Chapter 16


At the Central Office of Cooperatives

Our visit to the Central Office of Cooperative was arranged at the last minute.

The notes and summaries we managed to jot down during our visit were not written in the notebooks we usually used for this purpose, but on loose sheets of paper; we misplaced these sheets after our arrest in Italy, while we were on our way back from Russia, and we were unable to locate them after our release from prison.


Having crossed the threshold of the Central Office of Cooperatives we walked down a hallway. Then we climbed some stairs, walked through some very quiet rooms and called out announcing our presence as we had at the front door, with the same result. The building appeared to be uninhabited. Silence everywhere. No building superintendant, no soldier, no employee to greet us.

Finally, after having called out to announce ourselves several times, we heard a faint voice emanating from a nearby room, inviting us to come in.

We were received by a very old man; and, after we told him why we were there, he replied that there was little he could tell us.

“The Cooperatives actually no longer exist,” he began to tell us. “The Bolshevik Government, adding one more blunder to all the mistakes it had already made, nationalized all the Cooperatives. With these decrees the Cooperatives were transformed into simple stores for the distribution of the products requisitioned or bought by Bolshevik delegates in the provinces. This is why I say that I have nothing of any interest to tell you.”

Because we persisted in our appeals for information, brought up the fact that we were foreigners and delegates to the Congress, and pointed out to him how knowledge of the magnitude and extent of the Russian Cooperative movement would be of great interest to the Cooperators of the countries we represented at the Congress, he finally agreed to provide us with the details we sought.

“Cooperation in Russia,” he told us, “as a class organization with a social and political content, dates back to 1905. Before that time, the cooperative movement existed in our country, but without any particular political tendency. The purpose of that early cooperative movement, which we call primitive cooperation, was purely and exclusively economic and embraced a wide array of political tendencies.”

“The ‘Mir’ and the ‘Artel’ are the most well-known variants. The former has a manifestly communist aspect, while the latter is of a collectivist nature.”

“In most of the ‘Mirs’ labor, like the distribution of the products of labor, was carried out in common, while in the ‘Artel’, each member received a share corresponding to the labor he contributes. So many hours of labor correspond to such a quantity of products. That is its principle.”

“The ‘Mirs’ and the ‘Artels’ generally operate in different areas, as the ‘Artel’ is usually formed for manufacture, while the ‘Mir’ prevails in the labors of the countryside, the cultivation of the soil, and associated trades.”

“This differentiation can be easily explained.”

“In our country, due to the long winter, during which the peasant cannot work the land, he generally spends his time making wooden objects that he then sells in the local town’s market.”

“The competition between the vendors of these wooden objects was what led to the creation of the ‘Artels’.”

“Because the peasants cannot work together as a result of their dispersion across the endless Russian steppes, they embraced the collectivist system, that is, one according to which each worker receives the proceeds corresponding to the number of objects he brought to market.”

“This same reason, the endless winters and the short springs and autumns—which hardly last a couple of weeks each—causes the labor of cultivating the land, sowing, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting, to require more activity and therefore a more intense accumulation of effort. This is why labor in common is preferred for this aspect of agriculture.”

“But, I repeat, all these institutions, ‘Mirs’ and ‘Artels’, operated for the individual interests of each member, without any connection to others, with a few exceptions.”

“In 1905, the movement began to flow in other channels.”

“The influence of social ideals, which had enjoyed a certain wave of support in Russia as a result of the movement that took place during that year, did not fail to have an impact within the ‘Mirs’ and the ‘Artels’.”

“Little by little, this influence led to the creation of Cooperatives for production and consumption.”

“Many of the new Consumer Cooperatives were almost exclusively supplied with products manufactured or grown by the ‘Mirs’ and the ‘Artels’, and the latter institutions often sent all their products to various Consumer Cooperatives.”

“This Cooperative movement was so popular that, here in Moscow, at the beginning of the war, there was one Consumers Cooperative that provided a retail outlet for more than one hundred producers cooperatives, or ‘Mirs’ and ‘Artels’.”

“And that Consumers Cooperative was not the only one. I could cite numerous other examples.”

“There was a considerable number of cooperatives at that time.”

“In 1914, there were some four million cooperators in all of Russia. Since then, and until the recent Soviet decree that resulted in the incorporation of the cooperatives into the Bolsheviks’ nationalization scheme, the number of cooperators had increased enormously. It was estimated at eleven million.”

“But it was not just by the number of cooperators that one can gauge the influence and extent that cooperation had attained in Russia; such a view would lead one astray. Its influence is best measured by the services that it performed for its members and for the State itself. It is our belief that the latter, the services the Cooperative movement performed for the Government, are what led to the recent decision to nationalize the Cooperatives.”

“More than once, faced with terrible supply bottlenecks and shortages for its own institutions—the Army and other organizations—the Council of Peoples Commissars requested help from the Cooperatives, which fully complied.”

“The powerlessness of the Government and the Soviet institutions to achieve their purposes, contrasted with the diligence, the energy and the competence demonstrated by the Cooperatives, which gained nothing from these deliveries and, left to their own initiative, solved problems that could not be solved by means of confiscation, seizure, or even by shootings.”

“The Government, stirred into action by these realities, which were so superior to its economic conceptions and centralized and authoritarian organizations, reflected that, the quickest and most effective way to escape its predicament and to make the Bolshevik economic institutions function was to make these cooperative institutions, which had previously been autonomous and independent, into Government and Party institutions, since their experience and abilities would pull the Bolsheviks’ chestnuts out of the fire. Their mistake could not have been more obvious.”

“The Cooperatives, which were flourishing just a little while ago, are withering away now as if a wintry gale had passed over them.”

“Only a few months were needed to finish this work of destruction.”

“Today, it can be said that the Cooperatives no longer exist. All those people who devoted so much to their growth and development have left them; each Cooperative is now under the leadership of a loyal communist appointed to that position, a man beholden to the Party, although he may be incompetent to perform his responsibilities; audited and subject to the jurisdiction of the Council of National Economy; the Cooperatives are now forbidden to do business with individuals or even with their own members; obliged to get their supplies from the State stores, the former members of the Cooperatives have lost all right to participate in the operation of their Cooperatives … of the original ideal that the Cooperative once represented, nothing remains in the Russian Cooperatives, since they are, I repeat, nothing but extensions of the producers’ stores of the Soviet State.”

“Reduced, therefore, to impotence, the cooperators have nonetheless refused to abandon the ideal to which they had devoted their lives. The day will come, and we do not think it will take very long, when all of this will change. And if we cannot use the old cooperatives, since they can hardly be used any more, we will create new ones so we can pursue our ideal of redemption and mutual aid among the people. All that will remain of our present bitterness will be a painful memory that will encourage us—you may be sure of it—to persevere with more enthusiasm in our labors.”

There was such an undercurrent of pain in his words that we left him without asking any more questions. We did not want to make him undergo the painful experience of reliving any more such memories.