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Chapter 17

17

Other Visits

Our desire to compile as many reports as we would need to form as accurate a judgment as possible about the real situation in Russia constantly drove us to go wherever we thought we could pursue this goal.

One dear person, to whom we are indebted for precious reports, and who accompanied us more than once on our visits, told us about the Sukharevka.

We left for the Sukharevka a few days later. Since we did not go to ask any questions, or to make any inquiries, but to look; since it was the eyes that had to make their report, we preferred to go alone in order not to miss any details.

The Sukharevka of Moscow is a kind of Boulevard, without any trees, and very wide.

During the times of the Czars, the Sukharevka was the site of a daily market similar to the Encantes of Barcelona or the Rastro of Madrid. It was the market for the old and the picturesque.

Given the nature of this market, the Bolsheviks left it alone, and proclaimed no decrees against it.

Trade was persecuted both wholesale and retail; stores were closed and any persons who took part in commercial transactions were severely punished; there was only one place where every kind of commerce, as long as it was lawful, was tolerated: the Sukharevka.

The importance that this market acquired was considerable. Its transformation was rapid, and the various goods and objects that were now being sold there were unlike any that ever were brought there during the previous era.

Alongside a used pair of shoes, a diamond or pearl is exhibited that is worth millions of rubles.

Just like the pair of pants with holes in the knees, displayed next to a fur coat for which a fabulous sum of money was asked.

In a pile of old boots and used shoes, one may admire an elegant pair of Louis XV riding boots.

Everything was bought and sold there. Just as many people came to sell as to buy.

There were displays of hats, cookware and eating utensils; for a few hundred rubles they would sell us a slice of meat, or a piece of fish and a slice of bread. And the requests of the buyers were continuous. They could hardly be satisfied by the vendors.

They also sold milk, at 75 rubles per bottle. The price varied according to the quantity.

They sold fresh and aged meat. Passing by one of the people who sold meat was sometimes a veritable torment.

White bread and black bread. Apples, pears; beans of every kind; perfumes and soaps of greater or lesser scent. Everything was sold and everything was subject to trade.

The violence and brutality of the Cheka had no effect on the imperious necessity of making a living.

The raids of the hated police were very frequent at the market, although they were more often occasioned by the desire of the police to loot and pillage than to enforce any official decrees. On the day following the raid, and often merely a few hours afterwards, the market of the Sukharevka resumes its traffic as if nothing had happened.

And passage through that market was no easy matter. At certain times and places it became extremely difficult. The crowd must have numbered in the thousands.

The sight of some of the things offered for sale made us recall how ineffective the government was, with its centralization and confiscations.

Thus, for example, during a visit we made a few days before to a Maternity Ward, we heard how the director and the women responsible for the babies lacked bottles for feeding them milk, while at the Sukharevka we saw huge stacks of baby bottles.

Needles, pins, thread and buttons were rarely distributed by the Government, because it did not have them; at the Sukharevka, however, they were abundant. And so was everything else.

The official decrees against individual trade could be harsh and cruel; but even harsher and crueler was the need to live. The Sukharevka proved this quite well.

Sometimes the people arrested by the Cheka during its raids on the Sukharevka are shot after being condemned for speculation. One would think that these shootings would have sowed terror and panic and that this extra-legal market would be temporarily shut down. Not at all.

Those who are wracked by hunger or driven by greed return to their posts. They assume that what happened to their colleague who was shot could also happen to them; but hunger, looming terrible and threatening over them, drives them once again to the market. To live, they have to do it; and it has to be done despite the Cheka and the shootings.

***

We also paid a visit to the Cheka. We had heard people speak of the Museum created by the famous and much-feared police, and we wanted to see it. We were ready to find out about everything—why not acquaint ourselves with the great achievements claimed by that famous institution of revolutionary security?

Because that is what the Cheka was: the police of the Communist Party and the domain of the executioners working for the Extraordinary Commission presided over by the current Commissar of the Interior, comrade Dzerzhinsky.

For ordinary crimes and public safety functions, there were patrols of soldiers. The Cheka’s mission was to seek out counterrevolutionaries, serve as guards for the Commissars and carry out the death sentences that the Revolutionary Tribunal dictated. This mission was a dreary and hateful one; but the Bolsheviks could not do without it.

The admiration for the Cheka was such that, on more than one occasion we were overtaken by awe for these praises.

If one were to believe some communists, without the Cheka the revolution would have been defeated, and Russia handed over to the insatiable voracity of the counterrevolutionary hordes.

So how could we pass up an opportunity to visit the Museum of such an institution that was both useful and revolutionary?

Upon our arrival at the building housing the offices of the Cheka, a woman, with the demeanor of an important person and a certain look of superiority, began to interrogate us.

Once she verified our identities as delegates to the Congress of the Third International, whose status in Russia can be compared to the status of Ambassadors in capitalist countries, she asked for our forgiveness and cleared us for entering the building.

In addition to the official interpreter who accompanied us, we were assigned a Cheka employee as a guide, who held a high-level position in the Museum.

On the first floor we entered a hall where objects were displayed.

The hall was not a large one, nor were there many objects on display. The museum nonetheless revealed the cruelty of the struggle waged between the various anti-Bolshevik groups and the Bolsheviks.

The first thing we saw was a black flag, partially burned, torn and full of bullet holes. In a glass display case, there were revolvers, grenades, and bladed weapons blackened by fire.

We inquired about the origin of these artifacts.

