Russia - New Hands At The Helm Of Government
( Originally Published 1918 )
THE first Committee of Public Safety formed in Vladivostok contained a majority of men who were of decidedly moderate tendencies. This fact bore fruit in two directions. First, the actions of the Committee assumed an importance greater than that of any other of the revolutionary committees in the Russian Far East. Second, its initial political complexion was identified too closely to the system which had existed before the revolution to allow the Committee to escape the constant charge on the part of its critics of reactionary and bourgeois tendencies.
Gradually, as the revolution gained impetus in Russia and the Bolshevik crew gained more and more ascendency, the extreme element in the Committee of Public Safety in Vladivostok gained ground, until to-day the conservative element has become practically subordinated, if not eliminated. In its place there has sprung up, however, a semi-conservatism—a sort of Minimalist group against the Maximalists, which have had the effect of giving some balance to the mind and deliberations of the committee.
For several months after the revolution came to Siberia, the Committee of Public Safety held the reins of government, and considering the circumstances under which it was compelled to operate and the personnel of its members, it is only fair to accord to it during those early days a considerable element of success as regarded the results of its working.
One example Of its capability was with reference to the manner in which it grappled with the police problem. Under the old regime the police of Vladivostok were worse than useless. They were corrupt and a menace to the social order of things municipal. The Committee of Public Safety immediately replaced the police by a militia force. No one, however much they could criticise the militia, could argue that they were not an improvement on the old police farce. The maintenance of good order cannot be placed solely to the credit of the militia, for all classes of the population desired peace and quiet, and their continual effort seconded well the efforts of the new force.
The revolution was not many days old when the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies was formed and took a prominent part in operations. It worked hand in hand with the Committee of Public Safety and some members of the former body were taken into the latter. The soldiers in Vladivostok during the early days of the revolution numbered about thirty thousand. There were few workmen, comparatively. The fact that industry in the Pri-Amur was undeveloped and that no one firm or establishment employed many men, except the Government Arsenal, made it inevitable that the soldiers should be predominant in the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies.
The history of that Council in Vladivostok would read much the same as the history of similar committees in other parts of Russia. Immediately upon their formation they passed a resolution, declaring that the commandant of the fortress could issue no orders before first submitting them to the Council for approval. Their commanding officer was an old man and in bad health. He had little option or inclination to quarrel with the mandate of the Council. Fortunately for affairs in Vladivostok one or two- young soldiers, who were eloquent speakers, gained the immediate ascendency over their comrades, and, still more fortunately, possessed no small amount of common sense. These young fellows held quite sound opinions, and, but for comparatively few instances, the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies, so far as its decrees which had to do with the soldiers them-selves were concerned, took but little action that could be described as other than rational. When the Council applied its power to the arbitration or settlement of labour disputes, its judgment, as might be expected, was less sound. Chief among its labours, however, was the Council's effort to weed out dishonest practices and corrupt methods from Russian officialdom. The soldiers' committee was just as keen to detect and punish crooked officials of the new regime as it would have been to have hounded out corrupt functionaries of the old bureaucratic group.
Their own organisation came in for no little attention at their hands and when it seemed necessary that the militia should be assisted in the maintenance of good order, the soldiers showed themselves to be willing and ready to give such help.
Their action along one line was somewhat amusing and intensely distasteful to the official element. The Council desired to have one of its own representatives keep active touch with all branches of the public service. The work of the Customs Officials, the receipt and despatch of cargo, and questions relating to the amount of accommodation for the storage of goods and the amount of car space on the railways, were items which the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies considered vital points with which they should come into close contact and upon which they should keep a vigilant eye. The utter and extraordinary ignorance of some of the soldiers who were thus appointed to watch official operation of one department or another produced several amusing situations. The object of the Committee and of the men themselves, however, was a good one, and productive of good in the main.
The bourgeoisie and official classes of the old day in Siberia could apparently no more work with the new element than water could be mixed with wine. The evident sincerity of the soldiers was entirely misunderstood by the better educated classes, who failed more deplorably than one would have thought possible. In Siberia, as in the rest of Russia, what might usually be spoken of as the better element of the population has shown no initiative, no real patriotism, and, above all, an entire absence of courage. Nowhere more patently than in Vladivostok could the better element in the community have rendered more signal service and sympathetic understanding of and honest endeavour to work with the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies. In some parts of Rus-sia the suspicion with which the bourgeoisie were looked upon by the extreme radical element made it seem impossible that any assistance could be given by them. In Vladivostok this was not the case—at least during the early days of the revolution. Those who remained of the more wealthy and official classes in Vladivostok made their primary mistake in creating an organisation of their own, which was known as "The Alliance of Free Russia." They lacked punch and strength and vim, however, and, although they held meetings at times, in no in-stance was there evidence of their having had the slightest effect or influence upon the trend of events. Their association was subsequently disbanded and assimilated with the "Party of National Freedom."
