Russia - About People
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THERE is much talk about Russia being a lifeless nation ; that all industry is at a standstill and that the nation is dying. This may be so; I shall here write just what I have seen of people in the streets, in railway trains, theatres, factories, churches and public places.
In Petrograd I stayed at the Astoria hotel which faces a big square in which is situated " Isaac Cathedral." T stood at the window at 7 o'clock in the morning and occasionally went backwards and forwards watching people from 7 o'clock to 9 o'clock cross this square, and the thing that kept recurring in my mind was, if there is no work being done in Petrograd, if all industry is dead, why are all these people up so early in the morning ? Why are some of them hurrying? in fact, why are they about all? If the whole population is dying of disease and is worn out because of lack of food, why should people take the trouble whilst snow is falling to leave the shelter of whatever homes they possess at this hour of the day?
Later on I was in the working class district and saw the trams literally packed with people as are the trams on the Thames Embankment morning and evening. To me it is the most extraordinary thing if all industry is at a standstill that this should be so ; but not merely the observation of my eyes but other facts convinced me that although it is true capitalist enterprise and industry has stopped in Russia, national and municipal industry must have largely increased ; not increased sufficiently to give people all that they need, but increased sufficiently to enable the Bolshevik Government to maintain in the field an army consisting of millions of men, to transport, feed and clothe this army in such a manner as to enable them to overthrow their enemies on every front. This tremendous fact appears to be overlooked by those who write and speak of Russia as a dead nation. It may be that this tremendous wort. has left her in a very weak condition —but it is not a dead nation, not even a dying nation that has carried through the tremendous work which has been accomplished in Russia this two and a half years.
Again, a little later in the day, I was out in the streets and saw multitudes of people going backwards and forwards, hither and thither, not in an aimless dejected manner but as if they had business to do, as if there were some purpose in their being out. It is true the closed shops give a funereal appearance to the streets, but apart from this there was nothing to show that work of some kind was not being carried on.
As in the case of the children, so in that of men and women. Again and again I stopped the friends who were with me and asked them to look at little groups of people we came across. They did not look anything like so dejected or pasty-faced as the men and women in Cologne, indeed not at all so had as many people T have met in towns in England. This does not mean that I ant asserting that everybody is well fed, that everybody has enough. But there is something in the Russian constitution that enables it to endure, a certain something which `has enabled it to endure the tragedy of the past few years and still to carry itself with a certain amount of dignity and strength, A Russian once said to me, " You cannot kill the Russian people by hunger, they will live if obliged to subsist on raw corn and water only."
Travelling away down from Petrograd to Moscow, going through the trains, talking with the people, it was easy to discover how much there was to complain of and how much there was to be sorry for in the prevailing conditions of life. In spite of everything, though, there was always a cheeriness which seemed to keep them going and which made it impossible for conditions to destroy either their vitality or their hopes.
I wish I could give an adequate picture of my railway journey out and home to see Peter Kropotkin. He lives at a little place 60 versts from Moscow. Although so short a distance it takes many hours to do the journey, partly owing to lack of fuel, but also largely owing to the fact that at each station an enormous crowd attempts to get into the trains already overcrowded. There is nothing like it in all the world that I know of.
I am told that even before the revolution trains were crammed in this sort of fashion. Picture to yourself an ordinary closed railway waggon with no seats, with doors in the centre and people obliged to climb up the best way they can and then stand for hours on end packed like sardines. This how part of the train is made up. Other parts are made up of ordinary carriages, not exactly like ours, but very similar, except they are all " corridors and each ordinary carriage is warmed by a wood fire. But most carriages these days are not heated at all. When a carriage gets full the steps are loaded with people, when these are full, men women and children stand on the couplings and climb on to the roofs. Women are as daring as the men. Occasionally some clamber on to the roofs of the carriages and lie there full length ; others climb up on the engine tender, and as the train moves along it looks like a great mass at` moving humanity.
At one station where we stopped, another train was being marshalled in order to pass. Sitting in our carriage we were able to watch quite a little comedy going on as to who should occupy a certain step. Most of the passengers were peasants and most of them looked in good physical condition. All of them were travelling to town to do a little business, sometimes illegal business. Consequently all have parcels of one sort or another. On this occasion a woman about 80 years of age, well dressed and of good physique, a typical peasant, woman, had occupied one step with two parcels and had planted herself in the centre. Her parcels were occupying the room of two other people. Again and again a man or woman would come up and remonstrate with her, demanding that, she should hold her parcels or that they would hold a parcel each and stand on the step, but by the use of strong language and on one occasion by the use of her hands, she managed to keep everybody off ; it certainly looked as if she were going to remain in triumphant possession—a sort of one step monopolist. The hooter was sounded and off the train started just as it got well going an old boy whom she had beaten off ten minutes earlier, darted out from a corner, dumped on to the step, took hold of the parcel, put it under his arm, and smiled benignly at the lady who we could see was giving him the length of her tongue for his pains. But he was getting to Moscow anyhow and I suppose cared little for the insults she was hurling at his head.
Our own train on this occasion was simply a sweltering mass of humanity. When we poured out on to the platform at Moscow it seemed that the crowd would never get through. We talk of crowds at cup-tie matches, but this crowd appeared to exceed them—and yet everybody went along quietly without any hurrying, for hurrying is the last thing that Russians ever will take part in.
I am not sure how people pay for travelling know they have to get tickets and I know too that you pass certain officials to get on to the platform, but it seemed to me that travelling was pretty easy and that a considerable number of people at the villages were engaged in travelling a good part of their time—at least it takes a good deal of time to go twenty or thirty miles.
In the theatres it is also a wonderful sight to see the people. ~ am amazed when ~ read of how carefully I was chaperoned in Moscow and what great care was taken to see that honour was done me. One set of spell binders assert that Moscow was illuminated in my honour ; another that I only visited places chosen for me. The following proves how silly and untrue such statements are. One night, as usual, without giving any previous notice, I suddenly said that would like to go to the theatre and asked my press colleagues if they would go with me. we asked our interpreter to ring up and try and get us seats. He came back beaming: we were to have the Czar's box at the national theatre. So off we went only on arrival to discover that a couple of working class families had got there before us and we had to be content with the next box, which was, of course, just as good.
I was not much interested in the play—which was one of Strindberg's-mainly because, of though I know a little of the plot could not understand the language, and as there was enough tragedy without seeing it acted refused to get interested. But I was intensely interested in the audience which was in the main working class : there was no mistaking it—in dress, demeanour, and everything else it was an audience of workers, and best. of all their women and children were with them. They occupied the whole house from the floor to the ceiling and showed their appreciation of the acting by calling the actors before the curtain.
In the interval we went down to the refresh-ment rooms and mixed with the people there ; and again it was impossible for me, may be because of my ignorance, to discover the misery and dejection which we are told is universal. It was impossible for me to believe that all the people I was meeting in theatres and elsewhere were comnumist officials, better treated, better fed, than everybody else. If this were so, then all I can say is that the mass of the population appears to be made up of such officials.
All the theatres are alike. They are crowded each night and the repertoire is changed week by week. I saw the great Russian opera, Boris Goudonov, and was able to appreciate what I suppose is a well-known fact that the Russians are excellent judges both of good acting and good music. I only saw one performance of the ballet. It was a revelation to me in the art of dancing.
There is a sort of story that there is nothing going on in the way of intellectual life in Russia at the present time. As a matter of fact men like Gorki and Chertkoff are always lecturing. Gorki gave a lecture on Tolstoi one Sunday evening which was attended by between two and three thousand people, and although he is not a good lecturer, that is, he speaks in a low voice and with very little animation, that great audience listened for over an hour while he delivered his lecture in a voice which it was difficult to hear in almost any part of the hall ; but so intent were they that during the whole period one might have heard a pin drop, This audience was almost entirely working class.
The road which lies along the outside of the inner walls of the Kremlin, is think, the most crowded with people in Moscow. ~ have crossed it at all hours of the day and night, sometimes on foot, nearly always in a vehicle, and have always found a large number of people about. On Sundays it appears to be a kind of parade, even during the severe weather which prevailed while was there ; and once more I am bound to say that saw no sign of the terrible depression which other people appear to have seen.
One other example ; on the day visited the prison in which Mr. Keeling is interned, our car broke down through bumping into a great hole in the road. It looked as if we should be obliged to walk the remainder of the distance : the driver, Fineherg and myself did our hest to shirt the machine. We were surrounded by a crowd of people of all ages, and ~ had good look at these. They were just the same curious crowd that would gather round a breakdown anywhere in London, or indeed in the world. They all had a remedy, everyone gave advice to the driver, but no matter what he did the old machine would not move.
After thirty minutes or so a soldier of the Red Army came up, spoke to the driver and then turned to the crowd, and I suppose, suggested to them that a little help was worth a great deal of' pity and that practical assistance was worth much more than talk. Within a few seconds at least a couple of dozen persons surrounded the car, told the driver to start his engine, and as he started, themselves gave a huge lift and sent the machine flying out of the hole. Quite a shout went up from the crowd which had assembled and there were very friendly greetings to myself from everybody.
We were at least a couple of miles from the centre, on the South side of the city, in a part I had not been to before, which is crowded with very poor people indeed. I stayed for some minutes listening to the people, and saw Fineberg exchanging conversation with them. There was no hostility, there certainly was a great amount of friendliness ; and far as 1 could see there was no sign of dejection or absolute starvation. That want was on their faces and that near by was much typhus is true, people were also dreading the coming of Spring because of the sort of Spring diseases that break out. Everywhere though there was life not death.