Chapter 27 : Further South
August 7, 1920.---Slowly our train creeps through the country, evidence of devastation on every hand reminding us of the long years of war, revolution, and civil strife. The towns and cities on our route look poverty-stricken, the stores are closed, the streets deserted. By degrees Soviet conditions are being established, the process progressing more rapidly in some places than in others.
In Poltava we find neither Soviet nor Ispolkom, the usual form of Bolshevik government. Instead, the city is ruled by the more primitive Revkom, the self-appointed revolutionary committee, active underground during White régimes, and taking charge whenever the Red Army occupies a district.
Krementchug and Znamenka present the familiar picture of the small southern town, with the little market place, still suffered by the Bolsheviki, the center of its commercial and social life. In uneven rows the peasant women sprawl on sacks of potatoes, or squat on their haunches, exchanging flour, rice, and beans for tobacco, soap, and salt. Soviet money is scorned, hardly any one accepting it, though tsarskiye are in demand and occasionally kerenki are favored.
The entire older population of the city seems to be in the market, everyone bargaining, selling, or buying. Soviet militsioneri, gun slung across the shoulder, circulate among the people, and here and there a man in leather coat and cap is conspicuous in the crowd --- a Communist or a Tchekist. The people seem to shun them, and conversation is subdued in their presence. Political questions are avoided, but lamentation over the "terrible situation" is universal, everyone complaining about the insufficiency of the pyock, the irregularity of its issue, and the general condition of starvation and misery.
More frequently we meet men and women of Jewish type, the look of the hunted in their eyes, and more dreadful become the stories of pogroms that had taken place in the neighborhood. Few young persons are visible --- these are in the Soviet institutions, working as the employes of the government. The young women we meet occasionally have a startled, frightened look, and many men bear ugly scars on their faces, as if from a saber or sword cut.
In Znamenka, Henry Alsberg, the American correspondent accompanying our Expedition, discovers the loss of his purse, containing a considerable amount of foreign money. Inquiries of the peasant women in the market place elicit only a shrewdly naïve smile, with the resentful exclamation, "How'd I know!" Visiting the local police station in the faint hope of advice or aid, we learn that the whole force has just been rushed off to the environs reported to be attacked by a company of Makhnovtsi.
Despairing of recovering our loss, we return to the railroad station. To our astonishment the Museum car is nowhere to be seen. In consternation we learn that it was coupled to a train that started for Kiev, via Fastov, an hour ago.
We realize the seriousness of our predicament in being stranded in a city without hotels or restaurants, and with no food to be purchased for Soviet money, the only kind in our possession. While discussing the situation we observe a military supply train in slow motion on a distant siding. We dash forward and succeed in boarding it at the cost of a few scratches. The commissar in charge at first strenuously objects to our presence, at no pains to hide the suspicions aroused by our sudden appearance. It requires considerable argument and much demonstration of official documents before the bureaucrat is mollified. Over a cup of tea he begins to thaw out, the primitive hospitality of the Russian helping to establish friendly relations. Before long we are deep in the discussion of the Revolution and current problems. Our host is a Communist "from the masses," as he terms it. He is a great admirer of Trotsky and his "iron broom" methods. Revolution can conquer only by the generous use of the sword, he believes; morality and sentiment are bourgeois superstitions. His conception of Socialism is puerile, his information about the world at large, of the scantiest. His arguments echo the familiar editorials of the official press; he is confident the whole of Western Europe is soon to be aflame with revolution. The Red Army is even now before the gates of Warsaw, he asserts, about to enter and to assure the triumph of the Polish proletariat risen against its masters.
Late in the afternoon we reach Fastov, and are warmly welcomed by our colleagues of the Expedition, who had spent anxious hours over our disappearance.
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