Early in the game the Government in Petrograd realised that it was necessary to supply some one from the central government to try to hold Siberia closer to the seat of affairs in Russia. The first representative of the new government to arrive in Vladivostok was a man named Rusanoff, who was a deputy for the Maritime Province of Vladivostok in the Imperial Duma. Rusanoff was appointed by Petrograd to be Commissioner for the Pri-Amur. While he had no great personal authority and no practical experience of administration, he had the advantage of thorough local knowledge and was known to be honest and broad-minded. Petrograd made a good selection when they put him at the head of affairs, but he was not strong enough to really take the reins. The Committee of Public Safety co-operated with him to a certain extent, but never considered that they should take their cue from him.
Another element that loomed large in the situation in Vladivostok was the naval force stationed there. The Russian fleet in the port consisted only of a half dozen torpedo boats and a few small auxiliary vessels. Several thou-sand sailors were quartered in the barracks, however, and attached to the arsenal. Trouble with the sailors might not have ensued except for the arrival, during the first month of the revolution, of three agitators from the Baltic fleet. These devils came to Vladivostok with trouble in their hearts. Then it was that the sober minds and good common sense of the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies was most needed. The firebrands from the Saltic counselled a wholesale massacre of officers. The Soldiers' Deputies soon put a veto on this project. The sailors insisted upon the removal of the Vice-Admiral, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Port, and of the Port Admiral also. In the Vice-Admiral's place they elected a Lieutenant, and an engineer captain was given the position of Port Admiral. Here again the influence of the Soldiers' Deputies was marked, for the appointment of the two new officers were sound appointments of good men and Petro-grad found no difficulty in confirming them.
Russian naval officers, as is well known, have themselves to thank for the attitude of the Rus-sian sailor toward them. Brutality of officers toward men was reduced to a fine art in the Russian navy. Since the revolution the naval officers in Vladivostok have shone in an unenviable light, evidently afraid that retribution might be dealt out to them and if their own hands were clean that the sins of other officers in previous days might cause some punishment to fall on their own heads. They have, except in very rare instances, shown no adaptability whatever to the new conditions. A close observer told me in Vladivostok that the naval officers since the revolution, without exception, either exhibited complete subserviency to the men or that they sulked and tried by all possible means to avoid further service in the navy. The natural result of this was that the men, finding their demands met with no opposition, made the most absurd proposals. The Vice-Admiral's house, which stands on the main street of Vladivostok, was taken over by the sailors and turned into a club for their own use, and almost any hour of the day or night that one passed, one could see them playing billiards, their girl friends standing about as interested spectators. To make their club a success they demanded from the officers ten percent of the officers' pay. This sum is devoted to the expenses of the club, and if the officers should by any chance venture therein they are driven forth with insult and abuse. Under no circumstances will the sailors obey orders to take the government transport, a fairly busy ship, to sea, except on the express condition that they will be able to return for Sundays and holidays. Should an officer be housed in an apartment that the sailors consider too large and luxurious for him they summarily evict him and compel him to live elsewhere.
While all these things sound very absurd and very lawless and are in themselves inexcusably outrageous from one standpoint, the practices of the officers of the Russian navy in the old Ro manoff days explain the spirit behind them. In spite of these excesses the sailors maintained order amongst themselves in Vladivostok and were not slow to punish drunkenness and other offences committed by their comrades. Certain it is that they preserved an orderly demeanour in the streets. Always among the sailors can be found extreme anarchists and their following ebbs and flows in accordance with their individual ability to hold sway over their fellows. For the most part the sailors in Vladivostok were inclined to be loyal to the temporary government. They were incredibly lazy, but that is an attribute by no means unusual in Russians. I saw but few of them that could be characterised as slovenly or dirty.
The influence of the Soldiers' and Workmen's Council and its desire for clean administration might be gauged from what befell General Sagatovsky, who commanded the artillery of the port, appointed by the Soldiers' Deputies to succeed General Kriloff, who was the Commander-in-Chief at Vladivostok at the time of the revolution. In spite of the fact that General Sagatovsky was the nominee of the Soldiers' Deputies, he was not in the position of Commanderin-Chief many weeks before certain malpractices were discovered, which were traced to him. At once he was deposed and placed under arrest, where he was held for many long months.
The transition that the minds of the Russian soldiers in Vladivostok went through during the early days of the revolution was an interesting study in psychology. At first they seemed to be wrapped in a fine glow of enthusiasm. High ideals were not uncommonly expressed. They felt apparently a fierce flame of patriotism burning in their breasts. All were eager to do something to help the new cause. They chafed under a sense of helplessness, and disappoint-ment that they could not do something immediately constructive to assist the progress of the revolution.
