From President to Prison/Chapter 14
THE FICKLENESS OF POWER
ANONYMOUS letters reminded us with ever-increasing frequency of the approaching danger of death at the hands of the reactionaries and anarchists, informed us of the death sentences already pronounced against us in St. Petersburg or put us on guard by giving us information with reference to the days fixed for the attacks against us. We were always armed and had Vlasienko with his group for our guard. The appointed days passed and left me quite unhurt, though I often noticed that I was being shadowed. Mysterious individuals appeared to be constantly on my trail, though there seemed no need for so much hiding of their movements.
In just a few days I had proof of some of these threatened activities in what occurred at my office. Something jingled, as though a stone had struck the window pane, while in the opposite wall a whitish spot of chipped plaster appeared. Evidently the marksman was not very skilful; but, quite as evidently, another and better shot could easily be found and then there would be three holes instead of two. In spite of the fact that a similar attempt took place at Lepeshinsky's residence, the work of the Five was not interrupted.
During one of the Committee's sittings I was called out at about ten o'clock in the evening by an attendant, who presented me with the card of a gentleman who had some very important communication to make to me. As I descended the stairs into the reception-room, where I usually received visitors, I found no one there and, on asking the hall man on duty, was told that a gentleman had been waiting for me but had stepped out on the terrace to smoke. I followed to the terrace but found no one. Looking carefully around, I made out some figures hiding in the shrubbery that grew in front of the Railway Club, where we held our meetings. Understanding what sort of guests I had, I drew my revolver from my pocket and advanced toward them. It is difficult to know just what would have occurred among the shrubs, powdered with snow, if Vlasienko, learning that I was outside, had not come bolting out with two companions and swooped down in my direction with loud shouts. Frightened by this clever show of force, the men behind the bushes broke and fled with Vlasienko's trio in pursuit, though, unfortunately, my callers managed to slip away among the huts and shops to the south of the open space beyond the Railway Club.
Vlasienko returned in a rage over the fact that he had recognized one of the fleeing men as the anarchist Ivanoff. Recounting to the Committee what had happened, he requested permission to be allowed to arrest the leaders of the reactionary groups known to us in the hope that he might find among them this anarchist agent of the political police.
Some days later, while working at home, I noticed a distinct smell of smoke, called my man-servant and ordered him to find out where the fire was. Before he had time to leave the room, I saw smoke coming up through the crevices in the floor and ran down with him into the cellar to find a large bundle of kaoliang stalks, which had been put in through a cellar window and ignited. A few buckets of water were all that was necessary to extinguish the fire, which was only fortuitously prevented from becoming a serious affair.
Attempts in other quarters proved more disastrous to us, notably one where some undiscovered incendiaries made such a successful blaze in one of the official buildings that the firemen had the greatest difficulty in saving a whole quarter of wooden structures from the ravage of the flames.
The following morning Captain von Ziegler paid me a visit to inform me they had reliable information that a further attempt would be made against my house and that I should be on my guard. Under the insistence of my associates on the Committee of Five that I profit by the warning, I lodged in the houses of my friends, letting no one know in which of them I was to spend the night.
All in all it was a most nervous time for us, with these local attempts against us being supplemented by the news from St. Petersburg that the Tsar's Government had successfully suppressed the revolutionary movement and was coralling all the prominent leaders for a period of trials whose results were clearly foreseen. We were told that investigating judges were already on their way to eastern Siberia and that secret instructions had been issued to the political agents working throughout the Far East.
As these foreboding tidings frightened the Little Committee, the most prominent of the leaders and agitators among the workers began to flee from Manchuria, accusing us of having "drawn them into the revolution" and seeking thus to transfer all the responsibility upon those of us who were unquestionably marked. Some members of the Little Committee even went to General Ivanoff to assure him of their loyalty and to ask for help. The General promised them this and was also of the opinion that the whole responsibility lay with the Central Commitee. At the same time we received from the Central League of Unions, whose directors were now hiding in Moscow, a telegram ordering us to suspend the public activities of the Revolutionary Government of the Far East but to continue to function as a secret organization, exerting an influence upon the trend of affairs in the Orient.
