Barely a few months into the November Revolution, the bolsheviks’ strong-arm tactics had become increasingly apparent. Freedom of the press was curtailed just days after the Revolution. One month later the Cheka was formed to “persecute and break up all forms of counter-revolution and sabotage“. When elections for the long-awaited Constituent Assembly did not yield a bolshevik victory, the Assembly was summarily dissolved in January 1918.
This provoked resistance from moderate socialists who had only just experienced greater political freedom under the Provisional Government. Among them were Siberian regionalists – many of whom were Socialist Revolutionaries – whose attempts to establish autonomy were cut short by the bolshevik coup. From 6-15 December, an Extraordinary Siberian Regional Congress was held in Tomsk; it condemned the November Revolution and reaffirmed the principle of Siberian autonomy. The SRs’ success in the Constituent Assembly elections and its suppression by the bolsheviks soured relations still further.
We have already seen how one Siberian group, the Amur Oblast Zemstvo Assembly, attempted to enlist international (and Chinese) support. The representatives of the Extraordinary Congress, however, were the first to address the Chinese directly and specifically, and to ask for Chinese recognition as a legitimate Russian government.
A Monsieur le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères de la République Chinoise Péking
La Conférence Extraordinaire Sibérienne tenue à Tomsk le 15 Décembre 1917 et composée des délègues des villes, des provinces, des organisations coopératives, des paysans, des travailleurs, des soldats, des cosaques et de l’université Sibérienne a élu le Gouvernement Provisoire de la Sibérie représente par les Conseil Provisoire Sibérien que se compose du Président Potanine et des Membres Derber, Ermakoff, Zakharoff, Novossiloff, Potouchinsky et Chatiloff.
Le 25 Janvier commerceront à Tomsk les séances de la Douma Sibérienne en qualité d’organe législatif sibérien jusqu’à la convocation de l’Assemblée Constituante Sibérienne. Les élections de l’Assemblée Constituante sont prévues pour le mois de Mars. Le Gouvernement Provisoire Sibérien a pour but la lutte contre l’anarchie, le rétablissement de l’ordre normal et l’organisation du Gouvernement Provisoire de la Sibérie Autonome et aussi de donner son appui à l’Assemblée Constituante de toute la Russie dans l’organisation du pouvoir légitime central. Le Gouvernement Provisoire Sibérien d’accord entièrement avec l’Assemblée Constituante de toute la Russie sur la question de la paix combattra les desseins des commissaires du peuple de donner au pays une paix honteuse séparée.
Avez la bonté de faire part de ce qui précède au Gouvernement de la République Chinoise et de le prier de reconnaitre le Gouvernement Provisoire Sibérien et de nous en communiquer le résultat au plus tôt.
(Signe) pour le Président [P.Ia.] Derber
Pour le secrétaire [V.I.] Moravsky
Tomsk, le 20 Janvier/2 Février 1918Telegram from the Chairman of the Extraordinary Congress Derber and others (received 3 February). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), Appendix A, pp. 5-6.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry soon began sounding out various opinions on this message. On 4 February, Minister Lu Zhengxiang and Deputy Minister Gao Erqian met with British Ambassador Sir John Jordan to discuss it. Jordan said he had not received word about the Siberian Provisional Government and asked to copy the message. Lu then assured him that China would wait on other countries’ responses before making a decision. Two days later, Lu then spoke to Russian Ambassador N.A. Kudashev, whose reply was somewhat more interesting:
Minister: The Tomsk region in Siberia has now declared independence and established a provisional government. Your Excellency must have also received such a report. It appears that the aims contained in this provisional government’s declaration are still pure.
Kudashev, producing a telegram: I also received this telegram on Sunday night but, in the interests of caution, did not wish to blindly comply with this provisional government’s views and immediately seek Your Government’s recognition for it. I have already sent someone there to look into it and, if this is indeed reliable, I will officially notify You at once.Meeting between Ambassador Kudashev and Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang, 6 February 1918. Ibid., p. 239.
Kudashev had received the exact same telegram, but why did he not pass it on when he had experienced no such hesitation with the Amur Oblast Zemstvo Assembly’s declaration? Part of the answer could lie in Derber’s request for recognition as a legitimate government, which exceeded the Zemstvo Assembly’s claims and might have put Kudashev’s own position in jeopardy. More important, perhaps, was Kudashev’s sympathy towards a different kind of anti-bolshevik: The armed detachments forming on the Sino-Russian border and in Harbin. It was this latter group – and not the moderate socialist opposition – that would yield the leading figures of the Civil War in the Far East, such as G.M. Semenov and Admiral A.V. Kolchak.
At any rate, this particular Provisional Siberian Government did not last long. The Siberian Regional Duma was dispersed by the Tomsk soviet in short order, sending Derber fleeing more decisively into the arms of the Chinese. He set up shop in Harbin and, in summer 1918, in Vladivostok. There, he became the recipient of Japanese aid, channelled through Rear Admiral Kato Kanji, commander-in-chief of the Japanese fleet in Vladivostok, and Consul Kikuchi Yoshiro. But Derber’s socialist credentials never quite endeared him to the Japanese military. Like Kudashev, the Japanese army much preferred courting more conservative anti-bolsheviks such as Semenov, Kolchak and S.N. Rozanov. For as long as the region lay between the hammer of the Russian old guard and the anvil of the Japanese army, the struggle over the anti-bolshevik movement in Siberia would be won by conservatives, not by moderate socialists.