The Journey to Russia and First Impressions
While the repression launched by the civil governor, Conde de Salvatierra, was wreaking havoc on the Barcelona workers organization, filling the prisons with syndicalists, the Committee of the National Confederation of Labor, and more directly the Committee of the Regional Federation of Catalonia, were attempting to implement the mandate of the National Congress held in Madrid which authorized the workers confederal organization to join the Communist International in Moscow.
Since the mandate to join the Communist International also implied the duty to send, if possible, one or more delegates to Russia, for the purpose of informing the confederal organization upon their return regarding their observations, the Committee’s task was a difficult one. It would of course be much easier to join the International by means of a letter, than to try to get any kind of delegation through the blockade. And it was in the best interests of the organization to send a delegation; instead of a Platonic gesture of support, which the mandate of the Congress represented, it sought to obtain the most precise knowledge of the real situation in Russia.
As we shall see, this was no simple matter. The blockade squeezed Russia in an iron grip, and it was in the interests of the governments that imposed this blockade to prevent anyone from getting into Russia who might bring, not to speak of material aid, even a word of support and sympathy to the people who had carried out their revolution.
The difficulties encountered by the Committee in its attempts to plan an itinerary from Barcelona always seemed to be insurmountable, and we must say that, for a journey starting in Spain, they really were.
When it became clear that the success of the mission did not depend on detailed planning, the whole enterprise was consigned to fate, and to the hazards of the unforeseen; so a few hundred pesetas were staked and three members of the workers organization were sent towards Central Europe.
As one of the three delegates, and, by the way, the delegate who had the most luck on his journey, after numerous incidents and after having had to overcome major inconveniences (some of which were picturesque enough), I set foot on Russian soil on June 25, 1920, and entered the country of revolutionary enchantment. Almost three months had passed since I departed from Barcelona.
What was my first sensation? Enthusiasm, admiration, intense happiness. Why? It would take too long to explain.
* * *
Once you leave Narva (Estonia)—which is where I disembarked—the Russian frontier is just on the other side of the river that also bears the name of Narva, a short distance from the Estonian capital.
Proceeding from Narva, the train was composed of the one car that was designated for us, one of the sleeping cars confiscated by the Soviets from the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. It is also the car for diplomatic mail; and it was also the car in which the diplomatic pouch of the Emperor of Russia was transported in years past when he travelled through Estonia, and in which comrade Gukosky and the trade delegations from London and Berlin also travelled.
The Russian frontier was heralded by a large white wooden disc with a border of bright red, set on a high pole.
A squad of soldiers with their commanding officer in the lead, who came aboard the car to determine who was on the train and what their purposes were, legally authorized our happy arrival in Russia.
After a brief inspection and after answering some questions put by the commanding officer, the train continued its journey and did not stop until Yamburg, the first major Russian train station after crossing the border.
Because we had to wait for a train composed of boxcars carrying consumer goods that had to be detached and added to our train, we spent about six hours at this station. This delay afforded us the opportunity to fraternize with the authentic genuine peasants, with the long-suffering muzhiks, and to observe them going about their everyday affairs.
Over the lintel to the station’s main doorway we discern the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Numerous red flags are waving in the breeze, with the hammer and sickle in the center, the emblem of the Soviet Republic.
Because we were accompanied on our journey by Abramovich or Albrecht, also known as “The Eye of Moscow”—the important Russian official who was known by these three names was one of the most prestigious secret representatives of the Government, and enjoyed the greatest confidence of the Communist Party—we were received with honors and deference everywhere we went.
The stationmaster invited us to stay in his office, if we did not prefer to wait in the lobby. We declined his invitation and sat down with about thirty travelers who were riding on the train with the consumer goods.
A gramophone was playing one of the speeches Trotsky had just delivered at the battlefront. Our lack of knowledge of Russian prevented us from understanding his (undoubtedly) notable speech. The peasants paid no attention to the voices from the gramophone. Perhaps the speeches made no impression on them after having heard them so many times. A dispassionate observer would have noted the unmistakable expression of boredom on those faces.
Tired of the gramophone, and of waiting, we decided to take a little walk in the direction of the town, which is a short distance from the station.
We reached the first isbahs (houses) of Yamburg and before we could thread its streets—a very euphemistic term to be used for rural tracks like these—we stood before a large placard upon which were posted two issues of Izvestia and two of Pravda, the news sheets of the Moscow government.
We asked a member of the local Soviet, a veteran communist who was sent along with us by Abramovich and served as our interpreter, why these newspapers were posted like this and if they were being sold or given away for free.