As I rehearse these events, I remember the last sitting of our Committee as clearly as though it were but yesterday. After having considered all the conditions and having carefully evaluated the political situation in European Russia, we reached the conclusion that both our own body and the Little Committee must be dissolved. The most difficult question was how to secure from the Little Committee the decision for dissolution. Knowing full well that the revenge of the St. Petersburg Government would not fail to reach us, we did not want any greater number of people to suffer than was absolutely necessary and we felt that there were not too serious grounds for charges against the Little Committee on the basis of their activities up to date. But we had been informed that, after the departure of some of the most active members, who had fled to escape judgment, the anarchistic and criminal elements reigned supreme and would introduce such policies, after our Committee should dissolve, that blood would submerge the whole country and that a terrible revenge by the St. Petersburg Government would inevitably follow.
It was already two o'clock in the morning, and the five of us were still deliberating as to the best method for bringing the life of the Little Committee to a close. Suddenly an idea struck me and I made a decision, not entirely clear and detailed but full of determination. I told my comrades that I should at once deal with the Little Committee and left the room. It was only the work of a few moments to telephone to my house and have my coachman Nicholas, a young and clever lad, before the building with my drosky drawn by the white Nizam. I ordered him to drive to the headquarters of the Little Committee. We rattled rapidly through the sleeping town until we began threading our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets in the quarter near the railway workshops and finally drew up before a long, old barracks, where the sessions of the Little Committee were held.
Through the dirty panes of the windows I could discern a rather numerous gathering, seated around a big table and engaged in a lively discussion. Quietly tiptoeing closer, I made out among them the local chairman of the Union of the Russian Nation. I ordered Nicholas to keep watch through the window and, when I should take off my cap, to run up and down outside and make a great outcry.
With these preparations made, I flung the door sharply open and entered. My appearance was so unexpected that all of them jumped to their feet and stood as though waiting for me to make the next move. This lasted but a few seconds, when a man with a cap pulled low over his eyes, who stood behind the table, snatched up the revolver which was lying among the papers before him and fired at me. The bullet whistled somewhere near but only buried itself in the wall. Nicholas then came to my rescue by pummelling the window frame with his fists, running up and down with shouts and cries and generally giving the impression that I had a large company of supporters outside. Again everyone was petrified.
"Arrest this man!" I commanded, pointing out the man with the revolver. "Your building is surrounded by my men, so that no one can escape."
Two of the workers overpowered him, took his firearm irom him and set to work carefully tying his arms with a leather thong that lay near by. During this time Nicholas raged outside. His shouts and commands sounded almost continuously, very skilfully giving the impression of several people shouting at once. As soon as the tying of the man was accomplished, I stepped up to the table and said in decisive tones:
"Sit down. The Central League of Unions has issued orders for the dissolution of all revolutionary organizations. The Central Committee is already dissolved. The Workers' Committee ought also to be disbanded at once. Write out a resolution to this effect for me to take away, and to-morrow everyone who is afraid of acknowledging responsibility will do well to flee as far as he can."
Without protest they wrote out the short resolution which I dictated, signed it and afflxed their seal. With this document in my pocket, I turned to the man who had fired at me, ordered him to be brought to where I was standing and only then recognized him as the anarchist Ivanoff.
"Now," I said, turning back to the men at the table, "all of you remain in your seats and do not move until I can withdraw my men, who are under orders to shoot. You, Ivanoff, will go with me. Come along!"
I went out with Ivanoff following me, sheltering me from a possible shot from behind. I tumbled him into the carriage and ordered Nicholas to drive us as rapidly as possible to the Central Committee.
Half an hour later Ivanoff was already in prison, where Colonel Zaremba was to take care of him. The astonishment of my associates was pleasantly profound, when I presented them with the act of renunciation of the Little Committee.
