Louise Bryant’s Six Red Months in Russia, with its nuanced and enlightening discussion of women’s lives, is a vital eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution and should be read alongside those of participants such as Arthur Ransome, John Reed and Victor Serge, writes Christine Bird.
Louise Bryant (5 December 1885 – 6 January 1936) was an American feminist, political activist and journalist best known for her sympathetic coverage of Russia and the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Bryant travelled to Russia with her husband John Reed in August 1917. Her news stories appeared in newspapers across the United States and Canada in the years immediately following World War One. A collection of articles from her first trip was published in book form as Six Red Months in Russia in 1918.
Two Ministers of Welfare
A fascinating chapter compares and contrasts the approaches of two ministers of welfare. Following the February 1917 revolution, Countess Sofia Panina was made Assistant Minister of Welfare – the first woman to hold a cabinet position anywhere in the world. After the October Revolution the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai became the People’s Commissar for Social Welfare. The two varied radically in their approaches. Bryant details a departmental meeting in the wake of October to which Kollontai invited professional social-workers as well as “even the lowest servants.” She explained that, “thereafter all employees should continue to be present at meetings, which would be held frequently, and that the same consideration would be given to suggestions from scrubwomen as from professional philanthropists. Every one was to have an equal chance of promotion.”
When Bryant asked Countess Panina, “if she believed in the self-governing of charitable institutions as introduced by Kollontai… [she] flushed with anger and looked at me quizzically. ‘Do you mean,’ she said, ‘the self-governing of children under six or people over one hundred?’” The fundamental difference between Panina and Kollontai, Bryant notes in the words of a Menshevik activist, was that “Panina really does like poor people – she thinks they are almost as good as other people.”
Portraits of women
There are lots of details about the physical appearance of women, which have the effect of animating discussions on their role, and making them relatable. Bryant tells us that, “Russian women are peculiar in regard to dress. If they are interested in revolution, they almost invariably refuse to think about dress at all and go about looking noticeably shabby – if they are not interested they care exceedingly for clothes and manage to array themselves in the most fantastic ‘inspirations’”.
On her way into Petrograd via Finland, the train Bryant was travelling on was stopped and searched, because, “a new order had just come in prohibiting medicines, cosmetics and what-not.” The account of an “indignant princess” who had her make-up confiscated left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, cosmetics are clearly low down the list of priorities when your country is gripped by war and shortages. There is something liberating in the description, “rouge sticks followed rare perfumes, French powder, brilliantine, hair-dye… all were thrown roughly into a great unpainted box, a box whose contents grew rapidly higher and higher, a box that had the magic power to change what was art in one’s hand bag into rubbish in its insatiable maw.” And yet, there is a part of me which can’t help feeling sympathy with this woman having her cosmetic crutch forcibly, publicly removed.
A different and more rag tag, fun sort of conformity reigned supreme among the women-only Death Battalions, units formed by the Provisional Government after the February Revolution. At a recruiting station near the Smolny Institute, Bryant made her first friends among the women soldiers. “Inside were half a dozen girls… arrayed in the strangest attire; one had on dancing slippers and a frivolous waist; another high-heeled French shoes, and still another wore brown buttoned shoes and green stockings – the only universal note was short hair and men’s trousers.” Due to a shortage of leather, most of the women’s Death Battalions never got the sturdy boots that their commanders had ordered.
Bryant notes that more women soldiers joined the Red Guard, forces loyal to the Soviets, and fought alongside men than ever joined the Death Battalions. Six were killed and thirty wounded in the Battalion’s first and last battle, during the final Russian offensive against the Germans.Those who went to the Winter Palace the day it fell to the Soviet troops surrendered before any of them were injured.
The plight of children
Bryant’s description of the condition of children is heart-breaking, and illuminates just how dire were the problems which faced the nascent Soviet state. On the retreats from Riga, among other places, they died at the rate of 800 out of every thousand. These child refugees often found themselves separated from their families, and were left to fend for themselves, cold and hungry. “In the charitable institutions,” Bryant writes, “overcrowded, disease-ridden, unsanitary, lacking almost every medical necessity only 15% survived”. Children in both town and country were severely undernourished due to the chaos caused by years of war. And yet, “children’s magazines have reached a high stage of development. They publish one called Our Magazine. All the illustrations and stories and poems are the work of small children. Most of the great Russian artists are interested in it and some fascinating numbers have been produced”.
