Poland, the Verge of Bolshevism


FROM Bialystock to Slonim is something over one hundred miles. We had come from Warsaw the day before, another hundred, and hoped to get on east from Bialystock to the Polish-Bolshevist front at Slonim, and thence south down the front to Pinsk, or, if the roads along the frontier were unsafe for our heavy car, then southwest over the Russian-built military highway through Prujanny to Brest-Litovsk. If we were to reach either Pinsk or Brest by nightfall, it meant doing rather more than two hundred miles during the day. So we started early from Bialystock, of which we saw little more than the streets of late afternoon and early morning could reveal. At the railway station, where we obtained a so-called breakfast that the hotel could not give us at so early an hour, we saw a trainload of refugees who had been picked up farther east and were being hauled in box-cars toward the west. It was my introduction to the theme of this paper.

These people were being hauled back from the verge of Bolshevism—not only the geographic verge, but the political and economic verge: for this train meant not only the actual carrying of the refugees from the dangerous borderland where Russian Bolshevism is making its effort to sweep westward, but it meant new Poland’s governmental recognition of the necessity of doing something to meet the threat that everywhere now in Europe rises from masses of people existing under conditions that they are making convulsive efforts to change. We may call these efforts Bolshevism, or revolution, or anarchy, or whatever we like: the first and most important thing is to recognize their reality and their threat, and to do something swiftly for their remedy. We can analyze them with all academic nicety when we have more leisure and are in less danger of their taking an unfortunate direction; for political Bolshevism, criminal Bolshevism, and righteous Bolshevism have all enough in common as to cause and course, to make sufficiently obvious what we have immediately to do if we are to save the really good in our present social organization from being swept away with the really bad, for which the time of passing began vividly with the beginning of the war. Some of the bad has gone in violence; more of the bad must go; if we do not arrange for its going peacefully, there will be more violence.


Between Warsaw and Bialystock most of the fields were under cultivation. The dull green of the winter grain showed over long stretches from which the snow was fast disappearing under the April sun, and other long stretches were being ploughed for the spring sowing.

The farming of the great Polish plain is much like that of our Northwest: simple, undiversified, just grain and more grain, over rolling hundreds and thousands of acres. Most of the soil is not over-rich, and the yield is not large per acre; but the acreage is large per farm, and the furrows run for long uninterrupted distances. Some day these great fields will all be ploughed and harvested by the huge machines that progress, like crawling Saurians, slowly but powerfully over our own Western acres. But now the peasants, and their horses, and their wives in red and green and yellow skirts, move constantly over the fields, manuring and ploughing and seeding and reaping and stacking, or travel slowly and interminably along the heavy roads in their long, low, narrow, smallwheeled wagons, between fields and farming villages all alike in their dull color of weathered timber walls and heavy thatch.

But not all of the land between Warsaw and Bialystock that should have been cultivated was being cared for. There was lack of horses and seed and manure; lack, indeed, of farmers in sheepskin coats, and farmers’ wives and daughters in bright-colored skirts. For war has killed some of the people, weakened others, and driven yet others away.

But it was not until the next day, when we began that hundred and more miles beyond Bialystock to Slonim, that we saw what war has really done to the fields of Eastern Poland. There were a few widely separated crumbling old trenches here and there, and a few wrecked and rusting German or Russian motor-trucks along the narrow, straight, white military road. And there were scars in the scattered fir and pine forests through which the road passed, where ruthless cutting had stripped bare an occasional score of woodland acres. But all this was nothing. It would have been more intelligible if there had been something. But that was just the horror of it. There was nothing.

There were the long stretches of cultivable and once cultivated land, now all but untouched by the hands of men and women; just rarely here and there a single, pitiful, narrow line of furrows, or a tiny lonely square of worked soil. The scattered villages appeared with monotonous regularity as our speedometer told off the swiftly measured miles; lifting their low soil-colored walls and roofs hardly perceptibly above the soil itself; all alike, and now more strikingly so than ever in the silence and immobility of desertion. Now and then, in agreement with the occasional bit of worked ground, a single one, or even two or three, of the thatched-roof huts in some village sent up a thin thread of smoke, revealing human occupancy.

Finally we came to one village, larger than the average, stretching directly across the highway and giving obvious sign of more habitation than we had seen in any other hamlet. There were even a couple of sheepskin-covered men and a barefooted rickety child idling by the road. We stopped and began to talk with them. Others appeared silently and mysteriously, until there were a score of ragged, dirt-incrusted men and boys, and a couple of women. It was the population of the town, the present population. The others were still away; they might come back. These had come back. But to what purpose? No animals, no tools — the Germans had taken them; no seed, no manure, no food. But there must be some food, or you could not stay here. Well, yes, a few potatoes from somewhere. And something besides? You cannot be living on potatoes alone; though it is true that many have been forced to in these Eastern lands in these last years; that is, they lived on them as long as they lived at all. Well, then, some beets and cabbages. That is all? Yes, all. But that is n’t enough. No. What are you going to do? We don’t know; somebody must help us.

