Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia (1925)
Arriving in Kharkov, I visited the Anarchist book store, the address of which I had secured in Moscow. There I met many friends whom I had known in America. Among them were Joseph and Leah Goodman, formerly from Detroit; Fanny Baron, from Chicago, and Sam Fleshin who had worked in the Mother Earth office in New York, in 1917, before he left for Russia. With thousands of other exiles they had all hastened to their native country at the first news of the Revolution, and they had been in the thick of it ever since. They would have much to tell me, I thought; they might help me to solve some of the problems that were perplexing me.
Kharkov lay several miles away from the railroad station, and it would have therefore been impractical to continue living in the car during our stay in the city. The Museum credentials would secure quarters for us, but several members of the Expedition preferred to stay with their American friends. Through the help of one of our comrades, who was commandant of an apartment house, I secured a room.
It had been quite warm in Moscow, but Kharkov proved a veritable furnace, reminding me of New York in July. Sanitary and plumbing arrangements had been neglected or destroyed, and water had to be carried from a place several blocks distant up three flights of stairs. Still it was a comfort to have a private room.
The city was alive. The streets were full of people and they looked better fed and dressed than the population of Petrograd and Moscow. The women were handsomer than in northern Russia; the men of a finer type. It was rather odd to see beautiful women, wearing evening gowns in the daytime, walk about barefoot or clad in wooden sandals without stockings. The coloured kerchiefs most of them had on lent life and colour to the streets, giving them a cheerful appearance which contrasted favourably with the gray tones of Petrograd.
My first official visit was paid to the Department of Education. I found a long line of people waiting admission, but the Museum credentials immediately opened the doors, the chairman receiving me most cordially. He listened attentively to my explanation of the purposes of the Expedition and promised to give me an opportunity to collect all the available material in his department, including the newly prepared charts of its work. On the chairman's desk I noticed a copy of such a chart, looking like a futurist picture, all lined and dotted with red, blue, and purple. Noticing my puzzled expression the chairman explained that the red indicated the various phases of the educational system, the other colours representing literature, drama, music, and the plastic arts. Each department was subdivided into bureaus embracing every branch of the educational and cultural work of the Socialist Republic.
Concerning the system of education the chairman stated that from three to eight years of age the child attended the kindergarten or children's home. War orphans from the south, children of Red Army soldiers and of proletarians in general received preference. If vacancies remained, children of the bourgeoisie were also accepted. From eight to thirteen the children attended the intermediary schools where they received elementary education which inculcates the general idea of the political and economic structure of R.S.F.S.R. Modern methods of instruction by means of technical apparatus, so far as the latter could be secured, had been introduced. The children were taught processes of production as well as natural sciences. The period from twelve to seventeen embraced vocational training. There were also higher institutions of learning for young people who showed special ability and inclination. Besides this, summer schools and colonies had been established where instruction was given in the open. All children belonging to the Soviet Republic were fed, clothed, and housed at the expense of the Government. The scheme of education also embraced workers' colleges and evening courses for adults of both sexes. Here also everything was supplied to the pupils free, even special rations. For further particulars the chairman referred me to the literature of his department and advised me to study the plan in operation. The educational work was much handicapped by the blockade and counterrevolutionary attempts; else Russia would demonstrate to the world what the Socialist Republic could do in the way of popular enlightenment. They lacked even the most elemental necessaries, such as paper, pencils, and books. In the winter most of the schools had to be closed for lack of fuel. The cruelty and infamy of the blockade was nowhere more apparent and crying than in its effect upon the sick and the children. "It is the blackest crime of the century," the chairman concluded. It was agreed that I return within a week to receive the material for our collection. In the Social Welfare Department I also found a very competent man in charge. He became much interested in the work of the Expedition and promised to collect the necessary material for us, though he could not offer very much because his department had but recently been organized. Its work was to look after the disabled and sick proletarians and those of old age exempt from labour. They were given certain rations in food and clothing; in case they were employed they received also a certain amount of money, about half of their earnings. Besides that the Department was supporting living quarters and dining rooms for its charges.
