Agarev - Mayor Of Vladivostok
( Originally Published 1918 )
THE Committee of Public Safety in Vladivostok commenced to encounter, before the revolution was many months old, a new element of disturbance in the community. This was sup-plied by the fact that Vladivostok was the port at which the returning Russian political and criminal element flowed freely homeward from the United States, Canada and Australasia. Many men who came in with this immigration were good men. There was also a liberal scattering of some of the most thorough scoundrels that could be found. When the first contingents began to arrive, their coming was a unique event and one for which the townsfolk readily turned out. Every steamer from Japan brought a complement which, on landing, marched through the town with black flags bearing various inscriptions, headed by a band, singing on its way and halting at intervals for speeches.
An acquaintance of mine, who took particular interest in these returning delegations, told me that there seemed to be a preponderance of Jews among these immigrants, but that they included exponents of every conceivable theory of government, misgovernment and anarchy. The early arrivals were greeted with enthusiasm, he said. Their speeches were listened to with attention and were doubtless productive of harm. But this sort of thing wears itself out in time. Wild-eyed enthusiasts spouting hare-brained propaganda can tire even Russian audiences. The day came when a less and less number of the townsfolk would turn out when the black flag processions came by. Women out shopping turned back to the bargain counter after a glance which was sufficient to show that it was the same old game over again. Workmen who had paused to watch and sometimes had followed some large contingent, shrugged their shoulders as the latest arrivals passed. Soldiers who had nothing else to do except listen to speeches became so accustomed to the reiteration of weird doctrines that they would not go across the street to hear new orators. First apathetic, the Vladivostok audiences became critical. Next they saw the humour of some of the speeches and would gather to be amused.
This feeling eventually changed, first to ridicule, and finally to open hostility.
The sailors in Vladivostok apparently decided that they could obtain considerable entertainment by interrupting some of the meetings. Soon the sailor element was recognised as being definitely in opposition to the returning prophets. Rough treatment began to be meted out to those whose speeches did not suit the sailors. A member of one group was so badly handled that he died of his injuries. News of this and similar occurrences somewhat abated the desire on the part of the returning orators to indulge in stump speaking in the streets of Vladivostok. The Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies took the view that forcible measures were quite excusable if they were used to combat theories subversive of public order.
The general view was held, too, that among the returning immigrants was many a man in German pay. Certain it was that no one could have served Germany's cause any better whether or not they were on the payroll of the German secret service.
Invariable animosity was displayed against America by the agitators and political speakers who passed through Vladivostok on their way to Russia. That America was the home of plutocracy and despotism of wealth and that the American workingman was in worse case than any other workingman in the world was the bur-den of the song on the lips of most of the re-turning Russians who came from the United States. America's entrance into the war was declared by almost all of them to be purely in the interest of the plutocrats and the employers of labour and definitely against the interest of the American labouring classes.
Some mass meetings were ordered by the anarchists to take place in front of the American Consulate in Vladivostok. One in particular had as its chief motive the registering of a protest against the death sentence passed on Mooney in San Francisco. That Mooney and his accomplices should pay the extreme penalty of- the law for the part he played in the dynamite outrage was to the extreme anarchist element a monstrous injustice. They intended to make great capital out of it. The speeches were planned to be particularly inflammatory and high feeling was anticipated. The gathering took place and without any outside suggestions whatever the whole matter was handled skilfully and beautifully by the Committee of Public Safety, assisted by the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies. Cleverly, and without the slightest show of force, the meeting was shifted to an open spot at some distance from the American Consulate. When the speeches became too vividly anti-American, some mysterious soft pedal was applied and the phraseology of the speaker kept mysteriously within reasonable limits. Perfect order was maintained throughout. The American Consul was invited to attend and a copy of the resolution of the meeting, condemning the judicial proceedings in the Mooney case and demanding the release of the criminal, was handed to him. There the matter ended.
One of the reasons for the maintenance of a comparatively satisfactory state of affairs for so many months in Vladivostok was that there was little actual hardship in the community. Only people who have come into touch with hunger to the verge of starvation, or with exposure and cold to the danger of life, can realise what fertile ground is supplied for anarchistic doctrines and extremist propaganda by deprivation and suffering. Extreme conditions produce extremists. Food in Siberia has not been plentiful and the provisional government in Petrograd has interfered with the economic situation once or twice in a way that might have created some food shortage in Siberia; but no sufficient shortage occurred to cause real suffering. Laws which tamper with the monetary situation to a point which prevents Korean farmers from shipping live stock into Siberia means that the Vladivostok family must go without meat. Rules of railway commissions as regards the distribution of empty cars and short-sightedness as to coal shipments may result in a fuel shortage in Vladivostok, in spite of the fact that great coal deposits exist within easy reach under normal circumstances.
