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The Crisis in Russia by Arthur Ransome

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forward. It means that there have been a series of forward
movements at widely separated, and with the very haziest of
mutual, connections. There will be violent fighting for a
village or a railway station or the passage of a river. Small
hostile groups will engage in mortal combat to decide the
possession of a desirable hut in which to sleep, but, except at
these rare points of actual contact, the number of prisoners
is far in excess of the number of casualties. Parties on each
side will be perfectly ignorant of events to right or left of
them, ignorant even of their gains and losses. Last year I ran
into Whites in a village which the Reds had assured me was

strongly held by themselves, and these same Whites refused
to believe that the village where I had spent the preceding
night was in the possession of the Reds. It is largely an
affair of scouting parties, of patrols dodging each other
through the forest tracks, of swift raids, of sudden
conviction (often entirely erroneous) on the part of one side
or the other, that it or the enemy has been "encircled." The
actual number of combatants to a mile of front is infinitely
less than during the German war. Further, since an
immense proportion of these combatants on both sides have
no wish to fight at all, being without patriotic or political
convictions and very badly fed and clothed, and since it is
more profitable to desert than to be taken prisoner, desertion
in bulk is not uncommon, and the deserters, hurriedly
enrolled to fight on the other side, indignantly re-desert
when opportunity offers. In this way the armies of Denikin
and Yudenitch swelled like mushrooms and decayed with
similar rapidity. Military events of this kind, however
spectacular they may seem abroad, do not have the political
effect that might be expected. I was in Moscow at the worst
moment of the crisis in 1919 when practically everybody
outside the Government believed that Petrograd had already
fallen, and I could not but realize that the Government was
stronger then than it had been in February of the same year,
when it had a series of victories and peace with the Allies
seemed for a moment to be in sight. A sort of fate seems to
impel the Whites to neutralize with extraordinary rapidity
any good will for themelves which they may find
among the population. This is true of both sides, but seems
to affect the Whites especially. Although General Baron Wrangel
does indeed seem to have striven more successfully
than his predecessors not to set the population against him
and to preserve the loyalty of his army, it may be said with
absolute certainty that any large success on his part would
bring crowding to his banner the same crowd of stupid
reactionary officers who brought to nothing any mild desire
for moderation that may have been felt by General Denikin.
If the area he controls increases, his power of control over
his subordinates will decrease, and the forces that led to
Denikin's collapse will be set in motion in his case also.*
[(*)On the day on which I send this book to the printers
news comes of Wrangel's collapse and flight. I leave
standing what I have written concerning him, since it

will apply to any successor he may have. Each general
who has stepped into Kolchak's shoes has eventually had
to run away in them, and always for the same reasons.
It may be taken almost as an axiom that the history of
great country is that of its centre, not of its periphery.
The main course of English history throughout the troubled
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was never deflected
from London. French history did not desert Paris, to
make a new start at Toulon or at Quiberon Bay.
And only a fanatic could suppose that Russian history
would run away from Moscow, to begin again in a semi-Tartar
peninsula in the Black Sea. Moscow changes continually, and
may so change as to make easy the return of the "refugees."
Some have already returned. But the refugees will not return as
conquerors. Should a Russian Napoleon (an unlikely figure, even in
spite of our efforts) appear, he will not throw away the invaluable
asset of a revolutionary war-cry. He will have to fight some one,
or he will not be a Napoleon. And whom will he fight but the very
people who, by keeping up the friction, have rubbed Aladdin's ring so hard
and so long that a Djinn, by no means kindly disposed towards them,
bursts forth at last to avenge the breaking of his sleep?]

And, of course, should hostilities flare up again on the
Polish frontier, should the lions and lambs and jackals and
eagles of Kossack, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish nationalists
temporarily join forces, no miracles of diplomacy will keep
them from coming to blows. For all these reasons a military
collapse of the Soviet Government at the present time, even
a concerted military advance of its enemies, is unlikely.