In the corridor leading to the various offices of the Department there were lines of emaciated and crippled figures, men and women, waiting for their turn to receive aid. They looked like war veterans awaiting their pittance in the form of rations; they reminded me of the decrepit unemployed standing in line in the Salvation Army quarters in America. One woman in particular attracted my attention. She was angry and excited and she complained loudly. Her husband had been dead two days and she was trying to obtain a permit for a coffin. She had been in line ever since but could procure no order. "What am I to do?" she wailed; "I cannot carry him on my own back or bury him without a coffin, and I cannot keep him in my room much longer in this heat." The woman's lament remained unanswered for everyone was absorbed in his own troubles. Sick and disabled workers are thrown everywhere on the scrap pile -- I thought -- but in Russia an effort is being made to prevent such cruelty. Yet judging from what I saw in Kharkov I felt that not much was being accomplished. It was a most depressing picture, that long waiting line. I felt as if it was adding insult to injury.
I visited a house where the social derelicts lived. It was fairly well kept, but breathing the spirit of cold institutionalism. It was, of course, better than sleeping in the streets or lying all night in the doorways, as the sick and poor are often compelled to do in capitalist countries, in America, for instance. Still it seemed incongruous that something more cheerful and inviting could not be devised in Soviet Russia for those who had sacrificed their health and had given their labour to the common good. But apparently it was the best that the Social Welfare Department could do in the present condition of Russia.
In the evening our American friends visited us. Each of them had a rich experience of struggle, suffering, and persecution and I was surprised to learn that most of them had also been imprisoned by the Bolsheviki. They had endured much for the sake of their ideas and had been hounded by every government of Ukraina, there having been fourteen political changes in some parts of the south during the last two years. The Communists were no different: they also persecuted the Anarchists as well as other revolutionists of the Left. Still the Anarchists continued their work. Their faith in the Revolution, in spite of all they endured, and even in the face of the worst reaction, was truly sublime. They agreed that the possibilities of the masses during the first months after the October Revolution were very great, but expressed the opinion that revolutionary development had been checked, and gradually entirely paralysed, by the deadening effect of the Communist State.
In the Ukraina, they explained, the situation differed from that of Russia, because the peasants lived in comparatively better material conditions. They had also retained greater independence and more of a rebellious spirit. For these reasons the Bolsheviki had failed to subdue the south.
Our visitors spoke of Makhno as a heroic popular figure, and related his daring exploits and the legends the peasants had woven about his personality. There was considerable difference of opinion, however, among the Anarchists concerning the significance of the Makhno movement. Some regarded it as expressive of Anarchism and believed that the Anarchists should devote all their energies to it. Others held that the povstantsi represented the native rebellious spirit of the southern peasants, but that their movement was not Anarchism, though anarchistically tinged. They were not in favour of limiting themselves to that movement; they believed their work should be of a more embracing and universal character. Several of our friends took an entirely different position, denying to the Makhno movement any anarchist meaning whatever.
Most enthusiastic about Makhno and emphatic about the Anarchist value of that movement was Joseph, known as the "Emigrant" -- the very last man one would have expected to wax warm over a military organization. Joseph was as mild and gentle as a girl. In America he had participated in the Anarchist and Labour movements in a quiet and unassuming manner, and very few knew the true worth of the man. Since his return to Russia he had been in the thick of the struggle. He had spent much time with Makhno and had learned to love and admire him for his revolutionary devotion and courage. Joseph related an interesting experience of his first visit to the peasant leader. When he arrived the povstantsi for some reason conceived the notion that he had come to harm their chief. One of Makhno's closest friends claimed that Joseph, being a Jew, must also be an emissary of the Bolsheviki sent to kill Makhno. When he saw how attached Makhno became to Joseph, he decided to kill "the Jew." Fortunately he first warned his leader, whereupon Makhno called his men together and addressed them somewhat in this manner: "Joseph is a Jew and an idealist; he is an Anarchist. I consider him my comrade and friend and I shall hold everyone responsible for his safety." Idolized by his army, Makhno's word was enough: Joseph became the trusted friend of the povstantsi. They believed in him because their batka [father] had faith in him, and Joseph in return became deeply devoted to them. Now he insisted that he must return to the rebel camp: they were heroic people, simple, brave, and devoted to the cause of liberty. He was planning to join Makhno again. Yet I could not free myself of the feeling that if Joseph went back I should never see him alive any more. He seemed to me like one of those characters in Zola's "Germinal" who loves every living thing and yet is able to resort to dynamite for the sake of the striking miners.