He told us that they were neither sold nor given away because the paper shortage imposed a restriction on how many copies could be printed. They were posted on these placards so that everyone could read them. This will be done throughout Russia as long as the paper shortage does not allow for a larger print run.
“Do many people read them?”, we asked.
“Enough,” he answered. “But not as many as we would like; for the Russian peasant, dominated by petit bourgeois ideas, is proving quite refractory to communism.”
“In Europe,” we continued, “we were told that many people froze to death in Russia this past winter. Now we understand that this was a hoax. There are so many forests here, that it is not possible for anyone to freeze to death.”
“No one freezes to death here, but in Moscow and Petrograd they do. We have endured a very cold winter. You see how I still have all my fingers? You see these scars?”—he showed us some marks on his skin that looked like the scars from burns or cuts—“they are ulcers from frostbite.”
“How can that be,” I interjected, “since you have plenty of means of generating heat?”
“It is because it is not allowed that each person should do what he likes and take as much firewood as he wants. That is what the distribution service is for, which distributes to each person what he needs. It is true that it could not function this past year; but from now on, when everything is well organized and the distribution service functions normally, everyone will have all the firewood they need. In the meantime we have to suffer.”
Since we had come a long distance from the station, we decided to retrace our steps.
When we reached the station, the train was almost ready to leave; only one or two cars still needed to be coupled.
Not seeing any extra passenger carriages, I said to Abramovich:
“We are going to be very uncomfortable in that car.”
“Unless I have miscalculated, there are fifty of us.”
“No one else is going to travel in your car,” he told me.
“So how are the other people going to be accommodated if there are no more passenger cars other than the one you gave us?”
“All these people are traveling in a boxcar with the goods.”
“And why not in this car?”, I responded, referring to the sleeping car.
“Because they would vandalize it and get it all dirty.”
At that moment I saw that the whole group, like a flock of sheep driven into their pen, was flowing towards one of the boxcars carrying consumer goods, everyone trying to get onboard at the same time.
Women, children, and old people; everyone climbed aboard and found a spot to sit down where they could. They sat right on the floor or on the luggage they brought, all piled up in a stack, seemingly satisfied. Some of them, I was told, had been waiting for this train since the night before.
The stationmaster, who had approached us as we were contemplating this spectacle, very courteously notified us that the train was ready to depart, and that we should now embark.
We climbed aboard, and when I had made myself comfortable in a nice soft chair, my imagination revisited the spectacle I had just witnessed.
It took us almost another day to reach Petrograd.
The train could have traveled this distance in a few hours during normal times; but there was no way the train could travel so fast now.
This delay provided us with the opportunity to contemplate the damage caused by the civil war.
Narva was the base for Yudenitch’s white army when he tried to conquer Petrograd and overthrow the communists.
Along the course of his army’s progress everything had been destroyed. From the windows of our carriage we could contemplate the holes made by exploding artillery shells. Trees completely destroyed, collapsed barns, impassable roads utterly ruined by explosives. Once we reached the outskirts of Petrograd we could see the trenches that the revolutionaries had constructed to defend the city, since the Red Army alone was incapable of defending the city on its own, as it was too weak to contain the advance of Yudenitch. The Red Army was in the first stages of being organized.
Our anxious desire to get to Petrograd was in sharp contrast with the very slow progress of the train. Even during peacetime, before the war, it was rare for Russian trains to go faster than 40 kilometers per hour. With the exception of the major Berlin-Warsaw-Moscow-Petrograd express trains, none of them exceeded that speed, and many could not even go that fast. Considering the situation of the railroads after three years of war and almost four years of revolution, the dreadful conditions with regard to materiel and the fact that we were traveling in a train carrying basic commodities, it will be understood why we were going so slowly.
Station stops seemed to take forever. And the spectacle to which we were treated at Yamburg was constantly repeated. When a cattle car was not big enough for a crowd of travelers, they were allowed to occupy another one, which was only done with difficulty, since it was necessary to consult the Extraordinary Commission that was traveling in the train.
Since the number of travelers was constantly growing with each stop and the debate about where to put them increased even more than the number of travelers, the whole business resulted in a longer and longer stopover at each station.
At every station, as at Yamburg, we invariably saw the three portraits of Lenin, Marx and Trotsky displayed above the main entrance. The three portraits and the red flags.
Since it was impossible for us to do anything about the pace of our journey, we patiently resigned ourselves to waiting and delivered ourselves into the hands of fate.
It took the rest of the day, the whole night and part of the next morning to reach Petrograd, during which time we engaged in discussions and conjectures concerning what we would see.
