Traveling Through Siberian Chaos
By Richard Orland Atkinson
[Harper's Monthly Magazine, November 1918]
I was walking down the main street of Vladivostok one morning when I noticed a large crowd collected on the sidewalk just ahead of me. Soldiers and sailors came running from every direction. A few civilians, happening along, stopped at the outskirts of the mob, to see what it was all about. But the soldiers and sailors held first place.
A young Chinese had snatched a purse from a lady as he passed her. He had been caught in the act and handed over to some soldiers. They were asking the boy all kinds of questions without waiting for any answer. They were abusing him with filthy phrases. They were beating him over the head and kicking him with their heavy boots, until I thought they would surely kill him.
Finally, the woman who had been robbed appealed to them to spare the victim and take him away for trial. But nobody seemed to know where to take him. I wondered where the police could be, to allow such disgraceful scenes on the main thoroughfare. I asked a man who was standing a little apart.
"Police?" he replied, amazed at my ignorance. "There aren't any police now, except those brutes you saw abusing that poor devil. They don't even know where the lock-up is. Yet we citizens of 'Free Siberia' have only them to depend upon for the protection of our persons and our property. It is the soldiers and sailors that say what shall be done here in the East. And this is a sample. They claim to be policing this city efficiently. Bah!"
While he was talking, a half-dozen ringleaders were arguing in a loud voice as to the proper procedure in such a case. Finally, two soldiers sauntered up, claiming to be of higher civic authority, and, with the noisy throng following, they dragged the prisoner off up a side-street.
Vladivostok was a city of soldiers and sailors. They were everywhere—on the streets, in the parks, in the trains. Red flags floated on all sides, and the soldiers had, painted a little, bright-red daub over the old "eye of the Czar" on the fronts of their caps. They straggled along, looking for amusement; they had no drill; they refused to guard the harbor fortifications; there was nothing to do but draw their wages and spend them. The civilian got out of their way when he saw them coming, for they would brook no interference from any man.
I spoke of the Chinese incident that evening at dinner. I was fortunate in being the guest of a prominent English importer, and his charming Russian wife, who had been educated in California.
"Oh, you're evidently just beginning to find Vladivostok out," commented my hostess. "It's still better than Petrograd and Moscow, I understand, but it's getting to be bad enough. Most of the soldiers you see are deserters from the army, or men called for service and never transferred. They all gravitate toward Vladivostok. They live in hovels up on the hills, packed like sardines, and existing under the worst possible moral and sanitary conditions.
"Agitators arrived shortly after the revolution, and stirred up the men in uniform to violent mischief. Vladivostok used to boast a pleasant social life, on account of its being the port of the Pacific fleet. We have a good many English and American families, and we all enjoyed life together. We welcomed the revolution because we thought it would help those who were downtrodden. It is amusing to think that we have taken their places, and now we are living from day to day in danger of losing everything we possess, even our lives.
"The sailors ordered the admiral of the fleet to hand over his mansion to them. You know that large, brownstone place overlooking the water, with its beautiful gardens. That is where most of the balls used to be given. The admiral left the building, but managed to take with him most of his furniture. He said the house might belong to the state, but the tables and chairs were his. The men seized his paintings, and you ought to see them now. They say they are cut and slashed, and fit well into the present general scheme of things there. The place is a club-room for the new owners."
I had visited the mansion that day, in company with an English sailor of the Russian fleet. All was as Mrs. B——— had described it, except that she could not picture with words the dilapidated condition of the walls and ceilings. Stains, cuts, and broken frescoes gave an appearance of hideous ruin. The occupants were spending their time in ignorant idleness, wantonly destroying property, or flirting with some frowsy girl from the streets.
"Several times," continued Mrs. Mrs. B———, "news has come from that house that there is going to be an organized 'confiscation' of the valuables from the homes of the bourgeoisie in the town. Finally, after some minor robberies and personal attacks, the men of the foreign colony persuaded their consuls to enter formal demand for protection against the proposed outrages. The Kerensky Commissaire was frightened, and did something to quiet things down for a while. If I could, I'd leave for America tomorrow; and I think you'd be wiser to travel in that direction, instead of toward the Urals!"