Further, the average man in Far Eastern Russia has reached a higher stage of individual development than his brother of Western Rus-sia. Politically the people of Siberia and particularly the people of Vladivostok are far more independent, broad-minded and reasonable than in most parts of Russia. Anarchistic and other pernicious doctrines are considered visionary by a much larger proportion of the population in the east than in the west. Japan, too, is much closer to Vladivostok than Petrograd. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese war are much more vivid in the minds of the Russians of the Far East.
The first election for mayor that took place in Vladivostok in 1917 resulted in the selection of a man by the name of Agarev.
Sometime afterwards I set out one morning in Vladivostok with the determination to pay a call on Agarev, the mayor. I had been told that Agarev had been in the United States, was a workman, and had wild ideas on the subject of Socialism.
Most of the people of the better classes in Vladivostok seemed to think that Agarev was just about as bad a man to have in the seat of authority as could be found.
I heard no good word for him on any side. One intelligent Russian told me that Agarev was Leninist. Another told me that Agarev, if he could have his way, would divide up the property in Vladivostok at once. Still another told e that Agarev was crooked, that he would shorty find some way to line his own pockets, and at he was the sort of a man who was generally to be feared for his unscrupulousness.
Ag rev had not been sufficiently long mayor of Vladivostok so that the foreign officials in the town had seen much of him. They were not rabid against him, but I suppose they were constantly hearing hard things said about him. At all events, it so happened that I had found no one who championed him.
I walked down Vladivostok's hilly main street until I came to the building which had been set aside as the seat of municipal government. The doorway was crowded with tovarishchi. All were comrades, readily enough. Everybody thereabouts was a comrade—a tovarishchi. The use of the word sometimes almost amounts to a passport, if one adopts the right tone and manner with it.
There was considerable bustle in the corridors. I stood for a moment in the hallway, watching the faces of the men who seemed to be doing business in that odd City Hall. It was a dirty place. The floor had been swept that morning, I should judge, but the walls were inconceivably grimy, and the windows had not had a washing for many a long day. Men in various walks of life had evidently been co-opted into this new form of revolutionary government in Siberia. One could see intelligent faces pass at frequent intervals, and there was many a fine looking Russian standing in some group, for the large hallway was full of groups gathered here and there. One or two long haired enthusiasts with the stamp of the fanatic all over them rushed past, a bundle of papers in each hand. Most of the men who were hatless, thus distinguishing them from the casual visitor to the building, seemed sober and earnest about their work, and very attentive to it. I opened a door leading off the main corridor and stood for a moment watching a dozen clerks and assistants of some sort, each at his desk. They were working and working hard. Turning again into the corridor, I stepped to a soldier who stood by the foot of the stairs and asked him where I would find the mayor, Agarev.
While not actually impolite, the soldier made an apparently studied effort to assume a very careless independence, and implied by a jerk of the thumb over one shoulder that I would find the Worshipful Mayor somewhere up the stairway.
On the next landing there was more semblance of official order. Quite a crowd was waiting to see some one. Both men and women were gathered in little groups. One noticed the patience and quiet with which the Russian folk waited. There was conversation in plenty, but it was held in low tones, which sank still lower when some one approached or passed. Considering that these people were part and parcel of the proletariat, that the proletariat ruled thereabouts unquestionably, and that it was new to its feeling of power they seemed to' me to be unusually humble.
I walked to a desk at which a soldier sat and tossed down my card, merely announcing that it was for Mr. Agarev. He picked it up, glanced at it quite stupidly, shook his head disparagingly, but lost no time in conveying it through the large door that opened to permit the entrance of only those who had permission to pass.
In a moment he had returned, and with a gesture motioned me to follow him. Arriving at another door he indicated it as the one of which I was in search, and left me standing outside, wondering whether to brazenly enter or announce my arrival with a modest knock.
Modesty not seeming a very necessary commodity at that juncture, I tried to assume the air of a tovarishchi and boldly entered. I found myself in a large waiting-room, a huge table in the centre, and great paintings about the walls, but not a soul in sight. Four doors led out of this large compartment, and I was apparently to be allowed to pursue my own investigations in my own way. Beginning with the right hand door, I opened it unceremoniously and there found, seated at a desk, and engaged in conversation with a man standing by him, a thoughtful, earnest-looking man of middle age. He rose and when I asked if he was the mayor, answered in broken English in the affirmative, and asked me to have a chair.
I spent an hour and a half in that office, and I have seldom talked to a man who was more earnest and honest in voicing the opinions which he held than was Mayor Agarev of Vladivostok.
During the first part of our conversation we were subjected to constant interruptions. The unceremonious form of entrance which I had adopted seemed the rule, and not the exception. Men bent on serious official matters walked right into the room, and sometimes apologising and sometimes not, broke in on our conversation with a request to the mayor to give them an answer to some proposition or to glance over some document which they laid before him.
This annoyed me and Agarev seemed equally to dislike it. Smilingly, I suggested barring the door. The Mayor said there was no key. As the door opened inward, I conceived the idea of swinging a heavy oak centre table against it for a few moments. That made an effective barrier, particularly as I mounted it.
Sometimes it was hard to get Agarev's meaning, as my knowledge of Russian has ever been meagre and was suffering from long disuse. Agarev's English was simple and usually effective, but now and then he had to search for a word. He was earnest, however, in trying to transmit his ideas and was equally earnest in endeavouring to catch my meaning. Therefore, we found no difficulty in gaining a very good insight into what each of us thought on the subject of democratic government, particularly as applied to Siberia.
Agarev told me that he had been with the Russian Purchasing Commission in America during the early part of the war. He was a mechanic and a clever one, and was used by the Russian Commission as an expert in connection with mechanical matters. He told me some interesting facts about the methods of that Russian buying commission. Those facts are not a part of this narrative, but the knowledge of them may have contributed to Agarev's feeling that it would indeed be a bad form of government which was not an improvement on the Imperial Russian regime.
Agarev was not a well known man in Vladivostok. He had never seen the place before he returned from the United States. He had run for mayor on an open ticket and been elected by a good majority. He was a Social Democrat and an Internationalist. He belonged to the left but not to the extreme left.
To see that man, a workman, an earnest fellow, leaning over his desk and trying to explain to me the real meaning of the Russian revolution, would have brought conviction into the heart of more than one sceptic as to the honesty of purpose which some of these Russian revolutionaries have brought to their task.
Agarev knew Lenin personally and liked him, but he told me that he by no means held with Lenin's views. He thought Lenin a fanatic and quite out of focus and perspective on some questions.
The idea that Agarev was anxious that I should absorb was that the real power of Rus-sia was in the people. More than one hundred and twenty millions of Russians meant the revolution with their whole hearts and souls.
Agarev's arraignment of the Government of the Czar, which, strangling Russia with its license and treachery, sold right and left her interests and those of her allies, was quite easy to understand. Agarev was one of those men who saw in that glare of liberty that illuminated the political horizon, hope for a more successful prosecution of the war, entailing the overthrow of German militarism. Agarev believed that the German people were strangled by the persecution of the Prussian junkers. Where Agarev differed from Lenin was in his attitude toward class war in Russia. Agarev thought that all Russians should pull together for the formulation of a new regime. The Maximalist theory that the co-operation of the middle classes should be denied and that the entire authority of the country should be delivered into the hands of revolutionary democracy was not accepted by Agarev in its entirety.
We discussed the class of people that made up Siberia's citizenship. Agarev agreed that a very large number of the local population who were comparatively prosperous, industrious and intelligent, must be utilised in the general scheme of government which would have to be formed.
He had already experienced some trouble with the Maximalist element in Vladivostok. One or two red-hot anarchists were working diligently in the community and the mottoes that they advertised were very attractive. Their theories found fertile soil in the uneducated masses, and they were particularly active among the soldiers and the workmen.
On the other hand, Agarev thought, the soberer element in the Russian Far East would prove less liable to conversion to some of the more wild ideas of the extreme left than might the people of European Russia.
Agarev was against the continuance of the war. He thought Russia had but little to gain by going through a fourth winter campaign.
Still, he was no advocate of a peace which would assist Germany. He held the idea in common with so many of his compatriots that the German workingman would rise against the Kaiser.
