‘Kazan-Sarapul’ by Larissa Reissner from The Daily Worker Saturday Supplement. Vol. 3 Nos. 276 and 281. December 4 and 11, 1926.

All I can say is ‘wow.’ Transcribed for the first time here, Larissa Reissner describes her October, 1918 experiences serving on board a torpedo boat with the Volga Flotilla as commissar of its intelligence section. Reissner was an accomplished, as this sketch shows, and prolific writer who produced many works of history, politics, biography, and memoir. As far as I have found, this is one of only two pieces of hers published in the U.S. Communist press and comes from the Daily Workers’ Saturday Magazine supplement from December, 1926.

After the fall of Kazan to the Reds, the flotilla fought their way up the Kama River to liberate Sarapul and engaged in a daring rescue of prisoners in the hands of the Whites. Commanded by Fedor Raskolnikov, husband of Reissner, the campaign was organized by Nikolai Markin, head of the Kronstadt sailors of 1917, and Flotilla Commissar, who was killed in combat aboard ‘Vanya the Communist’ on October 1, 1918.

‘Kazan-Sarapul’ by Larissa Reissner from The Daily Worker Saturday Supplement. Vol. 3 Nos. 276 and 281. December 4 and 11, 1926.

THE chronometer on deck of the torpedo boat is astonishingly similar to the clock in the Peter-Paul fortress.

Nikolai Grigoryevich Markin, leader of the Kronstadt sailors in 1917 and Commissar of the Flotilla. Killed in battle aboard the “Vanya” just before these events.

But instead of the Neva, instead of the glistening granite and the golden spires, her precise accents play about the unfamiliar banks and the clear, capricious waters of the Kama, and In the distance, the forlorn islands of the small villages.

It is dark on the bridge deck. The moon barely illuminates the long, slender, eagerly advancing bodies of the war vessels. The sparks flutter lightly from the smoke stacks, the milk-white vapor hangs its curly mane down on the water, and the ships, with their proudly erected posts, appear in this primitive space not as the latest achievement in technique but as war-like, inconceivable sea horses.

A queer light. Isolated faces are pale, and as in day time, plainly visible. The motions are noiseless, and yet exact. A sailor draws the heavy jacket off the cannon, with a jerk, as one pulls a veil from an enchanted, frightful head. His movements are, from years of training, epical and unconstrained as in ballet.

Dancing hands of the signalist, with their little red flags dance laconically and with conviction the ritual dance of orders and replies.

And over the restrained commotion of the ships preparing for battle, over the reflection of the glowing furnace hiding Its smoke and heat in the depths of the ship-hull, over the bridge-deck and the masts, between softly vibrating yards rises the green morning star.

Yacht “Mezhen” – the command ship of the Volga Flotilla.

The advanced post which we usually occupy lies far back, beyond the bend of the river. The ship is close to the bank; its commander, Ovtchinnikov, the ever-calm, determined, precise, and silent man, is one from the glorious ranks of Asin’s 28th Division which has traversed all, Russia, from the cold Kama to Baku, the city covered with ashes by the yellow winds.

Somewhere to the right a treacherous flame flickered and disappeared —perhaps it is the Whites, but it may also be a division of Koshevnikov, who is stirring about in the deep hinterlands of the Whites and sometimes emerges suddenly from the brush-wood hiding the banks of the Kama.

The Kama and her yellow clay banks.

Under the first rays of the morning sun this bank Is unusually beautiful. At Sarapul the Kama is broad and deep, flowing between yellow clay slopes, branching off between islands, and bearing on her smooth, oily surfaces reflections of the cedars. Kama is free, Kama is quiet. The noise of the torpedo boats does not disturb the magic peace of the river.

On the sand shoals hundreds of swans are spreading their white wings, shining in the October sun. A flock of little pellets—ducks—glide smoothly across the water, and above the white church in the distance an eagle is sailing about in a circle. And altho the opposite meadow bank is occupied by the enemy—not a single shot is audible in the low brushwood. Obviously they did not expect us in this region, and are not ready to encounter us.

A pale, smoke-covered mechanic emerges as far as the waist out of the machine shop and inhales with relish the sharp morning air which overnight has become autumnal and northerly.

