Russia – On Discipline

A JUNIOR officer of the Russian army who had been promoted to a position of some importance in Siberia, asked me to dinner one evening. We had a long talk about army reorganisation in Russia, and about the possibility of the Russian soldier of this generation again absorbing any ideas of discipline.

My young friend waxed eloquent in his denunciation of the type of Russian officer whose attitude toward the Russian soldier for many, many years was largely responsible for the result that no Russian soldier would be likely to accord much respect or authority to a Russian officer again for a long time to come.

My experience with the Russian army on different occasions gave me a groundwork for an understanding of my young friend’s feelings in the matter. I remembered a day in China in 1900 during the Boxer troubles when I had gone from Tientsin to Tongku for provender. We were under heavy bombardment in Tientsin and supplies had run low. We drew lots to see which of our quartette of correspondents should journey down the Pei-ho and apply to some of the ships of the British fleet for permission to purchase eatables. The lot fell to me. The British officers on the men-of-war in Taku Bay were very hospitable and exceedingly kind. When I landed from a steam pinnace at Tongku on my return journey I was laden with a big sack of food and drink. I obtained assistance in carrying it to the railway station, which I reached just in time to catch the one train of the day for Tientsin.

We had not proceeded more than half of the 25-mile journey before the train came to a standstill and we were ordered out. The engine had stopped at a break in the line. A damaged bridge which the Chinese troops had destroyed was immediately in front of us, and far distant the smoke of another engine rose lazily in the quiet air. Nearly a mile away was the other section of the train for Tientsin and the passengers were already scurrying across the intervening ground. I managed to get my heavy load out of the compartment and on to the embankment in front of the engine. I tried to shoulder it before carrying it down the twelve or fifteen foot slope that led to the plain be-low. I realised that it was too heavy for me to carry to the Tientsin section of the train. I could not abandon it. It was worth almost its weight in gold to me at that moment. I turned to a member of the Russian railway company, which was hard at work repairing the damaged railway bridge in front of us, and noticing that he was idle for the moment, asked him in my most polite and best Russian if he would, for a consideration, assist me to carry my load across the break.

He was a strapping big fellow, that Russian soldier. He looked a strong man. Either he had gotten out of his bunk on the wrong side that morning or his breakfast had disagreed with him, for he not only refused to give me any assistance, but his refusal was couched in very abrupt terms.

He used an expression at the close of his brief remarks, which was not at all the sort of thing that he should have said to me. I stood and gazed at him for a moment, wondering what I could possibly have said which would have aroused in him the least feeling of antagonism. A hand fell on my shoulder and a Russian acquaintance, an officer of the staff who spoke good English, said to me, “What is the matter?” I told him briefly. I explained that I had meant no harm in wanting to hire the Rus-sian soldier to assist me.

“Did I hear that soldier use such-and-such an expression to you?” queried the officer.

“I don’t know whether you did or not. I did,” I replied.

The officer stepped a couple of paces forward and looked straight in the soldier’s eyes. The latter’s hand went to the vizor of his cap smartly, and remained in that position. Russian military discipline demanded that a soldier in the presence of an officer kept his hand at the salute until he had obtained the officer’s permission to remove it. With some low exclamation of annoyance, the officer, doubling his fist, smashed the soldier squarely in the jaw. The poor fellow’s heels were together, and the rail was immediately behind him. The blow was no light one and it was fair on the jaw. Over the soldier went, head over heels, down the bank, turning at least one complete somersault. Scrambling to his feet at the bottom of the slope he drew himself up and looked at the officer standing on the bank above. From the moment he was struck, during all his evolutions down the embankment, and again as he rose and looked up at the man who had struck him in the face, his hand, so far as I could see, had hardly once left the vizor of his cap. Russian discipline.

When my young friend in Vladivostok talked to me about the abuses to which Russian soldiers had been subjected for so many years, I knew what he was talking about. One who has been with the Russian army in the field in time of war may not realise the extent to which the Russian officer in time of peace exerted that continual discipline, as he called it, which was only another name for legalised brutality.

I was being rowed out from Port Arthur to a big Russian man-of-war anchored in the harbour one day. I was seated on one side of the coxswain, and on the other was an intelligent and well born Russian officer of good rank. As the sailors swung to their oars and the boat shot across the blue waters of the harbour, the question of discipline came under discussion. I referred to the well-trained crew, whose smartness seemed to me to be rather unusual in the Russian navy, as I knew it. To illustrate just what he meant by discipline, the officer turned toward the coxswain who was on his left and, half rising, struck the man full in the face with his clenched fist. I winced as though I had been the one struck. The sheer savagery of that quick blow astounded me. The coxswain was a fine type of man. He had a splendid face, and he took the blow unflinchingly. The officers hard jaw set, and as he saw the horror on my face it goaded him to a further exhibition of brutality. Again he struck twice. The blood ran down the face of the man at the tiller, but he set his lips, and with his eyes straight ahead, kept his hands on the tiller ropes.

I could stand it no longer, and told my Russian acquaintance plainly that such was the case. When he saw that I had thoroughly lost my temper, he regained his former sweet composure, laughed, and taunted me with having a soft heart. “You would not be one to teach discipline in the Russian navy,” he said, with a sneer.

Such pictures come back to me sometimes when I see Russian soldiers that refuse to salute their officers, and when there are evidences that discipline has become lax, so far as the recognition of authority goes among the Russian soldiers.

We had dinner, the young Russian officer and me, with two others of the local Russian army organisation. We dined in a private room. As we were chatting after dinner, loud laughter came through the folding doors which shut off an adjoining room from ours. The boisterous shouts from next door increased in volume, until they interrupted our conversation.

“Do you recognise the voice?” asked one of the young officers of another. At that they all listened and my friend rose, went to the door and shouted through it, “I hope you’re having a good time, General.” There was an answering shout from the next room, and after a few exchanges of badinage through the closed door, it was opened from the other side, and I saw the gross form of a man in the uniform of a Russian General seated on a sofa which had been drawn a little way from the table. The remains of what for Siberia must have been a sumptuous repast were still in evidence. The General’s companions were not from the recognised social strata of the community. A glance at them showed their walk in life. On the table were bottles and glasses containing some weird illicit sort of red liquor, undoubtedly alcoholic, and as such, prohibited by law. It is seldom indeed that the law against the sale of liquor is evaded in most restaurants and eating places in Siberia.

We were duly presented, and sat down for coffee. Shortly afterwards we left the General with his disreputable associates, and strolled off to our sleeping places. Mine was on the billiard room sofa of a hospitable friend. Beds were scarce in the town.

As we walked arm in arm through the rich moonlight, the clear, pure air striking us like a shower bath after the heated, polluted atmosphere of the close room, my young Russian friend took a long breath and said, “We were talking about Russian officers during dinner, were we not? That is the man we might be obeying to-day. We have put in his place a very young man who has had little military experience. It is not an enormously important position which he fills, and he is not a wonderfully capable fellow. He is a clean young man. He has some sense of responsibility as to his job. He has done nothing to disgrace his newly found rank. Of the two—the young soldier who has been placed, in spite of his lack of training, in command of his fellows, or the old soldier whom you saw to-night—which do you think the more likely to merit and receive respect at the hands of the men? If we have to salute an officer it had much better be a decent officer who has some self-respect. We have had too much of the other kind in the Russian army.”

Something in that.

In 1912 I accompanied 126 officers most of them picked staff officers at their head the General in supreme command of all railway and other transportation for the Russian army—throughout the Russian Empire on a two-thousand-mile tour. We went into parts of Russia which were indeed the heart of it. More than one town we visited was primitive to a degree. In many places I was the first American the people had ever seen. The village and townsfolk, and the peasant people along the way were kind and hospitable. The country through which we passed was frequently interesting. Civic bodies in the larger places gave us lavish entertainment. Yet there was a sufficiency of drunkenness and debauchery among the Russian officers on that staff ride to make the observer wonder whether those who revelled in it were capable of serious effort. A capacity for drink and a freedom from all restraint were the chief characteristics of much too great a number of the officers of the Russian army of the old pre-war days.

When one thinks what the Russian soldier has undergone, when one realises the brutality from which he has suffered for decades, when it is taken into consideration that no Russian officer has been trained to take the slightest care for the welfare or comfort of his men, it is a surprise, that the Russian officers as a class have been molested so little by their men since the outbreak of the Russian revolution. The Russian officer has fought well in many instances. As a class, however, it can hardly be said that he merited much respect from his soldiers. After such a revulsion as the Russian revolution it was inevitable that he should be relegated in the minds of his soldiers to an entirely different position than that which he occupied under the old regime.