Agarev was anxious that Americans should know that he and his class were conscientiously trying to evolve a form of government for Russia which would be fair and right to everybody. The keenness of the man, his simplicity, above all his ever-present earnestness, could not but strike a spark of sympathy in the heart of any man who listened to him. He talked long about the plans he had for civic government and improvement, and spoke of the difficulties which he found in the way. Unruly elements were al-ways with him, around him, behind him. The Central Government in Petrograd sent out people at times whose ideas did not always fit in with the Agarevs. The labour question was becoming increasingly difficult. Workmen were demanding wages in excess of what employers thought they could pay. The workmen were cutting down the hours of labour to a minimum that made the sensible Agarev fearful of trouble. The more he talked about the labouring men the more his brow wrinkled. A look came into his eyes that showed that the problem loomed large in front of him and worried him.
We talked about the American railway material, the locomotives, the cars and the coal trucks that were to come across the Pacific to help solve the big problem of congested transportation on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I spoke of the difficulties with which the railway people would be faced when the workers tried to take into their own hands the matter of erecting these engines and cars. I spoke of the railway constructional work about Vladivostok during the previous twelvemonth which had to be abandoned, owing to the attitude of the labouring men. Agarev agreed that matters were serious, but he was convinced, and his eyes lit with a quiet fire as he said it, that there was sufficiency of patriotism and love of their own country in some Russian workmen still, to en-able him to get together a nucleus around which a considerable labour effort could be organised.
The general tone of Agarev's conversation was that things were by no means hopeless. He spoke often of his own incapacity and inexperience. He held no hallucinations on that subject. He was a workman. His associates were for the most part workmen and soldiers. They had to creep before they could walk. He knew that some of his associates were incompetent, but he considered they were all honest. He wished to impress me with the fact that those who were trying to run the Government of the Pri-Amur District were doing so conscientiously, and not with any idea of personal gain or emolument.
We probed deeply into the question of what Siberia would do if the more sober element continued to have a voice in governmental affairs, while wilder, more revolutionary councils continued to prevail in Petrograd. That part of the conversation was mostly "ifs" and "buts." I gathered from it, nevertheless, that Agarev thought the extreme Bolsheviki element would find difficulty in carrying Siberia with it if it went too far.
Agarev realised the value of the friendship and sympathy of America and deplored the no inconsiderable amount of anti-American feeling among his associates. He was frank to say that he considered that there was much of plutocracy in America, and that it needed wiping out. He thought that the imperialism of England and the capitalistic control in France were menaces to sound international fellowship. Plainly, Agarev saw things to fight in Germany, things to fight in America, things to fight in England, and things to fight in France. It was hard to make him see that the method of fighting these various conditions with which he and his fellows disagreed must be a different meth-od for each one. On that subject Agarev was consistent—foolishly consistent. When I argued to him that the day of extreme plutocracy in America was beginning to close; that the imperialism of England was today—so far as he understood it to mean a policy of aggrandisement—a thing of the past, and that he was all wrong about France, he listened most attentively.
I suggested that a campaign of education was what was needed in America and England and France, if it was true that the Russian proletariat was really further advanced than the people of those countries. When I pressed home the argument that a campaign of education was the only way for the internationalists to gain ground, Agarev turned back to his contention that what was needed against Germany, more than the meagre resistance which might be made against the German army by the scattered and discouraged and disintegrated Rus-sian legions, was a campaign of education to convert the Teutonic labouring man.
On most subjects I could talk to my Russian friends with the knowledge that they tried to get my viewpoint. The one wall which I was always finding across my path was the ingrained belief that Germany would some day rise against its ruling classes. I told Agarev that never until Russia had suffered all sorts of indignity at the hands of Germany—never until a German army had swept over defenceless Russia—would he or his fellows get the right perspective as to the mind of the German working-man. Educated in state schools, preached at in state churches, fed with state pap from in-fancy, the German workingman was utterly misread and is utterly misread by the Russian workingman. Germany has seen to that.
Agarev's summary of the situation politically in Russia was somewhat different than that which I encountered elsewhere. He drew up a little table for me, beginning with the Temporary Government and writing under that the Temporary Council of the Republic. Under that came the Central Administrative Commit-tee, and then drawing a long line, he said, "These three are but the froth on the real power of Russia; the real power lies along this line below." He wrote three captions along that lower line : one was the Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies ; next was the Central Committee of the Fleets, and the third was the Council of Peasant's Deputies.