I expressed the view to my friends that, important as the Makhno movement might be, it was of a purely military nature and could not, therefore, be expressive of the Anarchist spirit. I was sorry to see Joseph return to the Makhno camp, for his work for the Anarchist movement in Russia could be of much greater value. But he was determined, and I felt that it was Joseph's despair at the reactionary tendencies of the Bolsheviki which drove him, as it did so many others of his comrades, away from the Communists and into the ranks of Makhno.
During our stay in Kharkov I also visited the Department of Labour Distribution, which had come into existence since the militarization of labour. According to the Bolsheviki it became necessary then to return the workers from the villages to which they had streamed from the starving cities. They had to be registered and classified according to trades and distributed to points where their services were most needed. In the carrying out of this plan many people were daily rounded up on the streets and in the market place. Together with the large numbers arrested as speculators or for possession of Tsarist money, they were put on the list of the Labour Distribution Department. Some were sent to the Donetz Basin, while the weaker ones went on to concentration camps. The Communists justified this system and method as necessary during a revolutionary period in order to build up the industries. Everybody must work in Russia, they said, or be forced to work. They claimed that the industrial output had increased since the introduction of the compulsory labour law.
I had occasion to discuss these matters with many Communists and I doubted the efficacy of the new policy.
One evening a woman called at my room and introduced herself as the former owner of the apartment. Since all the houses had been nationalized she was allowed to keep three rooms, the rest of her apartment having been put in charge of the House Bureau. Her family consisted of eight members, including her parents and a married daughter with her family. It was almost impossible to crowd all into three rooms, especially considering the terrific heat of the Kharkov summer; yet somehow they had managed. But two weeks prior to our arrival in Kharkov Zinoviev visited the city. At a public meeting he declared that the bourgeoisie of the city looked too well fed and dressed., "It proves," he said, "that the comrades and especially the Tcheka are neglecting their duty." No sooner had Zinoviev departed than wholesale arrests and night raids began. Confiscation became the order of the day. Her apartment, the woman related, had also been visited and most of her effects taken away. But worst of all was that the Tcheka ordered her to vacate one of the rooms, and now the whole family was crowded into two small rooms. She was much worried lest a member of the Tcheka or a Red Army man be assigned to the vacant room. "We felt much relieved," she said, ",when we were informed that someone from America was to occupy this room. We wish you would remain here for a long time."
Till then I had not come in personal contact with the members of the expropriated bourgeoisie who had actually been made to suffer by the Revolution. The few middle-class families I had met lived well, which was a source of surprise to me. Thus in Petrograd a certain chemist I had become acquainted with in Shatov's house lived in a very expensive way. The Soviet authorities permitted him to operate his factory, and he supplied the Government with chemicals at a cost much less than the Government could manufacture them at. He paid his workers comparatively high wages and provided them with rations. On a certain occasion I was invited to dinner by the chemist's family. I found them living in a luxurious apartment, containing many valuable objects and art treasures. My hostess, the chemist's wife, was expensively gowned and wore a costly necklace. Dinner consisted of several courses and was served in an extravagant manner with exquisite damask linen in abundance. It must have cost several hundred thousand rubles, which in 1920 was a small fortune in Russia. The astonishing thing to me was that almost everybody m Petrograd knew the chemist and was familiar with his mode of life. But I was informed that he was needed by the Soviet Government and that he was therefore permitted to live as he pleased. Once I expressed my surprise to him that the Bolsheviki had not confiscated his wealth. He assured me that he was not the only one of the bourgeoisie who had retained his former condition. "The bourgeoisie is by no means dead, he said; "it has only been chloroformed for a while, so to speak, for the painful operation. But it is already recovering from the effect of the anesthetic and soon it will have recuperated entirely. It only needs a little more time." The woman who visited me in the Kharkov room had not managed so well as the Petrograd chemost. She was a part of the wreckage left by the revolutionary storm that had swept over Russia.
