Odessa: Life and Vision

⁠—Late yesterday afternoon we reached Odessa, our little commune greatly disturbed over the fate of Alsberg. Our traveling companion, whose cheerful spirit and ready helpfulness contributed so much toward making our journey more pleasant, was arrested on August 30, while we were stopping in Zhmerinka. The local Cheka agents had received orders from Moscow to “return the American correspondent,” because he had gone to the Ukraine “without the knowledge” of the authorities. In vain we argued and produced Zinoviev’s letter giving Alsberg permission to join the Expedition. He was removed from the train, to be taken under convoy to Moscow. The wires we sent to Lenin, Zinoviev, and Balabanova, protesting against the arrest and urging the release of our friend, have so far remained unanswered.

The great city, formerly the most important shipping center of the country, was shrouded in darkness, its electric supply station having been almost completely destroyed by fire several days previously. With considerable difficulty we found our way to one of the principal thoroughfares. On the corner we were detained by a militsioner who informed us that it is forbidden to be about after sunset, except by special permission. It required considerable persuasion before the officer was convinced of our “reliability” and permitted us to return to the car. Our first impressions seemed to justify the disconcerting reports we had heard en route.

No more cheerful is the once beautiful city in the glow of the bright morning sun. Few persons are on the streets; the houses and parks are neglected; the pavements broken and filthy. Everywhere is evidence of the poverty and suffering in the wake of foreign occupation and civil war. Food is very scarce; prices exorbitantly high on the markets which are still permitted to operate. The peasants of the district, systematically expropriated by their changing masters, now refuse to plant more than is necessary for their own needs, leaving the cities to their fate.

Externally Odessa is quiet, and there is no sign of enemy warships in the harbor. But an atmosphere of anxious suspense is felt everywhere: bands of Green and Makhno forces are said to be in the neighborhood, and Wrangel is reported to have taken some villages northeast, in the vicinity of Rostov. A spirit of qui vive pervades the Soviet bureaus, everyone wearing a preoccupied air as if listening for the first note of alarm and ready to take flight.

Much disorganization prevails in the unions. The new Communist management has not yet gained full control over the “liquidated” Menshevik and Anarchist leadership. Many of the latter are still at the head of labor affairs, persistently elected by the workers in open defiance of Communist orders. Among the opposition Shakhvorostov, an Anarchist of militant type, has such a strong following that the Bolsheviki have not dared to remove him. Due to his friendly efforts, the Soviet of Unions has decided to call a meeting of secretaries, whom I am to address in the interest of the Museum.

The nonpartisan proletarians, who constitute the great body of labor, look with scorn at the readiness of the Communists to flee should an enemy appear. Particularly the sailors of the destroyed Black Sea fleet, many of whom are in the city, resent the situation. The masses cannot evacuate, they say; the workers are doomed to remain, whoever comes, and to fight it out as best they can. Have not the unions, aided by the peasantry, waged successful guerrilla warfare against the Greek and Italian forces and the White generals? Then there was no distinction of political party⁠—all revolutionists fought side by side. But every time the enemy is driven out, the Communists institute their dictatorship, seek to dominate the revolutionary committee in charge of the safety of the city, and eliminate the old and tried fighters. The masses know how to protect themselves against invaders, but they resent the domination of a political party that seeks to monopolize the Revolution.

Semyon Petrovitch, at whose home I spend considerable time, is an intelligent nonpartisan of independent views. An able statistician, he has been permitted by the Bolsheviki to remain in the Department of Economy, where he had served under previous regimes. Semyon is convinced that the Soviet Government will find itself compelled to change its methods and practices. “The ravager cannot long remain in the country he has ravaged”⁠—he likes to repeat the alleged saying of Denikin. But the ire of the gods, he asserts, pursues the Bolsheviki: even their best intentions serve in practice to confound them. “They have closed the stores and abolished private trade,” Semyon Petrovitch repeats, “they have nationalized, registered, and taken an invoice of everything under the sun. One would think that complete order should reign. Indeed, you cannot transfer a bed mattress from one apartment into another without special permission of the proper authorities. If you want to ride to the next station, you must get an ‘order’; if you need a sheet of paper, you have to fill several sheets with applications. Every detail of our existence has become subject to Bolshevist regulation. In short, you will find the situation in Odessa about the same as in the rest of Russia,” Semyon assured me. “But life passes by the Soviet apparatus, because life is incomparably stronger than any attempts at doctrinaire regulation.”

As in other Soviet cities, the population is supplied with a bread and products card. But except Communists, very few receive enough bread to exist. On the “bourgeois” categories none has been issued for months; in fact, since the Bolsheviki took Odessa in January. Occasionally a little salt, sugar, and matches are rationed out.

“Fortunately the markets are still permitted to exist,” Semyon explained. “The government cannot press out enough bread of the farmers to feed the cities. The pyock is mostly a vision. That reminds me of a certain commissar in our department, a rare type of Communist, for he has a sense of humor. Once I asked him why the Bolsheviki nationalized everything except the izvostchiki.42 His reply was characteristic. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘we found that if you don’t feed human beings, they continue to live somehow. But if you don’t feed horses, the stupid beasts die. That’s why we don’t nationalize the cabmen.’ ”

Life is indeed stronger than decrees; it sprouts through every crevice of the socialist armor. When private trade was forbidden and only the cooperatives were permitted to continue, all business places suddenly became inspired by feelings of altruism, and every store was decorated with the sign of the Epo (cooperative). Later, when the cooperatives were also closed and only kustarnoye (small scale) production remained legal, all the little stores began manufacturing cigarette lighters and rubber soles from stolen automobile tires. Subsequently new decrees were issued permitting trade only in articles of food. Thenin every store window there appeared bread and tea surrogates, while other wares were sold in the rear rooms. Finally all food stores were closed; now the illicit trade is transferred to the storekeeper’s home, and business is done on the back stairs.

“The Bolsheviki want to abolish private trade and destroy speculation,” Semyon remarked; “they want everyone to live exclusively by his labor. Yet in no place in the world is there so much speculation as in Russia; the whole country is swept by its fever. ‘Nationalization of trade means that the whole nation is in trade,’ our wits say. The truth is, we have all become speculators,” he continued sadly. “Every family now depends more on the sale of its table and bed linen than on the salaries paid by the Soviet Government. The shopkeepers, having lost their shops, still remain traders; and they are now joined by those who formerly were workers, physical as well as intellectual. Necessity is stronger than laws, my dear friend. The real factory proletarians have become declassified: they have ceased to exist, as a class, because most of the factories and mills are not working. The workers flee into the country or become meshotchniki.43 The Communist dictatorship has destroyed, but it cannot build up.”

At the house of Dr. L⁠⸺ almost nightly gather little groups of the local intelligentsia. A man of broad culture and tolerance, L⁠⸺’s home is neutral ground for the most diverse political tendencies. His private sanatorium, beautifully situated on an enbankment washed by the Black Sea, was formerly famed as one of the best in Odessa. It has been nationalized, but the physician and his staff are exempt from professional mobilization and remain in charge. Dr. L⁠⸺ is still permitted to receive a certain number of private patients, which privilege enables him to support himself and family in comparative comfort. In return he is obliged to treat without remuneration the sick assigned to the sanatorium by the authorities.

L⁠⸺ and his wife, herself a graduate physician, are hospitable in the best Russian spirit. Though their present mode of living is far below that of former days, every comer finds a warm welcome which includes an invitation to the dining room⁠—a custom now almost entirely fallen into disuse in Russia. With charming smile and graceful gesture Mme. L⁠⸺ passes around tea, little lumps of yellow candy, homemade from beet sugar, and sandwiches, her manner quite innocent of any suggestion of the saving quality of her service to her famished guests.

The sanatorium was requisitioned for the “benefit of the proletariat,” the doctor informs me with a humorous twinkle in his eyes, but it is occupied exclusively by high Communist officials and several members of the Cheka. Among the latter is also a Commissar, who has repeatedly taken treatment in the institution. He suffers from acute neurosis and is an habitual user of cocaine. In spite of the near presence of the dreadful autocrat of life and death, great freedom of speech prevails in L⁠⸺’s home. It is the tacit understanding among his guests that the place is a free forum, a “sanctuary for the crime of thought.” Yet I notice that when a Communist happens to be present, expression is less spontaneous, more controlled. I recall the arrest of the frequenters of a similar oasis in Moscow, betrayed by a member of the family, a Bolshevik. Might not such a misfortune also happen here? Yet Dr. G⁠⸺, the Menshevik colleague of the host, is most outspoken against the Bolsheviki whom he holds up to ridicule, as counterfeit Marxists. The Zionists and literati present, among them Byalik, the greatest living Jewish poet, are more temperate in their criticism of the dictatorship. Their attitude is prompted by their love of the Jewry and its aspirations as a nation. They tell of the many vain efforts their most venerated representatives have made in the interests of justice to their coreligionists, only to be met with scorn and insult. R⁠⸺, the noted Hebrew author, relates the incident of his visit to the chief of the Cheka, to seek protection for two friends unjustly accused of speculation and in danger of being shot. In the reception room, while awaiting audience with the predsedatel, he was abused by the Chekists, among whom he recognized several members of the old police force and two well-known criminals of former days. “You are insulting the Soviet power by interceding for the arrested,” the Cheka Chief told him. The author urged the innocence of the accused. “If you plead for speculators, you are no better than they,” the Chief retorted. Both men were executed without trial.

Through an open window I look out upon the broad expanse of the Black Sea below. It is a quiet moonlit night. The low murmur of the waters pleasantly strikes upon the ear, as the white-capped waves with musical regularity reach the shore, softly splash against the rocks, and silently recede. They return to caress the sentinel wall that seems to draw closer toward them as if yearning for their embrace. A gentle breeze floats into the room.

Angry voices recall me to the company. The young Bundist44 D⁠⸺ is involved in a virulent dispute with his former comrade turned Communist. D⁠⸺ charges the Bolsheviki with having stooped to a partnership with the notorious Odessa criminals who were organized into regiments and possessed weapons and machine guns. They had first helped Ataman Grigoriev to take the city, and were later used by the Communists for the same purpose. Indebted to the thieves, the Bolsheviki did not molest them in the first days of their Odessa regime, and the “professional union” was permitted to “work” the city. Subsequently, the Soviet Government declared war upon them, but the leading spirits saved their lives by joining the Cheka.

The Communist vehemently denies that any agreement had existed between his Party and the criminals, though he admits that in some instances the thieves’ union aided the work of the Bolsheviki. The argument is becoming dangerously heated; Mme. I⁠⸺, grown apprehensive, holds up a warning hand. “Friends, tovarishi,” she cautions them, “please not so loud.”

“Do not worry,” the host laughs, “it’s the usual thing when these two come together. They are old friends; relatives, at that, for the ex-Bundist married the Bundist’s sister.”

“It is an open question,” observes Z⁠⸺, the literary investigator, “whether the Bolsheviki had a formal agreement with the thieves. But that they cooperated at one time is known to all of us. Well, they were also proletarians,” he adds sarcastically. “Later, of course, the Communists turned against them. But a similar fate has befallen most of us. The Left S.R.’s, the Maximalists, the Anarchists, did they not all fight together with the Communists against the Whites? And where are they now? Those who did not die on the fronts have been shot or imprisoned by the Red dictators, unless they have been bribed or cowed into serving the Cheka.”

“Only weaklings would save their lives thus,” the hostess protests.

“Few can be brave with a loaded gun pointed at their temple,” the Doctor remarks with a sigh.

It is a cold, chilly day as I turn my steps toward Sadovaya Street. There, at a secret session, is to take place a Menshevik costnaya gazetta (oral newspaper), and I am to meet prominent members of the party.

The “oral newspaper” is the modern Russian surrogate for a free press. Deprived of opportunity to issue their publications, the suppressed Socialist and revolutionary elements resort to this method. In some private dwelling or “conspirative lodgings” they gather, as in the days of the Tsar, but with even greater danger and more dread of the all-pervading presence of the Cheka. They come to the “lodgings” singly, stealthily, like criminals conscious of guilt, fearful of observation and discovery. Frequently they fall into an ambush: the house maybe in the hands of a zassada, though no sign of it is perceptible on the outside. No one having entered, however innocently or accidentally, may depart, not even a neighbor’s child come to borrow a dish or some water for a sick member of the family. None is permitted to leave, that he may not give warning to possible victims. Such a zassada generally lasts for many hours, often even for several days and nights; when it is finally lifted, those caught in the net are turned over to the Cheka. Lucky if the charge of counterrevolution or banditism be not made, and the prisoners released after several weeks of detention. But the “leaders,” the known revolutionists, are kept for months, even for years, without a hearing or charge.

It is dusk. In the unlighted, dingy room it is difficult to recognize the half score of men occupying chairs, smoking and talking in subdued voices. The person for whom I inquire has not yet arrived, and I find myself a stranger in the place. I notice nervous glances in my direction; the men near me regard me with frank suspicion. One by one they leave their seats; I see them gathering in a corner, casting inimical looks at me. As I approach them, they cease talking and eye me defiantly. Their manner is militant, and presently I am surrounded by the hostile crowd.

“May I see Comrade P⁠⸺?” I inquire.

“Who may you be?” someone demands ironically.

To ally their suspicions, I ask for tovarish Astrov, the famous Menshevik leader, with whom I have an appointment. Explanations follow, and at last the men appear satisfied regarding my identity. “You are looking for Astrov?” they ask in surprise. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?”


“He’s been arrested this morning.”

Bitter indignation and excitement prevail in labor and revolutionary circles as a result of the arrest. Astrov, a well-known Socialist, is a personality respected throughout Russia. His opposition to the Bolsheviki is purely intellectual, excluding hostile activities against the Government. It is reported, however, that the authorities hold him “morally responsible” for the wave of strikes that has recently swept the city. Astrov’s comrades are distracted at their failure to ascertain the fate of their leader. The Cheka declines to accept a peredatcha (packages of food or clothing), an omen which inspires the worst fears. It indicates strictest isolation⁠—it may even signify that the prisoner has been shot.45

More hated even than in Kiev is the Cheka in Odessa. Ghastly stories are told of its methods and the ruthlessness of the predsedatel, a former immigrant from Detroit. The personnel of the institution consists mostly of old gendarme officers and criminals whose lives had been spared “for services to be rendered in fighting counterrevolution and speculation.” The latter is particularly proscribed, the “highest form of punishment”⁠—shooting⁠—being meted out to offenders. Executions take place daily. The doomed are piled into automobile trucks, face downward, and driven to the outskirts of the city. The long line of the death-vehicles is escorted by mounted men riding wildly and firing into the air⁠—a warning to close the windows. At the appointed place the procession halts. The victims are made to undress and to take their places at the edge of the already prepared common grave. Shots resound⁠—the bodies, some lifeless, some merely wounded, fall into the hole and are hastily covered with sod.

But though the “speculation” is forbidden and the possession or exchange of Tsarist money is frequently punished by death, the members of the Cheka themselves receive part of their salary in tsarskiye, whose purchasing power is many times that of Soviet paper. There is considerable circulation of the forbidden currency on the markets, and it is rumored that Cheka agents themselves are the chief dealers. I refuse to believe the charge till a member of the Expedition informs me that he succeeded in advantageously converting some of the tsarskiye, officially given us in Moscow, into Soviet money. “You are taking a great risk in exchanging,” I warn him.

“No risk at all,” he replied gleefully. “Do you think I am tired of life that I would sell on the open market? I traded it through an old friend, and it was the good man N⁠⸺ himself who did the little business for me.”

N⁠⸺ is a high placed magistrate of the Cheka.

With Emma Goldman I attend a gathering of local Anarchists come to meet the “comrades from America.” The large room is filled with a mixed company⁠—students and workers, Soviet employees, soldiers, and some sailors. Every nongovernmental tendency is represented: there are followers of Kropotkin and of Stirner, adherents of positivism and immediate actionists, with a number of Sovietsky Anarchists, so called because of their friendly attitude to the Bolsheviki.

It is an informal assembly of the widest divergence of opinion. Some denounce the Communists as reactionary; others believe in their revolutionary motives, but entirely disapprove of their methods. Several consider the present stage as a transitory but inevitable phase of the Revolution. But the majority deny the historic existence of such a period. Progress, they claim, is a continuous process, every step foreshadowing and shaping the next. Long-continued despotism and terror destroy the possibilities of future liberty and brotherhood.

The most animated discussion revolves about the proletarian dictatorship. It is the basic problem, determined by one’s conception of revolution and in turn determining one’s attitude to the Bolsheviki. The younger element unreservedly condemn the Party dictatorship with its violence and bloodshed, its punitive measures, and general counterrevolutionary effects. The Sovietsky Anarchists, though regretting the ruthlessness of Communist practice, consider dictatorship inevitable at certain stages of the revolution. The discussion is drawn out for hours, and the vital question is obscured by theoretic assertions. I feel that the years of storm and stress have entirely uprooted the old values without having clarified new concepts of reality and vision.

“Can you suggest something definite in place of the dictatorship?” I ask at last. “The situation demands a unified purpose.”

“What we have is a dictatorship over the proletariat,” retorts an enthusiastic Kropotkinist.

“That is begging the question. Not the faults and shortcomings of the Bolsheviki are at issue, but the dictatorship itself. Does not the success of the Revolution presuppose the forcible abolition of the bourgeoisie and the imposing of the proletarian will upon society? In short, a dictatorship?”

“Assuredly,” assents the young woman at my side, a Left Social Revolutionist; “but not the dictatorship of the proletariat only. Rather the dictatorship of the toilers, including the peasantry as well as the city workers.”

“If the Communists would not persecute the Anarchists, I’d be with them,” remarks an Individualist Anarchist.

The others scorn his narrow partisanship, but the Kropotkinists refuse to accept dictatorship. There may be times during a revolutionary period where violence, even organized force, becomes necessary, they admit. But these matters must rest in the hands of the workers themselves and not be institutionalized in such bodies as the Cheka, whose work is detrimental and fosters a counterrevolutionary spirit among the violated masses.

The discussion gives no promise of reaching a basis for common work with the Bolsheviki. Most of those present have for years consecrated themselves to their ideal, have suffered persecution and imprisonment till at last the Revolution triumphed. Now they find themselves outlawed even by the Communists. They are deeply outraged by the “advance guard of the proletariat” turning executioners of the best revolutionary elements. The abyss is too wide to be bridged. With deep sorrow I think of the devotion, ability, and idealism thus lost to the Revolution, and of the fratricidal strife the situation inevitably involves.

⁠—Wrangel is reported to be advancing northwest after having defeated the Red Army in several engagements. Budenny’s cavalry is in retreat, leaving open the road to Rostov. Alyoshki, a suburb of Kherson, is invested by the Whites, and refugees are streaming into Odessa. Official silence feeds popular nervousness, and the wildest rumors are gaining circulation.

Our work in the city is completed, but the new military situation makes it impossible to continue our journey southeast, toward the Caucasus, as originally planned. We have therefore decided that the Expedition remain in Odessa, while two of its members attempt to reach Nikolayev, there to determine the possibilities of proceeding further. The predsedatel and secretary have been chosen for the task.

My colleagues have already left the city to take up their quarters in the car. With our secretary, Alexandra Shakol, I am loading the collected material on a cart. There is a large quantity, and the underfed old mare is barely able to pull the weight. It is pouring, the pavement is broken and slippery; the poor beast seems about to collapse.

“Your horse is exhausted,” I remark to the driver, a peasant woman.

She does not reply. The reins have fallen out of her bands, her head is bent forward, and her body is shaken as if with the ague.

“What is the matter, matushka?” I call to her.

She looks up. Her eyes are red and tears are coursing down her cheeks, leaving streaks of yellow dirt behind. “Curses be upon you!” she mutters between sobs.

The horse has stopped. The rain is pouring with increased force, the chill pierces knife-like.

“Cursed be you all!” she cries vehemently.

We try to soothe her. The Secretary, a native Russian, herself of peasant stock, impulsively kisses the old woman on both cheeks. By snatches we learn that two days ago she had carted a load of hay to the city, part of her village’s share of the razvyorstka. Returning home she was halted by a requisitioning detachment. She pleaded that her cattle had long ago been confiscated and only the one horse left her; as the widow of a Red Army man she is exempt from further requisition. But she had no documents with her, and she was taken to the police station. The Commissar berated his men for impressing an unfit animal for army duty, and the woman was overjoyed. But as she was about to leave, he detained her. “Your horse will do for light jobs,” he said; “you will give us three days’ labor duty.”

She has been working two days now, receiving only half a pound of bread and no fodder for the beast except a little straw. This morning she was ordered to our quarters.

Most of the vehicles and horses have been nationalized; those still privately owned are subject to temporary requisition by the Tramot (transport bureau) for a specified number of hours weekly. In vain we hail the passing izvostchiki; all pretend to be “on Soviet duty.” The woman grows hysterical. The horse is apparently unable to move further. The rain is wetting our material, the wind tearing at our newspaper files and blowing precious leaves into the street. At last with voices and shoulders we induce the horse to proceed, and after a long ride we reach the railroad station. There we hastily write a “receipt” testifying that the “requisitioned peasant and horse” have fulfilled their labor duty, give the woman a chunk of bread and a few tidbits for her children, and send her home bowing and repeating, “Bless you, good barin,46 God bless you.”