Returning to Petrograd

After a stay of several days we left Nikolayev, returning to Odessa by the same maritime auto truck. We followed the former route and witnessed the previous scenes again. Our reception was even more unfriendly than before.

Occasionally some good-natured soldier offered to pay with Sovietsky money, but the villagers pleaded that they could do nothing with the “colored papers,” and begged for articles of “manufacture.” The chauffeur produced a can of watered gasoline, which he had persuaded an old peasant to exchange for a smoked ham by assuring him that it was the “best kerosene in Russia.” The neighbors protested, but the old man, too frightened to refuse, gave up the treasured meat, muttering: “May the Lord have mercy on us and see you depart soon.”

In Odessa we learn that the Red Army is in full retreat from Warsaw, and Wrangel steadily advancing from the southeast. The alarming situation makes the further progress of the Expedition impossible. Our anxiety is increased by the circumstance that the mandate for the use of our car expires on October 31, after which date the Railroad Commission has the right of immediate confiscation, involving the probable loss of our material. Our repeated letters and wires have remained without reply by the Narkomput (People’s Commissariat of Ways and Communication) in Moscow. No choice is left us but to hasten back to Petrograd to deliver to the Museum our collection which has grown so large it requires an entire tepulshka (freight car).

⁠–⁠⁠—At last we have left Odessa and are now journeying by slow stages northward. The lines are clogged with military trains, “dead” engines, and wrecked cars. At Znamenka we come upon the rear of the Twelfth Army retreating in disorder. The Bolsheviki are evacuating points along the route of the expected Polish advance. Large areas have been left without any government at all, the Communists having departed, the Poles not pursuing. The Red Army is rolling back toward Kiev and Kharkov. Our train is constantly delayed or switched to a side track, to clear the way for the military. Should the enemy advance, our Expedition may be entirely cut off from the north, finding itself between Wrangel’s forces in the south and southeast, and the Poles in the north and northwest.

Progressing only a few miles a day, we pass Birsula, Vanyarki, Zhmerinka, and Kasatin. The Communists no longer deny the great disaster. The Polish campaign has ended in a complete rout, and Wrangel is driving the Red Army before him. It is claimed that Makhno has joined forces with the counterrevolutionary general. The Soviet papers we occasionally find in the “educational bureau” at the stations brand the povstantsi leader as Wrangel’s aid. Familiar with the methods of the Communist press, we do not give credence to the “news,” but our anxiety to learn the facts of the situation is increased by the persistent report that England demands the entire withdrawal of the Bolsheviki from the Ukraine.

The approaches to Kiev are blocked, and we are detained twelve versts from the city. Two days of maneuvering bring us at last in visible distance of the passenger station, where we remain for the night. Kiev is being evacuated. A visit to the union headquarters fails to discover any prominent officials: they are preparing to leave in case of “revolutionary necessity.” There is much speculation whether the Bolsheviki will release the political prisoners before surrendering the town, as the enemy will undoubtedly execute all revolutionists who fall into its hands. On the streets joy at the departure of the Communists struggles with dread of the hated Poles.

Rising next morning at nine (by the new time; seven by the sun) I am surprised not to find my clothes in their accustomed place. Believing my friends to have played a hoax, I proceed to wake them. All my apparel and personal effects are gone: we have been robbed! The thief evidently entered through the open corridor window; the imprint of his bare feet is still on the rain-softened ground. We are certain the theft was committed by the militsioneri guarding the woodpile about thirty feet from our car. It was a moonlit night. No one could have climbed through the window without being seen by the sentry. In any case, a desperate undertaking, for such acts are now punishable with death. Our interviews with the soldiers, inquiry and investigation fail to throw light on the robbery, and at heart we are glad. The loss, however great, is not worth a human life.

⁠—Journeying toward Kursk. We still hope to be able to return south by way of Yekaterinoslav, but rumors are persistent of the taking of that city by Wrangel.

Splendid autumn day, clear and sunny. The country is luscious⁠—fields of black soil, primitive forests of oak and fir. But the weather is growing cold, and our car is unheated for lack of dry wood. Our supplies are almost exhausted; even the resourceful culinary art of Emma Goldman is unable to produce meals from an empty larder.