"What interests me most at present," interrupted Mr. B——— "is how this labor question is going to be settled. It's becoming a serious problem with us business men. For instance, the Canadian Pacific Railway used to pay its employees on the wharves, for loading and unloading its vessels, eighty copecks a day. Well, after the change in affairs wages naturally rose—with everything else. Eventually, the employees asked four rubles for the first hour, five for the second, and so on, for an eight-hour day. That amounted to sixty rubles for the day, or seventy-five times the rate paid a year ago. The men ask some of us one hundred rubles a day, and it's useless to try to argue with them. I can't imagine where they think the money's coming from.
"Commodities are higher because of the abnormal cost in the unloading of imports. Then the family men come around and say: 'We've got to have another raise. Prices have gone up again!' And so it goes on indefinitely. In spite of all we can do, the men strike and refuse to work—say they're tired, of working. Then the Mongolians or Manchurians get their jobs. Discontent seizes them in time, and they quit. After that, the women leave the farms in the surrounding country and hurry into the city after the 'big pay.' The result is a scarcity of food-supplies and a poorer quality of city labor. And I understand this sort of thing is being repeated in all the commercial centers of Siberia."
During the days that followed I saw much to confirm my friends' statements of the chaotic conditions in the port city. A large building, much the style of the Sailors' Club, bore a placard announcing that here the Committee of Soldiers and Sailors met to settle all municipal questions and disputes. I attended one afternoon session, but found little of interest in the talkative proceedings. Another fine old residence, formerly used as an officers' club, was now doing active service as a club for soldiers. Officers might go there as guests, if they so desired. The rooms were stripped of everything in the way of furniture, and it was difficult to see where the "club" part came in. But the soldiers could not allow the sailors to get ahead of them.
The freight-yards of the Trans-Siberian were choked with goods awaiting shipment. Transportation was steadily falling off, owing, I was told, to three reasons: the old Minister of Communications had neglected the lines, following an "economic" policy; many cars had been captured by the Germans, and few new ones were being built; and the new administration had adopted a laissez faire attitude toward the roads.
Indeed, all along the water-front I noted acres of provisions of every kind, from America, Japan, and the South, covered with sail-cloth, and left there. Shortage of cars, of labor, of system all conspired to promote general stagnation. We had a car-load of materials from America, for use in our work in the army; we at least saw it safely on its way for Petrograd. It arrived there five months later, after tracers had trailed it all over Siberia. It reached its destination only to be hurried out of the city again to keep it from German hands. Yet the cities of Russia were depending almost entirely now upon the Pacific terminal and the Siberian road for their clothing, shoes, and food.
In these mountains of supplies in Vladivostok were millions of dollars' worth of American barbed wire and ammunition, en route to do battle for Russia and the Allies. It is all still there!
The local stores were appreciating the tremendous trading opportunities, but even their stock was getting low, while the goods they needed were rotting in front of their doors. When I remarked on the high price of any article, the merchants always answered with: "Wait until you reach Petrograd. You can't buy this there at all, or, if you can, you'll pay five times what we're charging you." And in most cases I found, later on, that they were right.
We left for Petrograd one Thursday evening, on the Siberian Weekly Express. The station is one of the finest in the East, but inside was a dirty, swarming mass of soldiers, provocators, and thieves, filling up every nook and corner of restaurant, waiting-room, and platforms. The majority were trying to arrange last-minute passage, or were there merely for the sake of loafing and making trouble. A Russian officer told me that, we were more fortunate than the members of the Root Commission, whose train was despatched in secret from a point outside the station, for fear of a demonstration against the "American bourgeoisie."
At Harbin, twenty-four hours from Vladivostok, there was a lively hustling by the porters, trainmen, and many passengers, to load up with great quantities of Japanese loaf-sugar and all manner of non-spoilable foods. This, I learned, was the regular practice—people making the long trip for the sole purpose of smuggling across the Manchurian border thousands of rubles' worth of necessities for the hunger-stricken cities of Russia.