During my stay in the Ukrainian capital I met some interesting people of the professional classes, among them an engineer who had just returned from the Donetz Basin and a woman employed in a Soviet Bureau. Both were cultured persons and keenly alive to the fate of Russia. We discussed the Zinoviev visit. They corroborated the story told me before. Zinoviev had upbraided his comrades for their laxity toward the bourgeoisie and criticized them for not suppressing trade. Immediately upon Zinoviev's departure the Tcheka began indiscriminate raids, the members of the bourgeoisie losing on that occasion almost the last things they possessed. The most tragic part of it, according to the engineer, was that the workers did not benefit by such raids. No one knew what became of the things confiscated they just disappeared. Both the engineer and the woman Soviet employee spoke with much concern about the general disintegration of ideas. The Russians once believed, the woman said, that hovels and palaces were equally wrong and should be abolished. It never occurred to them that the purpose of a revolution is merely to cause a transfer of possessions to put the rich into the hovels and the poor into the palaces. It was not true that the workers have gotten into the palaces. They were only made to believe that that is the function of a revolution. In reality, the masses remained where they had been before. But now they were not alone there: they were in the company of the classes they meant to destroy.
The civil engineer had been sent by the Soviet Government to the Donetz Basin to build homes for the workers, and I was glad of the opportunity to learn from him about the conditions there. The Communist press was publishing glowing accounts about the intensive coal production of the Basin, and official calculations claimed that the country would be provided with sufficient coal for the approaching winter. In reality, the Donetz mines were in a most deplorable state, the engineer informed me. The miners were herded like cattle. They received abominable rations, were almost barefoot, and were forced to work standing in water up to their ankles. As a result of such conditions very little coal was being produced. "I was one of a committee ordered to investigate the situation and report our findings," said the engineer. "Our report is far from favourable. We know that it is dangerous to relate the facts as we found them: it may land us in the Tcheka. But we decided that Moscow must face the facts. The system of political Commissars, general Bolshevik inefficiency, and the paralysing effect of the State machinery have made our constructive work in the Basin almost impossible. It was a dismal failure."
Could such a condition of affairs be avoided in a revolutionary period and in a country so little developed industrially as Russia? I questioned. The Revolution was being attacked by the bourgeoisie within and without; there was compelling need of defence and no energies remained for constructive work. The engineer scorned my viewpoint. The Russian bourgeoisie was weak and could offer practically no resistance, he claimed. It was numerically insignificant and it suffered from a sick conscience. There was neither need nor justification for Bolshevik terrorism and it was mainly the latter that paralysed the constructive efforts. Middle-class intellectuals had been active for many years in the liberal and revolutionary movements of Russia, and thus the members of the bourgeoisie had become closer to the masses. When the great day arrived the bourgeoisie, caught unawares, preferred to give up rather than to put up a fight. It was stunned by the Revolution more than any other class in Russia. It was quite unprepared and has not gotten its bearings even to this day. It was not true, as the Bolsheviki claimed, that the Russian bourgeoisie was an active menace to the Revolution.
I had been advised to see the Chief of the Department of Workers' and Peasants' Inspection, the position being held by a woman, formerly an officer of the Tcheka, reputed to be very severe, even cruel, but efficient. She could supply me with much valuable material, I was told, and give me entrance to the prisons and concentration camps. On my visiting the Workers' and Peasants Inspection offices I found the lady in charge not at all cordial at first. She ignored my credentials, apparently not impressed by Zinoviev's signature. Presently a man stepped out from an inner office. He proved to be Dibenko, a high Red Army officer, and he informed me that he had heard of me from Alexandra Kollontay, whom he referred to as his wife. He promised that I should get all available material and asked me to return later in the day. When I called again I found the lady much more amiable and willing to give me information about the activities of her department. It appeared that the latter had been organized to fight growing sabotage and graft. It was part of the duties of the Tcheka, but it was found necessary to create the new department for the inspection and correction of abuses. "It is the tribunal to which cases may be appealed," said the woman; "just now, for instance, we are investigating complaints of prisoners who had been wrongly convicted or received excessive sentences." She promised to secure for us permission to inspect the penal institutions and several days later several members of the Expedition were given the opportunity.
