Arthur Ransome
The Crisis in Russia


I have done my best to indicate the essential facts in Russia's problem today, and to describe the organization and methods with which she is attempting its solution. I can give no opinion as to whether by these means the Russians will succeed in finding their way out of the quagmire of industrial ruin in which they are involved. I can only say that they are unlikely to find their way out by any other means. I think this is instinctively felt in Russia. Not otherwise would it have been possible for the existing organization, battling with one hand to save the towns front starvation, to destroy with the other the various forces clothed and armed by Western Europe, which have attempted its undoing. The mere fact of continued war has, of course, made progress in the solution of the economic problem almost impossible, but the fact that the economic problem was unsolved, must have made war impossible, if it were not that the instinct of the people was definitely against Russian or foreign invaders. Consider for one moment the military position.

Although the enthusiasm for the Polish war began to subside (even among the Communists) as soon as the Poles had been driven back from Kiev to their own frontiers, although the Poles are occupying an enormous area of non-Polish territory, although the Communists have had to conclude with Poland a peace obviously unstable, the military position of Soviet Russia is infinitely better this time than it was in 1918 or 1919. In 1918 the Ukraine was held by German troops and the district east of the Ukraine was in the hands of General Krasnov, the author of a flattering letter to the Kaiser. In the northwest the Germans were at Pskov, Vitebsk and Mohilev. We ourselves were at Murmansk and Archangel. In the east, the front which became known as that of Kolchak, was on the Volga. Soviet Russia was a little hungry island with every prospect of submersion. A year later the Germans had vanished, the flatterers of the Kaiser had joined hands with those who were temporarily flattering the Allies, Yudenitch's troops were within sight of Petrograd, Denikin was at Orel, almost within striking distance of Moscow; there had been a stampede of desertion from the Red Army. There was danger that Finland might strike at any moment. Although in the east Kolchak had been swept over the Urals to his ultimate disaster, the situation of Soviet Russia seemed even more desperate than in the year before. What is the position today! Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland are at peace with Russia. The Polish peace brings comparative quiet to the western front, although the Poles, keeping the letter rather than the spirit of their agreement, have given Balahovitch the opportunity of establishing himself in Minsk, where, it is said, that the pogroms of unlucky Jews show that he has learnt nothing since his ejection from Pskov.

Balahovitch's force is not important in itself, but its existence will make it easy to start the war afresh along the whole new frontier of Poland, and that frontier shuts into Poland so large an anti-Polish population, that a moment may still come when desperate Polish statesmen may again choose war as the least of many threatening evils. Still, for the moment, Russia's western frontier is comparatively quiet. Her northern frontier is again the Arctic Sea. Her eastern frontier is in the neighborhood of the Pacific. The Ukraine is disorderly, but occupied by no enemy; the only front on which serious fighting is proceeding is the small semi-circle north of the Crimea. There Denikin's successor, supported by the French but exultantly described by a German conservative newspaper as a "German baron in Cherkass uniform," is holding the Crimea and a territory slightly larger than the peninsula on the main land. Only to the immense efficiency of anti-Bolshevik propaganda can be ascribed the opinion, common in England but comic to any one who takes the trouble to look at a map, that Soviet Russia is on the eve of military collapse.

In any case it is easy in a revolution to magnify the influence of military events on internal affairs. In the first place, no one who has not actually crossed the Russian front during the period of active operations can well realize how different are the revolutionary wars from that which ended in 1918. Advance on a broad front no longer means that a belt of men in touch with each other has moved definitely 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.(1)

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 impossible?

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 percentages:

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.


(1) 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?