The Bolshevik rank-and-file of Petrograd

Many factors were conspiring to give Bolshevik ideas prestige with the people. In the first place the Bolsheviks understood the people. They were strong among the more literate strata, like the sailors, and comprised largely the artisans and laborers of the cities. Sprung directly from the people’s loins they spoke the people’s language, shared their sorrows and thought their thoughts.

It is not quite correct to say that the Bolsheviks understood the people. They were the people. So they were trusted. The Russian workingman, betrayed so long by the classes above him, puts faith only in his own.

This was brought home to a friend of mine in a grotesque manner. Krasnoschekov is his name, now President of the Far East Republic. Coming from the Workers’ Institute in Chicago, he entered the lists as a champion of the workers. An able, eloquent man, he was elected President of the City Council of Nikolaievsk. The bourgeois paper promptly appeared with an assault upon him as an “immigrant roustabout.”

“Citizens of great Russia,” it asked, “do you not feel the shame of being ruled by a porter, a window cleaner from Chicago?”

Krasnoschekov wrote out a hot reply, pointing out his distinction in America as lawyer and educator. On the way to the newspaper with his article he turned in at the Soviet, wondering how much this assault had hurt him in the eyes of the workers.

“Tovarish Krasnoschekov!” someone shouted as he opened the door. With a cheer the men rose to their feet. “Nash! Nash!” (Ours! Ours!) they cried, grasping his hand. “We just read the paper, comrade. It made us all glad. We always liked you, tho we thought you were a bourgeois. Now we find out you are one of us, a real workingman, and we love you. We’ll do anything for you.”

Ninety-six per cent of the Bolshevik Party were workingmen. Of course the Party had its intelligentsia, not sprung directly from the soil. But Lenin and Trotsky lived close enough to the hunger line to know the thoughts of the poor.

“One of the great Cathedrals of the Communist Faith — the Putilov Factory in Petrograd. Banners and speakers proclaim the International unity of all races and peoples.”

The Bolsheviks were mostly young men not afraid of responsibility, not afraid to die and, in sharp contrast to the upper-classes, not afraid to work. Many of them became my friends, particularly the exiles returning on the immigrant tide now flowing back from America.

There was Yanishev, who was literally a workman of the world. Ten years earlier he had been driven out of Russia for inciting his fellow-peasants against the Czar. He had lived like a water-rat on the docks of Hamburg; he had dug coal in the pits of Austria and had poured steel in the foundries of France. In America he had been tanned in leather-vats, bleached in textile mills and clubbed in strike-lines. His travels had given him a knowledge of four languages and an ardent faith in Bolshevism. The peasant had become now an industrial proletarian.

Some satirist has defined a proletarian as a “talking workingman.” Yanishev was not a talker by nature. But now he had to talk. The cry of millions of his fellow-workers for the light drew the words to his lips and in mills and mines he spoke as no intellectual could speak. Night and day he toiled until midsummer came and he took me on a memorable trip to the villages.

Another comrade was Woskov, formerly agent of New York Carpenters’ Union No. 1008, now in the Workers’ Committee that ran the rifle factory at Sestroretsk. Another was Volodarsky, virtually a galley-slave of the Soviet and deliriously happy in it. Once he exclaimed to me: “I have had more real joy in these few weeks than any fifty men ought to have in all their lives!” There was Neibut, with his pack of books and with eyes glowing over the English in Brailsford’s The War of Steel and Gold! To Bolshevik propaganda these immigrants brought Western speed and method. In Russian there is no word “efficient.” These young zealots were prodigies of efficiency and energy.

The center of Bolshevik action was Petrograd. In this there is the fine irony of history. This city was the pride and glory of the great Czar Peter. He found a swamp here and left a brilliant capital. To make a foundation he sunk into these marshes forests of trees and quarries of stone. It is a colossal monument to Peter’s iron will. At the same time it is a monument of colossal cruelty, for it is built not only on millions of wooden piles, but on millions of human bones.

Like cattle the workmen were herded in these swamps to perish of cold and hunger and scurvy. As fast as they were swallowed up more serfs were driven in. They dug the soil with bare hands and sticks, carrying it off in caps and aprons. With thudding hammers, cracking whips, and groans of the dying, Petrograd rose like the Pyramids, in the tears and anguish of slaves.

Now the descendants of these slaves were in revolt. Petrograd had become the Head of the Revolution. Every day it started out missionaries on long crusading tours. Every day it poured out bales and carloads of Bolshevik gospel in print. In June, Petrograd was publishing Pravda (Truth), The Soldier, The Village Poor, in millions of copies. “All done on German money,” said the Allied observers, as ostrich-like, they sat with heads buried in the boulevard cafés, believing what they preferred to believe. Had they turned the corner they would have seen a long line of men filing past a desk, each laying on it a contribution, ten copecks, ten rubles, maybe a hundred. These were workers, soldiers, even peasants, doing their bit for the Bolshevik press.

The greater the success of the Bolsheviks, the louder the hue and cry against them. While the bourgeois press praised the sense and moderation Of the other parties, it called for an iron fist for the Bolsheviks. While “Babushka” and Kerensky were given regal quarters in the Winter Palace, the Bolsheviks were thrown into jail.

In the past all parties suffered for their principles. Now it was chiefly the Bolsheviks who suffered. They were the martyrs of today. This gave them prestige. Persecution lifted them into prominence. The masses, now giving heed to Bolshevik doctrine, found it strangely akin to their own desires.

But it was not the sacrifice and enthusiasm of the Bolsheviks that was finally to bring the masses under their banner. More powerful allies were working with them. Hunger was their chief ally—a threefold hunger: a mass hunger for bread, and peace, and land.

In the rural Soviets rose again the ancient cry of the peasants, “The land belongs to God and the people.” The city-workers left out God and cried, “The factories belong to the workers.” At the front the soldiers proclaimed, “The war belongs to the devil. We want nothing to do with it. We want peace.”

A great ferment was working in the masses. It set them organizing Land Committees, Factory Committees, Committees of the Front. It set them talking, so that Russia became a nation of a hundred million orators. It sent them into the streets in tremendous mass demonstrations.

Albert Rhys Williams, “The Bolsheviks and the City,” Through the Russian Revolution


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