Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Abram Shlonsky and Matus Kanin, my friends and theachers (part 1)

It was a wonderful June morning when I went to the station with a bag on my shoulders. I sadly looked out of the carriage window and saw my mother, waving her handkerchief and wiping tears. So my adolescence ended. I came to the town of Yekaterinoslav, a big industrial and trade center of the Dnester region.
In the fate of each man, a most significant role plays the meeting of outstanding, talented, strong-willed persons who have high moral principles.

During several years beginning with 1915, I was close with two friends: Abram Shlonsky and Matus Kanin. Probably, if I had not met them, my life would go in other ways, maybe less dramatic. But till the end of my days I will be thankful to them, because they imparted to me the love to systematic studies, literature, science and world culture in the broad sense.

Then there were troubled times, the society was agitated .The majority of people wanted changes to be made, but not many of them acted actively, the main mass of people was rather passive. Shlensky and Kanin participated in demonstrations, spent a lot of time in different circles – of workers, students and secondary school pupils, where they usually taught. They both were highly educated and progressive young men; they were convinced that the reactionary tsarist regime had to be abolished. They disagreed only in the ways of the solution of the eternal Jewish question.

We met in a somewhat extraordinary situation .During my first days in Yekaterinoslav I wandered in the town a lot of time. I often came to the gates of Bryansk works, the biggest enterprise in the town. The works were situated on a large territory in Chechelovka. It was nice to see that after the hoot a strong and noisy stream of workers flowed from the gates and slowly moved about Chechelovka streets. Most of them went directly to the pubs. Wives and mothers waited for their husbands and sons at the days of payment in order to prevent them from going to pubs and to save them from fights that sometimes ended with murder. Once, I meddled in a family conflict. A young pretty woman asked her husband to go home. She used the most endearing words: my darling, my love, tasty borsch is waiting at home. But the lad with thick black hair slapped her on the cheek when she drew his jacket slap. The people around began to laugh and to yell cynical remarks. At that moment I felt my fists clench, the blood rushed to my cheeks, I did not control myself. I threw myself on the lad and hit his stomach with my head. Wherefrom had I such a violent strength! The lad fell and bumped his head against the earth. He tried to rise but I rushed on him again and slapped his cheek. I was in such fury that did not feel that tenacious hands gripped me on the back and sharp teeth bit me in the cheek. That was the young woman whom I stood up for, she violently defended her darling. I was puzzled, wiped the blood by hand. I don’t know how it would have ended if many idlers did not come to the place of incident. Between them there were two men in students’ jackets. One of them was rather short, dark, with big hazel eyes and chestnut-colored hair – he stood and mechanically shook his head. The other student was thin, with sunken chest and deep set eyes. Soon I knew that they were students of Polytechnic University of Ekaterinoslav. The dark and short one came and tried to wipe with his handkerchief blood from my cheek. I thought how the surrounding would estimate my action; especially I was interested in the opinion of these two students, to whom I felt unconscious liking. My instinct did not deceive me.

One of my new acquaintances was Matus Kanin, the other, thin and with sunken chest said: “My name is Mulya Shlonsky.” I later learned that his name was Abram. They knew each other from childhood, and were sitting at the same desk in private secondary school of Kagan in Vilno. They both took a fancy to mathematics and physics, but they also knew very well Latin, Greek, spoke fluently in German and French, citated Tatsit, Iosef Flavy , Caesar, and read aloud speeches of Tsitseron in Latin. They knew very well West-European and Russian literature, were fond of paintings and music. Indeed, the fate brought me with people educated in the full sense of the word.

A significant feature of them was that they were very attentive to people, especially to their friends and they idealized a little those coming from working environment. In Bryansk works where they held practical training, they had many friends among the workers. They organized circles for workers and taught free Russian and arithmetic, acquainted inquisitive young men with classics of Russian and foreign literature. I also was included in one of the circles and this was not only the beginning of my education, but beginning of my deliberate revolutionary activity. This circle was attended by qualified and conscious workers who were trying to comprehend what was going on in the country and understand deeply regular development of nature and science. For instance, they were interested in such questions as surplus value by Marx, crisis of the relations of production, tyranny and democracy, the essence of wars, including the First World War, political parties and the national question. The studies were very interesting. I listened to Shlonsky’s and Kanin’s words with surprise and admiration.

