One hundred and five years ago, the Russian working class seized power. To celebrate the anniversary of these remarkable events, we are excited to make the following eye-witness account of revolutionary Russia in 1920 available to an online audience. Many of these astonishing articles and photographs have not been seen since their publication over a century ago. They are a priceless panorama of the Russian Revolution in its third year.
In the summer of 1920, the British Labour Party and the TUC (Trades Union Congress) sent a delegation to Russia to witness the revolutionary process as it unfolded. Journalist Walter Meakin joined this delegation. But unlike many of his co-observers, who spent the whole trip sojourning with counter-revolutionaries, Meakin was determined to tell the truth to a British audience.
The resulting observations, published in a series in the Daily News under the title, “What I saw in Russia”, paint a unique picture of the lives of the Russian people and the revolution.
The picture is one of a revolution besieged by enemies; starving and cold; of industry and transport beset by chaos and collapse on the back of years of the most desperate trials. Yet in the midst of all this, the Russian proletariat was heroically striving to build the first workers’ state in history, to begin the construction of socialism, to spread the world revolution, and to create a future worth living in for all humanity.
A tragedy visited on Russia by imperialism
It is fashionable for bourgeois historians to cherry-pick some of the horrors and tragedies experienced by the Russian people in the difficult years of the Revolution and the Civil War that followed, and to throw the blame on the leaders of the Revolution itself.
In fact, responsibility for the horrors of those years – and for the consequent Stalinist degeneration of the first workers’ state in history – must be laid squarely at the feet of the counter-revolution and above all at the feet of the imperialist powers.
In November 1917, under the leadership of the Bolshevik party, the Russian working class seized power – first in Petrograd and then in the whole of Russia. This was the single greatest event that human history has witnessed thus far: for the first time, on the scale of a vast nation, the exploited workers and peasants threw off their parasitic exploiters and took power into its own hands. Through democratically elected workers councils called “soviets”, the working class wielded power and gave direction to all exploited layers of Russian society.
All hopes for the Russian Revolution, however, rested on the success or failure of the world revolution. Russia was a backward, semi-feudal country, ruined by years of war. The material basis for building a new society did not exist within its borders. The perspective of the Bolsheviks, however, was precisely that the Russian Revolution would form merely one link in the world revolution, and that socialism was possible only on a world scale.
Immediately, the Russian workers sent out a rallying cry to the workers of the whole world to end the barbarism of the World War and to throw off the yoke of capitalist exploitation. Indeed, a revolutionary wave swept through Europe. The Russian Revolution was a bright beacon of hope for millions of workers, peasants and soldiers throughout Europe and far beyond.
But international imperialism understood this just as well as the Bolsheviks and they set about extinguishing this shining example. No means were too foul and no atrocity was too awful as far as the capitalist class were concerned when it came to defending their own property. As far as they were concerned, the greater their success in turning Russia into hell on Earth, the graver the warning it would send to the workers of other countries not to emulate the Russian example. Thus, the seizure of power by the soviets in November 1917 was immediately followed by the invasion of Russia by 21 foreign armies of intervention.
Civil war was whipped up into a firestorm with the assistance of these armies, leaving Russia utterly devastated. The tragedy of the First World War and the economic sabotage by the landlords and capitalists following the revolution was now compounded a thousandfold. Transport was devastated, and hunger and cold stalked the cities, which became partially depopulated as millions of workers returned to the villages where food could at least be found.
And yet, against all these hardships, the Revolution showed the most inspiring resilience. Although the hopes of the dispossessed capitalists and landlords had been raised by foreign intervention, the old ruling class remained utterly discredited and isolated. Meanwhile, a tightly-disciplined Red Army of millions of peasants and workers was forged in the midst of the struggle under the leadership of Leon Trotsky.
But merely in order to survive, the Revolution had to resort to the most desperate measures, which were nonetheless intended as temporary but necessary evils.
Political parties were banned as they took up arms against the Soviet Republic one after another. In late 1918, in response to the counter-revolutionary White terror against the workers and peasants, a Red terror was brought down upon the heads of the former capitalists and landlords. Requisitioning of grain from the peasants to feed the cities and the Red Army became necessary. Order had to be restored to industry, leaving no room for experiments in workers’ democracy as one-man management was introduced. On the railways in particular – the key to a military and economic victory – a harsh discipline was installed.
Yet through the heroic exertion of the Revolution, the counter-revolutionary White Army had effectively been crushed by the year 1920. The so-called “Bolshevik influenza” was even spreading to the rank-and-file of the armies of foreign intervention themselves. British, French, American and Canadian expeditionary forces all experienced serious mutinies and one by one were withdrawn.
Three years into the revolution, it seemed as if the new Soviet republic could finally begin the process of economic reconstruction. But at that very moment, a new offensive was launched against Soviet Russia – this time by the army of the Polish dictator, Piłsudski, with the full backing of the imperialist powers. By the end of 1920, the Soviets were facing a desperate situation.
Heroism in the face of terrific obstacles
These were the circumstances in which the Russian proletariat – and its vanguard organised in the Bolshevik party – were striving might and main to repulse imperialism; to maintain an alliance with the majority of the peasantry; to create a healthy workers’ state; and above all to render assistance to the workers of the rest of the world to overthrow their own ruling class.
Tragically the proletariat in the rest of Europe was unable to seize power in the wave of revolutions that followed the Russian Revolution – principally on account of the inexperience of the Communist Parties. The Russian workers therefore remained isolated.
Desperate, demoralised, and to a great degree dispersed into the Red Army or having returned to the villages, the proletariat were pushed aside by a rising bureaucracy that would eventually elevate Stalin to power.
Despite the lies of the ruling class’ paid historians – who pour forth industrial levels of slanders against the Russian Revolution – there was no ‘inherent flaw’ in Bolshevism that led inevitably to Stalinism. It is little surprise that the regime of healthy workers’ democracy eventually succumbed under the vicious blows of imperialism, the White terror and the strangulation of an already backward economy. What is more remarkable is the resilience of the Revolution, and the heroism of the Russian proletariat and its vanguard, despite the horrors inflicted upon it.
For Marxists fighting to overthrow the capitalist system today, the Russian Revolution remains a brightly burning beacon from which we continue to draw tremendous inspiration and from which we continue to learn vital lessons.
Walter Meakin (1878-1940)
Bourgeois historians at the time had few scruples in defaming the Russian Revolution through all manner of lies and distortions. The articles here, by Walter Meakin, are therefore all the more valuable as an honest eye-witness account. Meakin, who also took many of the photographs reproduced here, was himself a committed trade unionist.
One of the founders of the National Union of Journalists (and later President of the Union in 1924-25), he had worked for the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) from 1911 to 1917. During that time he covered the Easter Rising in Dublin and later conflicts in Ireland. Later he joined the left-wing Fleet Street paper the Daily News and became its Industrial and Labour Correspondent. That is how he was invited to accompany the TUC British Labour Delegation to visit Russia.
Walter was born in a Nottinghamshire mining community and started work in 1894 as an “Office Youth” for the Midland Railway at the princely wage of 8 shillings a week (equivalent to 40p in decimal money).
The editors of marxist.com wish to extend our tremendous gratitude to Steve Musgrave, the grandson of Walter Meakin, for preserving this remarkable piece of history and for making it available to us for publication. The above introduction, and captions accompanying the following articles are by Ben Curry.
The following gallery of photographs were in the possession of Walter Meakin following his return from his visit to Russia in 1920. A number of them were captured by Meakin himself, whilst others were given to Meakin by Soviet press agency, “All-Russia Photo-Cine Department”.
NOTE: For technical reasons, readers viewing the following galleries on mobile phones will be unable to read the captions accompanying the photographs. For this reason, we highly recommend viewing this wonderful collection on a desktop.
The following fragments, the first of which is dated 11 June 1920, were written at the beginning of the Labour Delegation’s visit to Russia. Meakin describes how the delegation were given full freedom to talk with whoever they wished. He describes a burning desire for peace and an end to imperialist aggression everywhere, and extremely public health in an extremely difficult state, inherited from the past but exacerbated by the blockade.
Russia’s Appeal for General Peace
Readiness to Compromise in Face of Necessity. – NEAR EAST ISSUES – Opinion analysed by “Daily News” correspondent in Moscow
THE NEW SITUATION – Facts Which it is Important to Realise
MOSCOW, June 11 (delayed).
Recent events, particularly those connected with the formation of the Trans-Baikal and Azerbaijan Republics, followed by developments in the relations between Russia and Turkey, the revolutionary movement in Persia, and the success on the Polish front, have invested peace issues with new and profoundly important interests, which are fully reflected in discussions in Government circles here.
It is essential that the Russian attitude should be fully understood and appreciated in England. The following summary is based on conversations with leading men whose views and influence may be expected to predominate in Government decisions.
The general peace aims of Soviet Russia are to secure stability in unsettled territories on the basis of the expressed wishes of the people concerned. [...]
From Petrograd to Saratoff I have found an all-absorbing desire to escape from the toils of war and militarism, to divert the vast energy and enthusiasm of the Army to the task of restoring industry and agriculture, and to resume peaceful relations with other countries.
A TREATY WITH A WHOLE NATION.
Workmen in the factories, groups of soldiers on their way to the front, beg that England should change her policy. Regret rather than anger is expressed that Britain should have been the mainstay of intervention and the blockade. Evidence is overwhelming that peace would be, not an arrangement with a Government resting solely on force, but a treaty with a whole nation which is, at least, absolutely united in the demand to be left free to settle its own internal affairs.
The alternative must be the creation of a spirit of bitterness opening up perilous possibilities: Prominent men who anxiously desire peace because they wish for condition under which the existing restrictions and protective repressions can be abolished, declare that if Entente hostility is perpetuated, every method of protecting the Soviet Republic will have to be taken; and the belief is not concealed that, if Russia is driven to this course, the relations established with the Near Eastern peoples could be developed in a manner not in the least desired while a hope of peaceful arrangement with the Western countries remains. [...]
Rebuilding Russia – Work Interrupted by Polish Invasion.
The British Labour delegation arrived here to-day after five strenuous days in Petrograd. From the time of leaving Reval [Tallinn, Estonia], our experience has been memorable. The anxious investigation grows in scope, and the detail necessary for the authoritative and exhaustive inquiry which has been undertaken into the whole Russian situation is becoming more fully realised.
Before recording briefly the movements of the delegation it is a serious duty to state plainly the effect of the new Polish war on the Russian people. Differences of opinion exist regarding the future development of the socialised state, but city people, peasant and army alike, are unanimous in the determination to make any further sacrifices necessary to repel the new invader. The new attack has carried a definite stage further the tremendous consolidation movement in support of the Government. The invasion is regarded as a wanton act of aggression, inspired by imperial reaction in the Entente countries, as well as in Poland. This conviction has stirred the people, suffering acutely from privation, to fresh ardour and enthusiasm for the defence of the Republic.
The Russian people want peace, but regard the terms offered to Poland as fair and reasonable. Consequently there is no indication whatever, either of hesitation in accepting Poland’s challenge, or of doubt as to the outcome of the new struggle. If the struggle is prolonged it is obvious from the situation here and the solidity of the support given to the Government in resistance to the Poles, that the problems resulting in Central Europe will grow enormously in magnitude and complexity. [...]
LABOUR MISSION IN RUSSIA
Strong Case Against Entente Policy – The British Prisoners
The British Delegation leave to-night for Nijni Novgorod, whence starts a journey, lasting several days, down the Volga. Calls will be made at intervals for observation of peasant condition. Afterwards the delegates will probably visit Kharkoff, in the Ukraine. Mr. Ben Turner and Mr. Shaw are forgoing these trips, so that they may return to England in time for the Labour Party Conference, as it is felt very strongly that the conference should be informed broadly of the existing conditions in Russia, of the tremendously strong case against the continuance of the Entente policy, and of the urgent need of medical supplies for combating the epidemic of disease and for the protection of infant life.
