The Allies and the Russian Collapse: March 1917-March 1918 
by Michael Kettle.
Deutsch, 287 pp., £14.95, March 1981, 0 233 97078 9
Show More
Show More

The Allied intervention in the Russian civil war had far more important consequences than the events of this comic tragedy deserved. If it had little influence on the outcome of the First World War or on events within the Soviet Union, it left memories which shaped the Cold War and have not been totally effaced even to the present day. The intervention was to intensify the Soviet belief that their country was a beleaguered state faced by hostile forces, particularly after the hopes for a European revolution faded. On the Allied side, the feeling that the Bolsheviks represented a new kind of threat to the social and economic fabric was confirmed, without correcting the illusions which led them to send money, agents and finally troops into Russian territories.

Mr Kettle’s study is the first of four volumes. He has used a far wider range of sources than was available to Professor Richard Ullman when he began his masterly three-volume account of the same events. The title of this first book is somewhat misleading, for the focus is British: no attempt has been made to use the French archives, which still await exploration. Moreover, and this is a problem which will become more important as Mr Kettle proceeds, we still lack an authoritative account of the Russian civil war (like Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front), so that certain judgments on Allied policy must remain provisional, however rich the Allied records.

Why did Britain become involved in Russia? Basically because the War Cabinet feared that a Russian withdrawal from the Eastern Front would lead to a German victory in the West. The autumn and winter of 1916-17 represented the nadir of the Allied military fortunes. The horrors of Passchendaele were followed by the disaster at Caparetto. Brusilov’s triumphs had been turned into a terrible defeat: the Rumanian Army had been pushed back into the north-east corner of their country. Southern Russia and the rich Ukraine were open to the Germans. The early successes of the new U-Boat campaign suggested that it would be Britain and not Germany which would be deprived of much-needed supplies. It is hardly surprising that the Allies should feel that their fortunes in the West were dependent on a continuation of the war in the East. There was a second factor, less important but also contributing to Allied thinking. The Germans had turned to subversive means to force a Russian capitulation. A variety of agents, principally Alexander Helphand, was used to support strike actions and revolutionary movements. The Germans siphoned funds to the Bolsheviks, determined to assist them to power and maintain them until a negotiated peace could be concluded. Though the Bolsheviks became increasingly chary of accepting such money, and Lenin himself cut Helphand off, the British believed that German funds and agents had helped undermine the Kerensky Government. The Allied knowledge of German financial and economic activities encouraged them to fish in the muddy waters, and half-convinced them (hence the belief in the authenticity of the Sisson forgeries) that Lenin was a German agent who could be toppled by a similar expenditure of funds.

The outlines of the Allied military intervention are already known, though Mr Kettle has added many details of considerable interest, leading to a reassessment of the men involved. Though George Buchanan, the British ambassador at Petrograd, refused to intervene directly between Kerensky and Kornilov, local British military officers moved into the diplomatic void: Commander Locker-Lampson (the author has the details from the Commander’s chauffeur) led his armoured car squadron to assist the already checked Russian general. Amidst warnings of an impending Bolshevik revolution and peace, the British War Cabinet clutched at straws: suggestions of American and Japanese landings in the Far East to reinforce the Russian will to fight; subsidies to the Don Cossack leader, Kaledin, who might be willing to assist the remnant of the Rumanian Army. Contrary to the advice coming from both Buchanan and the British military representative in Russia, General Alfred Knox, it was agreed at Paris in December 1917 to send a mission to Kaledin offering financial support, and to make sums available to the military attachés in Russia for pro-Allied propaganda.

This agreement involved the Allies in the Russian internal struggle. The War Cabinet retained illusions, again despite the accurate reports from senior advisers on the spot, that a southern bloc could be formed, consisting of the Caucasus, the Cossack regions, the Ukraine and the unoccupied parts of Rumania, which would continue the war against Germany and deny the enemy the grain and supplies to be found in these regions. The British and French arranged for a division of authority (more productive of quarrels between them than of effective action) in Southern Russia: something more than a plan for creating spheres for military action, but perhaps not the beginning of the division of the whole Russian Empire into spheres of influence postulated by Mr Kettle. In any case, the immediate results were all negative. The Ukrainians made peace and became independent; faced with a Bolshevik advance against his headquarters, Kaledin committed suicide, and the Don Cossack army dispersed. The Allies were left with their promise to give ten million roubles to Alexeiev’s Volunteer Army.

The Allies were also involved elsewhere: as Britain had become Russia’s main purchasing agent abroad, there were large stores of supplies at Vladivostok and Archangel. The armistice concluded at Brest-Litovsk prompted the War Cabinet to intensify negotiations with Washington and Tokyo to secure a Japanese intervention in Siberia (the British, though not the Japanese, hoped that control of the Siberian railway and troops as far as the Urals would open up a link with the Russian partisans) ‘without hostility to Russia’. At the same time, the War Cabinet sanctioned an expedition to Murmansk to fight the Germans and White Finns, first in co-operation with the local Bolsheviks but soon in opposition to the wishes of the Soviet Government.

