Russia – Prisoners And Captives

BEFORE this book is published, something like 1,000 British people and their dependents will have returned from Russia. About 120 of these will be British soldiers, sixty of whom were confined in a monastery or prison in Moscow. Speaking relatively, only a few of the others have endured internment, either in camp or prison. I believe a few prisoners still remain in Russia and are likely to remain there until Peace is signed.

If the Government agrees to carry out the requests put forward by the jingo press of this country and publishes stones of outrages and brutalities told by the refugees who have just returned, I think we all should demand that with than stories shall be printed a statement, showing how many British people and their dependents have resided in Russia during the period of the revolution, how many of these have been imprisoned or interned, for what periods and for what offences, and how many British have been executed ; together with a statement showing how many have died of disease, the nature of the disease, and the age of the deceased person.

There is nothing like facts to blow away the fairy tales of fiction mongers. No one with any knowledge of facts will deny that many British subjects endured untold hardship and suffering ; some of it partially due to the treat-ment they received at the hands of the Soviet Government or its agents. No one will deny that some British people have been interned and imprisoned without trial and for offences which, to say the least, were charged against them only on suspicion. But when all this is admitted, the bare fact remains that the bulk of British residents were free to live where they pleased ; could obtain employment and earn their livings on the same terms as Russians ; that at least sixty of the British soldiers were never treated as prisoners, but were allowed complete freedom of movement ; that even those who were imprisoned or interned were allowed to receive parcels of food from the outside ; and at holiday times, such as Christmas, were allowed to amuse themselves by means of concerts.

I met the first British prisoner I saw in Russia on the streets of Moscow. When asked how he was getting on, he replied, ` Very well indeed.”

I next came into contact with a dozen of these prisoners at the Vicarage in Moscow and their condition was such that I expressed sur-prise at their healthy appearance. With one accord they proclaimed, what I afterwards discovered to be the fact, that their healthy appearance was due, in large measure, to the work of the British chaplain in that city, who spared neither money nor pains to secure not only for the British, but for all foreign nationals, extra food and nourishment. It must be understood that in doing this he was commiting a grossly illegal act, which was winked at by the authorities, solely because he was acting for and on behalf ` of British prisoners.

The prisons themselves and internment camps were not prisons in the ordinary sense, that is, places originally built as prisons, so far as ordinary alien prisoners were eon. cerned. The British officers and the so-called volunteers, who served with them, were housed in what had formerly been a monastery. No doubt the sanitary arrangements were very bad, hut so, unhappily, were the sanitary arrangements everywhere. You cannot have frost to the extent they have it in Moscow during the months of February and March, coupled with an almost entire absence of fuel, without pipes of every sort and kind getting choked and frozen up.

It will be said that I am smoothing over the very great shortage of food. T have no intention of doing anything of the kind. I have said over and over again that in Russia everybody was hungry, and prisoners were hungry as well as everybody else. The only difference between the prisoners and the rest of the population was that the former were, in fact, better fed. First, because the British chaplain, Mr. North, borrowed money right and left, and with this bought food wherever he could lay hands on it, and secondly because during the last few weeks the British Government was allowed to send in food for the special use, not only of the prisoners hut of the British residents generally.

I spent one evening in the so-called prison of the sixty “prisoners” who were free. I found them complete masters of their surroundings. They were in excellent spirits, ready to quarrel with me on every point of detail and principle concerning Bolshevism. T was much amused with them, because of their actual condition and the condition under which their friends in England thought they were living.

One boy, complaining of his food, declared that often they did not get all the bread they were entitled to, but was immediately corrected by another who said, ” Yes, But when we don’t get bread, we get flour.” I asked if they wanted me to be sorry for them because they were obliged to cook their food, seeing they had nothing to do all day, but to keep themselves and their so-called prison clean, and amuse themselves, and were occasionally called upon to make bread. The night I happened to go I saw their week’s ration of meat. They said that sometimes it was reindeer meat and sometimes other meats. That which I saw looked very good, and I am quite certain that during no one of the four weeks I was in Russia did I receive anything like that ration. I also saw French and other soldier prisoners all being treated in the sanie manner. I have tried to find a new word for such prisons and prisoners, for certain it is these men enjoyed a better life than the Commissar in whose charge they were placed. The prisoners shared their extra food with him, thus proving his need and their sufficiency. T can only call them free prisoners.

