- Historic Sites
The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
It was in this mood that John Reed, on August 17, 1917, set sail with Louise Bryant for Russia.
He arrived late that August with an exalted preconception of what he was going to see. His own civilization was in crisis; his country had gone to war. He was ready to support the party that wanted to take Russia out of the war and, he hoped, put an end to war. It was a simple, comforting, and by no means ignoble belief.
Of Lenin’s authoritarian party structure and organization creed he knew nothing: so much the freer was his fancy to endow the conflict and chaos he was to witness with the form and substance of his own dream.
To Boardman Robinson he wrote: “We are in the middle of things and believe me it’s thrilling. For color and terror and grandeur this makes Mexico look pale.”
His Russian was even sketchier than his Spanish, but no matter. For worker and peasant there was a gay smile and the sputtering of Ya amerikanskii sotsialist! And, since all Russia was talking and yearning to unburden its soul, any number of officers, intellectuals, and political leaders could talk to him in English, French, or German. Makers of history and those being unmade by it, veteran fighters for freedom smarting under the new-found epithet, “counter-revolutionist"—who would refuse to talk to an American reporter who was so ardent, attractive, and boyish a listener? In the back of every meeting into which Jack shouldered his way, there was always someone to answer his perpetual, breathless “Say, what’s going on here?”
He made his way into the Smolny, where the Bolsheviks had their headquarters; into the City Duma, stronghold of liberal democracy; into the soviets of workers and soldiers and into the soviets of peasants; into barracks, factory meetings, street processions, halls, courts; into the Constituent Assembly, which the Bolsheviks dispersed; into the Winter Palace when it was being defended by student officers and a women’s battalion, and again when it was being overrun and looted. All Russia was meeting, and John Reed was meeting with it.
If two shots from a German Mauser did not make him cease to be a neutral in the Great War, in this “class war pure and simple” he strove to be a participant. Twice he addressed crowds in the Cirque Moderne, bringing fraternal greetings (from whom?), being presented as spokesman for the American Socialist party (which he was not), and as a man under indictment in far-off America (which, as an editor of the antiwar Masses , he was). He addressed Bolshevik factory meetings, careened around the city on one of their trucks hurling out leaflets he could not read, joined the looting of the Winter Palace, carrying off some notes of a doomed minister and a jewel-handled sword concealed under his coat.
With his poet’s blood and rebel’s heart he decided what to believe. Then, with the artist’s gift for selection, heightening and unifying, he assimilated all the chaotic impressions into a picture more impressive and more beautiful than life itself.
When Boardman Robinson reproached him once with “But it didn’t happen that way!” his answer was an ad hominem of artist to artist. “What the hell difference does it make?” And, seizing one of Robinson’s sketches: “She didn’t have a bundle as big as that … he didn’t have so full a beard.” Drawing, Robinson explained, was not a matter of photographic accuracy but of over-all impression. “Exactly,” Reed cried in triumph, “that is just what I am trying to do!”
Yet there is nothing of the mean, deliberate lie about John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World . A good reporter, always in the thick of things, he possessed an honest sense of vivid detail that makes one page refute another.
He idealized the masses. He believed the ridiculous legend, born perhaps of his own dream, that the Bolshevik Central Committee, after having rejected the idea of an insurrection, was made to reverse itself by a single speech of a rank and file working man. (There was such a reversal, but the “rank and file workingman” was Lenin!) Though literacy was declining all through the war, and would continue to decline for years after, Reed wrote sincerely: “All Russia was learning to read.” A few pages later, without any sense of contradiction, comes this vivid scene: We did not notice a change in the attitude of the soldiers and Red guards around us … A small group followed us until by the time we reached the great picture gallery … about a hundred men surged in after us. One giant of a soldier stood in our path, his face dark with sullen suspicion. “Who are you?” he growled. The others massed slowly around, staring and beginning to mutter … I produced our passes from the Military Revolutionary Committee. The soldier took them gingerly, turned them upsidedown and looked at them without comprehension. Evidently he could not read. “Bumagi!” ("Papersl") said he with contempt. The mass slowly began to close in, like wild cattle around a cow-puncher on foot …