For several days I had been watching the streams of humanity passing in and out of the district Soviet in the part of Russia where I was born. Six men comprised the personnel of this Soviet. I say men but in reality they were only youths, ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-five. They were all peasants from the villages in the district; one, the secretary, from my own old village. They were trained for their work in the Red Army and in the schools that devote themselves to preparing administrators for the thousands and thousands of villages scattered over the vast territories of the Soviet Republics.
Unlike officials in the old days, these youths wore no uniforms. They were dressed like the folk whom they served, save that none of them wore lapti (bark-sandals), and they were all clean-shaven at the beginning of the week. One shave a week is the prevailing custom in Russia. They were earnest youths. That was evident enough from the manner in which they received callers and listened to their complaints. There was scarcely a suggestion of the official in their behavior, scarcely a note of the bureaucratic callousness that I had observed in so many Soviets in the Russian cities. At times they were impatient and spoke bluntly, dep-recatingly. But then, who wouldn’t lose his temper with muzhiks so self-assertive now, so demanding, that they often yelled defiance of unfavorable rulings and sought with all manner of tricks and subterfuges to annul or evade them?
I was especially impressed with the chairman of the Soviet, the oldest of its six members and the most active.
He was short, stocky, with shaven head and flashing blue eyes. What a stupendous burden he had to shoulder! Was there a problem in the whole range of peasant experience that he was not pressed to face? Peasants came to him from far and near with their worries and perplexities, seeking aid, guidance, succor. Did a peasant steal apples from a neighbor? Did a man beat his wife? Was a son neglectful of his father or mother? Did a boy wrong a girl? Was there a dispute between two neighbors over road rights, water rights, pasture rights? Did a girl object to marrying the man her father chose for her as a husband? Did someone discover a neighbor’s pig or cow in his field or garden? Was a peasant too poor to pay his tax or to buy wood? Was he without a cow or without a horse, without a plow, without a wagon? Did a fire destroy his home or his barn? They all came to him for counsel, for help, for restitution, aye, even for vengeance; and they demanded satisfaction, heatedly—even rudely.
Yet oddly enough there was scarcely a peasant with whom I talked but regarded this desperately earnest chairman and his desperately zealous associates as the enfants terribles of the district, of all Russia. The violent denunciations that I had heard in my own and in neighboring villages were hurled mainly against them. True, they were the government of the district, and government has always meant something spiteful and dastardly to the muzhik—judges, police, prosecutors, tax-collectors—people who continually pestered you with edicts, repressions, fines, jail sentences. But these youths were themselves peasants from villages in the district. There was nothing haughty in their demeanor. They were insistent on the observance of the new laws of the land, but they always offered lengthy explanations for this insistence. They talked to callers with a frankness, a warmth, a friendliness, that should have stirred trust, affection, respect; and instead there was this flaming bitterness!
And then i thought of the peasant’s tempestuous complaints as i had heard them in his home, in the field, at roadways, mass-meetings; and I had to confess that there was grim substance in his words. The facts were patent enough. The peasant was in straits. He could afford no boots, no herring, often he had to do without iron, without nails. I recalled some of the poignant expressions I had heard at a memorable mass-meeting in my own village on the first Sunday I was there. “And now if you are sick, you can buy no sugar and no white bread and no ginger snaps and you die like a horse. . . . There is no place to earn an extra copeck as in the old days, no more landlords and no more lumbermen. . . . If your horse dies, you might as well die. . . . Half a crop of rye for one beastly pair of shoes. . . . Girls cannot buy ribbons any more, and they are not as pretty and cannot get married as easily as they used to. . . .” No end of complaints, bitter and overwhelming.
Nor was there any denying of the stupid blunders of the Soviet. The blacksmith shop in my own old village was shut and peasants had to waste precious hours and days in travel to other villages to get their repairs done, all because the blacksmith could not pay the tax that had been levied on him. In one village a windmill had been taken down again because the owner could not meet the tax the Soviet had imposed on him in complete disregard of the petition of the people in the village to lighten the tax and thus save the windmill. Small things these may seem to the student of world-affairs. But to the peasants in the district they loomed as colossal wrongs, as the most momentous events in their life.