They were not only teachers but they really enlightened us, they were highly intelligent and human, they considered enlightening people as one of the main goals of intelligent people. Everybody who attended their studies was thirsty for knowledge. For instance, I remember discussions on the Jewish question. I thought that this problem did not interest Russian workers, but on the contrary, all of them spoke very actively. Shlonsky and Kanin set forth two different, so to say opposite points of view. Shlonsky thought that any social problems had to be solved only on the basis of national traditions and cultures. Kanin considered social problems the most decisive and being a convinced Marxist, {BUND member), thought that only the coming revolution would solve them and then the national question would disappear. There were ardent debates; the majority, including me, supported Kanin. Here I want to make a deviation. The most advanced part of pre-revolution Russia workers as a rule high-qualified, was a very special part of the society. This is a very big and complex theme. Actually, they actively and consciously supported the October upheaval. But very soon many of them began to understand that the events were not going in the way they had supposed. As a result, they were the first who began to struggle with the dictatorship trends in the ruling party (the working opposition) and they were the first who fell under the guillotine knife. Stalin pathologically feared qualified, politically competent workers. As soon as it was possible, the prime of Russians working class was practically utterly liquidated.

At this stormy pre-revolutionary time the workers often made strikes, laid down demands of political and economical character. Shlonsky and Kanin often were among the organizers of the strikes that sometimes ended with short imprisonments. I joined the strikes spontaneously, without understanding the deep causes of what was going on. I did not feel that a certain political consciousness was forming in me.

I was happy. I already began working, the working day lasted ten hours, at night I slept six hours, and the rest of the time I studied. My teachers gave me a task, which I had to fulfill by the next time. Then they checked how I learned the material, and additionally explained what was necessary and gave the next task. In any case they demanded the exact formulation till they got it. We met in the room that the friends rented. Both of them paid little attention to their mode of life. They lived in a garret on the fifth floor. The furniture was more than modest: two iron beds, a small table without a map, which was heaped up in disorder with books, papers, pencils and ink-stands. There were also unclean cups, tea-spoons, photos of their families and girls. I was especially interested in their books. There were works by Pisarzhevsky {chemist), Darvin, “Reflexes of Brain” by Sechenov, “Metaphisics” by Aristotel and a lot of classical fiction books. On the window-sills “Capital” by Marx, “Marx and Ricardo” by Ziber, books on Russian and West history and “Faust” by Goethe were lying. Though I was not good at philosophy, looking through “Faust” I saw a phrase: “I am the spirit that negates”.

I remembered this phrase for all my life.

My studies were very successful. To pass the examinations for the full course of high school, I had to study very many subjects. The program included: ancient and Russian history, literature, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, German and Latin. My teachers considered that I had a very good memory and capacity to grasp quickly the essence, so they gave me very big tasks. After two months of studies I already read and translated almost fluently “Notes on Gallic war” by Ceasar and translated with dictionary “Wilhelm Tell” by Shiller. Besides high school text-books Shlonsky and Kanin demanded for me to read many additional materials. At the same year they helped me to study works by psychologist and philosopher Chelpanov (“Logic”, “Psychology”, “Brain and Soul”), literature on Christianity{“Myth of Christ” by Drevs, “God and Jesus” by Renan), works by Homer (“Iliada”, “Odisea”) and the essential works by Shakespare. Under the influence of books, such as “Robbers” by Shiller, “Gadfly” by Voynich, being a boy of sixteen, an image of a revolutionary formed in my imagination as a true, brave man who was ready to give his life for freedom of people.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Vorkuta Rebelion 1936 (part 2)

