Russia - Finland To Moscow
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
CROSSING by water from England to France or from England to Ireland is the kind of material fact that of itself makes one conscious of going from one country to another, but travelling from England to Scotland there is no such, fact to remind us we are leaving the South for the more sombre North. I remember once travelling from London to Edinburgh in company with those sturdy Scots, J. R. Macdonald and George Barnes. With the usual modesty of people from the hard-headed North, they had both occupied some time in what I am afraid was a hopeless endeavour to give me some knowledge of political science as understood by them. On crossing the Tweed at Berwick George Barnes suddenly called out : " Throw open the windows, Lansbury, and let in the pure free air of Scotland."
Of course, I did so, but strange as it may sound to a Scotsman I could not discover any difference between the air one side of the river and the other : neither could I sec any difference in the look of the people - they walked about as aimlessly as elsewhere. Of course they speak a sort of language a little difficult for a Londoner to understand, and occasionally wear skirts and kilts—the utility of which is past the comprehension of a mere southerner. I was reminded of these incidents when standing on the Finnish side of the little river, the middle of which forms the imaginary border line between Russia and Finland. The men and women on both sides looked exactly alike : most of them spoke the same language. And yet each side of the river is an armed camp. People on the Finnish side are armed to defend a capitalist republic, on the Russian side to defend a social revolution. Only on one side, and that the Russian, did the fighters understand that frontiers are not real dividing lines these days—that only systems really divide, all else being make believe.
Before the revolution the train service from Helsingfors to Petrograd and Moscow and then on across Russia was the most efficient in that part of the world. Today, with neither coal nor oil available, and with wood only for use on the locomotives, the service is anything but efficient. In addition, the railway bridge across the river is broken down and forms a kind of dam : it lies athwart the stream, a witness to the destruction and folly of war.
The journey from Helsingfors began on Tuesday, February 3rd, and ended on Thursday, February 5th, at 5 o'clock, when we crossed the river. The time had been spent in 18 hours travelling by train and, for the remainder, in rushing from one police and military headquarters to another, and finally to the secret police, getting the necessary visas to enable us to pass over. We were a queer little company gathered on the Finnish side of the river ; chief amongst us was an English officer, cursing his own and every-body else's luck because the "Reds" on the other side, unaware of the value of a British officer's dignity and time, had kept him waiting over four hours. Next in importance I suppose was the chief of the Finnish Secret Police. I am not sure as to his feelings towards me : I still think if he had dared he would have stopped our going across. There was also a goodly sprinkling of military people, chief of whom was a very agreeable young captain who could speak "English. He was kindness itself to us, and when Griffin Barry and were in despair about getting our luggage from the station to the river, he volunteered the assistance of his men and did everything in his power to make us understand that he was our friend and desirous of helping us.
At last we saw a band of men and, women coining down the bank of the river from the other side. We walked down to meet them and, as is the custom on such occasions, everybody stopped at an imaginary point in the centre of the river, and for the first time I was able to see "Red" soldiers face to face. Whatever else may be said of these men who are holding the fort for Russia on this front, it is an undeniable fact that for honesty of expression, modesty, dignity and pride in their own manhood, they cannot be beaten. From their uniforms no one could tell who was an officer or who was a private. The Commander-in-Chief wore no decorations and no epaulettes or feathers. The Commissar, who is also a Colonel, carried himself with a natural dignity which somehow made us all understand he was a leader amongst men. After a few minutes' parley we all climbed to the Finnish side again, in order to exchange papers. The English officer enquired for the "Red" officer's credentials. The only credential he could produce was his card of membership of the Communist Party. Then our turn came. I produced a letter of recommendation from Litvinoff, and Barry produced a passport he had received a few weeks before, but neither was of much use, as no one in authority on this frontier had received, instructions as to our coming. We were told, however, that we could go across and enquiries would be made as to our future movements.
At 4.50 we marched down again, and in a few minutes I was almost shouting for joy that at last I was in Russia. If I had been less self-conscious I should have sung The Red Flag, for just a few hundred yards ahead I saw the flag of "International Socialism " flying over a Government building, which turned out to be the residential headquarters of the Commissar Commandant of the district. This man and his wife live here in the very simplest manner possible. They have no children, no she accompanies her husband to the war zone and shares his dangers. Other women similarly situated are doing likewise.