And then i thought of my visit to batiushka (little father) Timofey, the priest of the district. He was old, feeble, helpless, his land and orchard confiscated and nationalized, and now for good measure was being driven from his house. Legally the Soviets may have been right. In the past the little father may from their standpoint have been an enemy of the people. The house he occupied may or may not have been the sole property of the state. But now he was too helpless to injure a corpse and how could a government that posed as the defender of the poor and the lowly withhold mercy from a man of his age and in his distress? “What shall I do, what shall I do, my dear?” he whimpered as he unburdened himself to me, his large bloodshot eyes gleaming with tears. And even more heart-breaking was the fate of little father Grigory from the village of
T-, a father of nine children, the oldest only fourteen
and the youngest less than one year of age, who cried like a baby when he received word from the local Soviet that he was to vacate his house which would be turned into a school for the peasants. He had to throw himself at the mercy not of a Christian peasant but of a Jew in the village who had agreed to let him occupy half of his two room house. . . . The irony of a Russian priest seeking shelter in the home of a Jew!
Here were instances of mismanagement, of wrong-doing, of severity. Who was to blame? The peasant with his innate bent for personalizing issues and events and conditions fixed the guilt on the chairman of the local Soviet and his associates. To him they represented the power that was holding in its hand the destiny of the nation, his destiny, and that was the source of all his ills. He did not realize that they were mere agents of a higher power, vested with authority not to make but to enforce laws which had their origin in the all-powerful executive committee of the Communist Party or the all-Russian Soviet. He felt the pinch of adversity and he shrieked with desperation.
To me, however, who or what was the cause of the existing shortcomings was of minor import. What chiefly interested me was how these peasant youths, the rulers of the district, would explain the muzhik’s charges against them, what defence or justification they would offer for their severity with the priests and what was their outlook on life, on the world. They were after all a sample and a good one of Russia’s new leadership, lifted bodily out of the ranks of the peasantry. I had met them socially on several occasions at party mass-meetings, and I had observed their work in the Soviet. I had caught glimpses of their character and philosophy from casual chats with them and from observing their dealings with the folk that appeared before them. Staunch revolutionaries, daring men of action, they, were never stalled for an answer to questions put to them, never hesitated to resort to coercion when persuasion failed of its purpose. There was I felt a story in them, an epoch-mak~ ing tale of the rise of the peasant youth to power and position. What would they make of Russia and of the peasant, this deathless sphinx, so simple yet so subtle, so humble yet so untamed, so genial yet so tantalizing, who now and for years and years to come will constitute Russia’s chief problem and chief sorrow, whatever the government that is in power?
We had assembled one evening for a long, long chat in the office of the chairman of the Soviet, a stuffy dust-filled room, sodden with the smells of the crowds that packed it every day. A little lamp was burning on the bare table, casting a faint glow over the portraits of Lenine, Trotzky, Zinovyev, that hung on the walls with their hard eyes upon us as though they were there in their spirits to whisper the proper words to their devoted disciples. We were sitting on the hard benches, smoking my American “camels,” eating fruit and talking. Youths that they were, they could not conceal their exultant feeling of self-importance at the opportunity to talk themselves out to an American journalist. It was an adventure to them, cut off as they were from the big outside world by the endless stretches of swamp, field and forest. They pelted me with questions as to what I had heard and what I had observed in the villages, and what I thought of the Soviet and of the Communist party? They seemed as eager to hear me, as I was to hear them. But I had little to say, save to unfold before them the state of mind of the peasants, as it had been revealed to me in my daily contacts with them in my own and in neighboring villages.
