What Help From Russia?

The Combatants



A FOREIGN correspondent, following on the heels of the Russian advance into Poland, described enthusiastically the long columns of marching men, with horse-drawn transport, motorized units, tanks, tractors, and the general array of mechanical equipment. His allusions to the vast number of broken-down motor vehicles by the roadside seemed a little ominous; what was left unsaid brought clearly to mind the obvious fact that no army of occupation in this region could be kept going by motor transport. In no part of Poland are the roads so few and bad as in this eastern and northern sector — in the whole region east of BrestLitovsk; in no part is there so little road material for making a proper highway. For this first advance, the dependence on transport by road was a necessary expedient, as the break of gauge at the frontier made it impossible for the Russian railways to send trains forward with their advancing armies.

When the Germans swept forward over southern Russia in the ‘bread offensive’ of 1918, they took over the Russian locomotives and rolling stock, as well as the railway personnel — and with all this operated a Russian railway system under German control. This involved transshipment at the frontier, on account of the change of gauge; but this delay was less serious than that involved in relaying some thousands of miles of Russian track, and the painful shortage of rolling stock at home made it out of the question to provide German trains for southern Russia. So desperate was the need of grain that the outstanding railway specialist at the General Staff, General Gröner, was sent out to take charge there, while a special mission was sent to Moscow to give expert aid in gathering raw materials. Despite all Groner’s efforts, the ‘bread offensive’ ended in bitter disappointment; while at Moscow, after four months’ hard work, the Mission reported ‘not a single practical result accomplished.’

This was the first of many ventures in quest of the Golden Fleece, and since that time American and European technical experts have been constantly employed at Moscow in the effort to stimulate the flow of Russian raw materials. As long ago as 1925, Germany joined in the effort with a generous advance of long-term credits; England and France in turn sowed this same grain. All three failed to reap a harvest. On each occasion, moreover, the Russians themselves were anxious to achieve success: not to rescue a political ally, but to meet the desperate needs of their own industries, they were striving to increase their export trade. Whatever the causes, the results were the same — neither financial aid nor foreign technical guidance has ever been able to speed up production or to change the queer workings of the Russian industrial machine.

The problems involved in a change of gauge now arise again on the Polish frontier. Instead of operating the Polish railways on the existing gauge, as an emergency measure, the Russians promptly decided to relay all track on the Russian gauge — and this work has already begun. This means also that all the Polish locomotives and rolling stock become useless until they too can be rebuilt to fit the new gauge. It will not be accomplished soon. The Russian share of Poland is larger by some ten thousand square miles than all the New England states together, and has, apparently, a good deal larger population. A railway friend to whom one turned for guidance pointed out the peculiar complications and dangers involved in shifting an existing network of track to a broader gauge. He summed up the matter curtly: ‘Take all New England. Relay all the track. Reset every switch and switch lever, and all the crossings. Uproot and plant over again all the train yards and station yards, and every roundhouse. How many cranes have you ready for the job? How many cars with engineering equipment? How many track superintendents and foremen? Are you going to work on through the winter, on hard frozen ground? In the meantime,’ he added, ‘while the work goes on, along this 400-mile stretch of frontier you will have to put up the standard signs: No passing. Road under construction. Detour.’

This prospect suggests a fairly effective traffic barrier. For some time to come, however, the volume of traffic between Russia and Germany will not be great. Although each state has been desperately anxious to increase its foreign trade, the planned economy of these two governments has had the curious effect of shrinking the trade between the two to insignificant figures. In a special article on the new Soviet-Nazi trade agreement, the Frankfurter Zeitung of October 1 pointed out the decline in striking fashion.


1931:762,700,000 1938: 31,800,000


1930: 486,300,000 1938: 47,400,000

Russia’s total foreign trade in this period has declined to something less than half. Her trade with Germany has dropped to about one fifteenth. Among the exports to Russia the most important declines came in machinery and other manufactures of iron and steel — the things Russia now particularly needs. These items Germany has consistently been unable to deliver under the barter agreements made with other countries during the last few years. The Frankfurter Zeitung, in surveying the field of what Germany might be able to furnish, suggested textiles (which Russia does not import), also bicycles, radio apparatus, pianos, musical instruments, and chinaware — in other words, a mixed bag of surplus stocks left unsold in Germany, and still less salable in Russia. This offers scant prospect of much increase in Germany’s exports; and by the same token Russia’s shipments will have to come from such produce as she is willing to send out without a return.


