A Year in the Ukraine (I)
By René d'Aux
[The Living Age, November 30, 1918; from La Revue Hebdomadaire]
It is hard to get to the Ukraine since the war began. The trip is long and difficult. From England one can get to Bergen, then to Petrograd and Kiev through Norway and Sweden, and secure passage on one of the revictualing boats which, well convoyed, takes about seven days to reach Murmansk, a base which has lately been created on the Murman coast.
A special train will take us from Petrograd to Kiev. The less-favored travelers have to find a place for themselves as best they can in the train, already crowded with tovarishis (comrades). That is the way the soldiers are called now, and, as a rule, all thinking and organized citizens of free Russia. Clusters of human beings are clinging to the buffers and doors. Not a place to be had on the roof or in the aisles. One has to get in through the windows. Men and women stay like this for about two days without grumbling. What extraordinary endurance! And what a force did an army of such men represent!
Immense stretches of water; everywhere desolation, misery, ruin; houses disappear under the floods, only a few roofs emerge; it is inundation in all its horror. This is the majestic Dnieper.
A radiant sun makes the manifold gilded cupolas glisten. The Convent of Lavra stands out against the horizon on top of a hill; the red and green roofs give the city a touch of gayety. This is Kiev, the Russian Jerusalem. We have hardly had time to get a glimpse of this enchanting picture, when we enter the dirty little station, thronged with idle tovarishis who spend their days there, sleeping on the ground, never ceasing to nibble siémitchkis, seeds of the sunflower so much loved in Russia. The husks are scattered all over the ground.
The Kiev of war-time is overcrowded; there are many refugees from Serbia and Rumania. From Petrograd and from Moscow people have rushed to the hospitable Ukraine. Life is comparatively easy here, but so dear. How hard it is for the poor! The endless files of people at the doors of the bakeries and dairies prove this. No seats in the street-cars; the buffers are taken by storm, and the steps of the cars are always crowded. At the stopping places, more standing in line; the people wait with resignation.
e arrived at Kiev full of confidence and hope. They were preparing a great offensive for the summer, and we were impatient to participate in it. We were, unfortunately, very soon to lose our illusions, and to be dismayed at the fatal campaign carried on behind the lines by German agents. The Russians wanted peace at any price. They even dared to wish for German rule, in order to reestablish order and discipline, because they had reached the point of being afraid for their liberty. There was disorder everywhere, anarchy was increasing. The clear-sighted saw with dismay the dangerous slope down which Russia was allowing herself to glide. They hoped for an energetic man who would seize the reins of government, who would rally all the well-disposed. But the Russian has the indolence of Oriental peoples; he fully realized the danger and suffered from this state of affairs; but he did not act. Holidays are numerous in Russia. All work stops; newspapers do not appear; the factories are closed. They know nothing of the intensive production of our French war-plants. Another thing that surprised the stranger was the great liberty which Austrian prisoners of war enjoyed. Absolutely free, they already felt at home, as if in a conquered country. They were very good workers, and almost all of them had a trade. Some of them had started business on a large scale, and had made great profits. The tovarish worked, too. He did odd jobs, sold newspapers, tobacco, took his place in the file. Trade in a small way is preferable to war.
The first of May is, of course, a holiday. From early morning large crowds gathered in different parts of the town, concentrating in the Kreschiatik, the famous street of Kiev, where they passed in an immense procession. There was a profusion of red flags, and always the everlasting inscriptions: 'Long live the Revolution! Long live the International!' The black flags of the anarchists, yellow and blue flags of the Ukrainians. The three colors are definitively banished.
Naturally, strikes are common: the strike of the izvoschiks, the waiters in the cafes, who demand twenty-five per cent of the revenues, of the cooks who are unwilling to prepare more than one meal a day and claim free use of the drawing-room once a week, and, finally of the dvorniks, or janitors, who leave the houses without keepers. This people, so long oppressed, so little prepared for the revolution, would fain play the master. It was intoxicated with liberty, wanted to enjoy its new rights, and make the most of its power.
When at last all our matériel had arrived at Kiev, we left for the front, curious to study and see at work the revolutionary soldier of the fighting line. The man at the rear had given us a sad impression. Lazy, a straggler, undisciplined, tired of war, thinking of nothing else but the immediate distribution of the land, and refusing absolutely to go back to the front which he had deserted. What state of mind were we to find at the front, and was it not to be feared that this army without discipline would be incapable of any further serious effort? The soldiers themselves elected their officers, the salute had been abolished. In every company a committee of soldiers had been set up, which was to discuss and decide all questions: expediency of offensives, supplies, relations between the officers and their men. This was the work of Kerensky, that dangerous Utopian, who was perhaps sincere, but who did so much harm to his country by abolishing discipline in the army. He wanted to lower the prestige, of the officers, to reduce their privileges, which he considered contrary to the principles of equality. He sought to realize the dream of the armed nation, of troops fighting under leaders appointed by them and responsible to them, assisted by soldier-deputies who alone exercised the real command. The sequence of events has shown us, alas! what a serious mistake had been made, and that such troops, without discipline and without leader, are nothing else but an armed mob. The soldier was happy at last to be his own master, no more to be oppressed— and, it must be admitted—maltreated, as he was before the revolution. The officers dared not resist, and their share of the responsibility is great; because they were silent though they felt the menace and understood the danger, fearing, in their turn, these men whom formerly they were too much inclined to consider as mere animals.
The officers of the old regime, however, retained among themselves the old discipline. Never has an army been so well provided with munitions. The place of the offensive had been well chosen, the high command inspired confidence. Therefore the issue of the offensive depended entirely on the soldiers.