Once I was called to the head of the camp and offered to drive an important NKVD worker, his wife and a little child to Vorkuta. A hooded sledge was prepared with blankets and pillows. The important passengers were dressed in deer fur jackets and felt boots. The child was wrapped up in blankets. The wife of the passenger, a tall, rather pretty woman asked me whether I knew the way. I answered that it was the first time I had to drive by sledge, since earlier I passed this road by foot and under escort. The chief looked at me attentively, knitted his brows and said nothing. I was dressed in pea-jacket, belted with a rope, a warm cap, a whip in hand, like a regular coach-man. The family was seated in the hooded sledge, I sat on the coachman’s seat, took the reins, shouted something and my horse, hurrying to get warm, trotted. The weather seemed to be favorable, the winter sun broke through clouds, small snow-flakes fell on my face. I was even distracted from the tragic events in Vorkuta. Nature is always fine, even in the far North. We moved rather quickly along a rutted road. On this road mechanical materials and food products for concentration camps were usually transported, as well as numerous transports of prisoners. The polar weather is very capricious. Grey clouds appeared in the sky, they moved quickly from South-West to North-West and soon all the sky was covered with black-blue clouds. Wind blew and it began to snow. The horse was alarmed; I had to use the whip and to pull on the reins more strongly. Suddenly a sharp, gusty wind blew, snow-flakes began to stick to my face, I could not see the horse’s collar. I jumped down. The horse moved slower and then stopped in front of a big snow-drift. A hoarse voice from the hooded sledge asked: “What happened?” I shouted loudly: “A snow-storm is beginning; the horse is moving aside, I will go in front of it and pull it by the rope.” A real snow-storm broke, nothing could be seen ahead. The snow-storm grew stronger. The road was utterly lost, only white desert around. The horse stopped, my whip was of no use. Again the hoarse voice from the hooted sledge: “You strike it stronger with the whip”. I answered: “Now the horse is not afraid of the whip, it is not a human being”. My passenger got out and poking his gloved fist to my nose hissed:” Look here, if anything happens to us, I will let you rot in prison, and you will never see freedom.” These words offended me intensely and I, overwhelming the wailing of the wind, shouted loudly: “Don’t scare me, I was scared enough…better help me to get on the right road, forget for a time of your power and think of your child and wife.” Evidently my words had an effect on him; he went round the horse and took the rope. Thus we moved for about an hour and suddenly heard the bell ringing. This was salvation. A sledge with frozen cod followed us. The draymen came down, approached us and tied down the hooted sledge to their sledge. They knew the road very well, as they had passed it hundreds of times. They were criminals who served long terms, they moved without consort. In three hours we safely arrived to the concentration camp “Sivaya Maska”. In this camp consorts were collected for driving to Vorkuta. I unharnessed the horse, I had to feed and water it. I was also hungry after 14 hours of riding. I sat on the log near the house of civilians and took out my ration from the sack. The woman whom I had driven came up to me and said: “I heard very well your remark concerning my husband, for God’s sake forgive him. Since he began this work I don’t recognize him. Evidently the work strongly influences the person’s behavior.” Then she asked me where I was from and what I was before prison. I answered: “Before prison I lived in Leningrad with my family and was a philosophy professor at Universities.” After Kirov’s murder my wife and I were arrested and our children were sent out of Leningrad.” The woman exclaimed: My God, we and you are from Leningrad, how it turned out that you are here?” I explained in short how it happened and reminded that Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky and even Lenin also were prisoners. The woman listened attentively and suddenly offered: “Will you come and have a snack with us… By the way, you’ll see that my husband is not the barbarian, as he seemed to you when we traveled”. I refused, because prisoners were forbidden to sit at the same table with civilians. My fellow-traveler insisted, and we went to the civilians house. The twelve months old baby was sleeping on the sofa. My passenger was sitting at the table, covered with oil-cloth. Sliced white bread, bacon and sausage and even black caviar were on the table. Larissa (the chief’s wife) invited me to sit and began to put on my plate the food that I could only dream of. She poured a big cup of strong tea from a huge tee-pot, which stood on a red-hot stove. I began to feel some family comfort. But the chief was sitting with downcast eyes, he put lumps of sugar in his cup and seemed displeased. Larissa sat to the table with a glass of tea and looking in turn at her husband and me said in her melodious voice: “Do you know Volodya, our coach-man is a professor from Leningrad, our fellow town-man.” Then the chief, taking a sip of tea, addressed me: “What were you blamed for?” I answered: For being in Zinoviev grouping.” When will your term finish?” I answered: “Formally at the 8-th of December 1939, if they will not add to the term.” I answered: “Those, who gave the term, can add to it”. “How can they add? – the chief asked. I answered: “Тhe Special Committee of NKVD gives terms in default of persons, without court. This body is not provided by the constitution”. My interlocutor bit his lower lip, swallowed a mouthful of cool tea and flung a remark that surprised me: “Yes, something strange happened to us after the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin”.