On this subject Dr. Semashko, Commissary for Public Health, gave me yesterday some illuminating information. With the co-operation of the medical service generally, he is working heroically to cope with the adverse conditions, but the task of the doctors in the hospitals is rendered extremely difficult owing to the lack of soap, disinfectants, drugs, and nourishing foods.
NEED FOR MEDICAL HELP.
The urgent need for help to save the children may be indicated by the fact that under the old regime the infant mortality was at the rate of 250 per 1,000 births. Since the Revolution many measures hitherto new to Russia have been taken to check this appalling mortality, but the effect of the blockade and the shortage of special foods, inducing weakness and special affections among mothers, and rickets and other child diseases has largely counterbalanced these efforts. The difficulties are further increased by the remobilisation of doctors after the Polish attack.
Typhus in Moscow is now on a similar scale to the epidemic in Petrograd, but is decreasing as the weather becomes warmer. An outbreak of cholera was dreaded, but as the result of energetic small sanitary measures, especially in Moscow and Petrograd, since the melting of the snow, it is hoped that the danger has been warded off. The streets are now almost normally clear, but it is not yet possible to repair fully the defects in the sanitary pipes caused by the bursts on an extensive scale during the fuelless period in the winter.
Typhus and recurrent fever are now the only serious epidemic diseases, but these are prevalent in most parts of the country, particularly in the areas where the armies of Denikin and Koltchak have been operating. These armies left a terrible heritage of disease.
A FULL INVESTIGATION
The delegation’s inquiry has continued with freedom and fullness, and my anticipation, after leaving Petrograd, that it would far exceed in comprehensiveness and thoroughness any previous investigation is fully confirmed. The situation has been discussed with people of all parties and shades of opinion. To-day several members visited the prisons, where they were left perfectly free to talk privately with the prisoners, including Mr. Keeling and Mr. Rayner—the latter represents the Saltaire Works here. Both are well. [...]
On Friday separate of parties were formed to visit the textile mills, clothing factories, and schools. At night the delegation attended the Opera and heard from the former Royal box an exquisite performance of “Orpheus.” On Saturday there were miscellaneous inquiries, followed by a performance of “Carmen.” The Opera House was crowded with workers.
Dr. Haden Guest is investigating the medical service and the organisation to fight disease. Great progress is being made, but the service is again crippled by mobilisation needs. The situation is bad as judged by English standards in normal conditions, but the reports recently published in the English Press are fantastically contrary to the facts. From a population of about 800,000, eighty cases of typhus a day are reported, but an excellent organisation, including a voluntary sanitary corps of 1,000 persons, has been organised to fight this disease. The general mortality is admittedly high, due to the effects of the food shortage in the cities. Under these circumstances the continuance of obstacles of any kind to the revival of the outside districts is highly deplorable. Disinfectants, soap, anaesthetics, and other drugs, as well as milk, butter, and nourishing foods, are terribly needed, and these can only be obtained partly by importation and partly by new transport facilities, which cannot be created while the war and the blockade last. The most urgent need, therefore, is to bring food and raw materials from distant parts of the country.
No obstacle is placed by the authorities in the way of the fullest inquiry by the delegation. The suggestions that show places would be carefully selected are simply nonsense. Passes have been given which ensure us free access everywhere, and I myself have made inquiries of the most miscellaneous character in Petrograd, among all classes of the population, including British residents and various non-party Russians. It would be unjust to write of these inquiries until more material for a considered judgment has been obtained, but this can be said emphatically—the ruthless dominating fact of the social situation is the food shortage; and the gradual starvation of the whole city population is the strongest argument in the appeals of the Petrograd workers to the British workers to strive to bring about complete peace and the removal of all trade restrictions.
Already it has been made clear that the actual state of affairs, not merely as observable on the surface, but as ascertained by close and impartial inquiry in many quarters, is radically different from the prevailing conception in Great Britain. The facts ascertained in Petrograd will be re-examined at greater leisure in Moscow and elsewhere.
All members of the delegation are well.
In the first article of his series, “What I Saw in Russia”, dated 2 July 1920, Meakin begins by placing everything he saw whilst travelling through Russia into context: the horrors of the war; the disorganisation of industry before the revolution; the dislocation of transport; and the hunger, cold and misery that had been compounded by the civil war.
WHAT I SAW IN RUSSIA – “Daily News” Special Investigator Begins His Story – INDEPENDENT TOUR – The Actual Conditions Under the Soviet Government
Mr. Walter Meakin, “The Daily News” Special Correspondent who accompanied the Labour Delegation to Russia, has returned to England, and in a series of articles, the first of which appears below, will tell our readers what he saw of actual social and economic conditions under the Soviet Government.
In this first article he clears the ground by showing that the social life was in a state of collapse and the poor already were faced with famine before the Revolution in March, 1917. His investigations were wholly unfettered, and he will present a remarkable picture of life in Russia from an independent standpoint. In his next article he will deal with the food supply.
PAST AND PRESENT
Clearing the Ground for a Just Estimate of Conditions
By WALTER MEAKIN
In attempting to describe, even in a general way, the social, industrial, political, and military situation in Russia today one is oppressed by the difficult and complicated nature of the task. This situation is as varied in its multifarious aspects as is the whole range of human impulses and temperaments. The picture which one envisages after six weeks of strenuous inquiry and concentrated observation, both in town and country, exhibits every shade of colour, from the dark gloom of war struggles and privation endured in varying moods by great masses of the population, to the brightest hues of self-sacrificing devotion to idealistic efforts.
It would be easy enough to take any particular group of facts and base upon them an account which would give an impression, according to the nature of the facts, either of undiluted tyranny or Utopian achievement. Yet the impression thus created would be profoundly wrong.
For instance, if one described with the strictest accuracy the famine conditions, the epidemics and their effects, the repressive measures against counter-revolutionaries, or the proposals for the militarization of labour, and refrained from pointing out the association of these things with the conditions prevailing at the time of the first revolution and with the events of the civil war and the Polish war, the result would appear as the blackest possible indictment of the leaders of the revolution.
Yet the picture world be a complete distortion of the collective facts. Similarly, if one described with equal accuracy the schemes for building up a new social and industrial State, for the care of mothers and children, for the elimination of illiteracy from the most unlettered (but not by any means the least intelligent or subtle) populace in Europe, or for the cultivation of the arts by the workers, the result might appear as the greatest social and cultural achievement in the history of mankind.
Yet unless this account was instilled by a candid statement of the obstacles in the way of practical application, and of the frequent failure of the human instruments by which idealism must be tested in practice, it would likewise be a complete distortion of the collective facts.
UNDER THE TSAR
Therefore, before describing the outstanding and intensely interesting features of Russian life at the end of two and a half years of Bolshevik and Soviet rule, I would insist emphatically upon the necessity of keeping in mind these simple facts, which may be verified by reference to the newspaper files of the time or to several thoroughly reliable books dealing with the closing stages of the war under the Tsarist regime:
- That under a war strain which had become intolerable, in consequence chiefly of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption, the economic life of the country was rapidly dissolving into chaos.
- That transport and the food supply were both failing.
- That famine afflicted the poorer populations of the cities and towns.
- That the driving force of the revolutionary movement was derived from this state of affairs.
It is common knowledge that under the sway of the Coalition Government after the first revolution ineptitude and cross-purposes accelerated the downward drift throughout the summer of 1917, and that finally after the turmoil of the October revolution the successful Bolshevik leaders were the inheritors of an industrial and economic system rapidly approaching complete collapse. Not only had the Army dissolved into lawless and chaotic elements after the last and futile offensive, but in every mill and factory the workers, intoxicated by their new-found “freedom,” threw off all the remaining restraints of discipline which had virtually ceased to exist effectively during the troublous days of the Kerensky regime.
TANGLE OF EVENTS
Only the patient historian of the future will be able to unravel the tangle of events in the industrial sphere during the succeeding period before the Soviet Government was able to re-establish some measure of control, and until that historical review is completed it is impossible to say how far the final stage of economic break-down was due to the continued operation of the causes which reached back to the collapse of the Czarist regime, or to the earlier and freely admitted mistakes of the Bolsheviks. Lenin himself speaks with engaging candour of the blunders and “stupidities” of these first efforts to establish at once a complete and perfected Communistic or Socialist State on the ruins of the old, and recently the Communist Party itself, in full Congress assembled, has dealt ruthlessly with the cherished ideas of some of its members in this period of groping from the old to the new.
In this article I shall try to indicate clearly the nature of the activities which are now officially condemned, but the point I wish to stress here is that no analysis of the existing conditions which leaves out account the heritage of the Bolsheviks when they wrested power from their predecessors, or which fails to take full note of the almost unimaginable difficulties created by the civil war and the Entente intervention, can present fairly or accurately the results of the Soviet Government's administrative and reconstructive efforts:
Another equally important point which continually impressed itself upon my mind while in Russia, is the futility of trying to judge what has happened there by English standards. The fierce repression of the Tsarist era is now seen operating in an equally fierce reaction in the minds of men who have returned to play a leading part in the revolution with bitter memories of fortress confinement or lonely exile. Then, industrially, Russia was half a century behind Great Britain in many respects, and particularly with regard to wages and conditions of work.
THE FAIR COMPARISON
Add to this the effect on the development of Russia of the existence of a predominant and repressed peasant class, and one begins to understand something of the great differences which distinguish Russia from a highly organised industrial country like Great Britain, and which have profoundly influenced the nature and events of the revolution. Any fair comparison between the present and pre-revolution condition of the people must be based on Russian and not on British standards.
I desire in closing these introductory comments to make perfectly clear my relationship to the British Labour Delegation. My permit to enter Russia was given to me as a newspaper correspondent. I travelled to and from Moscow with the delegation by the courtesy of its members, and I visited several factories, works, and institutions in company with the Delegation. Apart from this my inquiries, even the factories, were conducted quite independently.
In Petrograd and Moscow, and in the towns and villages on the Volga, my movements were unfettered and I arranged my own program of investigation. The views and conclusions I shall express in subsequent articles are entirely my own.
In the following articles, dated 2 July 1920 and 9 July 1920, Meakin gives a panorama of Russia’s city life in 1920. Although a far cry from the horror stories told in the West, Meakin was immediately confronted by the shortages and economic difficulties that Russia’s city-dwellers faced. But he was also struck by the variety of attitudes: from the hysterical rage of the former members of the bourgeoisie, to resignation, to the ardent efforts of the Communists to overcome the difficulties imposed on the new Soviet republic.
Russia’s City Life
ORDER AND SECURITY IN THE STREETS. – MASK OF APATHY. – FOOD SHORTAGE AND LACK OF OTHER NECESSARIES.
By WALTER MEAKIN.
Just before I left England I read a statement, attributed to one of the refugees who had returned from Russia, to the effect that Moscow was a cesspool of iniquity, filth, and disease. While in Moscow I read another declaration, attributed to an American Red Cross Commissioner, to the effect that in Petrograd and Moscow people walked ankle deep in filth. When some of my friends heard that I was about to visit Russia they expressed the gravest concern not only for my health but for my personal safety.
As I walked about the streets of Petrograd and Moscow, sometimes in the early morning hours of darkness, I could not help recalling these things with almost cynical amusement, reflecting on the infinite power of rumour and gossip, acting on fevered or despairing minds, to produce amazing and grotesque distortions of fact.
About the life of the people, so far as it can be observed in the streets, churches, theatres, or public meetings, and necessarily in a more limited way in visits to private homes, I received a bewildering variety of impressions. The broad facts of food shortage, lack of clothing, and many other necessaries are soon realised and understood. But the inner moods and outward bearing of the people under these tribulations is infinitely diverse, ranging from hysterical resistances, like that of a caged bird beating against its bars, to the hectic zeal and energy of the Communists who, despite their avowed atheism, work for the attainment of their new social order in much the same spirit as religions proselytizers, scorning mere materiel comfort and heedless of physical hardship.
APATHY OR FORTITUDE
Between these extreme types one finds the mass of the people enduring their fate behind a mask of apathy or cheerful fortitude which often hides a deepening sense of hopelessness about the future. These people give to the daily life of the city streets a curiously normal aspect which struck me at first as strange and inexplicable until I reflected on the resiliency of human nature, and its general adaptability to even the hardest conditions of existence. How swift, for instance, was the response to the warmth and radiance of the early summer sunshine in Petrograd and Moscow!
