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H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and Emma Goldman

The celebrated British writer HG Wells (1866-1946) went to Moscow in 1920 and met with Lenin. Wells described Lenin as a man who laughed a lot but with a laugh that was grim. Wells has described himself as a socialist but different from Lenin's socialism. Wells claimed opposition to Lenin's belief that private property was the root of all evil. He described the Bolsheviks as dictatorial and mentioned privileges that were already accruing to Communist Party members, but he expressed hope that the Soviet regime would change for the better. Leon Trotsky described Wells as a bourgeois and condescending. Winston Churchill took issue with Wells and spoke of leopards not changing their spots.

Also visiting the Soviet Union and Lenin in 1920 was Lord Bertrand Russell, the philosopher and mathematician. After returning to England from Russia in 1920 he published a small book, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. He mentioned the hope for a better world that the Bolsheviks had created, but he added that Bolshevism was a "tragic delusion." The words "communism" and "socialism" were then widely interchangeable and Russell described himself as a communist (note the small c). He wrote that the hopes that inspire communism are as admirable as are those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but he added that with the Bolsheviks they were held fanatically and were likely to do harm. Bolshevism, he wrote, had supplied a new religion out of a mood of disillusionment and despair. Russell wrote of a "Marxian gospel" replacing the Christian martyr's hope for Paradise.

He wrote of an enthusiastic audience cheering itself hoarse and giving Trotsky a standing ovation when Trotsky put in an appearance at the Opera, and of Trotsky asking for and getting great hurrahs from the audience for the brave soldiers fighting for the revolution at the front. Describing his interview with the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, Russell wrote that the celebrated author was ill and obviously heartbroken but that Gorky supported the Soviet government, not because it was faultless but because he believed that possible alternatives would be worse. Gorky begged me, wrote Russell, that "in anything I might say about Russia, always to emphasize what Russia has suffered."

Another intellectual in Russia during its civil war was Emma Goldman, who had been deported from the United States in 1919 follower two years in prison for conspiring to "induce persons not to register" for the government's new military draft. (She had immigrated from Lithuania to New York in 1885 at age 16.) Her book My Two Years in Russia describes Petrograd in early 1920:

[Petrograd] was almost in ruins, as if a hurricane had swept over it. The houses looked like broken old tombs upon neglected and forgotten cemeteries. The streets were dirty and deserted; all life had gone from them. The population of Petrograd before the war was almost two million; in 1920 it had dwindled to five hundred thousand. The people walked about like living corpses; the shortage of food and fuel was slowly sapping the city; grim death was clutching at its heart.

At a town meeting she was on the platform with others overlooking people in the packed hall. "Starved and wretched they looked," she wrote. They sang the "Internationale." After the last speaker the meeting was thrown open to discussion. A Menshevik (anti-Bolshevik socialist) asked for the floor. There were shouts of "Traitor!" and "Counter-Revolutionist!" Later, her host Sergei Zorin (Petrograd's Communist Party First Secretary) defended the hostile reaction to the Menshevik. "Free speech," he said, "is a bourgeois superstition. During a revolutionary period there can be no free speech."

Goldman observed a shortage of food and fuel. The Soviet government had closed houses of prostitution and was trying to drive prostitutes off the streets. Goldman wrote "that hunger and cold was driving them back again," and that Bolshevik soldiers were employing them. This and the economic hardship, Goldman was told, was because of the blockade by those wanting to destroy the Revolution.

Goldman found in Petrograd a thriving black market with the Cheka taking a cut. She wrote of a "scarcity of food and three years of starvation" as having turned most people into grafters and theft as inevitable. "The Bolsheviki are trying to suppress it with an iron hand," she wrote. "How can they be blamed? But try as I might I could not silence my doubts."

Goldman journeyed to Moscow and was amazed by "the sight of busy crowds, cabbies, and porters." In her book she described the streets as "alive with men, women, and children. Almost everybody carried a bundle, or dragged a loaded sleigh." She noticed "...scores of men dressed in leather suits with guns in their belts." They were the Cheka. Unlike in Petrograd, in Moscow the Cheka "seemed everywhere." But people paid them little mind. People in the street appeared preoccupied.

Repeatedly I saw women or children fall from exhaustion without anyone stopping to lend assistance. People stared at me when I would bend over the heap on the slippery pavement or gather up the bundles that had fallen into the street.

Goldman described hearing the opinion that the Bolsheviks were their new master (барин), that the new master "has everything, white bread, clothing, even chocolate, while we have nothing." Eating among the Bolshevik elite, Goldman noticed that the kitchen staff were poorly paid and "were not given the same food served to us." She wrote that the kitchen staff "resented" it.

She wondered how the Bolsheviks, who were only a small minority, could maintain themselves in power. She was tld that Russia's masses were exhausted by hunger and cowed by terrorism, that there was little organized opposition in Bolshevik-ruled areas but that people had lost faith in all parties and ideas. She wrote of peasant uprisings in various parts of Russia and of constant strikes in Moscow, Petrograd, and other industrial centers. And she added that "censorship was so rigid" that common people knew little about these events.

She wrote:

On a certain occasion, when I passed criticism on the brutal way delicate women were driven into the streets to shovel snow, insisting that even if they had belonged to the bourgeoisie they were human, and that physical fitness should be taken into consideration, a Communist said to me: "You should be ashamed of yourself; you, an old revolutionist, and yet so sentimental." In short, I had come to see that the Bolsheviki were social puritans who sincerely believed that they alone were ordained to save mankind. My relations with the Bolsheviki became more strained, my attitude toward the Revolution as I found it more critical.

Goldman was driven by limousine past the walls of the Kremlin for an interview with Lenin. "Free speech," Lenin told her, "is, of course, a bourgeois notion." He added,

There can be no free speech in a revolutionary period. We have the peasantry against us because we can give them nothing in return for their bread. We will have them on our side when we have something to exchange. Then you can have all the free speech you want – but not now.

She asked Lenin why he had not raised his voice to correct what she thought were evils existing under the Bolsheviks. Lenin described Russia as being attacked by the imperialists and spoke of Russian women and children dying from the effects of the blockade. The concern of the Bolshevik government at this point, said Lenin, was to survive, to maintain itself in power.

Lenin asked her when the revolution would occur in America. She wrote that she "...had been asked the question repeatedly before," but I was astounded to hear it from Lenin. "It seemed incredible," she wrote, "that a man of his information should know so little "

CONTINUE READING: Civil War ends, Soviet Union begins

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.