For many in Russia, the March Revolution was a chance to realise long-held aspirations for freedom, democracy, peace and the rights of labour. However, the first post-revolutionary cabinet was unable to meet all these demands. Its continued commitment to Russia’s wartime Allies was particularly galling for war-weary soldiers, who no longer saw the attraction of fighting for “imperialist” goals. Ambassador Liu Jingren described the looming crisis in Petrograd.
Having received your enquiries, my findings are as follows:
On the military: First, military potential and strength are wavering and lax. Troops on the front are entranced by equality and freedom and the socialists’ doctrine of equal distribution of property. A great many despise and disobey orders, as well as throw down their weapons and secretly return home. After the government’s repeated warnings and strict investigations, this trend has abated somewhat, but military matters have been greatly affected and people are panic-stricken, fearing that the enemy will soon arrive. Second, most of the troops support democracy, only the cossacks have enjoyed imperial favour. They may propose a constitutional monarchy, but their numbers are small and will have no effect at all. Third, the army has long hated autocracy, Grand Duke Nicholas has been relieved of his command and is powerless. Fourth, the cabinet now firmly maintains that it will not violate the Alliance and will fight to the end.
On politicians: First, cabinet members are currently able to reconcile their opinions, exerting themselves to the utmost in public service. Outsiders all admire it and sing its praises. Second, the Duma parties have not been reshuffled. In the Provisional Government, the Youth [Kadet – ed.], Progressist and socialist parties are currently the strongest. They mostly follow the popular will and are inclined towards a republic. In the future elections the majority will certainly support democracy. As for power in the localities, the socialists are on top. Third, the various provinces have temporarily adopted local self-government, imperial territories such as Poland have declared complete independence, whereas Finland has declared autonomy. The governors-general of the various provinces have mostly been arrested and completely divested of their authority, including Gondatti in Primor’e and Kuropatkin in Turkestan. As for the future direction of these imperial territories, it is still hard to predict.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 25 April 1917 (sent 23 April). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 87-88.
Liu’s report highlights the dichotomy between the army’s unwillingness to fight and the Provisional Government’s decision to honour Russia’s military obligations. This tension erupted into open conflict during the April Crisis, after the Miliukov Note of 1 May (18 April in Old Style) was divulged. The Note, which spoke of pursuing the war to a victorious conclusion and the “guarantees and sanctions” of imperial diplomacy, was seen as a violation of the popular desire for peace and rejection of imperialist war. Massive demonstrations took place in Petrograd to protest the Note. A crisis of confidence in the cabinet led not only to Miliukov’s fall from grace, but also increased the legitimacy of the socialist-dominated Petrograd Soviet. Members of the Soviet now joined the Provisional Government.
The next two documents show how the Chinese were alive to the possibilities presented by the April Crisis. Not content to be a mere spectator of the unfolding shift in power, Liu wrote to the Foreign Ministry with his own proposal.
On the Chinese workers in Russia, the Russian government has agreed to discuss improvements with the embassy. Over several days I have met with the various organisations for joint discussions. Due to the political reforms, most consider submitting to my request to establish a contract. Shortly thereafter [unsure of name – ed.] said they heard that Beijing has planned a unified contract. As soon as a draft of that contract had been received, after due consideration of the circumstances, further clarification and discussion could take place. Now, if Beijing does have a unified contract planned, it would be best to take this opportunity to consult the regulations for Russian workers and discuss it with them, since their social groups are exuberantly proclaiming egalitarianism.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 11 May 1917 (sent 8 May). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 95.
The Foreign Ministry responded in kind, with a terse note of approval.
With the Russian workers in power, one can indeed take the opportunity to discuss and change how labourers are protected. Most crucial is that wages and treatment should be identical to those of Russian workers. The Ministry will send a sample draft contract separately.Telegram to Liu Jingren, 16 May 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 96.
The message from both Liu and the Foreign Ministry is clear: With the socialists now in the ascendancy, the Chinese could harness their rhetoric of equality and labour to protect Chinese wartime workers in Russia. A previous document has shown that the issue of Chinese labourers was of great concern to Liu. He was well aware of their poor wages and working conditions, although powerless to act. The April Crisis furnished an ideal opportunity to rectify matters and enforce employment contracts for all Chinese recruits.
This exchange between Liu and the Ministry demonstrates how Chinese diplomats did not merely “observe and report” on the revolutionary situation. Instead, they perceived the events in Russia as a chance for the Chinese community – if not the nation – to achieve prior goals, from the welfare of migrant workers to the “recovery” of rights and territories seen as “lost” to the Russians. Both men on the spot such as Liu and the government in Beijing shared this sense of opportunism. To that end, the events in Russia collided with Chinese aspirations and agency, with far-reaching consequences outside the borders of Russia itself.