So we leave our bits of chocolate and crackers, and a box of cigarettes, and travel on through the leagues-long grainfields of Poland, in which the only visible growth is the little bushes that do not belong in them.

At Slonim there is a Polish battalion and a colonel-commandant with whom we have luncheon, more hearty in its hospitality than in its food. He shows us on his maps the general position and course of the Polish and Bolshevist front lines: the Polish line runs through Slonim and approximates closely the line long held by the Germans against the Russians. No-Man’s Land is about twenty miles wide here, and Bolshevist and Polish mounted patrols move stealthily about in it. Occasionally one side or the other crosses in some force and attempts a coup. Three weeks ago Slonim itself had to withstand a vigorous attack. But, for the most part, war on the Polish-Bolshevist front is not battle, but pressure — constant, harassing, wearing, dangerous. And one of the problems in it is that of the refugees, those forlorn beings fled or evacuated from their homes during the war and now trying to return to them.

Through Slonim there had been for some time a constant passing of these refugees from East to West. They had got through the Bolshevist lines somehow, and then across No-Man’s Land, with occasional accidents, to the Polish line. Then they went on westward toward the deserted villages in the deserted grain-fields. One lost sight and track of them after they passed. No one knew these people as individuals, as fathers and mothers and children; they were just bands of creatures moving in bands like migrating buffalo or lemmings, or like any animals driven from their breeding-ground by fire or other scourge and then blindly returning to the home wastes. Still, the land, ready to be worked, and their huts, all alike, in the villages, all alike, would be there waiting for them — if they ever reached them.

But it was not so simple after all, the commandant-colonel confessed. It was not merely a matter of letting or helping these people, who mostly were Polish peasants and peasant families trying to return to their homes, go back to their villages and fields. There was more to do than that. Among these bands were some people who were not returning peasants: they were incoming Russian Bolshevists, Bolshevist agents and agitators, some of them with much money hidden in their rough clothing. Warsaw had reported to Slonim that too many Russian Bolshevists were getting there. They must be stopped.

What was a simple colonel-commandant to do? One could not tell Bolshevist from peasant at sight. So he was simply stopping them all at the frontier. He did not have any food for them, or clothing. And they needed both food and clothing. It was hard, and, yes, — this in answer to our question, — it was a very good way to make Bolshevists out of them all, to hold them there, cold, hungry, and suffering, and talking together, in restless, resentful groups.

He sent an aide with us to one of these groups huddled together in a large bare building in the town. They were not allowed to leave the building, nor could any from outside come in. It was like a pest-house in which were crowded a group of human beings suspected of having been exposed to the contamination of an infectious disease. We found them to be starving. A woman was sitting in the midst of the huddle, silently weeping, with a dying babe in her lap. Another woman leaped at us with wild eyes, to demand food for her two children who were on the swift way to be dying.

There was another clamorous group interned in a long low shed across the river in front of the Polish line. As we crossed the bridge, soldiers were keeping back a group demanding to cross into the town. In the shed the creatures, men, women, and children, anonymous and undifferentiated from the guarding soldiers, resolved themselves under our questioning into human beings with names and relationships, into fathers, mothers, and children, into peasants, workmen, a lawyer, a school-teacher, with life-stories, with sorrows and complaints, with desires and hopes. They were creatures of our species and race, they were of the brotherhood of man. But they, too, were ‘unclean’; some of them were probably Bolshevists; all of them had been exposed to the disease. The homely, direct military remedy was to cage them. It was not a remedy that would save them; but the colonelcommandant thought that it might save Poland, and — although he probably did not really think that far — the rest of the world; for Poland is to be a bulwark against Bolshevism according to the present scheme of things.

Still the colonel was not entirely clear in his mind about the efficiency of his remedy, because, if these people did not all starve to death, and that was not part of his plan, some day they would all, or most of them, have to be released to go on into Poland; for most of them undoubtedly belonged in those empty gray villages scattered among the deserted grain-fields of Eastern Poland. And they were needed there. For Poland needs grain from those fields.

The colonel-commandant’s problem was, in little, not unlike that larger one that is worrying the whole world to-day. What to do about all of Russia — that is, all of Bolshevist and Bolshevist-tainted Russia? And the remedy so far being tried, or trying to be tried, is the same as the simple colonel-commandant’s. Cage it; cage all the Russian Bolshevists; make a sanitary cordon about them; establish a dead line for Bolshevism. But for how long can this be maintained, and how much of a real remedy is it when done? Bolshevism is not only epidemic: it is endemic. It seems to have its seeds scattered already all over the world; and all that is necessary is a favorable condition, and it springs to life and activity in a score of separate centres.

We started rather late for BrestLitovsk, because it took some time to arrange about a temporary supply of food for the caged refugees, which we were fortunately in a position to effect. I do not think I have ever felt more glad to be one of ‘ Hoover’s food men ’ than in this instance. Only I can never forget the anonymous babe dying in the anonymous mother-creature’s lap. We were too late to avoid having to see that — or too early.

