The Guest House

⁠—Life in the Kharitonensky is interesting. It is an ossobniak (private house), large and roomy, and contains a number of delegates and guests. At meal time we gather in the common dining room, furnished in the bourgeois taste of the typical German merchant. The house has weathered the Revolution without any change. Nothing has been touched in it; even the oil painting of the former owner, life-size, flanked by those of his wife and children, still hangs in its accustomed place. One feels the atmosphere of respectability and correctness.

But at meals a different spirit prevails. The head of the table is occupied by V⁠⸺, a Red Army officer in military uniform of English cut. He is the chief of the Ukrainian delegation come for an important conference to “the center.” A tall, strapping fellow, not over thirty, of military bearing and commanding manner. He has been in many fights against Kaledin and Denikin, and was repeatedly wounded. When still an officer in the Tsar’s army he became a revolutionist. Later his party, the Left Social Revolutionists of the South, joined the Communists of the Ukraine.

Next to him sits K⁠⸺, black-haired and black-bearded, member of the Central Rada when it was broken up by Skoropadsky with the aid of German bayonets. To his right is another delegate from the Ukraine, a student with soft black beard, the only one who understands English. The editor of the Communist paper of Kiev and two young women are also in this party.

One of the foreign visitors is “Herman,” a middle-aged German grown gray and old in the revolutionary struggle. He was sent by the minority of the Spartacus Party to enlist the moral and financial support of the Bolsheviki; but Radek, he complains, refuses to recognize the rebellious minority. Near Herman sits young L⁠⸺, an American I.W.W., who hoboed his way to Russia without pass or money. There are also several correspondents from Sweden, Holland, and Italy, two Japanese, and a Korean Communist who was brought a prisoner from Siberia because of some peculiar misunderstanding.

The steaming samovar is on the table, and a buxom young woman is serving us. She is red-cheeked and country-like, but her demeanor is free and unforced, and she uses tovarish with an ease indicating a full-grown sense of equality. From snatches of her conversation with the diners I gather that she had been working in a shoe factory till she entered the service of the former owner of the house, before the Revolution, and has remained in the ossobniak after it was nationalized. She calls herself a Bolshevik, and speaks familiarly about the proceedings at the meetings of the women Communist circle, at which she often presides.

She seems to personify the great revolutionary upheaval: the master driven from the house, the servant become the equal of the guests, all tovarishi in a common cause.

Surrogat tea or coffee is served in the morning⁠—one cannot tell the difference. Breakfast consists of several small slices of black bread, a bit of butter and occasionally an attenuated layer of cheese. At dinner we receive a thin soup of fish or vegetables; sometimes there is also a piece of meat, cooked or fried. Supper is usually the same as breakfast. I always feel hungry after meals, but fortunately I still have some American crackers. Everyone watches anxiously if there is an unoccupied seat at the table. In their eyes I read the frank hope that the missing one may not come: there will be a little more soup left for the others.

The Ukrainians bring “private packages” to the table⁠—chunks of salo (fat) or pork sausage, wrapped in pieces of paper written on both sides. Yesterday I casually glanced at one of these wrappers. It was a circular letter of the Tsarist police, descriptive of a man charged with the murder of his brother. It was evidently torn out of an office file. Paper is scarce, and even old newspapers are too valuable to be used as wrappers.

The Ukrainians never offer their delicacies to their neighbors at table. Today at dinner I placed my can of condensed milk before the man at my side, but he needed urging before he dared use some in his coffee. I asked him to pass it around. In consternation he protested, “Tovarish, keep it for yourself, you’ll need it.” All the others declined at first, but their eyes burned with desire for the “American product.” The can was emptied quickly amid the general smacking of lips and words of admiration in Slavic superlatives. “Miraculous, worshipful,” they cried.

I spend considerable time with the Ukrainians, learning much about their country, its history, language, and its long revolutionary struggle. Most of the delegates, though young in years, are old in the revolutionary movement. They worked “underground” under the Tsar, took part in numerous strikes and uprisings, and fought against the Provisional Government. Later, about the end of 1917, when the Rada turned reactionary and made common cause with Kaledin and Krasnov, the notorious White generals, these delegates helped the Bolsheviki to fight them. Then came the German invasion and Hetman Skoropadsky. Again these men fought the Directorium and Petlura, its dictator, after the latter had upset the Hetman. Finally they joined the Communist Party in waging war against Denikin and his counterrevolutionary forces.

A long and desperate struggle, full of suffering and misery. Most of them have lost near and dear ones at the hands of the Whites. The three brothers of the Rada member perished in the various fights. The young wife of the student was outraged and killed by a Denikin officer, while her husband was awaiting execution. Later he succeeded in escaping from prison. He showed me her picture, standing on the desk in his room. A beautiful, radiant creature. His eyes grew moist as he narrated the sad story.

Many visitors call on the Ukrainians. There is no propusk system in the Kharitonensky, and people come and go freely. I have made interesting acquaintances, and spent many hours listening to the Ukrainian delegates exchanging experiences with their Russian friends. Some days are like a kaleidoscope of the Revolution, every turn tossing up new facets of variegated hue and brilliancy: stirring incidents of struggle and strife, stories of martyrdom and heroic exploit. They visualize the darkness of the Tsarist dungeons suddenly lit up by the flames of the February Revolution, and the glorious enthusiasm of the liberation. Surpassing joy of freedom, and then the sadness of great hopes unfulfilled, and liberty remaining an empty sound. Again the rising waves of protest; the soldiers fraternizing with the enemy; and then the great October days that sweep capitalism and the bourgeoisie out of Russia, and usher in the new world and the new Humanity.

These men fill me with wonder and admiration. Common workers and soldiers, but yesterday mute slaves, they are today the masters of their fate, the rulers of Russia. There is dignity in their bearing, self-reliance and determination⁠—the spirit of assurance that comes with struggle and the exercise of initiative. The fires of Revolution have forged new men, new personalities.