On the first of July, the Russians took the offensive. Everything had been done to insure success. The best regiments had been brought together and began the attack, which at first was quite successful; but the Germans soon rallied and attacked in their turn. The loyal Russian regiments had all been replaced by troops already corrupted. Some of them refused to march. The Germans pushed them back, and a general retreat followed. The Russian officers, recovering their courage, invited death in an effort to lead their men against the enemy; but their enthusiasm had gone. All was in vain. The offensive failed, the last loyal troops were demoralized, the last of the loyal officers killed. Therefore, when the enemy attacked, nothing could stop the frantic flight of the revolutionary troops.
We passed through Ezerjean, where the station, riddled with bullets, recalled the recent battles, the heroic time when the Russian army made itself master of the whole of Galicia. But the soldiers did not allow themselves to be touched by such reminders. The retreat from Galicia had begun. A panic ensued; infantry, artillery, soldiers of all arms, retreated in terrible disorder. All the villages that marked the old boundary were burning. The Germans advanced. Only the Battalions of Death, battalions of women or volunteers, went to the front. But the poor women were massacred, unable to carry the soldiers along with them. So the mob passed, plundering everything on their way. Also there were long columns of men with wounds in the left hand, almost all self-inflicted. The Cossacks attacked them savagely. They tore off the bandages, and it was seen that the majority had absolutely no wounds. Whereupon they were shot without pity.
Korniloff, the commander on the southwest front, tried to resist. He took it upon himself to reestablish the death-penalty, and had deserters shot. 'I am not commanding on a battlefield,' he declared in his orders of the day, 'but on a field of black shame and treason.' The Cossacks accomplished noteworthy deeds of arms in the rearguard. They maintained strict discipline. Alas! there was nothing to be done. At Czernovitz the panic was incredible, and pillaging was done on a large scale. Eight hundred thousand pairs of boots were burned when the army lacked shoes. German aeroplanes hovered over the city, throwing down proclamations forbidding the blowing up of the bridges. The mines were ready, but the orders were obeyed and the bridges remained intact. Artillery and munition also were abandoned.
The army was still fleeing when the Germans, considering their victory sufficient, stopped at the border of their own accord and established their new positions. After a few days, when the Russians were sure of the enemy's intentions, they came back and dug their trenches about six versts from the first German lines. The triumph of the German army was assured; Galicia reconquered, an immense war-booty, the ruin of the whole Russian army. From that day they understood the irreparable evil the revolution had done to the country. The revolutionary army, without a resolute commander, left to itself, anxious to enjoy its new rights, could not fight any more. It could no longer be counted as a serious force in the world struggle. Soon, moreover, Kerensky was to give it a last fatal blow as a result of the Korniloff episode. The obscure part which the minister played on this occasion is little known. On the tenth of September we heard at the front that Korniloff was coming at the head of seventy thousand men. This expedition filled the country with great hopes, the general being very popular. The blow had been prepared for a long while. In the cities there were numerous officers who were all devoted to the general, and who were only waiting for a signal agreed upon, to act. Kerensky at once appointed another generalissimo, and established at Pskov a new staff. Thus, as Korniloff retained Mohilev, there were two staffs, each giving orders, which added to the general confusion.
Almost all the commanders, and soon the new generalissimo himself joined Korniloff. The army marched on Petrograd. Thereupon Kerensky made himself supreme chief of the armies. An appeal was made to the soldiers in the trenches, to leave the front and hasten to the aid of Petrograd, threatened by the 'counter-revolutionary' army. But the end was near. When, a few days later, Korniloff arrived in sight of Petrograd, the two armies fraternized. After this, Kaledine withdrew to the Don, refusing to have his Cossacks killed for Russia. Kerensky had played an equivocal and as yet little known part in this affair. It is certain that the gallant Korniloff had served as scapegoat. Immediately after his arrest, severe measures were taken to destroy the power of the generals in command, and pass it over to the civil commissioners who were appointed as a result of this affair. The 'treacherous' officers were executed in a body. But the army lacked generals. Kerensky wished to reestablish order, as we see from orders published by him. It was now forbidden to kill officers. Later we heard of Korniloff's escape and his safe arrival on the Don.
Meanwhile, at Kamenetz-Podolsk, where we were then quartered, the balls went on. Twice a week the aides-de-camp of the governor general gave an evening party. Many officers and Sisters of Mercy were present. The balls were much frequented. Men came in crowds from the positions on the banks of the Dniester. Never was there more joyous holiday-making, never did the vodka flow as on the day of the capture of Riga. At dawn they were still dancing.
At Kiev likewise little thought was given to the war. The theatres were crowded with people. Yet how many symptoms there were of an impending storm! While I was making a short stay at the Holy City, they tried some Bolshevik soldiers who had deserted the army—of course before a civil tribunal. In the whole garrison not a soldier was to be found who would act as escort to these prisoners, nor an officer who could force them to do it. The governor general told me that the soldiers appeared only at meal-hours, and that it was impossible to make them do the slightest work. They dare not deal rigorously with them. Our prisoners, sure of being acquitted, went alone to the court. Nobody thought of running away. One day, however, it caused general surprise when one was missing at the call. But an hour later our prisoner arrived in a carriage; as he did not feel very well, he had calmly gone to consult a physician. It is useless to add that the soldiers were acquitted, and that the trial finished with a great celebration: parades, flags, music.
We were in the throes of a serious financial crisis. Money was totally lacking. In order to remedy this state of affairs, they issued worthless notes, the 'Kerensky' of twenty and forty roubles, without signatures and without numbers, looking very much like common tickets. Whoever chose could easily imitate them. The Germans overflowed the country with small notes of ten and five roubles manufactured in their country. They were easily identified, the numbers of series being slightly different. In spite of that, they circulated freely and were accepted everywhere. Counterfeit bills were, moreover, so numerous that no one paid much attention to them. The banks themselves gave them out, and nobody ever dreamed of refusing them. What an alarming superabundance of paper in circulation! Only the State Bank had a reserve in coin. Private banks were no longer allowed to have one.
