Fedor Il'ich Dan
Account of British Workers' Delegation to Moscow, 1920
(from Two Years of Wandering, Berlin, 1923)
In May 1920 a British workers' delegation visited Moscow. Every trend in the British workers' movement was represented in that delegation. There was Robert Williams, who at that time had not yet been labelled a "traitor", and was regarded as an orthodox communist; he was honoured with special banners and kept himself apart from other members of the delegation. There was Wallhead, chairman of the ILP, there were Labour Party members, Fabians, simple trade unionists, socialist writers - Ethel Snowden, Tom Shaw, Skinner, Buxton and others - and there was even a Christian communist, Russell.* Two trade unionist workers came separately as delegates from factory committees.
As is the custom in Moscow, from the outset the Bolsheviks attempted to build an impenetrable wall around their valued guests. They were put up in the "Delovoy Dvor" hotel. This hotel maintained a standard of luxury which afforded a bizarre contrast with the unimaginable wretchedness of the lives of ordinary Muscovites at that time. The guests were furnished with cars, interpreters and guides, while downstairs, at the entrance to the hotel, Chekists were installed to demand "passes" from anybody wishing to meet the "representatives of the international proletariat" who had come to the "world proletarian capital"... In other words, in time-honoured fashion, the Bolsheviks made every effort to take their guests into their warm embrace, to show them only what it was useful for them to see, and to make them hear through Bolshevik ears and see through Bolshevik eyes, painstakingly insulating them from any "external" influence.
This operation - or, to put it crudely, this eyewash - had frequently succeeded with less perceptive or already more sympathetic foreign guests. Many of these distinguished, or even far from distinguished, foreigners left Russia with the pleasant conviction that, in general, everything is fine. The economy is "returning to normal", culture and education are blossoming as never before, the workers revere the Bolsheviks and invariably vote for them unanimously ("we saw and heard it for ourselves!"), and even the tales about the appalling material situation in Russia, about the hunger and cold, are greatly exaggerated. Certain people, it must be said, even brought material proof of Russia's well-being back with them in the form of expensive fur coats, samovars and suchlike pleasant "souvenirs" given to them by the Bolsheviks. This is quite apart from the fairly large number of foreigners who act as the permanent courtiers of the Executive Committee of the Third International. The splendid Hotel Lux on Tver'skaya Street is reserved for them, and they have no reason at all to complain of the harshness of life in communist Moscow...
The British, however, turned out to be the sort of people who could not easily be deceived by the crude Asiatic methods of their Bolshevik hosts. They came with the intention, first and foremost, to ascertain the "facts", and to ascertain them with their own hands and eyes. Therefore they had compiled in advance a short list of questions which they wanted answered, and had decided in advance to make contact not only with the Bolsheviks, but with representatives of other parties as well. They began to press for this, with typically British insistence, from the day they arrived in Moscow. Additionally, one of the delegation, Buxton, who had acquired my address from P. B. Axelrod in London, sought me out on his arrival, and through me made contact with the Central Committee of our party. Although the Bolsheviks tried to devise an itinerary for the delegation which would have made it physically impossible to meet anybody outside the officially prescribed circle of people, the British quickly succeeded in winning the right to go where they pleased, and to use their own interpreters and guides. We provided two of these interpreters, and thanks to this the British guests learned a great deal on official visits as well, which under other circumstances would have been concealed from them. Our interpreter was present even on their visit to the notorious Cheka, which in this instance turned out to be very useful. Incidentally, this breach in the Bolshevik blockade was greatly assisted by the "non-party" interpreter provided by the Bolsheviks, the trade unionist Yarotsky, who did not foresee that in the very near future he would find it expedient to become a most rabid communist. There was a slight fault in the mechanism!
For its part, our Central Committee had prepared certain materials for the arrival of the delegation. Some of these materials had been prepared even earlier, in anticipation of the - abortive - commission elected by the Berne Conference (Kautsky, Adler, Longuet, Macdonald). Purely factual material had been chosen on the Bolsheviks' general and economic policies, mostly from their own press, with brief explanatory notes. In addition, we had compiled a memorandum which described our party's sitiuation under the Bolshevik regime, and which set out its programme and tactical position. Comrades Martov, Abramovich, Yudin and I visited the delegation in its hotel on behalf of the Central Committees of our party and of the Bund. The delegation itself attended two sessions of our Central Committee. It should be stressed that individuals and groups on the delegation were careful to avoid any kind of surreptitious or separate conversations with different parties or organisations, and loyally informed all members of the delegation without exception of any forthcoming meetings. Nonetheless Robert Williams did not wish to meet our Central Committee or any of its individual members even once.
The Bolsheviks showed the British a great deal, including Red Army parades. But there was one thing they did not want and were not able to show them: a free workers' meeting. There was a simple reason for this - the attitude of the Moscow workers at that time was not one about which they could boast. So we did what the Bolsheviks would not do: the leadership of the printers' union, which consisted mainly of members of our party, made use of the bashfulness of the Bolshevik authorities in front of their foreign guests and called a massive workers' meeting in the large hall of the Conservatory. The tickets were numbered, and the audience of over three thousand consisted almost entirely of ordinary workers. This was the only workers' meeting the British were able to see but - I should add, running ahead somewhat - it was also the last such meeting in Bolshevik Moscow.
Among the speakers at the meeting were Mensheviks from the leadership of the printers' union (Chistov and Kamermakher), and Bolsheviks - Tikhonov from the Polygraphical Department of the Supreme Council for National Economy, and Mel'nichansky from the Central Council of Trade Unions. There was simultaneous translation of the speeches for the British delegation. However, even without any translation, from the way the audience reacted to the speeches of the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, the foreign guests could clearly tell that the Bolshevik regime enjoys little sympathy among the workers.
I spoke on behalf of our Central Committee. In my speech I stressed that we did not look upon our guests as judges, to decide between us and the Bolsheviks, but as comrades in struggle with whom we wanted to share our experience. They would have to face the same problems as us, and like us, would have to choose between two methods of struggle for socialism: the Bolshevik way of a terroristic dictatorship of a minority, or the social-democratic, Marxist way of the rule of the conscious majority. I cited a series of facts to illustrate the results of the Bolshevik method. The end of my speech I devoted to a protest against the intervention and to an appeal to the British workers to struggle to remove the blockade against Russia.
The meeting was already coming to a close, when a man of medium height with a long beard reaching almost to his waist came onto the stage from a side door and approached the chairman. The chairman then announced that there would be a speech from a representative of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. It was only once the orator had begun to speak that I realised to my astonishment that it was Chernov - his long beard had changed him so much! Chernov had taken an enormous risk in appearing at this meeting, since at that time he was being hunted by the Cheka. Chernov's speech was not a great success. He compared the teachings of socialism to the teachings of the early Christians, and the Bolsheviks to the degenerated Christian church. This speech was far too abstract and literary, and failed to capture this audience of workers, who responded with only weak applause.
The situation was saved by the Bolsheviks. The moment they realised that the speaker was Chernov, they were unable to remain quietly in their seats. Mel'nichansky, who was sitting next to me, fidgeted in his chair as if he were about to jump up and run somewhere. I called to him scornfully, "You want to call the Cheka?" Forgetting himself, he replied angrily, "Yes, of course, they should be informed immediately!" Other Bolsheviks also began to get agitated, and it was only our fixed stares and scorn which restrained them from running to the telephone to tell the Cheka what was happening. Instead, as soon as the speaker had finished, the Bolsheviks began to call out, "What is your name? Make him say who he is!" Chernov stood up and gave his name. The results were not what the Bolsheviks had hoped for. Their diligent police work and cries of "arrest him!" simply caused the hall to burst into thunderous applause for the quarry. The Bolsheviks lost their heads, and in the general pandemonium Chernov was able to disappear unnoticed, just as he had appeared.
The Bolsheviks were mortified by that meeting. The
damage they sustained in they eyes of a foreign workers' delegation
with that display of the real sentiments of the Moscow proletariat was
only made worse by a pitiful demonstration they organised after the
meeting, in which just 100 to 150 people marched from the meeting place
to the building of the Moscow Soviet. They had not realised that with
that sort of number it would have been better not to have gone ahead
with that demonstration. From that day on the avenging hand of the
Bolsheviks was raised against the initiators and the active
participants of that meeting, and they simply waited for an opportunity
to deal with these "criminals". A vicious campaign was immediately
launched against the leadership of the printers' union. It was soon
broken up, and a "red" administration forcibly installed in its place,
while the members of the old leadership were sent to jail. It was soon
to be my turn...
[Translator's note - Fedor Il'ich Dan (real name Gurvich, 1871 - 1947) was one of the leaders of Menshevism in Russia and later in exile from 1903 until his death in New York in 1947. During 1917 he was one of the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet. He remained in Russia after the Bolsheviks took power, where he was mobilised for work in the People's Commissariat of Health (he was a qualified doctor). After a spell in prison for his ongoing Menshevik activities, he was expelled from Soviet Russia in January 1922. This description of a meeting held in Moscow for a visiting British Labour Delegation is the opening of his autobiographical account of his experiences in Soviet Russia during the war communist period. The British TUC and Labour Party published a volume, British Labour Delegation to Russia 1920 Report (London, 1920) detailing the findings of the delegation, which also has a short account of the same meeting.
* The members of the delegation were Ben Turner, Margaret Bondfield, A A Purcell, H Skinner, Ethel Snowden, Tom Shaw, Robert Williams, Charles Roden Buxton, and L Haden Guest. R C Wallhead and Clifford Allen were in Moscow at the same time as delegates from the Independent Labour Party. The "Christian communist Russell" referred to by Dan was almost certainly Bertrand Russell (who was neither a Christian nor a communist), who was independently in Russia at the same time. - FK]