The Bolshevik Myth : Chapter 14 : On the Latvian Border
(1870 - 1936) ~ Globe-Trotting Anarchist, Journalist, and Exposer of Bolshevik Tyranny : He was a well-known anarchist leader in the United States and life-long friend of Emma Goldman, a young Russian immigrant whom he met on her first day in New York City. The two became lovers and moved in together, remaining close friends for the rest of Berkman's life. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "But the 'triumph' of the Bolsheviki over Kronstadt held within itself the defeat of Bolshevism. It exposes the true character of the Communist dictatorship. The Communists proved themselves willing to sacrifice Communism, to make almost any compromise with international capitalism, yet refused the just demands of their own people -- demands that voiced the October slogans of the Bolsheviki themselves: Soviets elected by direct and secret ballot, according to the Constitution of the R.S.F.S.R.; and freedom of speech and press for the revolutionary parties." (From : "The Kronstadt Rebellion," by Alexander Berkman, 1....)
• "The present situation in Russia [in 1921] is most anomalous. Economically it is a combination of State and private capitalism. Politically it remains the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' or, more correctly, the dictatorship of the inner circle of the Communist Party." (From : "The Russian Tragedy," by Alexander Berkman, The R....)
• "But when the industries will again begin to function more or less systematically, [Soviet] Russia will face a very difficult and complex labor situation. Labor organizations, trade unions, do not exist in Russia, so far as the legitimate activities of such bodies are concerned. The Bolsheviki abolished them long ago. With developing production and capitalism, governmental as well as private, Russia will see the rise of a new proletariat whose interests must naturally come into conflict with those of the employing class. A bitter struggle is imminent. A struggle of a twofold nature: against the private capitalist, and against the State as an employer of labor." (From : "The Russian Tragedy," by Alexander Berkman, The R....)
Petrograd, March 15.---I received a message from Tchicherin, informing me that a thousand American deportees had arrived in Libau and were to reach Russia on March 22. A committee was to be formed, and arrangements made for their reception.
I had long ago suggested the necessity of a permanent organization for this purpose, because exiles were expected from different countries. So far nothing had been done, but now instructions from Moscow hastened matters. Mme. Ravitch, Commissar of Public Safety in the, Petrograd District, called a conference at which a Deportees' Commission was decided upon. I was appointed Chairman of the Reception Committee, and on March 19 we left Petrograd for the Lettish frontier. Sanitary Train No. 81, splendidly equipped, was placed at my disposal; two more trains were to follow in case the deportees' group proved larger than expected.
In the dining-room, on the first day of our journey, a stranger introduced himself as "Tovarishtch Karus from Petrograd," a middle-aged man with yellow face and furtive eyes. Presently another man joined us, younger and sociable.
"My name is Pashkevitch," the young man announced. "Tovarishtchi from America," he, continued in an official tone. "I greet you on this mission in the name of the Ispolkom: I am the representative of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. May our mission be successful, and the American deportees prove of service to the Revolution."
He looked around to observe the effect of his words. His eyes rested on me as if expecting a reply. I presented the other members of our Committee, Novikov and Miss Ethel Bernstein, the Ispolkom man acknowledging the introduction with an expansive etchen rad (very pleased), while Karus clicked his heels under the table in military fashion.
"And the other tovarishtch?" Novikov asked, looking at the silent Karus.
"Just an observer," the latter replied. The train physician gave us a significant look.
"It would be interesting to hear our American comrades tell us something about the United States," Pashkevitch remarked. "I have also been in America and in England," he continued, "but it's many years ago, though I still speak the language. Conditions there must have greatly changed since then. Will the American workers rise soon in revolution, I wonder? What is your opinion, Comrade Berkman?"
"Hardly a day passes," I replied, smiling, "but I am asked that question. I don't think that a revolution can be expected so soon in America because---"
"But in England?" he interrupted.
"Nor in England, I regret to say. Conditions and the proletarian psychology there seem to be entirely misunderstood in Russia."
"You are pessimistic, tovarishtch," Pashkevitch protested. "The war and our Revolution must have certainly had a great effect upon the proletariat abroad. We may expect revolutions there very soon, I am sure; especially in America, where capitalism has developed to the bursting point. Don't you think so, Comrade Novikov?" he appealed to my assistant.
"I cannot agree with you, Comrade," Novikov replied. "I am afraid your hope will not be realized so soon."
"How you people talk!" Pashkevitch exclaimed, somewhat irritated. "Hope! It's a certainty. We have faith in the workers. Revolutions abroad will be the salvation of Russia, and we depend on them."
"Russia must learn to depend on herself," I observed. "By our own efforts we must defeat our enemies and bring economic well-being to the people."
"As for that, we are doing all that is possible," Pashkevitch retorted hotly. "We Communists have the greatest and most difficult task that ever fell to any political party and we have accomplished wonders. But the cursed Allies will not leave us in peace; and the blockade is starving us. When I address the workers I always impress upon them the fact that their brothers abroad are about to come to the aid of Soviet Russia by making a Communist Revolution in their countries. That gives the people new courage and strengthens their faith in our success."
"But when your promises fail to materialize, the disappointment of the masses will have a bad effect on the Revolution," I remarked.
"They will materialize, they will," Pashkevitch insisted.
"I see you comrades will not agree," Karus spoke for the first time. "Perhaps the American tovarishtchi will tell us what they think of our Revolution." His manner was quiet, but his look held something insistent in it. Later I learned that he was an examining magistrate of the Petrograd Tcheka.
"We've been too short a time in Russia to form an opinion," I replied.
"But you must have received some impressions," Karus persisted.
"We have received many impressions. But we have not had time to organize them, so to speak, to clarify them into a definite view. Is it not also your feeling in the matter?" I asked, turning to the other members of the Committee.
They agreed with me, and Karus did not pursue the subject.
The country we traveled through was flat and swampy, with scattered villages in the distance, but no sign of life about. Flocks of crows hovered over our train, their shrill cawing echoing through the woods. We proceeded at a snail's pace; the road was badly out of repair, our engine old and weak. Every few miles we stopped for wood and water, the logs being passed by the living chain stretching from woodpile to caboose. At the stations we were met by women and children selling milk, cheese, and butter at prices one-third lower than those in Moscow and Petrograd. But they refused to accept Soviet rubles or Kerenki (Kerensky money). "Whole izba (house) plastered with them," an old woman said scornfully; "just colored paper --- what good is it? Give us salt, little uncle; we can't live without salt."
We offered soap --- a rare luxury in the cities --- to a girl selling rye bread, but she disdainfully declined it. "Can I eat it, what?" she demanded.
"You can wash yourself with it."
"There's plenty of snow for that."
"But in the summer?"
"I'll scrub the dirt off with sand. Ain't got no use for soap at any time.
Communication between Petrograd and the Western border is reduced to a minimum. We met no train in our three days' journey till we reached Novo-Sokolniki, formerly an important railroad center. There we were joined by two representatives of the Central plenbezh (Department of War Prisoners). With them was a youngish man dressed from head to foot in shining black leather, with a huge nagan (Russian army gun) attached to his belt by a stout crimson cord. He introduced himself as "Tovarishtch Drozdov of the Veh-Tcheka," informing us that he was to examine and photograph the deportees and to detain such of them as may appear suspicious. The train crew regarded the Tchekist with unfriendly eyes. "From the center," I heard them whisper, distrust and antagonism in their manner.
"You will pardon a small but necessary preliminary," I said to Drozdov; "as the predsedatel (chairman) of the Commission I am compelled to fulfill a certain formality and must trouble you for your identification papers."
I showed him my credentials, issued by the Executive Department of the Petro-Soviet, whereupon he handed me his documents. They were stamped and signed by the All-Russian Commission Waging War against Counter-Revolution and Speculation (the Veh-Tcheka) and vested its bearer with exceptional powers.
