John Reed. War In Eastern Europe. An optimistic pilgrimage. (1915 рік)

Cholm is not a hundred miles in an airline from Lemberg, but there is no direct railroad between them; one must make a wide detour into Russia and back through Poland, more than three hundred miles.

We were in a compartment for four, the other two being a silent young lieutenant who lay in his berth with his boots on, smoking, and a crotchety old general invalided home. The general tried to shut tight both door and window - for the Russians share with other Continental peoples a morbid fear of fresh air. There followed a dramatic battle lasting all night, in which stalwart American manhood defied the liveried minions of the Tsar to close that window - but was finally subdued at dawn by the railroad police....

White Russia. For hours we rode through an untouched wilderness of birch and pine without seeing a house or a human being, the engine's whistle alone breaking the echoing silence of the woods. Sometimes a gap in the forest gave glimpses of wide yellow plains, where black tree-stumps stood among the wheat. Wretched villages huddled around the government vodka shop - now closed - wooden huts roofed with neglected thatch, which straggled miserably beside muddy, rutted spaces populous with rooting pigs and immense flocks of geese....

Great-shouldered women were working in the fields, mowing with broad strokes rhythmically abreast - probably some Female Mowers' Guild from a distant country. There were plenty of young, strong mujiks everywhere. They swung axes amid crashing-down trees, drove singing along the roads, and swarmed over the joists and timbers of giant mies of sheds that covered the mountainous heaps of army supplies. Yet not for an instant could we forget the war. The tuwnn were all full of shouting soldiers; train after train whirled westward, packed with them. And as we paused on sidetracks, past glided an endless procession of white sanitary cars with pale, agonized faces peering from the windows under their bandages. Every village had its military hospital....

We changed trains at Rovno, where there was a wait of nine hours. There we ran into Miroshnikov, the English-speaking subofficer who had looked after us in Tarnopol, now bound north on official business.

'Let's walk around,' he proposed. 'I want to show you a typical Jewish town of the Pale.'

As we went along, I asked the meaning of the red, white, and blue cord that edged his shoulder-straps.

'That means I am a volunteer - exempt from compulsory service. The Russian word for "volunteer,"' he answered the question with a grin, 'is "Volnoopredielyayoustchemusia."'

We gave up all hopes of learning the language....

I can never forget Rovno, the Jewish town of the Pale of Settlement. It was Russian in its shabby largeness, wide streets half paved with cobbles, dilapidated sidewalks, rambling wooden houses ornamented with scroll-saw trimmings painted bright green, and the swarming uniforms of its minor officialdom. Tiny-wheeled cabs abounded, with their heavy Russian yoke, driven by hairy degenerates who wore tattered velveteen robes and bell-top hats of outrageous shape. But all the rest was Jewish....The street was heaped with evil-smelling rubbish, amid slimy puddles splashed up by every passing conveyance. Clouds of bloated flies buzzed about. On both sides a multitude of little shops strangled each other, and their glaring signs, daubed with portraits of the articles for sale, made a crazy-quilt up and down as far as one could see. The greasy proprietors stood in their reeking doorways, each one bawling to us to buy from him, and not from his cheating competitor across the way. Too many shops, too many cab-drivers, barbers, tailors, herded into this narrow world where alone Jews are allowed to live in Russia; and periodically augmented with the miserable throngs cleared out from the forbidden cities, where they have bribed the police to stay. In the Pale a Jew gasps for breath indeed.

How different these were from even the poorest, meanest Jews in Galician cities. Here they were a pale, stooping, inbred race, refined to the point of idiocy. Cringing men with their 'sacred fringes' showing under their long coats - it was at Rovno that we first noticed the little peaked caps worn by Polish Jews - faintly bearded boys with unhealthy faces, girls prematurely aged with bitter work and eternal humiliation, grown women wrinkled and bent, in wigs and slovenly mother hubbards. People who smiled deprecatingly and hatefully when you looked at them, who stepped into the street to let Gentiles pass. And in the very centre of it all, a Russian church with blue incense pouring out the open door, a glitter of gold, jewels, and candle-lighted ikons within, priests in stoles heavy with woven gold threads, atremble with slow, noble chanting.

For a thousand years the Russians and their Church have done their best to exterminate the Jews and their religion. With what success? Here in Rovno were thousands of Jews shut in an impregnable world of their own, scrupulously observing a religion incessantly purified, practising their own customs, speaking their own language, with two codes of morals - one for each other and the other for the Gentiles. Persecution has only engendered a poison and a running sore in the body of the Russian people. It is true what Miroshnikov said, as we drank kvass in a little Jewish bar - that all Jews were traitors to Russia. Of course they are.

