HC Deb 31 October 1918 vol 110 cc1743-54

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 13th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I wish to ask when the Government really propose to take the Irish Land (Provision for Sailors and Soldiers) Bill. It is extremely inconvenient that the Government have put the Bill down from day to day, while Irish Members are here who are interested in it. We do not know whether the Government intend to go on with it or when they propose to take it.


The Chief Secretary will be back on Monday, and he will then be consulted about the most convenient date on which to take the Bill.


I desire to raise a matter, and I shall do so as shortly as I can, which arose at Question Time to-day, on a question that I put to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Firstly, let me apologise to the Noble Lord (Lord R. Cecil) for having put him to the inconvenience of returning to the House from a function which, I am sure, all hon. Members would have been glad if he could have stayed to the end of, as it was in honour of our gallant Eastern Allies, who have played such a distinguished part in this War. But I think he will agree with me that this question, concerned with a territory mid-way between our own and that of Japan—Russia—is one which, in its relation to the vital question of British citizenship is really worthy of more attention than was possible to give it at Question Time. To put the House in possession of facts which the Noble Lord knows, I want to read the relevant parts of a letter I received two or three days ago from the brother-in-law of one of these unfortunate British citizens who is still, as far as I know, incarcerated, under the most terrible conditions, in one of the prisons of Moscow He was there when the Lockhart party left and, so far as I could gather from the Noble Lord's reply to-day, the probability is that nothing has intervened to alleviate his position. The relevant part of the letter is as follows: From friends that have just arrived with the Lockhart party from Russia I learn that a brother-in-law of mine—John Richard Holdcroft—a British subject, of Moscow, was arrested by the Bolsheviks in August last, and was still under arrest when my friends left Moscow, i.e., the 1st instant. Holdcroft was arrested without warning, and on the pretext of being a 'capitalist.' For two days his daughters did not know where he was. For some time he was kept in the 'Lubianka' special prison, along with the unfortunates who were being executed nightly. The victims intended for execution were in the same room as Holdcroft. Between 1 and 4 a.m. the room door would be opened, a Red Guard appear, call out certain names; the victims taken to a basement and there shot. Under the circumstances, Holdcroft's feelings can be better imagined than described. His daughters were allowed to take him food every two days, though not to see him. Means of washing and sanitation were practically absent. Later, he was transferred to the 'Boutyrka,' another prison in Moscow, and there herded along with murderers, thieves, etc. He was still there when my friends left, and all the efforts of his daughters and friends to secure his release were unavailing, the reply of the Bolshevik authorities being that they intended to keep him as hostage. The position of Holdcroft is a horrible one as well as that of his two daughters, girls of twenty-two and twenty-three years of age, respectively, who are left without means or protection, their mother being over here and seriously ill. The Noble Lord's reply to my question contained very definite assurance and comfort to Britons and Members of this House and, I hope, to those outside the House who value British citizenship, and who realise that this is one of those things that we have always been able to stand up for and that Great Britain has hitherto always, with her long arm, been able to reach the people who infringe the rights and the liberties of British citizens wherever they may be. The last part of the reply I received was as follows: We have already publicly informed the Bolshevik leaders that we will hold them personally responsible for the lives of British subjects in their power, and we shall not hesitate to take any retaliatory measures open to us in case of injury to them. On that there are two points I want to put to the Noble Lord. First, I want to ask him why it is that since this particular man and other British citizens have been incarcerated without trial, under no law, in the most horrible conditions since the 1st August, it is only now that we have taken steps, as he says, publicly to inform the Bolshevik leaders that we shall hold them responsible? Next, I want to ask what he means exactly by retaliatory measures open to us in case of injury to them. Surely illegal and cruel imprisonment under the conditions which were described in the "Times" to-day by its correspondent, who had endured them for thirty-six days, whereas it is now ninety days that this particular British citizen has endured these conditions—surely that is injury sufficient to make the British Government take every step in its power.

Then I want to ask the Noble Lord as to how this public announcement has been made. How can we be sure at the present phase of the War that the people who are directly responsible for the arrest and continued imprisonment of British citizens in Russia know that just so soon as the long arm of Great Britain can get at them we shall exact the full measure of penalty that we are entitled to exact from those responsible, whether they are the nominal Bolshevik Government of Russia at present or any of these Red Guards, or other persons who act for them in these matters? I would also like to ask the Noble Lord how long we are going to wait before we find out whether the representations M. Litvinoff has promised to make to the Bolshevik Government are ever made, and, if made, whether they are effective. It is not necessary really for me to point, out to the right hon. Gentleman—because he is much more familiar with these aspects of foreign affairs than I am—that the surrender of Turkey alters the whole situation. We can now get straight through the Black Sea with our fleet and into direct communication with Moscow from the south in a very short space of time, And what are these Red Guards? What is the present state of military preparation in Russia? I say that any righteous threat, any clear pronouncement that Great Britain is not going to see its citizens incarcerated illegally in any country by that country, if made at the present juncture, not only to these Russians—if they are Russians—who are responsible, but to the whole world, that we shall not tolerate from the Bolshevik Government or from any other Government the incarceration of our citizens, it is bound to be effective. Throughout the history of Great Britain—the Noble Lord knows much better than I do—this has always been a thing we could rely upon British citizenship, although an intangible possession, has been one of the most valuable, most vital and highly prized possessions of every British citizen. I remember vaguely reading there was a case, with which I am sure the Noble Lord is much more familiar than I am, of a gentleman—I think Greek by origin—who was called Don Pacifico, for whom, in spite of his name, and shadowy claim to British citizenship, the British Government threatened to go to war for far less than what has been inflicted on British citizens in Russia. We have arrived at the victorious conclusion—or almost arrived at it—of the greatest war that has ever been fought, and I say at this moment the Noble Lord's task is an easy one to see that these rights of British citizenship are upheld, as they have been in the past. The question raised in the supplementary question this afternoon is as to the official status, if any, of the emissary of the Bolshevik Government in this country, M. Litvinoff. There is no question here of any Ambassador. Perhaps the Noble Lord would refer to this in his reply, and tell me whether I am right in saying that from the very nature of the case this Government is what the Soviets call a capitalist Government, one that they do not acknowledge and wish to destroy, and that this M. Litvinoff could not have been an Ambassador to this country, and must have been—what everyone knows he was—an emissary of the Bolshevists to spread their creed throughout the population of this country, if he could—to do all he could in that direction. From the nature of the case, this seems to me to be obviously true.

In conclusion, I would ask the Noble Lord if he has heard of the organisation which seems to be addressing itself even, I find, to Members of this House? I refer to the Peoples' Russian Information Bureau. I have had, I think, no less than three leaflets this week from them, and at the end of the covering letter it says: "I trust you will be able to give publicity to it by all the means at your disposal." I fear I may be accused of giving publicity to it at the present moment. My excuse for doing so is that many of these leaflets are extracts from letters to newspapers and things of that kind, and on the face of them, have obviously but one object—to palliate and gloss over the crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated daily in Russia, to show these inhuman monsters in a very sentimental light to the populace of every country that these leaflets may reach. I cannot understand why we permit these things to be spread about in this country; having got rid of M. Litvinoff, why we allow other people to carry on this work. This aspect of the case, if it is rather outside the province of the Foreign Office, he might at all events look into, for it certainly is not unconnected with foreign affairs. I trust he will be able to give us some reassurance on the matter for which I have troubled him to come this evening, namely, what practical effect he can give to this public announcement that he referred to, when that announcement was made, and, further, to define the steps he proposes to take to render British citizens immune from the terrible ordeal through which our fellow-citizens are undergoing now in Russia. I felt I ought not to let the evening go without letting the House know, so far as possible, what is now being done and has been done for the last three months in these ghastly cells, where twenty persons were crowded into a space 20 ft. by lift., without ventilation or sanitation, food or exercise, accusation or excuse, except that they were said to belong to the capitalist class, be they British or not, and that they are held there as hostages.