I began with the priest, batiushka Timofey. But they only laughed at the solicitude I showed for the batiushha’s misfortunes. They wondered why I even bothered to see him? Such an insignificant person he was in their eyes, worthy, of no attention and no consideration. He was having a hard time? Well, he was not the only one in Russia. He was a kind man? Well, so had been that other bandit-batiushka, Nikolai Romanov, the former Czar. He never had murdered anyone openly, had he? Upon occasions he even gave elaborate feasts to the poor of the land. Should they, revolutionaries, therefore, bow to him? An, these batiushkas! These miserable creatures! God and Christ were merely weapons in their hands to maul the dark-minded muzhik into subjection, to keep him in awe of the Czar and the pomieshtchiks and the gendarmes. . . . They pleaded for mercy now? And where was their mercy when others pleaded for it? What mercy had they ever shown to the muzhik or to anyone when they, were in the saddle? Had not they again and again turned revolutionaries over to the police, the gendarmes, the jailors? No, they, revolutionaries, could have no sympathy for creatures like that. They could run their churches, if they wished, nobody would interfere. If the peasants wanted to attend services, well and good, it was their affair. But the time was not far away when there would be no little fathers in Russia. Even the older peasants had begun to distrust them. They were a nuisance anyway with their prattle of sin and forgiveness and a hereafter. . . . Russia needed no church and no priests and no religion, and the sooner she rid herself of these the happier folk would be. . . . Blasphemous words? The audacity of youth, peasant youth at that, in speaking so disrespectfully of institutions that humanity had for so long been revering! But then—it is part of the new Russian creed, this assault on the church and religion.
“Don’t you really believe in God?” I interrupted the impassioned chairman.
“Do you?” he fired back.
There was no use arguing the question. There is never any use arguing religion with Russian revolutionaries, especially communists. It was hate, of course, engendered by the practices of the Orthodox church in the old days, that governed these youths in their stern treatment of the clergy. Even an old man like little father Timofey and a good man, modest and kindly, and now decrepit and cast adrift on a wave of adversity in a world poor, ruined and unfriendly, was to them not a beaten man, suffocating in the clutch of distress and deserving of succor, but a batiushka, a little father, still a symbol of the tyranny the old church represented to them.
We shifted the discussion to the most tempestuous problem in Russia, the dissatisfaction of the peasant. They all assured me that they, knew his predicament only too well. They knew he had grown bitter. They had been hearing his complaints every day since they had been serving in the Soviet. They were themselves peasants and nobody could keep anything from them. They knew their people, very well, indeed, too well. But—
“Listen, citizen,” remarked the “baby” of the Soviet, a youth of not more than eighteen, “you must not pay too much heed to everything our peasant says. He is a habitual grumbler anyway, and he loves to exaggerate his misfortunes. Steal an apple from him and he’ll say you have ruined him. That’s his nature.”
“Da (yes),” echoed the secretary, a slender youth, tall and gawky, with blond hair, sparkling eyes, and a deep voice, “the muzhik does love to exaggerate his troubles.
Take my, mother, for example. She is all the time complaining that she has no bread and is going to starve. Yet whenever I come home she always has bread and potatoes and gruel and sour milk, and even while we are eating she persists in assuring me that she is ruined and will die from hunger, from sheer hunger. Of course I laugh at her and tell her that she sets as good a table as she ever had in her life, and do you know what her reply is? ‘Wait until you come home next week—there won’t be a crumb of bread in the house.’ And when I come next week she has bread and potatoes and gruel and sour milk just as she had the week before, the month before, the year before,” and he chuckled with amusement.
“And look at my mother,” said another youth, freckled-faced, with reddish hair and a sharp girlish inflection in his voice, “she is all the time telling me that communists are the antichrists and that they are dragging Russia to destruction, and she keeps on prophesying that soon everything will collapse and everybody, will be dead. And once I asked her if she thought I was antichrist because I am a communist, and she said that if she thought I was she would drive me from the house with an oven-fork.” They laughed, all except the chairman, who seemed grave to a point of being taciturn. Perhaps he was too fatigued. He had had an arduous day, or perhaps he was seriously worried lest I, an American journalist, carry away unfavorable impressions. Still, when he began to speak, his features lighted up with the fervor of a man who feels the justice of his cause.
