The Market

I like the feel of the hard snow singing under my feet. The streets are alive with people⁠—a striking contrast to Petrograd, which gave me the impression of a graveyard. The narrow sidewalks are crooked and slippery, and everybody walks in the middle of the street. Rarely does a streetcar pass, though an auto creaks by occasionally. The people are better dressed than in Petrograd and do not look so pale and exhausted. More soldiers are about and persons clad in leather. Cheka men, I am told. Almost everybody carries a bundle on his back or pulls a little sleigh loaded with a bag of potatoes dripping a blackish fluid. They walk with a preoccupied air and roughly push their way ahead.

Turning the corner into the Miasnitskaya Street, I noticed a large yellow poster on the wall. My eye caught the word Prikaz in big red letters. Prikaz⁠—order⁠—instinctively the expression associated itself in my mind with the old regime. The poster was couched in the familiar style, “I command,” “I order,” repeating themselves with the frequency usual in the old police proclamations. “I command the citizens of Moscow,” I read. Citizens? I sought the date. It was marked January 15, 1920, and was signed by the Commissar of Militia. The Prikaz vividly recalled the gendarmes and the Cossack order of things, and I resented it. The Revolution should find another language, I thought.

I passed the Red Square where the heroes of the Revolution are buried along the Kremlin wall. Thousands of others, as devoted and heroic, lie in unknown graves throughout the country and on the fronts. A new world is not born without pain. Much hunger and misery Russia is suffering still, the heritage of the past which the Revolution has come to abolish forever.

On the wall of the old Duma, near the Iverskaya Gate, I read the legend cut into the stone: “Religion is opium for the people.” But in the chapel nearby services were being held and the place was crowded. The cassocked priest, long hair down his back, was musically reciting the Greek-Catholic litany. The worshipers, mostly women, knelt on the cold floor, continuously crossing themselves. Several men, shabbily dressed and carrying portfolios, came in quietly, bowed low and crossed themselves reverently.

A little further I came upon a marketplace, the historic Okhotny Ryad, opposite the Hotel National. Rows of little stalls on one side, the more pretentious stores on the other, the sidewalk between them⁠—it has all remained as in the time past. Fish and butter were offered, bread and eggs, meat, candy, and cosmetics⁠—a living page from the life the Revolution has abolished. An old lady with finely chiseled features, in a threadbare coat, stood quietly holding a Japanese vase. Near her was another woman, younger and intellectual looking, with a basket containing crystal wine glasses of rare workmanship. On the corner little boys and girls were selling cigarettes and lepyoshki, a kind of potato pancake, and further I saw a crowd surrounding an old woman busily dishing out tshtchi (cabbage soup).

“A fiver, a fiver!” she cried in a hoarse, cracked voice. “Delicious tshtchi, only five kopeks!”

The steaming pot breathed an appetizing odor. “Give me a plate,” I said, handing the woman a rouble.

“God be with you, little uncle,” she eyed me suspiciously, “a fiver it costs, five kopeks.”

“Here’s a whole rouble,” I replied.

The crowd laughed good-humoredly. “She means five roubles,” someone explained, “a rouble is only a kopeck.”

“It ain’t worth that, either,” a little urchin chimed in.

The hot liquid sent a pleasing warmth through my body, but the taste of voblia (fish) was insufferable. I made a motion to return the dish.

“Please permit me,” a man at my elbow addressed me. He was of middle age, evidently of the intelligentsia, and spoke in accents of the cultured Russian. His shiny dark eyes lit up features of a sickly pallor. “Your permission,” he repeated, indicating the dish.

I handed him the plate. Avidly, like a starved man, he swallowed the hot tshtchi, gleaning the last shred of cabbage. Then he thanked me profusely.

I noticed a thick volume under his arm. “Bought it here?” I asked.

“Ah, no, how is it possible! I have been trying to sell it since morning. I’m a civil engineer, and this is one of my last,” he patted the book affectionately. “But excuse me, I must hurry to the store before it is too late. They haven’t given any bread out for two days. Extremely obliged to you.”

