From President to Prison/Chapter 19
THE SEAL OF AN IRON GRILLE
GENERAL IVANOFF employed every means within his power to secure as drastic a sentence as possible. To carry out his purposes, he brought all the way from Moscow one of the most notedly severe military prosecutors, Colonel Kurochkin, giving him for adviser his confidential auxiliary, Colonel Fiedorenko.
However, other powers, favourably disposed to us, were active at the same time. In the first place, there was old General Linievitch, who, after being recalled to St. Petersburg and summoned before a court of inquiry, defended us with the assertion that, without the help of the Central Committee, he would have been unable to maintain civic order throughout the East and discipline throughout the army in the face of the discontent and disorder fomented by the anarchist and other organizations hostile to us.
General Horvat, Director-General of the Chinese Eastern Railway, was the second prominent personage to be heard in our favour in St. Petersburg. He knew well what the revolutionary government of fifty-three days had contributed to the maintenance of the State life in the Far East. In his opinion he was strongly supported by a man who had been known as the great railway builder of Russia, the Polish engineer, Kerbedz, who was not only a close friend of Count Witte's but also was possessed of great influence in Russian governmental circles.
These warring elements struggled and fought during the trial, bringing all the pressure they could to bear upon the various Government departments and agencies which dominated the judges.
The atmosphere in Harbin was surcharged with feeling and contention. Mounted detachments and infantry patrolled the streets, and the way from the prison to the court was lined with soldiers and gendarmes, as we were brought to the tribunal in carriages, surrounded by mounted troopers with drawn swords. We had the same street reception as on our first appearance, acclamation and flowers from the officials and workers and curses and threats from the monarchists.
Finally we reached the building and entered the hall, taking our places in the dock of the accused. I had the seat of honour as the President of the indicted Government, with the grey-haired, serious, alert Nowakowski next to me and beyond him Lepeshinsky, Kozlowski, Sass-Tisowski, Tichino and the others, twenty-two in all. The hall was full of people, counting representatives from several organizations, members of the foreign consular body, of the Press and of foreign firms, delegates from the army and from other towns throughout the whole Far East.
The long and tedious procedure began. We were obliged to repeat what we had already told the magistrate at the preliminary hearings. When the witnesses were called, ours defended us vigorously and obstinately, whereas those for the prosecution provided very little evidence to involve us. Only two typesetters from the railway printing office, whom we judged to be well paid, testified that the Central Committee was an integral organization of the Social Democratic Party, which fact would have connected us directly with the Council of Workers and Soldiers in St. Petersburg, whose leaders all belonged to this party. During the trial we learned, to our amazement and surprise, that one of our members, the lawyer, Kozlowski, belonged to this party. This disclosure had a markedly detrimental influence upon the court, inasmuch as the sentences, it developed afterwards, would have been much more lenient, if this dénouement had not occurred.
On March 23rd the final phase of the trial was enacted. In summing up, the Prosecutor insisted that we be given the maximum sentence, eight years of hard labour in prison. Answering on our behalf, our counsel exposed the inadequacy of the evidence of the prosecution, whereupon the Prosecutor, speaking in rebuttal, repeated his demand for a maximum sentence, seeking to bulwark it with the statement that the Central Committee was a destroying, anarchistic power, which had caused the State great moral and material losses.
"Your Honours," he continued, "do not allow yourselves to be misled by these individuals, obscure and mostly of non-Russian extraction. We have heard their counsel telling the Court that the Central Committee took into its hands the helm of the State life in the Far East and that the order introduced by it saved to the Government twenty-one million roubles. As it was confirmed by witnesses and the Chief Comptroller of the railroad, I do not take issue with this statement and am ready to accept it. But, gentlemen, remember that the Central Committee is all the more dangerous, in that it has taught the revolutionaries how to act outside the authority of the Central Government and how to manage the ship of State. The acts of this Central Committee will be a school for future revolution against the reign of His Majesty the Tsar!"
This was a great faux pas on the part of the Prosecutor, who, carried away by his own eloquence and his desire to evince his loyalty to the Throne, gave us a sentence that became the strongest element in our defence. Our lawyers at once profited by the error and turned our adversary's own words against him to disprove his assertion about our anarchism and the losses we had caused the Government.
On the judges' bench sat the five members of the military court, presided over by their chairman, while ranged behind them were General Ivanoff and his Staff with Colonel Fiedorenko, all sitting in easy chairs below the picture of Tsar Nicholas II. As our counsel finished his clever use of the Prosecutor's gratuitous material, some of the judges were seen to smile slightly, as they watched the Prosecutor, in evident discomfiture, bending over his documents and thumbing them page by page, as though in search of some important matter he had missed. Fiedorenko threw a quick glance at their oratorical champion, which boded no good for him, and leaned over to whisper something to General Ivanoff, who turned red with anger and began pulling expressively his long black beard.
"I have nothing further to say," the Prosecutor stammered, as he put his documents in his brief-case.
"We also rest," our lawyers announced.
"Accused," said the Chairman of the Court, "you have the right to be heard before the bench announces its decision."
I had to speak first and did so briefly, closing with the words:
"The Prosecutor was honest enough to testify to the
State character of our activities. Now I appeal to the honesty of you Judges and Generals present here to confirm my assertion that, if the Central Committee, at the moment when the revolutionary passions exploded, had not succeeded in concentrating effective authority in its hands, you gentlemen would surely have been killed by the bullets of your soldiers or hung on the lamp-posts by the maddened and lawless anarchists. This is the only thing I ask from the Court and from the consciences of those who sent us to this bench of the accused."
Each of my companions spoke in turn. Nowakowski was listened to with great attention, as he gave a detailed analysis of the conditions prevailing in the Far East for the benefit of the judges, who had specially come from European Russia for this trial and to whom these were entirely unknown, owing to the fact that no one in St. Petersburg or Moscow had any knowledge of either the state of affairs in this region before the Revolution broke out or of the constitution of the various layers of the local society and of the character and ideology of the local population.
At about eight in the evening the session ended and the judges retired for deliberation. After what was later learned to have been a stormy four hours, they returned at midnight and read their findings. The President of the Revolutionary Government, who at this unfortunate moment happened still to be myself, was condemned to eighteen months of fortress prison, without any deduction for the two months already spent in the military prison awaiting trial. Nowakowski was given one year and the rest shorter terms, with the exception of Kozlowski and Lepeshinsky, whom the Court singled out as belonging to distinctly revolutionary and socialistic parties and to whom it gave, in addition to the original sentence of one year, an extra term of two years for the former and one for the latter. Altogether it was a very merciful finding, if one can speak of mercy in connection with a matter which ought not to have been reviewed and punished by a tribunal at all.
We returned to our cells as prisoners of a higher social class than the others in the military gaol. Imprisonment in a fortress had in the Russian code a special name, "honourable custody" or the custodia honesta of the Latin, and carried with it certain privileges, such as the right to wear one's own clothes, to receive food and books from home and to have a walk each day in the prison yard. We wondered how much we should benefit by these privileges, as there was no fortress in Harbin. However, General Horvat came to the rescue by proposing through St. Petersburg that a special political prison should be established in Harbin, as there were many political prisoners in the town.
A private house toward the north end of the Bolshoi Prospect was rented, the windows were barred, strong doors installed, rooms for the soldiers and keepers prepared and the whole house and rather spacious yard were surrounded with a high board fence. Not long after the trial we were already in our new quarters and began to settle down for our long term of enforced residence. We requested from our home clothes, linen, books and papers, arranged for a regular supply of food to be sent us and gradually became accustomed to the new life.