Nightfall overtook us when we were but half-way to our goal. And we found that we had in some way got off the main road. The towns that we should have passed through, according to our map, did not appear. In fact, we were running long distances without seeing any towns at all; all we saw were great stretches of forest alternating with great stretches of swamp. Our road was getting rougher, and we could not get on so rapidly. Nor could we search for better roads, for there were no diverging ways. But the general direction was right, and we could only go on.

As there was almost no farming land along the way, we met no peasants on the road. In fact, we should have seen almost no living things at all except that now and then there would shine out at us from the road far in front, or from the forest by its side, a pair of brilliant small red spots, the eyes of a wildcat reflecting the glare of our headlights; or we would meet, or overtake, a pair or little group of plodding human creatures who would silently draw back to the roadside, or even into the forest, as we passed. They were refugees moving through the night along the lonely road, in persistent response to the instinct that drove them always on in search of the long-deserted hut that they called home. Each one carried a bag or roll which contained all his belongings. Often they doffed their caps with a servile gesture as our lighted car slipped by.

We halted as we overtook a man all alone, who stood with hat off as we slowed down. We asked him the way. He did not know. We asked him where he was going. He answered in a broken voice, trembling from very weakness of body. He hoped to find some place where he could get something to eat. Not far beyond him our headlights picked up two women staggering along under the huge bundle that each carried on her back. We ran just twenty miles after we passed these night-walkers before we came to the first human habitation by the roadside. They could not reach it in less than a day from where we passed them — if they could ever reach it.


Now all this disconnected talk of peasants and refugees, of monotonous stretching fields and uncounted dullcolored identical villages, made up of dull-colored identical huts inhabited for months and years and generations by human beings, anonymous, unreckoned with except as animals who are to produce each year so many bushels of grain and pounds of meat, and so many new animals like themselves, so that there will never be any falling off, under usual conditions, of the numbers of bushels and pounds of food for the people in Warsaw and Petrograd — all this desultory description may sound very dull and insignificant, when one might be writing of so many beautiful places and so many significant people whose names we know.

But I am trying to write about the verge of Bolshevism, and all this is what I take the verge of Bolshevism to be — the geographic verge, the political and the economic verge. For not far east of this land is Bolshevism in full reality; and not far away in the life of these people, these millions of anonymous people here and in similar condition in other lands, is the possibility of an explosion into all the reality of revolution. These lands and these people have known misery for many generations; the war has brought them new and more intense suffering. And at the same time it has revealed what is described to them to be, and what they blindly feel to be, the possibility of a relief from misery; from the misery they know for themselves and the misery they look forward to for their children’s children. It promises them a larger share of the bushels of grain and pounds of meat that they produce. It promises them some of the things they see that their landlords and other people have. It promises them a sort of revenge for what has been done to them. It promises them, at any rate, change, and any change can seem to be only relief.

Bolshevism is a genus of several species, the most noxious of which is the Bolshevism that is only the violent substitution of one sort of tyranny for another, and this sort, like the other, can persist only by violence. The violent, or even the peaceful, rule of the proletariat is not democracy, any more than is the rule of the privileged. Each is dictation by a single class. And whether this class is that of the workmen of an industrialized community, or of the peasants of an agricultural land, it is still a one-class group, and its rule is not democratic. Its rule can be as unfair, as brutal, as bloodily horrible as the rule of a militarized autocracy. It can be worse.

But the species of Bolshevism which is not the frankly criminal kind that revels in pillage and murder, or the political kind with the obsession of a fantastic economic belief, but is the kind which is simply the outcome of a convulsive effort on the part of long-neglected and unrecognized and terribly mistreated human beings of the same blood and biologic inheritance as ourselves, to enjoy some of the same sunshine and social inheritance as ourselves, is a different matter. The Bolshevism that is the effort of human beings now existing only as anonymous human hordes to become recognized human individuals, to be known and treated as fathers and mothers and children, to be fairly rewarded for faithful work, to have opportunity for individual capacity and effort with their just deserts, to have all the advantages of education and care in sickness and distress and of protection from greedy exploitation, and to have the enjoyment of what is beautiful and expanding and ennobling, as we have, is a matter that must be met with understanding and sympathy — and not with cages.

The time has come, not only for peace among nations and self-determination of peoples, but for peace among classes and self-determination of individuals. But these latter things cannot come, any more than the former, without a radical change in the old order. The kind of Bolshevism that aims at this, for the sake of a place in the sun, on sunny days, of all the people together, is a justifiable Bolshevism. That which aims simply at turning upside down the old order so that what was at bottom shall be on top, and shall take its turn at the bloody game of tyranny, of exploitation and expropriation, of disregard of equality of rights and representation, is the Bolshevism to be feared as greatly as autocracy is feared, and to be fought as rigorously as autocracy has just been fought.