The Russian advance in the west involves also the building up of a new military frontier. The best part of the Russian army has long been established in the regions adjoining the western frontier. The barracks and all the housekeeping mechanism necessary for large forces in permanent stations have gradually been set up, while the railway network has been filled out in accord with strategical necessities. The frontier Lenin offered the Poles in 1920 cut at random across the pre-war network like a tear across a printed page. Since then these jagged edges have been patched and mended by new construction, new approach lines and concrete highways have been built, and a main line parallel to the frontier has been double-tracked. By means of all this the Red Army could plan an effective defense; and on this alone rested any real military security.

All this is left derelict by shifting the frontier a hundred or two hundred miles to the west. At the outset of winter the Russian divisions will have to establish themselves along a relatively bare and naked frontier, with bad roads and without concrete highways, and with a railway network left as jagged and broken as in 1920. This wide unorganized zone is necessarily far weaker than the old frontier; and for a long while to come the military position of Russia in the west will be less secure than before. Whatever Hitler’s distrust of Stalin, military safety alone, at present , will not require leaving any great number of German combat divisions on guard in Poland. For Russia, meanwhile, the displacement of garrisons, the equipping of the new frontier, and above all the reconstruction of the Polish railways will amount to a major operation — one requiring not only a vast effort but also a farreaching diversion of matériel and of railway transport.

It comes at a time when the Russian railways are badly short of good rolling stock for their work at home; when the railway services are in such a condition that even a washed-out bridge causes interminable confusion and delay; when, in fact, not only the railways but the whole administrative machine carry along in a state of tension comparable to that of a nation at war. This last partition of Poland leaves Russia far less effective as an ally of Germany than she was before, while the war itself vastly increases the tension of her industrial and economic régime. The closing of the Baltic and the overland routes to the west cuts off direct access to her best markets, while the freezing of Vladivostok will close throughout the winter her outlets via the Pacific. Her essential imports are no less threatened. Her industrial economy depends largely upon imports of machinery and tools from the west: Germany can now supply little or none; in England and France she will not be on the priority list; while the United States suddenly becomes remote and far away.

The paradox of an immensely powerful nation and a pitifully feeble machinery of state is, so to speak, an established tradition of Russian history. Under whatever regime and whatever changing set of circumstances, there recurs always the curious disparity between the potential energy and effective horsepower. At all times, too, the solution adopted has been to change the engineer. The Minister long in favor is disgraced; and each successor in turn is expected to achieve instantly the miracle of making the same old machine work. From the standpoint of practical administration, the successive Five-Year Plans or the system of purges in favor under Stalin express the same instinct to deal with shortcomings of administration by sudden and drastic expedients. The expedients change, but the ‘personal solution’ continues to be the patent medicine relied on; and the general governmental habit represents a continuation rather than a change. The violent contrast between the Tsardom and the new régime has tended to obscure the departmental continuity between the two. It has come to be fairly well recognized that the framework of the Red Army through the first years after 1917 was made up largely of a personnel of officers and soldiers trained and formed in the old Imperial Army — some 22,000 officers continued in the service, and of course an infinitely greater number of soldiers from the old ranks.

The railway service, in an even greater degree, must then have constituted the ‘same old machine.’ Unless the bulk of its personnel had held over, the railways would never have continued operating throughout the chaotic period beginning in 1918, and could never have picked up so quickly at the end of the civil war. A new race of firemen, engineers, and traffic officials did not suddenly spring out of the soil: the old personnel continued at work with the old — much too old — matériel. Locomotives that were judged far out of date in 1914 still have to do duty today; and, despite the golden horizons of the Five-Year Plan, four fifths or so of the rolling stock is without automatic brakes, while the coupling-pin of our boyhood days is still the thing in common use. One essential change, however, is that after bitter experience the old régime had learned that a workable railway service was necessary to a modern state and that only by a heavy outlay of capital year by year could such a thing be built up. The old railway system had conspicuous shortcomings, but it had not been consistently skimped and starved. Ever since 1918, on the other hand, the Soviet railway services have had to carry on under a government interested primarily in other things.

In Hitler’s Germany, it may be noted, the same thing is true. The difference is that during the post-war years ‘the feeble German republic’ rebuilt from top to bottom a plant left derelict by the war; the establishment Hitler has been steadily skimping and starving was in first-rate condition in 1933. The Russian railway administration throughout twenty years, on the other hand, has had to keep on living in a ruined house. All the vast projects undertaken have ended in mere patchwork repairs, and the huge sums spent (or planned) for the railways have been swallowed up in the continuing deficit of a worn-out and inadequate establishment, continually breaking under the burden imposed upon it. In the lines constructed since 1920, according to the judgment of a German railway expert, the general standard of construction recalls that of field railways laid down during the war. In addition, there is the overwhelming handicap of having an essentially professional service constantly shattered by political conflicts within the régime. Although for a different motive, the heads of technical and administrative services have been overlaid by political appointees in a way comparable to the Tammany régime of two generations ago. Stalin’s violent efforts against this evil have apparently made the situation not better but worse. Demanding administrative efficiency without himself having a touch of administrative experience, and without the patience to listen or learn or understand, Stalin, through his merciless remedy of ‘administration by punishment,’ has broken the backbone of any proper professional administration. His war to the knife against, bureaucracy has fostered — as an inevitable protective reaction — the vices of bureaucracy in their most extreme form: the avoidance of all responsibility, fear of initiative and prompt action, and the safeguard of paperasse and shockabsorbing devices of every form.

As a result, a professional personnel such as could have developed during the past twenty years has never been allowed to build itself up; the brains and technical capacity inherited or available after 1918 have never been put to proper use; and throughout the kaleidoscopic shifts of courses and policies the railway service has remained the Cinderella of the Soviet governmental household. As a test, let us make a single comparison, remembering that Russia is almost ninety times larger than Great Britain and over eleven times the area of the United States:—

Locomotives Freight cars
Russia (1934) 19,400 542,000
Germany 21,000 594,000
Great Britain 20,500 636,000
United States 51,000 1,973,000

In one respect above all, however, the tradition of the old régime has carried over into the new. Far-reaching ‘directions’ of national policy are laid down by men who take railways for granted, with little sense of the limits they impose. In 1904, the precarious line of single track to the Far East had hardly been completed when a mood of ambitious adventure swept Russia into the Japanese war. The spectre of Russia’s overwhelming military power was as formidable as it is today, and the possibility of making a stand against it seemed no less out of the question. This buoyant spirit was of course indifferent to the detail that the Siberian railway was of a different gauge from the Russian: from this aspect, Russia suddenly became two countries, only one of which could actually function in the theatre of war. Next, in the effort to remedy this contretemps and to gather the resources of the country for use in a distant theatre of war, it was forgotten that all the rolling stock of the country was barely enough to supply the needs of European Russia in peacetime. In many provinces, every station yard was soon piled high with grain or produce awaiting shipment — waiting often for months on end in the open, and ruined by the time it could be cleared away.

This general paralysis of economic life was the first phase of the revolution of 1905. No plot, no conspiracy, no underground opposition brought the thing about; and none of these things, we may assume, face Stalin today. Revolutionary elements, properly speaking, played only a lesser part in the upheaval of 1905. In Siberia and various other provinces, oddly enough, the suppression of revolt took the curious form of a systematic reconquest of the main lines of railway communication — a straight-cut military undertaking, with troops and guns.

This fiasco was not repeated in 1914. With energetic determination, the military and railway authorities together recast their arrangements so thoroughly that the railways achieved the vast mobilization of 1914 without confusion and far more rapidly than the rest of the world expected. But for the railways, once again, it was an excessive burden to maintain an army at war and at the same time to serve the needs of the huge country behind the front. This overload told more and more severely as the war dragged on. Other countries at war had the same experience (the United States by no means least); but in Russia the government could neither see nor cope with the necessity of diverting men and materials to the task of repairing the steady wastage. The munitions shortage of 1915 was overcome, but by the following year the railways had become the weak link in the chain. By May 1916, half the blast furnaces in Russia were shut down for want of coal and ore; all the metallurgical industries were being slowed down; and vast stores of badly needed munitions and supplies were piling up at Russian ports for lack of trains to carry them away. By 1914 the Russian steel industry had developed to such a scale that it was exporting steel rails to England; in 1916 it was unable to provide rails enough to meet the wear and tear at home. Yet the country at large in 1916 had the same abundant sources of coal and iron as before the war; the vast exports of grain had stopped, and the whole harvest remained for use at home.


No one will ever be able to undo the accepted conclusion that a process of gradual exhaustion forced Russia to withdraw from the war, that at the end she was running hopelessly short of men, munitions, and the general sinews of war. General Alfred Knox, who was perhaps the best and most understanding observer of the Russian effort from first to last, left a record of a very different state of things at the beginning of 1917. By almost every test, in his judgment, the army was stronger, better armed, and better supplied than at any time before. At the outset of the war 115 infantry divisions had been put into the field. There were 240 divisions under the colors on March 1, 1917, — plus 1,900,000 soldiers in depots and 600,000 men of the new drafts then coming in. By the Russian Staff estimate there were then 2343 infantry battalions in the European theatre of war, as against 2198 battalions in the German army. The ‘fire power’ of the army in the field had increased immensely in the last year; to take the expenditure of three-inch shell in three successive summer campaigns: in 1914, 464,000; in 1915, 811,000; in 1916, 2,229,000. In January 1917 there were on hand over 6000 75’s, with over 15 million shells; and over 15,000 machine guns with a far larger stock of ammunition than ever before.