At the front the situation was bad; men declared flatly that they would not spend another winter in the trenches. They tore the warm clothes that were distributed to them. Forage was lacking, horses died of starvation. They began to demobilize the older classes, who returned to their villages. A reign of terror began to rule in the country districts. On the third of November Austria proposed to the Allies; through the medium of Russia, to enter into negotiations for peace. This might mean the end of the war in a short time. But exactly two days after these proposals, on the fifth, the revolution broke out in Petrograd, which was to have such a tremendous influence on the future of Russia and the peace of the world. The Bolsheviki usurped power.
On the fifteenth, we heard at Kiev the first cannon-shot. The Bolsheviki, who up to that moment had been kept quiet through fear of the Cossacks and their terrible Nagaikas, had just made themselves masters of the Arsenal. From there they fired on the Libsky Quarter. The masquerade for the evening was, however, not countermanded, and from the hall, between two waltzes, one could hear the report of guns and the cries of the wounded. From the fortress, also in their power, they bombarded the house of the governor, where the French hospital had been installed. The shooting of the 75's, which the rioters used, was unfortunately very well handled, and the machine guns placed on the roof of the Palace were rapidly reduced to silence. But the hospital was struck by shells and the wounded had to be removed under fire. The troops opposed to the Bolsheviki were 'Junkers,' young warrant officers from sixteen to eighteen years old—among whom the machine guns caused attacks, of nerves—some battalions loyal to Kerensky, and the Poles. For three days they fought bravely and savagely. Retournées and dum-dum bullets were freely used. The little Cadets who were made prisoners were pitilessly shot. However, the reinforcements sent by Kerensky were approaching, and the Bolsheviki, feeling that their schemes were imperiled, accepted the intervention of the Ukrainians, who proposed to the combatants to cease fighting and to evacuate the city, taking it upon themselves to reestablish order. In fact, they actually created a militia, and after the departure of the belligerents, on the seventeenth, calm was quickly restored. Everywhere in Russia the Maximalists were triumphant. The Ukraine alone had resisted. The yellow and blue cockades, the escutcheon of Saint Gabriel had won the day. This victory aroused a great enthusiasm on the southwestern front. Two armies sent their congratulations and promise of support to Ukraina. What was this new force, which had kept the Bolsheviki at bay, and, by ruse, without using force, had taken the power into their hands, being the only ones capable of seizing the propitious moment?
The Ukraine, consisting of immense fertile plains, includes the governments of Kiev, Poltawa, Tchernigof, and Karkof. It includes the whole middle basin of the Dnieper. Poltawa is almost in the exact centre. Since the war began the separatist propaganda has been persistent. The campaign was supposed to be carried on by the Austrians; for the Great Russians would never have admitted the principle of autonomy of the Ukraine, and the Little Russians hardly gave it a thought. Moreover, their country has no language of its own, but a patois, consisting of a mixture of Russian and Polish. It has no literature, no history and a single poet, Chevtchenko. It is remarkable that this campaign that was destined to end with a revolt against Russia, took place so shortly before the revolution. We must see the work of Austria in this. Moreover, when the Ukraine asked the Allies for military, political, and economic aid, in order to continue the war, there were certain people who doubted their sincerity, knowing the Ukrainian to be very sly—the Norman of Russia—and feared that they were playing a double game. They thought that, while they were flattering us with illusions and promises, they would at the same time approach Austria.
We must do this justice to the clear-sighted Russians, that they have never considered this attitude of the Ukraine as sincere and serious, and that they have always predicted a check for us, if we persisted in favoring its policy. It was very hard to form an opinion, because we had to be a little distrustful of the selfish view of the Russians, who did not without vexation see this beautiful province slip out of their hands. A few days later the Ukraine was to organize herself as a Republic, and France sent to Kiev a military attaché, commissioner of the French Republic to the Ukrainian Republic.
The Little Russian costume became fashionable for women: red boots; short skirt, allowing the embroidery of the chemise to be seen; a pretty apron; jacket without sleeves. Around the neck large beads of many-colored glass, always in great numbers. The married women wear on their heads a kind of fichu arranged as a diadem, the unmarried girls a simple Ukrainian kerchief, the betrothed, flowers. They have an amusing custom: after the marriage celebration the whole procession goes to drive, adorned with broad red ribbons; even the horses are abundantly provided with them. That is a sign of the bride's virtue. If the contrary is the case, she has neither ribbons, nor music, not even a white veil, because the Pope refuses to bless the marriage.
The Little Russians are very superstitious. At midsummer, they light a large fire of ferns. The young people jump over the fire. Those who succeed in not touching it will marry within the year. If anybody puts it out, it is a sign of death. Everybody tells fortunes with cards, predicts what will happen in the future. On the eve of Saint Andrew, somebody places mysteriously under the bed a pond and a bridge (a saucer filled with water and a few pieces of wood). Without knowing it one sleeps 'on the bridge.' Then one may be sure that the dream of the night will come true. If one wanted to act according to the rules, one ought to spend the night on a bridge above a real pond and look at the water: there you would be able to read your whole future life.
In the country some of the old barbarian customs are still in force: the konokrades, or horse-thieves, are condemned to be quartered, or to be attached by a rope to a horse's tail and dragged until death follows. Religious sentiment is also very highly developed. On Saturday evening and the eve of religious fêtes, nobody in the country is allowed to go out after five o'clock. In the cities there are no performances at the theatres. As in Russia, there are a number of chapels, in front of which the people uncover themselves, and the passers-by always make the sign of the cross. In all rooms of an apartment, in the halls of the restaurants, in the play-houses, in the stores, the night-light burns close to the icon. The peasants go in large crowds to the Convent of Lavra. Sometimes these pilgrims come from far away, and always on foot, carrying their offerings. One can see old women, in long rows, barefooted, carrying their bundles on their backs, enter the sacred place and prostrate themselves in the dust to pray. On All Souls' Day, it is a duty to feed the souls of the dead. Nobody would dare to fail of keeping this pious custom, for fear of offending the dead.
