Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



EVERY morning after the Bolshevik coup détat I used to call at Smolny and at the City Duma. They both gave out news quite willingly. I had passes from both to go around the city and get into all the battles I wanted to. The Committee on Saving the Country and the Revolution sat in continual session and outdid any American advertising agency I ever came across. They used to tell us the wildest yarns. When I investigated I invariably found their statements untrue or at least ridiculously exaggerated. Once I went to Mayor Schroeder and complained. "At home," I said, "a politician wouldn't do that; he would really be afraid to tell a reporter a deliberate story. Now, the other night you told me that the prisoners in Peter and Paul were being massacred and I went way out there at two o'clock in the morning and found them sleeping peaceably in their beds."

He stroked his beard and looked serious, righteous almost. "Well," he said, "they (meaning the Bolsheviki) have all the force of arms on their side and we have, after all, only the moral force."

At Smolny they were frank enough, often thoroughly discouraged, never overrating their victories or underestimating their defeats. I think this remarkable way they had of facing the music was one of the greatest reasons for their success.

On the particular morning that I want to tell about, when I arrived at Smolny I found one of the officials very ill. I came back into town with a Bolshevik who is very close to Trotsky. We went straight to the Hotel Europe, where the American Red Cross had its headquarters, in search of a Red Cross doctor. As we walked through the lobby I was surprised to see one of Kerensky's aides standing in a corner with his arms folded and looking tragically funny. He had spent a lot of time in Babushka's quarters at the Winter Palace and I had known him quite well. He was, like all Russian officers of the old type, rather dandified and a little too immaculate and perfumed to please an American, but he was a Georgian and, like most of his race, so exceptionally handsome with his dark eyes and olive skin that you had to forgive him his overfastidiousness.

To-day, however, he was a changed man. He wore a coat too small and trousers too large and his waxed, pointed moustache was all frayed at the ends. He had on the most amazing tattered cap. I almost burst out laughing. It was so Russian for him to do it that way. Just because he was in disguise, in hiding, he would feel it necessary to wear a make-up that would point him out to every one as a conventional villain. It was with great difficulty that I stared right through him and passed on.

My Bolshevik friend and I climbed the wide stairs and walked along the corridor. When we were near the end the young Georgian caught up with us, he was all out of breath. "Mademoiselle," he exclaimed, taking both my hands, "did you not recognise me? I am in disguise!"

Russians can never keep secrets. It is one of the things I like best about them. Good, bad or indifferent their lives are an open book. But on this occasion I very much regretted this national lack of repression. In vain I tried to silence him by winks and cold stares. He couldn't imagine what was wrong with me. He was lonesome and glad to see a friend and that is all he thought about. He blurted out all sorts of startling information. "Kerensky will be here by to-morrow with eighty thousand Cossacks. We will take all the Bolshevik leaders and string them up along the streets!"

"O please don't talk about it," I said, feeling awfully responsible for the serious trouble he was getting himself into. But he misunderstood me entirely and said soothingly: "Now don't you worry, no one is going to hurt you."

We did not escape from him until he had unburdened himself of every scrap of information and misinformation he possessed. It never occurred to him to enquire the politics of my companion.

"What are you going to do?" I asked my friend from Smolny when we were out on the street again.

"Have him arrested," he answered shortly. We entered into a long argument. I maintained that he was of no importance and ought to be treated like the aristocrats who were living in peace all over the city. There is the Grand Luke Constantine's family, for example, who live in the Marble Palace. They occupy the top floor while all the rest of the building is used by the Bureau of Labour....

We were not able to finish the argument because as we turned the corner of Gogol street and St. Isaacs Square sniping began from roof tops. A man walking in front of the German Embassy suddenly dropped down dead, shot by the bullet of an unknown enemy. Cronstadt sailors, on guard at the Astoria Hotel, come rushing down the street to locate the offenders, shouting "Provocatsia!" People were always being killed in those first days by snipers just to start riots. The working people did not want riots and it was easy enough to place the blame.

We could hear firing going on about a block away. The Junkers had taken the telephone exchange on the Morskaya and the Bolsheviki had surrounded them. Bullets began to fly too generally for comfort. We hid in a courtyard behind the Angleterre Hotel and through the chinks in the fence we watched the ridiculous, padded Russian cabmen--isvoschicks--who usually amble along like snails, whipping up their horses and rapidly clearing the square.

As soon as it became quieter we started back to Gogol street. At the corner we saw an armoured car coming at full speed. We did not have time to seek shelter. We found ourselves crammed against a closed archway that had great iron doors securely locked. We hoped that the car would go on, but directly in front of us it stopped with a jerk as if something had gone wrong with the machinery. It's destination was quite evidently the telephone exchange. We had no way of knowing which side it was on until it began to spout fire, shooting up the street and occasionally right into our midst. Then we knew that it belonged to the Junkers. There were twenty in our crowd and about six were Cronstadt sailors.

The first victim was a working man. His right leg was shattered and he sank down without a sound, gradually turning paler and losing consciousness as a pool of blood widened around him. Not one of us dared to move. A man in an expensive fur coat kept repeating monotonously: "I'm sick of this revolution!"

All that happened in the next few minutes is not exactly clear--we were all so excited. One thing that I remember, which struck me even then, was that no one in our crowd screamed, although seven were killed. I remember also the two little street boys. One whimpered pitifully when he was shot, the other died instantly, dropping at our feet an inanimate bundle of rags, his pinched little face covered with his own blood. I remember the old peasant woman who kept crossing herself and whispering prayers. ...

The hopelessness of our position was just beginning to sink in on me when the sailors with a great shout ran straight into the fire. They succeeded in reaching the car and thrust their bayonets inside again and again. The sharp cries of the victims rose above the shouting, and then suddenly everything was sickeningly quiet. They dragged three dead men out of the armoured car and they lay face up on the cobbles, unrecognisable and stuck all over with bayonet wounds.

Only the chauffeur escaped. He begged for mercy and my companion from Smolny said to the sailors: "For God's sake let him go--let's not kill any more of them than we have to." It was a most characteristic remark. Russians hate violence and they hate to kill. At a time like that Angle-Saxons or almost any other race would have been insane with rage at the death of their seven comrades. But the Russians let the chauffeur go. ...

We came back to the argument about Kerensky's aide as we strolled up the Nevsky. "I will tell you what I will do," said he, "I'll give him three days to get out--if he isn't out then he will have to go to prison!" I don't think he ever thought of the aide again. And in three days Kerensky's troops had been defeated and Kerensky himself was in disguise.

One of the most amusing things I heard about disguises was a story concerning Avksentieff, who was one time extremely influential with the peasants until he voted for coalition at the Democratic Congress. By that vote he lost not only his position and his popularity, but his long silky whiskers of which he was particularly proud. Madame Lebedev, Prince Kropotkin's daughter, sheared them off for him when she helped him out of Petrograd.

In Moscow and some of the small towns much more bitter street fighting occurred than in Petrograd. The most bloody battle of the week was for the possession of the Vladimir Officers' School. The officers who were defending the place finally put up a white flag, whereupon the Red Guards came out of their barricades and walked across the open street. Midway the officers opened fire and a number of the revolutionists were killed. In the wild confusion that followed the people stormed the school, took it and stuck some of the officers up on their bayonets. I have always imagined that the whole unfortunate affair occurred because of lack of co-ordination on the part of the Junkers. It seems impossible that they would have been so stupid as to have deliberately fired after surrendering, knowing they were greatly out-numbered, although a similar affair occurred in Moscow. The officers seemed incapable of realising that they were no longer in power.