A Country That Didn't Have October

(Memories of Ukraine)

Ilya Ilf

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

It's true, it did not come to Ukraine.

Everyone hesitated from the very beginning. The Tsar abdicated on March 2 while Kiev and Odessa, the cities of sprightly common folk, were slow to celebrate. They were in no hurry. They waited.

However, it was soon discovered that there was nothing to wait for. The Tsar had abdicated and no longer existed. That's when the troops were ordered to march along spring-splashed streets while their commanding general, a hairy crusader, raised his sword to the revolution and revolutionaries.

That's what happened in Odessa. But the history of that city is the history of just about all of Ukraine.

Joyous policemen with red chest ribbons of incomprehensible size roared in honor of the revolution and revolutionaries. Crowds of locals, standing on vast mounds of snow, cheerfully sang along and La Marseillaise kept breaking from their lips without warning.

It was a worthy selection of people.

Military academies were having raucous fun. Bankers were kissing cadets. And the cadets were transforming with lightning speed into the Party of Constitutional Freedom as they rakishly hugged youngsters of tormented appearance and dubious trade. Youngsters meanwhile swiftly hid their Black-Hundredist badges of Archangel Michael in closets and pledged loyalty and allegiance to the new regime.

The future was awash with every color in the rainbow. Everything was fine. In fact, everything was wonderful. All that was left to do was crush the stubbornly resisting Germans and give the allies another few thousand poods of cheap cannon meat. And then paradise would come and everything would be, as it is in paradise, a peaceful life in a resort with massive profits from the factory.

But then the gaze of the rare-ripe revolutionary fell upon the worker provinces, upon Peresyp, where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.

It was there that the gaze greyed and gloomed with a menacing question:

—Will they? Will they, too, be pleased?

Yes, "they," the workers, were happy. They were very happy. They, too, came out to demonstrate. How could they not rejoice? The police state was dethroned.

And so they, the workers, also sang La Marseillaise. Yet some thought they sang it as though La Marseillaise were a funeral march. And while it flew from other lips as a merry little waltz, the workers sang it in a way that shuddered earth and air. La Marseillaise was not a dance-worthy tune for the blue-coats. It was the looming hymn of liberation, a hymn of remembrance of hard days past, a faith-hymn of the future.

Blue ranks of workers rumbled heavily along the main street. Their steps were weighty, causing the eyes of the cheerful bourgeois to dim and darken:

—Will they be content with jubilation alone? What if they want more? Shops? Factories? Power?

Yes, they did want power. Somewhat later than the others, but they did want it. And even though Ukraine stayed silent the October of 1917, it still had the December and all the months of the three years thereafter.

And so they fought. In January and February! In April! In November! Twelve months a year! Uprisings, riots, fights for freedom, battles for power—the power of workers and peasants. The whole nation bore the marks of this struggle and there wasn't a single place without stirred Ukrainian masses.

During the German occupation, a heavy-set German officer like a chest of drawers turned to an old woman:

—We'll get you all in order!—he spoke with a crooked tongue—everywhere, there will be order! And he swept his arm from West to East.

For a while, the old woman stayed silent. But then she raised her lively, laughing eye and said with derision:

—You will leave—and there will be not a trace of your orders!

Having heard these dangerous words, a bunch of bystanders at once scattered—gone. But the old woman merely smirked. She was full of a great truth and refused to conceal anything.

—You will leave—she repeated.

The officer did not understand that. His high head was well-trained. He did not understand. His power, imperial and royal, kaiserlich und königlich, could not leave. He looked down at the port (this was in Odessa). There the famous Geben was docked, its thirteen-inch cannons raised. The German looked over the street. Military regiments marched in their steel helmets, regiments of outstanding German infantry. Yellow Taube with black crosses crawled across the blue sky. The city was packed to the brim with formidable military might—machine guns, cannons, armored cars.

Marveling at all this power, the officer grinned.

—Who?—he asked—Who will drive us out?

Wrapping herself in a shawl, the old woman answered succinctly:


—Which ours?

The officer hopelessly waved her off and left.

The old woman didn't know who those ours were herself. But she knew one thing:

—This cannot and will not stand!

