The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV
 

Factiories of Immorality

 

SPIRITUAL illiteracy and the home policy of the Government were the causes of endemic famine in Russia. During periods of greatest prosperity one-fifth of the village population was in the clutches of hunger, dying of starvation, of hunger-typhus. Primitive methods of agriculture in districts in which there were no estates belonging to the more cultured gentry, the obstinacy and fear of the peasants of any modern improvements of farming, diminished the crops from year to year and exhausted the soil. No wonder that whole families of peasants were leaving the land and moved into industrial towns to earn their living in factories.

Here, very soon these families were dissolved and scattered over the whole of Russia, losing all contact with each other, never to meet again. Bereft of all moral support, with only a faint stock of religious principles, these people developed into pronounced demoralised representatives of the lowest type of the ragged proletariat, heroes in the Maxim Gorky style. The women particularly sunk to the lowest depths, perished in tap-houses or hospitals from loathsome diseases, or vanished without trace behind the walls of houses, the doors of which were illuminated by the sinister "red lantern."

The villages even coined a special name for those who went into factories or mines. They called them "posadski," which may mean a thief, a criminal, an adventurer, and a ragamuffin of the suburb.

Sometimes a peasant family struggled hard to stick to the land. Then it sent its members, men and women, as temporary wage-earners into the towns. Rarely, however, did such envoys return home directly. Usually they sent the money and stayed themselves for a long time in the towns. And if they cropped up in the village they brought with them customs and habits alien and hostile to the village, licentiousness of word and gesture, contempt for family traditions, and indifference to religion. With the newcomers and their "European" clothes, hats, silks, and transparent stockings, crept into the life of the villages terrible diseases, which decimated the population and reduced it soon to a state of degeneration. This was a phenomenon which could be observed particularly in the Central Provinces of European Russia.

But really, justice demands that these poisoners of the village should not be condemned too harshly, for it is not they who were so very and exceptionally guilty.

The guilt lay with the Government and society.

I shall draw a few scenes from the life of those peasant men and women, mostly young and completely inexperienced.

A group of peasants arrived in a big town intending to earn their living; they walked from one factory office to the other, with servile bows begging for work. But this was no easy matter for naïve, half-savage paupers, who were ready to fall at the feet of every factory-watchman, and said their prayers before every holy picture, in fact every framed picture they noticed, who wept aloud or howled in despair. Thus passed days and weeks. In the meantime the entire store of food brought from the village was consumed, the small fund spent after a few days, and so one evening the peasant boys and girls had to pass the night In the streets, hungry, and with despair in their hearts.

But the streets are cold and wet, chilly and fearful, and drive the homeless man where the lights glitter from the windows of the happy "rich." There the bands of paupers throng like moths to the light, to meet the police who are watching that "paupers shall not loiter in clean streets." The next scene takes place in the police station. After a severe passport control, the homeless vagrants are sent, by way of protection, to a night asylum.

When in 1908 I visited these asylums in Petrograd, I thought I had a nightmare, so horrible was all I saw. Already at that time I felt instinctively that out of this dark and foul underworld would come forth some unknown, monstrous avengers. They have come indeed, to drown Russia in blood and themselves to perish in blood.

But when I described the metropolitan night asylums in one of the popular dailies and in several monthlies, the official press protested violently, and the papers which published my articles were fined.

On the confines of the gigantic city of palaces and luxury, somewhere behind the cemeteries set apart for beggars and suicides, rise in several districts black, massive, prison-like structures of many storeys, void of any adornment, dilapidated, their windows broken and closed up with soiled garments, pierced by projecting, crooked vent-pipes from the iron stoves.

The windows are dark, although it is only nine o'clock in the evening. Over the doors only flickers the yellow flame of a lantern showing beneath the board with the inscription "Night Asylum."

A crowd of dark figures throng in front of the gates, shivering with cold, sobbing, sighing, or weeping silently.

At last the gates open narrowly, and sturdy men admit the wretched few for whom there is still room in the asylum; however, a small coin pressed into the hand of the door-keeper will let in twice the number.

The village paupers have been admitted to the asylum. They are marched with others through dark, mud-covered courtyards, ascend iron stairs, and enter the "office," where their passports are inspected, and where they receive the number of their rooms. At last they are in a huge, low hall, almost dark. The narrow passage in the centre is evil-smelling, littered with boots, rags, and other footgear of those who a little earlier succeeded in gaining admission.

On both sides of the passage there rise in five tiers, bunklike, wooden benches, which are dirty and bare. The air is close, foul, saturated with smoke and soot from the little iron stove, the smell of petrol from the diminutive, smoking lamp close to the ceiling, with the exhalation of dirty, worn-out, and diseased human bodies.

On the benches, like so many cast-off bundles of rags or broken furniture, were lying human beings, young and old, men and women, the vicious and the virtuous, the profligate and the innocent. … Close to a boyish youth, still clinging to life, still able to dream dreams, without complaint and appeals for help, was dying an old tramp, who had stumbled through the last lap of a life which was as dark as this night asylum; into the ears of a young peasant girl, no more than a child, a powerful, drunken, red-faced, and red-haired brute was whispering vile suggestions; at the side of a woman, weeping silently with a sick baby in her arms, was sitting and chanting merry songs a curious character: a monk, to judge by his habit, a regular prison inmate according to his words and actions. … And at night … at night … abominable things took place, which rotted bodies and souls, filled brains with despair, and hearts with hatred.