First we visited the main concentration camp of Kharkov. We found a number of prisoners working in the yard, digging a new sewer. It was certainly needed, for the whole place was filled with nauseating smells. The prison building was divided into a number of rooms, all of them overcrowded. One of the compartments was called the "speculators' apartment," though almost all its inmates protested against being thus classed. They looked poor and starved, everyone of them anxious to tell us his tale of woe, apparently under the impression that we were official investigators. In one of the corridors we found several Communists charged with sabotage. Evidently the Soviet Government did not discriminate in favour of its own people.
There were in the camp White officers taken prisoners at the Polish front and scores of peasant men and women held on various charges. They presented a pitiful sight, sitting there on the floor for lack of benches, a pathetic lot, bewildered and unable to grasp the combination of events which had caught them in the net.
More than one thousand able-bodied men were locked up in the concentration camp, of no service to the community and requiring numerous officials to guard and attend them. And yet Russia was badly in need of labour energy. It seemed to me an impractical waste.
Later we visited the prison. At the gates an angry mob was gesticulating and shouting. I learned that the weekly parcels brought by relatives of the inmates had that morning been refused acceptance by the prison authorities. Some of the people had come for miles and had spent their last ruble for food for their arrested husbands and brothers. They were frantic. Our escort, the woman in charge of the Bureau, promised to investigate the matter. We made the rounds of the big prison a depressing sight of human misery and despair. In the solitary were those condemned to death. For days their look haunted me -- their eyes full of terror at the torturing uncertainty, fearing to be called at any moment to face death. we had been asked by our Kharkov friends to find a certain young woman in the prison. Trying to avoid arousing attention we sought her with our eyes in various parts of the institution, till we saw someone answering her description. She was an Anarchist, held as a political. The prison conditions were bad, she told us. It had required a protracted hunger strike to compel the authorities to treat the politicals more decently and to keep the doors of those condemned to death open during the day, so that they could receive a little cheer and comfort from the other prisoners. She told of many unjustly arrested and pointed out an old stupid-looking peasant woman locked up in solitary as a Makhno spy, a charge obviously due to a misunderstanding.
The prison régime was very rigid. Among other things, it was forbidden the prisoners to climb up on the windows or to look out into the yard. The story was related to us of a prisoner being shot for once disobeying that rule. He had heard some noise in the street below and, curious to know what was going on, he climbed up on the window sill of his cell. The sentry in the yard gave no warning. He fired, severely wounding the man. Many similar stories of severity and abuse we heard from the prisoners. On our way to town I expressed surprise at the conditions that were being tolerated in the prisons. I remarked to our guide that it would cause a serious scandal if the western world were to learn under what conditions prisoners live and how they are treated in Socialist Russia. Nothing could justify such brutality, I thought. But the chairman of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspection remained unmoved. "We are living in a revolutionary period," she replied; "these matters cannot be helped." But she promised to investigate some cases of extreme injustice which we had pointed out to her. I was not convinced that the Revolution was responsible for the existing evils. If the Revolution really had to support so much brutality and crime, what was the purpose of the Revolution, after all?
At the end of our first week in Kharkov I returned to the Department of Education where I had been promised material. To my surprise I found that nothing had been prepared. I was informed that the chairman was absent, and again assured that the promised data would be collected and ready before our departure. I was then referred to the man in charge of a certain school experimental department. The chairman had told me that some interesting educational methods were being developed, but I found the manager unintelligent and dull. He could tell me nothing of the new methods, but he was willing to send for one of the instructors to explain things to me. A messenger was dispatched, but he soon returned with the information that the teacher was busy demonstrating to his class and could not come. The manager flew into a rage. "He must come," he shouted; "the bourgeoisie are sabotaging like the other damnable intelligentsia. They ought all to be shot. We can do very well without them.'' He was one of the type of narrow-minded fanatical and persecuting Communists who did more harm to the Revolution than any counter-revolutionary.
During our stay in Kharkov we also had time to visit some factories. In a plough manufacturing plant we found a large loft stacked with the finished product. I was surprised that the ploughs were kept in the factory instead of being put to practical use on the farms. "We are awaiting orders from Moscow," the manager explained; "it was a rush order and we were threatened with arrest for sabotage in case it should not be ready for shipment within six weeks. That was six months ago, and as you see the ploughs are still here. The peasants need them badly, and we need their bread. But we cannot exchange. We must await orders from Moscow.