Our talk was interrupted as head of the camp entered. The camp tradition by no means allows close terms between civilians and prisoners. Thus the head of the camp was astonished to find the prisoner sitting at the same table with the NKVD worker and his family. He looked at me with perplexity but did not dare to tell something because the chief came from Moscow and was of a higher rank. The head of the camp reported that the chief would be given another coach-man and another hooded sledge. I was glad that I would not drive the chief to Vorkuta. Dressing the pea-jacket and belting with a rope I left the house of civilians. When I was harnessing the horse, the wife of the chief approached me and put a small bag in my hands, in which in addition to food I later found two new handkerchiefs and warm socks. The pretty woman held my hand and said: “I hope you soon will be free and probably we will meet in Leningrad. I ask you not to think negatively of my husband, he being a communist had to submit the order“. We looked at each other and the woman ran quickly to the porch of the house. It is so good that in our life as convicts we can meet free people having a soul.

The weather changed to the best, cumulus clouds floated in the blue sky like huge lumps of cotton wool, snow-flakes sparkled. No wind. I saw patches of sunlight, light lines on the snow. I felt free, but in my mind I understood that I am a convict and will be a convict as long as tyranny reigns in Russia. In my heart I felt sad and at the same time good. I moved on the Ussa river as a free man without consort, admired fir-trees covered with snow. I thought about the chief’s wife, of her husband words. NKVD men are very sparing of words, they never dare to speak sincerely with a prisoner. They are afraid of their own words. The chief whom I transported was a young NKVD worker, the communist party recently mobilized him and sent him to concentration camps instructing him to be vigilant with enemies of the people. But this comparatively young man probably possesses an inner flair. Thus he gradually begins to understand what is going on. He was displeased that after receiving order he had to leave urgently the work he loved and travel together with his young wife and a little child to Vorkuta.

But when the day comes, the people of Russia will understand that both in the past and in the future, tyranny always kills everything that is alive and bright, that without freedom our life is gloomy.

My horse quickly rode on the Ussa, it hurried home where it was waited in the stable. I caught up with a big group of coachmen. All of them were prisoners, either convicts or criminals condemned to small terms for non- political crimes dreaming of speedy release. Moving along the snowy Ussa I felt well, but soon the image of another, also charming woman, Pasha Kunina came to my mind and all my joy disappeared. Again I felt unhappy, and in this state already in the dusk I came to Kochmes.I was awfully tired. Again I was in the barrack Sasha Girshberg ran to me, he was interested with my fellow-travelers and congratulated me for my traveling without consort. I hardly lied on my plank-bed as the chief of regime entered together with two warders and ordered everybody to get up and form. It turned out that they would again call the new list of executed in Vorkuta. The number of executed was now more 2,000. The bloody mincing machine continued to turn with great speed. This time I heard the name of American journalist whom I knew, he was a cook in the dining rooms for privileged concentration camp specialists. I thought: “Why he?” It was known that he did not take part in rebellion or hunger-strikes. He was more than 60 years old and still he was shot. Evidently, they wanted to get rid of a dangerous witness.