For all this, it is not nice to be detained in a foreign land, and as most of these soldiers were very young, I can understand how sick and miserable they really were ; but ‘my real sympathy was for those in prison, the officers and men the Government stupidly refused me permission to see.

I visited one prison where the correspondent of a London newspaper was detained.

I can only describe this as a sort of able-bodied workhouse. It was clean, much cleaner than most institutions in Russia, and the officers seemed very much on a level with the officers of a casual ward or able-bodied institution in this country. But as for a prison! It was a little difficult to understand where the prison came in. In addition to seeing the particular prisoner I went to see, I saw lots of others, and what astonished me most of all was the sort of freedom of conversation and the attitude of the prisoners towards their jailors. The Governor was a young man—I should think about thirty-six years of age. He could not speak English, but, was a very well educated man, indeed, much better educated than the average workhouse master I have met in this country, and certainly superior to the old gentleman who had charge of me during the few days was in Pentonville prison some years ago. But prisons and prisoners in Russia are not looked upon with quite the same feelings as prisoners are looked upon in more highly civilised countries. There is a kind of allowance made for the causes which bring them there, which appears to me to affect their whole treatment.

Who would have dreamed from what we have rend of the brutality of these Bolsheviks that the prisoner whom went to see would he brought to me in his own clothes, permitted to sit side by side with me in the prison, and to talk and discuss without any interference from officers or anyone else ! I was kept waiting till he came in from walking exercise, looking fresh and jolly.

We talked away for a fairly long time, and only when we wished to ask questions did anyone speak to us. The prisoner, who had been charged with entering Russia without permission, and with having bribed an official, was sentenced to detention until Peace was signed. There was no such thing as vengeance or even punishment in his treat-ment. He was allowed to study three different languages. Had he chosen he would have been engaged as an English tutor to teach English, which most of the people in authority desire to learn. By giving his parole not to attempt to escape he would have been allowed freedom to go where he pleased in the prison.

I contrasted this treatment with the treat-ment dealt out to political and other prisoners in this country, and especially with the treat-ment given to suffragettes and Trish prisoners, to the C.O. ‘s and the aliens charged or suspected of offences during the war, and the many thousands of aliens interned for no offence at all except that accidentally they were born outside England. In the midst of the Suffrage agitation one of my boys was sent to prison for breaking a window – a very heinous offence no doubt and one requiring very severe punishment. During his term of imprisonment, his wife, mother and myself and his baby visited him. He was barricaded off, as if either he or we would do some harm. We were allowed to talk only in the presence of a warder, and on saying goodbye he was not allowed even to touch his baby.

I shall be told that these are the rules of our prisons., So they are, but no such rules prevail—certainly for political offenders—in Bolshevik Russia, not even when these political offenders belong to the country which has done its worst to crush the Soviet Republic.

There is another side to the prison question also, to which all of us should give some attention. The Bolsheviks do not think that it is possible to cure the evils of civilised life by punishment. The big thing they have done y allowing illicit trading and marketing to be carried on, is worthy of a great deal of attention from us all, because it is the keynote to their whole policy. They believe that human beings are had or good because of their surroundings. They believe that greed and avarice, thieving and lying are just a part of that system of life which depresses and represses the natural desires of mankind. They think it is quite right that people should wish to have the best obtainable in the world ~ that men and women should desire to get the fullest life that is possible, and they believe that much of the crime with which all modern societies are surrounded is to a large extent due to the fact that in modern society as at present arranged, there is not enough of the best of life to go round.

