Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



MARIE SPIRODONOVA looks as if she came from New England. Her puritanical plain black clothes with the chaste little white collars, and a certain air of refinement and severity about her seem to belong to that region more than to mad, turbulent Russia--yet she is a true daughter of Russia and of the revolution. She is very young--just past thirty--and appears exceedingly frail, but she has the wiry, unbreakable strength of many so-called "delicate" people, and great powers of recuperation.

Her early history as a revolutionist is exceptional even in the minds of the Russians, and they have grown used to great martyrs. She was nineteen when she killed Lupjenovsky, Governor of Tambov. Lupjenovsky had as dark a record as any official ever possessed. He went from village to village taking an insane, diabolical delight in torturing people. When peasants were unable to pay their taxes or offended him in any way at all, he made them stand in line many hours in the cold and ordered them publicly flogged. He arrested any one who dared hold a different political view from his own; he invited the Cossacks to commit all sorts of outrages against the peasants, especially against the women.

Spirodonova was a student in Tambov; she was not poor and she suffered no personal discomfort, but she could not hear the misery about her. She decided to kill Lupjenovsky.

One afternoon she met him in the railway station. The first shot she fired over his head to clear the crowd, the next she aimed straight at his heart, and Spirodonova. has a steady hand as well as a clear head. Lupjenovsky was surrounded by Cossacks at the time. They arrested Spirodonova.

First the Cossacks beat her and threw her quite naked into a cold cell. Later they came back and commanded her to tell the names of her comrades and accomplices. Spirodonova refused to speak, so bunches of her long, beautiful hair were pulled out and she was burned all over with cigarettes. For two nights she was passed around among the Cossacks and the gendarmes. But there is an end to all things; Spirodonova fell violently ill. When they sentenced her to death she knew nothing at all about it, and when they changed the sentence to life imprisonment she did not know. She was deported to Siberia in a half-conscious condition. None of her friends ever expected to see her again.

When the February revolution broke out eleven years later she came back from Siberia and offered her life again for freedom.

It is hard for us in comfortable America to understand the fervour of people like Spirodonova. It is a great pity that we do not understand it because it is so fine and unselfish. I once asked her how she managed to keep her mind clear during all the eleven years that she was in Siberia.

"I learned languages," she said.

"You see, it is a purely mechanical business and therefore a wonderful soother of nerves. It is like a game and one gets deeply interested. I learned to read and speak English and French in prison." No other woman in Russia has quite the worship from the masses of the people that Spirodonova has. Soldiers and sailors address her as "dear comrade" instead of just ordinary "tavarish." She was elected president of the first two Ah-Russian Peasant Congresses held in Petrograd and she swayed those congresses largely to her will. Later she was chairman of the executive committee of the Peasants' Soviets and she is an extremely influential leader in the Left Socialist Revolutionist party.

When the Bolsheviki came into power they took over the land programme of the Socialist Revolutionists. This brought about great turmoil in the party. The Right maintained that it was their programme and no one had the right to steal it, but Spirodonova and all her wing only laughed.

"What difference does it make," she wanted to know, "who gives the peasants their land--the principal thing is that they get it."

The first time I saw Spirodonova was at the Democratic Congress. Orators had been on the platform arguing about coalition for hours. A hush fell over the place when she walked on the stage. She spoke for not more than three minutes, giving a short, concise, clear argument against coalition. She began:

"Krestian--peasants--if you vote for coalition you give up all hope of your land!"

The great palace shook with the roaring protests of the proletariat against coalition when she ceased. Millions of peasants trust her implicitly and move with her judgment almost invariably. She has the greatest political following of any woman in the world.

If she were not such a clear thinker and so inspired a person, her leadership of the physical giants would be ludicrous. Spirodonova is barely five feet tall. She may weigh 100 pounds and she may weigh less. She has big grey eyes circled with blue rings, and soft brown hair which she wears in a coronet braid. She works on an average of about sixteen hours a day, and everybody in Russia pours into her office at 6 Fontanka to ask advice.

I used to go there and she would tell me interesting stories. One day I took in a Russian girl who belonged to the Menshevik party and who, therefore, was opposed to Spirodonova. She sat silent and listened to her for two hours. When we came out on the street the girl stopped and her eyes were full of tears.

"To think," she said, "that with such eyes and such a face she should ever kill a man! Until today I was her enemy--now I know she is the greatest woman in Russia!"

And to Spirodonova I wish also to make my salaam. I have not met a woman her equal in any country.

The last time I saw her she talked to me about the war and the possibility of a decent peace being secured at Brest-Litovsk. She had no faith in the success of the negotiations, and she was seriously working on what she called a "Socialist army." "We have made secret inquiries," she said, "and we know we will have enough men; they will all be volunteers; there must be no compulsion." I had a vision then of Spirodonova leading her peasant-soldiers to battle instead of through the intricate mazes of politics. ...

She spoke sadly of the sabotagers, especially of the intellectuals. "They consider the Russian revolution an adventure and they hold aloof, but the Russian revolution is much more than that, even if it fails for the present. It is the beginning of social revolution all over the world; it is social revolution here in full swing! The whole country is taking part in it now. My reports come in from the remotest districts. The peasants are already conscious and are making social changes everywhere."

We talked about women and I wanted to know why more of them did not hold public office since Russia is the only place in the world where there is absolute sex equality. Spirodonova smiled at my question.

"I am afraid I will sound like a feminist," she confessed, "but I will tell you my theory. You will remember that before the revolution as many women as men went to Siberia; some years there were even more women. ... Now that was all a very different matter from holding public office. It needs temperament and not training to be a martyr. Politicians are usually not very fine, they accept political positions when they are elected to them--not because they are especially fitted for them. I think women are more conscientious. Men are used to overlooking their consciences--women are not."

Angelica Balabanov, another Russian revolutionist, has much the same theory. She told me in Stockholm: "Women have to go through such a tremendous struggle before they are free in their own minds that freedom is more precious to them than to men." I wish I could believe it, but I can never see any spiritual difference between men and women inside or outside of politics. They act and react very much alike; they certainly did in the Russian revolution. It is one of the best arguments I know in favour of equal suffrage.

Spirodonova as a member of the Left Socialist Revolutionist party is surrounded by a number of the finest young idealists in Russia. Hers is the only party that in a crisis rises above party for the benefit of the nation. It will have more and more to say as the revolution settles down.

The day I left Russia, Spirodonova gave me her picture. She hates publicity and it is the only photograph she ever gave to any one. ... This one she tore off her passport but she refused to say good-bye. "You must come right back," she said, "when you have written your story. And never mind saying anything good about me, but do say something about the revolution. ... Try to make them understand in great America how hard we over here are striving to maintain our ideals."