In the morning the team-leader told us that we would go to the forest to “squeeze tar.” We took saws and axes and moved with consort to birch wood. We sawed and chopped young birches, laid piles of logs, covered them with turf and set them on fire. Suddenly somebody cried: “The camp is on fire!” Several barracks were on fire, including Sasha’s” and my. We were sure that our scanty belongings were burnt. A.L.Voitolovskaya, M.A. Shlykova and “Menshevik” O.Ya. Sapozhnikova ran to us, their faces and clothes were black with soot but their eyes were shining. They had managed to save from fire our things. We began to embrace and kiss the brave women. It was said that some prisoner poured benzene on the barracks and set them on fire being in a fit of madness.

Usually on Saturdays administration members of the camp drank vodka and sang. Taking advantage of this, Sasha Girshberg and I went to the hothouse, where fresh vegetables for civilians were grown. There Maria Yoffe, the widow of former well-known diplomat and a close friend of L.D. Trotsky, was looking after all the works. Ada Voitolovskaya and Maraia Shlykova also came. The over-seer, whose duty was to watch Maria’s work, was fast asleep every Saturday and Sunday after getting drunk while we were talking on different topics. Maria Yoffe called our assembling “the Carbonari meetings”. Once she told us of the tragic demise of a woman in whom the deceased former camp chief was in love with. My wife and I met this woman earlier in Ust-Ussa. She was pretty. Already then she lived with a former prisoner, who remained as a civilian at a concentration camp after 10-years term. She told my wife that she was going to marry this man, and wouldn’t go back to live outside the camp because her first husband informed on her. This situation when the husband informs on his wife and vice-versa, was very common in Stalin’s time.

When this woman finished her term, she was waiting for the navigation season so she could go back to her loved one in

Ust-Ussa. She took the first tugboat. On this boat the former chief saw this woman and tried to rape her. She ran out of her cabin and began to shout. Then, the chief shot her and afterwards shot himself. That was how one of the endless tragedies came to a close.

A big island was near Kochmes on the Ussa tributary. There, prisoners under guarding grew vegetables and made hay. When the river was free of ice, prisoners were rowed in boats to the island, where light barracks were built for men and women. The works began in early spring, the men were plowing, and the women were planting. The working day lasted from dawn till sunset. Team-leaders always hurried the workers, threatened to cut their bread ration. Watch-towers were on the borders, the guards constantly watched over the prisoners. And yet, a group of prisoners managed to run away. When ice-drift began, they rowed on a big fishing boat on the Ussa and Pechora up to Naryan-Mar where they managed to board a foreign ship and got aboard. There were 8 people in the group, including two women. That was an extraordinary event, NKVD workers got very excited. Between these prison-breakers were short-term prisoners, to whom the administration trusted. After the prison break the regime became far crueler, after the day’s work the prisoners had to be lying on the plank-beds, those who infringed the order were sent to BUR (barrack of special regime).Once a tragedy occurred. One of the prisoners had a stomachache at night. He was not able to run to lavatory and sat down near a fence. A guard on the tower shot him. Vigilance is above all, a person’s life is nothing!

On the place of burnt barracks the administration made us build new ones. We had to do earth works, both men and women. Girshberg, Voitolovskaya, Shlykova and I united into a team; we had to dig two pits. We worked hard. Sasha and I chopped off lumps of frozen earth, and the women threw them to the side with spades. We worked 13-14 hours a day, but rarely made the norm. But even in these conditions we managed to exchange opinions on different subjects. Back then we were worried that fascism grew strong in Europe. We knew that the “socialist” Mussoliny considered socialism and fascism equal already in 1919. He himself came from proletarian mass, one time he paved streets in Milan. When he came to power, he first of all did away with all the democratic traditions. Mussoliny understood that he could not remain in power leaning upon petty- bourgeoisie in the conditions of democracy and freedom. He already came to power in 1922. The same process proceeded in Germany, where as in Italy, middle sections of the population (“marsh”) played a significant role. Hitler and his gang did not lean on the large capital, but exactly on this “marsh”. From the moment fascism came to power, mass terror began to act against Jews and all the democratic powers. While working, I tried to characterize general features of fascism: a creation of strong punitive organs, liquidation of all kinds of the democratic freedom, the personal dictatorship of the leader, mass terror against differently minded people, conversion of the ruling party into voting and demonstrating dummies, creation of military-industrial complex, exploiting the national and patriotic feelings of petty – bourgeoisie, a big army and aggression against other countries. In different countries depending on historic progress and national features fascism shows itself in different forms. The essence of fascism is one and the same, only its forms are different.