From nine in the morning, when we arrived at the Petrograd station, until noon, when an automobile from the Third International was located for us, we had to remain in our sleeping car. The spectacle we witnessed during those three hours gave us an idea of the suffering imposed on the Russian people by the blockade, the sacrifices imposed upon them by the Revolution and the stoicism with which they endured all of these things.
During this time more than a half dozen trains arrived at the station; trains in which one could hardly discern one passenger carriage. All the cars were the kind of boxcars that are usually used for cattle.
From these boxcars, once the train had come to a stop, an immense multitude of persons of all ages disembarked, their faces reflecting the terrible martyrdom they had undergone. Almost all of them were burdened with baggage of greater or lesser size, in which they carried provisions.
They were residents of Petrograd who had scattered over the countryside in search of the means of life. They went to the most distant houses in the country acquiring what was indispensable for subsistence, and the peasants obtained in exchange clothing, shoes or furniture. The peasants refused to take paper money.
Many of these people, who thus scoured the province of Petrograd in search of food, would later ply their trade on the black market once they returned to Petrograd with their goods. They sold them or traded them for other things; and this is the only way they could survive. This kind of trafficking attained enormous proportions. And no matter how many repressive measures were enacted against it, it continued unabated; the situation may have actually become worse. However many risks the black market speculator had to take, he still had to exchange the goods he managed to smuggle into the city.
One’s attention was immediately drawn to the motley and eccentric clothing worn by the population. It was like an immense bazaar where clothing of all colors and kinds, used, slightly used and new, was piled up and distributed at random.
It was not rare to see a young person wearing a new wool cap, or almost new, a slightly worn silk blouse and a smock of the most ordinary fabric, or even with patches made of a different fabric.
You might see others with high top shoes, almost new, with socks instead of full-length stockings. Nor was it rare to see a woman dressed in a man’s jacket and shoes without socks or stockings.
Most women wore their hair cut short, Roman style. We later made inquiries, during our stay in Moscow, about the reason for this hairstyle and we were told that it was a result of necessity.
There was a shortage of combs, hairpins, mirrors, and soap; all the things that were indispensable for the most elementary coiffure. This was why they had to sacrifice their flowing locks.
In this first encounter with the revolutionary reality, without looking through rose-colored glasses, and without any fancy wrappings, we began to get a glimpse of the Russian tragedy.
What impressed us most was the seriousness and the sadness that was reflected on every face.
Not one smile, not one flash of cheerfulness, not even the least perceptible manifestation of contentment. Nothing. A grimace of sadness, of profound sadness, was all we could see. And an impenetrable silence. It seemed that those mouths had never spoken or laughed.
We saw the pain and we wanted to know the cause of it; but we found ourselves face to face with the unknown, and the unknown never allows you to penetrate its mysteries until reason has penetrated its sanctuaries.
Someone hails us. It is the comrade who is responsible for the Estonian diplomatic pouch who is notifying us of the arrival of the automobile that will take us to the “Hotel International”, once a luxurious and inviting abode of tourists prior to 1914, now eclipsed by the “Astoria”, built just a few steps away and converted after the revolution into the residence of all the foreigners who came to Russia, although preference is given to those who come to Russia in pursuit of official business.
The station we finally arrived at was the famous Nevsky Prospect.
The station at Nevsky Prospect was one of the busiest and most important in Russia as well as the best maintained, prior to the war. This was the starting point of all the trains that departed for the interior of Russia and through which the luxury express line of the Warsaw-Berlin-Paris train passes. When we were there it was in a most dilapidated condition.
Windows without glass; many broken and almost fallen out of their frames, since even hinges were in short supply; the ground full of holes, with the asphalt surface almost entirely torn up; a few enclosed walkways that were supposed to serve to channel the crowds of travelers towards their respective platforms were damaged and their walls knocked down, the floor and the doors of the hall that led to a big square were covered in filth and debris that gave us an impression of pain and sadness; and in contrast with this picture, as framed against its background, all the soldiers and employees of the station, dirty, shabby, and clothed in rags, walk from one side of the station to the other without saying a single word, with an air of profound dejection.
As we were leaving the station to go to our automobile, because the public knew that this automobile was in the service of the Third International, the unemployed and starving multitude wandering about in the vicinity of the station and the plaza approached us and thronged around us. But not one word, not one gesture. They seemed to be statues or creatures that had lost the ability to speak. For the inhabitants of Petrograd it was a spectacle displaying something they had long been deprived of: the sight of the arrival of foreigners.
Once we were all seated, the automobile sped down the Nevsky Prospect, but before reaching the end of the avenue made a hard left and then crossed various intersections and dropped us off at the door of the hotel.