In the evening a rare sunset over the Western slope, the horizon aglow with luminous red. Broad lines of purple afloat on an azure background, its base a light yellow of frayed edges. Now the dense woods hide the sky. I catch glimpses of the paling fire shimmering through the trees. Windmills of ancient Russian type and peasant khati, their roofs straw-covered, sides whitewashed, slowly pass by, looking melancholy. Women at work in the fields; children driving a flock of black sheep. A solitary peasant trudges behind a pair of oxen hitched to a plow of primitive design. The country is even, flat, monotonous. It is growing dusk; our candles are exhausted.

In the gathering darkness, our little commune around the table, we exchange reminiscences. Today is the first anniversary of my release from the Federal prison.48 A year rich with experience: intense days of anti-conscription agitation and opposition to world slaughter, arrest and detention at Ellis Island, stealthy deportation, and then⁠—Russia and the life of the revolutionary period.

With the touching curiosity of the Russian in all things American our colleagues are absorbed in the story. The skyscraper, that bold striving toward the heights, is the symbol of the far-off world to them. Though theoretically familiar with American industrialism, their faith in that country as “free” is traditional, persistent, and they experience a rude awakening at the recital of the actual facts of our economic and political life. Habituated to thinking the “American” a gentleman of large and noble nature, with a touch of manly irresponsibility almost akin to “interesting madness,” they are deeply shocked by the picture of prison existence with its tortures of solitary, underground dungeon, and “bull ring.” Under the most cruel Tsarist regime, they assure me, the politicals were accorded better treatment even in the worst casemates of Petropavlovsk and Schlüsselburg.

“Is it possible,” our Secretary asks for the third time, “that in free, cultured America a prisoner may for years be kept in solitary, deprived of exercise and visitors?”49

Only one year ago, yet how far it all seems, how removed from the present! Long trains of artillery rush through the darkness: the revolutionary army is routed on all fronts. The soldiers’ plaintive song, now Russian, now Ukrainian, grips the heart with heavy sadness, as our train slowly creeps along the flatlands of Northern Ukraine.

A clear, cold day. The first snow of the season on the ground, Moscow presents a familiar sight, and I feel at home after our long absence.

Eagerly I absorb the news at the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. The Twelfth Army has precipitately retreated from Warsaw, but the Poles are not pursuing. It is officially realized now what a serious and costly mistake the campaign was, and how baseless the expectations of a revolution in Poland. It is hoped that a quick peace may be patched up without too great sacrifices on the part of Russia.

Happier is the news from other fronts. Eastern Siberia has been cleared of the last remnants of Kolchak’s army under Ataman Semyonov. In the Crimea Wrangel is almost entirely crushed, not the least share of credit admittedly belonging to Makhno. Far from aiding the counterrevolutionary forces, as had been reported, the povstantsi joined the fight against the White general. This development was the result of a politico-military agreement between the Bolsheviki and Makhno, the main condition of the latter being the immediate liberation of the imprisoned Anarchists and Makhnovtsi, and a guarantee of free speech and press for them in the Ukraine. The telegram sent at the time by Makhno requesting the presence of Emma Goldman and myself at the conferences did not reach us. It was not forwarded by the Foreign Office.

Our anxiety about Henry Alsberg is relieved: he is now safely in Riga, having been permitted to leave Russia after his forced return from the south. Albert Boni and Pat Quinlan are in the Cheka, no definite reason for their detention being assigned. Mrs. Harrison, my erstwhile neighbor in the Kharitonensky, is held as a British spy. Nuorteva, Soviet representative in New York, was deported from the States and is now at the head of the British-American bureau in the Foreign Office. Rosenberg, the bad-tempered and ill-mannered confidential secretary of Chicherin, all-powerful and cordially disliked, is about to leave for the Far East, “on an important mission,” as he informs me. Incidentally, as if by afterthought, he refers to the “funeral tomorrow,” and with a shock I learn of the death of John Reed. The Expedition is to leave this evening for Petrograd, but we decide to postpone our departure in order to pay the last tribute to our dead friend.

A fresh grave along the Kremlin wall, opposite the Red Square, the honored resting place of the revolutionary martyrs. I stand at the brink, supporting Louise Bryant who has entirely abandoned herself to her grief. She had hastened from America to meet Jack after a long separation. Missing him in Petrograd, she proceeded to Moscow only to learn that Reed had been ordered to Baku to the Congress of Eastern Peoples. He had not quite recovered from the effects of his imprisonment in Finland and he was unwilling to undertake the arduous journey. But Zinoviev insisted; it was imperative, he said, to have America represented, and like a good Party soldier Jack obeyed. But his weakened constitution could not withstand the hardships of Russian travel and its fatal infections. Reed was brought back to Moscow critically ill. In spite of the efforts of the best physicians he died on October 16.

The sky is wrapped in gray. Rain and sleet are in the air. Between the speakers’ words the rain strikes Jack’s coffin, punctuating the sentences as if driving nails into the casket. Clear and rounded like the water drops are the official eulogies falling upon the hearing with dull meaninglessness. Louise cowers on the wet ground. With difficulty I persuade her to rise, almost forcing her to her feet. She seems in a daze, oblivious to the tribute of the Party mourners. Bukharin, Reinstein, and representatives of Communist sections of Europe and America praise the advance guard of world revolution, while Louise is desperately clutching at the wooden coffin. Only young Feodosov, who had known and loved Jack and shared quarters with him, sheds a ray of warmth through the icy sleet. Kollontai speaks of the fine manhood and generous soul that was Jack. With painful sincerity she questions herself⁠—did not John Reed succumb to the neglect of true comradeship.⁠ ⁠…

The Museum is highly pleased with the success of our Expedition. In token of appreciation the Board of Directors requested us, to continue our work in the Crimea, now entirely freed from White forces. The mandate for the car has been prolonged till the close of the year.

But the independent, nonpartisan character of the Museum activities is apparently displeasing to Communist circles in Moscow. They contend that the capital, rather than Petrograd, should be the home of such an institution. The idea is sponsored, it is said, in opposition to the growing power of Zinoviev. Certain influences are at work to curtail the Museum’s sphere of action. With surprise we learn that a special body has been created in the center with exclusive authority to collect material concerning the history of the Russian Communist Party. The new organization, known as the Ispart, by virtue or its Communist character, claims control over the Museum and has announced its intention of directing future expeditions.

The situation threatens the efficiency of our work. By request of the Museum, I have repeatedly visited Moscow in an endeavor to reach an amicable understanding. Lunacharsky, with whom I have discussed the matter, admits the justice of our position. But the Ispart continues to assert its supremacy, claims the right to our car, and insists on controlling the expeditions by placing a political commissar in charge.

The attitude of the Ispart is inimical to free initiative and best effort. It is also indicative of a lack of confidence. If persisted in, it would exclude my further cooperation. Under no conditions could I consent to the supervision of a commissar, whose duties are virtually identical with spying and denunciation. Several of my colleagues in the Expedition, including Emma Goldman, share this viewpoint.

During the negotiations it has been suggested that we visit the Far North to gather the historic data of the period of Allied occupation and the Provisional Government of Tchaikovsky. The Ispart professes no interest in the undertaking and foregoes control over it. We welcome the opportunity and decide to make a short journey to Archangel via Moscow, where formalities are to be completed.

In the capital we find our friends in great consternation. The Bolsheviki, it is charged, have treacherously broken their agreement with Makhno. No sooner had the povstantsi helped to defeat Wrangel than Trotsky ordered their disarmament. They were surrounded and attacked by Red forces, but succeeded in extricating themselves, and now open warfare has again been declared. Meanwhile the Anarchists, unaware of these developments, had gathered from all parts of the country in Kharkov, where a conference was to be held December Ist, in accordance with Makhno’s agreement with the Bolsheviki. All of them, together with many local Anarchists, were arrested, among them my friends Volin and Baron, widely known as men of high idealism and revolutionary devotion. The greatest fear is felt for their safety.