Among the passengers was Major D——, a Scotchman, born and bred in Russia. He always read the Siberian papers as we received them along the way, and often related tales of the plains he knew so well.
The major pointed put one station where several men had recently been killed by order of workmen who had come from the cities and found that too little had been changed from the old routine. Faded, torn red flags floated from every station. The old station-masters, however, have never been removed. They still dress in their bulky black coats, and go about their business, leaving politics to those who have more time. The Bolsheviki have recognized, as did the Kerensky officials, that there was one institution it was unwise to interfere with too much; and so the trains have been left free to go along under their own momentum as long as they will.
We found most of the German prisoners quartered in the east; the Russians had taken no chance of their walking home. They were all securely interned and strictly watched. At Krasniarsk, a Danish prison-worker told us that he was looking after six thousand soldiers and four thousand officers. He remarked that they were receiving the same food rations as the poor classes in Petrograd, and they didn't have to stand in line all night to get it.
"But the men go mad without work," he added, "so I secured for many the privilege of helping on the streets. The Russian soldiers are really jealous, but they won't do the work themselves."
As we traveled on through the ever-fertile regions of waving meadows or through tracts of hardy woods, the weather became steadily colder, and in some parts fierce snow-storms were sweeping the country. We had left Vladivostok bathed in the maple tints of sunny autumn, and four days later the Rumanian military guards on our train were struggling to keep from freezing as we crept through the network of tunnels around Lake Baikal into Irkutsk.
But as the cold increased, so did the multitudes of soldiers waiting at the stations through which we passed. Sometimes we would see ten trains a day coming from the war, their box-cars loaded with human freight. "Bourgeois trains!" they would call to us; and their animosity became so violent that before long we had to draw our shades carefully each evening, for fear our candles would serve as beacons for the stones hurled at our windows.
There were thousands of soldiers seeking to travel in the other direction as well. One evening, the major was explaining the difficulties of self-government among a people so intellectually dark and morbidly erratic, and he laid stress on the fact, that the millions of freed soldiers and sailors constituted the great menace at present. "They are being led like sheep by a few idealists and clever traitors. I fear it is going to end in a terrible upheaval," he concluded, as we pulled into the station at Taiga.
As usual, we got off to walk around. A much-bewhiskered old fellow was telling the soldiers from his perch on top of our car why they had a better right to ride in that express train than we had. He convinced them, and there was a wild scramble for places. One soldier caught my coat-tail as I disappeared through the door, and I left a piece of it with him. Usually the train guards kept the doors safely locked at the stations, but this time they were taken unawares, and only a few cars remained free from visitors. Strangely enough, the soldiers hesitated to break in the doors, although this little diffidence conveniently disappeared during the winter.
Those soldiers who got into the cars were generally content to travel in the aisles and block up the passageways. One confided to me that he had outstayed his leave from the line by more than a month, and was compelled to ride on the express to get back in time "to escape punishment." I discovered an Under-officer hanging on the outside step, one bitter cold night, and I finally persuaded the attendant to let him come inside. He stammered his thanks and fell on the floor, exhausted and half frozen. He had hoped to be taken in; and had hung on for two hours, with his bare hands, trusting to reach another station before he should have to let go and drop under the wheels.
He related how the engine-driver on one of the trains now ahead of us had been thrown into his own firebox because he had taken his post-train ahead of a troop-train. At several stations we had been delayed while two or three trains went on ahead. Not that the men were hurrying to get anywhere, but they loved to jeer playfully at the belated express. The station-agents good-nature dry let them have their own way—and thus lived to see another sun rise. We were ten days going from Vladivostok to Petrograd.
Peace had been signed and spring had arrived when I crossed the Urals again and stopped at the mining city of Cheliabinsk. Situated at the upper end of a broad, bleak street are the great sheds formerly used to quarter prisoners before they were distributed over Siberia. Now the buildings fly the red flag, and in front of the massive gates, in the center of the square, are the graves of the Bolsheviki who fell in the winter capture of the city from Kerensky defenders.
