Prologue Magazine

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks, Part 2

The U.S. Army in Russia, 1918–1920

Winter 2002, Vol. 34, No. 4

By Gibson Bell Smith

Semenoff and Graves Ataman Gregori Semenoff and Maj. Gen. William S. Graves met in late September 1918. (111-SC-75800)

Confrontation on the Railway

With the Armistice in November 1918, the threat to peace and stability in Siberia no longer came from the Red Army but from the Japanese and their Cossack allies. The emphasis now for American policymakers (both civil and military) was to open up the railways. The War Department ordered Graves to ensure the opening of the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern Railways to all commercial and passenger traffic. The military was to provide the guards to keep order, and the civilian technicians of the Russian Railway Service Corps were to come in and operate and upgrade the actual tracks, repair shops, and rolling stock. The corps was set up as a private organization staffed by American railway personnel. Semenoff and his Japanese allies, however, spent the next year and a half frustrating Allied efforts to unify and improve Siberian railway operations.

Despite his competence as a military leader, General Graves was no match for Semenoff and the Japanese. First, he was undermanned, with a mere eight-thousand-man force against the Japanese and Cossack combined forces of more than seventy thousand in eastern Siberia. Second, Graves labored under insufficient instructions from home; the aide memoire did not outline how Graves was to cope with hostile allies and railway bandits. Finally, Graves himself was his own worst enemy, being consumed with a passion for strict political neutrality.

Graves's penchant for strict neutrality got him into trouble with both the press at home and abroad and with various political factions in eastern Siberia who counted on America to take a stand— either for or against bolshevism. This Graves would not do. Furthermore, the War Department cut Graves's credibility even lower by announcing in late September 1918 that he was not to send any American troops westward beyond Lake Baikal. This order delivered a cruel blow to the Czechs and their morale in fighting the Red Army in the Urals and buoyed the hopes of Semenoff and his allies.14

The next crisis in Siberian intrigues was Ataman Semenoff's refusal to recognize the new government of Adm. Alexander Kolchak in Omsk. The "Government of All the Russias" was formed on the heels of a coup d'état on November 18, 1918. In the end, because of Semenoff's financial and military backing from Japan, the admiral had to acknowledge and accept the ataman's regime at Chita as an unfortunate, yet potent reality.15

Japanese actions on Semenoff's behalf caused acting Secretary of State Frank Polk to protest vehemently: "The Government of the United States believes that the present policy of Japan is fraught with possibility of dangerous consequences for Russia. . . . It is not to be understood that this Government desires to support Admiral Kolchak as against General Semenoff, but merely its purpose is to see that loyal Russians be allowed to manage their own affairs."16 Polk did not spell out exactly who would constitute a "loyal" Russian, but it became quite obvious to all that Japan and America would no longer see eye to eye in Siberian affairs after this confrontation between Kolchak and Semenoff. Where Semenoff was concerned, both sides drew farther and farther apart.

Meanwhile, conditions along the Trans-Baikal Railway sector continued to worsen. Railroad shop men at the Chita roundhouse pummeled one of Semenoff's secret service men who had infiltrated their ranks. Semenoff's men retaliated with their usual ferocity. Mechanical difficulties erupted along the railway, which caused delays of up to two weeks for westbound traffic. As a result, sentiment grew for the American-run Russian Railway Service Corps to take charge of the management and operation of the Trans-Siberia Railway system in toto.17

Barrows's intelligence assistant at Chita, Capt. F. F. Meere, gathered considerable information concerning Semenoff's miscarriages of justice after Barrows's departure. He discovered that Semenoff's men took two badly needed locomotives and turned them into armored cars for Semenoff's personal use. Meere's British counterpart reported that forty-eight freight trains were tied up at one station for lack of locomotives. There was wholesale theft of train cars as well as overcharging and double charging for a variety of services in stations under Semenoff's control from Harbin to Chita.18

In early 1919, the Allies discussed how to impose tighter control over the Trans-Siberian Railway to relieve local merchants, station personnel, and railway workers from the constant harassment by Semenoff and his ilk. An agreement, the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement, was finally ironed out in April 1919.

