A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter IV." by Louise Bryant (-1936)
From: Six Red Months in Russia (1918) by Louise Bryant (-1936) New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



SMOLNY INSTITUTE, headquarters of the Bolsheviki, is on the edge of Petrograd. Years ago it was considered "way out in the country," but the city grew out to meet it, engulfed it and finally claimed it as its own. Smolny is an enormous place; the great main building stretches in a straight line for hundreds of feet with an ell jutting out at each end and forming a sort of elongated court. Close up to the north ell snuggles the lovely little Smolny Convent with its dull blue dome with the silver stars. Once young ladies of noble birth from all over Russia came here to receive a "proper" education.

I came to know Smolny well while I was in Russia. I saw it change from a lonely, deserted barracks into a busy humming hive, heart and soul of the last revolution. I watched the leaders once accused, hunted and imprisoned raised by the mass of the people of all Russia to the highest places in the nation. They were borne along on the whirling wind of radicalism that swept and is still sweeping Russia and they themselves did not know how long or how well they would be able to ride that whirlwind. . . .

Smolny was always a strange place. In the cavernous, dark hallways where here and there flickered a pale electric light, thousands and thousands of soldiers and sailors and factory workers tramped in their heavy, mud-covered boots every day. All the world seemed to have business at Smolny and the polished white floors over which once tripped the light feet of careless young ladies became dark and dirt-stained and the great building shook with the tread of the proletariat. . . .

I ate many of my meals in the great mess hall on the ground floor with the soldiers. There were long, rough wooden tables and wooden benches and a great air of friendliness pervaded everywhere. You were always welcome at Smolny if you were poor and you were hungry. We ate with wooden spoons, the kind the Russian soldiers carry in their big boots, and all we had to eat was cabbage soup and black bread. We were always thankful for it and always afraid that perhaps to-morrow there would not be even that. . . . We stood in long lines at the noon hour chattering like children. "So you are an American, Tavarishe, well, how does it go now in America?" they would say to me.

Upstairs in a little room tea was served night and day. Trotsky used to come there and Kollontay and Spiradonova and Kaminoff and Volodarysky and all the rest except Lenine. I never saw Lenine at either of these places. He held aloof and only appeared at the largest meetings and no one got to know him very well. But the others I mentioned would discuss events with us. In fact, they were very generous about giving out news.

In all the former classrooms typewriters ticked incessantly. Smolny worked twenty-four hours a day. For weeks Trotsky never left the building. He ate and slept and worked in his office on the third floor and strings of people came in every hour of the day to see him. All the leaders were frightfully overworked, they looked haggard and pale from loss of sleep.

In the great white hall, once the ball-room, with its graceful columns and silver candelabra, delegates from the Soviets all over Russia met in all night sessions. Men came straight from the first line trenches, straight from the fields and the factories. Every race in Russia met there as brothers. Men poured out their souls at these meetings and they said beautiful and terrible things. I will give you an example of the speeches of the soldiers:

A tired, emaciated little soldier mounts the rostrum. He is covered with mud from head to foot and with old blood stains. He blinks in the alarming light. It is the first speech he has ever made in his life and he begins it in a shrill hysterical shout:

"Tavarishi! I come from the place where men are digging their graves and calling them trenches! We are forgotten out there in the snow and the cold. We are forgotten while you sit here and discuss politics! I tell you the army can't fight much longer! Something's got to be done! Something's got to be done! The officers won't work with the soldiers' committees and the soldiers are starving and the Allies won't have a conference. I tell you something's got to be done or the soldiers are going home! "

Then the peasants would get up and plead for their land. The Land Committees, they claimed, were being arrested by the Provisional Government; they had a religious feeling about land. They said they would fight and die for the land, but they would not wait any longer. If it was not given to them now they would go out and take it.

And the factory workers told of the sabotage of the bourgeoisie, how they were ruining the delicate machinery so that the workmen could not run the factories; they were shutting down the mills so they would starve. It was not true, they cried, that the workers were getting fabulous sums. They couldn't live on what they got!

Over and over and over like the beat of the surf came the cry of all starving Russia: "Peace, land and bread! "

It would be very unjust to blame the leaders for any steps they took; my observation was that they were always pushed into these actions by the great will of the majority. It is certainly foolish also to think that the peasants were isolated from Smolny. One of the most spectacular events that happened in Petrograd after the revolution was the two-mile parade of peasants from 6 Fontanka, where they were having the meeting of the All-Russian Peasants' Congress, to Smolny, just to show their approval of that institution.

So many different organisations had offices in Smolny. There worked the now famous Military Revolutionary Committee in Room 17, on the top floor. This committee, which performed some extraordinary feats during the first days of the Bolshevik uprising, was headed by Lazarimov, an eighteen-year-old boy. It was a throbbing room; couriers came and went, foreigners stood in line to get passes to leave the country, suspects were brought in. . . .

Antonoff, the War Minister, had an office in Smolny, as well as Krylenko and Dubenko, so it was the nerve centre for the army and navy, as well as the political centre.

In the corridors were stacks of literature which the people gobbled up eagerly. Pamphlets, books and official newspapers of the Bolshevik party like Rabotchi Poot and the Isvestia by the thousands were disposed of daily.

Soldiers, dead-weary, slept in the halls and on chairs and benches in unused rooms. Others stood alert and on guard before all sorts of committee rooms, and if you didn't have a pass like the one reproduced in this book you didn't get in. The passes were changed frequently to keep out spies.

PASS No. 43. To the building of the Smolny Institute.
Tovaritche Louise Bryant.
A representative of the American Press.
Committee on Personnel–S. Peters.
December 4, 1917.

In many windows were machine guns pointing blind eyes into the cold winter air. Rifles were stacked along the walls, and on the stone steps before the main entrance were several cannon. In the court were armoured cars ready for action. Smolny was always well guarded by volunteers.

No matter how late the meetings lasted, and they usually broke up about 4 o'clock in the morning, the street-car employees kept the cars waiting. When the heaviest snowstorms blocked up the traffic, soldiers and sailors and working women came out on the streets and kept the tracks clear to Smolny. Often it was the only line running in the city.

I have heard that Smolny was the bought establishment of the German imperialists. I have tried to give a true picture of Smolny. It was not the kind of place in which an imperialist of any sort would have been comfortable. I never heard any leader or any of the thousands of soldiers, workers or peasants who came there express one trace of sympathy for the German Government. They have, however, the same feeling that President Wilson has about speaking to the people of Austria and Germany over the heads of their autocratic military leaders. And how successful they are in this must one day be obvious to a doubting world.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom