Storm in Irkutsk

As the November Revolution continued its gradual eastward sweep, it carried in its wake hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants who worked and traded in Russian territory. We have already seen how the Chinese diaspora reacted in Vladivostok, where the presence of Allied troops and the community’s own strength allowed it a greater degree of assertiveness. Vladivostok, however, was unique. In other Russian cities, the community was often less well established or protected by diplomatic officials, and hence less insulated from disorder.

titouirk
Footage of Chinese in Irkutsk, taken in winter 1919 when the city was still under anti-bolshevik control. Source.

Another centre of Chinese migration, Irkutsk, was an early locus of resistance to Red rule. Clashes between government and revolutionary forces took place even before the disbanding of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. It was also a stronghold of moderate socialists, who were more sympathetic to Chinese migrants than their tsarist predecessors had been. The following report from incoming consul Wei Bo illustrated the opportunities missed with the outbreak of revolution.

渤於九月二十九日到伊后,往謁俄省督軍及省長時,意甚親善,惟對於華工頗不滿意。現渤已與其派員議妥,如此在外華工,可免受外人虐待。再此間外交專員來館雲,頃督軍接駐華俄使函稱,因北京外部以現自俄常有鴉片運華,請嚴禁等語。督軍因此特命我來此道歉,以后自當嚴防雲雲。事詳問答簿中肅此上陳。敬叩崇安。魏渤謹肅。十一月十九日。

魏領事渤到伊后往謁俄督軍及省長問答紀要
渤於九月二十九日到伊后,伊即伊爾庫次克,用正式公文知照伊城俄督軍克君(A.N. Kruchlikov)省長拉君( I.A. Lavrov)去后,逾四五日,約定時刻,往謁督軍。

督軍曰:貴領何日來伊,此間天氣甚冷,能否受此苦寒。
渤答曰:我前曾留學俄京大學,已有八年之久。此等寒冷,曾經習慣,並不為慮。
督軍曰:貴領前曾留學俄京,此次來做領事,最為相宜。本督軍甚為歡迎。貴領今既來此,適有一事相商。
渤曰:貴督軍有何相商,請見告。
督軍曰:此間有一煤礦,其中華工有數千名之多。彼等往往身無護照,且自相鬧事,不遵礦規,我正擬一驅逐辦法。
渤曰:我來此不久,此間華工情形,尚未瞭然。據我所見該處華工雖多,系由各礦廠招募而來。彼等不通語言,因而誤犯規則,在所難免。然其中安分作工者,想亦不少。務請和衷商議,分別辦理,較為妥善。
督軍曰:甚善。
渤又曰:本領事來此,情形不熟,以后各事,請貴督軍幫助。
督軍曰:以后各事,甚願幫助。(遂辭別)

渤由督軍公署辭出后,即往謁外交專員愛君。該員歸督軍節制,駐華俄使先函為介紹。其初略敘寒暄,后曰,君在此如有難辦之事,我可竭力幫助,請勿拘泥等語,意頗慇懃。由外交員處辭出,即往謁省長。省長首先略敘寒暄,與督軍同。其后雲:現在各礦華工甚多,頗不安分,且其中名為工人,實安為盜賊,以致傷害人命者,時有所聞。今貴領一人來此,所談甚暢,極願以此事相商。貴領有無良法,以安置之。

渤曰:我來此雖為日無多,華工在此情形,亦略有所聞。總之,在此華工雖多,其實良莠不齊,鄙意對於此事,極願從長計議。
省長曰:貴領既有此意,擬不日間當派員往貴館,與貴領再為細商。
渤曰:如此辦理,當靜以待之。(言畢,告辭而返。)

回館后與本館薛主事將此事先行討論。薛曰,本館開辦將近兩年,與地方官辦事,頗不順手。今君與該省長一談,允即派員來館相商,此乃本館自開辦以來,為第一次極有體面之事。聞此心中大為暢快。正宜趁此機會,與其派員商一根本辦法。所謂根本辦法者何,即請省長允許本館有發給護照之權,借此可以清查華僑戶口,華匪亦可消滅為無形。除暴安良,功德無量,在此一舉。渤甚然其說。

After I arrived in Irkutsk on 29 September, when I went to meet the Russian governor and military governor [sic, Wei means krai commissar], they were extremely cordial, with the exception that they were very dissatisfied with Chinese workers. Now, I have come to an agreement with their representative such that Chinese workers abroad may avoid abuse by foreigners. Also, their foreign affairs official came to the consulate saying that the military governor had received a letter from the Russian ambassador in China, which said that since frequent shipments of opium were currently arriving in China from Russia, the Beijing Foreign Ministry had asked that they be strictly prohibited. Hence the commander had specially sent him to apologise, and in future they would guard against this rigorously. The details and discussion are hereby presented in a booklet for your consideration. With deepest regards, Wei Bo. 19 November.

Summary of the exchanges with the Russian military governor and governor, during the meetings upon Consul Wei’s arrival in Irkutsk
After I arrived in Irkutsk on 29 September and sent official notifications to Irkutsk military governor A.N. Kruchlikov [sic, A.N. Kruglikov] and governor I.A. Lavrov, four or five days later I arranged a time to meet the military governor.

kruglikov
A.N. Kruglikov, member of the Irkutsk municipal duma and military commissar from September 1917. Source.

Kruglikov: When did you arrive in Irkutsk? The weather here has been very cold, can you tolerate such bitter cold?
Wei: I previously studied in St Petersburg University for as long as eight years, and am already accustomed to such extreme cold. It does not bother me.
Kruglikov: Since you have studied in St Petersburg, your arrival now as consul is indeed most apt. I welcome you warmly. Now that you are here, there is one matter regarding which I would like to consult you.
Wei: If there is anything to be consulted, please let me know.
Kruglikov: There is a coal mine here which has as many as several thousand Chinese workers. They often do not carry passports with them, causing trouble among themselves and disobeying mine regulations. I am drawing up a plan to expel them.
Wei: I have not been here long and the circumstances of Chinese workers here are still not fully clear to me. Based on my observations, although Chinese workers here are numerous, they have all been recruited by the various mines and factories. They do not understand the language and hence mistakenly break the rules; this is unavoidable. Moreover, I think that not a few of them are law-abiding workers. I request that we discuss this together and deal with the matter in our respective ways. That would be more appropriate.
Kruglikov: Very well.
Wei: I have come here but am not well-versed in the situation. In dealing with issues in future, may the Military Governor lend his aid?
Kruglikov: In future matters I would be more than happy to help. (We take our leave.)

After I left the commander’s offices, I immediately went to meet foreign affairs official Ai [unclear who this is – ed.]. He is under the commander’s control and the Russian ambassador in China had earlier written to introduce us. He extended a brief greeting at first, then said that if the consul were to encounter difficulties here, he would do his utmost to help and we should not stand on ceremony. His attitude was most sincere and friendly. Taking leave of his office, I went to meet the governor. He began by exchanging pleasantries much as the military governor had. Then he said: “There are now very many Chinese workers in the various mines here. Many are not law-abiding, and it is not unheard of for there to be some among them who are workers in name, but are actually bandits, thieves and even murderers. Now that the consul is here and we may speak freely, I very much wish to consult you on this matter. Do you have any solution for resettling them?”

Wei: Although I have not been here many days, I have already heard something about the circumstances of Chinese workers here. In sum, although the Chinese workers here are numerous, the good are mixed in with the bad and my opinion is that further consideration must be given to the matter.
Lavrov: Since this is your opinion, I propose to send a representative to your consulate in the next few days to discuss this further in detail.
Wei: If this is your plan, I will await his arrival. (End of conversation. I took my leave and returned.)

lavrov
I.A. Lavrov, commissar of Irkutsk guberniia from March 1917. Source.

After returning to the consulate, I started off by discussing the matter first with our charge d’affaires Xue. He said that the consulate had been running for almost two years and conducting matters with local officials had been extremely difficult. Now, this dialogue with the governor – who had even agreed to send a representative to the consulate for discussions – was the first decent event since the opening of the consulate. Hearing this, I was extremely pleased. It would be best to take this opportunity to discuss a fundamental solution with this representative, the solution being to ask the governor to grant the consulate the right to issue passports. Using this, a thorough census of the Chinese diaspora could be conducted, and Chinese bandits could be completely suppressed. To root out the bad, bring comfort to the good and perform a great service; it all lies in this one measure. I endorse this wholeheartedly.

Letter from Irkutsk Consul Wei Bo, 26 December 1917 (sent 19 November). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 193-195.

Kruglikov and Lavrov were both Socialist Revolutionaries. Their complaints represented some of the perennial problems that accompanied Chinese labour migration. Nevertheless, their willingness to discuss the issue – rather than resort to outright expulsion – gave Wei a chance to consolidate official control over migrants and set things in order.

whitehouseirk
The White House in Irkutsk after the fighting in December 1917. Source.

Sadly, Wei was soon overtaken by the revolutionary onslaught. Throughout December, the bolsheviks in Irkutsk mustered their strength among the workers and soldiers of the city, plotting a coup and arresting some of Kruglikov’s officers. Lavrov himself was apprehended on 17 December and fierce fighting broke out not long thereafter:

二十一日午后四鐘起,伊城官、革兩軍兩軍交戰晝夜,槍炮聲不絕,四處燒搶,交通斷絕,郵電不通。職館亦被革軍檢查。嗣由俄館會同各領,函商兩軍停戰,今晨已議和。俄商損失頗巨,華商被搶約有三四十家,所受損失,尚未查明。職館人口均安,謹先電陳。渤叩。頃聞革軍仍有繼戰消息,詳情續報。

From 4pm on the 21st, government and revolutionary forces joined battle in Irkutsk day and night, the sound of guns and artillery was unceasing, arson and looting all around, transport was cut and post and telegraph blocked. The consulate was also searched by revolutionary troops. After the Russian consulate[?], together with other consuls, wrote to broker a ceasefire between both armies, peace was negotiated this morning. Russian merchants have incurred great losses, around 30 or 40 Chinese shops have been robbed and their losses have not yet been investigated. I wire first to report that the consulate’s staff are safe. Bo. Now there is news that the revolutionary forces continue to fight, details to follow.

Telegram from Wei Bo, 7 January 1918 (sent 4 January). Ibid., p. 212.

By early January, Red reinforcements from East Siberia soon decided the conflict in favour of the bolsheviks. It put paid to Wei’s hopes for a new working relationship with the Russians. Unlike Kruglikov and Lavrov – as we shall see – the bolsheviks did not hesitate to threaten the Chinese community with eviction in the face of escalating warfare and food shortages. Wei was also not the best man to defend a fractious diaspora community, for he had no stomach for the violence of the Civil War. As in most of revolutionary Russia, the Chinese in Irkutsk would be increasingly left to their own devices.

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