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Chapter 12

12

At the Department of Rail Transport

It had been made clear to us, through various channels, that one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of the normal flow of economic life was the disorganized transport system, so we decided to visit the Department of Rail Transport.

“The Kerensky Government,” we were told immediately, “did nothing to address the problems that were getting worse every day. While that man was in Power, as was the case with regard to all other problems, he left no trace of anything that is worth mentioning. Caught in a web of commitments he made to the European Foreign Offices, he could not get rid of the diplomats and wasted time trying to secure agreements and make deals, instead of using it to carry out the work that the extraordinarily difficult circumstances required.”

“The transport problem in Russia, a country of vast distances, goes back to time immemorial. It was, so to speak, the problem behind all other problems. Along with the age-old problem of the land, one must also take into consideration, as a problem that affects all the others, the problem of transport.”

“Taking this already existing condition into account and adding the burden of the war, which disrupted the already diminished organization and reduced all the materiel of the rail system to a deplorable condition, one may easily get some idea of the extremely serious situation of Russia, a country that is dependent on imports for this kind of industrial product.”

“Only one final blow was needed to disorganize everything, making the situation even more terrible and precarious.”

“During the last months of Czarism, the chaos on the rails was so bad that neither men nor munitions could be sent to the front with the necessary regularity. Sometimes the soldiers had to march for hundreds of kilometers in order to open up some space on the congested rail lines.”

“The first revolution in March, with the disorder, the uncertainty and the provisional measures that accompany every new situation, disorganized the small part of the rail transport system that had until then escaped the initial confusion.”

“Kerensky’s Government, which, instead of attending to the transport problem, just folded its arms and only thought about resolving the political situation, caused what was until then a temporary state of confusion to become a chronic condition.”

“With the rail system in this condition, almost entirely disorganized, its equipment in deplorable condition and without any means to replace it, the October revolution, our revolution, came along and delivered the coup de grâce to what little remained of a functioning rail network.”

“One of the first decrees of the Council of Peoples Commissars, as you know, was to confer a legal and juridically sound form, that is, a definitive character, upon the proposal that was just elaborated by the All-Russian Congress of Peasant Soviets held at the end of July 1917, relating to the distribution of the land.”

“The effects of this decree had an enormous impact at the front. The armies abandoned the trenches en masse, throwing their guns away, or turning them on their leaders and commanding officers who tried to stop them from deserting, and took the trains by assault. What took place at the front was indescribable.”

“Everything was resolved by brutality, bullying, violence and brawls. These multitudes, leaderless, spurred on by their anxiety not to miss out on the land distributions and to get home as soon as possible, respected no law.”

“Might made right. The strongest, the fists that were quickest to strike, or the boldest, imposed their law.”

“There were many cases where the soldiers would rush onto a train, grab those who were already seated in a passenger car, and throw them out the window so they could take their seats. The demobilized soldiers took the trains by assault, broke the windows and tore the doors off their hinges to improvise seats. In the cars the soldiers piled on top of one another until they touched the roof. They even constructed scaffolding on the sides of the trains, on the flatbed cars, on the roofs and on the locomotives, upon which they traveled all crowded together.”

“The cars and the many locomotives that broke down had to be abandoned, and the soldiers had to push them off the rails and go on foot to the next station, where they continued their journey by repeating the same violent scenes.”

“When the soldiers that Czarism sent to the front had returned by means of this procedure, it was calculated that one quarter of the railroad materiel was completely broken down, another quarter was still in service but not operating at full efficiency, and the rest could only be utilized at the cost of expensive and difficult repairs.”

“At that time,” they continued, “this Department was formed and we assumed responsibility for transport.”

“When Krassin was named President of the Council of Railroad Administration, the workers went on strike, which lasted for a month and a half, a worthy finishing touch to the disorders that had prevailed since the beginning of the war. The strike affected all personnel, workers, office employees and administrative staff without exception, aggravating the situation even more.”

“In January 1918 the reorganization of the rail system began by dismissing all the high level employees and administrative staff and appointing the Extraordinary Commissions responsible for surveillance over the labor of the directors and administrators of the various rail networks.”

“An enormous effort was dedicated to the organization of these Extraordinary Commissions,” our informant continued. “Within a short period of time there was one in every station and one traveled on every train, under whose jurisdiction and command all the railroad employees without exception worked.”

