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.

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