Arthur Ransome
The Crisis in Russia


In the preceding chapter I wrote of Russia's many wants, and of the processes visibly at work, tending to make her condition worse and not better. But I wrote of things, not of people. I wrote of the shortage of this and of that, but not of the most serious of all shortages, which, while itself largely due to those already discussed, daily intensifies them, and points the way to that further stage of decay which is threatened in the near future in Russia, and, in the more distant future in Europe. I did not write of the shortage deterioration of labor.

Shortage of labor is not peculiar to Russia. It is among the postwar phenomena common to all countries. The war and its accompanying eases have cost Europe, including Russia, an enormous number of able-bodied men. Many millions of others have lost the habit of regular work.German industrialists complain that they cannot get labor, and that when they get it, it is not productive. I heard complaints on the same subject in England. But just as the economic crisis, due in the first instance to the war and the isolation it imposed, has gone further in Russia than elsewhere, so the shortage of labor, at present a handicap, an annoyance in more fortunate countries, is in Russia perhaps the greatest of the national dangers. Shortage of labor cannot be measured simply by the decreasing numbers of the workmen. If it takes two workmen as long to do a particular job in 1920 as it took one man to do it in 1914, then, even if the number of workman has remained the same, the actual supply of labor has been halved. And in Russia the situation is worse than that. For example, in the group of State metal-working factories, those, in fact which may be considered as the weapon with which Russia is trying to cut her way out of her transport difficulties, apart from the fact that there were in 19l6 81,600 workmen, whereas in 1920 there are only 42,500, labor has deteriorated in the most appalling manner. In 1916 in these factories 92 per cent. of the nominal working hours were actually kept; in 1920 work goes on during only 60 per cent. of the nominal hours. It is estimated that the labor of a single workman produces now only one quarter of what it produced in 1916. To take another example, also from workmen engaged in transport, that is to say, in the most important of all work at the present time: in the Moscow junction of the Moscow Kazan Railway, between November 1st and February 29th (1920), 292 workmen and clerks missed 12,048 working days, being absent, on in average, forty days per man in the four months. In Moscow passenger-station on this line, 22 workmen missed in November 106 days, in December 273, in January 338, and in February 380; in an appalling crescendo further illustrated by the wagon department, where 28 workmen missed in November 104 days and in February 500. In November workmen absented themselves for single days. In February the same workmen were absent for the greater part of the month. The invariable excuse was illness. Many cases of illness there undoubtedly were, since this period was the worst of the typhus epidemic, but besides illness, and besides mere obvious idleness which no doubt accounts for a certain proportion of illegitimate holidays, there is another explanation which goes nearer the root of the matter. Much of the time filched from the State was in all probability spent in expeditions in search of food. In Petrograd, the Council of Public Economy complain that there is a tendency to turn the eight-hour day into a four-hour day. Attempts are being made to arrest this tendency by making an additional food allowance conditional on the actual fulfilment of working days. In the Donetz coal basin, the monthly output per man was in 1914 750 poods, in 1916 615 poods, in 1919 240 poods (figures taken from Ekaterinoslav Government), and in 1920 theoutput per man is estimated at being something near 220 poods. In the shale mines on the Volga, where food conditions are comparatively good, productivity is comparatively high. Thus in a small mine near Simbirsk there are 230 workmen, of' whom 50 to 60 are skilled. The output for the unskilled is 28.9 poods in a shift, for the skilled 68.3. But even there 25 per cent. of the workmen are regular absentees, and actually the mine works only 17 or 18 days in a month, that is, 70 per cent. of the normal number of working days. The remaining 30 per cent. of normal working time is spent by the workmen in getting food. Another small mine in the same district is worked entirely by unskilled labor, the wokers being peasants from the neighboring villages. In this mine the productivity per man is less, but all the men work full time. They do not have to waste time in securing food, because, being local peasants, they are supplied by their own villages and families. In Moscow and Petrograd food is far more difficult to secure, more time is wasted on that hopeless task; even with that waste of time, the workman is not properly fed, and it cannot be wondered at that his productivity is low.

Something, no doubt, is due to the natural character of the Russians, which led Trotsky to define man as an animal distinguished by laziness. Russians are certainly lazy, and probably owe to their climate their remarkable incapacity for prolonged effort. The Russian climate is such that over large areas of Russia the Russian peasant is accustomed, and has been accustomed for hundreds of years, to perform prodigies of labor during two short periods of sowing and harvest, and to spend the immensely long and monotonous winter in a hibernation like that of the snake or the dormouse. There is a much greater difference between a Russian workman's normal output and that of which he is capable for a short time if he sets himself to it, than there is between the normal and exceptional output of an Englishman, whose temperate climate has not taught him to regard a great part of the year as a period of mere waiting for and resting from the extraordinary effort of a few weeks.(1)