“I’ll admit,” he said, “that the muzhik is having no holiday. But who is, who excepting speculators and thieves? Look at my associates here in the Soviet. We barely get enough salary to live on. I could not buy a pair of boots if I wanted to, nor could any of the others here. We are still wearing our old army clothes and when these are gone-well—there is no use talking or worrying about what will happen then. And we work hard day and night. Again and again the secretary and I sit here over our papers until midnight and on Sundays, too. We have to. We are too poor to engage all the clerical help we need. But that is nothing. We do not complain about that. Somebody has to endure privation and self-denial if there is ever going to be a happy and cultured people in our land. Of course prices are high. Don’t we know it? Don’t we argue about it day and night and don’t we rack our minds to find a way of cutting them? We talk of high prices at all our conferences even more than of international policies. We are building co-operatives. We have severe laws against profiteering. We fine and jail speculators. We confiscate their property. Still we seem helpless most of the time. Of course we are fearfully backward industrially, and think of the destruction that has taken place in our land during the war and the Revolution! And then nobody wants to help us. You know they don’t. Take your America for example. Take your Ford, Henry Ford—”
At the mention of Ford’s name the other members broke in with all manner of questions. Ford is an idol of the Russian revolutionaries. To them he is the symbol of great industrial achievement, the superman in the field of engineering and finance and personal ambition.
“Why does not Ford sink a billion dollars, at least one billion in our industries?” asked the secretary of the Soviet.
“How many billions has he anyway?” asked the “baby.”
“I don’t know,” i replied.
“Do you think he is worth ten billions?” queried the “baby” again. I laughed. “More?”
But the taciturn chairman put an end to this bandying.
“The whole world hates us,” he resumed his explanation, “and we are ruined. Still we have enough bread to eat now. But our hands are tied. We are like a high-spirited horse, with his fore-feet fettered. He would like to run and gallop and jump over obstacles and fences, but the best he can do is just fret and stall along and move ahead in little steps. Yes, prices are high and so are taxes. But it is really only the well-to-do peasant who pays high taxes. The poor man hardly pays anything. Still even the poor man has no holiday with prices of everything coming from the city as high as they are. Da . . “ and he leaned over pointing his index finger at me, his face growing more and more suffused like a man who is overcome with a surging emotion, “we are flaying more than one skin off the muzhik (peasant). Yes we are, and we know it. But—” he hesitated as though at a loss for words, but soon recovered his speech and continued:
“But what else can we do ? We have to exist. We have an army to maintain, Soviets to support, schools, universities, children’s homes and other institutions to keep up, and the peasant is the only one in our land whose I ^dividual productive capacity has now reached a pre-war level. Somebody has got to bear the burden and we have heaped it largely on him for no reason other than that he is equal to it. As soon as our industries are restored we shall relieve him and with much joy. We are sick of his growling. If only your Ford would come and work with us for—say-five years—” and he smiled with elation.
“You see,” remarked the secretary of the Soviet, “if our muzhik was an enlightened man, he wouldn’t complain, any more than we do when we have to stay up nights and Sundays to finish our work. But he thinks only of himself, his own belly is all he is worried about.”
“Aye, that’s true enough,” the “baby” chimed in, “the muzhik, you know, would like to have the Soviet furnish him with boots and plows and salt and kerosene and everything else free and never demand a single copeck in taxes. Then he would be satisfied.”
“Right, right, comrade,” the secretary and his associates agreed, much to the satisfaction of the youth whose eyes glowed with pride and triumph.
“Da” resumed the chairman, “mistakes we have made. We are making them all the time, every day. But listen,” and he moved his bench closer as though to make sure I heard him well. “Do you know what is our most formidable difficulty? I don’t mean merely here in this district, but all over Russia, yes, even in the cities. No, it is not our economic break-down, nor the threat of a counter-revolution, though both weigh heavily upon us. It is the ideology of our people!” He paused and stared at me as if waiting for the full meaning of his words to sink into my mind. Ideology! A strong word I thought for a peasant to use, even though a flaming revolutionary.
