Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII


The Military Power of Russia


IT is fondly to be hoped that when these words come to be printed, peace between Russia and Poland will have been satisfactorily established. The need of Europe and the world for a real peace and the awful possibilities of the alternative ought to be the subject of everybody's prayer and the impulse to everybody's endeavour until peace becomes an accomplished fact.

The situation as it now stands is this. The Russians have everywhere defeated the Poles, as they told us they would, and are threatening to move on Warsaw. The Poles have cried to the Allies for help. The Allies have sent a note to Russia asking for an armistice between Russia and Poland on certain well-defined terms. The Russians have replied carefully, expressing a desire for peace, but requesting the Poles themselves to sue for it, and promising them better terms than the Allies themselves suggest in the matter of their boundary line.

The territory claimed by the Poles and for which they entered upon this foolish and wicked adventure is an area of about four hundred square miles, containing a population which is not ten per cent Polish. The remaining ninety per cent do not wish to belong to the Polish Empire. The claim of the Poles to this territory is of the shadowiest description and dates back to the time when the United States of America was still a part of the British Empire. Undoubtedly, the claim upon this land rests upon the ambition of the Poles to make it a jumping-off ground for an imperialist adventure which would establish Polish rule from Warsaw to Odessa. No Russian Government, whatever its name or quality, would accept such an arrangement, and it is the most natural thing in the world that the insolent campaign of Poland should have united behind the Soviet Republic every section of the Russian populace.

Although morally and legally in the right, and full of indignation at the unworthy part played by certain European statesmen and soldiers in the business, who have either openly or covertly, helped and encouraged the Poles, the Russian Government has repeatedly made efforts to conclude peace, and has offered to concede much of the Poles' outrageous claim in order to secure it. The Russians need so sorely to get on with their work of internal reconstruction that only the most stupid blunderer could for a moment imagine they were eager for spoils and conquests. The last offer, which was made months ago, was to accept for an armistice the lines now occupied by the terrified Poles; but it was refused. The Allies were requested to temper the rapacity of Poland and help forward peace, but no attention was paid to this appeal. And now the victorious Russians are requested to stop fighting, to make peace on terms prepared for them by interested outsiders who have helped their foes, or to prepare to have brought against them the armed power of Great Britain and, it may be, the rest of the Allies. It is a preposterous situation, in which only the Russians occupy a position of credit. The invocation of the League of Nations by Great Britain, after the League had remained silent, whilst one of its members, Poland, played the pirate, has brought still greater contempt upon that poor ghost of the thing designed to help mankind.

One's whole sympathy is with the Russians. By every precedent established by history, by the precedent of every government engaged in the recent war, Russia would be entitled to march on and bid the Allies do their worst. But the best friends of Russia must hope that she will avoid the bad example of the rest of Europe and, in spite of great and sore temptation, choose the better way.

When we were in Moscow, we noted the passionate longing of the people for peace. It was clear that the majority of the men in power also wanted peace. But a minority existed which was totally indifferent to peace, whilst a few were glad of the war, since it united the masses of the population behind the extremer Communists at the head of the State. The policy towards Poland will depend upon which of the sections gets its way. If the moderate men win, the armistice will be concluded, and the terms will be generous. If the others gain the day, the war will go on until Poland consents to reform her Government on Bolshevist lines. In such case Lemberg and Warsaw will be occupied and the bourgeois population may suffer a hard fate.

But what an opportunity presents itself for reversing the thinking world's judgment of the men who are managing Russian affairs; or if not quite reversing it, of modifying it! For the choice of peace on fair terms will prove the Bolshevik commanders superior in international morals to any European Government engaged in the recent war. A government capable of such self-control and a people capable of such self-denial would go down into history as marking a new epoch. There would be a new faith in idealism born to Europe, which would help to undo the cruel wrong to Faith and Hope dealt by the treaties miscalled of Peace.

Our experience of Russia fills us with mingled fear and hope. During the last two and a half years of bitter fighting the Russian Government has trained and equipped a magnificent army. Its navy is utterly devoted to it. In a sense the Revolution is the child of the navy, for the sailors brought the thing to birth. It is not possible to estimate the exact number of men in the active forces, but it is very large indeed, and it is a very different army from the ragged, ignorant, ill-equipped forces of the Czar, cheated and abused by corrupt generals and politicians.

In Petrograd we witnessed an enormous display of Reserve Troops, numbering not less than fifty thousand, in the Uritzky Platz, which is the new name given to the great square opposite the Winter Palace. Accompanying these troops were machine guns and much of the regular paraphernalia of war. The uniforms were smart and the men were well shod. Two similar displays in Moscow took place, the one chiefly of young officers in training, the other of fully trained officers about to leave for the Polish front. The oath which these men took in public, and in the presence of the British Delegation, is translated as follows:

"1. I, son of the working people, citizen of the Soviet Republic, take upon myself the name of a warrior of the Labour and Peasant Army.

"2. Before the working classes of Russia and of the whole world I undertake to carry this name with honour, to follow the military calling with conscience and to preserve from damage and robbery the national and military possessions as the hair of my head.

"3. I pledge myself to submit strictly to revolutionary discipline and to fulfil without objection every command issued by authority of the Labour and Peasant Government.

"4. I undertake to abstain from and to deter any act liable to dishonour the name of citizen of the Soviet Republic; moreover, to direct all my deeds and thoughts to the great aim of liberation of all workers.

"5. I pledge myself to the defence of the Soviet Republic in any danger or assault on the part of any of her enemies at the first call of the Labour and Peasant Government, and undertake not to spare myself in the struggle for the Russian Soviet Republic, for the aims of Socialism and the Brotherhood of Nations to the extent of my full strength and of my life.