It is undoubtedly true that the food situation in the towns is
likely to be worse this winter than it has yet been. Forcible
attempts to get food from the peasantry will increase the
existing hostility between town and country. There has been
a very bad harvest in Russia. The bringing of food from
Siberia or the Kuban (if military activities do not make that
impossible) will impose an almost intolerable strain on
the inadequate transport. Yet I think internal collapse
unlikely. It may be said almost with certainty that
Governments do not collapse until there is no one left to
defend them. That moment had arrived in the case of the

Tsar. It had arrived in the case of Kerensky. It has not
arrived in the case of the Soviet Government for certain
obvious reasons. For one thing, a collapse of the Soviet
Government at the present time would be disconcerting, if not
disastrous, to its more respectable enemies. It would, of
course, open the way to a practically unopposed military
advance, but at the same time it would present its enemies
with enormous territory, which would overwhelm the
organizing powers which they have shown again and again
to be quite inadequate to much smaller tasks. Nor would
collapse of the present Government turn a bad harvest into a
good one. Such a collapse would mean the breakdown of
all existing organizations, and would intensify the horrors of
famine for every town dweller. Consequently, though the
desperation of hunger and resentment against inevitable
requisitions may breed riots and revolts here and there
throughout the country, the men who, in other
circumstances, might coordinate such events, will refrain
from doing anything of the sort. I do not say that collapse is
impossible. I do say that it would be extremely undesirable
from the point of view of almost everybody in Russia.
Collapse of the present Government would mean at best a
reproduction of the circumstances of 1917, with the
difference that no intervention from without would be
necessary to stimulate indiscriminate slaughter within. I say
"at best" because I think it more likely that collapse would be
followed by a period of actual chaos. Any Government that
followed the Communists would be faced by the same
economic problem, and would have to choose between
imposing measures very like those of the Communists and
allowing Russia to subside into a new area for colonization.
There are people who look upon this as a natural, even a
desirable, result of the revolution. They forget that the
Russians have never been a subject race, that they have
immense powers of passive resistance, that they respond
very readily to any idea that they understand, and that the
idea of revolt against foreigners is difficult not to
understand. Any country that takes advantage of the
Russian people in a moment of helplessness will find, sooner
or later, first that it has united Russia against it, and secondly
that it has given all Russians a single and undesirable view of
the history of the last three years. There will not be a
Russian who will not believe that the artificial incubation of

civil war within the frontiers of old Russia was not
deliberately undertaken by Western Europe with the object
of so far weakening Russia as to make her exploitation easy.
Those who look with equanimity even on this prospect
forget that the creation in Europe of a new area for
colonization, a knocking out of one of the sovereign nations,
will create a vacuum, and that the effort to fill this vacuum
will set at loggerheads nations at present friendly and so
produce a struggle which may well do for Western Europe
what Western Europe will have done for Russia.

It is of course possible that in some such way the Russian
Revolution may prove to be no more than the last desperate
gesture of a stricken civilization. My point is that if that is
so, civilization in Russia will not die without infecting us
with its disease. It seems to me that our own
civilization is ill already, slightly demented perhaps, and
liable, like a man in delirium, to do things which tend to
aggravate the malady. I think that the whole of the Russian
war, waged directly or indirectly by Western Europe, is an
example of this sort of dementia, but I cannot help believing
that sanity will reassert itself in time. At the present
moment, to use a modification of Gusev's metaphor, Europe
may be compared to a burning house and the Governments
of Europe to fire brigades, each one engaged in trying to
salve a wing or a room of the building. It seems a pity that
these fire brigades should be fighting each other, and
forgetting the fire in their resentment of the fact that some of
them wear red uniforms and some wear blue. Any single
room to which the fire gains complete control increases the
danger of the whole building, and I hope that before the roof
falls in the firemen will come to their senses.

