First Days in Kharkov

The work of collecting material is divided among the members of our Expedition according to fitness and inclination. By general consent, and to his own great satisfaction, the only Communist among us, a very intelligent and idealistic youth, is assigned to visit Party headquarters. Besides my general duties as Chairman, my domain includes labor unions, revolutionary organizations, and semi-legal or “underground” bodies.

In the Soviet institutions, as among the people at large, an intensely nationalistic, even chauvinistic spirit is felt. To the natives the Ukraine is the only true and real Russia; its culture, language, and customs superior to those of the North. They dislike the “Russian” and resent the domination of Moscow. Antagonism to the Bolsheviki is general, the hatred of the Cheka universal. Even the Communists are incensed over the arbitrary methods of the Center, and demand greater independence and self-determination. But the policy of the Kremlin is to put its own men at the head of Ukrainian institutions, and frequently a whole trainload of Moscow Bolsheviki, including clerks and typists, are dispatched to the South to take charge of a certain department or bureau. The imported officials, unfamiliar with the conditions and psychology of the country, often even ignorant of its language, apply Moscow methods and force Moscow views upon the population with the result of alienating even the friendly disposed elements.

A July day, with the Southern sun steadily pouring down heat, and the stone pavement seeming to melt beneath my feet. The streets are crowded with people in variegated attire, the play of color pleasing to the eye. The Ukrainians are better clad and nourished than the people in Petrograd or Moscow. The, women are strikingly beautiful, with expressive dark eyes and oval faces, olive skinned. The men are less prepossessing, often low-browed and coarse-featured, the trace of the Mongol evident. Most of the girls, comely and buxom, are short-skirted and barelegged; others, well shod but stockingless, present an incongruous sight. Some wear lapti, a rough wooden sandal that clatters noisily on the pavement. Almost everyone is chewing the popular semetchki, dried sunflower seeds, deftly ejecting the shell, and covering the filthy sidewalks with a sheet of whitish gray.

On the corner two boys in worn student uniforms vociferously call the attention of the passersby to hot pirozhki, the Russian doughy cake filled with meat or cabbage. A bevy of young girls, almost children, faces powdered, lips crimson, approach the venders.

“What costs the pleasure?” inquires one in a thin, high-pitched voice.

“Fifty roubles.”

“Oh, you little speculator,” the girl teases. “Make it cheaper for me, won’t you, dear one?” she coaxes, pressing closer to the boy.

Three sailors approach, whistling the popular Stenka Razin tune. “What beauties!” one comments, unceremoniously embracing the girl nearest him.

“Hey, lasses, come with us,” another commands. “Don’t be hanging around those speculators.”

With ribald laughter the girls join them. Arm in arm they march down the street.

“Damn those Sovietsky cavaliers,” one of the students rages. “Hot pirozhki, hot! Buying, who’s buying, tovarishi!”

With considerable difficulty I find the home of Nadya, the Left Social Revolutionist, for whom I have a message from her friends in Moscow. My knock is answered by an old lady with kindly face and snow-white hair. “My daughter is at work,” she says, suspiciously scrutinizing me. “May I know what you wish?”

Reassured by my explanation, she bids me enter, but her manner continues guarded. It requires some time before she is convinced of my good intentions, and then she begins to unburden her heart. She owned the house in which she now occupies one room together with her daughter, the rest having been requisitioned by the Soviet Housing Committee. “It is enough for our modest needs,” the old lady says resignedly, her glance passing over the small chamber containing a single bed, a kitchen table, and several wooden chairs. “I have only Nadya now,” she adds, a tremor in her voice.

“I thank God I have her,” she continues after a while. “Oh, the terrible times we have lived through. You will surely not believe it⁠—I’m not fifty yet.” She passes her delicate, thin hand over her white hair. “I don’t know how it is where you come from, but here life is a koshmar.30 I have grown used to hunger and cold, but the constant fear for the safety of my child makes life a torture. But it is a sin to complain,” she crosses herself devoutly. “Blessed be the Lord, for he has left me my daughter.”

In the course of the conversation I learn that her eldest son was killed by Denikin men; the youngest, Volodya, a boy of twenty, was shot by the Bolsheviki. She could never find out the reason. “The terrible Cheka,” she sighs, with tears in her eyes. “But the predsedatel31 was a kind man,” she continues presently; “it was he who saved my little Nadya. She had also been doomed to die. Once they took her to the cellar, stark naked⁠—may, God forgive them! They forced her to the floor, face downward. Then a shot was fired over her head. Oh, the horror of it! She was told to confess and her life would be saved. But what could the poor child confess? She had nothing to tell. Indeed, she wouldn’t if she could, for Nadenka is like steel. Then she was sent back to her cell, and every night she expected to be taken out and shot, and when she heard a footstep, she would think they were coming for her. What torture the child lived through! But it was always someone else they took, and those never returned. Then one day the predsedatel sent for her and told her he did not want her shot, and that she was free to go home. Before that the Cheka had assured me that my daughter had been sent to Moscow for trial. And there she stood before me⁠—ah, so pale and wan, more like a ghost of herself. Glory to the Lord for His goodness,” she sobs quietly.

The door opens and a girl steps in, carrying a bag slung across her shoulders. She is young and attractive, not over twenty, with her face lit up by black, shining eyes.

She stops affrighted as her glance falls upon me. “A friend,” I hasten to reassure her, delivering the message entrusted to me in Moscow. She brightens at once, puts the bag on the table, and kisses her mother. “We’ll celebrate today, mamenka,” she announces; “I got my pyock.” She begins sorting the things, calling out cheerily, “Herrings, two pounds; half a pound of soap; one pound of vegetable butter; a quarter of a pound of tobacco. That’s from the Sobezh” (Department of Social Care), she explains, turning to me. “I am employed there, but the main ‘social care’ is given to the ration,” she says jestingly. “It’s better in quality and quantity than I receive at the other two places. You know, some of us have to hold three or even four, positions to make ends meet. Mother and I together receive one and three-quarter pounds of bread per day, and with this monthly pyock and what I get from my other positions, we manage to live. Isn’t it so, mamenka?” and she again embraces her mother affectionately.

“It would be sinful to complain, my child,” the old lady replies; “other people are worse off.”

Nadya has preserved her sense of humor, and her silvery laugh frequently punctuates the conversation. She is much concerned about the fate of her friends in the North, and is overjoyed to get direct news of Marusya, as she affectionately calls Maria Spiridonova. Eagerly she listens to the story of my repeated visits to the famous leader of the Left Social Revolutionists, who is now in hiding in Moscow. “I love and worship her,” she declares impetuously; “she has been the heroine of my life. And to think how the Bolsheviki hound her! Here in the South,” she continues more calmly, “our Party has been almost entirely liquidated. The persecution has forced the weaker ones to make peace with the Communists; some have even joined them. Those of us who have remained true keep ‘underground.’ The Red terror is such that activity now is out of the question. With paper, presses, and everything else nationalized, we cannot even print a handbill, as we used to do in the time of the Tsar. Besides, the workers are so cowed, their need so great, they will listen to you only if you can offer them bread. Moreover, their minds have been poisoned against the intelligentsia. The latter are actually dying of starvation. Here in Kharkov, for instance, they receive six to seven thousand roubles per month, while a pound of bread costs two to three thousand. Some wit figured out that the Soviet salary of twenty of the most noted Russian professors equals⁠—according to the present purchasing power of the rouble⁠—the amount allowed by the old regime budget for the support of the watchdog at the government institutions.”

By the aid of Nadya I am enabled to get in touch with several “irreconcilables” of the Left Social Revolutionists. The most interesting personality among them is N⁠⸺, a former katorzhanin32 and later instructor in literature in the People’s University of Kharkov. Recently he has been discharged because the political commissar, a Communist youth, considered his lectures of an anti-Marxian tendency.

“The Bolsheviki complain that they lack teachers and educators,” N⁠⸺ said, “but in reality they permit no one to work with them unless he be a Communist or ingratiate himself with the Communist ‘cell.’ It is the latter, the Party unit in every institution, that decides on the ‘reliability’ and fitness⁠—even of professors and teachers.”

“The Bolsheviki have failed,” he remarked to me on another occasion, “chiefly because of their total intellectual barbarism. Social life, no less than individual, is impossible without certain ethical and human values. The Bolsheviki have abolished them, and in their place we have only the arbitrary will of the Soviet bureaucracy and irresponsible terror.”

N⁠⸺ voices the sentiments of the Left Social Revolutionary group, his views fully shared by his comrades. The rule of a minority, they agree, is necessarily a despotism based on oppression and violence. Thus 10,000 Spartans governed 300,000 Helots, while in the French Revolution 300,000 Jacobins sought to control the 7,000,000 citizens of France. Now 500,000 Communists have by the same methods enslaved the whole of Russia with its population of more than 100,000,000. Such a regime must become the negation of its original source. Though born of the Revolution, the offspring of the movement for liberation, it must deny and pervert the very ideals and aims that gave it birth. In consequence there is crying inequality of the new social groups, instead of the proclaimed equality; the stifling of every popular opinion instead of the promised freedom; violence and terror instead of the expected reign of brotherhood and love.

The present situation, N⁠⸺ believes, is the inevitable result of Bolshevik dictatorship. The Communists have discredited the ideas and slogans of the Revolution. They have started among the people a counterrevolutionary wave which is bound to destroy the conquests of 1917. The strength of the Bolsheviki is in reality insignificant. They remain in power only because of the weakness of their political opponents and the exhaustion of the masses. “But their Ninth Thermidor33 must soon come,” N⁠⸺ concluded with conviction, “and no one will rise to their defense.”

Returning late in the evening to the room assigned me in the home of G⁠⸺, a former bourgeois, and finding the bell out of order, I knocked long and persistently without receiving a reply. I almost despaired of gaining admittance, when there resounded the clanking of chains, a heavy bar was lifted, someone fumbled with the keys, and at last the door opened before me. I could see no one about, and a feeling of uneasiness possessed me when suddenly a tall, slender figure stepped before me, and I recognized the owner of the apartment.

“I did not see you,” I exclaimed in surprise.

“A simple precaution,” he replied, pointing to the niche between the double doors where he had evidently been hiding.

“One can’t tell these days,” he remarked nervously: “ ‘they’ have the habit of visiting us unexpectedly. I can slip through,” he added significantly.

I invited him to my room, and we talked until early morning. G⁠⸺’s story proved a most interesting page from the recent life of Russia. He formerly lived in Petrograd, where he was employed as a mechanical engineer in the Putilov Mills, his brother-in-law serving as his assistant. Neither of them participated in politics, all their time being devoted to their work. One morning Petrograd was stirred by the killing of Uritsky, the head of the Cheka. G⁠⸺ and his brother-in-law had never before heard of Kannegisser, who committed the deed, yet both were arrested together with several hundred other bourgeois. His brother-in-law was shot⁠—by mistake, as the Cheka later admitted, his name resembling that of a distant relative, a former officer in the Tsar’s army. The wife of the executed, G⁠⸺’s sister, learning of the fate of her husband, committed suicide. G⁠⸺ himself was released, then rearrested, and sent to forced labor in Vologda as a bourzhooi.

“It happened so unexpectedly,” he related, “they did not even give us time to take a few things along. It was a windy, cold day, in October, 1918. I was crossing the Nevsky on my way home from work, when all at once I realized that the whole district was surrounded by the military and Chekists. Everyone was detained. Those who could not produce a Communist membership card or a document proving themselves Soviet employees were arrested. The women also, though they were released in the morning. Unfortunately I had left my portfolio at my office, with all my papers in it. They would not listen to explanations or give me a chance to communicate with anyone. Within forty-eight hours, all the men were transported to Vologda. My family⁠—my dear wife and three children⁠—remained in complete ignorance of my fate.” G⁠⸺ paused. “Shall we have some tea?” he asked, trying to hide his emotion.

As he continued, I learned that together with several hundred other men, almost all alleged bourgeois, G⁠⸺ was kept in the Vologda prison for several weeks, being treated as dangerous criminals and finally ordered to the front. There they were divided into working parties of ten, on the principle of collective responsibility: should one member of the party escape, the other nine would forfeit their lives.

The prisoners had to dig trenches, build barracks for the soldiers, and lay roads. Often they were forced to expose themselves to the fire of the English, to save machine guns deserted by the Red Army during the fight. They could be kept, according to Soviet decree, only three months at the front, yet they were forced to remain till the end of the campaign. Exposed to danger, cold, and hunger, without warm clothing in the raw winter of the North, the ranks of the men thinned daily, to be filled by new parties of forced labor collected in a similar manner.

After a few months G⁠⸺ fell ill. By the aid of a military surgeon, a drafted medical student whom he had known before, he succeeded in being returned home. But when he reached Petrograd, he failed to locate his family. All the bourgeois tenants of his house had been ejected, to make place for workers; he could find no trace of his wife and children. Laid low by fever acquired on the front, G⁠⸺ was sent to a hospital. The physicians held out little hope of recovery, but the determination to find his family rekindled the dying embers of life, and after four weeks G⁠⸺ left his sick bed.

He had just started his search again when he received an order mobilizing him, as an engineer, to a machine factory on the Ural. His efforts to secure delay proved fruitless. Friends promised to continue looking for his loved ones, and he departed for the East. There he applied himself conscientiously to the work, making the necessary repairs, so that the factory could presently begin operations. After a while he asked permission to return home, but he was informed that he would go as a prisoner, the political commissar having denounced him for “unfriendly disposition” toward the Bolsheviki. G⁠⸺ was arrested and sent to Moscow. When he reached the capital, he found a charge of sabotage against him. He succeeded in proving the falsity of the accusation, and after four months of imprisonment he was released. But the experience so affected him that he suffered two successive attacks of “returning” typhus, from which he emerged entirely unfit for work. He secured permission to visit his relatives in Kharkov where he hoped to recuperate. There, to his great joy, quite unexpectedly, he found his family. They had long thought him dead, their inquiries and numerous letters having remained unanswered. Reunited with his wife and children, G⁠⸺ remained in the city, having received a position in a local institution. He finds life in Kharkov much more bearable, though the Communist campaign against the intellectuals constantly rouses the people against them.

“The Bolsheviki have turned the intelligentsia into a class of hunted animals,” G⁠⸺ said. “We are looked upon as even worse than the bourgeoisie. As a matter of fact, we are much worse off than the latter, for they usually have ‘connections’ in influential places, and most of them still possess some of the wealth they had hidden. They can speculate; yes, even grow rich, while we of the professional class have nothing. We are doomed to slow starvation.”

Snatches of song and music reached us from across the street, coming apparently from the house opposite, its windows flooded with light. “One of the Cheka commissars,” my host answered my questioning look. “By the way, a curious incident happened to me,” he continued, smiling sadly. “The other day I met that Chekist. Something about him attracted my attention⁠—a peculiar sense of the familiar that I could not account for. Suddenly it dawned on me⁠—that new dark-brown suit he wore, why, it was mine! They took it from me in the last house raid, two weeks ago. ‘For the proletariat,’ they said.”