Last Links in the Chain

Pensively Pushkin stands on his stone pedestal, viewing life flowing by on the square bearing his name. On the boulevard the trees are smiling with budding green, and promenaders bask in the April sun. Familiar sight of Moscow streets, yet with a strange new atmosphere about the people. The vision of Kronstadt had flashed across the city; its dead embers lie ashen gray on the faces. I sense the disconsolate spirit in the procession of diverse type and attire⁠—workmen in torn footgear, rags wrapped about their legs; students in black shirts belted at the waist, the tails fluttering in the breeze; peasants in lapti of woven straw, soldiers in long gray coats, and dark-skinned sons of the Caucasus in brighter colors. Young women mingle with them, in short skirts and bare legs, some wearing men’s boots. Most of them are painted, even the little girls. Boldly they gaze at the men, inviting them with their eyes.

Gay music sounds from the garden nearby. At the little tables white-aproned waiters serve food and drinks to the guests. Groups gather at the gate sullenly watching the novel scene. “Bourzhooi! Damned speculators!” they mutter. The NEP53 is at work.

All along the street stores have been opened, their windows washed, freshly painted signs announcing private ownership. Provisions in large quantity and variety are exposed to view. Resentfully men and women crowd on the sidewalk, their eyes devouring the tempting display. “No food for rations!” someone comments sarcastically. “That’s what we’ve been shedding our blood for!” a soldier exclaims with an oath.

On the corner a feminine voice hails me, “Ah, the American tovarish!” It is Lena, my young acquaintance of the raid of the Okhotny market, over a year ago. She looks very fragile, her paleness accentuated by her crimsoned lips. There is unwonted self-consciousness in her manner, and the pink mounts her face under my gaze. “You see, I didn’t manage to get away,” she says wearily.

“Get away?” I asked in surprise.

“Don’t you remember? It was America or⁠—,” she breaks off with a forced smile.

We are in front of a sumptuous delicatessen store. Men in starched shirts and white collars, looking offensively opulent, and elegantly dressed women carry their purchases with free, assured manner. Ragged children besiege them for alms. The passersby scowl at them angrily. “How many times I was arrested for ‘speculation,’ ” Lena remarks bitterly.

Remembering my visit to her home, I inquire after her family. “Mother, Baby, and Yasha died from typhus,” she replies dully. “That’s what the certificate said, but I know it was starvation.”

“Your cousin?”

“Oh, she is doing well. With some Communist. I’m all alone in the world now.”

“Poor Lena,” escapes me.

“Oh, I don’t want your pity,” she cries disconsolately. “Wish I’d died with mother.”

Further on the Tverskaya I find “Golos Truda,” the Anarchist publishing house, closed, a Cheka seal on the lock. A man is peering through the window at the havoc wrought within by the raiders. His Red Army cap does not conceal the fresh scars on his head. With surprise I recognize Stepan, my Petrograd soldier friend. He had been wounded in the Kronstadt campaign, he informs me; the Petrograd hospitals were crowded, and he was sent to Moscow. Now he has been discharged, but he is so weak he is barely able to walk.

“We crossed the Neva at night,” he relates; “all in white shrouds like so many ghosts⁠—you couldn’t tell us from the snow on the frozen river. Some of the boys didn’t want to advance,” he looks at me significantly. “The Communist detachment back of us trained machine guns on them⁠—there was no hesitating. The artillery belched from our side; some shots fell short, striking the ice just in front of us. In a flash whole companies disappeared, guns and all, sunk into the deep. It was a frightful night.” He pauses a moment; then, bending close to me, he whispers: “In Kronstadt I learned the truth. It’s we who were the counterrevolutionists.”

The Universalist Club on the Tverskaya is deserted, its active members imprisoned since the Kronstadt events. Anarchists from various parts have been brought to the city, and are now in the Butirki and Taganka jails. In connection with the growing labor discontent severe reprisals are taking place against the revolutionary element and the Communist Labor Opposition which demands industrial democracy.

The situation handicaps the work of the Peter Kropotkin Memorial Committee, in the interests of which I have come to the capital. The Moscow Soviet passed a resolution to aid “Golos Truda” in the publication of the complete works of the great Anarchist thinker, but the Government closed the establishment. The Soviet also donated the house where Kropotkin was born as a home for the Museum, but every attempt to get the place vacated by the Communist organization now occuping it has failed. The official attitude negates all our efforts.