But this uneven working temperament was characteristic of the Russian before the war as well as now. It has been said that the revolution removed the stimulus to labor, and left the Russian laziness to have its way. In the first period of the revolution that may have been true. It is becoming day by day less true. The fundamental reasons of low productivity will not be found in any sudden or unusual efflorescence of idleness, but in economic conditions which cannot but reduce the productivity of idle and industrious alike. Insufficient feeding is one such reason. The proportion of working time consumed in foraging is another. But the whole of my first chapter may be taken as a compact mass of reasons why the Russians at the present time should not work with anything like a normal productivity. It is said that bad workmen complain of their tools, but even good ones become disheartened if compelled to work with makeshifts, mended tools, on a stock of materials that runs out from one day to the next, in factories where the machinery may come at any moment to a standstill from lack of fuel. There would thus be a shortage of labor in Russia, even if the numbers of workmen were the same today as they were before the war. Unfortunately that is not so. Turning from the question of low productivity per man to that of absolute shortage of men: the example given at the beginning of this chapter, showing that in the most important group of factories the number of workmen has fallen 50 per cent. is by no means exceptional. Walking through the passages of what used to be the Club of the Nobles, and is now the house of the Trades Unions during the recent Trades Union Congress in Moscow, I observed among a number of pictorial diagrams on the walls, one in particular illustrating the rise and fall of the working population of Moscow during a number of years. Each year was represented by the picture of a factory with a chimney which rose and fell with the population. From that diagram I took the figures for 1913, 1918 and 1919. These figures should be constantly borne in mind by any one who wishes to realize how catastrophic the shortage of labor in Russia actually is, and to judge how sweeping may be the changes in the social configuration of the country if that shortage continues to increase. Here are the figures:

Workmen in Moscow in 1913............159,344
Workmen in Moscow in 1918 ...........157,282
Workmen in Moscow in 1919............105,210

That is to say, that one-third of the workmen of Moscow ceased to live there, or ceased to be workmen, in the course of a single year. A similar phenomenon is observable in each one of the big industrial districts.

What has become of those workmen?

A partial explanation is obvious. The main impulse of the revolution came from the town workers. Of these, the metal workers were the most decided, and those who most freely joined the Red Guard in the early and the Red Army in the later days of the revolution. Many, in those early days, when there was more enthusiasm than discipline, when there were hardly any experienced officers, and those without much authority, were slaughtered during the German advance of 1918. The first mobilizations, when conscription was introduced, were among the workers in the great industrial districts. The troops from Petrograd and Moscow, exclusively workmen's regiments, have suffered more than any other during the civil war, being the most dependable and being thrown, like the guards of old time, into the worst place at any serious crisis. Many thousands of them have died for the sake of the revolution which, were they living, they would be hard put to it to save. (The special shortage of skilled workers is also partially to be explained by the indiscriminate mobilizations of 1914-15, when great numbers of the most valuable engineers and other skilled workers were thrown into the front line, and it was not until their loss was already felt that the Tsar's Government in this matter came belatedly to its senses.)

But these explanations are only partial. The more general answer to the question, What has become of the workmen? lies in the very economic crisis which their absence accentuates. Russia is unlike England, where starvation of the towns would be practically starvation of the whole island. In Russia, if a man is hungry, he has only to walk far enough and he will come to a place where there is plenty to eat. Almost every Russian worker retains in some form or other connection with a village, where, if he returns, he will not be an entire stranger, but at worst a poor relation, and quite possibly an honored guest. It is not surprising that many thousands have "returned to the land" in this way.

Further, if a workman retains his connection, both with a distant village and with a town, he can keep himself and his family fat and prosperous by ceasing to be a workman, and, instead, traveling on the buffers or the roof of a railway wagon, and bringing back with him sacks of flour and potatoes for sale in the town at fantastic prices. Thereby he is lost to productive labor, and his uncomfortable but adventurous life becomes directly harmful, tending to increase the strain on transport, since it is obviously more economical to transport a thousand sacks than to transport a thousand sacks with an idle workman attached to each sack. Further, his activities actually make it more difficult for the town population to get food. By keeping open for the village the possibility of selling at fantastic prices, he lessens the readiness of the peasants to part with their flour at the lower prices of the Government. Nor is it as if his activities benefited the working population. The food he brings in goes for the most part to those who have plenty of money or have things to exchange for it. And honest men in Russia to-day have not much money, and those who have things to exchange are not as a rule workmen. The theory of this man's harmfulness is, I know, open to argument, but the practice at least is exactly as I have stated it, and is obviously attractive to the individual who prefers adventure on a full stomach to useful work on an empty. Setting aside the theory with its latent quarrel between Free Trade and State control, we can still recognize that each workman engaged in these pursuits has become an unproductive middleman, one of that very parasitic species which the revolutionaries had hoped to make unnecessary. It is bad from the revolutionary point of view if a workman is so employed, but it is no less bad from the point of view of people who do not care twopence about the revolution one way or the other, but do care about getting Russia on her feet again and out of her economic crisis. It is bad enough if an unskilled workman is so employed. It is far worse if a skilled workman finds he can do better for himself as a "food speculator" than by the exercise of his legitimate craft. From mines, from every kind of factory come complaints of the decreasing proportion of skilled to unskilled workmen. The superior intelligence of the skilled worker offers him definite advantages should he engage in these pursuits, and his actual skill gives him other advantages in the villages. He can leave his factory and go to the village, there on the spot to ply his trade or variations of it, when as a handy man, repairing tools, etc., he will make an easy living and by lessening the dependence of the village on the town do as much as the "food speculator" in worsening the conditions of the workman he has left behind.

And with that we come to the general changes in the social geography of Russia which are threatened if the processes now at work continue unchecked. The relations between town and village are the fundamental problem of the revolution. Town and countryside are in sharp contradiction daily intensified by the inability of the towns to supply the country's needs. The town may be considered as a single productive organism, with feelers stretching into the country, and actual outposts there in the form of agricultural enterprises taking their directives from the centre and working as definite parts of the State organism. All round this town organism, in all its interstices, it too, with its feelers in the form of "food speculators," is the anarchic chaos of the country, consisting of a myriad independent units, regulated by no plan, without a brain centre of any kind. Either the organized town will hold its own against and gradually dominate and systematize the country chaos, or that chaos little by little will engulf the town organism. Every workman who leaves the town automatically places himself on the side of the country in that struggle. And when a town like Moscow loses a third of its working population in a year, it is impossible not to see that, so far, the struggle is going in favor of that huge chaotic, unconscious but immensely powerful countryside. There is even a danger that the town may become divided against itself. Just as scarcity of food leads to food speculation, so the shortage of labor is making possible a sort of speculation in labor. The urgent need of labor has led to a resurrection of the methods of the direct recruiting of workmen in the villages by the agents of particular factories, who by exceptional terms succeed in getting workmen where the Government organs fail. And, of course, this recruiting is not confined to the villages. Those enterprises which are situated in the corn districts are naturally able to offer better conditions, for the sake of which workmen are ready to leave their jobs and skilled workmen to do unskilled work, and the result can only be a drainage of good workmen away from the hungry central industrial districts where they are most of all needed.

Summing up the facts collected in this chapter and in the first on the lack of things and the lack of men, I think the economic crisis in Russia may be fairly stated as follows: Owing to the appalling condition of Russian transport, and owing to the fact that since 1914 Russia has been practically in a state of blockade, the towns have lost their power of supplying, either as middlemen or as producers, the simplest needs of the villages. Partly owing to this, partly again because of the condition of transport, the towns are not receiving the necessaries of life in sufficient quantities. The result of this is a serious fall in the productivity of labor, and a steady flow of skilled and unskilled workmen from the towns towards the villages, and from employments the exercise of which tends to assist the towns in recovering their old position as essential sources of supply to employments that tend to have the opposite effect. If this continues unchecked, it will make impossible the regeneration of Russian industry, and will result in the increasing independence of the villages, which will tend to become entirely self-supporting communities, tilling the ground in a less and less efficient manner, with ruder tools, with less and less incentive to produce more than is wanted for the needs of the village itself. Russia, in these circumstances, may sink into something very like barbarism, for with the decay of the economic importance of the towns would decay also their authority, and free-booting on a small and large scale would become profitable and not very dangerous. It would be possible, no doubt, for foreigners to trade with the Russians as with the natives of the cannibal islands, bartering looking-glasses and cheap tools, but, should such a state of things come to be, it would mean long years of colonization, with all the new possibilities and risks involved in the subjugation of a free people, before Western Europe could count once more on getting a considerable portion of its food from Russian corn lands.

That is the position, those the natural tendencies at work. But opposed to these tendencies are the united efforts of the Communists and of those who, leaving the question of Communism discreetly aside, work with them for the sake of preventing such collapse of Russian civilization. They recognize the existence of every one of the tendencies I have described, but they are convinced that every one of these tendencies will be arrested. They believe that the country will not conquer the town but the reverse. So far from expecting the unproductive stagnation described in the last paragraph, they think of Russia as of the natural food supply of Europe, which the Communists among them believe will, in course of time, be made up for "Working Men's Republics" (though, for the sake of their own Republic, they are not inclined to postpone trade with Europe until that epoch arrives). At the very time when spades and sickles are wearing out or worn out, these men are determined that the food output of Russia shall sooner or later be increased by the introduction of better methods of agriculture and farming on a larger scale. We are witnessing in Russia the first stages of a titanic struggle, with on one side all the forces of nature leading apparently to an inevitable collapse of civilization, and on the other side nothing but the incalculable force of human will.



(1) Given any particular motive, any particular enthusiasm, or visible, desirable object, even the hungry Russian workmen of to-day are capable of sudden and temporary increase of output. The "Saturdayings" (see p. 119) provide endless illustrations of this. They had something in the character of a picnic, they were novel, they were out of the routine, and the productivity of labor during a "Saturdaying" was invariably higher than on a weekday. For example, there is a shortage of paper for cigarettes. People roll cigarettes in old newspapers. It occurred to the Central Committee of the Papermakers' Union to organize a "Sundaying" with the object of sending cigarette paper to the soldiers in the Red Army. Six factories took part. Here is a table showing the output of these factories during the "Sundaying" and the average weekday output. The figures are in poods.

Factory Made on the Sunday Average week Day Output
Krasnogorodskaya 615 450
Griaznovskaya 65 45
Medianskaya 105 90
Dobruzhskaya 186 250
Belgiiskaya 127 85
Ropshinskaya 85 55