Consequently their prisons, so far as they can manage it at present, are modelled on better lines than those of the old régime ; not at all so good as they hope they will be in the near future, but certainly better than under the Czardom. The fortress of Peter and Paul, with its hideous dungeons below the bed of the river in Petrograd has at last gone out of business. There is now no long trail of prisoners travelling the long weary road to Siberia and its horrible mines. What prisons are now used are reformative in their character, but all are based on the principle that prisons ought to have no place in modern society, be-cause in modern society the inducement to do the right thing should outweigh the induce-ment to do the wrong,

I heard many stories of ill treatment of prisoners while in prison from various quarters and none of these do I wish to belittle. I believe it is absolutely true that in some prisons aliens have been badly treated. But when all is said and done, on every occasion tried to track this kind of thing down, to find out its truth or otherwise, the final answer I almost invariably got was that the treatment in prisons depended very largely on the sort of chief officials in control of the prisoners. But, as I have said, meeting prisoners, talking to them, hearing their stories, I always felt they had much about which to be sorry for themselves and that nothing could get rid of the fact that they, were more or less prisoners in a strange lands.

On the other hand, it cannot be gainsaid that the bulk of the aliens in Russia were free to share all the same amenities of life as Russians ; but when any of these aliens took part or were suspected of taking part in counter revolutionary conspirings, then the authorities put them in prison or internment camp, and in doing so only followed the example of all other European and American, Governments.

It is not for us English, and certainly not for the Americans, to complain because people are put in prison without trial and only on suspicion. In both countries thousands of people have been dealt with in that way. No one can defend it, excuse it, or palliate it. But all of us can prevent ourselves from being hypocrites in denouncing it in the one ease and supporting it in the other. The position of people like myself is quite clear. I should no more dream of adopting the methods which Britain adopted under DO.R.A, than I should fly, but then, I am not a Government. Thank goodness ! It is the British Press with its hypocritical denunciations of the Bolsheviks that I have in mind at this moment. They have supported every infraction of liberty by the Government. They have hounded the Government on to ” intern them all,” to pass laws which make it almost impossible for many foreigners to set foot in this country, and these are the people who denounce the Bolsheviks for putLing political offenders and aliens in prison.

The sixty British soldiers already mentioned could often be found in theatres and concert halls. You would find them occasionally on the streets during the day and the evening, and each carried a pass, which protected him wherever he might be found.

I do not believe there is any other Govern-ment in the world that would have treated prisoners in this way. Tn addition, all the prisoners I saw, whether in or out of prison, were dressed in ordinary clothes. British soldiers in khaki, and civilians in ordinary attire. When I remember the German prisoners—the huge patches with which we decorated their clothes—the anxiety with which we endeavoured to make them as ugly as possible, and the punishment meted out to any person who bestowed a little kindness upon them, I am tempted to say, that in the matter of treating at least some prisoners, these atheist Bolsheviks carried out the Christian precept of loving their enemies.

I know I shall be told I am glossing over or trying to gloss over some of the evils and indignities which British people suffered. I am doing no such thing. They lost their property and their means of living—those of them who were rich—just as the wealthy Russians did, no more, no less. They received the same treatment as all other Russian citizens. Those of them who fell under the bann of the law did so, sometimes through their own fault, at other times through misfortune ; but the outstanding fact remains that, as I have already stated, they did receive a different kind of treatment from any prisoners I know of under a similar set of conditions.

One other thing in connection with prisoners. Before leaving Copenhagen saw a telegram which stated that smallpox, diphtheria and spotted typhus had broken out in the British prison camps. All I can say is that once more t call for figures. It is all very well for such statements to he made ; all very well for people to talk at large about deaths from these diseases in prisons and prison camps. I ask in this respect for figures. How many British people suffered from these diseases ; how many died and their ages. If these figures are published, we shall find that there has been gross exaggeration, both as to the amount of the disease and the results, but the main thing I want to convey with regard to prisoners and captives is this—that in my deliberate judgment, the Bolsheviks have led the way in being more humane, more considerate in their treatment of these people than any other Govern-ment I know. Their ability to do right has been circumscribed within the limits imposed by the infamous blockade. No medicines, no anaetheta’s, no means of treating diseases, have left them, of course, without the means of properly dealing with sick prisoners. The effect of this blockade which prevented medicines and anesthetics going into Russia was seen when a British soldier was obliged to submit to an operation for removal of his eye without an anesthetic. Hundreds of thousands of Russians obliged to undergo operations were treated in the same manner.

My claim for the Russian Government is that, within the limits of their means, and these limits were imposed from the outside by the infamous blockade and war, the Bolshevik Government has set the world an example as to the methods of dealing with prisoners.