving” of another hour of daylight.

The whole country resembles a military camp living in constant expectation of invasion, civil war, and sudden change of government, bringing with it renewed slaughter and oppression, confiscation, and famine. Industrial activity is paralyzed, the financial situation hopeless. Every regime has issued its own money, interdicting all previous forms of exchange. But among the people the various “papers” are circulating, including Kerensky, Tsarist, Ukrainian, and Soviet money. Every “rouble” has its own, constantly varying value, so that the market women have to become professors of mathematics⁠—as the people jestingly say⁠—to find their way in this financial labyrinth.

Beneath the surface of the daily life man’s primitive passions, unleashed, hold almost free sway. Ethical values are dissolved, the gloss of civilization rubbed off. There remains only the unadorned instinct of self-preservation and the ever-present dread of tomorrow. The victory of the Whites or the investing of a city by them involves savage reprisals, pogroms against Jews, death for Communists, prison and torture for those suspected of sympathizing with the latter. The advent of the Bolsheviki signifies indiscriminate Red terror. Either is disastrous; it has happened many times, and the people live in perpetual fear of its repetition. Internecine strife has marched through the Ukraine like a veritable man-eater, devouring, devastating, and leaving ruin, despair, and horror in its wake. Stories of White and Red atrocities are on everybody’s lips, accounts of personal experiences harrowing in their recital of fiendish murder and rapine, of inhuman cruelty and unspeakable outrages.