In a leading store we talked with two young Jewish proprietors. They had returned, in 1917, from New York, where they had lived for several years. Both were ardent followers of Trotzky, they boasted, and both expressed a fond hope that Germany would win this war.
"And she will, too!" exclaimed one. "She'll win in spite of you in America. What right had America to mix herself up in this affair, anyway? It was none of her business. Trotzky will show New York a few wrinkles before he's through."
We assured him that we were quite agreed that Trotzky had shown America, or any other decent nation, sufficient "new wrinkles," without attempting to add any more; and my California friend finally asked, with exasperation:
"If you love Germany so much, and favor her cause in this fight for world ideals, why don't you go and do your part to help her?"
"Oh," was the calm reply, "she doesn't need us, or we would."
Afterward it occurred to us that they, no doubt were doing considerable to help Germany right there in Siberia.
We attended a picture show in the town, and there sat scores of German and Austrian prisoners with women friends, just as in the restaurant where we had eaten some hours before. In reply to my inquiries, the usher whispered that many of the prisoners had married Russian women and were preparing to settle down in Siberia after their formal release. Later we discovered a cafe run by the prisoners and equipped with an excellent Hungarian orchestra. And we were not surprised to find that the city was efficiently "guarded" by fifteen hundred prisoners, acting under the Bolsheviki.
In every city much the same thing was true; Germans, Austrians, and Bolsheviki mingled in friendly council, and the erstwhile prisoners now dominated the streets and public places. Most of them knew that America was in the war, but professed ignorance of any reason why she had entered. Others whom we met did not know that we were their enemies. They presented a striking contrast to the Red Guard, in the neat appearance of their clothes and the clean, healthy glow of their faces. There were some complaints that they did not get enough to eat, but I saw no evidence of hunger among any of them in Siberia.
The crowds of Russian soldiers which had been so prominent about the stations had for the most part disappeared. Since the peasants had no other clothing, they were still wearing their faded and buttonless uniforms around the farms; and they will doubtless continue to wear them so long as the shreds will hang together. Thousands were safely within the Bolsheviki fold, and were quarreling for the privilege of drawing fine wages to act as Red Guards.
By this time very few trains were crossing Siberia. Civil war and its attendant evils had hastened the ruin of traffic. There was no longer any coal mined, and the engines burned wood, which had been cut by the women and piled for miles along the track, The engines were fast falling to pieces through misuse and neglect, and our journey was punctuated every few hours while we changed engines or awaited orders. Several times our engines were taken away from us by a stray tovarisch train that did not want to go any farther with the old one it had.
Every station-master had become a law unto himself and had full control over all trains that came into his district. On more than one occasion I heard a loud uproar against the "chief," who had uncoupled through freight-cars and hitched on local ones in their place, to accommodate special friends.
The lack of transportation had almost destroyed the business of the famous co-operative societies in Siberia. There are practically no roads through the country, so they did what little business they could with the trains passing through the villages. It was amusing to see the cheerful line-up of men and women at every little yellow station, offering for sale poultry, milk, eggs, butter, bread, apples, and all kinds of special Russian dishes.
At Omsk, where the Austrians were loafing about the station in full force, we encountered a very indignant representative of the International Harvester Company. His plant had been seized the night before and his partner arrested. The consul got off the train and went with him to get the matter straightened up. Earlier that day we were all enjoying ourselves by entertaining the youngsters with a bit of American fun—and a baseball. A miscellaneous crowd quickly collected, but the Red Guard dispersed them with the angry accusation that we were American bourgeois making fun of them. One Russian gentleman, who had been enjoying the impromptu sports, turned away with an exclamation of annoyance.
"Wouldn't you think even our poor foolish peasants would know better than to be influenced by such rot? And yet they feel themselves highly capable of setting up and pulling down governments! This incident reminds me of what was done in the next village, where I live. Our peasant girls, you know, are now allowed to go to school. Well, the villagers took over a large manor-house down there, and decided to use it for a school for both boys and girls. A committee was appointed to get it ready, and went to visit it.