Comrade Kokko, for that is his name, was formerly manager of a big works in Helsingfors. When the revolution broke out, like everyone else he was obliged to choose on which side he would take his stand : he joined the " Reds." When Mannerheiin and the Germans smashed the revolution, he and thousands of other Finns fled to Russia, and are now enrolled as a Finnish ' " Red " army, assisting to protect Russia against the attacks of the " White " Finns.
After a short sledge ride, we arrived at the house, and soon discovered we were an " international " party. Between us there were four different languages : Russian, French, English, and Finnish. Somehow we made our-selves understood to each other, and very soon were all talking together. Words fail nie to describe the sense of peaceful security which carne over me while here. Before getting to Raiyoki I had been feeling sick and ill. The worry and strain had told on both Barry and me. The continued coming up against one difliculty after another had given me a very violent headache, which just vanished once I was amongst friends. Over and over again I found myself wishing Athelstan Riley and Lord Northcliffe could have been present, and seen how heartily I was enjoying myself with these men and women they so ignorantly denounce as brigands and murderers. The words " shaking hands with murder " came again and again to army mind, and what puzzled me most of all was the fact that J could neither see nor hear of any trace of the love of blood-shed and slaughter. As I listened, I could discover no trace of the hatred and bitterness I have listened to in railway carriages in England during the war. Tt seemed to me, though, that the mass of people are all alike. It only the few who are hateful and brutal. People everywhere are much alike : in fact, as we stood in the middle of the frozen river, the thought came to my mind that if we were all stripped, and only one language were spoken, it would be very difficult to find in what essential things we differ from one another.
We all eat and drink, love and hate, work and sleep. What is it divides us into " Reds " and "Whites " ? Only the downright crass stupidity which makes people imagine that a customs--house is something sent by God, and that frontiers are an invention of nature to keep people apart.
I felt no more shame shaking hands and taking food with the officers and men of the " Red " army than I did thirteen months earlier taking food with British officers in Cologne. I was as proud of one as the other that is, I felt no pride at all, I simply felt a great pleasure on both occasions. Yet I was in company with people whose business it was to kill, both in Germany and Russia.
Humanity, however, is always better than it appears. The average soldier and officer no more likes killing than any of the ' rest of us; neither do revolutionists. It is the training of centuries which is our undoing. We have all been taught to rely on brute force. Some day we shall discover that the true dynamic of life is knowledge and understanding.
Here in Russia conditions were different from what they were at the British head-quarters in Cologne. Our new-found friends wished to feed us, but, although they were officers and privates combined, there was nothing for us to have except bread and tea. Usually on this front, I believe, it is possible to get extra food from Finland. We had struck an unlucky patch, for everything was used up ; so we undid our bags, unloaded our stock of ham, butter and cheese, and some fourteen of us sat down to what was for our friends a very sumptuous repast. After this some officers arrived from Petrograd, chief of whom was the chief officer of the whole Petrograd district, Comrade Rachi. He heard all we had to tell him about ourselves and agreed to take us to the Finnish head-quarters at Petrograd until he could get word from Moscow what to do with us.
We had three hours to wait for a train, entered into a discussion about the revolution, terrorism and violence generally. None of them accepted my view about violence ; all understood the Tolstoyan position, but were confident it could not be applied. Not one would agree that there had been outrage murder for murder's sake. All agreed that here and there private vengeance had been taken and outrages committed, and all had stories to tell of " White " murders and terrorism, especially under Mannerheim.
It is worth remarking that most of these Finnish " Reds " believe that had the " Red " Government established in Finland been more violent in its methods it would not have been overthrown. They tell with indignation the story of Mannerheim's slaughter of 80,000 ; and they asked me why those Christians who denounce "Red " " atrocities " do not equally denounce these " White " massacres. One of the chief officers at supper with us was formerly an officer in the Czar's army. This gave me the chance to enquire whether there was any danger that these officers might turn round and plot against the revolution. The answer was very simple, and very emphatic. The " Red " army is ruled not from above but, from below: officers have only to obey orders—when they refuse they are removed. Policy is dictated by the workers, only tactics and execution of orders is left to officers.
I asked this ex-Czarist General why he had become a communist. He replied it was a process of conversion. The Revolution came. No one in the army, especially among the officers, knew very much about its aims and objects ; now they were understanding better. As for himself, he was a convinced communist, and was very proud to be an officer in Trotsky's army.
So far as I could judge, the relationships between officers and men were extremely cor-dial. There is no " kow-towing " as in our army ; no clicking of heels and saluting for the special benefit of officers. (Heels are clicked to everybody : this foolish system obtains all through Scandinavia). We all sat at the same table for our food and throughout there was a true spirit of comradeship amongst us. The behaviour of all towards the women was very good indeed. Mrs. Kokko was treated with respect and regard, as if she were the mother of the regiment.
Somewhere about 10 o'clock we made a move towards Bielo Ostrov station. We travelled by an ordinary train packed full of people. There was no room for our party in the carriages, so we travelled with the guard. I was allowed to sit on the seat usually occupied by that official. We were a mixed lot : railway workers of all grades, generals, brigadier-generals, colonels, commissars, and some privates. Here was a chance of seeing the relationships between civilians and soldiers. They were most cordial ; discussion on all sorts of topics took place, and sometimes the arguments used were very warm, especially on the question of what part trade unions are to play in the new industrial life of Russia.
We arrived at Petrograd about 11.45 p.m. It was a glorious moonlight night, bitterly cold. The roads and streets were covered with hard frozen snow. As we left the station it was possible to look at our fellow travellers. All of them appeared in good health, and none of them seemed to he suffering from the intense cold.
Here, as elsewhere in Russia, freedom of movement is circumscribed by the authorities. For all this, many thousands of people are travelling every day.
Our friend Rachi had arranged for a motor to meet us. I understand there are about forty ears in Moscow and forty in Petrograd, all used by the Government for one purpose or another. We had a delightful half-hour's drive through the city. No one but those who have experienced it can realise what it means to drive into a foreign city for the first time, There is everywhere so much to be seen. Russian cities, even Petrograd, most modern of all European Russian towns, give one a sense of strangeness and bigness. Always in Russia the sky appears unending, and this night ~ saw sights which are indelibly stamped on my memory. Only once before have I felt quite the same. About thirty-five years ago I saw a very different scene when sailing up" the river to Brisbane in Australia : then the glorious foliage and scenery, with little white shanties dotted here and there, made the whole 500 emigrants, of whom T was one, imagine we were indeed entering the promised land. And now I was seeing other sights, which will stand out for ever in my memory —riding through Petrograd under brilliant moonlight ; catching sight of first one great tower and then another ; tearing along the river embankment to see, as in a flash, the long, narrow, sinister-looking, gilded tower of the hideous fortress of Peter and Paul ; seeing, a second or two later, as in a moving picture, the Minaret and towers of the Mosque erected to the service of Mahomet. We passed the Admiralty buildings, the Hermitage picture gallery, the British Embassy, hearing as we passed the story of how our countryman, Captain Crombie, met his death. We crossed the square in front; of the Winter Palace, and at last found ourselves at the headquarters of the " " Finns, and were very hospitably welcomed by Mrs. Rachi and her family.
It was very difficult to talk, because I knew no language but my own. Barry speaks French, it is true, but no one understood that much better than English. Yet what does language matter? When people are tired and hungry they are able to make their wants known without words, so we were fed, shown to our rooms, and were very soon in darkness. There was little or no sleep for me : the day's experiences would keep flying my mind. I wished, how I wished, I could have turned all England out to share my experience, and so let them see Russian Bolsheviks as they really are, not as they are painted in the capitalist press as brutal murderers and terrorist villains!
We all got up pretty early, but our day was rather wasted. Most of the Soviet officials were away in Moscow attending a Congress. It was consequently difficult to find our interpreter. Barry, who knows Petrograd thoroughly, went out, and made a brave endeavour to find someone who could talk with us, but it, was no use ; we just walked about where we could, looked at people, and marvelled at how well they seemed to be—and, what is more, at how much activity there was in evidence.
Most shops were closed. This gave us a shock, as it, would anybody, yet, people ap peared to have plenty to do. The trams were running and were crowded, but we could not talk and so went back home. Rachi was able to tell us at 4 o'clock that I could speak to Tehiteherin in Moscow at 8 o'clock, and so we waited in patience till that hour came round, and, after a few minutes' talk on the telephone, it was decided that we should go right on to Moscow.
We left our friend Rachi and his family with many thanks. They had been more than kind and hospitable. They treated us as comrades and friends, sharing their food and accommodating and trying in every way to make us comfortable. On the following morning we had to decide how to find an interpreter to accompany us to Moscow—it is at least a twenty-two hour journey. After some discussion we thought of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, the well known anarchists, who had been deported to Russia by the American Government. We decided to ask one or both of them to make the journey with us. Alec Berkman agreed to do so, and at mid-day we went of to the station. It has been said by some friendly and unfriendly critics that mine was an official "personally concduetecd " tour, under very pleasant and comfortable conditions. Well, all I can say is that I am not able to remember either comfort or pleasure in connection with railway travelling in Russia : and this, my first long journey, was made pleasurable only by the fact that Comrade Berkman accompanied us, and that, Emma Goldman and he supplied us with some food they had brought from America.
We had no pot or pan, cup, saucer or plate, no knives or spoons ; we managed to borrow a not quite clean kettle in which to get boiling water and in which we made tea. We borrowed a small tin mug, much the worse for wear, out of which to drink, all three of us treating it as a sort of loving cup. We cut up our food with my penknife. We occupied a compartment made for two, so as I was biggest and oldest occupied the top berth and Barry and Berkman the bottom, and thus we travelled in great luxury and comfort !
The journey was for me a succession of experiences. First of all there were the people on the train : workmen, peasants, soldiers. Berkman was able to talk with many of them, as he is a Russian. We heard numerous grumblings and complaints, but no word of support for counter-revolution. At the stations (and we stopped at every one throughout the whole journey from Petrograd to Moscow) we were able to see peasant men and women, boys and girls. It is strange how, in every provincial district of every country, people flock to the railway stations to see the trains arrive and depart. Russia is no exception to the rule.
As a portion of our journey was on Sunday morning, we were able now and then to catch the sound of church bells, not like ours in the English villages, hut rather like fire alarms in their changing sort of monotone. Again and again. I found myself saying to my companions : " Well, anyhow, these people are very very far from actual starvation." Away from the towns I believe people are able to live in much more comfort than in the towns. Wood is easier to obtain. One little incident reminded me of tales of my youth. At one station I saw a man and woman washing with snow. Not to be outdone I rushed out of the train and did the same, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers.
We arrived at Moscow at mid-day on Sunday. There was no one to meet us. As we had no idea, where to go, we decided to camp at the station, and for over two hours we were able to watch the people, to look around and see the churches, and also to take a look at the railway station opposite the one we came in at. The first thing that struck us was the great crowd of men, women and boys, shouting and wrangling for the job of carrying our luggage on small hand sledges. Here, if anywhere, there should have been signs of dejection, yet it would be quite wrong to write of this as a crowd of physical or mental wrecks. It is always a mystery to me how such people live in London and other great towns. Here in Moscow it seemed a much greater mystery. I looked for signs of revolution, of battle and murder, but saw none ----except that at the station opposite some hundreds of " Red " army soldiers were camped, waiting transportation to one or other of the fighting fronts. Here we saw the first gruesome sight, which made both Barry and myself ashamed of our nationality. Scores of wounded soldiers lay about in different parts of the station-building, waiting their turn to be moved into hospitals already dreadfully overcrowded. One man, with terrible wounds, said he had been waiting for weeks for new bandages and treatment. The British Government by its damnable blockade has prevented even the medical necessaries being sent in : our own soldier prisoners have suffered because of this barbarous conduct, and tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have died in agony because no doctor had the means of alleviating their suffering and misery. As I looked at these poor suffering men, I wondered what sort of row the Jingo press would have set up had the Germans committed such a dastardly act as this, and T also wondered what had become of the international Red Cross. I think, before any of us give another penny to such organisations, we should first of all require an undertaking that the Red Cross societies will put all their resources the service of all who need them, whether in time of civil or of racial wars.
We were able to inspect some very fine drawings and pictures painted on the interior walls of the stations, though here, as everywhere, it was inspection of people that interested me most. I had been warned before entering Russia to beware of crowds ; to look out for lice, bugs and fleas ; to remember that in railway carriages disease was always to be found. I had travelled twenty-two hours with a carriageful of people, and for two hours had gone in and out amongst lots more. I had seen no diseased person. The only sick I came across were wounded soldiers, and, as for the above-mentioned insect scavengers, I never saw one the whole twenty-five days I was in Russia. It will be no use for expert people to say trains were specially prepared for me w they were not, except on the one occasion when a third class compartment was set aside to allow a party of us to visit Kropotkin (an occasion about, which I shall speak elsewhere). I went about in an ordinary manner, and can only testify as to what happened to me.
Our waiting time ended about 8.30, when Comrade Rosenberg, one of the chief officials at the Foreign Office, came with a motor and took Barry and me to our future home. As in Petrograd, the drive was just like a moving picture. The roads, however, were very bad indeed. During the whole of my stay in Moscow r could not overcome the feeling of nervous dread every time I entered a motor. The drivers were all " Red " army men, quite fearless, and they drove always as if for dear life, risking their own and their passengers lives and the lives of all pedestrians within fifty yards of their ears.
For all this, the glory of Moscow's wonderful buildings and towers glittering in the golden sunlight could not he lost on me. When we reached the entrance to the Kremlin, it seemed for a moment like another world —but only for a moment. The men and women at the famous shrine soon appeared like the rest. Yet somehow, as we went under the arch and saw on one side the famous en-trance to a kind of inner city of palaces, and
were reminded that for centuries before the revolution no one had gone under the archway entrance without taking off his headgear, it did seem as if we bad entered into a world centuries old. This also passed away, for we were informed that now almost everyone goes through with covered head. After all, this archway is only the shell of religion, not religion itself, which always must be a matter of life and action. A little farther on is the stand on which, in the brutal days of the Czars, men and women were publicly flogged and scourged with the knout by the brutal hirelings of the autocracy.
We also passed the famous church, or shrine erected by Boris Goudonov, and on down a rather narrow business street to the Moskva river. Crossing to the south side, we drove along the embankment to a mansion formerly inhabited by a rich merchant. During the early days of the war this house was occupied by the French military mission : since the revolution it has been used as a Soviet guest, house. Many newspaper men have been lodged here. It is a finely built house and very nicely planned with all modern conveniences, but hideously decorated. The furniture is what it usually is in rich merchants' houses everywhere ; but, as I am not an artist, I found my room very comfortable indeed. There were other newspaper men living here : we were all waited on by an old retainer of the family (the family was in exile). He did everything possible to make our food agreeable. It was rather pathetic to find this old servant worrying himself because be could not feed us as he had been accustomed to feed his master's guests in days long ago.
I may as well state here what, our meals consisted of. At 9.30 we had breakfast—three slices of black bread, a little butter or substitute, a little cheese, and two glasses of tea with no milk ; at 5.80 or earlier, our chief meal—soup, generally two platefuls each (this was usually made with vegetables, though sometimes it was made from water that fish had been boiled in, and occasionally some meat would appear to have had a look in), cusha (I think this is the correct word : it is a kind of rice or birdseed, boiled with fish and occasionally with meat), bread, and two glasses of tea. At bedtime, usually about 11 or 12.30, sometimes later, we had supper eusha boiled in fat, bread, jam and sometimes cheese and tea. On several occasions we had potatoes. After George Copping came to live with us we helped him eat up some bacon he had brought from Esthonia, and also some eggs, which I very much fear cost him a small fortune.
Because I was old and also because I was little was given heat for my room otherwise the house was always very cold, and I think all of us were ready for extra food, although T honestly believe we fared better than members of the Government. In any ease I am sure we fared better than our friend Rosenberg, with whom on one occasion I had a meal.
Rosenberg fixed our appointments and interviews, and in a thousand ways was very helpful; and I am glad to record my very grateful thanks for his assistance from start to finish of my visit.