Regularly every morning the place is raided by the police, which searches and examines documents; some of those caught there are flogged, others dragged to prison, and all terrified and tired out to death.

And thus passes night after night for weeks and months, till the unemployed peasants, with the perfect education of the night asylum, give themselves up to the employer of "black labour." Now they have become familiar with the city; they know how to retort boldly and quickly, have forgotten to bow low, looking insolently straight into people's eyes; they do not uncover their heads before holy images any more; they have a look of hatred and of resignation.

Now they start the true factory life, leading either to prison or back to the village, carrying with it new customs and diseases.

One of the favourite occupations of the peasants who went into the towns to earn their living was the loading of barks and ships and "burlatstvo."

Here it was always possible to make a bare living, and all who wasted long days and weeks in search of work, wandering in hunger and cold through the pitiless streets of the town or through night asylums, were allowed into it. This kind of work had the additional attraction that it was not subjected to law and authority. Man or woman was here a simple beast, like the horse or the mule, to be paid for bodily work, nothing else having any value or mattering anything.

Man, woman, young children formed one straining and active throng which did work with a quick and powerful movement, almost in a frenzy, in conditions of heat, cold, physical and moral filth, for no legislation has been thought of to protect this mob of occasional workmen, who here to-day, will probably disappear to-morrow.

One beholds here an appalling kaleidoscope of types, a motley chaos of thought and feeling.

A young girl beside a murderer, escaped from prison; a deserter from the monastery, half monk, half vagrant, shoulder to shoulder with an ex-Government official, whom drink has led to the unloading of barks. A Tartar beside a Finn, a buddhist Calmuc beside a regular Orthodox believer, a typical, demobilised, depraved street walker from a great city hand in hand with an illiterate young peasant, who still dreams of lakes and woods of his far-away, sad village.

They load coal, firewood, logs, boards, fruit, barrels of fish or butter. Everything is permitted here except theft, which is severely guarded against The entire working throng must be working all the time. There is one break only—an hour at noon—during which the workers can feed and rest. Here characters are shaped in their own fashion; here primitive morality is transformed into dissoluteness among human wrecks, one time human beings; here is the recruiting ground of future gaol birds and involuntary settlers in Siberia.

The loading of barks and ships is carried on during the summer, and those hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children lay out for themselves a camp close to the sea or a river in wood or bush. All are crowded into one mass, where disappear all modesty and bashfulness, all respect of woman, and there remains only a sinister contempt of man for man. Against this background dramas and tragedies of life are enacted; martyred life passes hopelessly from day to day without a morrow, without a future.

Maxim Gorky, Skitaletz, and a number of writers of the realistic school took their subjects from the life of this proletariat, which later on so magnificently supported the Government of Lenin and Trotsky. Thus it happened that a Frantsuzov, an ex-workman from the barks, performed the functions of Minister of Commerce and Industry in Petrograd.

A still more glaring picture of human savagery was presented in the "burlaks," who boast a tradition many centuries old.

"Burlak" is the homeless, outlawed workman, who, possessing no documents or identity because of his past, dares not, for fear of prison, come to town. Thus he is obliged to look for work in some out-ofthe-way place, where there will be nobody to ask him for documents or to oblige him to observe the existing laws.

Such places are the great Russian rivers, where the work consists of pulling the cables of the heavy river craft Hundreds of barks go up the Volga, Oka, Kama, Dnieper, and other rivers.

They are pulled on long cables by teams o burlaks moving slowly along the bank. It is terribly hard work. From early spring till late autumn the burlaks inarch, drawing the cable of the heavy bark, which cuts into their arms, chests, and shoulders; they will march sometimes singing with hoarse voices weird lays of olden times, of the famous robbers Pugachov, Rasin, Yennak, and Kolets.

Here, within the crowds of the burlaks, was born and gathered strength that unquenchable hatred of all organised society, of Law, and Church, and State.

Once upon a time the brotherhood of burlaks brought forth famous leaders who became the terror of the main Russian trade route: the Volga, whom their followers, anarchists by nature, crowned with the halo of the "avengers of the people." During the Red Revolution this revenge found its executioners among those whose shoulders and chests still bore traces of the "lamka," that cable-loop which for hundreds of years was dragged by the burlaks.

The terror of it all! While all these burlaks, lords of the sea, witches, wizards, sorcerers, and pagans, who shed the blood of the black ram or cock, spread among the ignorant Russian people licence, hatred, and lawlessness, in the capitals, the Imperial Court, nobility, bankers, and higher clergy led a gay and glittering life, of which Europe knew nothing. The scientists wrote epoch-making books, Russian diplomatists at foreign courts enhanced the charm of the Russian name, learning, art, and production, while Tolstoy, the impotent semi-philosopher and semi-romanticist, with his own peculiar Slavic psychology, proclaimed the philosophy of "not opposing evil."

Such contrasts were Russia, but none was willing or able to see them, just as at the present moment none of the civilised countries is willing to behold behind the lofty slogans of Communistic Socialism the million graves of innocent victims who were sacrificed in bloody hecatombs for the greater glory of the new faith.