During the journey I became better acquainted with the young Tchekist. He proved of pleasant disposition, very sociable and an inveterate talker. But coolness developed between him and Karus. The latter also evinced much antagonism toward the Jewish boys of the plenbezh, never missing an opportunity to sneer at their organization and even threatening to arrest them for sabotage.
But whenever Karus was not about, the dining-room of our car was filled with the strong young voice of Drozdov. His stories dealt mostly with the activities of the Tcheka, sudden raids, arrests and executions. He impressed me as a convinced and sincere Communist, ready to lay down his life for the Revolution. But he thought of the latter as a simple matter of extermination, with the Tcheka as the ruthless sword. He had no conception of revolutionary ethics or spiritual values. Force and violence were to him the acme of revolutionary activity, the alpha and omega of the proletarian dictatorship. "Revolution is a prize fight," he would say, "either we win or lose. We must destroy every enemy, root every counter-revolutionist out of his lair. Sentimentalism, bosh! Every means and method is good to accomplish our purpose. What's the use of having a Revolution unless you use your best effort to make a success of it? The Revolution would be dead long ago if not for us. The Tcheka is the very soul of the Revolution."
He loved to talk of the methods the Tcheka employs to unearth counter-revolutionary plots, and he would grow eloquent about the cleverness of some "agents" in trapping speculators and forcing them to reveal the hiding places of their diamonds and gold; promising them immunity for "confessing" and then leading them to execution in the company of a betrayed wife or brother. With admiration he spoke of the ingenuity of the Tcheka in collaring the bourzhooi, tricking them into voicing anti-Bolshevik sentiments, and then sending them to their death. His favorite expression was razstreliat --- to shoot summarily; it repeated itself in every story and was the refrain of every experience. The non-Communist intelligentsia was especially hateful to him. "Sabotazhniki and counter-revolutionists, all of them," he insisted; "they are a menace, and it is a waste of food to feed them. They should be shot."
"You don't realize what you are saying," I would protest. "The stories you tell are enormous, impossible. You're just romancing."
"My dear tovarishtch," he would reply condescendingly, "you may be old in the movement, but you are young in Russia. You speak of atrocity, of brutality! Why, man, you don't know what a vile enemy we have to deal with. Those counter-revolutionists would cut our throats; they'd flood the streets of Moscow with our blood, if they once got the upper hand. And as for romancing, why, I haven't told you half the story yet."
"There may be some individuals in the Tcheka guilty of the acts you relate. But I hope such methods are not part of the system."
"There is a Left element among us that favors even more drastic methods," Drozdov laughed.
"Torture to extort confessions."
"You must be crazy, Drozdov."He laughed boyishly. "It's true, though," he kept repeating.
In Sebezh our train was held up. We could not proceed further, the authorities informed us, because of military activities on the border, about twenty-five versts distant.
It was the 22nd of March, the day the American deportees were to reach the frontier. Fortunately a supply train was leaving for Rozanovskaia, the Russian border town, and several members of our group succeeded in catching a teplushka --- an old cattle car. We were congratulating ourselves on our good fortune, when suddenly the train began to slow up and soon came to a halt. It was too dangerous to advance, the conductor announced. The train could go no further, but he had "no objections to our risking our lives" if we could induce the engineer to take us to the frontier in the tender.
Several soldiers who had come with us from Sebezh were anxious to reach their regiment, and together we succeeded in persuading the engine driver to attempt the ten-mile run. My American cigarettes proved the most convincing argument.
"First thing we'll do is to search and photograph the deportees," Drozdov began as we started. He was sure there were spies among them; but they couldn't fool him, he boasted. In a friendly way I suggested the inadvisability of being too hasty: our action would impress the men unfavorably. They are revolutionists; they had defended Russia in America, for which they brought down upon themselves the persecution of the government. It would be stupid to subject them to insult by searching them the moment they step on Soviet soil. Surely they expect and are entitled to a different reception, one due to brothers and comrades. "Look here, Drozdov," I said confidentially, "in Petrograd we have made all preparations to take the deportees enquetes, photograph and examine them. It would be useless work to do it here; there are no proper facilities for it, either. I think you can entrust the matter to me, as the Chairman of the Reception Commission of the Petro-Soviet."
Drozdov hesitated. "But I have orders," he said.
"Your orders will be carried out, of course," I assured him. "But it will be done in Petrograd instead of on the border, in the open field. You understand yourself that it is the more practical way."
"What you say is reasonable," he admitted. "I would agree on one condition. You must immediately supply the Veh-Tcheka with complete sets of the men's photographs."
Half frozen by the long ride on the tender, we at last reached Rosanovskaia. Through deep snow we waded till we came to the Siniukha, the little creek which divides Latvia from Soviet Russia. Groups of soldiers stood on either side of the border, and I saw a big crowd of men in civilian dress crossing the ice toward us. I rejoiced that we arrived just in time to meet the deportees.
"Hello, comrades!" I greeted them in English. "Welcome to Soviet Russia."
There was no response.
"How do you do, comrades!" I called louder. To my unspeakable astonishment the men remained silent.
The arrivals proved to be Russian soldiers taken prisoners by Germany on the Polish front in 1916. Badly treated and insufficiently fed, they had escaped to Denmark, where they were interned until arrangements were made for their return home. They had sent a radio to Tchicherin, and it was probably owing to their message being misread that the misundertanding as to their identity resulted.
Two British army officers accompanied the men to the border, and from them I learned that America had not deported any more radicals since the previous December. But another group of war prisoners was on the way to Russia, and I decided to await them.
Difficulty arose about the disposition to be made of the war prisoners, aggregating 1,043 persons, as we had no means of quartering and feeding such a large number in Sebezh. I proposed transporting them to Petrograd: two trains could be used for that purpose, while I would keep the third for the next group of arrivals who might prove to be the American political deportees. But my plan was opposed by the local officials and the Bolsheviki who declared that "without orders from the center" nothing could be done. Tchicherin was expecting American deportees, and the Petrograd trains were sent for that purpose, they insisted. The war prisoners would have to wait till instructions for their disposition were received from Moscow.
All my arguments received the same imperturbable, characteristically Russian, reply: "Nitchevo ne podelayesh!" (It can't be helped!)
"But we can't have the men starve to death on the border," I appealed to the station master.
"My orders are to return the trains to Petrograd with the American deportees," he said. "What if they come and the trains are gone? I'll be shot for sabotage. No, golubtchik, nitchevo ne podelayesh."
Urgent telegrams sent to Tchicherin and to Petrograd remained unanswered. The long distance telephone worked badly and failed to connect with the Foreign Office.
In the afternoon a military detachment arrived at the station, rough-looking border men with rifles across the saddle, and huge revolvers in home-made wooden holsters dangling from their belts. Their leader announced himself as Prehde, Chief of the Ossobiy Otdel of the 48th Division of the 15th Army --- the dreaded military Tcheka of the war zone. He came to arrest two of the war prisoners as "Allied spies," he said, having received information to that effect.
Prehde, a tall, slender young man with student face, proved sociable, and we were soon engaged in friendly conversation. A Lettish revolutionist, he had been condemned to death by the Czar, but because of his youth the sentence was commuted to Siberian exile for life. The February Revolution freed him and he returned home. "How times change," he remarked; "it's only a few years ago that I was opposed to capital punishment, and now I myself carry out death sentences. Nitchevo ne podelayesh," he sighed; "we must stand on guard of the Revolution. There are those two men, for instance. Allied spies, and they must be shot."
"Are you sure they are spies?" I asked.
"Quite sure. A friendly Lett soldier on the other side denounced them to me." He gave a little chuckle. "I handed that fellow a thousand Tsarsky rubles for a fine new Browning," he continued. "I could have gotten the gun cheaper, but I had to reciprocate the favor, you know."
"Have you any proof that the men are spies?"
"Proof?" he repeated sternly; "they have been denounced to me. We are in the war zone and we can't take any chances on innocence." With a deprecating gesture he added: "Of course, I'll examine their documents first."
He was much interested in America, where his brother lives, and he eagerly listened to my description of conditions in the States. His face bore the stolid expression of his race, but his intelligent eyes blazed with indignation at the story of the persecution of Russians in America since the Bolshevik Revolution. "They'll soon learn differently," he kept repeating.
As head of the Ossobiy Otdel, Prehde's authority is absolute in the district under his charge, covering 108 versts of the border. Life and death are in his hands, and there is no appeal from his judgment. With his aid I finally persuaded the railroad authorities to comply with my directions, and the war prisoners were sent in two trains to Petrograd.
I then wired to Moscow about the disposition made of the returned soldiers, adding that I shall remain on the border and hold Sanitary Train No. 81 ready for the possible arrival of American deportees. My dispatch apparently did not arrive, but forty-eight hours later came a telegram from Tchicherin, instructing me to "send the war prisoners in two trains to Petrograd" and to "await the American emigrants."
Like most Russian provincial towns, Sebezh lies several miles distant from the railroad station. It is the county seat, beautifully situated in a valley nestling in the bosom of rolling country --- a pretentious place, with several brick buildings two stories high. The town has lived in the shadow of many struggles, their evidence still to be seen on every hand. Shell holes spot the hills and the fields are cut by barbed wire entanglements. But the city itself has suffered little.
At the market place I met several members of our medical staff and train crew, Karus among them, all looking for provisions to take back to Petrograd. But the stores were closed and the market empty; trade was apparently entirely suppressed in the little town. The strangers standing about attracted attention, and soon a little crowd gathered about us --- elderly men and women, with a generous sprinkling of dark-skinned children. They kept at a distance, gazing at us with timid eyes: the arrival of so many "outsiders" might portend evil. I glanced at Karus, and I was relieved to notice that his revolver was not in evidence.
We began to make, inquiries: could bread be bought, perhaps a little white flour, butter, eggs, or anything in the way of food?
The men shook their heads with a sad smile; the women spread out their arms in distress. "Good people," they said, "we have nothing at all; and trade was forbidden long ago."
"How do you live here?" I asked.
"How should we live? We live!" a young peasant answered enigmatically.
"Are you not from foreign parts?" a man addressed me with a pronounced Jewish accent.
"I came from America."
"Oh, from America!" Wonderment and wistfulness were in his voice. "Listen, children," he turned to the people nearby. "This man came all the way from America."
Eager faces were about me. "How is it in America? Do they live well there? Maybe you know my brother?" All spoke at once, each trying to, secure my attention.
Their hunger for news of America was pathetic, their conception of the country infantile. Surprise and incredulousness were in their eyes on hearing that I had not met their folks "in Nai Ork." "Didn't you hear of my son Moishe," an old woman persisted; "everyone knows him there."
It was growing dark, and I was about to turn back to the station when someone brushed against me. "Come with me, I live nearby," a young peasant whispered. I followed him as he crossed the square, strode into a dark, unpaved street, and soon disappeared behind the gate of a yard.
I joined him, and he paused to assure himself that we were not followed. We entered an outhouse dimly lit by a kerosene lamp.
"I live in the next village," the peasant explained, "but when I am in the city I stay here. Moishe!" he called into the next room, "are you there?"
A middle-aged Jew with flaming red hair and beard stepped toward us. Behind him came a woman, a peruke (wig) on her head, with two small children clinging to her skirts.
They greeted me cordially and invited me to a seat in the kitchen, large but untidy, where the whole family gathered. A samovar was on the table, and I was offered a glass of tea, the housewife apologizing for the absence of sugar. Presently they began questioning me, diplomatically at first, hinting about the strangeness of so many people "from the center" coming to a provincial town like Sebezh. They spoke casually, as if not really interested, but I felt them scrutinizing me. At last they seemed satisfied that I was not a Communist or a Government official, and they grew communicative.
My hostess was frankly critical, referring to the Bolsheviki as "those madmen." She bitterly resented the quartering of soldiers in her house: her oldest boy had to share his bed with one of the goyim (gentiles); they made all her dishes treif (unclean) and she was being crowded out of her own home. How could she live and feed her family? It was actual starvation; "the evil ones" had taken away everything. "Look at this," she said, pointing to a vacant place on the wall, "my fine large mirror was there, and they robbed me even of that."
The red-bearded Jew sat in silence, with gentle motion lulling one of the children to sleep in his lap. The young peasant complained of the razsvyorstka, which had taken everything from his village; his last horse was gone. Spring was at the door, and how should he plow or sow with no cattle in the whole place? His three brothers were drafted, and he remained alone, a widower, with two small children to feed. But for the kindness of his neighbor's wife, the little ones would have perished long ago. "There's much injustice in the world," he sighed, "and peasants are treated badly. What can they do? They have no control of the village Soviet: the kombed (Committee of Poverty organized by the Bolsheviki) carries on with a merciless hand, and the common muzhik is afraid to speak his mind, for he'd be reported by some Communist and dragged off to prison."
"Seeing you are not a Communist I can tell you how we suffer," he continued. "The peasants are worse off now than before; they live in constant dread lest a Communist come and take away their last loaf. Tchekists of the Ossobiy Otdel enter a house and order the women to put everything on the table, and then they ride away with it. They don't care if the children go hungry. Who would plant under such masters? But the peasant has learned something; he must bury in the ground what he wants to save from the robbers."
Several peasants entered. They looked at Moishe in silence, and he nodded reassuringly. From scraps of their conversation I learned that they supplied the Jew with products, he acting as middleman in the trade. One must be careful not to deal indiscriminately with strangers, Moishe remarked; some of those he saw in the market looked suspicious. But he would supply me with provisions, and he named prices much below those of the Moscow market: herrings, which cost 1,000 rubles in the capital, at 400; a pound of beans or peas at 120; flour, half wheat, at 250; eggs at 60 rubles apiece.
The peasants agreed with Moishe that "the times are worse than under the Czar." The Communists are just robbers, and there is no justice to be had nowadays. They fear the Commissars more than the old tchinovniki. They resented my question whether they would prefer the monarchy. No, they do not want the pomeshtchiki (landlords) again, nor the Czar, but they don't want the Bolsheviki, either.
"We were treated like cattle before," said a flaxen-haired peasant with blue eyes, "and it was in the name of the Little Father. Now they speak to us in the name of the Party and the proletariat, but we are treated like cattle, the same as before."
"Lenin is a good man," one of the peasants put in.
"We say nothing against him," another remarked, "but his Commissars, they are hard and cruel."
"God is high above and Ilytch (Lenin) far away," the blue-eyed peasant said, paraphrasing a popular old saying.
"But the Bolsheviki gave you the land," I remonstrated.
He slowly scratched his head and a sly smile came into his eyes. "No, golubtchik," he replied, "the land we took ourselves. Isn't it so, little brothers?" he turned to the others.
"He speaks the truth," they assented.
"Will it go on like this much longer?" they asked, as I was departing. "Maybe something will change?"
Returning to the station I met the members of our train crew straggling up the hill, weighted down with sacks of provisions. The young student of our medical staff carried a squealing hog. "How happy little old mother will be," he said; "this porker will keep the family alive for a long time."
"If they hide it well enough," someone suggested.
A soldier drove by, and we asked for a ride to the station. Without answering he passed on. Presently another cart overtook us. We repeated our request. "Why not?" the young peasant exclaimed cheerfully, "jump in, all of you." He was jolly and talkative, his "soul ajar," as the student characterized him, and his conversation was entertaining. He liked the Bolsheviki, he said, but he had no use for the Communists. The Bolsheviki were good men, friends of the people: they had demanded the land for the farmer and all the power for the Soviets. But the Communists are bad: they rob and flog the peasants; they have put their own kind into the Soviets, and a non-Communist has no say there. The kombed is full of idle good-for-nothings; they are the bosses of the village, and the peasant who refuses to bow down before them is "in hard luck." He had been on the Denikin front and there it was the same thing: the Communists and Commissars had everything their own way and lorded it over the drafted men. It was different when the soldiers could speak their minds and decide everything in their Company Committee: that was liberty and everyone felt himself a part of the Revolution. But now it is all changed. One is afraid to speak honestly --- there's always a Communist about, and you are in danger of being denounced. That's why be deserted; yes, deserted twice. He had heard that everything had been taken from his folks on the farm, and he decided to come home to see if it was true. Well, it was true; worse than what he had been told. Even his youngest brother, just past sixteen, had been drafted into the Army. No one remained at home but his mother and father, too old to work their piece of land without help, and all the cattle were gone. The Commissars had left almost no horses in his village and only one cow to each family of five persons, and if a peasant had only two little children his last cow was taken away. He decided to stay and help his folks --- it was spring, and planting had to be done. But he had a narrow escape. One day the whole village was surrounded by the Commissar and his men. He ran out of his hut and made for the woods. Bad luck, he was still in his soldier uniform, and they shot at him from all sides. He succeeded in reaching the nearest bushes, but he was exhausted and fell, rolling down the hill into a hollow. His pursuers must have thought him dead. Late in the night he stole back to the village, but he did not go to his people; a friendly neighbor hid him in his house. The next day he put on peasant clothes, and all spring and summer he helped his "old man" in the fields. Then he went back to the Army of his own accord: he wanted to serve the Revolution as long as the folks at home did not need him. But he was treated badly, food was scarce in his regiment, and he deserted again. "I would stay in the Army," he concluded, "but I can't see the old people starve to death."
"Are you not afraid to talk so freely?" I warned him.
"Oh, who cares!" he laughed. "Let 'em shoot me. Am I a dog to wear a muzzle on my snout?"
Three days later Prelide notified me at Sebezh of the arrival of a new group of emigrants. Hoping they might be the long expected political deportees from America, I hastened to the border. To our great disappointment the men proved to be war prisoners returning from England. There were 108 in the group, captured the previous year in the Archangel district and still clad in their Red Guard uniforms. Among them were also five Russian workers, who had for years resided in England and who were now deported under the Alien Act. They were in civilian attire, and Prehde immediately decided that they were "suspicious," and ordered them arrested as British spies. The deportees took the matter lightly, not realizing that it might mean a perfunctory field court-martial and immediate execution.
I had become friendly with Prehde, and grown to like his simplicity and sincerity. Entirely unsophisticated, he knows no consideration save his duty to the Revolution; his treatment of alleged counter-revolutionaries is no more severe than his personal asceticism. The taking of human life he considers a personal tragedy, a harsh ordeal his conscience is subjected to by revolutionary exigency. "It would be treachery to evade it," he had said to me.
I decided to appeal to him in behalf of the arrested civilians. They should be informed of the suspicion against them, I urged, and be given an opportunity to clear themselves. Prehde consented to let me talk with the men and promised to be guided by my impressions.
"Just walk a bit with them and examine them," he directed.
"Out here in the open?" I asked in surprise.
"Certainly. If they attempt to run, they are guilty. I'm a dead shot."
Half an hour's conversation with the "suspects" convinced me of their inoffensiveness. One of them, a half-witted young fellow, was deported from England as a public nuisance; another for refusing to pay his wife alimony; the third had been convicted of operating a gambling resort, and two were radical workingmen arrested at a Bolshevik meeting in Edinburgh. Prehde agreed to put them in my care till I returned to Petrograd, where they could be further examined and proper disposition made of them.
From the British officers accompanying the war prisoners I learned that no politicals had been deported from the United States since the Buford group. The Major in charge of the convoy is American born; his assistant, a lieutenant, a Russian Jew from Petrograd. Both asserted that Europe is tired of war, and they spoke sympathetically of the Soviet Republic. "It ought to be given a fair chance," the Major said.
I wired to Tchicherin about the arrival of the second group and the certainty that no American deportees are en route. At the same time I informed him that I would use Sanitary Train 81, the only one remaining on the border, to take the men to Petrograd.
By long distance telephone and by telegram came Tchicherin's order to "wait till the Foreign Office learns the date of arrival of the American emigrants." We had already spent over a week on the border, and our provisions were running low, Petrograd having supplied us with only three days' rations. What was to be done with over a hundred men, some of them ill? Feeling certain that Tchicherin was misinformed about the "American emigrants," I decided to ignore directions from "the center" and return to Petrograd.
But the local officials resented such defiance of authority and refused to act, and we were compelled to remain. Two more days passed, the famished war prisoners grew threatening, and at last the authorities consented to permit our train to depart.
Returning with Karus and Ethel that evening from the village to make final preparations for leaving, we were surprised not to find our train at the station. For hours we searched in every direction till a passing soldier informed us that heavy firing had been heard on the border, and as a precaution our white-painted train was moved out of range.
The night was pitch black. Leaving Ethel on the station platform I walked along the railroad track till I stumbled against a wall of cars. Someone hailed me and I recognized the voice of Karus. He lit his portable lamp and we tried to enter a car, but the doors were locked and sealed. Suddenly we felt the air hissing, and bullets began to pelt about us. "They are shooting at my light," Karus cried, throwing his lamp down. We slowly followed the tracks till we came to a car emitting sounds of snoring, and we entered.
The smell of unclean human bodies hung heavily in the heated air, assailing us with suffocating force. We felt our way in the darkness along the aisle between double rows of booted feet when a gruff voice shouted:
"Dezhurney (sentinel), who's there?"
From one of the benches a soldier rose, fully clad and with gun in hand.
"Who goes there?" he challenged sleepily.
"How dare you let anyone into this car, you scoundrel, you!" another shouted.
"They just came in, tovarishtch."
"You're a liar, you've been sleeping on duty." A string of curses poured forth upon the soldier, involving his mother and her alleged lovers in the picturesque vocabulary of the Russian oath.
The cursing voice sounded near. I saw a huge red star, five-pointed, with hammer and sickle in the center, pinned on the man's breast.
"Get out of here, you devils," the man shouted, "or I'll fill you full of lead."
"Easy, tovarishtch," Karus warned him, "and be a bit more polite."
"Get out!" the Commissar roared. "You don't know to whom you're talking. We're the boyevaia (fighting) Tcheka."
"There may be others such," Karus replied significantly. "We can't find our car and we'd like to pass the night here."
"But you can't remain here," the man remonstrated in a quieter tone, "we may be called for action any moment."
"My tovarishtch is from the Petro-Soviet," Karus declared, indicating me; "we can't remain in the open."
"Well, stay then." The Commissar yawned and stretched himself on the bench.
I called Ethel into the car. She looked cold and tired, and hardly able to stand. In the dark I felt for a vacant place, but everywhere my hands touched human bodies. The men snored to various tunes, some cursing in their sleep.
I heard Karus climb up to the second tier and a woman's angry voice, "Quit your pushing, devil." "Make room, you heifer," came from Karus, "fine fighting men these, with a car full of whores."
In a corner we found a bench piled with rifles, dishes, and old clothes. No sooner did we sit down than we became conscious of vermin crawling upon us. "I hope we don't catch typhus," Ethel whispered fearfully. In the distance guns were being fired; now and then shots sounded nearby. Outside on the tracks two men were quarreling.
"You leave my woman be," a drunken voice threatened.
"'Your woman!" the other sneered. "Why not mine?"
"I'll show you, you bastard son of your mother's lovers!" There came a dull thud, and all was quiet again.
Ethel shuddered. "If it were only daylight," she murmured. Her head fell heavily on my shoulder and she slept.
. . . . . .
March 27.---Arrived in Petrograd today. To my consternation I found the returned war prisoners still at the railroad station. No steps had been taken to quarter and feed them because they "were not expected" and no "orders" had yet come from Moscow.
. . . . . .
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