Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Historic Scene in Russia: The Rev. Jesse Halsey, D.D. (Eye-witness.)

by Jesse Halsey, United States Y.M.C.A. Representative in Russia (1917-1918)
A picture worthy of Rembrandt! A little room, log-built and rough, and humidly hot from a well-stoked sheet-iron stove of modest proportions. Smoke as of dense fog, partly the fault of the stove and partly the inmates, for the district soviet is in session.

But this is not the only contrast the room affords, for, I repeat, the Soviet of Mouman District, North Russia, is in session. Here at the table’s head, in full light, is Urieff; there in the shadow is Grokatoff; both Bolsheviks: one straightforward and open, the other careful, diplomatic, and almost crafty. Urieff, constantly puffing at his inseparable and immense calabash, says little, keeps order, and puts the question.

Grokatoff is “foreign commissar” and Trotsky’s personal representative. He, too, speaks seldom, but notes everything and daily sends his minute report to Moscow. It is his task to prevent the entrance through this port of all “counter-revolutionists” and undesirable foreigners of the bourgeois and capitalistic classes.

Senkavitch, the vice-president, is a Pole. He is labor delegate and head of the Red Guard. I can hear his cheery half-broken “Hello, John!” as he pulled me and my baggage on the crowded weekly freight at a little junction point one bitter midnight last winter. For seven years he had worked as a lithographer in Buffalo, and he said it sounded good to hear English. Always quick to speak his mind and as quick to act, he became less popular with his constituents as the days wore on; and when he tried to stop looting at a fire in the British barracks, his “soldiers” turned and would have lynched him but for the timely arrival of marines from the American cruiser, who sent him aboard the admiral’s flagship for safety.

Contrast Senkavitch, unkempt and uncombed (as he was in his ante-sergeant days) with the trim Zvginseff, who sits opposite. He has been a general, commanding one of the Czar’s crack regiments and for “certain reasons” advanced one of the grand dukes to a prominent position which developed into a place of real danger in battle, so that the grand duke lost his life—and the general his position. (Since then Zvginseff has been a democrat.) It is interesting to see him and the Pole together. One, the polished gentleman with French, English, and Russian at his tongue’s end; the other a rough workingman unable to speak even Russian with grammatical correctness, each admiring the other and complementing the other—the old Monarchist and the new Anarchist, each a real patriot, and learning to work together—this augurs well for the future of Russia.

In the background always, moving quietly to obtain some papers from the adjoining room or motioning to the president as he calls attention to some forgotten detail, never conspicuous but always quietly dominating, is Vesallago, “business manager and secretary.” He was a naval captain, and one night his flotilla of destroyers crept out of their Black Sea base and raided a Turkish port. Partially successful, he undertook to repeat his exploit the following night. The crew mutinied, but he drove them to their task. When returning to port, after accomplishing their objective, his sailors drove him off the ship. His admiral, who supported him, was also dismissed by the sailors. This was in the early days of the revolution, and both men luckily escaped with their lives. A few months later officers were not “dismissed” in this gentle fashion, and soon after Vesallago had come to the north and held a place as chief of staff to Admiral Katlinksy, two shots were fired in the halflight of the Arctic day, and the admiral fell dead at his office door. Vesallago succeeded to the admiral’s place, without his rank, and during the days of open anarchy that followed his position was very precarious. Threats and attempts on his life were repeated, and at last, one night in July, two hand-grenades were thrown into his room, wrecking the building but miraculously sparing the man. Allying himself with no party, blamed by his fellow officers for his “Bolshevik sympathies” and feared by the Bolsheviks as a spy and counter-revolutionist, facing death constantly, he has placed his fine executive ability at the disposal of his country without pay and without thanks.

But to return to our meeting, now enter the Allied representatives. First, the senior Allied officer, Rear Admiral ------[Thomas Kemp], R. N., C. M. G., etc., retired before the war, but now rejoicing to be back in active service. His kindly blue eyes, close-cropped grizzled beard, his almost shabby uniform and half-concealed decorations (this out of courtesy to the Russian officers who had lost  all insignia of rank and uniform)—these you would note. His slow, deliberate, almost labored Russian, as he makes clear his points, one by one—this you would appreciate if you are a novice in the language, as am I. The admiral’s secretary is there. Sometimes he supplies a Russian word of finer-shaded meaning, but whether he spoke or not, the amount of gold on his uniform would remind you of his presence. The French captain knows no Russian but is accompanied by the consul, who is an accomplished linguist and popular with everyone because of his engaging manners. In the corner, as far aspossible from the blasting heat of the stove, is the American representative, aY. M.C. A. man (selected for the very obvious reason that he is the onlyAmerican in the district), in a flannel shirt, which has powers to disabuse theRussian “tavarish” of the capitalistic tendencies of the American democracy.

Many things are discussed. Many questions are asked. “Will the British send fishing gear for the Russians?” “Yes,” from the admiral. “Nets and trawls?” “Yes.” “Will the Americans send flour?” “Yes.” “And sugar? And shoes?” “When may these be expected?” “When will the American cruiser arrive?” “Can America send some railway construction  engineers?” and machinists?” “Will the Allies furnish food for the Finnish contingent, who wish to enlist?” “What can be done to make the food distribution more equitable?” “Could the American representative undertake to market the season’s catch of fur?” “Does he know the prevailing price for white fox?” “What is the likelihood of the Kola bridge withstanding the next ice jam?” “How long will it take to replace it?” “How can we convince the natives that the wireless men on the hill are not prospecting for gold?” . . . One question after another, on and on; some trivial, some weighty with international possibilities, but all answered to allay Russian suspicion of the imperialistic ambitions of the Allies, to show our interest and gain their friendship.

One scene more. Just as adjournment is proposed, Senkavitch is called out, and soon returns, accompanied by half a dozen breathless men who have come in by reindeer to report the aggression of the Finnish and German forces on an important harbor some hundred miles to the west. What can they do? The general and Senkavitch turn to the admiral: Will he send a cruiser? A moment’s thought, a sharp, “Yes,” and his secretary is on his way down the hill to signal off the orders. A brief but carefully worded agreement is drawn up and signed. The Allies agree to help the Russians against the Germans and the Finns; they refuse to interfere in internal affairs or lend aid to any political party; they have no designs on Russian territory. Two hours later, H. M. S.“-------,” with full complement of marines and a hundred Red Guards, steams out of the harbor. “Intervention” in Russia has begun.

from "Russian Sideshow: America’s Undeclared War" by Robert L. Willett, 2003, Potomac Books 
In an action which completely frustrated the Soviets in the capital, the Murmansk Soviet signed an accord with the Allies, British, French, and even American. This agreement pledged the Allies to defend Murmansk and recognize the Murmansk Regional Soviet as the acknowledged government of the area. Captain Bierer of the Olympia signed on behalf of the American government, even though he had no authority to do so. It is interesting to note that this document was executed several days before Wilson’s Aide Memoire, which authorized intervention in Russia. The Murmansk agreement was completely unauthorized by the U.S. government, yet it was finally approved in October 1918. While it was a stroke of luck for the Allies to have the tie-in with a Russian government, even an out-of-favor one, the Allies pledged to protect those individuals who had faced the wrath of their own people by separating themselves from the Central Soviet.

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