As a result of the agreement, two companies of America's Twenty-seventh Infantry Regiment under Col. Charles Morrow were assigned to guard a section of the Trans-Baikal from Mysovaya to Verkhne-Udinsk. When Morrow and his troops arrived at the eastern Baikal town of Verkhne-Udinsk in May 1919, they found that Semenoff's men had busied themselves with seizing locomotives for the ataman's personal use out of the general stock of the railway. The Cossacks also made every attempt to block or slow traffic headed toward Vladivostok.

The Japanese were fully sworn parties to the railway agreement and had agreed to restrain the depredations of Semenoff and his men. Instead, they tolerated further disruptions by the ataman and seemed to fully endorse them. Japan did not hide its imperial aspirations in the region. It fully intended to follow up the gains of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 - 1906, in which they had won major concessions in Manchuria from the Russians, especially Port Arthur and Dauria, as well as the acquisition of the Sakhalin Islands. The Japanese viewed these as stepping stones to full exploitation of vast resources of Siberia. Wilson, on the other hand, wished to maintain the Open Door in Siberia for the extension of American business interests into the region and the preservation of the territorial integrity of Russia.19

Shortly after the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement was signed, General Graves issued the following "Proclamation to the Russian People":

The Russian people are notified and advised that in the performance of such duty, the sole object and purpose of the armed forces of the United States of America, on guard between the railroad points above stated, is to protect the railroad and railway property and insure the operation of passenger and freight trains through such sector without obstruction or interruption. Our aim is to be of real assistance to all Russia in protecting necessary traffic movements within the sectors on the railroads in Siberia assigned to us. . . . Cooperation is requested and warning given to all persons, whomsoever, that interference with traffic will not be tolerated.20

The four sectors awarded to American forces were between Vladivostok and Nikolsk-Ussuri, between Ugolnaya and the Suchan Mines, between Spasskoe and Ussuri, and between Verkhne-Udinsk and Mysovaya (on the Trans-Baikal Railway). The last sector was Colonel Morrow's, and Graves felt confident that the colonel would not tolerate any interference from Semenoff. Graves also asserted that the railway in this sector could not be fully operative without the elimination of Semenoff. Colonel Morrow spent the month of May brushing up on background reading to prepare for his upcoming confrontation with Semenoff.21

Semenoff and his men tried to drive the Americans out by harassment and intimidation. Some of his henchmen, for instance, tried to seize the private coach of one of the American railway inspectors when it stopped to refuel in Chita. In another incident, Semenoff's marauders tried to attack three American servicemen at Verkhne-Udinsk before being subdued by American military police.22

In a cablegram to Graves, Morrow stated that he would meet force with force in any showdown with Semenoff. The Japanese claimed that they would remain neutral. The first showdown occurred between Morrow and Semenoff on June 8, 1919. Semenoff and Morrow each had about two thousand men in the vicinity of Verkhne-Udinsk. The Japanese, with thirty-five hundred men in the same general locale, held the balance of power. Semenoff threatened to move against the Americans. Ultimatum met ultimatum, but finally Semenoff caved in when the Japanese withdrew their support from him. They escorted Semenoff's armored car out of harm's way to a less volatile location, Beresovka, which was a town devoid of American troops.23

In spite of the timely Japanese intervention on behalf of Morrow's troops, Semenoff continued to stir up trouble. Even after the car was removed, he claimed that instead of helping preserve order along the Trans-Baikal Railway, American forces were committing "disorderly and indecent acts" toward the peaceful population of Verkhne-Udinsk. Semenoff promised that he would remove the threat of the armored cars if Americans would cease and desist from this type of behaviour. He also accused Graves and Morrow of aiding and abetting the Bolsheviks. He gave Morrow until 5 o'clock on the afternoon of June 9 to guarantee improved behavior or he, Semenoff, would send troops to Verkhne-Udinsk and force the Americans to leave.24 Morrow waited out the deadline, and Semenoff backed down without making further provocation.

Morrow let this barb against American morals and neutrality pass without giving it the dignity of a reply. Morrow instead retorted that the population and officials of Verkhne-Udinsk endorsed the American position by approving the removal of Semenoff's armored car. This first crisis between Semenoff and the Americans ended in a verbal standoff and passed without any bloodshed.25

For the moment, the Americans won their point, and the armored cars disappeared. Both Kolchak and the Japanese got the point across to Semenoff that he needed to back away from the brink of open war with the Americans. This imposed self-restraint lasted barely a week before Semenoff once again sent an armored car hurtling toward Verkhne-Udinsk without Morrow's permission.

During both June and July Semenoff persisted in maltreating railway workers and officials. Simultaneously, executions of suspected political opponents of Semenoff proceeded apace. The ataman's reign of terror received full coverage in American intelligence reporting:

Semenoff's armored cars exist (1) for the purpose of terrorizing railroad officials and forcing compliance along the railroad with the demands of Semenoff. . . . (2) cars exist for the purpose of graft, extortion of double duties, and preventing Kolchak's officers and soldiers from proceeding to the front, either as organizations or as individuals, (3) to prevent mutiny among his own troops, (4) to spread terror of Semenoff and Semenoff's officers throughout the entire country surrounding the railroad where their crews rob and plunder and murder at will. . . . It is a whipping car, a place of torture. The crew whip without trial, forms of law, or sentence; whip at the caprice of their privates and corporals. . . . As long as they continue to operate in the American sector, the Americans are powerless against them. . . . These armored cars must go or the American Command in this sector is useless.26

Semenoff and his other Cossack allies, including Kalmikoff, then combined forces to launch a propaganda war against the Americans in the newspapers of Chita, Habarovsk, and Vladivostok. Charges of misconduct centered on claims of American drunkenness and debauchery. They included Graves in their accusation that the Americans openly sided with and aided the Bolsheviks while deriding White Russians. So widespread were these propaganda efforts that Graves began to expect outright hostilities between the Americans and the Cossacks. With the exception of Kalmikoff's murder of several American soldiers in an isolated incident, the battles remained mostly verbal.27

The origins of the second major showdown between the AEFS and Semenoff were partly financial. Semenoff was rapidly going broke as a result of profligate spending on his mistress. He had in fact squandered more than fifty million rubles on rare jewelry, perfumes, and clothing for her.28 When the United States sent aid to Kolchak's government, Semenoff saw an opportunity to divert supplies to his own use.

American officials long debated the question of whether to recognize the Kolchak regime in Omsk as the legitimate Russian government in Siberia. The primary stumbling block for them was Semenoff's lawlessness and the Kolchak regime's seeming inability or unwillingness to halt his depredations. Graves often repeated this theme in his despatches to the War Department:

As long as Semenoff sits astride the Siberian Railway we are in danger of complications. His record as a thief and murderer justifies a demand that he be eliminated. His elimination can only be accomplished by pressure on Japan and by refusal of assistance to the Omsk Government as long as he is permitted to terrorize the people and forcibly take what he likes.29

By October 1919, the United States began to look more favorably upon the Kolchak regime. It began to appear to American policymakers that Kolchak was the only viable alternative to a Siberia ruled by Japan or to the complete Communist takeover of the region. Semenoff still had a stranglehold on the crucial railways through the Trans-Baikal. Yet the Red Army was steadily decimating White Army remnants facing it in Western Siberia; even Omsk itself was now threatened. In response, the United States finally agreed to furnish Kolchak with fifteen thousand much-needed rifles. At the same time, Semenoff intimated that he was finally ready to break with the Japanese in return for American financial and material support. Graves gave these entreaties no consideration, probably suspecting that Semenoff had new tricks up his sleeve.30

Graves sent the shipment of rifles for Kolchak's government, leaving Vladivostok on October 14, 1919, under an especially heavy guard and placed the command of the operation in the hands of 1st Lt. Albert E. Ryan with several companies of the Thirty-first Infantry Regiment. When the train reached Chita early on the morning of October 24, 1919, no one was surprised to find Semenoff's armored cars moving in to surround the American shipment. Semenoff delivered another one of his truculent ultimatums. This time he demanded the fifteen thousand rifles in return for the removal of his armored cars.

Upon hearing of this new outrage, Colonel Morrow put all the American troops in the Trans-Baikal sector on alert. He then telegraphed Semenoff and insisted that Kolchak should be allowed to mediate the dispute. Both Ryan and Morrow refused to back down when facing Semenoff's bullying tactics. Their persistence finally paid off in the Ataman's conciliatory reply: "Dear Colonel, we understand each other, I see. Don't worry I shake your hand."31

Ryan's ordnance train was then permitted to depart from Chita unharmed on the afternoon of October 25, 1919. The incident proved again that Semenoff's bluff and bluster had only nuisance value so long as Graves and the AEFS maintained their ground and the Japanese kept a restraining hand on the ataman's activities.32

By January 1920, both Omsk and Irkutsk had fallen to the Red Army as both Kolchak and the Czech Legion's strength were spent. The Czechs, in fact, had come full circle and delivered Kolchak to his Red executioners in Irkutsk in return for their own safe removal from Siberia. In the waning moments of the Kolchak regime, Semenoff had received his commission as commander-in-chief of all Russian forces in eastern Siberia. With Kolchak's death, this was a hollow trophy. Rather than pursue the Bolsheviks aggressively, Semenoff chose to continue his dissolute lifestyle at Chita until the bitter end. His only threats were leveled against the retreating Czech legionaries as well as the stray elements of White Russian and American forces still in the Trans-Baikal. He even threatened to blow up the forty-odd railway tunnels that skirted Lake Baikal to block the evacuation of the remaining non-Communist forces in the area.

Semenoff's control over his own disparate band deteriorated so greatly that men in his armored cars were seen looting, raping, and killing anything that moved along the Trans-Baikal. On January 10, 1920, marauders in one such car, the Destroyer, attacked and then killed the station master at Verkhne-Udinsk and then moved on to Posolskaya. At Posolskaya, the Destroyer fired haphazardly into an American troop car, killing two soldiers and wounding several others. Colonel Morrow quickly had the Destroyer subdued and its men incarcerated. He later had to release the culprits as General Graves ordered all American units to return to Vladivostok to regroup and prepare for embarkation to return home.33

The departure of the AEFS from the Siberian scene in March 1920 spelled the end of the struggle between Graves, Semenoff, and the Japanese for control of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Semenoff soon fled to Manchuria. The Japanese took over complete control of eastern Siberia and created a puppet state, the Far Eastern Republic, which lasted until 1922. The Communists ultimately triumphed in this area as well. Japanese forces left Siberia to wait for another day.

Ataman Semenoff applied for and was denied asylum in the United States. The U.S. Senate turned him down after extensive hearings revealed some of the atrocities he had committed while ruler of the Trans-Baikal. Semenoff spent the majority of the 1920s and 1930s in Japan.

He managed to remain hidden for some time until 1946, when Stalin's henchmen caught up with him and put him before a firing squad.

General Graves returned to the United States in 1920 and received the Distinguished Service Medal for his service in Siberia. Afterwards, he held command positions in the Philippine Islands, New York, Chicago, and the Panama Canal Zone. After serving on the jury in the court-martial of Gen. Billy Mitchell in 1925, he retired from the army in 1928 and died in 1940— the central figure in a most unusual chapter of the history of the United States Army.

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks, Part 1

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks, Part 3

Gibson Bell Smith is an archivist specializing in modern military records, Textual Archives Services Division, National Archives and Records Administration. He has been with the National Archives since 1971 and has written several articles on diplomatic history and a book on U.S. Marine Commandant Gen. Thomas Holcomb.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.