“Do you know,” he ventured again, leaning his head close to mine, “that our people, especially the muzhik, have no notion of the difference between right and wrong?” Again he paused as if waiting for me to get the full significance of his remark.
“Yes, tovarishtsh” he pursued, “our muzhik is so elemental that he has not yet learned to distinguish between right and wrong. Of course, talk to him and he will say that it is we who violate every precept of justice. He says that we are people without honor, without reason, without conscience. No doubt you have heard him say that,” whereupon the secretary burst into a loud laugh in which he was joined by the others. But the chairman pointed a threatening finger at them. “This is nothing to laugh at, even though it does sound comical to you. It is rather a serious matter, because from his viewpoint, the muzhik is in a way right. Let’s not forget that. He understands right and wrong as these words were understood under the old regime, a regime of monarchists, plutocrats, scoundrels. And what was right in the old days? To get drunk, to bribe officials, to cheat your neighbor, to lie, to falsify reports to the government, to make obeisance to so-called superiors, kiss their hands, bow low before them, call them harin (lord), gospodin (mister), vashe vysochestvo (your highness). Yes, in the old days it was right to be dishonest with yourself, your neighbors, and especially with the government. Why, if a man had money he could buy himself out of service in the army, even out of going to war. If a man had money he did not have to pay taxes, not much at any rate, and he could violate laws whenever and wherever he pleased. Russia was rotten with personal immorality—”
Here the secretary interrupted quietly suggesting that the chairman tell me the story of the Russian official and the box on his desk, whereupon for the first time during the evening the chairman smiled.
“It is an old story, and may be you have heard it,” he pursued, “but it tells what manner of men the old officials were. Hardly one of them, so the story goes, but had a box on his desk and whenever a person came to see him, he appeared deeply absorbed in his reading and never lifted his eyes at the caller. Then the latter would drop a coin into the box, say a ten-copeck piece. The official would pay no heed and the caller would drop another coin, this time say a twenty-copeck piece. Still the official seemed unaware of the presence of the caller. But when the visitor had sense enough to drop a silver rouble or a gold piece into the box, the official would immediately rise, smile, bow, and ask suavely what the barin (lord) wanted? That was the kind of men with whom the muzhik came into daily contact in his relations with the government. He had been brought up to respect not law nor government, nor truth-telling but the bribe, which in old days was superior to law, superior to government, superior to everything. But we insist on obedience to our laws, which we have made in the interests of the poor man, and on respect for government and on truth-telling. Do you see now why the peasant accuses us of being derelict in our understanding of right and wrong?”
Again the secretary intruded.
“Have you observed,” he asked, “the old woman the other afternoon, the one that got down on her knees and tried to kiss the chairman’s hand?”
“Da,” resumed the chairman with eagerness and fervor, “have you observed that woman? She could not understand why I refused to sign her papers ordering her son-in-law off the land until the law had found him guilty, and had given me the right to sign such papers. She thought it was something that lay entirely in my hands, and she thought that by getting down on her knees and kissing my hand she could move me into granting her petition. Why, muzhiks keep on bringing me gifts all the time. Only yesterday as I was having breakfast in the morning, a bearded muzhik came to the house and offered me a big chunk of pork and a pot of butter—just a gift—he said, so that I would remember to be kind to him, whenever he had any, difficulties with the Soviet. That is the way he expressed himself. Not a fool is he, our muzhik? And do you know what I did? The pork and the butter I sent to the children’s home and the muzhik I sentenced to ten days’ jail.” He paused and stared intently at me as though seeking to ascertain whether I approved of his act.
“You may think,” he excitedly continued, “that that was severe punishment. Perhaps it was. But listen, supposing some vicious insect persisted in hovering about you trying to sting you and suck your blood, would not you try, to protect yourself? Supposing you came to a place where there was an epidemic of cholera, or typhoid, or small-pox, wonid not you try to keep from getting contaminated? And what shall I do when these kindly but terribly misguided muzhiks are continually striving to contaminate me and my associates with corruption which is worse than typhoid, worse than cholera, worse than small-pox? Shall I shut my eyes and let them drag us into the pool of filth and treachery in which the old-time officials fattened like scavengers? Listen, to-vaiishtsh, listen. When I first came here a muzhik once brought me a big flask of samohon (home-made vodka).
