Monday, 4 July 2011


I've long been fascinated by the Russian revolution.

Put it down to studying Russian at highschool, and the almost apocalyptic nature of the revolution and subsequent civil war. It is a big, dramatic, frightening story of chaos and collapse, including some very odd characters, some just odd, like Basil the Embroidered, some dangerous, like Nestor Makhno and some both very odd and dangerous such as Ungern von Sternberg.

Simplistically, one could say that the cartoon version goes something like this. "the Bolsheviks seize power. Armed forces loyal to the tsar (and/or the provisional government) try and crush the revolt. Bolsheviks organise a coherent armed response. White forces collapse into individual factions and ethnic liberation groups. White forces fail to come up with a realistic alternative government. White forces collapse into ill disciplined maurauding mobs. Red army crushes individual White armed groups".

As a cartoon it's not too far from the truth. What it misses out is the interventions by the western powers in Azerbaijan, to attempt to secure access to the oilfields, in the north at Archangel to try and bolster the white forces, or in the east, for much the same reason.

The Vladivostok interventions are perhaps the least well known, but the most interesting. Canadian, British, American, Italian and Japanese forces invaded Siberia via Vladivostok with the aim of bolstering the Omsk government of Admiral Kolchak which in 1919, looked most like a coherent opposition and a proper alternative government.

Vladivistok was the port of intervention as it was the terminus of the Trans Siberian railway and the idea was for the forces to proceed west along the railway. Most Russian settlement in Siberia was a string of cities along the railway, separated by forest and largely inhabited by tribal groups who hoped that all the forigners, both Western and Russian would simply go away.

Neither the American or Canadian forces engaged in any substantial military action, although the Italian forces did, in conjunction with the Czechoslovak legion control large parts of the Trans Siberian railway by the use of armoured trains. The American, Canadian, Italian and British forces amounted to less than 10,000 men in total.

In contrast, the Japanese deployed a substantial force of around 70,000 men and clearly intended to establish an amenable regime in Siberia.

In the end it was not to be. The white forces collapsed, and the Japanese, under American and British pressure, withdrew their forces at the end of 1922 despite engaging the Red forces on several occasions in the course of lending support to the Primorye republic.

The point of course is that the Japanese didn't go away. While they withdrew from Russian territory they of course retained control over the South Manchuria railway, which allowed them to later stage the Mukden incident and later occupy Manchuria and establish the short lived puppet state of Manchkuo.

This is a story little known in the west, but one that perhaps ought to be better known, as it clearly was a dry run for Japanese expansion out of Korea into northern China, and thus for the study of the causes of the second world war. Unfinished business indeed.

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