The Russia I Believe In
Chapter 10: Developments and Travels in Russia
Samuel N. Harper
DURING MY TRIPS TO RUSSIA FROM 1911 TO 1913 I WAS EXPECTED TO DO certain chores for the University of Liverpool, such as collecting promised articles for the Review; but the balance of the time was my own for study and research. As usual, I divided it between the Duma and travels in the country. The Duma, conservative though it was, had by this time, developed a certain professional pride; and conflicts between it and the bureaucracy became constantly more acute. Premier Stolypin had defended the Duma, although he had used it for his own ends, but his successors adopted a far more reactionary policy. They were definitely, controlled by "those dark forces laying rough hands on the machinery of state," to use the circumlocution which all understood to mean Rasputin. Because of the vast influence of this sinister figure, and in line with my intention to study all manifestations of Russian life, I thought, at one time of trying to arrange a meeting with "the monk." My Russian friends advised strongly against any such step, however, assuring me that it would tend to discredit me in my work.
After Stolypin's death, his land reforms were continued by the able men whom he had established under him, and this revolution in rural Russia was the most constructive development of these years of reaction. In this period I found it still more difficult to follow at first hand the conditions in the workman class, to which reaction had brought constantly increasing oppression. There seemed to be no corresponding development of opposition among the workers, either individual or organized. The revolutionary elements were still in a state of despair from failure or dissolution from police measures. But in 1912 there occurred the tragedy at the Lena gold fields, where the excessive cruelty of the police aroused a definite protest from the Duma. There were resolutions against the continued use of "exceptional measures," and a demand for the introduction of those civil liberties which had been promised in 1905 but had never been fully granted. Further, the Duma introduced a comparatively liberal social insurance law for employees. And, finally, it introduced a law requiring universal education, to be attained within ten years, with generous appropriations to support the program. This law attempted to reduce considerably the extensive participation in, and control of, primary education by the church. It was thus clear that even the conservatives were beginning to question the wisdom of continued blind reaction without any effort to correct the conditions that had caused the revolution of 1905.
In 1912, on my way from Russia back to Liverpool, I stopped off at Warsaw to meet and help Professor William I. Thomas, of Chicago. Thomas had conceived the idea of studying economic and social conditions among certain peasant groups in Europe from which many of our immigrants had come, to determine the influence of the latter on the former, and vice versa. He decided to begin with a Polish group and asked me to help him establish the necessary connections in Poland. I was able to put him in touch with many friends among the Polish deputies to the Russian Duma; and through them Thomas found, with a minimum of delay, the very man for his purpose, Florian Znaniecki, whom he brought to Chicago and with whom he published his celebrated volumes on the Polish peasant. Knowing of my interest in the Russian peasant, Thomas urged me to keep in mind the possibility of working with him on a similar study of Russian groups.
Therefore, when I decided in September, 1913, not to stay on in Liverpool, I went to Russia to collect material for Thomas' project. At the request of the American consul at St. Petersburg, I had also agreed to spend some time with W. W. Husband, of the United States Department of Labor, who was investigating the problem of Russian immigration to America. As this immigration was largely from peasant communities, this work fitted in very neatly with the study I was undertaking for Thomas.
From the first of September to the middle of October, I made, with Husband, one of my most extensive trips in Russia. Our object was to
( 79) visit directly those peasant villages and areas from which, according to the reports of Ellis Island, a new wave of immigration seemed to be starting. To expose the secret agents of the German steamship companies, we had to play around with the Russian police at all points. We traveled down the Volga from Saratov to Astrakhan, stopping off in certain areas to drive along the shore through the villages, talking to peasants who had been in America. We sailed across the Caspian in an old schooner with an auxiliary engine, to the shores of the Caucasus. We had one of our most interesting interviews in the bombproof and windowless office of Beletsky, the chief of police of the territory. Suffering from asthma but having to work in this tightly closed room, Beletsky was forced constantly to use an atomizer. Husband's hilarious imitation of this interview became famous in Washington.