Bryant’s character drawings are captivating, succinct and reason enough alone to read this book. Kerensky, Lenin and Trotsky are all described, along with less well-known figures such as Left Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party member Maria Spiridonova and Narodnik Catherine Breshovsky, a founder member of the SR party. As with Bryant herself, one can’t help but notice that it is the women with whom we are less well-acquainted. The latter had been, “a young enthusiast who dared to express herself under the menacing tyranny of a Russian Tsar… a Jeanne d’Arc who led the masses to freedom by education instead of bayonets; hunted, imprisoned, tortured, almost half a century exiled in the darkness of Siberia”. Bryant met her as a forgetful old lady who, “insisted on having her bed and all her belongings crammed into [a simple room] and ate all her meals there”, despite having her pick of any apartment in the newly occupied Winter Palace.
As for Spiridonova, Bryant says, “I have not met a woman her equal in any country… If she were not such a clear thinker and so inspired a person, her leadership of the physical giants would be ludicrous. She may weigh 100 pounds and she may weigh less. She has big grey eyes circled with blue rings, and soft brown hair which she wears in a coronet braid. She works on an average of about sixteen hours a day, and everybody in Russia pours into her office at 6 Fontanka to ask advice.” Lenin is, “a little round man, quite bald and smooth shaven. For days he shuts himself away and it is impossible to interview him… Lenine [Bryant uses the French transcription convention] is sheer intellect – he is absorbed, cold, impatient at interruption.” Trotsky on the other hand, “is more human… It is always possible to get an audience with Trotsky. He worked hard and was often on the verge of a nervous breakdown; he became irritable and flew into rages… Trotsky is slight of build, wears thick glasses and has stormy eyes”. In case you were wondering, Stalin is not mentioned.
Revolutionary Russia and the US: a natural affinity?
I was struck by the way that US foreign relations are reflected in the book, and the extent to which the balance of power in the world appears quite different from that of today. First and foremost, you get a sense that Bryant assumes a natural affinity between revolutionary Russia and the USA. For example, in her description of the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute, Bryant refutes the suggestion that, “Smolny was the bought institution of the German imperialists.” All of the leaders, workers, soldiers and peasants whom she encounters there, “have… the same feeling that President Wilson has about speaking to the people of Austria and Germany over the heads of the autocratic military leaders”.
She transmits various appeals for American assistance, such as that issued by Alexandra Kollontai for doctors and equipment, which were in extremely short supply. In 1919, after her return to America, Bryant began a cross-country speaking tour, titled ‘The Truth About Russia’. She addressed large audiences in many American cities, defending Lenin and Trotsky with a simple message: ‘Hands off Russia! Bring the boys home!’
It struck me that the contrast with America just 30 years later was significant. Such open and popular support for socialism was unthinkable in the McCarthyite era. When one compares with the present, there are clear echoes of Senator McCarthy’s infamous 1950s anti-Communist witch hunts in the scandal wrought by the alleged Russian support for Donald Trump’s election campaign. Not that either Trump or Putin are socialists, but still – common sense dictates that the US and Russia are enemies, and any hint of friendship may be read as a betrayal of national interests. Not so in 1918 if the tone of Six Red Months in Russia is any guide.
As a side note, the difference between attitudes to Germany then and now are marked. One has the impression that Germany was considered then in much the same way that the US is considered now, in the sense that it was the largest and most powerful country and one which was widely considered to be a force for ill in the world. The book is peppered with explicitly anti-German sentiment: “The Soviets are the only organised force in Russia that is definitely anti-German”, and, “If the [counter-revolutionary] Cossacks were really as patriotic as they pretend to be… they would have been so busy fighting the Germans that they would not have had time to add to the chaos in Russia”. Still, Bryant outlines appeals made directly to German soldiers, as with an illustration in the Soviet German language propaganda magazine Die Fackel, where a picture of the old German Embassy in Petrograd is captioned: “German soldiers and workers – why don’t you put a German workman in this place?.. When will you tear the mask from your eyes?”
