From President to Prison/Chapter 11
THE LIGHTNING IN THE CLOUDS
SOON I was on my way down the Sungari to Harbin, with a detailed report of our findings and with a bad leg and foot, which grew more and more painful every day. When we reached town, I at once presented my report on the coal and returned home to go to bed, having in place of hunghutzes, Georgians, geese and guns nothing more exciting than the daily visit of my doctor, who only shook his head and repeated critically and with aggravating persistence:
"You are a madman, a real madman! With such a joint you ought to lie in bed for at least three months and then walk for six months with the aid of a cane, instead of which you make these foolhardy expeditions, go hunting, get wet and take cold."
"But, doctor," I protested, as I once lost patience under his criticisms, "what a double I made on those two geese. And besides, remember I saw a candied Cossack."
He only waved his hand and grumbled, as he went out:
"What you need is a brain specialist!"
I did not, however, employ such a doctor, as my grumbling physician brought me round again; and, if I could not think of hunting, I could, with the help of my stick, make the journey to my laboratory. During my first days about I had a joint meeting with representatives of the Railway Administration and the General Staff, in which I asked for sick leave and at the same time proposed that I be sent to St. Petersburg, where, while I was undergoing treatment, I might make the necessary purchases for the laboratory. The Railway Administration acquiesced at once, and the General Staff some days later sent me a notification that I had been decorated with the Order of St. Anna with crossed swords.
As I was paying a visit in the household of one of my friends, who was unusually well informed as to matters in the St. Petersburg Government circles and in the war area, I heard about the intrigues against the Commander-in-Chief, about the quarrels and struggles among the members of the General Staff and about the Homeric excesses in the supplying of the army. One of my close acquaintances, a well-known and courageous regimental commander, told me, and gave me proofs of the statement, that some corps leaders had wittingly sent thousands of men to certain death, only to enable them to forward to General Kuropatkin, and through him to St. Petersburg, detailed and highly coloured reports of sanguinary battles, in the hope of receiving rewards for participation in these severe engagements. The lives of simple peasants, labourers, University youths, high-school students, in fact those of the whole grey mass of soldiers were wantonly sacrified just to bring to some individual distinction, reward or fame!
In contrast with this, little effective work was being accomplished for the success of the war and nothing was being done to augment the transport capacity of the only railroad that could supply additional men and war materials. Whole trains of commissary supplies and clothing disappeared, while shoddy cloth and cheap boots, wet flour, spoiled bread and meat, fermented conserves and rancid lard came through in immense quantities. The nation's money was squandered, disappearing in the pockets of dishonest officials and officers. The soldiers were robbed at every step in the official path, no one seeming to realize or take into account that it was they who, with their blood, were defending the interests of Russia in the Far East. In a word, we were witnesses to a despicable and shameful crime, the selling of the blood and the lives of men for the tinsel of fame or for the price of riotous living.
Incensed by these tales, I could not keep silent and so, one day when a Russian "patriot" was holding forth in the Railway Club, I exploded and delivered a long and passionate arraignment, accusing the Government of aiming to annex territory from other countries and of real treason to the interests of the people who were being led to death for the selfish glory of the dynasty. I pointed out how, to their sorrow, into the great national fabric of Russia had been forcibly woven the Poles, Letts, Esthonians, Finns, Tartars, Armenians, Georgians, Kirghizi and others, who had been deprived of country and were given little or no consideration in the imperial politics of St. Petersburg.
My speech bore unexpected fruit. A committee was formed at once and voted to despatch an immediate telegram to General Kuropatkin and to the Central Government, asking that the mistakes of administration, allowed and passed until now, be investigated and corrected. In this telegram we pointed out that, under present conditions and methods, the war could not possibly result victoriously and cited in support of our statement the following reasons: first, the technical conditions of transport and supply were exceedingly weak and had not been carefully developed beforehand; secondly, the Russian policy in Manchuria had so aroused the hatred of the Chinese and Manchus that this numerous population of the area in which a strong enemy was being fought was almost uniformly hostile; thirdly, the high Command had wantonly wasted the lives of the soldiers in movements without strategic value or gain; and fourthly, abuses in all the branches of the war administration had weakened the fighting powers of the army.
There joined me in the signature of this telegram a large number of high civil officials and other prominent persons, among whom were those who later shared with me political imprisonment. I felt that I had an unquestioned right to sign this telegram, this strong protest against the crime of the Government, in view of the fact that my countrymen were numerous in the Siberian regiments and were among those who perished on this alien soil in a cause which was not only alien to them but for which they felt real and strong opposition. Also I felt entitled to protest in this manner, inasmuch as I was myself worn out at the time of signing this telegram by my hard and dangerous service for this dominating power and its alien aims, and I was not at all sure that I should not remain a cripple for the rest of my life from the increasingly painful condition of my foot. Summing it all up, I felt that I had done conscientious work in my own position and had the right to be protected by the same from others in the struggle.
It was reported that the telegram created a marked impression in St. Petersburg; but instead of arranging for and empowering a thorough investigation, the Government talked only of the necessity for arresting us and for interning us in the near-by small fortress by Sansing. However, General D. L. Horvat, the Director-General of the Chinese Eastern Railway, for whom our arrest would mean the loss of many of his most necessary assistants, protested against any such action and saved us. Still we remained under the surveillance of the political police, or secret service, which was used by the Government for the purpose of keeping in touch with, and suppressing the activities of, opponents of its policy among highly placed officials and others.
Some days after this event, in the course of an official visit to certain military establishments in western Manchuria and Siberia, I found myself aboard the Siberian express, headed westward and meeting with ever-increasing frequency more and more of the military trains, laden with fresh forces for General N. P. Linievitch, who had been appointed to succeed Kuropatkin, after the latter's dismissal as a result of the overwhelming catastrophe in the battle of Moukden, where the Russians lost one hundred and forty thousand men.
In my imagination this iron caravan moved as a great, sad critique upon the futility of what had already gone before in this age-long repercussion of the westward movement of the Tartar hordes. There were the battle of Sha Ho, the unsuccessful operations of Grippenberg, the requests of Kuropatkin for the formation of the third army and the loss of this at Moukden, the capitulation of the powerful fortress of Port Arthur and finally the mad voyage of Admirals Rozhestvensky and Niebogatoff with a fleet of old and weak men-o'-war from the Baltic to the fatal Straits of Tsushima—all these stirred up terror and awe in the more thoughtful elements of Russian society. But there were other events in course of enactment, even more dangerous and more thrilling, which were shaking the foundations of the immense conglomerate Empire. These deflected public attention from the debacle in the Orient. It was Revolution, the Empire-wide tragedy!
In this immense drama Fate decreed that I was to play a part. Numerous external and internal causes forced me to take this role. Of the latter I shall speak later on; of the former I need only say that they were uniformly compelling. My name was well known among the Russian subjects in the East through the descriptions of my travels, through my work and lectures and, especially, as a result of the telegram of protest against the conduct of the war, which drew down upon us signatories the enmity of the authorities but gained us the sympathy and respect of the civil population and of the subaltern officers and soldiers of the army. My work in co-operation with the Staff of the Commander-in-Chief, a task which had, fortunately for me, been brought to a successful conclusion, gave me intimate relations with many of the High Command, who thus came to value my work and to count upon my services, even though, knowing my views on the war and on the work of some of the generals, they also in a way feared me. Subsequent events as will be later seen, justified them in this feeling.
But these developments only came about some months later. In the meantime I journeyed on to a new whirlpool of events, terrible, implacable and bloody, as has been so much of the history of Russia, this country into which Europe and Asia have thrown, as upon a national rubbish heap, the worst element of other races and nations, hiding it all from the spectator with a thin covering of civilization adorned here and there with bright patches of romanticism.
As I look back now upon the events and thoughts of this intense period of my life, I see much that I might have avoided or might have done differently, in the light of my present experience. And for this reason I have found it difficult at times to justify myself in giving all the details of some of our activities just as they were or of reviewing without editing the thoughts which activated us. There is, consequently, a natural tendency to wish to write into the record the viewpoint of to-day; yet, in spite of this fact, I have sought to keep the narrative as close as possible to the physical events and the mental processes of those years themselves, in order that as true a picture as possible might be carried down.