‘Areally nasty, dirty little war … Waste of time, money and everything else’ was the way Christopher Bilney, who served as a seaplane pilot in the Caucasus in 1919, remembered it in old age. He was one of many British veterans whose memories of Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War of 1918-20 were ‘uneasy, with guilt and a sense of failure lurking beneath surface jollity’. The American veterans – who had less reason for guilt, given that their nation’s participation was relatively benign – sometimes retrospectively compared it to Vietnam. In the diplomatic world, a Western consensus developed that the intervention was something best forgotten. Indeed, both Richard Nixon in 1972 and Margaret Thatcher twelve years later succeeded so well in this that they were able to assure Soviet interlocutors that their countries had never been at war with each other.
There was plenty of reason to see the intervention as nasty – for starters, lack of clear war aims, atrocities on which the Allies turned a blind eye, half-hearted support of reactionaries followed by ignominious betrayal – but the real reason it was judged so harshly was that it failed. Nothing substantive was achieved, while, as the British commander of Allied forces in the north, Edmund Ironside, noted at the time of the British withdrawal from North Russia in the autumn of 1919, the cost was to incur ‘the everlasting enmity of both sides – the Whites for deserting them, and the Reds for opposing them’.
Anna Reid, author of the excellent Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine (1997) as well as two books on Russia, has now returned to the borderland in the context of the Allied, particularly British, military intervention in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The Bolsheviks, unlikely winners of power that looked precarious, held the centre of the country, while White armies supported by the Allies dominated Russia’s peripheries. Sixteen countries were involved in the intervention to some degree, not counting British and French colonial troops (a term which Reid uses to cover Australians and Canadians as well as Moroccans and Senegalese), and military action took place in half a dozen far-flung locations ‘from the Caspian Sea to the Arctic and from Poland to the Pacific’. But it was primarily a British and American venture, with the French initially enthusiastic but dropping out early, and the Japanese pursuing a separate course under generally disapproving Western eyes. In principle, A Nasty Little War covers the whole intervention, including the Far East (where the Japanese were the major forces involved, followed by the Americans) and the Caucasus (where the British, worried about access to India, were keen to restrict Turkish as well as German activity). In practice, however, Reid’s subject is largely the British intervention in the north-west of Russia, particularly the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, and the south, in what is now Ukraine.
There is plenty of scholarly work on the Russian Civil War and intervention, though much of it is half a century old. The novelty of Reid’s approach comes largely from her generous use of participants’ diaries, letters and memoirs, mainly British, which makes her story unusually entertaining and takes us back into a world of British upper-class twits familiar from Evelyn Waugh, Osbert Lancaster and P. G. Wodehouse – at times, it reads almost like ‘Bertie Wooster goes to Russia.’ The typical British army officer seconded to Russia after the war was a product of prep and public schools and Sandhurst, captured by Reid as ‘unmistakeable in neat moustache, jodhpurs and wide-skirted belted jacket … institutionalised from early childhood, untravelled except with the army’. The British officer’s style, ‘its understatement intended to convey natural superiority … was modelled on the heroes of John Buchan: decent, anti-intellectual, self-deprecating and eternally stiff of upper lip’. Sometimes, the officer in Russia actually was one of Buchan’s or Rudyard Kipling’s heroes: Brigadier-General Ironside, earlier encountered by Buchan in Africa after the Second Boer War, served as inspiration for Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps (1915), while Major-General Lionel Dunsterville, an officer in the Indian army before being sent to Baku in 1918, was the model, as a prankish schoolmate of Kipling’s, for the eponymous Stalky, destined for Sandhurst and service in the empire, in Stalky & Co. (1899).
The British got into intervention in Russia more or less accidentally. Imperial Russia was fighting, somewhat ineptly, on the Allied side in the First World War when the February Revolution of 1917 overthrew the tsar and left a power vacuum that was filled, after a period of collapse of governmental and military control, by the Bolsheviks, who, to the fury of the Allies, took Russia out of the European war. Having no other viable option, in March 1918 the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which enabled the Germans to occupy what is now Ukraine and the Baltics, thus greatly improving their position vis-à-vis the Allied powers. None of the Allies recognised Russia’s new government, but some informal relations were maintained until July 1918, when they were broken off after an unsuccessful revolt against the Bolsheviks in Moscow in which the British and French seem to have played a murky, behind the scenes role.
This was also the point when the long-expected White military action against the Bolsheviks, led by officers of the old imperial army, got underway. The Allies supported the Whites, formally beginning what came to be known as the intervention. But in fact they were already ensconced in key Russian ports – Murmansk in the west and Vladivostok in the east – to secure them against the Germans, whose 1918 spring offensive in Europe was in full swing. In the first phase of the Civil War, when the outcome of the conflict in Europe was still in doubt, the German army was still a real force in parts of the Russian Empire, particularly in the Baltics, Ukraine and the Caucasus, and Germany an important political player. Turkey was another interested party, notably in the Caucasus. The collapse of Austria-Hungary, Germany’s wartime ally, had brought in additional players, aspirant emerging states eager to back up their claims with a military presence. Poland, not yet formally a state again after its late 18th-century dissolution, was nevertheless acting like one. It had a particular interest in Ukraine, historically a site of contest between Poland and Russia, and soon had military forces there. The future Czech Republic was represented more dramatically by the Czech Legion, an ad hoc military force including ex-POWs and volunteers, which aimed to reach the Western Front in order to boost their Czech national credentials by fighting with the Allies. Forced to travel by the most circuitous route imaginable – train eastwards across the breadth of Russia to Vladivostok and then boat back to Europe – the Czechs got into a skirmish along the way in mid-1918 that ended with them taking control first of the town of Chelyabinsk in the Urals and then of the whole Trans-Siberian Railway.
In their unexpected political role in the Russian hinterland, the Czechs supported Russian anti-Bolshevik socialists, which made it possible for the Allies to see them as democratic forces in the complicated Russian imbroglio of 1918. The same could never be plausibly said of the White leaders the Allies supported – General Yudenich in the north, General Denikin in the south, Admiral Kolchak in Siberia – since they were unabashed imperial traditionalists. While they had some military successes, their commitment to restore the old political and social order meant they had no popular base, and they proved incapable, to the Allies’ frustration, even of co-operating with one another. The Allies supported them because they were the main forces fighting the Bolsheviks, whose unseating at first seemed an easy task. With the quick formation of the Red Army, under Trotsky’s unexpectedly efficient leadership, it became increasingly clear that this assumption was mistaken.
Apart from getting rid of the Bolsheviks, the aims of the Western intervention were remarkably ill-defined. Sometimes it was to protect British interests and keep the Germans, Turks, Poles, or Japanese imperial or territorial ambitions in check; sometimes to support ‘democratic forces’ in Russia, notably the transient Czechs; and sometimes just to back up the (anti-democratic) Whites. Permanent annexation of Russian territory was not a British, French or American war aim. The French were initially gung-ho in support of the Whites against the Bolsheviks, but cooled off after a debacle in Odessa, which they briefly occupied early in 1919 with White allies who were ‘more of a hindrance than a help’. In the US, despite the State Department’s support of intervention, Woodrow Wilson was dubious: the best policy, he suspected, was ‘to clear out of Russia and leave the Russians to fight it out among themselves’. In Britain, David Lloyd George had similar reservations, but his government included a passionate supporter of the intervention, the newly appointed minister of munitions and soon to be secretary of state for war, Winston Churchill.
Wilson’s scepticism meant that the substantial American forces, sent to Vladivostok under the command of Major-General William Graves, were without clear orders as to their aims in Siberia and the Russian Far East, apart from keeping an eye on the Japanese. Graves, something of a hero in Reid’s story, interpreted his lack of instructions to mean ‘that American forces should stay neutral and disengaged’ but that atrocities from any side should not be condoned. Churchill, often Reid’s villain, treated the intervention as his ‘private war’, and to the end of his life never wavered in his belief that, with more commitment and steadfastness from the Allies, the Bolsheviks could have been overthrown.
The French fallback position, once they had given up on the Whites and regime change, was the creation of a cordon sanitaire of buffer states on Russia’s western border. This was realpolitik, but its practical implications were close to the more idealistic concept of national self-determination favoured by the Americans. In their different ways, both France and the US supported the emergence of new national states from the wreckage of empires (Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, in addition to Russian). National self-determination was, of course, a very different war aim from support of the Whites, who were firmly committed to maintenance of the old Russian Empire, and it can’t be said that the Allies followed it consistently or comprehensively. In the French case, it meant strong support for Poland (whose assumption of statehood would be approved at Versailles in 1919). The British supported Polish claims to independence too, though perhaps with less enthusiasm than those of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and, in the Caucasus, Georgia and Armenia.
