The Siberian Chaos

By Johan W. Prins, A.M., LL.B.

[Scribner's Magazine, December 1918]

[Johan W. Prins, a Hollander, was formerly government student at the University of Leyden, Holland. He took his A.M. and LL.B. in the United States. Mr. Prins went for the American Y. M. C. A. to Russia and spent most of his time in eastern Siberia, from which country he escaped after the counter-revolution had broken out.]

At present the happenings in Siberia are just as important as the developments at the western front. In the west it is the struggle of millions against millions—a question of a few kilometres of barren ground wrested from the enemy, with the aid of the most modern guns which the genius of mankind could invent. In the east it is an old-fashioned warfare of a few Cossacks and a few mutineers—a little war where no prisoners are taken, or if taken, mutilated. But here not a few kilometres are at stake. Hundreds of miles of territory are involved, the biggest of all countries. It is what a well-known American journalist called "The Race for Siberia."

From the west Germany will penetrate into Siberia, from Vladivostok the Allies are advancing, and all along the Trans-Siberian are the different groups, fighting at intermediary points, anxiously looking to west and east to see if help will really come.

The first day of quietness after the Bolshevik revolution, last November, I left Moscow for Vladivostok. The trains were overcrowded; not only the small compartments but the narrow corridors running alongside were so full of people that not a dog could pass through. Thousands of soldiers were returning to their homes, officers trying to escape to Manchuria, civilians fleeing the anarchy in the big cities. With ten to twelve people and a heap of baggage we spent days in a small compartment, six by seven feet, windows frozen, doors shut, men, women, and children jammed together, prisoners in their little cell, yet never losing their patience, always good-humored. Through the endless plains of Siberia the train rolled on and on, days and days, with only now and then a city of importance. A beautiful country, this Siberia, with black, fertile soil which might produce a harvest big enough to feed many Allied countries, but comparatively few acres have felt the iron of the plough. Patches of mingled birches and pines covered most of the land. On the broad rivers were the picturesque cities, with green and golden domes of the church against the dark-blue sky. And yet the few millions living in this vast country, bigger than the United States, were freezing and starving. So enormous were the results of the three years of warfare and revolution that even Siberia—only two years ago a country of milk and honey—did not produce enough food to feed its own inhabitants. Perhaps there was enough, but the farmers did not want to sell their corn and wood for the paper money which had depreciated to one-tenth its original value.

Like a wave this new revolution, which started in Moscow and Petrograd, rolled into Siberia, covering one city after another—Omsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk, Chita. All talked politics, all condemned Kerensky, and those who did not kept quiet for fear of their lives.

Month and month before actual peace was concluded a large part of what was once the strong Russian army of the Grand Duke Nicholas and Brusiloff flooded Siberia and every soldier was king. Was it surprising that the Germans made extensive advances during the last half of 1917? Who was there to oppose them? Russia was freed, Russia did not believe in war and kings any longer. The day of the soldier, the workman, the peasant had come.

Idealists, they were inviting almost wilfully misrule and anarchy until Prussian autocracy would come. But still in all the towns and villages, from the Ural Mountains to Vladivostok, the Bolsheviki seized the power and promised peace and bread. And peace they did bring, at least temporary peace with the Central Powers, for in March Lenine and Trotzky, idealists, theorists, I. W. W.'s, concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. They sold Russia for a Utopian dream to the Central Powers and prolonged the war by giving Germany added resources.

In the early months of their rule the Bolsheviki were, in America, mistaken for democrats, socialists ! But in reality they were anarchists, I. W. W.'s. Upon the Bolsheviki revolution followed a period of complete anarchy, which continues up to the present day, only to be compared with the dark years of terrorism of the French Revolution.

Why do wise scholars hold that, after all, this revolution is not analogous to the French Revolution? It is in many respects. It is a revolution of the peasants and working classes against autocracy and nobility. It is a fight to get a real representation. Unluckily it is a movement which, like the French Revolution, cannot control itself. It did away with an autocratic Tzar, a democratic cabinet, a socialist Kerensky, until a Marat and Robespierre, a Trotzky and Lenine, came—and will go again, looping the loop, when we will return to more sane times of reaction.