In the entrance hall two women stood guard, with rifles on their shoulders, to whom a secretary of the Third International who accompanied us presented our authorization papers.
After being led to the first floor, the same papers were presented to the commandant of the hotel and, after he alerted the hotel staff of our arrival, after a long wait, we were told which rooms we were to occupy.
After having washed and put on clean clothes, we were awaiting the arrival of a high official of the Third International who was supposed to examine our credentials when one of the women who worked for the hotel appeared and asked for comrade Pestaña.
You can understand how upset and shocked I was, when I heard this hotel employee tell me that someone from Petrograd wanted to speak with me.
“Tell him that I will be at his disposal in a few minutes.”
In my impatience to discover who wanted to see me, I ran up the stairs to the next floor.
I knocked on the door of the room that I was told my visitor occupied and, once I opened the door, I was face to face with Victor Serge (Kibalchich), who had not been heard from since his disappearance from Barcelona. I hadn’t the least suspicion that he was in Russia.
We greeted one another with a strong fraternal handshake and, in Spanish, which he spoke with some difficulty, he asked me for news of all the anarchist comrades of Barcelona, of the organization, of the magazine Tierra y Libertad, where he had published such beautiful articles, and of a whole series of things, concerning which he had been unable to keep informed due to the blockade.
I answered his questions as quickly as possible and in turn asked him what was going on with his life and what was his opinion of the revolution.
“Come tonight,” he told me, “to the hotel ‘Astoria’. Ask for my room number, which I will give you now, and we shall have a nice long conversation about everything. Along the way you can see Berkman and Emma Goldman, who are staying in a room near mine, whom you will get a chance to know personally. The conversation will certainly prove to be interesting for you and for us.”
“And how did you know I was here?”, I asked him.
“I serve in a high position in the Third International. One of my responsibilities is to be immediately informed of who is coming from Europe and, when I saw your name, I came over to welcome you.”
Now accompanied by Kibalchich, we descended to the first floor, where we awaited the arrival of comrade Tom Rech, a delegate of the American communists to the Third International, [just who this is cannot be determined with certainty; perhaps John Reed?—translator’s note] who had been in Russia since the time of the First Congress held in the previous year, to whom we handed over our mandates and from whom we received our instructions.
“Tomorrow,” he told us, “we shall depart for Moscow at two in the afternoon. The session of the Executive Committee of the Third International will deliberate regarding the petition of Cachin and Frossard to admit the French Socialist Party into the Third International. You may take part in the debate. Now you can eat, since you have received your itinerary, and then you can visit a Soviet institution.”
I should mention that our journey from Berlin to Petrograd and then to Moscow was made in the company of Rosmer, the delegate of the Committee of the Third International from Paris, his companion and Abramovich, already mentioned, although the latter departed from us in Petrograd, where he was replaced by Murphy and another person.
We ate a quick meal, since we were eager to reconnoiter the capital founded by Peter the Great and to view from up close the havoc wrought by the war, the revolution, and, above all, to mix with the people, since we were unable to speak to them because none of us spoke Russian.
The first place we went was the Cathedral of St. Isaac, which was located right in front of the Hotel International. Its huge doors were wide open.
Inside we found a large scaffold, raised for some construction purpose, but one could see that it had been unused for a very long time. The declaration of war had interrupted this work, like so many other enterprises.
Within the basilica, crowded around a priest and an altar full of icons, we found about three hundred people, most of whom were women. We also noticed the presence of a few soldiers of the Red Army.
The priest spoke in a sad and prophetic tone; his voice, in Russian, was awe-inspiring and resonant.
He seemed to be accusing his penitent listeners.
We departed, but not before admiring the magnificence of the building.
We walked towards the Neva, a river that, as everyone knows, divides Petrograd and connects it with the naval base at Kronstadt.
We came to the Troitsky Bridge, which spans the river between the Winter Palace, formerly the customary residence of the Czar in Petrograd, and the Admiralty.
The panorama was quite appealing. To the right was the Winter Palace, which the Bolsheviks first wanted to transform into a Museum, but then shut down; to the left, the Admiralty. The Troitsky Bridge in front of us, and also in front of us, although on the other side of the Neva, the Stock Exchange, also closed. A little further away, threatening and somber because of the tragedies it evokes, is the famous Peter and Paul Fortress.
We reclined on the bridge, watching the river but without any intention of crossing it. We paid a visit to the Palace of Labor, a pompous title that was given to a workers dormitory.
We visited various offices of the Palace of Labor, whose organization was not yet totally closed down.
