Russia - The Fanatic Element
( Originally Published 1918 )
As the months of 1917 rolled by it became evi-dent that the more rabid element among the Russian politicians was gaining strength rather than losing in Vladivostok.
The average business man in the city would tell you, with a shrug of his shoulders or a gesture of despair, that the worst element among the people had gotten hold of the reins of government. In Vladivostok I came into contact with several men, whose judgment should have been sound, who had become hopeless regarding the situation. The chief difficulty in trying to get an accurate line on just how matters stood was the unreliability of report. Some Russian would tell me that the people in power politically were anxious to split up all the property in the town, immediately and without compensation to owners of land or buildings. Others denied that this was the case.
I became somewhat curious to know just what was being advocated by the Russians in Vladivostok who were closest in touch with affairs and who were in the seat of government, if not the seat of power.
Great care had to be taken in ascertaining whether or not a Russian politician was a representative of the government at Petrograd or was one of the Vladivostok crowd. One of the first things I learned about the Russian element who were closest to the government was that they were men from entirely different classes. I knew one sober, thoughtful fellow, who had never been in the least an agitator, who had worked hard in America and come back to Russia with an honest desire to serve his fellow-men. Closely associated with him was one of the most visionary and erratic anarchists with whom I have ever met. These men disagreed on many points, but hung together on some fundamental theories, with which their minds were both full. It did not seem to worry the quiet, thoughtful chap that his friend was utterly mad on several very important subjects. He seemed oblivious of that. He would discuss with me his friend's ideas and condemn some of them frankly, but he seemed to think that on the whole they were each working together for a common end, though trying to achieve it by different methods. He was not so much interested in the manner in which the goal which he sought might be reached, as in the fact that he and his friend were impelled by desire for the establishment of the same ultimate conditions.
A socialist meeting in the Russian Far East has an atmosphere all its own.
In a big empty factory building in Siberia, silent machines grouped round as if in mute protest at the interruption of their daily work, Russian men and women gathered in the afternoon of a pleasant autumn day.
Admission to the meeting was easily gained. Any one could come. Each member of the audience was supposed to contribute a piece of silver at the door, but many drifted in without paying any attention to the collection box.
I was an early arrival. I stood by the barrier, through a small gate in which the incoming crowd had to pass, and watched the faces.
Men were there, and women, who were toilers in that very factory. Others were work people of other factories, not far distant, whose machinery was idle, too. It was not a day for work. It was a lazy day. The air was soft. Even the sun shone lazily. I was lazy, and I pride myself I am rarely lazy. Why, then, should not the Russians have been lazy—so many of whom are born lazy and never get over it?
They came in quietly enough. Some of the men were fine looking fellows. Some of the women were comely, but none of them handsome. They were a stolid lot. With the work people a few sailors drifted by, then a group of soldiers, and last a score of students.
I recognized one or two men who might be described as bourgeois. Trimming their sails to the wind, they were. But few of the bourgeois had either sufficient courage, sufficient common sense, or sufficient patriotism to try to guide the more socialistic elements in Siberia. If any class in Russia has failed utterly to grasp the slightest conception of its duty toward itself, its brethren, the State, or humanity, it is the bourgeois class in Russia. True, it has had a rough passage. But it cringed and ran. It did not stay and help—except in rare instances. It loved its wealth, such as it had, more than it loved Russia.
The Bolsheviki are bad enough, but I had rather be a Bolshevik than a bourgeois in Rus-sia, if I was to condemn myself to the line of action that either class has taken.
Piles of metal lay about. Along one wall were rods of steel which should have been being rapidly turned into bolts on the screw machines not far away. I suppose I was the only person present who thought that the socialists might be better engaged in working the lathes and drills than in listening to flowery orations on the subject of the millennium. We seemed a long way from the millennium that day in Siberia.
As I walked in with the crowd, and stood at a point where I could be sure to hear the speaking, I became impatient with that audience, individually and collectively.
My impatience died, and I looked upon them, as one should look upon them, as sober, misguided children.
They were so docile. They were so quiet and orderly. They were in such deadly earnest. They could not help being lazy. Most Russians are lazy. It is a lazy land. Very few Russians have had any incentive in their lives to be anything but lazy. It really hasn't mattered in Russia. The average Russian didn't get on very much better, if he wasn't lazy. It's all a matter of experience. If you start out being lazy in this world, and nobody criticises, and the necessaries of life come along naturally enough and pretty well the same as they come to everybody else in the community, you drift. A spark may be blown into a small blaze now and again by the breeze of a passing inspiration, but it dies down. Nobody cares. Nobody notices. It's a hopeless business, being industrious all by yourself. All the more so—when it isn't fashionable.
They were orderly, that audience. They were patient. Russia stands for patience. It's a monument of patience. A people could have a worse attribute.
And so they filed in, there by the still machines, that seemed to me to be crying out to be worked, and waited—with no disorder, with no tumult, with no loud words. They were considerate enough of one another coming in. There was no pushing or shoving no rudeness. They were a bit bovine, perhaps, but very nicely, very considerately so.
The soldiers were quiet. Typically Russian, they were as patient as the work-folk. As I stood there watching them my mind went back, years into the past, to other days in Siberia. I remembered the smooth-faced boy, the orderly of a drunken Russian colonel who had been beaten to death by his master with a scabbard-ed sabre, because he had failed to procure something for which he had been sent. That boy died a violent death. He had lived a violent life. Violence was an everyday experience to him. The colonel, who was unpunished for his crime, and was soon beating another orderly at regular intervals, saw to it that any Russian soldier with whom he came in constant contact, had his share of violence.
But these Russian soldiers were not violent. They were a bit restless, as if having no very clearly defined plan, but they were not the sort of men who would be violent, unless drunk. There is no drink to be had in Siberia.
The big shop filled at length. Then there was a commotion near the door and a lane opened. Down the lane came a trio, who were to be the speakers of the afternoon.
Samelyoff, Parenogo and Commandantoff were what their names sounded like to me. Those were not the names, exactly, but as the three speakers were none of them international celebrities, it does not matter much what I call them.
I instinctively liked Samelyoff. He was a big chap, tall and strong. He had a fine chest and well-set shoulders. His hair, brown, with red lights, waved back picturesquely from his high forehead. He was cleanshaven. His eyes were brown, and large. His mouth was too small, and weak, if one wished to be critical, but he was a fine-looking young chap, for all that. He was about thirty. From his dress I judged him a workman, but an acquaintance said no, he was a stranger who had drifted into Siberia since the revolution, and did no work.
Samelyoff was the first speaker. He talked fluently enough, but the combined efforts of two quite good interpreters could not discover much sense in what he said. He was clearly a disciple of Karl Marx. To him there was only one class against whom to rail—the bourgeois. It mattered not what country was that of their origin. If they were what he called bourgeois, that was sufficient. He was against them and theirs. Peace without annexations and without indemnities came in for much of his time. He was so thoroughly convinced that the German workingman was about to rise and shake off the yoke of the Kaiser and his class, that it almost seemed a shame to disabuse his mind. The German working man was given more confidence by that odd, likable young, Russian, than any one could appreciate, at first. The German workers were not only to overthrow Junkerism in Germany, but were to place back in Russia's hands all which she had lost during the war, as well as to restore complete liberty to Poland. The German working man was the friend, apparently, to whom the Russian brother must look for succour.
No man who saw and heard Samelyoff and had met with no others of his type could have imagined him anything but a German agent. I had seen too many like him, however, to think that was necessarily true. Many a young Rus-sian enthusiast who would not take a penny of German money, or willingly aid the Prussian regime in any way, has spread broadcast through Russia doctrines that might well have had their inception in the very headquarters of German propaganda. They served the Boche as well, did these misguided folk, as if they had been in German pay.
Parenogo was a little man. He had a head like a spaniel, with a mane of wavy black hair. Most of the harangue was taken up with a dissertation on the character of the Russian revolution. Parenogo argued that the co-operation of the middle classes must be excluded. The government must be purely by the people. A world social revolution, he was convinced, was inevitable, and we were standing on the threshold of it. Peace, he said, should be made by democracy and not by diplomats. Democracy must fight for general disarmament.
The crowd listened attentively, and there were no dissenting voices raised. One hardly needed to understand Parenogo's words to realise that he considered himself a man with a message. He felt what he said and was convinced that no argument would hold against him.
Commandantoff, the third speaker, was another firebrand against the bourgeois. He wanted to sweep the bourgeois out of every position and declared that the Workmen's and Soldiers' Council, a council composed of true revolutionaries, must have all the power in their hands. He began to speak of dividing up the land. Every workman was to have shorter hours. Every peasant was to have some ground which he could call his own. The State was to control all industry, and an equalisation of wealth was to be assured.
Commandantoff was a big fellow, with a breadth of shoulder and depth of chest, and his words rolled forth sonorously, his promises falling on eager ears. The audience took increased interest in what he was saying. There was not one voice raised to question him or to. point out the impossibilities in some of his suggested schemes. He talked on and on, drawing a more and more roseate picture of the Russia that was to come. He, too, was convinced that the rest of the nations would follow in the foot-steps of revolutionary Russia. The workmen of the world would wipe out national boundary lines and become an internationalist group, swaying the world toward social democracy until the rich no longer existed as a class, and there were no poor in any land.
When the meeting broke up, people were quite enthusiastic. Their simplicity was so marked and their gullibility so great that these specious phrases of the socialistic orators took away their breaths for the moment.
I tried to find out to what extent these doctrines had really been adopted by the audience, and the result was more encouraging than I had anticipated. The Siberians seemed inclined to question some of the axioms which had been laid down so dogmatically by the speakers. I was in the home of a Russian acquaintance, questioning him as to the extent to which such revolutionary doctrines were imbibed on short notice when Commandantoff called. I was introduced to him and listened to him with close attention for some time. I told him frankly that I was in favour of the prosecution of the war against Germany and that I did not sympathise particularly with the Russion bourgeois, for the reason that they had lost heart to an extent which made one disgusted with them.
"I have come to the conclusion," I told him, "that the better educated classes of the Russian people throughout the whole country love their own skins and their property as much as they love Russia. When the unconscious and ignorant masses of the people, particularly the Alen without education among the army and the labouring classes began to answer the Bolshevik call and agitate for social revolution, the more conscious elements of the Russian people threw up the sponge too quickly. Once the agitation was started and the call for class war was sounded, the Russian intelligent and educated classes, entirely unprepared for a struggle and seemingly with no capacity or capability of putting up a fight, retired and sulked in the corner, accepting at once the theory that they were powerless to stop the riot. By doing this they gave a free hand to the uneducated, loafing and totally unconscious bulk of the population, who were guided by extreme anarchists and socialists and who were continually misled, although sometimes unconsciously, by German agents. The fact that the bourgeois element has been guilty of less strenuous effort to help than might have been expected from it, does not mean that there are not good people among that class. They are Russians. Why do you not willingly accept their co-operation and assistance in making over Russia into a new Republic? Has not a man of the bourgeois as much right to be called a Russian as a man of the working classes?"
The argument Commandantoff used in reply was no answer to my question. Either he was utterly shallow and had adopted a number of high-sounding phrases and arguments from the leaders of the Bolsheviki, or he was incapable of argumentative reasoning. He talked bitterly against the Allies, but I could not get him into a state of mind where cohesive statements on one side or the other would lead to a continuity of reasoning. He admitted that there was a good deal of German propaganda going on in Russia, but immediately swung to the argument that there was a great deal of Socialist propaganda going on in Germany. The poor fellow was undoubtedly of the opinion that Russian propaganda would win against Germany no matter how much German propaganda might be used in Russia. He asked me if I did not think the Allies were at fault for not having supported Russia by recognising the Bolshevik government.
"The decomposition of the victualling and transport organisation in Russia became an excellent ally for German agitation," I replied, "and the fault of the Allies lay in the fact that they did not earlier pay sufficient attention to these two serious questions. On the other hand, every difficulty was put in the way of Allied effort to assist. The Allied missions which were sent to Russia lacked sympathy with the objects of the extremists who were exploiting the real power in Russia, and an impasse under such circumstances was inevitable. The Allies, how-ever, could not make a certain section of the Russian army fight longer hr this war. Nevertheless, a section, a considerable section, of the Russian army would fight against Prussian militarism. It is you and speakers like you who argue against the continuation of the war on any grounds who are forcing your country un-der the feet of Germany, and the first thing they will trample out of the prostrate body of Russia will be the fruits of the Russian revolution."
Some of the statements I made Commandantoff inquired into through my friend who was doing the interpreting for us. He thought a moment, and then said, "What you say seems sensible in some ways, but you fail to take into consideration the fact that the German workman and the Austrian workman have in their hearts the same ideals which we have. Would you like to know what I consider our new Russia should be? It should be a country where there were no men who did not work productively for at least five hours every day, if not six. The remainder of the day should be at the entire disposal of the individual. The State should control all industries so that no monopolies would be possible. Great riches could not be amassed and the State should see to it that there was work for every one, so that there would be no misery and poverty. The Imperial Romanoff Government went into this war for no such ideals. England and France are not fighting for such a result to the war. England and France are fighting for industrial and commercial interests or for a gain of territory."
I broke in here to try to prove to him that England and France were fighting for some-thing else, but Commandantoff was not anxious to hear new theories on that head. The base on which all his arguments were reared took into account first the fact that he was the advocate of something higher and better for Russia, something more ideal and more honestly to be sought than any object of any other country in the war. To argue that the Allied nations were in any way right was tearing from under him some of the platform on which he stood. He could have no sympathy with that.
"If you can show me how continuing to fight Germany would change the mind of England and France as to the sort of government they should have, the way the workmen of their country should be treated, and the attitude their people should take against the rights of property," he said, "I would be interested to hear it."
His words were utterly untrue. He was not in the least interested to hear anything which combatted his arguments. There was only one view for him, and that was the one that had been given him in Petrograd. Curiously enough, I think he was conscientiously of the belief that he was right. He simply had a total incapacity for argument or for reason.
That is the class of man that in many in-stances one finds in Russia and the Russian Far East, and a little well directed educational work to counteract the influence of this type would wipe away much of the poison from the minds of the people. A campaign of education is a positive necessity if the Russians throughout their whole empire are to gain any more intelligent ideas than those which are being fed to them by such men as those to whom I listened that afternoon in the empty factory building.