"Chapter I." by Louise Bryant (-1936)
WHEN the news of the Russian revolution flared out across the front pages of all the newspapers in the world, I made up my mind to go to Russia. I did it suddenly without thinking at all. By force of habit I put down my two pennies at a little corner newsstand and the newsdealer handed me an evening paper. There with the great city roaring around me I read the first account, a warm feeling of deep happiness spreading over me.
I had been walking with a young Russian from the East Side. Now I turned to speak to him, but he was staring at the large black letters crazily, his eyes bulging from his head. Suddenly he grabbed the paper out of my hand and ran madly through the streets. Three days later I met him–he was still embracing everybody, weeping and telling them the good news. He had spent three years in Siberia. . . .
Early in August I left America on the Danish steamer United States. From my elevation on the first-class deck the first night out I could hear returning exiles in the steerage singing revolutionary songs. In the days that followed I spent most of my time down there; they were the only people on the boat who weren't bored to death. There were about a hundred of them, mostly Jews from the Pale. Hunted, robbed, mistreated in every conceivable manner before they fled to America, they had somehow maintained the greatest love for the land of their birth. I could not understand it then. I do now. Russia lays strong hold on the affections of even the foreign visitor.
It was a long way back to Russia for these people. We were held up in Halifax a week on their account. Every morning British officers came on board and examined and re-examined. Pitiful incidents occurred. There was an old woman who clung frantically to some letters from a dead son. She secreted them in all sorts of strange places and brought down suspicion upon herself. There was a youth they decided to detain–he threw himself face downward on the deck and sobbed loudly like a child. The whole lot of them were in a state of nervous terror; Russia was so near and yet so far. And they were held up again and again–at Christiania, at Stockholm, at Haparanda. I saw one of the men in Petrograd five months later He had just gotten through. . . .
After we left Stockholm my own curiosity grew every hour. As our train rushed on through the vast, untouched forests of northern Sweden I could scarcely contain myself. Soon I should see how this greatest and youngest of democracies was learning to walk–to stretch itself–to feel its strength–unshackled! We were to watch that brave attempt of the new republic to establish itself with widely varying emotions, we miscellaneous folk, who were gathered together for a few hours.
The day we reached the border every one on the train was up bustling about with the first light, getting ready for the change. The rain beat mournfully against the car windows as we ate our frugal meal of sour black bread and weak coffee. Most of us had been a month on the way and we were travel-weary. We wondered vaguely what had happened in Russia–no news had leaked into Sweden since the half-credited story about the German advance on Riga.
The little ferry-boat gliding over dark, muddy waters between Haparanda and Tornea, carrying the same trainload of passengers and piled high with baggage, landed us on the edge of Finland on a cheerless grey September morning. A steady drizzle added to our discomfort. As soon as we stepped off the boat I caught my first glimpse of the Russian army; great giants of men, mostly workers and peasants, in old, dirt-coloured uniforms from which every emblem of Tsardom had been carefully removed. Brass buttons with the Imperial insignia, gold and silver epaulettes, decorations, all were replaced by a simple arm-band or a bit of red cloth. I noticed that all of them smoked, that they did not salute and that sentries, looking exceedingly droll, were sitting on chairs. Military veneer seemed to have vanished. What had taken its place?
Things began to happen as soon as we landed. One woman in her excitement began speaking German. Then when it was discovered that her passport bore no visé from Stockholm she was hustled roughly back over the line. She called out as she went that she had no money, that no one had told her she needed a visé and that she had three starving children in Russia. Her thin, hysterical voice trailed back brokenly.
A tall, white-bearded patriarch, returning after an enforced absence of thirty years, rushed from one soldier to another.
"How are you, my dears? What town are you from? How long have you been here? Ah, I am glad to be back!"
Thus he ran on, not waiting or expecting an answer. The soldiers smiled indulgently, although for some mysterious reason they were in a dead-serious mood. At length one of them made a gesture of impatience.
"Listen, Little Grandfather," he said severely but not unkindly, "are you not aware that there are other things to think about in Russia just now besides family re-unions?"
The old man caught some deep significance behind his words and looked pitifully bewildered. He had been a dealer in radical books in London for many years and he had been buried in these books. He was not prepared for action; he was coming home to a millennium to die at peace in free, contented and joyful Russia. Now a premonition of fear flitted over his old face. He clutched nervously at the soldier's arm.
"What is it you have to tell me?" he cried. "Is Russia not free? What begins now but happiness and peace?"
"Now begins work," shouted several soldiers. "Now begins more fighting and more dying! You old ones will never understand that the job is by no means finished. Are there not enemies without and traitors within?. . . "
The old exile appeared suddenly shrunken and tired. "Tell me," he whispered, "what the trouble is."
For answer they pointed to a sign-board upon which a large, new notice was pasted and we joined an agitated little group and read:
"On the 26th of August (September 8th, our time) General Korniloff despatched to me, Duma member V. N. Lvov, with a demand to give him over supreme military and civilian power, saying that he will form a new government to rule the country. I verified the authority of this Duma member by direct telephonic communication with General Korniloff. I saw in this demand addressed to the Provisional Government the desire of a certain class of the Russian people to take advantage of the desperate situation of our nation, to re-establish that system of order which would be in contradiction to the acquisition of our Revolution; and therefore the Provisional Government considered it necessary for the salvation of the country, of liberty and democratic government, to take all measures to secure order in the country and by any means suppress all attempts to usurp the supreme power in the State and to usurp the rights won by our citizens in the Revolution. These measures I put into operation and will inform the Nation more fully of them. At the same time, I ordered General Korniloff to hand over the command to General Klembovsky, Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Front, defending the way to Petrograd. And herewith I appoint General Klembovsky Commander-in-Chief of all the Russian Armies. The City of Petrograd and the Petrograd District is declared under martial law by action of this telegram. I appeal to all citizens that they should conserve the peace and order so necessary for the salvation of the country and to all the officers of the army and fleet I appeal to accomplish their duties in defending the Nation from the external enemy.
"(Signed) PREMIER KERENSKY."
So I had arrived on the crest of a counter-revolution! Korniloff was marching on Petrograd. Petrograd was in a state of siege. Trenches were at that very moment being dug outside the city. The telegram from Kerensky was two days old. What had happened since then? Wild rumour followed wild rumour. In fact, such exaggeration abounded that the whole outlook of the country was completely changed in each overheated report. We walked up and down the station under heavy guard, like prisoners. . . .
Everything was in confusion; passports and luggage were examined over and over. I was marched into a small, cold, badly lit room, guarded by six soldiers with long, business-like looking bayonets. In the room was a stocky Russian girl. She motioned for me to remove my clothes. This I did, wondering. Once they were off she ordered me to put them on again without any examination. I was curious. "It's just a rule," she said, smiling at my incomprehension
There were British officers here and they advised me not to proceed. "The Germans have taken Riga and are already across the Dvina; when they get to Petrograd they will cut you in pieces!" With such gloomy predictions I left the frontier town and sped onward through flat, monotonous Finland. . . .