"6. Should this promise be broken, let my fate be the scorn of my fellows. Let my punishment be the stern hand of revolutionary law."

If one may judge by appearances, by the expression of their faces, by the brisk march and the smart response to the word of command, by their bright smiles and thundering cheers, the Red Army at least is well content to serve the present Government. And it is not by any means solely because life, except for those in the front lines of battle, is more assured than for the rest of the population. True it is that the army receives first attention. It is well-clothed, it receives one hundred per cent of the food it needs; the small supply of medicines goes to the troops; but this is the simplest wisdom. The moral of the Red Army is drawn from its patriotism, and whatever Government were in power, provided it showed itself true to the people and able for defence, it would make no difference to the soldiers if the enemy were thundering at the gate.

Besides the ordinary Reserve Troops, we witnessed a great parade of the Armed Workers' Militia. Every industrial worker between the ages of eighteen and forty has to undergo compulsory military training of two-hour drills twice a week. In the parade we saw were included metal workers, building trade workers, railway workers, transport workers and distributors of food; women workers, university graduates, technicians, and a variety of others. It took four solid hours for them to pass a given point at a quick march. There were at least forty thousand work-people, of whom twelve thousand were active members of the Communist party. In addition, there were hundreds of Boy Scouts, hundreds of Girl Guides, hundreds of women. The women generally marched in separate detachments, and carried no arms; but in many cases they were actually marching with the men and dressed in uniform. We were informed they were there at their own special request that they might be trained as soldiers. There were one or two companies of nurses in uniform. On being asked as they passed the stand where the British Delegation stood if they were prepared, they shouted back gleefully: "We are prepared."

And finally, semi-military and gymnastic training is given to the school children. This all shows a great nation of one hundred and twenty-five millions of people going through a process of rapid militarisation which may one day breed menace to the rest of Europe unless understanding can be reached and maintained. At Kazan, eighty thousand splendidly trained troops were got ready for our inspection; and all along the line it was the same.

The unwisdom of encouraging this to go farther by constant attacks from outside is dawning upon the mind of the world at last; but to revert once more to the fear felt by some of the Delegation and expressed in these pages more than once, the question is this: Has it or has it not gone too far already? Has the evident pride in their new Red Army already bitten deep into their souls, so that every fresh victory adds a glory to it? A boy with a knife wants to whittle something. Is it certain that even peace-loving Russians may not be willing to allow their brave men to advance from one conquest to another in the hope, either of making their country feared and respected by the other Powers, or in the still larger hope of accomplishing by this means the world-revolution of which their leaders dream?

The education of the army at the front is a wonderful thing. The political staff there includes amongst its personnel of eight hundred, artists, writers, printers and teachers. University courses are provided which include instruction in all branches of civil reconstruction. It is contemplated employing many of these soldiers in the Labour Army when the military war is over, and until the economic foundations of the country are re-established. At Smolensk there is a school of drama, always an important part of Russian educational schemes.

Twelve thousand Communists, specially chosen, the very pick of the party, have been drawn from responsible administrative posts and sent to the front to receive special instruction in Red Cross work. This drastic disturbance of so many people's lives, and of the valuable constructive work of the State, is explained and justified on the ground that the work at the front may be long, perhaps twelve months, as they have to "get through to Germany." It has been obvious for a long time to all but the unimaginative men who hold the destinies of Europe in their hands that this threat about getting through to Germany is not a light and foolish boast, but part of the extremists' plan. Should the moral temperature in Germany be pressed much below zero, the German junkers might reasonably hope to find a way out by imitating the Russian Czarist officers and throwing in their lot with the half-million Communists of Germany who would join themselves to the victorious armies of Trotsky.

For the fact is that almost all the higher commands are held in Russia by officers of the old régime. General Baltiski, commanding the Volga area, spoke quite frankly of the open and unequivocal acceptance by these old soldiers of the new Government, so disgusted were they with the old. We were informed that these men and the new working-class officers were working well together, and that the discipline of the army was daily improving.

It is suggested in some quarters that the old officers are acting with Machiavellian cunning, and joining the Red Army in order to undo it at some favourable opportunity. I must confess that in long talks with generals and admirals I was not able to detect the slightest evidence that this was even remotely true. But if it were, their chances of this are small indeed. To every regiment is attached a regimental political Commissar. Of the Revolutionary War Council two members represent the Army along with the Commander-in-Chief, and to act with him there are two political members of the Council. Put quite simply, the chief business of the two political members of the Revolutionary Council is to watch the Chief Commander; the chief business of each political agent is to note the behaviour of the commander of his regiment. These political agents have to watch military operations, but are not supposed to interfere with purely military business even in the event of an alteration of plans. If a serious matter, or what he regards as serious, or mysterious, arises in connection with the conduct of the Commanding Officer, the political agent is supposed to report the matter only. But if it is obviously very serious, he frequently takes the responsibility of acting, even to the point of suspending the commander, or of having him shot in a clear case of treachery to the Republic. The danger of this power lies in the fact that the political agent is usually a keen Communist but often an ignorant man, and in that other indisputable fact: that every utterance which implies criticism of the Government, its principles or its policy, is regarded as counter-revolutionary by the Government's agents.

Discipline in the Red Army is of the most severe kind, stricter than in the old army, stricter than in most armies, particularly strict for Communist soldiers. For neglecting their duties or muddling orders men are frequently shot. To the Commander-in-Chief, Trotsky, life is very cheap, they say. I wonder if that is the reason why so many people, including many Communists, spoke of the one-time pacifist as "that beast Trotsky"?