Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Jailed for making soap

‘A lady friend of mine got three weeks in jail for making her own soap, an article monopolized, but not supplied, by the Soviets and much missed by the people who under the old regime had become accustomed to buying it in the open market in any quantity and at a low price.’ This is from the Russian Civil War diary of Alexis Babine, an author and scholar, born in Russia 150 years ago today but who emigrated to the US, and spent much of his working life at the Library of Congress. For a decade or so in his middle years, however, he returned to Russia, and was caught up in the Civil War. The diary - written in English - is now considered a unique historical resource.

Alexis V. Babine was born into a family of provincial merchants in the small Russian town of Elatma (170 or so miles southeast of Moscow), on 22 March 1866. He studied at the prestigious Institute of History and Philology in St. Petersburg, between 1885 and 1887, and then taught at Okhta Trade School. Following a shooting dare, he accidentally killed his best friend. His parents paid ‘blood money’, while Babine worked his way across the country, eventually to Riga. There, in 1899, he was taken on, as a stoker, by a German ship, which carried him to the United Sates.

Once in the US, Babine studied American history and worked in the library at Cornell University, after which he was appointed a librarian at Indiana University. He moved to Stanford where he was given the post of assistant librarian, and where he taught bibliography and Russian. In 1902, Sabine arrived at the Library of Congress, according to its own website, where he took the position of ‘specialist in charge of the Slavic literature’. He is remembered for negotiating the purchase of a large Russian language collection (from a wealthy Siberian merchant, Genadii Yudin), not only making all the necessary arrangements, transferring 80,000 volumes from Russia to the Library of Congress, but also publishing a bilingual description of the collection, and beginning the work on a catalog for the collection.

In 1910, however, Babine returned to Russia, partly to see his mother who was ill, and partly because he wanted to publish a popular history of the United States in Russian. With that project completed, he worked as an inspector of schools in Kharkov province, and then, after the February revolution, he was appointed to teach English at Saratov university. He may well have died from starvation during the civil war years, but for his participation in the activities of the American Relief Administration (ARA), which supplied its employees with food, as well as with packages from friends in the United States.

Babine went back to the US in 1922, as an √©migr√©, and from 1927 served as the assistant head of the Slavic section of the Library of Congress. He died in 1930. The only further information about Sabine available online appears to be at the Library of Congress website. The Library also holds Babine’s papers, including a very detailed journal he kept in Saratov from 1917 to 1922. This documents the deprivation experienced by the city’s population during the civil war years. The journal has been used by Eugene G. Pivovarov, a visiting scholar, to analyse price changes of basic foodstuffs. 
Pivovarov concluded: ‘The increase in prices, together with other factors, resulted in the destruction of the middle class in the entire region. Merchants, teachers, engineers, and craftsmen lived in equal poverty. They sold practically everything they had before the revolution and food became “a great blessing” for most of them’

Otherwise, Babine’s journal has been edited by the historian Donald J. Raleigh, and was published in 1988 by Duke University Press as A Russian Civil War Diary - Alexis Sabine in Saratov, 1917-1922. According to Raleigh: ‘Sabine kept his diary in the expectation that it would be published someday. He also wrote it for an American audience. Disgusted with what he called the “backwardness and barbarity” of his native country, Sabine could be a myopic observer. He expressed longing for a return to the old regime that had become politically and morally bankrupt even in the eyes of Saratov’s (and Russia’s) middle class. [. . .] The diary is a unique historical source because it offers readers a rare glimpse into daily life during the Civil War in the provincial city of Saratov. Sabine not only had an unusual story to tell, but also the ability to do so, and his writing casts fresh, if refracted, light on the Russian Civil Ware from an unfamiliar angle.’

Here are several extracts from the published journal.

19 March 1917.
‘I was waiting for my relay horses to rest before taking me to my next school, when an excited traveler suddenly broke into the dirty station room and gleefully announced the new millennium: Nicholas II has abdicated in favor of his brother Michael. A free constitutional rule, perhaps even a republic, is assured. The man’s accent bespoke a Pole. The stationmaster and his peasant help looked at him sourly. One could read in their eyes: “What joy can there be in a tsar’s abdication - except for an infidel like you?” It was now questionable whether I should hurry home by rail and cut short my school inspection program, or disregard the change of rule and carry out my plans as though nothing had happened. I chose the latter course.’

21 March 1917
‘At Nikolsk the liberals - social revolutionaries - are forcing themselves to the fore in matters of local administration. Old government officials are beginning to feel pressure from the oncoming disorderly tide. Teachers feel their positions threatened by anarchist inroads and do not know where to turn. I calmly ignore the new developments and attend to my work in utter disregard of what has happened in St. Petersburg.’

27 March 1917
‘Meetings have been held in the auditorium of the Totma Manual Training School by revolutionary agitators who would not have even dreamed two weeks ago of entering the school premises without proper - i.e., my - sanction. The master of the relay station tells me that German prisoners living in a house nearby claim that the war will soon be over. “And they know everything.” ’

29 March 1917
‘Straggling, worn out, shabbily clad soldiers are beginning to line the road, trudging wearily along, with half empty knapsacks on their backs, homeward bound.’