When Petliura quarreled with Denikin and Denikin with the French, it was as though water had been poured onto the revolutionary watermill. And so the watermill spun. There was much to be endured. One after another, enemies descended, and one after another they ran off, losing courage and dripping blood.

After the Germans, the French came. Foreign words could be heard, different ones this time, and once again new uniforms appeared. Beakless caps were replaced with the flicker of the blue horn-hats of the infantrymen, the red fezes of the Zouaves, and the black faces of the Negroes.

But the order, the regime, remained the same.

French counterintelligence had all the savvy of the Germans and French thugs beat on those suspected of bolshevism with the same skill as the German heavyweights.

What difference did it make which cannon was aimed at a working class town? The one made in the factories of Le Creusot was in no way better than the one assembled in Essen. Be it one or the other, the whistle of its shell over the heads of the workers was imminent.

To oppose the power of that cannon was futile. There was no muscle. That's when the word was unleashed. The word could lay the ground and weaken the opposition to the workers' assault.

On the streets and in hotels the soldier whose imperial whip was to drive Bolsheviks into submission could hear and always heard that word. It forced him to stop and rethink the deeds he was ordered to carry out.

A French-language copy of the Communist concluded their political education. And getting a copy of this terrifying newspaper was easy. All you had to do was walk into the tavern of The Open Dardanelles.

Outside things may have been peaceful. But behind that facade, down in the tavern, the work that went on was far from serene. It was agitation—bold, fearless, in the light of day, in plain view—which must have been why it went unnoticed.

Indeed the word is sometimes mightier than the bullet.

So it was in vain that reinforcements kept landing, in vain came twenty thousand Greeks with countless little donkeys dragging machine guns, useless were the five puny tanks pulled to the front lines, and it was in vain that rumors were planted about violet rays supposedly set to blind the Bolsheviks.

Already, a sense of injustice was felt amid the squads of foreign soldiers and the occupying army was quickly losing morale. Some wrinkled handouts still spoke of Odessa being taken under French control and that it would never be surrendered to the Bolsheviks. But no one believed this anymore. They believed only their own eyes. And what the eyes saw was the red flag raised over the ironclads. This was the uprising of Marty and Brizon—a revolt of the French sailors against the war.

A retreat! It could no longer be concealed—a panic—the fleeing army of horror.

For three days, the carriages crawled, the Negro artillery skulked, and bands of French, Greeks, Negroes, Indochinese, and Zouaves stomped under the bridge, back to the port, toward their steamboats.

But the tanks never went away. The tanks were captured by the Bolsheviks. And in the morning, a rosy April morning, they came.

Ours came.

How could they not! They came to fulfill the great truth of the worker. And never, neither on victory day nor on the day of defeat, did this truth ever shed but one piece of itself. And after five months, when the officers pushed into Ukraine from the River Don, that truth became even stronger and sterner. It cost many more thousands of workers' lives. But that only made it more precious.

Once more, strength came to strangle justice. Cannons rumbled with full force. Epaulettes gleamed, intended to convince all that they would gleam forever. At night, shots thumped in rapid volleys—bullets with which workers were being swayed into believing in Denikin's sanctity and purity. They tried convincing the workers of that with the rope as well. Lamp poles and trees became lynching posts.

Nothing worked.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Orel and Voronezh, Denikin had already stumbled. Already the front line was breaking and by morning an epaulette ripped off by a wary officer could be found discarded on the roadway—the same epaulette that was supposed to shine, like the sun, forever.

Another retreat! Along the same old beaten path, back to the merciful sea. Once more, they were sailing away, just as they did before, but this time forever, cut to the root, heads mortally broken.

January, February, and March of 1920 were the last months of struggle for the working people of Ukraine—the first year Ukraine celebrated October. And this first October was the last living month for the Whites. The month when Wrangel was thrown out of the Crimea.

This month will be the month of remembrance of all the workers who died for the revolution in this country—a country that never had October because it had all the other months of that year—and all the months in the terrible three years to come:

Nineteen nineteen, nineteen twenty, and nineteen twenty-one.

Written in 1923

translated from the Russian by Steven Volynets