The entire organization had not been closed down due to the difficulties encountered on a daily basis in the stockpiling of materiel as well as bureaucratic red tape.
You will forgive me for repeating that, in all the official departments and buildings of the State, which were very numerous, the busts of Karl Marx appeared with a fetishistic abundance. You could not enter a department or an office, or pass by a government building, without the appearance of the bust of the founder of historical materialism inducing silent gestures of reverence.
Even so, the abundance of these little sculptures was nothing compared to the quantity of portraits of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, which are everywhere.
These portraits were normally seen in groups of three, with two of the figures, Marx and Lenin, being represented in almost every group, and if either one of them was missing it would be Marx. For Lenin’s portrait was never omitted. Trotsky and Zinoviev were variably represented. Whether Trotsky’s or Zinoviev’s portrait was displayed depended on their popularity in the office or department in question.
We shall not speak of the red flags. There were tens of thousands of them. Indoors and outdoors, in every corner, you see nothing but red flags. While the buildings are dressed up in red bunting, the Russians walk about the streets in rags.
After having inspected most of the Palace of Labor, we walked to the Ouritsky Square, and then, to the Palace Square, upon which the main doors of the Winter Palace open. It is a circular plaza of regular dimensions, at the entrance to which, on the side where the Admiralty is located, the famous events of 1905 took place. That was where Father Gapon, the agent provocateur in the pay of the police, led the workers demonstration. The defenseless crowd, which was only requesting bread from the Little Father of all the Russians, was machine-gunned from the Admiralty and the Winter Palace.
We walked at random through the various streets to get an idea of the city and the damage inflicted by the war and the revolution.
The spectacle could not have been more depressing.
Where there were once elegant and spacious shops, cafes or restaurants, nothing remained. Everything was closed and shuttered by the neighborhood Soviets. You could see, through holes, broken windows and shattered doors, the filthy and dust-filled interior of these shops. The shelves of some stores seemed about ready to collapse; the counters and furniture, covered with a thick layer of dirt and dust, were rendered useless.
And this sad wreckage offered for our consideration was all that remained of the almost-Asiatic splendor and luxury accumulated by the brutal and cruel nobility of Czarist Russia!
The streets presented the same depressing aspect. Some of them were impassable to traffic.
It was hard to get anywhere in the streetcars. Service was cut back for lack of parts. On the other hand, public transportation was free or almost free, and all forms of transport were always jam-packed with passengers. Due to the large crowds of passengers, there was a constant succession of hilarious incidents, such as I remember from my time in Madrid during the good times of the Romanones.
I have already commented on the general appearance of the people. There was, however, one exception: the sailors.
The sailors comprised an aristocracy with regard to their pay and the esteem in which they were held. It was to them that the Bolsheviks owed their seizure of power, since it was the sailors of Kronstadt who initiated and almost single-handedly carried out the coup d’état that overthrew Kerensky and stopped Broussilov’s offensive, when the latter abandoned the front and led his army towards Petrograd to fight the Bolsheviks. The sailors of Kronstadt and Petrograd were the armed force upon which the Bolsheviks relied, and were in turn paid back with the enjoyment of all the privileges that the Soviet Republic could lavish on its most distinguished defenders.
Later that evening, at nine o’clock, exhausted by so much walking, we returned to the hotel. If it had not been for the silence, we would not have had any idea of how late it was, for, despite the advanced hour, it was like day, a white night, and there was not the least indication that it would get any darker. This phenomenon, which we had already experienced during our passage through the Gulf of Finland, was nonetheless still so unfamiliar to us that we lost any idea of what time it was.
After we had our dinner, since it was still broad daylight, we went to the hotel “Astoria”, where Kibalchich and our other friends were waiting for us.
We entered the Guard’s office and asked for permission to enter the hotel, since we wanted to speak to Kibalchich. The guard checked our papers and authorized our visit.
Kibalchich, like Berkman and Emma Goldman, occupied several rooms on the upper floors—fourth or fifth floors—and since the elevators were out of order, we had to walk up the stairs.
We had some trouble finding their rooms, disoriented by the vast labyrinth of hallways and stairwells.
When we arrived at Kibalchich’s room he told us that Berkman and Emma were not at the hotel, that they had left, either earlier that day or the previous day, on an official mission outside the city and were therefore unavailable for an interview.
We expressed our regret at their absence and told Kibalchich the reason for our visit.
We wanted information; but reliable information, information that does not have the ambiguous and always deceptive character of official information. Need I mention that it is to Kibalchich that I owe the best reports and the most profound criticisms of centralism and the dictatorship of the proletariat?