Undoubtedly many of the Bolsheviki were honest in their intentions, and were willing to render the best service to the country. But they were inexperienced, had no financial backing, no moral backing. Others used the occasion to get rich quick, to satisfy their ambitions, or became tools in the hands of cleverer "tavarasche" (comrades). In name everyone was Bolshevik, but in reality many were their silent opponents, waiting for better days to come. How frequently they would ask me: "When are the Americans going to come, or at least the Japanese?" Many who had been well-to-do and rich had lost all they had, generals were driving carts, captains were selling papers, and at their desks sat former soldiers, many of whom could hardly read or write.

I have visited their offices in all the cities of eastern Siberia and had ample opportunity to get a back-stage view of their business methods. And who were those Bolsheviki sitting in the offices, occupying the palaces of the former governors, the generals, the civil authorities? They were those who for years and years had been suppressed, who had been sent as political prisoners to the most distant parts of Siberia. Often they had spent months in chains. They were ordinary soldiers, farmers, former clerks, and servants. Some were entirely illiterate, others, however, were highly intellectual, had spent years in exile in America or Switzerland, and had long worked and written for this revolution. Many knew only too well what suffering for one's ideals meant, but from their eyes shone the light of fanaticism. The greater part belonged to the colorless mass who had grasped this opportunity to improve their material condition. Women sat behind typewriters, with puzzled black eyes and short-cut hair, in old, worn-out dresses—honest Bolsheviki; others—young, handsome, light-hearted, fashionably dressed—the protégés of some "Commissar" (commissioner). And these very "Commissars," with their long hair and dirty nails, their shabby, impressed, grease-covered coats, were surrounded by continuous streams of applicants. The disorder and lack of business system in their offices is to one accustomed to American methods astounding and incomprehensible. The files from the old regime were thrown away or stacked up in some corner of the office, where every visitor could take with him any number of once important documents. Nobody cared. I know a German, student-soldier, who was prisoner of war in Siberia, who looked at almost every paper which the spring winds blew through the dusty streets of Chita. He was an ardent historian, and had a valuable collection of cuts and documents, a large number being picked up from the streets.

When we had to settle any business we always went to the highest "Commissar" in charge or the city commander or even the chief "War Commissar" for the entire district. Many of the scenes I saw in these offices I will never forget. Behind the plain desk, with the ever-present glass of tea and disorderly mass of papers, the important gentleman was seated. At his left and right stood his subordinates, who had come to his assistance. In front of the desk crowded ten to fifteen visitors. They had all succeeded in penetrating into his intended private office, all wishing to speak to the "Commissar" personally. For instance, he would be in a discussion with "A," and "B" would come in, walk right up to him, push "A" aside and think his request so important that it needed explanation instantly. "A" good-naturedly would listen, and of course the "Commissar," and "A" would even join and offer his advice, and soon a general discussion of "B's" case would ensue. Up walks "C" and pleads his case, and the "Commissar" turns to him. "D" grasps one of the assistants, drags him into a corner, and starts to explain his troubles, but "E" interferes and asks the same assistant to intervene in his behalf with the "Commissar.'' All are good-natured, nobody loses his temper, and all wait patiently for their "bumaga"—a little slip of paper with seal and two signatures, whereby their request is granted, and which gives them the permission to travel somewhere or buy a quantity of food.

It became quite an art to obtain such a document in the shortest possible time. Sometimes I would come in with several requests, and taking the duties of the "Commissar" upon myself, would prepare all official documents by which they would be granted, and no sooner had he said "yes" than I would produce them and say "Please sign and seal"—because one could not afford to be set aside with promises and call for a "bumaga" tomorrow. Everybody would have forgotten about it or some new "Commissar" would be seated behind the desk.

Last July I was trying to get out of one of the cities surrounded by enemy forces, and it was necessary to obtain a passport from the Bolsheviki. A former army officer, in his heart, of course, hating Bolshevikism and everything which pertains to it, but yet serving in a subordinate clerical position because he had to make a living, was running between the different offices and received us. He knew my friend, who was a representative of the Swedish Red Cross, and brought us directly to the office of the "Police Commissar." The "Police Commissar" was a plain soldier, who looked like a laborer, with a long mustache and unkempt hair. He was very busy, dashed in and out of the room and constantly had a revolver in his hand. In a corner of the room a heap of rifles were thrown. In the window were thousands of cartridges. The former officer explained my case to the "Commissar" as one would explain a thing to a child, and the official gave his approval right away. The secretary wrote out my papers, and while he was doing so a soldier, drunken and unshaven, with a gun and huge bayonet, brought in two pale, worn gentlemen, who apparently had just been arrested. My friend explained that they were formerly prominent lawyers. Their papers were signed and they were let out again by the drunken soldier who was so comically in earnest that he acted like a little boy who was playing war and had taken prisoners. So the Russian Bolsheviki played with the bourgeois of Siberia.

When my paper was ready the former officer, who was on the lookout, put it right under the nose of the "Commissar," not minding the many people who were crowding around his desk. Holding it with thumb and finger, so that it might not be lost in the heap of papers, he waited till it was signed. With a smile of satisfaction he gave it to me. Nobody had asked me where I was going and for what purpose, yet the city was surrounded by enemy forces and I had to pass through the lines.

"I'll see you in a minute," said our officer to my Red Cross friend.

A quarter of an hour later he was in one of the Red Cross shops, where he could buy a shirt ten times cheaper than in an ordinary store. He was glad to give his assistance in securing a passport for the privilege of buying a good shirt cheaper.

And so it was everywhere. The regular office hours were from nine to three, six whole hours, including tea, but in reality every one came and went when he or she pleased.

Inside the offices disorder reigned supreme; outside no systematic work was being done and nothing was accomplished. There will be no harvest to reap this year, except what the Chinese have sown. Everywhere the woods were cut down, and during the last summer forest-fires were raging all over Siberia. All along the Trans-Siberian I saw the fire-line creeping into the woods. Nobody cared.

Through large placards the government cried out for assistance. "Tavarasche, the woods no longer belong to the Tzar! They belong to you, protect them." But the "tavarasche" let them burn. "Nitzchevo!" "Nitzchevo," it does not matter, never mind, that word is the curse of Russia.

Russia is burning!" Nitzchevo!" The people are killed! "Nitzchevo!" The others are starving! "Nitzchevo!"

Oh, I grant the Russians are good-natured, are kind, but their indolence is intolerable and is the greatest cause of all their misery. In the early months of this year the gates of many German and Austrian prison-camps in Siberia were thrown open and the Bolshevik principles of revolution and anarchy had a chance to reach those interned. Easily convinced they were, those men who had been closed off from the world for years. Mostly taken prisoners during the early months of the war, when Russia was making its big drive against Austria, they had been in the prison-camps ever since. Not infrequently they were wearing the same uniforms in which they had been taken prisoners three or four years ago. Their minds had had no occupation, their bodies were underfed and still it did not look as though they were going home. Notwithstanding the fact that peace was concluded, the German and Austrian Governments did not seem to make haste to get them home.

Any change was welcome to most of those men. They became desperadoes. They longed for occupation, freedom, and decent food. They were willing to fight for anything if they were only freed from their morbid existence. Many succeeded in escaping from Siberia and reached the Central countries, but more remained because they did not have the money or the chance. Many of these became Bolsheviki. What Karl Marx said in the last century became true. "Laborers of all countries, unite!" found for the first time a practical application in Siberia.

The Russian Bolsheviki gave their "comrades" uniforms and arms, and thus they found themselves charged with the task "to defend the revolution." The first thing these former prisoners who became Bolsheviki or, as they call themselves, "internationalists," did, was to turn against their own officers. The places at the gates of the officers' prison-camps, where formerly Russian guards had been stationed, were now occupied by German, Austrian, and Hungarian soldiers. This revolutionary movement among the prisoners, which started in Omsk, soon spread over all Siberia. The prisoners who did not join the Bolsheviki remained interned in the prison-camps. They formed a separate group, still loyal to the Central Powers. Their only wish is to be sent home or be interned in some neutral country.

The "internationalists" joined the Russian forces who were at the Manchurian border fighting against Semenionov, a Russian general, who had rallied around him in Manchuria a number of officers and Cossacks and was trying to reach Chita. As a result of the reinforcements that the Russian Bolsheviki received from their German and Austro-Hungarian "tavarasche," Semenionov was beaten back. Siberia was virtually in the hands of its former prisoners of war.

Let us now turn for a while to another group of prisoners of war with other aims in mind, who were also to play a big part on the Siberian stage. They are the Czecho-Slovaks. Hailing from Bohemia and Moravia, they were originally soldiers in the Austrian army, but soon after the declaration of war many went over to their Slavic brothers, the Russians. With those who were taken prisoners by the Russians they were interned in camps separate from all other Austrian prisoners. Here they organized, declaring themselves against Austria, which country had oppressed them for years, and they stated that the cause of the Allies was their cause, and only through the Allies could they expect to be freed from the Austrian yoke and establish their free republics.

When the Russian Bolsheviki revolution did away with nationalism and brought Lenine and Trotzky with their "peace-at-any-price" doctrine in power, when the Russian soldiers left the eastern front, long before actual peace was declared, the Czecho-Slovaks were the only ones who were still willing to fight the Central Powers. After the peace of Brest-Litovsk, they decided to go to the western front and help the Allied cause over there. The only way to reach France was through Siberia and then either across the Pacific and through the the United States, or by way of Singapore and the Suez Canal.

It was a courageous undertaking, because, in the first place, they had to cross the whole of Siberia. Everywhere they found opposition. The Bolsheviki were not in favor of their plans. There were no cars to transport them. There were no boats awaiting them at Vladivostok. Moreover, Siberia was practically facing starvation, and it cost the brains and energy of a large number of their ablest of men to keep the stomachs of the others filled.

Can you imagine how such a Czech must feel far away from his mother country, in the middle of Siberia, not knowing when he will see Bohemia again, not even whether he will reach the western front to fight for his country? But they maintained discipline in the ranks. They always looked neat in their plain brown uniforms. They made a sturdy impression on all in Siberia.

By the end of May about fifteen thousand had succeeded in reaching the Pacific over the Trans-Siberian to Chita, and from there over the Amur Railroad to Vladivostok. A far greater number was distributed at different points along the Trans-Siberian from the Ural Mountains to Irkutsk. Between Irkutsk and Vladivostok there was none.

Then it happened that the Russian and German-Austro-Hungarian Bolsheviki demanded from a number of Czech trains near Irkutsk that they lay down arms. They refused, and the result was a little struggle. Since then matters have never been quiet in Siberia. As always, nobody knew anything definite, but everybody knew that they were again fighting some place, somebody, for some ideal. After a few weeks the situation became clear. It certainly was a unique one. All over western Siberia two groups of former prisoners of war, both hailing the Central Powers as their mother country, and both opposed to the governments of those countries, but the one group with national ideals, and the other with international, were fighting for supremacy in Siberia.

Soon this struggle took on the aspect of a counter-revolution. The counter-revolutionary element in Siberia, that is, many former Russian officers and officials and everybody who was not Bolshevik rallied around the Czecho-Slovaks. The Russian Bolsheviki, of course, assisted their comrades from Austria and Germany. All over western Siberia the Czechoslovaks defeated the Bolsheviki, and in July even took Irkutsk. They set up a new provisional government in Omsk, which chose more moderate principles than the Bolsheviki. The Czechs who went in an eastern direction past Irkutsk, are now invading Transbaikalia, and early in September took its capital, Chita. At the same time the Czechs in Vladivostok are pressing in a northern direction toward Khabarovsk, and so the Bolsheviki are being cornered in Amurskaja. Moreover, from the Manchurian border in a western direction Semenionov, with the Russian conservative forces, is advancing again, and now with more success than he used to have. Thus it seems that the fate of the Bolsheviki in Eastern Siberia is sealed, especially so because finally all the Allies have officially recognized the Czecho-Slovaks, the nucleus of the counter-revolution against the Bolsheviki, and are sending their troops into Siberia to support the Czecho-Slovaks and counterrevolutionary elements.

It is to be hoped that enough troops will be sent by the Allies to adequately support those opposing Bolsheviki forces. Only in such a way can the Allies succeed in getting control over all of Siberia, because if the influence of the Bolsheviki is not counteracted soon Germany and Austria may forget that the "internationalists," the former prisoners of war fighting in Siberia, are traitors to their governments, and support them as they have supported the Russian Bolsheviki, to spread their influence through Siberia to the Pacific. But if the Allies succeed in restoring order in this immense country and thus get a chance to support the anti-Bolsheviki provisional government, then, with Siberia as a basis, a new eastern front may be set up, or at least German influence in Russia successfully counteracted from the west.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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