A friend who is of Ukrainian ancestry, and who supports the right of Ukraine to be free from the boot of Russian militarism, as I do, recently shared with me an interesting documentary. In this 20-minute film, Vice News reporter Simon Ostrovsky proves the participation of regular Russian army soldiers in last February’s battle for Debaltseve in Ukraine – something the Russian government of Vladimir Putin routinely denies. Ostrovsky does this by tracing the location of photos posted by one such soldier on social media. This particular soldier was a Buryat, one of several Asian peoples of Siberia, from the Buryat Republic in Russia, on the region bordering Mongolia.
My friend called this a tragic repetition of history. ‘Chinese’ conscripts were brought to Ukraine during the early Soviet period to suppress various local movements, he commented.
I asked him for the sources on which he based his comment. I had not heard about Chinese conscripts in the Red Army being used to “suppress local movements” during the Civil War of 1918-21, and it seemed to contradict all that I knew about the Bolsheviks’ conduct of that war. The evidence he referred me to consisted of two things. The first was an account written in the 1920s by Peter Arshinov, his History of the Makhnovist Movement.
Arshinov writes, “In the middle of January, 1920, the Bolsheviks declared Makhno and the members of his army outlaws for their refusal to go to the Polish front. This date marked the beginning of a violent struggle between the Makhnovists and the Communist power. We will not go into all the details of this struggle, which lasted nine months. We will only note that it was a merciless struggle on both sides. The Bolsheviks relied on their numerous well-armed and well-supplied divisions. In order to avert fraternization between the soldiers of the Red Army and the Makhnovists, the Bolshevik commander sent against the Makhnovists a division of Lettish sharpshooters and some Chinese detachments, that is to say, units whose members had not the slightest idea of the true meaning of the Russian revolution and who blindly obeyed the orders of the authorities.”The second item was a cultural artefact: a well-known anti-Semitic poster produced by the White counter-revolution, depicting Bolshevik military leader Trotsky as a slothful Jewish ogre guarding the walls of the Kremlin, and some assassins of unmistakably Chinese appearance standing atop a pile of skulls as they execute a Russian peasant. The slogan, in Russian, roughly translates as “Peace and Liberty in Sovdepiya” (acronym for the Russian Federated Soviet Republic).
This poster was familiar to me. At first glance the Chinese appearance of the executioners seems curious in a Russian counter-revolutionary poster. The Chinese figures in the poster show the clothing and hair style characteristic of the Qing imperial epoch – styles imposed by the Manchu rulers on the Han Chinese they ruled over as a mark of submission – rather than Red army uniforms. The poster seems to me to be, more than anything else, an expression of the night terrors of a ruling class which has been overthrown and has no idea how or why, and which looks to blame foreigners. My friend commented that – irrespective of one’s attitude to the politics of the poster – it can be taken as supplementary proof of the presence of Chinese or East Asian troops in the Red Army during the Civil War, just as, for example, anti-Semitic Nazi posters could be taken to indicate the presence of Jews in Germany. Well, maybe.
My friend is right about one point of fact: There was a large number of ethnic Chinese workers in Russia at the time of the revolution, and not only in the far eastern reaches of the Russian empire. Estimates of the numbers vary, but the most popular estimate is about 200,000 at the time of the October revolution.
A large-scale migration of Chinese workers began in the last decades of the nineteenth century into those regions of the far east acquired by Russia, and this continued into the twentieth century. They worked in goldmining and forest industries, and also building the Trans-Siberian railways. The largely unknown story of these Chinese workers in Russia has been sketched in a great little 50-page book published last year by Hong Kong-based author Mark O’Neill, From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army. (It is available cheaply as an ebook and is well worth the few dollars cost.) The story of these workers has all but been ignored by historians, buried under racist assumptions as well as Stalinist mythology and falsifications. It is only recently receiving some scholarly attention and recognition.
Also working on the construction of the Siberian railroads were Russian political prisoners from the katorgas, czarist Russia’s punitive labour camps, including many Bolsheviks in later years. There were also Bolsheviks among the Russian soldiers fighting in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. At least some of these Chinese workers received an early introduction to Bolshevik ideas through such contacts, including Ren Fuchen, who is believed to be the first Chinese to join the Bolshevik Party, in 1908. One of the early tasks assigned to Ren was helping Bolshevik escapees from the katorgas find refuge in Harbin, China.
