from 'The War Illustrated', 8th February, 1919
'Russia, the Unexplainable'
by Hamilton Fyfe

After the Russian Revolution

photos by Donald Thomspon - from 'Leslie's magazine


Here we are at the last number of 'the War Illustrated'. What changes in the world since it began! We look back and trace the course of events with aching but thankful hearts.

We can see much clearly now that was obscure while events were unrolling themselves; but there is one country which is just as dark and unintelligible now as it was all through the war. In the lump we know as little about the Russian people as we did in those early days, when we talked hopefully of what the "Steam-roller" would do, and when the French newspapers anticipated the moment, only a few weeks distant (they felt sure), when "the Cossacks would be thundering at the gates of Berlin."

From the start no one has known anything about realities in Russia—not even the Russians themselves. Mystery was the atmosphere which was cultivated by the corrupt and incompetent officials who steered the country on to the rocks. They were so mysterious that they did not know themselves how matters stood.

When I got out to Petrograd, in October, 1914, almost everyone believed General Sukhomlinoff to be a great "organiser of victory." I believe he shared that opinion himself. Yet we know now that the Army was utterly unprepared for war.

Some Mistaken Views

At the trial of Sukhomlinoff it was made clear that the scarcity of shells and rifles became disastrously apparent quite early in the war. Yet, when Gutchkoff, the able man of business, who might have saved Russia front the consequences of bureaucracy, came back from a visit to the front, boiling over with indignation and very seriously alarmed, a high official to whom he went said to him, "What can be done? The Tsar believes in Sukhomlinoff and will not hear a word against him."

You ask, naturally, "Could no one tell the Tsar the truth?" Gutchkoff could not, because the Tsar did not like him. Goremykin, the Prime Minister, could not. "I often made up my mind to do it," he said, "but I was so fond of him."

M. Sazonoff, who is very anxious now for France and Britain and the United States to "occupy" Russia and "restore order," might have used his position as Foreign Minister to prevent his country from falling into disorder. Why did he do nothing ? Because he was steeped in the tradition of officialism.

Recollect, while the rot in Russia was spreading, as decay spreads in a late year, what British public men were saying about the Russian people. "The more we know about them," declared Sir Edward Grey, "the more we admire them." The truth was, that the more we in Russia got to know of them, the less we trusted or respected them!

I came home for a week in January, 1916, to warn the great ones that nothing more should be expected from Russia. "Give up the idea that we can count upon a great blow being struck by the Tsar's armies," I said. I was called a pessimist for my pains.

"It was not only the vast expanse of Russia which made her defeat unthinkable," said the Bishop of London, "it was also the deep religious feeling of the Russian nation." Lord Bryce took the same line. So did Dr. Clifford. Blind leaders of the blind! They knew nothing whatever about the religion of the Russian nation. They took my friend Stephen Graham's view of it. A delightfully picturesque writer is he, but no psychologist. He saw what he wanted to see; he invented a Russian peasant soul which pleased the innocent readers of his books. We have seen since what the "deep, religious feeling" of Russia amounted to.

Blind Leaders of the Blind

All the time there have been voices telling the world about Russia, and talking nonsense, imaginative, ignorant rubbish. Many of these voices are now Russian, and thereby the world is the worse deluded, for it thinks—"surely they must know their own country-folk." But I say again, the Russians do not know their own character.

There is a gulf fixed between the Intelligentsia and the mass of the people, which very few have bridged. The greatest Russian writer, Tchekhoff—yes, greater than Tolstoy or Dostoieffski—did understand the Russian mind. He put every class into the eleven volumes of his inimitable -stories, and if you have read as many of these as I have, I think you will come to exactly the same conclusion—that Russia has got to be worse before she gets better. Interference, in my opinion, can only make confusion worse confounded.

Look at the state of the country now. There are, so far as we can tell, in the absence of news to be relied upon, at least eleven different Governments, which would not, by the way, be too many for nearly two hundred million people if they were suitably spaced out and could agree to leave each other alone. Unfortunately, they are almost all of them struggling to get more authority or more territory for the benefit, not of the people—oh, dear no!—for the benefit of the officials or for the sake of forcing into practice the ideas of doctrinaire reformers.

Russia's Eleven Governments

The latter aim is the aim of Lenin. His government, known as the Soviet or Bolshevist Government, is reckoned to have imposed itself upon some fifty millions, who appear to have accepted it. Next there is the Ukraine Republic in the South; that has twenty millions. Russian Poland includes twelve and a half millions.

Then comes Siberia, with ten millions, over whom Admiral Koltchak has ruled since he violently deprived the earlier Republican Directory of its functions and put the chief man of it in prison. This act—for which the appropriate commonplace epithet is, I think, "high- handed"—was resented by the Czecho-Slovaks, who had up to then been doing most of the fighting for the Siberian administration.

Finland is a separate State now, and the Don Cossacks with the Northern Caucasus have a Government of their own (nine mllions) under Generals Krasnoff and Denikin. There are a million and a half Letts in the Lettish Republic, and an equal number of Lithuanians in the new State of Lithuania. Half a million Esthonians in the same region, the Baltic Provinces, have set up on their own. Over half a million people in Manchuria a gentleman called Semenoff rules. It was either he or Krasnoff—I find them so confusing—who threatened that, if he had any trouble with the population under him, he would let loose thousands of poison-gas balloons and asphyxiate everybody! We support both these worthies.

I have not exhausted the list of different Governments in Russia, but I have exhausted my patience, and I dare say yours. The whole problem is simply a tangle of inextricable threads. It is like a skein of wool which the kitten has pulled off the table and played with. That the French, British, and American Governments can straighten it up seems to me highly improbable, to say the least of it. The Russians who urge this idea are either ignorant about their own country, or else, like the French émigrés who egged on Britain and Austria against the French Republic in 1791, they are eager for revenge upon those who have deprived them of their possessions and their comfortable jobs.


photos by Donald Thomspon - from 'Leslie's magazine


New Tyranny for Old

Don't suppose that I am pleading for the Bolshevists. Not at all. The Bolshevists, in the first place, do not seem to need any advocates. They are going strong, and I am informed that Mr. Lockhart, who was our representative in Russia during last year, gives it as his opinion that their administration is the best Russia ever had, which is not, by the way, high praise.

In the second place, I dislike Bolshevist tyranny just as heartily as I dislike all other varieties of tyranny. When they, suppressed the Constituent Assembly elected by the Russian people for the purpose of creating a new system of government, they behaved just as the Tsar and the bureaucrats used to behave under the old system.

Their atrocities, too, are deplorable, though these were provoked by attempts to overthrow them, and in these circumstances they acted as all Governments act when their authority is challenged.

When men are afraid they don't stop to think what it would be best to do upon the ideal plane. They take hold of the weapons nearest to hand and use them. When British troops invaded their country the Bolshevists seized British subjects just as we seized German subjects when Germany provoked war. They treated our poor fellow-citizens barbarously; but then Russia is a barbarous land; or, rather, it is a land peopled by men and women who are sometimes barbarians and sometimes the most kindly and delightful of human beings. That is as near as we can get to understanding them, and the only thing to do with such people is to leave them alone. Let them learn by experience, and then some day they may get right.

I leave out the claims of the Russian bondholders; you notice I do not think the nations would agree to go to war in order to satisfy their claims. And I hav6| some right to speak on this, for I am a bondholder myself. Russia owes me, fifteen thousand roubles, or did owe me until I wrote that sum off as a bad debt.

God forbid that men's lives should be lost for the advantage of my bank account!


photos by Donald Thomspon - from 'Leslie's magazine


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