Russian Sidelights

THE studio windows looked down on Moscow River and the Kremlin. As the young painter-journalist rattled on, he now and then emphasized his words by flinging an arm out toward the river, the ancient mossy-red rampart above it, and the gilded Kremlin domes.

‘We’re a nation of artists and savages. You can reach us through our feelings — give us a poem, a play, a picture, and we can imitate it, or even improve on it. You send us cannon,’ — He raised both arms helplessly and dropped them.

‘You thought Russia was a huge country. That was a fiction built up by the old régime, which meanwhile intrigued with Germany. As a matter of fact, Russia extends for a few hundred kilometres, north, south, east and west of Moscow. The rest was a foreign country, held together by force. It might become a federation and grow into something like your United States, but it never was a nation in the real sense of the word.

‘You think we’re a great agricultural country. Another fallacy. We have land but no agriculture. Our peasants dance on their fields instead of fertilizing them.

‘Foreigners have been very naïve. They assumed we were modern, strong, and capable because of a few fine things we sent to them. They read Tolstoi or saw Pavlova, and said “Ah! — a great people! ” They saw greatness through the entrechat of some ballerina’s legs.

‘You thought we had a great army. We had no army and neither officers nor soldiers. We had skillful technicians, but they were not good officers, because a good officer must be on good terms with his men, and that, under the old régime, was impossible. Our army was n’t an army, but a prison, with soldiers for prisoners. It is true the Russian soldier will endure conditions no other soldiers in the world would submit to — I served my time at the front, and I know. They have a patience épouvantable! They fought well because all human beings will fight to save themselves, or when enraged by the fire of the enemy. But they had no idea why they were fighting — they were not soldiers, they were slaves driven by their masters.

‘The revolution which began so beautifully is no longer beautiful. And this was inevitable. If you cut off a man’s leg because he has some malignant sore in his foot, he may recover, but you do not immediately enter him in a race. You may have a race between two men on foot, but not between one man on foot and another in an automobile. Even if you give him an automobile, it must be especially built for him, and very simple, or he will break it the first time he tries to run it.’

The young man talked well and was not displeased with his own eloquence. His realistic detachment was a bit extreme, no doubt, yet, thoroughly Russian. The Russian resembles the Frenchman in that, — in his lack of hypocrisy, — though the two are so very different. One of the minor — and rather melancholy — compensations of the breaking in Russia of all those ties that usually bind a nation together, is that every one may say exactly what he thinks.

They were singing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Moscow opera. Six balconies, in crimson and gold, crowded as in times of peace, and everywhere the imperial eagles. There were eagles on the empty royal box, still guarded in the foyer by its two sentries, eagles over the proscenium arch, and looking over the edge of our box at the orchestra, I saw eagles on the drums. That orchestra. and the performance on the stage, was like some curious perfect mechanism, wound up and set going in an airtight box, and come down from the old days intact. A stone’s throw away, battered tram-cars, jammed with tovarishi who had paid no fare, worked painfully through muddy streets. Queues of tired people waited at shop-doors in order that, to-morrow morning, they might buy a little sugar or flour or cotton cloth; and the queues waiting for galoshes were about half made up of soldiers with wooden legs, intending to buy rubbers at 12 rubles, sell them to Jews for 15, who, in turn, would sell them again for 21 rubles, or whatever they could get. All this actuality, all the dirt, disorder and despair, vanished the instant the spectators crossed the threshold and caught again the warm familiar smell of the great theatre, and saw the ancient ushers, still in their old livery, and the jolly wardrobe women, receiving and hanging up cloaks with their air of welcoming old friends. And a moment later they were swept into a new world on the music of the violins. How fine and strong and sure it all seemed — the quick, imperious gestures of the leader, the discipline and team-work of orchestra and chorus, the ballet’s swift finesse! Romeo strides in,—and Romeo, too, is a Russian, — flames at the taunts from the Capulets, and like a flash, runs Tybalt through. No Hamletizing here, no qualms of non-resistance — with what untroubled repentance does he drop on one knee before the corpse, and holding his sword in front of him as a cross, lift his tenor above the chorus in eloquent lament. One must have known Russia’s moral sickness to know how reassuring these crazy operatic heroics seemed — then presently the curtain fell and one went out into the street and reality again. Only here it was a nightmare which was real.