We proceeded to Vladikavkaz in the Caucasus Mountains, where my meticulous expense account rendered to the government shows our first "bath—one ruble." A drive of 140 miles (40 hours) on the Georgian Road, changing horses every 10 miles over the mountains, brought us to Tiflis after two nights spent at strange inns at Kazbek and Duchet. Our nourishment was largely bread and wine. As we moved southward to Alexandropol and Agin on the Turkish border to get into Russian Armenia, the authorities insisted on supplying us with a guard of two Cossacks. We were glad to have this protection when we were besieged by some six hundred Armenians who had been refused admission to Ellis Island. They were sure we had been sent by the American government to reimburse them for their losses when they tried to migrate to America.
We returned to Tiflis and went by rail to Batum, where we missed our boat connections and were delayed over two of the hottest days l have known. We found much material we were looking for here. A very turbulent Black Sea carried us by boat to the beautiful city of Sevastopol. I missed seeing Balaklava.
We went on to Poltava and Kiev by rail. Here we luxuriated in the best rooms, enjoyed the best food, and went to good theaters for five days while investigating Jewish immigration problems. Then we drove partly and went by rail partly, visiting villages and peasant areas, southward toward Odessa, via Belays Tserkov, Zliashkov, Vapnyarka, and Slobodka. I had not remembered Odessa as such a beautiful city—perhaps three days in the Jewish pale, sleeping in Jewish inns, five to a room, gave me a different perspective. It was a hard trip but most valuable.
By this time Husband has, I hope, forgiven me for the many sleepless nights he had to spend in peasant huts or primitive taverns. From the material we secured on the spot we were able to get action, not only against the agents of German shipping companies but also against certain clerks and interpreters at Ellis Island, who were grafting, without scruple, off the poor immigrants. I believe our investigation contributed to the successful establishment of the American policy that prospective
( 80) immigrants must be examined before embarking from European, and particularly German, ports.
After completing my work for the Department of Labor, I spent the rest of the winter in the St. Petersburg library collecting material for Professor Thomas. I was glad to have a winter in Russia, for all of my trips, since 1904, had been in the spring or summer. I lived with Rennet, a retired correspondent of the New York World.
With the movement toward liberalism in Russia from 1904 on, anti-Semitism had tended to decline. But in the winter of 1913-14 the Beilis trial was one of the manifestations of the increasing governmental reaction The more decent conservatives in Russia were deeply shocked by this attempt of the government to prove against a whole people the medieval accusation of ritual murder. While in Kiev with Husband, I saw the lawyers for the defense and went over the indictment papers with them. The trial was the outstanding subject of discussion that year, and the chief issue of the political struggle that was once again beginning to assume revolutionary proportions.
In March of 1914, while I was still in Russia,
news stories began to hint at the tenseness of political and commercial
relations between Russia, on the one hand, and Germany and Austria, on the
other. A new Russian nationalism had accompanied the constitutional development;
and those Russians working for constitutionalism were at the same time fighting
German influence in Russia, which they held responsible for the reactionary
court policies. In Berlin, where I stopped on my way home in April, talks with
American correspondents there who had previously worked in Russia made me
realize clearly the German attitude toward this new spirit in Russia. The
possibility of trouble seemed apparent, and, on arriving home, I allowed myself
to talk of the imminence of conflict in eastern Europe. I felt that this fact
was of general importance and also that it justified the urging of more interest
in Russian affairs.
While the Thomas project was of sufficient scope to keep me occupied in the next months, I had to consider seriously the resumption of academic work in America. Having given up the post at Liverpool, I started the usual procedure of calling attention to my availability and qualifications. It looked very much as if I would go to a women's college to teach general European history. But in August came the outbreak of hostilities, first in eastern Europe and then in western Europe. The responsibility of Russia for the war and the question of the effectiveness of her participation were in the foreground. Immediately, interest in the Russian field was kindled. Mr. Crane again came forward with the offer to support resumption of my work at the University of Chicago, and I returned for the opening of the academic year 1914-15.