Alas! the revolution has tended to abolish these beautiful ideas of the past. The players of the goussla, a sort of viol, are recruited only among the blind; they wander over the country, telling fortunes. They are much loved and respected, being looked upon as real saints. The national dance is the quadrel. Though very tired, good dancers can dance it to the sound of the droumlas for five hours at a stretch.
A breath of patriotism seemed to have blown upon the troops. Therefore the government recalled the Ukrainians from the front in order to organize armies which were entirely national. This step laid upon its authors a heavy responsibility in the history of the war; for in this way the signal was given for the breaking-up of the front, which two months later was to become complete.
In the meantime the cause of the Bolsheviki made great progress. One part of the army had been won over. But Lenin and Trotzky lacked a commander-in-chief in their pay. And so, at the end of November, the Praporchik (Adjutant) Krylenko was appointed generalissimo. A staff was created in Minsk. The whole of the Bolsheviki army recognized Krylenko as their chief. But a large part of the troops remained loyal to Doukhonine. Once more there were two headquarters! Krylenko, who was sent to the Germans with a flag of truce, tried to enter into peace negotiations with them. The Germans, however, refused to talk, so long as there were two staffs. The order of the Germans was explicit, and like a good vassal Krylenko carried it out faithfully. His troops carried Mohilev by storm. Acts of incredible savagery were committed. Doukhonine, the commander-in-chief, was assassinated, Krylenko remained master of the situation. The armies true to the general were deprived of supplies. Hunger made them surrender. A few days later, on the fifteenth of December, the armistice was signed. The foreign missions which had become involved in the row, demanded hospitality of the Ukraine. They arrived at Kiev by special train, and were received officially by the troops and the Ukrainian government.
After the signing of the armistice, there was a general exodus from the front to the interior. All matériel was abandoned. Exchanges were made on a large scale; the Germans asked for soap and candles; the Russians for alcohol and tobacco. Then the Central Rada of Kiev published a delightful manifesto, stating, that in the last month the Bolshevik government had shown itself incapable of ruling; that everywhere it had brought disorganization, anarchy, retirement from the front; that, finally, it had shamelessly signed the armistice. The Ukraine refused to take part in such treachery against the Allies. From that time on she took in hand the management of the railroads, mails, telegraphs, and the command of her army. Cherbatchef alone commanded on the Ukrainian-Rumanian front, and continued the war. Finally she demanded the recall of all the Bolsheviki from the territory of the Republic.
The tone was bold, but it lacked sincerity. Naturally these claims were not admitted by Trotzky and Lenin, and the Ukrainian-Bolshevik war was declared. In order to resist efficiently, the Ukraine had her hands full. There was a great deal of talk about her armies, but in reality, they did not exist. The eighth army, for instance, numbered at this time, of an effective force of seven hundred and fifty thousand men, five hundred and fifty thousand deserters; and all the rest in proportion. They undertook, however, to organize something, but attempted nothing serious. The only thing that continued to be normal was the matter of supplies. We were in want of nothing at the time when Russia began to feel the cessation of importations from the Ukraine. Flour began to be short in Moscow and Petrograd, and life there began to be extravagantly dear.
A Year in the Ukraine (II)
By René d'Aux
[The Living Age, December 7, 1918; from La Revue Hebdomadaire]
While in Ukraina they did a great deal of talking without working, the Bolsheviki knew how to make the best use of their time. From all sides the armies invaded the country, Trotzky made speeches and Krylenko pursued his work of destruction. A decree was published, which abolished all officers. In future they were to receive, seven rubles, fifty a month. Only the commanders-in-chief, who might be simple soldiers were to have as much as one hundred rubles.
The praporchik worked energetically upon a plan for general demobilization, and the mobilization of purely Bolshevik soldiers and the Red Guard, in order to pursue the war against capitalism. Under the management of the comrade commanders, the guards practised firing with machine guns, drilled, were trained in marching, and when their preparation was judged to be sufficient they were sent to reinforce the troops fighting in Ukrania, or struggling against Khaledine's Cossacks on the Don. 'On the Don'—words of hope so often heard, words of illusion and mystery, too, because little was known of what was being plotted at Novocherkask. For a moment one might have thought that the Cossacks, the only real and organized force in Russia, would leave the Don, recruit the numerous well-disposed men, hold out their hand to Ukraina, which, only born yesterday, already felt the end to be near. With a little energy the Cossacks might have conquered Russia. Perhaps they thought that they had done enough, or did they only want to defend their borders against the threatening flood of Bolshevism? Or was it in this case again the same incapacity for organization, because the attempt at resistance, supported by a military government of Cossacks, and by the army of officers recruited by Alexeiev seemed to have failed miserably. Khaledine, in despair, committed suicide shortly afterwards.
The great misfortune of Russia has been the total lack of energetic men and organizers, capable of concentrating the forces on which they could rely and the loyal men on whom they could depend. Poles, Czechs, Cossacks, soldiers of all arms, shed tears over the death of their Little Father. A counter-revolutionary movement at this time would infallibly have succeeded, and a Tsar have been welcomed. Because the Russian, who is an excellent soldier, is in reality a child, and allows himself to be led wherever one chooses as soon as he feels an intelligence and a force superior to his own: he listens and he believes. 'With my generals and the Russian soldiers,' said Germany, 'I could conquer the world.'
