In a previous post, we saw how the revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion ousted local soviets along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Anti-bolshevik governments of varying stripes sprung up in their wake. A moderate socialist regime emerged in Vladivostok under P.Ia. Derber and, as the Czechoslovaks advanced from Vladivostok to Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk in early July, emboldened White forces captured Grodekovo on the Sino-Russian border. For Horvath in Harbin, the chance to take his fledgling regime to Russia – and away from the disapproval of the Chinese authorities – was irresistable.
By this stage, Chinese officials had been attempting to thwart Horvath’s organisational efforts in China for several months. Harbin foreign affairs official Li Jiaao, one of several interlocutors charged with keeping the Horvath group in line, described the announcement of the move to Grodekovo.
I trust that the telegram of the 5th has been received. Yesterday, I went to Horvath to prevent the formation of a government in the Railway zone. He said:
‘I have already decided to go to Grodekovo this evening to observe the situation, and may proceed to Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk with the intention of meeting the Czech troops to prepare for an organisation. If we cannot come to an agreement, I will immediately return. If, against the odds, I succeed, I will take a month’s leave and establish a government in Ussuriisk, in order to seize the Siberian [Derber] government in Vladivostok and prevent a second bolshevik party from emerging.’
I then went to meet the Japanese and British consuls. Speaking of this matter, they both approved, but it seemed that the American consul objected and it could not be discussed further. Today I met him [the American consul] again. He said, ‘Last night, among those who travelled with Horvath, apart from 88 of his comrades there were also eight Japanese and one British officer.’ He had also heard that there were 400 Japanese soldiers among the troops, aiding them in battle, and made enquiries with the Japanese consul, who admitted that there were 300 of them. Since it is now clear that the Japanese and British are helping Horvath, it is little wonder that he left so buoyantly. During our negotiations I repeatedly advised him against it, telling him, ‘It is easy to leave the border, but entering it may be difficult. The Railway, run with such toil and sweat over 20 years, will be swept away.’ Although he sighed several times, he could not break things off, or there may be other reasons for this.
The American consul has also already suspected Horvath of having an agreement with the easterners [Japanese], and advised us to recover our sovereignty as soon as possible, which America will support [emphasis mine]. If it does indeed fall to the easterners, they should be regarded as only serving the Railway, not permitted to station troops or manage the area, since the Railway agreement is still in force and it cannot be treated the same as the South Manchurian Railway. He then said, ‘Horvath and the Americans have never seen eye to eye. Like the British and Japanese, who are prohibited from buying land in Harbin[?], the Americans have no such privileges. This is far from satisfactory. I will write to my government to take this opportunity for negotiations, such that Chinese sovereignty may be completely recovered.’ I told him, ‘The friendship between China and America is most cordial, I will convey your opinion to our government.’ He then thanked us warmly. Judging by this situation, Horvath’s shift towards establishing a government outside the border must be the American consul’s doing.
Since the American consul intends to help us recover our sovereignty, our country may take this opportunity and swiftly make plans to proceed. After all, Japanese troops, police and finance officials have recently been coming to Harbin in droves. Although they claim to be observers, they seem to have other assignments. Our country’s military strength is still insufficient and, no matter what preparations should be made, we must plan for all contingencies. As for whether this is appropriate, I await your instructions.Telegram from Li Jiaao, 10 July 1918 (sent 8 July). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), p. 277.
Even before his departure from Harbin, therefore, Horvath’s ambitions were lofty in the extreme. On 9 July, he proclaimed himself Provisional Supreme Ruler of Russia in Grodekovo, in direct opposition to the Derber government. Unlike in his statement to Li, Horvath undertook this without an agreement with the Czechoslovaks, who controlled Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk. Worse still, he denied them passage on the Chinese Eastern Railway, which they had requested in order to aid fellow legionnaires in western Siberia.
Perhaps even more breathtaking was Li’s claim that the American consul in Harbin, Charles Moser, had openly voiced his support for the recovery of Chinese sovereignty over the Railway zone. Already in March 1918, the American-led Russian Railway Service Corps – helmed by engineer John F. Stevens – had established its presence on the CER in order to facilitate the smooth running of the line. Given the pressing needs of the Czechoslovak Legion, it seems highly unlikely that Moser would suggest anything that would destabilise the Railway. Neither was it in American interests to transplant Horvath to Russia; again, this only antagonised the Czechoslovaks and the Derber government.
Li’s account is in fact directly contradicted by Moser’s own communique. According to Moser, it was a “Chinese governor” who expressed the wish to “regain complete sovereignty” over the Railway, but needed men and money to do so.
He wished my advice. I refused to suggest the possibility of American cooperation and assistance for which he seemed to be fishing, and he left me with the impression that he was unsatisfied and would call again. Chinese attitude in this matter surprising, unless instigated by Japan.
Why, then, did Li present this as an American proposal? A fluent Russian speaker, Li was no stranger to the Railway zone or to diplomacy. His experience in Harbin dated back to the 1911 Revolution and he had fulfilled consular functions in Vladivostok. Li was probably representing Jilin Governor Guo Zongxi, as Moser’s telegram suggests. Both men may have been trying to coax Beijing into a more assertive stance on the Railway; Guo had been appointed President of the Railway Board in December 1917 and this would have helped consolidate his authority. At a time when America’s moral authority still held sway in China – and before the rise of the May 4th Movement less than a year later – using Moser as a mouthpiece must have seemed the most persuasive choice.