Ghosts and echoes of the old régime assail one everywhere. One has a curious divided soul, and floats back and forth between the shabby realities of a freedom that has not yet found itself, and a slavery that had its incidental beauty and nobility.

You sit in some fine old room, as I sat one evening, in a room in the Marinsky Palace, now used as a pressheadquarters, and above the clacking typewriters and the endless half-baked arguments, suddenly see looking down on you, from the frieze, the names of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Petrarch, Calderon. Or you go into the Tretiakolf Gallery, in Moscow, for instance, and feel all at once that curious bite and mysteriousness, that rather exotic distinction of the Russia we used to know. Who were the Russians who had feelings like these, and where have they gone now?

These ghosts visit one in the most unexpected places. There was a dentist in Petrograd who used to tell me to come at ten o’clock in the morning. He was never ready at ten o’clock, and knew, of course, that he would n’t be; but when one suggested that this might be a trifle early, he would smile in his disarming way, and say, ‘Oh, yes! I get up early, too!’ At ten next morning, a sleepy little maid would admit one into an office waiting-room, silent as a tomb. After ten or fifteen minutes a tremendous running back and forth overhead— Ah — he’s up at any rate! One tried to follow his movements — now he must be dressed — this long silence must mean that he is eating breakfast. Finally, about eleven, when one was ready to dynamite the place, the door of the operating-room would open, and there he would stand in his white jacket, rubbing his hands one over the other, bowing and speaking so pleasantly in his soft, slightly broken English, that he would be forgiven again.

Beyond the muslin curtain and the usual alcohol lamp and instruments of torture, there was, instead of a New York apartment, one of the Grand Ducal palaces, from which, while closed during the summer, the tovarishi had thriftily carted away a million rubles’ worth of old tapestries, jewels, and paintings. He would stuff something in one’s mouth, say ‘Don’t close, please!’ and then disappear for half an hour. During one of these waits, I got out of the chair and began stumping up and down the room, jaw still gaping, with a notion of making enough noise to recall him. A photograph album lay on a table and I seized on that. In it was a faded picture of the Champ de Mars, where now the first victims of the revolution were buried, and where I had seen soldiers and working men and women shuffling by in that great sleepy July demonstration that lasted all day. But this photograph had been taken during one of the annual reviews of the old days, and lines of soldiers were drawn across the vast space as straight and sharp as lines ruled on paper. You could see the little specks of men — dead long ago, no doubt, on Galician and Polish battlefields — presenting arms, see the drummers beating the long roll, while down in front the Tsar and his suite, ablaze with decorations, went trotting on their splendid horses. And one felt small as one would have felt that day, when a mere civilian who raised a finger would have been crushed like a mosquito; and there in the dentist’s office, with its smell of drugs, that dismal November morning, the thing came back again, — that old hypnotic sense of majesty and power. One felt it, yet stood outside and looked at it, and wondered at the quaintness of a world, out of which something so strong and seemingly permanent, should, at a snap of the fingers, so to speak, vanish like so much smoke.

At tea one evening in one of the old Petrograd houses, we were again turning over photographs, — ladies of the seventies and eighties, with splendid bare shoulders, and wasp-like waists, and cold white faces at once beautiful and cruel — the kind of women men fought duels over, or for whom they shot themselves. There was a young cavalry officer among them, a nephew of our hostess, sitting his rearing horse as if he were an equestrian statue. He had ridden at military horse-shows before the war, the Austrians knew him, and when he was killed in one of the first engagements in 1914, they sent a letter to the Russian commander, expressing their regret. Ghosts now — he and the other young knights of his class who went riding out into the west, as if to a tournament; and if he had been alive that night, his own soldiers might have murdered him, or he might have had to slip like a thief into his own Petrograd.

Kerensky’s theatrical appearance at the democratic conference in October was perhaps his last victory. The conference had been called to clear the air for the much-postponed constitutional convention, and it came when the air was still murky with the smoke of the Kornilov fiasco. Kerensky’s part in that was by no means clear—he seemed to have worked with the commanderin-chief up to a certain point, and then to have turned on him with cries of treason and counter-revolution. Neither those who sympathized with Kornilov, nor those who hated him, were satisfied, and it was plain that Kerensky must either clear himself or be beaten.