I felt a tug at my elbow. “Buy some cigarettes, little uncle,”⁠—a young girl, extremely emaciated, held her hand out to me. Her fingers, stiff with cold, were insecurely clutching the cigarettes lying loose in her palm. She was without hat or coat, an old shawl wrapped tightly about her slender form.

“Buy, barin,” she pleaded in a thin voice.

“What barin,” a girl nearby resented. “No more barin,5 we’re all tovarishi now. Don’t you know,” she gently chided.

She was comely, not over seventeen, her red lips strongly contrasting with the paleness of her face. Her voice was soft and musical, her speech pleasing.

For a moment her eyes were full upon me, then she motioned me aside.

“Buy me a little white bread,” she said modestly, yet not in the least shamefaced; “for my sick mother.”

“You don’t work?” I asked.

“Don’t work!” she exclaimed, with a touch of resentment. “I’m typing in the sovnarkhoz, but we get only one-half pound of bread now, and little of anything else.”

Oblava!6 militsioneri!” There were loud cries and shouts, and I heard the clanking of sabres. The market was surrounded by armed men.

The people were terror-stricken. Some sought to escape, but the military circle was complete; no one was permitted to leave without showing his papers. The soldiers were gruff and imperious, swearing coarse oaths and treating the crowd with roughness.

A militsioner had kicked over the tshtchi pot, and was dragging the old woman by the arm. “Let me get my pot, little father, my pot,” she pleaded.

“We’ll show you pots, you cursed speculator,” the man threatened, pulling her along.

“Don’t maltreat the woman,” I protested.

“Who are you? How dare you interfere!” a man in a leather cap shouted at me. “Your papers!”

I produced my identification document. The Chekist glanced at it, and his eye quickly caught the stamp of the Foreign Office and Chicherin’s signature. His manner changed. “Pardon me,” he said. “Pass the foreign tovarish,” he ordered the soldiers.

On the street the militsioneri were leading off their prisoners. Front and rear marched the soldiers with bayoneted rifles held horizontally, ready for action. On either flank were Cheka men, their revolvers pointed at the backs of the prisoners. I caught sight of the tshtchi woman and the tall engineer, the thick volume still under his arm; I saw the aristocratic old lady in the rear, the two girls I had spoken to, and several boys, some of them barefoot.

I turned toward the market. Broken china and torn lace littered the ground; cigarettes and lepyoshki lay in the snow, stamped down by dirty boots, and dogs rapaciously fought for the bits of food. Children and women cowered in the doorways on the opposite side, their eyes following the soldiers left on guard at the market. The booty taken from the traders was being piled on a cart by Chekists.

I looked at the stores. They remained open; they had not been raided.

In the evening I dined at the Hotel National with several Communist friends who had known me in America. I used the occasion to call their attention to the scene I had witnessed on the marketplace. Instead of being indignant, as I expected, they chided me for my “sentimentality.” No mercy should be shown the speculators, they said. Trade must be rooted out: buying and selling cultivates petty middle-class psychology. It should be suppressed.

“Do you call those barefoot boys and old women speculators?” I protested.

“The worst kind,” replied R⁠⸺, formerly member of the Socialist Labor Party of America. “They live better than we do, eat white bread, and have money hidden away.”

“And the stores? Why are they permitted to continue?” I asked.

“We closed most of them,” put in K⁠⸺, Commissar of a Soviet House. “Soon there will not be any of them left open.”

“Listen, Berkman,” said D⁠⸺, an influential leader of the labor unions, in a leather coat, “you don’t know those ‘poor old men and women,’ as you call them. By day they sell lepyoshki, but at night they deal in diamonds and valuta. Every time their homes are searched we find valuables and money. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I have had charge of such searching parties myself.”

He looked severely at me, then continued: “I tell you, those, people are inveterate speculators, and there is no way of stopping them. The best thing is to put them to the wall, razstrelyat⁠—shoot them,” he raised his voice in growing irritation.

“Not seriously?” I protested.

“No? Eh?” he shouted in a rage. “We’re doing it every day.”

“But capital punishment is abolished.”

“It’s rarely resorted to now,” R⁠⸺ tried to smooth matters, “and that only in the military zone.”

The labor Chekist eyed me with cold, inimical gaze, “Defending speculation is counterrevolutionary,” he said, leaving the table.