Presenting entirely new information far beyond the imaginings of a novelist, Mr Kettle describes how the British competed with the Germans to purchase Russian supplies and to counter German efforts to dominate the Russian economy when peace came. He shows how individuals in the British Embassy and Military Mission, acting separately and even at cross-purposes, used financial intermediaries, particularly two Russians, Jaroszynski and Poliakov, who were paid to obtain control (which they, in part, already had) of five leading Russian banks through which money could be sent to the anti-Bolshevik armies. Since the Russian banks held a dominant interest in the grain trade and in the country’s major industrial enterprises, on paper at least, the British secured a major voice in the future economic life of Russia. In February 1918, Colonel Keyes, a former Indian Army Intelligence officer then in Russia, on his own initiative and after the Soviet nationalisation of the banks, purchased the Siberian Bank to ensure control over the grain trade and to provide funds for the Volunteer Army. All these financial transactions – and the details border on the ludicrous – were based on the dubious assumption, repeatedly questioned by Buchanan and Knox, that the Bolshevik regime was a temporary phenomenon. They benefited, at a huge cost to the British taxpayer, a few individuals paid in pounds housed in London banks for limited services. The Bolshevik regime endured, and the banks disappeared or remained nationalised. And the Soviet Government had evidence that the Allies were supporting their enemies and planning for the economic carve-up of their nation.

‘Internal affairs in Russia are no concern of ours. We only consider them in so far as they affect the war.’ Lord Curzon’s assurances to Bruce Lockhart, the British political agent in Russia, in February 1918 already had a hollow ring when they were written. The War Cabinet could not face the inevitability of an Eastern peace or the reality of the Bolshevik triumph. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the War Cabinet continued to believe that, with the right leadership and money, the Russians could be kept in the war. They refused to release either Kerensky or Lenin from Russia’s wartime obligations. They refused to sanction the de facto recognition of the Bolshevik Government. And as the Russians stepped up their revolutionary activities outside their borders, the Home Office and War Office became increasingly concerned. The British closely monitored Litvinov’s (Lockhart’s Bolshevik counterpart’s) activities, suspecting that he would raise a Red Army in the Last End among Russian Jews, whom Lord Derby suggested should be conscripted or sent back to Russia. The appearance of three Russian agents created a state of alarm. The British embassy in Petrograd was closed; only a cipher clerk was to remain.

This first volume conveys a highly complicated story, and Mr Kettle does not give the reader much assistance. He has a striking cast of characters, some of whom he has rescued from total historical obscurity. But the absence of an overall framework and a rather flat style make this a more difficult book to read than Professor Ullman’s. On the few occasions when more general issues – British war aims and the subject of a compromise peace with Germany at Russia’s expense – are raised, Mr Kettle’s grasp of the material seems less sure. It is probable that the only serious proponent of such a peace was Lloyd George: no one at the Foreign Office was ever resigned to recognising German gains in Russia, particularly in Southern Russia. This was not just a question of supplies, but a fear of German ambitions in Middle Asia (given a new importance because of Turkey’s Pan-Turanian hopes), which would have threatened India. The Allies were not willing to buy off the Germans by sacrificing Russia to them, nor were the Germans willing to allow their Eastern victories to nullify their ambitions in the West.

The value and interest of the volume lie in Mr Kettle’s mastery of the inner story. Despite the military pressure and the difficulties of securing rapid and accurate information, the War Cabinet, as Mr Kettle clearly shows, must be harshly judged for its indecisive and unrealistic policies. The author has proved his point that the British effort to restore the Eastern Front by using Russian troops was totally unsuccessful, and their attempts to underwrite partisan armies in Southern Russia served only to antagonise the Bolsheviks, whom they persisted in considering German agents and refused to recognise. Even after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, new military grounds were found for intervention, all of which involved anti-Soviet actions.

It remained difficult to arrive at a balanced appraisal of Soviet behaviour. Part of this failure must be attributed to the Soviet Government. Apart from its internal policies, a double stance abroad misled even those realists who were prepared to sup with the devil, given a long enough spoon. Yet, far more than in the case of Nazi Germany, fears (and hopes) distorted the image and the reality of the Soviet Union from 1917 onwards. Is it not of some significance that while the ‘realists’ were willing to come to an arrangement with Hitler despite their detestation of Nazism, they only half-embraced the idea of an alliance with the Soviet Union even in 1939? Was it only a question of assumed German strength and Soviet weakness? The fear of Bolshevism was visceral in some sections of the ruling caste: it gave to British foreign policy reflexes of an unexamined strength – far stronger than those elicited by Nazism.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences