Chapter 12 : Sights and Views

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Chapter 12

The text is from my copy of Alexander Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925. Page numbers are in the source code.

CHAPTER XII

SIGHTS AND VIEWS

      I walked to the Hotel Savoy to meet a friend whom I expected from Petrograd. Nearing the Okhotny Ryad I was, surprised to find the raided market in full operation again. All day long women and children are huckstering their wares there, and great crowds are about, trading and bargaining. One cannot tell buyer from seller. Everyone seems to have something for sale, and everyone is pricing things. An old Jew is offering to exchange secondhand trousers for bread; a soldier is trading a new pair of high boots for a watch. Colored kerchiefs and laces, an antique brass candlestick, kitchen utensils, chairs --- every imaginable object is collected there, awaiting a buyer. In the store windows meat, butter, fish, and flour, even wheat, are, exposed for sale. I know that soldiers and sailors sell their surplus, but the quantities to be seen on the Okhotny, the Sukharevka, and other markets are very large. Could the rumors be true that trainloads of provisions often disappear? I have heard it whispered about that some commissars in charge of food supplies are in league with the traders. But such commissars are always Bolsheviki, members of the Party. Is it possible that the Communists themselves, rob the people: secretly aid speculation while officialy punishing it?

      Passing the corner where I fell into the raid last week, I was hailed by a young voice:

      "Zdrasmuite, tovarishtch! Don't you know me?"

      It was the girl with the red lips that I had seen arrested.

      "You're quick to recognize me," I remarked.

      "No wonder --- those big heavy glasses you wear --- I'd know you anywhere. You must be American, aren't you?"

      "I came from there."

      "Oh, I thought so the first time I spoke to you."

      "Where is the other girl that was selling cigarettes?" I inquired.

      "Oh, Masha? That's my cousin. She's sick at home. Came back sick from the camp."

      "What camp?"

      "The camp for forced labor. The judge gave her two weeks for speculation."

      "And you?"

      "I gave up all the money I had, and they let me go. They took my last ruble."

      "Aren't you afraid you'll be arrested again?" I asked, glancing at the package of cigarettes in her hand.

      "What can I do? We've sold everything else we had. I must help feed the children at home."

      Her big black eyes looked honest. "I'm going to see a friend," I said, "but I'll return in two hours. Will you wait for me?"

      "Of course, tovarishtch!

      In the Savoy the admission ceremony proved a complicated matter. I spent half an hour in line, and when I finally got to the little window behind which sat the barishnya, she began asking about my identity, occupation, place of residence, and the purpose of my visit. Her supply of questions apparently inexhaustible, I urged speed. "What difference does it make why I want to see the man?" I remarked; "he's my friend. Isn't that enough?"

      "That's our orders," the girl said curtly.

      "Stupid orders," I retorted.

      She motioned to the armed guard nearby. "You'll be sent to the Tcheka if you talk like that," she warned me.

      "Ne razsuzhdait!" (no argument) the militzioner ordered.

      My friend K--- came down the stairs, carrying his suitcase. The Savoy was crowded, and he was asked to leave, he explained; but he had secured a room in a private house, and he proceeded there.

      We entered a large, beautiful apartment containing fine furniture, china, and paintings. One person occupied the five rooms, the smallest of which, of comfortable size, my friend had secured by recommendation. "A big speculator with powerful connections," he remarked.

      An appetizing odor of things frying and baking pervaded the house. From the adjoining room the sound of voices reached us, loud and hilarious. I heard the clatter of dishes and clinking of wine glasses.

      "Na vashe zdorovie (your health), Piotr Ivanovitch!"

      "Na zdorovie! Na zdorovie!" half a dozen voices shouted.

      "Did you hear?" my friend whispered, as there came the popping of a cork. "Champagne!"

      There was another pop, and then another. The talking grew louder, the laughter more boisterous, and then some one began reciting in a hoarse, hiccoughy voice.

      "Demian Bedni," K--- exclaimed. "I know his voice well."

      "Demian Bedni, the popular poet the Communist papers eulogize?"

      "The same. Drunk most of the time."

      We went out into the street.

      Fresh snow had fallen. On the slippery sidewalk people were jostling and pushing about, walking hunched up to keep out the bitter cold. At the Theatralnaia Square, near the railway ticket office, dark shadows stood in a long queue, some leaning against the wall, as if asleep. The office was closed, but they would remain on the street all night to guard their place in line, on the chance of securing a ticket.

      On the corner stood a little boy. "Who'll buy, who'll buy?" he mumbled mechanically, offering cigarettes for sale. An old man of lean, ascetic face, was heavily pulling a small log tied to his arm with a string. The wood slid from side to side on the uneven ground, now striking against the sidewalk, now getting caught in a hole. Presently the cord broke. With numbed fingers the man tried to tie the pieces, but the string kept falling from his hands. People hurried by with rarely a glance at the old figure in the frayed summer coat bending over his treasure. "May I help you?" I asked. He gave me a suspicious, frightened look, putting his foot on the wood. "Have no fear," I reassured him, as I knotted the string and stepped back.

      "How can I thank you, dear man, how can I thank you!" he murmured.

      The girl was waiting for me, and I accompanied her home, on the other side of the Moskva River. Up a dark, crooked stairway that creaked piteously under our feet, she led me to her room. She lit a sputtering candle, and I gradually began to discern things. The place was entirely bare, save for two small cots, the space between them and the opposite wall just big enough for a person to pass through. Seeing no chair about, I sat down on the bed. Something moved under the rags that covered it, and I quickly jumped up. "Don't mind," the girl said; "it's mother and baby brother." From the other bed rose a curly head. "Lena, did you bring me something?" a boyish voice asked.

      The girl took a chunk of black bread from her coat pocket, broke off a small piece and gave it to the boy. Mother is paralyzed," she turned to me, "and Masha is now also sick." She pointed to the cot where the curly-headed boy lay. I saw that two were there.

      "Does he go to school?" I asked, not knowing what else to say.

      "No, Yasha can't go. He has no shoes. They're all in tatters."

      I told her of the fine schools I had visited in the morning, and of the chicken dinner served to the children. "Oh, yes," she said bitterly, "they are pokazatelniya (show schools). What chance has Yasha to go there? There are several like that in the city, and they are warm, and the children well fed. But the others are different. Yasha has frozen his fingers in his school. It's better at home for him. It's not heated here, either; we've had no wood all winter. But he can stay in bed; it's warmer so."

      I thought of the big apartment I had left an hour before; of the appetizing odors, the popping of champagne corks, and Demian Bedni reciting in drunken voice.

      "Why so silent?" Lena asked. "Tell me, something about America. I have a brother there, and maybe you know some way I could get to him. We've been living like this two years now. I can't stand it any longer."

      She sat by me, the picture of despair. "I can't go on like this," she repeated. "I can't steal. Must I sell my body to live?"

.      .      .      .      .      .     

      March 5.---My friend Sergei was ordered out of the Kharitonensky and spent two nights in the street. Today I found him in a small unheated room at the lodgings of the Central Coöperative Union. He lay in bed, feverish, covered with his Siberian fur. "Malaria," he whispered hoarsely, "caught in the taiga (Siberian jungle) hiding from the Whites. I often get these relapses." He had seen no doctor, and received no medical attention.

      I discovered the dvornik (house porter) and several girls amusing themselves in the basement kitchen. They were busy, they said. Nothing could be done, anyway. A special order must be procured to get a physician, and who's to attend to that? It's no simple matter.

      Their indifference appalled me. The Russian, the common man of the people, had never been callous to misery and misfortune. His sympathies were always with the weak and the underdog. In the popular mouth the criminal was "the unfortunate," and the peasants were ever responsive to a cry for help. In Siberia they used to place food outside their huts, in order that escaped prisoners might appease their hunger.

      Starvation and misery seem to have hardened the Russian and stifled his native generosity. The tears he has shed have dried up the wells of sympathy.

      "The House Committee is the one to see to the matter," the porter said; "it's their business, and they don't like us folks to interfere."

      He refused to let me use the telephone. "You must ask permission of the house commissar," he said.

      "Where can I find him?"

      "He'll return in the evening."

      But my American cigarettes persuaded him. I telephoned to Karakhan, who promised to send a physician.

      March 6.---Mrs. Harrison, my neighbor in the Kharitonensky, accompanied me to Sergei's room, taking some of her American delicacies along. She is the correspondent of the Associated Press, and seems very clever. Her entry to Russia was adventurous, involving arrest and difficulties with the Tcheka.

      We found Sergei still very ill; no physician had called. Mrs. Harrison promised to send the woman doctor with whom she shares her room at the ossobniak.

      On our return we passed the Lubianka, the headquarters of the Tcheka. Groups of people, mostly women and girls, stood near the big iron gates. Some prisoners were to be led out for distribution to various camps, and the people hoped to catch a glimpse of arrested friends and relatives. Suddenly there was a commotion, and frightened cries pierced the air. I saw leather-coated men rushing into the street toward the little groups. Revolvers in hand, they threatened the women, ordering them to "go about their business." With Mrs. Harrison I stepped into a hallway, but Tchekists followed us there with drawn guns.

      Russia, the Revolution, seemed to disappear. I felt myself in America again, in the midst of workers attacked by the police. Mrs. Harrison spoke to me, and the sound of English strengthened the reality of the illusion.

      Coarse Russian oaths assailed my ears. Am I in old Russia? I wondered. The Russia of the Cossack and the knout?

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February 02, 2017 17:17:38 :
Chapter 12 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.

September 20, 2017 17:32:08 :
Chapter 12 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.

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