“During the period of time that elapsed between the October revolution and the reorganization of the transport system, some very strange things took place. For example, each station only sold tickets for the next station on the line, and that one only sold tickets for the one after that. The traveler had to buy a ticket in each station if he wanted to continue on his journey. The money collected from ticket sales was shared among the employees.”

“With the reorganization this state of affairs came to an end and normal service began to be reestablished.”

“We also undertook, insofar as circumstances permitted, the repair of the salvageable materiel. The repairs proceeded at a slow pace, of course; this was due to a number of causes, among which the lack of raw materials, tools and skilled workers, were the most important.”

“Then we introduced a division of functions in the rail system, creating a technical school, which anyone who sought employment on the rail network had to attend for six months. We also created a political section, responsible for organizing the technical schools and carrying out communist propaganda among the rail workers.”

“A Central Railroad Committee was formed to serve as an intermediary between the various sections of the Railroad workers Trade Union and the Department of Rail Transport.”

“A working plan was established for the repair of the locomotives and rolling stock and in order to build new rail cars and locomotives which, according to our calculations, would allow for the normalization of rail service and bring the railroad network’s performance up to the pre-war level by 1925.”

“Incentives were introduced in the repair workshops, granting quadruple rations to the worker who doubled the production quota. If, on the other hand, he fell short of the quota, the Factory Committee of the workshop was authorized to reduce his ration by one-half. The machinists also received bonuses for working more efficiently or for working longer hours.”

“The minimum quota of each worker was established by reference to pre-war statistics, and railroad employment was militarized; the workers who were mobilized for railroad labor were subject to military jurisdiction and were tried by military tribunals.”

“A study was undertaken to standardize the production models for locomotives and passenger cars.”

“Trade union membership was compulsory,” we were told, “and two percent of every railroad worker’s monthly wage was deducted for financing the Trade Union.”

***

The information we were provided by the Department of Rail Transport was corroborated by our interviews with individuals. But since further consideration can shed light on a new facet of the problem, we feel obliged to review some points that were already mentioned in passing.

The rail strike that was declared to overthrow the Bolsheviks was promoted by the Social Revolutionaries, since they had many supporters among the railroad personnel. And while it is true that the Bolsheviks broke the strike, they could not prevent the formation of a powerful opposition to their centralist and dictatorial methods.

The immediate cause of the strike was a government decree that could not have been more absurd.

Because the Bolsheviks were the most powerful supporters of the capitalist method of the most absolute division of labor, they sought to implement this principle with regard to the allocation of the available railroad materiel.

They compiled the most complete set of statistics possible and divided the materiel for transport into two principle categories, which were in turn subdivided into three categories each. In the first category were included all the military transports: men and equipment. In the second, which was subdivided into two subcategories, were commodities of a general description and travelers. Each category was to be allocated the materiel earmarked for it, with the express condition that no military train was to transport commodities or civilian travelers, and that no civilian train was to transport soldiers or military equipment.

The result of this decree was disastrous.

It was often the case that a military train would depart from Moscow for Odessa or some other destination completely empty, due to the fact that no military detachments were scheduled for transport to Odessa, while commodities or travelers destined for Odessa would be waiting for another train that was not available because of a lack of means of transportation. And the opposite also took place, where soldiers and military equipment would be waiting at a station, but could not take the civilian train because of the infallible decrees of the Bolsheviks.

It often happened that commodities or passengers would be waiting at the station, while the trains were traveling hundreds of kilometers without any cargo at all, but going to the destinations of the commodities and passengers waiting at the stations; this was because the trains were not assigned to the commodity or civilian passenger category in the station, but to another category, for which no one had any information about what station this category was located at. It was necessary for the Rail Workers Trade Union to bring this absurd situation to the attention of the Council of Peoples Commissars, presided over by Lenin. Only then was the decree rescinded.

The rail workers arose in opposition again, this time to the creation of the Central Committee that was supposed to serve as an intermediary between the Trade Union and the Department of Rail Transport.