After the October revolution in Russia the so called “dictatorship of proletariat” was established, indeed it was dictatorship of one party, which essentially became at first the dictatorship of a small group of party functionaries and afterwards - dictatorship of the leader.

The communist party in the USSR liquidated all the other political parties and groups; the opposition inside the party was defeated. The cult of personality and terror against differently minded – the characteristic features of fascism - became especially notable in communist party politics after Lenin’s death. Lenin also was a dictator, but he was well-educated, taught in the West in the period of 17 years of emigration. In Lenin’s period, old revolutionaries were members of Central Committee, they kept democratic traditions. A considerable part of the Central Committee was equal to Lenin in political experience, education and talent, many of them often did not agree with Lenin rather seriously. It was quite differently when the idea of dictatorship came to mind of ignorant, vindictive, cowardly and criminal satrap from Georgia. The same idea, coming to different people’s mind, leads to totally different results, sometimes, to directly opposite ones. Fascism in Germany and in USSR has a lot in common. It is not a coincidence that the dictatorship and mass terror came to their peak at the end of the 30’es. By this time Hitler and Stalin liquidated all the objectionable and suspicious persons. They created far-flung networks of concentration camps, in both countries the military-industrial complexes grew quickly. The former painter and the former seminarian thought in the same way, both of them cynically mocked at the idea of freedom, the society turned into a mob of slaves, all the layers of society were entangled with a network of informers and agents. It is often said that in Germany all Jews were killed, but in the USSR this did not happen. I think that if the Kremlin satrap lived one or two years longer, he would also make the final decision of the Jew question. Those were our talks when the supervisors were not watchful enough. Once, a question arose: whether in the USSR there were no forces, which would raise people against Stalin tyranny. In tsarist Russia rebellions, strikes, demonstrations constantly agitated the country. What could be said in this respect? That was a vast theme demanding studies in different fields of knowledge: political, historic, sociologic, philosophic etc. I could answer only in general features. Here’s approximately what I said. The society of the USSR at the end of 30-th differs extremely from the Russian society of the beginning of XX-th century. All the progressive forces of Russia before the October revolution that had led to the February revolution were completely destroyed after Bolshevics came to power. Decisive social changes occurred. The majority of the working and creative part of peasantry was liquidated, the other considerable part of it was ruined and moved to towns, as a result a numerous strata of lumpen- proletarians arose. The progressive-minded part of workers and intellectuals also was destroyed, now the workers are mostly former peasants. Now already there are no hereditary politically educated workers - those who struggled for democracy and freedom, such as Shlyapnikov, Lutovinov, Sapronov, M. Ivanov, I.N. Smirnov, Mrachkovsky, Muralov. Who can rise against tyranny? Moreover, unprecedented in number and technical equipment apparatus of punitive organs is created. The tragic events in Vorkuta demonstrated that even a harmless protest against tyranny is ended with the cruelest violence, but there is silence in the country and masses applaud to the bloody tyrant. I remember that clever and courageous women Tankhilevich and Sapozhnikova answered that at any conditions it is necessary to secretly keep organized community of people having conformity of opinions who do not agree to submit to tyranny. They mentioned the reaction period at the time of Alexander !!!. I answered that then the whole of Russia craved for changes and repressions could not change anything, the repressions themselves were very liberal in comparison with Stalin regime. Then only tens of revolutionary-terrorists were executed, and at Soviet regime millions were killed and millions were put to prisons and concentration camps. It is time to change our concept of revolution and reaction, of tyrants and liberals. We have now to use a new experience acquired by humanity. Now Neron and Kaligula look in other way when we compare them with Hitler and Stalin.