During the daytime people go about absorbed in their various tasks—to and from factories, stores, or offices, collecting food from the depots, gathering in the markets to sell some treasured belonging or to buy necessaries which have become luxuries. But in the magic evenings they crowd the boulevards and little parks. In tree-shaded courts or squares mothers watch their children play and half forget their troubles in the pleasure of listening to careless merry laughter. In quiet places lovers stroll arm in arm. The Hermitage theatres in Moscow are crowded, and between the acts the leafy grounds echo the vivacious chatter of the promenaders.
The politicians and the active members of trade unions live strenuous days and nights. Propaganda is carried on ceaselessly. All the trade unions headquarters are training centres for speakers, and, the Government hopes, for future industrial administrators. In the schools hundreds of women, former members of the “bourgeois” class, devote themselves to the care of the next generation. In the hospitals woefully inadequate staffs and nurses, often working without soap, disinfectants, or drugs, battle heroically with disease. In one Moscow typhus hospital there are only two doctors, half-dead from overwork. While the death-toll among patients has latterly been as low as 6 per cent., the mortality among the personnel—doctors, nurses, sanitary corps—has been as high as 50 per cent. Nevertheless the doctors, mobilised by the authority of the Ministry of Health, have faced their sacrifice unflinchingly, and the thousand-strong Petrograd sanitary corps, enrolled for the odious work of delousing, etc., has never lacked its quota of volunteers.
If it is impossible to generalise about the rich variety of human activity which is maintained under the revolution, one may at least be dogmatic about certain simple facts. I was agreeably surprised to find the streets of Petrograd, Moscow, Nijhni, Saratoff, and other towns I visited both cleaner and brighter than I had expected. A great “spring cleaning” after the melting of the snow, was just approaching completion at the beginning of May, and thenceforward an ordinary daily sweeping program was carried out. The order requiring all householders, including many refined and cultured women who bitterly resented it, to help in cleaning the pavements near their houses, was part of a great concerted and successful effort to save Moscow and Petrograd from the horrors of a cholera epidemic this summer. A further enterprise of employing labour armies to repair the sanitary pipes which burst on a wholesale scale because of lack of fuel last winter, was abruptly ended when the Polish offensive started.
The fact that normal order and security have been long restored to the streets is indisputable. Militia guards (including women in Petrograd), have taken the place of the Red Army or the former police, and they carry out their duties unobtrusively. In company with an American correspondent, I was abroad till late nearly every night, and we were never challenged or required to show credentials, although conversing audibly in English.
Although so much of the normal aspect at the streets is preserved, one is reminded at every turn of the stupendous change wrought by the revolution. There are no gay shopping crowds on the Nevski Prospeckt in Petrograd, or the Tverskeya in Moscow. Gone are the fashionable restaurants and cafes. The banks, business offices, and the vast majority of the shops are closed. The whole orthodox commercial life is destroyed.
On the other hand, numerous speculative traders, including many peasants and Jews, exhibit in booths or on street stalls meagre stocks of bread, fish, vegetables, milk, clothing, cotton laces, small clothing, and many miscellaneous articles. The markets, especially the Sukharev in Moscow, and the more oriental markets of Samara and Saratoff, are crowded with similar traders.
In Petrograd, where the Communist resentment against private trade burns more fiercely than elsewhere the markets are frequently raided, and the punishment of speculators goes on without intermission. In Moscow greater tolerance has been shown, but ineffective decrees, forbidding trade except by special permits designed to control prices, have been issued from time to time.
In the provincial towns to the east of Moscow the same combination of old and new aspects of life is seen on a smaller scale. The brightest impression I carried away from Russia was that of Nizhni Novgorod, with its spires shining softly in a golden evening light. The people strolled cheerfully about the wide, clean streets and the leafy promenades of the Kremlin. Men were drilling in a field to the music of a brass band. In the theatre an audience of trade unionists endured an endless stream of political propaganda. The churches were crowded with devout congregations—chiefly women and soldiers—and the sound of deep-toned bells, so different from the harsh and furious clamour of some of the Moscow churches, floated in mellow cadences over the town.
What I Saw in Russia
Semi-Starvation Borne With Stoical Courage. – MEALS AND PRICES. – Nobles Support Themselves on Allotments.
By WALTER MEAKIN
The spectacle of millions of human beings suffering the afflictions of famine almost transcends comprehension. The task of describing it would be difficult enough even if all bore their trials in the same spirit, but it becomes impossible when one finds an infinite variety of mental attitude, ranging from the dull stoicism of the downtrodden of the old regime to the almost hysterical complainings of those who have lost all the luxury and refinements which power, privilege, and wealth gave them in former days.
Not all the dispossessed who yet remain in Russia add mental torture to their physical afflictions. I met many who are working in various capacities, bearing their trials with cheerful fortitude, and hoping in the blackest moments for the relief which they believe will come when war ceases. While they dislike, or even hate, many features of the present administration they deplore the interplay of counter-revolution and intervention which have perpetuated repression and retarded economic recovery.
PRINCE KROPOTKIN’S COW.
I will give three instances which are typical. A famous Tsarist general who lives in obscurity with his family, subsisting on the same fare as a workman's family, expresses the utmost contempt for the emigres. “Russia's misfortunes are my misfortunes.” he says in effect.
To take another type, the attitude of Peter Kropotkin is representative of that of thousands of other anarchist-communists, who desire to see the shackles of central government thrown off. He is a stubborn critic of dictatorship of any kind, but he denounces intervention, and demands that the Russian people shall be left free to settle their own differences. His opposition has not caused the Government to forget his sacrifices for Russia, and Lenin himself signed an order that a general expropriation decree should not operate in respect of Kropotkin’s cow. Extra food was also offered to the old Man, because of his ill-health, but he proudly declined it on the ground that he would accept no privileges. Mrs. Kropotkin toils bravely in the garden of their village home, forty miles from Moscow, to supplement the scanty ration with vegetables.
My next instance is that of Count Benckendorf, son of the former Ambassador in London. His estates were expropriated, but he retains a peasant's allotment, and divides his time between working on this land like any other peasant and helping in administrative duties in Moscow. While hundreds of the old “bourgeois” class face present trials in this spirit, others pine away in vain longing for the restoration of their former state, unable still to realise that their old world collapsed because of its gross injustices, inequalities, and ruthless tyranny.
In this article, dated 9 July 1920, Meakin explodes the hypocritical myth of bourgeois public opinion in Britain that blames the hunger and hardship of daily life in Russia on “communism” – whilst the same people who denounced Bolshevism remained utterly unmoved by starvation in India and Ireland. Giving a frank description of the hunger that imperialist intervention and blockade caused in Russia and the undoubted inequality that exists, Meakin describes how the Soviet regime has made every effort to limit inequality and ensure that above all, children and soldiers in the Red Army are fed first.
Russia under the Soviets
British Hostility due to error – Food Problem – People saved by Bolsheviks
By Walter Meakin
The continued denial of a peace which would leave the Russian people free to work out their own political and industrial future, and the Entente policy of the past two years, have been tolerated in Great Britain largely because public opinion has been influenced and inflamed by distortion of the truth about Russia, or by unreasoning criticism, based upon inadequate knowledge of the facts. Consequently, now that the immeasurable evils of this policy are taking shape in the mind of the public as the Polish gamble approaches its climax, it is more necessary than ever that every possible effort, however imperfect, should be made to probe beneath the surface and expose the salient facts about Russia in their true relationship to each other.
Outstanding examples of this necessity are the questions arising out of the food situation, transport, production in industry, the attitude of the peasants towards the Soviet Government, and the strength and spirit of the Red Army. It is commonly assumed, and this assumption is arduously exploited by supporters of the intervention policy, that the semi-starvation of the towns, the transport breakdown, and the peasants’ grievances are entirely due to Bolshevik rule. It has been assumed further that the administration of the Soviet Government responsible for this state of affairs must be shockingly bad and incompetent in every department, and that its hold on the people has been maintained by half a dozen men, exercising in some unexplained mysterious and miraculous way a tyrannical power over a hundred and thirty million discontented and resentful people. Hence the persistent belief that each successive attack in the intervention campaign would overthrow the Soviet Government, and even greater disasters and disillusionment will follow continued refusal to face the facts of the present situation.
Mr Keeling’s statements
Now, the question of the famine affords a fair test of the process of suppressing more than half the truth. It seems impossible to escape from this disregard of fair and accurate statement. Even in the “Westminster Gazette”, of Saturday, in an article inspired by Mr. H. V Keeling, a quotation is given from what is described as “a remarkable piece of evidence.” This is a pamphlet dedicated to the British Labour Delegation by Dr Vladimir Sviatlovsky, Professor of Economy at Petrograd. Mr Keeling states, quite wrongly, that this pamphlet was ready too late for the Delegation, as I was given a copy seven weeks ago. The effect of Dr Sviatlovsky’s statement is that a workman’s wage now enables him to buy only about one-third the food which is necessary for him and his family, and that in so far as the deficit is made good it is by selling possessions or by charity.
There is nothing remarkable in this piece of evidence. The facts stare one in the face wherever one goes in Russia, and no attempt whatever is made by the authorities to disguise the gravity of the position. What is remarkable is that the writer in the “Westminster” uses this isolated quotation as evidence of the results of Bolshevik rule and gives no indication of the fact that the main purpose of Dr Sviatlovsky’s pamphlet was to explain to the delegation the inhuman effects of the blockade and Entente support in the civil war on the mass of the population.
Dr Sviatlovsky does not try to hide or attenuate errors, and he is obviously deeply stirred and pained by the terrible events connected with that he describes as “the hardness, harshness, and difficulty of the first moment” of the revolution, but he emphasises the immensity of the task of reconstruction which faced the Bolshevik leaders when they secured power, and the added difficulties which crowded upon them after the counter-revolution began. “Russia” he says, “is obliged to feed, dress, and warm her population by herself, to work and produce in conditions of a country absolutely isolated” – and one has to live in Russia to realise how completely it is cut off from contact with the outside world.
Three of Dr Sviatlovsky’s statements go to the heart of the food situation:
“Thus the results of the blockade and of the hostile position of the neighbouring States towards toiling Russia are quite evident. In their struggle against Russia they make worse the material conditions of all the population, and especially of the poorest classes.”
“There can be no doubt about the fact that if free trade existed, and there were not a system of official government distribution of provisions, the poorest classes of population would suffer especially hard.”
“In the general system of food distribution children have been classed into a separate and more privileged category.”
I found independently abundant evidence of the truth of these statements. Bad as the food situation is in all the cities and towns of Russia, you can find nothing quite so terrible or heartrending as the pictures of misery, especially among children, drawn by Mr Gardiner and others in their descriptions of life among the poor in Germany and Vienna.
But to get a true parallel one would have to imagine a Germany which, after the Armistice, had found itself faced by powerful assailants, with armies converging on Berlin, which to meet this menace had subordinated all civil to military needs, which had created out of the ruins of the old army a new and well-disciplined military force of three million men, and which, after crushing its three assailants, found itself compelled to wage another formidable war. If as things are the children of the poor in German cities are but shadows of children, what would have been their state under the conditions postulated? This comparison with Central Europe constantly forces itself on the mind in Russia.
My next article will deal with the kind and quantity of food available, the method of distribution, the open market and speculation, the special provision for children and the army, and the amazing energy and resourcefulness among the people which the famine has created in some of the cities, especially in Petrograd. I will only add here that the common belief that things have gone steadily from bad to worse is unfounded, and Menshevists, Social Revolutionaries, and non-party people agreed in conversations with me that the conditions have substantially improved in recent months.
Just before the first revolution, in the early part of 1917, queues of people clamouring for bread were the commonest features of street life in Moscow and Petrograd. “It was, in fact,” wrote one competent observer at the time, “food shortage that fired the train that blew up the old order. The people were tired of spending most of the day shivering in a bread-line.”