Brigadier-General McCALMONT

I would merely ask the Noble Lord whether it is not a fact that amongst the British subjects left in Petrograd there is at least one Britisher who was actually an employé of the British Consul, and that was not with Mr. Woodhouse; and, if so, is it not possible to take official steps in the case of this gentleman to expedite his release, seeing he was, through illness, left behind and could not join Mr. Woodhouse's party?


I am rather surprised at the absence of the hon. Member for Enfield (Major Newman) because he took part in the questions on this subject and made the striking suggestion—one somewhat in line with the speech we have just listened to—that Mrs. Litvonoff should be arrested. I intimated to the hon. Member for Enfield that I should raise this question, and I am sorry he is not present. I have had since Question Time an opportunity of seeing Mrs. Litvonoff and she authorises me to say that she is perfectly ready at any moment to go as a hostage to Brixton Prison. She asks one condition and that is that her baby at her breast—two months old—and her young child, two years of age, should be allowed to accompany her and her nurse as well. She is willing under those circumstances to go at any moment the Noble Lord likes to the prison in which her husband was incarcerated. Perhaps hon. Members do not know who Mrs. Litvinoff is. She is the daughter of a very eminent British scholar now dead, and her uncle has been knighted by the present Government for his services to the country. Another uncle of hers is, perhaps, the most eminent newspaper correspondent which this country has in the United States at the present moment.

I should not have referred to this question at all had it not been that the Noble Lord in his answer used the words "retaliatory measures." He ought to explain what he means by those words. If British subjects suffer in prisons in Russia treatment against which the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Peto) has so spiritedly and rightly protested, what are the retaliatory measures to be taken here? Are Russian subjects to be imprisoned in this country, without trial and unjustly? Very well! Mrs. Litvinoff is ready to go at once. If they are shot, are we to shoot Russians here? When the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Peto) says we must declare that we will exact a full measure of punishment and retribution does he mean that if a British subject is shot there a Russian must be shot here?


No, my words were clear. We can exercise retribution on the people responsible for shooting British subjects.


How can we get them? Are you going to make another expedition into the centre of Russia to get somebody or other who has shot somebody else? I hope that this War is going to end, and that when it does end let there be an end also to bitterness, misery and vindictiveness. Let them be forgotten, and rightly so. These protests against men in prison without trial leave me rather cold, and why? How many people are there in prison in Ireland to-day, I believe entirely unjustly, and certainly without any trial? They are in prison because somebody has said they are guilty of complicity in a German plot, although there is scarcely a person in Ireland who believed it and there is not a Minister who knows anything about the evidence believes it. And yet this alleged complicity in a German plot has sent many men and women in Ireland to prison, and there they remain. While that goes on in Ireland I think there is a good deal of cant and humbug about the protests of the "Times" newspaper, and such Members as the hon. Member for Devizes. In judging Russia you cannot judge her by the same standard as other countries. Who are these men who unfortunately have got supreme power in Russia?


Czechs, Letts, and Chinese.


They are the men whom our gallant and noble ally the Czar sent to prison by the thousand in the days when a few people in England were raising a protest, and when the hon. Member for Devizes had not one word to say against thousands of distinguished Russians being sent to Siberia; he had no protest to make when men were being shot down by hundreds, when the gallows were put up in Petrograd and other districts in Russia and they were hung without trial.


British subjects?

