Between November 1918 and January 1920, Admiral A.V. Kolchak was Supreme Ruler of Russia, nominally presiding over the White regime in Omsk as well as the anti-Bolshevik movement as a whole. Under his leadership, the White armies of Siberia made significant advances across the Urals in the spring and summer of 1919. Had they joined forces with Denikin’s Volunteer Army in the south, the fate of Lenin’s government might have been sealed.
Like many other White leaders in Siberia, Kolchak got his start in China, which was an anti-Bolshevik stronghold. The Chinese Eastern Railway zone, with its Russian administration under D.L. Horvath, formed an alternate locus of political power away from direct Bolshevik interference. Military aid from the Allies, especially the Japanese, could easily be channelled through Chinese territory. And for the time being, Russian ambassador N.A. Kudashev continued to receive large sums of money via the Boxer Indemnity, which sustained a network of tsarist-era consuls vital to the maintenance of pre-revolutionary authority in China. Therefore, after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, when Kolchak conveyed to the British his desire to continue serving the Allied war effort, London considered it preferable that he remain in the Far East. He was en route to Mesopotamia when Major-General Dudley Ridout in Singapore instructed him to link up with Kudashev in Beijing.
Kolchak arrived in Beijing in March or April 1918 and plunged into the anti-Bolshevik maelstrom. Already in early March, Kudashev and Horvath were planning to reorganise the Railway administration into an embryonic government-in-exile, with a military arm centred around the Railway guard. Kolchak was introduced to the Foreign Ministry as a member of the new board, but he seems to have spoken little.
Kudashev: The CER board held a shareholders’ meeting the day before yesterday (Saturday). This has been reported in the news – the meeting was never secret – and its work is now complete. Kolchak is now commander of the Railway guard and will soon leave for Harbin to support Horvath in maintaining order in the Railway zone, allowing Horvath to consolidate his authority and manage all responsibilities. At the same time, he will assist General Semenov in military matters, with the aim of gradually bolstering his forces to deal with the situation in our country, as was my original intention.
Lu: I have heard that General Semenov has already entered your country.
Kudashev: I had previously advised Semenov that, since his forces were not yet adequate, he should be cautious and not attack lightly. But as for why he has now entered our country, first, the Siberian cossacks all wish to support Semenov and he naturally wishes to arrange things personally. Second, the Bolsheviks are deploying 500 Hungarian POWs along with two heavy artillery pieces with the intention of attacking eastwards, and it is imperative to plan defensive measures. Here for your perusal is a note from Horvath, which I was asked to convey to you and the Allied ambassadors. A summary is translated as follows:
‘There is news that the Bolsheviks will soon invade eastwards. With an army of 17,000 men it will be possible to resist them, and we propose to begin preparations for this in the CER zone. This plan depends first of all on the Chinese government not opposing it, and further on China’s assistance in manpower and the Allies’ assistance in financing and military equipment. Only then can an army be mustered for battle. Please negotiate with the Chinese government to inform local officials not to prevent willing Chinese from volunteering for the army. Other Allied citizens living in China should also be allowed to volunteer.’
Lu: Was this proposal sent to British ambassador Jordan?
Kudashev: It was sent to Jordan; Japanese ambassador Hayashi has also seen it. We have not yet met with French ambassador Boppe.
Lu: What was the British ambassador’s view?
Kudashev: The British ambassador said that, personally, he highly approved.
Lu: At tomorrow’s State Council meeting, I will present this note for discussion.
Kudashev: Horvath and Kolchak must leave for Harbin this Wednesday.
Horvath: I plan to leave for Harbin tomorrow night.
Kudashev: Before they both leave for Harbin, they wish to meet the Prime Minister. Please convey to the Prime Minister tomorrow afternoon that we hope he will grant us an audience, so that we may give him a report.
Lu: Once I have enquired with the Prime Minister tomorrow, I will telephone you to advise.Meeting between Kudashev, Horvath, Kolchak and Lu Zhengxiang, 29 April 1918. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 356-357.
Kolchak may have been reticent during this meeting, but he mentioned his time in China in great detail during his interrogation by the Bolsheviks in January 1920. Kudashev’s plan was to have Kolchak take charge of the funds, materiel and manpower that were flowing into the Railway zone, ensuring that they remained under centralised Russian authority. More importantly, however, he was to use his position to ensure that the Chinese did not use the chaos in Russia to wrest control over the Railway.
Кн. Кудашев сказал: «У нас теперь чрезвычайно тяжелое положение с Восточно-Китайской жел. дорогой. В виду того положения, которое создалось в России, китайцы обнаруживают тенденцию захватить эту дорогу в свои руки. Дорога, в сущности говоря, русская, хотя деньги и акции большей частью находились в Государственном банке, и только часть находилась сначала в Русско-Китайском, а потом в Русско-Азиатском банке. В ней заинтересованы непосредственно русские и французы. Но китайцы хотят воспользоваться этим положением и забрать дорогу. Придется вести борьбу».
Prince Kudashev said: ‘We are now in an extremely difficult position with the CER. Given the situation that has been created in Russia, the Chinese show an inclination to seize this Railway. The Railway, essentially, is Russian; the money and shares were mostly in the State Bank and only partly in first the Russo-Chinese, then the Russo-Asiatic Bank. The Russians and French are directly interested in it. But the Chinese wish to use this situation to take the Railway. There will be a struggle.”
The meeting with the Foreign Ministry was to formalise Kolchak’s position on the board. Nevertheless, Kolchak’s interrogators pointed out that the Chinese could object to the unilateral reorganisation by Kudashev and Horvath.
Алексеевский. Образование нового правления не вызвало ли в самих участниках совещания сомнений в его правильности? Ведь, в сущности говоря, действительно было старое правление, а тут как бы самочинно образовывается новое, при чем из старых членов правления были только два китайских представителя, затем Хорват и Путилов, – больше никто не оставался. Таким образом четыре члена, два русских и два китайских, выбрали приблизительно 12 человек и самих себя.
Колчак. Нет, там было всего 7 или 8 членов. Вопрос стоял таким образом: правления нет, и если мы правления не образуем, то китайцы возьмут дорогу в свое распоряжение. Китайское правительство не возражало против этого, а оно могло бы легко возражать, так как это делалось совершенно открыто. Одни член правления был губернатором Гиринской провинции.
Alekseevskii: Did the formation of the new board not raise any doubts among the participants of the meeting as to its correctness? You know, essentially speaking, the old board was actually still there, but now it seems that a new one was forming on its own accord, in which there were only two Chinese representatives – and Horvath and Putilov – out of the old board members, and nobody else. So four members, two Russian and two Chinese, elected some 12 men and themselves.
Kolchak: No, there were only seven or eight members [sic]. The question was: There was no administration and, if we did not form one, the Chinese would take possession of the Railway. The Chinese government did not object, but they could have easily done so since this was all done absolutely openly. One member of the board was the Governor of Jilin province [Guo Zongxi].
So why did the Chinese not object? Lu’s questions during the meeting showed a preoccupation with Allied opinion; Kolchak’s testimony mentioned that none of the Allies expressed any doubts as to the new board. Besides, the Chinese had already taken responsibility for policing parts of the Railway zone after a failed Bolshevik coup in Harbin in December 1917. Guo himself was appointed to the board that same month, a right that the Chinese exercised for the first time since 1900. Rather than go against Allied diplomatic consensus, it was better for Beijing to bide its time – and make military preparations of its own.