I did not meet Admiral Kolchak, the Dictator, as he was ill and could not come to see me, and I feared that my going to visit him would be the cause of ill- natured comment. He had many enemies, and the Socialist element was continually accusing him of having Monarchist leanings. I had known him personally and remembered him well - upright of bearing, alert, thin and fair, looking much younger than his years, though he was a man still in the prime of life. He was a fine sailor, and as a young officer had already made a name for himself as an explorer, and it was considered in the navy that he had a brilliant career before him. He was greatly liked by his men, and his bravery had won their admiration. I was told that during the worst period of the revolution the sailors of the Black Sea Fleet arrested him and called upon him to give up his sword -he had a sword of honour for conspicuous bravery. Kolchak answered that "the Japanese had returned it to him when he was a prisoner of war, for they respected the reward of gallantry." He would give up his sword to no man alive, and threw it into the sea. The men grumbled but slunk away, and shortly afterwards they sent down divers and retrieved the sword, which they returned to him. It is a pretty story; I heard it from reliable sources, and I give it, for it paints the man.

Kolchak was clever and loved his country. As General Knox said of him: "He was a gallant sailor and gentleman, and a great patriot," and so he was considered by all who knew him. He was very inadequately assisted. The Allies' aid was lukewarm and half-hearted. His was never officially recognised as a government. Kolchak had behind him a country rich in natural produce, but with no industry and no factories. The munitions for his troops had to be sent by driblets from Vladivostock. The one railway line was in constant danger of falling into the hands of stray bands of Bolsheviks that lay in hiding in the woods and kept up a guerilla war with Kolchak's men. Kolchak was also greatly hampered at first by the rival Government set up at Chita by Ataman Semenoff, who obstructed him in many ways and even held up munition trains. This state of affairs lasted till the spring of 1919, when Semenoff recognised Kolchak's authority and was appointed by the latter Governor of the province he held.

Another difficulty of the Kolchak administration was the lack of real statesmen and experts. All the best political heads of Russia had fled from Bolshevism, either to the Crimea or to the Caucasus, and Kolchak had to make use of such men as he still found in Siberia, from which also there had been a great exodus abroad. These men proved unequal to their task. I was greatly struck by the want of proper organisation that was patent to me in all the Government offices I visited. They seemed to be run by amateurs - with the best intentions probably - but without the necessary preparations. What could one expect of a clerk in the Foreign Office who up till this time had been a village priest and suddenly became a diplomat? He was probably discreet, being accustomed to keep the secrets of confession, but was this preparation for diplomacy? The higher officials were in most cases former junior clerks, or more often rank outsiders who had everything to learn in the work.

Kolchak had thought it necessary to call into life most of the State institutions that had existed under the Monarchy. All the cumbrous administration, the ministries, the senate, and the law courts, existed officially at Omsk, but only a small percentage of their staffs had ever originally belonged to these institutions. As the archives were all at Petrograd and Moscow there was no possibility of referring to them. The work was slowly and, so it was said, not well done. This soon became a reason for justifiable criticism, and criticism of every kind was rife at Omsk. It was the more dangerous because all political parries had become used to the idea of Governments being easily overthrown, and that the men who did the over-throwing could step into the shoes of their predecessors. To the "Menscheviks" and Socialists Kolchak was not sufficiently democratic. On the other hand the Monarchists disapproved of every liberal measure.

Most of Kolchak's army was holding the Ural front. Winter had brought a cessation of hostilities, but he had only raw Russian recruits in the towns. The Allied contingents sent to support him were quartered in different towns and were supposed to keep order only, without taking part in active warfare. These Allied forces consisted of two British battalions, some Canadians, and French soldiers (who stayed at Vladivostock), and a small contingent of Serbs and Italians. The last were former prisoners of war, who came from provinces that had recently been Austrian. General Janin, as senior in rank, commanded the United Allied forces, and General Knox was Inspector-General. I heard from military men, however, that except for the British units, which did not number more than 1500 men, the rest were not a serious military force. The Czechs also no longer took part in active service at the front, and were quartered in towns to prevent any outbreak of Bolshevism. They were weary of fighting, and had but one thought - to return to their homes and country, especially as Czecho-Slovakia had now become an independent state.

The Czechs also guarded the Trans-Siberian line. They did this efficiently, but it gave rise to much friction and many difficulties. The whole Russian railway administration had been placed under Czech control, and one often saw quite young Czech officers giving peremptory orders to old Russian engineers. The older men submitted most unwillingly to this tutelage, and the consequence was that dual orders were given with results that were most harmful to the general run of affairs. Though all intelligent people realised and appreciated the great service the Czech units had rendered to Siberia in freeing it from the Bolsheviks, there was at this time a good deal of bitter feeling against them. The bulk of the population was irritated by the Czechs. The best buildings everywhere had been put at their disposal. Their trains went first, their soldiers got better pay than the Russians. This was, of course, only natural, being due both to a feeling of gratitude and to international courtesy, but was exceedingly irritating to the masses. A more serious ground for misunderstanding was the desire of the Czechs to exercise a preponderating influence in military matters. Their very democratic views led them to support the Socialist parties, and thus added to the difficulties of the Government, which was trying to steer a middle course in troubled waters.

General Knox, who was going on a journey of inspection up the line, now offered to take me with him, urging me to give up the idea of going to Europe with the invalid transport. I accepted this suggestion gratefully, but had in consequence to spend several weeks at Omsk awaiting his departure.

