Chapter 36 : In the Far North
December, 1920.---Yaroslavl, an ancient city, is picturesque on the banks of the Volga. Very impressive are its cathedrals and monasteries, fine specimens of the architectural art of northeastern Russia of feudal times. But desolate is the sight of the many demolished buildings and churches. On the opposite side of the river the whole district is wrecked by artillery and fire. Dismal reminders of the harrowing days of June, 1918, when the counter-revolutionary insurrection led by Savinkov, once famous terrorist, was crushed. More than a third of the city was destroyed, its population reduced by half.
The shadow of that tragedy broods darkly over Yaroslavl. The hand laid upon the rebels was so heavy, its imprint is still felt. The people are cowed, terrified at the very mention of the ghastly days of June.
Through Vologda we reach Archangel, at the mouth of the Northern Dvina, almost within the Arctic Circle. The city is situated on the right bank, separated from the railroad station by the river which we cross on foot. The ice is dotted with peasant sleighs, some drawn by reindeer with huge, crooked antlers. The drivers are entirely wrapped in furs, only their narrow dark eyes and flat Lapland noses visible.
The streets are clean, the small frame houses well kept. "We have learned from the Occupation," Kulakov, Chairman of the Ispelkom, comments. He is a young man, tall, clean featured, and of quick intelligence. The Whites killed his entire family, including his young sister, but Kulakov has preserved his mental balance and humanity.
Comparative order prevails in the Soviet institutions. The long queues so characteristic of Bolshevik managements are almost entirely absent. The natives have acquired method and efficiency; "from the example of the Americans," they frankly admit. There is scarcity of provisions, but the pyock is more equitable, distribution more systematic than elsewhere. The Communists are the dominant factor, but they are encouraging the coöperation of the other elements of the population. Experience has taught them to economize human life. Many former White officers are employed, even in responsible positions. Their services are very satisfactory, I am told; particularly in the schools they are of help. Even monks and nuns have been given opportunity to serve the people. Some art workshops are managed by former inmates of monasteries, still in their religious garb, sewing and embroidering for the children and instructing them in the art.
The orphan homes and asylums we have visited, unannounced, are clean and tidy, the inmates warmly dressed and of healthy appearance, their relations with the teachers very harmonious, even affectionate.
Speculation in food has entirely ceased. The old market place is almost deserted; only small articles of apparel are offered for sale. The distributing Soviet centers still have some of the provisions, mostly canned goods, left by the American Mission, which is remembered with respect, almost with regret. But considerable sentiment is felt against the English, who are charged with political partizanship in the civil struggle of the North. The story is told of the destruction of huge supplies, sunk in the Dvina in the very sight of the starved population, by order of General Rollins, who was in charge of the British evacuation.
The cordial coöperation of Kulakov and other Communist officials has enabled us to collect valuable material on the history of the Provisional Government of the Northern District. A pitiful picture it presents of Tchaikovsky, once the "grandfather of the Russian Revolution." Forswearing his glorious past, he served as the vassal of Kolchak, whom he servilely acknowledged as the "Supreme Ruler of Russia." So impotent, however, was the rôle of Tchaikovsky that his régime is contemptuously referred to as the "Government of Miller," the commander-in-chief of the counter-revolutionary forces which escaped to Norway soon after the British evacuation.
Though comprising but a small part of the population, the workers of Archangel (about 3,000 out of a total of 50,000) have played a decisive part in the history of the city and district. In the union gatherings I have come in touch with intelligent proletarian groups whose independence and self-reliance is the key to the local situation. Far from "the center" and small in number, the Bolsheviki are vitally dependent on the labor element in the management of affairs. Party dictatorship has been mitigated by the actual participation of the toilers. Their influence is restraining and salutary.
Betchin, the Chairman of the Union Soviet, personifies the history and spirit of the whole revolutionary epoch. Tall and stockily built, of plain speech and convincing honesty, he is typical of the Northern worker. In his person the Provisional Government had sought to suppress the rebellious element of the Archangel proletariat. Popular labor man and member of the local Duma, Betchin was indicted for treason. The central figure of the celebrated trial known by his name, he was condemned to a living death in the terrible prison at Iokange in the frozen North. But his conviction served to consolidate the wavering ranks against the Provisional Government; his name became the slogan of the united opposition. Its rising waves drove the Allies from Archangel and Murmansk, and abolished Tchaikovsky's régime.
With much difficulty I persuaded the modest Betchin to donate his picture and autobiographic sketch to the "revolutionary gallery" of the Museum. His friends informed me that upon his return to prison he insisted that his portraits be removed from the union headquarters. In appreciation of our mission he presented us with the old crimson banner of the Soviet, battle-scarred in numerous campaigns.
"We are working in harmony with the several factions in the unions," Betchin said. "The welfare of the people is our sole aim, and on that platform we can all agree, whatever our political predilections."
With a smile of indulgent reminiscence he admitted his former adherence to the Social-Democrats. "But we have no more Mensheviki here," he hastened to add; "we all joined the Bolsheviki long ago."
"The comrade from the center probably doesn't know how it happened," his assistant remarked. "Revolutionary life sometimes plays curious pranks. You see," he continued, "word had reached us that the Mensheviki and S. R.'s in Moscow had gone over to the Bolsheviki. We decided to do the same. That's how we happen to be Communists now. But the report later proved false," he concluded with a touch of disappointment.
"We have never regretted it," Betchin said soberly.
There is no direct railroad line between Archangel and Murmansk, and we are compelled to make the long journey back to Vologda in order to reach the Coast. In Petrosavodsk we learn that owing to the unusually severe snowstorms the trip cannot be undertaken at present. It is Christmas Eve; before the end of the year we are pledged to return to Petrograd. To our great regret the journey further north must be abandoned.
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