In the winter of 1918-19, and for some time after, the ration was only one-eighth of a pound of bread per person per day. With the gradual restoration of order, the reconstruction of the railways in the civil war areas, the arrest of the transport decline, and the improvement of the system of distribution, the ration now ranges from half a pound to one and a half pounds per day, according to the nature of the work performed.
But for the Polish war the situation both as regards food and fuel would have been greatly improved before next winter.
A Stoic People
The dull sensation of constant hunger is endured with astonishing stoicism by the majority of people, and one is almost deceived by merely casual observation of the crowds in the streets, tramcars, trains and theatres. I was surprised at their physical appearance until I was reminded that the Russian workers’ standard of life was never high, and that by constitution and temperament alike the Russian race was more likely to emerge from the trials of famine and disease than any other European race. I found unchanged the warm-hearted, friendly bearing which has charmed so many visitors to Russia, and even reproachful references to Britain’s part in the blockade and intervention were toned down by expressions of belief that only a callous reactionary Government could be responsible, and that if the people of England knew all the circumstances they would instantly demand an end of strife.
A Common Level of Suffering
As to the children, their physical condition and quiet gaiety is due to the special care their receive, and this brings me to the point that, with two broad exceptions, the town populations are on a common level of suffering and endurance – a circumstance which, so far as I can ascertain, differentiates Russia entirely, from the other famine-stricken countries of Central Europe. Many events connected with the revolution shock and distress English people who read certain episodes in Ireland and India very lightly, but you will at any rate search in vain in Russia for examples of flaunting extravagance and riotous living while the families of workers struggle to avoid actual starvation.
The exceptions I mentioned are the Red Army and the children. The Soviet Government freely avow their policy. “We must do our best to feed and equip the army,” they say, in effect, “because the revolution must be saved and foreign foes must be driven back. We must give of our best to the children, because we are building for the future. Therefore we call upon the nation to bear its sufferings with courage and hope.” Everywhere one hears grievances and complaints, but judging from all the evidence I could collect I found it impossible to doubt that the appeal has drawn a wide and deep response. Nearly everyone agrees that the worst privations are due to the compelling need to subordinate all civil interests, except those of the children and the sick, to the supreme task of ending the war successfully, and gaining by an overwhelming manifestation of strength the peace which diplomatic overtures, regarded by the Entente as a sign of weakness, have failed to bring. That is the explanation of the consolidation of the Soviet Government’s power.
This fact also explains the amazing organisation of voluntary effort to supplement the food which is available through the Government machinery and distribution. For reasons which I shall explain when dealing with the condition of the peasantry, the Government cannot under the present abnormal conditions secure the whole of the food supplies for official distribution. Therefore one sees crowds of townspeople on the country roads or crowding the local trains with food packs of every conceivable description. Individuals visit friends or relatives in the country, trade unions send out foraging committees to buy in bulk, and all the produce is shared in that communal spirit so characteristic of the Russian people. Allotment associations have been formed, and this movement is on an impressively large scale in Petrograd, which is far removed from the main sources of supply. One ardent girl I met in Petrograd worked 150 hours last summer, and shared among her friends and relatives 700 pounds of potatoes, cabbages, and other produce. In the winter she walked to a village 20 versts distant at the weekends, and carried home in a sack one pood, or about 35lb. of flour. One could multiply these instances by one thousand. It may be taken broadly that the government ration provides for the following average dietary:
Breakfast: Coffee or tea substitute and black bread.
Afternoon: Thin soup with kasha (millet seed meal, which is palatable and nourishing when properly cooked), and occasionally half a dried herring or small portion of meat.
Supper: Bread and coffee.
This is supplemented by the yield of the village collections and by purchases according to ability, in the open market or by card in Government stores. Measures to suppress speculative trade or control these open market prices have not succeeded, and I think the authorities realise that they cannot succeed until the Government ration is greatly increased and varied. Offenders against the decrees are arrested and imprisoned from time to time, but while people are hungry and extra food is available, openly or secretly, they will scrape roubles together to make occasional purchases. Workers who receive good premiums, technical experts and certain professional men are able to buy more frequently, while a very limited number of speculators and others from “the new bourgeoisie”, as they are scornfully described – may obtain in one or two unobtrusive cafes a cup of real coffee and a sweet cake for 800 roubles, or any three-course dinner for four or five thousand roubles, which is an average month’s wage of a workman.
120 Roubles for an Egg
Prices on the open market in Moscow may be indicated by these examples: bread, 400 roubles per lb.; onions, 250; butter, 2400; and fish, 600; milk, 90 roubles a glass; and eggs, 120 each.
In the Volga villages and towns prices are only one-fourth these amounts, so that the effect of improved transport and the solution of the peasant problem would be immediately beneficial.
The authorities are confident that when it is possible to divert war transport to civil supplies, the situation will rapidly improve. Even if the war goes on I believe that great efforts will be made before and after to obtain some relief from the newly restored Volga traffic.
The collection and distribution of the staple foods, by the combination of local Soviets, trade unions, the reconstituted cooperative movement, and departments of the Supreme Economic Council, works not without defects, but with remarkable success considering all the difficulties which have to be faced. Where bread queues are at all seen they are attributed to the weakening of the administrative staffs by mobilising for the front, and collection from the various stores is fostered on a cooperative system among the residents of flats and tenements.
I did not find any official who pretended that the existing conditions are not very distressing, or that equality exists, or that some people suffer greater hardships than others. But I found a greater desire to remedy grievances, even if only to lessen discontent as soon as the means to do it are available. I cannot doubt the truth of the allegation that a certain amount of corruption exists in the public service (though not comparable to the graft-ridden Tsarist administration), and that some of the officials take advantage of their position to enjoy better conditions better than the average. But it is well known that, when discovered, corruption has been ruthlessly punished (an anti-Bolshevist official gave me instances from his personal knowledge), and it is also admitted even by their political foes that large numbers of heads of departments and Communist officials not only live in ascetic simplicity, but work hard and fervently in their efforts to establish firmly the new social order.
After the devastation of years of war, revolution and civil war, with the Russian economy lying in ruins, all hopes for the economic reconstruction revolved around the question of restoring the transport system: repairing locomotives, laying fresh tracks and re-raising collapsed bridges. Until such works were undertaken, industry would struggle to get the fuel it needed and the cities, which were forced to compete with the Red Army for grain on account of the civil war, would struggle to be fed. In this article dated 14 July 1920, Meakin gives a broad description of the daunting scale of the problem, the daily hardships that it entailed, and the heroic zeal with which the workers, their unions and the Bolshevik leadership were striving to complete this vital task.
RUSSIA AND TRANSPORT
REVIVAL OF INDUSTRIAL ACTIVITY – THE RAILWAYS – EFFORTS RETARDED BY THE POLISH OFFENSIVE.
By WALTER MEAKIN.
Whatever economic problems one seeks to investigate in Russia, the transport question swiftly appears in the foreground. As I have pointed out, the causes of the industrial collapse are numerous and varied. Up to a point the gradual deterioration of the transport services, the decline of productivity in the factories, and the fall in agricultural output can be traced to precisely the same causes. The disorganisation in the first years of the great war, the mobilisation of huge masses of the town and peasant workers, the complete turnover of factories from peace to war activities, the inability to maintain the efficiency either of factory or transport equipment, the general abandonment of effort which preceded and continued after the first revolution [Note: the February Revolution], the helpless drift of the Kerensky Coalition, the turmoil of the October revolution, and the first ill-advised experiments in workers’ control, coupled with the sabotage of the official and technical workers, all played their part in bringing the economic life of the country nearly to a standstill.
Then came the turning point, with the restoration of some measure of discipline and the elaboration of schemes for industrial reconstruction. These were upset by the development of the civil war. Coal and oil supplies were cut off, thousands of engines and waggons which were on the point of breakdown at the time of the first revolution now gave out, and with the remnant the needs of four fronts had to be met. Thus was reached a stage at which the transport problem transcended all others. Without grain from the stores of the east and south, the towns must die of starvation. Without coal from the Don basin and oil from the Caucasus, neither transport itself nor general industry could be revived. Therefore, after the final collapse of the counter-revolution reconstructive efforts were chiefly concentrated in measures to arrest the transport decline and to augment the food supply to the cities.
In the few months between the end of the civil war and the opening of the Polish offensive progress quite remarkable in view of the difficulties had been achieved. A few minutes study of a map which shows the maze of railways in Russia, will help the reader to understand the situation.
Denikin’s troops and raiding bands of cavalry had reached as far north as Tambov and Tulla. The Czechs had occupied the middle reaches of the Volga, including the great grain producing districts of Samara and Saratoff. Between this district and the Urals were Koltchak’s forces, and away to the west Judenitch operated between Esthonia and Petrograd.
The damage to railways and rolling stock during all these operations was enormous, and the task which faced Krassin, Soerdloff, Lomonasoff and Povlovitch (all technical experts with high qualification) when they set about the work of reconstruction after the various forces had been driven back would have appalled most men. Hundreds of miles of track needed to be rebuilt, and 3,000 bridges, large and small, were damaged or broken down. Krassin initiated the work with extraordinary courage and energy. When he was transferred to his present duties Trotsky was appointed Commissar of Ways and Communications because of the importance of transport to the Polish front, but the actual task of organising the reconstruction is placed upon Sverdloff, the Acting Commissar, one of the exiles who flocked back from America at the beginning of the revolution.
It is impossible to find a single trace of German influence in the efforts to revive industrial activity. The spirit and energy which produce the driving force are typically American, and in Sverdloff’s work one sees the greatest dynamic manifestation of this American influence. Many of these men, who took with them to America bitter memories of imprisonment and exile, have returned with their minds full of grandiose schemes for the establishment of vast centralised mass production industries on a Socialistic basis. Because all work will be for the community, they say, the objections that premiums and scientific management merely serve the ends of exploiting capitalists do not exist here. Therefore these and other expedients to increase output will be employed. The enthusiasm and personal activity of this group is unbounded. They are trying to modernise with tempestuous energy a vast inert Russia as Peter the Great did at the end of the 17th century. Whether they succeed or fail the experiment, if it is carried out with full freedom from outside interference, will be intensely interesting both from a social and industrial point of view.
Sverdloff looks about thirty. He is thin and pale, but he appears to be absolutely tireless, and he frequently works half through the night after a busy day of interviews and meetings. There is a curious mixture of kindliness and implacable determination reflected in his face, and this helps one to understand his relations with the railwaymen. In what was formerly the Grand Duke Michael’s car he has travelled over all the main railways, meeting the men face to face, taking their leaders by the arm, and infusing them with something of his own enthusiasm, expounding the doctrine that it lies with the transport workers to save Russia from famine and final decay, praising the zealous worker, lashing the slacker with scorn. The railway and other transport workers’ unions have themselves devised punishments for indiscipline and shirking, and while Sverdloff sees that these penalties are imposed he is just as keen to acknowledge good work by the payment of premiums.
Apart from these measures to increase the efficiency of the transport workers the Labour armies were utilised for railway reconstruction until the Polish offensive compelled a military remobilisation. In three months virtually the whole of the permanent way was restored and the bridges were repaired or rebuilt. One of the most notable achievements was the construction in six weeks by a section of the Labour army of a steel girder and timber bridge over the torrential Luga at Yamberg, near the new Russian—Esthonian frontier. It is impossible for the traveller to avoid a mental contrast between this solid structure and the new timber bridge over which the train crawls at snail's pace at Narva, on the Esthonian side of the frontier.
The present rail transport position in Russia is roughly this. Traffic is possible on virtually all the main lines, from Archangel to the Polish and Wrangel fronts, and from Esthonia to the Urals, to Omsk in Siberia, and to the Caspian and the Caucasus. Passenger traffic is rigidly limited by a permit system, but a surprisingly large number of people secure permits. There are now two long trains daily each way between Moscow and Petrograd, and into these, as indeed into all other passenger trains, amazing crowds of workers of all kinds, soldiers, and officials pack themselves.
THE REAL TEST
Simultaneously with the effort to reconstruct the permanent way a great program of locomotive repairing was started in the workshops, and particularly in the Putilloff, Samova, and other works where engines were chiefly built before the war. In February about 6,000 engines, or 70 per cent. of the whole, had gone out of action, and they crowded the lines at all the depots. It was argued that pending the time when new locomotives purchased from abroad would be available it would be better to repair as many as possible superficially than to rebuild a few. This work also was checked by the Polish war, and as I myself saw in several of the largest works the best operatives and equipment had to be turned over again to the manufacture of munitions and guns.
But for the war rail transport would undoubtedly have been improved sufficiently this summer to carry to the towns large stocks of food and timber for the winter, and with the renewal of traffic on the Volga a beginning might even have been made in the collection of flax, timber, and other goods which are available for export. As it is, Poland’s mad adventure has not only made more difficult the task of repairing the ravages of the previous struggles, but has postponed the time when Western Europe will get the benefit of Russia’s materials. It is not difficult to understand Krassin’s eagerness to buy locomotives, and already the total output of one Stockholm works has been arranged for.
Judging from the demeanour of the Russian railway workers, and the keenness of their leaders to co-operate with Sverdloff and his assistants, I have no doubt that with the provision of several hundred new engines and the release of all the war transport the movement towards a restored industrial and economic life will be quickly accelerated. In a country where the town population is only about 15 per cent. of the whole the task of supplying it with food should not prove difficult. When that is accomplished there will come the real test of the ability of a Socialist Government to carry on large scale industry, and to organise a great international trade. I shall deal with the present prospects and future possibilities of export trade in my next article.
Following the October Revolution in 1917, the army of the former Tsarist Empire was in a process of dissolution and the new Soviet Republic was effectively without an army. However, in the first months of the Civil War and the imperialist intervention, a new Red Army was constructed under the leadership of Leon Trotsky. This was a monumental undertaking, the success of which had not yet been fully grasped by the imperialists as late as 1920. The quick victories that the Soviets scored against the invasion launched by the Polish dictator Piłsudski therefore left them in a state of shock.
Below are two articles on the state of the Red Army in 1920. The first, simply titled “The Red Army” is by Walter Meakin and is dated 16 July 1920. The second, titled “Salient Features of the Red Army” was published in the American journal, the Christian Science Monitor. Both authors express particular admiration for the brilliant general, Mikhail Tukachevsky, who played a key role in the Polish War. In 1937, Tukhachevsky would fall victim to the Stalinist purge trials, in which the most brilliant Red Army officers were purged by Stalin, depriving the Soviet Union of its most capable military leaders on the eve of the outbreak of World War Two.
THE RED ARMY
By WALTER MEAKIN
The Russian victories on the Polish front will finally dissipate many legends about the Red Army which have survived even the successive crushing defeats of Koltchak, Denikin, and Yudenitch. For a long time the world believed that it was an army of bloodthirsty brigands, and only the other day a young British officer asked me if it was really a fact that one could walk about Moscow or Petrograd without fear of ruffians who brandished revolvers and shot people at sight.
I do not doubt the claim that the army now numbers three million men. It is in the main a young army, drawn from both the industrial and peasant classes. It is led by workmen officers and Tsarist army officers in roughly equal numbers. The Commander-in-Chief is General Kameneff, who was on the Tsar's general staff, and who greatly resembles Kitchener not only in appearance but in his reserved bearing. His simple, close-fitting blue uniform is in keeping with the informality and absence of military trappings at the War Office. He works in co-operation with workmen staff officers and with a small military and political council, on which two non-military Communists must sit.
Touchashevski, the young commander on the Polish front, is a “throw-up” of the Koltchak campaign, and his organisation of the last phase of resistance and the successive sweep back into Siberia won for him the command of the armies concentrated against the Poles. He comes of noble family, and was a sub-lieutenant in the Tsar's army. He is a Communist and a born leader. He combines exceptional organising ability with military skill, great personal courage, and the gift of inspiring the rank and file with his own ardour. Older men speak of his gifts as Napoleonic.
Considering all the circumstances, the Red Army is well clothed and shod; although the variety of its uniforms testifies to strenuous improvisation. At one parade I noted linen blouses in several colours and trousers or riding breeches in blue, brown, and green, with a few red remnants of a former day. Speaking broadly, the spirit and bearing of the rank and file do not differentiate the Red Army from any other well-trained European force. It has a preponderating element, which resembles all conscript troops, but, latterly the effect of a hurricane political and educational propaganda has become increasingly perceptible, and it is this propaganda, combined with the enthusiasm, courage and sacrifice of specially organised communist units, which gives to the Red Army its unique character and significance.
The army propaganda is a special and fruitful department of the vast organisation by which the Bolshevist leaders are seeking to consolidate the support of the people and to instil communist ideas and aspirations. Teachers, artists, singers, actors, and professors are drawn into the organisation. Sermus, the violinist who was deported from England, has become a famous propagandist at the front.
The communist battalions submit themselves to the most drastic discipline. They constitute the shock troops, and by their valour and readiness to face any danger they are expected to inspire and raise the morale of the rest of the camp. At Borisoff in June a communist battalion restored a breaking line and left four hundred dead. In the officers’ training schools there are thousands of young workmen, chosen by the trade unions. Of these, 25 per cent. are communists, 59 per cent. sympathisers, and the rest Mensheviks, Social Revolutionary, or non-party.
SALIENT FEATURES OF THE RED ARMY
General Touchachevsky, in Command on Polish Front, Is Described as a New Napoleon Without Imperialist Ambitions
From The Christian Science Monitor
As recently as May many European writers on Russia still entertained the belief that the Red Army was a very slender reed on which the Soviet Government relied for support. No accurate information regarding its numbers, equipment, composition, or discipline had filtered through. Even the name of the commander on the Polish front was unknown, and the belief was general that General Brusiloff, the old Tzarist commander, was directing the operations. Consequently, the recent victories over the Poles caused much mystification.
The writer had many opportunities of discovering the salient facts about the Red Army. Attendance at several important military demonstrations, including a ceremonial oath taken by a thousand young workmen who had just completed the course at the officers’ training school, casual talks with soldiers in several towns, and observation of various phases of the immense mobilization which was in progress in the early stages of the Polish battles, in addition to conversation with certain military and political army leaders, gave a comprehensive insight into the military power of the Soviet Government.
Origin of Red Army
The subject has not only a topical interest in so far as it concerns Poland and the rest of Europe, but it is bound up with the main problems which face Soviet Russia—transport, food, industrial reorganization, and so on. These questions can therefore be better understood in the light of the facts about the army, and the general military situation, because since the beginning of the Civil war and the intervention of the Entente Powers all other interests in Russia have been subordinated to military needs. The Red Army had its beginning in the comparatively few units which rallied to the Bolsheviki in October 1917, and which maintained some semblance of organization. The first task was to suppress the marauding bands into which many other units of the old army had degenerated. It may be true as has been alleged that at first old regime officers were compelled to join because their families were held as hostages, but the writer could find no evidence of this. It is certainly not true now, and it is a fact that a very large proportion of the Tzarist officers who are now in the Red Army did not join it until comparatively recently.
The strength of the army grew as the menace of the Koltchak and Denikin advance increased, and a typical example is to be found in the instance of the famous Budenny cavalry. Budenny was a peasant soldier and his qualities as a leader were not revealed until he raised a small band of about 20 horsemen to resist the raids of Mamentoff’s cavalry during Denikin’s incursion in the direction of Moscow. More and more of the peasants rallied to Budenny as his successes became known, and during the past six months he recruited immense numbers in the Caucasus, whence he reached the southern Polish front after a march of six weeks.
More than Three Millions
The army is organized on a conscription basis, and after the Polish offensive started an immense remobilization was immediately ordered. Some of the corps had been disbanded and the young peasant soldiers were back in the villages. Other corps had been transformed into labor armies, and were engaged in rebuilding the railways, in cleaning up the cities, and in other tasks where they could be employed in mass. These were at once ordered to resume military duties, and many other young men, from town and country alike, were called upon to join up. In May and the early part of June all the Russian towns presented the same scenes of marching soldiers and farewells at stations as one witnessed in Great Britain at the height of the Kitchener preparations.
In several recent speeches Nicholas Lenine, has referred to the army as a powerful organization of 3,000,000 men. At the present time this is probably an under-statement. Notwithstanding all the difficulties of manufacture the men are fairly well equipped, clothed, and shod. Their uniforms present an interesting variety, and many wear British garments captured at Archangel and in Siberia. The guns, munitions, and general equipment from Admiral Koltchak and Generals Denikin and Judenitch have also strengthened the Red Army considerably.
The discipline is as strict as in any other army, and the communist battalions, which are specially organized for the most dangerous and difficult duties, submit themselves to the most rigid discipline imaginable. The Soviet Government relies on these battalions, in fact, to set the pace for the rest of the army, to inspire the peasant soldiers with an example of courage and a sense of duty, and to act as shock units at any critical stage of the fighting. In this respect they undoubtedly have a remarkable record, and in one action in June, when the line before Borisoff was in great danger, it was saved by a Communist battalion which lost heavily. Apart from these special units, the rank and file of the army presents the usual characteristics of a conscript force. It has always been common for Russian peasant soldiers to desert in fairly large numbers in order to put in a few weeks’ work on their holdings, and the same thing has happened in the Red Army; but latterly the authorities have instituted severe measures against this practice.
The control of the Red Army is exercised jointly by representatives of the political and military organizations. Leon Trotsky, the peoples’ commissary, Mr. Skliansky, his deputy, and Mr. Smilga, the president of the Military Revolutionary Tribunal, are the outstanding men on the political side. Mr. Smilga was formerly a journalist in the Caucasus. On the military side are General Kameneff, the commander-in-chief of the whole army, General Lebidiev, his chief of staff, and General Touchachevsky, the commander-in-chief at the Polish front. Kameneff, who is a tall, sallow-complexioned, middle-aged man, pleasant in manner but quiet and reserved, was on the general staff of the Tzarist army. He works on apparently the best of terms with his fellow officers, and he claims that the army is now so completely amenable to discipline that it is under absolute control in occupied territory.
A New Napoleon
General Touchachevsky is described by some of the older officers as a new Napoleon without the imperialist ambitions of the French Conqueror. He is only 27 years of age. He was a sub-lieutenant in the Tzarist Army, and avows himself a convinced communist, although he comes of noble family. He is credited with remarkable powers of arousing the enthusiasm and devotion of the soldiers, and older officers give unqualified praise to his strategy and organizing ability.
At present workmen officers and those who belonged to the old army are about equal in number, but the policy of the government is to limit all future commissions to the graduates of the officers’ training schools, the students being chosen by the trade unions. The young officer repeats after the head of the civil authority a promise which begins as follows: “I, son of the working people, citizen of the Soviet Republic, take upon myself the name of a warrior of the Labor and Peasant Army.” He pledges himself to “abstain and prevent my comrades from any deed dishonoring the name of citizen of the Soviet Republic, and to direct all my deeds and thoughts to the great aim of the liberation of all the workers.” After undertaking to obey all orders for the defence of the Republic, to spare “neither strength nor life itself” in “the struggle for the Soviet Republic, for the aim of socialism and the brotherhood of nations,” he adds, “If I do not keep this solemn promise let me be universally despised and punished by the harsh hand of the revolutionary law.”
This pledge is in keeping with the remarkable propaganda which is carried on unceasingly in the Red Army. The most able men and women of the Communist Party, schoolmasters, administrators, lecturers, actors, singers, writers, are called upon to take their part in this organization.
Over 3000 schools, 2000 libraries, 472 theaters, and 220 cinemas have been established in the camps and depots. Half a million leaflets and pamphlets a day are circulated, and political propaganda (designed to influence the young, peasant soldiers and through them the life of the villages after the war) is combined with educational work with the object of eliminating illiteracy. Lectures in local administration are also given, in the belief that by this means interest in the local Soviet institutions will be quickened when the army is disbanded. The Red Army, like one whole country, is absolutely “dry” and infringements of the regulations regarding intoxicants are pitilessly punished. In fact, except for the encouragement given to dramatic art the discipline of the army is remarkably Puritan. The Little Palace in the Moscow Kremlin is now an officers' club, and when the writer paid it an unexpected visit he found the young officers quietly reading, or playing draughts and chess. while one group was rehearsing a Maxim Gorky play.