When I recall the words and advice of Kibalchich not to let myself be deceived by the ostentatious and theatrical information that the official institutions would provide to us, and the reports that persons hostile to Bolshevism provided to me through either official channels or on their own initiative, it makes me laugh at that gigantic battle that is currently being waged to harness the anarchists and the syndicalists to the chariot and the retinue of the victor!
Neither hatred nor sectarianism guide my pen: but when I see the role that is currently being played by the individual who first tried to convince me of the truth of all the Bolshevik tricks and deceits in order to make me believe, as he did, that it could not have been done any other way, and that we have to imitate them, if we do not want to bring about the failure of the revolution, the truth, I think, is either that Kibalchich is not sincere now, or that he has lost the critical and rational spirit that once characterized him.
“Just imagine,” he told me, “to what extremities centralism could be pursued, taking into account how far it has already gone. I am one of the high officials of the Government. You see it; I live in better accommodations. I have an intellectual’s ration card and I earn one of the highest salaries. Furthermore, my privileged position, because my work is indispensable for the revolution and the party, causes me and my colleagues to be treated differently, and we enjoy a whole series of privileges that Soviet employees of the same category who serve in other departments do not enjoy. Very well; pay very close attention to what I am going to tell you.”
“When I arrived here from France, I brought a pair of boots that were in good condition. By being careful and making a few minor repairs, they were pounding the pavement until last winter. But the day came where I could no longer wear them. It was physically impossible. Three months before that, at the beginning of winter, I had requested a pair of boots from Zinoviev; he promised me they would be delivered; and he gave me a voucher so I could get them from the supply depot. Three months passed and I was still unable to obtain these boots. Disgusted and exasperated by such a bothersome delay, I thought: ‘I won’t take another step. Without shoes I will either stay home or go to the office in my bare feet.’”
“A few days passed. But I was tormented by the cold and the rain and suffered a great deal due to my lack of shoes.”
“I spoke a second time to Zinoviev, and I informed him of my wretched situation.”
“He filled out another voucher, and then an Expediting Order so that the boots would be delivered to me.”
“I had to go to seven different offices. In each one I had to undergo a whole procedure and register the boots that were going to be delivered to me. It took another three days for me to be cleared to enter the storage depot where the shoes were located. And, imagine my surprise, amigo Angel, when I saw that there were no more than twenty-five pairs of boots in the warehouse! And what was more surprising than the fact that there were only twenty-five pairs of boots in the inventory of the warehouse, was the fact that in order to obtain a pair of these boots, I had to go to seven different offices staffed by more than fifty employees. The bureaucracy that centralism has been forced to create paralyzes and destroys any attempt at reform and renewal.”
Our conversation wandered over many other fields of inquiry; I will postpone relating some of them for now because they belong to another part of my account; but I will provide a summary of the other issues we spoke about.
We became immersed in an interesting conversation in which he analyzed the activities of the anarchists in the revolution and he informed me about some things that I shall attempt to summarize as accurately as possible.
“The activities of the anarchists in the revolution,” Kibalchich began, “are of the greatest interest and merit the attention of the anarchists of Europe and the entire world. See if this is not the case, and judge for yourself whether it is true that, after having been a decisive factor in the progress of the revolution, they are now (note well that I said they are now rather than we are now, since I belong to the Party, and I am officially a communist, which is why I do not want to represent myself to you as an anarchist with a clear conscience), they are now reduced to a satellite of Bolshevik Power, and either accept the dictatorship of the proletariat or else become prison fodder. You will see that the difference is significant.”
“You know well that, in Russia, before the revolution, most anarchist groups, due to the country’s poverty, which did not permit the devotion of resources to propaganda, had generalized the struggle in the form of direct armed attacks on banks or persons carrying large sums of money, some of which was then devoted to propaganda.”
“This system, which has the advantage of not requiring the expenditure of considerable economic efforts on behalf of the dissemination of ideas, is ultimately totally negative and harmful in its effects on the morality of the individuals involved. They say that function determines the morphology of an organ; in this case this is fully confirmed: the function of armed assault and violence determines the development of the individuals who carry it out, and engenders in them the habits of the remorseless expropriator. And while the constant risks taken by such an individual who devotes his life to such an occupation nourish the highest degree of bravery, it is also true that they extirpate all sense of organization and cohesion for any task other than that of robbery and expropriation, which have molded his temperament.”
