To Fight or Not to Fight:
Russia's Dilemma

By Gregory Mason

[The Independent; August 8, 1917]

To fight or not to fight? that is the question that has set all Russia by the ears.

On this question all Russia is talking—arguing, persuading, threatening, pleading. Factories are on half-time while the workers talk, trenches are partly deserted while the soldiers talk, offices are idle and streets are filled with gesticulating, talking people.

I found myself in an atmosphere of controversy on boarding the ship for Scandinavian ports at Hoboken, for in the steerage were scores of Russians going home to fight—or not to fight—and each trying to convince his neighbor to fight or not to fight, as the case happened to be.

The overwhelming majority of them were patriots who had refused to make war for the Czar, but who had flocked from all parts of the United States for the chance of fighting for a free Russia. Typical of these was a young mechanic from Waco, Texas. He had offered his services to the American army as an aviator, but had withdrawn the offer when he heard that Nicholas II was uncrowned.

"Russia needs me more," he explained, with a trustful smile, which was somehow pathetic.

The minority of this contentious band were Socialists and Anarchists, whose abundant zeal and energy made up for their numerical inferiority. At Halifax they were reinforced by six more of their stripe, released from British detention on the unenthusiastic request of the young Russian Government. All day these extremists argued with their countrymen in little knots about the windy deck. And as we went north and the days grew into whitening nights still they talked, till even the patient sun slumped dejectedly below the horizon. They seemed to arrange their eating and sleeping by watches, so that one of them could always be holding forth on the hatchway over the after hold. They were determined to make pacifists of their patriotic countrymen, but, though the latter were no match for the agitators in sophistry, they refused to be seduced. These patriots received reinforcements at Stockholm, when many of us who had been together on the ship, now traveling by train, were joined by Vandervelde, the Belgian Socialist Minister of War, and by ninety Russian army surgeons released from German prisons. M, Vandervelde was going to Russia on behalf of his countrymen to combat the propaganda of just such Socialist pacifists as these with us—a motive which induced England to send Arthur Henderson and France to send Albert Thomas to Russia. The Russian army surgeons were being exchanged for an equal number of German surgeons from Russian prisons, though with characteristic German chivalry the Teutons had refused to release the Russian prisoners until the German doctors were safe at home.

When these Russian officers heard the Socialists urging peace with "our German comrades," they rushed into the debate, furious with indignation and heavy with verbal ammunition. "A week in a German prison would change your tune, you visionary fools!" they cried. (I have since been told, on the highest Russian authority, that evidence is in the possession of the British indicating that not all these Socialists from America are "visionary fools," but that some are very practical gentlemen whose motive power is German-American gold.)

The Russian surgeons went on to relate tales of the cruelty of the Germans to their prisoners, and they produced photographs to prove their charges. These photographs, which I saw, and which were unmistakably genuine, had been taken surreptitiously or with the assistance of bribed guards. A harder task than taking them, had been getting them out. They were photographs of the punishment of Russian captives by the Germans. Two showed Russians stripped to the waist and tied to upright poles after being raised from the ground so that all the weight of their bodies was forced onto the sharp thongs around the torsos and ankles. In this position they were usually kept for three or four hours, said the Russians. They added the interesting item that the Russians are the worst treated of all Germany's prisoners, while the more hated English are the best treated. Their explanation for this was that England has many more German prisoners than there are British in German prisons, while the "balance of prisoners " between Germany and Russia is said to be unfavorable to Russia.

"We are all going right back to the front as soon as we have seen our families; every one of us is going back to the front," they said.

In the cars the speechmaking continued—first the doctors and then the Socialists taking a turn at haranguing the other Russians to fight or not to fight. The train assumed something of the air of a Presidential campaign special in Finland, where a lot of young soldiers crowded aboard, riding second class instead of third, as they had to before the Czar changed his name. The advocates of war and the advocates of peace both wished to make an impression on this promising material. Overflow meetings were held on the platform of every station at which the lingering train stopped. The surgeons were always cheered and hoisted to the shoulders of the tanned soldiers after their speeches, but the Socialists also were generously applauded. The soldiers seemed to consider the whole performance a show for their benefit, and were ready to agree with whomsoever had the platform. The champion debater came aboard somewhere in Finland. She was a woman of fifty; fat, choleric, but with a seasoning of humor, and garrulous to the point of exhaustion. Learning that I was an American, she seized me as a target after reducing three surgeons to incoherent rage.

"Oh, you Americans!" she began, reproachfully, in English; "we cannot understand you. Great, free America has always been our ideal, and now you also jump into this sordid, selfish war. We can't understand it; it stuns us.

"And it angers us," she shouted, acting as as she spoke, "You ask us to keep on fighting "—she shook a great red housewife's fist. "We have fought three years, sacrificed our sons, our money, our everything, and now you ask us to go on. Yes, you try to force us to fight—you do force us—but we won't, will we? We won't fight, will we?" She put the question in Russian to the ring of soldiers.

Two kept a sullen silence; one said, "Maybe;" another, "Pretty soon;" and the last two said, "Yes, yes, we will."

This sort of anger with America for entering the war at this late juncture and trying to force tired Russia to keep up the hard grind is surprisingly common here. The pacifists feel that they "had peace on the run," that Germany and France were tiring, and that perhaps by this time, certainly by fall, it would have been apparent to the whole world that only, the "imperialists of England " were blocking peace. But the entrance of the United States spoiled their plans; also it ended their hopes of pushing Russia into a formal separate peace. Even the extreme pacifists here know that such a peace at the cost of the enmity of Great Britain, Japan, and the United States, to say nothing of the other Allies, would be arrant folly. Russia is full of rumors, but the commonest one to-day is that the signing of such a peace would be the signal for Japan to seize all of Siberia she could swallow. Certainly Russia could not prevent it. It is also freely predicted that were Russia to make such a peace England, France, and Italy would immediately upset Russia's plans by concluding a peace of their own, which would pay Germany for the restoration of Belgium, Serbia, and Alsace-Lorraine with generous slices of Russian soil. I report these theories, not because I know of any particular authority behind them, but because they are a factor which is determining the psychology of the "man on the street" here to-day.

"You fool!" a well-known Cossack officer said to a peace agitator at a street meeting. "You fool, don't you know that if we made peace with Germany now, within a month or two we should have another war on our hands?"

"With whom?" asked the Anarchist.

"With England, France, Japan, and the United States."

"But why?"

"Because we had betrayed them by making peace with Germany."

"Oh," said the agitator, dropping his jaw with a stupid look; "oh, I never thought of that."

Even the Anarchists are thinking about it now, however, which is one reason why the danger of such a separate peace by Russia is now practically nil. Americans need give no more thought to it.

The danger is not that Russia will make a separate peace, the danger is that she will just stop fighting. As a matter of fact, Russia has done no fighting of any importance for more than two months. The radicals who were working for a separate peace are now, for the most part, using their energies to persuade the soldiers to quit and go home. Thus the effect of a separate peace might be obtained while the formal guilt was avoided.

The men who were formerly crying "separate peace" are now crying "universal peace." In this case the two phrases mean the same thing. But it must not be forgotten that there are sincere Russians who distinguish between the two, who urge the latter while they abhor the former. Let us classify the whole array of pacifists and of peace propaganda in Russia. First are the separate peace advocates, now inconsiderable. Second are those who want universal peace as soon as possible. These can be divided into two classes: first, the conscientious pacifists and the honest but weak patriots who are tired of war, but who are not so tired of it that they would have Russia betray her allies. The second division of this group includes the horde of German agents that has swarmed into Russia since the Revolution, as well as those nondescript Russians who have been pro-German since the beginning of the war, including some of the old reactionaries from, the corrupt bureaucracy of the former regime.

These German spies and agents, whether disguised as Anarchists, Socialists, or what not, have done a great deal of harm, and may do a great deal more. The Allies can now realize what a great opportunity their over-enthusiasm as to the integrity and force of the Russian Revolution led them to overlook. Had they sent thousands of their agents and thousands of pounds of their gold into Russia immediately after the Czar's abdication, by this time Russia might be a nation solid with enthusiasm for the war. But, over-optimistic in their judgment of the strength of young Russia, they left the field of propaganda to Germany, with unhappy results, which have lately become only too apparent. A supporter of the Allies must wince every time he steps out into the street in Petrograd, for even every by-street, every little pereulok, is blocked with circular masses of humanity, more closely packed and nearly as vociferous as the Wall Street curb market. At the center of each of these masses is always a German hireling masquerading as an internationalist. The supporter of the Allies, it is true, is encouraged by the vehemence with which some honest Russian soldier, especially if he be wounded, returns the fire of the disrupter; but his heart must ache for some Allied heavy verbal artillery to help the Russian infantry. The best thing the Allies could do for their cause in Russia now would be to send here several thousand British, French, Italian, and American citizens with the ability to speak Russian, dress these men in the uniforms of the privates of their respective armies, and send them out to the street corners of Russian cities.

Continuing our analysis of the various current theories of the sort of peace which Russia ought to strive for, we come next to the large class of Russians who support the war, but only on condition that the treaty of peace shall provide for "no contributions or annexations." This is a phrase which is variously interpreted, according to the temperament, background, and political sympathies of the man who utters it. Undoubtedly, with some members of the army this phrase is merely a cloak for cowardice or laziness. To such persons "peace without annexations or contributions " means the maintenance of the Russian lines where they now are drawn, with no attempt at any further offensive. To many more Russians, however, the phrase is the attempt to voice a humanitarian ideal, a vision of international justice and human brotherhood. To all Russians it means the restoration of Belgium and Serbia to their former state; to some it does and to some it does not mean the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France; to the Bolsheviki, the extreme radicals, it means the independence of India and Ireland; but here the phrase is reduced to absurdity.

The Bolsheviki continue to shout that every soldier who fights now is fighting for foreign capitalists, especially English capitalists. But in general among those who try to express their aims for Russia through this now hackneyed phrase there is an increasing disposition to realize that a purely defensive war is no war at all. Thus the "Isvestia," the official organ of the Petrograd Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates, recently said:

'"A separate peace with the defeat of the Allies would defeat and prevent universal peace. To get universal peace we must help the Allies. For this purpose we must, first, democratize the army; second, strengthen its fighting force….

"A purely defensive war is absurd. To defend there must be some form of an offensive."

There the "Isvestia" paraphrased that old remark of Napoleon—or was it some football strategist?—that "The best defense is an attack."

Last of all, the groups which are clamorously concerning themselves with Russia's part in the war are those who since the beginning have consistently held to the pursuit of their goal, "Peace with victory." Such Russians are among the most intelligent in their country. Their leaders are men of international reputation like Milyukov, Rodzianko, and Guchkoff. Before the Revolution these people had two wars on their hands. While prosecuting the war with Germany they were obliged to strive against the treacherous activities of the old Russian Government, which wanted to make peace with Germany. But the Revolution did not lighten the task of these Russian patriots; it merely changed it. At present these true Russians are still doing their best to keep Russia a power in the war, but at the same time they must ward off an even greater internal interference than that of the corrupt but inefficient Government of the Czar. This is the interference of the host of weak-kneed pacifists and malignant supporters of Germany, combined with the really ferocious Anarchists who are determined to destroy what they call "the capitalists and the bourgeoisie"

To repeat, the party in Russia which is for the war is still fighting for a chance to beat Germany; only now their opponents are the pacifists, Anarchists, and German agents instead of the corrupt autocracy. And, to reword the title of this article, it is not so much a question of "To fight or not to fight" in Russia to-day as it is of the form the battle shall take. The Bolsheviki are just as eager for the war against capitalism as the patriots are for war against Germany. One party wants war at home and peace abroad. The other faction wants peace at home and war abroad. Everything depends on the army. This has been considerably riddled by desertion, treachery, and pacifism, but a good deal of it is still sound and thoroughly disgusted with its rotten members. The trouble began in that evil moment when the Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates announced that it would no longer be necessary for soldiers to salute their officers. Discipline disappeared, and things went from bad to worse, until some of the soldiers themselves, at a recent convention, recommended that the salute be readopted. At last accounts this was still under consideration, the Council of Workmen's and Soldiers Delegates having condescended to admit that, after all, there was no moral principle infringed by "a mutual exchange of civilities."

The abolition of capital punishment was another step that destroyed military discipline. In short, at present there is practically no power to prevent any two soldiers or any two workmen from pursuing any course which their own sweet wills dictate.

Two years ago, when I was here, it was apparent that Russia had a war on her hands. Now it is apparent only that she has an army. The countryside is filled with roaming soldiers, the streets and parks of the cities are crowded with big muzhiks in uniform whose sole occupation seems to be to talk and chew sunflower seeds. They are good-natured young giants; it is impossible to be angry with them, although they are an enormous nuisance, and just now are giving nearly bankrupt Russia no service for their pay. The street cars, on which they ride free, are so crowded with them that civilians rarely find seats. Yet when it was suggested that the population of Petrograd might well be reduced more nearly to its normal size the Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates announced that if any depopulating were done the first to be removed would be those not in the pay of the Government—that is, the honest and hardworking civilians whose homes and offices are in the capital. Never disturb a poor soldier who toils so patiently at the destruction of sunflower seeds; oh, never!

The officers can do nothing; the only hope lies with the soldiers themselves. Russia's regiments to-day are in an anomalous condition. In some, indeed, the officers have a real authority, but in others, the authority is only superficial, while in still other regiments the officers are allowed hardly a pretense of command. In most cases, however, the real power lies in the soldiers' committees. These committees deal with such offenses as desertion and fraternization with the enemy, which they punish with flogging. As to fraternization, by the way, the press has been officially told that this has stopped, but the fact that Ministers and public men continue to denounce it in their speeches would seem to throw some doubt on this assertion. Pretty certainly, however, there is much less of it than there was seven or eight weeks ago. One reason for the diminution is that the Russians have learned from bitter experience that the brotherly love expressed the Germans was not genuine, and was usually merely expressed as a ruse to get information in regard to the Russian positions and morale.

The division of the army along the same cleavage that has split all Russia has resulted in a most peculiar state of affairs. In the interior of the country many bands of soldiers are faithfully drilling, while other bands are idling and even looting. Many liquor storehouses have been broken open, and, of course, outrageous debauches have ensued. There have been not a few deaths from acute alcoholism reported in the newspapers.

The garrison of Tsaritsin, a town on the river Volga, recently decided that they had been underpaid, and voted to themselves and their families a lump sum of a million and a half rubles. Since the Government, of course, would not meet their absurd demand, these soldiers stopped and confiscated many grain-barges on the Volga, using the grain for their own enrichment at the expense of all Russia. Other bands of soldiers traveling through Russia on the railway trains have arbitrarily ordered certain cars detached and left behind in order that the locomotive might draw more rapidly, the cars in which rode the soldiers. And no doubt Americans have heard of the fights between soldiers—some going to the front, and others leaving it. The most noteworthy case occurred, when a body of Russian infantry, fired on its own artillery because the Slavs with the big guns insisted on shelling the Germans! "Leave our German brothers alone," said the foot soldiers. "Besides, if you shell them they will attack us." So the Russian gunners stopped firing, and the offended infantrymen went on playing cards and chewing sunflower seeds. So far as a military offensive is concerned, there is in Russia to-day a great deal of the spirit of "Let George do it."

So much for the dark side of the picture. The bright side is due to the existence of a strong war party which is exerting every effort to recruit its own strength.

First of all, there are five million fighting Cossacks who have taken an oath to continue this war so long as Russia's allies continue it. They have been joined in this vow by great masses of Siberians—how many I do not know, but I do know that, like the Cossacks, they are excellent soldiers. Then there are 500,000 Poles to be counted in. Furthermore, there are the members of Russia's famous Guard regiments, which are nearly solid for the war, and there are also many Little Russians just as eager to go on fighting. These military elements have the civil leadership and support of most of Russia's intelligentsia citizens, found in large numbers in such parties as the Cadet party of Milyukov and the Octobrist party of Guchkoff.

Last, but not least, there are many peasants for the war, and, fortunately, it seems that the number of such persons is increasing. The peasants have not yet had an opportunity to express themselves as adequately and in such an organised way as other elements in Russia's population, and the whole country is anxiously waiting to see what the peasants will do. It may be they who will decide whether Russia will fight.

In view of this enumeration of the rather formidable array of the elements for the war in the army and within the whole country, it may be asked where the pacifists get their strength. This seems to come principally from, the districts to the southeast, east, and northeast of Petrograd, within European Russia, and from the Baltic region. In particular, the young infantrymen drawn from these districts are affected with the contagious pacifism. Also, oddly, enough, it seems to be mainly the young men who have not been to the front who are against the war. Most of the old soldiers are "game," and one never finds a pacifist among the men who have tasted German lead or steel. In general, the artillery is for the war, and even more so is the cavalry, which is composed largely of Cossacks. The disaffection principally concerns the infantry. As a sheer guess, one might hazard the estimate that sixty-five per cent of the army is for war and thirty-five per cent for peace.

Unfortunately, the Germans, whose diplomacy has blundered more than once since August, 1914, have been unpleasantly astute in this crisis. Such a German offensive against Russia as many observers expected after the Russian Revolution would have saved the Russian situation for the Allies. A German offensive to-day would unite all Russia against the enemy. The Germans realize this and keep hands off. They have withdrawn more than half a million men from the Russian front for use in the west. Their eastern lines are held largely by old reservists and by cannon captured from the Slavs. "Russia?" one may imagine the Germans saying. "Oh, let her rot, let her rot!"

Since there seems no hope that the Germans will save the situation by attacking, it remains to be hoped that enough of the Russian army can be pulled together to launch some sort of an offensive, even a small one. This might have much the same effect in rousing the steeping Slav giant from his lethargy as a German advance. The German lines are thin, and three or four Russian army corps might be enough to start a landslide. But the offensive at first need not be serious, so far as the extent of ground recaptured is conceded. All that is needed to begin with is enough action to stir the nation's pulses, to remind her that she has more important work on hand than the mouthing of silly phrases about svoboda (liberty) and the drowsy munching of the narcotic sunflower seeds.

Russia just now is in what Arno Dosch-Fleurot, the correspondent of the New York "World," well calls an "accumulating situation." The nation is coming to grips with herself; the forces for war and the forces for peace are determined to know which shall prevail.

Whether Russia is to fight again or not depends on the outcome of the social and political struggle within the nation. There is a good deal of reason, to believe that the next few weeks may be critical and that before the end of the summer Russia may seize one horn or the other of her dilemma.

But even if Russia makes the decision which we Americans hope she will make, she will hardly be able to begin effective fighting at once. My own guess is that for the next year at least Russia cannot be counted on as much of a menace to Germany. We Americans have come into the game just in time to substitute for weakened Russia.

Petrograd, June 20, 1917.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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