Counterrevolution in Harbin

In March 1918, resistance to the November Revolution entered a new phase. Early in the month the Bolsheviks and Central Powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, decisively ending Russia’s participation in the war. Now the Allies had even less reason to handle the Bolshevik regime with kid gloves. Armed support would be given to counterrevolutionary movements that promised to reverse the separate peace and resume Russia’s war effort. Outright intervention also commenced with the landing of British Royal Marines in Murmansk.

Chinese Eastern Railway general manager D.L. Horvath with members of the Allied interventionary forces in Vladivostok, 1918. Source.

At the same time, domestic anti-Bolshevik movements were beginning to coalesce on the peripheries of the Russian empire. We have already seen how Semenov used the Sino-Russian border as a base from which to launch an attack in early 1918. While the offensive soon lost steam and was repulsed by the Reds, this frontier was in many ways an ideal location for the Whites. Borders were porous and under-policed, giving White forces a convenient escape route. The Japanese army, keen to take advantage of Russia’s internal instability, was a source of arms and advisors. Chinese authority did not fully extend into the Chinese Eastern Railway zone, allowing Russians a relatively free hand there. At any rate, as a member of the Alliance, Beijing was obliged to turn a blind eye to the Whites’ activities. Short of invading China outright, the Reds could do little.

It was during this period that Chinese territory – in particular, the Russian enclave of Harbin and the CER – became a haven for the Whites. Anti-Bolshevik leaders rallied around Ambassador Kudashev, Railway general manager Horvath and the Russo-Asiatic Bank, which owned the CER concession and received China’s Boxer Indemnity funds. Semenov’s retreating troops formed a ready-made military wing. The Allies stood ready to aid them, transporting materiel through the CER and the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railway. Despite the fact that all this was taking place in Chinese territory, the opinions of the Chinese were almost an afterthought. They were simply informed that a prospective Russian government-in-exile was being established in China.


Kudashev: CER general manager Horvath and Russo-Chinese Bank chairman [A.I.] Putilov are now in Beijing to discuss with me a means of reorganising the administration of the CER. At the time, the most critical question among the various issues discussed was the decision to establish an organisation in Harbin. Its objectives are to preserve unity of action with the Allies, wipe away the shame of the Bolshevik government’s separate peace with the enemy, and join forces with the Siberian government in order to halt the eastward advance of the Bolsheviks and German and Austrian POWs. As for its offices, diplomatic functions will be undertaken by myself, to maintain communications with Your country and the various Allied ambassadors. Finance will be overseen by Putilov, and the army and police will be Horvath’s responsibility.
Horvath has been in Harbin for many years and enjoyed good relations with Your country, the Japanese and other nationalities. In this undertaking, his appeals will be received with widespread support. If sufficient troops were prepared and garrisoned such that the Bolsheviks and German and Austrian POWs would not dare to come eastwards with their schemes, all problems and technicalities would be eliminated to the mutual benefit of both Your country and mine.
The plans for this have been decided upon but it was not appropriate to announce them publicly. Although the Harbin Bolsheviks have already been expelled, one cannot guarantee that there are no traces of them left. Especially during the preparatory phase, it would not be in Horvath’s interests if our project were to reach the ears of that party. Hence, I am informing Your Ministry and the Allied ambassadors about this in confidence. Here is the written resolution from myself, Horvath and Putilov, if the Minister would be inclined to peruse it.
Lu, after reading the document: May I keep this paper?
Kudashev: This is the original, which I plan to present to the other Allied ambassadors. If the Minister wishes to keep it, please allow me to instruct my staff to type out a copy and send it to Your Ministry?
Lu: Good. Has Your Excellency spoken about this with British Ambassador Jordan?
Kudashev: I met him this afternoon and discussed it.

Meeting between Ambassador Kudashev and Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang, 2 March 1918. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 277.
Kudashev’s seat in Beijing. Source.

Despite Kudashev’s cagey description of his group as an “organisation”, it was clear that nobody was fooled (the term used in the source, 機關 jiguan, has connotations of official-ness). Lu’s first response was to consult with the Allied diplomatic corps to express China’s reservations. In an initial meeting with Ambassador Jordan, he drew an interesting parallel between Horvath and China’s Boxer Rebellion.


Lu: The Russian ambassador has organised a group in Beijing with Horvath and others in order to resist the Bolsheviks in their country. He spoke with me about this and has also informed your Excellency.
Jordan: Yes. If that group can indeed be established, it would be excellent.
Lu: From the perspective of my country, it is not entirely appropriate, since we have not broken off relations with Russia.
Jordan: I am well aware of the difficulties this poses for Your government.
Lu: This group is akin to the policies of Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong during the Boxer Rebellion, when they opposed the government’s declaration of war [on the western powers] from Shanghai. At the time I was ambassador in Russia. The government instructed me to return and I sent a telegram asking Li and Zhang if I should obey. They said it was unnecessary.
Jordan: Li’s and Zhang’s opposition was effective then. I very much hope that this group will also be effective.
Note: Regarding the attitude our country should take towards this group, a thorough study should be requested from the War Department’s advisors.

Meeting between Lu Zhengxiang and British Ambassador Sir John Jordan, 6 March 1918. Ibid., pp. 283-284.

Lu thus began by explicitly stating China’s ambivalence and ended with a highly charged analogy. Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong had parted ways with the Qing government in opposing the Boxers, and it was this act of insubordination that made room for peace with the imperial powers. But the resulting Boxer Protocol was perceived as a humilitating imposition on China and cost Li his life. What Jordan might have characterised as “effective” opposition was, at the same time, a painful historical memory for the Chinese.

Jordan might not have grasped the entire import of Lu’s words, but Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian spoke more bluntly in another meeting on 13 March. Gao argued that White activities in China could lead to conflict with the Bolsheviks. In the face of Allied determination, however, these protests met with little sympathy. Britain, France and Japan had already decided to support the new “organisation” in Harbin. The Chinese had to allow the Whites not only to operate freely, but to arm themselves, as the following receipt from Kudashev showed. Not included were the Japanese military advisors who joined Semenov at the same time.

Semenov with one of his Japanese advisors, Captain Kuroki Chikayoshi. The original image appeared in a 1937 memorial book on Kuroki. Source.


1898-model cannons: Eight. Shells: 10,000. Shrapnel shells: 50,000.
1905-model machine guns: 50. Machine-gun ammunition: 2 million rounds.
Hand grenades: 10,000. Rifle grenades: 1,000. Rockets: 2,000.
15cm-calibre howitzer: Two.
1905-model carbines: 3,000. 1897-model rifles: 2,000. Ammunition: 7.5 million rounds.
Handguns: 200. Ammunition: 20,000 rounds.
The above were shipped from Changchun to Manzhouli.

Receipt from Kudashev, 18 March 1918 (sent 16 March). Ibid., pp. 301-302.

The White movement in China thus put the Chinese themselves in a difficult position. It gave the Bolsheviks ample grounds for a quarrel, increased frontier insecurity, undermined Chinese authority and extended Japanese influence. Little could be done for the time being except rein Semenov in and hope that the Allies would look kindly on Beijing’s cooperation. Unfortunately, the Chinese were to be disappointed on both counts.

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