The destruction and disruption of the civil war, on top of the destruction of the First World War, had devastated Russian industry. As part of the Labour delegation, Meakin was able to see this for himself when visiting various works in Moscow, Petrograd and elsewhere. In the following article dated 19 July 1920, he faithfully relates what he saw in Russia’s workshops, but also gives an honest appraisal of the causes of the disarray that he found. As the Whites cut off raw material producing regions; the blockade strangled the economy; foreign experts were withdrawn from the country; and workers returned to the countryside to escape the hunger stalking the cities, the government was forced to take strict measures to reverse the decline of industry in the besieged Soviet republic .
RUSSIA IN THE WORKSHOPS.
SERIOUS LACK OF RAW MATERIAL – THE BLOCKADE – BITTER COMPLAINTS OF HUNGER.
By WALTER MEAKIN.
Although, broadly speaking, it may be said that industry throughout Russia is in a very sick condition, this generalisation does not cover all the facts. In many of the works a slow but real recovery from the worst conditions is being made and in a few a much higher standard of efficiency and output has been reached than I expected to find. Everywhere a definite advance has been made from the chaos produced by the strikes and factory revolts which marked the Kerensky administration, and by the sabotage of the experts and the first unsuccessful experiments in workers’ control which followed the second revolution [Note: October Revolution].
Nevertheless, enormous leeway has to be made up before full productivity can be restored, and it remains to be proved whether large-scale manufacture can be organised successfully on a nationalised basis. Ambitious and far-reaching schemes have been promulgated, and it is impossible to say that the creators of the schemes have failed to put them into practice, because they have never had a chance. With the Don basin mines partially wrecked and the coal supply from that region absolutely cut off, with the oilfields of the Caucasus likewise isolated, with the whole of the workers underfed, and with the withdrawal of all the foreign technical experts who were mainly responsible for the direction of the Russian factories, it is not surprising that every effort to restore production for civil needs has been heavily handicapped.
I thought it significant that the most efficient workshops, apart from a large flour mill at Samara, were those devoted to the manufacture of munitions, and quite the busiest and most cheerful was a large aeroplane factory in Moscow. The fact is that for over two year, the energies of the native experts and of the best craftsmen have been turned almost entirely to production for war. Adaptations of plant have had to be made everywhere, so that wood fuel could be substituted for coal and oil, and any engineer will appreciate what this means in huge establishments like the Putiloff works at Petrograd, or the Samova works at Nijni-Novgorod.
With the development of new workers’ organisations on industrial unionism lines, workshop discipline has been restored, nearly all the native managers and experts who remained in the country are back at work. The outstanding needs are transport, fuel, food for the workers, and raw materials in the industries which depend upon imports.
I went over the greater part of the immense Putiloff works. No attempt was made to hide the fact that important departments, such as the magnificent equipment for the manufacture of marine machinery, are standing idle. Instead of the 40,000 persons who laboured here at one time, there are now only 7,000, many thousands having gone to the country when Petrograd was partially evacuated. In the locomotive-building department only repair work is now done, and I watched the activities of men on about 30 engines. The pick of the workers were in the gun and munitions sections. At the Samova works about 5,000 men are retained, and here also locomotive building has given place to repairing. The steel plant for which Samova was famous, is partially paralysed for lack of fuel, and in the foundry pathetic efforts were made to keep running on wood. At the time of my visit the first supply of oil from Baku was approaching, and it was hoped therefore that a threatened suspension of work in all except the munitions department would be averted.
Woollen mills in Petrograd were running at about one-third their capacity, but the standing machinery was kept in good condition. The great cotton mills at Moscow are virtually idle, because of lack of raw material, but some of the smaller mills are running well, and many machines have been adapted for the use of flax. These factories and mills are fairly typical of the general industries, but there is a brighter side to the picture. Great efforts have recently been made to restore the activity of the metal works of the Urals. Clothing factories at Petrograd, where several thousand girls and women are employed, are working at high pressure, and it is worthy of note that when Judenitch was just outside the city these women increased their output by one-third to clothe the volunteers who rallied to the support of the Red Army.
Work in the various communal bakeries has steadily improved and in the Samara and Saratoff districts the production of flour has been concentrated in half the mills, to facilitate the transfer to wood fuel. I visited first a large mill, equipped with the most modern machinery. It was entirely idle, waiting for a supply of oil fuel, but a small staff was keeping the machinery in running order. I then visited a still larger mill, where the whole plant was running at full pressure under the direction of one of the old “bourgeois” managers.
At the Moscow aeroplane works, on the other hand, direction is still retained by a committee of three—two workmen and one technical expert. Here men and women were working hard on the premium system at all the processes of woodcraft, accessory industries, and assembling.
ELECTRICITY FROM PEAT
At Shatura, some miles from Moscow: a successful experiment on a small scale has been made in generating electricity by burning peat in adapted marine engines and boilers, and a scheme for building large generating stations in the peat districts has now been prepared.
At Razen, 60 miles from Moscow, a communal settlement, organised by the woodworkers’ trade union is working successfully and productively on novel and independent lines. Its workshops, housing scheme, school creches, and subsidiary industries have aroused great interest and strong desire to copy the enterprise. These are examples of spirited endeavour which stand out against the general industrial depression.
It would be absurd to suggest that these workers are happy under existing conditions. “How can we expect men to put their hearts into the work,” one manager said to me, “when they are constantly hungry?” Over and over again men said to me in a quiet tone of resignation which was more appealing than bitter complaints: “It is very hard to carry on. How long will it be before the British workers stop the war and compel their Government to lift the blockade?” All the evidence I could gather indicated that the main cause of grievance was economic, that is, lack of food and clothes. At the same time I found some of the non-Bolshevik workers very sore on account of political grievances, and charges of petty tyranny, favouritism towards Communists, and so on, were not infrequently made. Under any industrial system aggrieved workers will be found, but obviously if Bolshevik control under more normal and peaceful conditions were of such a character that it created centres of unrest and disaffection in the workshops the stability of the Government would sooner or later be undermined. Present conditions enable it to justify rigid and even harsh measures, which are accepted without resistance by the majority of the workers because they believe that the safety of the country and the revolution is endangered.
The October Revolution in 1917 was only possible because of an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. The peasants supported the seizure of power principally because soviet power alone would give them possession of the land. With the revolution isolated, and industry in a state of dilapidation, the Soviets could offer the peasants little in exchange for grain to feed the towns and the Red Army. As such, it was necessary to introduce grain requisitioning. This increased tension with the peasantry, which Meakin describes in this article dated 23 July 1920. This tension became increasingly threatening to the Soviets. Peasant uprisings in late 1920 culminated in a rebellion at Kronstadt in Spring 1921. On the back of these events, the Soviet regime was compelled to conduct a retreat, reintroducing a free market in grain with the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. However, a consequence of this enforced retreat was the growth of inequality, with the emergence of a class of rich kulaks in the countryside and of wealthy “NEPmen” in the cities.
VILLAGE LIFE IN RUSSIA
SOME EFFECTS OF THE REVOLUTION – LAND PROBLEM – LENIN’S PLAN TO DEAL WITH NEW SYSTEM.
By WALTER MEAKIN.
There were wild scenes in many Russian villages after the first revolution. Disappointment because the big private states were not expropriated and divided among the peasants welled up into explosive discontent, which was fostered by the start of lawless bands from the dissolving army. Landowners were killed, and some of their houses were burned. Scenes of violence were renewed after the Bolshevik upheaval, and the terror spread far and wide in the country, as well as in the cities.
Since then, wherever they have been freed from the troubles of the civil war the peasants have settled down to something more nearly approaching their normal life than has been possible for any townsmen. Except in the districts where the grain produced is insufficient for the rural population, the peasants and their families have, on the average, enjoyed more food than ever before.
TORRENT OF GRIEVANCES
I found them always ready to pour out a torrent of grievances, but these usually boiled down to the simple fact that, in place of the old Tsarist taxmasters they had a Government which deprived, or attempted to deprive, them of their surplus produce without offering them other commodities in return. The average Russian peasant is far from being a Communist in the Bolshevik sense of the word. The old so-called Communal land system which has been abolished was simply an allocation of strips agreed upon by all the members of the commune, and when that process was accomplished each peasant worked his own fields. He was, and still is, strongly individualistic, with pacifist-anarchist tendencies. Hence the older peasant makes little attempt to understand the position of the townsman in the difficult circumstances of the present. He needs clothes, boots, implements, tools, nails, and so on, and he is very ready to assume that the Government which cannot supply him with these things is not a good one. Consequently he tries to hoard his corn, and he expresses deep resentment when troops are used (as they frequently are) to dispossess him. The attitude of the Government is, of course, that the peasant owes his new freedom and his land to the Bolsheviks, that until industrial production and the import trade are restored be must share the misfortunes of his country, and that he ought to be thankful that at least he has enough to eat.
The severance of ordinary exchange relations between town and country dates back to the Kerensky period, and Government officials express the firm conviction that when they can supply the peasant with the goods he needs his chief grievances will disappear. I was frequently told in the villages that if an adequate exchange was possible there would be no difficulty whatever in obtaining produce from the peasants. The young men from the villages who mainly constitute the new Red Army have naturally been influenced by the intensive propaganda of the Government, and I think it probable that when they return to rural work their new thought and outlook and the elementary education they have acquired will greatly influence village life.
Although the Bolshevik revolution was in its essence an attempt to establish first the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that is the “class-conscious” industrial and poorer peasant workers—as a prelude to the development of a Communist State, events have worked out in the villages in a manner which has created many difficulties for the Government. The country population, roughly 85 per cent of 130 millions, has in fact been transformed into a nation of peasant proprietors. When the large estates were expropriated some hundreds were retained by the Government to serve as demonstration farms, to show the peasants the advantages to be derived from real communal cultivation, with the use of up-to-date machinery. The rest were divided, as part of a process of general redistribution. The landless peasants shared in this, and the old commune system was abolished.
Early attempts to induce the peasants to cultivate on communal lines failed entirely, but many groups of Communists from the towns are working together with fair success. I visited one of these large communal farms about 15 miles from Saratoff. It is directed by a former chief steward of a neighbouring estate. The land was well cultivated, and the crops—chiefly wheat, rye, potatoes, and orchard fruit—were in excellent condition.
LENIN AND LAND SYSTEM.
Lenin fully realises the difficulties created by this new land system. In an address some time ago to the Congress of the trade unions he pointed out that “the peasants remain owners, property holders. Every instance of the sale of bread in the open market, every sack of flour or other food carried from place to place by private traders ... Means the restitution of commodity production, and therefore the restitution of capitalism.” Consequently, he said an irreconcilable struggle must go on to abolish the two separate classes of workers and peasants, but he also suggested that force would not achieve this object. He looked to “moral suasion” and educational propaganda for a solution.
Part of the plan is to offer, as soon as general commodities are available, more attractive conditions and advantages to groups of peasants who will agree to work their land in common, on a large scale farming system, and to exchange their products with the industrial workers on a basis of barter. Lenin’s scheme of electrification is to have an important place in this effort to harmonise the interests of town and country.
Meanwhile, many of the peasants who live near the cities have grown comparatively wealthy by speculative trade, not withstanding the embargo and penalties. They hoard up immense quantities of paper roubles, or develop new tastes and desires by buying the fine furniture, pianos, clothes, and jewellery of the former well-to-do townspeople. Some of the Communists consider that this will operate in their favour when they are able to satisfy the newly-acquired tastes, providing the peasant is willing to produce the corn and other food which will enable him to barter.
In some villages the peasants have grown dubious about the value of paper money. In one village we visited we tried in vain to buy eggs. “If now,” said one peasant, “you will exchange a coat I will sell you eggs, milk, or anything else.” Thus the inflation of the currency is actually driving the thoughts of the peasants towards a system of barter, and cynics suggest that this may be the real purpose of the constant issue of new paper money. The village educational work of the soviet Government has not made much progress because of the lack of school materials, but I visited several newly established schools, and talked with the teachers, who are keen and enthusiastic, especially the young women. In some villages many of the elder peasants attend the adult classes started in the fight against illiteracy. In others these classes are neglected.