Then this first burst of enthusiasm died out. A wave of demoralisation swept over the army. Discipline went by the board. Their attitude was passive rather than active. They took no overt steps and were guilty of no specific actions by which they could be particularly condemned. They destroyed no property. They were sober as a rule and behaved themselves, but it seemed that they had reached the stage of "don't care." Their disorganisation was marked. Their personal appearance became dirty and slovenly. In short, they ceased to be soldiers and became a mere disorganised mob.
The poor fellows had no help from their officers. The average Russian officer of lower rank was a poor stick with no education and little intelligence. He rarely had any moral fibre whatever. He had not been trained to care for his men nor for their welfare and had been brutal to them if he pleased, without reproof from his superiors. The Russian officer naturally felt no little fear as how the Russian soldier was going to look upon him under the new conditions. Had the officers, as a class, been efficient and courageous, when confronted with the moral and psychological problem presented by the dying out of the soldiers' enthusiasm, they might have been a useful factor in the situation. As it was, they were worse than useless. Most of them seemed thoroughly cowed. I rarely met one and engaged in any kind of conversation with him that the predominant idea in his mind was not escape from Russia and the Russian army. I do not wish to throw too much blame upon him for this, for it was natural for the officers to wish to get away, but it is deplorable that they were not of better class, for in Siberia at least clever and conscientious work on their part, had they put heart into their efforts, would have resulted in a much better feeling between officers and men.
As the months passed, the third phase of the transition came on. It was to the credit of the men themselves that some sort of reformation seemed to be working and that it came from themselves from within. This was solely due to the fact that in their own numbers there were some young fellows who possessed no little common sense and honesty of purpose. Discipline of a sort began to reassert itself. It was not the old discipline, which was born of fear of a heavy fist or a club. It was discipline that was being adopted by the men because some of the wiser of their own fellows had shown them that they were better off under discipline, and that they could not be soldiers with-out it. True, it didn't go very far. Nevertheless, it was a genuine movement and as such was interesting, even in its stages of inception. While the men did not salute their officers, they bore themselves quite differently to their superiors, and there seemed to be hope of the natural enmity that the soldiers had begun to have for the officers disappearing in time. One has to know the Russian army thoroughly to realise how much this meant. The poor Rus-sian soldier has had little for which to live.
He has been a brave, hard fighter and no one has cared a rap whether he lived or died. What probably was brought home to him more forcibly was the fact that nobody cared whether he suffered while he was alive. To ask him to have any inherent respect or love for his superiors or to have any real fundamental appreciation of the value of discipline and order was out of the question. Therefore, when the soldiers in Vladivostok began to buck up, smart-en themselves, and show by their general bearing that they were trying to be better soldiers, it was concrete evidence of the amount of good that can be done among that class of soldiers by a little missionary work on the part of those who know them and sympathise with them.
Some units among the soldiers of the Siberian army became imbued with a definite anarchistic view. Some regiments dismissed quite fairly competent officers and put utterly incompetent ones in their places. As a whole, however, the Russian soldiers. in Siberia, and particularly in Vladivostok, were by no means anarchists. The anarchists in Vladivostok tried to get hold of the soldiers and started a definite propaganda with that end in view. A large anarchist manifestation was planned in Vladivostok, the date for it set, and threats made that on that occasion the reds would loot the offices of a paper which did not agree with their sentiments, would ransack and pillage some of the larger stores in the town and would arrest summarily the members of the Council of the Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies.
The Council handled this matter splendidly. Trustworthy troops with machine guns were placed at various quarters about the city, and a broad smile illumined the faces of most of the men who had been so direly threatened. No effort was made to keep the anarchists from having their meeting, and have it they did. A number of them, including some soldiers, gathered together and indulged in some oratorical fireworks, but the lack of opposition and some possible foreboding that the quiet held some unknown menace of trouble to come in case they "started something," made them decide to abandon all idea of rioting and disperse peacefully when they had run out of adjectives, expletives and breath.
The net result of this meeting was that not only the anarchists but the rest of the soldiers, and the balance of the population of Vladivostok as well, realised that the extremists were but a small unimportant minority.
Thus may be pointed out the good that lies in some of the soldier elements in Russia. There is plenty to criticise. It is perhaps little use to either condemn or excuse. The main point to be remembered is that the Russian soldier offers fine ground for missionary effort. He has a lovable personality and is easily swayed. He is not entirely unintelligent by any means, and while he has little to be patriotic about and has never been trained to be industrious, once he is convinced that a certain line of action is the right one to take, it is not difficult to get him to adopt it. He is strangely capable of enthusiasm for a project. He has always been abused and ill-treated, and since the revolution has been fed continuously and everlastingly on enough wicked and soulless propaganda to addle the brains of wiser men.
That the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies which, after all, represent the thirty thousand soldiers in Vladivostok and which are a real power in the community, have co-operated with the Committee of Public Safety so well as they have done and with so little of bad result, is an encouraging feature rather than a discouraging one.