Early Soviet justice
There are various accounts of the Russian Revolution with which one can compare Six Red Months in Russia. It covers a period including the October Revolution, and as such lacks the benefit of hindsight present in Victor Serge’s memoirs. It contains none of the criticism levelled at the Soviet handling of the Kronstadt Mutiny or New Economic Policy (NEP) which can be found in sometime Bolshevik sympathiser Alexander Berkman’s 1925 book, The Bolshevik Myth, as the revolution was increasingly strangled by invasion, civil war and famine. Indeed, her accounts of early Soviet justice, in marked contrast with events outlined by Berkman, are notably just and humane. Prisoners are compassionately treated, with restorative justice favoured.
Bryant gives an account of a high-profile trial at which she was present: the trial of ex-minister Countess Panina. Panina was accused of embezzling ninety-three thousand roubles of the people’s money. She argued that the money belonged to the Provisional Government and not the Bolsheviks. Witnesses debated the rights and wrongs of the case – she may well be an aristocrat who was agitating against the new Soviet government, but she had done good works in the past. Would she be executed? Imprisoned? In the end, it was decided that if she gave the money back, no further action would be taken. Panina never did hand the money over, but her friends raised the funds instead and Panina was freed. She went on to join General Denikin and the counter-revolutionary White Russian forces in the south of the country.
As a matter of fact, the book which came to mind as a point of comparison, more than any contemporary account of the Russian Revolution, was the one I had just finished reading – Simon Sebag Montefiore’s chronicle of the Russian royal family, The Romanovs: 1613 – 1918. The history of these tyrannical, autocratic rulers is punctuated with moments of particular inhumanity. Peter the Great, famous for his Enlightenment ideas, had St Petersburg built by slave labourers. “Untold numbers toiled away in the icy waters of the Neva… nameless legions of them perished to create Peter’s dream,” Montefiore writes. Peter was described as ‘menacingly hyperactive’. He had many lovers, but was controlling and abusive. After Peter had Mary Hamilton executed, he showed off her severed head and gave an anatomy lesson to the crowd, pointing out her arteries and vertebrae, before kissing her lips and going back to work. He also ordered dwarf-tossing spectacles and had his own son tortured to death, in a fit of paranoia. Nor were later Romanovs much noted for their humanity towards their ‘inferiors’. At the coronation of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, in 1896, 3,000 peasants were trampled to death in the afternoon festivities on Kholodynka Field. Nicholas made a decision to continue with the planned royal ball that evening, after an advisor argued it would be better not to surrender to a ‘bleeding heart.’
Against this background, the reforms and changes which Bryant lists are breathtaking; unimaginable even a year earlier. In a country exhausted and on its knees as a result of war and shortages, these included marriage and divorce on demand by either party if they found it ‘impossible to live together.’ In England at that time, the only way a woman could get a divorce was if she could prove in court that her husband had not only committed adultery, but had also committed other faults such as cruelty, rape and incest.
The caste system enforced in Russia since the time of Peter the Great in the mid-17th century was abolished: “All ranks – nobleman, merchant, peasant; all titles – prince, count etc. and denominations of civil grades (private, state and other councillors) are abolished and the only denomination established for all the people of Russia is that of citizens of the Russian republic.” “Right in the middle of the fiercest fighting, [Lunacharsky, Minister of Education] got out a decree simplifying spelling… And he established the School of Proletarian Drama… Plays were given in factories, in barracks. And they chose good plays by the best authors – Gogol, Tolstoi, Shakespeare.”
Six Red Months in Russia is not as neat and polished in style as John Reed’s well-known Ten Days that Shook the World. Bryant’s account concurs with others in outlining the transfer of power from the Constituent Assembly to the Soviets in October 1917 as a bloodless one, largely due to the fact its time had come: “The Assembly died like the Tsardom, and the Coalition before it. Not any one of the three showed in the manner of its dying that it retained any right to live”. It is reported that the last ever meeting of the Constituent Assembly ended at 4am, when, “the Cronstadt [sic] sailors who were on guard began to murmur among themselves. They were tired and wanted to go home. Finally one cleared his throat and said, ‘All the good people have gone, why don’t you go? The guard want to get some sleep'”.
Bryant’s account of her time in revolutionary Russia remains fantastically inspiring. It has an immediacy which makes you feel as if you were there too. Yet her analysis is incisive. Perhaps as good a place as any to leave this review is in Bryant’s own, prescient words, which provide a springboard for understanding what came next: “The most significant fact is that [the Russian Revolution] will not fall from inside pressure. Only outside, hostile foreign intervention can destroy it”.