“And so it was that in Russia, during the first moments of the Revolution, the anarchist groups were the first to attack and confront the enemy; and later, during the coup d’état that overthrew Kerensky and put Lenin in power, it was the anarchists who usually were the first to take the initiative, always fighting in the front ranks at the most dangerous locations. In the defense of Petrograd, when Yudenitch and his armies had reached the outskirts of the city, the anarchists, whose trenches you saw from your train car, were in the front line and occupied the most dangerous and exposed positions. They dragged the people to the trenches and they remained there until the end, while Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and company prudently left for Moscow. But after this, after their heroic defense in the trenches and after fighting so valiantly, you no longer saw them anywhere. They closed themselves up in their houses or their clubs, and made speeches, without any serious involvement in the prosaic details of a reality that was, at that time, superior to any abstract conception of ideas.”
“Some comrades spoke out, and even today they are still doing so, and tried to make them see the dangerous situation of the revolution; but most just carried on as before and neither wanted to listen nor were capable of listening to their warnings.”
“And they are still making speeches and pronouncing a continuous stream of sophistry, full of elegant and passionate language, unaware of the harm they are inflicting on themselves by their actions, which, fundamentally, the anarchists must reject if they are employed systematically.”
“I already told you that individual or group expropriation is practiced constantly by the Russian anarchists, and this is recommended in their propaganda as a necessity. As I said; this practice leads to harmful effects on behavior and morality.”
“Whereas in the first revolution, above all due to the feeble resistance offered by the bourgeoisie to the overthrow of the Czarist regime, collective expropriations did not play an important role, they were numerous in the second period.”
“The slogan, ‘All Power to the Soviets’, was no sooner shouted in the streets, or rather, its program put into effect—since the slogan itself was first propagated from the first day of the March revolution—collective and spontaneous expropriations became very numerous, and during this period you saw these anarchists who had practiced expropriation as a system of propaganda, go into banks and loot them, seizing millions of rubles, or gems and valuables of all kinds, and go to the houses that seemed to be the most luxurious and comfortable, and evict their inhabitants onto the street and move other people in, without wanting to be bothered by any other responsibilities.”
“The criminal—in the way this word is used by capitalist regimes and literature—is awakened in these individuals, eclipsing and destroying the idealist, the man of conscience and anarchist ethics.”
“No matter how many suggestions were made to them that they should desist from their appalling labor, they were ignored; all these warnings, recommendations and appeals made to them by their own comrades in ideas, to prevent them from destroying by their example the transformative meaning of the change from individual to collective property that the revolution was impressing on everything, clashed with the habits acquired after a few experiences with expropriations carried out against the Czarist capitalists.”
“But even this would not have been enough to arouse the animosity of the population against them if, by an incomprehensible paradox, they had not also refused, even, to take their place in the factory and workshop. In the name of freedom, interpreted in such a way that it means anyone can do as he pleases, there was no way to make them see reason. The practice of expropriation for propaganda purposes, in the past, had led to the elaboration among their ranks of an anti-anarchist understanding (there is no other way to say it) of their own ideas.”
“This is why, when the Bolsheviks appealed to them to submit to the Bolsheviks’ mandates, the people, who had seen the anarchists, scornful of danger, fighting bravely, but then witnessed them distancing themselves from collective problems in order to wall themselves off in a position that has more in common with the old, destroyed reality than with the gestation of new realities, then failed to come to the aid of the anarchists and the Bolsheviks were victorious.”
“If the anarchist groups, with a few exceptions, had not been imbued with this bastardized sentiment that has nothing in common with the anarchist philosophy but is instead the result of the unfolding of an incomprehensible paradox, due in part to the degree to which these ideas are tolerated in the anarchist movements of almost every country, have no doubt my dear friend, the Bolsheviks would not have been victorious in Moscow; they would not have even dared to confront the anarchists in such a case. The people, who know them well from having seen them fight so courageously against Czarism, would have stood by their side and would have defended them.”
“Now more than ever, with the evidence of this comparative study of practice in relation to ideas, I understand the reason why you Spanish anarchists systematically reject individual expropriation in your groups.”
“Persevere in your conduct and do not allow this theory of individual expropriation, on the pretext of providing resources for propaganda, to infiltrate your groups. If these ideas infiltrate into your groups someday, the harm that will be inflicted on them will be incalculable.”
At the time, Kibalchich was right. But could we say the same thing now?
“With regard to this issue, the Russian Bolsheviks were completely in the right, despite the complaints of the anarchists.”
“And as proof of the influential role the anarchists could have played in the subsequent unfolding of the revolution, if it had not been for these defects I just described, you may judge for yourself by considering the great number of those persons who were or still are anarchists, like me, for instance, but who then renounced their own comrades, and now occupy positions and perform jobs preferentially granted to them in the Soviet regime. There are many occasions when questions of the greatest importance are subject to our judgment. You will have an opportunity to be convinced of this as you spend some time among us.”