Village industries suffer from shortages of material and the general stoppage of trade, but weaving, lace-making, and woodwork are still carried on, and I saw several ancient dames spinning wool with the distaff. The traditional hospitality of the peasant has not abated, and on Whit Sunday, when all the cottages were decorated with birch branches, and the churches were filled with brightly dressed women and girls, I shared with other visitors what seemed a rich feast of wheaten bread and butter, eggs, cold bacon, and real tea. Some reference was made to custom. “There is only one custom,” said the hostess, smiling “and that is to leave something for the next guests to eat.”
The following article, dated 26 July 1920, gives a brief snapshot of the conditions children in education face. What is immediately clear is the contrast between the aspirations of the new Soviet government to introduce quality education for all children, and the material limits that the civil war, embargo and famine placed on realising those aspirations.
EDUCATION IN RUSSIA
RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL FOR CHILDREN – 20,000 PUPILS – CULTURE AND LEARNING FOR THE PROLETARIAT
BY WALTER MEAKIN
The ambitious educational schemes of the Soviet Government, as elaborated by Lunacharsky, and also the conditions in the Moscow schools, have been described by several visitors to Russia in recent months. I was, therefore, glad of the opportunity afforded by my longer sojourn in Petrograd to see what is being done in the city under exceptionally difficult circumstances.
Roughly, it has been possible so far to organise schools for only half the children in the city. About 20,000 are in residential colonies, and I visited several of these. It was obvious that the children were not fully nourished, but they showed plenty of vigour, and with few exceptions they were bright and happy. In the gardens after class-work they cultivated vegetable plots or played games with the teachers.
It was a pleasant and cheerful scene in the early summer sunshine, but the teachers told me a pathetic story of the hardships of the winter, when the rooms were icy cold and the children were half frozen because the Judenitch attack made impossible the usual woodcutting for winter fuel. The curriculum both in the colonies and the city schools includes domestic subjects, the study of simple science, and woodwork and other crafts. Over two-thirds of the teachers are women. Some are ardent Communists, but the majority are drawn from the dispossessed classes. All appeared to be anxious to save the children from the worst hardships. I talked with some who found their new conditions terribly hard to bear, but they tried to forget their troubles in truly heroic devotion to their work. The children, they said, were happy and responsive to all the care given to them.
MERRIEST CHILDREN IN RUSSIA.
I found in one of the city schools a group of enthusiastic young women teachers, who seemed to have a pretty free hand in arranging their work. Much time was given to decorative needlework, modelling, various crafts, dramatic training, and music, in addition to the ordinary classwork of the school. I was told that many in the children were drawn from the former “submerged” class and that their progress exceeded all expectations. They were certainly among the merriest children I saw in Russia.
These schools were admittedly the best. In others, the rooms are small and not very attractive, and the shortage of equipment and materials necessarily makes the whole work difficult. Nevertheless the feeding of the children is fairly uniform.
The Soviets began life as organs of struggle thrown up in the course of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In the course of 1917, they were connected up on the city, district and national level. In the October Revolution, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, they seized power, and formed the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia. In an article titled “How Russia is Governed”, dated 28 July 1920, Meakin gives an interesting description of the soviets, their democratic character, the manner in which they held power as the dictatorship of a class, and the difficulties that foreign intervention had thrown in the path of their operation. He also gives a very interesting picture of the role of the trade unions in Russia, which was naturally very different in a country where the workers held power compared to a capitalist country.
Alongside Meakin’s article we also publish two articles from the American journal, Christian Science Monitor – the first titled “Trade Unionism in the Soviet System”, and the second titled “Russian Unions’ Problems Odd”. The author of the former is clearly hostile to Bolshevism, describing the October Revolution as a “Bolshevist coup”, and make distorted claims of the Bolsheviks using the harsh circumstances of the civil war to “justify” the suppression of soviet democracy. This is despite making the clearly contradictory observation that the Bolsheviks were also striving to preserve and reinvigorate soviet democracy. Nonetheless, we believe these articles contain interesting facts and observations about the soviets, the trade unions, the economic pressures which would lead to their bureaucratisation, and the measures that the Bolsheviks were forced to introduce to raise up industry.
HOW RUSSIA IS GOVERNED
SYSTEM OF INDIRECT REPRESENTATION – PEACE TEST – FINAL FORM OF SOVIETISM NOT YET FIXED
By WALTER MEAKIN.
It would need a volume to describe and analyse the governing, administrative, industrial, and workers’ institutions which have grown up, and which are still in process of evolution, in Soviet Russia. It is only possible for me here to deal in the broadest outline with these institutions and their relationship to each other. Events in Russia to-day are often compared with the course of the French Revolution. There are certainly many interesting parallels, but I think it will be seen from what follows that both politically, socially, and industrially, there are new factors in the Russian revolution – especially the growth of power, and entirely novel functions of the trade unions – which must deeply influence Russian affairs in a manner which was not possible in France.
The common idea that the Soviet, or council, system of government is inseparable from Bolshevism has no basis in fact. The system sprang into being spontaneously at the time of the first revolution, and the councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants then formed were designed primarily to save the revolution and keep the Government up to scratch. Later these councils became more and more the centres of the growing discontent, and the Bolshevik leaders naturally saw in them a readily adaptable instrument for their social revolution. At the present time many opponents of the Bolsheviks are convinced that for a backward country like Russia no better system could be devised at present, and I often heard the assertion that even if Lenin and his colleagues were displaced the Russian people would not lightly give up the Soviets.
Electorally the system is in effect one of indirect representation. The Volost, or rural Soviet Congress, appoints its own executive committee, and also sends delegates to the Onyesd, or district Soviet Congress. This in turn appoints an executive committee to govern the district, and chooses delegates to the Gubernia (or old Government area) Soviet Congress. This body likewise elects an executive committee to administer the affairs of the Government area, and appoints delegates to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Moscow. The National Congress elects a central executive committee and a presidium of that committee. It also appoints the People’s Commissars (the equivalent of our Ministers of State), and defines the functions of these various executive bodies.
The Gubernia Congress represents town Soviets, factory and works settlements with a population above 5,000, and Volost Soviets. The elections take place at open meetings on the basis of one deputy for 2,000 town or factory electors (the franchise being limited to workers), and one deputy for each 10,000 inhabitants in the rural areas. Certain classes who have been associated with counter-revolution are at present excluded from the franchise, and this is a cause of deep resentment.
This system of government is obviously capable of development on broad democratic lines if the elections are perfectly free: but it is equally capable of manipulation by a Government which desires to retain power and which possesses the means of crushing resistance. The preoccupation with war has undoubtedly enabled the present Government to maintain, and even to strengthen, its position without any really effective check from the local Soviet, but in that respect Russia under present conditions differs little from countries where parliamentarism is established, and where the executives have dominated Parliaments during the past four or five years.
The test of the Soviet system under peace conditions in Russia has yet to be made, and in a backward country where a huge peasant population is scattered over thousands of square miles, the Soviets might give just as effective representation as a constituent assembly election in which a large proportion of the illiterate peasantry would probably not participate. As a matter of fact, the final form and function of the Russian Soviets are not yet fixed. Kameneff has taken the lead in fostering a democratic evolution and on his initiative the All-Russian Congress has adopted resolutions which, if carried into effect, will
- Subordinate the Council of People’s Commissaries to the Central Executive Committee and Presidium of the All-Russian Congress—this Central Committee representing directly the local Soviets.
- Ensure the assembly of the Central Executives Committee at least every two months.
- Extend the powers of the Gubernia Soviets by making them responsible for the administration of their areas, in accordance with the decrees of the Central Committee and the decisions of the All-Russian Congress.
TRADE UNION ORGANISATION
The trade union organisation is entirely different from the British movement. Its primary function is not to protest the workers against their employers, but to co-operate with the Government and the Supreme Council of Economy in running the nationalised industries.
Through their central committees the unions (which number 32 and possess roughly four million members) have fixed wages and premiums, decreed an eight hour day and seven-hour night, devised penalties (varying from reduction to a lower-wage category to periods of forced labour on the land), and instituted courts of honour to deal with workshop offences. Acting in common, the committees actually control the Ministry of Labour, which is charged with the duty of organising the supply of workers and supervising protective measures—safety, hygiene, and so on. In effect, the trade unions, as such have full control over the working conditions in the industry, but not over the management of technical processes.
This latter control is shared with the Soviet through the machinery of the Supreme Council of Public Economy, which directs the movements of raw material, manufacture, the distribution of products and foods, and foreign trade. This Supreme Council has charge of 5,000 nationalised enterprises. It works through a presidium of eleven members, who are chosen by a combination of elections and confirmations in which the All-Russian Soviet, the All-Russian Trade Union Congress, and the Council of Commissars are concerned. At present a general transformation from committee management to one-man control of industries and workshops is taking place. The defects of committee management, the necessity of expert direction are now freely acknowledged, and the inducement of high salaries is held out to the experts.
Several important industries are still controlled centrally by committees, but the plan is to replace these by a single director, who during the period of urgent reconstruction will be virtually a dictator. The same remark applies to the works director, but if his actions arouse the resentment of the workers the appointment is reviewed by the Supreme Council. In this matter the influence of the trade unions would naturally be very strong. It will thus be seen that the State machine is in a sense predominantly industrial and economic, rather than political, and the close relationship between the trade unions and the Soviets might conceivably be so developed as to limit substantially the power of the Council of Commissaries, and even the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviet.
TRADE UNIONISM IN THE SOVIET SYSTEM
No Study of Russian Conditions Is Adequate Which Fails to Note Part Trade Unions Are Likely to Take in the Future
Up to the present the Russian Soviet, as a machine of government, has differed considerably in practice from what it is supposed to be in theory. A soviet itself is merely a council, and soviets were formed for various purposes long before the Bolshevist coup in October, 1917. Soviets, or councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants, were created, for instance, after the revolution of March, 1917, not to govern the country, but to influence the Coalition Ministry. When that ministry failed to give either the workers or the peasants what they had expected, the soviets became more and more aggressive. They focussed the discontent, inclined steadily toward the Bolshevist policy, and consequently proved a ready instrument by which Nicholas Lenine (sic) and his colleagues seized the reins of power.
This explains why the Bolshevist Constitution was based on the soviet system. According to this Constitution, which is framed on idealistic lines, the soviets were to form a tier of governing and administrative bodies from the village council at the bottom to the All-Russian Soviet at the top. They were to work in such a fashion that the interest of all the workers and peasants in the task of government was to be maintained at a high pitch, so that the creation of a bureaucracy would be prevented. The system is designed to work in this way: The village council sends its delegates, say three, to the volost, or rural soviet congress, every six months. This congress elects delegates to the ouyesd, or district soviet congress, which in turn appoints delegates to the gubernia (the old government area) congress. From the gubernias are chosen the delegates who constitute the All-Russian Congress in Moscow.
Supreme Governing Body
These various soviets elect executive committees, who act in the intervals between the Congress meetings. The Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress is in theory the supreme governing body, and as it is composed of representatives of the districts throughout the country, it is supposed to embody the will of the people. This committee appoints the peoples’ commissaries, who are at the head of the administrative departments, who number 18. These commissaries, in turn, form a council, which is endowed with wide powers. The gubernia, ouyesd and volost soviets also appoint executive committees to act between the meetings, and they have departments corresponding, with certain modifications, to the commissariats in Moscow.
Although this procedure seems at first glance very complicated, it will be seen that, in a backward country, with a vast illiterate peasant population, in scattered and isolated communities, a system of this kind might act very well, providing that the fullest freedom of election was secured, and that meetings of the soviets were held frequently enough to keep the officials in check. What has happened so far, however, shows how easily the system can be modified, under the stress of exceptional circumstances, to suit the will of the party which happens to be in power. One effect of the terror, and the ruthless suppression of the opponents of the Bolsheviki in the civil war and counter-revolution has been that men are chary of voting against Communist candidates – the elections being by show of hands in public meetings. Hence the government has had no difficulty in keeping a majority everywhere.
