War in Eastern Europe
John Reed


Most travellers speak of Moscow as the Heart of Russia the real Russian city, and dismiss Petrograd as an imitation of other European capitals. But to me Petrograd seems more characteristically Russian - with its immense façades of government buildings and barracks marching along as far as the eye can reach, broad streets, and mighty open spaces. The great stone quays along the Neva, the palaces, cathedrals, and Imperial avenues paved with cobbles grew under the hands of innumerable serfs chained in a swamp by the will of a tyrant, and were cemented with their blood; for where Petrograd now sprawls for miles and miles, a city built for giants, was nothing but a feverish marsh a hundred and fifty years ago. And there, where no roads naturally lead, the most desolate spot, the most vulnerable and the most remote from any natural centre of the Russian Empire, Peter the Great had a whim to found his capital. Twenty thousand workmen a year for ten years were killed by fever, cold, and disease in the building of Petrograd. Nine times the court nobles themselves conspired to wreck the hated city and force the court to return to Moscow; three times they set fire to it, and three times the Tsar hung them at the doors of the palaces he had forced them to build. A powerful section of the Reactionary party has always agitated for the restoration of Moscow as capital, and it is only in the last twenty years that the population of Petrograd has not been artificially kept up.

Great canals of deep, sombre water curve through tin-city everywhere, and along these move vast wooden barges hundreds of feet long, piled high with birch-wood for burning - cut in the gloom of ancient forests with ringing axes, and floated down flat, deserted rivers to the sound of slow minor boat songs under the northern lights. And into the dark water every night obscure and restless, miserable poor throw themselves - multitudes of them. Their bodies go out with the tide, under the frowning interminable barracks, slipping through the caves beneath the streets, and float to sea on the broad Neva along that splendid front of palaces yellow and barbarically red, those fantastic cupolas and pinnacles and gigantic monuments.

In the immense silent squares and wide streets the people are lost; in spite of its two millions or more of human beings Petrograd seems perpetually empty. Only on summer evenings, in the enormous amusement parks, among the open-air theatres, scenic railways, merry-go-rounds, and cafés, hundreds of thousands of people, in great masses and currents of shouting, laughing, singing humanity, move aimlessly to and fro, with a feeling of uncontrollable force like the sea. Or in time of revolution, or during some important religious festival, when the people choke miles of great streets from wall to wall, and the thunder of their untimed feet, the roar of their unorganized singing, the power of their spontaneous will dwarfs even that Imperial City.

On the day of the fiesta of Our Lady of Kazan I was caught at the corner of the Nevski Prospekt and the Morskaia by sudden inundations of great mobs pouring toward the cathedral from every street, hats off, faces exultingly raised, deep voices lifting simple slow hymns. Over their heads swam the jewelled and glittering ikons, upheld by bareheaded, bearded giant priests in rich vestments all covered with gold. Small choir-boys swung censers. Flanking the holy procession, peasant women walked sideways, hand in hand, with blank exalted faces, guarding the ikons. Men and women crowded in single file to pass under the sacred images, screaming, kicking, and pulling each other; and every few minutes the priests lowered them while a hundred kneeling people flung themselves forward to kiss the pictures with their lips. And all the time the processions moved slowly on in that terrible sea of people, meeting, crossing, wavering over the heads of the crowd, flashing back the sun that burst out between clouds. And for hours a solid mile and a half of people blocked the Nevski Prospekt and all the streets adjoining before the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, praying and crossing themselves with a fluttering motion, and singing.

With Russians religion is extraordinarily alive. On the streets people cross themselves incessantly, especially when passing the churches, and the cab-drivers lift their hats and touch forehead, breast, and shoulders whenever they see an ikon. Little chapels are open all day long, even in the fashionable shopping quarters, and there are continual services for the constantly flowing crowds that stop to kneel and kiss the holy images as they pass. In certain very holy churches and shrines there is always, day and night, a jam of people, kneeling, bowing, muttering before the ikonostas. But, as far as I could discover, religion in Russia does not seem to be a temporal power, or a matter of politics, or a moral or ethical rule of life. The priests have often mean, vicious faces, and monks in the great monasteries lead the extravagantly dissolute lives of rich and unrestrained ecclesiastics everywhere; and the church, like all powerful churches, lives fatly and builds its golden altar-screens from the contributions of the poor, by playing on their darkest superstitions. To the simple Russian peasant, however, his religion is a source of spiritual force, both a divine blessing on his undertakings and a mystical communion with God. The thief and the murderer go to kiss the ikons before robbing a house or killing a man. The revolutionists carry the ikons at the head of their ranks, and the mobs that shoot them down also have ikons. In every Russian house an ikon hangs in the corner of the room, and in every hotel and railway-station.

Great religious fervours shake the Russian people, as they did the Jews and the Arabs, splitting them into innumerable mystical sects. Miracles occur frequently; holy men and self-torturing saints wander about the country, healing and preaching strange gospels. Even in Petrograd, the least religious of Russian cities, priests and monks were everywhere, and one of them, Gregory Rasputin, was rumoured to be almost the real ruler of the empire.

At night - for it was June - the sun sank slower and slower. At nine o'clock it was as light as late summer evenings at home; at half past ten the sun touched the horizon, and moved slowly around from west to east until half past two in the morning, when it rose again. If you happened to wake up at midnight it was impossible to tell whether it was night or day - especially since the Russians seemed to have no regular hours for going to bed. Outside our window in St Isaac's Square people would be sitting on the benches reading their newspapers; before the house doors squatted the dvorniks huddled in their shubas, gossiping; cabs drove past, and people went along the sidewalk, and there were even shops open.

Sometimes we drove. 'Istvosschik!' I cried, standing in the middle of the street, and immediately there materialized from nowhere twenty or thirty little cabs driven by hairy individuals crowned with glazed, bell-shaped hats with curling brims, and padded under their coats so as to appear monstrously fat. Driving round and round us, they screamed hideously their competitive prices. There was a municipal tariff for cabs, and a copy of it was posted on the back of the driver's seat; but you had to pay at least double the prices on it. And the police always took the cabman's part.

We roamed around the city in the interminable twilight. In front of the barracks dense little crowds surrounded some soldier leaping and kicking on his hams a peasant dance, perhaps from Siberia, to the breathless braying of an accordion. In St Isaac's Square the new recruits by companies were stamping through their drill, with resounding great boots, and roaring the traditional regimental answers to the greeting of a general.

'Good morning, my children!' cried a high, flat voice.

'Good morning to your Generalship!' bellowed a hundred big men in unison.

'I congratulate you, my children!'

'Happy to have had the opportunity, your Generalship!'

Three or four times a day the bell-ringers in the ponderous cupolas of St Isaac's Cathedral looped the bell-ropes about their elbows, knees, feet, and hands, and all the great and little bells began to boom and jangle - thirty-five of them - in a wild, dissonant ragtime:

Teeng! Tong! Teeng-ting-a-tang-tong! Boom! Bom-tick-a-ting-tingle-ingle-boom! Tang-tong-tick-a-tangle-tongle-boom-tang-tingle-tick-tick-a-bom!
By hundreds, by thousands the new recruits, still in their peasant clothes, with big numbers chalked on their backs, passed by. There seemed no end to them. Day after day and week after week they poured into Petrograd, and had been pouring in for more than a year, to be roughly whipped into shape, loaded on endless trains, and hurled carelessly westward or south to choke with the slaughter of sheer numbers the terrible German machine.... And yet everywhere on the streets, and all over Russia, I saw multitudes of fresh men who have not yet been called to the colours.

Moscow, known affectionately to all Russians as Matuschka Moskva, 'Little Mother Moscow,' is still the Holy City, the intellectual capital, and the last stronghold of the old splendid barbaric Russia. Moscow's streets are narrow, and her cities crowd wall within wall around the sacred citadel which epitomizes all the history of the empire. But the pulse of Russia and the red renewing blood and the flow of change have left Moscow. Her ancient and opulent commerce, however, that made Muscovite merchant princes a legend in Europe in the Middle Ages, is still growing. The number of buildings of modern German architecture strikes one immediately.

That wideness and vastness and lavish disregard of human life so characteristic of Petrograd, of the war, and of Russia as it seemed to me, again appears in the Kremlin, where for a thousand years the hopes and the longings and the faith of the Russian people were centred. The Red Square is as gigantic as any square in the new capital, and immeasurably ancient. Cyclopean red walls, crenellated and topped with fantastic towers, pierced with gates in whose gloom hang great staring ikons, stride down-hill, and along the bank of the river, proudly encircling the most insolently rich capitol in the world. Inside, upon one square, within a hundred yards of each other, stand four cathedrals, each with an altar-screen of solid gold and jewels, glittering up from the long ranks of the tombs of Tsars, into the cloud of blue incense that forever palls a ceiling inlaid with monstrous mosaics. Ivan Veliki leans upward, honeycombed with great bells. Miles of palaces twist and turn, whose rooms are furnished in solid slabs of gold and pillars of semiprecious stones - Imperial throne-room after throne-room, to the gaudy, half-savage apartments where Ivan the Terrible lived, and the treasury that holds the Peacock Throne of Persia, and the Golden Throne of the Tartars, and the Diamond Throne of the Tsars. Monasteries, barracks, ancient arsenals along whose façades are piled the thousands of cannon that Napoleon left on the road from Moscow; the huge bell of Boris Godounov cracked and lying on the ground; the Tsar cannon, too big for any charge - and out through the Spasskya Gate, with the soldiers on guard to see that you remove your hat when you pass under the Ikon of the Redeemer....

On Sunday we took the steamer up the river to the Sparrow Hills, where Napoleon stood to watch Moscow burning. Along the river for miles people were bathing from the bank, groups of men and women, and all over the hills swarmed an immense multitude making holiday. They sprawled on the grass, ran races, moved in big singing droves under the trees; and in little hollows and flat places accordions jiggled, while the wild stamping dances went on. There were drunken people haranguing huge audiences, and senseless men asleep, clutching bottles in their hands, and cripples and idiots followed by laughing throngs, like a mediaeval fair. An old woman in rags came hobbling down the hill, her hair streaming about her face, lifted arms with clenched fists over her head, shouting hysterically. A man and a girl pounded each other with their fists, weeping. On a high point of land stood a soberly dressed man with his hands clasped behind his back, evidently making a speech to the restless flowing crowds beneath him. There was in the air a feeling of recklessness and gloom, as if anything might happen....

We sat a long time in the café at the top of the hill, looking out over the plain where the river made a great curve, while the sun sank westward over the innumerable bulbs and cupolas of golden, green, blue, pink, and clashing colours of the four hundred churches of Moscow. And as we sat there, far, faintly, and wild came the galloping clangour of countless bells, beating out the rhythm that has in it all the deep solemnity and mad gaiety of Russia.

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