But turning from grim recognition of the danger, and from
speculations as to the chance of the Russian Government
collapsing, and as to the changes in it that time may bring, let
us consider what is likely to happen supposing it does
not collapse. I have already said that I think collapse
unlikely. Do the Russians show any signs of being able to
carry out their programme, or has the fire gone so far during
the quarrelling of the firemen as to make that task

I think that there is still a hope. There is as yet no sign of a
general improvement in Russia, nor is such an improvement
possible until the Russians have at least carried out the first
stage of their programme. It would even not be surprising if
things in general were to continue to go to the bad during the
carrying out of that first stage. Shortages of food, of men,
of tools, of materials, are so acute that they have had to
choose those factories which are absolutely indispensable for
the carrying out of this stage, and make of them "shock"
factories, like the "shock" troops of the war, giving them
equipment over and above their rightful share of the
impoverished stock, feeding their workmen even at the cost
of letting others go hungry. That means that other factories
suffer. No matter, say the Russians, if only that first stage
makes progress. Consequently, the only test that can be
fairly applied is that of transport. Are they or are they
not gaining on ruin in the matter of wagons and engines!
Here are the figures of wagon repairs in the seven chief
repairing shops up to the month of June:

December 1919............475 wagons were repaired.
January 1920.............656

After elaborate investigation last year, Trotsky, as temporary
Commissar of Transport, put out an order explaining that
the railways, to keep up their present condition, must repair
roughly 800 engines every month. During the first six
months of 1920 they fulfilled this task in the following

January..................32 per cent


I think that is a proof that, supposing normal relations
existed between Russia and ourselves, the Russian would be
able to tackle the first stage of the problem that lies before
them, and would lie before them whatever their Government
might be. Unfortunately there is no proof that this steady
improvement can be continued, except under conditions of
trade with Western Europe. There are Russians who think
they can pull through without us, and, remembering the
miracles of which man is capable when his back is to the
wall, it would be rash to say that this is impossible. But
other Russians point out gloomily that they have been using
certain parts taken from dead engines (engines past repair) in
order to mend sick engines. They are now coming to the
mending, not of sick engines merely, but of engines on
which post-mortems have already been held. They are
actually mending engines, parts of which have already been
taken out and used for the mending of other engines. There
are consequently abnormal demands for such things as
shafts and piston rings. They are particularly short of
Babbitt metal and boiler tubes. In normal times the average
number of new tubes wanted for each engine put
through the repair shops was 25 (10 to 15 for engines used
in the more northerly districts, and 30 to 40 for engines in
the south where the water is not so good). This number
must now be taken as much higher, because during recent
years tubes have not been regularly renewed. Further, the
railways have been widely making use of tubes taken from
dead engines, that is to say, tubes already worn. Putting
things at their very best, assuming that the average demand
for tubes per engine will be that of normal times, then, if
1,000 engines are to be repaired monthly, 150,000 tubes will
be wanted every six months. Now on the 15th of June the
total stock of tubes ready for use was 58,000, and the
railways could not expect to get more than another 13,000 in
the near future. Unless the factories are able to do better
(and their improvement depends on improvement in
transport), railway repairs must again deteriorate, since the
main source of materials for it in Russia, namely the dead

engines, will presently be exhausted.

On this there is only one thing to be said. If, whether
because we do not trade with them, or from some other
cause, the Russians are unable to proceed even in this
first stage of their programme, it means an indefinite
postponement of the moment when Russia will be able to
export anything, and, consequently, that when at last we
learn that we need Russia as a market, she will be a market
willing to receive gifts, but unable to pay for anything at all.
And that is a state of affairs a great deal more serious to
ourselves than to the Russians, who can, after all, live by
wandering about their country and scratching the ground, whereas
we depend on the sale of our manufactured goods
for the possibility of buying the food we cannot grow
ourselves. If the Russians fail, their failure will affect not us
alone. It will, by depriving her of a market, lessen
Germany's power of recuperation, and consequently her
power of fulfilling her engagements. What, then, is to
happen to France? And, if we are to lose our market in
Russia, and find very much weakened markets in Germany
and France, we shall be faced with an ever-increasing
burden of unemployment, with the growth, in fact, of the
very conditions in which alone we shall ourselves be unable
to recover from the war. In such conditions, upheaval in
England would be possible, and, for the dispassionate
observer, there is a strange irony in the fact that the
Communists desire that upheaval, and, at the same time,
desire a rebirth of the Russian market which would tend to
make that upheaval unlikely, while those who most fear
upheaval are precisely those who urge us, by making
recovery in Russia impossible, to improve the chances of
collapse at home. The peasants in Russia are not alone in
wanting incompatible things.

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