- Historic Sites
The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
It was an officer, from the intelligentsia Reed professed to despise, who—frightened and sweating—managed to save Jack and Louise from instant lynching. Twice he is nearly lynched and saved by an officer, but Reed never permits himself to doubt that lynchings are salutary and the mob just.
For Reed the Revolution is holy. As a devout Christian may believe that on the night of the Savior’s birth “no spirit dares stir abroad; the nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, no fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, so hallow’d and so gracious is the time"— so Reed writes of the night Lenin seized power: “On that night not a single hold-up occurred, not a single robbery.” The same impression of sacredness is repeated three days later: “Quiet the city lay, not a hold-up, not a robbery, not even a drunken fight.”
Yet this does not prevent his quoting Trotsky on the all-embracing wave of drunkenness that accompanied the seizure of power. Nor prevent his reproducing an order showing that the drunken wave continued into late December. It is instructive to compare Reed’s “Quiet the city lay” with the plaint of AntonovOvseenko, leader of the attack on the Winter Palace: The Preobrazhensky regiment got completely drunk while guarding the wine cellars of the Palace … The Pavlovsky regiment did not withstand temptation either … Mixed, picked guards were sent; they, too, got drunk. Members of the regimental committees were assigned … These succumbed too. Men of the armored brigades were ordered to disperse the crowds—they paraded to and fro, then began to sway suspiciously … An attempt was made to flood the cellars. The fire brigades got drunk … The whole city was infected with this drinking madness …
How could Reed not have seen it?
Though his “vision” raced ahead of his eyes, creating its own illusion, yet his eyes were everywhere. And his person, too. He tried to see it all and put it all on paper. The dream of the Bolsheviks, the realities of their deeds, and the tension between the dream and the reality are in his pages. If he did not comprehend the meaning of the large events, what observer or participant did? He understood less and misunderstood more than many, so that one of the personages of whom he wrote would say to me of his book: “The work of an innocent who did not know whether he was attending a wedding or a funerall” It was a funeral—of Russia’s newly won liberties, achieved after a century of struggle. If Jack thought that he was witnessing the wedding of liberty and justice destined to live together happily ever after, so well does he report that we can see the acts of burial even as he sings of nuptials.
As a repository of facts for the historian, his book is bursting with precious material: interviews, speeches, resolutions, press clippings. One of his habits was to tear down a specimen of every poster or proclamation for future translation. The book is full of quotations from these documents, and illustrated by photos of many of them—a priceless opportunity for the historian to enter into a time that has passed.
Whether because of or despite the dream that possessed him, as literature Reed’s book is the finest piece of eye-witness reporting the Revolution produced. It is his true monument, more enduring than the ashes and the name carved on the Kremlin wall.
After the Ten Days , the rest of his life is anticlimax. He tried to become a Communist politician, but as a politician he was out of his element. After his return to the United States in the spring of 1918, he sat on tiresome committees and toured the country speaking on the Russian Revolution. Despairing of politics, he sought martyrdom. Though the country was in the grip of wartime fever and hysteria, officials returned the posters they had seized from him on his landing; the indictments against him as an editor of the Masses , as opponent of the war, as “inciter to riot,” as preacher of sedition and revolution, all were quashed, or dismissed, or ended in acquittal. He helped to split the Socialist party, got caught up in a frustrating split in the nascent Communist party, and all the while longed to get back to the old life of adventure and poetry. Twice he fled from cheerless meetings to seek out Sherwood Anderson. “If I were dead sure I had something on the ball as a poet …” he told Anderson wistfully.
He wrote propaganda articles on America, the world situation, communism. They are dull, foolish, barely readable.
Then came the chance to return to adventure. The occasion was petty: to present the case of one of the splinters of the new Communist movement against the other, before the Communist International.