During the First World War – the last years of czarist rule – large numbers of these Chinese workers were brought from the Russian Far East to the industrial cities of European Russia to fill an acute wartime shortage of industrial labour and to work on military fortifications. They were joined by some 200,000 additional workers sent to Russia directly from China to help with the allied war effort. (A further 130,000 Chinese workers went to France and Belgium.)
Among the wartime tasks assigned to Chinese workers were building the vital railway to Murmansk (which enabled Russia to break the German blockade of their Baltic ports), cutting and sawing timber in many regions, and mining coal in the Urals and the Donets basin in Ukraine. Some were sent to the war fronts to dig trenches, where they suffered the same very high casualty rates as the Russian army.
The republican government in China made some efforts to ensure that these workers would be treated better than previous generations of Chinese indentured labourers from imperial times, who had laboured under conditions close to slavery in the Pacific, South Africa, and the Americas. In fact, their conditions were often as bad or worse.
“We worked twelve hours a day, cutting timber into strips and laying them on the track. We ate black bread and drank marsh water that had turned black. The Tsar’s government cared nothing for the lives of the Chinese. Those who were sick were forced to move logs and stones. Many people were driven to death in this way.” wrote Ji Shou-shan, a worker on the Murmansk railway.
Throughout the war the Chinese workers fought against the extremely oppressive conditions under which they worked and died. 17,000 Chinese miners in the Urals refused to go down the mines in December 1915 and destroyed the mine office. A few months later a team of 2,600 timber workers employed by the same boss struck. When police opened fire and killed one, they took up axes and stones and drove the police out. In September 1916, 517 Chinese workers at a gold mine near Odessa marched on the company’s office carrying axes and wooden clubs, demanding clothes, wages, and better food. A Union of Chinese Workers in Russia was established shortly after the February 1917 revolution to fight for equal treatment and to help repatriate those who wanted to return to China.
As one of the most insecure and highly exploited sections of the working class in Russia, many of the Chinese workers readily identified with the October revolution. O’Neill quotes railway worker Liu Fu: “After we heard of the October revolution, I and my Russian colleagues were all extremely happy. I helped them put up the red flags with hammer and sickle over the railway station. We shouted our support for the new government and the overthrow of the Kerensky regime. We began to understand a truth that we did not know – that poor people can take power in their country, instead of having to search everywhere for a reasonable life and happiness.”
Ren Fuchen, the first Chinese Bolshevik, was among the mine workers at Perm in the Urals, and organised one of the strikes in 1916. Soon after the victory of the October revolution, he organised many of his co-workers to join the Red Army, and by 25 November 1917 the first Chinese armed unit was welcomed into the Red Army. In October the following year, after the battalion had successfully resisted the counter-revolutionary army of Admiral Kolchak, it was named the Red Eagle battalion. Ren was killed in battle in December of that year, along with most of his battalion.
These stories of the Chinese workers (taken mostly from O’Neill’s book) are confirmed by an unusual source. Readers over the age of about fifty may remember a series of children’s books called Swallows and Amazons set in the English lake district. The author of those stories, Arthur Ransome, was a British journalist who happened to be in Russia at the time of the civil war. He developed a certain sympathy with the revolution and a familiarity with the Bolshevik leaders – while also spying for the British government. He wrote an account of his time called Russia in 1919.
In the chapter “Kamenev and the Moscow Soviet”, Ransome writes, “A note was passed up to Kamenev who, glancing at it, announced that the newly elected representative of the Chinese workmen in Moscow wished to speak. This was Chitaya Kuni, a solid little Chinaman with a big head, in black leather coat and breeches. I had often seen him before, and wondered who he was. He was received with great cordiality and made a quiet, rather shy speech in which he told them he was learning from them how to introduce socialism in China, and more compliments of the same sort.
“Reinstein replied, telling how at an American labour congress some years back the Americans shut the door in the face of a representative of a union of foreign workmen. “Such,” he said, “was the feeling in America at the time when Gompers was supreme, but that time has passed.” Still, as I listened to Reinstein, I wondered in how many other countries besides Russia, a representative of foreign labour would be thus welcomed. The reason has probably little to do with the good-heartedness of the Russians. Owing to the general unification of wages Mr. Kuni could not represent the competition of cheap labour.
“I talked to the Chinaman afterwards. He is president of the Chinese Soviet [council]. He told me they had just about a thousand Chinese workmen in Moscow, and therefore had a right to representation in the government of the town. I asked about the Chinese in the Red Army, and he said there were two or three thousand, not more.”
These accounts reveal the speciousness of the depiction of the Chinese workers in Russia in the account by Arshinov. Far from having “not the slightest idea of the true meaning of the Russian revolution and who blindly obeyed the orders of the authorities,” as Arshinov asserts, these workers knew very well what they were fighting for in the ranks of the Red Army. The same was true of the Lettish (Latvian) sharpshooters, who were among the first units of the czarist army to declare themselves in favour of a Soviet government, as early as May 1917.
The slander about Bolshevik rule resting on the ruthless violence of ignorant and ‘blindly obedient’ Chinese and Lettish troops has a long and sordid history. It was routinely repeated by the counter-revolution as proof that the Bolshevik government lacked popular support, and was about to fall.
This article from the New York Times in July 1918, is perhaps typical – a literary expression of the same ideas and fears depicted in the counter-revolutionary poster, but decorated with ‘socialist’ colours. A “Dr Dmitri Gavronsky, member of the Russian Constituent Assembly” [presumably the body which had been dispersed six months earlier – JR] arriving in Stockholm for “the coming International Socialist Conference” is reported as saying that “opposition to the Bolsheviki is growing rapidly among the workers and peasants, but that the Bolsheviki base their power chiefly on foreign support. In Moscow they have at their disposal 16,000 well-armed Lettish soldiers, some detachments of Finnish Red Guards, and a battalion of Chinese troops. The latter are always used for executions.”
The main ‘foreign support’ of the Bolsheviks that Gavronsky has in mind, however, is the support of the German government. With a cavalier disregard for fact, he brazenly repeats and expands the lie that the Bolsheviks are allied to German imperialism. By this means he shifts the responsibility for the carnage then under way in Ukraine onto the Bolsheviks. “That is why the Social Revolutionary party and the large mass of the Russian Revolutionary Democracy look fearlessly to the indispensable help of the allies,” he concludes.
The allies did their best to aid the fearless Gavronskys of Russia, helping, as British parliamentarian Winston Churchill put it, “to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle.” The armies of fourteen nations invaded the territories of the former Russian empire in support of the counter-revolution, fighting one of the first bloody battles on the very day that the armistice with Germany was being signed. In the northwest near Arkhangelsk, the counter-revolutionary General Yudenich was aided by troops from France, Italy, the United States, Estonia, and 14 battalions of British and Commonwealth troops (including Canadian and Australian troops), along with 20 naval ships, and airplanes. A naval blockade cut off Russian access to the Baltic Sea. In the south, French, Polish, Romanian, Serbian and Greek troops landed in Ukraine in support of the counter-revolutionaries Denikin and Wrangel.
In the far east, Japan invaded with 70,000 troops, along with British, American, Canadian, French, Italian, and Czechoslovakian troops. Japan and the US both aimed to take possession of a piece of Siberia and its resources. The Siberian headquarters of the counter-revolutionary Admiral Kolchak was recognised internationally as ‘the legitimate government of Russia.’ The Chinese government also sent a number of troops to join the Siberian invasion force – on the opposite side to the Chinese soldiers in the Red Army. Separate contingents of British and Commonwealth troops fought in the Caucasus and Caspian regions.
To the dismay of the Churchills, Gavronskys, and their like, the Bolshevik baby survived the strangulation attempt – albeit at a colossal price, including mass starvation in Ukraine and parts of Russia. In defeating both the Russian counter-revolution and their supporting armies, the Bolsheviks exploded the slander that they “based their power chiefly on foreign support”. The mass support of workers and peasants, resting on the maximum fraternisation of workers of different nationalities and languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian, Chinese or Buryat – was expressed in the heroic sacrifices of the soldiers of the multi-national Red Army, overcoming these powerful enemies against all odds.
The war took a heavy toll, however. The resulting economic dislocation and exhaustion of the working class accelerated a process of political counter-revolution within the Soviet state, led by Joseph Stalin. A key element in the Stalinist counter-revolution was the reversal of the Bolshevik policy of supporting the right of oppressed nations of the Russian empire to self-determination. It was the Stalinist counter-revolution that re-instituted the Czarist policy of Russification in the non-Russian territories, and developed it into even more monstrous forms. Stalin was to go as far as uprooting and deporting an entire nation, the Crimean Tartars.
It is this counter-revolutionary legacy of which Putin is the heir and successor. My friend is right to see in Putin’s Ukraine policy a cynical manipulation of two oppressed nationalities, but mistaken in tracing this to the Bolsheviks.