The Club on the Tverskaya

In the “Universalist” Club on Tverskaya Street I was surprised to meet a number of the Buford deportees. They had grown tired waiting to be assigned to work in Petrograd, they said, and had decided to come to Moscow. They are quartered in the Third Soviet House, where they receive less than a pound of bread and a plate of soup as their daily ration. Their American money is spent: the Petrograd authorities had paid them 18 roubles for the dollar, but in Moscow they learned that the rate is 500. “Robbed by the great revolutionary Government,” Alyosha, the ship zapevalo, commented bitterly.

“We are selling our last American things,” Vladimir remarked. “It’s lucky some markets are open yet.”

“Trading is forbidden,” I warned him.

“Forbidden!” he laughed scornfully. “Only to the peasant women and the kids peddling cigarettes. But look at the stores⁠—if they pay enough graft they can keep open all they want. You’ve never seen such corruption; America ain’t in it. Most of the Chekists are from the old police and gendarmery, and they graft to the limit. The militiamen are thieves and highwaymen that escaped being shot by joining the new police force. I had a few dollars when I came to Moscow; a Chekist changed them for me.”

People of every revolutionary tendency gather in the Club: moderate Left Social Revolutionists and the more extreme adherents of Spiridonova; Maximalists, Individualists, and Anarchists of various factions. There are old katorzhane among them who had passed years in prison and in Siberia under the old regime. Liberated by the February Revolution, they have since participated in all the great struggles. One of the most prominent is Barmash, who had been sentenced to death by the Tsar, somehow escaped execution, and later played a prominent role in the events of February and October, 1917. Askarev, for many years active in the Anarchist movement abroad, is now a member of the Moscow Soviet. B⁠⸺ was a labor deputy in Petrograd during Kerensky’s time. Many others I have met at the “Universalist” headquarters, men and women grown gray and old in the revolutionary struggle.

There is great divergency of opinion in the Club about the character and role of the Bolsheviki. Some defend the Communist regime as an inevitable stage of the “transitional period.” Proletarian dictatorship is necessary to secure the complete triumph of the Revolution. The Bolsheviki were compelled to resort to the razvyorstka and confiscation, because the peasants refused to support the Red Army and the workers. The Cheka is needed to suppress speculation and counterrevolution. But for the constant danger of conspiracies and armed rebellion, incited by the Allies, the Communists would abolish the severe restrictions and permit greater liberty.

The more extreme elements condemn the Bolshevik State as the most unmitigated tyranny, as a dictatorship over the proletariat. Terrorism and the centralization of power in the exclusive hands of the Communist Party, they charge, have alienated the masses, limited revolutionary growth, and paralyzed constructive activity. They denounce the Cheka as counterrevolutionary, and call the razvyorstka downright robbery, responsible for the multiplying peasant insurrections.

Bolshevik policies and methods are the inexhaustible subjects of discussion at the Club. Little groups stand about in animated conversation, and K⁠⸺, the well-known former Schlüsselburgets,8 is haranguing some workers and soldiers in the corner. “The safety of the Revolution is in the masses being vitally interested in it,” he is saying. “There was no counterrevolution when we had free Soviets; every man stood on guard of the Revolution then, and we needed no Cheka. Its terrorism has cowed the workers, and driven the peasantry to revolt.”

“But if the peasants refuse to give us food, how are we going to live?” a soldier demands.

“The peasants never refused as long as their Soviets could deal directly with the soldiers and workers,” K⁠⸺ replies. “But the Bolsheviki have taken the power away from the Soviets, and of course the peasants don’t want their food to go to the Commissars or to the markets where no worker can afford to buy it. ‘The Commissars are fat, but the workers starve,’ the peasants say.”

“The peasants are up in rebellion in our parts,” a tall man in fur cap puts in. “I’m from the Ural. The razvyorstka has taken everything from the farmers there. They haven’t even enough seed left for the next spring sowing. In one village they refused to give up and killed a Commissar, and then the punitive expedition came. They flogged the peasants, and many were shot.”

In the evening I attended the Anarchist Conference at the Club. First dokladi were read, reports of activities of an educational and propagandistic character; then speeches were delivered by Anarchists of various schools, all critical of the existing regime. Some were very outspoken, in spite of the presence of several “suspicious ones,” Chekists, evidently. The Universalists, a new, distinctively Russian current, took a Center position, not so fully in accord with the Bolsheviki as the Anarchists of the moderate Golos Truda Group, but less antagonistic than the extreme wing. The most interesting talk was an impromptu speech by Rostchin, a popular university lecturer and old Anarchist. With biting irony he castigated the Left and Center for their lukewarm, almost antagonistic, attitude to the Bolsheviki. He eulogized the revolutionary role of the Communist Party, and called Lenin the greatest man of the age. He dwelt on the historic mission of the Bolsheviki, and asserted that they are directing the Revolution toward the Anarchist society, which will secure full individual liberty and social well-being. “It is the duty of every Anarchist to work wholeheartedly with the Communists, who are the advance guard of the Revolution,” he declared. “Leave your theories alone, and do practical work for the reconstruction of Russia. The need is great, and the Bolsheviki welcome you.”