At first the rail workers thought that the organization of the Central Committee was in response to their desire to abolish the Department or the Commissariat of Transport; but once they saw that both these institutions continued to exist, the rail workers submitted their demand that both should be abolished, claiming that the Trade Union alone was capable of organizing the transport system, in direct contact with the Commissariat of Labor or the Council of National Economy. This demand was elaborated and approved at a National Congress of the Rail Workers Trade Union. The Council of Peoples Commissars rejected the rail workers’ demand. But the rail workers did not give up.

At the National Congress of Rail Workers, held in 1919, the opposition to all the Bolshevik decrees was so powerful that the abolition of the Central Committee and of the Department of Transport was debated and approved by an overwhelming majority of the votes cast, which, as one would expect, caused great consternation among the members of the Political Committee of the Communist Party.

The Political Committee met in emergency session, called upon all the communists who were delegates to the Congress of the Rail Workers Trade Union and ordered them to present a resolution to the Congress on the following day that demanded the revocation of the previous resolution concerning the suppression of the Central Committee and the Department of Transport. It also put pressure on the non-party delegates, and the original resolution was rescinded, but not without the communist delegates themselves feeling the depressing effects of their success that was obtained at such a high cost.

Once the rail workers delegates realized that any resolutions they passed against the wishes of the Party Committee would be annulled, they shelved all debate on the subject and rapidly brought the Congress to an end with the election of the National Committee of the Trade Union.

But even this election led to dissatisfaction.

The Communist Party proposed that the Committee should be composed of twenty individuals and that, if possible, all of them should be loyal communists.

In an attempt to avoid totally knuckling under to the Party, the election resulted in a Committee composed of ten communists and ten non-communists. In this way the rail workers sought to obstruct the Bolshevik dictatorship.

This composition of the Committee led to the result that was desired by the rail workers: no decree was enforceable, because it was blocked once it came up for a vote in the Trade Union Committee.

The invariable outcome of every vote on Bolshevik decrees was a deadlock.

Threats and appeals, requests and insinuations, the Bolsheviks used every method to force the rail workers to do their will; but nothing worked.

In view of their failure, they resorted to a despotic act: they dissolved the National Committee of the Rail Workers Trade Union and nominated an Extraordinary Commission answerable to the Party—made up of loyal communists—to replace it, which was obliged as a matter of Party discipline to submit to all the Party’s demands.

We must emphasize that the rail workers’ opposition was directed against neither the reorganization of rail transport nor was it directed in any way against collective interests or the revolution.

What they opposed, what they wanted and why they fought, was to prevent the collective personality of the Trade Union from being nullified between the Central Committee and the Department of Rail Transport. They wanted everything related to rail transport to be the responsibility of the Trade Union and also sought the elimination of all those useless institutions that, besides having become the nurseries of bureaucrats and sinecures, served no other purpose than to complicate the operations of the railroads.

As for the Extraordinary Commissions, they were granted absolute powers, and everything was under their jurisdiction. They constituted a kind of police force with executive powers.

In the stations, the Extraordinary Commissions capriciously issued and revoked orders. Since every complaint against their abuses had to pass through their hands before being submitted to higher authorities, we need not mention that none of these complaints ever reached their ultimate destination.

They arrested and imprisoned anyone they wanted, and their accusations were enough to condemn both railroad employees and travelers to months in prison.

Furthermore, they became so numerous that not even during the times of Czarism, when the railroads were operated by various individual companies, did the number of administrative employees who did not perform any useful services on the railroads ever approach the number of those who were engaged on the Extraordinary Commissions.

In the stations the Extraordinary Commissions were responsible for surveillance, enforcing compliance with official regulations, to make sure that there were no disturbances of public order and to register the complaints of the travelers.

The Commissions that traveled on the trains, since they did not check the passengers’ tickets or perform any other useful service, were only responsible for escorting the trains.

As a result, whereas passenger coaches were scarce, and passenger trains were composed almost entirely of boxcars, an exception was always made for the passenger car reserved for the Extraordinary Commission, who never had to travel in a boxcar, and occupied the only passenger car on the train.

And they traveled in comfort. It did not matter if the train was crammed full of passengers, or that some had to be left behind for lack of space. No one was allowed entry to the compartment of the train reserved for the Extraordinary Commission except for authorized persons, influential individuals or people who were friends of a member of the Commission. Only favoritism permitted one to acquire a seat on the car reserved for the Extraordinary Commission.

And we are speaking from experience.