We were pleasantly surprised to come across our old time friend Semke Friedman in Moscow. We had been good friends in Chicago and had not seen him for some time. Short of stature, a garment worker by trade, Semke was the kind of person who could not endure any injustice, and he would relentlessly pursue anyone he judged guilty of a grave wrong. Despite this fixation, he had all the qualities of a devoted friend and we deeply appreciated his friendship with us. His devotion to our cause was equally intense, and he demanded a like attachment from others. Friedman had been among the first of our comrades to leave Chicago for Russia. For a brief period of time he served in Makhnos army. Following one major battle with the White Army, Makhnos staff was obliged to evacuate its positions and transfer to another locality. Only small detachments remained in the city and there was grave peril for anyone returning there. In spite of this, Friedman insisted on coming back, afraid some important materials had been left behind. He did find two large envelopes and when he arrived back at the new headquarters and they were opened, it was found that a very large portion of the partisan treasury had been recovered.
For the past two years, Semke had been living in Odessa, where he was married to Comrade Dora. In 1923, they succeeded in leaving the Soviet Union, and by merest chance we met in Constantinople.From there they went to Paris, where they became active in the Jewish anarchist group. Throughout that time we maintained contact by correspondence. A girl was born to them but they never had a chance to enjoy her company. World War II came and the Nazis arrested both Semke and Dora, while the child was hidden in the home of French comrades. As the couple were being led to their deaths, Semke wrote a message and succeeded in throwing it out of the train window; it bore a request that the letter be forwarded to our address. It eventually reached us and the contents were brief and heart-rending: We are being led away; we do not know where. Take care of our child. That was the last we heard of Semke and Dora.
One of the odd things about Semke was that he was a vegetarian, so strict that it became something of an obsession with him. In 1919, a daring expropriation was pulled off in Moscow, and a huge sum of money seized. The Cheka proceeded to make arrests among the left-wing factions and a number of anarchists, including Semke, were seized. As a rigid vegetarian, he demanded a diet in prison of vegetables and fruits. He was clamorous in this demand, quite indifferent to the fact that he was imprisoned in the dreaded All-Russian Vecheka, a name that produced a feeling of terror everywhere in those days. One day all of the imprisoned anarchists were summoned from their cells and lined up in a large hall. Before long the door opened and the terror of the All-Russian Cheka, Dzerzhinski, with his entire coterie, entered. Recklessly disregarding all risks, Semke went directly to this dreaded figure and demanded that, as a vegetarian, he be fed a vegetarian diet.
A week later, when he rode to Odessa with us, I managed to procure some foodstuffs en route, and among them was a slice or two of sausage. When we began to consume our humble meal, I noted that Friedman cut off a sliver of the sausage and began to eat it with great gusto. When I asked him what had become of his vegetarian philosophy, he justified his action on the grounds that he had gone hungry for many days, and felt that under the special stress and strain of a social revolution, one had to put aside his vegetarian faith and eat what he could get.
When we left Moscow, the general mood was still one of extreme dismay and depression among our comrades. The Moscow jails were filled to overflowing with our comrades and there was a feeling in the air that the Bolsheviks were about to begin liquidating all the revolutionary factions. This was manifest in their treatment of the political prisoners. We had a presentiment that a dire fate awaited all the non-Bolsheviks who had helped bring about the October revolution.
We encountered a similar mood of despair when we reached Odessa, where a large number of our comrades were being confined in local jails. However here the gathering political reaction was not felt quite so strongly. For instance, when we visited our imprisoned comrades, we observed that their guards treated them with some compassion and consideration. Apparently the guards remembered that the inmates had only yesterday joined with them in combatting the Kerensky regime.
It certainly sounded odd to hear the prison guards address the inmates as comrade. I was unable to remain in Odessa, as I had promised my superiors in Moscow that I would return to that city immediately.
