Chapter 20 - Poltava

Submitted by libcom on October 20, 2005


In the general dislocation of life in Russia and the breaking down of her economic machinery the railroad system had suffered most. The subject was discussed in almost every meeting and every Soviet paper often wrote about it. Between Petrograd and Moscow, however, the real state of affairs was not so noticeable, though the main stations were always overcrowded and the people waited for days trying to secure places. Still, trains between Petrograd and Moscow ran fairly regularly If one was fortunate enough to procure the necessary permission to travel, and a ticket, one could manage to make the journey without particular danger to life or limb. But the farther south one went the more apparent became the disorganization. Broken cars dotted the landscape, disabled engines lay along the route, and frequently the tracks were torn up. Everywhere in the Ukraina the stations were filled to suffocation, the people making a wild rush whenever a train was sighted. Most of them remained for weeks on the platforms before succeeding in getting into a train. The steps and even the roofs of the cars were crowded by men and women loaded with bundles and bags. At every station there was a savage scramble for a bit of space. Soldiers drove the passengers off the steps and the roofs, and often they had to resort to arms. Yet so desperate were the people and so determined to get to some place where there was hope of securing a little food, that they seemed indifferent to arrest and risked their lives continuously in this mode of travel. As a result of this situation there were numberless accidents, scores of travellers being often swept to their death by low bridges. These sights had become so common that practically no attention was paid to them. Travelling southward and on our return we frequently witnessed these scenes. Constantly the meshotchniki [people with bags] mobbed the cars in search of food, or when returning laden with their precious burden of flour and potatoes.

Day and night the terrible scenes kept repeating themselves at every station. It was becoming a torture to travel in our well-equipped car. It contained only six persons, leaving considerable room for more; yet we were forbidden to share it with others. It was not only because of the danger of infection or of insects but because the Museum effects and the material collected would have surely vanished had we allowed strangers on board. We sought to salve our conscience by permitting women and children or cripples to travel on the rear platform of our car, though even that was contrary to orders.

Another feature which caused us considerable annoyance was the inscription on our car, which read: Extraordinary Commission of the Museum of the Revolution. Our friends at the Museum had assured us that the "title" would help us to secure attention at the stations and would also be effective in getting our car attached to such trains as we needed. But already the first few days proved that the inscription roused popular feeling against us. The name "Extraordinary Commission" signified to the people the Tcheka. They paid no attention to the other words, being terrorized by the first. Early in the journey we noticed the sinister looks that met us at the stations and the unwillingness of the people to enter into friendly conversation. Presently it dawned on us what was wrong; but it required considerable effort to explain the misunderstanding. Once put at his ease, the simple Russian opened up his heart to us. A kind word, a solicitous inquiry, a cigarette, changed his attitude. Especially when assured that we were not Communists and that we had come from America, the people along the route would soften and become more talkative, sometimes even confidential. They were unsophisticated and primitive, often crude. But illiterate and undeveloped as they were, these plain folk were clear about their needs. They were unspoiled and possessed of a deep faith in elementary justice and equality. I was often moved almost to tears by these Russian peasant men and women clinging to the steps of the moving train, every moment in danger of their lives, yet remaining good-humoured and indifferent to their miserable condition. They would exchange stories of their lives or sometimes break out in the melodious, sad songs of the south. At the stations, while the train waited for an engine, the peasants would gather into groups, form a large circle, and then someone would begin to play the accordion, the bystanders accompanying with song. It was strange to see these hungry and ragged peasants, huge loads on their backs, standing about entirely forgetful of their environment, pouring their hearts out in folk songs. A peculiar people, these Russians, saint and devil in one, manifesting the highest as well as the most brutal impulses, capable of almost anything except sustained effort. I have often wondered whether this lack did not to some extent explain the disorganization of the country and the tragic condition of the Revolution.

We reached Poltava in the morning. The city looked cheerful in the bright sunlight, the streets lined with trees, with little garden patches between them. Vegetables in great variety were growing on them, and it was refreshing to note that no fences were about and still the vegetables were safe, which would surely not have been the case in Petrograd or Moscow. Apparently there was not so much hunger in this city as in the north.

Together with the Expedition Secretary I visited the government headquarters. Instead of the usual Ispolkom [Executive Committee of the Soviet] Poltava was ruled by a revolutionary committee known as the Revkom. This indicated that the Bolsheviki had not yet had time to organize a Soviet in the city. We succeeded in getting the chairman of the Revkom interested in the purpose of our journey and he promised to cooperate and to issue an order to the various departments that material be collected and prepared for us. Our gracious reception augured good returns.

In the Bureau for the Care of Mothers and Infants I met two very interesting women--one the daughter of the great Russian writer, Korolenko, the other the former chairman of the Save-the-Children Society. Learning of the purpose of my presence in Poltava the women offered their aid and invited me to visit their school and the near-by home of Korolenko.

The school was located in a small house set deep in a beautiful garden, the place hardly visible from the street. The reception room contained a rich collection of dolls of every variety. There were handsome Ukranian lassies, competing in colourful dress and headgear with their beautiful sisters from the Caucasus; dashing Cossacks from the Don looked proudly at their less graceful brothers from the Volga. There were dolls of every description, representing local costumes of almost every part of Russia. The collection also contained various toys, the handwork of the villages, and beautiful designs of the kustarny manufacture, representing groups of children in Russian and Siberian peasant attire

The ladies of the holly related the story of the Save-the-Children Society. The organization in existence. for a number of years, was of very limited scope until the February Revolution. Then new elements mainly of revolutionary type, joined the society. They strove to extend its work and to provide not only for the physical well-being of the children but also to educate them, teach them to love work, and develop their appreciation of beauty. Toys and dolls, made chiefly of waste material, were exhibited and the proceeds applied to the needs of the children. After the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviki possessed themselves of Poltava, the society was repeatedly raided and some of the instructors arrested on suspicion that the institution was a counter-revolutionary nest. The small hand which remained went on, however, with their efforts on behalf of the children. They succeeded in sending a delegation to Lunacharsky to appeal for permission to carry on their work. Lunacharsky proved sympathetic, issued the requested document, and even provided them with a letter to the local authorities pointing out the importance of their labours.

But the society continued to be subjected to annoyance and discrimination. To avoid being charged with sabotage the women offered their services to the Poltava Department of Education. There they worked from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon, devoting their leisure time to their school. But the antagonism of the Communist authorities was not appeased: the society remained in disfavour.

The women pointed out that the Soviet Government pretended to stand for self-determination and yet every independent effort was being discredited and all initiative discouraged, if not entirely suppressed. Not even the Ukrainian Communists were permitted self-determination. The majority of the chiefs of the departments were Moscow appointees, and Ukraina was practically deprived of opportunity for independent action. A bitter struggle was going on between the Communist Party of Ukraina and the Central authorities in Moscow. The policy of the latter was to control everything.

The women were devoted to the cause of the children and willing to suffer misunderstanding and even persecution for the sake of their interest in the welfare of their charted. Both had understanding and sympathy with the Revolution, though they could not approve of the terroristic methods of the Bolsheviki. They were intelligent and cultured people and I felt their home an oasis in the desert of Communist thought and feeling. Before I left the ladies supplied me with a collection of the childrenÃŒs work and some exquisite colour drawings by Miss Korolenko, begging me to send the things to America as specimens of their labours. They were very eager to have the American people learn about their society and its efforts.

Subsequently I had the opportunity of meeting Korolenko who was still very feeble from his recent illness. He looked the patriarch, venerable and benign; he quickly warmed one's heart by his melodious voice and the fine face that lit up when he spoke of the people. He referred affectionately to America and his friends there. But the light faded out of his eyes and his voice quivered with grief as he spoke of the great tragedy of Russia and the sufferings of the people.

"You want to know my views on the present situation and my attitude toward the Bolsheviki?" he asked. "It would take too long to tell you about it. I am writing to Lunacharsky a series or letters for which he had asked and which he promised to publish. The letters deal with this subject. Frankly speaking, I do not believe they will ever appear in print, but I shall send you a copy of the letters for the Museum as soon as they are complete. There will be six of them. I can give you two right now. Briefly, my opinion is summarized in a certain passage in one of these letters. I said there that if the gendarmes of the Tsar would have had the power not only to arrest but also to shoot us, the situation would have been like the present one. That is what is happening before my eyes every day. The Bolsheviki claim that such methods are inseparable from the Revolution. But I cannot agree with them that persecution and constant shooting will serve the interests of the people or of the Revolution. It was always my conception that revolution meant the highest expression of humanity and of justice. In Russia to-day both are absent. At a time when the fullest expression and coöperation of all intellectual and spiritual forces are necessary to reconstruct the country, a gag has been placed upon the whole people. To dare question the wisdom and efficacy of the so-called dictatorship or the proletariat of the Communist Party leaders is considered a crime. We lack the simplest requisites of the real essence of a social revolution, and yet we pretend to have placed ourselves at the head of a world revolution. Poor Russia will have to pay dearly for this experiment. It may even delay for a lone time fundamental changes in other countries. The bourgeoisie will be able to defend its reactionary methods by pointing to what has happened in Russia."

With heavy heart I took leave of the famous writer, one of the last of the great literary men who had been the conscience and the spiritual voice of intellectual Russia. Again I felt him uttering the cry of that part of the Russian intelligentsia whose sympathies were entirely with the people and whose life and work were inspired only by the love of their country and the interest for its welfare.

In the evening I visited a relative of Korolenko, a very sympathetic old lady who was the chairman of the Poltava Political Red Cross. She told me much about things that Korolenko himself was too modest to mention. Old and feeble as he was, he was spending most of his time in the Tcheka, trying to save the lives of those innocently condemned to death. He frequently wrote letters of appeal to Lenin, Gorki, and Lunacharsky, begging them to intervene to prevent senseless executions. The present chairman of the Poltava Tcheka was a man relentless and cruel. His sole solution of difficult problems was shooting. The lady smiled sadly when I told her that the man had been very gracious to the members of our Expedition. "That was for show," she said, "we know him better. We have daily occasion to see his graciousness from this balcony. Here pass the victims taken to slaughter. "

Poltava is famous as a manufacturing centre of peasant handicrafts. Beautiful linen, embroidery, laces, and basket work were among the products of the province's industry. I visited the Department of Social Economy, the sovnarkhoz, where I learned that those industries were practically suspended. Only a small collection remained in the Department. "We used to supply the whole world, even America, with our kustarny work," said the woman in charge who had formerly been the head of the Zemstvo which took special pride in fostering those peasant efforts. "Our needlework was known all over the country as among the finest specimens of art, but now it has all been destroyed. The peasants have lost their art impulse, they have become brutalized and corrupted." She was bemoaning the loss of peasant art as a mother does that of her child.

During our stay in Poltava we got in touch with representatives of various other social elements. The reaction of the Zionists toward the Bolshevik régime was particularly interesting. At first they refused to speak with us, evidently made very cautious by previous experience. It was also the presence of our secretary, a Gentile, that aroused their distrust. I arranged to meet some of the Zionists alone, and gradually they became more confidential. I had learned in Moscow, in connection with the arrest of the Zionists there, that the Bolsheviki were inclined to consider them counter-revolutionary. But I found the Poltava Zionists very simple orthodox Jews who certainly could not impress any one as conspirators or active enemies. They were passive, though bitter against the Bolshevik régime. It was claimed that the Bolsheviki made no pogroms and that they do not persecute the Jews, they said; but that was true only in a certain sense. There were two kinds of pogroms: the loud, violent ones, and the silent ones. Of the two the Zionists considered the former preferable. The violent pogrom might last a day or a week; the Jews are attacked and robbed, sometimes even murdered; and then it is over. But the silent pogroms continued all the time. They consisted of constant discrimination, persecution, and hounding. The Bolsheviki had closed the Jewish hospitals and now sick Jews were forced to eat treife in the Gentile hospitals. The same applied to the Jewish children in the Bolshevik feeding houses. If a Jew and a Gentile happened to be arrested on the same charge, it was certain that the Gentile would go free while the Jew would be sent to prison and sometimes even shot. They were all the time exposed to insult and indignities, not to mention the fact that they were doomed to slow starvation, since all trade had been suppressed. The Jews in the Ukraina were suffering a continuous silent pogrom.

I felt that the Zionist criticism of the Bolshevik régime was inspired by a narrow religious and nationalistic attitude. They were Orthodox Jews, mostly tradesmen whom the Revolution had deprived of their sphere of activity. Nevertheless, their problem was real--the problem of the Jew suffocating in the atmosphere of active anti-Semitism. In Poltava the leading Communist and Bolshevik officials were Gentiles. Their dislike of the Jews was frank and open. Anti-Semitism throughout the Ukraine was more virulent than even in pre-revolutionary days.

After leaving Poltava we continued on our journey south, but we did not get farther than Fastov owing to the lack of engines. That Town, once prosperous, was now impoverished and reduced to less than one third of its former population. Almost all activity was at a stand-still. We found the market place, in the centre of the town, a most insignificant affair, consisting of a few stalls having small supplies of white flour, sugar, and butter. There were more woman about than men and I was especially struck by the strange expression in their eyes. They did not look you full in the face; they stared past you with a dumb, hunted animal expression. We told the women that we had heard many terrible pogroms had taken place in Fastov and we wished to get data on the subject to be sent to America to enlighten the people there on the condition of the Ukrainian Jews. As the news of our presence spread many women and children surrounded us, all much excited and each trying to tell her story of the horrors of Fastov. Fearful pogroms, they related, had taken place in that city, the most terrible of them by Denikin, in September, 1919. It lasted eight days, during which 4,000 persons were killed while several thousand died as the result of wounds and shock. Seven thousand perished from hunger and exposure on the road to Kiev, while trying to escape the Denikin savages. The greater part of the city had been destroyed or burned; many of the older Jews were trapped in the synagogue and there murdered, while others had been driven to the public square where they were slaughtered. Not a woman, young or old, that had not been outraged, most of them in the very sight of their fathers, husbands, and brothers. The young girls, some of them mere children, had suffered repeated violation at the hands of the Denikin soldiers. I understood the dreadful look in the eyes of the women of Fastov.

Men and women besieged us with appeals to inform their relatives in America about their miserable condition. Almost everyone, it seemed, had some kin in that country. They crowded into our car in the evenings, bringing scores of letters to be forwarded to the States. Some of the messages bore no addresses, the simple folk thinking the name sufficient. Others had not heard from their American kindred during the years of war and revolution but still hoped that they were to be found somewhere across the ocean. It was touching to see the people's deep faith that their relatives in America would save them.

Every evening our car was filled with the unfortunates of Fastov. Among them was a particularly interesting visitor, a former attorney, who had repeatedly braved the pogrom makers and saved many Jewish lives. He had kept a diary of the pogroms and we spent a whole evening listening to the reading of his manuscript. It was a simple recital of facts and dates, terrible in its unadorned objectivity. It was the soul cry of a people continuously violated and tortured and living in daily fear of new indignities and outrages. Only one bright spot there was in the horrible picture: no pogroms had taken place under the Bolsheviki. The gratitude of the Fastov Jews was pathetic. They clung to the Communists as to a saving straw. It was encouraging to think that the Bolshevik régime was at least free from that worst of all Russian curses, pogroms against Jews.