From our place just under the stage — the conference met in the big Alexander Theatre in Petrograd — we could see the committeemen on the stage, the orchestra and five balconies packed with delegates, and the imperial box in the centre of the first horseshoe, where various dignitaries were sitting, including Verkhovsky, the new War Minister. He was a tall, well-built, grave young man with spectacles, a professional soldier and socially allied with the upper class, yet with enough originality and imagination to say in his first announcement that Kornilov and the other old-school generals were useless now, ‘because they did n’t understand the psychology of the presentday soldier.’ People still hoped to build up the army, then, and Verkhovsky seemed to offer real hope. He was brushed aside even sooner than Kerensky was. Cheidze, a squat little Georgian, with a rasping voice, from the Caucasus, presided. A Social Democrat and regarded as extremely radical in the old Duma, he had become almost ‘Right’ as the Bolsheviki power grew, and his quick wit and firmness had done much to keep the wilder horses from running away during the AllRussian Congress a few weeks before.

About him were various revolutionary figures — the tall, dark, oriental - looking Tseritelli; Chernov, suggesting, with his plump figure and mane of hair, a rather soft and domesticated lion; Mme. Kalentai, a well-born lady who had turned Maximalist, fled to escape arrest, and now, in the bewildering revolutionary fashion, was here on the stage talking over the footlights, big as life, to some of her friends in the front row. In the left-hand stage box sat a dark, bearded professorial-looking man, the author of ’Rule No. 1,’ which started the breakdown of discipline in the army; and beside him, Mrs. Kerensky, a girlish-looking woman, with a quite Russian face, and wistful expressive eyes. In one of the front rows, among the men, was the sad face of Vera Figner. Like the famous ‘Grandmother of the Revolution,’she was one of the old-school revolutionists — idealists of the upper classes, who left everything, in the sixties and seventies, to ‘return to the people,’ and literally to live their life, but she had kept none of‘Babushka’s’ almost masculine vitality and optimism. Her gentle face, under its severely parted gray hair, lit up sometimes for an instant when she was spoken to, but a moment later resumed its fixed look of sadness and disillusion. She was here now among some of the peasant delegates, but as far away in feeling from most of those in the front of things at the moment as she would have been at a meeting of the Council of Empire in the old days.

The meeting was called to order. Several spoke, one of them, the Bolshevik Kamanev, attacking Kerensky openly and declaring that a coalition government was impossible. There was a good deal of noise, and few noticed who had entered the royal box, until Cheidze’s rasping voice suddenly announced Comrade Kerensky. The whole house turned and saw the Minister President standing at the front of the box, with one hand thrust in his military tunic in his favorite Napoleonic pose. Waiting until the applause became insistent, he made a quick gesture, disappeared through the box curtains, and preceded and followed by several aides, strode rapidly down the runway over the orchestra seats to the stage.

He shook hands with Cheidze, and then with each member of the committee in the semi-circle on either side of him, going first down one side and then down the other, and giving each a curious, rapid, entirely impersonal handshake — all with the sharp punctilious air of a soldier come from great affairs to these slower-moving, less important men of words. Then he swung about to the house and began to speak. The interruptions came almost at once. Cheidze banged his gavel and threatened to throw the disturbers out. The interruptions continued and nobody was thrown out, but gradually the sympathetic noise grew louder.

Kerensky spoke with one hand behind his back, the other thrust into his tightly buttoned coat, his whole body quivering. He gave the impression of a man under intense nervous strain, living and working on his nerve, thinking in flashes, and acting largely on instinct and impulse — a man who reasoned, so to speak, with his nerves instead of his brain. In the climaxes, he released one hand in sharp, spasmodic gestures and occasionally flung both hands over his head, fingers quivering. A Russian reporter, describing the speech, said, ‘It was the gesture of a man struggling in the water. As I looked, I seemed to be on the bank watching a drowning man going down for the last time.’