⁠—Unexpected visitors today. I sat in my room (in the apartment of a private family in Leontievsky Alley) when an official entered, accompanied by the house porter and two soldiers. He introduced himself as an agent of the newly organized department “for the improvement of the workers’ mode of life,” and I could not suppress a smile when he solemnly informed me that the campaign for the benefit of the proletarians is directed by the Cheka. Better quarters are to be put at the disposal of the toilers, he announced; my room is among those to be “requisitioned” for that purpose. I should have to leave within twenty-four hours.

In entire sympathy with his object, I called the official’s attention to the utter impossibility of securing even bed space at such short notice. Permission and “assignments” must first be procured from the Housing Bureau, a procedure which at best takes a week’s time; often it requires months. Without deigning a reply the Chekist stepped into the hallway; opening the first door at hand, he said curtly: “You can stay here in the meantime.”

A burst of soapy vapor swept against us. Through the clouds of steam I discerned a bedstead, a little table, and a woman bending over the washtub.

Tovarish, here lives⁠—,” the house porter remarked timidly.

“It’s big enough for two,” the official retorted.

“But it’s occupied by a woman,” I protested.

“You’ll manage somehow,” he laughed coarsely.

Days spent at the offices of the Housing Bureau bring no results. But a week passes, then another, and no tenants appear to claim my room. The department for the “improvement of the workers’ mode of life” is apparently more interested in “requisitioning” occupied lodgings than in putting them at the disposal of the proletarians. Only influence in high places or a generous “gift” secures the favor.54

Unexpectedly a friendly Communist comes to the rescue. It is arranged that my room be assigned to the Kropotkin Memorial Commission for an office: being the secretary I am permitted to retain it as my living quarters.

⁠—Dark rumors circulate in the city. Three hundred politicals are said to have disappeared from the Butirki prison. Removed by force at night, it is reported; some executed. The Cheka refuses information.

Several days pass in tortuous uncertainty⁠—many of my friends are among the missing. People living in the neighborhood of the prison tell of frightful cries heard that night and sounds of desperate struggle. The authorities profess complete ignorance.

Gradually the facts begin to leak out. It has become known that the fifteen hundred non-politicals in the Butirki had declared a hunger strike in protest against the unhygienic conditions. The cells were overcrowded and unspeakably filthy, the doors locked even by day, the toilet buckets seldom removed, poisoning the air with fetid smells. The sanitary commission had warned the administration of the imminent danger of an epidemic, but its recommendations were ignored. Then the strike broke out. On the fourth day some of the prisoners became hysterical. Unearthly yells and the rattling of iron doors shook the prison for hours, the uproar rousing the neighborhood in alarm. The politicals did not participate in the demonstration. Segregated in a separate wing, they had by collective action compelled concessions. Their situation was much more tolerable than that of the “common” prisoners. But their sense of human kinship determined them to intercede. Their expostulations finally induced the Cheka to declare the demands of the hunger strikers just and to promise immediate relief. Thereupon the “commoners” terminated their protest, and the incident was apparently closed.

But a few days later, on the night of April 25, a detachment of soldiers and Chekists suddenly appeared in the prison. One by one the cells of the politicals were attacked, the men beaten and the women dragged by their hair into the yard, most of them in their night clothes. Some of the victims, fearing they were being taken to execution, resisted. Butts of guns and revolvers silenced them. Overcome, they were forced into automobiles and taken to the railroad station.

Investigation by the Moscow Soviet has now elicited the information that the kidnapped politicals, comprising Mensheviki, Social Revolutionists of the Right and Left, and Anarchists, have been isolated in rigorous solitary in the most dreaded Tsarist prisons in Ryazan, Orlov, Yaroslavl, and Vladimir.

⁠—Intensive preparations are being made for the reception of the foreign delegations. The Congress of the Comintern (Communist International) and first Conference of the Red Trade Unions are to be held simultaneously.

The city is in holiday attire. Red flags and banners decorate official buildings and the residences of prominent Bolsheviki. The filth of months is carted off the streets; swarms of child hucksters are being arrested; the beggars have disappeared from their customary haunts, and the Tverskaya is cleared of prostitutes. The main thoroughfares are emblazoned with revolutionary mottoes, and colored posters illustrate the “triumph of Communism.”

In the Hotel Luxe, palatial hostelry of the capital, are quartered the influential representatives of the foreign Communist parties. The street in front is lined with automobiles; I recognize the Royce of Karakhan and Zinoviev’s machine from the garages of the Kremlin. Frequent tours are arranged to places of historic interest and Bolshevik meccas, always under the guidance of attendants and interpreters selected by the Cheka. Within there is an atmosphere of feverish activity. The brilliant banquet hall is crowded. The velvety cushions and bright foliage of the smoking room are restful to the delegates of the Western proletariat.

On the sidewalk opposite the Hotel women and children lurk in the hallways. Furtively they watch the soldiers unloading huge loaves of bread from a truck. A few chunks have fallen to the ground⁠—the urchins dart under the wagon in a mad scramble.

All traffic is suspended on the Theatre Square. Soldiers in new uniforms and polished boots, and mounted troopers form a double chain around the big square, completely shutting off access. Only holders of special cards, provided with photographs and properly attested, are permitted to pass to the Big Theatre. The Congress of the Comintern is in session.

⁠—Polyglot speech fills my room far into the small hours of the morning. Delegates from distant lands call to discuss Russia and the Revolution. As in a dream they vision the glory of revelation and are thrilled with admiration for the Bolsheviki. With glowing fervor they dwell on the wondrous achievements of Communism. Like a jagged scalpel their naive faith tears at my heart where bleeding lie my own high hopes, the hopes of my first days in Russia, deflowered and blighted by the ruthless hand of dictatorship.

Most sanguine and confident are the latest arrivals, secluded in the atmosphere of the Luxe and entirely unfamiliar with the life and thought of the people. Fascinated and awed, they marvel at the genius of the Party and its amazing success. Tyranny and oppression in Russia are things of the past, they believe; the masses have become free, for the first time in the annals of man. Ignorance and poverty, the evil heritage of Tsardom and long civil war, will soon be outlived, and plenty shall be the birthright of everyone in the land where the disinherited have become the masters of life.

Occasionally in the discussion a discordant note is sounded by the new economic policy. The seeming deflection from avowed principles is perplexing. Does it not hold the menace of returning capitalism? A smile of benevolent superiority waves the timid questioner aside. The NEP is ingenious camouflage, he is assured. It is of no particular significance⁠—at most, it is a temporary expedient, an economic Brest-Litovsk in a way, to be swept away at the first blast of revolution in the West.

The more reflective among the delegates are disturbed. Life in revolutionary Russia is too reminiscent of home: some are well-fed and well-clad, others hungry and in rags; the wage system continues, and all things can be bought and sold. Apologetically, almost guiltily, they express the apprehension that legalization of commerce might cultivate the psychology of the trader, which Lenin always insisted must be destroyed. But they are resentfully terrified when a Hindu visitor suggests that the Cheka had apparently flogged the peasants into taking the whip into their own hands.

Day by day the problems of the Revolution are discussed with increasing understanding of the causes responsible for the great deviation from the road entered upon in October, 1917. But the pressing need of the present centers the greatest attention. “Though Syndicalists, we have joined the Third International,” the Spanish delegate announces; “we believe it the duty of all revolutionists to cooperate with the Bolsheviki at this critical period.”

“They won’t let us,” one of the Russians replies.

“All can help in the economic reconstruction,” the Spaniard urges.

“You think so?” the visiting Petrograd worker demands. “You’ve heard of the great strikes last winter, haven’t you? The wood famine was the main cause of the trouble, and the Communists themselves were responsible for it.”

“How is that?” a French delegate inquires.

“The usual Bolshevik methods. A man of proven organizing genius was at the head of the Petrograd fuel department. His name? Never mind⁠—he’s an old revolutionist who spent ten years in Schlüsselburg under the old regime. He kept the city supplied with wood and coal; he even organized a branch in Moscow for the same purpose. He surrounded himself with a staff of efficient men; many of the American deportees were among them, and they succeeded where the Government had previously failed. But one day Dzerzhinsky got the notion that the fuel manager was permitted too much scope. The Moscow branch was liquidated, and in Petrograd a political commissar was placed over him, handicapping and interfering with his work. The famine was the result.”

“But why? Why was it done?” several delegates exclaim.

“He was an Anarchist.”

“There must have been some misunderstanding,” the Australian suggests.

“The policy of the Communists throughout the country,” the Russian says sadly.

“Friends, let us forget past mistakes,” the Frenchman appeals. “I’m sure closer contact can be brought about between the Government and the revolutionary elements. I’ll speak to Lenin about it. We in France see no reason for this strife. All revolutionists should work together with the Bolsheviki.”

“Most of them are in prison,” a former sailor remarks bitterly.

“I don’t mean those who took up arms against the Republic,” the Frenchman retorts. “Counterrevolution, like that of Kronstadt, must be crushed, and⁠—”

“Don’t repeat Bolshevik lies,” the sailor interrupts vehemently. “Kronstadt fought for free Soviets.”

“I know only what I heard from Communist comrades,” the Frenchman continues. “But I am convinced that all real revolutionists, like Left S.R.’s, Anarchists, and Syndicalists should work together with the Communist Party.”

“Almost all of them in prison,” the Petrograd man repeats.

“Impossible!” the Spanish delegate protests. “The Communists have assured me that only bandits and counterrevolutionists are in jail.”

A small, slender woman in a faded jacket hastily enters the room. She is greatly agitated and very pale. “Comrades,” she announces, “the thirteen Anarchists in the Taganka have gone on a hunger strike.” With trembling voice she adds: “It’s to the death.”

⁠—Opposition has developed at the Trade Union Congress against the domination of the Comintern. All important matters are first decided by the latter before being submitted to the labor men. The delegates resent the autocratic methods of the Communist chairman; the inequitable distribution of votes is a source of constant friction. The Bolsheviki are charged with “packing” the Congress with delegates from countries having no industrial movement. An atmosphere of disillusionment and bitterness pervades the sessions. The French delegation threatens to bolt.

Some of the Germans, Swedish, and Spanish members are perturbed by the general situation. They have come in contact with the actual conditions; they have sensed the spirit of popular discontent and caught a glimpse of the chasm between Communist claims and the reality. The hunger strikes of the politicals, in Moscow, Petrograd, and other cities have become a subject of great concern. The prisoners are undernourished and exhausted; the desperate decision jeopardizes their lives. It were criminal to permit such a tragedy. Moreover, it is felt that their protest is justified. In defiance of the Soviet Constitution, the politicals have been kept in prison for months, some even for years, without charges being brought against them.

The foreign delegates propose to call the subject to the attention of the Congress. They will refuse to cooperate with the Bolsheviki, they assert, while their comrades remain in prison without cause. Fearing a serious rupture, some delegates secured an audience with Lenin. The latter declared that the Government would not tolerate opposition; hunger strikes cannot swerve it from its purpose, though all the politicals chose to starve to death. But he would agree to have the imprisoned Anarchists deported from Russia, he said. The matter is to be immediately submitted to the Central Committee of the Party.

⁠—Eighth day of the Taganka hunger strike. The men very weak; most of them unable to walk; several have developed heart trouble. The young student Sheroshevsky is dying from consumption.

The Central Committee has taken action on Lenin’s suggestion. A joint committee representing the Government and the foreign delegates has been formed to arrange the conditions of release and deportation of the Anarchists. But so far the conferences have brought no results. Dzerzhinsky and Unschlicht, now acting head of the Cheka, claim there are no real Anarchists in the prisons; just bandits, they declare. They have thrown the burden of proof upon the delegates by demanding that the latter submit a complete list of those to be released. The delegates feel that the matter is being sabotaged to gain time till the Trade Union Congress closes.

⁠—At last we succeeded in holding a session this evening. Trotsky was absent, his place taken by Lunatcbarsky as the representative of the Party. The conference was held in the Kremlin.

Unschlicht, a stocky young man, dark featured and morose, in every gesture expressed his resentment of “foreign interference” in his sphere. He would not speak directly to the delegates, addressing himself only to Lunacharsky. His frank discourtesy unpleasantly affected the foreigners, and the conference was conducted in a formal, stiff manner. After much wrangling the Committee reached an agreement, as a result of which the following communication was sent to the prisoners:

Comrades, in view, of the fact that we have come to the conclusion that your hunger strike cannot accomplish your liberation, we hereby advise you to terminate it.