He said he had made it himself and it was the best vodka that had ever touched the lips of any man. Imagine that —using up precious rye in making samohon instead of saving it for a rainy day! That’s what they are all doing, these uncultured muzhiks, making samohon secretly, all the time. Well, I invited my visitor to come with me to the barn and he followed me thinking, I suppose, that we should both have a merry time. But when we got there, I asked him to set the flask on the floor and I took an axe and with the butt end smashed it into smithereens.”
The last words he uttered with such force that I seemed to hear the clinking sound of glass scattering over the floor.
“Do you know what I heard one muzhik call our chairman?” broke in the freckle-faced associate secretary, “hez-sovestny chelovek (a conscienceless man), just because he won’t take bribes and render favors in return?”
“Well,” pursued the chairman, “what can you do with people like that? Why do you suppose there is so much corruption in our Soviet government? Day after day we read in the Moscow papers of communists selling themselves, their communism, their proletarian conscience, for gold. Of course we shoot such traitors. But why should there be so many of them? I’ll tell you why. Because merchants and intelligentsia and speculators and thieves and scoundrels are all the time heaping temptation upon them, offering them bribes just as they did to officials in the old days to induce our men to make exceptions in their favor, which means, as you know, at someone else’s expense. Don’t forget that! And usually at the expense of the poor man, the man who cannot afford to offer a bribe and must depend for justice on the honesty of the Soviet official. Yes, tovarishtsh, it is our own people, the older generation bred in the vicious habits of the old regime, who are the source that pollutes the stream of our political and social life. Well, what shall we do with them? How shall we rid ourselves of them, for rid ourselves we must or perish.” He picked up his cigarette, but the light was out, and he placed it over the top of the lamp and puffed away until it caught fire.
“Da” he resumed, “often we have to nullify elections. The peasants complained to you about that, too, didn’t they? I, for example, was not elected, but was appointed to take the place of the man who was elected, because he was not tactful enough with the muzhiks. They had no regard for him, and he could do nothing with them. Of course the Mensheviki and the other counter-revolutionaries have been denouncing us for violating the will of the people. They, have been telling us that we are traitors and brigands and cut-throats, because often we do set aside the results of elections. Well, we don’t do as much of it now, as we did two, three years ago. We have got the peasant trained a bit. But there are times when we have to take things into our own hands, elections or no elections.” He paused a moment, shook his fist hard, and continued, “We have to keep out open enemies of the Soviets. Do you know the kind of man many a muzhik here would like to see in the Soviet? He is quite sly, this muzhik of ours! He would like to elect a man who would be easy with him, like a Czarist official, that is a man who would take bribes, go off on drunken sprees and for a sack of oats or a pot of cheese or load of hay set aside laws and scrap the Revolution. Many such a man has been elected to peasant Soviets. And can we allow it? Tell me, can we after we have shed so much blood to get into power? Why, we might as well cut our throats as permit thieves and harlots and drunkards to rule the Soviets.”
The passion and venom of the man! His hate of opponents! His implacable puritanism, his stern emphasis of sobriety and personal decency! A composite of strange contradictory attributes—a voice out of the Old Testament storming against the iniquities of his fellow-man, a Baza-rov out of Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” cynically insisting that all that matters in the world is that two and two make four, a Raskolnikov out of Dostoyevski’s “Crime and Punishment,” lightly brushing aside the human vermin in the path of his advancement. And a peasant at that! A new man on the Russian scene. Hate him as we will, curse him as we may, he is a new man, harsh and unforgiving, with a new creed, a new tyranny and though still unknown, unstudied, bids fair to become a subject of painstaking inquiry, to the psychologist, the historian, no less than the poet and the artist of the future.