Our conversation also touched on the topic of the cruelty that was attributed to the Bolsheviks in Europe.
“It is true,” he told me, “there is no doubt that in a great many cases it was unnecessary; but not always. The Extraordinary Commission, the tribunal presided over by Dzerzhinsky, the Robespierre of Bolshevism, is a terrible thing. It arrests, imprisons, judges and shoots without giving the defendant time to mount any kind of defense; he cannot even discover the real reason for his death. There are truly monstrous cases. I will tell you about some of them.”
“An engineer was arrested and accused of having sold three pounds of sugar in exchange for 36,000 rubles which, in reality, only possess a nominal value, and was brought before the Extraordinary Commission. The Extraordinary Commission condemned him to death.”
“The reason he received the death sentence was that, prior to the revolution, he was a member of the Menshevik Party.”
“The engineer’s wife alerted some of his friends to the engineer’s predicament, and they came to see me, and we filed a legal appeal on his behalf. We were promised that he would be pardoned; then, three days later we read in Izvestia that he had been shot that morning. I could tell you about hundreds of similar cases.”
“And what can you tell me,” I asked him, “about the black market?”
“Regarding this question, I cannot even provide you with a vague reflection of what is really happening. Speculation and robbery are the order of the day. State warehouses are sacked and looted right under the noses of the guards.”
“The following story is a typical case:”
“There was a shortage of butter in Petrograd. The local Soviet was unable to supply so much as a kilo of butter. The shortage was so bad that even the hospitals were unable to obtain this food. The speculators, fearful of suffering serious punishments, did not dare to reveal the truth about the stockpiles of butter they had concealed, or about how they prevented their hoards in the provinces from reaching Petrograd. But it was a good time to make windfall profits. So what should be done?”
“At one of the meetings of the Soviet, when the question was brought up for debate, a citizen came forward and said that he could deliver a truckload of butter for 100,000 rubles (which everyone knew that he had originally purchased for 8,000 rubles), but that he needed authorization for transport, since the truck with the butter was in the provinces.”
“The Soviet accepted the offer and authorized the transport of the butter. Two days later the truck loaded with butter reached the capital.”
“A delegate of the Soviet arrived to acknowledge the receipt of the butter and to make the promised payment.”
“All the terms of the agreement having been fulfilled, the truck was sealed and four guards were posted nearby, who were relieved every two hours.”
“The next day, two military trucks came to take the butter away. The seals were broken, they opened the doors, and … there was nothing in the truck! It was completely empty! No one could discover either when or how the butter had been stolen.”
“The soldiers were interrogated; but each group of four put the blame on the unit they had relieved or the one that relieved them. The only certainty was that the whereabouts of the butter was unknown.”
“You must have seen numerous men and women at the train station,” he continued, “carrying luggage of all kinds; with ten or fifteen liter bottles, full of milk, because almost all these foods are destined for the black market. And don’t think that those who buy are only the dispossessed bourgeoisie or workers; we all buy on the black market, even us, if we did not we would starve to death. The rations we receive only represent a minor percentage of what is necessary to live; we need to find the rest and buy it from the speculators.”
“In Moscow you will see many curious instances of this kind of thing. Take a walk along the Sukharevka and see for yourself.”
“What’s that?”, I asked him.
“It is a market that the Soviet did not want to shut down because it was the market for second-hand goods. You have something like it in the Encantes in Barcelona, or the Rastro in Madrid.”
It was late. Just past two in the morning. Our interest in what he was telling us caused us to want to stay there until the time when we were scheduled to leave for Moscow; but because we did not want to take too much advantage of the comrade’s good will, we had to tell him that our conversation was at an end for now.
We said goodbye, and he promised to visit us in Moscow and to speak of many other things.
We went back to our hotel enchanted by the beauty of the night; but we were somewhat disturbed by what we had just heard.
The guard at the hotel was, like the morning of our arrival, mounted by two beautiful amazons with long blonde hair, and instilled us with a certain admiration due to the fact that they had cigarettes dangling from their lips.
Their somewhat masculine uniforms, the rifles on their shoulders and the cigarettes in their mouths, reminded us of that other kind of feminism that was popular in Spain.
They subjected our papers to minute examination, and with a gesture made us understand that we could proceed.
We went up the stairs. The desk clerk gave us the keys to our rooms and we took our rest.
The exertions of the day and the emotional turmoil of our experiences required a little relaxation, so we fell asleep almost right away after lying down.