“They are,” we were told, “the weapons that were found with some burnt bodies in a house occupied by anarchists, after their bomb attack against the Bolsheviks on Leontyevsky Street.”

“When the identities of the authors of the bomb attack on Leontyevsky Street, which cost the lives of fourteen communists and wounded more than thirty, were discovered, their safe house was located, and because they responded to orders to surrender by shooting at the agents of the Cheka, the Cheka set fire to the house in an attempt to compel them to surrender. The black flag you see here is the banner of the group that carried out the bomb attack and which was waving on the balcony of the building.”

They showed us the jacket that Kolchak was wearing when he was shot after his defeat in Siberia.

We saw flags and standards taken from the counterrevolutionary armies and the political groups or gangs which, at one time or another, took up arms against the Government.

They called our attention to some primitive-looking weapons, among which we saw some kind of pistol constructed from parts scavenged from a Mauser rifle.

There were rough spears, long poles with one or two metal spikes at the end. There were other poles, shorter ones, which instead of spikes had a chain and a steel ball in a hexagonal shape on the end.

A blow from one of these maces would have been fatal or would have at least caused serious injury.

Bladed weapons of all kinds and shapes, and a display of instruments whose sole purpose was to kill or injure people.

In response to our questions, we were told that all these weapons had been seized during skirmishes with the detachments of soldiers responsible for violent requisitions of the peasants’ produce.

Because the people had been disarmed by Government decree, the peasants confronted the soldiers with makeshift weapons and defensive tactics.

Then we were shown some photographs. Here we saw proof of the horrors of Bolshevik economic policy.

Groups of dead Red Army soldiers, their bodies mutilated by the muzhiks. Sometimes, after having been stoned and mutilated, they were burned. Their killings were driven by hatred and vengeance.

Together with the photographs of the dead Red Army soldiers, we saw other photographs of villages that had been laid waste by soldiers sent to carry out reprisals after having machine-gunned all their inhabitants. Men, women, children and old people; all were killed. The procedure was efficient and … practical.

The soldiers arrived. One unit of machine gun troops surrounded the village; they opened fire and continued firing until fire had consumed everything.

A trial? A verdict against the possible authors of the soldiers’ deaths? Why? They were counterrevolutionaries. They all had to be exterminated. Genghis Khan would have laughed from his grave.

One note of useless cruelty, of a refinement of primitive Tartar barbarism, was shown to us in the form of a pair of gloves made from the skin of the hand of a Red Army soldier taken prisoner by Kolchak. Nothing reveals the barbarism of this admiral better than this wrinkled skin with the fingernails still attached; it gave us cold shivers of horror.

If his other cruelties and tortures were not enough to execrate the memory of Admiral Kolchak, the protégé of the English, who are so civilized, and of the Americans, who are such lovers of “Freedom”, the sight of this skin torn from the living hand of a Red Soldier would be enough to cover him with opprobrium and shame.

Sickened by this sight we left the Cheka Museum; and the memory of what we left behind there haunted us for several days.

All the horror of civil war, with its cruelties and its tortures, with its hatred and its vengeance, with its zeal for annihilating the enemy, was encapsulated in that exhibition.

No doubt ashamed of its own work, the party terror was hidden in the shadows of the hall we just left. That was where it belonged.

***

Ferocious diatribes were spoken, written and disseminated against the Russian Cheka; veritable atrocities were attributed to it. The most vehement protests of the Russian people had been raised against this institution. It was in no way inferior to any of the police forces of Europe or the entire world with respect to the terrorist system it had elaborated.

It wielded absolute power. Above the will of Lenin and the Council of Peoples Commissars, the all-powerful will of the Cheka always prevailed.

Responsible to no one for its actions, it was answerable only to the Extraordinary Commission, and the latter was exempt from any control by the Communist Party; its activity controlled by the will of one man, with full powers and absolute independence, one can easily deduce what the Cheka represented in Russia.

The Cheka was almost entirely constructed on the basis of elements of the Czarist political police; it acts on the pretext of alleged or real counterrevolutionary activities; its members are paid very well, and enjoy perquisites and privileges that are sometimes superior to those enjoyed by the leader of the Government. The Cheka actually vetoed requests of the leader of the Government on the pretext of his personal security. The Cheka could do everything; it was everything.

As proof of the privileges enjoyed by its members, we shall cite the following example.

Upon returning to our Hotel after our visit to the Sukharevka market, we were thirsty and found nothing to drink.

We took a walk and spoke to the owner of a small restaurant, in which a spirituous fruit flavored beverage was sold.

We entered, ordered the fruit drink and we were served; we paid 700 rubles and left.

We later inquired as to the reason why that restaurant had not been closed. It was owned by one of the leaders of the Cheka in Moscow.

The prohibition of all private commerce did not apply to that high personage. At his restaurant things were bought and sold, despite all the decrees that had been and will be issued.

We do not want to engage in recounting the many abuses imputed to the Cheka that we were told about. These alone would fill many pages; there will surely be no lack of people who will undertake this task.

But while we are discussing this topic, we can affirm that the abuses that it has been accused of have even been admitted by the Bolsheviks.

Everyone knows how much they like to compile statistics and charts that depict the results of their work.

The Cheka, no less than the other institutions, also has its statistical book and its charts. Such are the many horrors that it relates, that the Council of Peoples Commissars ordered that it be withdrawn from circulation during the very month of its publication, threatening anyone who had a copy and did not surrender it with severe penalties.

This fact is more damning of the Cheka than any other argument.