Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



NO foreign office in the world ever could be like the Bolshevik Foreign Office; there were strange new departments and strange activities which didn't fit at all with the old-time servants in their formal blue uniforms with brass buttons and red collars, who took off the hats and rubbers of the common soldiers with the same outward show of politeness that they once abjectly displayed towards Grand Dukes and Ambassadors. Every one called every one else "comrade" and the clerks sold revolutionary pamphlets, which they kept on long tables in the corridors.

Trotsky rarely came to the Foreign Office, but did all his business at Smolny and the svetzars were kept busy running errands between the two institutions. Dr. Zalkin his assistant, had charge of the details of the work. He is a handsome man with a great shock of grey hair and a young face; he speaks four languages and holds many university degrees. On his desk was always some scientific work, usually French, which he read in spare moments. He appeared to be masquerading in workman's clothes, because he looked so aristocratic with his long, delicate face, slender build and sensitive hands. Nevertheless, he was one of the sincerest revolutionists that I knew.

To an American, accustomed to the time-clock and high speed, all the offices seemed to be run in an incredibly haphazard fashion. There was the ante-room of the minister's cabinet where foreigners came to get their passports stamped. The fee was fifteen rubles, unless you could prove you were a member of the working class. When I took my passport in to have it viséd, my money was handed back and the clerk remarked, with a smile, "In my opinion a reporter is truly a member of the proletariat."

Perhaps the most interesting of all the departments was the Department of War Prisoners, which was particularly active during the month or two after the last Revolution. What grand plans for a revolt in the Central Empires were hatched in those days! What magnificent hopes to end the war, to bring peace to the world by a rising of the workers! Mentsikovski was Commissar of the bureau.

Next door was the newly founded Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda, under the head of Boris Reinstein of Buffalo, New York, where also worked two other American Socialists, John Reed and Albert Rhys Williams. The business of the Committee, among other things, was to carry revolutionary ideas into Germany and Austria by every means possible, Reed and Williams introduced American advertising psychology – briefness and concrete impressions – into the propaganda. They got out, for example, an illustrated edition of Die Fackcel. They reproduced a picture of the old German Embassy in Petrograd with the caption: "German soldiers and workers – Why don't you put a German workman in this place?"

They inserted pictures of revolutionists tearing down the royal insignia with the comment: "When workmen are blind they reverence such symbols. When will you tear the mask from your eyes ?"

There was an illustration showing a group of workmen sitting around comfortably in a palace. "Workers have always built the palaces," read the caption, "and have defended them with their blood, now for the first time they live in the palaces they built and defended. Why do you lag behind?"

The Americans added energy to the plans of the Russians. Every day they saw to it that tons of revolutionary literature were placed on the trains and started towards the front. Williams even formed a Foreign Legion to help repel the threatened invasion.

There was the Department of the Press, under the direction of Radek. These three departments published jointly newspapers in three languages – in German, Die Fackel; Hungarian, Nemzetzkoi Socialista; and Roumanian, Inainte. The papers were distributed extensively along the enemy fronts, smuggled over the lines and circulated in prison camps. The Germans are master propagandists and they know too well its value and wrecking ability not to be alarmed by it. It is worth noting that President Wilson's various messages were always smuggled into Germany in this way. ...

Secret meetings were held in the Foreign Office, where German and Austrian prisoners came to plot revolution in their own countries. I was the only woman ever present. We had to sign our names when we went in, as if we were making a death pact and it was truly a dangerous business. Whoever signed was somehow discovered and thenceforth marked by both the monarchists and their co-workers, the German agents. Russians used to say to me jokingly and half in warning, "You have a blonde spy following you to-day," or "I know your spy – he's one of the Black Hundred."

At first I didn't mind; it was a new experience. But it soon got on my nerves. A weird, emaciated little man came several times to see me and claimed to be an American. He invited me to come to his house. After I told him I knew he was a spy he ceased coming, but daily my papers were gone over. I left my place on Troisky Ulitsa after the editor of Novia Jisn, Gorky's paper, told me I was followed by one of the most notorious of the Tsar's secret police. I took up headquarters in the Astoria Hotel, which was the official war hotel. There I was not molested because it was impossible to go in and out without a pass unless one was known. Husky Cronstadt sailors guarded the entrance.

Two weeks after I went to live in the Astoria I was followed by two spies into the Tauride Palace. They got in, but they could not get out. The Lettish guards held them and took away their notebooks. All they contained were exact statistics of my comings and goings, the number of times I took carriages, street-cars, and how long I stayed at various places. I must have been a disappointing subject because I never even took part in a discussion; I was only allowed as an observer. The Bolsheviki let my spies cool their heels in Peter and Paul for over a month, then let them go, as they do most every one else they arrest, on the promise to seek honest employment.

The Foreign Office faces the Winter Palace and the architecture and the colour conform to that of the greatest palace in the world. One room where the prisoners used to meet was extremely beautiful, furnished in massive mahogany and old brocades. Nothing ever discouraged me as much as the conduct of the German soldier prisoners at these meetings. The representatives of the small nationalities of Austria-Hungary were violent revolutionists; they acted much as the Russians did. That is, they came in, in their old clothes and muddy boots, and sat down quite at ease amid all the splendour. The Russians have come to the conclusion that the palaces are theirs and therefore they ought to utilise them and that is all there is to it. Not so the German privates. They entered timidly, sat on the edges of their chairs, twirled their caps nervously in their big awkward fingers....

One night a Prussian officer wedged in on false pretences. He had lied to the prisoners, pretended to be a revolutionist, and had been sent as a delegate. He sat glowering at the company until he was asked point-blank for his opinion. Then he confessed he was only posing as a revolutionist because he had suspected what was going on. He was ejected without further ceremony.

As soon as he was out of the room all the German privates began to talk at once. They said that they were for the revolution, that they believed in it, and wanted to help in every possible way. They were against their government, but they were afraid to speak while the officer was in the room. Officers in camp had told them, they confessed, that they would all be shot when they returned to Germany....

One of the Russians leaned forward and spoke quietly. "Comrade," he said, "how many officers have you got in your camp?"

"Why," answered the soldier, "just a few – just three or four."

"Why don't you kill them, comrade?" the Russian went on in his even voice.

For a moment the German soldiers were dumbfounded. They looked at each other in blank astonishment, whether because they were horrified or because the idea had never before occurred to them, I do not know. At last one of them spoke very slowly – every word came out as if it hurt him all over.

"Yes," he said, "you are right. It must come to that. If we kill them we will no longer have them to fear."

The Russian spoke kindly, as a doctor speaks to a sick child. "Remember," he soothed, "we also were afraid of our officers. Your officers and our officers stand for the same sort of tyranny. We do not fear our officers any more. We are free now."

The Germans agreed solemnly, but their faces were dead white. One caused a ripple of laughter from the Russians when he said, "It is true that we shall have revolution – but wir mussen orden haben."

For a moment I caught a vision of that orderly, mechanical, thorough, inevitable German revolution. So many heads a minute, no forgiveness, no compromise. Order can be more deeply horrible than the utmost confusion. And yet I suppose it is the only way – a complete reckoning, a calm, final judgment....

So far the German social-democrats have been disappointing in the mass. They have not risen to the point other socialists expected them to. Perhaps it is because they have so much to overcome; the step is far greater for them. And yet there are everywhere signs of a good start – the mutiny in the fleet, the strikes starting in Vienna and spreading all over Germany, the latest evidences of Austria's discontent. ... In the German advance volunteer troops from other fronts were used because the German officers did not trust the men impregnated with Bolshevik propaganda. German prisoners at Pskof helped the Red Guards to retake the city. They are changed after living in Russia. I once heard an Austrian officer speaking to a group of prisoners. "How can we stand by," he asked them, "and allow our government to crush the Russian revolution? We are sick of war, but if we are men we must fight with our Russian brothers."

While the negotiations were going on at Brest-Litovsk the prisoners' delegates met and passed the following resolution:

"The Russian revolution is playing the part of all oppressed nations and classes against all tyranny and exploitation. The Russian Revolution remained true to itself when its representatives summed up the peace conditions.

"This appeal is in the name of the Germans from Germany, of the Germans from Austria, the Hungarians, the Bohemians, Slovenians, the Roumanians, the Croatians, the Serbians and other nationalities. The war prisoners of these nationalities accept unreservedly the peace proposition of the Russian government. If it should turn out that the government of Carl of Austria and Wilhelm of Germany refuse to conduct the peace negotiations on the ground of the above propositions, then we, the Germans, Hungarians, etc., immigrants and war prisoners declare war on the German and Austro-Hungarian imperialists, and we will fight in the trenches shoulder to shoulder with our Russian comrades, because the further conduct of engaging in such a war means a revolution aiming at the emancipation of entire mankind, and we know how to discharge our duties as revolutionists. At the same time we appeal to the German and Austro-Hungarian comrades in the trenches fighting under the banners of the German, Austro-Hungarian imperialists to sabotage the war, to surrender themselves, and come over to the side of the Russian revolutionist army, and to do all they can to disorganise the forces of those imperialist governments.

"We appeal to the masses of Germany and Austria-Hungary to develop a strong revolutionary movement against their governments, and we call upon our fellow-workers, men and women, engaged in the war industries in those countries to sabotage their work. They must not prepare any more ammunitions for those governments because that ammunition will be used now, not against their enemies, but against their own fathers, brothers and sons, fighting for international democracy and solidarity, because from now on we, the Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, etc., will be fighting in the Russian trenches."

In order to explain better to the masses and the soldiers of the Central Powers, the appeal designated broadly what the Russian revolution gave to the Russian people, and what it aimed to give. It also demanded that the oppressed nations in Austria-Hungary, etc., be allowed a referendum on the question of self-definition, and that all soldiers, gendarmes, officials, be removed and complete freedom of such a referendum be secured. This resolution was telegraphed to Trotsky at Brest.

I cannot help but feel, after my close glimpses of the revolutionists of Russia, that if Germany tries to absorb Russia she will soon suffer from a mighty attack of national indigestion from which she will not be able to recover. Revolution is an insidious disease, spreading under tyranny, flourishing under autocracy....