The boatman on the bridge deck, disheveled and robust, with his gray hair and sheepskin not unlike a sylvan demon—is prophesying early frost.

“It smells like snow, one scents the snow in the air,” and again he silently seeks the narrow path of the ships between the treacherous curling of the shoals, the rocks, and the fog. This night we have covered 100 kilometers— now the fine lacework of a railway bridge and the white cupolas of Sarapul loom in the distance. The crew is resting, splashing at the water faucet, and teasing two dogs, who were raised with great affection on hard voyages and under the roar of cannon.

A quick shout from the observer.

“People at the shore on the left.”

Volga Flotilla gunboats.

And again—tease waiting. But they at the shore have already recognized us; red strips of cloth are fluttering merrily in the wind. Farther along the shore, on the bridge and also behind the sand banks, little red flags are flickering up. Tiny figures of foot soldiers are racing along the shore, waving, shouting, and throwing incomprehensible benedictions over on the steel deck of the torpedo boat.

We pass the bridge, turn in to the left, and already a machine gun sputters in back of the last ship of the flotilla. It is the Whites, who are shooting at the bridge guard because he had run to the shore to get a closer view of a steamer of our squadron.

The entire quay of Sarapul, now visible with a telescope, is occupied by Asin’s Division, besieged on all sides by the Whites, and finally, thanks to the arrival of our squadron, united with the armies farther inward.

Reissner in 1924.

We approach the shore. On the roofs, on the balustrade, on the road—everywhere Red armyists, bright kerchiefs, beards, all friendly, joyfully surprised faces. The orchestra on the hill rumbles the Marseillaise, the drummer stares at the boats and with his clattering makes a breach in the melody, the horn gets ahead of the irritated director, peels blaringly notes into the air, unrestrained and unruly, like a horse which has thrown off his rider.

The tows are already taken up, the edge of the ship-board places itself slowly against the wharf, sailors disperse on the shore, the conversation is in full swing.

“How did you get by? Did you beat up the ships?”

“As course we beat them, and chased them into the White River.”

“You lie!”

“It is the honest truth.”

The Kama.

A woman, still young, her face covered with tears, pushes thru the crowd. “A sailor’s wife,” say those standing about. Then the complaining and lamenting begins anew. The weeping of the mother and wife, a penetrating, monotonous weeping:

“They have taken him away from me, carried him off on a tow-boat. He was a sailor like you.” The kerchief of the woman flies from one sailor to another, her face is wet with tears, she caresses the blue serge of the jackets—her last remembrance, Yes, every war Is cruel, but civil war is terrible. How much deliberate, cold, intellectual brutality have those retreating enemies already committed.

Tchistopol, Yelatragn, Tchesiry, sad Sarapul—all these spots are covered with blood. Like blazing brands the names of modest villages burn in history. At one place the wives and children of the Red armyists were thrown into the Kama, even infants were not spared. In another—the village streets are still covered with black, congealed blood—the glorious red of the maples round-about seem to have adopted forever the color of blood.

   The combat area of ​​the Volga flotilla on the Kama in 1918.

The women and children of those slaughtered do not see abroad, do not write memoirs in which they relate the burning of their old country home with its Rembrandts and literary treasures, and the Chinese cruelties of the Tcheka. Never will it be known, no one will bring word to sensitive Europe of the thousand soldiers killed on the banks of the Kama, buried by the stream in sticky marshes and washed ashore. Was there ever a day—remember, you who were on board the “Rastoropny,” the “Pritky,” and the “Retivy,” on the battery “Seryosha’ on “Vanya, the Communist,” on all our clumsy, armored turtles—was there ever a day when at the rim of your ship-board a silent back, a soldier head with little hair (after typhoid) or an arm was not seen dancing over the waves. Was there ever a spot on the Kama where you were not received with laments, where on the shore, among the happy and distracted faces you did not see a dozen abandoned wives and dirty, famished workers’ children? Remember the weeping, those heartrending sobs that could not be stifled even by the clanking of the boat chains, the wild heartbeats, the overstrained voice of the executive chairman hailing you already at a distance of half a kilometer: “Samara is occupied by the Reds!”