During all this time Trotzky talked. It was on the 24th of December, on a calm, snowy night, when Trotzky with the Russian delegation passed through the trenches and arrived at Dvinsk. On the 25th he was at Brest-Litovsk, and began peace negotiations. The delegation was harshly treated by the Germans. 'We are going to speak in the name of our august Emperor—rise!' And all the Bolsheviki rose. Jokes were made about their elegant appearance, the good cut of their clothes.
In the meantime a German delegation had arrived at Petrograd, and they felt absolutely at home in the Russian capital. When, after the capture of Riga, they feared for Petrograd, there were many who thought that Germany would not undertake this campaign, the capital being sufficiently Germanized. It is the cancer of Russia, and in operating it, did not the Germans risk a cure? The commissary Trotzky did all in his power to make the stay of the Germans in Petrograd an agreeable one. Stopping at a comfortable hotel, they were received as friends. Their commercial travelers who had come with them in large numbers, owing to the permits for transit, which had been liberally granted, introduced their goods and received orders. A newspaper had been founded written in German. An authorization was given to arm the prisoners of war. On the 1st of January the Germans gave an official dinner to the Russian ministers. The communications with Germany had been taken up again, and the trains from Petrograd to Riga were running regularly.
In Ukraina, the Bolsheviki advanced. Kharkof fell into their hands, then Poltawa—the circle around Kiev was being contracted. The Bolsheviki rapidly reestablished order in the conquered cities. They seemed to be organized and disciplined. Their army had become a force.
On the 17th of January, it was feared that trouble would break out in Kiev. The Bolsheviki who had overrun the city began to get uneasy. They then had recourse to the wine glass to prevent the insurrection. They succeeded in putting off the inevitable catastrophe; but the end was drawing near.
The few troops who had remained at the front covered themselves with shame by selling armaments and materials. Machine guns were sold for three hundred rubles, battery horses for twenty-five. An airplane was exchanged for two bottles of alcohol. There were at the front people who carried about large sums obtained from pillage. At Poskouroff, a tovarish bought goods for a hundred-odd rubles. He gave a five-hundred ruble bill and generously refused the change. Another one was arrested. Among the objects stolen, they found seventy-five thousand rubles on his person.
And the exodus from the front continued. The Germans were awaiting without doubt the favorable moment to break the armistice, to advance a few versts, and gather up the Russian artillery, which was entirely immobilized and powerless, without horses and abandoned by its men. In the country districts there was no end of plundering. All the estates were pitilessly sacked, The unhappy owners escaped, ruined, when they were not assassinated by the savage mobs of peasants. At the estate of the Countess G——, although she was much loved, the women whom she had particularly helped and cared for were the first and the most ferocious on the scent. Libraries, unique collections were burned. In the villages of the government of Kiev, women could be seen, dressed in long coats cut from the Gobelin tapestries, stolen from a neighboring chateau.
Everywhere murder, fire, destruction. It was perhaps the most atrocious page and the least known in the history of the Russian Revolution—this orgy of brutality and savagery in the country districts. They even wreaked their fury on the animals, cutting off ears and tails of the horses, which they could not take with them. Death was not respected. Three times in succession, the coffin of an assassinated landowner, whom it was desired to bury, was stolen; and so was the horse that was to take the body away. Finally, the poor fellow was abandoned and thrown into a ditch. At the sugar refineries of Yaropovitch, the workmen drove the manager away and put a former convict in his place. Armed mobs attacked the terrified inhabitants every night.
And the Bolsheviki approached. There were, however, in Kiev more than twenty thousand officers in hiding. Among them there were some energetic men. Why did they not attempt something? Since the revolution about thirty thousand officers have been killed. They preferred to be assassinated rather than to attempt a movement which might have saved their country. Among them there were brave men. What, then, could be their reason for not acting? I know an officer who, before the revolution, performed brilliant deeds. They won for him the white Saint George, the most highly prized of Russian decorations. Very recently, he carried out another courageous and delicate mission, where he proved that he did not fear death. And yet this officer, hiding with four friends, was one day discovered by three Bolsheviki. They shouted to him to come out. The unhappy officer obeyed, took three steps, and fell to the ground, struck by a revolver bullet. Two others shared his fate. Why were the last two not assassinated? That is what they never understood. Here then were five men, who had proved their courage on the battle-field, and yet, although armed, they allowed themselves to be terrorized by three cowardly bandits. What force is it which overpowers the will and reduces to naught the energy of the bravest? This is, evidently, a very curious problem.
In the streets and restaurants of Kiev we witnessed strange scenes. Soldiers, noticing that some of the officers were still wearing pagones (epaulets showing their rank) tore them off. And none of them resisted. Rarely—but it did sometimes happen—an officer pulled out his revolver, and blew out the brains of the tovarish, who seemed inclined to touch him. If only all had acted this way!
Unfortunately, the bread lines were growing longer and longer. The poor people awaited their turn, in the cold and the snow, sometimes till late at night; and even then they often were not served.
On the 26th of January Ukraina signed The Universal, where she at last disclosed her policy. She openly sided with Austria, and asked for peace. In fact, nothing else remained for her to do. Beaten by the Bolsheviki, she felt the end drawing near. The only thing that could save her was peace with Austria. Perhaps the Allies had made an irreparable mistake in not foreseeing this possible solution. And instead of driving Ukraina to war, would it not have been better to lead her to peace, if at this price even Austria and Turkey might have been bought, who were so near talking of peace? Now the double game of the Ukraine could clearly be seen. We had long ago divined, that she did not really want to fight, but that she was seeking a reconciliation with Austria. While she was assuring us of her warlike intentions, did she not send her delegates to Brest? They had made a mistake in believing that they were creating a nucleus of resistance at Kiev. Moreover, if there had been any menace in her action, the Germans would not have permitted it; but breaking the armistice, they would have rushed to Kiev, which nobody was defending at the time.
The manifesto showed the treachery of the Russian armies—the Ukrainian country districts sacked, the estates plundered, so that it was absolutely impossible to continue the war. It ended with an appeal to Austria. Did Germany, disturbed perhaps by the Ukrainian rapprochement, hurl her faithful Bolshevik soldiers against the Ukraine, in order to prevent this movement and to check Austria's inclination toward peace? These Red Guards, who declared a Holy War on Germany, crying out against the Ukrainian treachery—were they not then and always obeying orders from Berlin? At least, we may be permitted to suppose so. Meanwhile, the roads to Austria were open. The prisoners returned home. From Kiev it is easy to go to Austria by way of Radziwill and Brody. The five versts which separate the Russian and Austrian frontier stations can be traversed in a carriage. It was said that things in Austria were in bad condition, and that a serious revolution had broken out in Prague. Contagion certainly is a dangerous thing, and the Austro-German troops who have remained inactive on this front, who have seen the Soviets at work and so often have fraternized with them, will not recover their former qualities on the western front.
Meanwhile Rumania, who had openly sided against the Bolsheviki, seized Kichenev. At Odessa, Rumanians were arrested. We were cut off from the French missions in Rumania, and almost without news, as our telegrams were intercepted.
On the 28th of January, Loubna, on the Poltawa road, was taken by the Bolsheviki. The authorities surrendered without resistance. It was here that we had all our aviation matériel. The young, energetic tovarish, who was in command, questioned Lachmann, commanding the French detachment, and requisitioned his matériel. 'If I choose, I will take it all by force!' said Lachmann. His attention was called to our being protected by the French flag. 'That is none of my business,' he said, 'I have to take all the matériel I find in Russia.' There was nothing else to be done than to bow to superior forces, and perfect order and discipline.
The next day the Bolsheviki of Kiev, hearing of the approach of their comrades, made themselves masters of the Arsenal, which contained machine guns, artillery, and munitions, without striking a blow. The fighting went on desperately all night and the next day. On the 31st they took possession of Podol, the low quarter of the city, on the banks of the Dnieper. At the telegraph office the struggle was of unheard of violence. We had great trouble to get to the office daily. Commandant J—— of the French military mission, was killed by a bullet from a machine gun. The aspect of the streets was sinister. Trenches, barricades, machine guns in the squares. Traffic was completely interrupted, the electric wire cut off.
On the 2d of February, the fighting was increased in intensity. Armored Ukrainian trains fired unceasingly on the streets occupied by the Bolsheviki. If anyone ventured to go out, he often had to lie down, and wait for the squalls to subside, so thick were the bullets falling, at a man's height, making the window panes fly in splinters and literally riddling the walls. Peaceful inhabitants thus found death in their own homes.
In the city, there was no bread after the battle began. Happy the cautious ones who had made some provision of flour and water.
Whoever wanted to could enlist in the Red Guard. All that was necessary was to enter one's name, and a gun was given one. Accordingly one saw sinister armed mobs, of alarming appearance, pass through the streets. On the 3d of February the fighting was very violent, and as the Bolshevik investing troops had not yet reached Kiev, the Ukrainians got the upper hand. The last Guards were shot. The Arsenal surrendered, and they found that it was only a handful of men who had led the riot. The victorious Ukrainians, unconcerned about the morrow, celebrated their ephemeral victory. In the city, there was a great review of the victorious troops, headed by music. And while this went on, the regular Bolshevik troops were surrounding the city. Large forces arrived on armored trains. Outside, Odessa fell into their hands after a bombardment of three days. There too the blood was flowing. A new minister was appointed, who asked Austria for immediate aid. But Ukraina no longer existed. Only her heart was still beating, but very faintly.
On the 4th of February, began the systematic attack on the city. Two trains incessantly bombarded the Libsky, the fashionable quarter of Kiev. The Bolsheviki advanced with the machine guns, keeping in constant touch with the trains. For three days, the bombardment was violent. In the night I counted an average of eight shots a minute. Only the menacing light of the fires illuminated the city. The nine-story house of President Grouchevsky was on fire, having been specially aimed at. In that dark night, amid the incessant roaring of the cannon, what sad thoughts did we Frenchmen have, and how heavily oppressed were our hearts! brothers killing each other with no knowledge as to why they were fighting! How well might the tenacity with which the two camps fought against each other, the incontestable deeds of bravery, have been employed against the Germans!
On the 7th, walking up toward the office, the shells fell thick. Our windows had been smashed to splinters; a shell at full speed traversed the drawing-room. Everywhere the Bolsheviki were advancing. The end was near. On the next day, in fact, the conquerors found the city abandoned by the Ukrainians, who had retreated to Berditcheff and Jitomir, the only corner that was still holding out.
Who was it, who had led this brilliant attack? Colonel Mouraviof, who had already made himself illustrious by his campaigns of Petrograd and Moscow. He was now commander-in-chief of the revolutionary troops. Young, clever, but hard and cruel he had all the Ukrainian or Polish officers mercilessly shot. These latter had taken possession of the headquarters at Mogilew, and hurried to deliver Kiev. The colonel, a former policeman of dubious character, treated as his equals the generals in command of the missions, and spoke as a conqueror to the foreign consuls. He was the powerful man of the day, the uncontested master of the city. His fortune was large, owing to the contributions which, he extracted from the inhabitants. A rich jeweler, Marchak, had to pay 180,0000 rubles. Halperine, a wealthy refiner, 300,000, Radziwill, 100,000. The city itself had to pay 10,000,000 within three days. But the State Bank had only 225,000 rubles in cash. The principal stockholders and the largest clients had therefore to pay by checks, which added to their personal taxes. In the evening, the colonel, comfortably installed in the best hotel, drank hard with his staff. Order was very quickly restored in the city, but a reign of terror began.