This night our sitting was taking place in the right wing of the immense administration building of the Chinese Eastern Railway close to the telegraph office, as we needed to communicate rapidly and without interruption with the other towns of the Far East, for we were under the pressure of liquidating at once all our affairs and were facing the necessity of working the whole night to accomplish this end. However, before dawn we were interrupted by the shouts and whistles of the night watchman. As we sprang to the windows and saw the glare of fire, we understood the cause of the commotion. We immediately made for the door, to learn the location of the blaze, but found to our surprise that it was barred on the outside. When we succeeded in breaking it open, a disheartening sight confronted us. Long tongues of flame were already spurting out with nasty hissing from under the eaves and around the window frames of the main section of the great building. Already the roar of gathering force was plainly audible, and dense clouds of smoke had begun to envelop the whole structure. As we reached the ground, it was too late to attempt to cross the big enclosed court, so that we had to go out by a side passage to the street at the north and make our way round to the Place before the great eastern façade, where a big crowd had gathered. All this immense office building, covering fully ten acres of ground, was everywhere ablaze, for simultaneous fires had evidently been set in many sections of it. As the avaricious fingers of flame began to tighten and crush the roof, the whole interior shone through the windows like the molten mass of a blast furnace.
Though the firemen and the sappers worked feverishly, all they could do was to try to confine the fire to the building and not allow it to spread to the neighbouring houses. In places I saw the steel rafters bend and precipitate great sections of the floors with their loads of furniture, cabinets or safes, filled with valuable records that could hardly be replaced. Bits of hot stone were blown from the building and, like carbine shots, exploded in the air.
In one part of the crowd some hooligans attacked a group of railway officials and began beating them. But soon the police arrived in sufficient numbers, followed by Vlasienko and his men. They netted a number of bad characters, who turned out to be former criminal prisoners. In the pockets of some of them were found letters from the chairman of the Harbin branch of the Union of the Russian Nation, who was evidently making use of these men for harassing the railway officials.
The fire lasted for three days, until only the stone walls remained to mark the outline of what had been the great administrative offices of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Who had started this fire, and why they had started it, were questions which were never satisfactorily answered. No one ever uncovered the truth about the motive or the culprit. However, the Tsar's Government tried to place the responsibility upon the Central Committee, now dominated by our ruling Five; but even the gendarmes and the tribunals of the bloody Nicholas II did not succeed in this, as the accusation had no foundation either in logic or in history.
If in so serious an affair one were permitted to be facetious, one might truthfully aver that we went out in a great blaze, though it was no blaze of glory—for this was really the end. The Little Committee, which my sense of the dramatic and of the humorous had so abruptly dissolved, hid itself in fear of the responsibility for which all the leaders in our movement were now to have to answer. Nevertheless, secret printing houses issued numerous pamphlets, accusing the Central Committee of having enticed the working masses into the revolution and of having thus exposed them to the punitive measures threatening. It was not difficult to trace the authorship of these pamphlets to the monarchists and political police, who were acting behind the mask of the workers' organization. Our Central Committee, foreseeing clearly the revenge in store for it on the part of the St. Petersburg Government, ended its existence and began to scatter quickly, some going away while others simply gave up their public positions and returned to their private occupations.
In this way the administering organizations of the life of the Russian Far East during the time of chaos following the war passed out of existence, while the former ones, with their authority weakened and their personnels intimidated by the revolutionary changes, which had been so violent, had not yet the courage to exercise their previous rights and functions. In the towns and in the army this situation at once evidenced itself, in that various town councils and the High Command made strong representations to the leaders of the Central Committee, asking them not to terminate abruptly their activities, which influenced and regulated the military as well as the civil life of the Far East and which served as the only common point of contact between the different conflicting elements of society. The High Command hesitated to assume again the full responsibility for the evacuation, inasmuch as they feared, from what they had previously seen of the soldiers' attitude, that the troops would not have confidence in their administration and would make further trouble.
The necessities of the situation dictated that we reassume our role, while reason and logic whispered with ever-increasing force that we would rue it. It was because of this that only certain ones of my former associates were willing to come back on the stage. These were Nowakowski, Sass-Tisowski, Dr. Czaki, von Dreyer and Lepeshinsky. With certain other new recruits joining us, we decided to form a Union of Workers with members and affiliations in all private industrial and business organizations and in all public offices and with the purpose of having the Board of this Union assume the direction of the civic life of the country. The working people were ready to acknowledge this new organization, but once more the monarchists intervened to poison the minds of the masses and to set them against us. To clear the air, the Board of the Union issued a proclamation, urging upon everyone the necessity of calmness and of returning to work, at the same time announcing that the Board assumed full responsibility for all the measures being taken. The proclamation had a most beneficial effect and led to a normal and productive period from December 2, 1905, to January 16, 1906. As we afterwards learned during our trial, even the gendarmes and the Public Prosecutor acknowledged this and had reported favourably to St. Petersburg upon us, stating that the activities of the Central Committee and, afterwards, the Board of Union had a strictly state character. Such an opinion was also expressed by General Linievitch, who continued to make use of the authority and influence of our organization. As these reports were not received with favour in St. Petersburg, both the Chief of the gendarmes and the Public Prosecutor were dismissed and General Linievitch was kept in a continuously disagreeable correspondence with the Ministry of War and the Ministry of the Interior.
Meanwhile life ran along for a short period in an unwonted calm for our much-harassed region. Unfortunately, however, the monarchists and the political police sent out from Russia desired and sought trouble, in order to afford them excuse and opportunity for initiating the repressive measures which had, for the time, been pushed off into the future. For this purpose they elaborated an unscrupulously clever plan, under which the Union of the Russian Nation entered into compacts with the gangs of hunghutzes which were always near Harbin and other large Manchurian centres, promising them secret assistance and protection from pursuit. This plan quickly demonstrated its practical value, as attacks on military and railway stores began. Several such supply depots were ransacked and burned, and St. Petersburg was then gravely informed that the soldiers, under the pernicious influence of the Union of Workers, did not perform their duties and thus brought upon the State these dangers and losses. Other denunciations even went so far as to state that the hunghutzes were in the pay of the leaders of the Union of Workers and that these leaders were using them to acquire large sums of money with which to pay for their escape and sojourn abroad until the revolution in the Far East should have been liquidated by the Tsar's Government and its active protagonists forgotten.
In Harbin bands of these hunghutzes attacked the houses of Sass-Tisowski and Goltzoff, members of our Union, killed their wives, pillaged everything and got safely away without ever being traced. Similar attacks were made in Hailar and Tsitsihar against leaders of our affiliated units, resulting in the death of some of these. In my own case they made an attack upon my car at a small station on the line toward Vladivostok, where I had stopped to inspect a local chapter of our organization. The gang fired several volleys through the windows and the sides of the car, but without any injuries, as no one happened to be within. Some hours later, during the search made in a small village near the station, the chief of the gang was arrested in the house of a railway official, who was an active member of a branch of The Union of the Russian Nation.
The hunghutzes also made some attempts against railroad bridges, which were repulsed but which furnished the monarchists with the opportunity to accuse the Union of Workers with the desire to destroy the bridges and thus create insurmountable difficulties with the army left at Ssupingkai. Such puerile and incredible intrigues engendered in the army disquiet and anger.
After a time, the Tsarist followers tried new methods. They allied themselves with the individuals with criminal records who are always plentiful in the towns of the Russian Far East and who had been attracted in even greater numbers by the war, coming both from European Russia and from the Oriental ports through Shanghai. There began attacks on houses, street hold-ups and incendiary attempts of every sort, all of them executed so boldly and swiftly that the culprits were never taken.
"This is not the work of hunghutzes" observed von Ziegler. "I am sure that these operators are Georgians, Armenians and other adventurers from the Caucasus, for I recognize clearly their working methods."
The Captain proved to be quite correct in suspecting the freebooting sons of the towering Colchis ranges, a direct proof of which I myself brought in for him.