Independent Labour Party 1915
Source: Independent Labour Party Pamphlet, anonymous, price 1d, “Persia, Finland and the Russian Alliance,” 1915;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
War is a state of absolute partisanship. If it is to be waged without scruple, without remorse, without regret, the nation at war must persuade itself that the right is wholly on its own side, and the wrong entirely with the enemy. We in this country have seized on the one aspect of this complicated world-struggle, in which Germany is undoubtedly in the wrong – her violation of Belgian neutrality. We have generalised from that until we have convinced ourselves that not only we, but our Allies are fighting for the sanctity of treaties and the rights of little peoples, and for these high purposes alone. The ruthless conduct of this struggle at our doors has helped us to realise, as we never did before, that Germany is cursed with a military party as unscrupulous as it is efficient, and we have come to define the object of the war as the “destruction of German militarism.” The Germans have achieved a similar feat of mental concentration. They think of the invasion of Belgium and France as a regrettable necessity, a detail of high politics and continental strategy. For them the real enemy was at the outset Russia. They talked of “destroying Tsardom,” and when they recalled the record of Russia in Finland, in Poland, and in Persia, they, too, claimed that they were engaged in a war of liberation which would bring profit to little nationalities. When the German Chancellor met the Reichstag on the eve of the war he refrained from dwelling on the fact that he was about to invade France as well as Russia.
When Sir Edward Grey defended his policy to the House of Commons he dwelt entirely on our friendship with France, and carefully abstained from mentioning Russia. The fact remains that the Russo-German quarrel was the origin of the war. France was attacked only because she was Russia’s ally. When Sir Edward Grey agreed to protect the coasts of France from any German attack by sea, he did a service not merely to France, but to the Franco-Russian alliance. We cannot understand this war, unless we realise that it is the logical outcome of ten years of rivalry in diplomacy and armaments between the two German Powers on the one hand, and the “Triple Entente” of Britain, France, and Russia on the other. It was in the end a Russian quarrel, a conflict with Austria for the mastery of the Balkans, which brought about the universal war. We have barely begun to fathom its real issues when we have given our sympathies to the innocent Belgians, and condemned the German violation of their rights. The war has darkened the West and overwhelmed Belgium, only because two Western Powers, Britain and France, were the allies of Russia. Our judgment of the policy which led up to this war depends ultimately on the question whether we approve of the British “understanding” with Russia, which has now been solidified into a formal military alliance. That understanding had already an eventful history before it extended an Eastern quarrel to the West. The object of this pamphlet is to review it, and to submit it to three tests. Has it furthered the development of Russian liberties? Has it respected the national rights of Persia? Has it conduced to European peace?
The motives which led Lord Lansdowne to begin and Sir Edward Grey to complete the conclusion of an understanding with Russia had no reference whatever to the struggle for constitutional liberty which in 1905 reached its climax in Russia. In order to secure ourselves in the undisturbed occupation of Egypt, we had made an understanding with France. We had bound ourselves in return to support her pretensions to Morocco. We had by this association become involved in the European system. Germany objected to French Imperialism in Morocco, as France used to object to British Imperialism in Egypt. The result was that accentuation of the struggle for a Balance of Power, that mad race of armaments, which caused Lord Rosebery to declare that Europe was “rattling into barbarism.” Each side sought for a preponderant voice in the counsels of Europe, each wished to pursue its own purposes of Imperialist expansion undisturbed, and each was obliged not merely itself to arm, but to marshal allies and confederates on its side.
Russia was the ally of France, and to complete the triple league, it was necessary that her ancient feud with us should be composed. Our policy was to “restore Russia to her rank as a Great Power,” in order that her forces should balance those of Germany in the rivalry which had divided Europe into two armed camps. Beaten by Japan in the Far East, and threatened by revolution at home, she was in 1905 a staggering chaos. Our friendship revived her prestige; our credit restored her finances. It was fashionable in these days to say that friendship with Liberal England would assist the growth of Russian freedom. Our recent friendship has achieved no more for Russian freedom than the alliance of twenty years’ standing with Republican France. Russia came to us, as she came to France, not because we are a Liberal Power, but because we are a creditor Power, with money to lend and capital to invest. The first effect of our new friendship was to strengthen the bankrupt autocracy in its struggle with its own people.
It is not easy for us, a self-sufficing and very insular people, to realise how important the attitude of the rest of Europe is to Russia. Russia depends as absolutely as any Latin-American Republic upon its repute in Western money markets. It must float by for the greater part of its loans abroad. It cannot even provide from its own resources for the municipal enterprises of its cities. Its undeveloped coal and iron and petroleum fields all await the fertilisation of foreign capital. Credit is a delicate possession. It is made not merely by the conclusion of a banker in the City that a given investment is sound. The banker is at the mercy of the little investors up and down the country. So long as these people thought of Russia either as a. hostile Empire dangerous to ourselves, or as an unstable autocracy menaced by revolution, it was in vain that the Russian financier brought his proposals to the City. But so soon as Russia became an ally and confederate, when King Edward went to Reval and the Tsar came to the Isle of Wight, when the newspapers which circulate among moneyed classes conspired to represent her as a Constitutional Power steadily advancing towards order and freedom, then, at last, the purse-strings of the British investor were untied. The internal condition of Russia has no whit improved. It is considerations of high policy which have caused our press, our politicians, and our governing class to enter on a conspiracy of silence and eulogy. They wanted Russia’s aid against Germany. That is why the old habit of truth-telling gave way to the present flatteries.
France has passed through a parallel experience. She allied herself with the Russian autocracy because she hoped for Russian aid to recover Alsace-Lorraine. She found that what Russia chiefly wanted was free access to her Bourse. Year by year the indebtedness of Russia increased. Loan after loan was floated, until at length economists began to ask whether Russia was not paying the interest on her old loans with the principal of her new borrowings. Industrial investments followed the State loans, until every banker and every little investor in France felt himself the creditor of Tsardom. But after the Japanese War a limit seemed to have been reached. The banks, with the Government behind them, refused to assume the sole responsibility for floating another Russian loan, and asked for the co-operation of London. It was here that our responsibility began. After Paris, London is the world’s money market. There is no other centre which could have floated the hundred million loan which Russia required. The moment was opportune. Lord Lansdowne when he left office in 1905 had already begun the negotiations which were to end in the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907. Sir Edward Grey pursued them energetically, and by the spring of 1906 the alliance was virtually concluded. But in Russia the fortunes of the Constitutional movement were in the balance. A sort of Constitution had been extorted from the Tsar by the general strike in October, 1905. The elections for the new Duma were already being held in an atmosphere of tension. The repression was in some provinces at its worst, yet the people were resolute and hopeful. Everyone knew that the new Duma would have to struggle for its rights against a reactionary ministry and a court which already repented its concessions. What weapon could it wield? If it could have met a discredited Government with a bankrupt treasury, it might, with European opinion behind it, have defied the Tsardom. History would have moved on very different lines. The Liberals and the Socialists, fresh from their sweeping victory at the polls, could have said to the Tsar’s ministers: “We have Russia behind us and we have Europe behind us. Your coffers are empty; your credit is exhausted. Concede our full right of responsible government and we will vote your taxes and sanction your loan. Deny our rights, and we can answer for it that neither in London nor in Paris will you find the money to finance your oppressions.” But in March, 1906, the great loan had been floated in London and Paris, and in May, when the Duma assembled, it found itself confronted by a Government whose needs were satisfied, and whose war-chest was full. In the years from 1854 to 1906 Russian loans had ceased for all practical purposes to be floated in London. The hostility which began with the Crimean War had closed our money market to the Tsars. We opened it three months too soon. Had we waited, as the Russian Liberal Press implored us to wait, we should have armed the Constitutional movement with a weapon of coercion which would have enabled it to dictate its own terms. The Cossack is useless, until the financier stands behind him. But no Parliament can effectively wield the traditional weapon of supply, if foreign banks have first provided for the despot’s needs.
The treason which began in March 1906, has since become a habit and a policy. The Foreign Office and the Times, which might with a nod have checked the operations of the City then, have steadily engaged in a scheme for fostering the export of British capital to Russia. What dimensions it has reached to-day not even an expert could confidently estimate. But even a layman, who glances at the advertisements in the Russian Supplement of the Times, must be impressed with its growing importance. One firm alone boasted that between November, 1909, and October, 1911, it had placed Russian bonds worth £4,891,700 on the English market. The city of Baku, in these two years, borrowed £1,300,000 in London, and many of the other large towns have followed its example. We are rapidly emulating the French precedent, and are ‘Paying for our “understanding” as she paid for her “alliance.” There is now in England, as there was not in 1906, a force of self-interest which serves as buttress to things as they are.
It is unnecessary to recall in any detail the main facts of Russian history during the period covered by the British understanding. The first Duma, elected though it was at a time of violent repression, showed an overwhelming majority for the progressive parties and was dominated by the Liberal “Constitutional Democrats’’ commonly called “Cadets.” They claimed the right of every free Parliament to demand a Ministry in harmony with the views of the majority. The first Duma was dissolved after less than three months of life, and for the rest of the year M. Stolypin ruled without a Parliament. Field courts-martial terrorised the country, and hanged Socialist agitators on an average of something like three a day. A second Duma met in 1907, and proved to be still more radical than the first. M. Stolypin apparently regarded it in the spirit of the monarch who wished that the people had one head that he might cut it off. The most powerful and resolute party in it were the Social Democrats. Against them he trumped up a charge of conspiring to make a military insurrection. It was necessary that he should obtain the consent of the Duma before he could arrest any of its members, and accordingly a commission, chosen from all parties, sat to examine his evidence. M. Teslenko, the secretary, (reporter) of this Commission, told the Third Duma, in a public speech, that it came unanimously to the conclusion that the Socialist deputies were innocent: –
The Commission of which I was the reporter arrived at the unanimous conclusion that there was a conspiracy, but not of the Socialist Deputies against the existing régime, but of the Okhrana (Secret Police) against the Second Duma. The report of the Commission in that sense was ready to be read at the tribune, when the Second Duma was brusquely dissolved: the Commission was prevented from revealing the truth.
The coup d’état put an end to the immunity of these deputies from arrest, and 35 of them were seized and tried in secret before a special tribunal. The Russian Social Democrats are, in point of fact, as little likely to play with such a childish plot as are their comrades of the German Reichstag. Seventeen of these men, the bravest and the ablest leaders of the Russian working class, were sentenced to four or five years’ hard labour, and ten more to perpetual deportation in Siberia. Two of these deputies have died in prison; one has lost his reason and is in a madhouse; a fourth, the brilliant orator, Tseretelli, contracted consumption. They have been treated as common criminals, nor were they even spared the wearing of fetters and the degradation of the lash.
With the dissolution of the Second Duma, the experiment of electing a Russian Parliament on a relatively democratic franchise came to an end. Experience had shown that mere repression and police terrorism, instead of inducing the masses to vote for reactionary candidates, only served to improve the chances of the extremer parties at the polls. M. Stolypin accordingly, by an exercise of autocratic authority, revised the electoral law, and devised a franchise which at length gave him a comparatively docile Duma. By an ingenious system of indirect election, the few hundreds of thousands of landed gentry were given a voting power which outweighed the millions of peasant electors, and outside the towns it was practically impossible even for a Liberal to secure election. The dominant party in the Third and Fourth Dumas, which sat since 1908, has been that of the Octobrists, who profess a mild form of Constitutional Conservatism. By an almost unbroken servility and docility the Third Duma saved itself from a premature dissolution, but no more positive achievement stands to its credit. The Fourth Duma has been more independent, but equally powerless.
There is one test which may fairly be applied to this artificially Conservative Duma. It ought to have stood at the lowest for some programme of personal liberties. Here in theory the Octobrists are at one with the Cadets. But in this field its record is negative and barren. Russia lies under the same system of arbitrary police despotism which oppressed it when the Constitution was promised in 1905. A map would show large regions under one form or another of martial law – “state of siege” – or “reinforced protection” – phrases which indicate the suspension of the nominal guarantees of civil liberty. The police retain the right of banishment without trial by administrative order, and even where suspects are tried for political offences it is commonly with closed doors. The right of meeting depends wholly on the consent of the police. The right of association is so little respected that philanthropic societies have been forbidden to organise the relief of famine. The Press maintains a precarious existence under a rain of fines and a steady discipline of imprisonment. Worst of all, the Okhrana or Secret Police, wields in the name of the Tsar an inscrutable and irresponsible power which has induced even Conservative orators to compare it in the Duma to the “Mafia” or “Black Hand.” It makes crime and manufactures evidence. It incites genuine revolutionaries to terrorism and conducts a species of terrorism of its own. The almost incredible romance of crime which centres round the name of Azeff is too well known to need recapitulation.
There are optimists who believe that this war is likely to liberalise Tsardom. One famous revolutionary. M. Bourtseff, even set out on a voyage of exploration to discover the new Russia. Though he had left his safe place of refuge in Paris with eager promises of service to the Tsar, he was arrested when he crossed the frontier and the reward of his patriotism is a sentence of life-long deportation to Siberia. It has often happened in history that an oppressive Government, when it feared a popular movement, has made a war to distract the people’s attention. The Russian Government had some reason for alarm. The Duma was in continual conflict with the Government; sober, middle-class politicians were in despair; the working classes of the great towns, led by a formidable secret organisation, had begun a strike which recalled the great effort of 1905. The Duma had just risen for the summer vacation, and several of its leaders had been interviewed by the Press on the work of the past session. Liberals and Constitutional Conservatives were alike hopeless. “I entertain no hope,” said the Liberal, M. Shingareff, “that the Government will realise its mistakes.” “I desire,” said another leading Liberal, M. Basil Maklakoff, “that the Duma should perish rather than drag on a fruitless existence.” “My impression,” said the Conservative (Octobrist) Baron Meyendorf, “is that the Duma’s warnings will have no effect upon the Government.” M. Shidlovsky, another moderate Conservative, declared that “legislative work had become absolutely unthinkable. The Duma is useful only for the purpose of denouncing and demonstrating, and the results are exceedingly lamentable.” One of those results was a sudden strike which brought out 140,000 workers in St. Petersburg, and was rapidly spreading to all the larger towns. Hundreds of arrests were made, and in one day four St. Petersburg newspapers were confiscated for articles on the strike. Then came the Serbian crisis, and in the wave of patriotic enthusiasm the strike ended as suddenly as it began.
Fear of revolution may well have been one of the motives which led the Tsar’s Ministers so to conduct the negotiations as to make war inevitable. The few facts which are known to us about the internal policy of Russia since the war began, suggest that reaction has grown bolder and more extreme. It is true that a promise of autonomy has been made to Poland, not by the Tsar but by the Grand Duke Nicholas, but this was an inevitable answer to similar promises by the German invaders, and it is doubtful whether it means more than local self-government. The permanent abolition of the sale of vodka may be a salutary step, but taken as it was on the sole authority of the Tsar, it is a return to the old days of autocratic legislation, and a flouting of the Duma’s rights. No less significant was the arrest in November of five Social-Democratic members of the Duma on a charge of high treason, in defiance of the law which assures immunity from imprisonment to members of the Duma, save by its formal consent. This has been followed by a sentence of lifelong convict labour in Siberia on M. Adamovitch, for the crime of organising a seaman’s Trade Union. Of the prospect which confronts the non-Russian nationalities, we may judge from the fact that the Governor of the newly-conquered province of Galicia, Count Bobrinsky, has absolutely prohibited the publication of anything written in the Ruthenian (otherwise Ukrainian or “Little Russian” language, and is promoting the conversion of its peasantry en masse to the Orthodox Church. The common effect of a successful war is to enhance the prestige and authority of the Government which made it. This is, above all, a Pan-Slavist war. Pan-Slavism has an intensive as well as an extensive aspect. It aims at spreading the area of Slav rule. It also emphasises the peculiarities of Slavonic “culture,” as distinguished from Western culture – its unprogressive and intolerant Church, its faith in autocracy, its general opposition to the critical and liberal spirit of the West. It is not the militarism but the enlightenment of Germany which the Pan-Slavists detest.
The progress of any European society towards civilisation may be measured infallibly by its treatment of its Jews. Tested by this standard Russia has actually retrogressed during the period of the British understanding. It is true that the stage of sheer barbaric massacre came to an end in 1906. The organised slaughter of Jews. which was carried out by the “Black Hundreds” throughout the year 1905, and in some isolated cases even after the First Duma met in 1906, has not since been renewed. The facts were too scandalous. All Europe knew that the Tsar had accepted the post of patron to this party of political vivisectors, that he was the honorary chief of the “Union of truly Russian Men,” that their proclamations inciting to massacre had been printed in the Ministry of the Interior, that the secret political police had everywhere seconded their work, that Grand Dukes were among their subscribers, and that the Tsar had publicly thanked the troops which joined in the last of these pogroms. To public opinion even the Russian autocracy must bow when it seeks access to the European money-market. Pogroms were discarded as a method of persecution too notorious, too mediaeval, and too risky. A more artistic form of torture has taken their place, and the Jews have experienced instead a sort of dry terrorism, a bloodless persecution by legal and economic methods. There issue from the Ministries a steady series of regulations and decrees which have added to an already intolerable burden, and by their steady pressure rendered the plight of the Jews worse than it was even in the years when the streets of the Ghetto ran with blood.
In the Middle Ages every big town had its Ghetto to which the Jews were confined. In Russia the whole Eastern region along the Polish frontier is one vast Ghetto. In the market towns of these Eastern provinces and in them alone are the Jews free to reside. Elsewhere, even in the capital and in Moscow, it is only certain privileged classes of Jews who are tolerated at all, under a system of restrictive taxation and surveillance which makes them, as it were, ticket-of-leave men among their Christian neighbours. Even in the Jewish Pale they are subject to disabilities which recall the condition of the Irish Catholics under the Penal Laws. They may not own land, and, therefore, they are excluded from agriculture. Penned together in towns from which they may not remove, they are exposed to the continual rack-renting of Christian landlords, who may exact what toll they please for permission to reside and trade. With the cessation of pogroms expulsions have become more frequent and systematic. As many as 1,200 Jewish families were expelled from the city of Kiev alone in consequence of a regulation issued in 1909. On the eve of this war (July, 1914) about 5,000 Jewish families in this same town were threatened with expulsion.
The Civil Service in all its branches is closed to a Jew, who may not become a postman, a railway servant, or engineer, or even a schoolmaster. Jewish doctors may not serve in municipal hospitals, and in practice a Jew can hardly now be called to the Bar. To explain in detail all the restrictions which have been aggravated since 1906 would carry us too far into a labyrinth of technicalities. They affect the right of Jews to reside, to trade, and to share in limited companies. One simple illustration will suffice to reveal the spirit of the reaction. In August, 1908, the Ministry issued a decree, which it did not submit to the Duma, restricting the right of Jewish children to education, and on the eve of this war (July, 1914) it so revised this decree as to make it still more severe. Within the Pale some six millions of Jews are crowded, and in many of its towns they form the majority of the population. Yet a primary school may enrol only 10 per cent. of Jewish children among its pupils, and a secondary school only 15 per cent. Only last year the Russian Government revived the ugliest legend of mediaeval intolerance, and prosecuted an innocent Jew, Mendel Beilis, on a charge of ritual murder. The jury of Kiev acquitted him, but the Government has taught the ignorant Russian peasantry to believe that Jews do in fact murder Christian children by way of sacrifice in secret rites. To harry the Jews who have settled outside the Ghetto, to aggravate the overcrowding, the competition and the exploitation within it, to deny knowledge and to close the avenues through which knowledge led to freedom, such has been the policy of the Russian Government during the period of its intimacy with a British Liberal administration.
A volume might be written to describe the various forms of petty persecution which the Russian Government has practised at the expense of all the non-Russian nationalities of a composite Empire during the past six years. Poland, the Baltic Provinces, Finland, and Georgia, each has its dismal history of enforced Russification and repression. Every non-Orthodox Church is in some degree persecuted, and every non-Russian language in some degree repressed. The special tragedy of Finland is that it is by race, by religion, by culture, and by its political traditions an integral part of free Europe. An Empire given over to reaction is destroying an object-lesson of liberty which stood too legible at its doors. Lutheran in religion, with an ancient representative Constitution, Finland had been a province of Sweden until amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars it came in 1809 under the Russian crown. Alexander I. was a man of romantic temperament and of liberal sympathies. When he became Grand Duke of Finland he swore that he and his heirs would observe her constitution. would consider her “free as regards her internal affairs,” and “from henceforth placed in the rank of nations.” Finland developed in the last generation, system of education which entitled its people to rank with the most enlightened races of Europe. In 1899. however, under the present Tsar, the period of Russification began, and by 1903 the infamous General Bobrikoff, ruling with dictatorial powers, had destroyed all that was left of Finnish liberties. The Japanese War and the Russian revolutionary period heralded a brief era of happiness. Finnish autonomy was restored at the end of 1905, and, under the stimulus of a new hope, the Finns proceeded to create a new Constitution on a basis of universal suffrage for men and women, with proportional representation.
The concessions granted, while all Russia seethed with revolution, did not long survive the restoration of the autocracy and the defeat of the Russian progressives. The first serious inroad on Finnish autonomy was a demand that the Russian Cabinet should exercise a veto over all Finnish legislation (June, 1908). This innovation reduced Finland at one blow to the level of a Russian province, subject to the chiefs of the Russian bureaucracy – for the Russian Ministers are nothing more. One need not recount in detail the solemn and constitutional protests of the Finnish Diet. The only answer of the Tsar was to dissolve it. Abroad, the most famous of European jurists, British, French, and German, including Sir Frederick Pollock, Sir Edward Fry, and Professor Westlake, united, in a declaration which had all the authority of a verdict, after a careful examination of all documents and treaties, to the effect that the autonomy of Finland is an obligation contracted by the Tsars, which they are not competent to revoke. Finland, as they put it, “did not enter into the Russian Empire as a conquered province, precariously endowed with temporary privileges, but as an autonomous organism, united by free agreement to a sovereign State, which, on account of this agreement, is obliged to respect this autonomy.” Russia, in short, tore up “a scrap of paper.”
This usurpation was, however, only the beginning of the destruction of Finnish autonomy. The Russian Cabinet delayed, mutilated, or vetoed much Finnish legislation, but the right of the Diet to propose legislation remained intact. In March, 1910, M. Stolypin carried through the Duma and the Council of the Empire a Bill which virtually abolished this right. The relations of a country enjoying Home Rule with the Empire to which it is linked, are never easy to determine. There always are certain common concerns and certain Imperial interests which ought to be safeguarded. The Finns have never opposed on principle an arrangement with this end in view. But M. Stolypin’s Bill was a proposal to use this pretext in order to usurp for the Duma a vast range of legislation which robbed the Finnish Diet of all the more important concerns which belong to a Parliament, and reduced it almost to the level of a County Council. The Duma was declared competent to deal with taxation for Imperial purposes, with all military questions, with the rights of Russian subjects in Finland, with criminal law and procedure, with education, with the right of meeting and association, and the freedom of the Press, with coinage, posts, railways, and navigation; and – worst of all – this list, already long, could be extended by a simple decree of the Tsar and his officials. It would be hard to say what was left to the Finnish Diet. The main object which one can discern in this ample catalogue was clearly an intention to Russify Finland, and to introduce the Russian police state, where before there had been national schools, honest courts, personal liberty, the right of meeting, and a free press.
In its subsequent dealings with Finland the Russian autocracy has followed the same astute policy which has directed its persecution of the Jews. There have been no massacres, no hangings, no dramatic brutalities which might have arrested the attention of European newspapers and stirred the lethargic interest of the civilised world. Its iniquities have been dull and tedious, and they have passed almost unnoticed. But Finland is no longer governed by the Finns. Russian bureaucrats fill the Ministries. Judges and local officials who refuse to become the tools of Russification have resigned or accepted dismissal, and have been replaced by Russians or by Russianised. Finns. The Press has been severely persecuted, and meetings and lectures have frequently been prohibited. Arrests in batches and domiciliary searches for political reasons recur periodically. The first steps to Russify the schools and to impose the Russian language have already been taken. The war has only accentuated this tendency. An official programme for the future government of Finland has now been published, and it is countersigned by the Tsar. It is a complete scheme of Russification, which swamps all that was left of Finnish liberties, alike in the Ministries, the Courts, the University, and the schools. If this programme is carried out, the autonomy of Finland has become no more than a memory. Poland has endured the same slow process of strangulation for more than a century. But in Finland the Russian bureaucracy is destroying not merely a nationality, but a community, which was, in its humane and democratic civilisation, a model to Europe.
It seems to be the settled habit of modern Empires that they express their friendship only by uniting for the ruin of some little State. Morocco was the victim of the Entente Cordiale, Persia of the colder and more official Anglo-Russian understanding. To understand its fate we must go back some years. Persia had long been decadent, under the rule of one of the worst dynasties in all the records of the East. Its nobility had become unspeakably corrupt, its peasantry was absorbed in the struggle for bread, its educated class, with a great artistic tradition behind it, and a literature rich in poetry and mystical speculation, sought its consolations in the things of the mind. For generations Britain and Russia had checked each other in Persia and the Persians had felt that this rivalry was their best security. Our preoccupation in South Africa led to a strengthening of Russia’s position, but we in our turn recovered lost ground after the Russian defeats in the Far East. By 1906 a vigorous movement of reform had infused a new spirit into the people It was a part of the general awakening in the East which has since given a Republic to China and Parliament to Turkey. In Persia it was directed partly against the Shah’s despotism and partly against the dangerous dependence of the Court upon Russia. It broke out at midsummer in the forth of a sort of national strike, and twelve thousand Persians, partly as a protest, partly as a precaution, sought refuge in the grounds of the British Legation at Teheran. The Shah yielded to the demand for a Constitution, and the people ascribed their victory as much to British sympathy as to their own efforts. By October, 1900, the first Mejliss (Parliament) had met. It was a triumph for liberty even more remarkable than the later successes of the Young Turks.
Our prestige never stood higher than at this moment in Persia. We were the friends of a victorious popular movement, while Russia was identified with the defeated reactionary party of the Court. Sir Edward Grey meanwhile was negotiating the Anglo-Russian Convention. It was concluded as an indispensable link in his European policy, and when, midway in the negotiations, the whole face of Persian affairs suddenly changed by the resurrection of a Persian nation, it did not occur to him to revise his proposals. From start to finish Persia was never consulted in these negotiations. Persia was for both the Powers simply a tract of territory, a field for concessions, a market for trade. Neither of them remembered that she is a nation. The Convention began, indeed, with a “mutual engagement” to “respect her integrity and independence” – the conventional phrases with which predatory Empires invariably salute a country on its death-bed. It went on to cancel this profession by a partition of the country into three spheres. The Russian sphere in the North covered more than half of Persia, and included the whole of its more fertile and populous area with its three great towns, Teheran, Tabriz, and Ispahan. The British sphere was a small area in the South-West, arid and thinly peopled. Between the two stretched a great neutral area composed mainly of deserts and mountains, and the torrid region of the Gulf coast.
From the standpoint of British interests the Convention was an obvious and, we must suppose, a deliberate surrender. Russia was a beaten Power, with an empty Treasury, a demoralised army, and a people seething in revolt, while her footing in Persia had been lost by the victory of the Persian democracy. We proceeded to place the greater part of the country under her influence, presumably because we wished to buy her goodwill in our European rivalry with Germany. British enterprise had done much by road-building, by telegraph-construction, and by the foundation of a Bank to develop the populous North. The Convention forbade any further extension of this work. By Anglo-Indians, and notably by Lord Curzon, the Convention was criticised mainly for the danger with which it threatened our Indian defences. For generations it had been a maxim of Anglo-Indian strategists that Persia was, like Afghanistan, an indispensable buffer State against Russian aggression. Yet here was an arrangement which would shorten the route of an invader by allowing Russia to consolidate her influence as far south as Ispahan. It is true that a desert divides the Russian from the British sphere. But one of the earliest fruits of Anglo-Russian intimacy was the approval by our Foreign Office of a Russian project to build a Trans-Persian railway which will run from Baku in the Caucasus, by way of Teheran, through Baluchistan, to Karachi and Bombay. It will, no doubt, provide a short overland route to India, but it will also make a road by which a Russian army could cross the Persian deserts and provision itself in safety from the rear in a march on India. Were Persia strong enough to defend her neutrality, the scheme would be harmless and even beneficial. But a weak Persia can furnish no such guarantee. So soon as this line is built, it will of necessity be policed by foreign troops, Cossacks in the North, and Indians in the South. For the first time in our history we shall in effect confront the Russian Empire across a land frontier. No event of our time has added so wantonly to our eventful military burdens. Sir Edward Grey has staked the future of India on the eternal friendship and good faith of Russia. We may discover too late that our Navy cannot defend a border line across the waste places of Persia.
The injury which the Convention inflicted on British interests is not yet completed, but five years have sufficed to make an end of Persian independence. The active assaults and the secret plottings against Persian liberties have come from Russia. How gross a breach of faith our weakness and subservience involves, can best be realised from a glance at the professions with which we entered on our new relationship towards Persia. The Convention was signed on the last day of August, 1907. To allay the alarm and indignation of the Persians, the British Minister, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, addressed an explanatory despatch to their Government dated September 4, 1907. It professed to speak for both Powers. They had given “a guarantee of the independence and integrity of Persia”; they will not interfere in Persian affairs, “unless some injury is inflicted on the property or persons of their subjects”; they consider that the Agreement will allow Persia henceforth to “concentrate all her energies on internal progress.” It concluded with the following assurance: –
From the above statements you will see how baseless and unfounded are these rumours which have lately prevailed in Persia concerning the political ambitions of England and Russia in this country. The object of the two Powers in making this Agreement is not in any way to attack, but rather to assure for ever the independence of Persia. Not only do they wish not to have at hand any excuse for intervention, but their object in these friendly negotiations was not to allow one another to intervene on the pretext of safeguarding their interests. The two Powers hope that in the future Persia will be for ever delivered from the fear of foreign intervention, and will thus be perfectly free to manage her affairs in her own way, whereby advantage will accrue both to herself and to the whole world.
The Convention, as interpreted by our Minister, was more than an undertaking to respect the independence of Persia. It was a promise to prevent Russia from violating it by unwarrantable interference. The subsequent history al Persia has been one long record of infidelity to this promise.
A new Shah succeeded to the throne before the new order of things was well established. Both as heir and as Shah, Mohamed Ali had repeatedly sworn on the Koran to observe the Constitution, but from the first he seemed to aim at a sort of parody in Persia of the reaction which his patron, the Tsar, was planning against the Duma. It was in June, 1908, that the Shah made his supreme effort. King Edward and the Tsar had just met at Reval and had discussed Persian affairs. The more resolute Deputies were already considering whether their liberties would ever be safe under a monarch so perfidious, and they had some thought of removing him from the throne, as the Turks afterwards removed Abdul Hamid. But already they had to realise that Persia is not like Turkey, an independent State. The Russian Minister and the British Chargé d’Affaires informed the Persian Foreign Secretary that “the Nationalists have transgressed all bounds and wish now to dispose the Shah. This we cannot tolerate, and should it happen, Russia will be compelled to interfere.” Such is the Persian version of this interview. The official British version reports, more vaguely, that the Russian Minister said, with the concurrence of our representative, that “grave consequences might ensue should anything happen to the Shah.” Whatever words were used, the effect of this threat was clear. The Persians took it to mean that they dare take no effectual action against the Shah, and they decided that a native despotism was in the last resort preferable to a foreign occupation. The Shah carried out his coup d’état against a resistance which was spasmodic and ineffectual, since all the more influential Nationalists had decided to yield to force. The force was applied by Colonel Liakhoff, the commander of the Russo-Persian Cossack brigade, who bombarded and destroyed the Parliament House, and acted thereafter as the dictator of Teheran, while the Shah trampled on the Constitution and slaughtered those of the leading Deputies and editors who failed to take refuge in the British Legation. It is obvious that the Colonel, who was still on the Russian army list, and was in constant touch with the Russian Minister, would not have dared to take this action, if he had had reason to suppose that it would be displeasing to the Russian Government.
The Shah had triumphed in Teheran, but in Tabriz the people, under the leadership of a magnetic guerrilla chief, Sattar Khan, defied the Shah, defeated his armies, and for nine months withstood a siege. Rumour at length reported that Tabriz was on the point of yielding to starvation, and that the few Europeans shut up within its walls were in danger of their lives. The Russians decided to snatch at this pretext, and in April, 1909, a Russian force entered Tabriz and raised the siege. Sir Edward Grey approved this step, and pledged himself that the occupation should be temporary. From that day to this the Russian garrison has not quitted Tabriz. Encouraged meanwhile by the gallantry of Tabriz, the Nationalists organised their forces, marched simultaneously on Teheran from the North and the South, defeated Colonel Liakhoff and his Cossacks, and deposed the Shah (July, 1909). Russia protected his person, secured a pension for him from the Persian Government, and pledged herself to take effective steps to prevent his return to Persia. A Regent was appointed, and his son, a boy of twelve, succeeded to the throne, while a new Mejliss was elected to resume the work which Colonel Liakhoff’s guns had interrupted.
Throughout the next two years Persian history was comparatively uneventful, and the chief anxiety of the new Government was financial. It had to create an army and a police, but the treasury was empty. The Persian grandees, most of them reactionaries, evaded their taxes, and latterly took to enrolling themselves at the Russian Consulates as Russian protegés. This device removed them from the jurisdiction of the Persian Courts and from their liability to taxation. Brigandage, fostered by the ex-Shah’s partisans with a semi-political motive, was the scourge of the North, and served as a pretext for several Russian expeditions. Russian troops were now permanently quartered in five or six strategic centres in the North. Persia must raise a loan in order to create an efficient armed force, but here her two Protectors stood in the way. They offered her a joint-loan, but demanded the right to control its expenditure, and Persia wisely refused to accept the fate of Egypt. She arranged for a non-political loan on advantageous terms with the London firm of Seligmann, but the Foreign Office interposed its veto. At length we proposed (October, 1910) that Persia should engage British officers to organise a police in the South, and threatened to send an Anglo-Indian force if she refused. Eventually, the threat was partially carried out, and a force of Indian cavalry was stationed for a time at Shiraz, but afterwards withdrawn. It was apparently our ultimatum of October, 1910, which precipitated the final period of Persia’s undoing. Russia felt that the time had come to secure her own footing, and by an arrangement with Germany, made during the Tsar’s visit to Potsdam, she secured the goodwil1 of that Power for a forward policy.
The first move in an active campaign by Russia against Persia was made by her old tool the ex-Shah. He left Odessa, where he was under Russian surveillance. At Vienna, as we know from the confessions of his captured Commander-in-Chief, made in presence of the Times correspondent, he met the Russian Ambassador, informed him of his intention of invading Persia, and obtained from him an assurance of benevolent neutrality. He then crossed Russia “in disguise” and landed from a Russian steamer on the Persian shores of the Caspian. Russia, though she had promised to prevent his return to Persia, did nothing to check him, and the Nationalist Government was forced to spend its scanty resources on a military campaign which ended in his defeat. (September, 1911.)
Meanwhile (May, 1911) Mr. Morgan Shuster, a brilliant American official lent by the United States Government, had arrived in Persia to reorganise its finances. He showed from the first a rare energy and strength of character, and the Mejliss trusted him so completely that it gave him almost autocratic powers. From the beginning it seemed as though Russia, fearing that he might succeed in regenerating Persia, determined first to thwart and then to remove him. The first serious conflict arose when he proposed to engage Major Stokes, a British officer who spoke Persian and knew the country well, to create a Treasury gendarmerie for the collection of taxes. Our Government at first gave its assent, but withdrew it in response to Russian protests. The crisis came in November. The Persian Government confiscated the property of Shua-es-Sultaneh, a brother of the ex-Shah, who had joined in his invasion, and instructed Mr. Shuster to take over his house in Teheran. His gendarmes were beaten and arrested by Russian Cossacks under Russian Consular officers, and this outrage was followed by an ultimatum demanding an abject apology. The Persian Government was clearly in the right. It hesitated to humiliate itself, and with remarkable promptitude Russian troops were landed at Resht and began to march on Teheran. Sir Edward Grey intervened, not to “prevent Russian interference,’’ but to counsel the Persians to yield, assuring them that if they did so the Russian troops would withdraw. The Persian Government complied with our advice, but instead of withdrawing its troops, Russia presented a second ultimatum. Our own dignity, not to mention the dictates of chivalry, should have urged us to protect the suppliant who had sought and followed our advice. But in the two principal demands of this second ultimatum Sir Edward Grey concurred. These were (1) that Mr. Shuster should be instantly dismissed; (2) that Persia should concede to Russia and Great Britain a veto over all future appointments of foreigners in her service; and (3) that she should pay an indemnity to Russia. The Mejliss stood by Mr. Shuster with splendid loyalty and refused to sanction the acceptance of the Russian demands. The demands made an end of Persian independence, and the Persian people was resolved that if force prevailed, the wrong should not have its sanction. The Regent and the Ministry thereupon dissolved the Mejliss by a coup d’état (December 24, 1911) and accepted all the Russian demands. Even this abject surrender did not avail to bring about the withdrawal of the Russian troops. The Russian official Press called for vengeance, and on Christmas Day it duly began, at Tabriz. Provoked by the behaviour of the Russian invaders, a handful of volunteers had attacked them, and some trifling fighting had followed. Tabriz has since been treated like a Russian town infected with Socialism. A field court-martial sat, which hanged at least twenty-six of the popular leaders. The climax of Russian brutality was the public hanging, on the most sacred day of the Persian calendar, of the principal ecclesiastic of the province. It was much as though an invader in Belgium had hanged the Archbishop of Malines on Good Friday.
