In Soviet Institutions

Petrovsky, Chairman of the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee, the supreme government body of the South, sat at his desk busy over a pile of documents. A middle-aged man of medium stature, his typical Ukrainian face is framed in a black beard, lit up by intelligent eyes and a winning smile. A peasant-Communist appointed by Moscow to high office, he has remained democratic and simple in manner.

Learning the mission of our Expedition, Petrovsky evinced the greatest interest. “I am heartily in sympathy with it,” he said; “it’s splendid, this idea of collecting the material of our great Revolution for the information of the present and future generations. I’ll help you all I can. Here, in the Ukraine, you will find a wealth of documents, covering all the political changes we have had since 1917. Of course,” he continued, “we have not reached the well-organized and ordered condition of Russia. The development of our country has been quite different, and since 1918 we have been living in constant turmoil. It’s only two months ago that we have driven the Poles out of Kiev⁠—but we have driven them out for good,” he laughed heartily.

“Yes, we drove them out for good,” he repeated after a while. “But we must do more; we must teach the cursed Poles a lesson⁠—the Polish pani,34 I mean,” he corrected himself. “Our good Red Army is almost at the gates of Warsaw now. The Polish proletariat are ready to throw off the yoke of their oppressors; they are only waiting for us to give them a helping hand. We expect the Revolution to break out there any day,” he concluded in a confidential way, “and then Soviet Poland will combine federatively with Soviet Russia, as Ukraine has done.”

“Don’t you think such an aggressive policy may produce a harmful effect?” I asked. “Threatened invasion may serve to arouse patriotic ardor.”

“Pooh-pooh!” the Chairman laughed. “You evidently don’t know the revolutionary temper of the Polish workers. The whole country is on fire. The Red Army will be received ‘with bread and salt,’ as our saying is⁠—be given a hearty welcome.”

The conversation turned to the situation in the South. “The work of organizing Soviet conditions,” Petrovsky said, “is progressing very satisfactorily in the districts evacuated by the Poles. As to the economic situation, the Ukraine used to be the great bread-giver of Russia, but the farmers have suffered much from confiscation and robbery by the White forces. However, the peasants have learned that only under the Communists they are secure in the enjoyment of their land. It is true, many of them are kulaki; that is, rich farmers who resent sharing their surplus with the Red Army and the workers. They and the numerous counterrevolutionary bands make the work of the Soviet Government very difficult. Makhno, in particular, is a source of much trouble. But the Greens and other bandits are being gradually liquidated, and before long Makhno also will be eliminated. The Government has decreed merciless war against these Soviet enemies, and the peasantry is aiding in its efforts.”

“You must have surely heard in Russia about Makhno,” Petrovsky remarked, giving me a searching look. “Many legends have grown around his name, and to some he appears almost a heroic figure. But here in the Ukraine you will learn the truth about him. Just a robber ataman, that’s all he is. Under the mask of Anarchism he conducts raids upon villages and towns, destroys railroad communications, and takes a fiendish delight in murdering commissars and Communists. But before long we shall terminate his activities.”

Girl clerks kept coming in, bringing documents, and answering telephone calls. Most of them were barefoot, while some wore new, high-heeled shoes without hosiery. From time to time the Chairman interrupted the conversation to glance at the papers, putting his signature to some and referring others to the secretary. But he seemed eager to continue our talk, dwelling on the difficult problems presented by the Ukraine, the steps taken to assure greater production of coal, the reorganization of the railways, and the clearing of the labor unions of anti-Soviet influences.

He spoke unaffectedly, in the language of the workingman whose native intelligence has been sharpened by experience in the school of life. His conception of Communism is a simple matter of a strong government and determination to execute its will. It is not a question of experimentation or idealistic possibilities. His picture of a Bolshevik society has no shadows. A powerful central authority, consistently carrying out its policies, would solve all problems, he believes. Opposition must be eliminated; disturbing elements and inciters of the peasantry against the Soviet regime, such as Makhno, crushed. At the same time the work of the polit-prosvet (political education) should be broadened; the youth, especially, must be trained to regard the Bolsheviki as the revolutionary advance guard of humanity. On the whole, Communism is a problem of right bookkeeping, as Lenin had truly said; of taking an invoice of the country’s wealth, actual and potential, and arranging for its equalized distribution.

The subject of peasant dissatisfaction kept returning in our conversation. The povstantsi (armed rebel peasantry), Petrovsky admitted, had played a vital part in the Revolution. They repeatedly saved the Ukraine, and even Russia, at most critical moments. By guerrilla warfare they disorganized and demoralized the Austro-German forces, and prevented their marching on Moscow and suppressing the Soviet regime. They defeated the Interventionist attack in the South, by resisting and routing the French and Italian divisions that were landed by the Allies in Odessa with the intention of supporting the nationalistic Directorium in Kiev. They fought Denikin and other White generals, and were largely instrumental in making the victories of the Red Army possible. But some povstantsi elements have now joined the Green and other bands operating against the Communists. They also comprise the greater part of the Makhno forces, possessing even machine guns and artillery. Makhno is particularly dangerous. At one time he had served in the Red Army; but he mutinied, opening the front to Denikin, for which treachery he was outlawed by Trotsky. Since then Makhno has been fighting against the Bolsheviki and helping the enemies of the Revolution.

From the adjoining office, occupied by Petrovsky’s secretary, loud talking and a woman’s hysterical voice kept disturbing our conversation. “What is going on there, I wonder,” the Chairman exclaimed at last, stepping to the door. As he opened it, a young peasant woman rushed toward him, throwing herself at his feet.

“Save us, Little Father!” she cried. “Have mercy!”

Petrovsky helped her up. “What is the matter?” he asked kindly.

Amid sobs she related that her husband, home on furlough from the Army, had gone to Kharkov to visit his sick mother. There he was arrested in a street raid as a labor deserter. He could not prove his identity, because he had been robbed on his way to the city; all his documents and money were gone. He sent word to her about his misfortune; but by the time she reached the city she learned that her husband had been taken away with a party of other prisoners. Since then she failed to find out anything more about him. “Oh, Little Father, they’ve sure shot him,” she wailed, “and he a Red Army man who fought Denikin.”

Petrovsky sought to calm the distracted woman. “Nothing will happen to your husband,” he assured her, “if he can prove himself a soldier.”

“But they’ve already taken him away somewhere,” she moaned, “and they shoot deserters. Oh, good Lord, have mercy on me!”

The Chairman questioned the woman, and then, apparently convinced of the truth of her story, he ordered the secretary to supply her with a “paper” to aid in her search. She grew quieter, and then impulsively kissed Petrovsky’s hand, calling upon the saints to “bless the kind commissar.”

At labor union headquarters I found a flow of humanity surging through the corridors. Men, women, and children crowded the offices and filled the hallways with shouting and tobacco smoke. A bedraggled assembly it was⁠—poorly nourished and clad; calico kerchiefs worn by the women, the men in thick-soled wooden lapti, the children mostly barefoot. For hours they stood in line, discussing their troubles. Their wages, they complained, though continuously increased, do not keep step with the rising price of food. A week’s labor is not enough to purchase two pounds of bread. Moreover, three months’ pay is due them: the government has failed to supply enough money. The Soviet distributing centers are short of provisions; one has to look out for himself, or starve. Some have come to ask for a ten days’ release from work and permission to visit their folks in the country. There they would get a few pounds of flour or a sack of potatoes to tide the family over for a little while. But it is difficult to secure such a privilege: the new decrees bind the worker to the factory, as in the days of old the peasants were chained to the soil. Yet the village is their only hope.

Others have come to enlist the help of their labor organization in locating lost brothers, fathers, husbands, suddenly disappeared⁠—no doubt taken in the frequent raids as military or labor deserters. They had vainly sought information at the various bureaus; maybe the union will help.

After long waiting I gained admission to the Secretary of the Soviet of Labor Unions. He proved to be a young man not over twenty-three, with quick, intelligent eyes and nervous manner. The Chairman had been called away to a special conference, the Secretary informed me, but he would aid our mission as far as possible. He doubted, however, that we would find much valuable material in the city. Most of it had been neglected or destroyed⁠—there had been no time to think of such matters in the intense revolutionary days Kharkov had passed through. But whatever records could be found, he would order them turned over to me. Better yet, he would supply me with a circular letter to the secretaries of the local unions, and I could personally select the material I needed, leaving copies of the same in the archives.

The Secretary himself could give me little information about labor conditions in the city and province, as he had only recently assumed charge of his office. “I am not a local man,” he said; “I was sent from Moscow only a few weeks ago. You see, Comrade,” he explained, evidently assuming my membership in the Communist Party, “it became necessary to liquidate the whole management of the Soviet and of most of the unions. At their heads were Mensheviki. They conducted the organization on the principle of alleged protection of the workers’ interests. Protection against whom?” he raged. “You understand how counterrevolutionary such a conception is! Just a Menshevik cloak to further their opposition to us. Under capitalism, the union is destructive of bourgeois interests; but with us, it is constructive. The labor bodies must work hand in hand with the government; in fact, they are the actual government, or one of its vital parts. They must serve as schools of Communism and at the same time carry out in industry the will of the proletariat as expressed by the Soviet Government. This is our policy, and we shall eliminate every opposition.”

A dark, heavyset man of medium stature walked quickly into the office, casting a questioning look at me. “A comrade from the center,” the Secretary introduced me, “sent to collect data on the Revolution. This is our predsedatel,” he explained.

The Chairman of the Labor Soviet shook hands with me hastily: “You will excuse me,” he said, “we are just swamped with work. I had to leave the session of the wage commission before it closed, because I have been phoned to attend an important conference of our Party Committee. The Mensheviki have declared a hunger strike in prison, and we are to take action on the matter.”

As we stepped out of the office, the Chairman was beset by a clamoring crowd. “Dear tovarish, just a minute please,” an old worker pleaded; “my brother is down with typhus, and I can’t get any medicine for him.”

“When will we be paid? Three months is due us,” another urged.

“Go to your own union,” the predsedatel advised him.

“But I’ve just come from there.”

“I haven’t time, tovarish, I haven’t time now,” the chairman kept repeating to the right and left, gently forcing his way through the crowd.

“Oh, Little Father,” a woman screamed, grabbing him by the arm. It was the young peasant I had met in Petrovsky’s office. “Has my husband been shot?”

The Chairman looked bewildered. “Who is your husband?” he demanded.

“A Red Army man, tovarish. Taken in a street raid for a labor deserter.”

“A deserter! That’s bad.” Reaching the street, and waving his hand to me, the predsedatel jumped into his waiting automobile, and was driven away.