The Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 was followed by a feverish search for a way to end the war. As discussed in a previous post, they began by sending a military representative to the German lines and publishing secret treaties in the hope of embarrassing the Allied countries. On 26 November – the same day Krylenko’s men crossed the German trenches to discuss a ceasefire – Trotsky addressed the Allies, asking them to join in the peace initiative. Eager to redirect their troops to another front, the Germans agreed to talks the very next day. The Allies, on the other hand, ignored Trotsky’s overtures.
Ambassador Liu Jingren immediately informed Beijing of the peace initiative in a lengthy letter from Petrograd. Despite mounting pressure for a ceasefire, Trotsky committed a diplomatic faux pas by leaving out important Allied countries – most notably Japan and, for Liu, China – from his appeal, as the following extract shows:
Moreover, it is notable that the diplomatic corps in Russia not only does not maintain official relations with the Bolshevik government, but also strenuously avoids any actual dealings with them. Their dissatisfaction towards that party is evident. Yesterday, Novaia Zhizn reported that Foreign Affairs Commissar Trotsky, in a meeting with workers and soldiers, announced that the foreign ambassadors had yet to reply to the message on the ceasefire and peace negotiations. [He said] that their hands-off approach would not be an obstacle, and one need only see what would happen if not a single diplomat in Russia were permitted to leave Russian territory. The diplomatic corps, upon hearing this, were all astounded. There is a fear that ignorant people may, because of Trotsky’s words, grow more extreme, triggering an assault on the corps.
Also, Trotsky’s message has yet to be received by myself and the ambassadors of Japan, Brazil, Romania and Portugal. The diplomatic corps is deeply surprised by this.Letter from Ambassador Liu Jingren, 13 December 1917 (sent 26 November). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 189
This oversight was only temporary, however. Bolshevik diplomacy towards the Chinese would soon become far more adroit.
For their part, the anti-Bolshevik opposition was able to access sympathetic Russian diplomats and, through them, to appeal to foreign powers, including Beijing. One such example came from the Amur Oblast Zemstvo Assembly, convened in Khabarovsk on 2 December by the Menshevik I.N. Shishlov. In the Russian Far East, elections for local zemstvo and municipal authorities had only just been permitted and carried out after the March Revolution. Many of these new bodies – staffed largely by liberals and moderate socialists – looked askance at the Bolsheviks’ undemocratic tendencies, especially given the latter’s hostile attitude towards the Constituent Assembly.
Unlike Trotsky’s note, the Assembly’s December declaration not only mentioned China, but was also dispatched to Ambassador N.A. Kudashev for transmission to the Chinese government.
Regarding a telegram received from the leader of the Amur Oblast Zemstvo Assembly, which held an extraordinary meeting in Khabarovsk and requested that its resolution on the recent events in Russia be conveyed to the various Allied governments. Since the members of the Amur Oblast Zemtsvo Assembly were all elected via popular vote, its resolutions truly represent the wishes of the general public of Amur oblast as a whole. Here, a translation of the resolution is enclosed for Your Ministry’s perusal.
Translation of the Resolution of the Amur Oblast Zemtsvo Assembly
This Assembly, having full authority in Amur oblast, convened its first extraordinary meeting. Towards the rebellious activities of various organs and individuals, it expresses deep outrage and, in particular, voices its protests. All who seize state power by military force must be denounced by this Assembly. All irresponsible organs and individuals superficially using a swift conclusion of peace as a pretext to implement various laws are deeply regretted by this Assembly and will absolutely not be recognised. This Assembly hereby declares that Amur oblast, in its foreign policy, still keeps faith with the nations allied to Russia, namely free England, gracious France, vast America, powerful Japan, heroic Belgium, ancient China and the other Allied countries. These countries will receive Russia’s strength and support in swiftly achieving the goal of a glorious, fair and general peace. The Assembly hereby charges its leader with conveying the aforementioned views to the diplomatic representatives of the various Allied nations.Letter from the Russian Embassy, 6 December 1917 (sent 5 December). Ibid., p. 185.
Underscoring Russia’s fragmentation yet further was Ambassador Kudashev’s coldness towards the new government. In a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian, Kudashev revealed that he was no longer maintaining direct contact with Petrograd and even asked Gao to forward him Liu’s reports.
Kudashev: Has Your Ministry recently received any telegrams from Petrograd?
Gao: In the past few days several telegrams from Ambassador Liu have been received. All were sent before communications were disrupted and [they] reported on the disordered situation in Your country. Your Excellency must have already seen all the newspaper reports and I need not belabour you with an account. Now a telegram has arrived from the ambassador in Denmark, saying that the new government in Petrograd has sent a representative to Germany and Austria to request a ceasefire and call for peace. The opinion in those two countries is that they must wait for the majority of the Russian people to express a desire for peace before raising the issue.
Kudashev: Most people in my country will absolutely not approve the peace issue.
Gao: Now that communications have resumed, has Your Excellency received telegrams from Your Government?
Kudashev: The government established for the moment in my country is not recognised by any other nation. The various Allied countries are especially reluctant to recognise it, hence I am also not willing to exchange official correspondence with it. Thus I have neither sent it any telegrams nor received any. With important, pre-existing local institutions, however, I have made enquiries regarding the exact situation. Recently, I heard that the former ambassador to Austria, Shen [Shen Ruilin – ed.], returned to Beijing. When he passed through Petrograd, he must have witnessed the scene [there]. Could you give a sense of it?
Gao: When Shen returned to Beijing, he passed various places in Your Country. The journey was extremely dangerous, encountering mutinous troops who hurled bricks that broke not a few of the windows on the train. While in Petrograd, he frequently heard gunfire and the street-fighting was relentless.
Kudashev: Henceforth, if Your Ministry receives reports from Ambassador Liu, I would be deeply grateful if they could be conveyed to me.
Gao: From now on, insofar as Ambassador Liu’s telegrams relate to the internal situation in Your Country, we will send Your Excellency a digest.Meeting between Ambassador Kudashev and Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian, 1 December 1917. Ibid., p. 184.
Shen’s harrowing journey aside, Beijing’s thoughts soon turned to how China might use Russia’s diplomatic isolation and the rupture between Kudashev and Petrograd to its advantage. This led directly to China’s first post-revolutionary foray into “rights recovery”: A unilateral cessation of Russia’s Boxer Indemnity payments, which will be discussed in a future post.