"What do you think they did? They reported that the house had so many doors that it was impossible to use it; the children would get lost in it. So they recommended that it be torn down or burned. And the peasants actually burned, it. They haven't got their new school yet!
"They made the same mess of our mines down here. They insisted on taking them over completely, although they don't know the first rudiments of business. The owners lost patience and flooded the mines so that they can't be operated for five years or more. They preferred to ruin their own industries rather than leave them to slow destruction in the hands of irresponsible children."
It was at Krasniarsk that we barely missed a good joke on our Red Guard friends. They had received a telegram to prepare to receive sixty barani, which were to arrive on the train that day; Now, barani means " sheep," so the Red Guards made ready wagons and an abundance of hay and feed for the welcome animals. Instead of sheep, however, there stepped off the train sixty aristocratic nobles, heavily guarded. They were being sent into exile from the northwest province of Russia. The telegraph operator had made the mistake of reporting barani instead of baroni. But it made good fun for the crowd at the station.
The best insight into true conditions was given me by Izenkin, whom I had known as a soldier at the front, a few months before. I chanced to run across him near Tomsk. I knew him to be a shrewd, prosperous peasant, and I took time to get his views.
"Now, Izenkin," I said, after greetings were over, "you're a good Bolshevik, or Communist—pardon me!—so tell me about the reforms you're putting through here in Siberia."
He comically winked at me with both eyes.
"Oh Gospodin Atkinson, you know very well why I pretend to be Bolshevik —-because it isn't safe to be anything else. Most of us here in Siberia are descended from political exiles, and we've always tried to keep up our education a little and be worthy of our ancestors' fight for liberty. And now it seems as if everything had gone to pieces.
"My people tell me that even when Kerensky was in power a lot of low toughs from the Petrograd factories, to say nothing of Siberian convicts, were receiving pay from somebody to go through all our villages, trying to stir up the vilest kind of trouble. Deserting soldiers were coming home, so they repeated to our home folk the lies we all used to hear from Germany and the Bolsheviki, all about America and Japan stealing eastern Siberia, and about the 'deliverers, Lenine and Trotzky,' who were going to keep us from becoming slaves to foreigners.
"Our people didn't believe these stories, nor did they like the way the provocators were acting;, so they decided that they'd set up a republic of their own, with the capital near here, at Omsk or Tomsk.
"You know the rest," he continued, bitterly. "Trotzky, while he was talking internationalism and the rights of free peoples, sent cannon and guns and ammunition, and a blood-red gang of cutthroats—and what could unarmed Siberia do? Every city fought to the last, but it had to end sometime. Thousands of our soldiers turned traitor and joined the invaders, getting good money for it. Of course the criminal elements were happy. Some of the women believed the stories of the deserters and thought it was a great battle for their freedom. 'But most of them are just waiting, like the men, for a chance to throw off the despicable rule of these tyrants!"
"But," I objected, "you always vote Bolshevik at those elections for your 'town-meeting Soviets." "Yes, of course we do, but why? It's an open, hand-raising vote. Those who have thought the thing through and know how the present government is running our country, daren't vote against the Bolsheviki, because the Red Guards stand armed at the elections, a gang ready to start a riot to kill at a moment's notice. It's only a very few who are brave enough to face an issue like that more than once. Most of us prefer to sit around and wait until something happens from outside to break up this combination. It's bound to come, sooner or later, if the prisoners don't make Siberia a German colony before that time." And he laughed and sighed alternately at the confused predicament of his native land.
I recalled to mind the scurrying around corners to avoid machine-guns which were being turned loose down principal streets in cities I had visited, and lying down on the floor of cars while bullets whistled blithely through the windows; and I thought I could quite understand the lack of conscientious objectors at a Siberian open-air election.
When we reached Irkutsk we began to feel we were indeed in "Little Germany." It was a marvel to us that our refuge trains were allowed to pass. I spoke of conditions to an American there.
"I don't understand, myself, why they don't get after us all," he said, "unless they think it's better policy to lie low a little longer. There are fifteen thousand German prisoners between Irkutsk and Tchita, and they've got access to Bolshevik arms. They have declared themselves Bolsheviki, and have been taken into partnership.
"We had a nice little fuss here in January," he went on, "at the time the Red Guards captured the city. Some of the finest buildings were shelled and three thousand citizens lost their lives, after a terrible siege in the public museum. Several Englishmen and Americans were killed. Living has been so abominable ever since that most of our foreign population has moved down to Harbin.
"I had a funny experience with the gang coming from Moscow. My passport was stolen, so I made a new one, myself. I knew it would be all right if I could find a seal for it. At last I thought of using a tomato-can that was kicking around the floor in the car. I cut a large seal out of the red tomato picture, and pasted it on. It worked. These Siberian 'police' didn't examine it any further."
The news-stands were selling only Bolshevik papers, and those contained mostly German news, including despatches about the popular topic of the great American revolution sweeping the Western Hemisphere. In one issue the Siberians were warned to prepare for the new double battle-front, to be situated on the boundary between Europe and Asia, and facing Germany on the one side and the Japanese-American menace on the other.
But the oddest papers discovered were two many-colored posters for sale in a station, illustrating the difference in the land under the Czar and under Messrs. Trotzky and Lenine. They were entitled "God Sleeps" (under the Czar), and "God Wakes" (under the Bolsheviki). The pictures illustrated the new blessings now enjoyed in family, business, and social relations. The idea was particularly startling, considering the atheistic attitude taken by the present government in Russia.
Our train rattled along over the winding roadbed, as far as Tchita, and then threatened to stop. We could not pass through Manchuria because Seminoffs Cossacks were waging war against the Bolsheviki in that territory. Finally we were off again, on the newly finished road which runs up north of the Manchurian border to Harbarovsk, and then drops south to Vladivostok. It was the roughest railroad I have ever been on, and I was not surprised to hear that a train ahead of us had been wrecked and many of the Austrian-German-Bolshevik soldiers, going to outflank the Cossacks, had been killed.
The little colonies clustering about the stations were very small, but remarkably well kept. New school buildings showed real fruits of the March revolution, and the men, women, and children gave the best impression for cleverness and energy that we had received in all Siberia. But the Red Guards were here also in all their absurd pomp and power. Once we caught them assisting in the unloading of vodka in barrels marked "Fish." Again, an insolent youngster in workman's clothes, and armed with a gun, revolver, and sword, ordered my friend and me into the car to have "our papers examined." He intended to show Americanitz that he must be obeyed in that locality. We knew the "paper" story was a bluff, and we decided to have his photograph as a souvenir. I stood in front on the car steps to hold his attention, while my friend used his camera to good advantage.
Across the long bridge that, spans the River Amur, we swerved around into the city of Harbarovsk. This modern town was throbbing with life. At that time its population was swelled by refugees on their way to the coast. One "French-British Mission" train, that left Moscow two weeks ahead of us, had just arrived that morning. And we had been nearly a month on the road. At the station was gathered a most cosmopolitan assemblage: Englishmen with their monocles and canes, Frenchmen, Russians, Americans, Japanese with babies on their backs, Chinese with red faces and glossy pigtails, Mongolians, fierce-looking Tartars with black pointed beards, and the usual motley rabble of Red Guards, Germans, and Austrians.
It was Sunday, and the thieves' market and horse-market were doing a rushing business up on the hills skirting the town. When we visited the horse-market, a scabby, old, dirty-white horse, attached to a low-wheeled nondescript vehicle, was the prime object of loud-voiced discussion. "Fifty rubles" appeared to be playing an important role in the proceedings.
We walked up the wide street along the ridge leading to the cathedral on the bluff that overlooked the bend of the broad river. The Swedish Red Cross was conspicuous as occupying the ground floor of one of the massive new business blocks. Across the valley, on another ridge, were situated the spacious detention camps of the German and Austrian prisoners.
The next afternoon we attended the exodus of German prisoners toward Irkutsk. There were privates and officers, with uniforms denoting every rank; men from the army, the navy, and the air fleet. Their clothes were practically new, rich and gay; there wore fur coats, high hats, and spiked helmets. They were a clean, strapping-looking company; some extremely boyish, others imposing, distinguished officers.
There was an endless stream of Germans crossing the tracks to the boxcars waiting on the siding. They were carrying small trunks, chairs, mattresses, 'cellos, mandolins, carved canes, kettles, pails, teapots, wash-pans, bags, and baskets. There were hurrying to and fro and saluting; there was much giving of orders. Young Red Guards were very much in control. Their bayonets were set, and they were enjoying the excitement immensely. I tried to imagine the thoughts of the German superior officers as these smirking, cigarette-mouthed boys prodded them now and again with their bayonets, to keep them within certain bounds. But I could only judge by the terrible looks of disdain with which they favored their guardian angels.
One young fellow insisted that I was a prisoner, and tried to keep me herded toward the train, with his "nilsa! nilsa!" ("no! no!") whenever I attempted to get back "across the lines."
"Hi, there!" I laughingly protested, "I tell you I am no German; I'm Americanitz!" Finally persuaded, he was highly amused at the mistake, and voiced his intention to go to America soon himself.
We dogged the heels of the departing troops, and took snapshots of the outfit as best we could. Some soldiers were good-natured and "posed," but the officers considered it an outrageous insult, and urged their men to keep out of focus of the cameras. I had bribed the Red Guards to allow us to photograph the prisoners, by the simple expedient of expressing a keen desire for their pictures, also, as a remembrance of the occasion. The whole force gladly left the Germans to themselves and followed me some distance down the tracks, where my friend was waiting to "snap" them.
One German told me he had lived in North Dakota, but did not like America because it was so "greedy for gold!" Few of them were willing to talk, but at last I discovered a short, jolly-looking fellow with a heavy red beard. In answer to my questions, he told me his story in English.
"There are about sixteen thousand prisoners in this neighborhood, besides a considerable number of Austrians and Hungarians. We were all captured in 1914 and moved out here in November of that year. The first winter we suffered terribly, without winter clothing or overcoats. The Russians gave us but little food. Then came the Swedish Red Cross and helped us to get clothes and supplies from our home government. And an American Y. M. C. A. man helped us to get books and other comforts. Several of us studied English from the Berlitz books he bought for us, and that is how I learned to speak English. Most of the Germans studied Russian by order of their officers; I guess a lot of them are to stay in the country for colonization. When America went into the war we lost our helper, and lost our touch with your people. I am a Hungarian wood-cutter. Some day I hope to go to America; I have only the warmest feeling for your country and its people."
"But why are you leaving here now?" I asked. "And why don't the Red Guards seem more friendly to you? All through Siberia they're arm and arm with the Germans."
"I'm not going away—yet," he answered. "I'm only down here to see one of my German friends off. There is not the best feeling between the German prisoners and the rest of us, as a general rule. They don't trust our loyalty altogether, and we're left behind until later. Word came from Irkutsk that the German prisoners were to leave for that city at once, to escape the Japanese and Americans, who are reported to be advancing from Vladivostok to cut off the railroad at Tchita. Irkutsk is the center for all German prisoners, anyway. An officer told me a few minutes ago that he thought you men must be an American scouting party.
"As for the Bolsheviki, they have kept us pretty well cooped up around here, but I think that's merely the idea of the local Red Guard. There was no trouble in securing these trains for the men to-day."
"Have you become a Bolshevik?" I pertinently inquired.
"I am still a soldier, and therefore must not discuss politics," he replied, with a shy smile. He saluted and went to join a comrade Austrian.
As their trains steamed out for Irkutsk, we called good-bys to the enemy refugees, but their words of answering farewell were not of a nature that is generally permitted to appear in print.
The American flag never-looked so beautiful to us as when our cars skirted the shore and came into full view of the battleship Brooklyn, in the bay at Vladivostok. Alongside was the British Suffolk, and near by were the Japanese and Chinese war-ships.
I had read so many conflicting stories concerning the "allied outrages" in this port, that I immediately sought out Colonel S——-, to learn the truth of the landings.
"There isn't much to tell," he explained. "The Bolsheviki ran things about as badly here as everywhere else. Things were even far worse than they were before. There are a good many German firms in eastern Siberia, and it looked as though the Reds were likely to help the Germans—actively or passively—to spirit away a lot of the valuable supplies lying around here. We were becoming rather restless. Then something happened which cleared up the situation.
"One morning, about ten o'clock, some Japanese merchants were murdered in their store. It was merely an incident in the crime that was being committed throughout the city. But the Japanese landed five hundred marines that night and announced that hereafter they would see to it that the lives and property of their people were protected. The marines spend their time quietly doing sentry duty in front of the Japanese Consulate and in Japanese quarters of the city.
"The British landed fifty marines to guard their Consulate. The Americans have so far kept their marines around the ship, fearing that the other course smacks somewhat of intervention."
Many changes could be seen in the city. The streets were alive with people, the population having almost doubled in a few months. All nationalities were clamoring for passage to Japan, on their way to America or "'anywhere out of Russia." Yet there was an atmosphere of order abroad that had not been there before. True, the Red Guards were parading the streets and making much the same mess of things as their predecessors had made with the Chinese pickpocket. But for the foreigner there was a new and definite sense of security emanating from those four vessels at anchor in the harbor.
Crossing a corner one day, my attention was drawn to the splendid appearance of the blue-jacketed Japs, with their white puttees, as they came along the street toward me. Approaching from the other way was a body of British sailors, in perfect marching order. Just as they met, a mob of about fifteen Red Guards, surly and rough, shuffled down the cross-street, out of step and with rifles sadly awry. The British and Japanese kept on their way with true military dignity. But the Red Guards halted, while they jeered and made faces at their old allies. A minute more and they had all passed by.
I was coming down Main Street one night, when I heard shooting close ahead of me. Reminded of daily events in Petrograd, I stopped to await developments. But the appearance of two or three Japanese marines, on the run, quieted the disturbance, and I heard nothing more.
Shortly afterward Japanese soldiers were shot at by a man who jumped into a waiting carriage and drove off with his accomplice. The Japanese flew after them like lightning, and did not give up the chase until they had captured the pair of bandits. But it was impossible to establish law and order in the surrounding country, under the limited program of the Allies, and the chaplain of the Suffolk lost his life outside the city while I was there.
When it came time for me to leave Vladivostok I learned that my passport must be deposited in the Bolshevik offices three days before being viséd. Wishing to leave the next morning, I urged the Chinese clerk to hurry it through for me that day. " No can do!" he insisted, and I had to be satisfied with that.
I went over to the noted old Lone Dog Restaurant for lunch and thought of various ways and means of possible approach. Finally I went back to the office and hunted up a woman clerk whom I had noticed going in and out of the Commissaire's room with an air of unquestioned influence. When I found her I slipped a few rubles into her hand and carelessly remarked: "Oh, by the way, do you suppose I can get the Commissaire to fix up my papers to-day? I've simply got to leave to-morrow."
She looked cautiously at the bill (to see that it was not bad "Kerensky money," perhaps), and sweetly replied that she certainly thought it could be managed. She led me into the Commissaire's presence and asked him please to attend to my case at once. He did, and I left on schedule time. I had already secured my Japanese vise in ten minutes, paying for the same just ninety-nine copecks.
I found Harbin, "the toughest city in the world," plainly endeavoring, in the present disorder, to prove worthy of its name. But however gay and dissolute it may be, it can be forgiven all, for there are now no Bolsheviki there!
Seminoff's officer-troops made a fine appearance on parade, with their short Japanese rifles, but they were pitifully few in numbers. Little could be expected of them, without much outside assistance, in their war against chaos in Siberia.
American engineers were also there, preparing to push on toward Irkutsk with their constructive operations, when the time was opportune to do their best work. And in all Siberian Asia there were just two emblems of hope and belief that the near future might hold some beautiful promise for the storm-tossed nation—those khaki suits on American engineers, and those mingled flags of sister Allies on the ships in the harbor of Vladivostok. Without them both it would take Siberia many decades to regain her balance and claim her rightful place among the fruitful regions of the world.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald