The Russian Army and the Revolution
By Raymond Recouly, Captain X
[Scribner's Magazine, November 1917]
Petrograd, July, 1917.
I have just been at the Russian front, in the wild mountain region of the Caucasus, and as I look back on my journey it seems like a fantastic dream. In order to cross this enormous country I had first to spend almost a week in the railway; when I left Petrograd it was still winter, with snow in the streets; by the time I reached Moscow the next day I had run into the beginning of spring, and three days later, on the shores of the Black Sea, it was already early summer.
From Tiflis, the headquarters on the Caucasian front, where General Ioudenitch has replaced the Grand Duke Nicholas, there were still twenty hours by train to Sarykamich, the old frontier of Turkey, and from there to Erzeroum another long day by motor, from dawn until darkness, over such rough tracks—they could not be called roads—that I was thrown about until I felt as if my ribs must surely be broken.
The ancient Turkish citadel of Erzeroum is the seat of the headquarters of the army of Asia Minor, now commanded, since General Ioudenitch went to Tiflis, by General Prjevalsky, and from there I went on again by motor for two more days through a savagely beautiful country, with mountains towering up for more than two thousand metres, higher than the Engadine range, and again over roads which literally and figuratively were enough to take one's breath away.
At X., a little market-town squeezed into a deep valley between high peaks and a rushing stream, we found the headquarters of a division, and from there the most long-suffering motor could go no farther, so we took to horses and went on upward, climbing steep zigzag paths seemingly intended for the accommodation of goats, but which were the only means of getting to the first lines. At last, after three or four hours of this climbing, we came to a high alpine meadow sheltered by the mountains and warmed by the fierce sunlight of the northern summer; on every side mountain torrents flung themselves down the slopes, and back of all rose the solemn crests white with everlasting snow.
I was there for three days as the guest of the colonel in command of an infantry regiment whose battalions were scattered right and left on the hillside. I went so far because I wanted to get away from cities and headquarters, in order to be in closer touch with the men in the ranks, and thus find out what reaction the revolution had produced upon the army. For the last month in Petrograd I had been hearing all sorts of different opinions, each contradicting the other. According to the pessimists, all was lost. The revolution had completely destroyed all discipline; the officers had lost their prestige, and had no more authority over their men. Less despondent spirits held, on the contrary, that the revolutionary crisis had not diminished the fighting spirit of the troops, and that as soon as the first shock and confusion were over the army would be even stronger and more effective than before.
One morning we started very early, the colonel and I, for a long ride to an outpost which was only a hundred metres or so from the Turkish trenches. We visited first a battery of artillery, and toward noon we were invited by its officers to breakfast with them in their shelter, a little cabin made of rough-hewn pine logs. There had been no question of waiting for the wood to dry, so these logs were constantly weeping large tears of sap. Our meal was frugal, for the absence of all roads makes it very hard to feed the army, and we seemed to be sitting in a grotto, for every minute or two a large drop would fall with a plop on a head or on the end of a nose. The three officers who were our hosts were all very young, the eldest certainly not more than five-and-twenty; they had frank and friendly faces and were straightforward both in looks and words. This war has been a great devourer of officers in every country, and the Russian army is appreciably democratized in consequence. The sons of tradesmen and small officials are now often able to get commissions, which explains the ease and rapidity with which the revolution spread throughout the armies.
We were just about to start on again when an orderly came to tell a lieutenant, one of our hosts, that a delegation of his gunners wanted to speak to him.
"We had better stay," said my colonel; "you will see something typical and interesting." Four soldiers then came in, and their spokesman addressed our host.
"Lieutenant," he said, "the men of the battery have elected us to represent them in the brigade committee; they have also elected you, and we have come to ask that you will be our chairman."
"I accept with pleasure," answered the lieutenant; "but I must be the leader and not a mere dummy. It is better to have that understood once for all and then we shall not run the risk of misunderstandings later. You must not take it into your heads to ask for impossibilities, or meddle with what does not concern you. From the moment that you elect me it is my right, and also my duty, to prevent you from making foolish mistakes. We are summoned to the brigade committee to discuss matters which touch us closely, such as discipline, food supplies, clothing, leaves of absence, and such like! That is all, and it is enough. Our opinion is not asked as to politics or administration, and none of us are competent to speak on such matters. I am told that in a neighboring battery the men spend their time discussing the conditions of peace, annexations, indemnities, and the question of Alsace-Lorraine. All that is mere folly. What do you know about the question of Alsace-Lorraine? Nothing, I dare say, and no more do I, so we had better leave all that to those who are better informed."
"We agree with you entirely," replied the deputation, and off they went, perfectly satisfied.
I was glad to be able to get an idea of the way in which these army committees work. So far as I can learn they are not subversive of discipline; they change its manner and processes appreciably, but it still continues to exist under a new form. It is easy to see that the Russian army has a new soul, but it still remains an army.
Thirteen years ago I went through the Manchurian campaign with the Russians, and for the past eight months I have been going to and fro along their fronts, so I know the army fairly well and am able to mark the differences between then and now. Under the old system the men owed absolute obedience to their officers, who were addressed, according to their grades, as "Your High Nobility," "Your Nobility," or "Your Excellency." Private soldiers were not allowed to sit down in a restaurant or theatre if officers were present, nor might they travel in the same railway-carriage. It would, however, be making a great mistake to suppose that this strict discipline of the old Russian army was in the least like the crushing and automatic severity of Germany. The Russian temperament is the exact opposite of the Prussian; where the one is hard and brutal the other is good-natured and easy-going. During the fifteen months that I was in Manchuria, and also since I have been with the army this time, I do not remember ever having seen an officer strike a soldier or treat him roughly. I have heard stories of bad treatment, but it was always because the officer had been drinking; and while this is not an excuse, it was formerly considered as an extenuating circumstance. In any case, such occurrences were so rare as to be negligible, while there is abundant and irrefutable testimony that in the German army tyrannical treatment of men by their officers is the rule rather, than the exception.
Until very recently a Russian officer usually felt toward those under his command much, as a landlord does toward farmers whose forebears have tilled his land for generations; lie was always on familiar terms with them; addressing them as "thou" instead of the more formal "you." This is also the case, by the way, in the most democratic of all armies, the French—at the front, in the trenches, or during a battle an officer almost always uses "thou" to his men, and instead of being offended they like it, looking upon it as a proof of comradeship between them and their superiors in rank.
As I have said before [Scribner's Magazine, July 1917] the consequences of the revolution which broke out in Petrograd on the 10th of last March were felt in all the Russian armies very quickly, whether they were in the Carpathians, Rumania, or the Caucasus. It has often been noticed that when some tremendous event stirs the soul of a nation to its depths news of it flies with incredible haste, far outstripping all ordinary means of communication, and one of the most remarkable things about the revolutionary movement was the speed with which it was propagated, even to the farthest limits of this vast empire. It seemed as if the air were charged with magnetic fluid, and that by some strange universal wireless telegraphy people thousands of miles apart received the same impression at the same time.
The armies of the Czar became democratic within a few days. There were immediate changes—for instance, officers no longer used "thou," and were addressed as "Captain" or "Lieutenant" instead of "Your Nobility." This was a mere matter of form, but the army itself underwent a striking transformation. Committees, each a small deliberative body, were formed everywhere; the men met, discussed the questions which interested them most nearly, and chose delegates to confer with their officers. I heard many people complain of this movement as too radical, but it was natural enough, as it was the army, represented by the garrison of Petrograd, which, by uniting with the workmen, had made the revolution a success within a few hours, and the army knew it. This his union found immediate expression in the Soviet, or Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates of Petrograd, which dominated the situation from the very first days, and the army could not stand aloof. Petrograd had its committee arid its delegates, and it was inevitable that the example should be felt and followed on each of the fronts as well as in the provincial cities.
How do these army committees work? That is the important and indeed essential point, for an institution is rarely good or bad in itself; everything depends upon the way in which it does the task for which it was intended. It is very hard, in fact almost impossible, to make up one's mind from a distance, which is the reason, as I have said, why I went so far from the capital. Let us take as an example the regiment whose guest I was; it may serve as a type of what is going on throughout the revolutionary army. The regiment is made up of four battalions, each of them having four companies. A company assembles and elects five delegates, four soldiers and an officer. That is the committee of the company, which then proceeds to form another, called the committee of the regiment, which is composed of sixteen soldiers and four officers, and keeps in close touch with the colonel. The regiment is thus an administrative as well as a combatant whole, and its leader, the colonel, may be called upon at any time to give advice or the initiative. I asked my host on what terms he was with his regimental committee, and whether he did not find it sometimes rather in his way.
"Not at all," he answered; "so far we have got on admirably together—but you shall see the record of our meetings. You will find, the men are reasonable in what they ask," and he brought out the book in which their requests were set down. They all dealt with details of regimental administration—clothing, food, leaves of absence, etc. For instance, it was requested that leaves of absence should be given more regularly, that each company should have a supply of books and newspapers, that there should be, if possible, a little more fresh meat in the rations, and so on. In the margin of each entry the colonel had written in his own hand, "Granted," for—and this is most important—the requests of the regimental committee are subject to the approval of the colonel, who has the right of veto. Once it was asked that officers' orderlies should be chosen from among the weaker men, who were not fit for active service. The colonel wrote in the margin: "The regulations say that an officer has a right to an orderly; they do not say that he should be weakly. Refused." And his summing up to me was: "On the whole it works very well." The regimental surgeon, who was also on the committee, said the same—his words were: "The soldiers are very easy to guide, but one must take the trouble to explain things to them. It is absolutely necessary to keep in touch with them by talking matters over." That is, as he said, the essential point. Wherever the officers have known how to keep on friendly terms with their men, discipline has been maintained. It is a different discipline from the old system; it is government with the consent of the governed; but there is discipline all the same. If, on the other hand, whether from the fault of the men, the officers, or from circumstances, this friendly contact is lost, the troops, left to themselves, have gone astray; they have refused to fight, deserted, or even fraternized with the enemy.
The longer I live in Russia the more it seems to me that its millions of soldiers, peasants, and workmen form an amorphous and gelatinous mass ready to spread out in any direction, but not difficult to keep within bounds. They are like the rivers of the Russian plain, which meander along but are easily turned out of their way by the least obstacle. I had a characteristic instance of this on the transport which brought me from Batoum to Mariopol, on the Sea of Azov. We were six officers, of whom two were surgeons, and there were about three thousand convalescent soldiers on board who were being sent home because they had had typhus or scurvy. The sea was rough at the mouth of the Kertch Strait, which prolonged our voyage somewhat, and the quartermaster, who had not allowed for such an accident, was obliged to make a slight reduction in the quantity and quality of the food on the last day. I thought the reduction too insignificant to be worth notice. At five o'clock in the afternoon, when their evening soup was given out to the men, I happened to be standing on deck with two Russian officers and a Sister of Charity, when I heard a very irate voice near us cry out: "Comrades, they are giving us the same soup that we had this morning! It's a shame—are we to allow them to treat us in this way?" Immediately a crowd formed, for the rapidity with which Russians gather together is astonishing; they are always ready to make a circle in order to hear any one harangue. A lively discussion then began, led by two or three malcontents who abused the quartermaster and declared that it was abominable to feed men so badly. The crowd grew and grew; the cries became louder, and one of the leaders bawled: "Let's throw our bowls at the quartermaster's head—that'll teach him a lesson!" Things were looking squally when suddenly one of the surgeons arrived, having been fetched hurriedly by a steward. He was about forty years old, thick-set and vigorous, with broad shoulders, a strong voice, and an air of authority. He forced his way into the middle of the group, brushing the men out of the way with his hand. "Have you all gone mad?" he said sternly to the-ringleaders. "You know quite well that if the sea had not been rough yesterday we should have arrived by this time. Is it any one's fault that there was a storm? That's the affair of Providence—bring me a bowl of soup!" It came and he tasted it. "It's perfectly eatable," he declared, "just as good as what we officers have.
Let every one who complains hold up his hand and give me his name. When we land we will go together before the Soviet at Mariopol, and if the complaint is found to be unreasonable, as it certainly will be, those who have made it will have their leaves of absence docked." This decided speech acted like magic. There was dead silence; only one man was willing to give his name, looking rather sheepish as he did so, and the crowd scattered, each member of it going back to finish his bowl of soup. It was enough for one man to speak common sense energetically to make these unruly children peaceable again.
Scenes like the one which I witnessed at the battery took place on all the different fronts, and also in the garrisons at the rear, their consequences depending largely on the ability of the officers and of the quickness with which they were able to take the lead. It was too much to expect, however, that all the officers, and still more all the provincial functionaries, thrown for the first time on their own resources, should have been able to take the initiative at the right moment. The government at Petrograd ought, of course, to have given them proper instructions, but this it could not do, for it lacked authority to carry them out, and instead of dominating the situation was overpowered by it. With the single exception of Kerensky, who has great personal influence, the government is practically non-existent, and it is because of its failure to assert itself that the military and the political situations are so closely intermingled.
What is the ministerial situation? To have a clear idea one must go back more than three months. The Russian revolution, as I said in my former article, was made by the workmen and the garrison of Petrograd, and in the first hours it crystallized itself around the Duma, which was supposed to be composed of representatives from all the nation. It was the president of the Duma, Rodzianko, who sent the decisive telegrams to the Czar and communicated with the different commanders; the Duma organized the provisional government. It was therefore natural to expect that the Duma would play an important part in the general reorganization. If it had energy enough to start a government, it would surely have enough to carry it on. But it did not. While the government was still in its very first stages the Duma seemed to melt away and disappear. No one ever even mentioned its name—it had committed a sort of political hara-kírí. It was like the male bees, who die as soon as their task of fecundation is accomplished. This is an important point, on which I dwell because it explains all the rest. I have often asked influential leaders of the Duma, such as Goutchkoff, the reason of this strange self-effacement. The answer was usually the same: its members, not having been elected by universal suffrage, could not properly constitute the first revolutionary assembly. This answer struck me as doing more honor to their high-mindedness than to their political sense. In the midst of a sudden and far-reaching crisis it is not the place of leaders to quibble over whether or not they have full right to their power; while they are searching their consciences others, less scrupulous, push into their places. Leaders of a revolution are always more or less usurpers; it is impossible that it should be otherwise. The proof that the Duma, no matter how it was elected, stood for authority in the eyes of the people is that the garrison of Petrograd went at once to the Tauris palace, where the Duma was sitting, and solemnly professed allegiance to it. The leaders of the Duma, being somewhat theoretical and Utopian in their views, were surprised and carried away by the suddenness and strength of the movement; they had not the energy to grasp the helm at the proper moment; it slipped from them, and other hands seized it at once.
This political suicide had two consequences:
1. The Duma, by its abdication, left the ground clear for the Soviet, which thus became all-powerful.
2. The government which had been started by the Duma was therefore deprived of its support and obliged to make terms with the Soviet and yield to its exactions.
The Soviet has been for some time the real master of the situation. How was it recruited, and how have its members been chosen? It is not easy to get any very definite answer, even from those most directly interested, I have often tried to find out, as I have often tried to be present at one of its meetings, but I have always met with vague phrases and a politely disguised refusal. Delegates to the Soviet are apparently anxious to surround their election and deliberations with a certain mystery. In theory the workmen in the factories of Petrograd have one delegate for every thousand of their number; the soldiers, one from every company of about two hundred and fifty men. Who made these rules? Are the elections regularly and honestly conducted? All that is very obscure.
When a successful revolution is in full swing nobody bothers about the right of its leaders to be where they are—energetic and audacious men prove that they have a right to rule by ruling. It is the doctrine expressed by the proverb that "possession is nine points of the law."
The first election of the Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates brought together an assembly of more than twenty-five hundred members, with full legislative powers. It was hard to get any hall large enough to hold them, and now they rarely meet at all. But that assembly elected a central committee of about eighty members, which in its turn chose an executive committee, with subcommittees to study particular subjects.
It is impossible not to be struck by the fact that this all-powerful council does not represent the whole of Russia, but only Petrograd, its capital, and in this capital it is far from representing the whole of the population, as it only consists of two classes—workmen and soldiers. Leaving the aristocracy out of the question, there is no representation for the merchants, the professional men, nor for all the many grades of the middle and lower classes, unless they are actual workmen or in the army. All the rest are left without any means of declaring their will; it is as if they did not exist. The mere mention of this is enough to show the injustice of such a legislative body and the abuses to which it is open. These abuses are already so evident that steps have been taken to remedy them, but so far without much success. A great assemblage of Soviets from all over Russia was held at Petrograd; which widened the geographical base of the Council, so to speak, but it still represented two classes only. It was natural that those who were left out should have held reunions of their own, and during the last two months there have been several of these; one made up of peasants, another of officers from the front, etc., which multiplication of congresses, with no co-relation, instead of helping matters has made the situation even more complicated.
If one keeps these facts in mind it is easy to see the difficulties of the new government. From the first days the moderate element in the ministry, led by Goutchkoff, Secretary for War and the Navy, Milioukoff, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and Konovaloff, one of the party leaders of the Duma, were mistrusted and opposed by that body, especially when it was a question of the foreign policy of Russia in her relations with her Allies, or of military problems, such as the maintaining of discipline in the armies.
In the Soviet itself the more moderate members were perpetually bullied and terrorized by the bolcheviki or maximalists, aided by Lenine and his acolytes when they came back, by way of Germany, to carry on their wretched propaganda. These men are all downright and avowed anarchists, and besides advocating peace on any terms they include in their programme the abolition of individual ownership and the confiscation of all private property. As the government did not assert itself against the Soviet, this criminal propaganda was allowed to spread openly, with disastrous results.
It must be remembered that when the torrent of the revolution swept away autocracy it also carried with it the whole system of police and even of judicial administration. The police and their agents, who had played an important part under the old regime, were all sent to the front, and their places filled by an improvised force made up of militia and volunteers—in fact of amateurs.
The garrison of Petrograd also, especially in the beginning, could not be safely counted upon. The barracks were crowded with troops who, conscious that they had made the revolution, were not inclined to obey their officers. The khaki-clad mass, left to its own devices, was swayed now this way "and now that by all sorts of contradictory influences; the men listened with open mouths and cloudy brains to the demagogues who harangued them, each proclaiming a different infallible doctrine, and in the end were ready to side with the new government or against it, according to the last speaker or their mood at the moment.
The German agents found this sunshine for their haymaking. When Lenine was on his way back from Geneva he was allowed to travel across Germany, and was treated with great consideration in the hope that when he reached Petrograd he would work for the German cause. Whether he did so intentionally is not yet clear, but he could not have served Germany better than by the active propaganda which was carried on in the different barracks, and even among regiments at the front—the men were urged to desert and to disobey their leaders, and as a direct result the garrison of Cronstadt, a few miles from the capital, rose in open revolt against the provisional government.
While these efforts were being made to overthrow all military discipline another and still more insidious propaganda was carried on among the civil population, who were assured that it was only the selfishness and greed of England and France which stood in the way of peace. In public meetings fiery orators protested against the French and English " bourgeois" who, in order to add to their territory and enrich themselves at the expense of the conquered, were sending working men to slaughter everywhere. It was at this moment that the famous formula of "Peace without annexation or indemnity" was first heard. It at once caught the popular fancy, so much so that at the front in Asia Minor, more than two thousand kilometres from Petrograd, numbers of soldiers asked me why the French and English obstinately opposed a peace which seemed to the Russians just and reasonable. I did not have much trouble in showing them how much hypocrisy and equivocation was comprised in the formula which so impressed them. I told them that Germany. Having plunged the world into war at her own time and for her own ends, after three years' bloody struggle now found it going against her; she therefore had a lively desire to patch up an inconclusive peace which would leave things as they were before, and for that reason she was trying to sow dissension between the Russians, the French, and the English. I also told them there was no question of annexing foreign territory against the wish of the inhabitants, and that when France demanded Alsace-Lorraine she was only asking for the return of what had been stolen from her. That if any one was guilty of wanting to annex territory it was Germany, who longed to extend her empire at the expense of France, of Russia, and of Belgium, and that they were playing her game by listening to empty phrases instead of pushing the war to a victorious conclusion. When I had explained this to them the men understood and said I was right—but the explanation was very necessary.
The leaders of the revolution shrank instinctively from trying to govern by means of force, preferring to reason and argue with their opponents rather than risk coming to blows. Haunted by the memory of the French Revolution—for every Russian reads the history and memoirs of that time greedily—they were afraid that if they once started to repress sedition forcibly they would not be able to stop—and it must be said that this great revolution counts few victims and has shed little blood. It is impossible not to respect such scrupulousness, but unfortunately it lost valuable time. No important question was settled; it was all waiting and groping. Toward the beginning of June, however, the government finally decided to put an end to the open scandal of the insurrection at Cronstadt. Two new Socialist members of the Ministry went there and presented a real ultimatum, demanding absolute surrender, in default of which vigorous measures of repression would be adopted at once. The Cronstadt insurgents yielded, or at least professed to do so, but when the maximalists and anarchists tried to overthrow the government on the 18th of July last, they were helped by sailors and marines from the garrison of Cronstadt.
In May there was an important change in the ministry: Goutchkoff resigned, to be soon followed by Konovaleff. They had all represented moderate groups in the Duma and were replaced by Socialists taken from the bosom of the Soviet. This infusion of new blood had become absolutely necessary, as the government, weakened by the loss of three able members and without any real backing from the Duma, could not hold its own with the Soviet save by making frequent concessions. After the serious outbreak of July 18 there was still another change in the ministry: Prince Lwoff, the president of the Council of Ministers, resigned and was succeeded by Kerensky, who thus became the head of the revolutionary party in name, as he had been for several months in fact. Among the men who have been forced into leadership by the irresistible pressure of events since the war began, none is more interesting or better worth study than Kerensky. On the 11th of March, 1917, as one regiment after another went over to the side of the revolutionaries, they marched to the Tauris palace, where the Duma was sitting. While Rodzianko, its president, was deliberating with his friends as to how the troops should be received, a young man ran out bareheaded from the council chamber into the bitter cold to meet the soldiers, and threw himself into their arms. It was Kerensky, a Socialist deputy, who by this action pledged himself as one of the leaders of the revolution. When the provisional government was formed he was first made Minister of Justice, and I sometimes went to see him early in the morning at the office of his ministry in Ekaterinskaia Street. Nothing could be more simple than his surroundings, his dress, or his manner, nor more striking than his appearance.
His face lacks symmetry and is careworn and anxious; his movements are quick and nervous, his look full of energy and determination; he evidently has a temperament not to be daunted by difficulty or danger, and which does not shrink from sudden and bold decisions. But the most remarkable of all his gifts is his extraordinary personal charm; it is as if a subtle fluid, emanating from his will, envelops those who come into contact with him, be they few or many.
Proportion, moderation, and balance have no place in such a nature, but it is through his defects as well as his qualities that Kerensky has so great a hold on the souls of his countrymen.
Each time I saw him he assured me that he has full faith in the outcome of the "revolution, saying:
"Tell your friends in France, England, and America not to lose faith in us, whatever happens; the old regime has left us a crushing inheritance, but we shall win through."
No task can be too heavy, no responsibility too great for him; his fiery nature carries him into the thickest of the fight, as his generosity makes him eager to pour all that is in him in defense of a just cause. He has shown this lately by his magnificent rush to all the fronts to restore order and discipline in the armies, to rally their broken ranks, to arouse their fighting spirit, and to make them fit to hold back and then to attack the enemy. During all this campaign, surely one of the greatest and most arduous ever undertaken by mortal, Kerensky has spared neither his mind nor his body. He has thrown himself into his mighty task with a mighty soul. Thanks to him all the group of armies formerly commanded by General Brussiloff were rendered capable of a vigorous offensive; they pushed back the German troops, made a considerable advance,-and took almost forty thousand prisoners.
While these splendid results were being attained at the front, as ill luck would have it, the agents of Lenine, a handful of scoundrels and traitors, succeeded in fomenting a serious insurrection in Petrograd and in dragging part of the garrison with them; there was firing in the streets again, both of rifles and mitrailleuses. Finally the party of order and decency got the upper hand. The government decided at last to take strong measures; the followers of Lenine were arrested and convicted of having taken German pay; his newspaper, the Pravda, a corrupting influence, was suspended and he himself fled. Kerensky had left the army in the Carpathians to hurry back to Petrograd, and while he was there a most unfortunate incident happened at that front. The Austrians and Germans, who had been surprised and driven back, brought up strong reinforcements and counter-attacked energetically. It appears that one of the Russian regiments ordered to the first line to hold back the German advance, failed to carry out the order. Instead of going forward the men stopped to discuss and palaver, and in the meantime a breach was made in the sector of attack, obliging the regiments right and left to fall back. This weakness gave the enemy a victory which, it is to be hoped, will not be of any great importance.
Incidents like these show the enormous difficulties which confront Kerensky, and as if they are not enough, he has also to deal with the grave questions of local autonomies; yesterday Finland sought independence; to-day it is the Ukraine; to-morrow it may be the Caucasus. The government wished to put off considering these demands until the meeting of the Constitutional Assembly, but Finland and the Ukraine would not hear of it, and have made known their terms, which are radical. They say to themselves, no doubt, that the weakness of the provisional government gives them a chance to push their .claims which may not come again, and, although one may regret their selfishness, under the circumstances they cannot be ignored. Not content with having gained autonomy, part of the population of Finland now wishes to insist that all Russian troops now on its territory shall be withdrawn. It is most important that the government should make a formal and categorical refusal. The Finlanders do not seem to take into consideration the self-evident fact that, were the Russian troops once out of Finland, it would be child's play for the enemy, who now controls the Baltic, to occupy the most important military positions in a country where German influence is always powerful, and thus succeed in flanking the Russian armies and the capital.
On the whole the conditions in the armies, although they certainly cannot yet be called good, have become better in the last two months. They are, however, deeply affected by the political situation, which is very uncertain, subject to sudden changes and complications, while that in its turn is dominated by the economic situation, which is very bad. This is the most important and alarming point of all, to which I would call the attention of thoughtful Americans.
The United States, with a promptness and energy which do them the greatest credit, have undertaken to save Russia, both financially and industrially, and if they succeed they will have deserved well of humanity. It would be a grave injustice to hold the present provisional government responsible for the present economic crisis, for it is not to blame. Here again the former regime left a deplorable inheritance. Economic disorganization, wretched administration of the railways, slackening or cessation of the principal industries—all these were at their height last winter, weeks before the revolution broke out. It seems certain that some of those who surrounded the Czarina, Trotopopoff in particular, had the criminal intention of allowing these conditions to go from bad to worse in order to have an excuse for making a separate peace.
The revolution only added another to the many causes of disintegration which existed already, but it was a serious one. Unfortunately, all the workmen in factories, all the petty officials interpreted the new freedom as giving them an immediate right to wages or salaries three, four, and even five times as large as what they had been getting, and this in exchange for less work. Pillage is the only word which fitly describes the onslaught made on the pay-rolls of the manufacturers, as well as on the budget of the state. The immediate and natural consequence was a great rise in the cost of living. Political economy is logical and far-reaching. If salaries are suddenly doubled or trebled, the manufacturer must increase his prices in proportion; this increase is already alarming, and there is no relief in sight.
As prices rose the value of the paper currency went correspondingly down. In theory the value of a rouble is a little more than an American half-dollar, but now it is worth scarcely more than twenty-five cents, and its purchasing power is appreciably less. It is my impression that in Petrograd, and many other places in Russia, a rouble will only buy what one could get in France even now for half a franc, or about ten American cents. Money having thus lost much of its value, the peasant farmer, for instance, hesitates to exchange his produce, which he knows is worth a certain amount, for roubles with which he cannot buy what he needs. The rouble is undergoing a depreciation comparable in some degree to that of the assignors in the French Revolution.
But the gravest economic question of all is that of transportation. Before the revolution, through the carelessness and indifference of the authorities, locomotive engines were allowed to fall out of repair, so much so that on certain lines, according to figures which were given me, about thirty per cent of the locomotives are unfit for use. Americans are doing their utmost to remedy this serious state of things. About the time the eminent statesman Mr. Root went to Russia there went also a committee of some of the greatest railway specialists in America who will, no doubt, accomplish even more than seems possible, but there is an immense amount to be done. It is not as if this disorganization had come on suddenly; it is comparable to an old neglected wound, which may well appal the surgeon who at last takes it in hand.
Before I close this rapid sketch of the present Russian situation as I have seen it I must acknowledge that as I have tried to group together and synthesize its essential features the result is a gloomy picture, with very black shadows. But we must not be misled by what I may call the mirage of pessimism. All the facts which one brings together for purposes of illustration are in reality scattered and far apart—lost in the constantly changing immensity of Russia. When I read in the morning newspapers of disorders in the provinces, of peasants looting and burning country houses and soldiers deserting to their homes, I am instinctively inclined to believe that all Russia is given over to what Taine, in his history of the French Revolution, called "cases of spontaneous anarchy." But that is far from the truth. On my way back from the Caucasus I purposely went over a great part of the country, and talked everywhere to men and women in all classes of society, coming to the conclusion that while there are undoubtedly disturbances and acts of violence here and there, on the whole the country is relatively quiet. It is well not to be too much impressed by stories of anarchy and misrule but to keep them in a just scale of proportion.
Yet another important factor should be kept in mind. The psychology of individuals or crowds in Russia is misleading to the Western mind. Their impulses, their reasoning, their actions do not seem to be governed by any logic, or if they are it is a logic widely different from ours. Situations which in France or England would infallibly lead to certain consequences here lead to entirely different ones—or sometimes to none at all. Because of the sinuosity of the Slavonic mind, which usually prefers a curved line to a straight one, things which seem to us absolutely irreconcilable get on together with tolerable smoothness.
Take one case among many, that of Cronstadt, a fortress only a few miles from Petrograd and for several months in open insurrection against the provisional government. In France there would have been an instantaneous collision between the two forces, and the stronger would have got the better of the weaker. Here, on the contrary, they backed and filled, and argued and compromised, until finally they arrived at some sort of conclusion.
One of my Russian friends said to me the other day: "You French are an odd race. You insist that two and two must make four and are always doing sums in your heads. We Russians get along very well without any such game."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald