Dark People

Railroad communication between Odessa and Nikolayev is suspended, but we have been informed that a motor truck belonging to the Maritime Ossobiy Otdel (Cheka) is to leave for that city at midnight on September 6.

Accompanied by the Secretary, I proceeded early in the evening to the place of departure. For hours, we tramped unfamiliar streets and tortuous alleys without finding the appointed place. Fearfully my companion clung to me, Odessa’s reputation for lawlessness and the brutality of its bandit element filling us with alarm. In the darkness we lost our bearings and kept circling within the crooked alleys near the docks, when suddenly there came the command, “Who goes there?” and we faced guards pointing guns at us. Fortunately we had secured the military password.


“Tarantass,” the soldier completed, permitting us to pass and directing us on our way.

It was after 2 a.m. when we reached the Maritime Otdel. But no machine was in sight, and we were overwhelmed with disappointment at the thought that we had missed the rare opportunity of reaching Nikolayev. Inquiries at the Cheka elicited the unwilling information that the motor had not yet arrived, and no one knew when it was due.

We spent the night in the street, the Chekists refusing us permission to remain indoors. At five in the morning the car arrived, piled high with clothing and ammunition for the Nikolayev garrison. Quickly we climbed to the top, soon to be joined by a number of soldiers accompanied by women. Everything seemed ready for the start, when the chauffeur announced that the gasoline issued him was not sufficient to carry us to our destination, two hundred miles northeast. A short, heavyset sailor, addressed as commandant and apparently in charge of the journey, gruffly ordered everyone off the truck. His command ignored, he drew a revolver, and we all made haste to obey.

“Now you’ll have enough juice,” he declared.

The soldiers protested: they were the convoy sent to accompany the consignment to Nikolayev. Swearing and cursing, the drunken sailor consented to their riding, and they climbed back pulling several girls up after them.

“No heifers!” the sailor shouted, but the women, stretching themselves on top of the load, paid no attention. The commandant got into a violent altercation with the chauffeur, accusing him of delaying the departure and threatening to arrest him. The driver pleaded that the truck had not been loaded on time; its belated arrival was not his fault. The Chekist cursed and swore in a manner that surpassed anything I had ever before heard in Russia, the variegated complexity of his oaths defying even approximate rendering into English. Meanwhile the number of passengers had increased. The sailor grew furious, and again displaying his Colt, he forced everyone to climb down. Three times the process was repeated, no one daring to resist the drunken commandant. We stood in the driving rain, the uncovered clothing on the truck getting soaked, while the chauffeur was pretending to be busy with the machine, yet stealthily watching the Chekist. Presently the latter walked out of the yard, whereupon the driver also disappeared. After an hour he returned carrying a large can and followed by half a score of men and women. He announced that all was in readiness, and there began a scramble of the new arrivals for a place. At last the huge machine got into motion, the living mass on top desperately clinging for support as we gradually gained speed. “You’ll never make half the way with that load,” the commandant shouted, rushing out into the street and threateningly waving his gun.

Over hills, down valleys, and across fields the auto sped, the chauffeur driving recklessly and every moment endangering our lives as the machine tore its way over large holes in the ground or wildly rushed down steep inclines. Our route lay along the sea and over waste land still bearing evidence of past military activities. The large estate of Sukhomlinov, the great Russian magnate, stretched for miles before us entirely deserted, the celebrated cattle appropriated by the villagers, the place now uncultivated. “No seed,” laconically commented one of the peasants. “What would be the use?” another replied.

Long lines of wagons drawn by oxen and loaded with flour and potatoes crawled in the distance⁠—the proceeds of the razvyorstka being delivered to Odessa.

The sailors, talkative and jolly, passed their time railing at the three peasants, typical Ukrainians. The latter took their banter in good humor, somewhat awed and not always comprehending the full drift of the slangy Russian. They were much friendlier with the soldiers, themselves Ukrainians, and presently they began exchanging experiences. They hailed from Krasnoye Selo; the razvyorstka tax upon their village was very heavy, and the local Soviet had sent them to Odessa to secure a reduction of the assessment. But they received no satisfaction in the big city; they spent days in line at the various bureaus without accomplishing anything. Most of the officials just laughed at them; others ignored them. One Commissar even threatened to arrest them. Life has become harder than ever before, they complained. Under the Tsar they had been serfs; the White generals robbed them of their sons and cattle. They had set great hopes upon the Bolsheviki. “But it is the same whoever comes,” the peasants sighed; “for us poor people it’s always the same.”

Two of the soldiers had participated in the campaign against Makhno, and they were exchanging experiences. They spoke freely of his exploits, of the original methods that enabled him to defeat greatly superior forces, and of the numerous times he had been surrounded by White or Red armies, yet always escaping, often in a most miraculous manner. They admired the clever ruse by which Makhno took Yekaterinoslav, then in the hands of Petlura. A handful of his men, dressed as peasants, crossed the bridge leading to the lower part of the city, with their arms hidden in carts. On reaching the other side, they unexpectedly opened fire on the Petlura men guarding the approaches. The sudden attack struck panic to the garrison, and Makhno’s army easily took the city.

“We’ve got to catch him,” one of the soldiers concluded, as if in self-justification, “but you can’t deny it, he’s a molodets” (daring fellow).

Both of them had once been taken prisoners by Makhno. Their last hour had come, they thought, as together with other captives they were led before the feared bat’ka. A slender young man with sharp, piercing eyes faced them sternly and began haranguing them. Bolshevik Commissars were no better than White generals, he said; both oppressed the people and robbed the peasants. He, Makhno, would defend the Revolution against all enemies. He promised that the prisoners would be given the choice of joining the povstantsi or going home, but the Red soldiers feared Makhno was deriding them. Yet he kept his word.

Bat’ka kills only Jews and Commissars,” one of the peasants drawled.

In the evening we stopped at Krasnoye Selo, in the district of the German colonies. The little frame houses, whitewashed and clean, were a pleasant contrast to the straw-thatched, dirty izba of the Russian peasant. Few men were to be seen, most of them drafted in the White or Red armies. Only women, children, and very old peasants were about. With my companion I followed a party of sailors and soldiers in search of lodgings for the night. At our approach the villagers ran terrified indoors. The sailors ordered them to bring food, but the women, weeping and imploring for mercy, called God to witness that the recent razvyorstka had taken their last provisions. They could offer only bread and country cheese. The Chekists swore at them, fingered their guns, and demanded to be taken to the cellar. There they appropriated whatever eatables they could find.

Distressed I left with my companion to seek hospitality for ourselves. Word had passed of the arrival of “the Commissars,” and the houses were barricaded. After many vain attempts we gained admission to a khata at the furthest end of the village. It was occupied by a woman and her three children, the oldest a girl of fourteen, whom her mother had hidden at our approach. She accepted our offer to pay, and set black bread and sour milk before us. Soon the neighbors began to drop in. They stood timidly on the threshold, observing us with unfriendly eyes and exchanging whispered remarks, Gradually they gained confidence, advanced toward the table, and began conversing. They were totally ignorant of the events in the world at large; what was happening in Russia, even, was entirely incomprehensible to them. They knew that the Tsar was no more and that freedom had been given the peasant. But they felt some huge deceit had been played on the “dark people” by those in high places. They were constantly harassed by the military, they complained; soldiers of every kind and armed men without uniforms kept swooping down upon the village, taxing, confiscating, and pillaging. One by one their male folks had been drafted, often not even knowing into what army, and then the boys began to be taken, as young as sixteen. Generals and commissars kept coming and carrying the last away, and now all the cattle are gone, and the fields cannot be worked except by hand in little patches, and even the smallest children must help. Frequently the older girls are dragged away by officers and soldiers, returning later hurt and sick. In a neighboring village the punitive expedition whipped old peasants on the public square. In a place thirty versts from Krasnoye eighteen peasants hanged themselves after the commissars had left.

“Is it as bad in other parts?” my hostess asked. “How is it in Germany⁠—my people come from there.”

“Germany has also had a revolution,” I informed her. “The Kaiser is gone.”

“Rev‑o‑lution?” she repeated in utter incomprehension. “Did Germany have war?”

I spent the night on a straw heap in the outhouse, joining our party early in the morning. The scenes of the previous day repeated themselves all along our route.

A very old city and once an important shipbuilding center, Nikolayev has played a prominent part in the labor and socialist history of Russia. It was the scene of the first great strike in the country, in the early days of the nineteenth century. In the “Nihilist” and “People’s Will” period, it was the field of much underground revolutionary activity. In later years Nikolayev was the home of the “South Russian Union,” one of the first Social-Democratic groups in lower Ukraine, with Trotsky as its intellectual leader. Among the old archives we came upon documents relating to the case of Netchayev, which in some strange manner found their way there, though that famous terrorist had never been arrested in this city. We also discovered police “search orders” issued against Lopatin, Bakunin, and other celebrated revolutionists of that period.

Nikolayev still retains some of its former beauty, though its boulevards have been entirely denuded of trees, cut down within the two days’ interregnum between the leaving of the Whites and the coming of the Bolsheviki. The streets are oppressively quiet: the city is in direct line of Wrangel’s advance. The Communists are feverishly active to rouse the population to united defense, appealing particularly to the proletarians and reminding them of the slaughter of the workers by Slastchev, Wrangel’s chief general, notorious as a labor executioner.47

The attitude of the surrounding districts is causing the Bolsheviki much anxiety. The peasantry has been in continual rebellion against the Soviet regime, and the arbitrary methods of labor mobilization have alienated the workers. The documents I have examined at the unions and the statistics concerning the distribution of labor power (rabsil) and desertion, show that almost every village in the provinces of Kherson and Nikolayev has offered armed resistance. Yet the peasants have no sympathy with the monarchism of Wrangel; his victory may deprive them of the land they have taken from the large estates. Several provincial Soviets have sent delegates to Nikolayev to assure the authorities of their determination to fight the Whites. Encouraged, the Communists are conducting an intensive agitation among the peasantry along the route of Wrangel.

Fear of the Whites has revived stories of their atrocities. The Jewish population lives in mortal dread, previous occupations having been accompanied by fearful pogroms. At the “underground” restaurant near the Soviet House the guests relate incidents of almost incredible barbarities. They speak indiscriminately of Whites, Greens, Mariusa, Makhno, and others who have at various times invested the city. It is asserted that Mariusa, an amazon of mysterious identity, refrains from pillage: she “kills only Communists and Commissars.” Some insist that she is a sister of Makhno (though the latter has none), while others say she is a peasant girl who had sworn vengeance against the Bolsheviki because her lover was killed by a punitive expedition.

“The black years may know who they all be,” the hostess comments. “When Makhno was here last time people said they saw Mariusa with him. They beat and robbed Jews at the docks.”

“You are wrong,” the young Soviet employee who has been assigned to aid my work protests. “I helped to examine the men caught at that time. They were Greens and Grigoriev bandits. Mariusa wasn’t then in the city at all.”

“I heard Makhno himself speak,” remarked Vera, the daughter of the hostess, a young college girl. “It was on the square, and someone held a big black flag near him. He told the people they had nothing to fear, and that he would not permit any excesses. He said he would mercilessly punish anyone attempting a pogrom. I got a very favorable impression of him.”

“Whoever it is that makes pogroms,” her mother retorted, “we Jews are always the first victims.”

“Jews and Commissars,” the youth corrects.

“You are both⁠—you’d better look out,” a guest teased him.

“Better take off that kurtka” (leather jacket), another warns.