“He’s a Sovietsky Anarchist,” came sarcastically from the audience.

Most of those present resented Rostchin’s attitude, but his appeal stirred me. I felt that he suggested the only way, under the circumstances, of aiding the Revolution and preparing the masses for libertarian, nongovernmental Communism.

The Conference proceeded with the main questions at issue⁠—the growing persecution of Left elements and the multiplying arrests of Anarchists. I learned that already in 1918 the Bolsheviki had practically declared war against all non-Communist revolutionary bodies. The Left Social Revolutionists, who had opposed the Brest-Litovsk peace and killed Mirbach in protest, were outlawed, and many of them executed or imprisoned. In April of that year Trotsky also ordered the suppression of the Moscow Anarchist Club, a powerful organization which had its own military units, known as the Black Guard. The Anarchist headquarters were attacked without warning by Bolshevik artillery and machine guns, and the Club dissolved. Since then persecution of the Left parties has continued intermittently, in spite of the fact that many of their members are at the front, while others are cooperating with the Communists in various Government institutions.

“We fought side by side with the Bolsheviki on the barricades,” the Schlüsselburgets declared; “thousands of our comrades died for the Revolution. Now most of our people are in prison, and we ourselves live in constant dread of the Cheka.”

“Rostchin says we ought to be thankful to the Bolsheviki,” someone sneered.

The Resolution passed by the Conference emphasized its devotion to the Revolution, but protested against the persecution of Left elements, and demanded the legalization of Anarchist cultural and educational work.

“It may seem strange to you that Anarchists should apply to the Government to be legalized,” the Universalist Askarev said to me. “As a matter of fact, we do not regard the Bolsheviki as an ordinary government. They are still revolutionary, and we recognize and give them credit for what they have accomplished. Some of us disagree with them fundamentally and disapprove of their methods and tactics, but we can speak to them as comrades.”

I consented to join the Committee chosen to present the Resolution of the Conference to Krestinsky, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

The anteroom of Krestinsky’s office was crowded with Communist delegates and committees from various parts of the country. Some of them had come from points as distant as Turkestan and Siberia, to report to “the center” or have some weighty problem decided by the Party. The delegates, with thick portfolios under their arms, looked conscious of the important missions entrusted to them. Almost everyone sought a personal interview with Lenin, or expected to make a verbal doklad to the full session of the Central Committee. But I understand that they seldom get further than the secretary’s office.

Almost two hours passed before we were admitted to Krestinsky, who received us in a businesslike, almost brusque, manner. The secretary of the all-powerful Communist Party is a man of middle age, short, and of dark complexion, in his whole appearance the typical Russian intellectual of the pre-Revolution days. He is very nearsighted and nervous, and speaks in a hasty, abrupt way.

Having explained the purpose of our call, we discussed the resolution of the Conference, and I expressed my surprise and sorrow at finding Anarchists and other Left elements imprisoned in the Soviet Republic. American radicals would not believe such a state of affairs in Russia, I remarked; a friendlier attitude on the part of the Communists, sympathy and understanding brought to bear on the situation, and the well-disposed Left element could be of the greatest service to our common cause. Some way should be found, I urged, to bridge the rupture and to bring all revolutionary elements into closer contact and cooperation.

“You think it possible?” Krestinsky asked dryly.

Askarev reminded him of the October days, when the Anarchists so effectively aided the Bolsheviki, and referred to the fact that most of them are still working together with the Communists in various fields of activity, in spite of the suppressive policies of the Government. Revolutionary ethics demand the liberation of the imprisoned Anarchists, he emphasized. They had been arrested without cause, and no charges have been brought against them.

“It’s solely a question of serving our purpose,” Krestinsky remarked. “Some of the prisoners may be dangerous. Perhaps the Cheka has something against them.”

“They have been in prison for months, yet not a single one of them has been tried or even received a hearing,” Askarev retorted.

“What guarantee have we that if released they will not continue their opposition to us?” Krestinsky demanded.

“We claim the right to carry on our educational work unhindered,” Askarev replied.

Krestinsky promised to submit the matter to the Central Committee of the Party, and the audience was over.