7 March 1918
‘3:40 p.m. At about 5 p.m. yesterday I saw on the corner of Nemetskaia and Aleksandrov streets a number of Red Guardsmen rather energetically ordering the crowd assembled there to disperse. I had barely time to return home from Tiedeman’s music store when sharp firing was heard from the same corner, and people rushed up Nemetskaia Street. A few minutes later the howl of what sounded like a wounded boy filled the air. From my window I saw two soldiers driving the crowd and brandishing their muskets on the opposite side of the street. But the street was full of people again in a few minutes.

This morning I was told that a number of people had been killed and wounded on Aleksandrov Street. My informant with his own eyes saw a wounded man.

In front of the post office building a young man came up to the crowd assembled there and without any warning shot a man dead. The crowd made a rush at the murderer and killed him on the spot. Mr. Luchinkin told one of our janitors that on his way to the university library this morning he saw on one of the streets the body of a man killed apparently last night, and by ten o’clock this morning not yet removed.’

22 November 1918
‘At the tea table of a socially humble friend’s, with the samovar hospitably whispering and sizzling, I was introduced to a friend of the family, a Soviet official, pale from rheumatism, but good-looking and well built, apparently a mechanic by profession. When the conversation turned to the treatment of the bourgeoisie by the new regime, my new acquaintance spoke firmly in support of a statement of his: “I by no means regret shooting and killing my fourteen men, not in the least.” My friend, giving him a quiet look, explained: “Of course, you only saw to their being executed,” and nicely shifted the conversation to another topic. My friend is a perfectly respectable man, but his company - sumptuously treated considering the times - was a revelation to me.’

24 November 1918
‘Was fortunate enough to get the address of a peasant woman in Monastyrka that sold me 10 lbs. of onions for only forty rubles. It was a three-mile long jubilation to carry them home on my back in a gunnysack, without risk of confiscation, onions being an article the Soviets have forgotten to nationalize.

25 November 1918
‘The Allied powers are said to have presented an ultimatum to the Bolshevik misrulers in Moscow, demanding unconditional surrender. An order is said to have been received here from Moscow to disarm the Red Army. Some local companies have refused to part with their weapons, though willing to surrender.’

26 November 1918
‘Petrograd is said to have been occupied by the Allies - to everybody’s secret joy.’

28 November 1918
‘A sudden search of guests in one of the new socialist cafes produced an unexpected result. One customer had a large amount of small change that is so scarce nowadays; another had a large sum of money in Astrakhan and Samara local currencies.’

15 August 1919
‘A lady friend of mine got three weeks in jail for making her own soap, an article monopolized, but not supplied, by the Soviets and much missed by the people who under the old regime had become accustomed to buying it in the open market in any quantity and at a low price.’

27 August 1919
‘Not wishing to patronize the dirty Soviet barber-shops and out of respect for the typhus raging all around, I have been clipping my hair myself with a 000 clip. It takes over two hours, and two mirrors, to do the work right. Two years ago I would not have thought the trick possible.’

28 August 1919
‘A couple of bachelors have been poisoning cockroaches in their kitchen with arsenic. They threw the dead insects into the yard, upon which their neighbors’ chickens died one after another. “Don’t worry about our being suspected,” quoth the younger of the two: “I’ve already thrown a quiet hint that our Jewish neighbors must have done it.”

5 September 1919
‘A paroled prisoner of war happened to come in quest of milk. My peasant landlord wanted to know what Denikin’s political platform was. The soldier mentioned among other things “the one and indivisible Russia.” “That is right,” said my landlord, with an air of supreme satisfaction stroking his long gray beard: “What’s mine is mine, and I ain’t got to divide it with no riff-raff as they wants it done under this here Communism.”

21 February 1922
‘Robberies of supplies from our trains are so frequent, the transportation so bad, cooperation on the part of the railroad authorities, employees, and the Soviets in general so luke-warm and inefficient, that both Kinne and Cobb feel very much discouraged and want to leave the country as soon as they can. Our town transport agent (a young German-Russian) has been reported as removing, with the connivance and cooperation of the railroad service, supplies from the care of ARA before making out his statements of shortages. He is being watched by Soviet secret service men - who know too well on which side the bread is buttered.’

22 February 1922
‘Someone told me about Professor Stadnitskii’s statement in his lecture this afternoon to the effect that a country doctor had been eaten up by the starving peasants in one of the outlying districts. Dr. Uroda has corrected the statement: it was a feldsher (a trained male nurse) that had been eaten, at Balakovo. He was a big, portly man, and his patients did not want him to go to waste when he died from some cause or other. A medical friend of Dr. Uroda’s has had an occasion to taste human flesh. Lost in a blizzard in the boundless Novouzensk prairies, he and his companion came across some frozen bodies, probably victims of the same blizzard and, to save themselves, they carved up, cooked, and ate part of them. The doctor stated that the worst part of that experience was the insuperable and uncomfortable craving he and his companion had acquired for human flesh.’ [. . .]

‘A medical inspector of ours, driving through a German village, caught glimpse of a couple of little girls running toward the road. He looked back and saw the girls pick up the fresh, warm horse dung and eat it.’

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