A national claim the Allies did not support, however, was the Ukrainian one, or rather, any of the various Ukrainian claims that were on offer. The territory of present-day Ukraine was a major battlefield, occupied by the Germans for some months after Brest-Litovsk, and consequently in a state of chaos at the end of the First World War. Its capital, Kyiv, dominated variously by German, Polish, Ukrainian and Soviet Russian forces, had five governments in less than a year, including a short-lived Ukrainian Republic that failed to establish an effective administration. For a time there was a separate West Ukrainian Republic (based in Lviv, formerly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), whose survival was rendered impossible by Polish claims to the same territory. Various ad hoc Ukrainian forces, initially formed with German support, sprang up, fighting (and sometimes briefly allying with) the other military forces in the region.
The Allies were aware of Ukrainian nationalism, if only thanks to encounters with these irregular military forces, but for them it fell into the category of lesser local nationalisms, like those of the Karelians, Tatars and Bashkirs, whose aspirations for separation from Russia weren’t taken very seriously. At Versailles, where the national aspirations of the three Baltic states and Poland as well as the three in the Caucasus were underwritten, Ukrainians didn’t make the cut: the Allies essentially accepted the Poles’ argument that Ukrainian nationalism was German-inspired and incoherent, with little popular support. In Reid’s summation, although Ukrainians today ‘view the Allies’ failure to support them as a tragic missed opportunity’, ‘in truth the scoffers were probably right. Split, by the end of 1919, between two paper governments, one allied with the Poles against the Russians and the other the reverse, they did not have the leadership or unity to win power, even with outside military aid.’
Support for Ukrainian nationalism was, in any case, incompatible with the support for the Whites that was the primary commitment of the intervening powers. To be sure, the Allies’ opinion of their Russian partners was generally low. The White officers’ social pretensions and fondness for epaulettes made the whole thing seem a bit ‘comic opera’; they were widely seen as ‘lazy, untidy, pessimistic, boastful, ignorant, untruthful and dishonest’, expecting the Allies to do all the dirty work. They were of ‘morbid temperament’, apparently reacting to setbacks by either drinking or weeping. It was best to treat them kindly but firmly, like natives in the colonial empire, always aware that they were likely to slack off and tell lies. As a British command sheet given to the Americans noted in a section on the ‘Russian character’, ‘the Russian is exactly like a child – inquisitive, easily gulled, easily offended.’ Even Churchill, the Whites’ strongest defender, told the British cabinet in December 1918 that ‘Russia is … a very disagreeable country, inhabited by immense numbers of ignorant people’ – but that was no excuse for letting the Bolsheviks steal it.
Churchill’s objection to the Bolsheviks was visceral – ‘one might as well legalise sodomy’ was his reaction to a proposal to recognise the Soviet government – and, like the Whites, he tended to speak of the Bolsheviks as subhuman. ‘Hopping and capering’ through ruined cities like ‘troops of ferocious baboons’, as he described them in a speech in December 1918, they had brought the country to ‘an animal form of barbarism’. He was not the only Englishman to think this way. General Alfred Knox, commander of the British military mission in Siberia, was appalled by a proposal from President Wilson that Reds and Whites be invited for peace talks, saying that it put ‘brave men … fighting for civilisation’ (that is, the Whites) on a par with ‘the blood-stained, Jew-led Bolsheviks’.
Reid’s encounter with widespread and virulent antisemitism – both as practised on the ground in Ukraine by Whites, Poles and Ukrainian nationalists, and as tacitly condoned by the Allies – was ‘one of the most jolting aspects of researching this book’. The first major pogroms of the Civil War were conducted in December 1918 by the Polish army after capturing Lviv from Ukrainian forces. The local British representative, setting a pattern that was often to be followed in subsequent months, ‘dismissed pogrom “rumours” as “grossly exaggerated”’. Antisemitism was a core component of White propaganda, with Bolshevik leaders like Trotsky referred to by their Jewish birth-names (Bronstein-Trotsky) and portrayed as devils with Stars of David around their necks. For the Whites, Reid writes, the assertion that ‘Jew equals Bolshevik … filled the gap where a political programme should have been,’ and the rampages of Cossack units in Denikin’s White army were later memorably recorded by the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel.
Altogether, the pogroms of 1919 in Ukraine were on a scale ‘not seen since the Cossack rebellions of the 17th century’, but the Whites weren’t the only ones to blame: Symon Petilura’s and Nykyfor Hryhoriv’s Ukrainian forces, as well as Nestor Makhno’s anarchist ‘Greens’, were also heavily involved. Reid faults Churchill for playing down White responsibility for them: he attributed such pogroms as occurred to ‘Ukrainian “hordes”’. But her own summary of the data – a death toll from pogroms ‘between 100,000 and 200,000, with Petilura’s and Hryhoriv’s armies the worst’, and Whites responsible for only between 8000 and 16,000 of the deaths – points in the same direction. It was their systematic, methodical character that made the Whites’ atrocities notable. While the Americans (General Graves in particular) sometimes objected, British observers on the spot almost always downplayed the violence against Jews, and the Foreign Office dismissed the Zionist campaigner Chaim Weizmann’s appeal to make an issue of Jewish killing. Posing the question ‘was the intervention worth it?’, Reid concludes that ‘the pogroms answer the question … at a stroke. The answer is No.’ The fact that Britain ‘knowingly funded, supplied, trained and sent men to fight alongside the armies that committed them is shocking and shameful’.
This conclusion would have been alien, even incomprehensible, to British and other Allied interventionists, who had a very different sense of priorities. Their feelings on quitting the field in the second half of 1919 combined a sense of futility with guilt for leaving the Whites in the lurch, having failed at any point to commit the forces that would have been necessary to ensure victory. ‘The day we leave the Bolsheviks will come,’ a British officer told a non-Bolshevik socialist in July 1919. ‘You can bet on it.’ Or perhaps, even worse, the Bolsheviks were already there, but invisible to the interventionist eye: as an American private wrote in his diary, ‘we cannot distinguish between a Bolo and a native; they may all be Bolos as much as we know.’
The Western participants’ sense of the futility of the intervention is echoed in the last paragraph of A Nasty Little War. But no book dealing with war on Ukrainian territory and published in 2023 could avoid mentioning the current war in Ukraine, and Reid dutifully looks for a lesson to be learned. ‘History is in some ways repeating itself,’ she writes. ‘Again, the West is sending weapons and money … again middle-class Russians are fleeing into exile. Most of all, Russia is again in the grip of a millennial ideology, its leaders denying that Ukraine exists.’ One might, therefore, conclude that ‘Western meddling in the region failed then, and will again now’ – but no, this would be ‘the lazy lesson’ (presumably that means the obvious one) and is ‘completely mistaken’.
What, then, is the correct moral to draw? It can’t be the futility of intervention, her major theme, nor do two other possible takeaways from her account – that Ukraine has a troubling history of antisemitism, and that as recently as a century ago, Ukrainian nationalism was still so undeveloped as not to deserve to be taken seriously – fit the bill. Acknowledging the difficulty of drawing a suitable historical lesson, she ventures that the message may be that ‘Putin will fail for the same reason that the Whites did’ – although, as her story essentially links the White failure with the withdrawal of Western support, this doesn’t make much sense.
Reid’s problem is that, recognising a degree of similarity in the two episodes of foreign involvement in war on Ukrainian territory, she holds diametrically opposed value judgments of them: the early 20th-century intervention on behalf of the Whites was pointless, but current Western support of Ukraine in a war started by the Russians is morally imperative and, in global political terms, necessary. Present-day Ukraine is a democratic or democratically aspiring country that ‘for all its faults … really does deserve the world’s help’, she writes in the recent second edition of Borderland. ‘Betraying the country would be moral and strategic failure on a par with the crushed Hungarian Rising or Prague Spring – and with much less excuse.’ But that sounds less like confident affirmation that such failure won’t occur as fear that it might. Perhaps the real takeaway from Reid’s history isn’t so much a lesson as a premonition: that not too far down the track, we could be witnessing a shamefaced withdrawal of Western support that leaves the Ukrainians – like the Russian Whites a century earlier – to sort out the mess with Moscow on their own.
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