It has also not scrupled to influence an election in favor of particular persons, but all this it has justified on the ground that while the country was in danger abnormal measures must be taken, and that freedom was impossible until counter-revolution ceased. The writer came in contact with many people, belonging to various parties who oppose the Bolsheviki, who virtually accepted this justification under existing circumstances.
Apart from all this, the civil war and the Polish war, by taking from town and village all the most active men, have created conditions in which the soviet system hardly works at all in many districts because of lack of attendance at meetings. Moderate and practical men among the Bolsheviki, like Kameneff, the president of the Moscow soviet, perceive clearly that if this kind of thing went on permanently the whole soviet system would be discredited. They therefore, secured just before the Polish offensive the adoption by the All-Russian Congress of various proposals designed to secure regular meetings of the soviets, the participation of more workers in the administration so as to check the growth of bureaucracy, the strengthening of the All-Russian Executive Committee by requiring it to meet more frequently and by endowing it with definite authority over the Council of People's Commissaries. Only experience will show whether the soviet system is capable of development on more democratic lines. At present it is admittedly in a state of transition, which may lead either to growth or decay.
Trade Unions Developed
An important factor, of which too little account has been taken so far, is the development as an integral part of the Soviet system of 32 great trade unions – one for each important industry – numbering over 4,000,000 members. Every worker in an industry, from the unskilled laborer to the manager or technical expert, must be in the union, which has an entirely different function from that of the workers’ organizations in capitalist countries. It does not exist to fight employers, but to cooperate in the actual conduct of the industry. It would take too much space to explain fully the various stages of the evolution of the unions, such as the formation at first of shop committees which believed that by means of a central committee they could run the industries without the experts or the government. That experiment had some disastrous results, and when the unions were constituted the shop committees were charged merely with the duty of supervising the general working conditions of the factories.
The present position is that the trade unions, through their local and national committees, their central joint committees, and the Trade Union Congress, share with the government departments, and particularly with the Supreme Council of Public Economy, the responsibility of running the various enterprises. The general administration and management of the industries, the appointment of experts, and so on, is entrusted to the Supreme Council, but the central executive council of all the trade unions can object to any appointment, in which case the matter is reviewed by a higher authority. The trade unions themselves fix national wages scales, divide labor into different categories for wage purposes, and decide the working conditions. For instance, they are responsible for the eight-hour day and the children’s age limit of 16. The unions also virtually create the Ministry of Labor, which is responsible for the provision of labor for the various industries, for inspection of workshops, and for other forms of “labor protection”.
Conscription of Labor
The bodies will also organize the conscription of Labor, which is to be renewed when peace with Poland is secured. They have devised penalties for indiscipline and slackness. For these offenses a man may be transferred to a lower wage category, or he may be sent to hard labor on the land for three months. The Communist influence is, of course, predominant in the councils of the unions at the present time, and these restrictions on liberty are justified on the ground that it is just as necessary to light famine by conscripting labor as it is to fight a foreign foe by conscripting soldiers.
At first the workshops and mines were managed by small committees, representing the workers and the technical staffs. It is now admitted that generally this does not work well, and recently the government decided not only that one-man management must be established in the factories but that each industry must be controlled by a single director, appointed by the Supreme Council in conjunction with the trade union executive. It remains to be seen how far this method will be accepted by the workers.
In any case, it is obvious that no study of the conditions in Russia which fails to take account of the part the trade unions are likely to take in future can be adequate or reliable. It is the first time the workers have been organized on a large scale, and when the pressure of conflict with outside forces is removed the unions will almost certainly influence powerfully both the government of the country and the organization of the industries.
RUSSIAN UNIONS’ PROBLEMS ODD
Labor Expected to Prevent Stoppage of Work as Far as Possible
The trade unions in the Soviet Union exercise quite different functions from those which one is apt to associate with labor organizations in other countries. The typical trade union in western Europe or America is interested in securing higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions for its members.
Under the Soviet system in Russia, where the private employer has been relegated to a very minor place in the industrial life of the country, the role of the trade unions is somewhat more complex. While the majority of the trade union members are non-party workers, the leaders are almost invariably Communists, bound by rigid discipline to carry out the orders which they receive from the higher organs of the Communist Party.
Soviet Unionism Different
A trade union under Communist leadership dealing with the administrators whom the Communist State has appointed to manage the industries cannot pursue the policy which would recommend itself to a trade union in another country in dealing with a private employer. The trade unions in the Russian state industries are supposed not to organize and lead strikes, but to use all their influence with the workers to prevent stoppage of work. While the Russian union has the right and indeed the duty to point out abuses which can be remedied, it cannot employ the weapon of the strike if the State administration in the industry declares that financial conditions do not permit low wages to be raised.
Some of the problems and difficulties, together with some of the faults to which the Russian trade union organizations are especially susceptible, are clearly and frankly outlined in a recent report of the trade union and Communist Party leader, Mr Andreev, before the congress of railroad workers.
Danger of Break
Mr Andreev declared that the chief danger in the Russian trade union organizations lay in the possibility of a break between the organization and the rank and file masses of the membership. Mr. Andreev remarked that the possibility of such breaks was increased when the factory committees were tactless in supporting the administration, and cited as an example to be avoided certain cases in which the factory committee had posted up notices that workers who did not appear for work would be dismissed.
The report also mentions the tendency among some trade union officials to feel a sense of responsibility, not to the rank and file, but only to the higher officials who appointed them. Because of the many advantages in the shape of reduced rent and taxes, vacation privileges, facilities in obtaining work, etc., practically everyone who can become a trade union member in Russia does so, and this fact according to Mr. Andreev, sometimes has the effect of making the trade union officials indifferent to the demands of the masses, since discontent will not be reflected in declining membership.
Mr Andreev also censured the practice of expelling trade union members who are too bold in voicing criticism. He concluded his report with an appeal for more democracy in the trade unions.
Mr. Andreev’s report is one of several indications that the Communist Party recognizes the need for democratic concessions to the workers as well as to the peasants. Now it is recognized that changed conditions demand changed methods, and that the non-party workers must have more voice in the direction of the trade union affairs.
In this article, dated 30 July 1920, Meakin addresses the question, “will the soviet system survive?” for a British audience. He notes that no counter-revolutionary party in Russia had either the necessary support to pose a serious threat to the Bolsheviks, nor any solutions to the grave problems Russia faced. Nonetheless, Meakin identifies a number of serious problems facing the Soviet state, including the real difficulty of maintaining an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry as long as industry is unable to offer material benefits to the peasant, and the manner in which the harsh circumstances had sapped working-class participation in the organs of workers’ democracy.
THE FUTURE OF RUSSIA
WILL SOVIET SYSTEM SURVIVE? – OLD REGIME DEAD – IMPORTANT PART PLAYED BY TRADE UNIONS
By WALTER MEAKIN.
The questions I have been asked most frequently since my return from Russia are: “Do you think the Soviet Government will continue to exist? When the strain of war is relaxed, will not all the opponents of the Bolsheviks rally in overwhelming force and bring about their downfall?”
Even if the situation in Russia were simple, instead of bewilderingly complicated one would hesitate to answer questions like these dogmatically, in an age when few institutions can be regarded as absolutely stable. The most positive answer I can give is that after many conversations with men and women holding remarkably diverse opinions, I failed to find any evidence whatever of a vital movement which is likely to bring about a change in the Governments of Russia.
The old capitalist regime has been completely crushed, and the people remaining in Russia who would still support it have lost all effective means of organising. The two opposing parties which count are the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. The former, the right wing of the Social Democratic Party, have stood since the split with the Bolsheviks seventeen years ago, for a limited social revolution, which would leave private trade in existence, subject to rigid control. Their position now is not so easy to determine, but they stand explicitly for full restoration of freedom of speech and of the Press. The Social Revolutionaries desired a social upheaval which would abolish not only the capitalist and the landowner, but the State itself, leaving the people free to organise themselves in rural communes and free cities.
WHY SOVIET IS STRONG
What is germane to the subject of this article, however, is the fact that neither the Mensheviks nor the Social Revolutionaries profess to be able to put forward a practical alternative to the Soviet Government under existing circumstances. Those with whom I spoke agreed that no other party or combination of parties could supply sufficient administrators, capable of saving Russia from the peril of famine and starvation. All that they seemed to hope for was a process of a gradual modification when outside interference ceased.
The Bolsheviks who are concerned with practical problems likewise agreed that changes must take place, but one source of strength of the Bolsheviks lies in the fact that the kind of modification desired by the Mensheviks is very different from that which the Social Revolutionaries want. One can see all manner of possibilities of conflict if the present Government were suddenly displaced, and that is why so many of the intellectuals, professional men and technical experts, who have thrown in their lot with the Bolsheviks do not wish to see any radical change until they have had an opportunity of restoring at least some measure of economic life. Any renewal of internal strife on a large scale at present, they say, would simply bring about a complete paralysis of industry and transport, and prevent the reconstruction which now begins to seem possible.
AN IMPARTIAL VIEW
It is important to remember that the mass of the Russian people, or at any rate of the peasants, remain outside the ranks of the active politicians, and their view has been stated by Tchertkoff, the famous disciple of Tolstoy. While he and those who think with him condemn unreservedly the violence which has accompanied the revolution, they welcome the solution of the land problem by “completely relieving the landlords of their property, and placing the land at the disposal of those who cultivate it with their hands.” They also welcome the stops towards the establishment of equality, the complete disestablishment of the Church, and the changes which have at least, Tchertkoff thinks, given theoretical recognition of the workers as “the masters of the country.” This outlook explains why so many of the people, while disclaiming active association with the Bolsheviks, class themselves as sympathisers, and why any estimate of the strength of the Soviet Government, based simply on the fact that the Communist party numbers only 600,000, is likely to be fallacious.
One of the most impartial opinions I heard was expressed to me by the manager of an important factory. This man is a Russian and a highly qualified engineer. He expressed the conviction that any attempt to revert to the old economic regime would produce chaos, but, at the same time, he considered that the policy of the Government would have to be modified substantially. “I think, however,” he added, “that at least 70 percent of the present system can and will remain.”
So far as the peasants are concerned it seems to me that the Government will be tested chiefly by their capacity to supply material commodities, and to provide in their general scheme of centralised industries for all kinds of more or less self-contained and co-operative enterprises in the villages and small towns. The idea of attempting to force the peasants suddenly into a general system of communal labour has been abandoned by even the extreme members of the Communist Party, and an effort to attain their aim by example and the offer of superior material advantages to Communists would be an interesting experiment, whether it succeeded or failed.
Much has been said and written about the so-called militarisation of labour that is quite beside the point. I have already stated the grounds on which it is justified. It is advocated as a measure to rescue the country from a veritable economic slough of despond, and I did not find anyone in the industrial organisations who believed that it could be continued permanently without creating endless discontent and trouble. I was also told that if experience showed that the work could not be done efficiently by conscripted labour the system would be scrapped without compunction. It is generally believed that conscription of labour has been dictated solely by the Government, but as far back as January last year the conference of the All Russian Metal Workers Union, which is one of the most powerful, passed a resolution in which it declared for general obligatory labour, “based on the compulsory census and distribution of labour power by the industrial unions in conformity with the demands of national economy,” and also for control by the unions of the movement of workers from one industry to another.
The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was established avowedly to carry the revolution through a transition period. It is true to say that to-day, thanks to the civil war, foreign intervention, and the Polish war, the dictatorship which actually exists is one of a group of intellectuals and a section of the industrial workers over the rest of the proletariat and remnants of the ‘bourgeois’ classes. But if that were to continue under conditions of freedom from outside aggression there can be no doubt that immense opposition would develop, unless the workers were persuaded that it was a preliminary to future freedom. Therefore it is impossible, I think, to overestimate the importance of the role which the trade of unions, with their network of local, national, and joint committees, annual conference, and the All-Russian Congress, may play in determining the policy of the future.