War in Eastern Europe
John Reed


At the end of May the Russian army, to the astonishment of the world, had covered more than two hundred miles on its stupendous retreat from the Carpathians. In Bucovina it abandoned Czernowitz before the formidable Austrian drive, and withdrew behind the River Pruth. We decided to cross the frontier where Rumanian Moldavia, Austrian Bucovina, and Russian Bessarabia meet at the bend of the river, and try to strike the Russian front in action.

From Dorohoi, the northern terminus of the Rumanian railway, it is twenty miles over the hills to the frontier. We bargained for a four-horse coach; but the chief of police of Dorohoi smiled and shook his head.

'You cannot pass the frontier without permission from the high authorities,' he said; 'the Rumanian custom-house is closed.' He looked us over thoughtfully. 'However, I am going across to Russia myself tonight, and you can come with me in my automobile if you like. I will introduce you to the commandant of Novo Sielitza, which is the headquarters of the Third Army....He is a close friend of mine - I often visit him. The Russians are hospitable people. By the way, they will be grateful to you over there if you bring a little something alcoholic -'

Joyously we sallied forth and bought cognac and dismissed our coach. And just as grey evening flooded the world after a day of rain, and the clouds rolled back like curtains, piling up to golden pinnacles in a shallow green sky, our machine roared out from the dripping forest of Hertza, and we could see beyond the white walls and thatched roofs of a little village the rolling miles of hills, emerald with wheat glittering wetly, black with lorests, smoking with the sweat of fat earth after rain; and farther still, to the left, the rolling green and gold and brown country of Bucovina - to the right, the plain beyond the Pruth, low hills and higher hills behind - Russian Bessarabia. On the Austrian side, far away, were visible white winding roads, dazzling villas set in green, an occasional shining town - order and prosperity; on the Russian side, the wet tin roofs of a clump of wooden shacks, thatched huts the colour of dirt, a wandering muddy track which served as a road - the very reverse. In all the vast landscape nothing moved, except a mysterious black smoke slowly rising from behind a hill, which is Czernowitz, and steam from a whistling train at Novo Sielitza. But the air trembled with deep, lazy sound - the cannon firing somewhere beyond vision along the Pruth.

Just ahead the river itself came in view between hills, here and there, shining dully like old brass. We swooped down with screaming siren through the village of Hertza, where the peasants, clad in white linen all embroidered with flowers, were gathered on the green for their evening songs and dances and lifted their broad-brimmed hats to us - down, through vineyards and corn-fields, to Mamornitza on the bank of the muddy river.

Over all the west the sunset made a fierce flame, edging the toppling clouds with fire, pouring green gold over the fields, The radiance faded; by the time we reached the riverside it was quite dark, except for a broad red band low down in the northern sky. Against this reared a tumble-down shed set in a barren waste of sand, stones, and mud - where the Pruth roiared in the spring floods. But it was Russia, Holy Russia - sombre, magnificent, immense, incoherent, unknown even to herself.

They had been notified at the deserted custom-house, and in a room musty with long neglect a shabby little man visaed our passports. Escorted by two soldiers, we picked our way down to the river, where a flat-bottomed scow lay half full of water, and a rope fastened to the bank stretched out into the darkness - to Russia! We couldn't see the other side, but as we swung out into the brown current, the Rumanian shore glided astern and disappeared; for a moment we were adrift on a boundless sea, and then against the dim, red sky something rose and loomed - a giant soldier with a long-bayoneted rifle, the crown of his hat peaked up in front as only Russians wear it. Beside him was the shadowy form of a two-horse carriage.

Without a word the sentry put our baggage into the carriage and we followed. He leaped to the box - we were off through deep sand, whip cracking.... A sudden guttural hail from the dark, and another huge soldier bulked in the night beside the carriage. Our sentry handed him a slip of paper, which he pretended to read, holding it upside down - although it was now quite dark and he quite illiterate.

'Koracho! Good!' he grunted and waved us on. 'Pajal'st

The last red light had faded from the sky, and we rattled through a starless gloom troubled with the confused sounds of an army at rest. Far away on our right accordions jiggled flatly, and a mighty chorus of deep voices swelled in a slow, stern song.

To the left suddenly opened a meadow bright with many fires. Horses were picketed all about - in one corner two stallions strained, screaming, at their ropes. High saddles, sleeping-rugs of rich colour, brass samovars lay on the ground, and on the flames copper pots smoked. In little knots at the fires, flat-faced, swarthy men squatted, Eastern fashion, between their knees - men with Chinese eyes and cheek-bones polished like teak, robed in long caftans and crowned with towering shaggy hats of fur. The twanging, indolent sound of their speech reached us. One stood upright in the firelight, which gleamed on the silver bosses of his belt and the long curved yataghan inlaid with gold that hung by his side.

'Turkmiene,' explained the soldier on the box.

Turcomans from beyond the Caspian, from the steppes of Asia - the boiling geyser that deluged Europe with the great Mongolian invasions - the mysterious cradle of humankind. The fathers of these warriors followed Ghenghis Khan and Tamerlane and Attila. Their cousins were Sultans in Constantinople, and sat upon the Dragon Throne in Peking. One glimpse we had of them, a tiny handful in the mighty hordes that Russia is pouring down on the West - and then we were among the ruins of Austrian Novo Sielitza, the old frontier.

Here the gaping windows of roofless houses, walls charred and toppling, immense customs warehouses crumpled with fire. The Russians had wrecked everything at the beginning of the war - what became of the people we didn't like to iliink. A big stucco hotel had been struck by a bursting shell; light shone from within, and big-booted soldiers in blouses stood silhouetted in the doorways. The road we drove on was white and smooth. Shadowy horsemen jingled past, stray light catching the guardless hilts of Cossack swords. Gleaming white linen in the gloom marked Moldavian peasants shuffling along, laughing and speaking gently their Italianate dialect.

A bridge with another sentry, who waved us by when he saw the flash of white paper - now we were in Russian Novo Sielitza. Here there was no destruction; but instead of a hard road, we rocked through a wide expanse of muddy pools and dried ruts, scored with a thousand tracks. At each side of this street was a deep ditch for drainage and sewage, spanned by wooden foot-bridges. Wide, sprawling wooden houses alternated with blocks of tiny Jewish shops, swarming with squealing, whining, bargaining people, and emitting that stale stench that we know on New York's lower East Side. Old Jews in long overcoats, derby hats resting on their ears, scraggly beards, elbows and hands gesticulating - the comedy Jew in a burlesque show - filthy babies crawling in the lamplight, rows of women in Mother Hubbards and brown wigs, nursing their babies and gossiping shrill Yiddish on the door-step.

We swung into a side street, black as pitch, lined on either side by long wooden houses behind picket fences.

'Here we are,' said our guide. 'Now you will see a real Russian house and family.'

The door popped open and a stout, bearded officer stood on the threshold holding a lamp over his head - Captain Vladimir Constantinovitch Madji, commandant of Novo Sielitza. Behind was a bristling bald-headed man with fierce white mustache and goatee, and over his shoulder appeared a grinning face like the face of a very fat little boy, smoking a cigarette, a white silk kerchief wound tightly around his forehead.

'Please! Please! Povtim!' said the captain in Rumanian, making gestures of welcome. 'Pajal'st! cried the others in Russian.

The chief of police explained that he had brought two friends, Amerikanska; they burst forth into another delighted chorus of 'Povtim! Pajal'st!' and pushed out to look at us, talking rapid Russian.

They speak neither Russian nor Rumanian. Only French -'

'Entrez!' said the captain, with an elementary accent; then in just as amateurish German: 'Kommen Sie herein, meine Herren!'

'Voilà! Comment! Comment! Voilà!' the bald-headed man roared.

'It is all my brother knows of French!' explained Madji, as we entered. The fat face turned out to belong to a girl of astonishing corpulence and terrific exuberance. Puffing furiously at her cigarette, she squeezed both our hands, grasped the lapels of our coats and shook us, shouting Russian remarks, and laughing uproariously when we didn't understand.

The captain radiated hospitality. 'Alexandra Alexandrovna, get the samovar!'

She ran off, bellowing orders to invisible servants. 'Antonina Feodorovna! Prinissitié samovarou!' And in a moment she was back with a new yellow kerchief around her head, a new cigarette, puffing clouds of smoke.

Madji indicated her with his hand. 'Mon mari! My husband!' he said in his bad French.

His brother pranced up like a little old stallion, also pointing id her; he repeated 'My husband!' adding in a fierce voice: 'Très jolie! Très jolie! Très jolie!' He said 'très jolie' over and over again, delighted at remembering another French phrase....

As to the fat girl, we never did discover whose 'husband' she was.... And there was also Alexandra Antonovna, a solemn little girl of about thirteen with the sophisticated eyes of a grown woman, like all Russian little girls; her status in the household remained a mystery, too. Anyway, it wasn't of the least importance, for this was Russia, where such things don't matter....

In the dining-room we began by drinking glass after glass of tea. Boxes of cigarettes overflowed on the table. At one end sat Alexandra Alexandrovna, lighting one cigarette from another, shaking with laughter and shouting at anybody and everybody. At the other end was the old man, beaming upon us and crying: 'Voilà! Comment! Très jolie!' Antonina the servant shuffled in and out, taking part in the general conversation, arguing every order, bringing fresh water for the samovar - on terms of perfect equality.

Robinson explained to the old man that he looked exactly like Gogol's Cossack hero, Taras Bulba. He was delighted. And from that time on we never addressed him except as 'General Taras Bulba.'

From time to time other officers dropped in - men in belted Russian blouses buttoned up the neck, their hair cropped close. They kissed Alexandra's hand, and made the rounds of the table, murmuring their names. Most of them spoke some French or German, and all were astonishingly frank about the situation.

'Yes, we are falling back like the devil. It is mostly because we lack munitions; but there are other things. Graft - disorganization -'

A lieutenant broke in: 'Do you know the story about Colonel B - ? He had a bad record in the Japanese War, but when this one broke out he was appointed chief of staff to General Ivanov. It was he who forced the beginning of the retreat from the Carpathians; when Ivanov was absent he ordered the retreat of an entire army corps - exposing the flank of the next army. There wasn't any reason for it. People say he is insane — However, the thing was hushed up, and he became chief of staff to General Dimitriev and did the same thing over again! You'd think that would finish him? Ah, no! He had powerful friends in Petrograd - and now he is chief of staff to another general!'

Said another calmly: ‘It is like that. Advance, retreat. Advance, retreat. If we retreat now - why, then, we shall advance again.'

'But how long will the war last?'

'What do we care how long it lasts?' remarked a second captain with a grin: 'What do we care - so long as England gives money and the earth gives men?'

At about ten o'clock Alexandra suddenly decided to dine. She and Antonina set the table, while Taras Bulba bustled about, giving contradictory orders. For zakouska there were plates of sardines, smoked and raw herrings, tunny, caviar, sausage, shirred eggs, and pickles - to sharpen the appetite - washed down with seven different kinds of liquor: cognac, benedictine, kümmel, raspberry and plum brandies, and Kiev and Bessarabian wines. Afterward came great platters of corn-meal polenta, then chunks of pork and potatoes. We were twelve. The company began dinner with wine-glasses full of cognac followed by the others in rotation, and finished with several cups of Turkish coffee and the seven different liquors all over again. Then the samovar was brought, and we settled down to the eternal chai. It was midnight.

'Ah,' cried an officer, 'if we only had vodka now!'

'Is it really forbidden in Russia?'

'Except in the first-class restaurants of the big cities - Kiev, Odessa, Moscow. You can also get foreign drinks. But they are very expensive.... You see, the object of the ukase was to keep alcohol from the lower classes; the rich can still get it....'

A young fellow named Amethystov, lieutenant in a Crimean Tartar regiment, asked us if we had heard the story of the Bismarck Denkmal.

'It was during the retreat from East Prussia, after Tannenberg,' he said, a gentle smile lighting his blank, fanatical tace, 'and my regiment was at Johannisberg, where there was a bronze statue of Bismarck about twelve feet tall - like hundreds all over Germany. My Tartars wanted to pull it down and take it with them as a trophy, but the general absolutely refused to allow it. "It would cause an international incident," said he. As if the war weren't enough of an international incident! Well, so we stole it - pulled it down at night, stood it upright in a field furnace, and covered it over with a tarpaulin. But we couldn't hide the great bronze feet sticking out at the bottom — We got it as far as Tilsit - and one day the general came riding along the line, and saw the feet!

' "Who took that thing?" he shouts. Oh, how mad he was! "In the morning I'll find out the guilty ones, if I have to court-martial the entire regiment! It must be abandoned here - do you understand me?"

'Of course, he had a right to be angry, because we were using four army horses to pull the thing, and we'd had to abandon a lot of baggage because transport was lacking —

'So that night we took Bismarck out of his cart and set him up in a field, and had a farewell celebration around him.... I remember we made speeches and broke champagne bottles on him. And next day, lo and behold, he was gone – stolen by a Siberian infantry regiment....Who knows where he is now?' he mused. 'Perhaps retreating across Galicia with the Siberians.'

At the other end of the table a captain of Atamanski Cossacks, his narrow eyes glowing, was saying: 'You have seen the hiltless Cossack sword?' He showed us his own. 'It is terrible in their hands! They slash with a sidelong stroke - whiz! It cuts a man in half! Beautiful! But they love to kill. When prisoners surrender to them, they say always to their colonel: "Aga! Let us cut them! It will disgrace us to bring back babies as prisoners!"'

We tried to explain our purpose in coming, but the captain always interrupted with an expansive smile:

'You shall go where you please, my friends. Tomorrow we will arrange all that....Now eat and drink, eat and drink -'

Alexandra Alexandrovna screamed pleasantries from a cloud of smoke:

'It's not polite when you come to visit friends, to talk of going away!'

'Très jolie! bellowed Taras Bulba. 'You shall not leave here until you have taught me to speak French, German, Spanish, Italian and Chinese! I have a passion for languages -'

It was now one o'clock in the morning; we were worn out.

'Voyons!' expostulated Madji. To sleep is a ridiculous way to pass the night....'

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