6 lessons from the Allies’ failed intervention in Russia’s civil war

In the March 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine, Nick Hewitt writes on the British troops who engaged in a campaign against the Bolsheviks, a bloody debacle that enraged a restive public back home. Here, Hewitt examines six lessons that can be learned from the Allies' failed intervention and argues that the case has much to teach today’s policy-makers

Japanese soldiers and sailors disembark at Vladivostok, 22 August 1918. Of all the foreign interventions into the Russian civil war, the one from Japan was by far the largest, growing to 70,000 troops. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

After Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in Russia on 7 November 1917, toppling Alexander Kerensky’s short-lived Provisional Government, the country descended into chaos and civil war as a wave of counter-revolutionary movements sprang up, from Siberia to Ukraine and from the Black Sea to the far north.

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Faced with this anarchy, Russia’s former Allies in the First World War opted to intervene on behalf of the counter-revolutionaries, collectively known as ‘White Russians’. The Allied intervention utterly failed, costing a fortune in blood and treasure which the exhausted Allies, Britain and France in particular, could ill afford, and leaving a legacy of bad feeling between Russia and the west that arguably still persists today.

You can read Nick Hewitt’s full article on the Allied intervention in the Russian civil war in The Library, an exclusive area for BBC History Magazine subscribers

Japanese soldiers march past White Russians and representatives from the international coalition in Vladivostok, September 1918. The Russian civil war saw soldiers from 15 nations fighting the Bolsheviks in a chaotic conflict that dragged on for years. (Image by Alamy)

1

Disjointed and incoherent strategy

Different nations had different goals: from simply maintaining a fighting front against the Germans and keeping essential war material out of Bolshevik hands; through ‘regime change’ or the restoration of the Tsarist autocracy; to defending existing colonial possessions or seeking territorial concessions. Even within individual countries, policy makers often failed to agree; in Britain, Prime Minster David Lloyd George was ambivalent at best, but Winston Churchill, his War Minister, was a committed, almost fanatical interventionist. In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson opposed intervention, but also authorised the deployment of US troops.

The development the Allies feared the most – and the only goal which united them all – was a separate Russian peace treaty with Germany. But when this actually happened on 3 March 1918, leaving the Germans free to move thousands of troops west to attempt a knockout blow against Britain and France, the resulting German spring offensive made no difference whatsoever to the eventual outcome of the war. Once Germany had been defeated, the only goal which made any kind of sense became redundant.

The Romanovs, 1913: Nicholas II with his wife and children. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

2

Inadequate resources

The Allied commitment was never properly resourced. If the Germans had failed to conquer a disintegrating Russian Empire with more than a million men, the Allies were never going to defeat the Bolsheviks and occupy such a vast country with a few scattered penny-packets of troops. The largest deployment, in Siberia, was no more than 100,000 strong, most of which were Japanese soldiers making a blatant land grab on behalf of their government. Of all the foreign interventions into the Russian civil war, the one from Japan was by far the largest, growing to 70,000 troops.

3

Weak, corrupt or unpopular local forces

The assumption was that few troops would be needed because the Allies could rely on local anti-Bolshevik forces, but the Allies made no real effort to understand the disparate groups of ethnic nationalists, democrats, Romanov loyalists, proto-dictators and downright bandits with whom they were often reluctantly associated. In reality, the Allies’ Russian ‘partners’ were motivated by everything from loyalty to the late Tsar, to ethnic self-determination, or simple greed and lust for power – and often loathed each other even more than the Bolsheviks.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, depicted in an undated Communist poster. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
4

Failure to understand the local politics

Perhaps most importantly, the Allies failed to understand that the Russian people had largely already made their choice. However misguided hindsight may tell us it turned out to be, a sizeable proportion of those Russians who actually cared enough to be politically active wanted a Bolshevik government and had no interest in a government run by former Tsarist generals and functionaries, or one imposed by foreign powers.

5

No domestic support

The Allied people were sick of war, and in an era when democratic socialism was gaining traction across Europe, making war on communists to restore a Tsarist tyranny did not sit well. In Britain, opposition coalesced around a movement called the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign which, although it had little direct impact on government policy during the intervention, gained support afterwards.

Striking workers carry banners through the streets of Petrograd (St Petersburg) at the start of the February Revolution that brought the fall of the Russian monarchy the next month. (Getty Images)

6

No consideration of consequences

The legacy of suspicion and resentment of the west brought about by nearly three years of overt support for the White Russians lasted for decades after the last Allied soldier had left. Historians have argued that the nature of Soviet Russia made this inevitable, and this may well be the case – but the arrival of thousands of Allied soldiers apparently motivated by a desire to roll back the clock on the revolution surely cannot have helped.


In context: The Russian civil war

The Bolshevik Revolution of 7 November 1917 was followed by a wave of armed insurrections across the former Russian empire by anti-Bolshevik factions loosely characterised as ‘White’ Russians. At the height of the civil war the Whites appeared to surround the Bolshevik strongholds of Moscow and Petrograd, but in reality they were a disparate group of moderate socialists, ethnic nationalists, Romanov loyalists, proto-dictators and bandits, and never really formed an effective opposition.

In Siberia the Whites were led by their self-proclaimed ‘supreme leader’, the former tsarist naval officer Admiral Alexander Kolchak. The Allied intervention in north Russia was partly intended to link up with Kolchak, but his regime was corrupt and unpopular and he lost the support of his most formidable force of 40,000 former Czech and Slovak prisoners of war and deserters, known as ‘the Czechoslovak Legion’. Kolchak was captured by the Bolsheviks and executed.

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The 19th-century political and social theorist Karl Marx; co-author (with Friedrich Engels) of The Communist Manifesto (1848). (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Around the Baltic coast, Estonians and Latvians were fighting for independence alongside the former tsarist general Yudenich’s White Russians, who were trying to seize Petrograd. To further complicate matters, German troops and the paramilitary Freikorps were still trying to seize territory. The Germans left and Latvia and Estonia secured independence, but Petrograd remained defiantly ‘Red’.

In southern Russia and Ukraine, the Whites coalesced around General Anton Denikin’s ‘Volunteer Army’. Denikin won a series of early victories but, as well as the Bolshevik Red Army, he also had to contend with Ukrainian and other separatist forces, ethnic militias and even the Turkish army. Although the British sent Denikin millions of pounds’ worth of arms his army still disintegrated; the remnants were destroyed in Crimea in 1920.

The Russian civil war effectively ended with the founding of the Soviet Union on 30 December 1922, although some insurgencies continued into the 1930s. In total, the conflict may have cost as many as 12 million lives.

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Nick Hewitt is an author and historian, who works as head of Exhibitions and Collections for the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.