Towards the winter of 1918, Siberia’s fragmented anti-Bolshevik movement showed some signs of consolidation. The Provisional All-Russian Government in Omsk had succeeded in absorbing the Komuch regime in Samara, as well as the Derber and Horvath cabinets in Vladivostok. Allied representatives began to converge on Omsk just as its politics shifted rightwards. A military dictatorship – rather than a broad coalition of Siberian regionalists, socialists and liberals – was increasingly seen as the only way to defeat Bolshevism.
Admiral A.V. Kolchak soon emerged as a potential dictator. Although his previous involvement with the Whites in Beijing and Harbin had ended in failure, the momentum in Omsk brought him out of exile in Japan. Arriving in Vladivostok in September, he met with Vologodskii, leader of the Omsk government, and Gajda, commander of the Czechoslovak Legion. Kolchak proved congenial to both, especially since his contacts with the Allies were crucial for future material and diplomatic aid. He joined the Vologodskii cabinet in October and, on 18 November, a coup brought him to power as Supreme Ruler.
Within a week, however, Ataman Semenov – cossack warlord of the Special Manchurian Detachment, who had established himself in Chita – openly refused to subordinate himself to Kolchak. It touched off a struggle over the Chinese Eastern Railway between Semenov and the Japanese on one side, and Horvath as Omsk’s agent on the other. For his part, Kolchak stripped Semenov of his position and declared him a traitor. Chinese authorities across the border warned of an imminent clash; of particular concern was Semenov’s reliance on the Japanese, who encouraged the conflict.
According to a telegram of the 12th from Vladivostok liaison officer Wang Xingwen, it is said that Semenov has started a quarrel with Kolchak, being lured into this by the Japanese. It will plunge Siberia into disorder again. Also, Horvath’s troop transports going westwards from Vladivostok were detained by the Japanese on arriving at Boketu, with the intention of preventing Horvath’s forces from launching a punitive expedition against Semenov’s. Moreover, according to a telegram of the 12th from Heilongjiang military governor Bao [Guiqing], Semenov opposes Kolchak and is tending towards a decisive break. Horvath planned to send troops to suppress him, but the Japanese 7th Division instructed the troops along the line to strictly observe the number of Horvath’s troops arriving at each station, as well as their movements. If hostilities break out between Semenov and Horvath, the province [Heilongjiang] would become their battlefield, with the Japanese hoping to reap the rewards of their conflict. The situation is difficult, could advice be given as soon as possible.
And, according to a telegram of the 14th from CER president Guo [Zongxi], because Semenov had been arresting Russian workers in charge of shipping on the Railway, Russian deputy Wei [name unknown] asked Chinese troops to protect them. He has wired the military governors Bao and Meng to quickly instruct the various forces along the line to be on strict guard and pay extra heed to protection. However, our country’s current attitude towards Russia should be in line with that of the Allied majority. According to reports from various sources, the Japanese are using Semenov to cause trouble secretly, whereas the other Allies are mostly inclined towards Kolchak’s All-Russian Government. Some days ago, the Russian newspapers also reported the rumour that other countries are planning to recognise the Kolchak government. As for what the precise Allied attitude is towards the Kolchak government, Guo asked that enquiries be made with the various ambassadors, as well as that ambassador Liu [Jingren] in Vladivostok be wired to find out and report.
Furthermore, according to a telegram of the 15th from military governor Bao, Japanese troops were detaining Horvath’s trains and asked us to assist. On the one hand, deputy [V.D.] Lachinov has asked us to confiscate Semenov’s shipments and advise him to leave the area, such that they may not interfere in railway matters, as well as protect the Russian staff along the line. We are now holding to the principle of non-interference, to avoid any sign of bias. On the other hand, our troops have been instructed to guard the railway and maintain order, so as to fulfil their responsibilities. Bao asked that the attitude of the Allied ambassadors towards Russia be sought and swiftly conveyed.
Regarding the matter of Semenov opposing Kolchak, this Bureau has received multiple telegrams from Kulun superintendent Chen [Yi] as well as liaison officer in Harbin [sic] Wang Xingwen. We wrote to Your Ministry on the 12th of this month, to ascertain the attitudes of the British, American, Japanese, French, Italian and Russian ambassadors towards this matter, and to ask if the plenipotentiary in Vladivostok had sent in any relevant reports. At the same time, we wrote to the military governors of Jilin and Heilongjiang, as well as the commander of the 9th Division, to instruct their subordinates to be on alert. However, recently the border troops have repeatedly conveyed news of Semenov’s clash with Kolchak and Horvath, which will soon result in war, and that all our northeastern provinces will bear the brunt of it. Moreover, the telegrams of military governor Bao, president Guo and Wang Xingwen also say that Semenov is being used by others with the goal of causing trouble in Siberia. If we do not urgently ascertain the opinions of Britain, America, France and Italy towards this, it will be difficult to determine a way to deal with this. What is the attitude of the diplomatic corps towards Semenov, and is there talk of the Allies planning to recognise the Kolchak government, as president Guo says was reported in the Russian newspapers? Also, regarding the matter of the Japanese detaining Horvath’s troop transports against Semenov and blocking their punitive expedition, what is the attitude of the British, American, French and Italian ambassadors? We request that Your Ministry make detailed and discreet enquiries alongside the previous requests, and respond to this Bureau as a basis for further action.Letter from the War Participation Bureau, 21 December 1918 (sent 19 December). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 600-601.
The bad blood between both men dated back to Kolchak’s sojourn in China. Semenov’s ties to the Japanese rankled with the Admiral. In May, he had also insulted Kolchak when the latter went to meet him at Manzhouli with funds and to discuss military plans. And although it was a personal vendetta that fuelled the conflict, the might of the Japanese army forestalled any attempt to bring Semenov to heel.
As the War Participation Bureau rightly surmised, therefore, Allied opinion – if not outright recognition – was crucial to settle the conflict. In early December, Kolchak set about campaigning the British, French and Americans to compel the Japanese to cease supporting Semenov. Protests were eventually lodged with Tokyo but, unless the Allies officially recognised the Kolchak government, the Japanese could limit themselves to relatively minor concessions. Over the CER, for example, tensions were partially resolved when an Inter-Allied Railway Committee was set up. But the Imperial Japanese Army persisted in blocking any punitive measures against Semenov. He refused to contribute any units to Kolchak’s army and continued disrupting railway traffic, much to the Committee’s frustration.
Japan’s support for White leaders such as Semenov raised alarm bells among Chinese officials. Yet China lacked the military strength, diplomatic clout and political will to take the Japanese head-on. The War Participation Bureau was itself led by Duan Qirui, who was dependent on Japanese largesse. Like Kolchak, Beijing was obliged to play the Allies off the Japanese, a game that would be all the more complex following the Armistice of November 1918.