However, we continued our discussion and nonchalantly I dropped a spark that caused a violent explosion. I ventured to suggest that one reason there was so much corruption in the Soviet government was because officials were not receiving decent salaries and they yielded to temptations. Human nature, I added tritely, was after all weak.
Had i pronounced Lenine the prize ruffian of the age I could not have goaded him into more fierce vehemence. He leaped to his feet and vigorously shook a threatening finger over his head.
“That’s what all bourgeois people are continually hammering at. Human nature—human nature! That rotten beastly bourgeois phrase! Human nature this and human nature that! All the plagued Mensheviki and Social Revolutionaries in the world have been hurling this bastard phrase at us! All the blackguards and brigands and counter-revolutionaries have all the time been yelping that human nature wants property, seeks to oppress the other fellow, loathes communism, loves capitalism. Such damned piffle! Tell me,” and he raised his clenched fists and brought them down on the table with such a whack that the windows rattled, “why is it as much against human nature to be honest as to be dishonest, to work for oneself, for one’s own swinish belly, as to work for the good of the proletarian and all poor mankind, to want to hog up all the good things in the world, as to allow the other fellow to get a taste of them? There was a time when human nature demanded that man have many wives, or that he keep his spouse locked in a terem (turret), as in landlord Russia in the days before Peter. There was a time when the human nature of our pomieshtchiks cried out that the peasant must be a serf, or else the sun will cease to shine, rain will cease to fall, grass will cease to grow. All that prattle of human nature being in the way, of this or that, is mere bourgeois nonsense, a kind of pepper, you know, to throw into the eyes of the proletarian and blind him to the truth. If human nature craves to be corrupt, then, we communists say, to the devil with it, and the man afflicted with such a nature is like a mad dog good only to be shot down and cleansed out. If human nature craves to exploit the other fellow and to choke him, then we say—let’s not talk love and brotherhood to its possessor but clap the fetters upon him. Human nature! There were many things in the old days, tovarishtsh, that were part of human nature, which are now vanished. Why cannot some of the things which are now part of it, be made to vanish? What is this infernal human nature anyway? Man lives in a certain society, is influenced by the surroundings which that society, provides for him and the result is certain wishes, aims, cravings which are labeled human nature. The peasant, for example, protests that he cannot stop drinking samohon. He says it is human nature to want to drink it. Why? Because he has been drinking it since days immemorial. In the old days the Czar and the pomieshtchiks and the capitalists surrounded man with vice, corruption, falsehood, and human nature, his nature, grew corrupt, vicious, false. We, communists, want to surround it with truth, honesty, love for the proletarian and the poor the world over, and in time human nature in this republic will adjust itself accordingly. In time, I say, when man in Russia chastens himself of the filth which had dribbled into his blood during his servitude under the old regime.”
Silence followed, the silence which comes when men are overcome with profound thought or emotion. The chairman now sat down at the table and nervously picked up his cigarette once more. It was out and again he placed it over the chimney of the lamp and held it there until it caught fire. The glow of his face was deepened by the heat of the lamp. Then he began to smoke in thoughtful silence. A wagon rumbled by the window and we could hear a muzhik swearing at his horse. From far away there came to our ears the singing of children, who had been parading the streets of the town. Presently the secretary caught my eye and smiled, and I understood the sensation of triumph which the smile expressed. The “baby” had his eyes fixed worshipfully on the chairman—a mighty hero to him, and perhaps never so mighty as now, when he had seemingly squelched an American correspondent.
I said nothing. i was not interested in debating the psychological or biological aspects of his statements. I was not there to dispute or persuade, but to listen and observe. Faulty the speaker’s logic may have been. Faulty also may have been his facts. But the moral suasion of the man was overpowering. He was no communist, just an awakened inflamed peasant. Alas, how little the outside world knows of the depth to which the Revolution has stirred humanity in Russia, all over, even in the remotest hamlet and in the lowliest thatch-hut!