At the same time we inform you that definite proposals have been made to us by Comrade Lunacharsky, in the name of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. To wit:

  1. All Anarchists held in the prisons of Russia, and who are now on a hunger strike, will be permitted to leave for any country they may choose. They will be supplied with passports and funds.

  2. Concerning other imprisoned Anarchists or those out of prison, final action will be taken by the Party tomorrow. It is the opinion of Comrade Lunacharsky that the decision in their case will be similar to the present one.

  3. We have received the promise endorsed by Unschlicht, that the families of the comrades to go abroad will be permitted to follow them if they so wish. For conspirative reasons some time will have to elapse before this is done.

  4. The comrades going abroad will be permitted two or three days at liberty before their departure, to enable them to arrange their affairs.

  5. They will not be allowed to return to Russia without the consent of the Soviet Government.

  6. Most of these conditions are contained in the letter received by this delegation from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, signed by Trotsky.

  7. The foreign comrades have been authorized to see to it that these conditions are properly carried out.






A. Shapiro⁠—Russia

The above is correct.

(Signed) Lunacharsky.

Kremlin, Moscow,

Alexander Berkman declines to sign because

  1. he is opposed to deportation on principle;

  2. he considers the letter an arbitrary and unjustified curtailment of the original offer of the Central Committee, according to which all the Anarchists were to be permitted to leave Russia;

  3. he demands more time at liberty for those to be released, to enable them to recuperate before deportation.

⁠—The hunger protest was terminated last night. The prisoners are momentarily expecting to be freed. Extremely weakened and in highly nervous state after eleven days of striking.

Like a bombshell came Bukharin’s attack upon the Anarchists in the closing hour of the Trade Union Congress. Though not a delegate, he secured the platform and in the name of the Communist Party denounced the hunger strikers as counterrevolutionists. The whole Anarchist movement of Russia, he declared, is criminal banditism waging warfare against the Soviet Republic; it is identical with Makhno and his povstantsi who are exterminating Communists and fighting against the Revolution.

The session was thrown into an uproar. The majority of delegates resented this breach of faith in view of the tacit agreement to eliminate the matter from the Congress. But the chairman refused to permit a rejoinder, declaring the subject closed. A storm of indignation swept the house.

The insistence of the Congress at last compelled a hearing, and a French delegate took the floor to reply to Bukharin’s charges. In the name of the Revolution he solemnly protested against the sinister Machiavelian diplomacy of the Bolsheviki. To attack the opposition at the closing of the Congress, without an opportunity of defense, he declared, was an act of perfidy unworthy of a revolutionary party. Its sole purpose was to prejudice the departing delegates against the revolutionary minority and justify continued political persecution; its obviously desired effect to annul the conciliatory efforts of the joint Committee.

⁠—Days and weeks are passing; the politicals still remain in prison. The conferences of the Joint Committee have practically ceased⁠—rarely can the representatives of the Government be induced to attend. The promises of Lenin and Lunacharsky are broken. The Cheka has made the resolution of the Executive Committee of the Party ineffective.

The Congresses are closed, and most of the delegates have departed.

⁠—At noon today the hunger strikers were released from the Taganka, two months after the Government had pledged their liberation. The men look worn and old, withered by anguish and privation. They have been put under surveillance and forbidden to meet their comrades. It is said weeks will pass before opportunity will be given them to leave the country. They are not permitted to work and they have no means of subsistence.55 The Cheka declares that no other politicals will be freed. Arrests of revolutionists are taking place throughout the country.

⁠—With bowed heart I seek a familiar bench in the park. Here little Fanya sat at my side. Her face was turned to the sun, her whole being radiant with idealism. Her silvery laughter rang with the joy of youth and life, but I trembled for her safety at every approaching step. “Do not fear,” she kept reassuring me, “no one will know me in my peasant disguise.”

Now she is dead. Executed yesterday by the Cheka as a “bandit.”56

Gray are the passing days. One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are foresworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under foot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness.

High time the truth about the Bolsheviki were told. The whited sepulcher must be unmasked, the clay feet of the fetish beguiling the international proletariat to fatal will o’ the wisps exposed. The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed.

I have decided to leave Russia.