Kerensky threatened, asserted, appealed to patriotism, explained without explaining, His part in the Kornilov adventure was still not clear, but by sheer nervous intensity, that half-ecstatic fervor, with which he had won many crowds, he whipped his crowd into line. The contagion spread as he strode down the runway again, with that same preoccupied air of hurrying back to great affairs; and again he pushed through the curtains of the royal box, and stepping to the front of it, raised his arms and called for cheers for the ‘free Russian Republic.’ A great uproar came back to him and with a word to his attendants, he disappeared. The performance was generally described at the moment as a ‘triumph ’ and ‘ovation.’ It was neither, but it was exceedingly well stage-managed, and it was not until several weeks later that Kerensky and the rest of the Provisional Government were swept aside like driftwood when the ice breaks in the spring.

It is odd to recall now, and suggestive of what everyday life was like in Petrograd, that one of the most striking features of the conference was that you could get sandwiches for 20 kopeks and tea for 10 kopeks, with two lumps of sugar to every glass! The speeches ran right on through dinner-time and into the evening, and we were famished when the word went round that the regular theatre buffets were open. In the Nevsky cafés, thin little sandwiches cost a ruble apiece, and coffee another ruble, and even in good restaurants, one had got used to the warning phrase ‘bez sahkar’ — no sugar. The theatre buffets are generally much more expensive than ordinary cafés, and to crowd up with a fighting mob and get a whole sandwich for a 20kopek stamp, and two lumps of sugar as well as tea for 10, seemed about like dropping a penny in the slot and getting a magnum of champagne. Men grabbed like children and gulped their scalding hot water and sugar down as if afraid that the people behind the counter might find out their mistake before they could escape. It seemed like giving things away, and as a matter of fact it was, for the sugar had been requisitioned from hospital stores, in order, apparently, that the visiting delegates might get the notion that things in Petrograd were not so bad as people said.

To tales of peasant simplicity and ‘darkness,’ there was no end. Instead of idolizing the peasant, as educated Russians — and foreigners — used to do, when he was merely a sort of goodnatured domestic animal, the fashion, now that the educated classes had become almost strangers in their own country, was to harp continually on his stupidity and cussedness. It makes a great deal of difference, of course, whether one sees the simple moujik against such a background as, for instance, an annual review on the Champ de Mars, or whether the moujiks, themselves, are romping round Mars field, monarchs of all they survey. Here is a day’s grist of anecdotes — the kind of thing, true or not, one was always hearing: —

The peasants of X——were suffering for rain. They told the priest they thought they had done wrong to put the words ‘Provisional Government’ in the usual prayer for the royal family, and that they should pray as of old for the Tsar. The priest said he had no right to make the change, but finally consented, after a long discussion, and there was a regulation old-fashioned chant for Tsar Nicholas II and the imperial family. Within three hours there was a magnificent downpour, and the whole neighborhood are now enthusiastic monarchists.

At Tobolsk, where the Tsar and his family were confined, the peasants, seeing how often priests visited the house, decided that Nicholas must be a good man and that they had done him an injustice. So the house was surrounded day and night by peasants on their knees praying for forgiveness.

In Penza, they threw flour in the river so that the bourgeois — ‘bourzhooy,’as they say — should not get it. Having taken the land from one proprietor and had no success with the crop, they begged him to take it back again on the old terms.

Old General A——had to make a request of one of the new ministers, whose office was in a former palace. The minister had no doorkeeper, and in his stead had thriftily given employment to his two sons, little boys with colds. They sat on either side of the door, both snuffling and wiping their noses. ‘Is the minister in?’ asked old General A——. ‘Yes,’ replied one of the youngsters sliding down from his chair; ‘wait a minute [snuff] and I’ll go [snuff] and tell him! ’

My landlady’s cook saw a procession coming down the street with a red banner and the familiar word ‘svoboda’ (freedom) on it. ‘Here comes another liberty!’ she said. How could Russia be a free country, she asked, when the Tsar was in prison.

R——says that his dvornik (a sort of doortender) was not feeling well, and was told by somebody that he ought to stop drinking coffee. ‘How can coffee be bad for you? ’ he demanded. ‘Look at the Germans! They drink more coffee than anybody in the world.’

The Bolsheviki have declared Breshko-Breshkovska, the ‘Grandmother of the Revolution,’ — she is 74 years old, — reactionary, in spite of her years of exile and life of service for Russia. But for a time the revolution brought the venerable revolutionist poetic justice, and during the autumn, she lived in two pleasant old rooms just up under the roof of the Winter Palace.

Any one could call during certain hours, and I dropped in one gray morning. One of the old palace servants, a tall, bearded functionary, still wearing the old long blue-and-gold coat, met me on the ground floor and took my hat. ‘Ah, Babushka!’ he said. His manner changed at once, and with a playful, almost familiar air, he led me up stairway after stairway, hung with beautiful old tapestries, to the top floor.

One of the surprising things about the Winter Palace, so huge and monumental from without, is the number of charming little private apartments stuck into it at all levels. This was one of them — a snug little retreat, warm, rich, and restful, with a few dusky old Flemish paintings on the wall, a mahogany bed behind a heavy mahogany screen. A short-haired, rather ’artistic’ looking young woman acted as secretary, and there were several secretarial young men. ‘Babushka’ herself, a survivor of the days when typewriters were unknown, and of years of prison life during which one was fortunate to have even pen and paper, sat at a big table by the low window, writing rapidly — scooting over the paper, as ladies write letters in plays.

Several visitors waited their turn. One, a vigorous, middle-aged man with spectacles, Babushka embraced and kissed, Russian-fashion, sounding smacks on both cheeks. When my turn came, she shook hands and said in English, with a strong accent, ‘My friend, what can I do for you?' I said I had come merely to pay my respects. We talked for a little, with some difficulty, for she was hard of hearing and out of practice in English. She was busy with committees on school improvement, women’s matters, and so on — more than she could handle, she said, yet everybody wanted her name. But then, she had never had time for anything but to work for her country.

‘I was in America once, and near Niagara, but I did n’t see it. We have some beautiful falls in Finland, too, yet I never saw them, and then our great galleries here in Petrograd and Moscow — and I like all those beautiful things — but there’s never the time.’ The Russian people had never known liberty, she said, and did n’t know how to use it now. The Allies must be indulgent and help all they could.

While we talked, one of the old palace servants, in his long coat, came in with a tray. ‘Here is your lunch, Babushka,’ he smiled; ‘are you ready for it now?’ They all treated her with this half-smiling deference, as if her nickname ‘ Grandmother ’ were really true. Her manner was that of one who accepted this as right and natural, looked on herself as a servant of the revolution, and was not without a certain detached appreciation of how satisfactorily she filled the rôle. Her vigor and readiness to talk, and unquenchable optimism made her very different from that other revolutionary heroine of the same day and school, Vera Figner, about whom there was always something of the ‘ lady,’ permanently stamped by autocratic cruelty, and starved of hope, and left with a fixed, almost petrified sadness and disillusion. Yet, Breshko-Breshkovska herself belongs to the ‘noble’ class, her people were landand serf-owners in the government of Chernigov, northeast of Kiev. It was their own servants and serfs who convinced her of class injustice, she said; and after the serfs were freed in 1861, she joined in the ‘return to the people’ which took so many young idealists of that time. With a pack on her back, she set out in peasant costume, preaching that the land should be owned by those who till it. The peasants agreed to this, but could not believe that the Tsar was not their kind father and that the fault lay in him, and not in those around him. Some maps she carried with her were seen by a peasant woman, who reported to the police and she was arrested. Exiled to Siberia in 1874, in the neighborhood of Lake Baikal, she was shifted afterward to various neighborhoods, and endured all sorts of discomfort, yet kept her health and her enthusiasm. She was in Siberia when word came from Kerensky that she was free, and she went at once by wagon to the nearest railroad and reached Moscow in April of last year.

The autumn sun holds later in Moscow than in Petrograd and there are more pleasant little corners for it to rest on. They meet one at every new street — old world bits of Kremlin wall or city rampart, the side of a church covered with antique-looking frescoes, a blind alley, at the end of which the warm sun blazes on a garden wall, the yellowing chestnut or birches hanging over it, and above them beet-shaped little church domes in gilt, or green, or indigo blue. It is a comfortable old town, eighteenth century in all but its newest parts, and mediæval in the rest. Marxian socialism seems curiously out of place here, the débâcle gathering in the Capitol was felt less, and people talked more hopefully of what might be done.

Some of the artists of the Moscow theatres— in Russia, players are often serious artists, like writers and painters — were especially interesting, and though bewildered and depressed like all educated Russians, full of dreams, nevertheless, of what they might do to educate the people and build up a new sense of nationality and patriotism. A union had been formed, partly to protect the players themselves in the new conditions bound to result from the general disorder and the probable withdrawal of government subsidies, partly to broaden the influence of the theatre itself. There was one scheme, for instance, for a sort of big municipal theatre, in which the various Moscow companies should play in turn, at reduced prices.

‘Of course,’ they said, ‘those who loved Russia and tried to work for her in the past, were generally sent to jail for it. Our people had never been allowed to be patriotic. We must begin at the beginning. But there is no end to what might be done if we can act with our hearts as well as our heads and put the new ideas into emotional terms, so that the people will be reached by them.’

Stanislavsky, the director and one of the actors of the famous Art Theatre, was full of these hopes, as well as of new ideas for his own theatre. Among the latter was that of inviting foreign companies to visit them, after the war, to give performances in their own language, and, so far as possible, just as they would be given at home. The name ‘Stanislavsky’ is for the public, and not that of the old Moscow family, of which the director of the Art Theatre is a member — his own attitude and that of his associates, was illustrated when they declined to be photographed, with the explanation that, while their pictures in costume might be found at the regular dealers in such things ‘their personal lives were their own.’ In repose — if he ever is in repose — a tall grenadier of a man, mentally, Stanislavsky is a bird on the wing. Busy with a dozen things at once, and one of the hardest men to find in Moscow, he is, when one does find him, altogether simple and hospitable, alive with ideas and sympathy and quick contagious charm — a very unusual example of the artist-executive.

In addition to revisiting the Art Theatre, I saw something this year of its two ‘ workshops ’: the little ‘ Studio,’ used, as its name implies, as a secondary and experimental stage, especially for the more intimate sort of plays; and the ‘Second Studio,’ used entirely by the young folks of the Art Theatre’s dramatic school. In straining to project, themselves to the limits of a large audience, Stanislavsky said, actors necessarily fell into a habit of over-accent, and lost that quiet realism and sense of character which is the peculiar quality of the Art Theatre’s plays. To correct this, their players returned, every now and then, to the ‘Studio,’ and appeared in little one-act pieces and even monologue character sketches; then, after this artistic vacation, resumed their regular work.

He spoke of their method of breaking in new players — those, that is to say, already trained in other companies — and of rehearsing a new piece. The newcomers were generally told to forget everything they had learned. A player might merely sit on the stage day after day, trying all the time to get a clearer feeling of what the writer had in mind — to ‘live into’ the part. Bit by bit the part would be built up, and then came the task of finding the one tendency running through the various characters, and drawing them all together. I was reminded of this talk later, while watching the presentation of one of Dostoyevsky’s stories; not a ’dramatization,’ in our sense of the word, but the original dialogue played literally, with sufficient characterization and stage management to give the impression of unity, — a kind of novelplay with which the Art Theatre has had unique success. In one scene twelve or fifteen characters were gathered round a dinner-table. A certain amount of ‘story’ held the scene together, yet each one of the group was enveloped, so to speak, in the most extraordinary way in his own little aura of temperament and experience — each was a Chekov story in himself.

The Moscow Art Theatre makes one feel as Hazlitt used to say he felt — that he but existed through the day and began to live in the evening in the theatre. It is not a ’show’ one sees there, even in the best sense of the word, but a finer, richer, more nourishing kind of real life. This is it, you feel, this is the real thing.

Even the ushers are different, and when they close the doors, as they do before each curtain rises, — no one is permitted to enter afterward, and there is no applause, — they do it, not with the air of mere employees, but of those who, in their own small way, are also artists and responsible for the play’s success. An evening at the Art Theatre when a Chekov play is on — the venerable Prince Kropotkin, back in Moscow, after his life of exile, was watching the ‘Cherry Garden’ the night I was there — is one of the fine flowers of civilized city life; one of those things — and there are n’t many of them — which one would really miss if one had to spend all one’s life on a Wyoming ranch.

There is nothing in the papers these days of Stanislavsky and Russians of his class, but they are all there in their broken and bewildered Russia, nevertheless, and sooner or later, must come into their own again. And at a moment when every blatherskite can heap ridicule on the Russian people, and talk of their ignorance and immaturity, it is just as well to keep in mind some of the things in which Russians are grown-up, in which we, comparatively speaking, are mere children, and vulgar ones at that.