WESTERN AND OTHER BRUTALITY
Letter to the Editor – Quadrant December 1998.
SIR: M. Rathbone (September 1998) rejects my claim that the brutality of Western intervention against the 1917 Russian Revolution contributed to later brutality. He says the intervention was peripheral. Maybe. But my own conclusions based on living and working in the Soviet Union suggest otherwise. .
In 1964, I found myself on a train from Odessa returning to Moscow (where I worked at the Australian embassy) and sharing a four-berth compartment with two Russians, an aging worker and his son. Russians are friendly people and soon we (myself and another embassy official) were sharing food, drink and conversation with the son. But the father stayed aloof. Only much later that evening, as the train wound across the black Ukrainian wheat fields, did he begin to explain why.
As a young student with revolutionary idealism he had joined Trotsky’s Red Army in 1918 to fight against the White pro-Tsarist armies on the front near Murmansk. His wife came with him, to work in a field hospital. In the retreat forced by British intervention to assist the Whites, his unit had escaped. But the hospital had been seized. The British had handed the female staff over to the Whites, who had promptly executed them all.
He had never remarried. To kill the grief, he had thrown himself into Party activities. He had willingly joined in rounding up the kulaks (against whom one of the charges was that they had been White collaborators). As a trade union official, he had seen and fought against the corruption of high Party officials. Now expelled from the Party he had served so faithfully, he was working out his last years as a humble mechanic in a badly-run factory.
But he still saw no reason to like us Westerners. If our system was so superior, why did his wife have to be killed? I had no answer.
Rathbone says the Japanese 1918-22 intervention in Siberia was “token”. Once again I disagree. Visit the Kharbarovsk museum and see the photos of grinning Japanese peasant soldiers standing in front of piles of frozen bodies of executed students, male and female, neatly stacked up like logs in a timber yard. In a region that badly needed educated young people, an entire generation was wiped out.
When occupying Asia twenty years later, Japan used the same approach, in Singapore especially.The logic was simple. Wipe out the educated young and in one blow get rid of most of the potential anti-Japan left-wingers. Some of the more elderly readers of this magazine would have suffered the same fate if the Japanese had been able to get a bit further south. Today their survivors would not be using words like “token” to describe the experience.
Those “peripheral” Western forces intervening into the Soviet Union from the south seemed to have used the same technique. Anastas Mikoyan, the one moderate, sensible economist in the Moscow hierarchy from the forties through to the sixties, had a simple answer to those who asked why he remained such a loyal supporter right through the Stalin period. If we cared to visit Baku he would say, we would find a plaque listing the left-wing intellectuals executed en masse as a result of that intervention. Among them was the name of his elder brother. He himself had been imprisoned there by the British.
Rathbone’s other point is that the Russian revolutionaries had an agenda of terror from the start, regardless of the Western or Japanese interventions. He may be right about the agenda. But don’t forget that the revolutionaries had suffered several decades of fairly savage suppression in Russia and elsewhere before 1917.
People subjected to terror, including state terror, often tend to respond with the same, something many of our Western governments and pundits have yet to learn.
Gregory Clark, Tokyo, Japan.
PS. After the Odessa visit I had to go through a debriefing by one of ASIO/ASIS’s Melbourne-based stable of Soviet “experts”. In my routine written report of the visit I had said that my hotel was close to the local KGB headquarters. How could I know this, he inquisited, unless I had been having illicit dealings with the KGB?
I had to explain patiently to him that the KGB was a public organisation which advertised its presence in Odessa and elsewhere with large, brass, sidewalk plates saying Komitet Gosudastviniiy Bezopastnosti. Since said “expert” did not speak a word of Russian I had also to explain what the words meant. Buried deep in the ASIO files, I am told, is another report that says my being able to learn reasonable conversational Russian during a two-year posting there has to be proof of dubious contacts and leanings.
Those files should be amended: Refusal to learn the languages and to speak directly to the people on the other side has been the major cause of irrationality, bias and cruelty in the Cold War and other conflicts throughout this century.