On my return to Moscow it required about a week to organize the tour which was to take more than three months and over the area from Moscow to Baku on the Caspian Sea and then the Caucasus region as far as Batum on the Black Sea. I was assigned three assistants for the organizational effort and an additional person to supervise and keep watch over the special railway car which had been fitted out somewhat like a bookmobile. For such a long trip and considering the circumstances, it was a fairly comfortable way to travel. It is interesting to note how, even at that time, the new bureaucracy was beginning to build up, from top to bottom. Up until that time, I had operated largely by myself and taken along an aide only occasionally. This time however, I had three assistants with whom I was not personally acquainted. From a practical point of view I could not see why this undertaking called for so many participants and such an expenditure of money. And now a few words about my assistants:
During the first few days of our journey I learned that these people had little genuine interest in the success of our mission. They were former business managers and were animated by only two motives: first, the opportunity to get some nourishing food and to bring some groceries home and second, to engage in some profitable speculation. Apparently they had been briefed about me in Moscow. Shortly after our departure I sought to organize our project in such a way that each of us would be responsible for a role in our undertaking. They soon sensed that I was in earnest about my mission and that this was not to be a joyride. That was not altogether to their liking and they seemed to fear that the entire mission would end up a failure. I could also sense they were afraid of me and this created a tense atmosphere Ã¢â‚¬â€œ regrettable, because we could not obtain any constructive results under such conditions.
However my three aides were also practical and astute business people and they cautiously began to search for devices to soften me up so that I would not interfere with their private business affairs. It was during the third week of our journey that things began to happen. We commenced our labors in Kharkov, where all three performed their tasks relatively well, though our relations were still strained to some extent. After the days work, or while en route, the three of them would pass the time playing cards, with large sums of money at stake. They constantly urged me to join them, but I declined, having neither the inclination nor the monetary means. But one evening they began to reproach me for being aloof and seeming to ignore them.
I did not suspect right away that their tactic was to ingratiate themselves with me. By nature, they were not evil and they harbored no malicious intent toward me. They simply did not trust me and feared I would spoil their private dealings. They were aware of my ideological affiliation and the trap they laid for me was successful as long as they maintained friendly relations with me. But at that moment I did not want them to regard me as a snob, so I consented to play cards with them for an hour or two. I did remind them however, that my funds were limited and that they would have to reduce the stakes. The first evening everything proceeded smoothly and I came out the winner at our card game by a couple of rubles. The second evening this result was repeated and they expressed considerable satisfaction over my joining them. Before long however, I began to observe that it was their intent that I should win a large sum of money. Actually they were skillful players, yet they seemed to get careless occasionally and I ended up by winning a substantial sum. At first, I fancied this was mere beginners luck, but when my good fortune persisted for a week or more I began to feel uncomfortable. As a result I became careless in turn, in the expectation of losing to them the large amounts I had won.
However my strategy failed and I found myself with larger winnings than before. I then began to realize that all of this had been a maneuver, a little conspiracy to bribe me in the hope that I would not disturb their speculative machinations. The whole business went against my grain. To be sure, I was not a Cheka agent nor connected with the police, but I resolved to put an end to this little tragi-comedy. That same evening, before they started their card playing, I preached them this little sermon:
You know of course, that as an official representative of the Tsentro-Pechat, I have the authority to return all of you to Moscow at the next depot, as well as report your suspicious activities to the railway Cheka. I can assure you however, that I will do neither, as I am not associated with either the police or the Cheka. You yourselves are responsible for your activities on this tour, aside from your work for the Tsentro-Pechat. I have observed on several occasions that you carry out your official duties fairly well. We have three more months to spend together and in order to crown our mission with success, I demand of the three of you that you cease attempting to bribe me by deliberately losing money to me at cards. As long as you fulfill your obligations in our organizational effort, I shall completely ignore your other activities. You have two days to reflect on this matter Ã¢â‚¬â€œ think it over and give me an answer.
All three were taken aback. That evening there was no card playing. Before retiring for the night, the three of them entered my compartment and one of them offered me an apology for their underhanded ruse. Their explanation was that they had heard in Moscow that I was extremely strict and this accounted for their actions. They assured me that they were not engaged in any counter-revolutionary activity, but also admitted that they were carrying with them a certain amount of manufactured goods, which they wanted to sell so as to purchase some provisions for their families. They assured me that if I forgave them, they would see to it that our mission was successfully completed. I accepted their apology, but insisted that they take back the money I had won from them. They declined, suggesting that this money should be used for spending money for our trip. They stood their ground and I finally yielded. As a matter of fact they turned out to be rather decent fellows and acquitted themselves quite creditably for the rest of the trip.
I have deliberately mentioned this incident so that the reader might gain at least some insight into that was going on at that time as the Bolshevik regime spread its bureaucratic tentacles of control over the entire Russian land. For here were three perfectly innocent men thrown into such fear and confusion by the bureaucratic monster that they were prepared to risk their freedom and their very lives in order to obtain some sustenance for themselves and their families. Tens of millions throughout Russia reacted in similar fashion.
While my three aides were engaged on the side in their private business of procuring some foodstuffs for their families I made it my purpose to acquaint my comrades with developments in Moscow with regard to our arrested friends. These included the ones arrested in Kharkov, the prisoners of the Kronstadt revolt, the Makhno followers and others who had been transferred to the Moscow jails. I also urged them to find means of extending help to all of our imprisoned comrades in various jails. As previously stated, the Bolsheviks had collected such a throng of political prisoners that there were not enough prison cells to hold them. This was especially true of the Butirky Prison.
In Kharkov, as well as in other localities where I encountered my comrades, I found a continuing atmosphere of gloom. The spirit of resistance and combat had to a great extent disappeared and on all sides there was the anticipation of more severe repressions against our comrades. We began to feel that our movement had lost the fight and now every individual must place himself in a defensive position. The disappearance of the powerful Makhno army, the mass arrests of the Nabat Confederation members throughout the Ukraine, the general arrests of our comrades Ã¢â‚¬â€œ all this made us feel that the anarchist movement was facing its last moments in Russia.
I have commented that in the course of my three-month long tour I noted that the revolutionary mood was being wiped out everywhere. The first signs of the evolving new bureaucracy became visible and the Russian people began to sense that these new bureaucrats were emerging in place of the old power structure. It was this journey that thoroughly awakened me from my sweet dream that the terror and repression had only been a transitional phase.
The high Commissars of the Tsentro-Pechat had for months been clamoring for me to take on this extensive organizing tour; but now that I and my three aides were in the midst of our labors, we began to receive reports that in many places a group of organizers had already made their appearance, spent a couple of days and moved on. This situation continued until we reached the city of Tiflis, deep in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. Here we found an efficiently organized Tsentro-Pechat. It turned out that one of the staff in Moscow, a resident of Tiflis, had decided to return to his home city. He was a well-educated man descended from a well-to-do family of some prestige in the area. On arrival he decided to maintain the place in its previous state and immediately proceeded to organize the local Tsentro-Pechat there. When we learned of this situation I went to call on the manager and at once recognized him as a former employee of mine at the Moscow Tsentro-Pechat. When he first saw me his reaction was one of surprise at my being in his city. He then commented that apparently Moscow lacked confidence in him since they had already dispatched three different railroad coaches with special organizers and he had already accomplished the task personally.
His explanation took me by surprise. The Head Commissar of the All-Russian Tsentro-Pechat had urged me to leave my still unfinished work in Moscow and undertake this organizational tour throughout the Caucasus and here I find two distinct, so-called organizational representatives sent out ahead of me. I asked who they were and was given their names which were not known to me. He also told me that their special coaches could be found at the depot. They had been in Tiflis for a couple of weeks by now.
While he was talking to us he picked up the phone and told someone on the line that there would be three additional guests for dinner. He then told me that he had already invited the other organizers for dinner at his home and he wanted us to come also to meet his wife and parents. When we arrived at his home that evening it was evident that it was one of the old, wealthy mansions, surrounded by an atmosphere of culture. The other organizers arrived presently. Since the atmosphere was quite congenial I refrained from questioning them at that time however I did propose that the following day we should gather at the local Tsentro-Pechat to discuss matters related to our work. My suggestion did not evoke much enthusiasm but on the other hand they could not very well decline. All in all we spent a very pleasant evening. There was no dearth of satisfying food and the beverages were all of the choicest.
When we gathered the following day with the other organizers I learned that they had been away from Moscow for four months now. When I asked why they had spent so much time in Tiflis when the manager had the project so well organized they replied that they had labored very hard on their tour and were now allowing themselves two weeks vacation. I promptly deduced that these fellows were engaged in some speculative manipulations and that they maintained contact with Moscow through the couriers who each day brought the periodicals and literature from the metropolis.
This episode impressed me with the fact that speculation on the black market and the bureaucracy were fashioning a new order. It was this above all that impelled me to abandon my entire effort and return to the United States. When my aides learned of my intention they sought to persuade me not to return as they had become entranced by the superb beauty of the Caucasus region. In particular they desired to take the trip from Tiflis to Batum in the shadow of the majestic Caucasus Mountains in the hope that this enchanting route would relax them from their strenuous labors. They admitted that they had not exactly overworked themselves but tried to butter me up by stressing that I deserved a vacation myself after such extensive efforts and that we should therefore all ride to Batum.
