On Cavemen, Hares and Trousers

Extract taken from Russia: Class and power 1917-2000 (Haynes, M. P54)

The dire circumstances of the civil war years continually pressed against the hope for a better world. Conditions were worst in Petrograd, where a daily struggle to to survive sapped much of the élan of the revolution. The writer Yevgengg Zamiatin described Petrograd as ‘an ice kingdom – its population were ‘cavemen, wrapped in hides, blankets, rags‘ retreating ‘from cave to cave’ and moving ‘deeper and deeper… here they must last out the seige or die’

The memiors of another writer, Ilia Ehrenburg, capture some of the tensions and horrors produced by the civil war. Ehrenburg initially fled the revolution, but late in the civil war he came back. Already of some prominence, he was sent to work in Moscow Childrens Theatre where Durov, the great clown and animal trainer of the age, wanted to show children how things could change. One of the shows was Hares of all lands, Unite!  Hares where the traditional cowards of Russian folklore, but in this became heroes, leading their own revolution, firing guns and storming the palace to victory. The children ‘pale and thin’ from hunger, could glimpse for a moment a different and better world. They could also learn through the changed roles of the animals that even the weak could become strong.

But poverty, cold and hunger were never far away. Durov’s baby elephant died of the cold. The bear cub outgrew his clothes, for there were not even enough for the humans. When Ehrenburg arrive in Moscow he recalled that his trousers had disintegrated at the knees. But now with his new job, he could get a clothing coupon. ‘Comrade Ehrenburg must be clothed,’ said the note. But a note was one thing – finding clothes was another. Eventually he pushed his way to the head of a queue at one clothing depot. Because of the depth of the economic crisis in the civil war he had to choose between a winter coat and a suit: ‘The choice was very hard. Frozen as I felt, I was ready to ask for a winter coat, but suddenly I remembered the humiliations of the past months and shouted: Trousers! A Suit!’