In the meantime, another woman has come up to the first, a small, lean old figure. Over her face, too, grief has drawn its furrows.

“Vanya, the Communist” gun boat on which Markin was killed.

“Weep not; speak calmly.”

And the woman tells her story, but her words are lost in lamenting, and nothing can be gathered from them. But it was thus: While retreating, the Whites took 600 of our men on a boat and carried them off —no one knows where to; they say to Ufa, perhaps even farther…

An hour later a piercing siren calls the sailors scattered along the shore, and the commander gives the order; The squadron is going up stream in search of the towboat with the prisoners. Emphatically his words ring out, arousing the crew: “600 men, comrades.”


They did not expect us: trenches, barbed wire, advance guard, all was unprotected on the riverside, and as visible as on a teaboard. Slowly gliding along the bank, the torpedo boats take convenient positions—the gunner directs the cannon. The shells are brought up out of the ammunition room. The command sounds:


The cannon mouths are hurling flashes of fire, with a light, metallic ring the cartridge shells fall, and after ten to fifteen seconds an ash-colored and black-steaming fountain rises amidst the fleeing ranks of the adversary, the gunner alters the direction.

“Visor 2, Fire!”

The torpedo boat “Retiry” also begins firing; “Proshny” sets the church aflame with his stern-chaser.

We shall probably reach Galyany (65 kilometers above Sarapul) by daylight.

The river destroyer“Proshny (Durable).”

Another stretch of ten kilometers and we are at our destination. The red flags are lowered—it was decided to surprise the enemy and to let the squadron pass for that of the White guards, that of Admiral Stark, which is impatiently expected by the Whites. The ships dart out from behind an island in full steam, pass the wharf of Galyany, and put themselves in position—a difficult maneuver at this shallow and narrow point.

“Shoot only when ordered”— one boat signals to the other. The situation is this: about 70 meters from shore, next to the church, a heavy, six-inch cannon is plainly visible. Back of it on the hillock, many curious peasants, and among them—a little band of armed soldiers. On the church spire—another cannon—perhaps a machine gun. At the shore on the left—a tow-boat with a White guardist. Field kitchens are smoking, white tents are gleaming among the bushes, soldiers are stretched out at the shore and observing with curiosity the maneuvers of the torpedo boats. Midway in the river, however, guarded by a sentry, a floating grave; motionless and quiet.

Flotilla aircraft barge “The Commune.”

“Pritky” communicates orders with a lowered voice to the other ships. “Retivy” approaches the tow-boat, and without betraying itself, gains assurance that the precious live cargo is on board. “Pritky’’ directs its cannon on the six-inch cannon of the opponent in order to destroy it at the first move of the enemy; nor does it overlook the infantry.

But how can the heavy tow-boat be liberated from its anchors, how can it be released from the narrow trap of sand shoals and islands? Fortunately a hostile tracker is puffing at the wharf. Our officer—in a gold braided cap, of course—gives to the captain of the tracker the positive order:

“In the name of the commander of the fleet. Admiral Stark, I command you to take the boat with the prisoners in tow and to follow us!”

The Kama.

Trained by the Whites to slavish obedience, the captain of the tracker immediately executes the order, approaches the boat and takes it in tow. Infinitely slow, the minutes drag on, until the awkward steamer attaches the steel hawser and makes all preparations for the trip. Our crew stands motionless, their faces are deadly pale, they believe, and yet do not dare hope, that this dream should be realized, that the hopelessly doomed boat should gain liberty. Whispering, they ask each other:

“Well, is he ever going to move? He is still standing.”

However, impressed by the sharp command of our officer, the tracker plays his role brilliantly. On the tow boat, great commotion prevails. The assisting commander and the officer himself lay down their arms to help raise the anchor. And little by little the ponderous monster begins to give up its motionless attitude, raises a prong, the tightly stretched cords hang shack for a moment, to straighten out again immediately at a new turn. The commander of the “Pritky” speaks calmly with the bewildered guard of the prisoners.

“I command you in the name of the admiral to keep perfect peace and to follow us—we shall accompany you.”

“We have little wood,” they try to protest from the tracker.

Volga Flotilla red gunboats, 1918.

“No matter, there is plenty of wood along the way,” answers the commander of the flotilla—and the torpedo boats proceed slowly, so as not to arouse hie suspicion of the people on shore, in the direction of Sarapul. And already those inside the towboat begin to be alarmed.

“Where are they dragging us, where, why?”

One of the prisoners, a sailor, pushes to the stern of the tow-boat where thru a thick board a hole is plucked out with a pocket knife—the only little opening thru which something can be seen of sky and water. Long and attentively he observes the mysterious ships and their silent crews. Distorted faces prose about him, reading every trace of hope or danger from his countenance. It is as if a single, lifeless, motionless face stared at him.

“They are all alike, long, gray.”

“Are they White guardists, ha? Look more carefully!”

“But no…”

“What, no? Why the devil don’t you speak?”

The observer is pulled away from his post.

“It seems to me that they are some of ours, from the Baltic fleet.”

The freed prisoners aboard barges. October, 1918.

But these wretches, who had spent three weeks in this plague hole, who had slept and eaten in their own excrements, bare, covered only with sack cloth—they do not dare hope.

Even at Sarapul, when the people, greeting them at the quay, shouted and wept, when they arrested the White guardist sentry, and, as they did not dare climb down in that pesthole, called the prisoners out—these answered only with oaths and groans. None of the 430 human beings believed in a deliverance. Only yesterday the sentry had taken the last shirt for a bread crust; only yesterday morning, seven bayonets dragged out the torn bodies of the three brothers Krasnopyerov and twenty-seven other men. For twenty-tour hours no bread had been throws down the loops (a quarter pound a day per man was all they had resolved for three weeks).

It was clear: it did not even pay to feed these condemned any longer. Some night, or some gray, bloodless morning the end would come for all of them- an unknown, but inexpressibly bitter end. And suddenly they are taken, God known where, the loops are opened above their heads and they are called out-—with strangely ringing, excited voices and by a name forbidden and outlawed:

Memorial in the village of Golyany on the Kama, dedicated to the liberation of the “Death Barge” today.

“Come out, comrades!”

And yet they came, crawling, in tears, one after another they arose from the dead. What spectacle unfolded itself on that deck. Several Chinese, who had no one in this cold land, dropped at the feet of a sailor and expressed in strange, bleating accents their boundless devotion to the people who in the name of the brotherhood of the oppressed knew how to die.

In the morning the city and the troops received the prisoners. The tow-boat was brought to the shore, and the 430 wavering, pale, ragged human beings proceeded to the land along an avenue of honor formed by the sailors. The long series of bast-figures, with grotesque head-wear and with fantastic cape of braided straw, the appearance of a procession from another world. And in the multitude, shaken by this spectacle, again awakens the superb humor of the people.

“Who dressed you up like that, comrades?”

“Don’t you see, it is the uniform of the assemblies—each has a last shirt and a rope around his neck.”

Flotilla commander Fedor Raskolnikov with his brother Alexander.

“Don’t step on my shoes, don’t you see—the toes are sticking out,” and he raises up his foot, swaddled in dirty rags.

On the way to the shore, with voices sounding hollow after the long tortures in that place of horror, they start the Marseillaise. And the song does not end even at the city square. Here the representative of the prisoners greets the seamen of the Volga flotilla, their commander, and the Soviet powers. Rasskolnikov is carried on shoulders into the dining hall, where hot food and tea has been prepared. Indescribable faces, words, team, it is as if a whole family who has just found its lost father, son, or brother, were sitting beside the newly recovered and watching him eat.

In the crowd of soldiers and sailors are noticeable now and then the gold-braided caps of the few officers who have been thru the entire three month campaign from Kazan to Sarapul. I think that for a long time they were not welcomed with such reverence and brotherly love as they were on this day. And if there exists between the intelligentsia and the masses a unity in spirit. In sacrifices and in heroic deeds, it arose at that moment, when the mothers of the workers, their wives and children, blessed the officers for delivering their fathers, brothers and children from the tortures of death.

The Saturday Supplement, later changed to a Sunday Supplement, of the Daily Worker was a place for longer articles with debate, international focus, literature, and documents presented. The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1926/v3n275-dec-04-1926-TDW.pdf

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