In attempting to replenish my wardrobe, which consisted of a single coat and skirt and a couple of ragged cotton frocks, I discovered that only war profiteers -and Siberia seemed to have plenty of these - could afford the luxury of buying clothes. There were numerous shops selling foodstuffs at more or less reasonable prices. But dress material could only be bought at the "Emporiums" - large stores that vanished as quickly as they sprang up -which sold everything one could think of, at appalling prices. Many goods were the result of a little judicious smuggling, others were symptomatic of the financial straits to which people had been reduced. In these shops one could see beside a pair of more or less new boots antique Chinese embroideries, old carved ivories, pieces of old silver of the most perfect work- manship, lovely bits of lace, the finest sables. Further on would be salt fish and tins of corned beef, the latter bearing such old labels that I shuddered to think of the fate of those who might be tempted by their contents. In the same shop second-hand clothing was sold, and the rapidity with which the most dreadful gowns and the most extraordinary suits that had ever covered a human body were sold was also significant. These were not cheap either, for the shopkeepers made huge profits. There was great poverty in all classes, especially among the families of officers and employees, who lived only on the men's pay. Mothers and daughters had often but one coat between them, and went out in it in turns. Children simply stayed at home. No one was rich enough to help his neighbour. Both the Russian and the American Red Cross tried to do what they could, but of course they were not equipped to meet such emergencies, as there were so many of the "new poor."

Owing to the presence of so many different elements there was a strange medley of Europe and Asia in Omsk. One could see bands of Canadians in their picturesque fur coats, polar helmets, and white fur moccasins, while further on one would meet a detachment of real British Tommies walking along with that special springy step that is so different from the heavy measured tread of the Russian soldier. The officer heading the detachment, cane in hand, might be a perfect specimen of the English youth, his very British type in sharp contrast to the features one saw around him. Motor-cars darted to and fro, their occupants sometimes Frenchmen in huge fur coats, but faithful to their red and grey kepi, sometimes Japanese, disdaining fur and in khaki trench coats. Peasants' sledges drove side by side with the homely isvozchik, recklessly dashing along at the imminent danger to life and limb of both the driver and his fare. These typical figures made one feel that one was still in Russia, and that the foreign soldiers who filled up so much of the picture were only part of the strange situation produced by these abnormal times.

A skating rink had been arranged on the river, where some of the Canadians could be seen every day showing their skill. The Siberians seldom, if ever, indulge in any kind of winter sport, partly on account of the rigorous climate, but chiefly because of their natural indolence. Their admiration of the prowess of the new arrivals was great in proportion, and they would stand for hours motionless in the deep snow, watching the Canadians gyrate in the intricate movements of a complicated valse or in some cunningly devised figure.

Many Russian officers could be again seen in the streets, some wearing Imperial uniforms, others in khaki coats of British cut. Here also would be peasant women in white leather fur-lined coats and high felt boots, their heads well wrapped up in shawls; or some small pupil of the cadet school would pass, trying not to look half frozen in the thin coat to which he clung to emphasise the fact that he belonged to one of the old schools of Russia.

Our nearness to China was apparent from the number of Chinese who might be seen leisurely walking in the streets: sometimes a dignified merchant in a fine sable hat that was the envy of every woman he met, sometimes a humble coolie selling his wares or carrying a large basket of washing. Numerous Chinese laundries had cropped up all over Siberia after the revolution. There had been one at Tyumen that I had patronised. Their work was very good and their charges extremely moderate. It was this that had tempted me originally to employ them, but I always went to their premises with a feeling of apprehension. They were probably God-fearing, or Buddha-fearing, men, but their faces did not inspire me with confidence when I stepped down into the dimly lighted cellar which was the laundry. The cellar looked uncanny; it was plunged in a haze of steam that issued in clouds from huge vats in the corner and filled the whole air. Dim Chinese figures flitted about, some dressed in nondescript garments, some naked to the waist. Other Chinamen executed a kind of war-dance on the clothes in the vats - their system of laundry! An old Chinaman, toothless and with an unpleasant scowl, would make out a bill in hieroglyphics, rapidly explaining the items to us in pidgin English. In the background was a kind of low bench on which crouched other figures, huddled together and smoking pipes, seemingly half asleep, but whenever one of them chanced to look up, in the glance he gave me I saw a mingling of hostility and nervousness. I was always glad to pay whatever was asked and depart as quickly as possible. Were these merely "washermen," and if not, what were they?

From what I saw of it, life at Omsk must have been deadly dull for the foreigners stationed there. The British and Canadian units lived their own lives, apart from the rest. They varied the tedium of their days by mild forms of sport and by amateur concerts for the men. Russians, of course, could not entertain in the circumstances, and only exceptionally did some charity concert unite all the social elements. General Knox started on his journey at the end of January, and this was the end of my life at Omsk. I bade farewell to Monsieur Gilliard, who had got a post in the French Military Mission, and was to remain at Omsk. Our whole party dispersed. Mademoiselle Tegleva was at Tyumen, Mr. Gibbes was then still at Ekaterinburg, but was later to join the British Military Mission at Omsk. Both the tutors had so heartily identified their interests with those of the Imperial Family that they had served so loyally and for whom they had done so much, that it had created a great link between us all. They all were to follow in my footsteps and return to Europe, but much later, after having seen the Kolchak debacle and the return of Bolshevism to Siberia.

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Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:

The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910

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