An officer whom we had met on the train came in. He sniffed the air, bowed to us, and staring malevolently at the frightened girls who served, said distinctly: 'The dirty Jews! I detest them!' and walked out.
 

We were around Rovno station almost all day long, but it was not until evening that the police decided to arrest us. Among others we appealed to a pompous colonel, named Bolatov, whom we had encountered several times in the course of our travels. He was covered with high decorations, carried a gold honour sword, and had padding in his chest and dye on his ferocious mustache. We never could discover what he did on his leisurely peregrinations around the country. Miroshnikov told him that Robinson was a celebrated artist.

'We shall see!' said Bolatov cunningly. He approached Robinson. 'If you are an artist,' said he, 'please draw my portrait.'

He struck a martial attitude under the arclight, chest expanded, hand on sword-hilt, and mustache twisted up, while Robinson drew for his life. The portrait was an outrageous flattery. Colonel Bolatov glanced at it with perfect satisfaction. He waved to the police.

'Release these gentlemen,' he ordered loftily. They are well-known journalists....Would you mind signing this sketch?'

That night we slept on the benches of a troop-transport car; changed and waited seven hours at Kovel, and boarded a train bound eventually for Cholm, though no one knew when it would get there. All afternoon we crawled slowly westward through the great Polish plain - vast wheat-fields edged with a foam of red poppies, breaking like a yellow sea against cloudy promontories of trees, and archipelagoes of cheerful thatched villages. Half smothered in mighty blooming locusts were wooden stations where hospitable samovars steamed, and slow-moving heavy-faced peasants stared motionless at the train - the men in long grey coats of coarse wool, the women gay with bright-coloured skirts and kerchiefs. And late in the day when the low sun inundated the flat world with rich mellow light, and all the red, green, and yellow glowed vividly luminous, we whistled through a sandy pine wood, and saw before us the tree-covered hill of Cholm, with its cluster of shining Greek cupolas floating like golden bubbles above the green foliage.

A new-found but already intimate friend named Captain Martinev was criticising the army with true Russian candidness.

'- horrible waste,' said he. 'Let me tell you a story. In October I was with my regiment in Tilsit when the German drive on Warsaw began, and we received urgent orders to hurry to Poland. Well, from Tilsit to the nearest railroad station, Mittau, is a hundred versts. We did it in three days' forced marches, arriving in bad shape. Something had gone wrong - we had to wait twenty-four hours on the platform, without sleep, for it was very cold. By train we travelled two days to Warsaw, almost starving; no one had made arrangements for feeding us. When we arrived Lodz had already fallen. We got in at night and were marched across the city to another train bound for Teresa, where they were fighting. A little way out the tracks had been smashed by a shell; we detrained in the rain at two o'clock in the morning, and marched five hours to Teresa.

'At eight o'clock we reached the headquarters of the division commanded by General M -, who made such frightful mistakes in Manchuria. Our men's feet were in terrible condition; they had had practically no sleep for three nights, and hardly any food at all for two days....Half an hour after we had thrown ourselves down exhausted in the rain, the general came out with his chief of staff.

' "How many men have I here?" he asked surlily.

' "Eight thousand."

' "Good. Send them to relieve the trenches."

'Our colonel protested. "But my men cannot go into the trenches. They must have rest and food. For five days -"

'"Never mind!" snapped the general. "I don't waul your opinion. March!"

The general went back to bed. We coaxed, pleaded, threatened, flogged - it was terrible to hear them beg for food and sleep - and the column staggered off to the forward trenches....

'We went in at ten in the morning and stood particularly heavy fire all day - so heavy that the cook-wagons couldn't reach us until midnight, so there was nothing to eat. The Germans attacked twice in the night, so there was no sleep. Next morning heavy artillery bombarded us. The men reeled as if they were drunk, forgot to take any precautions, and went to sleep while they were shooting. The officers, with blazing eyes, muttering things like men walking in their sleep, went up and down beating the soldiers with the flat of their swords....I forgot what I was doing, and so did everybody, I think; indeed, I can't remember what followed at all - but we were in there for four days and four nights. Once a night the cook-wagons brought soup and bread. At least three times a night the Germans attacked at the point of the bayonet. We retired from trench to trench, turning like beasts at bay - though we were all out of our heads....

'Finally on the fifth morning they relieved us. Out of eight thousand men two thousand came back, and twelve hundred of those went to the hospital.

'But the amusing thing about it was that all the time we were being butchered out there, there were six fresh regiments held in reserve two miles away! What on earth do you suppose General M - was thinking of?'

War In Eastern Europe: Travels Through the Balkans in 1915
An optimistic pilgrimage.
John Reed
1915 р.
З сайту www.promacedonia.org/


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