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When The Red Storm Broke
To a Russia in revolution, America sent rival groups of amateur diplomats. The calamitous results of their indecision still afflict us
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
With Robins, there entered upon the stage a figure who was to prove the one brilliant, although shortlived, star in a cast of many-colored American principals in Russia. For principals they all were, each man regarding himself the direct representative of the President by virtue of blessing or laying-on of hands, and thus responsible first to the White House, second to his own conscience and beliefs, and to the ambassador on the spot not at all—a situation that President Wilson did nothing to resolve. The ebullient Thompson, setting himself up in high style in Petrograd and taking over the imperial box at the Opera, reported directly to Washington and did not even show the unhappy Francis his cables; thus, when Thompson donated a million rubles’ worth of his own money to the moderate Social-Revolutionary party, Ambassador Francis learned of this startling American involvement only through the newspapers. Nor did General Judson, busily maneuvering in the revolutionary murk at the head of his own independent military mission, confide in the Ambassador; while Edgar Sisson too, a small man inflated by a sense of sovereign responsibility, was to write proudly of his mission to Petrograd, “I was not sent to work under [Francis], and was independent of him, in powers and in funds.”
In this chaos of unco-ordinated equals, the municipal reformer from Chicago was to stand out by the sheer intensity of his personality as America’s strongest man on the scene. Although submerged in memory today, Raymond Robins was in 1917 a famous figure in the liberal camp at home. His physical presence itself was commanding: broad-shouldered, deep-chested, square-jawed, with intense, searching eyes and a rasping, emotional voice that could carry away whole convention halls of reformers. He had been the Progressive party’s keynoter in 1916 and had run for the Senate. Yet there was something else in him, too—a suggestion of mystical exaltation that thrilled some followers and left others thinking him slightly unbalanced.
A “rough and ready evangelist,” Sisson called him, and something of his passionate reformist spirit now communicated itself to Russia’s far-left revolutionaries. They were not used to this: their own followers had been reared rigidly according to the gospel of St. Marx. Yet they were all still young in exercise of power, and not yet so calloused by it as to denounce every non-Marxist reformer as an enemy; and so, responding to the warmth and virility of Robins’ presence, they saw in him a bridge—perhaps the only bridge—between their erupting Russia and the capitalist West. And Robins, whose experience was also limited but whose sympathies were broad, responded in kind. As his British friend and opposite number as London’s special agent in Russia, R. H. Bruce Lockhart, was to remark, [Robins] was an Indian chief with a Bible for his tomahawk.... Yet, in spite of his sympathies for the underdog, he was a worshipper of great men … Strangely enough, Lenin was amused by the hero-worship, and of all foreigners Robins was the only man whom Lenin was always willing to see and who ever succeeded in imposing his personality on the unemotional Bolshevik leader.
So it happened that while David Francis remained closeted in the Furshtatskaya over cards, American initiative in dealing with the new rulers of Russia passed into the hands of this assimilated lieutenant colonel of the Red Cross.
All during the autumn of 1917, the unlikely combination of Thompson and Robins had worked together to succor the weakening Kerensky regime with money, foodstuffs, and propaganda placed in judiciously subsidized newspapers. But in mid-October Robins read the handwriting on Russia’s wall and called for a change in our own response. The Provisional regime was doomed amid the rising cry of “Peace, Bread, and Land,” he argued, unless Kerensky at once proceeded to distribute land to the peasants and launch other major social reforms. It should be America’s new policy to exert pressure on all Russian moderates to move in this direction, he went on, if the Bolsheviks were not to take over at any moment and pull Russia out of the war altogether. Also, Robins thought it might be a good idea at least to talk with these Bolshevik chieftains, size them up, and discover whether we could influence them at all.
Then in October-November, the second and greater revolutionary storm in Russia broke out—just as Robins had predicted it would. The multimillionaire Thompson, finding himself in full agreement with his deputy’s analysis, sped home to Washington to try to swing the Administration onto a new policy tack—only to find himself coolly rebuffed by Wilson, who was still reading David Francis’ bland cables and who now refused to let himself be jolted. Meanwhile, in Petrograd, the headstrong Colonel Robins had taken it upon himself to approach Trotsky personally—and Lenin too.
In order to reach Trotsky, the Foreign Commissar of a regime the United States declined to recognize, Robins needed an intermediary. Soon he found one in the person of Alexander Gumberg, a squat, mournful-looking, shrewd Jewish Russo-American who had emigrated to the Bronx to become manager there of the Russian-language Socialist weekly, Novy Mir, to which Trotsky had contributed during his own American exile. Now returned to his old country to be close to his Socialist friends in action, Gumberg became Robins’ personal aide—and threw open the Bolshevik leader’s doors to him.