"It has taken the outside world too long to realise that the real power in Russia lies in the hands of the people's committees," said Agarev. "The temporary government is, in a sense, only exploiting the real power of Russia. Temporary governments may come and go, but so long as there is a Russia, the power will be in the people. They may not know how to wield it. It may take them years to be able to express and organise that power. Dark days may be ahead, but the coming of a better day is sure."
Agarev told me that of all the political par-ties in Russia there were only half a dozen that cut much figure. He would divide all the politi-cal elements in Russia into two groups, the Internationalists and the Protectionists. On a writing pad he drew out his groups, placing the Internationalists on the left and the Protectionists on the right. The extreme right were the Cadets; next to them came the right section of the Socialist Revolutionaries. The third group of the Protectionist element was the right wing of the Social Democrats.
The left, the Internationalists, he divided into three groups likewise. The extreme left, the Bolsheviks, he said, were many of them Social Democrats, whose views were less extreme than people thought. Next in authority in Petrograd came the Maximalists, who were, ac-cording to Agarev, the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries. His third section of Internationalists was the left wing of the Social Democrats, which he termed Minimalists, and to which, I gathered, he belonged.
Agarev was satisfied that Lenin was not a traitor to Russia, nor bought with German gold. Agarev was against many of Lenin's policies.
The agitation that the Bolsheviki were carrying on against the Allies, did not get much sympathy in Siberia. At least, many Russians in Siberia were less rabid against the forms of government which the Allies enjoyed than were the Bolsheviki of European Russia. Another point of divergence between the extreme Bolshevik group and the Social Democrats of Siberia was the question of the complete socialisation of industrial concerns and the immediate confiscation of private property. While Agarev's views on these two points would be considered extremely radical, they were not anarchistic. He wanted to see a certain amount of nationalisation of big businesses, and he also wanted to see the land taken from the large land owners and the peasantry of the country given a chance to administer it. He would reach neither goal, however, by hurried or un-fair means. It was just those little differences, between the Bolshevik view in Russia and the view of Agarev, those he represented and those with whom he was grouped in Siberia, which showed the difference between the Russian point of view and the Siberian point of view. It may have been hard sometimes to see the actual difference, but it existed nevertheless and was always cropping up.
I think that Agarev hoped some day to see complete socialisation of industrial enterprises in Russia. He was certainly very much in favour of an immediate peace, if an honourable peace could be gained. His views on such topics were not in accord with those of most of us from the Western World, but his attitude toward them and toward us was such that friendly co-operation and mutual understanding was by no means impossible. The very fact that Agarev and the best political elements in Siberia were tolerant of the idea that some one beside the workingmen themselves might have a voice in things to do with government and ad-ministration was a much more happy state of affairs than one found in Petrograd or Moscow.
As we concluded our conversation, Agarev stood beside me and said, "It is a big problem for us and we are new to it. We want so much to do right. We want so much to avoid making mistakes. That we will never be able to do. If you great people of America will give us sympathy and assistance, if you will be patient with us and try to understand us, if you will not become angry and disgusted with us because we make mistakes in the beginning, it will help us wonderfully to pull through. We are going to win in the end, in this generation or the next, or possibly in some generation unborn. There is too much good in Russia—it will not be entirely lost."
Agarev took my hand in his, and I looked straight into his clear, grey eyes,—patient eyes, eyes that held in them some unconscious anticipation of trouble ahead. I felt a lump in my throat as I tried to tell him that there are many of us who sympathised but little with hosts of his ideas and methods, but back of it all our eyes were on a very similar goal, our hearts were in a very similar fight.
I could not walk down the crowded stairway and out into the bright sun and clear crisp air of Vladivostok without a vague restless feeling that trouble lay ahead for Agarev and his kind. The Bolsheviki element with its catch phrases was gaining the ear of the people. German propaganda, hard at work in Siberia, as else-where, was assisting the overthrow of the Minimalist group, and the ultimate domination of the Maximalists or even of the Bolsheviki.
But so long as there are men like Agarev, who are fighting to save Siberia, no man can withhold his sympathy, advice and such assistance as he may be able to give.
To what good end? God knows. Without sympathy and assistance, without a word of guidance here and a word of admonition there, what good lies in such men and their work may be irretrievably lost. Every atom of that good which we can save, Russia needs—Siberia needs. Who would withhold help, if there is even a fighting chance that some of the seed may take root and one day bear flower?