Chicherin and Karakhan

⁠—It was 3 a.m. In the Foreign Office correspondents were about and visitors come by appointment with Chicherin. The People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs has turned night into day.

I found Chicherin at a desk in a large, cold office, an old shawl wrapped around his neck. Almost his first question was “how soon the revolution could be expected in the States.” When I replied that the American workers were still too much under the influence of the reactionary leaders, he called me pessimistic. In a revolutionary time like the present, he thought, even the Federation of Labor must quickly change to a more radical attitude. He was very hopeful of revolutionary developments in England and America in the near future.

We discussed the Industrial Workers of the World, Chicherin saying that he believed I exaggerated their importance as the only revolutionary proletarian movement in America. He considered the Communist Party in that country of far greater influence and significance. He had recently seen several American Communists, he explained, and they informed him on the labor and revolutionary situation in the States.

A clerk entered with a typed sheet. Chicherin scanned it carefully, and began making corrections. His neck shawl kept sliding down on the paper, and impatiently he would throw it back over his shoulder. He read the document again, made more corrections, and looked displeased. “Terribly confused,” he muttered irritably.

“I’ll have it retyped at once,” the clerk said, picking up the paper.

Chicherin impatiently snatched it out of his hand, and without another word his lean, bent figure disappeared through the door. I heard his short, nervous step in the corridor.

“We are used to his ways,” the clerk remarked apologetically.

“I met him on the stairs without hat or coat when I came up,” I said.

“He is all the time between the second and the fourth floor,” the clerk laughed. “He insists on taking every paper to the radio room himself.”

Chicherin returned all out of breath, and took up the conversation again. Messengers and telephone kept interrupting us, Chicherin personally answering every call. He looked worried and preoccupied, with difficulty picking up the thread of our talk.

“We must bend every effort toward recognition,” be said presently, “and especially to lift the blockade.” He hoped much in that direction from the friendly attitude of the workers abroad, and he was pleased to hear of the growing sentiment in the United States for the recall of American troops from Siberia.

“No one wants peace so much as Russia,” he said emphatically. “If the Allies would come to their senses, we would soon enter into commerce with them. We know that business in England and America is eager for such an opportunity.”

“The trouble with the Allies,” he continued, “is that they don’t want to realize that we have the country back of us. They still cling to the hope of some White general rallying the people to his banner. A vain and stupid hope, for Russia is solidly for the Soviet Government.”

I related to Chicherin the experience of the Buford deportees on the Finnish border, and repeated to him the request of a certain American correspondent I had met there to be admitted to Russia.

“He is from a bourgeois newspaper,” Chicherin remarked, recalling that the man had been refused a Soviet visa. “On what ground does he apply again?”

“He asked me to tell you that his newspaper was the first in America to take a friendly attitude to the Bolsheviki.”

Chicherin became interested, and promised to consider the application.

“I also need some ‘paper’ from you,” I remarked jestingly, explaining that I was probably the only person in Soviet Russia without “documents,” as I had left Petrograd before they were issued to the Buford deportees. He laughed at my being “unidentified,” and recalled the mass meeting of Kronstadt sailors and workers in the Tshinizelli Circus in Petrograd, in 1917, to protest against my being “identified” with the Mooney case and extradited to California.

He ordered the clerk to prepare a “little paper” for me, and he signed it, remarking that there was much work in the Foreign Office, and that he hoped I would help with translations.

When I looked at the document I saw that it referred in very favorable terms to the “well-known American revolutionist,” but that there was no mention of my being an Anarchist. Was that term avoided purposely, I wondered? What cause would there be for it in Soviet Russia? I felt as if a veil were stealthily drawn over my personality.

Later in the day I visited Karakhan. Tall, good-looking, and well-groomed, he sat leisurely in a sumptuous office, his feet resting on a fine tiger skin. His appearance justified the humorous characterization I heard of him in the anteroom. “A Bolshevik who can wear white gloves gracefully,” someone had said.

Karakhan asked me to converse in Russian. “Nature has given me no talent for languages,” he remarked. We discussed the labor situation abroad, and he expressed himself confident of the speedy bankruptcy of international capitalism. He was enthusiastic about the “growing influence of the Communist Party in England and America,” and seemed much displeased when I pointed out that his optimism was entirely unjustified by the actual state of affairs. He listened with a smile of well-bred incredulity as I spoke of the reaction following the war and the persecution of radicalism, in the States. “But the workers of England and America, inspired by the Communists, will presently force their governments to lift the blockade,” he insisted. I sought to impress him that Russia must make up her mind to rely upon herself for the reconstruction of her economic life. “Of course, of course,” he assented, but there was no conviction in his tone.

“Our hope is in the lifting of the blockade,” he said again, “and then our industries will develop quickly. At present we are handicapped by the lack of machinery and skilled labor.”

Referring to the peasantry, Karakhan asserted that the farmer profited by the Revolution more than any other part of the population. “Why,” he exclaimed, “in the villages you will find upholstered furniture, French mirrors, graphophones, and pianos, all given to them by the city in exchange for food. The luxuries of the mansion have been transferred to the hovel,” he laughed, pleased with his bon mot and gracefully stroking his well-trimmed black beard. “We have declared ‘war to the palaces, peace to the huts,’ ” he continued, “and the muzhik lives like a barin2 now. But the Russian peasant is backward and deeply imbued with the petty bourgeois spirit of ownership. The kulaki3 often refuse to contribute of their surplus, but the Army and the city proletariat must be fed, of course. We have therefore been compelled to resort to the razvyorstka4⁠—an unpleasant system, forced upon us by the Allied blockade. The peasants must do their share to sustain the soldiers and the workers who are the vanguard of the Revolution, and on the whole they do so. Occasionally the muzhiki resist requisition, and in such cases the military is called upon. Unfortunate occurrences, but not very frequent. They usually happen in the Ukraine, our richest wheat and corn region⁠—the peasants are mostly kulaki there.”

Karakhan lit a cigar and continued: “Of course, when requisition is made, the Government pays. That is, it gives the peasant its written obligation, as proof of its good faith. Those ‘papers’ will be honored as soon as civil war is over, and our economic life put in order.”

The conversation turned to the recent arrests in Moscow in connection with a counterrevolutionary conspiracy unearthed by the Cheka. “Oh, yes,” Karakhan smiled, “they are still plotting.” He grew thoughtful for a moment, then added: “We abolished capital punishment, but in certain cases exceptions have to be made.”

He leaned comfortably back in his armchair and continued:

“One mustn’t be sentimental. I remember how hard it was for me, way back in 1917, when I myself had to arrest my former college chums. Yes, with my own hands”⁠—he held out both hands, white and well-cared for⁠—“but what will you? The Revolution imposes stern duties upon us. We mustn’t be sentimental,” he repeated.

The subject changed to India, Karakhan remarking that a delegate had just arrived from that country. The movement there was revolutionary, though of nationalistic character, he thought, and could be exploited to keep England in check. Learning that while in California I was in touch with Hindu revolutionists and Anarchists of the Hindustan Gadar organization, he suggested the advisability of getting in communication with them. I promised to look after the matter.