As a matter of fact the idea did not displease me and when we met the next day I proposed to cable Moscow informing them there were three railroad coaches from Moscow cluttering things up and that they should decide which of the three should go on to Batum. This suggestion did not find favor with the two other organizers who informed me that they would leave for Moscow the next day and that I should go on to Batum. This was agreeable to me but to make certain that they would depart promptly for Moscow I added that I would dispatch a telegram to Moscow to that effect. There was no way for them to evade the issue any longer and they accepted my proposal.
The manager of the Tiflis Tsentro-Pechat was a left-wing Social Revolutionary somewhat in sympathy with the anarchist movement and well acquainted with our comrades in that city. He suggested that if it was agreeable to me he would invite our comrades so that we could spend an evening together. At the same time I could orient myself on the current situation in the country, particularly in Moscow. The evening passed pleasantly enough. The modest number of comrades located in Tiflis had no organized group; for the most part they were students along with a handful of workers. In general Tiflis was not highly industrialized so the entire activity of our comrades consisted in meeting occasionally for a discussion of live issues. The political situation in the city was not quite as tense as in other areas. To be sure the Bolsheviks had occupied all of Georgia but they realized that if they drew the reins too tightly a bloody revolt would ensue. Thus at the beginning of their occupation they were somewhat more moderate and this worked to the advantage of our comrades.
We remained there until late that night and the comrades were quite pleased to receive the information I had brought to them. They promised to raise a sum of money and some provisions for our imprisoned comrades. On our way back from Batum we met with a larger group and as they had promised they turned over to me a substantial amount of money and some foodstuffs and other products such as tea which were virtually unobtainable in Moscow.
We left Tiflis and set out for Batum where we spent a week effecting the organizational activities of the Tsentro-Pechat. But by this time my heart was no longer in this organizational effort. I began to realize that it was futile to expect constructive achievements in the social-political realm from the new Soviet bureaucracy. After the experience in Tiflis, with the organizers sent by the government involved in black market speculation in violation of government decree and in conflict with the spirit of the October revolution, my determination to leave Russia became more firm.
On our return from Batum we stopped for a couple of days in Tiflis, then went on from there to Stavropol where we wanted to procure more salt for our co-workers in the Tsentro-Pechat. Indeed, salt was the best medium of exchange for obtaining the various products by barter. When we arrived in Stavropol I went directly to the chairman of the Soviet and presented my request. Since we were well acquainted he promptly directed his secretary to issue a permit for us to receive a large quantity of salt for our Tsentro-Pechat co-workers. The convoluted bureaucratic apparatus was developing so rapidly by this time that even though Stavropol and its environs for a distance of many miles possessed sufficient salt to supply most of Russia no one seemed to be concerned that a large portion of the countrys population was suffering from goiter, an organic malfunction usually resulting from a deficiency of salt or iodine in the body. I would have been surprised if the Bolshevik politicians in Moscow, who were so intent on grabbing political power, even knew of the existence of these huge salt reserves.
In Batum, Tiflis and Baku, I proceeded to purchase produce for our imprisoned comrades in Moscow, having in my possession the precious salt, the gold to be used as an exchange commodity. In the evening, when we reached a major railway depot at Kursk, we went out to the waiting room and not far away there was a market alongside of which were a number of peasants with their wagons. These latter viewed anyone approaching their loads with some suspicion but one of them finally grudgingly agreed to answer me when I asked what they had for sale. He countered with a question as to what I had to offer in return. I knew quite well that he was not interested in currency but that the word salt would be the open sesame to many doors. I handed him a bag of salt and he tasted it, which caused a broad grin to spread across his face. He enquired how much salt I would trade for a sheep and before long, I was the owner of six sheep, tethered in our coach, besides three more acquired by my aides.
The following afternoon our train arrived in Moscow where we reported to the head office and told them that we had brought with us provisions for the employees of the Tsentro-Pechat. Soon a truck arrived and picked up all the produce we had bought. My personal possessions and three of the sheep were hauled to a hotel where a room had been provided for me. I immediately informed the Black Cross that I had brought provisions for the arrested comrades and before long several colleagues came and took away the foodstuffs and two of the sheep to distribute among our imprisoned comrades.