Presently the chairman resumed:
“But we have not been neglecting our muzhik, and dark-minded man that he is he never thinks of the benefits the Soviets have conferred upon him. Of course he is in dire straits. But who is not in Russia that is honest and earns his living by his own labor? Still consider the things that we have achieved. Look at the other side of the shield. The Czar has been overthrown. The pomieshtchiks have been kicked out. The whip with which they had for centuries been lashing the muzhik has been broken and burned. That’s something, is not it? The land has been given away free to muzhiks, all excepting certain estates which have been turned into experimental farms and into schools. And, well, is not it something that the muzhik can talk and rail and curse the Soviets with impunity?” He shifted about in his seat with that nervous twitching of a man so full of talk that he hardly knows where to begin or is bereft of words to express his thoughts.
“And listen, listen,” he resumed after another prolonged pause, “in the old days no muzhik from this section could go to the university. The old gang did not want him in the university, and besides, how could he go, however gifted and desirous he might be, poor man that he was? It was a costly thing to study in the university in the old days. But now there are several boys from this district in the universities of Leningrad and Moscow, and there will be more of them in the future. In the old days there was not a single gymnasium in this whole district. There are four gymnasiums here now, and we shall open more in course of time. And we have been sending lecturers around to teach the peasant how to work his land profitably and to explain to him the origin of the world and of life and of the nature of electricity and of other similar subjects. We have opened theatres and clubhouses in many villages, in the houses of former pomieshtchiks and batiushkas. Only a short time ago our young communists in this little town gave a performance of Gorky’s ‘Children of the Sun,’ and you should have heard what even our enemies have been saying—they’d never seen anything like it in all their lives.
“And we are building playgrounds, too. We have only, one in this district at present, but give us time, tovarishtsh, and we shall build a school-house, a bath-house, a library, a theatre, a club-house in every village, and that is not all we want to do. We want to supply every muzhik with the latest agricultural machinery and with the best breeds of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, and fowl. We want him to live in a large, clean, comfortable home, with paved streets and cobbled highways, so that horses and wagons will no longer get mired in the spring as they now do, when the snow and ice melt. And we want to electrify the whole district, the whole country. That was the dream of Ilyistch, you know, and in time it shall become a reality. O no, don’t think that we are mere idle talkers like the Mensheviki and the Social Revolutionaries, who upon the approach of the least sign of danger scurry into hiding like rabbits. We are realists. We face facts. We do not shrivel in the face of danger. We give our lives gladly, when the cause demands it. But—we are fearfully handicapped. We are so poor and ruined, and we live in constant dread of another war with the Poles, the Rumanians, the British and the other nations who are still plotting against us, still seeking to draw the noose around our necks. . . .”
“Our Red Army is always ready though.” burst out the “baby” with enthusiasm. He was a typical Komsomolets (young communist) glowing with the sense of adventure which the Revolution had stirred in him.
“Now look,” the chairman pointed the finger at the portrait of Lenine. “There is our great Ilyistch. It all came from him, from his mind, this new system of Soviets. . . True, we are still far, very far from our ultimate aim. We have no communism in Russia, in the village hardly a sign of it. The peasant is a stiff-necked individualist, sodden with the passions of greed and selfishness. And the older peasants are hopeless. We never can change them. We have not given up trying but we might as well. They have lived too long under a regime of deceit and falsehood and self-aggrandizement. They are incorrigibly self-centered. But I’ll tell you, tovarishtsh, the youth will be with us. 0 yes, it will. Youth is unspoiled and responsive and enthusiastic, and youth has no fear of new ideas and new ventures, nay, welcomes them with open arms. It is the youth of the land that will build a revolutionary society. We are preparing them for it. We have our young communists and our young pioneers (boy and girl Scouts) all over the land even in the smallest hamlets. We are trying to instill a new consciousness and a new psychology in them. We want to kill that ugly thing—the wish to exploit the other fellow, to live just for oneself, for one’s own belly. We want them to grow up to live for each other, for the commune, for the world. No, tovarishtsh, I’ll be frank with you, we cannot hope to establish a communist society with the present generation. But—when they are gone, when our youth comes of age—well, come back and pay us another visit—there will be surprises in store for you in our now racked Russia.”
Alas, what a happy dreamer!