Concerning Siberia

WHAT has Japan done to better herself in Korea and Manchuria? She has developed Korea and worked great good there. She has brought no little agricultural prosperity to Manchuria. She has reached out to the North and practically concluded a deal with Russia, whereby her influence in Manchuria will shortly extend to Harbin, and include the finest district for the growing of the soya bean, the basis of the greatest industry in all Manchuria.

But while Japan is slowly developing Korea and Manchuria, a larger potential market lies in Siberia. Harbin, too, offers possibilities in itself. That the Japanese realise this can be judged from the fact that before the war there were very few Japanese in Harbin, but at the present time they are there in continually in-creasing numbers.

Japan’s eyes have long been on the Russian Far East as a possible sphere of commercial development. Every opportunity was taken during the past few years to ship Japanese goods into Russia. Only Russia’s dire necessity, however, ever allowed her to deal extensively with her former antagonist. The War of 1904-1905 was fought too far distant from Russia proper to take hold on the minds and imagination of the people of Western Russia to the extent to which it did among the Russian population in Siberia. The Japanese, since the Russo-Japanese War, have been feared and hated strenuously in the Russian Far East. Not one overt act can be laid to Japan’s door during the present war which would in any way justify the feeling that permeates Siberia to the effect that Japan wishes to snap up the Pri-Amur.

That the Japanese would come to Siberia, aggressively, some day, was a statement I heard from many quarters in the Pri-Amur district. Up to the time of the revolution in Russia, and for many months afterwards, there was a comparatively satisfactory state of affairs existing throughout Siberia. The explanation of the more favourable conditions which prevailed in that region might be sought in Siberia’s favour-able economic position. There was no food shortage in Siberia worth taking into account.

Sugar had been hard to obtain at times, but otherwise no staple commodity had given out. Flour, vegetables and meat had always been fairly plentiful. Prices had risen very considerably. It was probably fair to say that the cost of living in some of the towns in Siberia was approximately double what it was before the war. On the other hand, wages had been generally higher and the working people had therefore never been seriously affected by the rise in the price of foodstuffs. The peasantry had pleanty of means of subsistence at hand and felt the war less than might have been thought. This condition of comparative security and prosperity had much to do with the failure of the extreme Socialist group to arouse full sympathy in the Russian Far East, when they came from Petrograd with their ultra-radical ideas and tried to implant them in Siberia. A population which is prosperous or which, at least, is not dogged by famine, is hardly likely to have any violent desire to upset the existing order of things. The Siberians seemed to me to be content with an orderly method of existence.

Siberia is a long way from Petrograd and Moscow. Its people are more independent and more developed politically than the people of European Russia. Men in Eastern Siberia could always be found who could look upon the war dispassionately. They were far removed from it. They could, being used to greater freedom and a broader outlook, reason better for themselves and offer a firmer resistance to pernicious doctrines.

But to a man, they held that obsession about Japan. To understand it and appreciate it, one had to go into the history of the Govern-ment of Siberia before the present war.

When the news of the revolution in Petrograd in 1917 was flashed over the long line of wires that stretched across Siberia, to far Vladivostok and the seat of Government in Habarovsk, the Governor-General of the Pri-Amur was Nikolai L’vovitch Gondatti.

A study of this man and his influence as Governor-General of the Eastern part of Siberia throws many side-lights on the conditions that existed in the Far Northeast when the rule of the Romanoffs ended.

Nikolai Gondatti was a native of Moscow. Little is known of his parentage. He came of humble people—peasantry. Adopted in his early youth by a rich man, fortune favoured Gondatti with an education. From the outset he showed remarkable ability as a student. His school days finished, he embarked on a career as a teacher under the employment of the Immigration Department.

It was in this capacity that he first came to Siberia.

He had not long been in the Far Northeast before his ability allowed him to push his way through the lower strata of officials. He was an indefatigable worker and climbed rapidly.

Stolypin marked Gondatti as a useful subordinate and later the young official became an undoubted favourite of Stolypin. To that astute politician Gondatti owed much of his success in official life.

As the years passed one rise after another culminated in Gondatti’s appointment to the Governorship of Tomsk. This post suited him and gave him opportunity for showing his growing capacity as an administrator. He became noted for holding views of marked democratic tendency, and as a politician gained followers from the broad-minded standpoint with which he viewed local and national affairs.

Then came the appointment of the Interdepartmental commission, known as the Amur Expedition. This was in 1910. This commission was composed of able men and much importance was placed upon its prospective work.

Gondatti was chosen as its president. This meant a year or two of work, in which he could show to the full advantage his knowledge of the Far Northeast and which, in turn, gave him opportunity for investigation which would make him the best-informed man in the world on the subject of Siberia.

The primary importance of the Amur Expedition was that the spirit behind it and the real object for which it was created were to lay the foundations for a fight in the Far East against Japan. This fight was to be a bloodless campaign, but was none the less carefully planned, nor was its importance to the Russians more negligible on that account.

Stolypin had always realised the fact that the only way that Russia could offset the development of Japan in Manchuria and prevent Japan’s commercial encroachment north of Harbin, was to build up a solid Russian community in the Pri-Amur district. The power of Russia in the Far Northeast depended upon the success of Russia’s colonisation schemes and projects for development in that part of the world.

The extent of the work of the Amur Expedition, which was guided by Gondatti’s capable hand, covered every subject which could have a remote bearing on Russian progress. Not only questions of immigration and land settlement, but details as to agriculture and stock-raising occupied much of the time of the commission. Every possible phase of prospective industries, a careful study of the geology of the district, as well as its botany, went hand in hand with investigations as to the development of transportation on land and water. The education and enlightenment of the people by means of schools and newspapers were given careful consideration. The subjects of shipping and fisheries were not forgotten.

The report of the Amur Expedition, in short, covers exhaustively and in detail practically every subject in which any one interested in Siberia might wish to delve.

Gondatti’s personal characteristics were well suited to such work. He had a charming personality and carried himself with a simplicity that won those with whom he came into contact. His views became increasingly democratic, as he came into closer touch with the people, and there was no section of the population which he did not have an opportunity of studying at first hand.

At that time the Governor-General of the Pri-Amur was General Unterberger who had been either Governor or Governor-General of the district for more than a score of years. As might be imagined, General Unterberger was wedded to the old régime and was just pure bureaucrat to his fingertips.

Before Gondatti’s work on the Amur Expedition was concluded the more important men in the Far Northeast began to express the hope that he might be appointed successor to Unterberger, who had reached an age which made it sure that he would drift out of office not long thereafter.

Toward the end of 1911, Unterberger retired and the news came to Siberia that Gondatti had been made Governor-General in his place. There was universal rejoicing at this appointment. A positive enthusiasm swept over those whose hearts were in the work of developing the Rus-sian Far East. These men felt that they were on the threshold of a new era. At last the old bureaucratic chains were to be knocked from the limbs of the strong young country and progress was to be assured. There was a universal confidence that under Gondatti’s Governor-Generalship industries would be established, mining would be developed, railways would be built, waterways improved, the government of the country would be better organized, and the old faults of administration would be wiped out. New vigour and new life were infused into the community. Men who had struggled along under the impossible conditions which had obtained for so many years felt that a man who recognised the human element—a man who had himself come from the people—a man of marked democratic tendencies and of broad, sympathetic viewpoint—had come into power and that his very presence in the seat of authority gave sure promise of reform.

Alas for such hopes ! In Gondatti’s six years of office not one of them was realised. The day that saw the news reach Siberia of the over-throw of the Romanoffs in Petrograd found the Russian Far East in worse case than the day that marked the appointment of Gondatti as Governor-General. The story of that six years is one of those disappointing human documents which sometimes follow the placing of power in the hands of a promising but untried administrator. The job was too big for Gondatti. As Governor-General of the Pri-Amur he was a dismal, tragic failure.

For the first two or three years the better elements among the people in Siberia watched Gondatti’s administration with amazement. He was always a hard worker and took the greatest interest in his duties. He seemed to be genuinely devoted to the real progress of the country and his personal ability showed itself unmistakably to those with whom he came into per-sonal contact. No phase of the political situation, no detail as to the possible resources of the country itself, no bit of information that might give him a better insight into and grasp of the problems with which he was confronted could have been asked from him. He was a storehouse of information and had a wonderful memory. His charm of manner never failed him, and he was always ready on public occasions as a speaker of marked ability. No one came to him with a project into which he would not go, and he was easy of access. With all this, Gondatti was inherently a politician and an office-seeker. He had been so from youth and certain characteristics had moulded themselves into his character in such a way as to detract from his sincerity. Beneath all the smiling exterior, in spite of the keen intellect with which he had been endowed, he was a time-server and given to using tools which were unworthy of him.

During the latter part of his administration his popularity waned; in fact, the pendulum swung the other way. He became known as a man who would promise anything, whether or not he had the intention of fulfilling his promise. He gained the name of a hypocrite. People who found no difficulty in reaching him and who were treated most charmingly by him, came away dissatisfied. He was looked upon with a general feeling of distrust. While he would talk democracy at length and with great freedom, his actions were declared to be undemocratic. Many of the old bureaucratic faults were al-lowed to remain in the administration. He was not above personal petty feuds. Here and there he showed spite in his dealings with those whom he did not like. Above all that led to the eventual dislike in which he was held by the people was the fact that his subordinates and mercenaries were the last class with whom he should have surrounded himself. Any means to obtain his ends seemed to be excused to him if he thought them the best medium toward a successful prosecution of his desires.

Stupid and dishonest officials thrived in some quarters under him. Never in the history of the Pri-Amur had the police been so utterly corrupt and so absolutely incompetent.

Thus his star, which had risen so rapidly and so brilliantly, began to wane as he was tried and found wanting. The pity of it was that that star was, too, the star of the Russian Far East. The precious years went by. Opportunities that were never to be regained were lost. The genuine spirit of desire for co-operation and reorganisation of the great Far Northeast by Russia was sacrificed on the altar of Gondatti’s personal ambition and mistaken policies. The man was too small for his task.

The peculiarity of this situation was rendered the more great from the fact that Gondatti started out in his career as Governor-General immensely popular with every class, and though his object in view was one with which all those about him were in sympathy—for all the people recognised Russia’s necessities in this regard —he roused the actual antagonism of the vast majority of the people in the region.

The real root of the trouble, to be as charitable to Gondatti as possible, probably lay in the fact that he was incapable of realising that many of the reforms which he would have liked to effect could not be brought about so quickly as he wished. He moved too rapidly along certain lines, where the revolutionary character of his efforts proved their own undoing and at the same time failed signally to move with sufficient rapidity along many minor lines of reform, which his time-serving tendencies apparently prevented him from handling without gloves.

One attribute possessed by Gondatti has never been disputed. He was rabidly anti-Japanese. He left no stone unturned to block the Japanese wherever he could, and was ever fearful of their progress and advancement in the Far East. He resented bitterly any efforts of the Japanese to penetrate commercially into Siberia, and was ever at loggerheads with Japan over what he termed its unwarrantable interference with and encroachment upon Russian fishing interests.

A study of Gondatti’s three pet projects, none of which were brought to a successful consummation, shows the general trend of Russian effort in the Far Northeast, and from them may be gained valuable lessons as regards the future of Siberia.

Gondatti’s three attempted achievements were his effort to eliminate alien labour—with particular reference to the Chinese—his scheme for the deepening of the Amur Estuary, and his project for the imposition of a duty on imported wheat.

Gondatti was obsessed with the idea that the best way to develop Siberia was to shut out alien labour and thus increase the numbers of the Russian labouring population the more rapidly. Had Gondatti been somewhat more broad-minded in his handling of this subject, he would have realized that during the few years of his Governor-Generalship he could do little more than to start the elimination of alien labour and that the continuation of such process must of necessity go hand in hand with the growth of the Russian population. To rob a community of the great blessing of cheap and efficient labour, particularly when no other sort of labour is at hand to take its place, can have little other effect on the employer class throughout the community than to arouse in it a very deep sense of antagonism. Throughout Siberia there is hardly a class which did not view with suspicion and disapproval Gondatti’s plans to exclude Chinese labour from the Pri-Amur district. The exclusion was to apply to the Koreans as well. That the employers of labour in the commercial community, and particularly the mine owners, should be inconvenienced by this was inevitable. Gondatti undoubtedly expected their opposition. Curiously, however, the one class of people with whom the scheme might have been expected to have found favour was equally opposed to it. The tillers of the soil through-out the Russian Far East, never very industrious themselves, had found they could use Chinese and Koreans in cultivating the land, and while so doing gain a respite from many of the more arduous phases of agricultural industry, and yet make both ends meet. To take from them the cheap labour which allowed them to indulge a natural propensity for an easy-going life, was to them anathema. Thus Gondatti found no sympathisers for the exclusion of Chinese and Korean labour, and his insistence upon it created a great deal of animosity against his administration. When the war broke out in 1914 the machinery for the exclusion of alien labour in Siberia had not been completed and Gondatti apparently decided to mark time, so far as that project was concerned, until peace had come again.

A large amount of Gondatti’s time and energy was devoted to the most ambitious of his proposed public works—the deepening of the Tartar Straits. The town and Port of Nikolaievsk would have undoubtedly benefitted had Gondatti’s scheme for the deepening of the Straits been carried through, but such benefit would have been obtained at a cost which was out of all proportion. The credits that Gon-datti obtained and the amount of money that he wasted in this connection aroused much condemnation from engineering and business sources, and some general suspicion as to whether or not the money expended was being done so without some ulterior reason behind the expenditure. It might be noted in passing that a practical way exists of utilising the Amur River as a waterway and connecting it with a seaport. This would embody the consideration of de Castries Bay as a port instead of Nikolaievsk, thus avoiding the Straits of Tartary and the lower Amur. A canal through the Zizzi Lakes prevents no engineering difficulties which are in the least insurmountable.

The third one of Gondatti’s pet schemes was never put into operation. Had the European war not taken place Gondatti would undoubtedly have forced it through. This scheme was a proposed duty to be levied on all wheat imported into Russia. The exact amount of the duty which Gondatti wished to impose was thirty kopecs per pood. The primary and fundamental reason for this duty was stated by Gondatti to be the encouragement of agriculture in the Pri-Amur. It is difficult to find two men in Siberia who agree on the various phases of this question. The general division of the community for and against this measure was the adhesion to it and support of it by the agriculturists and the venomous and bitter antagonism to it on the part of the milling interests. The exclusion of Manchurian grain from Siberia spelled ruin to some of the milling companies which had been formed for the express purpose of handling that particular trade. The milling industry is the foremost industry, and practically the sole extensive one, in Siberia.

Some people consider that the Pri-Amur would be a splendid place for the extensive raising of wheat ; others condemn the country as being anything but rich from an agricultural standpoint and argue that crops are particularly liable to disease and to damage by flood. Be that as it may, the proposal seemed to create a greater measure of opposition among those who were antagonistic to it than the relative support it had gained from those with whom it found favour. It certainly added to Gondatti’s unpopularity, and the distrust in which the Governor-General was held.

Such, then, was the general political condition in Far Eastern Russia when the news came to Siberia of the revolution in Petrograd.

Gondatti was in Vladivostok with General Nischenkoff, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces in the Far East.