The execrable tribunal had established itself in the old imperial palace. One hall contained the prisoners—poor officers, who had been found guilty of carrying Ukrainian passports. They were promptly tried. All defense was useless. One single penalty: death. The condemned were undressed; they were clothed in soldiers' coats, and in front of the castle, they were shot with machine guns. That same morning, from the window of the office, I saw two generals and about twenty officers shot within half an hour. Automobile trucks carried the dead away—all shot in the head. Two thousand three hundred death sentences had been pronounced by the dark-browed court. In order to prevent the massacre of their countrymen, the Poles declared themselves neutral, and gave up the struggle. The colonel was not very friendly. He pretended that we were not strictly neutral, and ordered, above all, that not one of us be allowed to stir. Requisitions were made wholesale. They began anew to search for the officers, who were still in hiding; all arms were seized. Houses were broken open; windows smashed everywhere; shop fronts riddled with bullets; remains of fires; all telegraph and tramway wires hanging mournfully down, and giving the street an aspect of gloom. Normal life began again very slowly; the stores hardly dared to reopen; many, indeed, had been plundered. It began to be very hard to get supplies; the Bolsheviki having laid a tax on provisions, the peasants refused to come to town. No butter was to be found; meat was scarce. The Bolsheviki wanted to apply their motto, 'For the poor people'; whereas that of the Ukraine, they say, is 'For the masters and the bourgeois.'
On both sides there had been good fighting. The Ukrainians lacked method and organization; their enemies, on the contrary, employed German methods. Numberless atrocities were committed. The archbishop of the city, a respectable old man, was robbed and assassinated. Stokowski, a famous ballad-writer, was shot on account of a beautiful patriotic poem which I had heard him recite the eve of the battle. Those who praised the worst kind of politics were not disturbed. In fact there were many officers who wished to see Russia fall as low as possible, see the Bolsheviki give themselves up to the worst excesses, so that the people finally, in disgust, would be aroused and replace on the throne the fallen Emperor. Alas, Russia has fallen, and the people have done nothing to prevent it.
The thirst for vengeance and the hatred of Mouraviof had abated. Two days after the victory, the people's deputies were elected: all workingmen and peasants. The colonel declared that he fought only against capitalism, and that he recognized 'The Republic of Ukrainian Workmen, Laborers, and Peasants.' 'In the name of the revolutionary armies,' he exclaimed, 'I greet the proletarians of Kiev, who have been so cruelly abused by the hirelings in the pay of the capitalists and of the bourgeois Rada. I am sorry I delayed a few days, and that I was not able to save the lives of hundreds of comrades, pierced by the bayonets of the bourgeois armies! Comrades! For two months we have been advancing in this country with fire and sword, and we are establishing the power of the Soviets. Our adversaries accuse us of not admitting the principle of autonomy. I shall not try to exonerate ourselves. The Ukrainian workmen know that it is a shameful lie and calumny. We always show ourselves as the champions of the right of the people. It is a world-contest that we are carrying on, and everywhere we have to crush the capitalists. Proletarians of Kiev! Organize and arm yourselves to the teeth! We have brought you cannons, machine guns, rifles, and dynamite. Take the arms. I do not agree that any soldier can be neutral when your brothers are being shot, and when their blood is flowing in torrents. I demand that those who are still hesitating tell me this evening to which party they decide to belong. There may be riots and mistakes. Perhaps the innocent will suffer. Today when the cannon in Kiev have fallen silent, we still remember the thousands of our brothers who have recently been shot by the armies of the Rada. When this news came to us, our soldiers wept. Would I be right, in spite of my authority over the revolutionary armies, to keep back the sailors in their outburst of hatred and revenge? No! Comrades, hasten to become organized, and let us lead the world-contest against the worst enemy of the revolution: the bourgeoisie!'
These were the words of Mouraviof after the taking of Kiev. The peaceful bourgeois did not hear them without terror! The Jews and Germans, rule as masters. The director of aviation, Margolis, is a German pilot; the commandant of Kiev, a sailor. In the streets the ill-omened heads of sailors and Sisters of Charity—terrible and awe-inspiring apparitions. They are typical, these Sisters, sometimes in breeches, a revolver in belt, which some of them used to kill the wounded, others to fire during battle. One day when, from a cab, I observed with horror a splendid limousine crowded with sailors and Sisters, my worthy driver turned and said, 'I too despise them! I am an Austrian prisoner of war!'
A few days after the last battles, an imposing funeral was held for the Bolsheviki. Four hundred and fifty bodies in black coffins, followed by an immense cortege headed by red and black flags. Not a priest. Many empty coffins followed, according to orthodox custom. The poor mothers kissed the dear faces of their dead, and knocked their heads against the coffins.
The banks were still closed; there was no money in Kiev. Ukrainian money had been suppressed. One could change one hundred carbovantzis if one could prove that the money had been earned by work, not by speculation!
The 1st of February the armistice was broken, at a time when demobilization had everywhere been finished. Russia was betrayed. Krylenko might be proud of his work; treason was complete; Germans and Austrians advanced without fighting, to occupy the country. Mouraviof left for Bessarabia, to fight against the Rumanians. It was with joy that the Austrians were expected in Ukraine; life had become abnormal, commerce impossible, disorder immense. The banks opened again, but did not pay more than 300 rubles a month. De Smolny and Trotzky issued a proclamation, saying that they counted on the German proletariat to keep the imperial armies from invading Russia. What a sorry comedy! Naturally the German proletariat was careful not to hinder the designs of their august Emperor, and everywhere the enemy advanced, requiring the peasants to give them about 240 kilometres in the hectare. In this way the Austro-Germans had assured their supplies.
The Austrians occupied Rovno. They were received as rescuers. The day after the occupation, the trains were running between Kiev and Rovno. They would soon be in the capital, where they were expected with impatience; for then terror would cease, quiet would soon be restored, and at last normal life would return. In silence the Bolsheviki evacuated the town, while they denied the Austrian advance in their papers. It was time for us to think of our departure. The situation was beginning to be difficult. All the Soviets and staffs had left. Not the least authority survived. Order was more or less maintained by the Red Guard; but it was at the mercy of numerous mobs of plundering sailors. Panic set in. People were fleeing. In fact, everything was to be feared before the arrival of the Austrians. Arrests and shooting began again, more terrible and more arbitrary than ever. Now it was simply a matter of personal vengeance: officers recognized by their soldiers and shot for this sole reason. The sailors became more and more daring and ceased to respect foreigners. Rumanians were arrested. In the middle of the street, our automobile, which had stopped in front of the office, was taken by assault by three armed sailors. We protested and showed our permit, signed by the existing authorities. The brutes spat on the paper, tore it, and disappeared with the automobile. The terror of the inhabitants was great. There was a general exodus of foreigners toward Moscow.
On the 19th we left Kiev. Thanks to the rubles, which were liberally and cleverly distributed, we succeeded in getting a good train, and we soon reached Moscow. The Commissioner of the Republic was with us and the next day the consul emigrated in his turn. Shortly afterwards we heard of the taking of Kiev, and soon of that of Odessa. What had become of the Czechs, of whom there were about 30,000 and who tried to escape? For them it was a question of life and death. Poor people, deserters from the Austrian army, they had come to Russia to fight, and now they were suspected and repulsed by all! They implored us to take them with us to France, and showed a sincere desire to fight on our side.
It was with joy that we were returning to France, but this feeling of joy was mingled with sadness to leave beautiful Russia, the Russian people—the real people—in the hands of the Germans. For these ill-omened mobs, these traitors, they are not Russia. At my departure from the Ukraine, I saw some of our Russian friends cry with shame and despair, because they were aware of the ignominy of their present masters. Some of their qualities are to blame for their downfall. Nonchalance and oriental fatalism; their peasants, who are too good, too simple-minded, also too credulous, whom men without honor, bought by the enemy, have intoxicated with promises and unscrupulously led to the brink of the abyss. It is a great responsibility of the old regime to have favored ignorance, to have prevented development and instruction.
There is also the responsibility of the Allies. They did not foresee the seriousness of the German campaign. What have we done to maintain our influence? Our diplomacy—has it nothing with which to reproach itself? Before judging the Russians too severely, do we know who drove them to the revolution?
Who favored this ill-fated step? Who prepared its execution? Who applauded it in our parliaments?
In closing, I quote the letter which the French commissioner sent us before leaving. He too understood the Russian people.
Moscow, March 3, 1918.
At the moment when we are about to leave Russia to return to France, I consider it my duty to appeal to all and point out to them a real danger for our country, namely, 'pessimism' and the spread of false news.
We must never conceal truth, but more than that, we must discriminate between truth and error, I have known Russia for a long time. Moreover, for fifteen months I have lived in contact with all social classes. At the front, I have lived the life of the trenches with the soldiers; in the villages I have lived the life of the peasants; in the cities I have lived the life of the wealthy classes. Finally, as commissioner of the French Republic in the Ukraine, I have found my way into the Socialist centres, and have had relations with, the Bolsheviki. Therefore I have a right to consider myself a good judge on the Russian question. Let those who have only seen one part of this Russian society which includes so many parts, beware of their judgment. A Russian soldier is not a peasant, a bourgeois is not a noble, a Jew is not a Christian, an Orthodox is not a Catholic, a Monarchist is not a Socialist. This being said, here is what I think: Russia is passing through one of the most violent crises that a people may traverse. The former society, which took the form of the Empire and of which centralization was the keynote, has fallen into anarchy, in the true sense of the word. Nobody leads or commands. Therefore there is no society; there are men placed side by side. The Russian is a dreamer so far as actualities are concerned; he does not hate disorder. We have seen sensualists without patriotism, deprived of what we call national honor. We have seen masses of men, savage mobs—really savage; we have seen soldiers flee after killing their officers; we have seen the dead being insulted. All the horrors which one can imagine, we have seen; but that is not Russia. That is the letting loose of a rough mob, who, following some ideological and demagogic leaders, have broken the bulwarks which civilization, with great labor, had set up against human savagery.
Russia is an immense country, of incomparable wealth; her people are kindly and obliging. It is an uncultured country, but interesting to know. Patriotism has perished suddenly, it seems, like all that which formed the vast structure, on whose summit stood the Tsar. But at heart the Russian loves his country, her traditions, her icons, and her izbas, her churches and her memories. These people who are fleeing, I have seen them fight as well as the best among us; these anti-Tsarites, these anti-religious I have heard sing with all their heart the Bojé Czare Chranie; I have seen them make the sign of the cross with genuine devotion.
I know that there are many Russians who are suffering from the worst of all sufferings—shame; who love their country, who have energy, who are ready for a supreme sacrifice. A wave of folly, slackness, has loosened everything, sweeping everything away. But there are men, there are women who have survived. There are some left, who will not perish, who do not want Russia to die, who do not want, her to be dishonored. I could quote to you people by the hundred of all classes who have come to me, imploring me not to believe they were traitors of honor. Before returning to France, get rid of your disgust; cast away all that weighs heavily upon you. But do not spread bad news. Believe that the power of good will get the better of the power of evil. Do not curse this soil that we are leaving, it would be an unseemly action. It would not be worthy of a Frenchman.…
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald