Chapter 22 - Odessa

Submitted by libcom on October 20, 2005


AT THE numerous stations between Kiev and Odessa we frequently had to wait for days before we managed to make connections with trains going south. We employed our leisure in visiting the small towns and villages, and formed many acquaintances. The markets were especially of interest to us.

In the Kiev province by far the greater part of the population is Jewish. They had suffered many pogroms and were now living in constant terror of their repetition. But the will to live is indestructible, particularly in the Jew; otherwise centuries of persecution and slaughter would long since have destroyed the race. Its peculiar perseverance was manifest everywhere: the Jews continued to trade as if nothing had happened. The news that Americans were in town would quickly gather about us crowds of people anxious to hear of the New World. To them it was still a "new" world, of which they were as ignorant as they had been fifty years before. But not only America-Russia itself was a sealed book to them. They knew that it was a country of pogroms, that some incomprehensible thing called revolution had happened, and that the Bolsheviki would not let them ply their trade. Even the younger element in the more distant villages was not much better informed.

The difference between a famished population and one having access to food supplies was very noticeable. Between Kiev and Odessa products were extremely cheap as compared with northern Russia. Butter, for instance, was 250 rubles a pound as against 3,000 in Petrograd; sugar 350 rubles, while in Moscow it was 5,000. White flour, almost impossible to obtain in the capitals, was here sold at 80 rubles a pound. Yet all along the journey we were besieged at the stations by hungry people, begging for food. The country possessed plenty of supplies, but evidently the average person had no means of purchase. Especially terrible was the sight of the emaciated and ragged children, pleading for a crust of bread at the car windows.

While in the neighbourhood of Zhmerenka we received the appalling news of the retreat of the Twelfth Army and the quick advance of the Polish forces. It was a veritable rout in which the Bolsheviki lost great stores of food and medical supplies, of which Russia stood so much in need. The Polish operations and the Wrangel attacks from the Crimea threatened to cut our journey short. It had been our original purpose to visit the Caucasus but the new developments made travel farther than Odessa impracticable. We still hoped, however, to continue our trip provided we could secure and extension of time for our car permit, which was to expire on October 1st.

We reached Odessa just after a fire had completely destroyed the main telegraph and electric stations, putting the city in total darkness. As it would require considerable time to make repairs, the situation increased the nervousness of the city, for darkness favoured counter-revolutionary plots. Rumours were afloat of Kiev having been taken by the Poles and of the approach of Wrangel.

It was our custom to pay our first official visit to the Ispolkom (Executive Committee) in order to familiarize ourselves with the situation and the general work scheme of the local institutions. In Odessa there was a Revkom instead, indicating that the affairs of the city had not yet been sufficiently organized to establish a Soviet and its Executive Committee. The Chairman of the Revkom was a young man, not over thirty, with a hard face. After scrutinizing our documents carefully and learning the objects of our mission he stated that he could not be of any assistance to us. The situation in Odessa was precarious, and as he was busy with many pressing matters, the Expedition would have to look out for itself. He gave us permission, however, to visit the Soviet institutions and to collect whatever we might be able to procure. He did not consider the Petrograd Museum and its work of much importance. He was an ordinary worker appointed to a high government position, not over-intelligent and apparently antagonistic to everything "intellectual."

The prospects did not look promising, but, of course, we could not leave Odessa without making a serious effort to collect the rich historical material which we knew to be in the city. Returning from the Revkom we happened to meet a group of young people who recognized us, they having lived in America before. They assured us that we could expect no aid from the Chairman who was known as a narrow fanatic embittered against the intelligentsia. Several of the group offered to introduce us to other officials who would be able and willing to assist us in our efforts. We learned that the Chairman of Public Economy in Odessa was an Anarchist, and that the head of the Metal Trade Unions was also an Anarchist. The information held out hope that we might accomplish something in Odessa, after all.

We lost no time in visiting the two men, but the result was not encouraging. Both were willing to do everything in their power, but warned us to expect no returns because Odessa, as they phrased it, was The City of Sabotage.

It must unfortunately be admitted that our experience justified that characterization. I had seen a great deal of sabotage in various Soviet institutions in every city I had visited. Everywhere the numerous employees deliberately wasted their time while thousands of applicants spent days and.weeks in the corridors and offices without receiving the least attention. The greater part of Russia did nothing else but stand in line, waiting for the bureaucrats, big and little, to admit them to their sanctums. But bad as conditions were in other cities, nowhere did I find such systematic sabotage as in Odessa. From the highest to the lowest Soviet worker everyone was busy with something other than the work entrusted to him. Office hours were supposed to begin at ten, but as a rule no official could be found in any of the departments till noon or even later. At three in the afternoon the institutions closed, and therefore very little work was accomplished.

We remained in Odessa two weeks, but so far as material collected through official channels was concerned, we got practically nothing. Whatever we accomplished was due to the aid of private persons and members of outlawed political parties. From them we received valuable material concerning the persecution of the Mensheviki and the labour organizations where the influence of the former was strongest. The management of several unions had been entirely suspended at the time we arrived in Odessa, and there began a complete reorganization of them by the Communists, for the purpose of eliminating all opposing elements.

Among the interesting people we met in Odessa were the Zionists, including some well known literary and professional men. It was at Doctor N- 's house that we met them. The Doctor himself was the owner of a sanatorium located on a beautiful spot overlooking the Black Sea and considered the best in the South. The institution had been nationalized by the Bolsheviki, but Doctor N - was left in charge and was even permitted to take in private patients. In return for that privilege he had to board and give medical attention to Soviet patients for one third of the established price.

Late into the night we discussed the Russian situation with the guests at the Doctor's house. Most of them were antagonistic to the Bolshevik régime. "Lenin let loose the motto 'Rob the robbers,' and at least here in the Ukraina his followers have carried out the order to the letter," said the Doctor. It was the general opinion of the gathering that the confusion and ruin which resulted were due to that policy. It robbed the old bourgeoisie but did not benefit the workers. The Doctor cited his sanatorium as an illustration. When the Bolsheviki took it over they declared that the proletariat was to own and enjoy the place, but not a single worker had since been received as patient, not even a proletarian Communist. The people the Soviet sent to the sanatorium were members of the new bureaucracy, usually the high officials. The Chairman of the Tcheka, for instance, who suffered from nervous breakdown, had been in the institution several times. "He works sixteen hours a day sending people to their death," the doctor commented. "You can easily imagine how it feels to take care of such a man."

One of the Bundist writers present held that the Bolsheviki were trying to imitate the French Revolution. Corruption was rampant; it put in the shade the worst crimes of the Jacobins. Not a day passed but that people were arrested for trading in Tsarist or Kerensky money; yet it was an open secret that the Chairman of the Tcheka himself speculated in valuta. The depravity of the Tcheka was a matter of common knowledge. People were shot for slight offences, while those who could afford to give bribes were freed even after they had been sentenced to death. It repeatedly happened that the rich relatives of an arrested man would be notified by the Tcheka of his execution. A few weeks later, after they had somewhat recovered from their shock and grief, they would be informed that the report of the man's death was erroneous, that he was alive and could be liberated by paying a fine, usually a very high one. Of course, the relatives would strain every effort to raise the money. Then they would suddenly be arrested for attempted bribery, their money confiscated and the prisoner shot.

One of the Doctor's guests, who lived in the "Tcheka Street" told of the refinements of terrorism practised to awe the population. Almost daily he witnessed the same sights: early in the morning mounted Tchekists would dash by, shooting into the air-a warning that all windows must be closed. Then came motor trucks loaded with the doomed. They lay in rows, faces downward, their hands tied, soldiers standing over them with rifles. They were being carried to execution outside the city. A few hours later the trucks would return empty save for a few soldiers. Blood dripped from the wagons, leaving a crimson streak on the pavement all the way to the Tcheka headquarters.

It was not possible that Moscow did not know about these things, the Zionists asserted. The fear of the central power was too great to permit of the local Tcheka doing anything not approved by Moscow. But it was no wonder that the Bolsheviki had to resort to such methods. A small political party trying to control a population of 150,000,000 which bitterly hated the Communists, could not hope to maintain itself without such an institution as the Tcheka. The latter was characteristic of the basic principles of Bolshevik conception: the country must be forced to be saved by the Communist Party. The pretext that the Bolsheviki were defending the Revolution was a hollow mockery. As a matter of fact, they had entirely destroyed it.

It had grown so late that the members of our expedition could not return to the car, fearing difficulty in locating it, because of the dark night. We therefore remained at the home of our host, to meet next day a group of men of national reputation, including Bialeck, the greatest living Jewish poet, known to Jews the world over. There was also present a literary investigator, who had made a special study of the question of pogroms. He had visited seventy-two cities, collecting the richest material to be had on the subject. It was his opinion that, contrary to accepted notion, the pogrom wave during the civil war period, between the years 1918 and 1921, under the various Ukrainian governments, was even worse than the most terrible Jewish massacres under the Tsars. There had taken place no pogroms during the Bolshevik régime, but he believed that the atmosphere created by them intensified the anti-Jewish spirit and would some day break out in the wholesale slaughter of the Jews. He did not think that the Bolsheviki were particularly concerned in defending his race. In certain localities of the South the Jews, constantly exposed to assault and pillage by robber bands and occasionally by individual Red soldiers, had appealed to the Soviet Government for permission to organize themselves for self-defence, requesting that arms be given them. But in all such cases the Government refused.

It was the general sentiment of the Zionists that the continuation of the Bolsheviki in power meant the destruction of the Jews. The Russian Jews, as a rule, were not workers. From time immemorial they had engaged in trade; but business had been destroyed by the Communists, and before the Jew could be turned into a worker he would deteriorate, as a race, and become extinct. Specific Jewish culture, the most priceless thing to the Zionists, was frowned upon by the Bolsheviki. That phase of the situation seemed to affect them even more deeply than pogroms.

These intellectual Jews were not of the proletarian class. They were bourgeois without any revolutionary spirit. Their criticism of the Bolsheviki did not appeal to me for it was a criticism from the Right. If I had still believed in the Communists as the true champions of the Revolution I could have defended them against the Zionist complaints. But I myself had lost faith in the revolutionary integrity of the Bolsheviki.