Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



I WENT to Moscow on the first train that entered the city after the Bolsheviki had won in the six days' fighting. It was difficult to find a place to sleep. I wandered from hotel to hotel. The stolid, bewhiskered clerks made odd replies to my queries.

"Yes," said one, "I have a large room on the top floor, but there are no panes in the windows. I hope the Barishna will not object."

It was twenty-five degrees below zero, so I continued my search. After about two hours I found a room at the National.

"It is extremely dangerous to be here," confided an Englishman I met in the hall who did not approve of "lady" war correspondents. "You will probably be murdered before morning."

My window looked out over the Kremlin and the Red Square. Night had already fallen. Out of the darkness loomed a long mysterious row of fires. I was able to move freely through the city as I had passes from both the Bolsheviki and the opposition. After dinner I walked over to investigate the fires.

The first thing I realised after I crossed under the great arch was that the Kremlin was still standing. We had had reports in Petrograd that it had been razed to the ground, but there it stood, beautiful beyond description, lit up weirdly by a long line of sputtering torches stuck upon poles beside the north wall.

As I came closer a strange sight unfolded before me. A huge trench, many hundreds of feet in length, was being carved out of the frozen ground. The tall figures of soldiers, the smaller and more gaunt figures of factory workers cast distorted silhouettes across the snow as they bent over their gruesome task.

A young student who read over my passes explained what they were doing. "They are digging the brotherhood grave," he said, "for the last martyrs of the revolution."

I stayed there nearly all night. It was terrifyingly still and lonesome. There was no sound but the clatter of spades and the sputter of torches; there were no stars and the darkness hung down heavily like a great bell.

I asked the soldiers why they had chosen this spot for the Red Burial. They said it was because they wished to bestow the greatest possible honour on their dead comrades and to bury them under the long row of linden trees, across from Our Lady of Iberia; and the fantastically lovely, many cupolaed Vasili Blazhanie showed their deep reverence. It is the holiest spot in all Russia.

About two o'clock I went with the student to the Soviet, which had headquarters in a large building only a few blocks away. It hummed with preparations for the funeral on the morrow. All night long women and girls were sewing miles and miles of red cloth, cutting and trimming and fashioning it into banners for the procession. They sewed with stern, set faces. Perhaps women knitting under the guillotine wore some such expressions. ...

After arranging my permission to attend the funeral we went back to the Red Square. The trench by this time had become deep and long, and the mounds beside it had grown into little hills. About five o'clock we climbed stiffly over the edge and straggled wearily home. The task was completed; the gaping hole was ready to receive five hundred bodies.

I drank my tea and ate my black bread at the hotel and got back to the Soviet at seven-thirty. The procession began at eight. The Executive Committee of the Soviet was to head the procession, and they kindly invited me to march with them.

Feeling ran high that day and no one unknown to the proletariat dared to venture out of doors. All those with bad consciences – monarchists, counter-revolutionists, speculators hid behind drawn blinds, afraid of a reign of terror. While only eight hundred people were killed in Moscow, it was a tremendously important battle; it marked the end of armed resistance by the upper classes; it was the last stand of the Junkers.

From early morning I stood on a mound of newly turned earth watching an immense sea of people pouring through the white, arched gateway of the old Tartar City – flooding all the Red Square. It was bitter cold. Our feet froze to the ground and our hands ached under our gloves. But the spectacle before us was so magnificent that we forgot everything else.

In by the gateway, out by the house of the Romanoffs, the crowd passed endlessly in one huge, interminable funeral procession. Slowly, rhythmically they moved along, like a great operatic pageant symbolizing the long, bitter struggle of the masses throughout the vast intricate fabric of history.

Fine looking young giants of soldiers wearing towering grey chapkies bore the rough wooden coffins, which were stained red as if in blood. After them came girls with shawls over their heads and round peasant faces, holding large wreaths of artificial flowers that rattled metallically as they walked. Then there were bent old men and bent old women and little children. There were cavalry regiments and military bands and people carrying enormous banners that floated out in long, red waves over the heads of the crowd.

Great banners had been suspended from the top of the wall and reached down to the earth. On all the banners were inscriptions about the revolution and the hopes of the workers. Above the high red wall the golden domes of the four old churches inside the Kremlin shone out dizzily against the pale sky. The dark Bell Tower and the house of Boris Gordunoff seemed to be frowning.

All the churches and all the shrines were closed. How impressive it was! No ceremony, no priests; everything so simple and so real!

Sometimes the Lettish band would start suddenly to play the funeral hymn and the soldiers, sailors, the Red Guards and even the little boys and old men would take off their hats; the snow coming down in big flakes fell on their bowed heads, like a benediction. Troops of cavalry rode by at full salute. The martial note of the hymn stirred our blood and the wailing, Oriental notes were full of hopeless sorrow....

Women all around began to sob and one quite near me tried to hurl herself after a coffin as it was being lowered. Her thin coating of civilisation dropped from her in a moment. She forgot the revolution, forgot the future of mankind, remembered only her lost one.

With all her frenzied strength she fought against the friends who tried to restrain her. Crying out the name of the man in the coffin, she screamed, bit, scratched like a wounded wild thing until she was finally carried away moaning and half unconscious. Tears rolled down the faces of the big soldiers.

Sometimes the procession varied by the appearance of a great untrained chorus singing the Revolutionary Funeral Song. No people in the world sing together as well as the Russians; no people love so to express themselves by song. The chorus rose and swelled, rich and resonant in the thin winter air – like a great organ in some fine old cathedral.

Twilight began to settle, softening everything. The sky grew warmer and the snow took on a rosy tint. All the wreaths had been hung in the trees and they swayed back and forth like strange, multicoloured fruit. It was seven o'clock when the last coffin was lowered and the dirt began to be shovelled in.

I had other acquaintances in Moscow – a merchant family turned speculator since the war. They had invited me for dinner and the table groaned with food. The warmth and light of the room stunned me after the thin bitterness of the Red Square.

The three sons of this family were all fit for military service, but had bribed their way free. All three carried on illegal businesses. One somehow managed to get gold from the Lena gold mines to mysterious parties in Finland. One gambled in food. One owned a controlling interest in a chocolate factory which furnished the co-operative stores on condition that the co-operatives first supply his family with everything he wanted. So, while people starved just around the corner, they had an abundance of everything. And they were charming and cultured and very pleasant to their friends....

While we were at the table the talk turned to the Red Burial and then to the army. One of the men showed me a pitiful appeal sent out to the rich families by the Moscow Soviet, begging for shoes and clothes for the soldiers at the front. The company laughed uproariously; they said they would burn their clothes before they would give them to the proletariat. I couldn't help thinking of the people at home, of my own brothers fighting in France, and how quickly we would have answered such an appeal, and I was shocked at the difference. No wonder there is such class bitterness in Russia!

A discussion of the Germans followed and most of the company expressed themselves in favour of a German invasion. Just for a test I asked them to vote on what they really would rather have – the soldiers' and workers' government or the Kaiser. All but one voted in favour of the Kaiser.

I rode home at midnight in a jingling sleigh across the Red Square. It was silent and deserted.