‘The leading was improving every day. The army was sound at heart. . . . There can be no doubt that if the national fabric in the rear had held together . . . the Russian army would have gained fresh laurels in the campaign of 1917, and in all human probability would have exercised a pressure which would have made possible an Allied victory by the end of the year.’

Unorthodox as it sounds now, this judgment fits exactly with the conclusion then reached by Ludendorff, the most experienced authority of the Eastern Front. ‘No one could then have foretold the breakdown of Russia,’ he wrote, ‘and no one calculated upon it..’ After working for two years to bring the thing about, at the end of 1916 Ludendorff gave up all hope of forcing Russia out of the war, abandoned all offensives on his favorite front, and turned to submarine warfare to stave off defeat in 1917. The slightest prospect of a Russian collapse would have made this desperate expedient unnecessary; the whole decision was based on the conviction, and on the most obvious evidence, that the Russian army was not only sound but strong. The ‘national fabric in the rear,’ in turn, was torn apart by no civil population in revolt against the war, but by a physical breakdown in the machinery of railway transport and supply. There was no ‘stab in the back’ at the hands of an organized revolution; even when the revolution came it came as a planless and random spreading out of a spontaneous bread riot. Its outbreak in March 1917 was not brought about by a planned and concerted effort; its ‘leaders’ arose only after the revolution had taken place. In the last resort it came about for much the same reason as the revolution of 1789 — because of a rush of consciousness that the machine of government was ceasing to do its work. The prospect of a similar situation has been the real danger facing the successors of the old régime. The ruthless vindictiveness of Stalin is maintained by no danger from political rivals; against these there is an easy weapon ever at hand. The danger, Stalin rightly discerns, is not from without but from within — the ever-recurrent threat of what happened in 1917: no overthrow by his enemies, but a gradual (or sudden) failure of the machine of government he grips ever more closely within his own hand. Foreseeing as a possibility exactly what finally happened, General Knox in 1916 finished an entry in his diary with the comment: ‘There are limits to the patience of even the Russian people.’

The breakdown of 1917 had a clear and specific point of origin: a transport crisis which occurred year by year in varying degree. Central and northern Russia are to a large extent kept alive by the wheat and grain of the southern provinces; and each summer’s harvest, the railways have to collect, and carry north before the winter sets in. The great bulk of the coal used throughout central Russia likewise comes up from the south, and this too, as it happens, involves a heavy seasonal movement of traffic for the railways. St. Petersburg and the Baltic Provinces, however, had always relied chiefly on British coal, which came by way of the Baltic. Even in normal times these two traffic peaks in quick succession were often a serious problem for the railways. The coming of war closed the Baltic; and all the northern provinces at once became dependent on the south for coal. The war simultaneously drew off for its own needs, once for all, a large part of the rolling stock which had barely sufficed for the heavy annual transports of grain and coal.

From this followed an endless chain of cause and effect — each effect bringing a new cause of trouble. All Russia grew short of coal when the transport of coal was wearing down the railways; all the towns went without the food which the country districts were unable to send to market. Locomotives and cars broke down with the excessive burden of transport; the overworked repair shops could not keep up with their work; and the waiting lines of unusable engines and cars grew ever longer. Mismanagement of every sort increased the general deficit. On March 8, General Knox noted: ‘The disorganization of transport is dealing the Russian cause a worse blow than any disaster in the war. . . . On February 7 it had been suddenly discovered that many railways had only two to five days’ supply of coal. . . . The railways were ordered to carry nothing but coal for a week. The week was extended to March 14.’ This blood transfusion in respect to coal stopped short the transport of grain to the larger cities. Three days before March 14 comes the note in the diary: ‘There is practically no wheat flour in Petrograd. . . . Shooting commenced on the Nevski opposite the Anichkov Palace. Casualties are estimated at fifty.’

The casualty list has increased a good deal since then. Not to speak of recent additions, it would have to include the 3,000,000 or more deaths from the famine of 1933. This, in a way, is one of the best tests of the degree to which the administrative machinery of Russia has recovered from the breakdown of 1917. It might be classed as a negative test. The spreading of the railway network over Europe made it possible once for all to do away with the age-long spectre of famine; and the old régime, in spite of its many failings, took full advantage of this possibility in Russia. A total crop failure throughout the southern provinces is a periodic phenomenon, but never after the railways came was this peasantry allowed to die of famine. Stalin’s apparatus of state can claim at least the record for the largest famine death list in all Europe for the past three generations. Is it a cause for surprise that today he has chosen not to submit this rickety apparatus to the test of war? The world outside, indulging itself in ‘the glamour of communism’ and the singular cloud castles it drew forth, has willingly ignored the substance behind and accepted the immense façade exhibited to an admiring generation. Stalin knows only too well the contrast between substance and shadow. Ever since 1815 the rulers of Russia have imposed, intermittently, this formidable shadow upon western Europe; after the Congress of Vienna the Tsar Alexander set up a peacetime army larger than the French army of 1812. It proved an army largely on paper, and with the faded remains of this illusion Nicholas I ventured forth upon the Crimean War. Unchallenged, the spectre of Russia remains successfully formidable, but when brought to the test there reappears each time the singular contrast between bulk and effective reality. In 1914, Nicholas II had 70 regular infantry divisions in his peacetime establishment. Stalin, today, has 30.

Is it strange that he avoids bringing these to the present test? To join Hitler offers at least the chance of avoiding it. To have supported Poland would have meant the certainty of having to let fall the façade and come forth with the naked realities of present-day Russia. Will the course he now follows be based on the 30 divisions he actually has, or will he sally forth like Genghis Khan at the head of the immense ballyhoo horde of countless followers which has been so triumphant a press-agent achievement? Some of us still remember the Russian steam roller.

The Russian steam roller rumbles forth again today — not as an armed host, but as a vision of immense stores of raw materials pouring over the German frontier. In reality, as has often been pointed out, most of these are badly needed at home — including many which appear as a ‘surplus for export.’ People and industries alike have been so drastically rationed down that even the things whose production is now being vastly increased still prove inadequate to satisfy the newly revealed demand. This is notably the case with oil. Russian exports amounted to $145,000,000 in 1930; in 1937, when far more was produced, they had dropped to $30,000,000. But in the meantime Russian consumption of oil had so increased that last, year 5,000,000 barrels had to be imported from the United States. (The total output of the newly won fields in Galicia is far less than this.) On the present footing there will be none to spare for Hitler; and in Russia the highest grades of gasoline are not produced. In iron also the increased production leaves no great surplus for export: it amounted to less than $9,000,000 in 1937. (This may be increased considerably in the current year.) The exports of grain depend on the harvest year by year — 31,000,000 bushels of wheat went out in 1937, 2,000,000 in 1936.

If Hitler could change the main sinews of war from iron to wood, his ally could really help: wood and lumber are by far the leading articles of export from Russia. Take from the list all grain and fodder, meat, butter, and foodstuffs of every description (including caviar and sausage casings!), tea and tobacco, furs, coal, oil, iron and steel and manganese, and all other metals, as well as licorice root, glycerine, and precious stones — add all these up together and the total will not reach the value of I he exports of wood and lumber: $144,000,000 out of a total export trade of $345,000,000 (in 1937).

In a world at war, who will buy Russia’s $145,000,000 export of lumber? By what route will it be delivered? Where now will Stalin procure the special imports so essential to Russia’s economic and industrial effort? His exports, hitherto, have in large part not represented a true surplus, such as Mr. Wallace’s unsold cotton; they are rather a deliberate slicing off of things Russia needs herself, in order to get from abroad other things she needs still more badly. Will this slicing off be heavily increased for Hitler, in return for nothing?

The Russian people have long since been schooled to accept as the normal way of life the food shortages and the deprivations of all things which General Knox found so alarming in the last year of the war; their patience is now extended far beyond the limits of 1917. Yet this patience is a poor index of the working effectiveness of the Russian state. As one test we may note that throughout most of northern Russia the railways have reverted to burning wood. It has never been possible to pay for English coal since the new régime came in; it has not been possible for the Soviet railways to supply the north with coal from the south. In spite of most earnest efforts, it has not been possible to bring the railways to a condition substantially different from that they reached during the war. Their burden of work is far heavier, their means hardly greater than before: in 1935 the tonnage they moved was much more than twice that of 1913, the number of locomotives about the same. In 1930 a byplay of a FiveYear Plan led to a policy of ‘intensive exploitation’ of the railways. There were 62,000 accidents within a single year; 7000 locomotives (over a third of the whole number) and 64,500 freight cars were wrecked or broken down. Howmany accidents would there be if Russia were drawn into war?

With tools such as these in his hands, is Stalin about to sweep forward over the ruins of western civilization? Rather, we may put a different question. Even remaining in a state of peace, how long can the Soviet State stand the additional strains imposed on it by having to live in a surrounding world at war?