Through the three years which have followed the expulsion of Mr. Shuster, Persia has lain prostrate and demoralised under the Russian occupation of the North. Russian troops have held all the principal centres of population, and though Persian officials are still appointed, the Russian consuls are everywhere the real governors. The system by which Persians of the reactionary party enrol themselves as Russian protégés has continued, and the result has been that the collection of taxes has been rendered impossible. The Treasury is bankrupt, and M. Mornard, the Russophile Belgian financial controller who succeeded Mr. Shuster, has resigned after a futile conflict with the Russian authorities, who have thus proved that no foreigner, not even a friendly nominee et their own, will be allowed to help the Persians to restore order and solvency. On the eve of the war Sir Edward Grey was himself reduced to confess that the position had become intolerable, and he was about to discuss with Russia what further steps should be taken to remedy the anarchy which the two Powers themselves created.
Meanwhile the motives of Persia’s two Protectors stand revealed. In the South and West the British Government has acquired the controlling share in the British company which holds a concession for the development of the valuable Persian oil wells. The intention is that Persia shall supply the greater part of the petroleum required for the Navy, which is gradually replacing its coal fuel with oil. This concession is of earlier date than the Convention, and the Admiralty had studied it as far back as Lord Selborne’s administration. To some old-fashioned minds, Persia was a little nation struggling, after centuries of decay and misrule, to restore her national independence and her popular liberties. Our rulers all the while saw in her territory a valuable source for the supply of the Navy’s oil. It is expedient, as Mr. Churchill argued, that we should draw our supplies of oil from within the Empire. Unluckily the Empire is not rich in oil-fields. On the other hand our Empire is highly elastic. We have all but stretched it to include the Persian wells. About Russia’s motives there is no mystery. She is a primitive agricultural State, with a wasteful unscientific system of cultivation, and when her Empire expands, her motive is usually land-hunger. She has already begun to draft her colonists in tens of thousands to the fertile Northern provinces of Persia, and the occupation evidently enables them to acquire land at nominal prices. But she had a motive even more powerful than this. The North-Western corner of Persia (Aserbaijan) stands in relation to Russia and Turkey, as Belgium stands to Germany and France. It is strategically the best road for a Russian invasion of the Armenian provinces of Turkey. The Russians have used it as the Germans used Belgium. In vain did Persia declare her neutrality. One-half of the Russian army, when Turkey entered the ranks in this universal war, marched direct on Erzeroum; the other half delivered a flank attack by marching through Persian territory to Van. The Russians were presently defeated by the Turks, who then in their turn invaded Persia, and occupied Tabriz. In vain did the Hague Convention declare that the territory of neutrals is inviolable. Russian militarism, like German militarism, made light of treaties. It is not on record that Sir Edward Grey, who made war on Germany for violating the neutrality of Belgium, so much as remonstrated with Russia for her abuse of Persian territory.
The partition of Persia sketched in 1907 is to-day all but completed. Our “scrap of paper,” our solemn promise to respect the integrity and independence of this Eastern Belgium, stands on record, a monument to shame us. We share with Russia the odium of destroying a weak people, not because it was stagnant in its decadence, but because it had begun, late in the day, and with many falterings and mistakes, to conquer its liberties and undo the corruption of centuries.
Everyone knows that it was a quarrel over Serbia which involved Europe in this universal war. Behind Serbia stood Russia, and the real issue at stake was something much larger than the extent to which Serbia owed reparation to Austria for her anti-Austrian agitation, which had culminated in the murder by an Austrian Serb of the heir to the Austrian throne. The broad fact was that Serbia was openly and deliberately preparing for a predestined struggle, in which she hoped to wrest from the Austrian Empire the wide provinces bordering the Adriatic which are inhabited by people of Serbian stock. It was a natural ambition, but it could be pursued only at the price of European war. Serbia never hoped to defeat Austria by her own resources; she counted on Russian aid, and all the statesmen of Europe knew, if they paused to think, that when Russia did go to war with Austria to achieve the dreams of Pan-Slavism, the struggle would involve the Allies of both. The masses in Britain and France may not have realised, when their rulers concluded an understanding and an alliance with Russia, that they were in fact enlisted on the Slav side in the coming struggle between Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism, but their rulers can hardly have been so innocent. Everyone who watched Eastern affairs was aware of these Serbian ambitions, and no one doubted that Russia had stood for many years behind Serbia as her protector and patron. One need mention only a single fact which ought to have warned British and French diplomacy of the risk which it ran by its association with Russia. It is generally known that when Serbia and Bulgaria in the spring of 1912 concluded the secret treaty of alliance which evolved into the Balkan League, and led to the war with Turkey, they were brought together by Russian diplomacy. The real architect of that treaty was the brilliant, unscrupulous Russian Minister at Belgrade, the late M. de Hartwig. In this treaty the Tsar was recognised as the patron of the Alliance, and was named as the arbitrator who should allocate the division of the spoils of conquered Turkey. What is not so widely known is that the treaty contained another clause. In this clause Bulgaria bound herself to fight as Serbia’s ally against Austria with all her military forces. The writer does not scruple to make this statement, for his informants, at different times, were two Balkan diplomatists, one a Bulgarian and the other a Serbian. Both had seen the treaty, and both gave the same version of it. Such, then, was Russian policy in 1912. It looked forward to a war with Austria at no distant date, and it was already mustering the forces of the Slav world for a war which aimed at dismembering Austria and dividing her Slav provinces between Russia and her Balkan allies. This capital fact was no secret from German and Austrian statesmen, and it must have been known to our own Foreign Office.
This premeditated war of Slav against Teuton cast its shadow before it, and influenced all the preparations of the Great Powers. Germany decided to increase her army towards the close of 1912, and in his speech justifying the increase the German Chancellor pointed to the military power of the Balkan States as his reason, and referred to the possibility of a struggle between Germans and Slavs. France replied with a return to three years’ service, and Russia sketched an immense programme of military reforms and increases, which, as the military correspondent of the Times put it, were “well-calculated to make the Germans anxious” (June 3, 1914). They did make the Germans anxious. There was in the spring of last year (1914) a sort of panic in the German Press, which talked of Russian militarism with the horror and alarm that we reserve for the German variety. Germans are fond of saying that they kept the peace from 1870 to 1914; Russia in the same period made two great wars, against Turkey and Japan. Our alarmists used to talk about the “danger point” in German naval preparations; it was usually said to be 1912. The German alarmists inferred that Russia would be ready for war about 1916, and a pamphlet by Colonel Frobenius was published, with an approving note by the Crown Prince, to drive home this argument. The result was a determination on the part of Germany and Austria to break up the Slav combination before Russia’s armaments were ready. They hoped to achieve this without war, or rather by a war against Serbia alone. They were convinced that Russia would not fight (our White Paper is full of evidence to this effect), but if Serbia were deserted by Russia she would cease to be a Russian tool. Plot answered to plot; militarism schemed against militarism. The Slavs wanted to dismember Austria; the Germans replied by trying to destroy the Slav coalition. Russia embarked on an aggressive policy, which must have led to war. Germany replied with a preventive policy, which did in fact precipitate war. The responsibility for the actual outbreak of war was nicely divided between the two Empires. The Tsar was the first to order a general mobilisation, and this he did in spite of an explicit warning by Germany that a general mobilisation would force her to declare war.
In all the recent history of Europe there is probably no quarrel so little calculated as this to stir our sympathies or touch our interests. We are neither Germans nor Slavs. Neither side was in the right. It was a sheer trial of brute force, and the issue promised nothing for human liberty or happiness. There has never been a Continental quarrel to which on its merits the people of this country would so gladly have remained neutral. But neutral we could not be. France was bound to Russia by the strict ties of an alliance, and Sir Edward Grey was bound to France by the secret bonds of a naval arrangement. Why was it that the Germans were wrong in supposing that Russia would not fight? The real answer probably is, that the Russians knew, what the Germans did not know, that the Triple Entente was actually a more solid bond than the Triple Alliance. The Russians knew in short that they could reckon not only on French, but on British support. They drew the correct inference from our action in keeping at sea the ships gathered on the eve of the crisis for the Portland Review, and Sir Edward Grey himself invited them to draw that inference. (White Paper No. 47.) Sir Edward Grey did indeed strive, sincerely and ably, to prevent the outbreak of war. But behind these strivings lay ten years of secret commitments to France, seven years of Imperialist bargaining with Russia, and the whole theory and practice of the Balance of Power, which committed him irrevocably to the Russian side, if war there should be. This remote and sordid struggle for mastery in the Balkans spread to the West, because France and Britain had allied themselves with an unscrupulous and aggressive Eastern Power.
If the war ends in the victory of the Allies, its main consequence will be an immense aggrandisement of Russian power. In the name of the sanctity of treaties we shall have backed a despotism which has dishonoured her “scraps of paper” in Finland and in Persia. With the sacred cause of nationality on our lips, we shall have furthered the ambitions of a Power which has subjected every alien race within her grasp to the process of forcible Russification. He who extends the boundaries of Russia, extends the area within which every non-orthodox creed is subject to repression, Socialists must fear gallows, Liberals the censorship, and Jews the system of the medieval Ghetto. This war was not made at the eleventh hour by our concern for Belgium. It was made long years ago when the malign theory of Balance of Power, and the ambitions of the Allies in Egypt, Morocco, and Persia, divided Europe into two hostile groups, which struggled by heaping armament on armament to win the mastery of the world. Let us beware, while we cherish no illusions about the character of Russian Imperialism, of returning to the jealousies and rivalries which existed before the Understanding. Let us beware, above all, lest our opposition to Russian autocracy and Russian Imperialism be confused with hostility to the Russian people. There is no race in Europe more endowed with the gifts of charity, generosity, and spiritual insight, none more attractive or more worthy of sympathy and friendship. It has given us the greatest and most humane of modern literatures. We hope for a more fruitful intimacy with it than the relationships of creditor and debtor, diplomatist and soldier, an intimacy that implies no enmity to any other Power. One lesson we must draw from this war. We must make an end of the division of Europe into two rival camps, and with it of the whole system of military alliances and the Balance of Power.
1.* The reader who would form some conception of what life has meant in Russia during recent years for those of its citizens who had the courage to work for liberty will find in Prince Kropotkin’s pamphlet (“The Terror in Russia,” Methuen, 1909), a full and dispassionate record of the late M. Stolypin’s methods of repression, compiled by a man whose name is a guarantee at once for honesty and for accurate scientific statement. He shows how the population of Russia’s prisons rose during the period of nominal liberty from a daily average of 86,000 in 1905, to 181,000 in 1909. He describes the overcrowding with its inevitable consequences that gaol-fever (typhus) and scurvy ravaged the insanitary prisons. He cites indisputable evidence, collected in some cases by the Duma itself, of the use of tortures worthy of the Inquisition. He enumerates 160 recent cases in which prisoners committed suicide to escape torture, ill-treatment, or outrage. Official figures showed that in 1909 the courts martial were hanging men and women, without a civil trial, at the rate of almost three persons daily. The number of political exiles quartered in remote villages of Northern Russia and Siberia stood at this date, by official admission, at 74,000.
2. There is evidence that since the war began there have been pogroms by Russian troops at the expense of the numerous Jewish population of Poland and Galicia.
3. See “The Orient Express,” by Mr. A. Moore, the able correspondent of the Times in Persia. “While Persia struggled,” he writes (p.137), “Great Britain and Russia have stood by with bludgeons .... and have smitten her to the ground whenever one of her more convulsive death-struggles bore the appearance of an attempt to rise and walk.”
4. For fuller details on this point see another pamphlet. “The Origins of the Great War” by H.N. Brailsford, published at 1d. by the Union of Democratic Control, and obtainable from the I.L.P.