I recalled a remark of Zinoviev when on our first meeting he stated that Petrograd lacked fuel, notwithstanding the fact that less than a hundred versts from the city there was enough to supply almost half the country. I suggested on that occasion that the workers of Petrograd be called upon to get the fuel to the city. Zinoviev thought it very naive. "Should we grant such a thing in Petrograd," he said, "the same demand would be made in other cities. It would create communal competition which is a bourgeois institution. It would interfere with our plan of nationalized and centralized control." That was the dominating principle, and as a result of it the Kharkov workers lacked bread until Moscow should give orders to have the ploughs sent to the peasants. The supremacy of the state was the cornerstone of Marxism
Several days before leaving Kharkov I once more visited the Board of Education and again I failed to find its chairman. To my consternation I was informed that I would receive no material because it had been decided that Ukraina was to have its own museum and the chairman had gone to Kiev to organize it. I felt indignant at the miserable deception practised upon us by a man in high Communist position. Surely Ukraina had the right to have its own museum, but why this petty fraud which caused the Expedition to lose so much valuable time.
The sequel to this incident came a few days later when we were surprised by the hasty arrival of our secretary who informed us that we must leave Kharkov immediately and as quietly as possible, because the local executive committee of the party had decided to prevent our carrying out statistical material from Ukraina. Accordingly, we made haste to leave in order to save what we had already collected. We knew the material would be lost if it remained in Kharkov and that the plan of an independent Ukrainian museum would for many years remain only on paper.
Before departing we made arrangements for a last conference with our local friends. We felt that we might never see them again. On that occasion the work of the "Nabat" Federation was discussed in detail. That general Anarchist organization of the south had been founded as a result of the experiences of the Russian Anarchists and the conviction that a unified body was necessary to make their work more effective. They wanted not merely to die but to live for the Revolution. It appeared that the Anarchists of Russia had been divided into several factions, most of them numerically small and of little practical influence upon the progress of events in Russia. They had been unable to establish a permanent hold in the ranks of the workers. It was therefore decided to gather all the Anarchist elements of the Ukraina into one federation and thus be in condition to present a solid front in the struggle not only against invasion and counter-revolution, but also against Communist persecution.
By means of unified effort the "Nabat" was able to cover most of the south and get in close touch with the life of the workers and the peasantry. The frequent changes of government in the Ukraina finally drove the Anarchists to cover, the relentless persecution of the Bolsheviki having depleted their ranks of the most active workers. Still the Federation had taken root among the people. The little band was in constant danger, but it was energetically continuing its educational and propaganda work.
The Kharkov Anarchists had evidently expected much from our presence in Russia. They hoped that Alexander Berkman and myself would join them in their work. We were already seven months in Russia but had as yet taken no direct part in the Anarchist movement. I could sense the disappointment and impatience of our comrades. They were eager we should at least inform the European and American Anarchists of what was going on in Russia, particularly about the ruthless persecution of the Left revolutionary elements. Well could I understand the attitude of my Ukrainian friends. They had suffered much during the last years: they had seen the high hopes of the Revolution crushed and Russia breaking down beneath the heel of the Bolshevik State. Yet I could not comply with their wishes. I still had faith in the Bolsheviki, in their revolutionary sincerity and integrity. Moreover, I felt that as long as Russia was being attacked from the outside I could not speak in criticism. I would not add fuel to the fires of counter-revolution. I therefore had to keep silent, and stand by the Bolsheviki as the organized defenders of the Revolution. But my Russian friends scorned this view. I was confounding the Communist Party with the Revolution, they said; they were not the same; on the contrary, they were opposed, even antagonistic. The Communist State, according to the "Nabat" Anarchists, had proven fatal to the Revolution.
Within a few hours before our departure we received the confidential information that Makhno had sent a call for Alexander Berkman and myself to visit him. He wished to place his situation before us, and, through us, before the Anarchist movement of the world. He desired to have it widely understood that he was not the bandit, Jew-baiter, and counter-revolutionist the Bolsheviki had proclaimed him. He was devoted to the Revolution and was serving the interests of the people as he conceived them.
It was a great temptation to meet the modern Stenka Rasin, but we were pledged to the Museum and could not break faith with the other members of the Expedition.