11.0 P.M.


No, Russian subjects, who have just as much right to live as Englishmen. We must have had a protest against this tyranny and injustice in Russia under the Czar, but we never said a word as a nation, but we belauded and bespattered this wonderful Czar for his great and noble gifts. We hailed him as an ally and a defender of small nationalities, and when he falls there is not a word of sympathy, and not an effort was made for his family or his friends. There are soldiers who fought for the Czar in this country to-day in beggary who come and appeal to me, and ask me to put their case before the Foreign Office, and when I send their names in to the Foreign Office not even an acknowledgment is given me. I say, therefore, that I am entitled much more than the hon. Member for Devizes to stand up for liberty, dignity and rights, because I show justice to all classes and causes. I protest against injustice wherever it has been committed, whether by the Czar or others, and I protest against the violent methods of the Bolsheviks now. But I have some sense of equality and perspective, and when these men get in power what do you expect of them. They have sown the wind, and they will reap the whirlwind, and whereas we did nothing to mitigate the terrors under the Czar we hold up our hands in horrow now. I say that there is a great deal of cant and humbug about all this talk that is going on about the Bolshevik terror being the worst terror that the world has ever seen. It is not so bad as the terror under the Czar, not nearly so many men have been killed in cold blood by the Bolsheviks as by our noble ally the Czar, and, if we protest against injustice, brutality, the rule of force, and the absence of law and order in the one case, let us protest against it in the other. If we are silent in the one case, let us be, if not silent, at any rate, patient and fair-minded in the other.

I am going to conclude by an appeal to-the Noble Lord not to trust M. Nabokoff any longer. For over a year we have been supporting with money, favour, and privilege the old diplomatic representative of the Czar. So long as we do that, and do many other things of the same character, we cannot but expect the suspicion, dislike, and distrust of the Bolsheviks. Before the Bolsheviks came in, M. Nabokoff was recalled. The Foreign Office kept him here, paid him, and gave him all sorts of privileges, with access to the Prime Minister whenever he likes to go? What can you expect of the Bolsheviks when you treat a scheming, interfering man in that way, paying a Czar's Minister to plot schemes against the present Soviet Government of Russia? I must appeal most earnestly to the Foreign Office and to the Noble Lord to have done with M. Nabokoff, and I appeal all the more earnestly because there has lately come to this country copies of his private correspondence. I have no doubt that the Noble Lord has received a copy of it as I have, and we now know what this M. Nabokoff thinks of the people in the Foreign Office. I take only one extract. On 1st July, 1917, in his letter, No. 547, M. Nabokoff complained of the "narrow-minded Conservatism"—these are his words—"of Curzon, Milner, Carson, and Balfour," and wont on to say that "the activities of the Prime Minister's colleagues are undermining Russia's faith in English sincerity." That is what M. Nabokoff says behind the back of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. It is rather remarkable that he says that the activities of the Foreign Office are undermining faith in English sincerity. That is what he said a year ago, but what he said then has actually come true. Our policy towards Russia has undermined Russian faith in English sincerity. In this secret correspondence of M. Nabokoff which has lately been published, he pays a tribute to the Noble Lord (Lord R. Cecil) and to the Prime Minister as straightforward men of a very different calibre from the others I have mentioned. It is only fair to the Noble Lord, many of whose qualities I most sincerely admire, that I inform the House of this interesting divergence of judgment which M. Nabokoff makes between the Noble Lord and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. I hope I may have the opportunity, on the next Vote of Credit, of returning to the question of M. Nabokoff and his revelations.


I do not propose to insult the House by dealing with the curious farago of observations to which we have just listened. The matter which was raised by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Peto) is a very serious one, and merits the closest consideration of the House and the Government. Nothing could exaggerate the hardship of the cases to which he refers. My own belief Is that probably when we know the whole history of what is now going on in Russia, what we know now will seem a pale shadow of the actual truth. I said I would not refer to the other hon. Member (Mr. King), but I must say this. He spoke with vehement condemnation of the evils of the old regime. I am not going to defend many of the acts of the old Imperial Government, but it is only fair to say that as far as our information goes, the amount of blood which has been shed by the present so-called Government of Russia greatly exceeds anything that went on under the Imperial Government, and not only so, but there has been no kind of pretence of justice or of certainty. People have been arrested for absolutely no reason.


As in Ireland.


Men of all nationalities, British, Italians, French—every nationality—have been thrown into prison, and treated, as described for instance in this morning's "Times" by a German who has just come back, with the greatest brutality and the greatest torture. In addition to that there has been an amount of casual murder and brigandage going on practically throughout the whole of European Russia.

It is relatively a small matter that the wealth and industry of the country have been absolutely destroyed, that thousands, not impossibly millions, in the near future, will be actually starving because of the reckless destruction which has gone on of all the means of subsistence in Russia. I speak on the spur of the moment without actual facts before me, but I can assure the House that on the information given to me I am not exaggerating in the least degree what has gone on. When you think of that it is very difficult to have patience with the kind of apologia put forward just now. I need not say that everything the Government can do they are only too anxious to do to relieve the terrible hardships which these people are undergoing and to get them out of Russia. It is not true that we have done nothing; on the contrary, the matter has been before us and we have done everything that seemed to us possible to secure their release for many months past. The warning and menace that I read out to the House earlier this afternoon was issued several weeks ago, and we still believe that sooner or later we shall be able to execute that threat.

We do not withdraw from that in the least degree, but the difficulties, as I think the hon. Member will recognise, are very-great. He complains that we did not move quickly enough. That is not quite true. It should be remembered that for many weeks, for many months, we have been practically cut off from all direct communication with Moscow and Petrograd. The postal communication has gone a long time, and the telegraphic communication has been cut off for a long time both to Petrograd and Moscow. We can only communicate, and that spasmodically, through the representatives of neutral Powers. These are the only means of communication, while I have nothing but the warmest praise for what the representatives of neutrals have done to assist our citizens. Of course, the hon. Member will recognise that having to communicate through channels which are not at our command, limit to some extent the active steps that we can take. The hon. Member suggested, as I understood, that we might land an expedition in the south of Russia and march on Moscow.


I think that we might make it perfectly clear to the Bolshevik Government that it is open to us to take that step and that we can effectually do it, and quite quickly if necessary.


I do not know about quickly. That would be a military matter on which I cannot venture an opinion. Of course, it is physically possible, and I do not exclude any step which is possible. For obvious reasons I do not wish to exclude them, but I do not think that it would be fair to the House or to the country to suggest that it would be a very easy operation. The difficulties are prodigious. The difficulties of communication would be enormous, and at the end of four years of the greatest War which we have ever been through in the history of the world it would be a very difficult process to go to the country and suggest an expedition to Moscow to carry out even a just object.

There is another difficulty which, I think, we must bear in mind. The hon. Member spoke of the Soviet Government of Russia, but it really is very misleading to talk of a central government in Russia at the present moment. If you have a quarrel with an ordinary civilised country you can approach the Central Government. You can threaten the Central Government on various points, but in the present condition of Russia, the amount of connection between the Central Government, if it may be so called, sitting in Moscow, and the outside of Russia is of the slightest possible description. It would be almost true to say that each town has a Government of its own, with a very slight connection with the Central Government, if any. Many of them have thrown off all connection. Therefore, you are in face of a situation which is exceedingly difficult to deal with; a situation in which, for all practical purposes, the bonds of ordinary society have been absolutely destroyed, and you have something very like anarchy existing throughout Russia.

I merely mention this to show the great difficulties we are under in dealing with the situation; and, though I do not for a moment suggest that because these difficulties exist, therefore we should not take action, yet I do ask the hon. Member and his friends to consider these difficulties when they are inclined to criticise what we have been able to do. We have, after all, been able to get out a considerable number of British subjects; we are making every possible effort, by every channel at our command, at this moment to get out every other British subject we can. We will not shrink from anything within our power with that object. We do unquestionably mean to execute justice on these people who have committed these outrages, if and when we get them within our power; and if there is any form of pressure—I am not afraid of the word "retaliation" in the least—if there is any form of retaliation or pressure which we have the least reason to believe would be effective with the object of releasing them, we will not hesitate to make use of those means. I am afraid I cannot say more than that at the present time. I must ask the hon. Member to believe in our sincerity and in our desire to help our fellow countrymen, and, in considering the great difficulty of our task, to be as patient as he can in the circumstances.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes alter Eleven o'clock till Monday next, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 13th February.

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